In one of our previous articles, we wrote about illegal DPRK restaurants in Laos, this left Pyongyang Papers with many questions; mainly how have the North Koreans been able to stay under the radar of the authorities in Laos even after the UN Panel of Experts have been investigating their activity. Luckily some people do have insight into this murky world and have been willing to share their knowledge with us. A common theme that seems to appear often is … bribery.

North Korean run restaurants in Laos

Perhaps not that unsurprising, given the previous methods we have seen used by North Korea to avoid sanctions and make money for the regime, Pyongyang Papers has been informed that when looking to open a restaurant the North Koreans will often find a local contact and use their details to setup a business in their name. If a restaurant is closed down, the name of the restaurant is often changed and new business registered under the local contacts name. In some cases it appears that some of these restaurants shut for ‘renovation work’ before re-opening as if it was a completely new place to eat. As mentioned previously, According to the 2022 UN Panel of Experts report, four North Korean restaurants are still in operation even after measures were taken to close them down. DPRK nationals also continue working in these restaurants despite an earlier deadline to repatriate them. Virtually nothing is known about these illegal workers. An online review spoke about one of these restaurants and noted that it appears they are not allowed to interact with non-North Koreans and politely smile when asked anything about the restaurant they are working in. In one interview, a waitress declared that the restaurant she worked in was “owned by all North Koreans” and nodded when asked if the North Korean Government owned it.

Work permits & the authorities

So how do these North Koreans get work permits to continue working in countries like Laos? After all, it is well known that allowing DPRK nationals to work overseas is against UN resolutions. It appears it is common practice to bribe the Laos police to stop reports of illegal working making its way to the attention of those who could potentially stop it happening and make it hard for the restaurants to operate successfully. The corruption doesn’t end there though! We have also learnt that even the Laos immigration authorities will take bribes for processing work permits. This seems to be a common practice in Laos – According to a report by Asia Development Bank, almost 70% of businesses that applied for documentation had paid bribes to officials to get the job done. Connections and money are integral for doing business in Laos!

North Korean girls perform at a North Korean restaurant – Source AP

To go even further up the chain of bribery. We have been made aware that even a Laos judge has been bribed by North Koreans. This time the bribery relates to making a favorable judgement to a North Korean who was having difficulty getting money off a Laos national they had been working with. How ironic that the North Koreans are plying their illegal trade and have to appeal for justice after being scammed!

Of course authorities taking bribes isn’t new, but with North Korea recently declaring itself a nuclear weapons state its more vital than ever that authorities tackle the flow of money heading back to the regime and we hope the Laos government will take some action against this happening. It has been suggested by the Laos Chamber of Industry and Commerce to go to an online processing method to minimize person to person contact and in turn the opportunities for bribery. As always, Pyongyang Papers will continue to investigate illicit activity by the DPRK and other entities or countries that are involved in enabling the regimes nuclear and ballistic weapons program. If you have anything you would like us to investigate then please get in touch through the ‘contact us’ page.

June 24, 2022 was a day of significance as it marks the 48th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the DPRK and The Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The friendship and cooperation between the two countries was forged and deepened through historic summits of 1965 and 1970 between Kim Il Sung and leader of Lao people- Kaysone Phomvihane. Today, the DPRK government remain unchanged in their resolve to develop the relations of ‘friendship’ with Laos.

Pyongyang Papers asks the question, “does DPRK need Laos more than Laos needs DPRK?” We would suggest that the DPRK only need Laos as a money generator for the regime and therefore have no problem severing any ties if they do not get what they want i.e. money. So, is this true friendship?

North Korean restaurants in Laos

With easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions in Asia, people have been able to travel again. The backpacker trail is opening up with travelers seeking out new experiences.

Pyongyang Papers has been tipped off by a backpacker that restaurants in Laos are still operating using North Korean workers. Despite UN Security Council resolution 2397 requiring all Member States to repatriate, by December 22, 2019.

All North Korean entities (including restaurants) are supposed to have been closed down under UN sanctions which prevent North Korea from having overseas workers. It is well documented that North Korea exploit their citizens by sending them abroad to earn foreign currency which is then sent back to the hermit state. These restaurants are another example of this, and the money is certainly not for the good of the impoverished, starving people but more likely end up funding weapons of mass destruction.

Our backpacker found a very unusual dining option in Vientiane, 원언니식당 (Won Onni Sikdang) – which translates to Big Sister Won’s restaurant. This restaurant, conveniently located close to the DPRK Embassy in Vientiane, doesn’t offer Laos cuisine, but instead seems to be a North Korean restaurant and has multiple 5-star reviews on Google.

Google reviews of “Big Sister Won” restaurant confirm the restaurant has been operating in 2022.

