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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Coffee Culture in N. Korea


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“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” This is how coffee is described by French politician Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Coffee is inseparable from modern people. Many choose to have coffee and bread for breakfast, and it is common to see people buying their favorite coffee on the way to work. 

According to a 2020 survey, South Koreans’ average coffee consumption was 367 cups a year, the second highest in the world, following France. It is easy to understand why South Korea is called “Coffee Republic.” How about North Korea? 

Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s coffee culture from Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification. 

It is not common to find the word “coffee” in North Korean literature. In North Korean author Ri Hye-ryon’s work titled Affection is Eternal, coffee is described as follows. 

It tastes sweet yet bitter, and bitter yet sweet. Those who are ambitious for power would say that coffee, namely, power, tastes like that. Yun-young resolutely broke relations with people who were beginning to resemble others in their shoes, coats and even eating habits, while whispering, ‘Is it necessary to dissuade people from eating butter that tastes better than soybean paste?’ 

Coffee rarely appears in North Korean literature. Morning coffee against the backdrop of the former Soviet Union is expressed as the country’s own culture. When the background is set in a capitalistic society or Japan, however, coffee is portrayed as the favorite item of a corrupt person. If a North Korean drinks it, he or she is depicted as a person who eats away at society. 

The appearance of coffee in North Korean literature is worth noting. The phrase “it tastes sweet yet bitter, and bitter yet sweet” describes exactly how the South Korean instant coffee mix tastes. North Korea is sharply critical of something that tastes exotic and the behavior of ambitious people in power who chase after something foreign, comparing it to coffee. 

Since the 1990s, the culture of enjoying coffee has been formed among privileged groups in North Korea, including former leader Kim Jong-il, high-ranking officials, diplomats and those who were dispatched overseas. Former chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam was known to enjoy milk, butter, bread and coffee for breakfast. 

In the North, coffee is not just an item of personal preference but is recognized as “a taste that symbolizes capitalism.” 

A café is a place where people may happen to meet others. It was initially created as a modern space that maximized visitors’ chances of exchanging information. It was Paris, France, that turned cafés into a venue for conversation and discussion. The emergence of capitalism gave birth to a wholly new type of consumption space, such as roadside cafés in cities. In North Korea, which rejects capitalism itself, coffee consumed in such cafés could be associated with the decadent culture of capitalistic society. 

According to a report by the International Coffee Organization, North Korea’s coffee imports increased significantly in the 2000s. During the ten-year period from 1990 to 1999, North Korea imported less than one-thousand bags of coffee a year, with each bag amounting to 60 kilograms. But the import volume began to rise in the 2000s. By 2012, the country imported an average of 19-thousand bags of coffee annually. A cup of coffee, in general, contains seven grams of coffee beans. Considering that, North Koreans consume about seven cups of coffee per person every year. The amount did increase from the 1990s, but it is still extremely small, compared to other countries. Per capita coffee consumption of North Korea was just one-40th of that of South Korea around the same time. 

It seems the rapid increase in coffee imports had to do with the emergence of various coffee shops offering the latest menus, including hand-drip coffee, in Pyongyang and other big cities in North Korea. Coffee houses have cropped up in the country since Kim Jong-un came to power. 

In 2012, leader Kim Jong-un reportedly visited the Sunrise Restaurant that was completed on Changjon Street in Pyongyang. 

North Korean media introduced places where locals could drink coffee. 

If North Korean residents want to drink coffee, they can go to restaurants, soft drink shops or tea houses. The Sunrise Restaurant, where leader Kim Jong-un drank coffee, is known for its unique and savory coffee taste. Local media say that visitors can have friendly conversations in a good atmosphere at a coffee shop on the sixth floor of the Haedanghwa(해당화) Service Complex, which has restaurants, shops, a water park, a bathhouse, a hair salon and a gym. The coffee shop offers many different kinds of coffee and tea, fruit drinks and sweet food. 

The Mansugyo(만수교) Soft Drink Shop on the banks of the Pothong River is famous for its distinctive shape of the roof that resembles an unfolded flower petal. It is known as a cozy and stylish coffee shop. There is also a coffee bar on the Taedong River cruise ship Rainbow. Newly built convenience facilities and a restaurant there sell cappuccino and mocha coffee. 

North Korea has developed several tourist courses to attract foreign tourists and expand its tourism market. The Pyongyang-Wonsan tourist course is one of them. The Sinpyong-Geumgang(신평금강) Restaurant on the way from Pyongyang to Wonsan offers cappuccino, espresso and mocha coffee as well as Gangryong(강령) green tea, which is promoted as an export item. 

