I often go up to the Unification Observatory at Odu Mountain. Watching
South Koreans selling products from North Korea freely, I feel bitter
thinking “When will North Koreans be able to sell South Korean products
freely?” I soon turn my sights over to North Korea across the Imjin
When I see South Koreans drinking freely some of the expensive wines
that North Koreans would never be able to see such as “Mountain
Baekdu blueberry wine” or “snake wine,” I feel a corner of my heart
soar. Because in North Korea, a bottle of the cheapest drink is
about the same price as 1kg of corn, it is very hard for common
people to buy alcoholic beverages. Except those in power with connections,
workers, farmers, and people who belong to the lower strata may
have to let one’s entire family starve if he wishes to drink alcohol.
When I first arrived in South Korea and saw so many homeless people
around Seoul Station or Chungryangri Station drunk, I wondered,
“where would they get so much money to get drunk like that?” For
the beggars in North Korea, getting drunk was not even thinkable.
”Those who can drink alcohol” are symbols of wealth and power in
North Korea. Let’s examine the general drinking culture in North
Production of Alcoholic Beverages in North Korea
There are three ways alcoholic beverages are produced in North Korea.
One, produced from different state departments; two, produced at
local food factories, and three, individual family production of
Alcoholic Beverages Produced by State departments
Alcoholic beverages produced at state departments, inside state
circles, are beverages for the party officials. It would not be
wrong to say that all the beverages including Ryongsyng Beer Industry
in Pyongyang city, Bonghak Beer Industry in Pyungsung city, snake
wine from Yangduk province, blueberry wine from Yangang province,
ginseng wine from Gaesung city are either from export or for “official
consumption.” Recently, I read an article about North Korean officials
in China who gave Baekdu Mountain Blueberry Wine and Gaesung Ginseng
Wine to South Korean officials to curry favor. Reading the article,
I thought “all those beverages produced in factories with direct
connection with state departments are used to “bribe foreigners”
or for “official uses” instead of getting distributed in North Korea.”
All the beverages mentioned above are extremely hard to find in
Alcoholic Beverages Produced at Local Food Factories
Most of the alcoholic beverages are for “holiday distribution purposes.”
The distribution takes place on national holidays such as on the
birthdays of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, New Year’s Day, and Republic
Establishment Day (Sep 9). People call these beverages local province
“factory drinks” because they are made in factories.
The main ingredient for the alcoholic beverages from local food
factories is acorn. For this reason, North Koreans consider acorns
as dear as rice. When the time comes for acorns to ripen, many North
Koreans climb up the mountains to get acorns. This is because if
they bring the acorns to the factory and exchange them for the drinks,
it becomes a useful source to sustain the household.
These local beverages have individual brands. In South Korea, the
government gave specific factories the right of production and distribution
of soju for each local province. The way alcoholic beverages are
produced in local food factories of North Korea is similar to how
soju is produced in South Korea. Each local factory puts local names
on their products. For example, alcoholic beverages from Pyongyang
food factory would be called “Pyongyang Liquor” and those from Hanheung,
Unlike South Korea, in North Korea, factories do not have to register
their brands with the state. There is no law that prohibits the
producers to use other factory brands. There is no rule of law that
can distinguish real from fraud. There will be no one to criticize
even if Hamheung Liquor is labeled Pyongyang Liquor.
Alcoholic Beverages Produced by Individual Families
I do not know about other countries but I never heard of people
making “alcoholic beverages” at home. I know that they make some
fruit wines simply by fermenting fruits or medicinal herb such as
ginseng in a closed bottle. Making this kind of wine is not considered
making alcoholic beverages in North Korea. Making alcoholic beverages
in North Korea is such a common practice that there will hardly
be any women who did not made it at least once. Most of the alcoholic
beverages sold at markets in North Korea are these secretly made
strong home wines. People call these beverages “Minju” or “Nong-tae-gi.”
In each household, it is easy to find jars of different sizes, covered
with old clothes, placed at the warmest corner of the room. These
jars are without a doubt, wine jars in the fermenting process. Making
wines helps to sustain the family and the supply of alcoholic beverages
from the factories are very small, so secret wine making became
a common practice in North Korea.
