North’s venues go all out for foreign cash

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North’s venues go all out for foreign cash

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Left: A waitress at the North Korean restaurant Pyongyang Arirang in Yanji, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China. Center: Waitresses sing and dance with guests on stage. Right: A North Korean musician plays the cello on stage at the restaurant. By Lee Young-jong

North Korea has modernized its services at the restaurants it operates overseas in a move to attract more foreign currencies, South Korean authorities have found. And part of that upgrade even involves offering free cosmetic surgery to its waitresses.

During a recent visit to Pyongyang Arirang, a North Korean restaurant located on the lobby floor of Kukje Hotel in Yanji, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of China, those upgraded services were noticeable. Early this month, the restaurant was packed around 9 p.m. with some 70 guests, including tourists.

The place itself was more a bar than a restaurant, with performances included. Four female musicians played the theme song to the Hollywood film, “Love Story,” while a waitress gladly took an order for a bottle of Taedonggang, the North Korean beer brewed by the state-owned company in Pyongyang.

(It was priced at 60 yuan, or about 10,000 won, while other international beers like Tsingtao and Heineken go for 25 yuan a bottle.)

“Take a sip and you will fall in love with it,” she said.

Adorned in a yellow hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, the Kim Il Sung badge was conspicuously missing from her chest. Instead, she wore a pin of North Korean flag.

Asked if she had received plastic surgery, she smiled warmly and replied, “The Red Cross hospital gives free surgery to workers in the overseas service industry.”

After the musicians played a few North Korean songs, a cellist, wearing a black dress, appeared. She played “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra, and more performances of traditional Korean music and dance followed.

As time went by, it was clear that performers were also servers. Once their renditions ended, the young women changed their clothes and began taking patrons’ orders.

The restaurant also had a special Karaoke service where for 100 yuan guests could sing songs on stage accompanied by the musicians. The performers presented a flower basket to one guest and sang along, but they hesitated to sing ballads that weren’t obviously patriotic.

Like the Pyongyang Arirang, North Korean restaurants in major cities overseas are primary hubs for the country to earn foreign currency, with the regime capitalizing on the curiosity of outsiders. But they also provide a rare glimpse into the reclusive country and how tightly it runs its industry, particularly ventures in the outside world.

These venues are consistently bustling with guests, despite the fact that their menus have items that are much more expensive than at other local establishments.

The South Korean intelligence authority believes that the North operates at least 30 bars and restaurants in 10 countries, including China, Russia, Italy, Thailand and Cambodia.

Sources say the waitresses must have solid family backgrounds and career experience to leave their homeland to work there.

“My father is an administrative worker at the Cabinet and my mother is a teacher,” one of the waitresses at Pyongyang Arirang said. She added that she had graduated from Pyongyang Business School and had previously worked at the Koryo Hotel in the capital.

But although these workers live a less censored life than the average North Korean, their working conditions appear poor.

Employees often cannot visit their families for two to three years at a time, and in addition to waitressing and performing, they must also clean up after their shift has finished.

Pyongyang Arirang closes at midnight, and the servers often leave work around 2 a.m. after the venue has been properly shut down. Work then begins around 9 or 10 a.m. each day, where they must prep for daily operation.

According to South Korean authorities, workers at North Korean restaurants must also gather intelligence, and that evaluation time is what makes their lives most difficult.

Employees are required to critique one another and report those assessments to their superiors, including what they have seen and heard from South Korean guests.

When one North Korean restaurant in Nepal was raided in 2011 for tax evasion, information on the venue’s South Korean visitors and voice recordings of their conversations were discovered on the restaurant’s computer.

At the Pyongyang Arirang, waitresses openly divulge the restaurant’s Wi-Fi password, though according to one security expert, connecting to the network can compromise the personal information stored on one’s smartphone.

The South Korean government has asked the public to refrain from frequenting North Korean restaurants during overseas trips. After North Korea torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010, in particular, Seoul issued economic sanctions on Pyongyang, which are often cited as the May 24 sanctions.

Since then, authorities said, the number of South Korean guests at these establishments has dwindled.


BY LEE YOUNG-JONG [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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