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North Korean Restaurants in Russia Remain in Business Beyond Worker Withdrawal Deadline

2020-01-06 -- North Korean-themed restaurants in Russia remained open on New Year's Day, indicating that many of the employees staffing the restaurants were not repatriated by the Dec. 22 deadline under U.N. sanctions, RFA has learned.

"The North Korean restaurants here in Vladivostok were still open on New Year's Day," a Russian citizen source of Korean descent told RFA's Korean Service.

"The female servers had been disappointed that they would soon have to return to Pyongyang in December, but they are welcoming guests with their bright, smiling faces again," the source said.

North Korea maintains restaurant businesses across Asia, including in the Russian Far East. They are great sources of foreign cash, drawing crowds with female entertainers from North Korea who also serve customers as waitresses.

Over the past few years sanctions have caused some of the North Korean restaurants in China and Russia to face staffing shortages, but North Korean workers had found new ways to skirt sanctions, either by changing visas and working illegally or simply ignoring the sanctions altogether.

RFA previously reported that many North Korean construction workers in and around the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok were employing these methods to stay within Russia or quickly return, but according to sources, the waitresses at the North Korean restaurants there all expected they would have to go home.

The source in Russia said that the three North Korean restaurants in Vladivostok experienced an uptick in business once 2020 started.

"The restaurants were once quiet because there were no customers. The quality of food and customer service had dropped significantly as the withdrawal deadline approached at the end of last year," the source said.

"But in the new year, they were revitalized and they are continuing to operate," the source added.

While customers were not flocking to Pyongyang Café, Koryo, and Keum Gang San individually, they were utilizing a new promotion that allows groups of customers to enjoy the restaurants' private performances.

"The private rooms in Keum Gang San were full of customers, so the female staff that normally would have been assigned to the main dining hall were sent instead to sing and dance in the private rooms," said the source.

"They used to offer entertainment to customers who reserved a table in the main hall for 10,000 rubles (U.S. $161.40), but they changed the system to focus on the private rooms," explained the source.

"Guests who order a simple entrée in the main hall are only treated to militant revolutionary video clips aired by [North Korea's state-run] Korean Central Television," the source said.

The source talked to one of the waitresses at one of the restaurants late last year.

"She sounded sad when she said she had to go back to Pyongyang and would not be able to return because all North Korean workers in Russia had to withdraw due to the sanctions," the source said.

"According to that employee, the restaurant workers are all overseas personnel that the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers' Party] dispatched abroad, so they would not be able to return [to Vladivostok] without a major breakthrough," said the source.

That breakthrough might have come if denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. had fared better, but as the deadline drew near, North Korea and the U.S. were still very far apart in terms of what level of denuclearization would justify the sanctions relief North Korea desperately wants.

Another source, also in Vladivostok, told RFA Jan. 2, "Workers at the North Korean restaurants [are still working] on New Year's Day. Perhaps it has been decided that the employees, who were scheduled to withdraw at the end of last year, will stay here in Russia.

"Even though [their] withdrawal was finalized ahead of the Dec. 22 deadline, they are all somehow staying in Russia and the restaurants are continuing operations," the second source said.

The deadline would have been the death knell for the North Korean restaurants, but they were saved at the last minute, according to the second source.

"North Korea's First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui visited Moscow on November 22 to hold high-level talks as business was about to be interrupted in the North Korean restaurants. After these talks, the restaurant workers were reportedly excluded from the withdrawal list."

Meanwhile, in response to the Korean-language version of this report published Jan. 3, Germany's Foreign Ministry, which holds the chair of the U.N. Security Council's sanctions committee on North Korea, said that Pyongyang should follow the U.N. resolution to withdraw North Korean overseas workers by Dec. 22 last year.

In an email to RFA, the Foreign Ministry said all UNSC decisions, including those on restrictive measures, remain in force and must be fully implemented by all U.N. member states.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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