RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
North Korea isnt known for its exports, aside from weapons and nuclear technology. Yet there is now a chain of North Korean restaurants in China, Nepal, Thailand and a few other places. Its a rare effort by that isolated nation to display a bit of its culture and to bring in some desperately needed hard currency.
NPRs Peter Kenyon dropped by the branch in Dubai recently and sent back his impressions.
PETER KENYON: When I finally managed to locate the Okryu-Gwan Restaurant, tucked into the corner of a generic-looking business park in Dubais Deira neighborhood, lunch was over and the door locked. Through a crack in the drawn curtains, I saw the staff hunched around a circular table, slurping noodles.
As I pressed my face to the glass, their heads snapped around in unison, their eyes wide with fear. Feeling suddenly like a spy in a bad movie, I retreated. But I returned for dinner two nights later.
(Soundbite of conversations)
KENYON: The staff - all women, at least in the dining room were now dressed in colorful gowns and robes. The signature naengmyun, cold noodles, were highly recommended.
Now, savvy visitors to Dubai have skied in the desert. Theyve visited islands in the shape of the world. Theyve gazed from the planets tallest building. Yes, well, fine. But have you heard the singing waitresses of Pyongyang?
(Soundbite of a song)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
KENYON: Dubais Okryu-Gwan is tiny compared with the cavernous original in Pyongyang, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The official North Korean news agency reported that leader Kim Jong-il himself offered onsite guidance during the construction of a new 60,000 square foot extension.
The foreign branches do have their advantages, however. Unlike the average North Korean, I did not have to obtain an entrance ticket from my work unit to get in.
Analysts say the outposts abroad are important to North Korea, which has labored under international sanctions for its nuclear program and its sometimes belligerent behavior toward South Korea.
In an exchange of emails, North Korea expert Marcus Noland, with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the restaurants are a means of raising hard currency for Pyongyang. Considering how few North Koreans ever get to travel, Noland said working for the restaurants is a plum assignment, and all staff are politically vetted to minimize the risk of defections.
The threat of punishment against family members back home is also used to keep the staff in line. But even so, defections have been reported. But as long as the restaurants meet their monthly revenue quotas, the regime tends not to interfere.
(Soundbite of music)
KENYON: And as long as the questions dont get too inquisitive, a reporter is welcome to pass a pleasant evening fueled by kimchi and Korean pop songs.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News.
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