North Korean Waitress in Phnom Penh Reportedly Defects to South Korea

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Editor’s Note: This is an update to a story/restaurant review that Asia Pundits covered in January.

Phnom Penh – A North Korean waitress working at Restaraunt Pyongyang in the capital has reportedly defected to South Korea via Thailand. DailyNK is reporting that the woman defected sometime around mid-December. Her disappearance had prompted wide-spread speculation within the Korean expat community in Phnom Penh. According to DailyNK, the woman was reportedly in contact with a Korean embassy in an unknown country and the embassy has confirmed that she defected to the South.

North Korean waitresses dancing at Restaraunt Pyongyang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo from DailyNK

The waitress’s choice of Thailand as a proxy country was a smart move. Thailand, for humanitarian reasons deports most North Korean refugees to South Korea. Cambodia has no such agreement with South Korea. The Cambodian government would’ve had no qualms about deporting her back to the North had she been caught trying to defect in-country.

VOA reports that nearly 2000 defectors a year make their way to South Korea via Thailand. To defect, a defector must make it across the Thai border and get arrested by immigration. After legalities are cleared up, they are on their way to South Korea. Defecting is not as easy as it sounds. In every other country in Asia besides Mongolia, a defector if arrested would likely face deportation to North Korea and the prospect of labor camps or execution. The North Korean government is reportedly imprisoning or even murdering defectors’ families as a method to keep other citizens from pulling similar stunts.

DailyNK’s article brings to light some of the hardships women working in North Korean restaurants in Asia face.

According to the article, before going abroad to work, the women must deal with a year of indoctrination and training on how to deal with foreign customers. Apparently the waitresses are coached on how to respond to those that might attack their country’s politics and are taught how to extol the virtues of “Juche” philosophy.

Women working at restaurants in Cambodia are rarely allowed outside of the restaurant’s compound, and if they do go out they are in the company of 3 to 4 other people at any given time.

Access to outside media is severely restricted. The compound has it’s own satellite system and North Korean state-TV is all that is allowed.

Waitresses working in the North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap have reportedly never visited the stunning temples of Angkor Wat, a short 20 kilometre drive from where they live and work.

DailyNK’s article also mentioned a special area of the restaurants called the “VIP room.” The VIP room stays open long after the restaurant closes and waitresses are required to treat customers with “song” and “dance” while they drink. Sometimes they play musical instruments (the article doesn’t say whose) for their guests. The article doesn’t go into much detail as to what, if any other activities take place inside the VIP room.

Unfortunately western media has again missed the story on this restaurant and others like it. No other English language media besides Asia Pundits has picked up on the defection story. DailyNK hasn’t even bothered to translate their own article. Parts of this story still haven’t been told, namely the stories of human trafficking and the slavery-like work conditions these waitresses must endure. Perhaps now that a waitress has defected, we can learn about what actually takes place in the kitchen of Kim in Cambodia.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Good stuff Smurfy. She must be a very smart waitress, and who knows, one of the guests might have slipped her a contact number or two for when she made it into Thailand. It should be interesting if she does spill the beans on this Cambodian venture. Obviously the NK overlords are hungry for foreign currency, but the restaurant's very existence might open up fascinating possibilities of real contact between the two sides, or of course, it might be squashed mercilessly at any moment.

  2. Hi Smurfy,

    Just a couple of articles to supplement your article here:

    The Christian Science Monitor ran a great article in September about how Thailand has become a popular path for NK defectors.
    http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/

    Also, Slate ran an article about Pyongyang where they mention in the second to the last graf, the closure of a couple of locations in China due to attempted defections.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/f

    Best,

    Vinh

  3. I love the implications that the VIP room is essentially the champagne room of a strip club. Learn one thing about North Korean society before you write about it. If you knew anything about the country you would know that there is no way any sexual acts take place at the restaurant.

    • Thanks for checking out our article TallLee. I just have one question for you, do you actually know anything about what takes place among the elite in North Korea? My best guess would be not, unless of course you count yourself among the privileged class in North Korea and have somehow miraculously stumbled across our site. If so, congrats on finding us and please accept our humble apologies on our mischaracterization of your culture. However, if that's not the case, it shouldn't be too hard to imagine what goes on behind close doors among the elite if you know anything about Korean culture. Think of South Korean room salons scaled down a bit, yet just as ever present and available as in the South . As we know with the South Korean elite, and the elite the world over, they always get what they want and what they usually want is sex/power and plenty of both.

      North Korea has also been known to use waitresses as spies to gather information on their Southern brothers. Good information doesn't come by simply passing someone a bowl of cold noodle soup, it takes a bit more than that. When my Korean wife and I were eating in a South Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh we overheard a couple of South Korean losers lamenting about the fact that they would just have to settle for Cambodian women because the prices being charged by handlers at the North Korean restaurant were too damn high for them to afford. But lets not run with hearsay – Here are just a couple of known cases for you to peruse –
      http://english.nkradio.org/news/333
      http://rokdrop.com/2009/09/17/north-korean-restau

    • Thanks for checking out our article Peter. Let me clarify a bit for you, when we originally published this article back in February of 2012, no other English language media outlets had covered this story at that time. If you look at the date on the KBS article you will see that they didn't give this story any coverage until nearly 7 months after we initially reported on it. My main gripe when writing this piece was that so much attention was being given to the fact that North Korea does indeed have restaurants operating in Phnom Penh and other parts of Asia and not much focus was being placed on the plight of those that actually work in these restaurants. Thanks for the link by the way – I hadn't actually seen what had became of this woman who finally decided that she had had enough.

  4. "When my Korean wife and I were eating in a South Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh we overheard a couple of South Korean losers lamenting about the fact that they would just have to settle for Cambodian women because the prices being charged by handlers at the North Korean restaurant were too damn high for them to afford. – See more at: http://www.asiapundits.com/regions/korea/update-n

    Pot calling the Kettle black. Big words coming from not just a loser but also pseudo-liberal racist (or maybe just plain racist) leveraging his white privilege.

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