Why you should care
Because you don’t have to defect to go to North Korea.
With her porcelain skin and glazed eyes, the stiff hostess at the Hae Dang Hwa Restaurant nearly blends in with the decor, until I notice her hand slowly beckon me from above. Upstairs, the massive interior has all the usual trappings of an upscale eatery — polished plates and Botoxed smiles — except the noodles are cold and the waitresses are even colder. This is my short sojourn into North Korea.
I’m more than 500 miles away from Pyongyang in one of Beijing’s finest North Korean restaurants. Hae Dang Hwa is a favorite haunt for visiting diplomats hailing from the Hermit Kingdom, since the brooding Embassy of North Korea is located just around the corner. Even more unsettling, it’s owned and operated by the world’s most shunned government and sworn mortal enemy of my own mother country. Apparently, the North Korean government runs more than 130 restaurants like Hae Dang Hwa to remit revenue back to Pyongyang. So, before I peer inside, I put away my capitalist, freedom-loving American arrogance for now and venture inside this small slice of North Korean life. Overpriced chaperoned tour not included.
Do you take check or credit? How are you plotting your escape?
Getting here was not straightforward. I wandered in circles for an hour before I found the Korean signage for Hae Dang Hwa, foregrounded in Communist red and sandwiched between two blue stripes — an obvious nod to the flag of the isolated nation. There, I meet up with my friend who’s been reluctant to enter on his own. My friend can’t help but gawk at the glossy waitresses, who are allegedly handpicked by the government, escorted to work every day and rotated out every three years. By day, they stomp around in 3-inch heels, primped and polished in formfitting dresses. But by night, they double as performers and dancers who belt out karaoke lyrics and play traditional instruments for all to enjoy. I resist the strong urge to request “Gangnam Style” before I place my order.
Waitress Clone No. 1 guides my friend and me to a table and gingerly places a white napkin in my lap. Nearby, a group of stern black suits, all sporting red lapel pins that bear the face of their fearless leader, Kim Jong-un, get up to leave. Yes, those are dignitaries and everyone here is North Korean, the waitress tells me with a pained smile and in perfect Mandarin (not a lick of English is spoken here). But I don’t hear her at first. I’m too busy trying to decipher the menu full of “Steamed East Ocean Hairy Crab,” “Bullfrog With Pickled Pepper” and “Dog Meat Hot Pot” — so-called delicacies that are all fermented, braised or steamed by a master chef in the back who honed his cooking chops in Japan. I opt for the slightly safer choices of deep-fried shrimp balls with tea leaves, black and slimy Pyongyang noodles and the classic spicy kimchi. The fanciest schmanciest dishes here easily hit the $90 range — about three times more than the average monthly salary back in North Korea.
Waitress Clone No. 2 brings out the dishes in haste, which were less than stellar in taste and presentation. But no matter, I’m not here for the cuisine. I hear that the staff is tight-lipped about anything that’s not on the menu. So I ponder which sensitive question could cross the line: Do you recommend the pork or the turtle? Do you take check or credit? How are you plotting your escape? I spend the rest of my meal chewing slowly and mustering up the courage to ask. But after 40 minutes, I instead inquire — “Where is the restroom?” — which Waitress Clone No. 3 must escort me to.
It’s all too creepy for me to bear, so I pay the check and scurry out the door. But not before the stiff hostess murmurs goodbye and asks where we are from. “America,” my friend blurts out before I can stop him. “Oh,” she says, taken aback. It’s the most emotion she’s probably allowed to show.
I take it as my cue to leave.