For tired Pyongyang workers, beer's on tap

Posted at 11:25 AM, May 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-08 14:25:53-04

Putting on a major political event can be pretty exhausting in North Korea, where everyone is expected to pitch in.

Ahead of the ongoing congress of the ruling Workers' Party, North Koreans were called upon to put in massive overtime to boost production and show their devotion to leader Kim Jong Un in a 70-day "loyalty campaign." And that's in addition to hours upon hours of rehearsals for huge rallies that will provide the de rigueur show of national unity when the ruling party wraps up its first congress in decades.

So how does a tired North Korean unwind?

Beer. Beer. And more beer.

Although soju — a vodka-like drink usually made from distilled rice — is probably more popular, North Koreans do love their beer, and Pyongyang has its own special brew, called Taedonggang after a river that runs through the capital.

Unlike soju, beer is considered a soft drink in North Korea and is often consumed in stand-up bars, where customers have a few quick drinks and maybe some dried fish or nuts before heading off to their next destination.

In typical North Korean fashion, Kim Yon Hui, a 29-year-old waitress at a beer bar on Pyongyang's new Scientists' Street high-rise area, said she believes that by serving beer she is actually serving the leader.

"Many people here are able to enjoy themselves," she said in between serving Taedonggang on tap to a nearly full evening crowd on Saturday. "I like seeing them happy and want to continue to serve them so they can be happy, fulfilling the will of our leader."

Beer at the stand-up bar on Scientists' Street is sold by the liter, which costs 500 North Korean won. That comes out to about 8 cents a glass if calculated at the unofficial but widely used exchange rate of roughly 8,000 won to the dollar. The official rate — charged at places where foreigners are more likely to be involved — is closer to 100 won to the dollar.

To put that in perspective, the highest-paid workers make about 600,000 won, or $75, a month at Pyongyang's March 26 wire-making factory, one of the showpiece spots around the city that foreign journalists brought in for the congress have spent most of their time covering here, since they have not been allowed into the congress itself.

According to the factory's deputy manager, Pyongyang residents have more money in their pockets since the North Korean leadership started gradually implementing new methods to boost economic output amid increasing pressures due to sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The changes — officials prefer not to use the word reforms — have allowed managers at individual enterprises more freedom to set salaries as they see fit based on production and each worker's performance.

"The workers' enthusiasm has increased, and so has the salary, and the economic management became more flexible, including the sales of products, raw material acquisition, production process," said the plant's deputy manager, Kim Chol Ryong. "All is now in good harmony."

So, Pyongyang, bottoms up.

It's almost over.