Beer leader
By Aidan Foster-Carter

On-the-spot guidance, as they call it, has long been a notable aspect of leadership style in North Korea. Kim Il-sung started it, of course: traveling the length of the land, and pronouncing on all and sundry. As supreme leader his word was sacred, even when his advice was unwise, unfeasible or just plain wrong. (In old age he got things' or even people's names wrong, but too bad: they just had to change them.)

His son, shy wallflower that he used to be, was at first slow to follow in Daddy's footsteps. For years Kim Jong-il's public appearances were mainly at military units, no doubt to cement the loyalty of a Korean People's Army (KPA) at first dubious about having a pampered civilian foisted on them as supreme commander. Those trips continue, but in the past year or so the dear leader has also been taking an interest in the economy - not before time. Witness his recent inspection of two of life's fundamentals: beer and toothbrushes.

Yes, really. While my job as a writer is to precis and paraphrase, sometimes I fear this fails to capture the authentic flavor of North Korea's own discourse. Besides, some might suspect me of deliberately picking out only the weird bits. So here, in all its glory, is the Korean Central News Agency's account in its own words, in full:

"PYONGYANG, June 18 (KCNA) - General Secretary Kim Jong Il provided field guidance to the newly built Taedonggang brewery and the toothbrush shop of the Pyongyang daily necessities factory yesterday. The first leg of his inspection was the Taedonggang brewery. All the production processes of the brewery ranging from brewing to fermentation, packing and forwarding are computerized. The brewery equipped with the latest facilities and having a big production capacity was completed in a matter of a little over one year. Kim Jong Il praised its builders for their feats, looking around the structures built on the highest level and the production processes based on the latest technology.

"Watching good quality beer coming out in an uninterrupted flow for a long while, he noted with great pleasure that it has now become possible to supply more fresh beer to people in all seasons. He set forth important tasks [to] serve as a guideline in the management and operation of the brewery. Saying that what is essential is to keep beer tasty, he noted that in order to produce Korean variety of best quality beer with peculiar taste it is necessary to conduct tireless researches into it and actively introduce advanced technology into brewing. Underscoring the importance of sufficiently providing packing things and containers and taking thorough-going measures for carriage, while boosting the beer production in order to enable our people to drink beer regularly, he detailed ways to do so.

"The next leg of his inspection was the toothbrush shop of the Pyongyang daily necessities factory newly equipped with the latest facilities. Seeing varieties of quality toothbrushes produced to suit the characteristic features of people of diverse ages from children to the old, he was greatly pleased to learn that the issue of toothbrush for the people has found a perfect solution. Stressing the need to put the production of toothbrush and toothpaste on a normal footing as they are indispensable daily necessities, he took measures to do so. He was accompanied by Kim Il Chol, minister of the People's Armed Forces, Kim Kuk Thae and Kim Ki Nam, secretaries of the Central Committee of the WPK, and other senior officials."

What can one possibly add? A few things. One: Why on earth was the defense minister in this party? (Maybe the brewery was giving out free samples.) Two: Half a century of socialism, and they still haven't gotten toothbrushes or toothpaste sorted yet? I can testify to that, having sampled North Korean ginseng toothpaste. It tasted like soap - if it could be squeezed out of the tube at all, which was rarely.

Sampling the beer is less unpleasant. I used to find the local Ryongsong brand palatable enough with meals - until one night in the Koryo Hotel bar, after an evening on Kirins, the barman told me I was in North Korea and should drink Korean. (Yup, in Pyongyang it's the barman who gives you the order, not vice versa.) After the smooth Japanese brew, that Ryongsong did taste rough. But I smiled, and supped.

No doubt Taedonggang will be an improvement. It should be, because what KCNA didn't tell us is that the plant is British. Two years ago, Thomas Hardy Brewing put up the 175-year-old Ushers brewery in Trowbrige, Wiltshire, for sale. Approached by what they took to be South Koreans, the Hardy folk were "a bit shocked" to find the buyers were from the North. Two million US dollars changed hands, and a North Korean team dismantled Ushers to ship it lock, stock and, er, barrel to Pyongyang - to make lager. Sacrilege!

But I'm a real ale man. Whereas I fear that the dear leader, like most of the world, equates beer with that insipid stuff whose color - and taste, some say - so resembles what it ends up as. Now if Kim Jong-il fancies continuing those "tireless researches" in Yorkshire, I'd gladly introduce him to Theakston's Old Peculier, or the ultimate nectar of the gods: Timothy Taylors Landlord. A couple of pints, and we'd have all the peninsula's problems sorted in no time. A deal, comrade? And it's on the house.

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Jul 30, 2002


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