Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:00 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:00 | SYDNEY

North Korea\ Beijing bar economy

5 January 2011 12:55

Catherine Chan is an environmental lawyer and journalist in Beijing.

While WikiLeaks gave some indication of a sense of uncertainty in Beijing about the regime in Pyongyang, China and North Korea remain fast friends. Nothing brings this home more than an evening spent carousing at a selection of the North Korean Government-owned bars and restaurants that litter Beijing.

The restaurants are most easily found in Beijing's Wangjing district – 'Korea town', as it's locally known – home to a large South Korean expat community and various South Korean conglomerates. It's not uncommon for Korean expats to continue the hard-working, hard-drinking, close-knit lifestyle of home, and on a Friday night after a long week of work, they go to North Korean bars and restaurants for an ogle at a culture eerily familiar yet entirely alien.

The more formal Okryugwan restaurants are popular with Korean tour groups. Elderly ladies in matching tour hats sit patiently waiting to be served the cold noodle specialty of North Korea, and politely enthuse about the merits of North Korean of cooking. On the stage, between serving patrons the other specialty of black glutinous rice dumplings, staff perform an old-fashioned variety show (see above; photo by the author).

The waitresses take turns at entertaining the crowd — singing, traditional dancing, cellists playing Bach — all under the proprietorial gaze of the mandatory portraits of the Dear Leader. Try and engage the fluent Chinese-speaking waitresses in some light conversation ('Where are you from' Do you like living here'') and you'll be smilingly but forcefully shut down and blanked out.

To get good service, kick off détente by mentioning the old chestnut about North Korean women being the better looking on the peninsula. This certainly rings true here. One South Korean male friend says the North Korean waitresses — all strikingly tall, pretty and in possession of excellent dentistry — represent the ideal of lost Korean womanhood. Chosen specifically because of their trusted class connections, staff are nonetheless not allowed to go anywhere unless in assigned pairs – to watch one another.

The lights go up abruptly, the music turns off and service grinds to a halt. It's evidently time for the staff to head back to their dormitories. Time to move onto the slightly down-market after-dinner option, a smaller North Korean bar secreted away in a crumbling mall on top of a pirate DVD shop. Giant flagons of Taedonggang, North Korea's heavily promoted beer, sit atop every table.

Raucous groups of South Korean men, wreathed in smoke, sing along with the waitresses, all exceptionally beautiful and clad in matching peach-coloured air stewardess outfits circa 1963. The all-girl band, complete with a catchy 80s disco beat, serenade patrons holding plastic Kimjongillia flowers handed out by the staff. Patronage of these venues dipped briefly after the sinking in May 2010 of the South Korean warship Cheonan, and they are still noticeably quieter since the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island.

The South Korean media has long called for South Koreans to stop patronising the bars, which apparently make more than A$6000 per day, all going straight back to the North Korean Government.