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Alcoholic Beverages in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-01-25

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ KBS News

Koreans traditionally celebrate Seollal on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar as the start of the New Year. Early in the morning on Lunar New Year’s Day, people hold special memorial services for ancestors called “charye.” The ancestral rite is followed by “sebae,” the act of young people giving a deep bow to their elders. The menu of the day includes rice cake soup called “tteokguk.” It is believed that people get one year older when they eat a bowl of tteokguk on the day. 

The Lunar New Year celebrations in North Korea are not much different from South Korea’s. On Lunar New Year’s Day, North Korean people perform sebae, exchange greetings and interestingly, drink heavily. That’s why Seollal is also called “Sullal,” which means “liquor day,” in the North. We can’t help but wonder what kinds of liquor North Koreans enjoy. 

Today, we’ll learn about alcoholic beverages in North Korea from Professor Jeon Young-seon from the Institute for the Humanities and Unification at Konkuk University. 

North Korea banned Lunar New Year celebrations, calling them the remnants of feudal society, until 1989 when Lunar New Year was restored as a traditional holiday. Since 2003, the nation has observed a three-day Lunar New Year holiday. On this happy occasion, North Koreans, who live in relatively cold regions, enjoy hard spirits. 

Many North Koreans are heavy drinkers. On Lunar New Year Day, they drink a lot after holding the ancestral ritual of charye(차례), wishing for good health and good luck. North Koreans like strong liquor with high alcohol content that will make them feel pretty tipsy. 

On April 27, 2018, the eyes of the world were on the truce village of Panmunjom on the inter-Korean border. Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to set foot on South Korean soil by walking across the military demarcation line. Kim then held a historic meeting with then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in. 

After the North Korean leader mentioned the icy cold noodles or naengmyeon, attention was drawn to the two leaders’ dinner table. 

At the time, the South Korean side prepared two types of traditional alcoholic drinks, namely, myeoncheon dugyeonju and munbaeju. Known for its delicate fragrance, the former is brewed from azalea petals and glutinous rice. The latter, munbaeju, boasts a long history of one-thousand years, with its origin traced back to the Goryeo Dynasty. It was initially made in North Korea’s Pyongan Province but has now established itself as one of the finest spirits in South Korea. 

Another inter-Korean summit between Moon and Kim took place in Pyongyang in September the same year, when Pyongyang Soju was put on the leaders’ dinner table. Soju is the traditional Korean distilled liquor. 

As North Korea’s signature liquor, Pyongyang Soju is produced at the Taedonggang Foodstuff Factory. It comes in three types—Pyongyang Soju, Pyongyang liquor and Goryeo liquor. Pyongyang liquor ranges from 30 to 40 percent in strength. The most well known is Pyongyang Soju with alcohol content of 25 percent. In 2014, it earned the “December 15 Quality Medal,” which is given to the country’s best quality products. Sales of Pyongyang Soju began in the U.S. in 2008, arousing Americans’ curiosity about liquor from the reclusive North. But exports of the liquor to the U.S. have been halted due to various reasons, including customs procedures. 

Pyongyang Soju is introduced as North Korea’s national liquor in the publication National Symbols of Korea issued by the Academy of Social Sciences in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the regime foundation on September 9, 2018. Under the instruction of former leader Kim Jong-il to designate fine liquor representing the country, North Korea carried out a research project. 

After Kim Jong-un came to power, Pyongyang Soju was selected as national liquor, as the leader said it tastes the best and the people adore it. On the surface, it is stamped with a mark indicating “Korea’s fine liquor.” 

National symbols of North Korea all have episodes involving the leader. The leader said national liquor should be a good-quality drink to be enjoyed by all citizens, not an expensive, luxurious one to be consumed only by the upper class. North Korea claims that the general public can enjoy national liquor thanks to the leader’s love for his people. 

In reality, however, the designation of national liquor has much to do with the economy. Under the principle of self-reliance, North Korea discourages the people from using anything foreign—tobaccos, liquors and clothes. Rather, the country seeks to develop the domestic market, provide the people with locally-produced goods and export its products overseas. As for liquor, very few North Korean brands are known to the outside world. Pyongyang Soju drew special attention in the U.S. for some time. Like this, a North Korean product with the title of “national” may arouse curiosity, and the country sometimes employs this strategy. 

Each country has its own unique, traditional liquor. Some countries designate their traditional alcoholic drink as cultural heritage. Similarly, South Korea designated three local liquors as national intangible cultural heritage. They are myeoncheon dugyeonju, munbaeju and liquor produced in Gyo-dong in the city of Gyeongju. 

