U.S. President Donald Trump may have been derided by his critics for holding a historic summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But at a packed North Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh, it was all smiles among an audience long fatigued from growing up under the omnipresence of war.
Fifteen years ago, the Pyongyang Restaurant reflected the times back home. Its all-female dance troupe was conservative, the atmosphere somber, the maitre d’ strict – no photos, and no talking to the all-female staff, dressed elegantly in simple, vibrantly colored Joseon-ots.
Back then, the food served as a reminder of the dreadful famine of the 1990s – a slither of carrot, a slice of cucumber, and a fried egg was the mandated fare as an entrée.
Some of that was still on display as more than 100 people marked the Singapore summit at the Pyongyang Restaurant, defying UN sanctions on an operation that provides a rare money spinner for the North Korean regime and a convenient extension for its embassy operations here. As such, it remains off limits to diplomats.
The maitre d’ still barks orders, and blocked attempts to take photos of the performers who double as waiters, telling one professional lens-man to put the camera “back in the bag or leave” with all the severity a Stalinist matron could muster.
But by the time Trump and Kim shook hands, the atmosphere in the restaurant had eased. The ensemble of young ladies showed off their musical talent by dancing and singing North Korean ballads tinged with K-pop and Western rock, amid dizzying number of costume changes.
“Today was an historic day, so we came,” said Daniel Byun, a 20-something vice president of an international communications company from Seoul.
“Our parents have enormous doubts about North Korea. They broke all their promises but Kim Jong Un says that’s no more and I want to believe him. As a young man I want to trust in his motivations for the future.”
The audience was exclusively South Korean and Chinese.
They clapped, cheered, and brandished flowers as the girls from Pyongyang Restaurant put on a show that matched all the discipline and energy of North Korean cheerleaders at this year’s Winter Olympics or the performances laid on for that other historic visit made by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.
Applause gave way to standing ovation.
Then, inevitably, out came the smartphones, and the maitre d’ – who like the rest of the girls is named Kim – was overwhelmed. Orders to sit down and stop taking photos became pleas that went ignored as the Chinese led the initial charge for that all-important selfie with a dancer.
The girls could only smile and oblige and order turned to mayhem. The maitre d’ relented and a delighted crowd mobbed the young starlets in a rare display of relaxed fun.
The Pyongyang Restaurant is a testament to North Korean tenacity and offers an occasional glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom, which has close ties in Cambodia. The royal family maintains North Korean bodyguards, who in turn keep watch over the dance troupe.
Sometimes, the restaurant shuts without notice and speculation abounds that a couple had eloped, and defected, sparking fears of retribution for one and all from the regime back home.
Closure can also be a portent for trouble, a rare change in leadership, or detonation of a nuclear bomb, which is why diplomats like to keep an eye on the place.
Either way, too often there’s not a lot of cheer at the Pyongyang. But on this historic night, the omens were good: Trump’s handshake meant everything and the people were happy.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt. He is the author of the recently released book, The Punji Trap – Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us.