Demand for South Korean cosmetics grows in provincial regions of North Korea

This photo sent from a source inside North Korea shows popular South Korean cosmetics on offer in North Korean markets. Image: Daily NK

Rising demand for South Korean cosmetics is spreading beyond Pyongyang to the country’s provinces, and many women in North Korea are seeking out the products, North Korean sources reported on February 14.

Cosmetics have long been popular items among North Korean women, but many show less enthusiasm for North Korean or Chinese products (particularly those with appreciable incomes). When they get married, the groom’s friends will often visit different markets to buy South Korean cosmetics for sale at cheaper prices.

Sulwhasoo and “Hu” are considerably expensive in the country’s provincial towns and the majority of North Koreans are unable to afford them. “Iope” and HERA are the more popular brands in such locations, the source noted. Moreover, there are a rising number of people who identify with fashionable handbag brands.

“North Korean women now have more control over general household finances, so the merchandise available for women is on the rise” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source. “South Korean products are the most popular because people think South Korean brands are used by the rich.”

“Cosmetics are popular in the markets because they appeal to women of all ages,” said the source. “Iope and HERA-branded cosmetic sets are the most popular, and the friends of the groom will look around in different markets to purchase them.”

However, South Korean products remain illegal in North Korea so merchants cannot sell them openly. Customers must tell merchants directly that they want to buy South Korean products and have to haggle to buy them. Customers without detailed knowledge of South Korean products are sometimes fooled into buying Chinese imitation products, so many customers will visit several merchants first to better understand the products on offer before purchasing.

North Korean women are also paying more attention to handbags as fashion items, an additional source in Ryanggang Province said.

“Wives of the heads of trading companies who travel back and forth between China and North Korea have a lot of interest in what kinds of cosmetics and bags their peers are using,” said the source. “Their husbands used to complain about why they bought such handbags, but quickly realized their mistake and are now directly ordering handbags from Chinese traders.”

From around 2010, the North Korean authorities began to relax their restrictions on what women wear on the streets and to work, a development reportedly attributable in part to the fashion choices of Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol-ju. Even in the provinces, women have stopped wearing “inminbok” (literally, the people’s clothes) and are starting to wear more refined clothing.

“Sharp-eyed women will give bags as gifts to match their friend’s body type and face. The bags that are produced in leather bag factories run jointly with Chinese companies are good quality and quite expensive. But most people cannot even dream of buying South Korean bags because they are even more expensive,” a separate source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

She also noted that kitchen products popularly given as wedding gifts are also changing. “In the past, people would give aluminum, porcelain, or plastic plates as wedding gifts,” she said. “Now, however, people are buying wedding gifts that are more expensive like food mixers or rice cookers.”