1kg of corn makes about one liter of wine with about 25% alcohol
level. In the markets in North Korea, people usually use bottles
of 500ml to sell the corn wine, the price of one 1Kg of corn. Therefore,
selling the corn wine returns twice the investment. Also, when you
make wine at home, you also get some leftovers from making the wine,
which you can eat as food.
This “leftover” from corn wine in North Korea is quite different
from “leftovers” South Koreans produce from making fruit or herbal
wine. The leftover from corn wine is rough, hard, and hale pure
chunks of fiber, so eating it is impossible. You have to mix it
with some powdered grains in order to make it edible, but even that
is pretty rough to swallow. In some poor families, children eat
it without mixing the grains, where it blocks their anuses, often
causing emergency cases.
Kim Jong Il Orders an End to the “Drinking Culture”
The Red Guard Commander Says, “I can’t stop drinking, even if I
were to die”
Some North Koreans are able to drink alcohol when they feel like
it, but in most cases, they only drink on special occasions. For
instance, people say it does not feel like a holiday if they do
not have any alcoholic beverages. For North Koreans, the holidays
However, starting in the mid 1980s, a drinking culture without
any limit to days or occasions started to spread. It led teenagers
to drink heavily and the problem started to become bigger. Sometime
in the 1980s, Kim Jong Il ordered the national police to “completely
destroy the drinking culture led by the parties” and made each party
start ideal strife making Kim’s quote as their slogan. When I was
in North Hamgyeong Province, The Low Level Party Committee had also
started the “ideal strife” with this slogan to get rid of “the drinking
culture” and there were many who were asked to leave their jobs
during this period. It was commonly said, “It is man who starts
drinking alcohol, but when he drinks too much, it is alcohol that
drinks man.” However, the problem with those who had to leave their
jobs in North Korea at the time was not that they drank too much
alcohol, but that they could not drink at all.
When I was the red guard commander and some others who like to
drink lovers at the low level party committee, it was the red guard
commander’s remark that surprised us. He said, “I cannot quit drinking
even if I had to die, so I will limit myself from drinking a lot.”
The party members who were full of their unconscious loyalty towards
Kim Jong Il condemned him by saying, “This is a defiant attitude
against the party and an action that totally disregards Chairman
Kim Jong Il’s order.” The commander answered them by saying, “Pledging
“I will never drink alcohol again” would it not be a false pledge
and that will deceive the party?” It was a reasonable answer. Actually,
the commander enjoyed drinking so much that telling him to quit
drinking alcohol was like telling him to die. However, the price
of being honest was high. He was asked to leave his job and his
status was degraded.
Armed Police Entered University
The all-party effort to get rid of drinking culture led each party,
labor organization, and group’s ideal strife campaign. As a result,
people fond of drinking started the habit of drinking secretly at
night. This secret drinking often caused “incidents.” One of these
incidents was that for the first (and the last) time in North Korea,
armed security guards (policemen) occupied a university and arrested
tens of students.
On May 1, 1993, tens of security guards armed with AK automatic
rifles occupied Pyungsung Veterinarian University. This is how the
incident started. That day was May 1st, Labor day, so it was a holiday
for university students as well. For the students who had to live
under strict rules like in the military, the holiday means a day
of freedom. All of them run out to eat and fill their hungry stomachs.
This is how the problem started. One student may have eaten out
late drinking until he got drunk. On his way back to the dorms,
he saw a pretty girl. He harassed her by saying, “Hey, female comrade,
let’s go together.”
The girl must have gotten scared that a drunken university student
started to talk to her all of sudden. Since university students
wear uniforms too, it is not hard to recognize that he is a student
of a certain university. She stopped walking, turned her back from
the student and hoped that he just passes away. However, the student
tapped on the girl’s shoulder and meandered away, laughing like
he has something funny. A security guard in civilian clothes saw
this and was determined to catch him.
