Foreign Journalists Mystified by Pyongyang's High-End Establishments

A Chinese journalist posted to Pyongyang offers a glimpse into the surprisingly luxe establishments available to the isolated capitol’s mysteriously moneyed class.

In an article published in China’s state-run bi-weekly Globe magazine Dubai Yu — a Xinhua correspondent who had been living in Pyongyang for a year — was mystified that any residents of the impoverished nation can afford the luxuries offered at exorbitant prices in a new shopping mall filled with foreign luxury goods.

Yu noted the high prices charged by the restaurants, health club, swimming pool, sauna, massage parlor and beauty salon at the new Haedanghwa mall. Prices are not only 50% more than those in comparable facilities in other parts of Pyongyang, some are even higher than those outside N. Korea. In fact, Yu compared the lifestyle to which they cater to those of the upper class in Shanghai and Beijing.

The $30 charged for a massage seems reasonable enough by outside standards but astronomical in a nation in which the average monthly wage is about an eighth of that. Also surprising to Yu is the $15 fee demanded for entry into the swimming pool, health club, message parlor and beauty shop on the third floor. On the second floor is a Korean restaurant that sells a single serving of boolgogi (barbecued beef) for $50 to $70 — prices objectionable even to foreigners living in Pyongyang. Yet to Yu’s surprise, the mall is always crowded. Many are well-dressed North Korean men who, says Yu, would look perfectly natural in any affluent crowd in Beijing or Shanghai.

Among the changes Yu has seen in Pyongyang over the past year is the rise of the Changchon district which has come to be known as “North Korea’s Manhattan” or “little Dubai.” The district’s newly-opened restaurants and shops accept Chinese yuan and US dollars as well as N. Korean won. According to the official exchange rate the $8 bibimbap (rice with assorted vegetables) is priced at 8,000 N. Korean won. But at the black-market exchange rate of 7,320 won per dollar, the dish would cost an astronomical 58,500 won!

The toney new establishments have forced the city’s venerable old Taedonggang Diplomatic Club to undergo a shakeup in a bid to avoid losing its upscale clientele. In mid-June it desegregated its swimming pool to open it to both North Koreans and foreigners every day instead of segregating them to alternating days.

The pool, says Yu, is patronized by “wealthy, handsome men” and “wealthy, fair-skinned women clad in revealing swim suits” wearing expensive watches while swimming. One even showed off a water-proof Rolex bought in Dubai.

Yu isn’t the only foreigner to write home about Pyongyang’s luxurious new establishments. Andray Abrahamian of Chosun Exchange, which offers N. Korean vocational training, marveled at elegant coffee shops that charge $3.50 — equivalent to a month’s wages for the average N. Korean — for a cup of freshly-ground coffee.

At one shop in the Pyongyang Hotel that afforded him a view of the Daedong River below the drip coffee tasted a little odd, noted Abrahamian on the website for the France 24 TV channel. The coffee beans appeared to be past their shelf life and were roughly ground. But he gave the thumbs up to both the espresso and the cappuccino.

Other items on the menu included waffles, caramel macchiato, a Coconut Kiss cocktail and a $5 bottle of Coke imported from China, among other offerings that might have been found at similar cafés the world over.

Meanwhile most residents of Pyongyang — who themselves are considered members of a privileged class — are able to buy rice, noodles, cooking oil, eggs, meat and other food products at low prices set by the central government. Only when they want something not found in state-run stores do they turn to the black market.