RANGOON — Burma’s relationship with North Korea has been tested in recent weeks, with the international community raising questions about the two countries’ possible nuclear ties.
After a Japanese newspaper reported that a North Korean ship bound for Burma was seized in Tokyo with materials on board suitable for uranium enrichment or missile development, high-ranking Burmese officials admitted to military relations with the East Asian pariah state and vowed to sever ties after current contracts between the countries ended.
But if Burma’s nominally civilian government is struggling to distance itself from its erstwhile partner in arms, North Korea is still making a good impression on some Burmese in another way: its cooking.
In Rangoon, diners looking for a bite of traditional North Korean fare head to one spot: Pyongyang Koryo Restaurant on Saya San Road, where two young waitresses in short skirts welcome customers with the Burmese greeting of “mingala ba shin” at the door.
The restaurant, which opened last year and doubles as a karaoke joint, is run by 12 North Korean waitresses and a female manager who all speak Burmese.
Mostly in their early twenties, the waitresses entertain diners with Korean traditional dances and songs.
“I’m not only a waitress, but also a good singer,” said one of the waitresses, 22-year-old Kim.
They also perform popular Burmese songs, including the 1980s hit “Shan Yoma” by late singer Sai Htee Seing—though they weren’t fond of another international music sensation—“Gangnam Style,” by South Korean pop star Psy.
“We don’t like that song,” said one waitress, who performed beneath a large photograph.
“The photograph shows the main restaurant in our capital,” said another. “It’s like the mother of all North Korean restaurants around the world.”
The North Korean government operates a chain of Pyongyang restaurants around Asia, including in Jakarta, Bangkok and Phnom Penh. The restaurant in Rangoon is frequented by a mix of celebrities, businesspeople and expats, who can rent one of the facility’s 12 karaoke rooms for 20,000 kyat (US $23) per hour.
Like North Korean diplomats working in Burma, the waitresses at Pyongyang Koryo are not allowed to travel independently.
“We visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda [in Rangoon] and some shopping malls, with permission from the embassy,” one waitress said.
“But the rest of the time, while we’re living in Myanmar, we just stay at the restaurant compound, watching television and learning Burmese,” she added, referring to Burma by its official name.
Despite their restricted movement, the waitresses showed strong support for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
When asked whether they knew about US President Barack Obama’s visit to Rangoon in November, one waitress said: “We knew he was here, but we don’t like him because he’s not our leader.”
They spoke seriously about Kim Jong-un, who assumed power late last year after his father’s death.
When asked whether they might be friends with the “Great Successor,” who is also in his twenties, they did not respond with amusement.
“He [Kim Jong-un] is our leader, and you can’t joke like that.”
Burma’s relationship with North Korea was highlighted last month during Obama’s visit to Rangoon on Nov. 19. In a speech at the historic Rangoon University, the US president sent a message to the former military junta’s East Asian ally.
“Here in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia: We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past,” he said. “We need to look forwards to the future. To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: Let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.”
Later that week, on Nov. 24, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that a North Korean ship en route to Burma with materials suitable for uranium enrichment or missile development was seized at Tokyo Port in August.
Naypyidaw denied the existence of a bilateral nuclear program with North Korea and said it had agreed to allow more scrutiny by UN nuclear inspectors.
According to Western diplomatic sources, high-ranking Burmese officials admitted that the Burma Army had contracts with North Korea in past years, but said the Southeast Asian nation would sever military ties with the East Asian pariah state after those contracts had ended.
Washington’s special representative for North Korean policy, Glyn Davies, told reporters in Beijing that she supported Burma’s new stance, according to a Reuters report.
“I think that Burma’s on the right path, that they have made a strategic decision to fundamentally alter their relationship with the DPPK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and to ultimately end these relationships with North Korea,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
North Korea’s relationship with Burma has been strained over the years. Ties between the two nations came to an abrupt end in 1983, when a North Korean assassination plot against South Korea’s president left 17 South Korean officials and four Burmese officials dead, while injuring dozens more.
Within hours of the deadly bombing, Rangoon cut ties with Pyongyang, kicking out all North Korean diplomats from the country.
But Burma’s former military junta decided to publicly resume ties with North Korea in 2006. Shunned by the world for its extreme human rights violations, Burma’s leaders wanted assistance with arms and technology, while Pyongyang sought access to Burma’s raw materials and food.
As both countries restored good relations, Pyongyang Koryo restaurant has established its presence in Rangoon. The waitresses say they have studied the Burmese language intensively, working with Burmese teachers after moving to Southeast Asia.
“You can come and teach me Burmese too, saya,” said one waitress, using the Burmese word for “teacher” or a term of respect for customers.
A Burmese businessman close to the North Korean embassy in Rangoon said the waitresses may have also studied the Burmese language back in Pyongyang, with the help of a North Korean diplomat who worked formerly in Burma.
In addition to the female waitresses, the restaurant has hired three men who serve as drivers and security guards. From a building on the compound, they watch customers through hidden CCTV cameras, bringing a bit more of Pyongyang style to Rangoon.