Just as it already has in South Korea, the culture of dropping a shot of hard liquor into one’s beer is spreading throughout North Korea these days. Now, people are even drinking depth charges, or bomb shots, or, in Korean, “poktan-ju” at ordinary gatherings.
In North Korea, this is normally called a 'mixed drink.' It first became popular a few years ago among those white collar managers who were able to get hold of South Korean movies and TV shows, in which bomb shots are a regular feature.
Additionally, Kim Jong Il is known to be fond of encouraging the drinking of such drinks at his gatherings, because he believes one of the signs of a good leader is alcohol tolerance. Even middle executives have heard this rumor, and a lot of people therefore assume Kim is a good drinker. So they drink it too, claiming, "We should drink courageously, like our Leader." That is where another name for it, “courage drink,” came from.
Out in provincial areas they drink their own version, a mixture of beer and cheap corn alcohol called “Nongtaegi-sul." Middle managers, on the other hand, usually drink a mixture of beer and western liquor. High-ranking officials usually drink 40% whiskey, vodka or cognac with Asahi beer from Japan, Five Star beer from China or, oddly, French wine.
In order to drink western liquor freely, of course, one has to be at least an executive from the Party centre. Locations can include the street full of restaurants behind the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang's Jung-district; there are pubs in the basements of the restaurants there. Also, the Koryo Hotel, Cheongchun Hotel and other western hotels have western style, expensive pubs as well.
When evening comes, managers visit these places to enjoy luxurious bombs made with western liquor, often costing hundreds of dollars. Various types of western alcohol are employed, from relatively cheap western liquor costing from thirty to seventy thousand North Korean won all the way up to Hennessy X.O., which can cost $1000.
At such pubs, a person is also permitted to bring his own western liquor and order only the beer. Many such gatherings are with high-ranking executives must be flattered. To Central Party executives or high-ranking military officers, expensive western liquor costing $1500 per bottle is nothing, so regularly are they bribed with it by foreign currency-earning institutions or liquor merchants.
For example, in 2007, a manager in the Finance and Accounting Department of the Workers’ Party was severely criticized for spending more than $20,000 on drinks for his daughter's wedding. It was revealed that he had maintained many of his relationships by offering French cognac that cost $3000 a bottle.
There is also a cocktail-like version of the basic bomb shot, which is mixed with soda. One third of a cup is filled with ice, the rest is cola (or any other soda), beer and then western liquor. Intoxication comes slowly, so this is popular in summer. Some heavy drinkers use it as hair of the dog, to get over a hangover, and it is often consumed at birthday parties for middle-ranking managers or events celebrating promotions.
Of course, the beneficiaries of this culture are those middle executives from foreign currency-earning institutions who specialize in importing foreign alcohol.
They import the western liquor at a maximum of $150 a bottle and hike the price three to fivefold once it is in North Korea. The customers are not just people running pubs; people who need western liquor for personal reasons are welcome to buy from them as well.
Therefore, those officials in charge of importing foreign drinks for the Foreign Service Bureau in Pyongyang are in an enviable position. They import foreign drinks with the state's money, and yet they make thousands of dollars from personal trades.
According to them, high-ranking officials don't care about the price of western liquor. They even ask to know about any difficulties encountered in running the business, which shows that they consider the work very important for them. Western liquor is the bribe for a senior and gift for a junior, too. Central Party executives and chief secretaries of town, city and provincial Party offer up a bottle of western liquor every national holiday as a “gift” for Kim Jong Il.
Of course, this culture also elevates demand for North Korean hard liquor, not just western liquor. In the 1990s, people started making moonshine out of a few kilograms of corn during the famine. Now, there are people making their own in a semi-industrial manner.
In 2007, one woman dealing in foreign currency in Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province was caught running an illicit distillery in the basement of her house. She was sentenced to fifteen years’ in a reeducation camp for hoarding grain.
Sadly, now that this has become almost the official "courage drink of the Leader," even teenagers are doing it. Some go further. Older students even add methamphetamines to the beer, which is a serious concern for the older generation.
In 2006, there was a teenage gang led by Seong in Musan, North Hamkyung Province. Mimicking a political slogan which means “Defying Death to Safeguard the Leader,” they shouted "Safeguarding Seong" as they drank, which is why what followed was labeled the “Safeguarding Seong Group Incident.”
As is their wont, the North Korean authorities chose to interpret the incident politically. They charged the students with "organizing an unauthorized group" rather than with underage drinking. All the students involved were sent to juvenile reformatory and their parents were exiled to provincial areas.
So, even a teenager can get marked out as a political criminal because of this newfound love of “poktan-ju”.