N. Korea eateries hungry for business
AT A North Korean state-run restaurant in Jakarta earlier this week, a song and dance dinner performance by the waitresses was cancelled because there were fewer than 10 customers.
Some North Korean restaurants across Asia have closed down and demand is lacklustre at others. Like the country itself, the establishments seem to be going through a crisis.
Staff are suspicious of too many questions.
There are about 130 North Korean restaurants overseas, staffed and operated by workers from North Korea. Many are in China while others are in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Middle East.
One, in the Chinese city of Ningbo, was in the news after the North's Red Cross Society identified it as the restaurant from where 13 staff members left for South Korea last week.
Media reports have said they defected via a South-east Asian nation.
The restaurants are one of the few sources of hard currency for North Korea, generating roughly US$10 million (S$13.6 million) a year, according to South Korean estimates.
Some of the restaurants are reported to have been suffering since harsh new United Nations sanctions were announced against Pyongyang in March following its recent nuclear and missile tests, although the eateries were themselves not targeted in the UN resolution. South Korea last month discouraged its citizens from eating at North Korean outlets abroad.
Business was not good at the restaurant in Ningbo, and some residents said it had been shut months ago for renovations. One of two North Korean eateries in Jakarta has also been closed down while another in Bangkok had a sign on the door saying it was shut until April 20 for renovations.
In Beijing, the Pinsanguo Restaurant, formerly called Pyongyang Rungrado, appeared to be doing better.
Its 20 tables in the main room were half-full on a weekday night and a short song and dance show was performed at dinner-time.
A meal for two, including two North Korean beers, North Korean kimchi and barbecued meats, was priced at 450 yuan (S$95), which is expensive by Beijing standards.
Many of the waitresses at the North Korean state-run restaurants overseas are chosen from a pool of graduates at the Pyongyang University of Commerce, where they learn to cook, sing, play instruments and dance.
Once abroad, they are discouraged from mingling, live mostly in groups and are guarded by security officials.