North Korea Starts Selling Popular Beer Brand in China

north-korea-taedonggang-beer-border-village-aug11-2011.jpg Bottles of North Korea's Taedonggang beer are for sale at a souvenir shop near Munsan, South Korea, a few kilometers from the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, Aug. 11, 2011.

A North Korean beer brand rarely available in China up to now has been spotted on grocery store shelves in cities close to the North Korean border, although the brew is too highly priced for Chinese consumers, sources said.

“There is a billboard advertising Taedonggang beer on the roadside in front of the Dandong train station,” said a Chinese resident of the border city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, who declined to be named.

“Even the daily newspaper has revealed the state-owned, North Korean beer company’s address and phone number of the brewery’s offices in China,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “It seems that China has officially imported Taedonggang beer.”

Taedonggang beer, named after the river that runs through North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, sells for 20 yuan (U.S. $3.09) per 640-milliliter (22-fluid ounce) bottle in stores in Dandong and Shenyang in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, four times more than the price of domestic Chinese beer brands which typically cost 5 yuan (U.S. $0.77) per bottle, sources said.

North Korea, which was hit with tough new international sanctions in March for conducting another nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, has had to step up efforts to participate in markets abroad to generate foreign currency to finance the regime of national leader Kim Jong Un.

So far, the beer’s distribution has been limited in China—North Korea’s largest trading partner—and is only available in stores that offer Korean and other foreign products and ones in areas with growing Korean communities, sources in Shenyang and Dandong said.

“Some grocery stories have been selling Taedonggang beer most recently, but there is only a small quantity, which is why other people still don’t know about it,” a Chinese resident of Shenyang said.

Good quality, high price

Even though the taste and quality of the full-bodied lager, which has a five-percent alcohol content, are appealing, Chinese consumers will not buy the beer at such a high price, sources said.

“Although the alcohol content of the beer is slightly higher than that of Chinese beer, the North Korean beer has a dark color and a smooth taste,” said a Chinese source who has tried the beer at a restaurant in Dandong.

“The quality of the North Korean beer is fairly good, but I think it will be difficult for Chinese consumers to drink it often because it is too expensive,” he said.

China imposes a 17 percent value-added tax and 250 yuan (U.S. $39) per ton on foreign beers, said a North Korean who lives in China.

“Taedonggang beer’s price of 20 yuan is very high considering the market margin and importers’ profit,” he said.

In North Korea, foreigners can buy the beer at hotels, but they pay an inflated price for it as a means of bringing in foreign currency.

North Koreans can buy bottles of Taedonggang for the equivalent of about 1 yuan (U.S. $0.15) each on the black market, sources said.

“It seems that the fixed beer price is due to the import price, meaning the retail price in North Korea itself is high,” the North Korean source said.

Showpiece brewery

Taedonggaang got its start in the early 2000s when former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acquired a defunct British brewery. A team of North Koreans traveled to the plant site in Trowbridge, a county town of Wiltshire, England, where they dismantled the brewery and reassembled it in Pyongyang. The plant began operating as the Taedonggang Beer Factory in 2002.

The regime ensured that the showpiece brewery had abundant supplies of fresh water and quality ingredients to manufacture the brew, while millions of its largely impoverished people were undernourished from a lack of food.

North Korea began exporting Taedonggang to South Korea a few years later, but the South Koreans stopped importing it in mid-2007 after the regime suddenly hiked its price, according to a Reuters report in March 2008.

In 2012, Britain’s The Economist magazine ruffled feathers in South Korea with an article that contrasted Taedonggang with what it called the South’s “boring beer” and said “brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South.”  

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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