Sihanoukville – Kim Jong Ho, the affable finance manager of Cambodia’s latest North Korean restaurant, says he knows what keeps his customers coming back.
Days after the opening of Pyongyang Friendship Restaurant—decorated with pictures of North Korean countryside rather than of ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il—it was already developing a local fan base on a recent Sunday.
“First they say about the food, they’re satisfied,” Kim Jong Ho said of customers at the restaurant, on Sihanoukville’s Ekareach Street.
“And then they talk about the girls’ art performance—it’s just unbelievable,” he said.
As the international community tries to fathom what’s happening inside North Korea, a somewhat doctored version is on display nightly at Kim Jong Ho’s restaurant, which officially opened Dec 2. Kim Jong Ho is not a defector, and he says he misses his home land. His restaurant is a model of patriotism, with waitresses in colorful Korean hanboks singing and performing traditional dances for diners. Behind them, karaoke videos depict idealized lifestyles in the world’s last Stalinist state.
Rural North Korea is featured, as well as Pyongyang, where a woman in a communist style skirt and blouse skips cheerfully past Soviet architecture.
The restaurant’s female staff members, who also play drums and a Casio keyboard, learned their skills during North Korean after-school classes, Kim Jong Ho said, painting a moderate picture of the state’s methods of cultural education. “For example, if she likes singing, she learns singing. If she likes piano, she learns to play piano. It depends on everyone’s hobby.”
Unlike the finance manager, the waitresses speak little English or Khmer, although that hasn’t stopped some of them from mastering Khmer- and English-language pop songs, which they sing note-perfectly throughout the day.
Though the dances they perform are similar to those performed at the Mass Games in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Ho said his staff fall short of the reclusive nation’s national standard.
“It’s not as high level as [the stadium shows],” he said. “They’re just amateurs.”
While Kim Jong Ho and his staff live out their communist dreams, a small group of RCAF soldiers on an island off Sihanoukville were still guarding the weapons they used to keep the Khmer Rouge at bay, while also taking advantage of the free market, if with less success.
As well as subsidizing their limited state salaries through fishing, they take tips from tourists to whom they show their 8-ton heavy artillery guns, which one soldier said are the biggest in Cambodia.
Their duties consist mainly of tending to the grass and the state-owned coconut trees by the island’s idyllic beaches, near seas where the occasional shark fin can be seen. The Soviet guns that they still man have been fired only once, in 1989, and that was into the sea as a test, one soldier said.
Tourists generally pay them little attention, and it is unlikely the guns will ever be fired again.
The soldiers have hung a hammock from the barrel of one gun, and an underwater mask lies amid the metal work of another. But the 130-mm M46 guns are still oiled regularly and in working order, and they have a range of 27 km, the soldier said. “It’s easy to keep these guns,” he said as he showed visitors how they work. “We just put oil on them and they’re fine.”
In the past, fishermen and tourists were unable to visit the island “because we were surrounded by enemies,” another soldier says. “But now we let them come here and stay on the beach.”
Back at Pyongyang the same evening, despite Kim Jong Ho’s best efforts, things were getting somewhat out of hand.
Three off-duty police officers sporting expensive jewelry have had too much to drink, and at least one is armed. Their friendliness toward the waitresses begins to take a sinister tone, and whilst hugging the finance manager and pouring him drinks, they try to persuade him to let them take one of the women home.
It was not a deal that was going be made, but Kim Jong Ho struggles to smooth over the situation diplomatically, and the waitresses maintain their decorum as the police officers attempt to paw them, before eventually leaving unaccompanied.
Other diners stayed late and said they appreciated the rare glimpse of North Korean culture.
“Many Japanese are hostile to North Koreans,” said Japanese tourist Jeno Hideyuki, who was there to eat and sing karaoke for the second night running. “But the staff of the restaurant are very friendly. I’m surprised.”
Yi Guerim, a South Korean visitor, said she had never been able to visit a North Korean restaurant in her home country.
At school, she said, she learned that North Korean society was built in a pyramid, with a rich elite at the top while the rest of the nation lived in abject poverty.
But, she said, the Sihanoukville waitresses insisted that everyone in North Korean society is equal. “I don’t know if this is real North Korean culture,” she added.
Kim Jong Ho said he hoped visitors to his restaurant would come to appreciate that North and South Koreans are united by language and tradition, although he admitted he was not absolutely sure what they will think. “But I think at least they enjoy,” he said. “And if they enjoy, I am very happy.”