James Langton dines out at state-sponsored diner where loyalists serve barbecued beef and dumplings
Prime Okryu restaurant: the little corner of Abu Dhabi that will be forever North Korea
Caution is advised for journalists wishing to visit North Korea, where there are generally only two options.
The first is to go undercover, posing as a tourist, surreptitiously taking notes on napkins, while furtively snapping photographs of dour workers between staged excursions to the Chonji Lubricant Factory or the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute.
The other way is to secure an official invitation, say, to cover the next visit of Kim Jong-un’s new best friend, the former US basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Even there, though, there can be hazards, as a BBC crew discovered last year when they were detained at the airport and then formally expelled for “speaking very ill” while following a delegation of Nobel Prize laureates.
But there is a third option for those with a taste for North Korea. It involves nothing more hazardous than valet parking or taking a taxi to the Millennium Grand Hotel attached to Abu Dhabi’s Al Wahda Mall, and then taking the lift to the first floor.
It is as close to a visit to the Hermit Kingdom as can be managed without a lengthy visa application, a flight on what has been called “the world’s worst airline” and the possibility of an extended stay in somewhat less than five-star accommodation.
And the food is certainly better.
This is Prime Okryu Restaurant, the proprietor of which is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maitre d’ Kim Jong-un, whose other jobs include chairman of the State Affairs Commission and the Worker’s Party of Korea, and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
Not that the “Outstanding Leader” and “Brilliant Comrade” was much in evidence during a visit to Prime Okryu by The National. In fact, the exotically coiffured Member of the Presidium of the party’s Political Bureau (to his friends) was entirely absent.
Not a single official portrait hangs on the walls. Instead, there is a snowy landscape of mountains, and a large oil painting of three tigers, possibly representing the Heroic Forces of the People Dealing a Ruthless Blow to All Enemies without Mercy, but maybe because most people like tigers.
In culinary terms, Prime Okryu describes itself as serving simply Korean food, perhaps in line with the official North Korean position of not recognising the capitalists of South Korea or their recipes.
There are three branches in the UAE, with two more in Dubai, and part of what some reports say is a network of about 100 state-owned North Korean restaurants worldwide that are based on the original Okryu Restaurant, serving diners in the capital since 1960.
These restaurants exist to raise foreign currency for Pyongyang and on the night The National visited most of the tables were packed with a merry gathering of diners.
Five minutes after we sat down at one of the few remaining tables, the entire group stood up and left.
Was it something we said?
It turned out that this was a large party of Chinese tourists, with the Prime Okryu as popular in Abu Dhabi as it is in Beijing and Shanghai.
Now the sole customers, there was time to survey the restaurant’s decor with its red velvet chairs, glass-topped tables and plethora of silk flowers. Along one wall was mural of a mountain stream cascading over rocks and an empty stage with a keyboard and electronic drum kit.
This would be the setting for the promised nightly floor show in which the waitresses put on national dress and entertain with song and dance. As it turned out, tonight’s performance had been moved up for the Chinese guests.
Or “finishi”, as our waitress explained in a one-word interaction that was to become typical of the evening.
A menu was brought, laminated images of dishes in a spiral binder, while the three other staff busied themselves wiping down empty tables.
All of the staff were slender young women in identical light blue uniforms. They were pleasantly efficient, yet oddly disengaged in their interactions. Conversations were limited to questions about the menu, either because of a lack of English or training.
By reputation, the young women of Prime Okryu are from selected North Korea families, with their loyalty to the regime unquestioned. To be chosen for an overseas posting is reportedly a great honour.
On rare occasions when staff defect, the entire operation is said to be shut down on the spot.
Four dishes were chosen. A traditional spicy pickled cabbage kimchi, some barbecued beef, a plate of steamed chicken dumplings and a seafood and cabbage batter pancake. The food was a great deal better than the atmosphere.
As we ate, videos with Korean subtitles were projected on to a wall near the restaurant entrance. In one, a determined young woman carried her baby through sunlit countryside. Another showed a passenger jet aircraft taking off, presumably the national carrier Air Koryo (one star in the annual Skytrax ratings).
It was time to summon the bill and a doggy bag (we had severely over-ordered). On the wall, the videos had changed to wintery views of the North Korean countryside. Now the subtitles were in English, perhaps with an uplifting message for westerners from the juche doctrine of self-reliance?
“The road is long. There are mountains in our way. But we climb a step every day.”
Powerful stuff but words seemed strangely familiar. “Love lift us up where we belong. Far from the world we know. Where the clear winds blow.”
With the next video, something clicked. “I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve travelled each and every highway; And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”
“Karaoke,” explained one of the waitresses as we headed for the exit. It seemed churlish to ask if they also had Rocket Man.