North Korean restaurants hit the news recently, when the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant in China defected en masse.
Enthralled by the tale, I started reading up about these restaurants. Like everything else from the Hermit Kingdom, details are difficult to come by.
A Swedish journalist reports that these restaurants are part of the North Korean government’s money generating arm, known as Room 39. It’s definitely the least morbid part of Room 39, and potentially its most legal.
South Korea’s government believes there are over 100 restaurants in over 12 countries, with the majority located in China and Southeast Asia.
While all the restaurants put on a cultural show each evening, the type of entertainment varies. The shows themselves consist of multiple song and dance routines, usually of the traditional North Korean variety; although there are reports of a Beatles cover band in Yangon.
The staff are always pretty young women, chosen for their musicianship and strong ties to North Korea to reduce the risk of defection.
A visit to the North Korean restaurant in Saigon
I was pretty excited at the prospect of visiting a North Korean restaurant and booked in as soon as I found out about the restaurant. The experience turned out to be just as strange as I thought it’d be. Twin Peaks meets Fargo would probably be the closest I could get to explaining it.
When we arrived, we were greeted by our North Korean hosts and immediately asked where we were from. Our host was jotting this down on a clipboard, which proved mildly terrifying.
When it came to my turn, the response “Australia” clearly didn’t satisfy them. Gesturing to their faces, they actually said, “but your face!”. I smiled and shrugged.
The tension was palpable in there, but Mr Dumpling inadvertently cut through it when he pointed to a laminated A4 sign on the wall with Korean script all over it.
“What’s that?” he asked,
“Health tonics”, our hosts started giggling.
One of them slipped away before returning with a box. “Health tonics” turned out to be herbs to help with bedroom performance.
Mystery solved, we turned our attention to the very large menu.
The North Korean specialties of raengmyŏn, cold noodles made from buckwheat, potato and sweet potato, and dog stew were on offer.
Sadly, we were only game to try the raengmyŏn, since our table was full of dog lovers.
Other than that, most of the food resembled South Korean dishes and were pretty familiar.
What we were all there for was of course, the entertainment, and entertained we were.
The crew assigned to Saigon took a cultural approach, and decided to school us in North Korean ways. From the opening greeting song in traditional dress to the North Korean state-sanctioned songs, the oppressive silence and no photos policy suddenly gave way to an 80’s-era variety show with photography encouraged. We were transported to a world very different from our own.
The highlight for me had to be a very talented hostess who played Arirang on the gayageum and started riffing. She was also the drummer of the band, and had a great singing voice. I did wonder what she would have done if she had grown up in a different country. Maybe not taken up music lessons at all?
As suddenly as it had started, the entertainment ended. The fluorescent lights came back on and the costumes were off. Soon, we were ushered out. And while the door wasn’t literally shut on us, it may as well have been, as our hosts immediately turned their attention back to the people remaining.
Outside, we stared at the looming apartment block next to the restaurant.
“This is most likely where they stay,” my friend gestured with a cigarette in hand.
“What makes you say that?” I ask.
“I did some reading online, they’re not allowed to go out except for some basic shopping. They don’t get to move much.”
As we contemplated the lives of our hosts, another friend emerged from the bathroom, “I didn’t see any cameras in there!”
“I’m sure there are.” The rest of us chorused.
“Who wants dessert?” I asked, keen to chat about our experience without being watched.
“Yep!” everyone responded, as we made our way into the night.