Taste of Pyongyang

The Cambodia Series > Stung > Gun Range > Pyongyang > Tuol Sleng > Sapors

The Captain's driver pulled the sedan over to the curb. The newsman rubbed his jaw's stubble and grabbed his pack from his shirt pocket. Phnom Penh's summer sun poured through the windshield as he loosened a cigarette and stared at the metal fencing fronting the restaurant's property.

"So you say this place is staffed by North Korean ladies?" he asked, rolling the wheels of his lighter.

PHNOM PENH - As far as restaurant themes go, conventional marketing might find Marxism to be an odd genre given the success of such standards as rock n' roll or 1950s doo-wop. But make no mistake - reservations are absolutely necessary at Restaurant Pyongyang in Phnom Penh.

Inside this 25-table eatery of hermit kingdom blandness, slim and fair-skinned North Korean waitresses sing, dance in teams, and play violin in between serving a mix of Asian fare to customers who are afforded a zoo-like peek inside the illicit dining room of Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

"I enjoy this job so much," said one of the attendants, who like her comrades speaks a bit of English and Chinese, about working in Cambodia's capital.

The establishment, which opened in 2003, boasts a primary clientele base composed of Chinese, Koreans (from both sides of the DMZ), and Japanese. (On a recent Friday night, one gray-bearded customer arrived in an olive-green hat and uniform combo that only was lacking a cigar for taking top prize in any Fidel Castro costume contest.)

As cigarette smoke fills the air above each table, Korean firewater like the grain alcohol Jinro soju and draft Tiger beer are standards for washing down such menu items as beef rib soup ($10), roasted pork ribs ($9), and roasted eel ($15) - selections that do not match the mushrooms and grasses of foreign-correspondent lore, and considering a typical monthly wage for a government worker in Phnom Penh might only be $50 a month, such prices are quite high.

The stage show, which is the main attraction, starts at 8 p.m. One waitress, who like her sisters has been trained at an arts college in North Korea, will run through a karaoke number into the reverb-challenged sound system mounted on a small platform pushed into a corner. A duet, perhaps a slightly hip-shaking version of "Let it Be," might follow. Customers are then encouraged to take their best shot at any of the thousands of English titles or Communist classics in the library. Finishing the set is a rather rousing violin and synthesizer piece.

Their uniforms attract many camera lenses. In Russian red, nurse pink, or powder blue, the one-piece outfits can resemble suits, feature wide collars, or contain flower patterns (as in the traditional Korean hanbok). One waitress, with her Kim Jong-il button over her left bosom, said, "We rotate everyday."

The dance numbers get the most applause from the customers, who will pack each table on Friday and Saturday nights. With a backdrop of gold drapes adorned in tassels, the gals line up, spin and flail their arms in near perfect military-like unison to synthesizer accompaniment over a brown tiled floor.

Such uniformity seems to be stressed: shoe heels have been trimmed, giving the appearance of identical height; narrow mirrors are mounted intermittently between the windows to ensure that hair bows can be slightly adjusted while out on the floor; and housing on the property of the restaurant ensure that the girls room together. But lighter moments are possible, such as before the shop's 11 a.m. opening, when the ladies can be seen happily folding moist towels and exercising their vocal chords.

By hosting an embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world that diplomatically recognizes North Korea. The relationship dates back to the first meeting between Kim Jong-il's father Kim Il-Sung (Great Leader) and Cambodia's then king, Norodom Sihanouk, in Belgrade in 1961. Since then North Korea has supported Sihanouk in times good and bad - from the Cambodian coup in 1970 right on through Sihanouk's reinstatement in 1993 - with Sihanouk maintaining a villa inside North Korea.

Along a back wall of the restaurant, photos of the former king, his wife, and the current king, Norodom Sihamoni, are mounted above a rock-walled fountain of orange fish. Kneeling below the royal court in one shot is the staff of waitresses.

In the northern Cambodian city of Siem Reap, where the majestic temples of the Angkor Wat complex are found, a sister restaurant operates under the same business model. And like the Phnom Penh outlet, which is slightly smaller and a year older, profits are funneled back to North Korea's coffers. Similar properties have sprouted across Asia, including outlets in China, Thailand, and a fast-food variation in Vietnam.

On their way out the door, guests are invited to purchase boxed ginseng tea or dried bear bile, which is said to improve eyesight and enhance the immune system.

Dear Leader must be thinking: Communism has never been so profitable - and palatable.

Note: Restaurant Pyongyang is located at No. 400 Monivong Blvd. Tel: 012-277-452.

The Cambodia Series > Stung > Gun Range > Pyongyang > Tuol Sleng > Sapors

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