Dinner in Pyongyang

I felt a tinge of pity for the poor girl who may actually face imprisonment and death for what we did…

Jalan Batai — Batai Street — in Damansara Heights is about 500 meters long with my house on one end and the Hock Lee grocery store on the other. This was my neighborhood, my very own piece of Kuala Lumpur. Surrounded on three sides by expressways, our exclusive little enclave had easy access to everywhere but still served as a “green lung” of the city. Situated across the highway from the back gate of the University of Malaya, Damansara Heights was generally peaceful, quiet, and safe and a perfect place for my studies, fitness, travel, shopping, and dining. The business elite of Malaysia were always building houses there. The stunning diversity of architecture was really a pleasure and after a while I learned to pick up on the cultural clues differentiating a Chinese house from a Malay house from an Indian house. It was therefore no surprise when renovations commenced on a particularly beautiful place next to the Commonwealth Club across the street from Hock Lee.

Conditioned to take note of everything that occurs in my surroundings, very few details escaped my notice while driving or jogging in the neighborhood. I knew every house and every car. I knew when school was in session or when my neighbor was hosting a prayer group at his house. I knew who was feeding the feral dogs that inhabited the wooded area at the top of the hill and knew that it was an outsider that had attempted to poison them one night. I watched the renovations proceeding at speed on the house across from Hock Lee and wondered who owned the increasingly large and beautiful mansion. I thought it curious when a flagpole was installed in the center of the circular driveway — a must have according to the feng shui masters that influence the Chinese real estate market in Malaysia. My curiosity built when I began seeing signs the place was finally occupied. “A new and interesting neighbor!” I thought. A few days later I noted the presence of a diplomatic-plated vehicle in the driveway with the country code 39. The banner that appeared on the flagpole answered the question before I could ask it — North Korea.


Weeks earlier, the Defense Attaché at the US Embassy noticed a spike in activity at the North Korean embassy in the Ampang neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur. His simple report generated a trickle of questions from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC. ‘What were the North Koreans up to in Kuala Lumpur?‘ A lack of information coming back only heightened their demand for answers. Suddenly the North Koreans began disappearing. They stopped cutting the grass at their embassy and the lights no longer came on at night. DIA’s questions grew louder and more frequent. The hunt was on and was causing great stress because a hidden enemy is far worse than a visible one.

An infrequent visitor to the US Embassy, I was completely unaware any of this was happening but was naturally curious about my new neighbors. In truth, I was not completely comfortable having them around. Every other Saturday #39-plated vehicles would jam the street in front of Hock Lee for some sort of regular meeting. I imagined they were probably singing songs about Kim Jong-Il, brandishing their devotion to Juche principles, and generally spying on each other. “Suckers,” I thought happily. But the number of cars struck me as odd. I identified over 30 luxury European vehicles, an ostentatious display in Malaysia, which somehow gets away with imposing a 100% protective tariff on imported cars, seemingly in violation of World Trade Organization rules. “What the hell were these guys up to,” I wondered. “there isn’t even enough office space in that house for all those people.” The annoying traffic aside, I considered possible threats to my safety. An American Special Forces officer with a Japanese wife would be a tempting target for a North Korean snatch team — they were known to kidnap Japanese citizens and force them to train North Korean spies — but there was no indication they knew we were there. I dismissed the possibility as incredibly remote but kept it in mind recognizing there was little I could do to prevent such an operation.

I had good reason to be cautious. Aside from the spectacular kidnapping of innocent people from Japanese beaches, the North Koreans are known for all manner of nefarious activity. Among other things, they have proven ties to arms smuggling, bombing airliners, assassinations, unconventional warfare in Africa and now Syriacyber warfare, drug trafficking, counterfeiting of foreign currency, and nuclear weapons proliferation. The regime in Pyongyang is one of the few criminal organizations in the world that also acts as a political entity of a more or less viable state.

Still unaware of the ongoing frenzy in the Defense Attaché Office across town, I decided now would be a good time for a visit to the Pyongyang Restaurant in Ampang. Widely considered to be a North Korean front for laundering money, the Pyongyang stood out in a neighborhood full of Korean barbecue joints. Just to be certain, I cross-checked this with a friend at the South Korean Embassy. He confirmed the suspicion about the restaurant’s real purpose thus solidifying my desire for a visit. Though my paranoia clashed with my curiosity, I phoned some friends to organize a dinner. Among the invitees were two US Navy officers and a South African doctor and his Japanese wife. Our demographics were sure to make us uncomfortable guests for the North Koreans.

