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North Korea Finds Foothold With Food

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 expands.

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 little else.

While South Korea has become a ready investor in Cambodia in recent years, investment statistics for North Korean business are hard to come by.

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 asylum.

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."

South Korea 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.