August saw Pyongyang’s first Beer Festival. When Ushers sold their Chard brewery lock, stock and literally barrels to the North Koreans in the 1990s, they were just glad to see the back of what they saw as redundant manufacturing plant en route to the scrapyard. They were wrong. Instead it transformed one of the runts of the North Korean brewing industry, Taedonggang, into the leader of the pack. Previously competing with Ryongson, Pohak and Pyongyang – and Zebi the beer exclusively for Party cadres – it has now swept them aside. In Pyongyang – where the people who matter live – if you’re not drinking imports from Japan or Singapore, the beer of choice is very definitely Taedonggang.
On the banks of the eponymous river, Taedonggang put up seven alternative beers to slake the thirsts of the capital’s drinkers. As befits the country’s image in the West, the beers were prosaically named 1 to 7 and priced in half euro increments from 50c up to €3.50 per half litre, indirectly correlated with the proportion of rice in the brewing mix. The consensus went with 2. Asian snacks of dried squid and fish vied with hotdogs to soak up the alcohol, while entertainment was provided either by short river cruises that barely left the quay or facsimiles of the North’s mini-skirted girl “Moranbong Band”. Their singing might not have matched the originals – tickets for which are like gold dust – but the crowds happy settled for the copies.
Always favoured, the gap in living standards between these crowds and the rest of the country has become a chasm reported to match levels of inequality found in Brazil, as Kim Jong Un privileged Pyongyang and its inhabitants with funfairs and waterparks, supermarkets and restaurants, an enormous science centre and a natural history museum, with striding alongside row upon row of new apartment blocks for the scientists and engineers of the Kim Chaek and Kim Il Sung Universities. Ryomyong Street – the latest – features Kim Jong Un70-story apartment blocks, but has seen building suspended as the workers were dispatched to rebuild homes, school and hospitals destroyed by autumn’s catastrophic floods in the far northeast of the country. Yet Pyonghatten is being delivered at a cost. The profits from the country’s lucrative mineral mining operations are all being siphoned off for construction while the planned renewal of Pyongyang’s transport infrastructure has been put on hold.
In the long term, it’s unsustainable unless the economy can be kick started in the coming years to the past levels of the Asian Tigers. The problem is that the North is a collapsed industrial economy rather than a developing peasant economy making the transition, and is currently f49 times smaller than that of the South with a population of 25 million, only half of that of its southern neighbour. The pool of rural labour that underpinned China’s take-off in the North is not in the fields but the military. Pyongyang is being driven hard into a corner with the conventional arms race. Outspent five-fold by Seoul alone, its military budget is dwarfed by a factor of 50 when compared to the United States, Japan and South Korea combined. North Korea needs money and manpower. It squares that circle with its nuclear programme.
As one senior Party figure said: “The lesson of Iraq, Libya and Syria is, the real problem was not having weapons of mass destruction.” This has been burnt deep in the psyche of Pyongyang. Urged – after Colonel Gaddafi gave up his incipient nuclear programme in December 2003 – to follow Libya’s example and be welcomed into the global community, it saw the upshot all too graphically on world TV. Pyongyang’s leadership is in no mood to commit suicide. Completion of its nuclear programme – it’s just over half way there with their fifth test in September – would, as they see it, provide the needed deterrence against future Donald-Trump inspired attempts at regime-change. Most importantly, simultaneously it would allow labour to be slowly decanted out of its million-man army and resources to be shifted from the military to civil budget, allowing the economy to start growing in its mix of Special Economic Zones scattered around its borders.
Spurred on by Washington’s policy of “malign neglect” and increasing sceptical of the benefits of United Nations membership, as layer upon layer of sanctions continue to be applied, Pyongyang is putting its head down and going for broke with the hope – technology permitting – of completing its programme in the coming 18 months. This means a last window of jeopardy where the US can prevent the North becoming an unquestionable nuclear state. Washington is already putting its “coalition of the willing” in place. Seoul’s Park Guen-hye was on board and the South’s military will continue their support despite Park’s current travails. In Tokyo, the Diet last year approved overseas operations under the rubric of “collective self-defence” and now Theresa May’s signed up the UK. Early last month, for the first time ever, a squadron of Royal Air Force Typhoons flew out initially for joint exercises with Japan’s Self Defence Forces and then on to South Korea for “Operation Invincible” with the US and South Korean Air Forces.
Certainly, the view in Beijing and Tokyo, Washington and Seoul is that there is a growing inevitability of a joint pre-emptive surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities and an attempt to behead the North’s leadership in the next 12 months. In China, there is already talk not about how to prevent it, rather how to contain the subsequent conflict. In 1981, Israel’s “Operation Opera” destroyed Baghdad’s nuclear reactor, with Saddam Hussein having little option but to turn the other cheek. It would be a grave mistake to imagine Kim Jong Un would be able to do the same. The question the world has to answer is do we let the North change for the better – from an admittedly abysmally low point under a nuclear umbrella – or do we risk that “the first shall be last” and the Pyongyang Beer Festival be a final one for the road before Armageddon on the Peninsula? Past experience bodes ill.