Beer diplomacy in North Korea

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Beer diplomacy in North Korea

“You’re late. We’ve been waiting for you for half an hour. If it happens again, who knows what might happen to you in this country…”

The country in question was none other than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. My guide fixed me with a stern gaze. She didn’t seem to be joking. I could physically feel my apologetic smile dropping from my face.

It took about a minute for her to burst out laughing and say, “Did I go too far that time, Dan?” I don’t think I ever felt such a sense of relief in my entire life. But just half an hour later, I tried taking a picture out of the window of the bus, and one of the other guides put his hand on my shoulder and shouted, “No!!!!” This was followed by every member of the group turning around and laughing, “Ha ha, we got you again.”

It was, needless to say, an entertaining but rather tense trip - for me, at least. But what on earth was I doing there? My original invitation had come as a result of my apparent praise for Taedonggang Beer, having claimed in an article for my old employer, The Economist, that it was better than South Korean beer (just for the record, I did also state that South Korea was better at almost everything else).

Apparently the Taedonggang Beer manager had heard about this and had suggested I come and visit. A group named Chosun Exchange (CE) ended up bringing me in to give a lecture about marketing and to participate in workshops on entrepreneurship. CE is a Singapore-based organization that works to educate North Koreans about business, economics and law.

Though certainly no fan of the system up there, I do believe in engagement and I especially want to do anything where I could, in my own small way, contribute to the creation of proper jobs and economic development in the DPRK. It is, after all, a very poor country. My choice of topic was how to promote one’s business as an underdog; I thought it might be appropriate since most members of the class lacked money, basic knowledge of business principles and the ability to research trends in world markets.

It is actually the case, though, that entrepreneurship is growing in the North at both grass-roots and middle-upper elite levels. I saw plenty of evidence of both during my trip there. Small street markets now exist where independent traders make a living with the tacit approval of the authorities. Tall buildings are popping up all over Pyongyang, particularly in the Mansudae area, a district the small expat population jokingly refers to as “Pyonghattan.” It is often members of the military who are used as for construction labor - state media even refer to them as “servicemen constructors.”

One of the most interesting people I met in Pyongyang was a man who was planning to establish his own beer company. He had done huge amounts of research on the beer market there - no mean task when considering the almost total lack of statistics in the DPRK. It seems that the country has 10 separate breweries right now, but all of them make lager; I tried advising him to pursue differentiation through the introduction of ale.

He was a very smart young man working within an obviously difficult environment. I found myself hoping that one day the situation there - and relations between the two Koreas - improve enough that we could try and establish the first inter-Korean beer company.

It would of course be good to have an environment where there could be inter-Korean anything, but other than the obvious political problems, the other obstacle will be just how much these two countries have diverged in the past six decades. The fact that everything is at once both familiar and utterly exotic can be a jarring experience. Language is an obvious one: North Koreans I met sometimes wanted to know if a certain word was the same in the South; about half of the time it wasn’t.

North Korea isn’t the Korea I know. But it’s still Korea. Trivial things I never even notice in the South - a grandmother grumbling, ‘Aigo!’; the sight of people drinking soju down by the riverside - took on an emotional significance I wasn’t quite prepared for. I felt sorry, most of all, that my friends here can’t go there and see those things.


*The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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