Though it sounds like the start of a bad joke, North Korea does, indeed, have a nightlife.
“It’s not just going to rallies,” says Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel outfitter specializing in North Korea. “There is such a thing as leisure time, at least for people in Pyongyang and in certain other parts of the country. North Koreans are not the Taliban; they do things that most westerners can relate to: having too many drinks, having a singsong, having a night out — these types of things do occur.”
A night on the town wasn’t always so easy for Pyongyangites — or the 200 or so resident foreigners living there; diplomats, aid workers, and the odd European or Asian investor.
“Usually on my trips, since they don’t know what to do with foreigners in the evening, and many guides go home to their families, they show[ed] films in the hotel,” Bruce Cumings, a leading North Korea scholar and author, tells me. Despite the difficulties, he did manage to have what he describes as “an amazing experience” in 1987, when he was in Pyongyang with a Thames Television documentary crew.
“The producer, Max Whitby, and I went to a bar across the street from the Koryo Hotel,” Cumings says. “Max noticed on a shelf behind the bar, two bottles of Dom Perignon champagne, 1967 vintage. I asked them how much they cost. For the equivalent of $15.00 each we got the bottles. We drank one in the hotel, then Max said he would keep the other until my wife and I were in London. Turned out that didn’t happen for about a decade, but sure enough, we opened it and imbibed.
“We figured the bottles were bartered by some Francophone African country, in return for machine guns or something like that. Koreans didn’t seem to have a taste for it (or the money to buy it).”
Katharina Zellweger, who lived and worked in Pyongyang for five years as the North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, also recalls making her own fun while in Pyongyang.
“In 1997, 98, there was a disco at the Changgwang Hotel where we would go,” she says. “We would bring our own music. Tapes.”
But, as Zellweger, now the Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, says, “I can tell you, it’s really changed.”
Indeed, even North Korea, a place many imagine to be frozen in time, makes its own sort of progress.
“They’ve just renovated Taedonggang Bar No. 3,” says Simon Cockerell, describing its former incarnation as “like someone had gone to a beer hall in Germany years earlier and was trying to remember what it was like.” Now, he says, it’s making a valiant attempt at joining the rest of us in the 21st century, with “big-screen TVs and an exposed brick wall.”
Troy Collings from Young Pioneer Tours, which provides budget trips to the DPRK tells me, “for the middle class, the only real restriction on [going to] places is hard currency and cost.”
Indeed, as Erich Weingartner, who lived in Pyongyang from 1997 to 1999 while heading a unit of the World Food Programme, says, “You have a whole new entrepreneurial class now that has enough money to entertain themselves.”
Entertainment in North Korea includes a well-established drinking culture. And in every neighborhood in Pyongyang, says Simon Cockerell — a monthly visitor to the DPRK since 2002 — there’s a local.
“Although a lot of tourists will say they never saw a local bar, you actually see them very often,” he tells me.
They don’t necessarily have signs or other obvious pieces of branding an outsider would recognize, Cockerell explains. And they “can’t really be visited by foreigners.” But “keep an eye out and peek through a window, and you’ll see a group of men standing up, having drinks, talking.”
“They’re not open very late, a couple of hours after work, really,” Cockerell continues. “They don’t serve a wide range of drinks — beer, mostly. None of them have the look of pubs in Britain or anything like that, they’re fairly rudimentary and utilitarian — places where people can go and drink some drinks and leave. That’s a working man’s bar in Pyongyang; that’s their average ‘socializing over a pint’ experience.”
Local bars “are all the same; there’s no point in going to the bar in the next neighborhood,” Cockerell says. “There is competition on the higher end — the profit motive exists. They imported materials to build it, they’re invested, they’re not going to want to build it and then no one comes.”
In fact, says Erich Weingartner, now Editor-in-Chief of CanKor, an Ontario-based initiative seeking “rational” North Korea policy, “A lot of the establishments in Pyongyang these days are actually privately run, they’re not state institutions, and they have really blossomed.”
Having exhausted the bulk of the city’s dining options when he lived in Pyongyang, Weingartner recalls asking his minder on a visit a couple of years ago to take him someplace he’d never been.
“So he spoke to the driver, who took us to a place on a back street — no sign, no nothing, just a door, and so, really for local people,” he tells me. “We went inside, and sure enough, there was a nice little restaurant, privately-owned, well-organized, and we had lunch there.”
