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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Update at 1650 KST: This article has been updated to include responses from Sharp and Rolex.
A range of foreign-made household appliances, televisions, and luxury watches are now available for sale at Pyongyang’s recently-reopened Taesong Department Store, photos from North Korean state media showed this week.
In images that follow a pre-opening inspection of the department store by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week, state-run media on Monday released images suggesting a number of potentially sanctions-defying foreign products may be on sale in the store.
Signs lining the outer walls inside the store list brands such as Tissot, Rolex, Omega, Panasonic, and Philips, with luxury goods and electronics such as watches, TVs, and refrigerators displayed beneath.
Other brands advertised or whose items are seen clearly on shelves in the images from Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) include Sharp, Bosche, Siemens, Midea, and Dyson.
The presence of the items in the Taesong Department Store (spelled “Daesong” on the front of the building) this week suggests that sanctioned goods, including large items such as refrigerators and washing machines, continue to make their way into the country in high volumes.
If the products are indeed for sale to wealthy Pyongyangites, it would follow a pattern of sanctioned goods being sold at other department stores in the North Korean capital in recent years.
The most recent UN Panel of Experts report on the status of sanctions enforcement on North Korea listed a number of high-profile foreign brands with items recently available in North Korea in violation of sanctions, owing largely to the brands’ Chinese distributors.
The presence of luxury watches, in particular, is likely to raise eyebrows: Tissot-brand products, for example, have been seen on sale in North Korea repeatedly over the years in violation of sanctions prohibiting the import of luxury goods.
An NK News investigation last year found that there may still be agents operating in North Korea who are afforded privileged access to sell such goods to shops like the Taesong Department Store.
“There is a Korean businessman in Pyongyang who holds the rights to sell certain Swiss watch brands and still distributes to certain shops around town and sells these watches, which are now much more attainable for a wider range of people,” an informed source told NK News on condition of anonymity last spring.
When contacted for comment by NK News, a spokesperson for the Swatch Group — the parent organization of Tissot and Omega — denied any involvement in the watches’ continued presence in North Korea.
“Please note that we are neither active in [North Korea], nor do we deliver there,” they said.
It remains possible, the spokesperson added, that “a third party or even a consumer bought it abroad, brought it into this country and resold it, obviously independently from us.”
“What exactly the third parties or consumers do with their product after they purchased it is their own choice,” they said, stressing that the watches “could be a fake.”
“Please be informed that there are more fake Swiss watches produced every year than authentic ones.”
A spokesperson for Rolex, in contrast, simply told NK News they “have no comment to make.”
UN Security Council Resolution 2270 expanded in 2016 an existing luxury goods ban to explicitly forbid countries exporting “luxury watches: wrist, pocket, and others with a case of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal” to the DPRK.
Some other items seen in the Taesong Department Store such as televisions and refrigerators, however, are only defined as luxury goods under some individual countries’ own enforcement laws, making China a likely candidate for sourcing such goods.
But that could still pose problems for brands such as Bosch and Siemens, owned by the German BSH Hausgeräte, who are subject to EU definitions of luxury goods.
These include “electrical/electronic items and appliances for domestic use of a value exceeding EUR 50 each.”
A spokesperson for BSH Hausgeräte, when contacted by NK News, denied that the company had been involved in the appliance’s import to North Korea.
“In North Korea we don’t have any business partner and therefore are not aware of any of our appliances in the North Korean market under our responsibility,” Fridolin Weindl, a corporate communications manager for the company, said.
Also potentially falling afoul of those EU sanctions is the presence of what appears to be a number of new cordless vacuum cleaners by Dyson, a British company, on display. Dyson did not respond to NK News‘s requests for comment.
Home appliance brand Midea, on the other hand, is headquartered in China, who does not maintain its own definitions list of luxury goods.
For Japanese brands Sharp and Panasonic, Japan’s luxury goods list also prohibits televisions, and more broadly, Japan’s domestic sanctions laws outlaw bilateral trade with North Korea entirely – which Tokyo last week extended for two years.
Speaking to NK News, a spokesperson from Sharp said the company did not have “any business in North Korea.”
“Due to this case, we cannot comment anything since we cannot confirm if the TV in the photo taken in North Korea is actually Sharp made,” they added.
Panasonic was yet to respond to requests for comment as of Tuesday afternoon Korea time.
Footage of the recently opened shop posted on Youtube by Benito Joaquín Milanés, a correspondent in Pyongyang for Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina, revealed the Sony logo is also displayed above the wall of televisions.
Sony did not respond to NK News’s requests for comment on how its products may have ended up in North Korea.
Milanés’s footage, too, revealed that purportedly domestically-made televisions are also for sale at prices of FXW41,000 ($390) and showed the shop teeming with local customers on its opening day, held on April 15 to mark the country’s “Day of the Sun” holiday.
North Korean media ahead of Taesong’s opening reported the facility had been “remodeled into a comprehensive and all-purpose service center.”
Hailing it as a “modern department store that will provide commercial, public and catering services according to people’s demand, taste and favor,” state media said the new shop would “be conducive to ensuring the convenience of customers to the maximum and enhancing the material and cultural life of people.”
But prices at the store suggest many of the products will likely be well out of the price range of average North Koreans, with fridges selling for $4000, heaters for $2685, and speakers for around $1323.
NK News’s sister publication NK Pro in February last year reported that renovations at the Taesong store were progressing at a notably rapid pace.
The project was said to be led by the Kyonghung Guidance Bureau, described at the time by an expert as a “sprawling business enterprise” with an extensive portfolio in the consumer goods sector.
Featured image: KCNA