On Not Toasting Kim Jong‑Un
Let me get this out of the way right now: I didn’t have to toast to Kim Jong-un.
I didn’t have to toast to the downfall of American capitalist pigs, either. Or apologize for Team America: World Police, or the whole “axis of evil” thing. No one asked me if I knew Dennis Rodman. And, despite the ribbing that I still get to this day, I’m confident that my drink wasn’t spiked with a brainwashing drug that made me forget where they keep all the nukes.
But I can also say that when I sat down to a beer in the only brewery in the capital of North Korea, I was expecting a little more pageantry.
Outside, the sun was setting on what had been a brisk but otherwise clear day in a bustling city full of winding lines of workers cramming themselves onto 50-year-old Czechoslovakian trams and East German buses. But my friend Mark and I weren’t watching an unforgettable ruby-red sunset over the bizarrely massive, hollow pyramid that is the guest-less Ryugyong Hotel. No, we were in the North Korean equivalent of a tasting room, a dim, windowless room deep in the bowels of a nondescript building, below a department store for the Pyongyang elite that sold Chinese rice makers, fermented potato drinks, and booze from Russia, China, and Cuba.
Still, I was excited to be drinking in the Dadong Brewery bar. The DKRP required us to be in the company of two guides (they hated the term “minders”) whenever we weren’t in our hotels, but, no, they weren’t robots. Sure, Lee and Cho (not their real names) occasionally let loose with some predigested line about “imperialist American lapdogs,” but we imperialist American lapdogs knew they didn’t think of us that way personally any more than we thought of them personally as mindless drones slaving away for a military cult of personality bent on global destruction.
One thing Lee and Cho didn’t do, though, was drink, at least not with us. From what we gathered, for them, drinking was a seductive capitalist vice—after all, on the sets of the state film studio that churns out a never-ending supply of morality tales set during the Japanese occupation or the Korean War, the bars that cater to American soldiers and their South Korean girlfriends are invariably located next door to VD clinics. Getting a buzz on with a pair of Americans was the step immediately before spending a lifetime battling syphilis. But today we were finally going to get our drink on with the North Koreans.
Like I said, the atmosphere wasn’t exactly convivial. We were the only patrons, taking up one of three or four small tables. The décor wasn’t more than a potted palm tree in the corner and a generic North Korean landscape painting. There wasn’t even a TV, and there were TVs everywhere in that country.
A woman materialized out of the shadows, spoke briefly to the senior of our guides, and we waited for her to translate.
“Welcome to Dadong Brewery,” Lee said. “Today we have two choices of beer: light beer, or dark.”
So far I’d only had Dadong’s lager. I’d like to be able to relate a lengthy, florid description of it from first scent to that last drip of flavor sliding down my throat, but whenever I recall it, I think “warm Heineken.”
“So is the dark like a stout?” I asked. “Or a porter?”
Another flurry of whispers between Lee and the waitress.
“Sorry, she doesn’t understand what you are asking,” Lee said.
“The dark beer, is it a porter? Is it really dark and malty? Or does it have a big, foamy head—”
“Yes,” Lee said. I knew the country well enough by then to know that was my cue to shut up and take what was given to me.
“OK, I’ll get the dark, then.”
The waitress vanished, reappeared, and whispered in Lee’s ear.
“Michael, you will be having the light beer,” Lee said with a smile.
Apparently, they were out of dark beer. Mark and I craned our necks around the empty room in search of any hidden dark-beer fiends who might’ve swallowed an entire brewery’s supply of one of its two offerings. Nope, just us.
“You will like the light beer,” Lee said.
I didn’t, really, but Mark and I drank our warm North Korean beers in a small, windowless room in the recesses of a department-store building while our guides took a sip or two then shoved their glasses away, and the day turned to night as Pyongyang went dark. Then Mark and I got loaded on Russian vodka when we got back to the hotel.