Hermit Kitchen

How did a North Korean restaurant wind up in Northern Virginia?

by Mike Paarlberg
photographs by Hyungwon Kang

THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE on the menu is what isn’t there: beef. It’s the essential feature of South Korean restaurants, particularly in barbecue form: beef ribs and bulgogi.

But Pyongyang Soondae—Pyongyang Sausage—isn’t a South Korean restaurant. It’s North Korean, so the menu skews toward seafood, poultry—and pork, pork, pork. The staple meat of the South is nowhere to be seen, except in a single soup dish. That would be naengmyeon, the one northern dish every Korean knows, a buckwheat noodle soup with cucumbers and slices of beef, served cold, often with ice cubes in the broth.

Most Korean restaurants advertise “Pyongyang naengmyeon” as a mark of authenticity, regardless of whether their chefs have ever been to the totalitarian ruled city that serves as the soup’s namesake. Pyongyang Soondae does them one better, serving its version with balls of pheasant meat.

The authenticity might explain why the new restaurant stands out in a region already dense with eateries from the peninsula. For that often elderly chunk of the Korean immigrant population that traces their ancestry to the North, the spot is unique.

Owner Ma Young-Ae has been advertising heavily in the local Korean press, both print and TV, since opening her restaurant last fall. Among the customers lunching on pork liver and intestines are Lim Sung-Il, 73, and his wife Hye-Gyung, 71, both of whom left Pyongyang as kids. Both made the trek from Maryland to Pyongyang Soondae’s storefront, lured by childhood culinary memories.

Sitting near the border of Alexandria and Fairfax County on Little River Turnpike—the restaurant-saturated main drag of Northern Virginia’s Korean community—the restaurant doesn’t tout its unlikely origins, at least not in English. Its only English-language sign, in the parking lot, features the name of the previous restaurant to occupy the narrow building. “Pyongyang Soondae” is written above it, in Korean. Which makes it the perfect place to find a restaurant owned by a former spy and operated by North Korean defectors.

Clad in a red apron decorated with cats and hearts, Ma Young-Ae, 48, looks like the quintessential ajumma—a Korean woman who has settled comfortably into middle age and the privileges that accompany it: being bowed to, getting seated first on the bus, giving unsolicited advice to strangers. Her day revolves around restaurant work. By 9:30 in the morning, she’s shopping for supplies. She works until at least 10:30 each night. In her spare time, she listens to music and watches movies. She likes action flicks, especially those about the FBI.


A little more than a decade ago, Ma was an undercover agent for North Korea’s Ministry of Public Security, conducting drug investigations. Her job was to bust smugglers—farmers, mostly—who were exporting opium to China. It was an odd assignment, considering the North Korean government’s documented involvement in the drug trade itself: along with weapons and counterfeit “superdollars,” opium has been a key source of revenue for the cash-strapped regime. Ma says her job was a bit less righteous: She was tasked with busting smugglers operating without government approval.

Besides a slight North Korean accent—pronouncing nias nei—there is little that would make Ma stand out among Northern Virginia’s large Korean community.

Until she gets to talking about politics, that is. A devout Christian with the zeal of a convert—she found Jesus in South Korea, where she lived after abandoning the atheist North—Ma is waging a missionary campaign against the state that once employed her. Her political activities are evident on the walls of her restaurant, decorated with pictures of her with Hillary Clinton and members of the South Korean parliament. She travels to New York frequently to lead protests at the offices of the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, the only official North Korean delegation in the United States.

Last year, following North Korea’s controversial sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, she was back, waving a picket sign at the ambassador. She says a North Korean official pulled her aside to growl at her: “Where do you think you are, bitch?” she recalls, through an interpreter. “You just watch. We will kill you.”

Ma’s family was Chosun saram—Korean-descended Chinese citizens who migrated from North Korea just before the peninsula’s partition. Most Chosun saram settled in the Jilin Province of northeastern China. But Ma’s brother joined the northern army during the Korean War; the family followed him back in 1968, when Ma was 5 years old. Ma says her mother’s southern roots meant they were perpetually under suspicion. “I wanted to go to college,” she says, “but because of my mother, I didn’t have the opportunity.”

