POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 19, 2012
SIEM REAP, Cambodia » At a roadside restaurant here near the sprawling ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, busloads of South Korean tourists file in to witness an unexpectedly exotic spectacle: doll-faced North Korean women performing everything from saccharine ballads to a rousing number from Bizet's "Carmen."
On the frosty Korean Peninsula, relations between North and South are perennially tense. But here amid the balmy breezes of this Cambodian tourist town, Koreans from both sides of the border are enthusiastically fraternizing at the North Korea-owned restaurant as if reunification were just days away.
"Everyone is very excited," said Jung Myong-ho, a South Korean tour guide watching the show one recent evening. "Back in South Korea, we don't have any opportunities to meet North Korean people."
You would not know that North and South Korea were technically still at war by the beaming faces all around, the loud applause for the North Korean performers and the frenzy of picture-taking afterward. Northerners and Southerners pose shoulder to shoulder, a moment of cross-border kinship captured with the latest South Korean gadgetry.
The restaurant, called Pyongyang after the North Korean capital, is part of an ambitious expansion plan that has established outlets in some unlikely places, with branches in Bangladesh, Dubai, Laos and Nepal, according to Bertil Lintner, the author of "Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan."
He calls the restaurants, which have opened across Asia over the past decade and accept only U.S. dollars, a "North Korean capitalist experiment," where wine goes for $30 a glass and meals can run $100 a person.
It is an awkward moment for such a venture. These are uncertain days in the real Pyongyang, where the death of the longtime leader, Kim Jong Il, and the succession of his son, Kim Jong Un, have raised fears of instability, creating an atmosphere in which the slightest deviation from hard-line Communist doctrine is an invitation to a lengthy prison term in a labor camp.
Lintner says the Pyongyang franchise is an attempt by the government to generate hard currency, a supplement to the country's sales of missiles and nuclear technology. There is no doubt it is desperately needed, to cope with food and fuel shortages, and a socialist economy in a state of collapse.
Indeed, generating hard cash may be more critical now than at any time since the 1990s, when perhaps 2 million North Koreans died of famine. For along with endless economic woes, Kim Jong Il bequeathed to his son a propaganda campaign promising that 2012 would be, "a year when an era of prosperity is unfolding."
South Koreans fly thousands of miles for the temples, the shopping — and a little political detente in one of the two branches of the restaurants here with the North Korean staff.
North Korean performers, dressed in hanbok, a billowing, traditional Korean dress, wear permanent smiles as they play a Western-style drum set, electric guitars and accordion — and demurely shuffle across the stage. When one performer spins like a dervish, her frilly polyester dress filling out like a parachute, the South Korean crowd erupts with cheers and passionate applause.
On the menu are South Korean specialties ranging from the obvious (kimchi) to the more obscure (dog meat casserole), all prepared by a team of five North Korean chefs.
The performers, who double as waitresses, say they come to the restaurant from North Korea for three-year stints. But when they are asked for details about the restaurant and its ownership, their faces turn vacant. They requested that a reporter and photographer, the only non-Asian clientele in the restaurant, delete photos of the restaurant from their cameras.
There are reminders of North Korea throughout the place, which has the feel of a wedding banquet hall. The walls are covered with murals of what the staff says are scenes of North Korean mountains. Glass cases hold North Korean herbal remedies and tea. A North Korean white wine is for sale.
But perhaps more notable is what is missing from the restaurant. There are no propaganda posters, no slogans and no portraits of Kim Jung Un, or his father or his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the previous great leaders. The waitresses avoid any discussion of politics.
Jung, the South Korean tour guide, said the restaurant was a kind of neutral ground for North and South Koreans to meet. Inside the restaurant "politics disappear," Jung said. "We are one family."
The warm feelings seem to be helped along by ample orders of Cambodian beer and the fact that nearly all the South Korean patrons are in vacation mode.
South Koreans visit Siem Reap in greater numbers than any other nationality, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism. Last year, more than 260,000 of them came here, accounting for 16 percent of all foreign visitors.
Cambodia offers sunshine during the drab Korean winter, and food, hotels and golf courses at cheap prices.
A meal at a Pyongyang restaurant is one of the more expensive in town. In a country where a bowl of noodles costs $1.50, a hungry customer can easily pay $100 for a simple meal of kimchi, beef shoulder, stir-fried squid and a bottle of wine. As they depart the restaurant, South Korean patrons snap pictures with the waitresses and settle their bills with wads of dollar bills.
"Dashi man nap shida!" the North Korean performers say. "See you again!"