If you're living in America, getting an understanding for North Korean tastes is a little difficult. There was one notable North Korean restaurant in the D.C. area where the kitchen was run by a former spy, but it appears to have shut down last year (despite a 4/5 Yelp rating).
However, there is one North Korean beverage you can get your hands on pretty easily. Pyongyang Soju, a 23% strong liquor imported from North Korea, is currently legal for sale in the United States.
That Pyongyang Soju is for sale in the U.S. is unusual, and the entire thing has an odd backstory.
The liquor has been for sale in the country since 2007, the importing group (Korea Pyongyang Trading Inc.) apparently having a license from the Treasury to get around sanctions that prohibit North Korean trade. As Hunter Walker from Talking Point Memo reports, the group is operated by Il Woo Park, a South Korean national who lives in Manhattan.
Park has extensive links to North Korea — for example, he signed a contract to help relaunch the Mount Kumgang resort in 2011 for example — and is a registered U.S. agent of the North Korean government. Incredibly, these links weren't severed after Park became embroiled in a spy drama in 2007, when Park was arrested for lying to the FBI. According to Walker, documents show that Park was "apparently working with a network of spies from North Korea’s sworn enemy, South Korea".
Despite pleading guilty to all charges, Park was only sentenced to probation and his plea agreement remains sealed. Park was allowed to re-enter North Korea during his probation and his liquor business continued, Walker reports.
While the liquor's backstory may be murky, Pyongyang Soju is surprisingly easy to find. Business Insider bought a bottle of Pyongyang Soju at Warehouse and Wines in Greenwich Village, New York, a couple of weeks ago. It appears to be possible to buy the drink online if you wish to taste it yourself.
The soju is inexpensive, and can be bought for just $5.99 for a 375ml bottle — cheaper than many South Korean or Japanese sojus for sale in New York City.
Quality may be an issue, however. Bon Appetit recently said that it "doesn't taste great" and had a "funky, fermenty smell." Others were less kind — one user on the Giant Robot forums wrote in a 2001 discussion about brands of soju: "you ain't had s--- until you've had Pyongyang Soju. Then, and only then, can you say you've had s---..."
Reactions in the Business Insider office were mixed. One reporter grimaced and exclaimed "oh god" as he took a sip, immediately reaching for a beer.
"It smelled and sort of tasted like rubbing alcohol," he said later.
Others were more keen. "It tastes better than it smells," one editor said. "But it's sort of like a b-side saki mixed with well vodka."
"It's so smooth," said one editor more accustomed to drinking soju, adding, "I can't get over how cheap it is."
Ultimately, Pyongyang Soju tastes exactly like what you'd expect — dirt cheap soju.
Perhaps the strangest feeling when drinking Pyongyang Soju is the ethical concerns it brings up. A significant portion of the proceeds of your Pyongyang Soju purchase are likely going to the North Korean government — a government known for its notorious labor camps.
One disturbing report from 2007 on DailyNK (a news website run by opponents of the North Korean government) even suggested that Pyongyang Soju was made using snakes caught in a Yoduk political prison camp grounds by prisoners:
In order to use the snake for brewery, the snake is first starved. Once the poison has risen to the top of the snake, the snake is immersed in alcohol. As the poison is highly dangerous, the job of catching snakes is left for the prisoners of the camps not common citizens. Comparatively, the region surrounding Yoduk is well-known for snakes.
Pyongyang Soju's label, however, says it is made in Pyongyang City (not in a labor camp). Moreover, as snake soju usually keeps the snake in the bottle, it may be logical that the soju being imported is not the same soju as referenced by DailyNK.
Of course, there are a lot of countries with questionable human rights records that we buy from. China, for example, also has a labor camp system and reports suggest prisoners in these camps may face torture.
Also, given the strange backstory behind Pyongyang Soju and the fact that the Treasury is still allowing Il Woo Park to import it, you may be able to take some comfort in the idea that you are playing some small part in some kind top-secret soju-based diplomacy.
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