As some of you may know, I recently returned from a week-long trip to visit my parents (and Owen!) at their new home in South Korea. It was awesome and I did a lot in that short time, but that isn’t the topic of this post. Sure, I had a few beer- and alcohol-related experiences, with soju (Korean cheap vodka?), Cass beer, makle (Korean rice wine), even a maklerita at this Mexican/Korean fusion restaurant, which was delightful. But the most important by far was when I drank my first, and probably last, glass (and by glass I mean paper cup) of North Korean beer.
My parents had both been to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and JSA (joint security area between North and South Korea) before and, well, they didn’t really want to go again. So I boarded the USO tour bus all by my lonesome, not knowing quite what to expect, but hoping that I dressed warm enough. The bus was completely full with all sorts of tourists, but only a handful of Americans, myself included. I sat next to a young Malaysian man, who I gave up trying to converse with when I said, “Where are you from in Malaysia? I used to live in KL.” There was a long pause and then he said, “Penang?” He spent the majority of the bus rides sleeping on my shoulder while I tried to hold back laughter. Oddly enough, I saw him at the Seoul airport when I was waiting for my flight home. Crazy.
After a short and very cold bus ride (the windows were frosted on the inside and outside), we arrived at Camp Boniface where a nice army soldier (his name was Srgt Blood, I shit you not), gave us a ‘briefing’ followed by a generally surly tour, where I decided he hated his job not only because he had to do this stupid civillian tour three times a week, but he wasn’t even in Seoul living on the sweet base with his buddies (which, a young GI later told me as I waited for my parents to escort me onto the base, actually “wasn’t really his cup of tea.”). We walked in two single-file lines a lot, had to wear special ‘guest’ badges (that Srgt Blood insisted be on our outermost clothing on our left lapel) and couldn’t gesture, wave, point, or do anything that would either a) incriminate us to the observing North Koreans as an act of violence/aggression or b) that they could use as propaganda saying how terrible the outside world is. I was very anxious the entire time.
The DMZ is two kilometers on either side of the division between the two countries, and the JSA is the nice little place where the two countries come together for talks and to be generally petty (historically-speaking). We stood in two rows at the top of a small set of stairs facing the North Korean side of the DMZ, about a hundred meters in front of us. This was an especially important place not to gesture in any way, as one of the North Korean guards was standing at the top of his own set of stairs across the way, watching us closely, waiting. He stood next to a room with a curtain slightly open, just enough to see a camera scanning across our small crowd. Srgt Blood stood towards us when he talked so they wouldn’t read his lips, telling us the long sordid tale of various acts of aggression and compromises and broken promises. It all felt very theatrical, but in a life or death kind of way. I imagine it is not unlike how one feels at a Medieval Times (you know, the staged jousting match where everyone calls each other wenches and they serve you turkey legs and you’re forced to root for the blue team or the red team, depending on what side of the arena you’re sitting on). Like that, but with soldiers and rules that when broken, could have some serious repercussions.
Every place we stopped had a gift shop that sold various North Korean crafts or DMZ-related goods (like pieces of the barbed wire from the fence); this is where I bought Mike a bottle of North Korean made blueberry wine. We stopped at the ‘Third Tunnel,’ one of the tunnels South Koreans discovered their brothers to the north built in an effort to infiltrate Seoul, and climbed to the bottom until we hit the wall that indicates, this time from underground, the division between the two nations (this time, there was no guards, only men in hardhats). We oohed and ahhed and after the trek back up, were ready for lunch. At this point, I was making friends; I met a group of three British guys (Hannah would’ve loved it) who teased me mercilessly for ‘having a thing’ for Srgt Blood (which I did not, he was married anyway). But it was nice to have friends who could encourage me to take photos in front of various ‘photo spots,’ but especially with the young Korean conscript guards who really just wanted to bro it up with the British guys.
