The true Pyongyang naengmyeon“It is a must-visit restaurant for Koreans,” recommended my Indonesian friend when I went to Jakarta four years ago. He wouldn’t tell me what kind of restaurant it was and guided me there. The restaurant had a sign, “Pyongyang Naengmyeon.” The signage was in red and outdated font. It was a North Korean restaurant.
The ladies at the reception desk were young and beautiful. They welcomed guests with a peculiar high pitch. As I sat at the table, I noticed a soju glass with the logo of a Korean company. Then, the ladies began singing Korean and American pop songs.
I asked if they were allowed to sing South Korean songs, and one shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Guests love it.” It seemed that singing Korean songs was not a big deal to make more money. The North Korean badge didn’t seem to go with the lace-adorned hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) uniform.
Now, this restaurant has become a place that South Koreans should stay away from. On Tuesday, our government announced sanctions on North Korea and recommended its citizens not visit North Korean restaurants abroad. Some may wonder how having a meal at these restaurants could fund nuclear and missile development costs.
But it is estimated that North Korea makes about $10 million a year from the restaurant business. There had been about 100 North Korean restaurants when Kim Jong-un came into power in 2012, but now there are more than 130 in operation.
It is undeniable that South Koreans played a major role in the thriving business. And we cannot say that our citizens’ curiosity was completely innocent. Customers are lured by the beautiful staff and the mysterious marketing tactic that helped North Korea maintain its system.
There is also the human rights issue. The female workers at these restaurants are exposed to sexual harassment and the working environment is poor. They are used to attract and please the customers. It is too cruel that they have to endure such situations just because they were born in North Korea.
Not just to hinder Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition but to help the human rights of the North Koreans, we need to curb our curiosity. Someday, we may be able to enjoy naengmyeon (cold noodles) at the famous Okryugwan in Pyongyang rather than North Korean restaurants in Jakarta.
The author is a political news writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 11, Page 31