“Uri Tours,” an American provider of North Korea tours, introduced four coffee shops worth visiting in downtown Pyongyang on its blog in 2013, under the title of “Coffee in North Korea.” The four coffee shops are Pyongyang Hotel Café, a café along the Taedong River, the café at the Haedanghwa Complex and the coffee shop at Sunan International Airport. It is said that a cup of coffee costs three to four dollars. It is quite expensive, considering North Korean prices. The coffee shops are mostly used by the country’s new rich, high-ranking officials and young people who have a date. 

Coffee was once the beverage of the upper class in North Korea. It was the Gaeseong Industrial Complex that played a role in spreading coffee among the general public in the North. 

I wished they would do more work, but they refused to work overtime. But when I told them that I would give them two more Choco Pies, they were willing to work longer. 

South Korean manufacturers at the inter-Korean joint industrial park would hand out the Choco Pie snack to North Korean workers there. The chocolate cake snack with marshmallow filling was greatly popular among local workers. So was South Korean instant coffee powder. The coffee mix packet contains powdered coffee, sugar and cream for a single serving. The soluble coffee product is very popular around the world. 

One good thing about the instant coffee mix is that it quickly recharges you with both caffeine and sugar. Those on a diet may try another product that reduces the calories of sugar by half. There are also premium coffee mixes that enhance the flavor of coffee. Just like a snack set I received when I was little, the coffee mix combines bitter, sweet and savory tastes all in one packet. That’s the best part of the instant coffee mix. 

It is said that North Korean citizens also loved the South Korean coffee mix, which was called “stick coffee” in the North. It was such a rare and valuable snack that it was offered to treat guests or was provided with bonuses. 

When North Korean laborers tried the coffee mix at first, it must have been very unfamiliar. But once they tasted it, it surely captivated their taste buds. They scrambled to get it, so South Korean companies reportedly limited the amount to two packets a day. 

The South Korean coffee mix was recognized as the symbol of wealth in North Korea, and the product spread to Pyongyang and some other cities. It was considered classy to treat guests at home with the coffee mix. Due to high demand and limited supply, the coffee mix was so expensive that the price was all up to the seller. Locals used the precious coffee mix for the purpose of entertaining guests or showing off one’s wealth. It was also used as a bribe, like cigarettes. 

Even after the shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in 2016, South Korean coffee mix products have been traded at the private market or jangmadang in the North, in line with the steady increase in the purchasing power of local residents. The growing popularity of the instant powdered coffee even gave rise to peddlers supplying the product. 

It is said that North Korea is now producing its own instant coffee mix packets. North Korean YouTuber named YuMi mentioned red ginseng coffee on her channel. It looks like South Korea’s instant coffee mix. 

North Korea came up with its own instant coffee brand, “Sambok,” produced by the Myohyang Sehui joint venture company. 

Sambok Coffee produced in Pyongyang takes the form of the South Korean coffee mix, which North Koreans call “stick coffee.” It looks almost identical to and tastes similar to South Korean products. Since early 2016, Sambok Coffee has been distributed in major cities such as Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Gaeseong. Other coffee products were shown in the “2018 Korea Commodities” catalog. 

The Gaeseong Koryo red ginseng coffee is highly promoted on the website of Foreign Trade of DPRK. It says that medicinal properties of red ginseng were added to the coffee, which is therefore effective in relieving mental and physical fatigue. Red ginseng is a special export product North Korea has released with confidence. Coffee and milk were added to the Gaeseong Koryo red ginseng to produce this special coffee mix. 

For North Koreans, it has now become natural to treat guests with coffee at home and have meetings while drinking coffee. Coffee was once enjoyed by some high-ranking officials, but it seems to be spreading to ordinary citizens. 

As another method to gauge the popularity of coffee, we can see how many types of coffee-flavored drinks have been released in North Korea. Milk coffee that comes in the form of the coffee mix produced by the Unha Taesong Foodstuff Factory is selling well. A factory based in Pyongyang is making functional milk products, including coffee-flavored milk. Various coffee-flavored drinks available in the market show how popular coffee is. 

But Google Maps show that famous coffee shops in Pyongyang are temporarily or permanently closed for now. It’s hard to know exactly what Google Maps’ algorithm is, but it seems the coffee shops are not operating smoothly at present. The difficulty in importing coffee beans might be one reason. Also, North Korea stresses locally-produced leaf tea products. For these reasons, the status of coffee is not what it used to be. 

But I don’t think coffee will disappear completely in North Korea because the country has begun to open its borders again and it needs to meet the demand of foreign tourists. I guess North Korea will continue to produce coffee-flavored products.

When you say, “Let’s have a cup of coffee,” it may also mean “Let’s talk for a moment.” In this cold season, many crave for a cup of warm coffee. When will South and North Korea be able to offer each other a cup of coffee? 

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