Getting Drunk in North Korea

With crappy beer, strange nightclubs, and even bad hangovers, Pyongyang's nightlife may be the only domain in which a Westerner can find normalcy in the Hermit Kingdom.  
Karaoke in North Korea (Robert Foyle Hunwick)
 

PYONGYANG -- I’m standing outside the Egyptian Palace nightclub in Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, a place that promises all the advantages of a combination bar, nightclub, sauna and massage service, geared toward the tired and terminally lonely (which, like all other services at the Yanggakdo, means “foreigners only”). The only problem? It’s nearly midnight, and the bar is firmly, implacably closed.

The Egyptian Palace has a sign claiming to be open nightly between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 3 a.m., but, according to well-informed sources, it’s mostly shut (and “shit,” anyway).

Welcome to North Korean nightlife. The Macanese-run Egyptian has a sign claiming to be open nightly between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 3 a.m., but, according to well-informed sources, it’s mostly shut (and “shit,” anyway). Tales of debauched nights behind its locked glass doors -- which showcase a rack of traditional North Korean clothing and some half-hearted hieroglyphics -- are rare enough to be semi-legendary.

Though the Yanggakdo’s basement has two sides – one Korean, the other Chinese – the latter is by far the sleazier. The reason the club was shut that night was that there were no Chinese staying at the hotel that week and, consequently, neither were the prostitutes that typically service them.

Even with its irregular hours, though, the Egyptian is a bit of a rarity. Under “Drinking,” my Lonely Planet guide to Pyongyang has a single recommendation: The Diplomatic Club by the Juche Tower, a “newly refurbished complex full of bars, karaoke rooms, and restaurants.”

The mere existence of such bars, however, is a sign of the gradual easing towards a marginally less controlled North Korean society (in Pyongyang, at least).

Private car ownership is increasing and, while the infamous traffic jams of Beijing are nowhere to be seen, it’s not uncommon to see the notorious black-tinted Audis, so beloved by Chinese officials, prowling around -- though most sedan-style vehicles seem to have been manufactured abroad sometime in the 1980s. There are now around 2 million mobile phones in the country, purportedly North Korean made but, in fact, mostly manufactured under license by Chinese firms such as Huawei and then rebranded and repackaged with special “Juche” software.

Apart from the ruling elite, these are owned by a growing middle class, who, having grown rich from black markets and grassroots capitalism, are eager to consume what scant riches the country offers: Evenings out at hip new haunts like the Haedanghwa restaurant-spa; $50,000-dollar high-rise apartments; flatscreen TVs; imported whisky, cognac, and steak sold in exclusive places like the Paradise Shopping Center.

These are all ideas that don’t fit easily into the notions of a “military-first” (songun) society whose Juche philosophy of national independence is omnipresent in the country.

As more bars open up, though, they’ll likely find a receptive audience.

“North Koreans’ main hobby is probably drinking,” says Simon Cockerell, who has visited the country more than 100 times in his capacity as a tourguide for Koryo Tours, which leads trips to the DPRK for foreigners.

“North Korean people tend to drink more and [drink] stronger liquor,” said Leonid A. Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australia National University, who cites the “lower temperatures in winter and bleak lifestyle” as reasons.

“Governments in Communist countries often resort to subsidizing alcohol in order to keep people happy,” Petrov explains. “As long as the regime stays in power, the leaders will permit people to drink more and will keep the price of alcohol low and consumption rules relaxed.”

For non-Koreans, nightlife is mostly confined to downtown hotels like the Koryo or the Yanggakdo. Or you can take a trip up to North Korea’s highest restaurant, serviced by North Korea’s slowest elevator and North Korea’s surliest staff. Spinning (or “swiveling,” as the hotel literature terms it) 47 stories above the city at a majestically sedate pace, the restaurant offers after-dark views of the pitch-black Pyongyang nightscape; they serve soju and beer: “It’s alright,” a fellow guest said and shrugged.

Most prefer to stay on the ground floor, though, where the “Tea House” serves up a foaming jar of microbrew to a crowd of world-weary diplomats, journalists, NGO workers, and rookie tourists. With expectations at rock bottom, most tourists are happy to pay RMB22 ($3.50) for something that doesn’t taste terrible. Unfortunately, some say the unnamed “Draught Beer” tastes like “a pint of Boddington’s that’s been left in the fridge with a copper penny at the bottom of the glass,” as Cockerell put it.

Cockerell and his friends have asked a Beijing micro-brewery called “Great Leap” to come help teach the Tea House workers how to brew a better beer.

It’s the kind of move -- a Beijing hipster brewpub hops over the border to Pyongyang -- that would have seemed impossible a few years ago.

***

Pyongyang’s usually quiet streets are filled with revelers on key dates for the regime. For a parade I visited on Victory Day, the July holiday commemorating the armistice between the two Koreas, people came decked in an array of styles, from the military’s oversized pomp, to ill-fitting short-sleeved safari shirts and baggy slacks, to bootleg versions of fancy labels like Lacoste, Dolce & Gabbana, and Dior -- all convincingly faked by the Chinese.

The unnamed “Draught Beer” tastes like “a pint of Boddington’s that’s been left in the fridge with a copper penny at the bottom of the glass.

When the tanks have all rolled off, though, the real celebrations begin. In homes and bars across the city, bottles of beer and soju are opened and shared. Driving around the big cities at night, one can sometimes spot clusters of men sinking pints at street bars. “People leave work and go home at five. The men will often come here, after they’ve been home, to drink,” a barmaid at the Taedonggang Number Three beer bar explained via a translator. “Later their wives will call to ask when they’re coming back.”

Presented by

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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