North Korean restaurants, like this one in Vientiane, Laos, don't just serve North Korean cuisine. They are run by the North Korean government as a way to earn hard currency to send back to an increasingly sanctioned Pyongyang. (Elise Hu/NPR)
Those restaurant workers are now in South Korea, having absconded in the biggest mass defection from North Korea in history.
That North Korea-run restaurant from which the 12 waitresses and their manager escaped is now closed. But South Korea's government believes North Korea still operates more than 100 of these restaurants in a dozen countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, as they're a source of hard currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.
The majority are in China. One of them is in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, where global leaders will be this week for a major Asia summit.
Since I find myself in Laos, my Laotian local producer and I hopped over to Pyongyang Restaurant for lunch. It's only a few blocks away from Laos' lovely Pha That Luang, the gold-topped Buddhist stupa near the city center. The restaurant windows were blacked out from the outside, but from inside the joint, you could see out through sheer curtains.
We were welcomed by three female servers in short-sleeved, knee-length red dresses with Mandarin collars. The first thing Kham and I noticed was how meek they seemed; their voices barely rose above a whisper.
"They're probably being monitored, or fear they're being monitored," Kham said, knowing how closely North Koreans keep an eye on one another. That said, the waitresses didn't object to us taking photos of the food we ordered and snapping a few pics here and there, despite a "No Photography" sign on the wall near the restrooms.
Kham attempted to speak with our waitresses in Lao, but their Lao was limited. I didn't want to raise any suspicion (North Koreans are raised to distrust Americans), so instead of English I used Mandarin Chinese to speak with our servers. Their Chinese was quite passable when it came to tones, which is the trickiest part of nailing Mandarin-speaking. But when I asked questions about the paper drawings of Chosun Dynasty-era Korean women hanging on the wall, the waitress said "really don't understand" in Chinese.
Hanging on the back wall, behind the single pool table, were rugs with elaborate mountainous landscapes on them.
The menu was as thick as a book, with pictures of each dish: Korean classics like naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), jajangmyeon and bibimbap. It also offered some Chinese-style dishes, like spicy mapo tofu. Our waitress recommended the pajeon — Korean-style scallion pancake — and asked whether we wanted to order kimchi.
That's s a key difference between this North Korean restaurant and any standard South Korean eatery: In South Korea, the kimchi comes for free, as part of the numerous banchan (side dishes) that are expected to be served alongside your main dish. Banchan is so prevalent and expected, chef Dan Gray said during a banchan tutorial last summer, that you shouldn't trust any Korean restaurant that doesn't serve at least three banchan with your meal.
Side dishes aside, the main dishes were quite good. I went with a bibimbap, which was served with a broth to mix into the rice, vegetables, meat, egg and the standard sauce — gochujang. It was still sizzling in its clay pot when it came out, just as I like it.
The serving sizes were plentiful and the balance of rice to topping was on point. I also liked the gochujang — it was a milder red pepper paste than I usually get in Seoul. Kham got ddeokbokki and finished everything on his plate. We also bought a bottle of cold Pyongyang soju — a rice liquor with a slightly sweet taste — but took it with us since we still had interviews post-lunch and soju doesn't play.
To the right of our table was a glass display case featuring pamphlets of propaganda (like Kim Il Sung speeches) and books, plus free maps of Vientiane. Hardbound books in blue were simply titled Kim Il Sung Works; the ones in green were Kim Jong Il Works.
Our waitress gestured that we could keep a copy, so we went with the works of Kim Il Sung, since, as North Korea's founding leader, he's considered the "father" of the nation.
There were also huge black speakers stacked to each side of the display case. This is for the evening song-and-dance routine that is traditional at these Pyongyang restaurants: The women will do a little number, but only one time a day. They told us they sing at 7 p.m. only. So instead of live entertainment, we stared at a 19-inch TV showing a loop of North Korean karaoke music videos, all with flower backdrops (boy, did I see a lot of bees pollinating colorful flowers) but also images of majestic soldiers and workers. One of the songs was the famous 반갑습니다, or "Nice to Meet You." (It's also a well-known karaoke number in the South.)
We spent about $20 on lunch, which included the alcohol. The ladies never chitchatted, except to teach me how to say "delicious" in Korean when asked. They seemed scared — like little girls in women's bodies — and sort of sad, too. The atmosphere at lunch also was eerily quiet — after two Koreans who were dining when we came in paid and left, we were the only ones left in a restaurant big enough to seat 100. At one point, a filmmaker walked in trying to get permission to shoot footage — he got a big "no." He asked if he could speak to a manager, but a manager didn't seem to exist. It could have been a slow Monday, or it's like that a lot. Hard to say, given that you can't walk by and look in through the windows. Maybe it picks up around dinnertime, when our waitresses said they would break out into song.
Xaisongkham Induangchanthy contributed to this story.