As a woman performed a Korean song at Pyongyang
restaurant in Phnom Penh
on a recent evening, the guests toasted each other with North Korean wine and applauded. Her
song was followed by performances of at least eight other women who played the
violin, zither, or electronic keyboards.
At times, the women wore headphones and hands-free
microphones, and at others they twirled with fans. During some songs, images
of North Korean landscapes played on a widescreen television on the wall. When each
performance ended, the women quickly went back to waiting on tables.
Opened in 2003, the restaurant is as close as many in Cambodia will get to secretive North Korea, a country whose relatively small amount of investment in the country belies a long
relationship with Cambodia,
one forged by former king Norodom Sihanouk. Meanwhile, South Korea
continues to make increased investment inroads as the Cambodian economy
At the Pyongyang,
the work system differs from Cambodian eateries. The women sing, dance and wait
tables, but they never accompany guests.
Vath Chamroeun, a Cambodian who has worked with North Korean
businesses, said the workers are well-trained in many different tasks, paralleling
government policies that require its workforce to do more with less.
"They are strictly controlled," he said. "Wherever
they go, they go as a team. Men are teamed with men, women are teamed with
women. Each team has its own leader to control the members. Even team leaders
are controlled by several more higher-ranking officials."
The country has one restaurant in Phnom Penh and two in Siem Reap, he said, and
While South Korea
has become a ready investor in Cambodia
in recent years, investment statistics for North Korean business are hard to
Sou Yung, first secretary at the North Korean embassy, said
he was unaware of any other businesses, and the Ministry of Commerce records
show 1,750 "Korean" companies in Cambodia, without differentiating
between North and South.
"We do not divide North or South, but it is very rare
to see a North Korean company on the register," said Sok Sokun, head of
the Commerce Ministry's foreign business registration.
Sok Chenda, secretary-general of the Cambodia Development
Council, a government body that approves investment, said of the $14 million
invested in Cambodia
by "Korean" companies, likely none of it is from the North.
"Not only in Cambodia," he said. "North Korea is well known in the world as a
country without overseas investment, because, No. 1, North Korea is a communist country
and poor. The government cannot sustain its people, who are starving. No. 2, North Korea's
business is handled by the state. It is not a free market."
Without economic leverage, North Korea remains a fast friend,
with one of the oldest diplomatic relationships in the country. Former king
Norodom Sihanouk met Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader," in
1961, when both men attended a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade.
The two developed a personal friendship, and when Norodom Sihanouk was ousted
in a US-backed coup in 1970, King Il-sung built him a palace and offered him
Cambodia has ever since been linked to North Korea, but in recent years, it is South Korea that has made inroads.
"Both the people and the government of South Korea
are richer," Cheam Yiep, a Cambodian People's Party lawmaker who heads the
National Assembly's committee on finance and banking, said. "Now South
Korean tourist visits are No. 1, leading other countries."
has invested in private sectors such as tourism and aviation, he said, opening
flights from Seoul to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
"We have received a lot of benefit" from the
investments, he said.
Meanwhile, North Korean remains "very strict," he
said. "They are afraid their people will steal secret [nuclear] technology
and escape to a third country. They are very afraid of that."
North Koreans have in the past chosen Cambodia as a
country of escape, but a government spokesman said that is no longer the case.
Cheam Yiep said the government's relationship with North
Korean remains strong, despite its open doors to the South.
"In general, we count both North and South Korea
equally," he said. "But the difference is that South Korea invests a lot more than North Korea. It
is as simple as that."
At the Pyongyang
restaurant, politics and economics seem to mean very little.
Manager Kil Ilva said the restaurant attracts people from
around the world, Europeans, Americans, Asians and especially South Koreans,
who are curious about North Korean cuisine and culture, especially the kimchi
and "cool noodle" dishes.
"They like it," she said.