What’s she thinking? Is that delicate smile behind her perfectly applied mauve lipstick authentic? Is she truly pleased that we’re here, sitting at her table, scanning slowly through this lengthy menu as she patiently waits to take our order? When was the last time that her pale complexion was exposed to the bright Cambodian sun that shines daily outside of this kitschy venue? Does she think I’m a complete fool, or is she gazing at me wishing she could swap her life - for mine?
Frankly, I have no idea, and truth is, I know - I’ll never know...
(South Korean tourists getting ready for a photo with their North Korean hostesses. MP)
Unlike my dear friends and dinner dates, consumed by lighthearted conversations and focused on the main course, I can only pretend that this is normal.
I’m sitting at North Korea’s state-run Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia - a mere kilometre from the city’s bustling party zone, and a two-dollar tuktuk ride from one of the world’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage sites (namely, the Angkor Wat Archeological Park).
The thing is, our waitress Eun Hee, hasn’t seen the temples - in fact, she hasn't seen much of the Cambodian landscape at all.
This 23 year-old, has been confined to this restaurant, surrounded by large concrete walls along the main road that connects this city to the airport, for more than a year now - with two more years of this to go.
Forbidden from stepping outside, except for twice a month when she and her coworkers are escorted as a closely monitored group to a nearby shopping mall, Eun Hee serves meals and performs nightly in a carefully choreographed DPRK dinner show.
(Pyongyang Restaurant / Siem Reap, CAMBODIA. MP)
“I started learning to sing and dance when I was 11-years-old” she says, “education in North Korea is free for everybody! So is the doctor [healthcare]...North Korea is very great!”
And that was it - the last of her voluntary anecdotes about her story and life in the hermit kingdom.
Carefully selected by North Korean authorities, the 25 young women who work at this restaurant are the daughters of high-ranking government families. Unwaveringly loyal to their nation and its leadership, any attempts at personal questions become more or less - futile.
But as my concerned and inquiring mind becomes increasingly consumed with burning questions and profound sadness (given what I think I know) as I observe this perfectly postured young woman standing with her hands neatly folded a few centimetres from my shoulders, I keep trying anyway. I direct my gaze towards hers, and continue with the obvious...
“Yes, I like my job....but I love and miss Pyongyang [her hometown]” she says. Forbidden also from owning computers, cellphones or gadgets of any kind, she tells me that she speaks to her parents “occasionally”...which, I get the feeling, is best described as “rarely.”
My dear friends and South Korean dinner dates had been here before, and kindly organised my visit to this restaurant after our recent discussions on the historic meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-In, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - just a few days prior.
"We're not sure what to make of it yet...it's such a shift, so unexpected and sudden" they tell me, "we don't know...but peace would certainly be a good thing!" they all (including Eun Hee) concur.
“No photos allowed!” we, and the other guests seated at the long tables clearly designed to accommodate bus-loads of people, have been told and reminded by the numerous no-picture signs plastered onto the walls - except, perhaps surprisingly, at the end of it all (that overpriced dinner and the venue's nightly and at times nauseatingly awkward dinner show).
As I step forward, after a large group of selfie-stick wielding South Korean guests disperse following their photo-ops, I move closer towards Eun Hee, knowing full well that her story is one that I’ll never know.
As we look into each other’s eyes, mine perhaps a little more moist than usual, her soft hands gently reach for my well-traveled rugged ones. She draws me in closer and in complete silence, we stand, look straight into the lens of my smartphone camera, and smile for our photo. I feel that she is a woman - just like me, with dreams, and obstacles. I now also feel her sorrow.
There are about 130 Pyongyang Restaurants in about a dozen countries around the world.
Some reports claim that they serve as income generating and money laundering facilities for North Korea.
In 2016, 13 North Korean employees defected from a Pyongyang Restaurant in China.
Aside from its dinner menu (which consists of a typical, but a somewhat different version of the South Korean dishes that I got used to during my four-year stay on the peninsula), the restaurant also sells pre-packaged side dishes and ginger and berry-based alcohol.
Until recently, South Korean nationals were told not to visit and eat at these venues.
The hostesses/waitresses/performers at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap, live and sleep on the second floor of the restaurant.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE: My visit to the Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap kept me up for many nights...as I tried to imagine Eun Hee's life - confined to a building by which I often pass during my frequent bicycle rides and solo adventures to the countryside. I've written about 15 pages on this so far, but I've boiled it down to this - for now.