History of Coca-Cola in North Korea


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"Though political borders may bar official trade, the relentless fizz of Coca-Cola seems to find its way even into the enigmatic corners of North Korea, whispering tales of a world beyond."


You'd be forgiven for thinking that the world's most iconic soft drink, with its audacious red logo and crisp, sweet taste, stops at the 38th parallel.

But in the deeply secretive and paradoxical world of North Korea, Coca-Cola, the all-American beverage, has carved a clandestine narrative that defies political logic.

It's a tale filled with covert supply chains, black markets, and an unlikely symbol of status—it's the unlikely tale of Coke's fizz in the hermit kingdom.


north korean supply chain
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Despite a virtual blockade on direct trade between the United States and North Korea, a surprising item has managed to infiltrate the hermit kingdom's defenses—the ubiquitous Coca-Cola.

The drink's exact journey into the hands of North Korean consumers is as opaque as the country's internal affairs, yet its presence is undeniable.

As if orchestrated by some invisible hand, crates of Coca-Cola—fresh, unopened, and glinting in their familiar red and white livery—emerge in Pyongyang's black markets and in the hands of North Korea's privileged class.

The global ubiquity of Coke makes it an object of fascination, a symbol of connection to the world beyond North Korea's rigorously controlled borders.

The operational logistics behind this phenomenon are shrouded in mystery, much like many aspects of North Korean society.

We know the routes don't point directly back to Atlanta, Coca-Cola's headquarters.

Instead, these cherished cans and bottles weave their way through a complex maze of intermediaries, crossing multiple borders, seas, and perhaps even ideologies before reaching North Korean soil.


the north korean elite drinking coca-cola
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In a land where access to foreign products is highly regulated, there is a perverse allure in sipping a beverage that's as symbolically American as Coca-Cola.

Its scarcity and the hurdles required to acquire it have made the drink not just a thirst quencher, but a symbol of status.

Imagine holding that chilled aluminum can, its cold surface against your palm, the hiss of escaping gas as you pull the tab, and that first sweet taste. It’s not just about the flavor, but what it represents—a connection to the world outside the country's strict confines, a taste of the forbidden West.

It's not unlike the allure of a designer handbag or a luxury car in other parts of the world.

Possession implies certain privileges, access, and hints at a level of worldliness that can't be bought with mere Korean won. But instead of Gucci or Ferrari, it's a can of Coke—the mundane turned extraordinary by virtue of geography and politics.

In a society as hierarchical and status-conscious as North Korea's, drinking a Coca-Cola can thus be a conspicuous display of wealth, influence, or connections.

Ironically, this American soft drink has found itself an emblem of prestige in the land of its supposed enemies.


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While the original Coca-Cola may hold the status of an elusive symbol in North Korea, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

With trade sanctions making the official thing hard to come by, a unique phenomenon has bubbled up in North Korea's local markets—the birth of Coca-Cola clones.

In an unexpected homage to the American beverage, North Korean factories have set their sights on replicating that quintessential Coke taste.

The result?

Bottles bearing a striking resemblance to the real deal, albeit under different names, filled with their best attempt to mimic the iconic flavor.

These home-brewed versions of the legendary drink are an intriguing paradox, a testament to the Coca-Cola mystique.

Their very existence is a story to the power of Coke's brand, even in a nation officially decrying its origins.

These clones are the underdogs of the cola world, striving against all odds to imitate a drink whose recipe is one of the world's most closely guarded secrets.

Yet, despite the earnestness of their attempt, anyone who has ever tasted the real thing would instantly know the difference.

But in the absence of the original, these knock-offs serve their purpose, providing a taste of Western indulgence while highlighting the lengths people will go to recreate a product when its demand persists despite stringent sanctions.


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In North Korea's shadowy black markets, or 'jangmadang', a different economy thrives, one where demand and supply obey not the strictures of the state but the law of the forbidden.

Here, Coca-Cola finds itself a coveted commodity, its allure inflated by the high stakes of this underground world.

The prohibitive cost of Coca-Cola, driven by its scarcity and the risks associated with its smuggling, elevates the humble soda to an almost luxury status.

A single can might be sold for a price that would seem outrageous to an average American consumer, yet for some North Koreans, it's a price worth paying.

These black markets, born of necessity in the harsh years of the 1990s famine, have since become a vital part of the North Korean economic landscape. And within these clandestine corridors of commerce, the economic dance of supply and demand plays out in fascinating ways.

