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Breaking bread with North Korea

In Phnom Penh, diners can step out for a bite to eat and into a world of Pyongyang diplomacy.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — What has proven an impossible task for Western diplomats is as easy as securing a table for two in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh.

Access to the police state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, may be prohibitively difficult, but in Phnom Penh, diners can sample an elaborate combination of North Korean food, culture and dance at one of its state-controlled restaurants.

The North Korean government has set up hundreds of branches of the restaurant throughout Asia, providing tasty traditional fare alongside a dinner show of music and dancing. All in all, it is an attraction that doubles as one of myriad sources, legitimate and otherwise, of essential foreign currency for the economically stagnant regime.

Diners at Pyongyang II, opened in Phnom Penh in 2003 as a sister branch to the successful Pyongyang I in the tourist hub of Siem Reap, are ushered into an austere, flood-lit setting of formica tables and walls decorated in reproduction prints depicting epic nature motifs. On one wall, there is a poster of a mammoth wave, the same one that appears behind images of "Supreme Leader" kim Jong Il on state television when he recieves foreign diplomats.

waitress singing with electric guitar
Waitress at Pyongyang II in Phnom Penh serenades restaurant-goers.
(Brendan Brady/GlobalPost)

Donning traditional dresses and covered in white make-up, pretty, young uniformly-shaped waitresses glide to deliver dishes between music-and-dance sets. Some play the violin and piano, others belt out or lip synch, with the aid of a heavily synthesized sound system, sentimental Korean classics. All dance in a synchronized flourish of stomping and twirling.

Japanese and South Korean diners – mostly expatriates or visitors on business – coo and clap and pound beer and whisky until they find themselves singing along. The occasional Western expat or tourist can also be spotted, soaking in a kitsch night out that they will be sure to relay to all their friends back home.

The truly enamored remain late, when the karaoke floor opens to patrons. They can choose from thousands of Korean and international tunes, including American classics like “Born in the USA”, which an inebriated American expat improvised as “Born in the DPRK” on a recent evening, much to the confusion of the waitresses.

The food is by all accounts delicious. North Korean specialties like Pyongyang cold noodles and are offered, as are favorites found across the entire Korean peninsula: a variety of kimchi, spicy bean curd and grilled eel – all to be washed down with a potency elixir that guarantees “improved performance” or a selection of top-shelf liquors, for which the Supreme Leader is said to have a supreme predilection.

According to Bertil Lintner, author of “Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korean under the Kim Clan,” the restaurants bring in much-needed foreign currency to the isolated Stalinist state, where the local currency, the won, can't otherwise be converted.

He says North Korea turned to capitalist enterprises in Asia in the early 90s when the Soviet Union and China demanded Pyongyang pay for goods in hard currency rather than a barter system.