Downtime in Pyongyang

Humourless soldiers peering through binoculars from afar or wiping SD cards at the border; factory workers trudging to their way to grey Solzhenitsyn-style work units in the snow; synchronised rapturous applause at staid classical music performances.  The popular image of North Korean life is some way off what many would refer to as ‘fun’.

 Bars that accept hard currency usually have an eclectic mix of snacks behind the bar.

Bars that accept hard currency usually have an eclectic mix of snacks behind the bar.

Some 24 million people live in North Korea, and whilst its problems are well-documented, history has shown that even in the most difficult of conditions, people make time to relax and unwind whenever they can. And they do there too.

It should be stated at the outset that the leisure options available to a westerner in Pyongyang are clearly far more extensive than those of a Korean farmer in the far northeast; indeed, the comfortable life of any Pyongyanger is an object of aspiration for many in the countryside, where electricity is even more sporadic and hardship is real.

Choson Exchange organise trips for foreigners to run workshops to share our business expertise with Korean entrepreneurs, but when we are not teaching there is plenty of time to go out and explore for an evening.  To be fair, Pyongyang could hardly be called a swinging city by night, and by 10pm the tower blocks are mostly dark with only a few back street snack and beer tents remaining open; but things are changing and year on year the range of entertainment options is growing fast.  

 Korean food is delicious, but pizza mid-week makes for a nice break. It's good pizza, too.

Korean food is delicious, but pizza mid-week makes for a nice break. It's good pizza, too.

For dining options, the emergence of a new class of self-made men and women has heralded an expansion of restaurants serving a variety of cuisine from around the world, from udon noodles to pizza, and even a local take on a fast food burger joint.  Korean fare naturally remains most popular of all, of course, with a seat at the riverfront Okryugwan raengmyon (cold noodle) restaurant particularly sought after.  

At the more everyday level, invariably smoky pubs serving the local (and excellent) Taeddonggang beer can be found throughout the city, giving the men- and it is mostly men- of the city somewhere to unwind after work.  Lack of reliable refrigeration coupled with high transportation costs means that many establishments brew their own ale, leading to a thriving microbrew scene- although minus the tattooed hipsters you’d expect elsewhere.  

There’s nothing you might reasonably call a live music scene in Pyongyang, but restaurants make up for this with piped DVDs of the ubiquitous Moranbong band  (think The Corrs, then add a healthy dollop of military uniforms, synth guitars, and patriotic fervour and you’re almost there) as well as the chance to pick up the mike and flaunt your karaoke skills once the meal is done.  Few experiences compare to that of being thrown into an impromptu a capella performance when the power goes out mid-song.  

At the higher end, new leisure cruise liners like the Mujigae can be seen moored up on the banks of the river, with restaurants, bars and coffee on board.  Indeed, Pyongyang’s nascent cafe scene continues to grow, serving precision-made coffee in a handful of outlets to those who can afford it; one of the newest and smartest, the Gum Rung coffee shop, was set up by one of our Choson Exchange workshop participants.  

 A fast food fried chicken place recently appeared on the scene.

A fast food fried chicken place recently appeared on the scene.

For most ordinary families and couples though, the new high end establishments remain out of reach, and the places which really attract the crowds are life’s simpler- and cheaper- pleasures; the Munsu water park (complete with slides and sauna), summer evenings at the funfair, catching a football match at the stadium or, favourite of all, relaxing in the park on a Sunday afternoon with a barbeque, some songs and a few bottles of soju.

Ian Bennett, the author, has lectured at several Choson Exchange workshops. Consider joining us!