Karaoke Bars Closing in North Korea’s Capital Pyongyang

Previously catering to foreign businessmen and other visitors, the bars no longer make money for the regime, sources say.

Young North Koreans sing in a karaoke bar in an undated photo.

Karaoke bars, formerly a reliable money-maker for North Korea’s sanctions-hit regime, are now being closed in the capital Pyongyang amid falling business and concerns over crime and other antisocial behavior, sources in the country say.

The bars, which came equipped with high-quality sound systems, had charged foreign businessmen and other guests steep prices for drinks and the attentions of female employees, who would often dance with patrons and pose for photos, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

Now, however, authorities have ordered the bars closed, and the bars are being shuttered “one by one” in a campaign launched at the beginning of the year, a resident of the capital told RFA’s Korean Service during a recent visit to China.

“No reason has been given for why they are being closed, so there are rumors going around,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“One rumor is that the bars have been associated with violent criminal incidents,” he said, adding that others say the move is related to a campaign against “anti-socialist culture,” and that the karaoke bars no longer bring in money for the regime.

“There have been fewer foreign visitors recently, and instead the bars are attracting domestic customers, and there is a strong possibility that the authorities have ordered them closed because of this,” he said.

Wealthier North Koreans sometimes keep karaoke machines in their home to enjoy with their families and friends, “and some are now wondering whether their personal machines are going to be taken away as well,” the source said.

'Capitalist punk culture'

Also speaking to RFA, an ethnic Korean businessman living in China who visited a karaoke bar in Pyongyang last year said that business in the bars has recently dropped, with fewer foreign businessmen coming to Pyongyang.

“North Korean authorities are also concerned about what they call ‘capitalist punk culture’ spreading if they leave the bars open, especially if they aren’t bringing in foreign money,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

In September 2011, former national leader Kim Jong Il criticized karaoke bars as decadent, and all bars outside Pyongyang were closed, a North Korean resident of Chongjin city in North Hamgyong province said.

“Back then, people said that karaoke bar owners would make a fortune, but investors had a hard time [when the bars shut down],” the source said.

“Now, the owners of karaoke bars in Pyongyang are facing the same fate that the others did seven years ago,” he said.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.