For North Korean State Waitresses Abroad, Lives of Rigor and Temptation

The waitresses, enlisted from the DPRK elite into state service and shipped to government-run eateries across Asia, face political scrutiny and the prison-like servitude of home

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia and SEOUL, South Korea -- Even at seven-thirty on a Wednesday night, the restaurant is packed to overflowing. A few minutes after being seated, a waitress glides up to the table bearing glasses and frosted bottles of Tiger beer; in a few swift motions, glasses are filled and small dishes of Korean appetisers materialize, including kimchi, Korea's iconic spicy pickled cabbage. The young woman -- her name is Kim Gyong-Hwa -- wears a fluorescent pink chima jogoiri, the bell-shaped Korean national dress, with her name printed on a small tag in the colours of the North Korean flag. She is one of a dozen or so waitresses living and working at Pyongyang Restaurant in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, part of a continent-wide chain of restaurants that channels hard currency back to the North Korean regime.

For the predominantly South Korean clientele, waitresses like Gyong-Hwa are as much of a draw as the menu, which boasts such northern specialties as Pyongyang cold noodle and dangogi ("sweet meat" -- a euphemism for dog). In the flood-lit restaurant hall, the young women perform a nightly song and dance routine as panoramas of North Korean capital Pyongyang slide past on a karaoke screen. On this particular night, the crowd clapped and cheered as Gyong-Hwa joined her colleagues in a rendition of Abba's "Dancing Queen," complete with electric guitar, bass, and accordion. One young woman brought a revolutionary zeal to bear on her drum kit, stopping the show with a series of thundering solos -- a performance more than worthy of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

The 22-year-old Gyong-Hwa, originally from Pyongyang, says she is six months into a three-year work placement in Cambodia. But she will likely see little of the country in which she works, and will return to her homeland with little knowledge of it. Like all North Koreans working abroad, she and her fellow waitresses live highly regimented lives. When asked if she had seen the famous temples of Angkor or been sight-seeing around the capital, she giggled nervously and shook her head. Where does she live? She motioned upwards, indicating the living quarters upstairs from the restaurant, before shuffling off to replenish our half-empty glasses.

Pyongyang Restaurant is one of possibly hundreds of North Korean restaurants that were set up across Asia to raise hard currency after the DPRK's economy took a nose-dive in the mid-1990s. The lives of the women who are sent abroad to work in these establishments are secretive and encapsulate a problem facing the North Korean regime: how to bring in more foreign earnings without allowing their citizens to be "contaminated" by foreign ideas. In mid-February, as a popular uprising broke out in Libya, around 200 North Korean construction workers there were prevented from returning to their homeland. The reason, according to the Yonhap news agency, was to block news of the Arab uprisings from reaching the isolated state.

In the case of the waitresses, managing this balance requires every mechanism of control at the regime's disposal. Experts say the waitresses are overwhelmingly drawn from the uppermost echelon of songbun, the regime's political caste system. Kwon Eun-Kyoung, English editor of the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news organisation dedicated to reporting on the DPRK, said that those sent to work at overseas eateries are likely subject to the same degree of political screening as reserved for staff at Department No. 5 of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, which coordinates Kim Jong-Il's daily activities.

"When they select girls who are working -- even just typists, or women who clean up the buildings -- they always check the whole family background and loyalties, and if they are members of the party or not," she said. "The family backgrounds mean more than three generations, up till their grandfathers." Kwon said the waitresses posted overseas are subject to the same strictures that accompany their high-caste status within the North, which includes daily and weekly "evaluation meetings." "It is a regular routine," she said.

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Sebastian Strangio is an Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His reporting from across Asia has appeared in Slate, Foreign Policy, The Economist, and other publications.

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