About the Author
View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North and South Koreans freely shared jokes with each other in the Vietnamese capital city on Tuesday evening, the same day North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Hanoi for a high-stakes second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Just a few miles away from the Metropole – now confirmed as the location for this week’s DPRK-U.S. talks – Pyongyang Gwan restaurant Tuesday night saw groups of South Korean citizens enjoying alcohol and food manufactured across the inter-Korean border.
And while Seoul and Pyongyang last year agreed to step-up inter-Korean civilian exchanges, the South Korean government would likely prefer they stay away from the North: at least until ROK citizens fill out the necessary paperwork.
Nonetheless, at Pyongyang Gwan, North and South Koreans were mingling freely on Tuesday, in settings reminiscent of restaurants in the DPRK capital.
Three groups – a total of 12 South Koreans (not including this NK News reporter) – dined in the restaurant between 1800 and 1920 local time, with some Vietnamese and Japanese customers also present.
The waitresses, most of whom appeared to be in their mid-twenties, were happy to chat with the South Korean customers, appearing confident and fluent in conversation and keen to discuss diverse topics.
In contrast with the easy and free conversation with the waitresses, customers were disallowed from filming or taking photos.
After this reporter took a photo of the menu, a staffer there requested no further photos of it, which featured food and drink that’s expensive by Vietnamese standards.
It included a number of pricey liquors, from Pyongyang Soju worth VND 300,000 ($12.95) to wild ginseng liquor in a clay vase costing VND 2,300,000 ($99.28).
SANCTIONS LOOM LARGE
Staff confirmed that credit card payment was an option, with a sign on the door claiming “we prefer Master Card.”
Goods from Pyongyang were also available: the North Korea-made Viagra Yangchunsamrok capsule was seen on sale at the counter along a health supplement known as Royal Blood Fresh.
And though North Korean “Songak” Soju was the cheapest of the products available, the cashier recommended it, saying: “this is the most delicious among soju products.”
Packaging suggested the soju had been manufactured in the North on December 9 last year.
Kangson cigarettes, manufactured by the Naegohyang Joint Ventures conglomerate, were also available at VND 135,000 (USD$ 5.83) per pack.
The price suggests a significant mark-up: Kangson packs typically sell for KPW 70 ($0.66) in Pyongyang.
But international sanctions mean the Korean staff’s days there may be numbered – and could prohibit its operation altogether.
UN Security Resolution 2397, adopted in December 2017, requires countries to repatriate North Korean laborers earning income abroad by the end of 2019.
Speaking to NK News, a local who introduced himself as working for the restaurant said that 50 percent of the entire staff were from the DPRK.
When asked if the restaurant was aware that their Korean staff must be deported by the end of this year, he said the restaurant understood the situation.
He also confirmed that the restaurant is owned and managed by a North Korean, though said NK News would likely not be able to interview them.
The waitresses, too, were happy to talk to visitors, though declined to share their thoughts on the upcoming second DPRK-U.S. summit.
One North Korea watcher said the women there likely came from “families with good background.”
“Nothing surprising about that, you know: work overseas is a major chance for upward social mobility,” Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News, said.
“After all the obligatory deductions, the remaining amount of money still exceeds what the same person would realistically make at home,” he explained.
“When they come back, they invest money into private businesses, they buy real estate and pay for their children’s education, they use the money to advance themselves.”
Despite this, one North Korea watcher said that overseas restaurants are in “clear violation of UNSC Resolution 2375,” which, among other things, requires the termination of joint ventures.
“North Korean restaurants operating abroad are living manifestations of sanctions violations by the host nations and fascination in the exotic on the part of their patrons,” Lee Sung-yoon, Assistant Professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told NK News.
“However, no state, including the U.S., Vietnam, Cambodia, or China is willing to expend its political capital to crack down on the restaurants, because it would not be cost-ineffective.”
Pyongyang was in 2017 estimated by the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations to earn over USD$500 million a year from taxation of its overseas workers.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: NK News