After much touring and standing out in the cold while our guide pointed out various parts of North Korea on the horizon (there is a village on the North Korean side of the DMZ that many refer to as ‘Propaganda Village’ that is basically a ‘multimillion dollar stage set’ of a town, used as a facade to keep up appearances. It is home to a flagpole that is taller with a larger flag than that of the town’s counterpart on the South Korean side, auspiciously called ‘Freedom Village’), it was finally time for lunch. We stopped at what she described as ‘the last stop before North Korea,’ a building on the border to the DMZ that some of the villagers from Freedom Village commute through to work (and by work, I mean farm, and they get paid a pretty penny for it, tax free; they make somewhere near $300,000 a year farming this land). It was a pretty bleak building that could have been another uninhabited train station (the other one we visited had been defunct for years because, well, there are no trains going to North Korea) despite the journalists who were milling around just in case something happened. But, lucky for us, our guide told us, we could get beer with our lunch—North Korean beer no less—for the small price of $10/bottle.
I was ecstatic, but I could not justify $10 for a bottle of what I assumed was another half-assed Asian pilsner (a la Tiger Beer from Thailand). So I asked my newly-made friends (thank God they were British) if they wanted to split a bottle with me. One of them, the more rambunctious of the lot, looked at me, back at his friends, and said, “Well, there are four of us. Let’s split two for $5 each.” We waited patiently in line for our cafeteria-style lunch of rice and veggies, miso soup, and satsuma (which I argued was actually just a tangerine, I will never know the difference), but as we neared the head of the line, we got nervous: there were only three bottles left. I shifted my weight between my feet as we made snide comments back and forth about how we would’ve punched the people in front of us if they took the last bottles. The young man in front of me laughed and said, “Don’t worry, we don’t want the beer.” I forgot, that guy was from Singapore and him and his girlfriend spoke great English. And at that moment, the staff brought half a dozen more bottles. We would get our North Korean beer.
I snagged a table near the end of the food line and four paper cups that said, “Have a break?” on them so we could split the beers evenly; I was not about to let these charming British men cheat me out of my fair share of a good story. Stuart grinned and poured the first bottle into the cups and handed them to us. Hungry as all hell, we ignored them, and the novelty they presented, chattering away and eating our rice. “Wait, has anyone tried the beer?” I asked. “Nope,” John said (the English teacher, living in Korea, who his ‘lads’ were visiting). I grabbed my beer and eagerly went to drink it. “What do you think you’re doing, Lizzypoo?” Stuart said. “First we cheers!” And as the first sips poured down our throats, I wasn’t thinking about the sights I’d seen, the Propaganda Village with the large phallic symbol, the green-suited guard closely observing us, the active minefields that flanked the road we drove on to get there, or the seemingly minute anecdotes that Srgt Blood told us about the historical interactions between the two countries. I was thinking about beer and only beer.
We paused for a second, taking it in. “That’s a proper pilsner,” Ryan (the third one and probably the one I could understand least) said. We all nodded. “Not like those American beers I know you like,” Stuart smirked. “Shutuuuuuup,” I said. “We have plenty of good beers in the States, you just haven’t heard of them.” As I tried to explain Surly and the wonder of the Furious to the unwilling British men, we enjoyed our North Korean pilsner. “Five quid a piece, it has to be good,” John said. I learned the nuance of British beers and how they are all superior to American brews because they come in big cans (“Bigger than pints?!” I asked, in awe), as we downed the second bottle for fear of our tour guide giving us the five minute warning and saying “Free time is almost over.” She did this many times during the tour, much to Stuarts ‘highly cultured’ chagrin, who claimed he wasn’t getting enough time at the sub-par museums (to be honest, it was just a lot of dioramas. But I did learn that the DMZ is actually a protected wildlife preserve in South Korea).
As we fought over who was going to keep the bottles, we all agreed none of us had space in our suitcases to bring it back, so we might as well get a lot of photos. Ryan took one of the bottles and insisted I take the other (the label less perfect of the two). Unfortunately, as predicted, it didn’t fit in my bag and I ended up leaving it in my parents’ living room, where it will probably get recycled. Like the experience, the bottle stays. Although the bottle is empty, and the beer is long gone, the taste remains on my tongue. With a sip and a sigh, I thought, “Oh good, the North Koreans make beer.” And a good beer at that. Have a break?