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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Update, December 30: the official website of the Indonesian embassy in Pyongyang has since this story was published deleted their article on the visit to the beer factory
North Korea’s biggest and most well-known beer brewery, the Taedonggang Beer Factory, may be set to expand its exports to Indonesia following a visit by Jakarta’s ambassador last week.
The government-owned brewery has been exploring more collaborations and foreign partnerships in recent years, but is still currently only available domestically and in China.
The Indonesian embassy in Pyongyang said in a tweet Friday that Ambassador Berlian Napitupulu made a “working visit” to the brewery “to explore untapped potential cooperation between Indonesia and the DPRK.”
A post on the embassy’s official website provided further details, saying the December 12 visit to the factory was aimed at opening economic opportunities for bilateral trade in the food and beverage field.
Ambassador Berlian said he expects both Taedonggang Beer to be exported to Indonesia as well as for North Korea to import Indonesian beer as part of boosted trade in this sector.
“In the future, they plan to expand the business to a number of countries,” Berlian said in the embassy report. “We can seize this opportunity, including making Indonesia a hub for marketing [Taedonggang Beer] products in Southeast Asia.”
The factory’s chief engineer Ri Hae Nam reportedly responded that he hoped the two sides would get together and increase cooperation through making “concrete action plans.”
Regarding Taedonggang’s existing international business, Berlian reportedly learned during his tour last week that in just a single year, the government-owned factory had achieved $2 million USD worth of sales to China.
Beer exports are not included in the list of sanctioned goods under UN Security Council resolutions.
Nonetheless, the Indonesian ambassador may have been referring to obstacles to trade brought by sanctions when saying the two sides will continue to use “creative and outside-the-box ways to overcome existing obstacles and challenges.”
INDONESIA-DPRK TRADE BOOST
The booth of the Indonesian embassy is a staple at Pyongyang’s biannual international trade fairs, with recent appearances touting the number of the country’s consumer goods already available and apparently popular in North Korea.
Following the most recent Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair in September, the embassy reported on its website that North Korean “entrepreneurs” expressed interest in importing Indonesian products, and that some even claimed to be officially registered to purchase them “for domestic use and for resale.”
The products weren’t for sale in the booth, the embassy said, and were all collected from North Korean shops in an active survey made in Pyongyang and Wonsan by embassy staff since April, having already been imported through unknown means.
Indonesian products are known among North Koreans, it said, to be of good quality and affordable, with the ten most popular items being laundry detergent and fabric softener, dish soap, shower gel, surface cleaner, baby formula, baby food, snacks, prepared food seasoning packs, and coffee.
In a report on his presentation of credentials to first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) Choe Ryong Hae in October, Ambassador Berlian also named some other areas of priority for enhanced cooperation between the two countries.
These include increasing cultural and sports exchanges, animal exchanges for zoo displays, Indonesian tourism to the DPRK, and cooperation in education.
During his meeting with top North Korean official Choe, Berlian reportedly suggested Indonesian President Joko Widodo and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un “meet and continue to ignite the spirit of friendship” between the two countries.
PYONGYANG’S SUDSY SOFT POWER
Besides seeing new interest from Indonesia, the Taedonggang Beer Factory has also seen a profile boost in the last year with their first-ever participation in an international beer festival, in Demark last May.
Four representatives from the Pyongyang brewery traveled to Copenhagen with kegs of Taedonggang beer to sell and serve at the annual Mikkeller Beer Celebration.
The trip was a result of years of consultations between Mikkeller and Taedonggang organized and facilitated by Koryo Tours, one of the top western-focused agencies offering tours into North Korea.
Mikkeller founder and CEO Mikkel Borg Bjergsø said in a company blog post at the time that, despite some negative attitudes about North Korea, he was “convinced that interaction is a positive thing” and that “this way, at least we can learn more about the country and hopefully also contribute to the DPRK getting to know a little bit more about the world outside of their country.”
The report said Mikkeller plans to “return and brew a collaboration with Taedonggang in the near future.” The product would likely only be brewed and sold in limited amounts within North Korea, the company later told NK News.
As far as being able to handle more exports, there are doubts as to the capacity of the brewery without expanding given the high demand of its brews domestically.
Taedonggang brews have nonetheless been a sought-after item for western importers as well due to the intrigue of a “North Korean beer” among some consumers, but so far such attempts have been unsuccessful.
The brewery was, notably, originally the Ushers of Trowbridge brewery in Wiltshire, England before being purchased in its entirety by the North Korean government in 2000, brick-by-brick and with all machinery and equipment included.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Embassy of Indonesia in Pyongyang