Residents showing off a variety of footwear, including boots, as they walk past
Junggu Station in Pyongyang
Unification Media Group (UMG): An early snow in November marked the arrival of an early winter in North Korea. Merchants across the country are preparing as residents scramble to buy the necessary items to survive the winter, which is known for being harsher than in the South. Today we speak with special correspondent Kang Mi Jin to find out what items are in demand in the markets these days.
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): After it snowed twice in the last week in South Korea, people here are starting to purchase new jackets and other items in preparation for the cold. I went on a trip to Kangwon Province with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and she said she had already bought a new long padded jacket for herself and her daughter for the cold winter that we’re expecting.
Coats and new boots are selling well, giving a boost to the clothing industry. It would take forever to go through the list of items in the South that are suddenly flying off the shelf. And it’s also true to some extent in North Korea, where the markets are busy with consumers buying up winter items.
UMG: What kinds of items are North Koreans buying to stay warm?
Kang: I spoke with a source inside North Korea a few days ago, who updated me on the latest winter trends in the markets. Winter items like padded jackets, beanies, scarves, gloves, women’s long and ankle boots, and wool-lined boots are the most popular these days.
Scarves go by a different name in North Korea than in the South. In the South, a scarf is called a mokdori, while people in the North refer to it as a meori sugeon, roughly translating to “head cloth” or towel. It’s also sometimes called a winter cloth, coming in both long rectangular and square shapes. North Koreans wouldn’t have to layer on so many clothes if they had well-heated buses, trains, and offices as people do in the South. New padded coats and scarves are introduced into the markets every year, and the upper class tends to purchase these new items at the start of each winter (to stay up with the latest trends).
Also, students in North Korea are following the new lace-up ankle boots trend this year. All sorts of lace-up boots are being sold at various prices now.
UMG: As we have discussed previously, domestically-made products are becoming more popular in North Korea these days. Are these boots and padded jackets made domestically or are they imported?
Kang: That’s right, domestically-made products have slowly become more available, making up about half of the stock available in the markets today. For the most part, these are made up of foodstuffs, general necessities, and clothing items.
Boots appear to be one item where consumers prefer domestic-made to Chinese-made, despite the latter being slightly cheaper. North Korean boots are known to be made with sturdier fur lining than imported versions. They use artificial fur lining, helping keep prices down and demand up.
UMG: In South Korea, long underwear and long-sleeve shirts are very popular in winter. Are these kinds of items sold in the North as well?
Kang: Yes, these items are also available in the North. People have been busy since the fall harvest season through to the kimchi-making season, and now they are preparing for winter. To keep warm, first people worry about gathering firewood and coal bricks, then they think about purchasing padded jackets and boots. People in North Korea mostly heat their homes through the traditional ondol method – an underfloor heating system that uses a furnace fire – so they can keep their homes pretty warm (if they have firewood or coal). But since people spend most of their time tending to activities outdoors, they really must prioritize warm clothing. People prefer thick jackets and thick scarves, so these items sell best.
A person in North Korea with whom I spoke recently told me that they also went out in search of some long underwear. She said she found a nice red pair and bought some for her daughter as well. People in North Korea commonly prefer red-colored items, because red symbolizes wealth.
UMG: Earlier you mentioned that lace-up boots have become popular among students. North Korean students nationwide are known to wear a single style of uniform, but are they allowed to wear whichever shoes they like?
Kang: It’s true that no matter the region or school, all students wear the same style and color of uniform. In the past, the government handed out uniforms, shoes, and schoolbags to students every 2 or 3 years, but students had to begin purchasing these items themselves after the famine of the 1990s. Students are still required to wear uniforms, but the correct shoes are now only needed for special events. At other times, they are free to wear what they like.
I have heard that winter boots are becoming very popular these days in the northern mountainous region of Ryanggang Province. Because even students can be commonly seen wearing these boots now, we can assume that sales have been on the rise in recent years. But the wealth gap can be seen through the difference in shoes that students wear. Students from rich families can be seen wearing 600,000 KPW (~$75 USD) shoes, while poorer students may wear 60,000 KPW (~$7 USD) shoes.