A North Korean waitress in a navy blue dress was at the door to usher customers into a restaurant in Bangkok without a smile or a greeting of eoseo oseyo (welcome).
Two of her colleagues at a bar counter were looking warily at me and my Italian friend Alex as we entered the North Korean government-run restaurant during lunchtime last Sunday (28 January).
With their neatly tied long hair, heavily layered makeup and chaste outfits, the service staff would not be out of place playing star-crossed lovers ranting against American imperialists in North Korean propaganda movies.
The veneer of sartorial conservatism and lackadaisical service at Pyongyang Okryu in the heart of the bustling Thai capital encapsulate the essence of isolated North Korea and its uneasy association with the rest of the connected world.
“No Photos+Video” signs were strategically placed inside and outside Pyongyang Okryu to remind customers that they were dining in an overseas outpost of the hermit kingdom. I sought clarification about the rule from the waitress who had shown me in, and she replied that taking photos of dishes was allowed.
The waitress was also the only staff member taking orders from customers, presumably due to her ability to communicate in basic English. But it would not have been a challenging task for her – throughout our two-hour lunch, there were only seven customers including us, all of whom were speaking in hushed tones.
Sumptuous North Korean meal
After settling down at a table near the door, we ordered three dishes that are typically served at Korean restaurants around the world – seafood rice cake (250 baht/S$10.50), mixed kimchi (180 baht/S$7.60) and tofu soup (200 baht/S$8.40) – and a bottle of soju (300 baht/S$12.60).
The seafood rice cake was a treat with the firm and spongy rice cakes blending well with the spicy gravy. For the mixed kimchi, the standard red kimchi was less spicy and sour than expected while the white kimchi had a subtle flavour. The standout dish was the tofu soup, which had been stewed for some time to give it a robust umami taste.
This journalist beckoned the waitress over to ask about the origin of the soju. Wearing a deadpan look on her face as she poured the soju into a glass, she replied barely audibly without a tinge of irony, “South Korea”.
Near the entrance was a small stage with an antiquated keyboard and two microphones. Given the discreet disposition of the service staff, we held back from probing them to find out if they were capable of belting out a repertoire of patriotic songs à la North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s favourite all-girl band Moranbong.
After consuming a few glasses of soju, I asked the waitress about the entertainment options available and she pointed to a staircase, which leads to a VIP KTV room on the second level of the restaurant.
Other North Korean restaurants
Pyongyang Okryu, located in the Sukhumvit district, is not the only restaurant run by North Korea in Bangkok. Two other restaurants from the same chain – Pyongyang Haemaji and Pyongyang Arirang – are located just a few kilometres apart in the same vicinity.
Beyond Thailand, there are reportedly more than 100 other Pyongyang chain of restaurants across Asia, located mostly in China, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Mongolia.
The opaque nature of the Pyongyang chain has fuelled speculation about its business. Some political analysts have said the restaurants are conduits for units of the North Korean government to run their money laundering operations. South Korea, which ended its engagement with Pyongyang through the Sunshine Policy in 2008, has discouraged its citizens from patronising the restaurants.
The chain came under the spotlight in 2016 after a group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers defected to South Korea. The then South Korean government declined to reveal the name and location of the restaurant that the defectors were working for.
After the death of Kim Jong Nam, the older brother of Kim Jong Un, who allegedly sanctioned the murder of his potential rival in Kuala Lumpur in February 2017, the only North Korean restaurant in Malaysia closed amid rising bilateral tensions.
Shrouded in secrecy
A visit to Pyongyang Okryu may be somewhat a daunting experience for customers who are used to dine at restaurants in a more welcoming setting.
During our lunch, two shady looking men who were seated near the bar counter kept glancing in our direction, triggering our suspicion that they might be North Korean agents whose job was to keep the restaurant staff and customers in check. A housefly that was buzzing about at our table for some time became a subject of sinister speculation in our conversation.
After a quick run to the restroom, I found out that Alex had paid the bill and gestured comically at him to express mock indignation.
Witnessing the banter, the waitress finally managed to thaw the frosty atmosphere in the restaurant – she flashed a sunshine smile.
Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant
Address: 481-483 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 25, Klongtoey Nuea Watthana, Bangkok 10110