Unless in the middle of the night, when I arrive at any destination the first thing I do, having dropped off my bags at the hotel, is to go out for a walk in the neighbourhood. The walk will invariably lead to a coffee or another beverage suitable to the time of day or my mood and, if I come across one, a look through a market or shop. Not so in North Korea.
In North Korea tourists are not permitted to leave their hotels without two local guides and in the unlikely event that you can persuade two guides to come with you you will not be able to go into an ordinary shop / restaurant and you certainly will not get to a market. Even if you were to enter these you would not be able to buy anything as it is illegal (except in very specific circumstances) for tourists to have or use the local currency.
Shopping for tourists is limited to a few (hard currency) options:-
- All tourist hotels will have shops or kiosks – depending on their size. They will have at least one bar and a few have small café type arrangements. The shops will sell basic toiletries, cigarettes, soft drinks and snack type foods, in addition to souvenirs
- The majority of tourist sites have shops / stalls selling similar to the hotel shops
- Stamp, art and bookshops – visited as part of tour only
- Approved cafes
- Approved department stores/ supermarkets
A visit to an approved café or department store (ones permitted to accept foreign currencies) will not be done willy nilly. Such a visit will be an official stop on your itinerary and you will pay in hard currency for any purchases made.
There are (as far as I know, in Pyongyang only) a small number of ‘real’ local stores which tourists can visit and where purchases are made in North Korean Won, the local currency. The largest of these, and the one most often visited by tourists, is the Kwangbok Department Store. I visited this store on three occasions during my 2018 visit.
Here, at a special kiosk in the rear of the store’s lobby area, we converted money to Won at the ‘real’ exchange rate (that used by locals). This rate is significantly better than the ‘official’ exchange rate used to convert prices in hotel shops, etc. For a fuller discussion on exchange rates see my separate review – ‘Money and the North Korean Economy.’ We were required to reconvert any unused Won to foreign currency prior to leaving the store. Suffice it to say that there were no controls in place to ensure money was reconverted. Although Won could not be used elsewhere within the country many availed of the opportunity to ‘souvenir’ small amounts by not reconverting all or any of their leftover Won. While these ‘souvenirs’ could have been confiscated on exiting the country I have heard no reports that any were.
To save the hassle of reconverting (there can be quite a queue at the kiosk) guides recommend that unless you are intent on doing a large amount of shopping you convert say only five Euro. This is sufficient to cover a meal in the food-court or water, snacks and the like. To foreigners prices here are ridiculously low. To locals this is an expensive store and only the well off can afford to shop here. The store is aimed at the upper and growing middle classes and expatriates. If you are intent on more serious shopping it is best to have a look through the store first – see what you want and then convert money accordingly. Hint – wine is good value here!
The Kwangbok Department Store originally opened in 1991 and was the first of its kind in North Korea. Until at least 2016, when the Chinese version of its name was removed from the exterior of the store, it was run as a joint venture with a Chinese company (Feihaimengxin International Trade Co. Ltd). The whole store is a good example of how the Chinese are shaping the North Korean consumer and of the foothold China has already, quietly, made in the country.
Notably, Kim Jong-il’s last visit to the store on 15 December 2011, to give some on the spot guidance just prior to it’s re-opening following a major refurbishment, was also his last known public appearance. He died two days later on 17 December 2011.
The store consists of three shopping levels.
Ground (First) Floor
On the ground floor can be found a large supermarket, electrical goods (including the locally made Arirang televisions and smartphones), the currency exchange kiosk, a bag storage area and various smaller outlets selling beauty products (including Estee Lauder, Dior and Lancome) and other smaller items.
When I visited, the supermarket was well stocked with a significant percentage of goods on sale being from overseas. While the majority of the imported goods was from China there was also produce from Russia, Thailand and Vietnam among other countries. With the exception of fresh fruit and vegetables (our guides indicated that these were mainly sold in produce markets as opposed to supermarkets like this) pretty much everything seemed to be available, albeit without the choice most tourists would have at home.
On one visit here I bought a slab of bottled water for a dollar or so and various snacks. Also on this occasion I picked up, with the intention of buying, a few locally produced notebooks of the type typically used by schoolkids. They were of rather poor quality – very thin and rough paper with holes in some pages – but good enough for my needs. Anyway, I liked the nice red covers which were embossed with Korean words, the translation of which eluded me. As I was considering my options a couple of shop assistants approached me, said nothing – as they could not speak English – and removed the notebooks from my hands and re-shelved them.
