[Viewpoint] A bitter taste of the North

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[Viewpoint] A bitter taste of the North

The Internet was abuzz last week about a Kim Tae-hee look-alike in a North Korean restaurant. Someone found a photo of a North Korean waitress with a strong resemblance to the popular South Korean actress known for her impeccable beauty.

The photo was joyously received and disseminated among young Internet users on the southern side. Some even referred to her as a goddess. Her workplace was a North Korean noodle shop in Cambodia.

Knockout waitresses are easy to stumble upon in North Korean restaurants in Shanghai, Vladivostok, Ho Chi Minh City and Eastern European cities. Some are stunners who require double takes. You can find spitting images of not only Kim Tae-hee, but also Shin Min-ah, Song Hye-kyo and Jun Ji-hyun.

The waitresses working for such chain restaurants as Pyongyang Kwan, Ok-ryu-kwan and Cheong-ryu-kwan are selected via a meticulous recruiting process. They must not only be beautiful, but devoutly loyal to the North’s communist party. They mostly come from well-off families in Pyongyang, and they undergo rigorous disciplinary training.

Still, their North Korean supervisors cannot relax, because they know how young female minds can be affected when they are exposed to a glamorous civilization and free lifestyle unimaginable in their impoverished and rigid homeland.

So they keep a tight rein on this young female workforce lest they become “contaminated” by capitalism. They are disciplined daily and weekly. And they are confined to the restaurants, which serve as both their workplace and home. Authorities want to save costs on apartments or dorms, but most of all they want to keep a 24-hour watch over them. The bosses are that insecure.

The main customers for these North Korean restaurants are, of course, South Koreans. North Korean restaurants in any part of the world live on South Korean tourists.

Strictly speaking, these businesses make their money in Korean won, not dollars. The attendants are taught to treat South Koreans as nothing more than vehicles for making money.

I was in a North Korean restaurant in a Southeast Asian city not long ago. The tables were mostly filled with South Koreans. And the customers were not the only things in the restaurant from South Korea. The TV screens had LG logos.

The refrigerator was stocked with South Korean soju brands with a few bottles of North Korean liquor pushed to one corner. The cups were printed with South Korean brand names. I felt strange seeing a North Korean outlet selling South Korean products.

The waitresses were busy doing their jobs. Their only concern is to fulfill their cash quotas to send home at the month’s end, and they could care less what and to whom they were selling.

And they did their work rigorously. When we finished ordering, one of them - resembling glamorous South Korean singer Lee Hyo-ri and boasting a perfect smile - said the food wouldn’t be enough for so many people. We told her that we would order again later if we needed to.

But she was insistent. Then another staff member came to assist her. She recommended dog meat. When we told her we didn’t eat dog meat, she sweet-talked us: “How can you call yourself a man when you can’t even eat dog?”

Our patience began to run out, and our faces showed it. Then one of us said, “Let it go. Hey, she’s [Lee] Hyo-ri.” We laughed in agreement and got past the awkward moment.

A few minutes later, the waitresses, as usual in North Korean restaurants, started performing. They skillfully played drums, keyboard and bass guitar, singing popular old South Korean songs to appeal to the southern crowd. They also performed recent popular songs.

When we were done eating, they quickly came to our table. They recommended we eat cold noodles to “cool off.” We told them we were full. But again they were persistent. No ideology or dignity existed. Only money mattered.

A member of our party finally exploded. “You will do anything to make money! You might as well beg.” We pulled him from the table and quickly headed for the door before an uglier scene ensued.

We said awkward goodbyes and went home in foul moods. We were angered by their insolence and the North Korean reality that demoted them to such behavior.

Maybe we shouldn’t have lost our temper, or maybe we shouldn’t have been so patient with them in the first place. These same thoughts extended to broader affairs on the Korean Peninsula and left us with a bitter taste.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Cho Dong-ho
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