N. Korea's new crisis: Restaurants overseas

A woman in traditional costume waiting for customers at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing. There are about 130 such restaurants overseas, staffed by workers from the North, most of whom remit revenue to Pyongyang.
A woman in traditional costume waiting for customers at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing. There are about 130 such restaurants overseas, staffed by workers from the North, most of whom remit revenue to Pyongyang.PHOTO: REUTERS

Poor business at its eateries across Asia is hitting one of its few sources of hard currency

JAKARTA/BEIJING • Some North Korean restaurants across Asia have closed down and demand is lacklustre at others. Like the country itself, the establishments seem to be going through a crisis.

There are about 130 North Korean restaurants overseas, staffed and operated by workers from North Korea, most of who remit revenue to Pyongyang. Many are in China, while there are others in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Middle East.

The restaurants are one of the few sources of hard currency for impoverished, sanctions-hit North Korea, generating roughly US$10 million (S$13.5 million) a year, according to South Korean estimates.

One, in the Chinese city of Ningbo, was in the news after the North's Red Cross Society identified it as the restaurant from where 13 staff members left for South Korea last week.

South Korea has not said where the 13 were before entering the country, although media reports have said they defected via a South-east Asian nation. Pyongyang called it a "hideous" abduction by agents from the South.

Some of the restaurants are reported to be suffering since harsh new United Nations sanctions were announced against Pyongyang in March following its recent nuclear and missile tests, although the restaurants were themselves not targeted in the UN resolution.

One of two North Korean restaurants in Jakarta has closed down, while another in Bangkok had a sign on the door saying it was shut until April 20 for renovations.

Earlier this week, at the North Korean restaurant still open in Jakarta, the usual song-and-dance performance by the waitresses was cancelled as there were fewer than 10 customers.

The restaurant is in the crowded Kelapa Gading area in the city's north, wedged between offices, a bank and other eateries. But there were few customers for dinner when a Reuters team visited.

The waitresses, who spoke limited Bahasa Indonesia, declined to answer most questions. But asked who owned the restaurant, one of them said: "All North Koreans".

Asked if that meant the government, she nodded.

In Beijing, the Pinsanguo Restaurant appeared to be doing better. Its 20 tables in the main room were half-full on a weekday night and a short song-and-dance show was performed at dinner-time. But asked how business was doing, a waitress said: "It's not that good."

Business was also not good at the restaurant in Ningbo, and some residents said it had been shut months ago for renovations.

Many of the waitresses at the North Korean state-run restaurants overseas are chosen from a pool of graduates at the Pyongyang University of Commerce, where they learn to cook, sing, play instruments and dance. Loyalty to the regime is a major consideration for being chosen.

Once abroad, they are discouraged from mingling, live mostly in groups and are under guard.

Mr Xue Bin, one of the Chinese businessmen behind the Ningbo restaurant, confirmed that all the workers were from North Korea.

He said he had no idea how the staff defected. "Maybe they paid someone. I don't know."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'N. Korea's new crisis: Restaurants overseas'. Print Edition | Subscribe