Contrary to popular misconceptions, it is possible to live in Pyongyang as a foreigner. Not only that, but there is a small expat community present in the city. With the presence of foreign embassies and international organizations, this community largely consists of diplomats and aid workers. They live largely independently with the freedom to move around the city limits. But the question is, if you were living in Pyongyang just what would you do to chill and spend your spare time? In April, during our Easter Delegation Tour, we popped by a high end North Korean cafe especially for expats known as the “Sunrise Cafe”- which came complete with a foreign goods supermarket downstairs too. The experience proved quite extraordinary, not one you would expect for North Korea!
The Cafe was elaborately decorated with a prestige appearance, designed to look like a high end, traditional European coffee shop. It was filled with expensive, comfy furniture with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The atmosphere was cozy, quiet and relaxed. When we entered, there were a few elite North Koreans chatting and eating, as well as a couple of other foreigners including a man from Africa. We sat down and were offered a menu that offered a wide variety of food and drink. This included all kinds of coffee, what you might see in any coffee house around the world, but also milkshakes, fruit smoothies and ice creams, which most would imagine were impossible to obtain in North Korea. There were also a variety of snacks, sandwiches, burgers, fries and other fast food related items, all specified in North Korean Won for not too expensive prices.
So as a Brit, I observed that the cafe were also offering bacon sandwiches, something I had to try in the North Korean cafe context. So I ordered one. Of course I was hardly expecting sizzled bacon on the grill with a dash of HP sauce, but still when I received it I was amused at their attempt, giving consideration to cultural differences of course. I received a bun with lettuce, cucumber and lightly cooked soft bacon which was prepared akin to that of ham or salami. Not quite how I would have conceived it, still it tasted quite nice!
Moving on, after eating and paying we were shown a supermarket in the downstairs of the building on the way out. This was mind blowing. Quite clearly, the supermarket was designated for expats. No locals were present. Looking at its contents, one might have mistaken it for a British store itself had they not been told the location. Unusually, the store had everything from Britain, literally everything. It had every variety ofsnack, chocolate bar and refreshment conceivable. From twixes, to roses chocolates and Quality Street, to Ribena, Mars Bars, Skittles, Snickers, Haribo, Capri Sun, the lot. Being curious I picked up some of these items to observe their place of origin, they were indeed the UK variety. Additionally I even checked the expiry dates, everything was perfectly in date as if it had not long been there. But none of it made sense. Despite no direct trade whatsoever between North Korea and the United Kingdom, these items were finding their way into the country and being sold new. It remains a mystery to me.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything. I never thought it was good value for money to buy British items in Pyongyang purely for the sake of buying them. Still, it shined some light on life for expats here. Living for an extended period in North Korea as a foreigner is probably a daunting and uneasy experience, prone to a lot of loneliness and isolation, but at least as a Brit you wouldn’t be missing all the “comforts of home” and can buy some local treats. Thus, this place and the Sunrise cafe probably represent rare enclaves of relief for those who do live here. With little to do in terms of social media, television and the internet, we can imagine many long hours and weekends are spent here over a coffee in a North Korean cafe, or of course in the other bars designed for expats too.