Brandless products all the rage in North Korea's markets

Unification Media Group  |  2018-05-04 17:07

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

Unification Media Group (UMG): Its time for another weekly update and were speaking with reporter Kang Mi Jin to hear about the newest social and economic trends in North Korea. Mi Jin, can you tell us the latest? 

Today were starting with some rather unpleasant news. It relates to a struggle amongst ordinary residents, but which is largely invisible to the elite ruling class. 

North Koreas Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of Peoples Safety (MPS) officials have broad powers to crack down on so-called antisocial behaviors, and many residents are upset. One resident in Ryanggang Province told me, I wish the MPS agents would lose all the stars on their shoulders, (referring to the rank badges displayed on their uniforms).

A different resident in North Hamgyong Province said, Its a shame theyre called the Ministry of Peoples Safety, with another adding that the MSS, behind the scenes, is the most corrupt class. As the MSS and the MPS continue to openly demand bribes, it is the residents who suffer the most. 

Kim Jong Un recently proclaimed that he would suspend nuclear testing. Looking forward to the Kim-Moon summit and the Trump-Kim summit, residents expectations are rising. But residents I've spoken with say that the cadres are pouring cold water on this.

UMG: Can you explain a little bit about the Ministry of Public Safety and the Ministry of State Security? What is their role? 

The Ministry of Public Safety (MPS) is similar to the police in many countries, but with some key differences. In modern democracies like South Korea, the police are a protecting force, whereas in the North, they play a more parasitic role in society. They regularly extort the residents and demand bribes. For instance, they have recently increased their demands for the bribe money needed to remit money abroad. 

The Ministry of State Security is similar to a national intelligence agency. The MSS is responsible for guarding the leadership and monitoring the ideological sentiment of the population. They are also tasked with tracking down and exposing foreign spies within the country, and investigate anyone who may cause harm to the Kim family. Because of the importance of these roles, the MSS is able to demand more bribes than the MPS. 

UMG: Thats unfortunate to hear. What else do you have for us today?

Kang: The residents are getting busier ahead of the peak farming season. The results are shaping up to be pretty good - its looking to be a bumper year for crop production. 

UMG: Thats a relief. Last year, the harvest was not very good. Hopefully, this gives the residents a reason to smile. Can you update us on the markets?  

Kang: Just like the agricultural sector, the markets are also in a season of high activity. In particular, one inside source told me that residents are hopeful that the markets will improve thanks to thawing relations with South Korea and the US.  

There are a number of products selling very well at the moment. 

UMG: As someone who has been covering the market conditions for years, Im sure youve been able to find something interesting. 

Kang: I usually report on the latest trends, including the latest products to enter the markets and their prices. But I think Ive stumbled upon a trend that is even more interesting. Unlike in most other countries, there are many products for sale in North Korea that do not have brand names or labels attached to them.  

UMG: How do the residents trust the products if theres no brand? 

Ive heard from inside sources that the residents do not place much value on the brand name. So having or not having a brand name doesnt affect sales very much. Of course, a famous brand is a good thing. But theres no widespread recognition of quality brands yet within North Korea. 

A South Hamgyong Province source told me that people in Hamhung Citys market refer to these nameless home appliances by names that the merchants themselves make up. 

UMG: Wow, this is interesting. Tell us more please. 

There are refrigerators and rice cookers that have brand names and some that dont. One merchant who sells rice cookers told me that wholesale traders will sometimes attach their own name to the products if they dont have branding already.  

Over time, the residents have become accustomed to these kinds of names. I thought about how South Koreans who travel to North Korea in the future will be able to adapt. 

UMG: Im curious how prices are determined given that brand names are not fixed. 

Kang: Sources I consulted with informed me that a two-shelf refrigerator sells for 3 million KPW (about US $375). A three-shelf refrigerator costs 450-470 KPW. The price also varies according to design and color. 

There are more nameless washing machines for sale in the marketplace than branded versions. They simply refer to them by the English letters, A, B, C 

UMG: Any other noteworthy updates from the market? 

Kang: Ive gotten a hold of some more interesting information. More North Korean residents are looking to participate in cottage industries. As a result, all sorts of equipment useful for manufacturing in cottage industries is selling well in the marketplaces. Noodle-making machines and dumpling-making machines are just a few examples. Ill conduct some additional research, and update you with my findings! 
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