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A report from Pyongyang (Cafe)

Posted on Sep 14, 2012 11:30 AM Updated: Sep 16, 2012 5:07 AM
Decked in traditional Korean costume, a waitress from North Korea performs Korean and Russian tunes with an electric guitar to the delight of diners at the popular Pyongyang Cafe in Vladivostok -- ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Hidden away in a corner of Vladivostok is a most unusual restaurant.

At 68B Verkhneportovaya Street is Pyongyang Cafe, one of a handful of North Korean state-owned restaurants around the world.

Think North Korea and dining does not first come to mind. It may not even be the second, third or tenth thing that does.

But in this dimly-lit hole-in-the-wall, a taste of North Korean cafe diplomacy awaits.

On our last day in Vladivostok, after covering the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, five of us took a trip from the outskirts of Russky Island to the city centre to see if this restaurant was for real.

From afar it looks like any old concrete building and is easy to miss.

Indeed, you feel more tempted to go into the Chinese restaurant next door with its big welcoming sign in Chinese characters.

On the wall above its North Korean neighbour is a little sign with the words “Pyongyang Cafe” written vertically in small red, English letters.

Two statues of some dragon-like creatures flank the entrance, guarding this little window into one of the world’s most infamous dictatorships.

When we walked into the dimly-lit restaurant, we were greeted by empty booths. I thought it was closed.

But signs of life emanated further in. There were already about 10 to 15 other foreign journalists (they were from Korea, Japan and China) who had been covering the APEC summit with us, well into their meal.

A young, petite and pale-faced Korean woman dressed in a flowing traditional garb then floated towards me, speaking first in Korean, and then Russian, both of which I did not understand.

The restaurant is a small operation. It can accommodate probably around 30 people, and in addition to the main dining room, has two special rooms for larger groups. I peeked into one, and it had a huge painting of a lush garden.

I did not spy any pictures of any of the Dear Leaders.

I wasn't sure what to expect for food, knowing little about North Korean cuisine, but the menu she handed to us - which had English translations of each dish - had the usual you can find at a South Korean restaurant: grilled meats, kimchi, noodles, rice and soups.

We were famished and ordered a plate of the barbecue beef, a bowl of kimchi, seafood pancake, stewed pork ribs, dumplings, and a spicy halibut soup.

But the food is not the main attraction.

After our first dish of steamed dumplings arrived, the lights dimmed further, and we heard music playing in the main room.

Two young women, standing side by side, were singing folksy Korean tunes from a karaoke machine.

The warbling went on for a good 20 minutes. I counted at least five different Korean songs, with a traditional Russian song thrown in for good measure.

When we thought it had ended, one of the girls took out an electric guitar and danced her fingers over the fret board to play an intricate solo which sounded almost like the riffs from Hotel California.

They were certainly going all out to impress (and we later found out, it was a special performance, because the show is usually held only at night).

The attractive girls, the dim lights, and the music made for a quite an enchanting combination, and appeared to hold the men in the room, especially, in a wondrous spell, said my female colleague.

According to reports, these restaurants are funded by the North Korean government, and channel money back to the capital. But far from just being a source of revenue, this is also a show of North Korean soft power. A quite unusual form of diplomacy from the country that threatens with missiles and nukes. 

According to an article in The Atlantic, this is one of many that have sprung up around the region. There are three in Cambodia, others in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, and still more further West in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Dubai.

China may have taken over the mantle of big brother to North Korea, and has most influence West of its borders, but this Vladivostok diner is a reminder of the historical ties Soviet-era Russia has had with its neighbour.

The two countries have had diplomatic ties since 1948, in a long-running relationship that has ebbed and flowed, with the port city of Vladivostok, which is just 700km from Pyongyang, or over an hour by plane, at its centre.

From being a close Cold War ally, they became distant after the break up of the Soviet Union.

The relationship has strengthened again under current Russian President Vladimir Putin since the early 2000s - with a visit to Vladivostok by the now deceased Kim Jong Il in 2002 - before tensions over its nuclear ambitions have again made the relationship tetchy.

But as Vladivostok develops further with Russia’s pivot eastwards Pyongyang Cafe is sure to attract more and more curious travellers from around the world.
As we left, restaurant manager Sonia, the bespectacled North Korean manager and the only one of the women not in traditional Korean dress, asked me, almost sheepishly, to please write nice things about her country.

Journalists always write good things about the restaurant but then criticise our country, she said through our Russian guide.

I smiled, but walked out thinking that the five of us had already inadvertently contributed about 2,900 rubles ($120) to the North Korean regime.

Dinner and dancing and then a donation to the dictatorship was too much to take in but, still, we wanted to take more photographs with the Korean performers. With the show long-ended though, they were nowhere to be found. And there ended our sojourn in Pyongyang.