So what’s in it for the DPRK regime? Sources confirm that the North Korean restaurant menu requests payment in US dollars and not Laotian Kip. This is another way that the DPRK can seek to launder its ill-gotten gains, and a source of foreign currency for the regime. We don’t believe that this is just a business set up by an enterprising North Korean expatriate. Any North Korean restaurant will certainly have to pay a retainer or fee to the DPRK embassy in Laos just in order to operate, which is forwarded onto the DPRK regime.

According to the 2022 UN Panel of Experts report, Big Sister Won’s restaurant is not the only North Korean restaurant believed to still be in operation in Laos. The UN report details four North Korean restaurants and one night market, including their locations and images, which appear to have continued to operate “even after the applicable measures towards the closure of the restaurants and repatriation were taken by the Laotian authorities in 2020”. This is a direct violation of the December 2019 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2397.

Kumkangsan Restaurant

The UN report however does not mention Big Sister Won’s restaurant, it seems this one may have slipped under the radar somehow. Our sources have informed us of another North Korean restaurant in Vientiane; Kumkangsan Restaurant (ອາຫານ ຄຶ່ມກ່າງຊານ) on Asean Road, Sisavath Village, Vientiane. The Kumkangsan restaurant seems to have a shop attached- we wonder what they sell?

Social media post confirm Kumkangsan restaurant is in operation as of May 2022.

The latest UN Panel of Experts report states that Laotian authorities took action against the North Korean restaurants in 2020 but our investigation proves that more needs to be done to stop the regimes illicit activity in Laos. Pyongyang Papers is still investigating DPRK run restaurants in Laos and would like to hear from you if you have any further information on the entities named in this article or any other individuals and entities helping the North Korean regime avoid sanctions so that we can investigate further.

In December 2017, The UN Security Council implemented resolution 2397 as the DPRK regime were generating foreign export earnings to fund its ongoing missile related activities. The Security Council determined that the DPRK continues to exist as a clear threat to international peace and security and so the sanction was implemented requiring all member states to prohibit any North Korean nationals from engaging in business in foreign countries. At the same time the December 2019 deadline was agreed for the repatriation of all North Korean workers back to the DPRK.

Ballistic Missile Program

North Korea has had a keen interest in developing nuclear weapons since the 1950’s and the ballistic missile program initiated under the Kim dynasty continues today under Kim Jong Un’s regime. North Korea has developed and tested a number of new missiles since Kim Jong Un became leader in 2011, including tests of various models of solid fueled short range ballistic missiles taking place in recent years.

A North Korean missile launch – March 2020

Although you would think that countries within the UN would be fully on board with efforts to prevent the DPRK’s ballistic missile program, along with the threat of penalties for defying the UN enforced sanctions, this is unfortunately not the case. Pyongyang Papers has continued to investigate companies working with North Korea in illicit activity, no doubt hoping to go unnoticed.

UAE Residency Permits

Pyongyang Papers sources have received information that the Korea Kumgang Company, also known as Korea Konggang Company, employees Ri Jun MIn and So In Chol both received United Arab Emirates residency permits. Our sources understand that this was preparation for over 100 DPRK workers to travel to United Arab Emirates, which in turn would continue to provide the DPRK regime with foreign export earnings to fund its ballistic missile program.

The UAE has always been a strong ally of the US. However, it doesn’t seem that the UAE is carrying out their promise that they would no longer be issuing visas to North Korean nationals, as claimed by the UAE Foreign Ministry back in 2017.

Laos and Nepal

Pyongyang Papers has also received information that Ri Jun Min and So In Chol have been busy brokering another overseas worker deal, this time using the Nepal DPRK Embassy as a conduit to a Laos Government official to supply over 1000 workers. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that the workers are still in North Korea with their cases packed waiting to travel!

Although it could be surprising that the UAE are violating sanctions, the same cannot be said for Nepal and Laos. According to a 2019 article describing the repatriation of North Korean workers, the Nepali communists have always had an admiration for the Workers Party of Korea and they view North Koreans as courageously fighting the imperialists, aligned to their own ideologies.

Only now has unrelenting American pressure to enforce UN sanctions against Pyongyang distanced Nepal from their North Korean comrades. The same article reports that most North Korean businesses in Nepal have been shut down and the workers sent home. The UN in Nepal had expressed worry that the North Korean businesses were sponsoring Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development program.

Laos Cooperation Agreement

According to press releases in April 2020 the Foreign Ministries of Laos and North Korea signed a new cooperation agreement in Vientiane to replace the previously expired one. North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) called it an agreement that ‘would make an important contribution to further consolidating and developing the friendly relations’. Laos also maintains an embassy in Pyongyang.

It seems no matter what sanctions are thrown at the DPRK, they always seem to find a way to evade them. However, this is only possible due to the help they receive from other countries who also violate the sanctions despite the pledged effort to denuclearize the DPRK. It is worrying that these countries seemingly prioritize the financial reward from these transactions above international peace and security, rather than standing up to the regime and its attempts to evade sanctions.

If you have any additional information about the Korea Kumgang Company or any other North Korean sanctions evasion please contact Pyongyang Papers.