A plethora of international brands, including products which some UN member states have determined constitute sanctioned luxury goods, appear to be available for sale at Pyongyang’s recently-reopened Taesong Department Store, new photos revealed this week.
The Taesong (or Daesong) Department Store opened last month amid a flurry of coverage from the country’s state media, which at the time revealed a number of high-end brands — including Tissot, Rolex, and Siemens — on sale.
New imagery published Monday by social media accounts affiliated with the state-run Sogwang outlet subsequently revealed over a dozen such international brands available for sale at the store.
Among these are high-end cosmetics — defined as sanctioned luxury goods by the EU and the U.S. but not, crucially, by China, which does not keep a formal list of what constitutes a banned “luxury good.”
The vast majority of brands visible on-sale in the store — many of which are in direct contravention of UN sanctions — did not respond to repeated requests for comment from NK News.
This included the manufacturers of Chanel, Dior, Lancome, and SK-II cosmetics, all of which are seen in state media being sold alongside North Korea’s own home-grown cosmetics.
Also likely to raise eyebrows is the presence of multiple luxury watch brands, including Tissot, Rolex, Omega, and Mont Blanc — explicitly banned for import into North Korea by UN Security Council Resolution 2270.
Speaking to NK News this week, a Mont Blanc representative insisted the company “does not sell products in the North Korean territory.”
So, too, did a spokesperson for the Swatch Group, which owns the Tissot and Omega brands and which NK News contacted last month, speculating that “a third party or even a consumer bought it abroad, brought it into this country and resold it, obviously independently from us.”
“Please be informed that there are more fake Swiss watches produced every year than authentic ones,” they added.
A spokesperson for Rolex, in contrast, simply told NK News at the time that they “have no comment to make.”
The continued presence of the goods, which include large items such as televisions, washing machines, and fridges, suggests that North Korea remains willing and able to import high-end products for use by wealthy residents.
“It implies that the trade companies are able to access overseas sources of luxury goods and that there remains a ready market for such products in Pyongyang,” said Peter Ward, a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy.
This comes, too, despite the efforts of international sanctions to starve the North Korean upper classes of luxury items.
“It is troubling to see so much leakage in luxury goods,” William Newcomb, a former member of the UN’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on North Korean sanctions enforcement, told NK News.
Previous investigations have highlighted the complex networks at work to ensure a steady stream of luxury goods into the North.
An NK News report 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.
Another unearthed a Singaporean group running a series of stores across the DPRK capital devoted to selling a number of sanctioned luxury items.
Also notable has been North Korean state media’s willingness to allow photos of the likely sanctions-busting goods to appear, as other, similar department stores in Pyongyang have been known to put up signs strictly prohibiting visitors from photographing store shelves.
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, following a reported change in ownership.
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.
Highlighting its importance to the North Korean leadership, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un made a visit to the store ahead of its re-opening last month, praising its “renovation and extension works corresponding to the developed aesthetic sense of the era.”
Kim also said the new “modern department store” would provide Pyongyang residents with “fine quality” goods including groceries, clothing, shoes, houseware, and stationery.
Prices at the store suggest many of the products will likely be well out of the price range of average North Koreans, however, with fridges selling for $4000, heaters for $2685, and speakers for around $1323.
One recent visitor to the store told NK News that the department store had appeared “quite busy,” while adding it was unclear how many locals were buying the more pricey goods.
“The supermarket had a very long line,” the visitor, who asked to remain unnamed due to sensitivities about talking to media, said. “And the food court was pretty full too.”
As for the luxury goods section, they added, “there were people looking around, not sure about how sales are going though.”
Additional reporting and editing by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: “我带你去高丽” Weibo account