Instead, at 17, Ma joined the army, long the country’s dominant institution—and a place that offered opportunities unavailable elsewhere. A music lover who could play the piano and accordion as well as the yanggeum, a stringed instrument played with bamboo sticks, she wound up in the army’s musical wing, or Yesuldan, performing songs of tribute to the regime.

Eight years into her service, at age 25, Ma joined North Korea’s security apparatus as an intelligence officer. She had married well, to a high-ranking army officer named Choi Gwang-Chul. He worked at one point for Kim Jong-il’s personal architect, designing Kim’s summer home. Choi’s younger brother, who worked in intelligence, pulled some strings to get her the job.

Working as an undercover agent afforded Ma the rare license to travel. Her assignments took her to China, where she first got into trouble.

“There was a flood,” Ma says, “and we couldn’t cross the river back [into North Korea].” Bored, she wandered into a Korean church. The congregation, she recalls, was friendly. They had heard of the famines across the border and assumed she was a refugee, welcoming her with food. (“I didn’t tell them I was a government agent,” Ma says.)

The church members also sang hymns. They asked if Ma could play the piano. She could. They asked if she knew any hymns. She did not. So they told her to play any songs she knew. There was a tune she had often performed in the army, an anthem praising Kim Il-sung. She proceeded to play it, singing of the Great Leader’s revolutionary glories, until the horrified congregation asked her to stop.

After a few days, the river receded and Ma returned to Pyongyang. She wrote a report about her investigation, leaving out the part about visiting the church. “After I turned it in, they said, ‘write it again,’” she says. “So I did. And they said, ‘write it again.’” She admitted to going to the church. At an underground prison, she says, she was interrogated for a month. “They threw things at me, and wanted to know if I was a Christian,” she says.

Ma escaped the worst punishment, she believes, thanks to her husband’s connections. She got off relatively easy—suspended from the force, but later reinstated, with a promotion to boot. But it wasn’t long before Ma was in trouble again. She was tailing a Korean-Chinese businessman who had built a textile factory in North Korea.

But the North Korean government was broke, and did not want to pay his investment returns. So Ma says she was assigned to investigate trumped-up charges that he was a spy. When the charges were brought, the businessman turned to Ma, whom he believed to be a North Korean commerce official. He pleaded with her to pass along a letter proclaiming his innocence She did. For that, Ma says, a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Her brother-in-law in the Ministry of Public Security tipped her off. This time, her husband’s connections wouldn’t save her. “I didn’t mean to flee,” she says. But when the call came in, she was close to the Chinese border anyway. She says she seized the opportunity without even telling her husband.

For a police state, North Korea has a surprisingly porous border. Unlike the Yalu River, which forms the longest part of the Chinese-North Korean frontier, the Tumen River is shallow and slow. Parts of it are left unprotected by either country. Those who work with North Korean refugees say it is not uncommon for whole families to sneak across and back multiple times. Ma crossed for good in 2000.

Most refugees don’t make it much farther than that. In China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, they can blend in with the ethnic Korean residents. But jobs are scarce, and many established residents see recent migrants as beggars or thieves. Shady operations abound in an area where the dominant activity is human smuggling. North Korean women are in hot demand in China, a product of gender imbalances from the one-child policy. Many are forced into marriages with older bachelors and widowers; some men in rural villages pool their money together to purchase a “shared bride.” In South Korea, several porn sites feature North Korean women stripping over live feeds.

Ma, who had developed contacts in China, was luckier. For several months, she hid out with the family of a Korean-Chinese merchant in the city of Tumen. Eventually, she made her way to Beijing. Her ultimate destination was South Korea. But, she says, a South Korean embassy official told her Seoul wasn’t taking any more asylum cases at the time. He gave her some money and told her to lay low among the city’s Korean-Chinese community. Instead, she went back to Tumen, where she was arrested.

Ma says she was tortured by Chinese police. “They beat me with an ashtray,” she says. “They hit me in my face and my hands.”

Her right hand and collarbone were broken; the injuries are still visible from where the bones were improperly set. Police suspected she was not a poor farmer, as she claimed. “I was too pretty,” she says. It wasn’t that the authorities were especially eager to detain a senior official; it was that they believed a better-connected refugee could afford a bigger bribe. They eventually got her to confess.

