Pyongyang restaurant, Shanghai
Typically, when a country sells itself internationally it promotes what it has in abundance and that of which it is most proud. In this, as in many other respects, North Korea is not like other countries.
If there is one thing Kim Jong-un’s hermetic fiefdom is known to lack, it is food. Yet one of the country’s most lucrative exports is a chain of restaurants named for its capital Pyongyang, which specialises in plying diners with copious delicacies from north of the 38th parallel, such as cold noodle soups, kimchi and alcoholic spirits with proclaimed therapeutic benefits.
Since launching their first Pyongyang restaurant in China in the mid-1990s, North Korea’s Haedanghwa Group has unveiled about 130 branches. Almost all are in China, though there have been others – one failed and closed in Amsterdam in 2012. The Haedanghwa Group is a division of the secretive Room 39, an agency of the North Korean government charged with bankrolling government operations. Room 39 has been linked to arms dealing, the production of counterfeit currency, the manufacturing of methamphetamine and heroin, and money laundering, the latter rumoured to be the motivation behind Pyongyang restaurants. Opportunities for North Korea to access foreign currencies are rare, and a restaurant staffed by pretty young women who dance, sing and wait tables seems to have been a hit, especially among cashed-up South Koreans.
South Koreans might be the only people visiting a Pyongyang outlet for the food. The night I visit a Shanghai branch with some friends from Australian and Chinese universities it’s about 35 degrees and very humid and we’re definitely not hankering for kimchi.
We venture into a dark and deserted shopping mall and follow the sound of distant music up four flights of dead escalators, along a drab unlit corridor to a pair of red doors.
I reflect on the morally questionable step we’re about to take. These restaurants are thought to fund one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. But I square my conscience with the thought that – short of visiting – this is one of the only ways to experience North Korea with actual North Koreans. We step into the glare of the fluorescent lights.
A heavily made-up woman wearing a lurid bell-shaped neck-to-ankle dress welcomes us with a tilt of her head and an expression that brings to mind ewelme, a term invented by Douglas Adams to describe the vague smile of an air hostess.
After being directed to a table and provided with menus, we’re set upon by a swarm of waitresses bearing baskets of exorbitantly priced bottles of Chuseongju (herbal wine), Insamju (ginseng wine) and Ryongjongyu, a spirit whose ingredient list includes “penis of fur-seal, others 36 kinds”. The haranguing ceases when we settle on the “1880Y banquet” and glasses of Ryongjongyu are poured.
I spot an elderly couple sitting on high stools, backs straight against the rear wall of the restaurant, just watching. They take in a Chinese family with obedient children sitting by the stage, several small groups of businessmen and couples, and a table of Korean businessmen already noisy and eyeing the waitresses.
As if telepathic, five waitresses cease orbiting the tables, take to the low stage, position themselves behind an instrument or a microphone and launch into the first of many patriotic high-energy electro-folk songs – I recognise it as “Pan Gap Sumnida”, or “Nice to Meet You”, from having watched YouTube clips of Pyongyang performances. As one, the restaurant’s patrons stand and either clap in rhythm or reach for their phone to document the scene. The blend of sincerity, painted-on prettiness, garish dresses, synchronised dancing, electronic drums, saxophone and sequenced keyboard loops wouldn’t be out of place in an early round of Eurovision, or blaring over a cheap PA at a school fete. As the songs continue, phones return to bags, laughs of disbelief abate and we fall into a poignant submission.
It’s a struggle not to try to read backstories into every move and expression and render the waitstaff even more like the trapped butterflies they seem. They occupy an unusual position on the front line of North Korea’s Juche ideology, projecting an ideal to the world and back to itself. Charged with raising finances to fund a regime that has defiantly removed itself from the mechanism of capitalism.
What is believed is that many of the workers in Pyongyang restaurants are the daughters of North Korea’s elite, recipients of the best education available, who speak excellent Chinese, have demonstrated loyalty and, according to some sources, work as spies by loosening the lips of drunk South Korean customers. Other sources have reported that the women share cramped accommodation and are forced to pay for their own medical expenses out of their meagre wages. Instances of defection were once rare but are more common since the sanctions against North Korea. In each case entire restaurants were shut down and families reportedly either imprisoned or subject to public denouncements of their offending relative.
When our waitress returns, bringing our second or fourth round of Tsingtao beers, platters of cold meats, seafood, kimchi and salads, I try asking some innocuous questions via my Chinese friends. As it turns out, the woman is happy to tell us that the staff are all from Pyongyang city and work in Shanghai on several-month contracts, different to the stories I’d heard in which they were assigned for three to four years at a time. They live together “nearby” and miss their homeland but like China, and this is the first time they’ve met Australians. I ask about the absence of pictures of the Dear Leader or his successors on the walls of the restaurant. “Ah,” she smiles as she takes in the question. “This is not… the right place.” When I mention my interest in North Korea she disappears and returns with an armful of brochures from travel agencies offering very reasonably priced guided trips to Pyongyang itself.
A Chinese friend asks if he could have his photo taken with her. Our waitress shakes her head. “No. Only when we perform.”
The banquet continues apace. Plate after plate of kimchi, vegetables, barbecued meats, platters of oysters, bowls of noodles, rice, fish, chicken, pork, a dish I am reliably told is dog meat casserole, and intricately decorated dishes – radishes carved into swans and fragrant salads that seem never-ending. The food is middling but the waste is staggering. Even after we implore with beery desperation that we’re beyond full, plates keep arriving. Then desserts.
Suddenly we’re the last table left. The elderly couple remain stationed on their stools, their visages immovable. A small army of idling waitresses still looking immaculate smile at us patiently. It’s time to go.
While my Chinese friends argue with the staff over the mysteriously expensive bill, I brashly ask a waitress if she’ll consent to a photo. She nods and her mouth slightly curls as if finding a middle ground between politeness and permission. She laughs coyly when I show her the result, hand over her mouth and eyes wide, a response that feels well rehearsed. Feeling I’ve made major inroads for Australian–North Korean relations and, emboldened by several Tsingtaos and whatever Ryongjongyu actually is, I make a move born of nervousness that I instantly regret: I extend my hand. What feels like a globally acceptable expression of friendship might not have the meaning I intend. Perhaps messages have been smuggled this way? Perhaps she’ll be questioned afterwards? The lights in the lobby seem very bright and I’m acutely aware many eyes are on us. As I apologise she takes my hand, giggles as though doing this for the first time, and shakes it gently. I thank her. “Gamsahabnida.”
Stepping into an elevator, within minutes we’re back outside in the balmy Shanghai evening. Two women whom I recognise from the performance earlier are standing on the street accompanied by two men in kitchen whites. The women bow slightly – ewelme – and bid us goodnight several times. The men watch. I thank them all again, then both groups turn away as we quietly wait for our taxi.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Scoffed diplomacy". Subscribe here.