While the Rest of North Korea Struggles, Pyongyang’s Fortunate Few Go Shopping

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ED JONES / AFP / Getty Images

A North Korean girl wearing traditional dress stands at a clothing section inside a supermarket in Pyongyang on July 28, 2013

The city of Pyongyang may conjure up images of Mass Games and goose-stepping sentries, but the North Korean capital looks very different from the place it was 10 years ago. It’s not just the new high-rises, even the people appear different — many are toting mobile phones, and women dress in high heels. As implausible as it sounds, signs of a small middle class can be seen.

Of course, that is exactly the side of a brutally repressed, deeply impoverished country that the government wants foreigners to see. The authorities go to great lengths to ensure tourists keep to a well-marked trail. But even through this very narrow prism, there is no denying that material life in the capital, at least for the lucky ones, is getting a little less harsh.

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“The change has been most obvious over the last couple of years,” says Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, who has made more than 100 trips into North Korea over the past decade. As the regime seeks to buttress support, it has allowed life for some groups to improve. “There is more stuff to buy,” Cockerell says. “There were always clothes available, but now there are nicer and better clothes.”

Change began in the capital a decade ago with the opening of the first Tongil market hall in 2003. Tongil (“Reunification”) sells agricultural produce, clothing and simple electrical goods, and satellite imagery shows these distinctive blue-roofed markets expanding to different locations in Pyongyang and beyond. The markets are strictly off-limits to foreigners and only accept local currency, which tourists are not allowed to use.

For the elite, there are department stores. There are about 10 in Pyongyang and others in the provincial capitals. These stores only accept hard currency such as U.S. dollars, euros or renminbi, and are stocked with imported goods, mostly from China.

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The two-story Taesung Department Store in Pyongyang is typical. Built in 1986, it was revamped a few years ago, and although the displays look dated by global standards it is well stocked — for those who can afford it — with food, cosmetics, hardware and furniture on the ground floor and clothing, toys and bedding on the upper floor. A blouse goes for about $20 and a comforter costs $50. (Average annual income is about $1,200.)

Almost all the goods are made in China. Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, says North Korean consumers are forced to be canny shoppers out of necessity. Without access to reliable product data or consumer protection, they make decisions based on scanty information and experience.

(PHOTOS: A Rare Look Inside North Korea)

“When it comes to buying durable goods in particular, the country of origin is an important proxy for quality. South Korean and Japanese are the best. Chinese is better than North Korean.” In broader terms, Melvin says interest in foreign fashions and culture “indicates that North Koreans do not believe the propaganda their leaders tell them, particularly about life in South Korea.” Though banned, South Korean films circulate widely if covertly on DVD, and some North Koreans living in border areas can access Chinese and South Korean TV.

Escorted by official minders around the clock, foreign visitors to Pyongyang don’t get to see any scenes of deprivation. The government would instead rather that tourists came away with impressions of the supermarket on Changjon Street in downtown Pyongyang (stocked with Italian wines, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s Kisses) and the handful of fast-food restaurants that have opened in recent years (there are burger bars, pizza parlors and a KFC-style fried-chicken joint). On Kim Il Sung Square, there’s even an Austrian-style coffee shop.

(MORE: Vacation in Lovely … North Korea?)

The reality, of course, is that many North Koreans are still struggling to get enough to eat — never mind a cappuccino. There are regular reports of famine, and the majority of North Koreans will never visit the capital, only knowing of it and its attractions from carefully stage-managed television reports. In quality-of-life terms, the gulf between the residents of Pyongyang and those outside it is vast.

And even in Pyongyang, “consumerism” is a subdued affair. There is very little advertising, with just five billboards in the capital, all of which are owned by the Pyonghwa Motors Company. Popular local brewery Taedonggang Beer briefly ran an advert on TV, but it has since gone off air.

“Some advertising exists, but it’s not the overwhelming sensory experience that you have anywhere else,” says Cockerell. “Most shops don’t have signs, or if they do they are small, subtle ones rather than a big emblazoned sign.”

Melvin observes that public advertising is still taboo and stresses that although economic conditions are improving in Pyongyang and inflation appears to have stabilized, the realities of everyday life remain grim — however many phone-toting, high-heel-clad women a visitor may see on the streets of the capital.

“Economic and bureaucratic inefficiencies still abound and corruption has run rampant,” he says. “Human rights are still not respected in the DPRK and people are not free to travel, speak or pursue their lives as they see fit.”

MORE: 5 Things We Hoped Dennis Rodman Learned About North Korea

71 comments
Orator
Orator

If one can't visit a shop its better to go for Smartphone Shopping with Shopping Apps, you will find lots of virtual merchandise for the brands you want and even check for discounts. Check Apps-Catalog

http://apps-catalog.com/products/shopping-apps

Gowtham Jeni
Gowtham Jeni

cute dooooooolllllllllllllllllllll i love so much

Noor El Tahan
Noor El Tahan

why they are supporting terrorists???!!! Muslims brother hood are the real terrorist they are burning every thing and killing innocent Egyptian EGYPT is fighting terror and you are supporting it please don't miss lead the world and be fair i am from Egypt and you are NOT telling the truth and whole world should know and they should see video like this Muslims brother hood attached a police station and killed officer after terrorizing him please don' be blind

모선웅
모선웅

It really is so unbelievable that something like this can happen even at the same the Korean Peninsula.

Umair Ahmed
Umair Ahmed

How is this different from the african countries. Stop ridiculing any nation.

Will Riley
Will Riley

Or eat themselves to record obesity levels whilst parts of the world are still starving.

Maria Lobbie Habal
Maria Lobbie Habal

Some fortunate few even studies at the South Korea... but that was long time ago...

Jean Pierre Joubert
Jean Pierre Joubert

Yeah a normal place that has 200 000 people in death camps with daily executions... Your friendly neighborhood country. Very normal indeed.

Ralph Quaas
Ralph Quaas

Read, " Nothing to Envy " a report of North Korea 1960 / 2009.

Ahmed Rafet
Ahmed Rafet

My name is Ahmad Raafat , I'm Egyptian, that what happened in Egypt is a bloody military coup killed up to 4000 cevilians and enjured up to 30000 cevilians the coup leaders clames falsely that they are fighting terrorism this is state terorrism not REAL KNOWN TERRORISM it is state terrorism against empty handed seviliand freadom, the preesident of Egypt is Morsi

Vh Hurtado
Vh Hurtado

how likely is it that NK fabricates their own clothes for their own domestic market?

Yuxiang  LU
Yuxiang LU

the NK is a bad-to-death country. if Guevara is a live. he should struggle in NK with the Kims to bring freedom and liberty to the NKer.

Soo Moon
Soo Moon

"녀자옷" in North "여자옷" in South "women's clothing" in the US.

Christine McAusland
Christine McAusland

Following Seoul's example of saving flooding offshore, will quantitative easing be used to "top up" missing revenue? Offshore tax havens don't have nation's to look after.

Barbra Chaulk
Barbra Chaulk

It's easy to hate North Korea. While the rest of the world implodes Americans go shopping would be a better cover story. Time and the rest of main stream media have become irrelevant.

Marc Levine
Marc Levine

i bet those grey skirts are all the rage this fall.

Vararat Chatprasert
Vararat Chatprasert

A little girl was amazing ! She was a little girl in the world,who didn't know about you talked. She was young.

Rahul Chellani
Rahul Chellani

The image looks staged!! And the comments here are appalling !!! If you think your U.S is the same, then try living there NK, dying in poverty, eating your kids for food, and dying working in the prison camps !

Rahul Chellani
Rahul Chellani

Yes. Because you DO are 1000 times lucky that those starving in N.Korea, or worse those dieing in the "gulags"...!

Ry Rie
Ry Rie

Naziah Nordin nanti ko belikan anak ko bajumacam nie

JesusValdez-Castro
JesusValdez-Castro

Honestly people, click on the Taedonggang Beer ad link.  It is eerie, like being transported to late-70's high end U.S. commercials, only made not a few years ago..

Max Hart
Max Hart

In the late 80's & early 90's Viet Nam had fixed priced Govt department stores here in Ha Noi as well as through out the country too. It was the fault of the cowardly & criminal embargo world wide embargo that the USA led against us. People can poke or make fun of people like us who struggle under criminal acts like these but just remember, it's not the clothes or Barbie dolls that are most needed, its medicines & technology & that's the things the Yanks banned anyone from selling to us so we would be unable to provide them to our kids or the elderly. The little kid looks like my Eurasian (and not Amerasian) daughter & could've been her just a few years ago. The Yankee embargo was lifted in the main in 2006 & it was only because by that time the rest of the world were completely ignoring the USA, as they should do today re Nth Korea, Iran, Cuba etc.

Mandy L Newell
Mandy L Newell

first world ignorance there, James. Next time google Korean "traditional" dress.

Alex Neelin
Alex Neelin

It 'almost' looks staged. There is not a lot of clothing in this picture, for a dept store I mean. Of course N. Korea would never stage their photographs! ;)

Peter Tuann
Peter Tuann

every poor country has an elite keeping themselves in power at the expense of the vast majority, nothing new, these are the aristocrats of North Korean kingdom of Kim.

Barbara Maxtone-Graham
Barbara Maxtone-Graham

The people of North Korea eat dirt to try and stay alive. They are "disappeared" if they dissent. Of course it's unlike any other place ffs.

Alex Neelin
Alex Neelin

In every other place there is not a dictator starving his people while he lavishes the food and riches on himself, and a small few. N. Korea is eating their young because there is no other food...I would hope that isnt like "any other place".

Jake Yocom-Blum
Jake Yocom-Blum

Bit of capitalism going on in communist North Korea? Or does that little girl get the dress Monday, Wednesday, Friday and the other girl gets it Tuesday, Thursday?

Bob Rohr
Bob Rohr

When the oligarchs here get their way it will be the same thing in America, a privileged few and a destitute work force.

Heather Pickett
Heather Pickett

I wouldn't downplay America's homeless but it seems like you underestimate the situation in North Korea. Look at this picture, that's the place that the rich are shopping at. The majority of the people there are in such a bad way that, when they manage to escape to China, CHINA is appalled enough to give them sanctuary. It really is naive to compare it to "any other place."

Norma Mariscal Jáuregui
Norma Mariscal Jáuregui

Not at all Freddie, I'll be the first to condemn those of US who turn a blind eye on the world and the miseries we bring upon it, hence my point!

GeorgeAdamrovich
GeorgeAdamrovich

why should I care what happens in North Korea? they can starve!!

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@Barbra Chaulk 

it's easy to hate on TIME and the rest of the msm. "consumer cultures worldwide go shopping while world implodes" would be more accurate (don't pretend that's unique to america at all, that's just blind ignorance). 

chisq
chisq

@Rahul Chellani Educate yourself, it's not that bad.. Go to the Ghettos in the US and see poverty as well... Get off your high horse

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@GeorgeAdamrovich 

so millions of innocent people should die because their leaders are d-bags? great logic there chief