About the Author
JH Ahn was an NK News contributor based in Seoul. He previously worked as an interpreter for United States Forces Korea.
UPDATE: December 2, 2016, a comment from Dr. Kim Jong-sun, a researcher at Science and Technology Policy Institute added.
Screengrabs of the website Manmulsang, a recently introduced North Korean online shopping platform, show that the site has had over 3.2 million accumulated visits since its launch date roughly ten months ago, images exclusively acquired by NK News show.
The images also indicate that the North Korean intranet shopping platform has had over four thousand inquiries on its item lists, with around 23 thousand regular visits per day, possibly making it one of the busiest non-governmental North Korean websites.
The source who provided the images wished to remain anonymous.
As was previously reported by NK News, Manmulsang is an intranet shopping platform reserved for North Korean business people.
Multiple attempts to connect to the website from outside the DPRK failed, indicating that it is built for intranet access only.
Developed by the Yeonpung Commercial Information Tech Company, a North Korean company founded last year, the Manmulsang has “Amazon” style user-to-user commercial service, which remains in a very primitive state.
But it still has almost everything one would expect from a web-based buying and selling platform, such as “uploading my product,” “my product,” “commercial information,” “information on companies,” “information on restaurants,” and even the latest “foreign exchange rates,” NK News previously reported.
The latest version of the screen-grab of Manmulsang, provided by an inside source last week, showed that the website has had 4,670 item inquiries (top-left) on its web-based market.
An article in Arirang-Meari previously said the “commercial information” tab (yellow-green tab on the left), is where “people can browse and exchange opinions about domestic and foreign economic information.”
The number (430) in the brackets showed that an equal number of inquiries, questions, answers, and exchange of opinions were made inside that tab among North Korean business people.
As the source did not have experience of using this website before, they could not provide further explanation of what they saw, or click inside each of the tabs to provide further screen-grabs.
However, the main page still provided valuable information, such as the exact number of visits to the website since its foundation, and clues on the website’s business model.
The phrases “join” and “new registration” on the top right corner indicate that the site is run based on a membership system, possibly one of the ways the company is profiting from providing this online buying and selling service.
The purple tab on the right side showed the exact number of visits to the Manmulsang platform, which was divided between those who have used the national computer network (intranet) or mobile phones to access the website.
The total number of visitors using the intranet was 3,188,324, with 110,127 accessing it through mobile, adding up to 3,298,451 visits in total.
The tab also indicated the number of registered members. 15,719 members intranet users were registered, 442 for those who use mobile to access the website.
A Seoul-based IT expert said Manmulsang‘s server would be easily expandable should the business continue to grow.
“To maintain around 23,000 hits every day, because many users at the same time would upload and down the database, Manmulsang would need at least four to five servers,” Choi Sung, professor at the Computer Science department at Namseoul University told NK News.
“We would never know how fast the website is, but still it would need a server for its database, one for the client database, one for the certification process…. and one or two additional ones to help to run the website smoothly.”
Dr. Kim Jong-sun, a researcher at Science and Technology Policy Institute estimated the cost of the Manmulsang’s servers.
“Under the assumption that the max connections number of the Manmulsang website is 500, then the company would need around four servers (USD2,568 each) and one to store its data (USD4,280), so around USD14,500 in total.” said Kim.
“But more likely, they would be using cheaper servers, so the price can go down to half of what I presumed.”
It is very likely, based on three factors, that the Manmulsang mobile application service has just recently launched.
The first indication is that the number of mobile registered members remains at only 442, a huge gap compared to 15,719, the number of intranet users.
In addition, mobile visits over the last two days according to the screen-grab were 15,136 and 11,880, meaning it would have taken less than ten days to reach 110,127, the total number of mobile visitors to the website.
The last clue is a blue tab, named “news,” which states that “we will teach you on how to register the mobile version of Manmulsang.”
Since Manmulsang has only recently launched a mobile application, a sign of growth, Choi said it would not be hard for the company to upgrade its servers using parts bought from China.
“There are 17 bridges between China and North Korea. It will be easy for North Korean entrepreneurs to buy the servers they need and expand the website.”
“Around 3.8 million phones are in North Korea, and around 300 thousands of them are Arirang Phone, the North Korean made smartphones. As the time goes by, using Arirang, it will be easier for more people to access the website.”
The exact day of when the website was launched is nowhere to be found, but dividing the number of the total intranet visits by ten thousand, the rough average of the daily visitors, showed that the Manmulsang could have been started earlier this year, possibly sometime in January or earlier.
One of the IT products for sale is a Kŭmbangul (golden bell), a “cell phone loss alarm program” according to the description.
The items registered on Manmulsang were divided into 19 different categories.
“Clothing items (613), shoes/bags (312), cosmetics/hygienic goods (162), children products (198), computers/cellphones (166), luxuries/miscellaneous goods (258), home supplies (286), groceries (1094), medical supplies (170), building materials/tools (125), musical instruments/physical training equipment (94), wheels/car parts (430), lighting equipment (18), machinery/facilities (30), sapling/flowering plant (45), fodder/additives (13), software/DVD (223), electronics (348) and raw materials (3),” the top banner reads.
One longtime North Korea economy watcher said she believes the website might be a sign of minor structural changes in the North Korean economy.
“Looking at the categories of items that the Manmulsang have, I think the website is majorly used by So-Donjus (small-time North Korean entrepreneurs), the kind of entrepreneurs that own less than USD100,000,” Dr. Rhee Yoojin, a researcher from the Korea Development Bank reunification department, told NK News.
“So-Donjus make their living by monopolizing the supply of some kinds of daily necessities. As the list of items is all related to the daily needs, it made me believe that this website is the new online route for those So-Donjus to help expand their business more quickly.”
The estimated number of So-Donjus in the North is slightly over ten thousand, Rhee said, adding that the figure matches with the number of the registered members of the Manmulsang website.
“I have never seen a web-based platform like this in the North. There are many questions I have about this website,” Rhee continued.
“Does this mean that the So-Donjus’ monopolized system of supply has faced some changes? Who are those registered members? Can any merchants use this website freely? Or is it restricted to those who have connections with the North Korean government?”
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: NK News