We have been following the ins and outs of basketball diplomacy with great interest over the last couple of months, but there may be another unifying force at work, leaving fond – if not hazy – memories in the minds of DPRK travelers.
The Atlantic put out an entertaining piece entitled “Getting Drunk in North Korea” a little while back, detailing Robert Hunwick’s journey through the seedier side of Pyongyang (which apparently closes before midnight). The moral of the story seems to be that, while Pyongyang is light years away from a Tokyo, Shanghai, or Seoul, it has become host to a modest number of inebriating nightlife options.
A highlight of Hunwick’s story is the divided nature of North Korea’s drinking establishments. Any major city has its local haunts and its tourist traps, but in the DPRK’s case this separation is strictly enforced. Foreign travelers are usually restricted to pre-approved bars on the luxurious hotel/prison-island of Yanggakdo or the Koryo, and even the Diplomatic Club by Juche Tower goes as far as separating bathrooms between “Koreans” and “Gents”. However, a growing – and less restricted — chunk of the nightlife scene is being carved out specifically for Chinese visitors, which can reportedly get real seedy real fast. With China’s (well, relatively) close diplomatic and economic ties, it makes sense that these visitors have a little more room to carouse, gamble, and chuck candy at North Korean children to their heart’s content.
And yet, some adult-themed revelry can also be the great unifier. North Koreans apparently love to drink – and so do tourists. Stephan Haggard wrote a post in May on a beer aficionado that went on a surprisingly delicious (and varied) tour of DPRK microbreweries that puts South Korea’s sudsy duopoly to shame. Similarly, as long as you aren’t howling about Anarchy in the UK, a little drinking and Karaoke is one of the few times Western tourists and their handlers can enjoy some casual fun together.
A beer in the DPRK, at its cheapest, can set you back about $3-3.50 USD, which is just about happy hour prices in our fair capital. Considering $3.50 may fetch you around 28,000 NK won at current (black) market exchange, as long as the state isn’t subsidizing the alcohol industry into net long-term loss, a little nightlife may not be a bad way to bring in some extra tourism revenue.