Young North Koreans spend big on electric bikes and smartphones

Pyongyangites with electric bikes and scooters
Pyongyangites with electric bikes and scooters. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Electric bicycles and smartphones are expensive in North Korea, but high prices have not stymied the popularity of these items among the country’s youth.

“These items are really popular among young people in major North Korean cities like Chongjin,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK. “People even starve themselves to save enough money to buy them.”

Electric bicycles and smartphones are reportedly popular in major cities like Pyongyang.

E-bikes allow young entrepreneurs to quickly transport goods from one place to another, while smartphones provide a way to communicate and conduct digital money transfers.

Young North Koreans seem to compete with each other to buy the latest version of these products. They are not put off by the expensive prices, the source said.

An electric bike, for example, goes for 3,000 to 4,000 yuan, or 3.4-4.5 million North Korean won.

One kilogram of rice in North Korea costs 5,000 North Korean won, which means that an electric bike costs the equivalent of more than 900 kilograms of rice. North Koreans typically eat around 59 kilograms of rice per year (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), so the price of an electric bike is enough to buy rice for 15 people for a year.

A separate source in North Hamgyong Province also reported that South Korean products, such as home appliances, are popular in Chongjin.

“South Korean products like refrigerators, rice cookers, TVs, Ottogi jjajang (black noodles), and various kinds of seasonings are popular. People buy these items through individuals who sell them at their homes, not local markets,” she said.

“It’s really hard to buy South Korean products in China. People have to pay bribes to customs officials, so it’s expensive to bring them into the country. It’s safer to buy them in Chongjin than in China or South Korea, even though they may be a bit more expensive here.”

North Korea’s chronic electricity problems, meanwhile, are making it difficult for people to use the electric appliances in their homes.

“Families that get electricity can use their rice cookers, but those that don’t just put their rice cookers out for show,” the initial source reported.

Some families are able to turn on the lights or watch television because they have solar panels; however, solar panels do not provide enough energy to power high-energy products like rice cookers and refrigerators.

“People recharge their electric bikes at their factories, not at home,” he said.

“Factories always have a steady flow of electricity. Factory managers even make money by charging people for the use of electricity to recharge their bikes.”

*This article was amended on July 10 to correct the price of electric bikes in North Korean won terms.

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