ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Obama is on his final trip to Asia as president. He's in Laos. The day before his arrival, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles, reminding the world of its nuclear program. These tests have left Pyongyang out in the cold with most of the international community but not with Laos. NPR's Elise Hu explains what binds the two countries.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Look no further than dining establishments to find countries connected to North Korea. Laos hosts a Pyongyang-run restaurant in the heart of its capital, Vientiane. These North Korean restaurants are part of the regime's money-making operations, a way to earn hard currency abroad since it's increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. Waitresses in knee-length red dresses serve common Korean dishes like jajangmyeon and bibimbap, and they offer us kimchi.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pau cai, Kimchi?
HU: The servers - all women - don't say much, nor do they even want attention. The windows are blacked out from the outside, but that this restaurant is open at all is evidence that Laos still allows North Korea to conduct its business here. The food isn't bad, and it's part of an ongoing relationship with Pyongyang.
SOKEEL PARK: North Korea has had fairly close relations with Laos for several decades. Of course, you know, they're both countries of the Non-Aligned Movement and, you know, at least nominally socialist or communist states.
HU: Sokeel Park is research director at Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit which helps North Korean refugees which sometimes pass through Laos before they can get to a final destination, like South Korea.
PARK: Laos is one of the countries in Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees will go to out of China and then potentially go into yet another country in Southeast Asia beyond that as well. But there's different routes that North Korean refugees use through multiple countries in Southeast Asia.
HU: Which tells you that despite its decades-long alliance with North Korea, Laos quietly works against the North, too, by looking the other way when it's used as a route for refugees to defect.
PARK: As strange as it sounds, Laos is kind of this remote battleground for inter-Korean politics or competition and diplomacy.
HU: South Korea is stepping up efforts to break up the ties between Laos and the North. Since the adoption of a new round of sanctions on North Korea this year, Seoul has been courting Laos, sending diplomats, increasing communication and signing a new military-to-military agreement, all in hopes Laos will get tougher on its Pyongyang partners. South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck sounds confident about how it's going.
CHO JUNE-HYUCK: (Through interpreter) We think Laos and other countries previously friendly with North Korea have turned around considerably after U.N. sanctions went into effect and that they're now supporting South Korea's policies.
HU: But the ties with North Korea endure. Laos is believed to be one of the few places left where North Korea can send its labor to earn cash. North Korean diplomats continue to visit here with delegations, and as it's clear, the North still runs these Pyongyang restaurants, playing patriotic North Korean karaoke songs, that is unless international pressure rises even more. Elise Hu, NPR News, Vientiane, Laos.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.