Despite UNSCR 2397 which prohibits North Korean citizens from working abroad, it is widely known that there is an extensive North Korean restaurant network continuing to fund the regime and its weapons program. With an estimated 130 North Korean state-run restaurants in big cities across the globe, Pyongyang Papers has already investigated several restaurants such as The Pyongyang Unhasu restaurant located in Phnom Penh, Big Sister Won’s restaurant located in Vientiane, along with a collection of restaurants in China.

Blue Flower Restaurant

NK News recently reported on the demise of the DPRK Restaurant industry in Cambodia. However, they name one business still operating who are downplaying any ties to the DPRK- the Blue Flower Restaurant and shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Pyongyang Papers can confirm that the Blue Flower Restaurant and shop is in fact owned and run by two North Koreans, Nam Un Gyong and her daughter Ri Son Chong.

The Blue Flower Restaurant and shop, as advertised on social media.

Restaurant workers

COVID-19 and the DPRK border closures halted the arrival of DPRK staff working at Blue Flower, and so Nam has had to hire some non-North Korean staff instead. It is well reported that North Korean workers abroad are subjected to poor living conditions, forced to give up their salaries and strictly controlled by their handlers. We wonder if these non-North Koreans treated as badly? Considering the state of most North Korean restaurants overseas, we can’t imagine that working at Blue Flower is much fun for these employees and we would encourage any worker or anyone who knows the workers to make contact with us to tell their side of the story.

The sanctions placed on DPRK have had a heavy toll on the North Korean economy, however due to non-compliance from several countries, North Korea still manage to illicitly source funding from overseas work. Although Cambodia has been a member state since 1955, the UN PoE have investigated North Koreans within their borders past the repatriation cut off in 2019. However in positive news, it now seems that the Cambodian authorities have requested that, due to UN Sanctions, Nam close the restaurant … we will of course keep a close eye on this to see if she complies!

Nam’s next venture

So what next for Nam and her daughter, will they return to the DPRK or remain in Cambodia and look to open another restaurant or other enterprises to earn revenue for the DPRK Regime? From our research, it appears Nam started a side business that sells fashion, sourced from Hong Kong. So even if the restaurant does appear closed, has she continued her side business too?! If anyone can get in contact with us at Pyongyang Papers about this shop, possibly located by the old Restaurant, we would be very interested in hearing from you.

Pyongyang Papers will continue looking in to the North Korean Restaurant industry and would like to uncover more truths around how they operate overseas. Any information you can share, please do get in contact.

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.

Kim Restaurant

As reported many times previously, current UN sanctions imposed upon the DPRK limits the import of crude oil and refined petroleum, bans all imports of luxury goods, and prevents North Korean citizens from working overseas. North Koreans are often employed in the restaurants, construction and agricultural industries abroad.

The thousands of North Korean citizens working overseas, mostly in China and Russia, have provided a vital source of cash for Kim Jong Un’s regime over the years. According to US government estimates, Pyongyang has netted $500m annually from its overseas workforce. The UN clampdown seeks to block a steady flow of revenue back to Kim Jong Un’s regime, in the hope the sanctions force the regime to cease its nuclear weapon program. However, the DPRK have employed illicit tactics to continue it’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon program, often with the help of foreign enablers. These enablers often hide in disguise as member of the United Nations…

Two allies, one border

China is key ally to the DPRK and their most important trading partner. China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War and since the war, China has lent political and and economic support to North Korea’s leaders. Yet, the DPRK put a strain on the relationship when Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, forcing Beijing to back the UN Security Council Resolution 1718 which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang.

Despite being an active member of the Security council, China has been accused by other member states of stalling and persistently trying to discredit or argue the accusations of the DPRK’s continued efforts to violate Security council resolutions. In some cases, China has been accused of helping facilitate the illicit import of refined petroleum products through ship to ship transfers and direct deliveries.

As published in the 2020 midterm Panel of expert’s report, communications from the delegation of the United States of America were fairly damning of China’s involvement:

China and Russia’s annual obstructionist response to these reports is intended to prevent the UN from accounting for the large-scale, illicit refined petroleum product imports that the DPRK maintains while offering no alternative for how to reflect these volumes, which are being documented with irrefutable evidence. The United Sates, other Committee members and the Panel have made extensive efforts to resolve the ton to barrel conversion issue. China and Russia’s refusal to enter those discussions in good faith to reach a resolution and its comments in response to this report only reinforce that their intentions are to obstruct the committee’s responsibility to maintain and accurate accounting of the DPRK’s actual refined product imports.”.

Restaurants in China contravening UN sanctions

When responding to the UN Panel of Experts investigation in 2020 China stated that it “…has faithfully implemented the provision of Security Council’s resolution on repatriating all DPRK nationals earning income abroad”. However, it is no great surprise that China’s commitment to ensuring DPRK citizens have been repatriated may not be as genuine as they like to portray. This is particularly evident when it comes to the food trade and particularly overseas workers in restaurants. Pyongyang Papers has been investigating claims that restaurants in the Yanji and Jian areas specifically are actively employing DPRK workers despite sanctions.

There are believed to be over a hundred North Korean restaurants in China, with many located within the provinces along the North Korean border. Some of these restaurants are run as joint ventures between North Korea and China. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic many restaurants were forced to close their doors and there were reports of workers, who were already being exploited by their own government during a global pandemic, being forced to take night shifts or moved to alternative employment in order to meet the financial demands of the regime.

North Korean restaurant in Dandong
North Korean run restaurant in Dandong, China

Yanji and Ji’an

Recent reports suggest the situation has changed and many North Korean restaurants on the border have began operating again. Pyongyang Papers has received information that the Helong representative of Korea Chonryong Trading General Corporation, So Yung Guk, set up DPRK workers for the Yanggak Restaurant located in the city of Yanji, Yanbian province.

Whilst in the Myohyangsan Restaurant located in Ji’an, the region of Changchun, China, the restaurant’s manager removed any reference to DPRK within the restaurant. A Pyongyang Papers source has indicated that this was on the orders of Chinese officials, presumably to help ‘hide’ any overt North Korean involvement in the restaurant and shield and illegal sanctioned workers.

What’s in it for China?

So why does China continue to support their difficult neighbor? China’s strategy boils down to the following- “no war, no instability, no nukes”.

Written in order of priority, China’s main focus is to avoid another Korean war which could ultimately end in a unified, pro-American Korea right on its border. Keeping close ties with the DPRK also benefits China in managing its rocky relationship with the US, it provides China with leverage to be involved and broker a deal between the two nations to denuclearize– further reinforcing China’s powerhouse status in the world of global politics.

As always, if you have any further information on North Korean sanction evasions please get in touch with Pyongyang Papers.