Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question comes from Jason in Arlington, Virginia:
How do North Koreans get alcoholic beverages? Are there bars or pubs? Can you get alcohol for consumption at home? Also, how old is the minimum drinking age?
There are various ways to purchase liquor in North Korea. You can buy them at the market, at the factory where the liquor is produced or even from a home brewer.
People go straight to the factory and pay for booze with their cash
Firstly, how can you buy booze directly from the factory in non-capitalist North Korea? People go straight to the factory and pay for booze with their cash. Or they acquire booze from someone working at the factory whom they are connected with. There were famous beer breweries in my hometown in North Korea. North Koreans make a variety of liquor but they can all fall into two big categories: Liquor labeled “No. 1,” brewed exclusively for the “Dear General,” and liquor labeled “No. 2,” brewed for everybody else in the country. You cannot buy the liquor labeled No. 1 from the market, but you can still obtain it if you’re well-connected. The liquor labeled No. 1 is made from potatoes, thus it tastes better and, most importantly, doesn’t give drinkers a hangover the next morning. Apart from potato-based alcohol, there is a wide variety of liquor made from blueberries, acorns and matrimony vine in North Korea.
Secondly, you can buy booze at the local markets. Home brewers buy bottles and labels from local factories and make liquor by themselves at home, which they later use to fill the previously purchased bottles with. Actually, home breweries are not allowed in North Korea. However, since too many people are already making them at home to sell them later in the markets, the authorities cannot control them all. In the past, only domestic booze was allowed to be sold in the markets, but imported booze (including Chinese liquor) began to emerge at local markets. The most widely seen foreign booze is the famous Kaoliang Liquor from China. As most North Korean booze boasts a high percentage of alcohol, Chinese Kaoliang Liquor (46-50 percent alcohol) and vodka are popular among North Koreans.
DRUNK ON HOME BREW
In my hometown, one out of 10 households brewed liquor at home. The most widely used ingredients were potatoes and corn. Liquor produced in my hometown was usually stronger than those of other regions due to the inclement, harsh winters. North Koreans have a different name for Korea’s famous soju. We used to call it nongtaegi in North Korea. North Korean soju usually contains 20-25 percent alcohol in other regions. However, they would range between 28-30 percent alcohol in my hometown. North Koreans are heavy drinkers and they greatly enjoyed drinking. Thus, we would occasionally run low on booze, and it was almost inconceivable for us to have any leftover booze in my hometown.
My mom brewed liquor at home in order to sell it. Hence, I can tell you how North Koreans brew liquor at home. My mom usually made corn-based liquor at home. Firstly, she would leave corn powder with yeast on the heated floor and cover it with a blanket. Mom would leave it on the heated floor like that for 10 hours. But you have to make sure that the temperature doesn’t get too high. When you see the malt forming at the top of the liquid, she would pour it into a jar and mix it with warm water and wait until it became fermented. After that, she poured it in the gamasot (cauldron) and boiled it. When it started boiling and the steam came out it, that’s the magical moment when the liquid becomes what we call “liquor.” The final product was always transparent and had a soft taste.
I still remember when I got drunk after gulping down a mug of the liquor-in-the-making out of my mom’s gamasot. While my mom was away, my friend and I began drinking one cup of liquor after another. We got drunk and can’t remember what happened after that. But when my mom came home, she later told us that the house looked as if a big storm had swept through it. We don’t remember what exactly we did to trash the house but we know for sure that we kept giggling and had a good time. That’s the magic alcohol does to you, right? I have to admit, my friend and I kept drinking secretly whenever my mom was not home after that, as well.
I wasn’t the only one in the family who knew how to appreciate booze. My dad was another person who greatly enjoyed drinking. There was a beer factory in the vicinity of my house and my dad and his friends would bring 50-60 liters of beer home. My dad and his friends would drink these down all night long. They would jokingly say “We drink beer so we can go to the toilet more often.” That’s how bad their sense of humor was. Once they started drinking at 9 p.m., all the booze were gone by the time I woke up the next morning.
People in my hometown considered beer a soft drink
People in my hometown considered beer a soft drink. Yes, we didn’t see it as alcohol. Thanks to this, both adults and children helped themselves to beer. It didn’t matter whether you were an adult or underage. As long as you enjoyed the taste of beer, you were free to drink whenever you wanted to.
Bars aren’t easily found in North Korea – at least they weren’t in my hometown. People turn to restaurants to drink. There are some kiosks at North Korean markets where people drink as well. However, since it is illegal to sell booze in open markets, they sell them covertly. Until 2000, North Koreans weren’t used to dining out. So, they usually drank at home. However, by 2010, North Koreans became familiar with dining out after coming into contact with South Korean and Chinese cultures. When I was in North Korea, there was only one restaurant in my hometown where they served liquor, professionally, on the premises and it was run by Chinese people. Such restaurants were popular, at least for those who could afford them.
The legal drinking age in North Korea is officially 18. But no one seems to care about it: It was normal for North Korean children to buy booze on errands for their parents. It was such a small town, after all. Liquor vendors knew every kid in the neighborhood. Hence, they would hand over liquor to the children on errands without any hesitation because they knew their parents well.
And despite the official legal drinking age being 18 in North Korea, on New Year’s and public holidays, adults would recommend a drink or two to boys around the age of 15. In Korean culture, it is rude for younger people to smoke next to adults. However, it is perfectly fine for them to drink along with older people.
Personally, I enjoy drinking alcohol. So, I would always drink with my dad. I became my dad’s favorite drinking buddy and he always appreciated my company. I can’t wait to toast and drink with him sooner than later.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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