The quail and stuffed squid were equally tough, from memory, and twin helixes of sliced orange and halved cherry tomatoes made for curious decorations. The quail came with eggs, a subtle reminder the Hermit Kingdom punishes multiple generations for crimes against the state.
Our party of four comprised half the evening’s customers, and we were the last to leave. A tip was refused lest it be a gateway to corruption, which officially doesn’t exist in North Korea. Nothing is said about the entire chain of Pyongyang-branded restaurants operating for the benefit of the Kim family’s personal wealth and the generation of hard currency for a regime facing sanctions. Before we left the car park the lights were out.
The North Korean restaurant in Vientiane, Laos, was similarly eerie. Out as a couple on that occasion, the only others present were a table of maybe a dozen of Pyongyang’s most trusted who were kept down the far end of the restaurant. It’s a fair bet they were government workers or shadowy operatives of some kind: only the elite or state officials get permission to travel, and Laos hosts a large North Korean embassy (it has been known to hand back refugees who have been caught after travelling through China).
The ambience was almost disconcertingly quiet, but a television cycled through a showcase of the beauty of the peninsula’s mountainous north and traditional dances and music. The highlight was a propaganda magazine, the cover featuring young army men looking in wonder at a computer and inside various articles extolling the virtues of sacrificing for the state and being inspired by the Dear Leader. We got to keep it. The food was better, too; with kimchi, noodles, bibimbap, it was the kind of Korean food you find everywhere from Seoul to Strathfield.
And it’s the kind you find these days in Bangkok’s renewed, refreshed Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant in the heart of the city. Visiting the new outlet in the Thai capital now is rather a different experience. Not only is it hard to miss, sitting near a central skytrain station and pointedly within a short walk of a dozen South Korean restaurants, it’s hard to get a seat if you’re not quick at lunchtime.
Cold noodles presented with equally chilly and efficient service, the usual clutter of kimchi and entrée dishes clanking in tune with the three-year-old using the silver chopsticks as drumsticks, our latest venture was much more lively.
Despite the ban on photographs in a city where dining out is all about social media, it was popular. South Koreans were curious, as were Thais and Western tourists. The record shows the restaurant had wised up to the novelty value in offering North Korean booze: more than half our latest bill went to alcohol. There aren’t that many places to get hold of Pyongyang-brand soju (the official national drink) or Taedonggang beer (it’s a pilsener).
A North Korean restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar, closed last year, reportedly because of government pressure to comply with UN sanctions. There seems to be no such concern in Bangkok, where the prominent restaurant coincides with a decidedly bolder North Korea. Leader Kim Jong-un appears more often on the international stage, attending peace summits, testing missiles and stop-starting dialogues with the US. At the restaurants, the soft-power approach continues and the hard currency adds up.
Michael Ruffles is the chief sub-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.