Here in South Korea, thrifty spending is all the rage as people look to tighten the purse strings. People in North Korea are also adapting to consumer culture, thanks to the gradual and continuing process of marketization that is transforming North Korean society. Daily NK reporter Kang Mi Jin is here to tell us more.
Although the growth forecast is perking up for South Korea’s economy, consumers are still feeling financial constraints. The TV shows here are packed with stories of frugal customers. One such program even introduced a housewife who was saving money by shrewdly selecting toilet paper. That got me thinking about the toilet paper market in North Korea.
As I explored the story further, I realized that housewives in both North and South Korea share some of the same kinds of financial issues. In South Korea, however, toilet paper is all pretty high in quality, so people are free to choose based on price. I wondered if that was the case in the North, so I sent out some queries and compiled a report.
Originally, most of the toilet paper available in the North came from China, but these days, “Made in North Korea” toilet paper is also available. Are these two varieties more or less comparable?
While Chinese-made toilet paper tends to be two-ply, North Korean paper comes in both single-ply and two-ply versions. The Chinese product is more expensive.
You can tell someone’s status in life by looking at what brand of toilet paper they buy. Some merchants noted that certain housewives purposefully buy the good stuff to show off their wealth. When wealthy customers stroll by their stand in the marketplace, vendors tend to really target them and try to sell the high quality paper.
Can you tell us about the prices?
In North Hamgyong Province’s Namdaechon Market, North Korean toilet paper sells for 400 KPW (about US $0.05) for single-ply and 900 KPW for two-ply. Chinese toilet paper sells for 1,570 KPW (about US $0.20) per roll. In Ryanggang Province’s Hyesan Market and Yonbong Market, single-ply North Korean paper sells for 500 KPW, while two-ply sells for 1,000 KPW. Chinese toilet paper costs 1,500 KPW.
The reason why toilet paper is slightly cheaper in North Hamgyong Province is because there’s a pulp factory that produces toilet paper there in Kilju County. It also makes sense that Chinese paper costs more in North Hamgyong compared to the border regions, as this is due to the transportation costs.
It seems that toilet paper isn’t too expensive even for a North Korean on a tight budget. So can you tell us what consumers consider when they make a choice?
The people of North Korea became tougher and self-sufficient ever since the public distribution system collapsed. When North Koreans try to buy at a lower price, they usually forge a relationship with the vendor. Vendors tend to treat their regular customers more favorably than the average customer.
People also try to plan their purchases based on another important factor: timing. It’s better to buy a large quantity all at once. More and more residents are catching on to this, and getting their toilet paper at a lower price per roll.
A contact in North Korea recently told me a story related to this. An older lady in her town was sick and couldn’t go to the market. She asked my friend to help her by purchasing a large amount of toilet paper. My friend was surprised to discover that it was much cheaper than she expected.
As you know, it’s a South Korean tradition to give people toilet paper as a housewarming gift. Does the same tradition exist up North?
When I first settled in South Korea, my friends and neighbors brought me toilet paper when I moved into my house. I couldn’t understand it. North Koreans usually give lighters or matches during housewarming parties.
But then I learned of the symbolic significance. The continually flowing roll of toilet paper is said to represent prosperity. I held two or three housewarming parties when I moved in, and I got enough toilet paper from my friends to last seven years!
My North Korean friend asked how much toilet paper costs in the South, but I couldn’t tell her because I haven’t needed to buy any yet. My friend said that she wished a similar tradition existed in North Korea.
I have one final question for you. What do they call toilet paper in North Korea?
Good question. We call it toilet paper in the South, but they call it “sanitary tissue,” or “sanitary paper.” When I first called to ask about the price of toilet paper, the source didn’t understand what I was talking about. But then I said “sanitary paper,” and the source understood right away. It was a chance for me to reflect on all the linguistic differences between North and South.