Coca-Cola, a standard supermarket product in much of the world, gets a new lease of life here, its familiar red-and-white logo gleaming enticingly under the market's dim lights.

Here, Coca-Cola is not merely a beverage—it is a symbol, a forbidden fruit bearing the tantalizing taste of the world outside.

Its high price on the black market is not just the result of risk and scarcity, but also the valuation of the glimpse into the Western world it provides. It's the economics of desire, bottled and fizzy, priced and sold in the shadows of North Korea's black markets.


Donald Trump handing Kim Jong-Un a Coke
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During the historic 2018 summit in Singapore, an unexpected participant surfaced amidst the political heavyweights—a humble can of Coca-Cola.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, known for his unpredictable style, reportedly ordered a Coke, a choice that stirred speculation and interpretation among observers.

This wasn't just any drink, but a Coca-Cola—a brand inextricably linked with the United States, a country with which North Korea shares a complex and tense history.

His choice of beverage seemed to echo louder than any diplomatic platitude could. Was it a nod towards détente, a signal of openness, or just a personal preference? The gesture, like so much of North Korea's actions, was veiled in layers of interpretation.

In the carefully choreographed dance of diplomacy, every step, every gesture, carries weight.

And Kim Jong-un's Coca-Cola order was no exception.

Though seemingly insignificant, this decision spoke volumes—it was an acknowledgment of American culture, a concession of sorts, served chilled in a can.

This diplomatic dance, flavored with the sweet fizz of Coca-Cola, was a reminder of the soft power a simple beverage can wield.

As the Coca-Cola logo gleamed under the summit's lights, it was a moment that encapsulated the complex history and delicate future of the U.S.-North Korea relations, all playing out over a can of the world's most popular soft drink.


Choco pie
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In the world of economics, the barter system is as old as human civilization itself.

It's a fundamental principle that found its way into one of the most intriguing locales on Earth - the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic venture between North and South Korea.

Here, a unique form of currency emerged: Choco Pies and Coca-Cola.

In this context, Choco Pies, a popular South Korean snack akin to a chocolate-covered marshmallow sandwich, and bottles of Coca-Cola were more than mere refreshments.

They became a form of soft currency, bonuses handed to North Korean workers by their Southern counterparts.

Like the coke cans and bottles, these Choco Pies too were emblems of the world beyond North Korea's rigid borders. They carried with them the flavor of South Korea's bustling economy, its connection to global markets, and the contrasting freedoms it offers its citizens.

Once received, these tokens of the global capitalist world didn't necessarily end their journey.

Many found their way into North Korea's black markets, sold for a high price, revealing the craving for a taste of the outside world among the North Korean populace.

The Choco Pie and Coca-Cola barter system might seem like a quirky footnote in the annals of economic history.

Still, it underscores a much larger narrative—the persistent yearning for connection and a taste of the world outside, wrapped in a chocolate-coated confection and a chilled bottle of Coca-Cola.


Coca-Cola propoganda in North Korea
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While Coca-Cola's clandestine journey into North Korea and its dual status as a coveted commodity and status symbol are fascinating, there's another, darker side to the narrative.

In the state-controlled media and propaganda machinery of North Korea, Coca-Cola has been appropriated as a symbol, a stand-in for the United States, often serving as a target of criticism and condemnation.

Coca-Cola's global brand recognition is a double-edged sword.

While its popularity transcends borders, it also makes it a visible representation of American capitalism and Western influence. And in North Korea's tightly controlled narrative, these are frequently framed as threats or enemies of the state.

The familiar red-and-white logo thus becomes a rallying point, an easily identifiable figure in propaganda materials meant to solidify national identity against perceived external threats.

Coca-Cola's presence in these materials is a testament to its global reach, a brand so powerful that it becomes shorthand for the country of its origin.

Yet, in a beautiful twist of irony, the same product vilified in North Korea's propaganda, is the one being secretly savored, traded, and replicated within the country's borders.

It’s a dichotomy that only serves to highlight the complexities of North Korea's relationship not only with the outside world but also with the desires and aspirations of its own people.

In this light, each Coca-Cola can in North Korea is more than just a beverage.

It's a piece in a high-stakes geopolitical puzzle, a symbol imbued with conflicting meanings—a figure of opposition in public, yet a sought-after taste of freedom in private.