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.