North Korean soju. More dangerous than its South Korean cousin.

Dinner and a Show

That Saturday our six-person dinner party met at the Pyongyang Restaurant for an evening out. Well-lit and spacious, it was evident the restaurant was more than just a food and beverage establishment. There was a small stage at one end of the dining room and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that this would be a dinner show. The wait staff consisted entirely of extremely pleasant, hand-selected North Korean beauties. Clad in traditional jeogori dresses and beautifully made up, each and every one of them was extremely lovely. This promised to be a very interesting cultural experience in what I came to realize was the North Korean community center. We felt at ease as one of the beauties served drinks and took our orders. I ordered a bottle of soju — Korean rice wine — from the menu and was delighted when the bottle arrived with a uniquely North Korean label. I asked my American colleague Scott to take a photo of me holding the bottle. Obliging, he pulled out his camera and began snapping photos. That’s when things went wrong.

Our beautiful and pleasant waitress screamed something very harsh at us in Korean. Nearly dropping a pitcher of water, she physically assaulted Scott, snatching the camera out of his hand and frantically pushing buttons while shrilly hurling unintelligible commands at him. The camera was still attached to Scott’s wrist by a safety loop causing the waitress, her face contorted with what can only be described as primal fear, to believe he was resisting her efforts. She pushed him away with one arm and yanked at the camera with the other. Scott stood up to try to free his arm, an action that drew even more frenzied yelling from our waitress and brought the entire dining room to a standstill. I began to feel encircled by the increasing number of jeogori-clad maniacs assembling around our table. What the hell was happening?! I found myself on my feet as well and moving in Scott’s direction.

KL, Pyongyang Restaurant
The staged photograph after Scott (L) was attacked by a North Korean beauty queen (L) for taking photos.

Finally, the captain of the staff, a middle-aged woman with some English skills, intervened to calm the situation. Once she was satisfied all the photos had been deleted from Scott’s camera, she sent our waitress off to the kitchen — to the dungeons for all we knew — and tried to get the evening back on track. With broken English and calming gestures she got us back into our seats and returned the camera. At some point she herded us outside for staged photos in the lobby but none of us felt like smiling. Somehow we faked it. Eventually dinner was served and we were treated to the sights and sounds of North Korean hits performed by beautifully appointed Communist Barbies. Clapping along mechanically to a catchy tune that probably called for the utter destruction of my country and our way of life, I pondered the horrors of mind control that must have been at work to inspire that kind of violence from our waitress.

Control by Pyongyang over its subjects is coercive and real. Sending its people overseas where they may be exposed to the falsity of Communist propaganda is a significant risk. Those selected to serve abroad must be ideologically devout and personally invested in the survival of the regime. This investment is sometimes guaranteed with threats to the subject’s family in North Korea and the personal threat of being recalled to Pyongyang in disgrace. It is not uncommon in these circumstances for entire families to disappear into forced labor camps where starvation and death are virtually assured. A colleague of mine, studying in Hangzhou, China, had two North Koreans in his class at the university. He said the two were tasked to police each other to the extent that neither could even visit the men’s room alone. Both were terrified to talk to anyone but each other. Given this reality, it’s no wonder our waitress reacted with such ferocity to something we considered so harmless. Though it caused me to ponder the value of American freedom, I also felt a tinge of pity for the poor girl who may actually face imprisonment and death for what we so casually did in that restaurant.

End of the Search

Days later, I stopped by the Defense Attaché’s office for a routine check in. He was a busy man and I usually got away with just chatting to him from his doorway for a few moments but not today. When I mentioned the location of the new North Korean embassy in my neighborhood he exploded with questions and incredulous demands for more information. Still unaware there was any drama about the whereabouts of the Korean country team, it took us a few minutes to start communicating. The Attaché was an excitable and inherently suspicious sort but as a fellow Special Forces officer, he normally gave me wide latitude; something I greatly appreciated. Though technically he was not my supervisor, I always endeavored to cooperate with him as appropriate to ensure he didn’t feel the need to be involved in my business. I filled him in on what I knew about the new North Korean embassy and he told me the story of the frustrating search for it. Satisfied that I had saved the United States from Kim Jong-Il, I told him about our adventure at the Pyongyang Restaurant. Intrigued but not interested in any future public episodes between the American military and the North Koreans, he politely commanded me to just “stay the fuck away from the Pyongyang Restaurant.”

“Gladly,” I smiled. “The soju was absolutely horrific.”

Stranger Pic

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

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