Even with glimmers of private enterprise having begun to make tentative inroads years ago, Weingartner says he was still “somewhat shocked” during a recent visit to see “how many well-to-do people there are in Pyongyang who have dollars to spend.” On that trip, he had a unique opportunity to see first-hand just how widely those dollars are now spread throughout Pyongyang.
“On my last trip there in November, I managed to take a taxi without my minders, which is totally unheard of,” he says. “You can’t just ‘take a taxi’ in Pyongyang, but I thought I would try it anyway. We hailed a taxi on the street, he stopped, and actually [made a U-turn] to pick us up. When we got to the hotel, we didn’t have exact change and were a bit concerned, but the driver whipped out a stack of US dollars. It was unbelievable.”
“Dollars — they are back in style,” Weingartner continues. “It used to be euros; menus are in euros, but they prefer dollars.”
This gradual expansion of North Korea’s consumer class has manifested itself in certain decidedly capitalist ways.
For one, the profit motive mentioned by Simon Cockerell is on display at the newly-renovated Taedonggang Bar No. 3, with pints costing 1.5 euros, which is triple the normal price.
And Katharina Zellweger, who says she has never had better bibimbap anywhere in the world than at Pyongyang’s Arirang restaurant, tells me the management gave her a discount card — which had expired the last time she was there — but got a dish for free, which most certainly came from a newly-formed capitalist mindset rather than a deeply-held communist one.
“In fact, quite a number of restaurants, especially if you are a regular guest, give you a dish on the house,” she says.
Adds Young Pioneer’s Troy Collings, “table tennis bars” have appeared in Pyongyang, where, “if you play at the right places, you can meet people who are in business and improve your contacts.”
In contrast to the burgeoning for-profit sector in North Korea is a national soundtrack that appears not to have kept pace.
“The North Koreans have a big arts festival in the spring and they always ask me if I know any music groups from Canada that might go there,” Erich Weingartner says. “But they say right away, “Please, no rock music. A certain kind of jazz might be okay, but not the really way-out jazz…”
Simon Cockerell says the North Korean taste in western song tends more toward “things like the early Beatles or the Carpenters.”
“Most modern rock music is considered a cacophonous mess to most North Koreans, just because they haven’t sort of moved up to it yet,” Cockerell tells me. “Electronic music? They’ll think, where are the words? Why is this song 11 minutes long?”
He remembers experiencing that gulf after arranging North Korea’s first-ever DJ set in 2012.
“We took in a DJ, an American guy from Beijing,” Cockerell recalls. “To make it accessible to the Koreans, the music was mostly sort of old-school disco floor-fillers; we really couldn’t go too left-field or too experimental. Still, when it was over, some of them told me, ‘Well, we didn’t really like the music,’ and I’m going, ‘Really?? ‘Beat It’ was the most esoteric song we played!’”
Of course, an “evening out” doesn’t always necessarily involve going out. Just don’t expect to ever visit a North Korean’s home, no matter how close your relationship.
“They’re not allowed to invite us to their apartments and they were not allowed to be invited to ours,” says Erich Weingartner. “They could come over during daytime while they are working, if there was a very specific reason to help with something or other, but if we invited them over in the evening, they would hesitate, give an excuse, say, ‘Thank you very much, but I can’t.’”
However, Weingartner did finally manage to spend a private evening hosting a dinner party at his apartment handful of his North Korean colleagues, by presenting the invitation as an “official” event and inviting a smattering of his friends’ superiors.
“Two of the wives actually came–this was shocking, it had never happened before,” Weingartner says. “But if the locals trust you enough, they will find opportunities. If you have the relationship, they will figure out how to bend the rules; they’ll find ways to get around the normal inhibitions.”
Making any type of human contact with North Koreans, no matter how attenuated, is extremely important, maintains Simon Cockerell. And much of the commonalities outsiders can find with North Koreans come by way of a night out (and the occasional daytime picnic).
“The view that most North Koreans have of foreigners is very, very negative,” Cockerell says. “And the view most foreigners have of North Koreans is very negative, as well. It’s good to have people go there and see that everyone puts on their trousers one leg at a time. We really push for as much interaction as we can, and even though it’s limited, it’s always more than people expect. North Koreans can’t go abroad and have a picnic with others, so we take people in the other direction. Now, I’m not naive enough to expect that if a bunch of North Koreans hang out with a group of westerners for five minutes in a park, they’ll go home and think, ‘Hm, everything we were told was wrong,’ but they might think, ‘Hm, foreigners aren’t as bad as we expected.”