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Pyongyang Bling: The rise of North Korea's consumer comrades

A North Korean staff waiting for customers at a cafe in central Pyongyang, North Korea, in this Sept 4, 2013 handout photograph.

[SEOUL] Nail salons, massage parlours, cafes and other signs of consumerism were unheard of in rigidly controlled North Korea just a few years ago, but they are slowly emerging in one of the world's last bastions of Cold War socialism.

North Korea operates a centrally-planned economy modelled on the former Soviet Union where Western-style conspicuous consumption is anathema.

But as a growing middle class of North Koreans earns more money in the unofficial economy, the demand for products such as cosmetics, smartphones, imported fruit juices and foreign clothes is on the rise, according to residents and visitors.

There are now 2.5 million North Korean mobile phone subscribers in a country of 24 million people.

Even some state-owned factories are diversifying product lines from rationed daily necessities to meet the demand for non-essential goods. "Nobody needs to drink coffee, and nobody needs to spend money on it, but people do. This is what's happening in Pyongyang, and it's a change," said Nils Weisensee, a coffee roaster from Germany who works with the Singapore-based Choson Exchange NGO to train North Koreans in business skills.

While the repressive and impoverished country is still years away from becoming a consumer paradise, it is now home to a rising class of rich North Koreans known as "Donju", meaning"masters of money", thanks to the growing unofficial economy.

Some Donju spend their cash on private English tuition for their children, or on South Korean or Japanese clothes, according to research by the South Korean government-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), in Seoul. "People can choose between toothpaste that uses crystals or nanotechnology to make it more effective than normal toothpaste, or a special one flavoured for children," said Weisensee.

Many of the Donju have made money trading in informal markets, or by setting up small businesses. Some businesses operate as a form of public-private partnership, where staff of state enterprises are given permission to start quasi-autonomous profit-making enterprises.

Around 70 per cent of that profit goes to the state, with the rest going to individuals, according to defectors from the country, including Choi Song Min, who ran a shipping service before fleeing to the South in 2011. "For example, at a Chongjin city branch of the transport ministry, they might say to their bosses 'how about we sell coffee to the people waiting for our buses'" said Choi, who now writes for the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, and has regular contact with sources inside the North.

At the food section of the Kwangbok Department Store in central Pyongyang, moneyed shoppers can choose between a wide variety of consumer foods like fruit juices, chocolates and soda, according to Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours.

"People weren't just buying basic foods. They were considering factors other than price, by buying the imported orange juice instead of the local one, for example," said Mr Collings, who leads regular tourist trips to North Korea.

Even leader Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying North Korean-made cosmetics should compete in quality with foreign luxury brands like Chanel and Christian Dior, according to the Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan.

"These nouveau-riche who make money in the markets need a channel for consumption," said Ahn Chan Il, 63, a North Korean defector and former South Korean intelligence official who receives information from contacts inside North Korea. "Things like cars, massages, raffles, pet dogs. North Korean people are already riding on the back of the tiger that is the market economy, not the regime," said Ms Ahn.


North Korean consumer capitalism is very much in its early days, residents of Pyongyang said. A chronic energy shortage, brutally repressive government and deeply ingrained corruption ensure that the pace of change is sluggish, and limited. "What use are these new, kitschily-decorated places that mostly imitate Chinese nouveau-riche life if there is no electricity to cook the food?" a diplomatic source in Pyongyang told Reuters.

One area of downtown Pyongyang, jokingly known by foreign residents as "Pyonghattan" or "Dubai", is home to expensive department stores, a sushi restaurant and a 24-hour coffee shop.

"Oftentimes you will be turned away, not because you are a foreigner, but because there is just no energy to operate the kitchen. Good luck trying to get a proper meal in Pyongyang after 10pm," said the source.

Defectors said the consumer boom extends to cities beyond Pyongyang, where bustling markets or train stations are now home to small coffee stalls, and wearing jewellery is an outward and accepted sign of status.

Ms Ahn said the nearby city of Pyongsong is where many well-off North Koreans live, thanks to wholesale businesses importing products from China.

Ms Choi said the coffee drinking trend for moneyed North Koreans began to appear last year: "To look cool, the Donju, party officials and young people like college students go to coffee shops to meet people".