Pyongyang Woman Clutchbag
A woman walking in Pyongyang is seen holding a clutchbag. / Image: Pyongyang Photography and Reporting Association

North Korea’s economy is stagnating, but the country’s elite continue to flamboyantly display their wealth and merchants selling luxury items to the elite are ceaselessly targeting them for purchases, Daily NK sources have reported.

“The bag stalls at the Pyongsong markets are full of all sorts of high-quality bags for men and women,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on Monday. “Some of the better-off people will even visit the markets to pick out expensive bags and show off their wealth.”

Gaudy displays of wealth cause disdain among ordinary North Koreans

As wealth disparities have intensified across North Korea, bragging about one’s financial ability has become a trend even among the public.

“North Koreans find themselves scowling often at the markets these days because of boasting by wealthy people,” the source said. “We can always tell right away that they are well-off, but they feel the need to make it very obvious as they buy items.”

“There are some merchants who barely make a few pennies a day. Some of the wealthy shop for bags, which are similar in price to more than 100 kilograms of rice, in a very unsightly way,” continued the source, also adding, “North Koreans who sell vegetables or miscellaneous items will shoot daggers at the behavior of this privileged class.”

It is not difficult for those with wealth to earn more, but people without any wealth struggle to make even KPW 10,000, another source said. “The elite attempt to crush the spirits of those around them with not just (costly) clothes but also expensive bags,” she added.

Consumers can buy luxury items at places outside of local markets these days, including the Kwangbok Area Supermarket, North Korea’s first supermarket, and at several recently opened and renovated stores in Pyongyang.

North Korean women wealth
Daily NK sources have reported that most displays of luxury bags occur in North Korea’s major cities. / Image: Daily NK

Pyongyang donju prefer new luxury bags, those in provinces get hand-me-downs

How, then, do luxury items enter the North Korean market in the first place?

Although the United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea include luxury goods in its list of restricted imports, the sanctions do not specifically refer to luxury bags. This has created a “loophole” for bags to enter the North Korean market through regular import activities.

Luxury bags also enter the country through overseas visitors. The interesting point here is that at times a bag owner will change their mind about a bag they once liked and purchased through an acquaintance. They will then put it up for sale on the second-hand market for no other reason that they changed their mind. The bags will often make their way to markets in the provinces, not Pyongyang.

Ultimately, while donju in Pyongyang have the financial freedom to buy new products, North Koreans living outside of the capital city have to settle for hand-me-downs.

Daily NK has long reported on the prevalence of used items on sale in local markets throughout North Korea.

“Families involved in trade or the donju will make requests to North Koreans traveling overseas,” one source told Daily NK. “Women in the provinces who enjoy luxury items will also try to acquire at least one expensive bag, even if it means eating and spending a little less.”

Merchants and elite disregard government warnings about “bourgeois lifestyles” 

Of course, it stands to reason that North Koreans purchasing luxury items such as bags deviates from officially sanctioned state ideology. Through a consistent program of lectures, the North Korean government has strongly criticized bourgeois ideology and lifestyles, even calling them “vulgar.”

The prevailing attitude among the merchants and the elite disregards such government warnings. Based on their own understanding of what consumers want, merchants know that luxury goods are sources of profit and are keen to acquire more luxury items to sell.

Given that “luxury goods” are being openly sold in department stores and other places, the merchants have also recognized that the sale of such products has not been completely banned by the authorities.

Daily NK sources also note that it is common for merchants to set up “connections” with wealthy female consumers to tip them off about new products.

“Everyone knows that women control spending in their families, which is why merchants target them,” one of the sources said. “While the authorities may crackdown occasionally on how women dress as a way to keep everyone in line, government crackdowns don’t usually stoop to the level of controlling what kinds of bags they wear.”

*Translated by Violet Kim

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