North Korean Waitress in Phnom Penh Reportedly Defects to South Korea

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

Phnom Penh A North Korean waitress working at Restaurant 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 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 restaurants 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 its 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.

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