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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
A restaurant in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang is now issuing branded prepaid reward cards to frequent customers, a photo recently obtained by NK News showed.
The card, issued by Myohyanggwan, a fast-food eatery in downtown Pyongyang, appears to work as a gift card, which customers can load with local currency.
“Myohyanggwan provides preferred services for customers who visit our restaurant through the card,” a notice advertising the points-to-cash loyalty platform explained.
The cash can be topped up with up to KPW200,000 worth of funds, it continued, adding that reward points can differ depending on the amount of money added. It cannot be loaded with foreign currency.
“You can charge an amount of money to the card and make the payment conveniently,” it said. “When charging money to the card, we will add points in accordance with the % suggested below.”
Should customers input KPW50,000, for example, they can spend KPW56,000 in cash-back services, the notice explained.
Consumers “choose the color of cards according to the preference of customers,” with the photo showing the card comes in three variants.
The Korean-language brochure was spotted on display at the Myohyanggwan restaurant, NK News understands.
A database provided by the North Korean online portal Naenara in July 2014 suggested that Myohyanggwan is likely to belong to the Korea Myohyang Trading Corporation, which appears to be a conglomerate-style organization.
The corporation, Naenara reported, has “bases of commercial and public catering services including Sonbong Exhibition Hall and Sonbong Shop and Myohyang Restaurant in Pyongyang.”
The Korea Myohyang Trading Corporation also runs dozens of trading companies, establishments producing goods for export, fish farms, fisheries stations, mines, hotels, stores, and restaurants, the e-commerce website “Manmulsang” says.
The company — reportedly established in January 1988 — also runs more than 20 joint venture companies with foreign counterparts, the website added.
It’s unclear what foreign counterparts the company is working with, however: joint ventures with DPRK-run organizations are banned under UN sanctions.
This is not the first time that a North Korean shop has launched a prepaid loyalty gift-card scheme for its customers, however, one source told NK News.
“Yes, this is something that some other stores do now, either loyalty cards for amount or purchases, or cards which you pay for and then you get discounts for purchases above a certain level,” the source, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
“But the concept is known in Pyongyang at least and is common now, even in a cash economy,” they continued.
“I can imagine it will become more common and as shops and companies increasingly compete for the customers any systems that can give them an advantage will necessarily be exploited.”
Pyongyang’s Ryugyong shopping center also runs a loyalty reward scheme, the source continued, in which customers can “pay in advance for a silver or gold card and then you get a certain percentage off your shopping there.”
The nearby Haemaji (Sunrise) restaurant and retail complex was in April 2014 reported to have released loyalty cards targeting domestic and international customers, the Singapore-registered NGO Choson Exchange reported.
Korean and English-language notices said that customers could purchase goods or pay for food by spending reward points.
Unlike the Myohyanggwan card seen this week, a photo provided by the NGO showed that the Haemaji card can be loaded with foreign currency.
The Rakwon (Paradise) department store also runs a customer loyalty program, Choson Exchange said, adding that it is believed to be the first shop in Pyongyang to run such a scheme.
The store, Cockerell said at the time, provides gifts when customers spend over $500 on the card.
But one North Korea watcher noted an important distinction between these offers and the seemingly-new Myohyanggwan card.
“The amounts involved like that for the Moran store are not small ($500), while this scheme has a sliding scale,” Peter Ward, a writer and researcher on the North Korean economy, told NK News.
“This implies a flexibility in meeting the needs of customers and an entrepreneurial management primarily interested in making profit,” he continued.
“The use of a sliding scale for customers and cash-back rewards implies a level of flexibility and entrepreneurship that some North Korean commercial venders clearly are incentivized to display.”
Pyongyang also has an increasingly diversified card system, with North Koreans even able to pay for a new toll system on Pyongyang-Wonsan highway with the Mirae (Future) e-payment system.
January 2018 also saw Pyongyang launch a new bicycle sharing scheme, enabling locals to rent bikes using the “Ryomyong” Card, external media DPRK Today reported that same month.
The Ryomyong card can reportedly be recharged using the Jonsong debit card issued by the DPRK central bank.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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