Drinking in Danger - Pyongyang: how to relax in the world's most precarious places

“[I]n a place with absolutely no private or personal life, with the incessant worship of a mediocre career-sadist as the only culture, where all citizens are the permanent property of the state, the highest form of pointlessness has been achieved.
— Journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: a Memoir

Not many people in the world’s most isolated country raise a glass on a regular basis, but when they do, you can be sure they raise it to the Supreme Leader. With a stranglehold on an entire country forced to praise his every move, the now-deceased Kim Jong-Il is famous for his love of drinking Hennessy in solitude while his North Korean subjects suffered devastating famines in which estimates put the death toll at more than 1 million people.

The places in our "Drinking in Danger" series have been placed on the Canadian government's "avoid all travel" list. This does not mean that you shouldn't visit as the perceived danger is often very different from the reality on the ground. Other cities in the series:

North Korean’s bowing to the now-called Eternal Leader and his father, Kim Il-sung, founder of the DPRK.

North Korean’s bowing to the now-called Eternal Leader and his father, Kim Il-sung, founder of the DPRK.

His son and successor is no better. Kim Jong-un has a penchant for Johnnie Walker, German automobiles and haute-couture items for his wife that cost more than the average North Korean’s income. The current Supreme Leader even seems to have used his drinking habits as political leverage. As his countrymen continued to starve during his succession proceedings, his father’s primary aide showed his support for Jong-Un’s appointment by noting that he is a “big drinker”, an obviously crucial trait of the leader of a country.

If you find yourself lost in North Korea with no money, no way out and you need a drink, get your networking on and take a post in the Party. From time to time, you’ll be sent out with your colleagues to get cocked Korean-style on the ubiquitous rice liquor, soju. You’ll take shots with your colleagues all night until you pass out at the table and then wake up and be expected to perform your duties for the Party the following day. But hey, at least you got to have a few drinks. 

North Korean rice liquor, on sale in the US of A. Seriously.

North Korean rice liquor, on sale in the US of A. Seriously.

Realistically, however, if you’re a foreigner, you’re pretty much restricted to a handful of “local” restaurants - where locals outside of Party or work functions don’t actually go because they’re too expensive - and hotels where you can get local and foreign draft and bottled beers. The UN compound hosted the Random Access Club starting in 1997 but it was forced to shut down by the government in 2012 after NGO workers threw a party mocking the Party. 

Your other options are the Diplomatic Club where you can sing karaoke, eat meat (not a dish consumed by commoners) and even have a swim in the pool, and a place known as “The Friendship”, a restaurant that caters to foreigners. 

The not-so-friendly exterior of The Friendship.

The not-so-friendly exterior of The Friendship.

Don't expect to see much else. The police will be watching your every move. You need to obtain official permission to do pretty much anything and you certainly won't be allowed to travel outside of Pyongyang or even into a number of districts in the city. They're afraid you might see what really results from an oppressive whisky-swilling leader: a famished populace still raising empty glasses to the Supreme Leader. 

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