Korea, Coffee and the Korean War

In “King Gojong’s Starbucks Adventure,” Junman Kang sheds light on an intriguing historical episode: the introduction of coffee to Korea. It was King Gojong who had the privilege of being the first to savor this foreign delight in 1896, thanks to Antoinette Sontag, the sister-in-law of a Russian ambassador. This event piqued Koreans’ curiosity about Western cultures and their newfound beverage.

Coffee, initially reminiscent of exclusive Asian herbal remedies, symbolized modernization and Western influence, a luxury only the wealthy could afford. In those early days, coffee establishments were referred to as “dabang,” and the very first one, known as the “Sontag Hotel,” opened its doors in Seoul’s Junggu Jeongdong in 1902.

The modern incarnation of “dabangs” emerged in 1927, starting in Myeongdong and eventually spreading to Jongno and Chungmuro. Initially reserved for the elite and political figures, these establishments evolved into hubs for politicians, artists, and businessmen alike. Koreans relished the coffeehouse ambiance, reveling in the novel experience of using forks for cake and sipping coffee from teacups rather than using chopsticks and bowls for traditional Korean fare.

However, in the mid-1900s, “dabangs” primarily served as meeting places, not coffee destinations, due to the beverage’s high cost. Ordinary citizens frequented “jumak” for discussions on life and politics, while those in positions of power convened in “kisaeng” houses. The government closely monitored visits to “dabangs” because they were centers for discussions on politics, economy, culture, education, art, and religion, resembling Parisian cafes from the late seventeenth century when the police kept a watchful eye on them.

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Coffee remained an upper-class indulgence until the Korean War (1950-1953), when the U.S. military introduced instant coffee to Korea. The widespread availability of instant coffee transformed many Koreans into regular coffee drinkers. It was scarce because it was expensive and hard to find.

The 1960s saw coffee’s value rise, with a ban on coffee in “dabangs” due to the push for domestic products following the 5.16 military coup d’état led by Park Chung-hee in 1961. Nonetheless, “dabangs” began to open their doors to the middle class during this period, becoming popular dating spots for young couples.

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of themed “dabangs,” such as music-centric ones, providing college students a platform to express themselves when they couldn’t openly share their political views.

As competition among “dabangs” intensified in the 1980s, they revamped their atmospheres and menus, embracing brighter, cozier settings. These newer establishments, often referred to as “cafés” to distinguish them from traditional “dabangs,” shifted their focus to various coffee options.

The 1990s marked a pivotal moment as café-goers sought neater interiors and professionalism in their coffee experience. Starbucks made a significant impact in 1999 when it became the first foreign franchise coffee shop in Korea, introducing concepts like take-out service and self-service. This era also saw an influx of foreign franchise coffee shops and locally owned cafés, each offering unique features and a diverse coffee experience.