SEOUL—As millions go short of food in the last bastion of Stalinism, the privileged political elite of North Korea are drinking heavily: not wine, brandy, or even rice liquor, but instant coffee from rival South Korea.
Coffee first arrived on the Korean peninsula in 1895 as a gift from a Russian diplomatic envoy to the court of Emperor Gojong. It was furthered popularized in the South by U.S. troops during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Now high-ranking North Korean officials and their families are tipping back the beverage in a form that might surprise aficionados in more privileged economies: three-in-one instant coffee sachets.
These are so highly prized that they’re smuggled across the border from China, disguised as passenger luggage to evade Chinese customs controls.
China imposes restrictions on the amount of coffee that can be imported from South Korea, and that is why coffee is loaded on passenger ships at the South Korean port of Incheon and sent to the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, to bypass the Chinese quota system.
“The coffee we send to Dandong sells for KRW 1,200 to 1,500 (U.S. $1.00-1.50),” a South Korean coffee trader said.
“This coffee is sent across the China-Korea Friendship Bridge connecting Dandong in China and Shinuiju in North Korea, and subsequently smuggled into North Korea,” he said.
Another trader, Kim Tae-Sung of the Youngshin Trading Co., said even large containers are sent to China packed with instant coffee via this route.
“Small shipping companies can load and ship containers of all sizes on passenger ships,” Kim said. “One kilogram of coffee costs KRW 1,800 (U.S. $1.50).”
According to traders, since the South Korean coffee has to get through North Korean customs, they remove the original outside wrapper and put the sachets into a different jar.
They then bribe North Korean customs officials to turn a blind eye to their illicit cargo.
The sachets, often the South Korean Maxim brand, are then quietly sold at markets in the larger cities.
Glamorous and costly
A North Korean trader who recently arrived in China said that a growing number of household commodities are now available at unofficial markets in the North, but that most are well beyond the reach of ordinary North Koreans, who still struggle to find basic foodstuffs for their families.
“A lot of commodities are sold at markets, including coffee and milk,” he said. “There are big packs of coffee. There’s coffee imported from China or from Japan.”
“Generally, it’s the upper class people who drink it ... How could the ordinary people afford to buy coffee?”
While the elite sips the sweet brew produced by a combination of coffee powder, creamer, and sugar, ordinary people are still unsure exactly what coffee is, according to North Koreans now living in Seoul.
Do Myung Hak, a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea two years ago, said ordinary North Koreans had mostly come across coffee in a popular war movie, “Unsung Heroes,” in which characters ask, “Would you care for a cup of coffee?” giving it a glamorous image.
“But most people have never had a chance to taste coffee. They have no idea what it is or what it tastes like,” Do said.
“Some even believe that it’s an alcoholic drink that can make you drunk, while some believe that it’s so bitter and so dark that it can turn one’s entrails dark,” he said.
“Most North Koreans haven’t tasted coffee, so they’re simply clueless about it.”
North Korea’s elite first acquired the taste for the three-in-one brew after visiting tourists left surplus sachets behind them.
Later, in the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Zone, South Koreans continued to share the beverage with their co-workers from the North.
And a popular political joke says that customs officials drink coffee to stave off the hunger pangs that are a common experience for many ordinary people in North Korea.
Original reporting in Korean by Jeong Young. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.