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Coca-Cola? In North Korea? The fizzy drink trickles in [Video]

September 3, 2012 |  2:38 pm

The shaky video pans around a Pyongyang pizzeria, outfitted with red tablecloths, glasses of red wine, and a red soda can with that iconic white stripe.

Could it be? Coca-Cola in North Korea?

Though the YouTube video above from North Korea's capital was first shared last year by Western travelers, it inspired a recent flurry of interest as it picked up more viewers, curious how a quintessentially American product had turned up in the isolated nation. The U.S. places restrictions on trade with North Korea.

Coca-Cola announced during the summer that it would return to Myanmar as U.S. sanctions were eased, leaving only two countries on the globe where it does not do business: Cuba and North Korea. The company said it hadn’t taken North Korea off that list, telling the Telegraph that any products sold there were from “unauthorized third parties” who imported them from elsewhere.

“No representative of The Coca-Cola Company has been in discussions or explored opening up business in North Korea,” a company spokesman told the British paper.

Defectors from North Korea told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the drink has nonetheless been available in the country for at least a decade. “You can buy Coke at every private market in large cities whenever you're ready to pay up, although it is highly expensive, compared to other countries," Lee Suk-Yong, who left for South Korea six years ago, told AFP.

The fizzy drink is just one of the foreign imports that have apparently trickled into North Korea, a reclusive country that outside analysts often struggle to understand.

More outside information is seeping into the country through foreign movies, television and radio than ever before, a study commissioned by the State Department found this year. Nearly half of North Korean defectors surveyed said they had watched a foreign DVD -- an illegal and punishable act.

At the same time, new leader Kim Jong Un has sent North Korea watchers buzzing with gestures to Western culture, including a flashy concert during which entertainers dressed as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh capered to the sounds of the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way.” Disney, much like Coca-Cola, said it hadn’t authorized the use of its characters during the summer concert.

But trying to read the tea leaves -- or Coke cans -- in North Korea is notoriously difficult, with past predictions that the country is on the verge of opening up to the outside world proving incorrect. Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola aren't necessarily harbingers of the country embracing reform, Georgetown University professor Victor D. Cha warned in a recent piece for Foreign Policy Magazine, recalling similar predictions in 1994 when the leader's father, Kim Jong Il, succeeded grandfather Kim Il Sung.

“But apparently, believers in the irresistibility of Disney Dior, and Coke have short memories and tall hopes of a China-type economic modernization coming to North Korea,” Cha wrote.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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