Since the all party campaign was taking place on banning drinking,
it was a good opportunity for him to be awarded. The security guard
started to follow the student. The student seemed to go to Bonghwa
Handgun Factory beside the Pyungsung Veterinarian University, but
then he jumped over the factory fence over to the university.
In North Korea, it is prohibited for university students to drink.
If they are found to be drinking by a professor, one is expelled
from the school or has to go through ideological interrogation.
In that case, he will automatically fail the “works of Kim Il Sung
and Kim Jong Il” courses not because they did not work hard, but
because they drank alcohol against Kim Jong Il’s orders. However,
students in their 20s and 30s cannot evade drinking. Therefore,
they drink secretly off campus and enter the university over the
fences or drink quietly in their dorm rooms hiding from the professors.
That particular university student, probably knowing that if he
enters through the main gate he will be caught by a professor that
can possibly lead to his expulsion, may have jumped over the fence.
The security guard in civilian clothes also jumped over the fence
following the student and he could barely see the student walking
down the dorm hall. He quickly entered the building to catch the
However, the student quickly disappeared and the security guard
did know which room the student entered, so the guard started to
look into every room. At that time, a female student wearing a navy
jacket with red band “daily patrol” stopped him. She asked, “Where
do you belong?”
I will better explain why the security guard had to be stopped
by the “daily patrol.” North Korea’s university dorm system is different
from that of South Korea. No outsider can enter the dorms at any
time. If a visitor wishes to enter the dorms, he must have the approval
of a professor in charge. Also, students of every grade take 24-hour
shifts to patrol the dorms. At night time, there are different students
to vigil over Kim Il Sung, the Kim Jong Il revolution history research
lab, lecture halls, and other main rooms and buildings and in the
day time, students only have to guard Kim Il Sung, the Kim Jong
Il revolutionary history research lab, dorms, and main gate. Students
who have the day shift do have to attend classes. Professors take
turns to manage the student shifts as well. North Korean universities
have the military system. Instead of using terms such as major,
department, and class, they use terms such as solidarity unit, middle
unit, and high unit. In case a war occurs with South Korea, all
they would have to do is distribute guns to students and send them
to the battle field.
For this reason, the female student on duty had to stop the security
guard. The security guard, on the other hand, raised his voice saying
that she is interrupting his work. Alarmed by his loud voice, soon
everyone, including the leader of the solidarity unit surrounded
the security guard.
“You are a security guard. Why did you come into the university?”
“You idiots! I came here to catch a punk who harassed a girl on
The leader of the solidarity unit was enraged by the security guard’s
use of language. Although the leader of the solidarity unit was
a student, his age was about the same as the security guard. This
is because many students enter the university after serving ten
years of military service. While the two exchanged angry words,
the security guard slapped the leader’s cheek. Then the students
of the solidarity unit got angry and beat up the security guard.
Hearing the sound of a fight, student opened their windows one by
one and started to shout, “Beat him to death.”
The security guard who could finally run away from the outraged
students called somewhere in a hurry. Soon later, a truck with tens
of security guards drove into the campus through the main gate and
took away the students of the solidarity unit all handcuffed. Armed
security guards driving into the university was something unthinkable.
The incident was well known in North Korea to be a police action,
but it was an accident actually started due to drinking alcohol.
Unstoppable Drinking Culture
Drink Fast to Get Drunk
The all-party-campaign to get rid of drinking culture ordered by
Kim Jong Il did not last long. On the contrast, a wide spread unspoken
drinking culture arose. It seemed as the party may have decided
that getting rid of drinking culture is impossible. They set the
law that the wedding celebrations must not have more than three
bottles of alcoholic beverages, one must not drink in a group bigger
than three people, and if you really like to drink, then drink alone.
The order was to prevent too many people from gathering together
to drink, because drinking together provides room for people to
complain about the regime frankly. In reality, there are many labeled
as political criminals and sent to concentration camps for complaining
about the regime while drinking.
