Commerce in North Korea

For most parts of the world, bustling markets are a way of life. Either for the fun of the experience or for the necessities of life, heading down to meet traders as they flog their wares is second nature. In North Korea, things are a little different.

Most ordinary NKers are only slowly coming to grips with the basics of a free economy. Up until the economic reforms of 2002, North Korean life was so highly centralised that there was little need for ordinary people to carry any currency, and material goods were distributed to each household. Much of food and clothing was allocated by the various government organisations who employed most North Koreans, and there was little need to acquire any other goods.

Slowly, things are changing. In the last couple of years, a mysterious market has opened up in Pyongyang, by the banks of the Taedong not far from the USS Pueblo. With a distinctive arched roof, the new building is an oasis of blue in a depressing Pyongyang concrete desert. Though we in the tour group were forbidden to enter, it appeared to have a moderate amount of foot traffic moving in and out. This is the only area were ordinary Pyongyangers can engage in private commerce.

Some of these buildings host basic shops.


At other sites around Pyongyang (and indeed Kaesong, when we arrived later in the week), there were basic little shops which have established themselves. As far as I could tell, these were owned by the government, who took responsiblity for running and managing them, as well as taking any profits that might be made. The shops were simple in design, and refreshingly free from any sort of advertising. Again, we were forbidden to enter, but from outside it appeared that there were some fresh food, a few basic packaged goods, and a handful of western brand-names. Indeed, one red-ribboned brown carbonated drink was sited, showing that it really is Always Coca-Cola.

CC - the favourite drink of imperialists, and their enemies.


There are an elite group of shops which catered to foreigners. We were free to browse a bookshop near to Kim Il Sung square which stocked a vast range of NK literature, pins, posters, videos, cassettes and assorted paraphenalia. Predictably, the bookshop had many shelves devoted to books written by K1 and K2, as well as plenty written about the two Ks. There were also some non-Kim books, mostly singing the praises of DPRK as a tourist destination, or presenting the DPRK take on history. The latter included a vast array outlining the horrors of both Japanese and American imperialism, with remarkably blunt and unsubtle titles. "The US Imperialists Started the Korean War" springs to mind. Most titles appeared in English, Russian, French, German and Spanish, although there were no Korean language books available in the store.

A wide selection of books on offer.


The currency for local people is the Korean Won, which is an exceptionally weak currency which is optimistically officially priced at 165 to the Euro. Outside of DPRK, the currency is worthless. The notes themself are surprisingly tasteful and sophisticated, featuring a variety of Pyongyang sites, and only the occassional glimpse of KIS. Since foreigners cannot (legally) get hold of Won, Euro has become the official currency for those not lucky enough to call DPRK home. There are an abundance of shops, restaurants, karaoke bars, brothels, ten-pin bowling alleys, billiard halls and pubs in the three foreigner hotels to spend the aforementioned Euros. Like the hotels themself, these are all fairly bland and generic, and are exclusively for foreigners and the DPRK ruling elite.

At the other end of the commercial scale were the enterprising individuals who line the roads between major towns and cities. Walking or riding a bike can be tough work, but luckily there are plenty of NKers wielding simple brief cases offering just what every weary traveller needs - cigarettes. Mostly Korean brand or cheap imported Chinese cigarettes, these are a staple of (male) North Korean life, and their sale by these small street vendors is tolerated by the government, presumably who have a tobacco addiction of their own.

If the two Koreas are ever to become one, bringing North Koreans up to speed on all things commercial will be one of the biggest challenges. With no need to balance a budget, make anything more than basic purchases, save for the future or demonstrate entrepreneurship, it will prove a steep learning curve.

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