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Starving for a Beer

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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It's become an all too familiar tale: A naïve, amoral Westerner travels to Stalinist North Korea and returns with breathless tales of what a wacky, weird, and wild time he had there! (Somehow, the country’s extensive gulag never makes it onto the visitor’s itinerary.)

Landov

Landov

No, we’re not just talking about former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Wired magazine’s British edition reported recently on one Josh Thomas, an advertiser and “amateur microbrewer” who traveled to North Korea recently to explore its “beer culture.” Yes, it turns out that North Korea has one, in the sense that the grotesquely self-indulgent Pyongyang elite have opened a few breweries while their countrymen in the hinterlands starve.

The tone that Wired takes in its write-up is glib: Headlined “Kim Jong-Ale,” it begins by tossing off a reference to North Korea as a country that “commonly experiences famines.” But Thomas, the beer-o-phile, is the real scoundrel here. The first warning sign is that throughout the piece, he refers to North Korea as the “DPRK,” the regime’s preferred name for the country. (It stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) And, unsurprisingly, Thomas seemingly walked around with blinders—or were they beer goggles?—blissfully unaware of or indifferent to the fact that he was visiting the world’s most brutal regime.

He lauds, for example, North Korea’s tradition of Maoist self-criticism: “One element pervasive in North Korean society is a willingness to ask for a critique of one’s work. I believe this to be an element of their socialist upbringing where they were constantly critiquing and judging their own and other’s work. She was extremely receptive, probably more than most brewers, to learn from my opinions.”

Thomas also admonishes would-be visitors to North Korea: “Do not travel to the DPRK unless you have a deep understanding of the culture and have spent a significant amount of time learning about who they are and what they believe. Agree or disagree with their system and politics, you are visiting their country and you are their guest. You are there to listen and be respectful, as an ambassador of your country.” Would that he had clammed up after the first six words.

Amusingly, Thomas accidentally admits how perverse the presence of a North Korean beer industry is. “Beer is one of the simplest things to make in the entire world,” he says. “If you can make porridge, you can make beer. If you can make congee, you can make beer. If you can make bread, you can make beer.” What’s more, he informs us, “Famine aside, beer seemed to be quite readily available.” 

So there you have it: Even as North Korea refuses to supply its people with the aforementioned bread and congee, its regime uses its limited foodstuffs to brew itself beer. Maybe the Pyongyang elite needs the suds to drown its shame.

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