North Korea avoids sanctions by serving cold noodles at 'Pyongyang' restaurants

Tom Maresca
Special to USA TODAY
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HANOI – The menu at this North Korean-run restaurant in the Vietnamese capital features a wide range of familiar Korean dishes, from kimchi to bibimbap to bulgogi, as well as naengmyeon – cold noodles in a savory broth that is a signature dish of the Pyongyang restaurant.

The waitstaff are all young women, most of whom wear matching red outfits with hair pulled back in identical ponytails. The only immediate giveaway that it is not a typical Korean restaurant are the telltale North Korean flag pins waitresses wear and signs showing a circle and line through a video camera reading "No Camera."

The Pyongyang restaurant is Hanoi is part of a four-story complex that includes a banquet hall and café owned and operated by the North Korean government. 

State-owned restaurants have long operated as a way of funneling hard currency back to the North Korean regime, and many remain open in clear defiance of strict U.N. sanctions that were passed in response to North Korea's September 2017 nuclear test.

When USA TODAY visited during the nuclear summit in Vietnam between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, a waitress at the restaurant stepped onto a small stage at the rear of the room decorated with a red curtain and holiday lights. Against a karaoke-style musical track, she belted out a traditional Korean folk song that had many diners, most of them South Koreans, singing along. 

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The musical numbers continued for the next half-hour or so, in a variety of configurations: duets, instrumentals with live drums, bass guitar and keyboard synthesizer; bubbly pop songs with choreographed dance routines. 

After some of the songs, diners presented bouquets of plastic flowers to the performers, who rotated seamlessly back to taking orders and delivering dishes and drinks in the small second-floor dining room. 
The experience at this restaurant in the Vietnamese capital is typical of the chain of roughly 125 North Korean-run Pyongyang restaurants around the world – all operated by a company controlled by the North Korean government, according to a 2018 report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit that advises the U.S. government on security issues.

A waitress and performer sings at a North Korea state-owned Pyongyang restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, part of a chain of 125 similar eating places owned by the nation.

More than two-thirds of the restaurants are located in China. Many of the others are concentrated in Southeast Asia, but the chain extends as far as Dubai and Moscow.

Menu prices at Pyongyang were significantly higher than at other local restaurants, which is common across the Pyongyang chain. A large bowl of cold noodles was around $10 in a city where a bowl of Vietnamese pho goes for under $2. Some larger shared barbecue dishes were as high as $50, a fairly astronomical amount in Vietnam.

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Pyongyang restaurants are “living manifestations of sanctions violations by the host nations,” said Lee Sung-Yoon, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University.

He added that their purposefully kitschy song-and-dance routines feed into a “fascination in the exotic on the part of their patrons.”

“The young, female servers in the restaurants exude a softer, feminine image of the North Korean state – the world's most hyper-militant, cultish, weird regime,” he said. Most of the clients at the Hanoi location on a recent evening were South Korean, with a handful of Vietnamese patrons as well.

However, the restaurants also are known to host North Korean visiting dignitaries and embassy officials in their various locations, and some – such as the one in Hanoi – also sells North Korean products such as ginseng and liquors.

It’s difficult to know much about the staff who work in these restaurants. Waitresses in Hanoi apparently were trained musicians and most observers believe they are allowed to live and work overseas only because they come from elite families trusted by the ruling regime. 

Working in these restaurants is “probably seen as quite a prestigious thing to do,” said Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News, a North Korea-focused news and analysis site. 

“At the same time, I’d imagine they're not getting paid very much and it's probably a pretty isolated existence,” he said. 

In one of the most high-profile defection cases in years, a group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers fled from their restaurant in China to South Korea in 2016.

The case continues to be a source of contention on the Korean peninsula, as the North alleges the workers were tricked and coerced by South Korea’s spy agency and has demanded their return. That claim was later backed up by some of the defectors in South Korea.

For decades, North Korea has also sent tens of thousands abroad to work in much harsher conditions in industries such as mining, logging, construction, and clothing sweatshops, forcing them to send back most of their wages to provide much-needed foreign currency to the Kim regime. 

A 2015 U.N. report said that sending forced labor overseas into countries such as China, Russia, Malaysia and Qatar brought in as much as $2.3 billion a year to Pyongyang.

The practice of employing North Korean overseas workers was expressly forbidden in the 2017 U.N. sanctions, but, in 2018, U.S. officials accused Russia of accepting some 10,000 new North Korean workers, citing a Wall Street Journal report.

North Korea has also faced numerous other reports of illicit money-making activities ranging from manufacturing and selling drugs to counterfeiting to arms trafficking.

Some form of sanctions relief was widely expected to be part of the agreement at the summit between Trump and Kim last week, signifying that the hard line “maximum pressure” stance that the U.S. has held onto since 2017 might be a thing of the past.

“The fact that a restaurant is openly being run by North Koreans right under the nose of Donald Trump is very telling,” said NK News’ Hotham. “Maximum pressure is dead now.”

But the event ended without agreement after Washington refused North Korean demands for sanctions relief. Trump told  reporters: "It was all about the sanctions.  "They wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn't do that."

North Korea disagreed with that assessment, saying it had made "realistic proposals."

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