Coffee shop pyongyang
Outside a coffee shop in Pyongyang. The writing on the window states that coffee is provided 24 hours a day. / Image: Pyongyang Photography Journalists Association

North Korean coffee has become more affordable and the country’s coffee culture appears to be growing more mainstream, Daily NK sources reported on Friday.

Coffee shops in Pyongyang generally sell one cup of coffee for KPW 5,000. That’s about 60 US cents according to the currency exchange rate in Pyongyang as of September 30 (USD 1 equaled KPW 8,310) and represents a huge decrease in price over the years. Still, the cheaper prices are a financial burden for ordinary North Koreans, who could buy one kilogram of rice for the price of one cup of coffee.

Up until recently, North Korean coffee reportedly cost about USD 2–3. Converted to North Korean currency, that’s around KPW 16,620–24,930. According to a market survey conducted by Daily NK in 2015, coffee cost KPW 12,000 in some provinces of the country.

Meanwhile, coffee is sold at comparatively more expensive prices to foreigners in Pyongyang. Photographs taken by foreign visitors to Pyongyang show that coffee sells for KPW 400. This price seems to be a reflection of the official North Korean exchange rate, where KPW 100 is equivalent to one USD. Based on this exchange rate, coffee costs around USD 4 at coffee shops catering to foreigners in Pyongyang.

North Korea saw an increase in coffee shops in hotels and high-rise observatories during the early 2010s, and as a result coffee had largely been a high-end beverage in the country.

Now, however, coffee shops seem to be evolving from the exclusive domain of the wealthy into spaces accessible to regular citizens. This shift is analogous to the metamorphosis of South Korea’s coffee scene in the 1950s and 1960s. South Korean cafés were once the exclusive domain of intellectuals and elites but gradually became more mainstream and are now an integral part of life for the public.

Kaesong Koryo Ginseng Coffee / Image: Daily NK

Instant coffee from South Korea still popular despite domestic competition

With the popularity of coffee on the rise, North Korea has begun to produce its own instant coffees, including Sambok Coffee (made by the Myo Hyang Sae Hoe Joint Venture Company) and Kaesong Koryo Ginseng Coffee (manufactured by the Kaesong Land Product Export Enterprise).

North Koreans can buy “instant coffee” packets for KPW 2,000, according to Daily NK sources.

North Koreans prefer foreign-made products, however, and this tendency has manifested in the country’s coffee culture. There are an increasing number of North Koreans who seek out South Korean-made products, Daily NK sources said.

“Instant coffee, particularly brands from South Korea, taste the best,” one of the sources said. “They are imported illegally, but there is also a significant amount brought in through customs.”

The source explained that North Korean customs offices may raise a red flag about instant coffee manufactured in South Korea, but traders get around this by saying that the coffee was manufactured in a chosonjok (Korean-Chinese) factory. “If that doesn’t work, you give the customs agent a few coffee packets and tell him you’re not going to sell the rest. They will then let you through with the coffee,” the source added.

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@gmail.com.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.