x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

N Korean leader mourned in Dubai

Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan is Dubai's only North Korean restaurant, and its staff were in mourning yesterday following the death of their president, Kim Jong-il.

DUBAI // One restaurant in Deira's Business village had its curtains drawn and its doors locked yesterday morning.

There was nothing - no sign, even hastily scribbled - to explain why. But many will have guessed: Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan is Dubai's only North Korean restaurant, and its staff were in mourning following the death of their president, Kim Jong-il.

"It is a national day of mourning. They cannot open," said Tae Wan Kim, secretary general of the Korean Association, which represents South Koreans in the UAE.

"His death is such a big thing in North Korea. The restaurant is owned by the North Korean government, so it would be an insult for it to open today."

In the early evening the restaurant's lights were on and people were inside. but Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan was not open to the public.

Staff at offices next door said the restaurant had been open for business as usual on Sunday, the day before Kim Jong-il's death was announced.

Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based author who has written extensively about North Korea, said the closure would reflect the sentiment across the country. Shops there were closed, flags were flown at half mast, and hundreds of citizens wept openly on the streets of Pyongyang yesterday. A state of mourning has been declared until the end of the month.

Okryu-Gwan is part of a chain that spans at least seven countries, with other branches in Kathmandu, Bangkok, Beijing, Amsterdam and Dhaka - and of course Pyongyang itself, where the restaurant has been described as a "living museum of culinary art". It has been reported that the North Korean government operates close to 100 restaurants overseas.

The South Korean newspaper Chosunilbo has reported that each restaurant is required to remit between $100,000 to $300,000 (Dh(367,300 to 1.1 million) a year to North Korea.

In an interview with The National last year, the Dubai branch manager, Ms Jin, said the restaurant was directed by "a group of people from the foreign ministry".

She declined, however, to say whether she had a remittance target, saying that "journalists shouldn't ask such outrageous questions."

Her restaurant is staffed by North Korean women, who pour customers' drinks and stage a traditional cultural performance every evening. The women are screened for political reliability and their families face punishment at home if they defect, Marcus Noland, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an expert on North Korea, said this month.

Five years ago two waitresses fled from a North Korean restaurant in Qingdao, China, forcing it to close temporarily. Last December, the manager of the Kathmandu branch defected to India.

Branches have also been closed for political reasons. When Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008, staff at two branches in Cambodia were withdrawn.

No one was available for clarification on how long the Dubai branch would close. However, Mr Lintner said the transition to a new leadership was no reason for the restaurant to close permanently.

"They are there to make foreign hard currency for the regime and also to finance embassies where they are located," he said. "The embassies don't get money from Pyongyang. They have to be self-sufficient. To sell food is one way to make money."

mcroucher@thenational.ae