SERI’s top ten list is based on a mixture of interviews with North Korean refugees, media reports, and trade statistics. It provides insight into the changing nature of North Korea, the continued influence of grassroots marketization and also the growing polarization in the country between rich and poor. Wealth and resources are increasingly concentrated in Pyongyang while many in the provinces are left struggling to meet their basic needs.
NK’S TOP TEN HIT PRODUCTS AND SERVICES, 2011
Coal Briquettes. Coal mining increased to raise revenue in 2011, as it accounts for almost half of all exports to China. Surplus coal is made into coal briquettes, by hand, and sold in Pyongyang where a lack of electricity and gas drives demand for coal. People in the countryside still use wood as fuel.
Amusement Parks. Apparently one of Kim Jong-un’s favourites, they are designed in part to show off NK as an economically developing country. Their popularity also indicates increasing levels of disposable income among the mid-elites.
Restaurants. The government made it easier to open restaurants in Pyongyang, although it has to be done in the name of an organization. Entrepreneurial North Koreans are taking advantage of this opportunity to earn money from the new class of mid-elites who have disposable income earned through market activities.
High-heeled Shoes. A sign that NK women, particularly in the capital, are becoming more concerned with fashion. This is partially driven by the influence of South Korean dramas and films that are smuggled into the country. Pic 1. Pic 2.
Mobile Phones. The number of Koryolink (NK’s official network) subscribers topped 1 million. Handsets are produced in China specifically for the NK market, and now include smartphones with touchscreens, camera and video functions, apps, and Bluetooth sharing. By the way, NK mobile phone numbers start with “1912” because that is the year Kim Il-sung was born. Seriously.
Bottled Water. Dilapidated infrastructure means that water supplies are irregular, so mid-elites with the means are increasingly overcoming this by buying bottled water.
Choco Pies. These South Korean snacks are distributed to the 50,000 workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex where North Koreans work for South Korean companies. A worker can get as many as 10 per day and these Choco Pies are reportedly sold on the black market all over NK.
Instant Coffee Mix. Coffee has boomed in the South Korean market in recent years and it seems that North Koreans are following suit here as well, at least with instant coffee. I have even heard that some young NK elites are turning into coffee snobs…
USB Flash Drives. There is no access to the internet and personal laptops or computers are out of the reach of all but the very rich, so people store their files on personal USB drives and use them on computers that they do have access to or on USB-compatible DVD players. USB drives are also popular because it is easier to store foreign videos and music on them without being caught.
Delivery Services. Porters and couriers are becoming ubiquitous in places like markets and train stations. These services can be done very informally, they thrive off cheap labour, and they require very low start-up costs. A good option for a first business venture.
For comparison, SERI’s top ten hit items in NK for 2010 were: pine mushrooms, crab, fertilizer, mobile phones, women’s pants, pork, Shin ramyun, draft beer, new notes and DVDs of South Korean TV series.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst