Holger Fichtel arrived in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang with a white box containing samples of Arcobräu – the beer of the brewery he runs in northern Bavaria. He was scheduled to meet with representatives from the North Korean government and a trade organization. Both were interested in buying his beer.
Never before had a German brewer come to North Korea to sell beer. Following first contacts over phone and by letter, Mr. Fichtel traveled to the North Korean capital to meet with Cho Sehun, a representative of the Foreign Ministry, an unnamed man from the Roksan trade organization, and Pak Taemin, who heads a Roksan subsidiary and is married to the daughter of Roskan's vice-president.
“I am very happy to be here today,” Mr. Fichtel told his hosts. His Korean business partners wore uniforms with badges on their jackets bearing the images of Kim family, the North Korean supreme leader's clan that has ruled since 1950 in the midst of the Korean War.
After decades of military spending only, the country seems to open up economically.
“The best way to start is from light to dark,” Mr. Fichtel advised his hosts, pouring the first of six samples - Schloßhell, a Bavarian lager - into the men’s glasses. They move it around in their mouthes, while Mr. Fichtel waits impatiently for a reaction.
North Korea has recently begun to open its economy to business opportunities.
After decades during which the government invested in its military, the North Koreans are now opening amusement parks, luxury shops and letting people listen to pop music, read Donald Duck cartoons and style their hair in punk fashion.
The first changes came about when China, North Korea's big neighbor and business partner, started to enjoy more prosperity and modernism. The country's current leader, Kim Jong Un, built high-rise buildings and a small version of Shanghai in Pyongyang, which is lit up with neon-colored lights at night.
It was about this time when Mr. Fichtel, the 49-year German brewer, first saw an opportunity to sell beer in North Korea. The brewery he runs belongs to an old German aristocratic family, the Count and Countess Arco-Zinneberg.
Despite the fact that aristocrats are considered parasites in North Korea, which wiped out its wealthy class after World War II, the business representatives that Mr. Fichtel meets with don’t seem to have a problem with Arcobräu's upper-class owners. They are full of hope that the new beer brand is going to make them rich.
They want to build a German brewery serving German food and beer in Pyongyang.
The North Korean capital, to an outsider, looks like a gigantic theater stage designed to honor the country’s ruling family, the Kims, anywhere and everywhere. No cell phones are allowed and you rarely meet poor, handicapped or starving people, because the government removes them from the capital.
But there are problems with malnutrition. North Korean soldiers frequently crossed the border to China during the harsh winter that just ended to steal rice and wheat.
After the meeting, Mr. Fichtel is taken around the city, and tours local supermarkets. They sell Dutch Heineken beer here, and he learns that even Paulaner, a popular Bavarian beer brand, will be sold in North Korea soon, imported from China.
He is also shown a local brewery called “Taedong Brewery,” where the government serves beer to citizens for free. North Koreans like to drink here and have regular drinking bouts that make them excessively drunk.
“I rarely went into a country with such skepticism and returned home with so much optimism,” Mr. Fichtel said, when he last left North Korea.
When we next meet Mr. Fichtel, he is now awaiting a return visit by the North Koreans, who are planning to come to Arcobräu’s home town of Moos in Bavaria.
How will I get hold of the money from the beer? Holger Fichtel, Director of Arcobräu in Bavaria
When the North Koreans finally arrive in the small town, they are astonished by the new culture and wealth. Some have never been outside their own country.
Mr. Fichtel takes them around the area of Deggendorf, shows them the brewery and takes them shopping. They see renewable energy solar parks, wind mills, single-family houses and other things they have never seen before.
The delegation and Mr. Fichtel discuss business over beer and Bavarian food.
“How will I get hold of the money from the beer?” asked Mr. Fichtel.
North Korea is the most sanctioned country of the world. The 193 nations of the United Nations have placed it on an embargo list. Last year, Switzerland blocked the export of ski lifts to North Korea. The international community wants to deprive the Kim dictatorship of anything that could make life more comfortable for its citizens.
But beer is not yet on the list of forbidden products.
“Beer has never been bad for anyone,” Mr. Fichtel said. He is not breaking any U.N. embargo. But he has to find a way to channel the money he receives from beer sales via banks that do business with North Korea, which aren't many.
“Mr. Pak has business ties to four joint-venture companies in China,” said Mr. Cho. This could be a way to connect Bavaria with North Korea financially.
The question of payment is not the only hurdle that seems to be standing between Mr. Fichtel’s beer and North Korean drinkers. The North Korean delegation suddenly wants Mr. Fichtel to deliver without an upfront payment.
They are planning to open 50 to 60 bars and a joint-venture that Mr. Fichtel’s is supposed to buy into. They ask him to pay at least €200,000 to join the venture.
But Mr. Fichtel wants to sell, not invest, he said.
“If we had known that, we would have never come to Germany,” Mr. Pak, one of the North Korean delegates, said.
It becomes more and more apparent that the relationship and business deal is deteriorating. In the beginning, the North Korean visitors often referred to Mr. Fichtel as “friend” and “brother,” but those amicable references disappear.
In the end, both parties come to an agreement and make some compromises. They closed a deal with a handshake and promise to discuss details over the phone in the coming days.
But Mr. Fichtel never heard from his North Korean contacts again.
He is afraid, not because he didn’t manage to sell beer, but because his main contact and translator, Mr. Cho, has been unavailable. There are rumors that unsuccessful trade representatives are punished and even executed.
When Mr. Fichtel tried to call Mr. Cho, someone told him to call back in two weeks. And again, two weeks later, the same answer.
“Please call back again in two week, Mr. Cho is not available right now,” the voice on the other side said.
Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter with Die Zeit, covering foreign affairs. To contact the author: [email protected]