Allure of South Korean products continues to undermine crackdowns

North Korean residents of Pyongyang in photos taken during the recent inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Despite continued crackdowns by the North Korean authorities, South Korean products, including clothes, cosmetics, and electronics, remain popular among ordinary North Koreans. Products and culture from the South have become an important aspect of life for many in the North, with such assets used to show off an individual’s wealth and status.  

“These days, you can often see North Koreans wearing clothes seen in South Korean dramas. There are a lot of South Korean clothes that are smuggled into the country from China,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on October 11.

“South Korean cosmetics can be bought in North Korea’s markets. South Korean clothes and cosmetics are very popular and expensive.”

She added that South Korean-made electrical items popular in North Korea include rice cookers, curling irons, clothes irons, electric shavers, DVD players, cameras, electric tea kettles, and portable media players.

“South Korean electronics are considered the best in North Korea, so they are hot items throughout the country,” she explained.

Despite their popularity, the sale of South Korean products is heavily restricted by the North Korean authorities. In the country’s markets, local police monitor the products on offer from merchants. Merchants, however, have found numerous ways to avoid being caught.

“South Korean products are not sold out in the open; instead merchants hide them in the back and sell them secretly to those who request them,” said a source in North Pyongan Province.

“They cut the tags off the clothes to avoid getting caught by officials.”  

South Korean clothes, which began to circulate in North Korea from the early 2010s, are referred to as “clothes without tags” or “clothes from the southern neighborhood” to obfuscate their real origin.

One reason the widespread availability of South Korean clothes has continued is due to the mutually-beneficial relationship between merchants and law enforcement officials, involving the exchange of bribes for turning a blind eye to illegal activities.

Even officials charged with cracking down on the sale of South Korean products are fond of the products themselves.  

“I recently saw a Ministry of State Security official with a Samsung smartphone,” said a source in South Pyongan Province. “When I asked whether the phone could be used in North Korea, he said that it was for gaming [not for ringing anyone].”

Although the internet is not widely accessible in North Korea, Android package kits (APK) can be copied onto a smartphone’s SD card. After enabling the installation of “an app from an unknown source”, games can be directly installed onto the phone from the file browser.

Image: Daily Nk

If users have an APK file, they can also install other apps. North Korean smartphones, however, do not allow the installation of “external” APK files.

A reporter using a North Korean Arirang smartphone obtained by Daily NK tried to install an APK file onto it, but a message popped up saying “This file has not been signed [authorized],” as shown in the above photo.

“North Koreans play video games from South Korea and other countries on computers, notebooks and smartphones,” said the South Pyongan Province-based source. “One popular South Korean game, Multi Raid, is very popular among kids here.”

Multi Raid, however, is a combat action game created by a Japanese gaming company. The game has been translated into Korean, so some are likely mistaken in believing it’s from South Korea.