Let’s be honest: The average Westerner’s knowledge of North Korea is usually composed of vague memories of newspaper headlines dealing with the country. Thus, they are likely to be surprised when they hear that the North, so often associated with destitution and starvation, has gone through a consumer revolution over the last 5-7 years. Though modest, this revolution is nonetheless real, and is reminiscent of an equally unheralded and unnoticed (at least in the West) consumer revolution that occurred in the Soviet Union in 1960s and ’70s.
No doubt, North Korea remains very poor by the standards of the developed West, and for that matter, by the standards of all its neighbors. Malnourishment is still a problem for many North Koreans. Nonetheless, it is clear that within recent years, a large and growing part of the population can afford items that were completely unavailable 15 years ago and were not seen as necessities. Some North Koreans still worry about survival, but many can now afford to think about a comfortable life.
The major indicators about such ongoing change is the truly dramatic increase in access to all kinds of household equipment. Changes began in the early 2000s, soon after the end of the disastrous great famine, and seemingly accelerated in recent years.
In late 2013, scholars from South Koreas’ Energy Economics Institute conducted a survey of North Korean refugees in South Korea and China. The survey, dealing with the availability of the household electric equipment, did not attract much attention, but it yielded interesting results that might look surprising to many people. On the other hand, to me these results do not look that special: What the survey says agrees quite well with what one can hear from North Korean refugees.
STOCKING YOUR HOMES
Let’s begin with a TV set, an important symbol of modern consumerism. Around 2000, less than one-quarter of all North Korean households had a TV at home, but then things began to change rapidly.
… the LCD TV set ceased to be seen as a luxury, and is increasingly affordable for better-off North Korean families
The survey indicated that currently TV set ownership in Pyongyang had reached an impressive 105 percent, while in the countryside it is pretty close to 100 percent. In other words, this means that nowadays, nearly all North Korean families have a TV set at home, while more affluent families nowadays can afford to have two TV sets. It is remarkable that some 9 percent of Pyongyangites and some 6.6 percent of people in the countryside, according to the same survey, have modern flat screen LCD TV sets. Refugees note that in the last few years, the LCD TV set ceased to be seen as a luxury, and is increasingly affordable for better-off North Korean families.
It is remarkable that in most households, TV sets are used with video devices. The North Korean dialect does not really distinguish between DVD, VHS and other personal video-related equipment – they are all grouped together as rokhwagi. Currently, according to various estimates, between 50 and 75 percent of North Korean families have such a device at home. Frequently, it is used to watch smuggled copies of Western and South Korean movies, while in more cautious households it is used to play Russian, Indian and Chinese movies – which are legal in North Korea.
A remarkable transformation has also occurred in the world of home refrigeration. A mere seven years ago, a refugee who I know well told me how her parents, still in North Korea at the time, were shocked to learn that their daughter had a fridge in her room in Seoul. For them, this was a sure sign that she had disobeyed their instructions and had gotten involved in politics, perhaps even becoming a CIA operative. They could not believe that such an expensive and high-tech device as a fridge could be affordable for a student in South Korea.
Roughly at the same time, a successful North Korean businessman (a black market operator, if you prefer), told me that he had a fridge which could not be used due to frequent blackouts. However, he went on to explain that, being a successful man, he had to have a fridge at home, in order to indicate to his partners that he should be taken seriously.
However, such days are now long gone. The aforementioned 2013 study, as well as what I hear from refugees, indicates that some 37 percent of all Pyongyang households now have fridges. Admittedly, the contraption is far less common in the countryside, where fridges cannot normally be used regularly due to persistent problems with the electricity supply. Nonetheless, even there, entrepreneurial rich people have found a solution: They bribe a local power grid manager or military officer(s) to connect their houses to military installations or party/government institution. Since they are far less frequently subject to blackouts, such a cable ensures that fridges have a good supply of power.
