Dining with the Dear Leader

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

Video of the Restaurant on Youtube: 1, 2, 3

Its undoubtedly the liveliest and most popular Korean restaurant in town. Packed for lunch and dinner, the Pyongyang Restaurant is famous not only for its cold noodles and barbecue served with kim chi, but also for its talented wait staff, which when not serving are dancing to traditional Korean tunes played on violins and electric piano.

But the Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is no ordinary Korean eatery. For one, it’s owned and run by the North Korean government, a capitalist enterprise that sends its profits directly to state coffers in Pyongyang. As with most other upper-crust restaurants in Phnom Penh, the meals have to be paid for in US dollars, not in riel, as the local currency is not convertible outside Cambodia.

When the international community imposed economic sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear tests last October, the Pyongyang authorities were able to continue to run a string of small-scale companies and businesses across the region that kept foreign-currency earnings flowing back home. Restaurants such as the Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia have in no small way helped keep the North Korean government afloat during tough diplomatic times.

And the establishments’ often booming business are proving North Koreans are no slouches as capitalists. Government-backed North Korean eateries are mushrooming across the region. For years there have been various North Korean-themed restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. But the first was opened in Southeast Asia only in 2002 in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap, a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to the Angkor Wat temple complex.

It became an instant success – especially with the thousands of South Korean tourists who flock to see the ancient Angkor ruins every year – so successful, indeed, that Pyongyang decided to open a second venue in Phnom Penh in December 2003. Most of the clientele there are South Korean businessmen who work in Cambodia as well as a smattering of homesick South Korean tourists who drool over the authentic Korean eats. And while severe food shortages still plague North Korea itself, the fare in Phnom Penh is good and plentiful.

The choice of Cambodia for this North Korean capitalist experiment was, of course, no coincidence. Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s erstwhile strongman – first as king, then as prince, later as leader in exile and finally king again from September 1993 until his abdication in October 2004 – is a longtime close friend of North Korea.

He met the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1961 at a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade. Four years later, Sihanouk was invited to visit Pyongyang, and a personal bond developed between the two leaders. When Sihanouk was ousted by his own military in a coup in March 1970, he was immediately offered sanctuary in North Korea.

Sihanouk’s government-in-exile, which included senior Khmer Rouge cadres, was in Beijing. But by 1974, Kim Il-sung had built a special private getaway expressly for Sihanouk about an hour’s drive north of Pyongyang. A battalion of North Korean troops worked full-time for nearly a year on the palatial residence and, when it was finally finished, only specially selected guards were allowed anywhere near Sihanouk’s 60-room home away from home. Overlooking scenic Chhang Sou On Lake and surrounded by mountains, the Korean-style building even included its own indoor movie theater. Like the “Great Leader”, Kim Il-sung, and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, Sihanouk loved to watch movies.

Sihanouk returned to Cambodia after the government of Lon Nol was overthrown in April 1975 and Sihanouk’s communist allies, the Khmer Rouge, came to power. But when the Khmer Rouge put him under virtual house arrest in the royal palace in Phnom Penh, from where he narrowly managed to escape when the Vietnamese invaded in January 1979, Sihanouk was flown out on a Chinese plane and returned to his grand North Korean residence.

When Sihanouk triumphantly returned to Phnom Penh in 1991, he came with North Korean escorts, both as personal bodyguards and as diplomats, who took up residence in a huge new embassy built for them near the Independence Monument in downtown Phnom Penh. And in 1993, when Sihanouk was officially reinstalled as the king of Cambodia, he surrounded himself in the civil-war-torn country with people he knew he could trust – North Korean bodyguards.

So it is not surprising that hanging prominently on the wall at Phnom Penh’s Pyongyang Restaurant is a picture of Sihanouk, his wife Monique and their son King Norodom Sihamoni. According to locals familiar with the restaurant’s opening, the Cambodian royal family was among the first guests to dine there.

Business opportunities are still fairly limited in Cambodia, so last year the North Koreans opened an even bigger restaurant in neighboring Thailand. Its first day of operation was auspiciously chosen as August 15, coinciding with the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The Bangkok branch of the Pyongyang Restaurant is tucked away down a side alley in the city’s gritty Pattanakarn suburb, far from areas Westerners usually frequent but very near the North Korean Embassy.

Inside, the walls are decorated with paintings of Kim Il-sung’s alleged birthplace, a peasant hut in Mangyongdae near Pyongyang. An all-women’s band, dressed in traditional Korean dresses known as hambok and in the North, chima jogoiri in the South and, of course, with little Kim Il-sung badges on their blouses, plays upbeat music on electric guitars, drums and electric piano.

It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, but it’s a colorful backdrop for businessmen and diplomats to cut deals or exchange the information that has in recent years helped to make Thailand into North Korea’s third-largest global trading partner after nearby China and South Korea. There are no signs of economic sanctions or deprivation here, but rather, perhaps, a tantalizing glimpse of a one day more prosperous and joyful North Korea.


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