A taste of North Korean beer propaganda

Just because it's hyperbolic and historically inaccurate doesn't mean it's wrong

Published March 25, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Gusts Of Popular Feeling tells us that North Korea's Taidonggang Beer is the only explicitly "anti-American" beer in the world. The proof of this assertion is on the bottle-cap -- a stylized rendition of the General Sherman, a merchant marine schooner that "visited" Korea in 1866.

(UPDATE: Gusts of Popular Feeling was misinformed: see updates below.)

At the time Korea was busily pursuing the resolutely isolationist stance that earned it the nickname "the hermit kingdom." The General Sherman did not receive a warm welcome after steaming up the Taidong River and coming to shore near Pyongyang. Although details are sketchy -- did the General Sherman provoke hostilities? -- the outcome is not in dispute. The General Sherman was attacked, burned, and all aboard were killed.

Current North Korean history holds that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's great-great-great grandfather Kim Ung-u led the attack on the General Sherman. A North Korean "dictionary of history" declares that modern Korean history began with "the incident in 1866, in which the first attempt of armed aggression against Korea by the American imperialistic robbers, who are the sworn and inveterate enemies of the Korean people, met a total and complete defeat at the hands of the Korean people."

Evidence for this assertion, say non-North Korean historians, is sparse. Yong-ho Ch'oe, writing in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1981, observes that "three books published in North Korea before 1961 all treat one retired officer, Pak Ch'un-gwon, not Kim Ung-u, as the hero who led the angry people to attack and burn the American ship." (However, Ch'oe concedes in a footnote that "it is true that the Kim family lived in the area where the incident took place." So maybe Kim Ung-u was a bit-player in the angry mob, or simply stood on the sidelines hurling the first drafts of the choice anti-Western imprecations his descendants would become so famous for.)

Ha ha. Those silly Americans intent on forcing free trade down Korea's throat just as they did to Japan are now memorialized on Communist beer bottle-caps. Isn't that hilarious?

It's easy to smirk -- North Korea would undoubtedly be much better off if the government focused on feeding its people instead of indulging its globally-unparalleled taste for propaganda.

But then... While digging around for more details on the General Sherman, I found "The Opening of Korea by Commodore Shufeldt," published in Political Science Quarterly in 1910, in which author Charles Oscar Paullin tells the tale of how Korea was forced out of its cave and into the family of nations. The opening few pages recount the aftermath of the General Sherman incident -- in 1871, Rear-Admiral John Rodgers and the American minister to China, Frederick Low, led "a flotilla of five steamships, carrying 85 guns and 1235 men" for the purpose of establishing "peaceful relations with Korea."

On June 1 a flotilla from the fleet, while engaged in surveying the river, was unexpectedly fired upon by a Korean fort. The fire of the natives was returned, and a fight took place in which the Americans lost two wounded and the Koreans twenty wounded and many more killed. After a careful consideration of this incident, Low and Rodgers decided that the prestige of the United States would be impaired unless the injury to its flag were avenged or an apology tendered by the Korean government. Through one of his secretaries Low explained to an officer of the local prefecture that sufficient time would be allowed for an apology before any further steps were taken. While deeply regretting the firing on the flotilla, the officer defended the action of the forts, on the grounds that the Korean laws prohibited foreigners to pass a barrier of defense. He sent a present of chickens, bullocks and eggs to Rodgers, who declined to accept it.

The king refused to apologize.

It is sufficient to say that the Americans performed their allotted task with great thoroughness. Five forts were captured or destroyed; fifty flags and four hundred and eighty-one pieces of ordnance were taken, and twenty Koreans were made prisoners. In the principal engagement the loss of the natives were three hundred and fifty men killed and wounded, more than half of them being killed; the loss of the Americans was three killed and ten wounded...

Is the term "imperialist robbers" too strong to describe such behavior? Maybe not. And as a reminder that the terms of trade agreements between nations often depends on who owns the biggest battleships, even a beer bottle-cap can be effective.

UPDATE: Two readers suggest that the image on the Taidonggang beer-cap is of a bridge that spans the Taidong river, and is not the General Sherman.

SECOND UPDATE: Gusts of Popular Feeling takes a second look at the beer caps, the bridge, and some North Korean stamps.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works North Korea