October 23, 2020

The bustling North Korean consumer goods market

Far from impoverished, Northerners’ ownership of TVs and home phones continues accelerating

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.