The era of the red star seems to giving way to that of the Michelin star as, all the way from the temples of Cambodia to the suburbs of Amsterdam, Kim Jong Un’s regime seeks to promote North Korean cuisine. More and more tourists, ambling amongst the capitals of Asia, are encountering culinary outposts of his domain. But potential diners might be advised to ignore whatever belly rumbles the thoughts of northern dishes such as Mul Naen-myun or onban might induce.
At least some of the money paid for these gastronomic delights makes its way into the coffers of the neophyte ruler. Needing to buy the loyalty of the families who dominate North Korea’s party and military hierarchy, Kim no doubt appreciates the revenues accumulated by the ‘Pyongyang’ restaurant chain.
The spectacular temple complex of Angkor Wat, rising from the humid vegetation of northern Cambodia, is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, many of them South Koreans. It was in the nearby town of Siem Reap that such an establishment opened in 2002, these days augmented by two more in the capital of Phnom Penh. It allowed the South Korean tourists the chance to sample an otherwise illicit world, where choice northern cuisine was served by nubile waitresses gliding from table to table in flowing chosŏn-ot gowns. For most of them, it was another Korea that was simultaneously very familiar and very alien.
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Similar establishments have since opened in China, Thailand, Mongolia, Laos and Indonesia. According to one defector who worked in a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese province of Jilin, these businesses operate through a series of local middlemen. At his restaurant, between $30,000 and $40,000 of profit went to the regime. That is probably at the more modest end of the scale.
Swedish journalist Bertil Litner, author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan, has written about these businesses as conduits in the DPRK’s money laundering operations. If this is so, then the monies handed in been channelled through Bureau 39, the DPRK State body tasked with funding the privileges of the dynastic elite that dominates North Korea through deals in arms, narcotics and other items. In October, it was reported on the wires that the regime was closing down Bureau 39 and its counterpart, Bureau 38, tasked with raising money through foreign currency transactions.
But it seems unlikely such announcements represent anything more than an attempt to dodge sanctions by ‘officially’ dissolving bodies bound by international conventions and having the work they do continue on a clandestine level. Between 2009 and 2011, reports in the South Korean Yonhap news agency, the Seoul-based Chosun Ilbo and the Japanese Koydo news service described Bureau 39 as being merged with Bureau 38, abolished, restored or even merged into a new body called the ‘Moranbong Bureau’.
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Despite historic links, the DPRK’s stake in a struggling Cambodian economy is actually rather meagre. Aside from the restaurants, there are plans for $10 million museum near Siem Reap, built and operated by a DPRK construction company called the Mansudae Corporation.
By contrast, South Korea is the biggest investor in Cambodia after China. According to the Phnom Penh office of the South Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, over $4 billion was invested by South Korea in the country between 1994 and September 2011. Three years after both nations signed an energy and mining co-operation agreement, there are 13 South Korean companies, two partnered with Cambodian firms, exploring Cambodia’s mineral, oil and gas reserves.
And over 300, 000 South Koreans took vacations in Cambodia last year. For the time being, the Pyongyang Restaurants offer them an opportunity to sample cold noodles or kimchi. Once in the doors, they are afforded a rare peep into part of their own society that was sealed off decades previously.
But in all probability, the South Korean Embassy looks askance at this. Last year, an email from the embassy in Kathmandu warned South Koreans not to frequent either of the two North Korean restaurants that had opened in the Nepalese capital. Tourists or any of the approximately 400 South Korean expats were informed, in no uncertain terms, that to enjoy a helping of northern cuisine under the shadows of the Himalayas was to risk returning home “subject to investigation on charges of violating the Inter-Korean Exchange and Co-operation Law and the National Security Law.”
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And the DPRK’s foodie odyssey has not been without staff trouble either. In January 2011, Chosun Ilbo reported that around 15 staff at the Kumgangsan, one of the two North Korean-run restaurants had been recalled home, after the manager absconded to India with all the takings, resurfacing in South Korea as a defector. Attempts to bring a taste of Pyongyang to Europe have been similarly ill-fated. A 24-seat Pyongyang Restaurant, a joint venture between two Dutch businessmen and the DPRK, opened earlier this year in Amsterdam. Alas, a few months on, the website ‘Pyongyang Restaurant‘ informs potential diners that the restaurant is “due to holidays, temporarily closed.” The reports of an acrimonious falling out between the Dutch and North Korean partners would indicate that the holiday will probably be a permanent one.
But what can patrons actually expect inside the doors of these establishments? The proof of the kimchi, like that of the pudding, is ultimately in the eating…