Dear Eater: Inside the International Restaurant Chain Run by the North Korean State
It’s probably no surprise to hear that the North Korean won isn’t doing so great. Back in 2009, the country’s government issued a new currency with an exchange rate of 100 old won to 1 new won, wiping out many North Koreans’ life savings. This prompted the already-thriving black market in North Korea to blossom, which led that black market to switch to more stable types of currency—namely the Chinese yuan and the American dollar. Things haven’t gotten any better since the revaluation. It’s said that the only people in the country who still use the almost-worthless North Korean won are “vegetable sellers.”
That apparently includes the government, which has been relying more and more on an interesting ace up its sleeve to procure foreign currency: its international chain of restaurants.
Generally considered Pyongyang’s finest restaurant, the cavernous Okryugwan—literally “jade stream pavilion,” named for the nearby Okryu Bridge—has served up traditional North Korean food since 1960. But starting in 2003, it began its slow international expansion, first with a Beijing location replete with waitstaff trained at North Korean culinary schools. After that restaurant eventually started pulling in more than US $6000 per day, Okryugwan locations sprouted up in Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Russia, Cambodia, and the United Arab Emirates, with rumored branches on deck for Scotland and the Netherlands. (Not all of these branches are still open today, and not all of them are called Okryugwan—a few go under the nom de guerre “Pyongyang.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the connections among them are somewhat unclear, but all are said to funnel money to the North Korean government.)
Working in the international Okryugwan restaurants is, of course, a plum position for North Korean citizens, who need special permission to travel around their own country, to say nothing of crossing its borders, which is near-impossible to arrange. Each member of every all-female waitstaff is chosen carefully not only for her beauty but also her zeal for drinking the national Kool-Aid, as the servers are under close watch—especially since a few women escaped from a restaurant in China in 2006, resulting in the closure of several locations.
Not every location is run directly by the North Korean government—defectors have reported that some are operated instead by middlemen who pay the government between US $10,000 and $30,000 per year. These days, the restaurants themselves variously earn the equivalent of around $100,000 a month apiece, depending on location. Secret shareholders are involved in a few as well, but the show is still run by the North Korean state in all instances. It's admittedly a pretty clever way to sell tourism—“Come experience hard-to-find North Korean cuisine! A culinary rarity!”—in a situation where asking tourists to visit your country isn’t really an option. And more importantly, it helps the DPRK get its hands on that cold, hard foreign cash it so dearly needs.
Unlike the Pyongyang location, where locals must wait months to obtain tickets from their work units in order to eat there, the international Okryugwans are open to the public. So when my boyfriend and I, both Americans, took a short trip to Dubai recently, we found ourselves in an ethical quandary over whether we should dine at Okryugwan. We were dying to check it out, but … if we gave the North Korean government our money, were we funding its uranium Kickstarter? Did it count as disaster tourism if we went there to gawk at their quaint and outdated ways, which we would maybe be half-doing? Especially if these ways were performed by people who are essentially government slaves? Even donating, say, $40 to the nefarious DPRK regime felt like a moral betrayal.
I’m still conflicted about it months later, but in the end, our curiosity got the best of us. We showed up at the Dubai Okryugwan as flagrant looky-loos, unsure if we’d be welcomed as guests or considered enemies of the state.
In the busy, modern Deira district of Dubai, in the bottom of a nondescript office building, the restaurant is a Communist-flavored time warp, with disco lighting and riots of fake roses in giant floor vases. A huge stage stands at the far end of the dining room before a wall-sized mural of jagged mountains. Notably, there are no portraits of Kim Jongs anywhere, neither -Il nor -Un. Signs in English (the lingua franca in Dubai) explain that karaoke rooms are available in the back, while in the dining room, TV screens play karaoke videos at low volume—the subject of each, judging from the background imagery, seems to be the natural splendor of the North Korean countryside. There were only about four different songs playing when we were there, but each song played in several different arrangements. Another sign asks guests not to take photos, which we only saw when we left (whoops). The menus are in Korean and English, and the servers, perma-smiling in matching 1950s polka-dotted pinafores, speak English fluently.
Disappointingly, the food isn’t very different from standard South Korean cuisine. Raengmyon—cold buckwheat noodles served in an iced, mustardy, vinegary broth and a bibimbap-like assortment of toppings—is the star attraction, one of the only specifically North Korean dishes on the both-North-and-South-Korean menu. After she set the entrée down, the server pulled out some gigantic scissors and chopped the noodles up, portioned them out into individual bowls, then painstakingly arranged the little bits of meat and vegetable on top of each bowl. Also known as Pyongyang-style noodles, they were OK, if not very exciting. Other exclusively North Korean delicacies include mullet (a type of fish) soup with boiled rice and green bean pancake. Everything else, you can get at any Korean restaurant in the U.S. For what it’s worth, our favorites were both all-inclusive Korean dishes: The absolute mountain of white kimchi was super-sizzly and effervescent, and we loved the beef ddeokbokki, a kind of gnocchi-esque rice dumpling, which arrived in a quantity that would feed four grown men.
Like many of the other restaurants, the Dubai Okryugwan outpost doesn’t only offer North Korean cuisine: Your meal also comes with a creepy, kitschy, Lawrence Welkian floor show. This is the main lure for travelers—or if it’s not, it should be. Like the servers, the performers are all women, and they come whirling out in their color-coded hanboks and frilly prom dresses, team after team of them—singing arias in flawless coloratura while playing a synthesizer from 1986, rocking out authentic accordion polkas at mach speed, harmonizing on pop songs in three and four parts, all while dancing in complicated Busby Berkeley-style synchronicity. It was eerily lovely to watch, with the rotating pastel lights dyeing their dresses different hues while they danced. The accordionist was particularly impressive: A tiny lady in perhaps her 20s, absolutely tearing it up on a full-size 120-button bass accordion. Those things are heavy.
Research later told us that all of the pop songs sung during the floor show were about North Korea and its various leaders. In fact, we were pretty sure they were the same songs from the karaoke videos playing prior to the show.
Information on forthcoming Okryugwan locations is scarce, so it’s all “alleged,” but reports generally agree that business is booming. It seems likely that the chain will continue to expand, particularly as long as the North Korean won stays weak. Okryugwan is a weird, weird place, and the quirky, touristy appeal is off the charts, so its popularity is no mystery. And I suppose you gotta hand it to the DPRK for harnessing their weirdness and selling it to tourists so successfully.
All images by Meg van Huygen