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North Korea's 'culinary embassies'

Hundreds of North Korean restaurants are spread all over Asia. The franchise, owned by the communist regime, enjoys great popularity overseas, but rights activists are critical about them. Roxana Isabel Duerr reports.

It is late at night and the humidity is overwhelming. Countless motorcycles and rickshaws line up on a wide street leading to "North Korea." There is a small entrance at the end of the road, opening to "Pyongyang Restaurant." Don't be mistaken though; this is not the North Korean capital but Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh is not the only Asia country where "Pyongyang restaurants" are popular. The franchise is popular all over Asia, and the venues provide an insight into the otherwise closed and isolated communist nation.

Dog meat stew and cabbage in all varieties

The atmosphere in the Phnom Penh restaurant is lively. The place is frequented by South Korean and Japanese businessmen, who applaud the dancers flown in from the communist country. The culinary delight is usually complemented by a cultural spectacle of dance, music and singing. The aroma of beer and kimchi, the famous Korean cuisine, pervades the crowded hall.

Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh

The restaurants are popular all over Asia

North Korea's Ministry of Tourism handpicks chefs and waitresses to work in these restaurants, which serve delicacies such as raw and cooked fish, dog meat stew, and pastas in many varieties – food that many North Koreans can only dream of eating. Many regions in the communist country face acute food shortages, aggravated by repeated famines.

Cash for the regime

The North Korean "culinary embassies" also provide the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang with much-needed cash, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea specialist at Tufts University in Boston, told DW.

"The overseas North Korean restaurants are an extension of the state policy driven to benefit the regime and the political elite by generating income," Lee said. The Office 39, created in 1974, is responsible for "dealing with these restaurants" as well as "money laundering, smuggling, the sale of illegal substances and the management of North Koran leader Kim Jong Un's black funds in Europe, China and Southeast Asia, " Lee added.

Staff kept under observation

The cooks and waitresses hired to work at the restaurants must undergo a thorough vetting process aimed at determining their "ideological commitment" to the North Korean state. The workers are always guarded. "If the behavior of the employees is considered 'out of line' during their work abroad, the authorities in Pyongyang threaten them and their families in North Korea and punish them," according to Lee.

John Sifton, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, is very criticial of these practices: "We know that there is a lack of freedom for the staff in these restaurants, and it corresponds to the international definition of trafficking."

Customers - a source of information

A two-course dinner with drinks for one person normally cost about USD $60. But that does not seem to bother the majority of South Korean customers. For them, these restaurants are entertaining, it seems. And that's what the contractors in Pyongyang are trying to provide, explains Sung-Yoon Lee: "The waitresses are trained to enchant their customers, and they often engage in a conversation. The South Korean diplomats and businessmen are also a good source of information with regard to the political mood in South Korea."

The DPRK's Moranbong Band giving concert of new music pieces at the Mansudae Art Theatre in Pyongyang, DPRK

The culinary delight is usually complemented by a cultural spectacle of dance, music and singing

Branching out in Europe

So how much revenue does the North Korean regime generate from these restaurants? According to Lee's estimates, it is roughly around 10 million US dollars annually. "The amount is similar to what North Korea earns through tourism."

In other words, the restaurants are not the most important source of foreign revenue for the financially-weak North Korean regime, but they are still important enough to help it run.

The franchise also exists in Europe; the first "Pyongyang Restaurant" was opened in 2012 in Amsterdam, and there are reports that Kim Jong Un wants to open another one in Scotland.