I immediately lifted them of the shelves again and the process was repeated with fingers wagged this time to indicate that I could not have them. As it happened our guide was passing by (yes, the group was permitted to break up in the store and wander around unescorted!) and I sought an explanation. He advised me that these notebooks were especially cheap for North Koreans only and that the writing on them was inspirational quotes from Kim Il-sung. I had to settle for the more flowery notebook depicted along side which is adorned by the Okryu, a famous Pyongyang restaurant, and part of the city skyline. Armed with my notebook and my other items I headed for the check-out which was a totally painless process though I failed to pick up my receipt which was required by security staff as I left the supermarket area. I was waved through.
The second floor is devoted to clothing and household goods though it also has a small pharmacy section were – I was later told – I could have purchased North Korean Viagra, over the counter.
I quickly scanned the clothing section which doesn’t do it for me anywhere let alone in North Korea. I saw enough to ascertain that most of what was for sale was locally produced or from China. Household goods were similarly sourced with one notable exception and that was the IKEA section. I made some enquiries of the sales assistant whose English skills were rather poor. I enquired as to the source of these goods and initially she said Indonesia but later to changed her answer to Australia. It may be that the assistant was trying to guess where I was from as opposed to answering my question. While I have lived in Australia for twenty five plus years I am not noted for my Aussie ascent. In any event the IKEA furniture is the real thing and would have been parallel imported from somewhere, without the involvement of IKEA.
As my reader is no doubt aware, crippling US lead sanctions on North Korea practically prohibits almost everyone doing any business with the country. Accordingly, the large volume of foreign goods on sale here and elsewhere (ironically up on what I saw in 2014) is imported, generally contrary to sanctions, and would be parallel imports in the majority of cases, supplemented by a dwindling direct trade with China. In 2014, while I didn’t visit this store (it wasn’t open to tourists then), I noticed that a lot of foodstuffs on sale in hotel shops and other places we visited was from Singapore. In 2018, despite the greater amount of foreign produce on sale generally, I did not notice anything from Singapore even though I was keeping an eye open for it.
On the third is a large food court, a children’s play area and toilets.
The play area was unmistakedly North Korean featuring, in addition to the play equipment, those quintessential murals of tanks, soldiers and guns which are found in playgrounds, particularly those for the under fives, across the country.
Being over five, I made my way across the landing to the food-court. Here I found a wide selection of Korean and Chinese food along with, perhaps surprisingly, a western style fast food section selling burgers, pizzas, fries, hotdogs and so on. The range and high quality of what was on sale here quite surprised me as did the large number of boisterous (for North Korea) people clearly enjoying themselves in a scene typical of a food-court anywhere else in the world.
On my first visit to the food-court I selected a top-of-the-range Russian ice-cream and a freshly made waffle. Both were delicious and together cost me less than a dollar. They were served on a plate and accompanied by metal chopsticks – presumably for the waffle!
On a subsequent visit to the store I went directly to the food-court and bought some snacks and decided sit at a table with a few locals who, it transpired, could speak reasonably good English. We had a guarded (from both sides) conversation – pretty frivolous banter though pleasant all the same. It was just nice to be able to speak to ordinary everyday people (albeit it middle class Pyongyangers) from outside the tourist industry.
Outside the store
Outside the store there were a few marquees (seasonal) which sold street food and beer. A few of our group chose to join people here for a drink or whatever as smoking was permitted in this area. Beer was also available in the food court area – supposed to be the cheapest beer in Korea – North or South.
In the large forecourt/ empty carpark in front of the store there is a large gold coloured sculpture depicting a number of cranes. I have not been able to find out anything about this particular sculpture but know that cranes play an important role in the personality cult of the Kim dynasty.
On the death of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il various strange supernatural phenomena occurred all over North Korea and many of these involved cranes. I encountered another sculpture similar to this one during a walk along the Taedong River in 2014 and have written about it in a separate review – Cranes bound for heaven? In that review I have referred to some of the strange supernatural phenomena mentioned above.
In a peculiar way, a visit to the Kwangbok Department Store is a highlight of any visit to North Korea.
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review– HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang reviews – HERE