Unification Media Group (UMG): Laundry powder and toilet paper are popular housewarming gifts in South Korea, so it’s no surprise to see these items in high demand now during the peak moving season. Similar trends are also evident in North Korea. To discuss this and more, we are joined by Daily NK reporter Kang Mi Jin.
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Housewarming parties in South Korea often host about 10 people. When I had my housewarming, I invited over 30 people. I’m still using the toilet paper and laundry powder I received as gifts that day.
During a recent phone call to check on North Korea’s market prices, a source told me that the price of laundry powder rose slightly during the early autumn weeks. This reminded me of when I was living in North Korea, where laundry powder sells quickly during spring and autumn. The increase in laundry powder sales is thought to correlate with the moving season here in South Korea, but in North Korea, I remember laundry powder would sell better in spring and autumn, regardless. This also made me think about the differences between North and South Korean traditional customs and the impact of Hallyu (the Korean cultural wave).
UMG: In South Korea, laundry powder sales increase because of the moving season in spring and autumn. What’s the reason behind the rise during spring and autumn in North Korea?
Kang: Yes that seems to be the case in South Korea. I wash my sheets and blankets once a month and just put some laundry powder in the washing machine, press the button and it runs by itself until the washing is dry. It’s a luxury compared to North Korea.
I had to wash everything by hand in North Korea, even the larger blankets. So you usually wash your family’s bedding only once or twice a year, and it’s usually in spring and/or autumn. Most families wash their winter bedding on a nice warm spring day by the river, and if the weather is nice, they hand wash other laundry while they wait for the blankets to dry, and then take them back home. It’s the same in autumn. The seasonal autumn rain has recently passed and I’ve been told more residents are going down to the riverside to wash their blankets. Such scenes were common in South Korea a long time ago.
UMG: Yes, that’s right. You would see people hand washing their laundry by the stream 20 to 30 years ago, but this no longer happens. Do most North Korean residents hand wash their laundry?
Kang: Most North Koreans do. There are recent reports that some households are using washing machines, but there is a belief that blankets wash better under running water.
A picture of blankets being dried near new housing built in last year’s flood stricken regions surfaced on the internet recently. You can see similar sights of washing being hung out to dry in the rural and urban areas of North Korea during autumn.
When I lived in North Korea, I would take my laundry to a relative’s house in the city because the reservoir water by the Samsu power station wasn’t clean. They had a washing machine, but there were times when the power supply would stop and I’d have to take out the laundry and hand wash it. Most North Koreans experience these sorts of situations and so a lot of people prefer to go down to the river and save themselves the hassle.
Some of the North Koreans I talk to envy how we here in the South use washing machines to do our laundry in the comfort of our own homes. There are some reports of washing machines being used in certain households in major cities, but most residents say it’s very rare.
UMG: So laundry powder sales rise in spring and autumn because people are taking advantage of the weather to hand wash their laundry?
Kang: Yes, our sources report that laundry powder and soap sales have recently increased across the country. Some North Koreans are now taking soap to housewarming parties. I’m not quite sure if this is due to the influence of Hallyu or just a traditional Korean custom.
The North Korean source told me that many people give gas lighters to their new neighbors, but laundry powder is also becoming popular because it seems like a more generous gift.
I mentioned to the source that it’s common for South Koreans to give laundry powder as a housewarming gift, and they replied in a low voice that, “Perhaps people here learned about it by watching South Korean dramas and listening to radio broadcasts.” When I heard that, I thought that Hallyu is slowly taking hold of North Korean residents.
UMG: How much does the price of laundry powder increase during spring and autumn?
Kang: According to last year’s figures, the national average including in areas of Pyongyang, Ryanggang Province and Kangwon Province, was 10,000 KPW per bag. Currently, the price of laundry powder in Ryanggang Province is 10,845 KPW and 11,000 KPW at Pyongsong Market (South Pyongan Province), which is a large wholesale market, while prices at Kalma Market in Wonsan (Kangwon Province) are even higher at 11,300 KPW.
Earlier in the spring this year, a bag of was selling for 9,640 KPW at Hyesan Market, 9,800 KPW at Pyongsong Market and 9,970 KPW at Wonsan Market.
UMG: Is laundry powder in the North Korean markets domestically manufactured or from China?
Kang: Most of the laundry powder being sold is made in China, but there are also North Korean and Japanese brands. The most common brand of laundry powder comes from China, followed by North Korea. North Korea is trying to focus on domestic production of detergents and cosmetic products, and has expanded production targets.
However, North Korean residents say there is nothing better than South Korean-made laundry powder, but it’s notoriously difficult to find in the markets.