This post was updated on 03.05.16 to include comment from Germany’s customs office.
Visitors to North Korea often post pictures of the country’s tourist facilities, which usually include at least one fully stocked bar. Despite the North’s claims on the restorative properties of some of the domestic brews, tour groups photos and even those released by state media normally show shelves stocked with foreign made whiskies, wines and beers.
On paper, the source of the alcohol is relatively surprising. Trade figures show that while China by far ships the most booze to the DPRK, in recent years North Korea has recently turned its eye to Europe for its (official) supplies of spirits, wines and beers.
According to figures from the ITC Trade Map, Germany is now the DPRK’s largest supplier of whiskey, vodka and wine, and the North’s second-largest booze supplier overall
According to figures from the ITC Trade Map, Germany is now the DPRK’s largest supplier of whiskey, vodka and wine, and the North’s second-largest booze supplier overall, with some eyebrow-raising shipments possibly butting up against European export bans.
BERLIN, NOT BEIJING
This isn’t to say China has stopped selling anything but beer to the DPRK. China’s shipments include many millions of dollars’ worth of alcohol, which clocks in at an alarming strength of greater than 80 percent.
But exports of whisky, rum, gin and liquors are all at zero, though Beijing also rather unhelpfully categorizes some shipments as “Spirituous beverages, not elsewhere specified.” What those drinks are is unclear, given the other trade categories include everything from tequila to alcoholic cordials, but China could simply be categorizing many drinks together for the sake of convenience.
As with most North Korean trade, the overall volumes of the German shipments are less than those shipped from China, though still cost the DPRK more $630,000 last year alone, and more than $1.5 million in the last three years. Nor are the values caused by misreporting, or a confusion between South and North Korean figures.
“It turned out that in this particular case the country codes for North and South Korea were not confused by the declarants, but the spirits were actually delivered into North Korea,” Konrad Schemer, at Germany’s Federal Statistics Office told NK News.
The number is all the more respectable when considering the legal hurdles and definitions involved, as Germany’s EU membership make the export of high quality alcohol to North Korea illegal.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
Annex III of European Council’s Regulation (EC) No 329/2007 includes a long list of luxury goods which are EU member states are banned from exporting to the DPRK. Many of the items are not included in UN sanctions, but legislated autonomously by the EU.
No. 4 on the list prohibits the export of “high quality wines (including sparkling wines), spirits and spirituous beverages,” though it does little to provide further clarification on what exactly makes a drink of sufficient quality to bar from export.
The problem highlights one of the trickier issues for sanctions regulations and enforcement, which often rears its head when dealing with luxury goods embargoes: With no set definition of the term “luxury,” how a UN resolution is enforced becomes subject to national legislators.
In this case, the EU has defined some alcoholic drinks as luxurious, but not specified which drinks. In so doing shifting the vagueness surrounding the term “luxury good” to a more specific product.
Nonetheless many expensive alcohols would likely fall under most traditional definitions of the term “luxury,” and are unlikely to be bought or drunk by ordinary North Koreans. But in the case of alcohol exports from the EU, the lack of clarity on quality has meant some governments have had to improvise.
“As it is not clear what exactly qualifies as high quality spirits, wine etc. it became administrative practice to set an approximate value per liter liquid (not per liter pure alcohol) which is 20 euro in the case of North Korea. Spirits below this threshold are not considered to be high quality spirits and therefore can be exported to North Korea,” Schemer said.
Whether or not all the alcohol exports heading over to North Korea are high quality under this definition is difficult to check however, with trade data often not including both prices and volumes at very specific levels. Nor is it clear who is doing the calculations, or how the “administrative practice” was decided upon.
‘(We are) not responsible for monitoring and ensuring the compliance with prohibitions of Council Regulation (EC) No. 329/2007’
“(We are) not responsible for monitoring and ensuring the compliance with prohibitions of Council Regulation (EC) No. 329/2007. The German customs administration is responsible for monitoring the foreign trade,” Patrick Ortner from the Federal Office of Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA), told NK News.
However the two organisations seems to have crossed wires, with each believing the other in charge of checking possible sanction breaking alcohol exports to North Korea.
“As there is no particular legal definition for these terms, it is within the competence of the export control authority (Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control) to assess whether the items are subject to the regulations and whether the goods have to be classified as prohibited or not,” Wolfgang Schmitz, press officer from the German customs office said.
SINGLE MALTS AND CHAMPAGNE
Through the confusion it appears that some types of alcohol which aren’t generally considered low quality have made their way across the DPRK’s borders from Europe last year.
The trade figures show single malt whiskies of a value of $3,000 shipped from Germany, and many thousands of dollars’ worth of what are listed as “quality” wines from numerous regions around France.
While Germany also exported “sparkling” wines, Denmark went one step further declaring $2000 worth of “champagne of actual alcoholic strength greater than 8.5” in their shipments to the DPRK last year.
“French wine (in North Korea) tends to be random, lots of Bordeaux but not usually particular brands … Bubbly tends to be German, they don’t have much proper Champagne around and if they do it gets prime spot in the shop,” Troy Collings, DPRK managing director at Young Pioneer Tours told NK News.
While many kinds of blended whiskies and imported beers are often seen around North Korea, tracking where single malts go is more difficult.
“Whiskey in General is mainly Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, Ballantines … Single Malt Whisky isn’t very common, it’s mostly blends,” Collings added.
Simon Cockerell from Koryo Tours agreed, saying he usually only saw Ballantines (a very popular blended whisky) or some higher quality Japanese whiskies.
But overall, the numbers also show that North Korea’s imports of foreign alcohol have dropped dramatically in recent years. While flows from Germany have remained steady, China’s exports dropped by nearly over 50 percent in in 2015.
The news could bode ill for the DPRK’s drinkers, many of whom (at least in Pyongyang) can afford to drink imported beers. Of course, the local alternatives are also plentiful – and might not even cause a hangover.
Featured image: NK News