AP PHOTOS: Coffee shops all the rage in North Korean capital

Pyongyang may be one of the few major cities left on Earth where you can't find a Starbucks.

But it's brimming over with coffee shops.

The small, dimly lit cafes have been around in the North Korean capital for years, but the drink's popularity has surged in Pyongyang recently — enough so, in fact, that it's sparking a competition among shop owners to provide more of an upscale ambiance and a variety of coffees that would almost put the ubiquitous American chain to shame.

"Over the past couple of years the number of people who really know good coffee has grown a lot, and they look around the city to find the best places," said Ri Hyon A, a barista at a popular cafe who underwent training in China to learn the craft. "We have a lot of regulars."

Though Pyongyang is far more affluent and well-supplied than the rest of the country, the growth of coffee shops and the openly competitive effort to lure customers and turn a profit reflects a larger transformation that has long been underway in North Korea.

While capitalism is still officially frowned upon and the economy remains centrally controlled and largely stagnant, grassroots entrepreneurialism is not only growing but has become a necessity for many North Koreans.

Until the famine years of the 1990s, the government provided most citizens with their basic necessities and jobs. The economic crisis caused by the famine taught North Koreans to fend for themselves, however, and forced a gradual opening to more capitalist-style activities.

For sure, life in rural areas remains much more hardscrabble — just getting a balanced diet, or meat on a regular basis, remains impossible for many.

But the growing grassroots economy has created something of a middle class in Pyongyang and some other cities, where more people have enough expendable cash to treat themselves to small luxuries like coffee, and businesses like street stalls selling drinks or snacks and more new restaurants aimed at meeting the new market demand are mushrooming.

Ri's coffee shop, one of hundreds now open for business in Pyongyang, greeted its first customers in January and sells everything from caramel Macchiatos to strawberry smoothies.

Ri said the shop has its beans flown in once a month from China.

"Cappuccino is popular with Koreans," she said. "Personally, my favorite is our original hand-dripped coffee."

Ri said that while she was training to be a barista in Beijing, she gave Starbucks a go.

"I tried it, but I didn't like the coffee very much," she said. "I think it's for people who don't really understand good coffee. But I was impressed by how many people go there."