One of the side effects produced by the dramatic increase in fridge ownership is the dramatic surge in popularity for butcher shops in Pyongyang. Until recently, meat was simply not a part of the diet for nearly all except the chosen few. Even in the best of times, Pyongyangites were eligible for 1 pound of meat four or five times a year only. Now, however, things are different and women of rich households can shop at the butcher’s and then keep meat in the large fridge at home.
Another new device in North Korean houses is the washing machine. The above mentioned survey found out that some 27.9 percent of Pyongyang households have a washing machine, while in the countryside, depending on the area, the ownership rate is between 5 percent and 9 percent.
HOLD THE PHONE
Perhaps the most revolutionary of changes has been in the telecom market. The world’s attention was much attracted by the emergence and growth of the mobile phone network in Pyongyang. Indeed, Koryolink now has 3 million subscribers, even though the actual number of handsets is significantly smaller, perhaps 2 million or so. This interest is understandable, since mobile phones are often associated with social media and modern technology and thus seen as something sensational when talking about life in North Korea. However, this media hype slightly distracted attention from another phenomenon: the significant increase in availability in landlines. This increase began few years before Koryolink launched operations in 2009.
Until the early 2000s, the average North Korean would probably think you were joking if you asked them whether they had a phone at home. In those times, the home phone was a prerogative of high-ranking officials only. However, from around 2005, this suddenly ceased to be the case. Refugee testimony indicates that landline phone penetration levels might nowadays be some 30 percent in the countryside, rising to 60 percent in Pyongyang and other major cities.
Many North Korean landlines use parallel phone technology, quite common in the Soviet Union of my youth (I am not sure whether it has ever been used in the developed West). Parallel phones are two different phones in neighboring flats or houses connected to the same phone line. Some equipment usually prevents one user from hearing what the neighbor is talking about should they be on the phone, but it means that only one user can use the phone at one time. Nonetheless, it remains a great leap forward from 15 years ago.
Arguably, it is the arrival of the personal computer which is the most revolutionary element of such ongoing lifestyle changes. Most computers in the North are second-hand Chinese ones, though some can now afford new ones now. Until only 5-7 years ago, a question about home computers would have raised eyebrows, but now a noticeable minority of well-to-do North Koreans answer in the affirmative. Indeed the above-mentioned survey indicates that 11.1 percent of the Pyongyang households (in other words, one out of nine) had a computer at home. In the countryside, the penetration was much lower, at 2-3 percent.
… computers are frequently used to watch movies and TV dramas, legal and otherwise
Admittedly, North Korean households do not have internet access, but even without an internet connection computers remain useful for a variety of tasks like word processing, spreadsheets, gaming and movie watching. Indeed, computers are frequently used to watch movies and TV dramas, legal and otherwise.
The ongoing consumerist boom is not limited to the household items alone. The new restaurants are popping up in major cities, and one often needs a booking to be seated, while dress is improving as well. Tellingly, the sewing machine, long a cherished item of a North Korean household, is not that popular any more: Koreans are switching to ready-to-wear, preferring Chinese imports or the locally produced imitations of fashionable Chinese items.
So, the image of an impoverished North Korea, so deeply entrenched within the Western view of this country is rather out of date now. The North Koreans are still poor, but they are less poor than merely 10 years ago.
There are two causes for this remarkable improvement in quality of life. First, technological growth has been instrumental, since industrial growth and technological development have made many luxury items into run-of-the-mill consumer goods. Real prices of virtually all household items mentioned above have decreased significantly over the last 15 years, and continue to do so in real terms.
Second, we should also not forget that the general economic situation in the country has improved considerably. The exact growth rate is unknown and subject to controversy, but growth itself is evident.
Thus, newly rich North Koreans can afford to engage in some form of consumerism, from going to upmarket restaurants (usually private), to watching a new James Bond movie on a widescreen LCD TV.
Shop in a village – North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2008-04-16 16:44:29
Let’s be honest: The average Westerner’s knowledge of North Korea is usually composed of vague memories of newspaper headlines dealing with the country. Thus, they are likely to be surprised when they hear that the North, so often associated with destitution and starvation, has gone through a consumer revolution over the last 5-7 years. Though modest, this revolution is nonetheless real, and
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.