It’s time for another episode of the weekly series Market Trends, where we look at the latest developments in North Korea’s economy. The gap between the rich and poor is continuing to widen in North Korea. This means that while wealthy residents have the ability to purchase the latest products, ordinary folks rely on the availability of secondhand goods. We now turn to special correspondent Kang Mi Jin to learn more.
That’s correct. Just like South Korea, it’s possible to buy and sell used items in the North. In South Korea, most of this trade in secondhand goods is facilitated by websites. Lacking the online infrastructure of the South, used goods in the North are sold in the markets and by travelling vendors. When I was living in North Korea, I experienced both buying and selling used goods. Since I left, sources indicate that secondhand items have become even more popular.
That’s a good point. Here in South Korea, secondhand goods are available in both traditional markets and through the Internet. South Koreans love having the latest gadget, so they sometimes put older items up for sale so they can buy the newest model. With this in mind, I’m curious about how products come to be sold at the secondhand markets in the North.
For starters, the origin and structure of the North’s secondhand goods market are quite different. Here in the South, people tend to follow trends and buy new products that fit their desires. That plays a large role in shaping and driving demand. But this type of consumerism is out of reach for most North Koreans. Furthermore, the secondhand markets in the North don’t have many domestically-produced items. Instead, one usually only finds South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese-made goods.
North Koreans generally do not have the luxury of being able to put their possessions up for sale on a whim. Most people use the items they purchase right up until the moment it falls apart or becomes unusable. That’s why secondhand goods for sale tend to come from abroad. These products are either traded or smuggled into the country.
What types of people in the North tend to look for secondhand goods?
Most North Koreans who visit the secondhand markets come from families without the financial means to purchase brand new products. Although secondhand goods are cheaper than new items, their quality isn’t bad, so they are a good alternative.
I recently spoke on the phone with a North Korean source who informed me that she went to the market to buy a winter coat for her husband, but was disappointed by the high prices. Just as she was walking out, she found a used coat on sale for a reasonable price. She bought the jacket and was quite satisfied. When I asked why people are buying up so many secondhand goods, she said, “After buying secondhand goods myself, I discovered that compared to new products, there are certain advantages.”
Even well-off families are known to use the secondhand markets from time to time. Other people use it as a sort of “thank you” or reciprocal exchange when a neighbor helps them do work around the house or runs an errand for them. Because so many people buy used goods for so many different reasons, the markets can get quite busy.
We’ve heard that even cadres and their families are using the secondhand markets. Considering that the secondhand market attracts such a wide range of customers, it seems that the vendors would be making decent money. Could you tell us about what sort of products are typically sold secondhand?
In South Korea, secondhand goods can include electronics, shoes, clothes, and sports items. In North Korea, clothes are the major item for sale in the secondhand markets. However, bikes, TVs, and electric fans are also available in smaller numbers. In addition, a very small number of computers are available. The most profitable product to sell is clothes, because it’s easier to sell a large volume on a daily basis.
It seems like secondhand goods might even sell better than brand new items. Is there any special reason for this?
The economic circumstances for many North Korean families have been adversely affected by recent events such as the international sanctions and widespread flooding in North Hamgyong Province. These macro events influence the earning potential of ordinary people. Furthermore, because no one has been provided with sufficient compensation by the authorities in the form of either food or money, they are forced to rely on their own hard work to earn a living. This naturally leads to many people looking to save money wherever possible, including by purchasing cheaper items.
Can you provide us with a few examples to illustrate the price differences between secondhand and new products?
Sure, I’ll try to give you a sense of the price difference through a few examples. A brand new Chinese-made television would cost about 750,000 KPW (approx U.S. 91), while a secondhand one would cost about 400,000 KPW (approx U.S. 49). But a used Japanese model would generally cost the same as a brand new Chinese TV. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out how much South Korean models go for. I would guess, however, that they would be even more expensive than the Japanese models.
On to the next product: rollerskates. New Chinese skates cost about 20,000 KPW (approx U.S. 2.50), while used South Korean skates cost 45,000 KPW (approx U.S. 5.50). It’s common knowledge in North Korea that South Korean-made goods are high quality. That’s why used roller skates from the South cost even more than new skates from China. People tend to prefer South Korean products, even when they’re more expensive.
Next I’ll talk about bicycles. A Chinese bicycle costs about 250,000 KPW (approx U.S. 30), while a used Japanese model costs about 700,000 KPW (approx U.S. 8.50). The most popular item in the used goods market might very well be underwear, which sells for about 6,000 KPW (U.S. 0.70) per pair. Used T-shirts cost about 5,000 KPW (U.S. 0.60), which is much cheaper than buying them brand new at 20,000 KPW (U.S. 2.40). This shows how big the price differences can be.
Here’s a rundown of North Korea’s latest market prices as of November 23.
The price of 1 kg of rice was 5,450 KPW in Pyongyang, 5,300 KPW in Sinuiju and 5,580 KPW in Hyesan. The cost of 1 kg of corn kernels was 1,140 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,150 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1,200 KPW in Hyesan.
The USD was trading at 8,230 KPW in Pyongyang, 8,195 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,210 KPW in Hyesan. The Yuan was trading at 1,250 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,265 KPW in Hyesan, and 1,270 KPW in Sinuiju. One kg of pork was selling at 13,800 KPW in Pyongyang, 14,000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 15,600 KPW in Hyesan. Gasoline was trading at 8,550 KPW per kg in Pyongyang, 8,410 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,490 KPW per kg in Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of diesel fuel was selling at 6,100 KPW in Pyongyang, 6,200 KPW in Sinuiju, and 6,100 KPW in Hyesan.
Prices as of November 17 were as follows:
The price of 1 kg of rice was 5,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 5,000 KPW in Sinuiju and 5,500 KPW in Hyesan. The cost of 1 kg of corn kernels was 1,080 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,110 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1,200 KPW in Hyesan.
The USD was trading at 8,160 KPW in Pyongyang, 8,120 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,170 KPW in Hyesan. The Yuan was trading at 1,210 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,200 KPW in Hyesan and Sinuiju. One kg of pork was selling at 13,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 13,500 KPW in Sinuiju, and 15,600 KPW in Hyesan. Gasoline was trading at 8,200 KPW per kg in Pyongyang, 8,150 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,400 KPW per kg in Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of diesel fuel was selling at 5,800 KPW in Pyongyang, 6,000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5,850 KPW in Hyesan.
*This article was amended from an earlier version.