Cambodia's bizarre North Korean restaurant drawing crowds

by AFP/Philippe Schwab, Dec 8, 2003 | Destinations: Cambodia / Korea, N / Siem Reap / Pyongyang

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, Dec 7, 2003 - A North Korean restaurant in this western Cambodian town, better known as the gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex, is fast becoming a tourist attraction in its own right. Bus loads of visitors including many from South Korea and Japan have flocked to "Pyongyang" since it opened a year ago with an all-North Korean menu and staff -- probably the first of its kind outside the communist world.

Soberly fitted out with Formica tables and reproduction prints on the walls, the restaurant offers house specialities including "Pyongyang cold noodles" and typical Korean dishes like cabbage and courgettes with peppers.

But aside from the food, the main drawcard is the bizarre ambiance created by enthusiastic karaoke sessions led by the restaurant's waitresses -- 10 pretty young women in austere black dresses and fixed grins. As a succession of diners take the microphone to warble through one of the 3,000 international and Korean tunes on the menu, the hostesses accompany the singing with mechanical hand-clapping and a forced air of enthusiasm. In between karaoke numbers, they perform synchronised dances with stiff displays of arm-waving reminiscent of North Korea's monumental national parades.

"My clients are absolutely delighted that I suggested they visit the Pyongyang. It has become a high point of my tours," said Jun Sung-kim, a Bangkok-based South Korean tour operator who was there recently with 20 compatriots. "We have been separate for 53 years," he said, referring to the start of the Korean war which split the peninsula. "For us it is a chance to finally meet our brothers in the north."

One of his clients, his tongue loosened by liberal quantities of Pyongyang Insam -- a potent soya alcohol "made in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" -- chimed in to opine: "We are one and the same people." Other enthusiasts leave the restaurant with bags of North Korean products including Rymgji tea at 10 dollars a box and bottles of Sexton, which is promoted as a sexual tonic.

However, there are no portraits of North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il at the restaurant established by Ho Dae-sik, the official representative to Cambodia of the International Tae Kwon Do Federation, which is closely controlled by the Pyongyang regime. "We love Kim Jong-il very much, but our South Korean customers don't like anything political," says his son Ho Si-ryong.

He insists the establishment is "an independent private enterprise", one of hundreds which have sprung up to cater to visitors who are coming to Siem Reap and its spectacular temples in ever-increasing numbers.

The waitresses are signed up to three-year contracts after being selected in their home land through a strict screening process designed to prove their absolute loyalty to the world's last Stalinist regime. They live on the premises and rarely leave the restaurant, ensuring contacts with foreigners are minimal. "We never go to the market but we have visited the Angkor temples," one of them said in broken English.

One man who was stunned to see Pyongyang open up in Siem Reap is John Choi, the South Korean owner of "Seoul" -- a guesthouse and restaurant located just opposite. "Here it's the South, over there it's the North and this is the DMZ," he said pointing to the road which separates them, in a jocular reference to the demilitarized zone which has divided Korea since 1953. "I have referred many customers to them but they never sent anybody to me. It's a one-way relationship, just like in real life," he sighs.

Pyongyang's success is such that Ho Dae-sik has just opened a second restaurant, bearing the same name, on a major thoroughfare in the capital Phnom Penh. "The majority of people cannot go to North Korea so they come to our restaurants instead," says Ho Si-ryong.

Cambodia and China are among the very few countries which maintain diplomatic relations with the ultra-Stalinist regime. Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk has never hidden his admiration and gratitude to King Jong-il's father Kim Il-sung for offering him asylum after the coup of 1970. The 81-year-old monarch has even spoken of the possibility that he may one day retire to the Chhang Sou On palace in Pyongyang "built so generously and splendidly for me by my hero and brother" Kim Il-sung, he said recently.

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