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.
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.
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.”
Most of this is off-limits to foreigners, who must attend pre-approved bars – but there are occasional glimpses permitted. While producing Mass Games documentary A State of Mind in 2003, the physicist father of one of the film’s subjects, gymnast Song Yon Kim, took Koryo Tours’ Nick Bonner and crew out for a beer.
It was, Bonner says, “one of the coolest bars in the world. There was a seat left empty where Kim Il Sung once sat. Otherwise, drinking was the same as in any country. Social drinking, chatting, and joke telling… we renamed the pub the Red Lion and became celebrities with the locals -- nothing more than wishing us well in Korean and occasionally English -- but we were, for a few months, definitely part of the ‘in’ crowd.”
According to Petrov, Korea’s beer culture was introduced by the Japanese during the colonial era, from 1910 to 1945, and enthusiastically embraced.
The Taedonggang, named after Pyongyang’s river, is one of the city’s most notable nightlife stops, producing seven types of beer. Although these are named with typical Soviet flair -- Beer Number 1, Beer Number 2, Beer Number 3 and so forth -- the equipment used in their brewing actually comes from a well-regarded, though now defunct, British brewery. “When I was visiting North Korea, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of their Taedonggang beer, of which we drank quite a lot,” recalls Alistair Humphrey – or “Humph” – whose father was chief brewer for the British ale makers Usher’s of Trowbridge, before he died and the brewery was sold. “When we got back to Beijing, I went out with Nick [Bonner] and Simon [Cockerell] of Koryo to the Great Leap Brewery, and the subject of Usher’s came up. They asked if I knew what happened to the brewery, exchanging conspiratorial looks. ‘It folded. I think it’s now a supermarket,’ I said. ‘No!’ said Nick, gleefully. ‘It was sold to the North Koreans – they’ve been using it to brew the beer you were drinking last week!’ So the equipment my father bought to brew English ales lives on in Pyongyang.”
When I visited, they only had two beers on tap and were selling them to foreigners at about $3 apiece, having opened early especially for us. I tried both brews: one made of around 70 percent barley, the other a rice beer. It was hard to tell them apart, although I was told the rice brew was a “woman’s beer.”
Although it is a conservative culture, North Koreans will drink openly and publicly on certain days. “On hot Sundays and holidays, it is common to find local people having picnics and throwing down a few glasses of soju or even home-made alcohol,” Cockerell says. “They are usually quite keen to share with visitors.” Indeed, alcohol helps lubricate what rare bonding opportunities can be had with locals, Cockerell explains, explaining that late-night drinking sessions “offer a situation in which both Western people and North Koreans are comfortable.”
Such open-air events give rise to probably one of the most bizarre aspects of North Korea’s alcohol culture: drinking while literally cooking on gas. “Making a BBQ using gasoline might sound like a crazy idea: it’s dangerous and not healthy. But in North Korea, where firewood is a luxury, this method is the most popular way to have a picnic,” Petrov explains. “All you have to do is to forget about the bitter lead aftertaste in your mouth and enjoy the atmosphere of friendship and hospitality.”
Camaraderie comes from toasting and singing. “Soviet drinking culture was full of symbolism and long toasts,” Petrov says. “That was adopted by the North Korean bureaucrats and even common people who drink on family occasions.”
Celebrations often include extended, formalized Kim-cheersing, but people tend to drink in moderation. (That said, Petrov points out that alcoholism is “very widespread” in North Korea, as is meth use and, supposedly, marijuana, as people seek to be “distracted from the grim realities of everyday life.”)
Although one is constantly blasted with Kim worship from loudspeakers positioned on street corners, there’s little chance of tapping your foot to a Western hit (let alone “Gangnam Style”) in North Korea. Instead, people make their own music, belting out revolutionary tunes popularized by modern folk groups like Moranbong Band, a sashaying, miniskirt-wearing, violin-and-guitar-playing female quartet, whose members are said to have been handpicked by Kim Jong Un. They are the closest thing the country has to the Spice Girls -- hits include “Song of Bellflower Root,” “Song of Red Bean Paste,” “Let’s Meet at the Front Line,” “Drink to Victory,” and the classic “Cheers!” (“Chuk-bei!”).
Even for buzzed North Koreans, there are few opportunities to fall out over religion or domestic politics; both are essentially off limits. Bar fights are rare, as are Hangover-style experiences -- “I don’t know of anyone who has drunk too much and then blazed a trail of destruction across Pyongyang,” Cockerell says.
It’s simplistic to dismiss North Koreans as brainwashed masses; in fact, we have more in common than we think. The morning after some particularly lively, birthday-inspired karaoke celebrations, one of our guides seemed unusually subdued and thoughtful. Later, he leaned over on the bus with a sorrowful sigh. “I drank too much last night,” he admitted. “Now I have a hangover.”
Perhaps he wanted something for his headache?, I offered. His face immediately lit up. “You have medicine! Is it from France?” he eagerly asked. “No,” I replied, “Made in China.” Pak’s smile fell and his expression switched to one of immediate scorn. “China!” he scoffed, waving his hand dismissively. “Pfft!”