I Ate Dinner in Pyongyang's Cambodian Outpost

Pyongyang isn’t just a city in North Korea—it’s also the name of a Southeast Asian restaurant chain run by the North Korean regime. The eateries are as well known for traditional North Korean food as they are for money laundering and spying.

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Feb 5 2014, 11:00pm

Photo via Wiki Commons

Photo by Todd Brown

Monivong Boulevard is a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So it would be easy to wander by the low-profile restaurant that, at first glance, resembles any other Khmer food joint—if it weren't for the billboard revealing that it has ties to the most repressive regime in the world. Welcome to "Pyongyang," a little piece of North Korea in Cambodia.

It's actually one of a dozen or more Pyongyang restaurants located throughout Southeast Asia, all of which are owned and operated by the North Korean regime. Bona fide North Koreans staff the restaurants, which are widely believed to be laundering money and ferrying intelligence back to Kim Jong-un. TripAdvisor gives the one in Phnom Penh 3.5 stars.

I make a reservation for 7 PM and am sure to arrive on time —I imagine tardiness is frowned upon by totalitarians. Either despite or because of the fact that the restaurant is run by a dictatorship, the place is punishingly well lit thanks to a ceiling covered in compact fluorescent bulbs. Maybe this is to help ensure no sneaky Westerners violate the ban on snapping photos.

A dozen adorable women in matching green pinstriped skirts and tightly bound ponytails—they look more like flight attendants than waitresses—glide from one glass-topped table to the next, chatting gamely with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean diners; my table is the only one with Caucasians, and they mostly ignore us. The walls are adorned with paintings of waterfalls and mountains and tigers. There's a drum kit, a synthesizer, and a sound mixer at the front of the room. They don't serve Korean beer. But they do serve dog.

A friend of mine recommends the "finest beef rips," despite their exorbitant $25 price tag. (A decent dinner in Phnom Penh tends to run between $3 and $8.) So I order the rips, along with some Pyongyang cold noodle and a Tiger beer. The waitress brings us plastic chopsticks, which is a bad sign according to a woman at our table who teaches English in Seoul. She explains that in South Korea, everyone uses metal chopsticks—that way, if the food is poisoned, the chopsticks change color. So this is how it ends, I think.

The waitresses earn tips just like they would anywhere else, but they don't keep very much of what they make. That's according to Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied North Korea and its overseas restaurants for years. "In North Korea, you're expected to distribute cash back to the center," she told me. "If you earn money overseas, you make a 'loyalty offering' to the regime and the Kim family. People might make a couple hundred dollars a month, but the regime takes anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of that—to pay 'expenses.'"

A recently released report from a South Korean research group estimates that the workers North Korea exports—the country also sends doctors, nurses, and laborers to China, Russia, and the Middle East — bring in between $150 and $230 million annually to the country.

"Since the mid-2000s, North Korea has expanded its overseas labor presence, and that includes the restaurants," Greitens said. "The elite in Pyongyang [the city] need the cash to buy the goods that sustain the level of luxury in which they live."

As the first couple of dishes arrive, things get weirder. Three of the waitresses emerge from a side door holding microphones and bouquets of flowers. They proceed to do a song-and-dance number that reminds me of South Korean K-pop. They then pass out the flowers, bask in hearty applause, and depart, only to reappear minutes later to serve more food. I can't help wondering if this is all simply a tactic to distract diners from the fact that our chopsticks are incapable of detecting poison.

The entertainment lasts throughout the entire meal, featuring tap dancing, R&B crooning, pirouettes, tambourines with exploding ribbons, and a rock violinist. The food isn't excellent, but it's certainly the only place in town to get authentic North Korean grub. The place's specialty, Pyongyang cold noodles, is perfectly cooked and has just the right amount of kick. The kimchi tastes just like the kind I buy in a jar back in the States, and the dumplings taste like… dumplings. The bok choi, simmered in an oyster sauce, is my favorite.

The show closes as a girl in a Mariachi outfit executes a minute-long twirl. As she finishes, a drunk South Korean diner in a G-Star Raw T-shirt leaps onto the stage to deliver a bouquet stuffed with what I assume is a generous tip to his favorite waitress.

After dinner, the North Korean women fan out into the crowd, yukking it up with patrons at every table except ours. So I call over one of the women, whose name is Kim Gyong Hwa. She says she studied music in school and currently lives upstairs from the restaurant, which she says is "nice." I'm glad to hear it, since restaurant employees are not allowed to leave the property until they go back to North Korea. Kim is headed home next year.

She politely excuses herself and heads back to a table of South Koreans. After all, while the meal and the show may be over, she still has a job to do—in addition to being excellent servers and fine musicians, the waitresses are reportedly also very skilled at recruiting South Korean customers to become spies for the regime.