By Bertil Lintner
Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online(www.yaleglobal.yale.edu)
The global economic meltdown has claimed an unexpected victim: North Korea's chain of restaurants in Southeast Asia. Over the past few months, most of them have been closed down "due to the current economic situation," as an Asian diplomat in the Thai capital Bangkok put it. This could mean that Bureau 39, the international moneymaking arm of the ruling North Korean Workers' Party -- which runs the restaurants and a host of other, more clandestine front companies in the region -- is acutely short of funds. Even if those enterprises were set up to launder money, operational costs and a healthy cash-flow are still vital for their survival. And, as for the restaurants, their main customers were South Korean tourists looking for a somewhat rare, comfort food from the isolated North of the country. Thanks to the global economic crisis, not only has the tourist traffic from South Korea slowed, the fall in the value of won has also reduced their buying power.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several works on Asia, including "Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia" and "Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan."