China is North Korea’s only major trading partner, and roughly 70% of all the goods that pass between these neighbors comes across Dandong’s rickety iron bridge, or on the ships that chug between the riverbanks. But following Pyongyang’s recent barrage of nuclear and missile tests, Beijing signed up to unprecedented U.N. sanctions in March. Chinese imports of coal — North Korea’s main cash cow — and exports of building materials and assorted household goods have been slashed.
Because of the ramped up sanctions, North Korea now relies heavily on dispatching workers abroad to earn foreign currency — most commonly to China, but also to Russia and the Middle East. There are around 50,000-60,000 laborers working abroad in factories, fields and restaurants. Their below-standard wages are collected directly by the authorities, with only a tiny fraction kept for the workers themselves.
Different North Korean government departments also run around 130 restaurants in foreign cities such as Beijing, Rangoon, Dhaka, Vladivostok and Phnom Penh. Dandong has many such enterprises — the largest employing more than 200 North Korean staff; others just a handful.
Waitresses typically remain for three-year stints and hail from Pyongyang. Working abroad is deemed a mighty privilege in North Korea, and citizens permitted to live in the capital are considered the most loyal. Security is tight, nonetheless: girls reside together in dormitories under the watchful gaze of minders, who sit in the rear of restaurant during their shifts, conspicuous by their dour demeanors and gleaming Kim Il Sung pins.