North Korean restaurants in Dandong, China / Yonhap
By Yi Whan-woo
The government has asked South Koreans to refrain from eating at North Korean restaurants when they go abroad, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials on Thursday.
The measure is part of Seoul's efforts to cut off the flow of hard currency into the Kim Jong-un regime, which is suspected of having diverted salaries of overseas workers into the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
There are an estimated 130 Pyongyang-owned restaurants in 12 countries that are believed to be a major source of income for the cash-strapped North Korea, ministry officials said.
"We've requested our diplomatic missions to ensure that our citizens will cooperate with the government's policy concerning Pyongyang's dining establishments," an official said. "The targeted citizens include South Korean migrants and employees from South Korean enterprises."
The North Korean restaurants have sprung up since the 1990s. Some 100 of them are in China while others are found in Russia, Cambodia, Mongolia and Vietnam ― all of them Pyongyang's Cold War allies.
In 2012, North Korea's first and only restaurant in Europe opened in Amsterdam although it closed after a few months. Another one was opened at the end of 2013.
The repressive regime is considering opening a restaurant in Scotland in the near future, according to diplomatic sources.
Intelligence officials claimed that all such restaurants are owned by Office 39, a secretive branch of the Kim regime, and collectively channel $100 million back home annually. Such amount is equivalent to North Korea's annual earnings from the Gaeseong Industrial Complex (GIC) according to Seoul's claims.
Seoul decided on Feb. 11 to shut down the GIC in response to Pyongyang's nuclear test on Jan. 6 and long-range rocket launch on Feb. 7. Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo claimed that 70 percent of Pyongyang's earnings at the GIC, including wages paid to North Korean laborers, have been sent to Office 39, which directly reports to Kim the regarding use of the money to build WMDs, buy luxuries for Pyongyang's leadership and prop up the regime. Shortly after, the minister rescinded his comment before President Park repeated the claim.
Still, some South Koreans living and traveling abroad said it's uncertain whether they will follow the government's call to boycott the North Korean restaurants.
"I often go to North Korean restaurants even though there are many restaurants run by South Koreans in China," said a Daewoo International employee at Guangzhou, China on condition of anonymity. "I'd say those restaurants have attracted South Koreans because they offer a window on the world's most secretive state that I may not be able to visit before the two Koreas are united."
Most of the over 2,000 employees at the restaurants worldwide are North Korean females in their 20s.
Dressed in traditional Korean clothes, the waitresses serve food and drinks. They also dance and sing North Korean national songs at night for customers, many of them South Koreans, while posing for photos upon request.
"People would concentrate on the eccentric nature of those restaurants, especially if they are tourists looking for exotic memories," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "The government should come up with a better idea if it wants its tourists to pay attention to security on the Korean Peninsula over the entertainment offered by those restaurants."
Yang cited that Seoul asked the citizens not to eat at the restaurants in 2010 in response to North Korea's sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan.
"As far as I know, it didn't have much impact on North Korea," he said.