Ma spent 35 days in lockup, certain she was going to be killed. Instead, she was miraculously sprung. It turned out her host, the Korean-Chinese merchant, had paid a bribe. Ma wasn’t taking any chances with the legal asylum process after that. The merchant’s family paid a forger 25,000 yuan for a fake passport and airfare for Ma to South Korea. At age 38, she was on a plane bound for Seoul.

At the time, Ma believed her husband’s military rank would spare him from the dire consequences that befall other defectors’ families. And, she thinks, it did—for a time. But years later, after Ma had moved to the United States and started campaigning against Pyongyang, it caught up with her. In 2004, she got news from her sister in China that he had been executed. “I was upset,” she says, “but more upset thinking how my son [then living in South Korea] would take it.”

A disproportionate number of defectors who make it to the South end up running restaurants. Lee Cheong-Guk, one of Pyongyang’s top chefs, as well as Yo Man-Chol, another North Korean intelligence officer, both opened restaurants in Seoul after defecting.

It turns out that culinary nostalgia sells. Older North Koreans who migrated South before the war hunger for northern cuisine. And the estimated 20,000 more recent North Korean refugees in the South represent a good source of restaurant labor. Though they’re greeted with a government stipend and job-skills classes, many also face prejudice that makes salaried employment tough. They’re sometimes accused of being spies, especially after periodic flare-ups with the North.

In fact, North Korean agents occasionally infiltrate refugee communities in South Korea, in order to assassinate some of the higher-profile defectors: two alleged spies were caught last April trying to kill Hwang Jang-Yeop, former chairman of the North Korean parliament and the highest-ranking defector to date. More often, South Koreans accuse refugees of being leeches on the welfare system. One study found the unemployment rate among North Korean refugees to be 14 percent at the time, compared to 4 percent for the country as a whole.

Again, Ma fared better than most. Following resettlement, she formed a North Korean folk music group with nine other defectors and began playing concerts, calling themselves “Pyongyang Yesuldan,” after her old army group of the same name. It was a time of rapprochement with the North, and the novelty of a North Korean refugee all-star band attracted an audience. With proceeds from her performances, she opened the first of her Pyongyang Sausage restaurants, in Seoul.

“I wasn’t a very good cook,” Ma says. But, she reasoned: “At least when you own a restaurant, you never go hungry.”

She also paid to have her teenage son, Choi Hyo-Sung, smuggled out of North Korea. “You can get anyone out with enough money,” she says, waving her hand. Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, says it can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000 to get someone from the North to the South. Ma says she paid smugglers $500 to get her son out of North Korea, and $3,000 to get him out of China.

But Ma ran into other troubles. During the years between 1998 and 2008, successive South Korean presidents embraced the “Sunshine Policy” toward the Pyongyang regime, paving the way for aid and investment, as well as a series of televised reunions of families separated by the Demilitarized Zone. Critics, including Ma, called it appeasement.

South Korean hawks accused the government of trying to silence Pyongyang’s opponents. Scholte, of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, says it amounted to “a gag rule on high-level defectors.” Since the most prominent defectors had jobs at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, they could be fired for speaking out of line.

Ma was neither a high-level defector nor a government employee. Nevertheless, her outspokenness got the attention of Scholte’s organization, which sponsored a 2002 U.S. visit, where she spoke at a congressional hearing in favor of a bill tightening the screws on Pyongyang. Passed in 2004, the measure also opened the doors for the first North Korean refugees to come to the United States.

As of March 2010, the Government Accountability Office reports that 94 North Koreans had resettled here; Ma says the number is now around 120.

In 2004, Ma came to the United States a second time, touring Korean churches as a speaker and performer.

In South Korea, Christians outnumber Buddhists by a small margin, but Korean immigrants to the United States are disproportionately Christian, and the church plays a central role in the community. (When two Koreans meet in the States, the first question is usually “what church do you go to?” The second: “Why don’t you go to my church?”).

This role, along with frequent factional quarrels and splits among congregations, explains the proliferation of Korean churches in California, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and any area with a sizeable Korean community.

For decades, the plight of North Koreans has been the cause célèbre for Korean churches in South Korea and abroad. Aid work for North Korean refugees is usually handled by ministers, who make little distinction for humanitarian relief and proselytizing. For many, fighting the communist regime is a holy cause. The so-called Hermit Kingdom represents not merely a dictatorship, economic basket case and humanitarian disaster, but also the last frontier for soul saving.

