By Qin Xuan 

BEIJING–China’s served as the turnkey in increasing pressure on North Korea since the UN imposed sanctions in March.

So far, the only immediate economic consequence for Pyongyang has been a rapid escalation in oil prices from Chinese suppliers. But there are hints that Beijing is making life tougher for North Korea in other ways.

One example is the recent defection of North Korean restaurant workers from Ningbo, China to South Korea. The incident has deep ramifications. South Korean media says China must have secretly cooperated behind the scenes to allow these workers to fly the coop. If true, such acquiescence from China is historically unprecedented.

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China. Photo by Reuters/Joseph Campbell
Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China. Photo by Joseph Campbell/Reuters

Seoul announced on April 7 that 12 North Korean women and one man defected from the Ningbo eatery after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities” to send foreign currency back to their homeland, according to a South Korean government spokesman. North Korea claims the workers were abducted.

Overseas restaurants have acted as the major source of foreign currency for North Korea. I used online search engines such as Baidu Map and Dazhong Dianping (The Chinese version of Yelp) and found 77 North Korean restaurants in 22 cities in China. These are only some of the major ones.

The majority surfaced around 2010, about the time that Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father died. It’s still unclear how the early April defection of its workers will impact North Korean restaurants throughout China. But it’s certain that major incidents of this type that affect these businesses will significantly impact North Korea’s ability to acquire foreign currency as well as the China-North Korea relationship.

The North Korean restaurant near the North Korea embassy in Beijing, China
North Korean restaurant near the North Korea embassy in Beijing, China. Photo by Feng Li/Getty

NK restaurants I have visited

When I started my career 11 years ago, I visited a North Korean restaurant in Beijing which makes great barbecued meat. I also had a beautiful young waitress who performed singing and dancing. Since then, I also visited a couple of these restaurants in Beijing, Qingdao and Dandong. One of the waitresses in Dandong looks very much like the Chinese actress Tang Wei. The restaurant in Beijing uses a digital guitar for its performances.

The past few years have seen a steady growth of North Korean migrants and restaurants in China. These restaurants are reportedly opened or backed by the North Korean government. Their workers usually have bachelor’s degrees and speak good Chinese. In the past, such overseas workers enjoyed a much higher income than their domestic counterparts.

However, an underground domestic economy has picked up speed in North Korea in the last two years. Workers employed by this shadow economy can make as much as US$200 dollars monthly, making the government’s strictly monitored and lower paying jobs at restaurants less attractive.

Tracing NK restaurants via the Internet

North Korean waitresses serve customers in a North Korean restaurant in Changchun, Northeast China's Jilin Province
North Korean waitresses serve customers in a North Korean restaurant in Changchun, Northeast China’s Jilin Province

Among the 77 North Korean restaurants identified on the Internet, some are old establishments run by the government. Others are China-North Korea joint ventures, while some are owned by Chinese but employ North Korean workers and performers. Beijing currently has 21 of these restaurants, with 5 or 6 having gone out of business.

Visiting such eateries can be expensive. The cost ranges from from 77 yuan (12 dollars) to 389 yuan (60 dollars) per person. But these costs cover more than food. They also cover performances and other costs levied by the North Korean government.

The money Pyongyang rakes in from these establishments also has a direct military application. Every dollar spent contributes to paying for nuclear weapon testing in North Korea.

Beijing isn’t the only big Chinese city boasting North Korea eateries. Shanghai has 15 North Korean restaurants, with 2 being closed. Shenyang is another urban hub that has them. 

What’s more, there are North Korean restaurants in every single provincial capital along the 1,400 km border between North Korea and northeastern China.

In terms of names, the facilities are mostly named after Pyongyang or North Korea in some way. Other names such as Corea, Myohyang-san, Ryugyong and Begonia are used, which might indicate that they are owned by different institutions of the North Korean government. 

The bridge linking North Korea with the Chinese border city of Dandong, China. Photo by Reuters/Megha Rajagopalan
The Yalujiang Bridge linking North Korea with the Chinese border city of Dandong, China. Photo by Megha Rajagopalan/Reuters

Defections may signal loosening of NK society

In North Korea, the monitoring of overseas workers is very strict. They aren’t allowed to go out alone. Special staff usually accompany them. Weekly political study is a mandatory routine. Their lives do not intersect with the world outside.

In view of such controls, the collective defection of so many North Korean restaurant workers diverges noticeably from the sporadic defections of the past.

That such workers defected at all is noteworthy. The overseas workers in North Korean restaurants are valued human resources. They undergo serious training in skills such as services, foreign languages and music. The screening process includes a political check. The majority are from the middle and upper classes in Pyongyang.

How such a collective defection was organized and how it evaded North Korea’s monitoring system is a question worth exploring. The scale of the incident shows, moreover, that such holes in the system can’t be repaired by punishing just one or two people.

All this takes place against the backdrop of critical statements aimed at Pyongyang from China and continuing sanctions from the international community. The need to collect foreign currency through overseas restaurants is more pronounced under these  circumstances. But while it’s not practical for North Korea to shutter the restaurants, they remain a serious security and public relations challenge for Pyongyang.

This article was originally published on Apr. 27, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Translated by Tenei Nakahara for Asia Times

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