Tue, Nov 27, 2018 - Page 13 News List

A taste of consumerism for North Korea

Kim Jong-un is quietly allowing a tightly controlled fortunate few in Pyongyang access to designer knock-offs, smartphones and even a version of Amazon

By Emma Graham-Harrison  /  The Guardian, PYONGYANG

A man rides his electric bike last month as the Tower of the Juche Idea is silhouetted against the sunrise in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Photo: AP

At the Ryuwon shoe factory in Pyongyang, Adidas trainers gleam on a stand beside the production line, a personal gift from dictator Kim Jong-un to inspire workers churning out imitations for the North Korean faithful.

“The Great Marshall sent shoes from other countries so the workers can see and touch them,” said the factory guide. Kim’s style hints have been embraced. The factory showroom boasts virtual copies of western brands from Puma to Nike, alongside more experimental hybrids, including Asics patterns on a loafer sole.

Footwear design may seem an incongruous concern for a man more famous for building up his nuclear arsenal, assassinating relatives and playing high-stakes diplomatic games with US President Donald Trump. But Kim has been managing a transition of sorts for his hermit nation.

His vision of change is not political. Kim has held tight to the dynastic personality cult, the brutal police state bolstered by a gulag network, and the official ideology of isolationist self-reliance handed down by his father and grandfather.

Instead, he has apparently decided that life should become a little more pleasant for the tiny, tightly controlled elite — a little bit more like the vision of westernized consumer society that slips into the country through strictly banned, but eagerly consumed, foreign films and television shows.


The opaque nature of North Korean society means there has been no official acknowledgment of the rise of this carefully managed version of consumer society, much less any insight into why Kim has allowed it to flourish on his watch. But last week one possible explanation came from Oh Chong-song, a soldier who made a dramatic dash across the border in a hail of bullets last year.

In his first interview since the extraordinary defection, Oh, who appears to have belonged to this gilded world, said Kim faced a lack of loyalty from his peers even though they must pay lip service to the dynasty in public.

“People my age, about 80 percent of them are indifferent,” he told Japanese paper Sankei Shimbun. “Not being able to feed the people properly, but the hereditary succession keeps going on — that results in indifference and no loyalty.”

The son of a major general, Oh described himself as “upper class” and said most members of the North Korean elite had a well-developed taste for imported pleasures, despite the formal doctrine of self-reliance.

“North Korean people condemn Japan in politics, but respect Japan in economics,” he said, citing the Nissan Patrol SUVs used exclusively by military officers as one example of the taste for Japanese goods.

For decades an indulgence limited to the Kim dynasty and their tight inner circle, this kind of imported luxury today offers Kim a way of co-opting his elite — or at least distracting them.

At state-run supermarkets in the capital Pyongyang — where most of the elite cluster — journalists on an official tour earlier this year saw shoppers browsing shelves of counterfeit Pumas and Nikes, real Colgate toothpaste and Pampers nappies, Japanese whiskey and even cans of Californian La Tourangelle walnut oil, on sale for around US$30.

Taxis waited outside to whisk the fortunate few around the city’s vast, empty roads. The fare for a single ride starts at around 16,000 won, equivalent to just under US$2 at the black market exchange rate used by North Koreans, but around a month’s wages for many workers in the capital.

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