[Newsmaker] Ordinary North Koreans join elite in acquiring taste for coffee

By Catherine Chung

‘Kumrung’ draws attention as a Pyongyang-version of Starbucks

  • Published : Nov 5, 2018 - 15:18
  • Updated : Nov 5, 2018 - 16:49

North Koreans have developed a new taste for coffee as its consumption saw a rapid increase over the past few years with the introduction of market forces to the state-run economy, according to a report from Radio Free Asia on Thursday.

In the past, drinking coffee was considered a luxury for most of the North Korean population and only the elite in Pyongyang could afford the leisure time. But, now, some North Koreans out in the provinces also reportedly enjoy a hot cup of coffee now and then. 

A North Korean staff prepares a coffee at a cafe in central Pyongyang in this Aug. 31, 2013 handout. (Reuters)

The latest rise in coffee consumption in the North could be attributable to the influx of foreign ideas regarding culture and behavior.

Numerous cafes have opened to meet the surging demand for coffee according to RFA. Pyongyang may be one of the few major cities left on earth where you cannot find a Starbucks. But it is brimming over with coffee shops that cater to the growing number of North Korean coffee consumers. 

A coffee shop recently opened in Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, which finished its three-year terminal expansion project on July 1, 2015. In order to attract more foreigners to the country, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had ordered a “speedy reconstruction” of the international terminal building by hiring thousands of workers. 

In addition, famous cafes lining the streets of Pyongyang are visited by many North Koreans regardless of one’s socioeconomic status. At North Korea’s Cafe Kumrung, consumers can enjoy a cup of espresso and cappuccino for 400 and 600 North Korean won, respectively. 

A coffee shop at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (Pyeongyang Press Corps.)

“Drinking coffee or tea used to be a cultural behavior of the upper class (in Pyongyang),” a source from North Hamgyong Province told RFA. The source reportedly described coffee consumption as one that is “common” in other cities beyond the capital.

With the demand for coffee on the rise, local markets in North Korea have begun to sell single-serve instant coffee as well as bags of ground coffee. Instead of going to a cafe, North Koreans now enjoy a cup of coffee or tea at the number of coffee stands at the marketplace in recent years.

The practice of drinking coffee is observed in homes as well as at business meetings. “Offering coffee to guests at one’s home has become a norm. Executives will also typically offer coffee or tea to visitors to their factory,” a source said. 

A North Korean staffer waits for a customer at a cafe in central Pyongyang in this Sept. 4, 2013 handout. (Reuters)

No official data on coffee consumption has been released by North Korea’s state media, but businesses confirmed that coffee imports have increased significantly over the past few years, the RFA reported.

According to a North Korean source, the most popular gifts to bring back from overseas business trips are coffee and tea. Smuggling the commodities into North Korea has also increased in light of more people becoming passionate coffee enthusiasts.

By Catherine Chung (