North Korea

North Korean bootleggers targeted in raids, home searches


The recent crackdown on corn-based moonshine comes amid food shortages.

North Korean bootleggers targeted in raids, home searches

While alcohol is available in retail stores such as the Pothonggang Department Store [shown] in Pyongyang, North Korea, bootlegging has become a way for people to earn money to buy food for their families.

North Korean authorities are searching homes and arresting people who are secretly making moonshine, accusing them of misusing corn while the country continues to struggle with food shortages, sources told Radio Free Asia.

A resident of Anju city in South Pyongan province said that of the 25 households in their neighborhood-watch unit, five were caught by security agents and had their homemade alcohol confiscated. 

“Residents who were quickly able to hide the alcohol before the unexpected house searches were able to avoid getting caught,” the resident said.

Many families in the neighborhood make a living making moonshine, which can be started easily with just 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) of corn, he said. 

One household was caught using 30 kilograms (66 lbs.) of corn as ingredients for moonshine, and family members had to write a letter of self-criticism.

But four households that bought more than 100 kilograms (220 lbs.) of corn were accused of being “anti-socialists” who helped fuel the country’s food crisis, and were sentenced last week to more than a year in a correctional labor camp.

Anju is known as one of the largest cities in North Korea for producing bootleg alcohol. The area is a producer of bituminous coal, which is used as fuel in the bootlegging process. 

Bootlegging rose following 1990s famine

In North Korea, bootleg alcohol is mainly made by distillation rather than fermentation. The 40% alcohol produced in the first part of the distillation process is the most expensive and is usually transported to Pyongyang, where it is refined and sold as premium alcohol.

The second part of the distillation process produces 20-30% alcohol known as soju – the most bootlegged form of alcohol that North Koreans usually drink. It is mainly sold in private restaurants, marketplaces, street vendors and private homes in the provinces. 

Bootlegging became a more common way to earn a living when North Korea’s food ration system collapsed in the 1990s and a subsequent famine resulted in the death of millions. 

People bought food with the money earned and also used the leftover mash from the moonshine process to feed livestock. Raising pigs became another side job.

In the 2000s, private marketplaces were made legal, and the scope of what could be sold by merchants was expanded in the 2010s. Various types of businesses were allowed by North Korean authorities with the payment of market usage fees to the state. The number of people making moonshine – which was still illegal – decreased. 

Food shortages

But in 2020, when the border was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, car parts and food imports were blocked and some merchants turned to bootlegging to make up the shortfall in business, a resident of Chunggang county in the northern province of Chagang told RFA on Wednesday. 

The area has also seen recent raids and arrests – the crackdown seems to be a reaction by authorities to food shortages, the resident said.

“The authorities punished the residents by giving them more than a year of correctional labor camp punishment as an example,” the resident said. “However, residents complained, saying, ‘Isn’t it right to solve the problem of food shortages first and then start cracking down on bootlegging?’” 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *