SHANGHAI — This bustling Chinese city has a North Korean restaurant called Pyongyang that is owned and operated by the North Korean government, features singers belting out tributes to Kim Jong Un, and likely brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to one of the most impoverished countries on earth.
I went there for dinner. It was fascinating, but not necessarily for the reasons I expected.
The branch of the chain I went to — there are more than 100 Pyongyang outlets doing business across Asia, and more than one in Shanghai — was located in the Pudong district in the eastern tip of the city.
Bathed in the fluorescent glow of bright red, purple, and blue lights, a group of young and enthusiastic North Korean women there sang pop songs before a rapt audience of mainly Chinese men (in my two hours there, I saw maybe two female customers). Between songs, the performers sometimes left the stage to mingle with the crowd, chatting with the middle-aged male clientele. At one point they invited diners onto the stage for a particularly awkward performance.
This wasn’t a place you went to for the food. I paid too much for a beef dish that tasted like hot sauce; the pricey cold noodles were bland. But the chain is able to justify high prices because of the entertainment, renowned for both its energy and its, well, overall strangeness. The performers are government employees known for expressing their love of country using glow sticks.
I came into the restaurant expecting to see gaudy totalitarian propaganda from a country whose leader routinely threatens to turn the US “to ashes.” Instead, I found that the performance and the waitstaff often came across as a source of cultural diplomacy. The restaurant workers didn’t speak Chinese well, but most of the songs they sang were classic Chinese songs, not North Korean ones. They performed many classic Chinese ballads from the ’70s and ’80s, and the Chinese customers were singing along.
Pyongyang restaurants represent something incredibly rare when it comes to North Korea: outreach to a world that it often seems so keen to turn its back on.
What it’s like to eat at a Pyongyang restaurant
Pyongyang restaurants are not staffed like your typical restaurant. The waitresses at the one I went to in Shanghai were all women, strikingly attractive, and doubled as entertainers. One minute they could be serving you kimchi, and the next minute they could be tap-dancing on stage.
There is a paradox about this line of restaurants. They are designed to put on staggeringly eye-catching performances — the stage is awash in neon colors, the attire is garish, the performances are slightly manic, there are glowing props — and yet they officially prohibit photography. When I tried taking pictures, I was repeatedly chided by the waitresses, who came running over to stop me every time I took out my camera (which is why my hastily taken photos are so blurry). The combined effect of the visuals that draw you in and the ban on photography is that you feel you’re being let in on a secret.
But at the performance I saw, that secret was not some special window into North Korean tradition or obscure ritual of reverence for the country’s leader. Instead, the performance was plainly oriented toward the outside world. A vast majority of the songs performed were Chinese. Many of them were popular songs from past decades that are well-known in the world’s most populous country, and the audience responded to them positively, clapping and singing along. (There were a handful of Westerners present who apparently seemed to enjoy all of it as well, presumably without understanding what was going on.)
The most noteworthy moment of the night was the performance of an old Chinese anthem that celebrates Mao Zedong’s support of the North Koreans against the South Koreans and the US in the mid-20th-century Korean civil war. The song’s lyrics explicitly touch on the importance of an enduring Chinese-North Korean friendship. There’s zero subtlety on the decision to perform that song: It’s meant to foster a sense of connectedness between the two cultures.
I don’t know if that song is in regular rotation, but it stood in stark contrast to the current relationship between the two countries. Kim’s increasingly aggressive ballistic missile testing and his suspected assassination of his half-brother, with whom Beijing was publicly close, has angered China. Beijing is also now facing more pressure from Washington to crack down on the North Korean economy, something it’s loath to do since it fears instability in North Korea could cause a humanitarian crisis or bring more US troops to its borders. Both Chinese and North Korean state-owned media have notably stepped up criticism of the other country.
You wouldn’t get any sense of that in Pyongyang. While North Korea primarily runs the 100-plus Pyongyang restaurants across Asia to generate hard currency for its cash-strapped economy — it’s estimated that each restaurant brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the regime annually — the chain clearly also functions as a place for positively engaging with the outside world.
The cultural diplomacy isn’t just in the performance — it’s also evident in the way the waitstaff conducts itself. When the servers aren’t onstage, they’re warm and affable. They will talk about their home country, and will ask about yours. During my visit, I saw them frequently engaged in sustained conversations with customers (and dodging unwanted advances from drunken customers). This isn’t all that surprising — food is a timeless medium for banter and cultural exchange.
Many of the servers hail from the upper crust of Pyongyang society in North Korea, and so they are probably more natural ambassadors on behalf of the country than the vast majority of the country’s citizens, who suffer the brunt of its nightmarish food shortages and totalitarian control of social life.
Still, the high-class North Koreans are known to live tightly controlled lives abroad and have little freedom outside the restaurant. The waitresses I spoke to in the restaurant through a translator said that despite having been in Shanghai for years, they hadn’t seen the Bund — the city’s iconic waterfront that tops any list of things for visitors to do in the city. They said they spent most of their hours in the restaurant, and lived close by. (They are reportedly monitored by security officials and discouraged from mingling with others outside the restaurant.)
It’s not hard to see how the cultural exchanges that transpire in Pyongyang restaurants could also reshape the North Korean staff members as well. Last year, a group of 13 of them working at a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected to South Korea. There’s a good chance that engaging with the outside world helped them reconsider how they wanted to live their lives.