The Okryugwan chain of North Korean restaurants opened its first China branch in Beijing in 2003. Located in the Wangjing district, which has large numbers of Korean residents, it apparently makes more than W7 million (US$1=W1,141) a day in revenues.
The chain is most famous for naengmyeon or cold noodles, but its beef rib stew and kimchi are also popular, and customers can buy them to take home. Seasonal North Korean delicacies such as steamed crabs from the East Sea or wild mushrooms are also served.
So popular are the restaurants that a knockoff has popped up in Shanghai employing Korean Chinese instead of North Koreans.
North Korean restaurants are also famous for the performances put on by their staff, who sing not only their country's folk and pop songs but also South Korean pop songs. Staff at the Shanghai Okryugwan reportedly sing even American pop songs like the "Titanic" theme.
Most of the North Korean staff are graduates of Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce or attended professional culinary school in Pyongyang. Earlier this year, a beautiful waitress at a North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia gained near-celebrity status in South Korea after a picture of her was posted on the Internet.
North Korean restaurants began opening overseas branches during the 1990s. Okryugwan has outlets in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Russia, Nepal and Dubai. North Korean provincial governments, their affiliated agencies and other organizations raced to open restaurants abroad, and now there are more than 100.
Depending on the size of their staff, the restaurants must wire back between US$100,000 and $300,000 to North Korea each year. Those with poor revenues are forced to close, so they advertise heavily, even featuring ads in South Korean community journals abroad.
The North Korean staff have experience working at restaurants in Pyongyang and spend around three years abroad. Even if they come from privileged backgrounds in the North, they are still vulnerable to the temptations of capitalism. In Qingdao, China, a North Korean restaurant was forced to close for months because its staff absconded. Last week, the manager the Okryugwan in Nepal apparently fled to India with a stash of dollars that were supposed to be sent to the North.
But with a drop in the number of South Korean customers following North Korea's artillery bombing of Yeonpyeong Island, compounded by the defections, North Korean restaurants abroad may face a cold winter.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Oh Tae-jin