One day back in late January, Ho Dae Sik, the owner of the North Korean government-owned Pyongyang Restaurant and his family suddenly left Phnom Penh in a frenzy, marking an end to the restaurant’s activities in the capital.
The restaurant, which opened back in 2003, was for most the only taste outsiders could get of the dogmatic world of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong II, without actually entering the country.
But early this year, around the same time that the Pyongyang’s Phnom Penh branch shut, news reports showed that other restaurants of the North Korean franchise in Bangkok, Pattaya and Siem Reap had also closed, leaving one simple question on everybody’s lips. Why?
Did customers suddenly lose their appetite for North Korean cuisine, or is it more sinister?
“Something happened in North Korea,” Yin Samnang, 26, a former chef at the restaurant in Phnom Penh, said on Monday, adding that Mr Dae Sik asked her to mind the premises in his absence.
Sticking true to the country’s international image, the restaurant’s closure appears to be as secretive as the Stalinist state itself, at least among Phnom Penh’s North Korean community and the restaurant’s former staff.
Ms Samnang said that the restaurant has been closed since the beginning of February. However, all the cooking equipment and restaurant attire still remains in place as if service is ready to resume any day now.
“The family left very urgently. They wrapped up everything and fled,” she continued. “They looked very worried.”
Prior to his days as the owner of the Pyongyang Restaurant, Mr Dae Sik was a trainer at the International Taekwon-do Federation in Phnom Penh.
The current North Korean trainer there, who wished to remain unnamed, confirmed Mr Dae Sik’s speedy departure but added that the restaurant would reopen in the next few months.
When asked how he knew, the burly martial artist refused to say.
“He used to come down to Taekwon-do, but he hasn’t been here in 5 months,” he added of Mr Dae Sik.
Asked several times why Pyongyang restaurant had shut down, the instructor just smirked and referred questions to the North Korean Embassy.
A secretary at the North Korean Embassy, who refused to give his name, didn’t shine any light on the restaurant mystery either.
“I will not tell you anything. Do not call me again,” he said in English by telephone before hanging up.
And even the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh, the North’s closest watcher and most keyed-in observer of it neighbor, claimed to be in the dark.
“We have heard nothing from the North Korean Embassy on this matter,” said Commercial Attache Lee Sang-kwang.
Choi Yong Sok, the South Korean head instructor at the World Taekwon-do Federation, a separate training center at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, said that the last time he had seen Mr Dae Sik was late January, when he came to watch some training.
“His whole family left, but I don’t know why,” he said.