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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
A vendor at the Pyongyang International Trade Fair (PITF) last week displayed neon-colored and LED-lit signs for shops, restaurants and even beauty salons, an indicator that entrepreneurship continues to grow in North Korea, analysts said.
The Korean-language displays were being offered by the Chonsuryong Tech Joint Venture (J/V), photos seen by NK News showed, with colorful and modern designs offering ready-to-go promotional equipment for food vendors offering sushi, charcoal-grilled bulgogi or bingsu “red beans shaved ice,” among others.
The signage-vendor – which has never been seen in photos of previous trade fairs analyzed by NK News – also offered table-standing menus for restaurants and illuminated branding devices to reflect the growing range of companies that North Korean citizens may be familiar with, the pictures show.
“I think this clearly reflects a couple things,” said Andray Abrahamian, 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at Stanford University.
“First it illustrates the needs for businesses to differentiate themselves through quality branding and design,” he said. “Every year (the signage) looks better and better; more modern.”
“It also shows that for a lot of companies a handmade sign saying ‘toilet’ isn’t good enough anymore: these sorts of signs look professional and modern, something that companies want to project.”
The presence of the signage vendor at the trade fair comes after a period of significant growth in North Korean entrepreneurship in recent years, with commercial activity from the individual level right up to state-owned enterprises diversifying and offering new products and services.
As a result, another analyst said the vendor’s signage service could be responding to growing business-to-business (b2b) demands.
“North Korean firms today are permitted to engage in commercial transactions with one another on market terms (using order contracts),” said Peter Ward, an NK Pro contributing analyst.
“A hotel, for instance, could work with a design firm to create a new menu, and pay that firm a fee negotiated according to prevailing market rates,” he explained.
“This trade company is showing potential customers what it can produce, and has a commercial incentive to make sure that would-be partners know what they can buy.”
And though advertisements are still largely absent on the streets of Pyongyang, small signs outside shops and restaurants are, increasingly, clearly visible.
Though many fall short of representing any form of advertising, the informational signs are helpful for telling locals where they can buy products and services.
Christopher Green, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said that “these signs are only useful for commercial ventures,” meaning “we can impute from this that there is demand for commercial signage.”
However, Green cautioned that “we shouldn’t overegg the pudding; a small number of signmakers does not indicate a thriving private sector.”
“This is a country of 25 million people, (so) there should be a signmaker in every town, but all the evidence suggests there is not,” he said. “Plus, we don’t know who owns this firm, whether it is part of the chaebolised state sector, or to whom it supplies products.”
For now at least, would-be-North Korean entrepreneurs will at least be able to find sign-designs optimized for citizens of the DPRK at the Chonsuryong Tech Joint Venture.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News