BANGKOK, Thailand -- The best way to experience North Korean cuisine
in Bangkok is at Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant where armed troops and
gleeful singers relentlessly try to brainwash you, while North Korean
women strip you of your freedom and delicately pull out your bones.
   If you like, your noodles will be cheerfully scissored.
   But be warned: the efficient staff are subject to instant mood swings.
   The polka-dot clad waitresses begin with shy smiles and tender hand
waves while greeting you.
   Suddenly however they can appear panic-stricken, drained of
emotions, or severely displeased if you stray from the menu.
   You can eat a tasty but somewhat oily and salty meal while ignoring
the bizarre behavior around your plastic-covered table amid the
restaurant's permanent Christmas decorations.
   If you are aware of North Korea's harsh regime, you may feel like
you have passed through an invisible membrane when you enter this
restaurant on trendy, upmarket Ekamai Road.
   That's because this modern, fresh, clean and intriguing eatery is
also a pod allowing you to glimpse the tense and rarefied life of
those who exist near the pampered top of North Korea's brutal
   For example, while most citizens in their northeast Asian nation
suffer in an Orwellian dystopia, here inside Pyongyang Okryu
Restaurant the workers are not groveling in poverty, huddling under
rags or drinking cheap fluid.
   No one here is dying of hunger or torture.
   Instead, their problem may be how not to die of boredom while a big
digital screen blares DVDs of North Koreans singing robust patriotic
songs amid troops marching, weapons rolling in parades, and regime
officials applauding.
   Three waitresses stand near the front door watching the DVDs for
perhaps the zillionth time, slowly swaying and softly singing the
   Below the digital screen is a tiny stage for the staff's live
song-and-dance performances.
   Alas, it was empty during a mid-week evening when this reporter --
posing as a tourist -- was the only customer during a two-hour dinner
in the 100-seat restaurant which includes an outdoor eating area.
   The staff speaks modestly good English.
   But if you ask about the restaurant or North Korea, they soon reply
with a chorus of, "I don't know."
   You may be allowed to photograph some of your food.
   But that freedom may abruptly be withdrawn for no reason,
emphasized by a strident, "No photos!"
   Pull out a sheet of blank paper and start to write?
   "What are you doing? What are you doing?" an alarmed waitress will
demand, forcing you to defend your innocence.
   Pyongyang's regime operates restaurants in Thailand, Malaysia,
Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and across China, plus the Middle East and
   "Most of the money earned goes to the regime.  The restaurants can,
and likely are, being used to launder illegal or counterfeit funds in
[some of] the countries in which they operate," Washington-based Jim
Kelman, who has worked with people born in North Korea, said in an
   "This is an ongoing concern of the U.S. and the international community."
   North Koreans who escape their prestigious overseas jobs may include spies.
   "Of course there are concerns about this, as it has happened in the
past with defectors to South Korea who turned out to be North Korean
agents, sent to South Korea for that purpose," he said.
   Mr. Kelman is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer who was based
in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia before working for the
Korean-U.S. Science Corporation Center.
   He is now a program officer at Meridian International Center which
is described as a private non-profit agency involved in global
leadership and cultural diplomacy.
   "I spoke with several people in crafting these  [interview]
responses, including two well-known human rights activists who focus
on North Korea and a member of the U.S. intelligence community with an
interest in North Korea.
   "I even hosted a dinner [in 2016] for a well-known defector who was
a banker to the North Korean regime and personally delivered suitcases
full of cash to top regime leaders, to fund their lifestyles."
   The restaurants are part of "a much larger outflow of North Korean
workers -- as miners in Africa, laborers in the Middle East, and even
nurses in those countries," he said.
   "The restaurants are most popular in places where South Koreans
travel to work, vacation or otherwise gather in significant numbers.
They are also popular among traveling Chinese.
   "With the advent of stronger international financial sanctions,
there are fewer ways that North Korea can earn hard currency."
   But what about the restaurant's food?
   Fried mackerel and scallions, wrapped in aluminum foil is available
for 150 baht ($4.40), graciously deboned by a waitress at your table.
   Even better is the Pyongyang Tray Cold Noodle -- large enough for
two people -- including slices of chicken, cucumber, a hard-boiled egg
and other treats, plus red chilies, vinegar and mustard draping
spaghetti-like rice noodles which a waitress will cut with big pink
scissors. 350 baht ($10.30).
   Mung Bean Jijim appears as four flat, thin, green, circular
pancakes wet with oil, adorned with parsley, and tasting like potato
pancakes. 150 baht ($4.40).
   Beer and other drinks are also available along with fish, pork,
beef, chicken, vegetable, noodle and soup dishes.
   Lunch specials are 99 baht ($2.90) a plate and include dumplings,
noodles, Kimchi Udong, Bibimbab Haeju, and fried rice with chicken.
   Several miles away, a flashier Pyongyang A Ri Rang Restaurant on
Sukhumvit Soi 26 offers food, karaoke, a live floor show, and tours of
North Korea.