North Korean run restaurants diversify product lines

Writing today for the Asia Times, Sunny Lee gives an update on the North Korean-run restaurants in China and South East Asia.  Much has already been published on these restaurants: how they channel money back to North Korea and how the waitresses tend to defect.  (As mentioned in the Kaesong post yesterday, they probably also pay hefty bribes for their overseas posts and have well-connected relatives.)

Sunny Lee points out that these restaurants (see YouTube video here) are now diversifying their product lines to boost profits, and like other successful capitalists across Asia, they are doing it by leveraging their most unique asset–attractive North Korean women.  How?  By transforming into karaoke bars after dinner hours.

North Korea has some 100 restaurants overseas, mostly in China and Southeast Asia, including Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. These restaurants serve as an important revenue pipeline for earning foreign currencies for Pyongyang. Each overseas North Korean restaurant is said to be allotted a revenue quota to fill, ranging from US$100,000 to $300,000 a year to send to Pyongyang, which makes the total revenue estimation some tens of millions of dollars.

The business formula – restaurant by day and karaoke bar by night – is also seen as an effort for these restaurants to meet the assigned financial quota. Currently, there are scores of North Korean restaurants in China, including in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Tsingdao, Dandong and Yanji. Beijing has 11 North Korean restaurants. All of these employ North Koreans whose total employment number in China is estimated to be several hundred. (Asia Times)

Despite the higher cost, business is brisk…

The reason that North Korean restaurants are expensive yet remain popular among customers is their immaculate service from beautiful employees. In China, where service quality at restaurants is often unsatisfactory, North Korean restaurants are becoming a favorite alternative among members of the businesses community. (Asia Times)

However, if you want to enjoy an authentic North Korean dining experience but have moral qualms about supporting the regime, then you can patronize similar resturants managed by North Korean defectors in South Korea–though the experience is quite different.  Whereas the Chinese pay extra for premium restaurant service in Beijing, the South Koreans pay for the genuine socialist restaurant experience.  In other words, they pay to be treated like an annoyance to the staff.

[At the Pyongyang Moran Bar (located in South Korea), the] North Korean waitresses wore traditional dresses in the bright colors that were fashionable in the South some years back. The singer’s interpretation of “Whistle,” a North Korean standard of the 1980’s, was shaky and off-key. Service was bad and included at least one mild threat. Drinks were spilled, beer bottles left unopened and unpoured.

But the South Korean customers could not get enough of the Pyongyang Moran Bar. (New York Times)

So you have your choice of North Korean themed restaurants:  The propaganda ideal or the  socialist reality.

The full articles can be found here:
Chillin’ at a North Korean karaoke bar
Asia Times
Sunny Lee

In Deep South, North Koreans Find a Hot Market
New York Times
Norimitsu Onishi


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