Wine entrepreneur gets peace of the action in Korea
As entrepreneurs in South Korea pursue the peace dividend, a Korean-Frenchwoman is promoting a “peace wine” – courtesy of the Red Cross
War sells. Does peace? So it would appear – in South Korea, at least.
The April inter-Korean summit bought more than good vibes to the Korean peninsula; canny entrepreneurs sniffed an opportunity. Now, peace-branded merchandise is not hard to find.
Roasting in the summer heat? For a cool KRW10,000 (US$9) acquire a “Wind of Peace” USB fan, plug it into your PC and chill. For a summer look fully in synch with the wind of détente, don a peace t-shirt – emblazoned with the silhouettes of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un walking hand-in-hand – for a mere KRW18,900. Of course, your look is hardly complete without a “Peace Commemoration Silver Medal” – a snip at KRW89,000. And even your most critical personal gadget can get with the groove: smartphone covers depicting a unified peninsula cost a mere KRW14,000.
A young Korean-Frenchwoman is now also getting in on the game – with a peace-branded alcoholic beverage that comes to Korea courtesy of the German Red Cross. And her aims are as idealistic as they are commercial.
Getting a peace of the action
Sarah Soo-kyung Henriet, 31, ditched a career as a Washington wonk dealing with North Korea to return to the peninsula where she grew up. “I was working for a policy think tank, Pacific Forum and I was in Washington DC running a US-Korea leadership program – Northeast Asia and a lot of North Korean stuff,” she said. “I was pretty tired of the same conversation for all those years, I did not feel like the voice of young professionals truly mattered.”
Henriet was inspired by the 2016 “candlelit revolution” – the series of mass, peaceful demonstrations in central Seoul that resulted in the overthrew of then-President Park Geun-hye, opening the door for the 2017 election that saw current President Moon Jae-in – hugely popular among young people – assume office.
Sensing an even bigger change was imminent on the flashpoint peninsula, she felt the urge to do “something creative in diplomacy” – but was not attracted to state-to-state work. “I don’t think diplomacy is exclusively done by governments or think tanks or individuals with money or big corporations,” she said.
The child of a French father and a Korean mother, she grew up in South Korea and in France’s Bordeaux region. It was Bordeaux’s most iconic product that she chose for her “diplomatic” venture. “At a lot of diplomatic events in my career, I always saw wine,” she said. “It occurred to me that wine is a gateway for people to open their hearts and talk about sensitive issues – wine is such a powerful force!”
After trips to China and North Korea, she settled in Seoul and established a wine distribution company, Soodevie. (The name is a portmanteau of the Korean word soo, or water, and the French words de vie, or of life. So: “Water of Life.”) Like many young South Koreans, she was both excited and deeply moved by the April inter-Korean summit. She sought to memorialize it in the form of fermented grape juice.
“When the summit happened in April – finally! We are talking! – I knew I had to capture it somehow,” she said. “I wanted to find a wine that would carry the message of hope for peace.”
However, the wine she chose was not French.
Idealistic entrepreneurs ferment peace, one bottle at a time
Seeking a winemaker with a relevant story, she came across Germany winery Cusanus Hofgut, which was established by the German Red Cross in Mosel in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Among its varietals, it produced a Riesling – the preferred libation of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw the reunification of the two Germanys.
Henriet contacted the winery and arranged a rebrand of Cusanus Hofgut’s riesling.
The label design was done by Korean artists in New York and in Seoul in folk art style. Featuring a subdued Buddhist lotus and the seeds of hope, it is printed on traditional-style paper.
The wine was branded “Bomi” (Korean for “Born in the spring”). The name had been suggested by North Koreans Henriet had met on her trip into the country, as a tourist, in April. “A week before the summit, they could not say the word ‘summit,’ but our guide felt comfortable saying, ‘spring wind,’” she said. “I understood it right away, and that inspired me.”
The first shipment of 100 bottles was numbered, and Bomi was launched among Seoul’s diplomatic community in an event in central Seoul in July. In gratitude for the support of the German ambassador, he was given bottle 15, because “He is the 15th German ambassador to Korea,” Henriet said. “And we gave the eighth bottle to the 8th UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.”
Soodevie hopes to present bottle number one to Moon himself. Henriet is approaching the presidential Blue House but has not yet found a channel to reach the president. “We want to make sure that we give it to him personally,” Henriet said. “We’re not sure if it will get to him if we give it indirectly.”
In addition to Seoul’s diplomatic community – Choo Ji-won, Soodevie’s communications head, likes to refer to the wine as “Diplo-bomi” – another marketing target for Soodevie is the Unification Ministry. Diplomats and bureaucrats may rest easy over price. In a country where a bottle of European vino often costs well north of 100,000 won, Bomi retails at a surprisingly reasonable 70,000 won.
Choo admits that the aims of the “social impact project” Soodevie is engaged in are idealistic, but believes that the young generation on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone now have a more realistic chance than ever of making substantive change.
“Kim needs change: He needs support from the population and he wants some change in terms of the economy,” said Choo, 30. “We are different from the older generation. We do not remember the war, we can see this moment from a new perspective. Kim Jong-un and [his wife] Ri Sol-ju and us, we are the same age. We are a different generation.”
A North Korean fan – and a bottle for Kim?
Bomi has already won one fan who hails from the other side of the DMZ: North Korean exile Kim Ryen-hi, who – like a number of other defectors – expresses her wish to see her friends, family and hometown north of the border again.
“It feels great and refreshing – it makes me feel like I am floating!” she said at a tasting in Seoul last Friday. “Now, spring has come to the peninsula, it is such an honor to taste a drop of wine produced in a reunified Germany. I hope that Korea will be reunified sometime soon, so I can taste a unified Korean wine. The thought of it makes my heart beat. “
After the first 100 bottles of Bomi, some 600 have been shipped from Germany to Korea. Henriet would like to see one of those bottles on a table in front of none other than North Korean Kim Jong-un – widely known as an enthusiastic tippler. That could happen if Soodevie’s outreach to Seoul’s Unification Ministry and the Blue House bear fruit, for Kim and Moon are scheduled to meet for a third summit this autumn.
Wine, as a luxury item, may be a sanctioned product, but Henriet is unperturbed. “Wine is about creating an opportunity for people to talk,” she said. “To break barriers.”