Monday, 1 September, 2014

At last, we find it. After two incorrect addresses, two wrong turns and an hour in the sweltering evening heat, my friends and I locate a deserted shopping mall and gingerly step inside. We climb several non-functioning escalators up four ever-darkening floors to arrive in a long hallway. At the other end we find Pyongyang, a restaurant owned and operated by the North Korean government.

Established as a moneymaking (and, according to some sources, intelligence-gathering) exercise by a regime short on resources and foreign currency, Pyongyang is evidence that the North Korean government has banked on catering to the tastes of South Koreans and curious tourists. Eating at the venue, then presents me with a series of ethical and emotional conflicts. Yes, we’re fuelling one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, but we’re also buying a glimpse into a fascinating culture and getting the chance to meet and engage with North Korean students. We walk the corridor to its warmly lit end, where two immaculately attired waitresses usher us into the restaurant. They are wearing heavy makeup, odd smiles and chin-to-ankle floral-hued gowns that are voluminous enough to hide a kindergarten beneath. I notice an older, plainly-dressed couple carefully watching them from the back of the restaurant. Several families seated around the restaurant chat amiably.

I had read that the waitresses at Pyongyang are music students at Pyongyang University who come from privileged families to work at the restaurant. Allegedly, one employee had eloped with a South Korean businessman earlier in 2014, resulting in the imprisonment of her family back in North Korea.

Our group of nine are shown to a table near a small stage on which stands an electronic drum kit, several acoustic guitars, an electric bass and an accordion. Within seconds of sitting down, more identically dressed waitresses emerge to energetically offer us menus and bottles of North Korean ‘wine’. The ‘wines’ seem to be spirits varying between 40 to 55 per cent ABV. I buy a bottle of the cheapest (priced at the equivalent of about $50) as it boasts a vast array of implausible health benefits and offers the chance to drink something that contains ‘fur seal penis’ (whether penis flesh or ejaculate, I’m still unsure). The menu lists page after page of Korean specialities: kimchi, cold noodle dishes, seafood cakes, a wide array of seafood, braised ox tongue, beef tail soup and plates of meat that are barbequed at the table. While this is substantially more expensive than the dumplings we’d previously been dining on, it seems we can be well fed for about $30 each.

Once our ‘1880Y banquet’ has been ordered and the obligatory bottles of Tsingtao beer have arrived, one of the waitresses takes to the stage. Sitting at the electronic drum kit, she pulls out a four-to-the-floor dance-beat and triggers synth loops of a distinctly Europop variety. A smiling, blinking, twirling singer soon joins the drummer, and the two regale us with what we assume is a patriotic North Korean folk song that has been energised and updated for a foreign crowd. It’s like watching an especially earnest Eurovision act: the pair’s songs are played with such a stoic sense of joy they seem to combine happiness with tragedy, longing and deep sincerity, but somehow don’t sound a million miles from a Macedonian dance-floor filler.

Scarcely able to believe what we’re seeing, we stare wide-eyed at each other and laugh repeatedly throughout the opening songs. Lightly strummed acoustic guitars are drowned out by blaring synth chords, energetic beats, a virtuoso accordion ballad, some deftly handled bass, and plenty of dance moves that seem Balkan in origin. While we admire the spectacle, the waitresses come and go, their smiles never leaving their faces.

As the food arrives and we grow used to the loud euphoric harmonies, our bursts of applause gradually grow quieter and I begin to think of the lives of the women beyond this spectacle. My curiosity is so great, yet my actual knowledge of their lives is so little; my assumption is hat they are virtual prisoners, I feel like I’ve come to watch performing animals in an opulent zoo. But then, who’s being welcomed in, fed, watered, watched over by keepers (and cameras) and ushered out? Do they really have as little agency as I’ve read? Is life here better than the one they knew? Can I secretly tip them without causing trouble? If so, and they’re really only living in one cramped room or working here as I’ve heard, what could they do with their money?

Thankfully, our Chinese student friends are happy to translate my many questions, and, surprisingly (given what my research had lead me to believe), the women are very forthcoming. I learn that the waitresses all live together near the restaurant, and are on two-year ‘internships’, after which they return to Pyongyang. There are no pictures of King Jong-il or Kim Jong-un in the restaurant as it is ‘not the right place’ for the Dear Leaders to be seen. I mention that I hope to visit North Korea one day and I’m instantly provided with travel brochures.

As plate after plate of seafood, salads, stews, decoratively carved vegetables and well-cooked meats of uncertain origin pour forth from the kitchen, our noise level, waistlines and sense of guilt grows. By the time the dessert, arrives we are merely picking at the food and sharing disbelieving glances at the sheer wastage.

After some loud collective singalongs, a broken glass, and lots of polite but tense smiles from the waitresses, we are ready to leave. I quickly learn how to say ‘thank you’ in Korean—gamsahabnid to better express the weird, paralysing sympathy I feel; a state the waitresses must think strikes many Westerners. We thank them profusely, briefly argue over the surprisingly large bill and, miraculously (and against protocol) get one of the waitresses to agree to be photographed.

On our way out we nod and warmly thank them. As the last to leave I hold out my hand. I really want to make contact with the smiling waitress, my last chance. I’m hardly the first white male to want to ‘save’ a pretty girl he doesn’t know from a situation he knows barely anything about. But since I can’t bring my Western ideals of injustice to this bizarre situation I think I could at least shake her hand. She seemed momentarily thrown, as if unsure how to act. ‘Damn,’ I think to myself. ‘Maybe spies pass notes this way? Perhaps she’ll be questioned after and she’ll spend hours denying she’s ever met me before? Stupid typical gweilo.’ My selfishness unmasked, I’m about to apologise and withdraw my hand, but she giggles and shakes it gently, as if doing it for the first time. I thank her in my no-doubt unintelligible Korean and leave, full but drained.