N.Korean Restaurants Abroad Feel the Pinch

Siem Reap, Cambodia's second largest city near the sprawling ruins of the Angkor Wat, has two North Korean restaurants, down from three since North Korea recalled all their expat staff after Kim Jong-il's stroke in 2008 and returned only the employees of two of them. The restaurants rely on South Korean tourists for business since the town is a popular destination for them.

One of them, called Restaurant Pyongyang, sells the famous cold noodles or naengmyeon for US$7 a dish, while North Korean dancers perform and pour drinks for customers. It used to be a regular stopover for South Korean tourists, with tour agencies charging $30 for a visit and a meal. One tour guide said, "In Cambodia $7 a dish is already pretty expensive, but many tourists go to the restaurant because of its attractions."

The Restaurant Pyongyang in Siem Reap, Cambodia (file photo) The Restaurant Pyongyang in Siem Reap, Cambodia (file photo)

After North Korea's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year, the South Korean Embassy in Cambodia asked tour agencies and South Korean residents' association there to avoid sending visitors from the South there, but local sources say the plea fell largely on deaf ears. But the North's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November last year finally did the trick. The South Korean residents' association in Siem Reap voluntarily boycotted the North Korean restaurants, and tour agencies also voluntarily took them off their itinerary.

The restaurants are apparently suffering. A member of the South Korean residents' association said, "Almost all of the customers were South Korean tourists, but it seems that even the performances have stopped now there are no customers."

Around 120,000 South Koreans a year reportedly visited the two restaurants, contributing to an estimated W200-300 million (US$1=W1,126) in monthly sales. North Korea runs over 100 restaurants in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Russia, which serve as a source of much-needed hard currency for the regime by sending home $100,000-300,000 a year.  

The mood in Siem Reap is now desperate. Last month, a placard outside a South Korean restaurant criticizing North Korea's attacks were torn down by seven people who appeared to be North Korean agents, in what expats there believe was another small-scale North Korean provocation. Tour agencies are also losing revenues after taking the restaurants off their itineraries. "We used to charge $30 per visit and took 30 percent of the profits, but not any more," a tour guide said.

South Korean residents' associations abroad rarely voluntarily boycott North Korean restaurants. The Okryugwan chain of North Korean restaurants in Beijing's Wangjing district is still accessible to South Koreans. A South Korean Embassy official there said, "We asked residents to avoid the restaurant in November but did not force them."

Meanwhile, a North Korean restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal closed down in November after its North Korean manager defected to South Korea.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 10, 2011 12:19 KST