At the end, prohibiting people from drinking in North Korea became
impossible. Apart from physical difficulties in their daily lives,
people also live through mental challenges such as idolization education
and they tend to become more dependent on alcohol. As more and more
people demanded alcohol which was in little supply, drinking alcohol
became a privilege most people could not enjoy. Like in any other
societies, those in power who own riches could enjoy the privileges.
It is no different for North Korea. It was natural that drinking
started to be considered as the symbol of power and wealth.
Entering the 1990s, there was a clear distinction between those
who could afford drinking and those who could not. In other words,
those who could drink in the upper strata were clearly distinguished
workers, farmers, and common people could not afford to drink. For
example, an average worker must spend a month’s worth of wages to
buy a bottle of alcohol. Drinking alcohol became a way to show off
how much power and money you possessed. It hurt the pride of those
who could not afford to drink. Especially for the young people,
such as those in the military, if they did not drink, they had nothing
to brag about.
Then how could the military afford alcohol? The only way they can
afford to drink alcohol is through stealing military food or supplies.
It would not be wrong to say that 60∼70% of all the clothes common
people are wearing come from military supplies. It is natural for
military supplies to be commonly used in a country where there is
so much military, but a good portion of the supplies are from soldiers
who steal and sell them to people. It is not difficult to witness
soldiers stealing from people.
Many people ask me “what do you have as side dishes when you drink?”
There are many things they eat to drink with such as tofu, bean
sprouts, dried fish, and dried fern, but you only get one of these
foods unlike in Korea where you get various different foods all
at the same time. However, because it is very expensive to buy food,
people drink alcohol alone. Another reason is that by having food
to eat and taking time to drink is to enjoy drinking but in North
Korea, one drinks only to get drunk. For this reason, it is not
hard to find drunken people causing trouble on the streets on holidays.
On the other hand, there are occasions when people also enjoy drinking
as well, especially on special occasions such as weddings, people
drink and sing to enjoy the time. In any case, it must be an important
occasion for the people to be drunk in the first place.
There’s Nothing You Cannot do With a Bottle of Liquor
Since alcoholic beverages are such an unobtainable rarity that is
hard to obtain, a bottle of liquor becomes a valuable item for bribery.
There is nothing you cannot do with a bottle of liquor. When you
need get to somewhere far, if you hold out a bottle of liquor, a
car will stop to take you. If you take a bottle of liquor to the
patrol guarding the corn field, he will close his eyes so you can
pick some corns. If a student gives a bottle of liquor to his professor,
the professor gives the best grades to the student. Even when you
are on a train with your train tickets and travel permission, if
you give the crew a bottle of liquor, you can travel without your
tickets or documents. It is true that the situation is different
according to the environment and quality and quantity of liquor
you have to offer but still, there is nothing you cannot do with
a bottle of liquor.
Kim Jong Il must be put on the “Stage of Criticism”
As I was writing about drinking culture in North Korea, I thought
about this. Kim Jong Il loves drinking with his entourages and high
strata officials yet he tells the entire population of North Korea
to get rid of “drinking culture” and hold an all-party ideology
campaign about it. What nonsense is this? Is he not the one who
must hold ideology campaigns to stop drinking himself?
Recently, there was an article on CNN interview with Jerrold. M.
Post, a former CIA psychologist and present currently a professor
at George Washington University. In the article, Post said “Kim
Jong Il only drinks one particular Hennessy cognac. He spent over
$720,000 U.S. on Hennessy, which made him the best customer of the
Hennessy cognac company.” If the official spending is already this
much, how much would it add up to with all his unknown spending
on alcohol? For the readers who do not know how much $720,000 is,
I should say that if it were for that money, he could have saved
three million North Korean people who died from starvation.
Mao Tsedong once said, “power comes from the gun” but Kim Jong
Il must have spent his younger days thinking “power domes from alcohol
bottles.”Now he in his sixties. He may no longer spend his days
drinking away. Although it is late, I hope he realizes that he could
help the hardships of the North Korean people yet I hear “force
comes from nukes.” It frustrates and angers me that Kim Jong Il
still seems to live in another one of his illusions. The wise North
Korean people will make Kim Jong Il pay for his sins in the near