North Korean restaurants in Dandong, China, have recently begun operating as normal after having been closed for months due to COVID-19, Daily NK has learned. North Korean authorities may have rushed to reopen the restaurants to taken advantage of the recent increase in domestic tourism in China and earn foreign currency the regime desperately needs.

In a phone call with Daily NK on Monday, a source in China said almost all North Korean restaurants in Dandong had opened their doors. “Things haven’t recovered to where they were before the coronavirus, but the number of Chinese visiting the restaurants is increasing,” he explained, on condition of anonymity. 

According to him, the reopening of the restaurants is not a return to how “things were in January, when the Sino-North Korean border was closed due to coronavirus.” He noted, however, that the number of customers at the restaurants have clearly increased when considering that “only one or two people a day were visiting the restaurants in February and March, at the height of the pandemic.“

He further told Daily NK that it “seems that [Chinese customers] are consistently filling about half the tables during dining hours.”

Some of the North Korean restaurants have reportedly started evening performances as well. In the case of large restaurants, they sometimes hold even two performances in the evening since they have so many customers.

Most restaurant staff wear masks, but the source told Daily NK that quarantine standards had been more or less relaxed at some restaurants because he noticed that some service workers were not wearing them.

However, security within the restaurants appears to be much tighter than it was before the pandemic. The source explained that, even as of January, if you took a photo of a performance, workers would simply warn you not to take photos. Now, however, they will check which photo you took and stand next to you until it is deleted.

A restaurant in Dandong employing North Korean workers
A restaurant in Dandong employing North Korean workers (taken in July 2018). Image: Daily NK

This suggests that, since the pandemic began, the restaurants have tightened their ban on customers taking photos and engaging in conversations with staff because of the “burden” they feel due to international sanctions. 

“Most of the North Korean restaurants in Dandong are joint ventures between North Korea and China involving Chinese business people,” another source told Daily NK. “It could become a problem if it leaks to the media that the restaurants are hiring North Korean workers despite the sanctions, which explains why restaurant staff are more rigorously stopping people from taking photos.”

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397, which was adopted in December of 2017, called for the repatriation of all North Korean workers sent overseas by December of 2018.

Following the closure of the North Korean-Chinese border due to COVID-19, however, North Korea has been unable to bring its workers in China home, and China is tacitly allowing them to stay without visas.

Moreover, with the coronavirus situation in China improving in recent months, North Korean authorities have reportedly ordered workers overseas to more actively acquire foreign currency. As a result, North Korean restaurants have raised their prices and staff are more intensely urging customers to purchase items sold in the restaurants, according to the source. 

“Some places are selling flower bouquets for customers for RMB 700 [about USD 105],” said the source. “Most of the other restaurants that sell bouquets have also raised their prices.”

The source further told Daily NK that the prices of menu items have increased by more than 150% and that the portions have gotten smaller. “This appears to be a strategy of sorts to earn foreign currency in the short term because they hadn’t been able to make money due to the coronavirus,” he added. 

At the Ryugyong Restaurant, the largest North Korean restaurant in Dandong, it reportedly costs at least RMB 2,000 (about USD 302) for a meal and a performance if you rent a room. Considering prices in Dandong, this is a very expensive meal.

In this photo taken at the North Korean restaurant Taeyangdo in Dandong in late October, restaurant workers are engaged in a performance for customers. / Image: Daily NK

Meanwhile, North Korean workers at the restaurants are apparently less-than-enthusiastic about the recent return to normal operations. Prior to the closing of the border due to COVID-19, restaurant owners or worker management staff would, at their discretion, allow workers to go out or call home to North Korea. Now, however, there is no guarantee that the workers can do as they please. 

“Worried that news from inside the country will get out, the authorities are rigorously banning workers from calling home,” said the source. “The workers spend all day working in a closed environment and they are just hoping the pandemic passes over quickly so they can go home.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.