Alcohol in North Korea
North Korea’s strict government control & isolation makes it seem like many things are in short supply. Especially items considered “luxury”. So what about getting alcohol in North Korea? Do Koreans north of the DMZ drink as much as their southern cousins? If so what do they drink and is it affordable?
What can you drink?
Firstly there is no shortage of booze in North Korea, and no limit on consumption. It could even be considered a national pastime – much like life in South Korea, China and much of East Asia.
The main drink of choice is soju. Soju is a clear spirit made from rice, wheat or barley. It can range from 18% to 55% in strength. It is usually consumed neat after a meal. It is central to Korean culture both North and South.
Micro brewing beer culture
While soju has been commonplace for centuries on the Korean peninsula, beer production is more recent. In North Korea there is now a thriving micro-brewing industry.
There exists about 10 different microbreweries nationwide. Many small microbreweries are located in hotels and restaurants, thus guaranteeing a regular flow of beer on tap. The largest brewery is the Taedonggang brewing company – named after the river which flows through the capital city of Pyongyang.
A beer coupon scheme also exists for men to receive 5 liters of free beer per month. Locals typically gather in standing room only bars after work, enjoy a couple of beers then head home for dinner.
Can foreigners join in?
On a typical North Korea tour, one or two beers is included in every lunch and dinner. There’s always the opportunity to purchase extras for inexpensive sums. Every single restaurant and hotel contains a fully stocked bar. Prices range from 50 cents to €2 each.
It’s even possible for tourists to visit real local beer bars. Places like the Mansungyo beer house offer 7 different types of Taedonggang beer on tap and serve sliders so you can try all 7 in one go! These places offer standing tables only and are usually packed with workers who file in from the offices in the early evenings.
It’s not all beer and soju however. These days foreign whiskey is in demand. Whiskey is seen as a sign of wealth and is much sought after for a multitude of purposes. It’s exchanged hands commonly as a wedding gift or even a bribe.
Believe it or not it’s even possible to do a pub crawl in North Korea. We organized just that for St Patrick’s day in 2016. We took in 12 of Pyongyang’s finest watering holes much to the bemusement of our local guides! It’s not all drink however, it’s also possible to organise a North Korean food tour.