The most popular products in North Korea right now? Cigarettes for men and cosmetic face masks for women

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

The Bomhyangi (scent of spring) Mianmak, produced at Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory. Image: Daily NK

Unification Media Group (UMG): This is the week’s market news for North Korea. We’re talking today with journalist Kang Mi Jin. South Korea is in the midst of the rainy season. How is it in North Korea?

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): There was a mudslide in parts of Ryanggang Province. North Korea did not get a lot of rain, but the mudslides have set off hurried preparations throughout the country to prepare for the rainy season. People are checking again whether the roofs they repaired before the rainy season can stand up to the strong winds, and that the drainage ditches near their homes are not clogged with rocks or grass.

People in North Hamgyong Province experienced serious flooding several years ago, and are paranoid about even the smallest rise in ditch water. They’re busy checking to make sure diversions made of rock are setup and that the streambeds are cleared.

UMG: There was a lot of damage done to North Hamgyong Province during the flooding in 2016, so we hope that the region passes through the year without any trouble. There was also a picture of Kim Jong Un at the North Korean embassy in China chatting and smoking with diplomats there. I hear that cigarettes are popular in the North Korean markets.

Kang: Yes, there are many new types of North Korean-made cigarettes appearing in the country’s markets. There were about 40 different types according to a source I spoke to last year. I confirmed yesterday there are six or seven new kinds that have appeared since then.

The brand names are quite diverse and manufactured in various factories. Mindeullae, Seogwang, Dongbang, Bulssi and Mirae were not around in the 2000s, and Bamgoyangi, Jinhung, Hin Yongaksan were introduced last year. The wide variety of cigarettes reflects the differing income levels and preferences of North Korean consumers.

I heard from a source that during the holidays or when a guest visits, people give out expensive cigarettes. But they give out more modest cigarettes to friends and relatives at other times.

UMG: The increase in variety must mean there has been an increase in demand. South Korea is now placing an emphasis on people quitting smoking, but what about in North Korea?

Kang: North Korea is also promoting non-smoking to its citizens. KCTV has referred to smokers who light up all day and night as “ignorant people” and “those who don’t care about their health.” They also talk about the unpleasantness that smokers spread around them.

Women have also joined in on the call for men to give up smoking. One anti-smoking ad says that “Men who don’t smoke make women happy.” I think this is indicative of that gradual changes are happening in North Korea.

UMG: There was also a report that Ri Sol-ju suggested that her husband Kim Jong Un should stop smoking during the dinner hosted by North Korea for the South Korean special envoy. Smoking, of course, is well known to be unhealthy and North Korean men need to understand that. How much do the newly launched cigarettes cost?

Multiple sources informed me that a pack of Hongchonji runs about 2,900-3,000 KPW, and Mindeullae goes for about 1,900-2,000 KPW. Songak brand sells for 1,200 KPW, Jinhung for 1,500 KPW, and Bamgoyangi for between 2,050-2,100 KPW. Myongsim brand is 2,500 KPW and Hana about 3,700 KPW.

The Amnok River brand, a more expensive variety of cigarette, fetches between 5,200-5,400 KPW and the White River Mountain brand sells for 4,500 KPW.

UMG: There’s a wide variety of cigarettes costing anywhere from 1000 won to 5000 KPW. I think it shows that North Korea’s cigarette market has developed significantly. Last week, you reported that North Korean women have become very interested in skin care. Could you elaborate?

Kang: I think women in most places are interested in skincare and so it’s not surprising to see the same phenomenon in North Korea.

Many North Koreans work outside and they need to take care of their skin in the summer. Women now have a whole slew of skin products to choose from. Skin care is becoming an ingrained aspect of daily life.

One woman I talked to recently said that she uses a product called Mianmak at least once a week for her skin. She also said that the more well-off members of society like the donju (newly-affluent middle class) and businesspeople spend a lot of money on their skin but ordinary women only use skin products once weekly or monthly. According to her, most women save up money to buy face packs to use once a week when they’re mobilized for farm work or when there are a lot of events.

UMG: What is Mianmak?

Kang: It’s essentially a mask pack. North Koreans don’t use a lot of foreign loan words and there are a lot of products with pure Korean names. The name Mianmak means “making your face beautiful.” There’s another product called Miansu, which means “water that makes your face beautiful.”

UMG: Last week, you talked about the fact many North Korean women are using wrinkle removers. Mask packs are just as popular it seems.

Kang: Another woman I spoke to said that she buys cucumber Mianmaks every week to take care of her skin. I told her that a friend of mine said that she uses ginseng Mianmaks once a week because they’re good quality. The North Korean woman seemed a bit jealous!

I think the increasing interest in skin care among women in North Korea shows the growing level of economic freedom they are experiencing due to marketization.