Soju Soldiers: KATUSAs, GIs, and the Search for the Bottom of the Bottle

Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on March 29, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

Bringing death to 11 percent of the known world (and terrifying the other 89 percent) is apparently thirsty work, so the Mongols brought booze. Top shelf, at that, all the way from Persia to Korea circa 1300. It was called arak then, and the distilleries cranking out the hard stuff were first established near modern-day Kaesong, the little village that separates the two Koreas, and home to a much haggled-over industrial complex. The drink’s modern descendent is still called arakju around that border town, but countrywide it’s more commonly known as soju (or “burn liquor”). It’s grain- or sweet potato-based, typically about 20 percent ABV, and was the world’s best-selling spirit in 2014. Yes, soju. It’s as ubiquitous in Korea as Wheaties are in the states, except they use soju instead of milk and nobody ever touches the cereal.

Ever since the Khan’s horsebacked hordes rode into Korea 700 years ago, soju has had a distinctly military flavor (although strawberry’s not bad either). The most popular way to drink it in South Korea is to drop a shot glass into beer, a practice known as poktanju, which translates to “bomb drink,” and may or may not be a dig at the North Korean nuclear program. Speaking of which, Kim Jong Un supposedly prefers whiskey and cognac over soju, a fact that makes me start to question his fitness to lead the Korean people. Perhaps to make up for this cultural slight, the North Korean navy features a Soju-class of guided missile patrol boats.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

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