Tuesday, January 18, 2011


It seems that the Koreas have been duking it out in Cambodia lately. The Vancouver Sun recently reported that South Korean restaurant owners have been 'retaliating' in spirit against North Korea's attack on its warships and Yeonpyeong Island last year by reporting attacks on their premises by North Korean 'agents,' and the South Korean embassy in Phnom Penh has recommended that South Korean tourist groups avoid any North Korean eateries in the country.

Of course, the Vancouver Sun piece fails to answer a couple of glaring questions: (1) why does North Korea have restaurants in Cambodia? and (2) how are those actions retaliatory?

According to a piece written last year by Sebastian Strangio for Slate, the North Korean government began running restaurants outside its borders in the early 90s, when trade with its former Communist allies ran sour. As the former Soviet Union and China began demanding cash for its goods rather than barter, the North Koreans had to dip into evil, capitalist ways by opening up restaurants in China. In the early 2000s, restaurants sprouted up in Siem Riep, feeding off tourist crowds (particularly those from South Korea) visiting the Angkor Wat temples, and later in Phnom Penh, Bangkok, the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, and in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

The restaurants are run by Bureau 39, the arm of the Korean Workers' Party, with local middle men in each locale. The middle men are forced to pay set annual dues back to the motherland, with any shortfall penalized with threats of "evacuation." The restaurants, in turn, are used to launder money from more nefarious North Korean activities. So, if South Korean business slows down at each North Korean restaurant, it threatens to cut off a valuable resource to an oddly capitalist North Korean project.

But what of the restaurants themselves? What is North Korean cuisine, anyway? According to Strangio:

The menu features specialties such as Pyongyang "cold noodle" (served encrusted with ice), barbecued cuttlefish, stringy dangogi (dog meat) soup, and countless variations on the kimchi theme, all served with glutinous white rice. Also available for sale are a series of North Korean products, including ginseng wine and some nameless bear "product" promised to increase sexual virility.
The rest of the North Korean restaurant experience plays out, of course, like a theme park, with the waitresses - each carefully vetted by the North Korean government for political loyalty (any threats of defections are quickly met with temporary closures and repatriations of the entire staff, who are constantly under the watch of North Korean agents living on site with them) - performing songs for their patrons on violins, guitars and, of course, the obligatory karaoke machine. Here's a video we found online of a meal at the restaurant:

While there's no Yelp, Urban Spoon or food blogger reviews of the restaurants (for now, anyway), the NY Times has this advice for those looking to visit the Siem Riep location: "There’s no need to reserve a table at this restaurant — it seats over 400. Besides, it would be anti-Communist."

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