Escaping North Korea’s restaurants

Steven Borowiec
Steven Borowiec

One night in Yangon I sat eating kimchi amid a clatter of traditional Korean music. In a small performance area at the front of the restaurant, several young, slender North Korean women jubilated with South Korean businessmen. They struck an uneven harmony singing the Korean classic “Arirang.”

Every night, scenes such as this play out in cities across Asia, where North Korea operates restaurants that serve standard North Korean dishes alongside musical entertainment, with waitresses in traditional garb singing and dancing in unison. For the government in Pyonygang, the restaurants are a source of sorely needed foreign currency. For patrons, they are a way of experiencing a little bit of a reclusive country.

The young woman serving our table was clever and attentive. With her large eyes and narrow jawline, she embodied customary Korean standards of beauty. She was among the small minority of North Koreans who are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see some of the world outside their country. The North Korean government ships thousands of workers overseas for what is effectively slave labor in restaurants or mines or construction sites. Though the North Korean government takes much of their wages, the jobs still confer a relatively high standard of living and a certain prestige once the workers return home.

But not all return. Some want more than a few years of overseas servitude and don’t return home. Early in April, a group of 13 workers from a restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected en masse to South Korea. In an unusual move, the South Korean government held a Friday afternoon press conference to announce the arrival of the 13 defectors, who had left China in a hurry and arrived in South Korea via a country in southeast Asia.

The announcement came several days before South Koreans voted in parliamentary elections, and it didn’t take long for cynics to point out the suspiciousness of the timing. The ruling Saenuri Party, perhaps sensing the electoral defeat that was to come, may have been groping for some news that might give them a boost at the ballot box.

The government implied that the defection was an outcome of sanctions Seoul had enacted on North Korea as punishment for Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear and missile tests. Along with tightening restrictions on North Korea’s ability to do business abroad, South Korea had urged its citizens to stay out of North Korean restaurants while overseas, arguing that the revenue from the restaurants goes to funding weapons that threaten South Korea’s security. Mainstream South Korean media outlets ran stories with unnamed government sources whose comments suggested that the restaurant in Ningbo had been unable to meet its remittance target, and that’s why the staff had fled. Other, more critical, media reports contended that South Korean intelligence agents had facilitated the group defection, so that it could be announced in time for the elections.

North Koreans are rarely able to speak for themselves, and for the time being, it isn’t possible to determine why the restaurant workers fled. They will be interrogated by South Korea’s intelligence service, then eventually settled somewhere in the country. It’s unlikely that they’ll ever come out and publicly tell their story.

The news of 13 restaurant workers skipping town at great personal risk made me think of our waitress in Yangon that night. At first she refused to make eye contact with me as I placed my order, saying I was the first white Korean speaker she had ever met. After a bit of small talk about her work at the restaurant, she appeared a little less weirded out by me so I asked her a couple of delicate questions. Where was her hometown? How did she like living in Yangon?

For her hometown, she simply said “North Korea”; she said living in Yangon was “OK.” She asked me how I’d learned to speak Korean. “I learned in Seoul,” I said. I wanted to ask her thoughts on South Korea, but held back after I realized I might be baiting her into saying something that could get her in trouble.

As we talked, her colleagues buzzed around the restaurant, singing and dancing, all the while wearing forced smiles. Uneasy with the spectacle, I stepped outside for some fresh air in the hot tropical night. I wondered what the woman serving me might have accomplished in her life had she been in a country where it was possible to reach her potential. I was saddened to think that this job was more desirable than her options back home.

At that moment, the restaurant struck me as a microcosm for North Korean society more generally, in that it was a group of grownups being forced to behave like children. The workers must eat and sleep when their handlers say to. They aren’t allowed to come and go as they wish. When company come to dinner, they must smile and be hospitable.

North Korea is full of people living under similar strictures, most of whom will never be able to live according to their own wishes. The woman who served me dinner and beers in Yangon is presumably back in North Korea now and probably won’t ever enjoy the dignity afforded by life in a free country.

Amid the bickering over the timing and announcement of the restaurant workers who recently defected to South Korea, I was heartened to know that 13 people in her position made it out, and won’t be stuck in servitude forever.

Steven Borowiec covers Korea for the Los Angeles Times.