It seems like a mini Korean War is brewing in Cambodia. But unlike the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula, which could end up involving a military clash, the ‘war’ in Cambodia is a kind of culinary conflict.
In 2002, the North Korean government opened a restaurant in Siem Reap near the world famous Angkor Wat Temple. It became a popular destination for tourists who wanted to sample North Korean delicacies, including dishes like Pyongyang-style cold noodles. Aside from the food, the restaurant offers another attraction: musical and dance performances put on by North Korea-born waitresses.
The restaurant proved to be a financially successful venture and led to the establishment of two more restaurants in Cambodia—one in Phnom Penh and another in Siem Reap. It’s estimated that the restaurants are contributing about $100,000 to $300,000 a year to North Korea’s national coffers.
Encouraged by the success of their Cambodian eateries, the North Korea regime expanded their business to other friendly countries like China, Laos, Vietnam and Russia. And despite the global financial crisis in 2008, which forced many tourists to trim down their spending habits, the North Korea-operated restaurants in Cambodia managed to survive, probably because tourists couldn’t resist the cultural appeal of exotic North Korea, a country pretty much isolated from the rest of the world.
So the more serious problem is a reported boycott spearheaded by South Korean tourist operators of the North Korean restaurants in Cambodia. About 120,000 South Koreans visit the restaurants every year, so imagine the lost earnings for Pyongyang if the boycott lasts.
What triggered it? Is it driven by a loyalty to the many South Korean-owned restaurants in Cambodia that have sprouted up in recent years?
According to news reports, the boycott was signaled by the South Korean embassy as a sign of protest against the North Korean provocation over the Cheonan warship sinking last year. The boycott was initially ignored as tourists continued to flock to the North Korean restaurants. But it seems that North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyong Island in November angered many South Korean residents in Cambodia, and as a gesture of retaliation they called for a boycott of the Pyongyang restaurants.
And the shunning seems to be working. The Phnom Penh Post for instance has reported that some of the dance shows of the North Korean waitresses have been cancelled. However, it remains to be seen whether the boycott will permanently hurt the financial viability of the restaurants.
As the boycott continues, it seems inevitable that the situation is bound to turn ugly. South Korean residents who supported the boycott drive have complained that they were attacked by unidentified goons inside their homes.
Will violence escalate in this peculiar war? The tensions could end up driving away tourists who don’t want to be involved in any nasty confrontations. If this happens, the only winners will be the other Asian restaurants who’d probably be happy to accommodate more customers by offering kimchi and other Korean delicacies on their own menus.
Written for The Diplomat