Today, Ma traverses easily between the spiritual, temporal, political and cultural realms. Her performances at churches alternate between the serene, warbled singing of Korean folk tales about farmers, mountains and frogs, and fiery denunciations of Kim Jong-Il.

For her 2004 tour, Ma and her new husband, a fellow defector who goes by the fake name Choi Un-Chol, were accompanied by a South Korean government handler. She claims that he confiscated her passport and return ticket, then pressured her to drop the political content from her performances. She ignored him. In Chicago, she says, an argument between her husband and the handler erupted into blows. The handler left mid-tour, but Ma and her husband (who uses a false identity because he still has family in the North) stayed. Her passport had expired, and she says she was told by the South Korean consulate in New York that she could not renew it.

Ma says she and her husband sought political asylum in the United States, which they were granted. She settled in Los Angeles, running a restaurant there for a few years. She moved to Virginia after Scholte convinced Ma that her political activities would be better advanced being closer to the U.S. capital.

Ma’s latest incarnation of Pyongyang Soondae is as much a refugee aid office as a restaurant. She opened it on Nov. 1, after selling her restaurant in Los Angeles. She devotes a portion of the restaurant proceeds to refugee rescue and relief work, and efforts to oppose the Pyongyang government. Of the approximately 15 North Koreans who have been resettled in the D.C. area under the North Korean Human Rights Act, eight work for Ma; two of them currently live with her. (She says they’ll move once they get on their feet.)

Most of the refugees also attend the same church, First Presbyterian Church of the East, in Chantilly. The minister, Rev. Lee Guang-Hyun, says six of his 50 parishioners are North Korean; he says his church’s involvement in North Korean refugee relief work is a big draw. So far, business has been good.

“Everyone is surviving,” Ma says, adding that she has been able to pay her employees on time. Most are North Korean. Besides Ma and her son, all go by fake names, worried of reprisals against family members back home. A 26-year-old waitress going by the name Kang I-Sul crossed the Tumen River three years ago and made it out of China through Mongolia. She and other servers politely answer questions from customers about the political situation, the famine and other topics of curiosity that attract clientele to the restaurant as much as the food. (There is one non-Korean on staff, Mari Cruz, 26, from Honduras, who works as a kitchen assistant. Having worked in three Korean restaurants before, she says she is comfortable with the work. The only difference is the food. “And they don’t rip me off,” she says.)

Ma being Ma, she says that her troubles didn’t end with her move to the Washington area. She claims that she had received threatening phone calls from an intelligence officer working in the South Korean Embassy; she says she later heard from ministers who had previously booked her that the man had been pressuring them not to host her performances. She filed a lawsuit against the government, seeking damages for harassment. A spokesperson for the South Korean Embassy, Han Bo-Wha, responded that the case had been dismissed by a South Korean court; Ma says she is appealing the decision.

Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush’s administration, says that claims of South Korean government intimidation of defectors are “not implausible at all.” Cha says that Seoul “was hypersensitive about the North Korean human rights issue being used as a regime-change policy” by the Bush administration.

But Ma has stranger claims still. She says she received death threats from a man identifying himself as a North Korean defector in Los Angeles, who threatened to kill her with a hammer. She believes a Korean minister in the United States who had offered to pay her to do refugee relief work in China was also secretly working on behalf of the Chinese government, plotting to kidnap her and have her deported back to North Korea. She fears that North Korean agents will infiltrate the United States, posing as defectors, in order to kill her.

Seated at a dining table at Pyongyang Soondae, Ma tells of the dire threats to her life in a matter-of-fact tone, as though they are the normal hazards of a 48-year-old woman running a sausage restaurant. Maybe it’s paranoia.

But as a North Korean defector and ex-spy, she has more reasons than most to be paranoid.

Still, Ma does not seem the least bit agitated. Rather, she appears wearily resigned to whatever fate God has in store for her. For the moment, at least, it involves serving buckwheat noodle soup and dumplings to a steady stream of customers.

—Translation assistance by Kim Soni and Park Eun-Jung.

This article was reprinted, with permission, from the Washington City Paper.