Haw Berries & Kumquats

Inside a North Korean restaurant chain

I could never make sense of the North Korean restaurant Pyongyang Haitanghua Cold Noodles. It didn’t seem to fit with any of the images I had of North Korea: reclusive, Communist, impoverished, frozen by famine, obsessively loyal to the Great Leader. Yet here they were, barbecuing oh-so-expensive cuts of beef and pork and serving up eponymous bowls of cold noodles. But this Slate article makes it all clearor as clear as anything concerning North Korea ever is. It’s fascinating reading for anyone interested in the workings of the DPRK (which is everyone, right?).

Pyongyang is, in fact, an entire chain of North Korean restaurants, with locations in Bangkok, Pattaya, Siem Reap, and more, all dedicated to the great cause of earning money for the DPRK and laundering some of their less savory funds. So every time you eat here, you’re funding Kim Jong Il’s penchant for fancy sunglasses and, I don’t know, DVDs?

Little is known of how the restaurants operate, but experts say they are closely linked with other overseas operations run by the reclusive regime in Pyongyang. Bertil Lintner, author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korean Under the Kim Clan, says that in the early 1990s, North Korea was hit by a severe economic crisis caused by the disruption in trading ties with its former Communist allies. At that time, both the Soviet Union and China began to demand that Pyongyang pay for imports in hard currency rather than barter goods, forcing it to open “capitalist” foreign ventures to make up funding shortfalls. He says the restaurants are part of this chain of trading companies controlled by Bureau 39, the “money making” (and money-laundering) arm of the Korean Workers’ Party.


According to reports from defectors, the eateries are operated through a network of local middlemen who are required to remit a certain amount every year to the coffers in Pyongyang. Kim Myung Ho, a North Korean defector who ran a restaurant in northern China, reported in 2007 that each establishment, affiliated with “trading companies” operated by the government, was forced to make annual fixed payments of between $10,000 and $30,000 back to the North Korean capital. “Every year, the sum total is counted at the business headquarters in Pyongyang, but if there’s even a small default or lack of results, then the threat of evacuation is given,” Kim told reporters from the Daily NK, a North Korean news service run by exiles and human rights activists.

Yikes. No wonder they’re so expensive. They have to keep the money flowing. Restaurants may not seem like the quickest way to make a lot of money, but perhaps somebody realized the potential of North Korea’s forbidden mystique. You can’t visit our country, but you can try our food and listen to our beautiful women sing! Not surprisingly, Pyongyang is especially popular with nostalgic South Koreans.

Though we didn’t see it on our visit (perhaps we weren’t deemed important enough?), elaborate music performances are a hallmark of the chain. The waitresses, all North Korean, are not only supremely talented, playing several instruments, singing, and dancing, but also supremely loyal.

Meanwhile, the DPRK provides the bevy of pale-faced—and politically sanitized—beauties who live and work on the restaurant premises. Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Petersen Institute of International Economics, says that all North Koreans dispatched to work in restaurants abroad are forced to undergo stringent screening for political loyalty. “It is considered a desirable achievement to be selected and have the opportunity to go abroad,” he says.

But even the greatest loyalty, it seems, can be worn away, and essentially, all the staff are de facto prisoners.

In 2006 and 2007, Daily NK reported several incidents in which waitresses from North Korean restaurants in China’s Shandong and Jilin provinces tried to defect, forcing the closure of the operations. Kim Myung Ho added that two or three DPRK security agents live onsite at each restaurant to “regulate” the workers and that any attempts at flight result in the immediate repatriation of the entire staff.

Doesn’t that whet your appetite?

(There are three branches of Pyongyang Haitanghua in Beijing.)
2/F, Kuntai Shopping Center (west of Landao Shopping Center)
12 Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District
Tel: (010) 8561 2925
8 Xinyuan Xili Zhongjie
Chaoyang District
Tel: (010) 64616298
Wangjing Keji Yuan
1 Lize Zhong’er Lu
Chaoyang District
Tel: (010) 6439 0916
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