Karaoke! Espionage! Haute Cuisine!: Adventures in the North Korean Government's Restaurant Chain

Dishes are approved by the Dear Leader but guaranteed not to make you Il. By expanding into Dubai and Amsterdam, the NK government's eateries are providing an alternative to arms sales in raising foreign capital. Food not bombs, indeed!

Kim Jong Il

A chain of restaurants affiliated with the North Korean government recently opened a Dubai branch. Visitors to the Okryu-Gwan restaurant have the rare chance to enjoy traditional North Korean dishes while putting valuable hard currency into Pyongyang's pocket.

Okryu-Gwan is based in Pyongyang and also maintains outlets in China, Nepal, and Thailand. The Dubai edition, which opened last summer, is a joint venture between an undisclosed United Arab Emirates-based partner and several other unnamed shareholders. But according to Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper, the real shots are called by North Korea through an intermediary drawn from the expatriate Chinese community:

The Chinese businessman Gavin Tang, who has worked in the Emirates for more than two decades, has said he also has a stake in the venture. Still, there’s no question about its management according to the manager. "Everyone knows that it is run by the North Korean government,” said that executive, who identified herself only as Ms Jin. “A group of people from the foreign ministry direct the restaurant.”

Mr Tang agreed to act as a local fixer for the business after meeting Ms Jin at a franchise restaurant in Beijing, where she also worked as a manager. Though he denied North Korean officials were directing operations, he said there were “special people” taking care of them.”

Okryu-Gwan is also reportedly opening their first European branch in the Netherlands. The restaurant in the Netherlands will instead be called Pyongyang and is scheduled to swing open its doors later this year.

But the big question for any restaurant is of course: How's the food? The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's state news agency, ran this blurb on the central Pyongyang restaurant in 1998:

National dishes are mainly served in it. Those include Pyongyang cold noodle, cold noodle on shallow round plate, gray mullet soup and boiled rice, Pyongyang Onban, beef rib soup, sinsollo and green bean pancake. In particular, Pyongyang cold noodle is popular among the people at home and abroad. The dish is chiefly made of buckwheat. The thin and tough noodles with various kinds of mince are served with noodle broth processed with much care. The noodle broth is made of water boiled with pheasant, beef and chicken and cooled. It makes people's mouth water...Cuisines of other countries are served for foreign tourists...General Secretary Kim Jong Il sent thanks to the employees for their excellent services on some 50 occasions.”

More pictures of the food, which look like the North Korean take on haute cuisine, can be viewed here.

At these foreign branches, one of the primary draws is entertainment. The Okryu-Gwan location in Kathmandu, Nepal, is well known for daily song-and-dance routines and for North Korean karaoke parties, as shown below.

A recent NPR visit to the Dubai branch found a surreal scene:

As the food begins to arrive, a synthesizer strikes up a theremin-sounding introduction, and soon the waitresses are onstage, belting out Korean songs and decades-old American pop. [...] Potential staff members are thoroughly vetted for political reliability, he added, and pressure may be used against family members to minimize the risk of defection. But as long as the restaurants meet their monthly revenue quotas, the regime tends not to interfere.

The restaurants have also been also tied to the murky world of intelligence and espionage. A North Korean man defected to India through the Kathmandu restaurant. The man was reportedly the former manager of the Kathmandu Okryu-Gwan and fled to India with a large amount of cash taken from the restaurant.

According to media reports, foreign branches of the restaurant are required to send home at least $30,000 annually in addition to paying their own expenses. While returns sent by the restaurants back to the mother country remain relatively small, they still play an important role. While North Korea's primary method of raising foreign capital is weapons sales, it is also generally believed that the North Korean government has a major hand in Japan's pachinko industry.

Follow the author of this story, Neal Ungerleider, on Twitter.