About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Updated at 2010 KST: To clarify, the article was featured in the online version of the Rodong Sinmun on January 26, but not printed in the paper edition that day
One of North Korea’s growing online shopping malls was featured in ruling party outlet Rodong Sinmun over the weekend, promoting abilities to purchase goods and services through the mobile intranet and plans to complete the e-payment function “in the near term.”
The mention of the Manmulsang platform, produced by the Yonphung Commercial IT Company, represents a first in the Rodong, though it has been previously covered numerous times in outer-track sites such as Arirang Meari and DPRK Today.
In an article titled “The e-commerce homepage drawing attention,” Manmulsang is promoted for offering an electronic store where businesses can manage their own pages, economic news and information, company information and contact details, “virtual visiting,” and other services.
The “virtual visiting” feature is described as similar to 360-degree “business view” features on sites such as Google Maps, where “members view the store or restaurant feeling as if they were actually there.”
Manmulsang also now offers the ability to purchase plane tickets, it said, following a report in the DPRK Today last year promoting the same feature on another online shop called Silli.
According to the Saturday’s article, “people’s enthusiasm for viewing Manmulsang is increasing, and the number of members continues to grow” as a result of the site’s availability on mobile devices.
But while Manmulsang’s e-payment service on its mobile site has been promoted in the past as an active feature, the newest report appeared to backtrack on the platform’s current capabilities.
“The [Yonphung] workers and researchers, who can never be satisfied with their achievements, have set high goals for completing in the near term electronic payment system and delivery system through the national computer and mobile networks, and are vigorously engaged in research and creation battles to realize it,” it said.
Andray Abrahamian, Koret Fellow at Stanford University, told NK News he understands “most things are pay on delivery” in the current online shopping system in North Korea.
He added that while e-payment services have been promoted for years, he has yet to see evidence that “anything is up and running that doesn’t require a physical swiping device.”
Abrahamian noted in a report for 38 North the presence of a large billboard advertising Manmulsang outside last summer’s international trade fair in Rason, which said Yonphung “completed development of the e-payment system in April 2018” and that “it began formal operation in June.”
It is unclear, however, if official company materials and Saturday’s Rodong article differentiate between mobile payments made by entering card information online and those made through connected card readers.
That billboard also touted the launch of Manmulsang’s page on the world wide web in January last year, calling it “the first North Korean electronic commercial homepage on the internet.”
The site, while containing nine company profiles and information over mostly foodstuffs and medical products, does not offer any ability to purchase items.
A mobile version of the site only available through North Korea’s intranet, however, carried almost 19,000 products and over 270 company profiles as of late December, according to images reviewed by NK News.
This week’s decision to promote Manmulsang through the country’s premier newspaper may also serve as a sign of its growing status in North Korea, according to Abrahamian.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some informal kind of PR was happening here, where in Yonphung were lobbying to get coverage in newspapers and elsewhere,” he said.
A potential example of such marketing language in Saturday’s article included calling Yonphung – despite being one of several active online shop developers in North Korea – “an influential institution and the only one in our country specializing in expert development and research of e-commerce.”
“But this could also come from a more central directive,” Abrahamian added. “Something like: ‘OK, this thing has been around a couple years now and is running well enough that we should be highlighting it more.’”
Writer and researcher on the North Korean economy Peter Ward, on the other hand, cautioned that the brand’s first mention in the Rodong may be merely due to the outlet’s more stylistic constraints.
The Rodong Sinmun is “far less interested in the retail sector” due to its decentralized nature, Ward said, adding the paper typically runs fewer stories on commercial brands than other outlets or even state television due to its greater focus on enhancing the image of the Workers’ Party.
Nevertheless, the article said that while Manmulsang has “only been around for a few years,” it is “already a part of our lives.”
Featured image: Naenara