Thursday, May 13, 2010

First time journey to Pyongyang

Last night, I made the tortuous journey to Pyongyang for the first time. It was, as expected, a very strange place.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, the elegance of the women and the total lack of pictures of Kim Jong-il.

In case you're wondering how I'm managing to write this blog in a country that is completely isolated from the rest of the world, I ought to point out that I went to Pyongyang the North Korean restaurant in Jakarta, rather than the North Korean capital city.

Located off a non-descript main road in South Jakarta, it is an odd little place. The waitresses, who were trained in a North Korean hospitality academy, all wore elaborate traditional, red dresses, were heavily made-up and extremely polite. They didn't speak much English but it was a good opportunity to practice my Bahasa with fellow non-native speakers.

Disappointingly, there were no pictures of the Dear Leader on display, just a few tacky landscape paintings and some karaoke TVs. The clientele seemed to be mostly composed of South Korean businessmen.

The waitresses, who said they had three-year contracts in Jakarta, occasionally broke into song, chirping along merrily to such delights as Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On.

Presumably such morally-bankrupt capitalist running dog passtimes are hard to come by in the grit of the real Pyongyang. At the end of the evening, once the staff had encouraged my friends and I to leave, the dolled-up waitresses promptly disappeared up a staircase.

Given the supremely paranoid nature of the North Korean regime and its acolytes, some of my friends wondered if these women were ever let out.

This recent review in the Jakarta Globe (where I used to work) suggested that the restaurant was owned by an official from the North Korean Embassy.

If that's true, I hope my hard currency (yes, I mean the rupiah) somehow finds its way back to help the crumbling North Korean economy. At over Rp 200,000 ($22) a head, the meal certainly wasn't cheap.

Still, the food was tasty and well-presented, which got one of my co-diners thinking that perhaps Kim Jong-il has been approaching diplomacy from the wrong angle.

Instead of sinking South Korean ships and threatening a second nuclear war, why not just open up a chain of North Korean restaurants all over the world? That would surely win over the West.


  1. The North Korean diplomatic service is a Sopranos-style operation in which employees, many of whom receive no salary, are expected to generate cash and kick up a percentage.

    The profit from your dinner tab went into the pockets of ministry officials.

  2. Interesting. Have you got any other examples of businesses run by North Korean embassy officials?