In North Korea, intangible cultural heritage is known as non-material cultural heritage. North Korea also included brewing skills of multiple traditional liquors, including gamhongro and iganggo, alongside makgeolli-making, in the list of non-material cultural heritage. Makgeolli is the milky, traditional rice wine. 

While South Korea added liquors with long traditions to the list of intangible cultural heritage, North Korea designated traditional liquors that have been enjoyed by commoners as non-material cultural heritage. Makgeolli is a cloudy Korean rice wine. The name literally means that the liquor is passed through a coarse filter roughly. In North Korea, ordinary citizens enjoy it in their daily lives. 

A North Korean media outlet has recently covered the story of a makgeolli bar in Samjiyon City, saying that more and more citizens are looking for the drink. The Samjiyon region is famous for liquor made from deuljjuk or bog bilberry that is indigenous to Mt. Baekdu. In line with the rapid development of the city in 2019, however, a makgeolli bar appeared there for the first time. It is said that a growing number of people are craving for the traditional rice wine. Also known as sweet rice drink, makgeolli is gaining popularity not only in Samjiyon but in all parts of the country. 

Makgeolli-themed contests have been held in recent years to select the best bars or restaurants each year. In the past, it was difficult to store and distribute the liquor because its fermentation still progressed. That is, it was challenging to keep the drink fresh during the distribution process. That’s why each region developed its own makgeolli. People are informed of makgeolli products that were highly rated at the contests, and the result influences the sales of makgeolli restaurants. It is little wonder that restaurants make great efforts to produce the authentic taste and fragrance of the liquor. 

At present, the two major brands are makgeolli from Munsu(문수) Restaurant and Rakbaek(락백) makgeolli produced by Rakwon(락원) Department Store in Pyongyang. While its main ingredients are white rice, corn or black glutinous rice, new varieties are being developed to produce diverse flavors. 

Local media say that makgeolli helps prevent and cure diseases including chronic gastritis, indigestion, hardening of the arteries and chronic arthritis, and it also has beauty benefits. According to media, it has been proven that linoleic acid, the essential, unsaturated fatty acid that suppresses the progress of diabetes, cancer, aging and various infectious diseases, can be produced in the process of brewing makgeolli. In fact, North Korea often stresses health benefits of alcoholic drinks, as well as their flavor and scent. 

In June 2000, South and North Korea held their first-ever summit in Pyongyang since national division. 

The scene of then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung visiting the North Korean capital was broadcast all over the world. The historic summit made headlines in North Korea, of course. 

Keen attention was paid to every single event during the high-profile summit. The deuljjuk or bog bilberry liquor was selected for the toast at the dinner. Deuljjuk is a medicinal herb that grows at Mt. Baekdu. The liquor was also unveiled during the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

Deuljjuk, a kind of berry, grows in regions located at an elevation of 800 to 22-hundred meters. The berries grow in the alpine region at Mt. Baekdu. It is hard to find and collect them. Liquor made with this local specialty was developed during the years of former leader Kim Jong-il, and the liquor became famous after it was put on the dinner table during the inter-Korean summit. North Korea claims that the liquor, containing polyphenols, helps improve eyesight and clean blood. Legend has it that if a man drinks it, he becomes a Taoist hermit, and if a woman does, she becomes a Taoist fairy. The most well known is the liquor with alcohol content of 40 percent produced by the Hyesan Deuljjuk Processing Factory. Due to the rarity of the berries, the liquor is consumed on special occasions, like traditional holidays, or by those who have money or power. 

Another liquor representing North Korea is Taedonggang beer. In a very unusual move, North Korea even ran a commercial on TV for the beer.

Former leader Kim Jong-il showed deep interest in creating a brewery in his country after touring a brewery in Russia in 2001. North Korea purchased a British brewery that closed in 2000 and shipped the entire equipment from Britain to set up its own brewery. That’s how North Korea began to produce Taedonggang beer. In 2016, the country hosted the Taedonggang Beer Festival. 

Celebrating the 20th anniversary in 2022, Taedonggang beer is the most popular domestic brand in North Korea. 

Taedonggang beer is one of North Korea’s major export items. It tastes good and it is sold at expensive prices overseas. It comes in seven different flavors. The most well known to South Koreans is Beer No.2 that has 15-percent alcohol content. Some versions of the beer have the aromas of coffee or chocolate. Reports say that beer bars have cropped up in the country to enable locals to enjoy draft beer. North Korea interprets the situation as the result of the supreme leader’s love for his people. From an economic point of view, however, North Korea is seeking to promote the spread of Taedonggang beer and make the people feel more energetic.

When drinking, North Koreans use their own expressions that are equivalent to “clinking glasses” and “bottoms up” in English. When will people in South and North Korea get together on a happy occasion to make a toast and drink to each other’s happiness? 

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