This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The North Korean regime is now in the night club business, marketing the charms of young North Korean women in Chinese cities near the North Korean border, in its continuing quest to find new streams of foreign cash.
Recently, an RFA reporter traveled to Yanji, located in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Jillin province, to visit one such North Korean establishment, the Pyongyang Ryugyong Hotel, named after the famous 105-storey, pyramid-shaped tourist hotel in the North Korean capital, that once aimed to be the tallest hotel in the world but has been wrought with countless issues since construction began in the early 1990s.
The much smaller hotel in Yanji contains a restaurant and offers accommodation like many other hotels in the area, but a new nightclub recently opened in its basement. There, guests can enjoy a night out in the company of the club’s young North Korean hostesses.
“The Ryugyong hotel [in Yanji] is a joint venture between North Korea and China. China owns the building, but North Korea runs it,” said a Chinese source.
“A nightclub called Pyongyang House opened recently in the basement. [In the club], young female employees from Pyongyang, in their 20s, sing songs for customers on request. They also pour alcoholic beverages into customers’ glasses,” said the source.
“The Pyongyang ladies are there to attract South Korean customers. If a customer pays 100 Chinese Yuan (about $17), a female staff member will go on stage to sing. The customer can join in for another 100 yuan,” the source said.
Across East Asia, this type of entertainment venue is common. South Korean ‘room salons’ and ‘cabaret clubs’ in Japan offer a similar type of service, where hostesses pour drinks while chatting up male guests, making a commission on a guest’s tab for the evening.
Under this pay structure, hostesses who can convince customers to buy them many drinks over the course of a night can make a small fortune.
But at Pyongyang House, the pay structure is slightly different.
“Customers can’t directly tip the staff in cash, but they can give the ladies they fancy a flower basket for 100 yuan. But the club takes the tips away [from the ladies],” the source said.
“There’s nothing [North Korea] wouldn’t do to make money,” the source said.
The Pyongyang Ryugyong Hotel’s restaurant is also marketing the charms of young women, hoping to cash in on the dying North Korean restaurant trend.
Used by Pyongyang as a major source of foreign cash, North Korean restaurants were at the height of their popularity several years ago in China, Russia, and Southeast Asia. But the main attraction was not the food. The draw was the female entertainer-waitresses.
RFA reported in March that in Dandong, situated close to China’s border with North Korea, three restaurants with the business model had to close down, indicating the boom was over.
But the Ryugyong offers a ‘Special Lunch Service’ as indicated by a signboard outside the restaurant.
RFA’s reporter attended one lunch service, where the waitresses, after serving food to all the customers, quickly changed their costumes and started performing.
They performed several songs and dances in front of a backdrop of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, official state flowers named after previous rulers of North Korea.
Customers were also able to purchase a flower bouquet for 50 yuan (about $7.30) for the right to take a picture with their favorite performer.
The Pyongyang Ryugyong Hotel in Yanji was formerly run by Bureau 39, officially known as Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a secret organization tasked with maintaining a slush fund for Kim Jong Un, just as it had done for his father, Kim Jong Il, when he was in power.
Bureau 39 was established under the rule of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
The operating structure has changed and now falls under the management of the External Service Bureau.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.