N. Korea's Unlikely Global Restaurant Empire

The staff at Pyongyang Restaurant in Shanghai sing in addition to waiting tables. Uri Tours/Wikimedia Commons

Aside from a handful of diplomatic missions, North Korea isn't deeply involved in international commerce, culture or conversation. Run by third-generation ruler Kim Jong Un, the country is best described as complicated. With limited global reach and an almost nonexistent tourism industry, it would seem North Korea lives up to the "hermit kingdom" metaphor.

But there's one notable exception: the North Korean government operates more than 100 restaurants in other countries. These eateries have locations in major international cities in Asia, though there are none in the United States. They operate under different names, with the two most common being Pyongyang Restaurant and Okryu-Gwan (Okryu Restaurant), a popular restaurant brand in North Korea.

Cashing in on culinary diplomacy

korean food
Cold noodles is a popular North Korean dish served at Okryu Restaurant. Uri Tours/Wikimedia Commons

The menus at Pyongyang and Okryugwan include a few dishes that are reportedly popular domestically. There is kimchi (a spicier version than what you'll typically find in South Korea), naengmyeon or raengmyŏn, a cold buckwheat and sweet potato noodle dish, and soju, an alcoholic drink popular on both sides of the 38th Parallel.

Idealistic diners might see these restaurants as places where food transcends conflict. That could be the case, but there seems to be another purpose for these venues besides culinary diplomacy. The restaurants have proven popular with curious tourists and locals, so they're profitable and are a good source of foreign currency for the heavily sanctioned government in Pyongyang. In order to remain in good standing with Kim Jong Un, Okryugwan outlets reportedly have to remit the equivalent of at least $100,000 to Pyongyang annually.

The "hard cash" theory is supported by the fact that the restaurants started appearing in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had previously been North Korea’s main benefactor.

What about sanctions?

The profits from these chains pale in comparison to the massive global commerce efforts of similarly-sized countries, but the restaurants do raise questions about sanctions against North Korea. In most cases, Okryugwan and Pyongyang sit in a grey area. In China, for example, the restaurants’ staff members sing and dance as well as serve food, which qualifies them to remain in the country as cultural performers vs. needing work visas, which would be illegal under current rules. Similar arrangements seem to be in place in other countries as well.

Who eats at the restaurants?

North Korean cuisine
On any night of the week, residents of cosmopolitan Dubai can get a taste of reclusive North Korea's culture at Okryu-gwan, a satellite of Pyongyang's massive national canteen. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean tourists looking for a taste of home will find few options. Though a few restaurants reportedly turn away South Koreans, that's not true everywhere; in fact, they make up a majority of the diners. Other patrons are merely curiosity-seekers looking for a singular experience or a story to share.

Plenty of journalists and bloggers have written about their experiences inside these culinary outposts. Most call the food average at best, and some report being asked not to take pictures, being brushed off or given stock answers when they ask the waitstaff questions about their homeland.

At most locations, staff members also perform songs and wear traditional costumes. The tunes are sometimes North Korean, but other times the performances are focused on traditional songs from the host country. According to a report in the Washington Post, almost all Pyongyang and Okryugwan staff members are young females who come from elite families in Pyongyang.

Will these restaurants stay open?

Can employees leave? More than a dozen employees defected from a location in China and made their way to South Korea, where they requested asylum.

Recently, South Korean officials have warned their citizens away from these restaurants, saying that they support the North financially. At the same time, tensions with China and other nations in the region have made life more difficult for the eateries. In short, doing business is not as easy as it used to be.

Whether you believe in the idea of food transcending politics or not, these restaurants offer an opportunity to experience the food and people of a little-known culture. Judging from the reviews and reports, the experiences and quality vary from restaurant to restaurant, with some saying staff are friendly and others saying they are suspicious or standoffish. In either case, the novelty seems to be the main attraction for those who choose to eat at these unlikely North Korean outposts.