Kwangbok District Commercial Center. The low-rise building, with loud Korean and Chinese characters emblazoned on the front, looked like it could pass off as a suburban mall in 80s Singapore. As the bus came to a halt in the driveway our usually sweet guides were terse.
“Keep all your cameras in your bags. Do not take them out at any time. No photos allowed in the department store.” Apparently, we were one of the first few tour groups allowed to go shopping in Pyongyang in a local department store, so photography had to be strictly regulated.
We were herded through the main entrance into Kwangbok Department Store: a cavernous three-storey space with bare white walls, mirror-clad pillars, and grey linoleum floors. Escalators lined the left and right sides of the atrium.
This store is, from what I know, the only place where tourists are allowed to exchange for North Korean currency and use it, since the North Korean government obtains foreign hard currency from tourists at an “official” exchange rate at all hotels, cafes, and souvenir shops in the country ($1:100 won, when I visited.) Otherwise, Kwangbok Department Store is for rich locals and expats in Pyongyang.
Our guides led us to a little currency exchange booth at the back of the atrium, where our group of 18 eagerly swapped our greenbacks to North Korean Won at a “real” conversion of 1USD : 7,700 North Korean Won, far more than the “official” rate of 1USD : 100Won at the other tourist stops. With cash in hand and only 90 minutes of shopping time, we hurried off to purvey the goods on sale.
Food courts and indoor playgrounds: a weekend destination for the rich
Out of habit I decided to start from the top, and stepped off the escalator to find myself on a considerably noisy third floor. This level held a diner and an indoor playground and the tables were packed with adults chatting over Pyongyang Raengmyon, noodles bunned up on chopsticks to keep them from getting soggy in the soup, while children ran about playing. No one paid any attention to me.
Of all the things I saw in this trip to North Korea, this scene was perhaps the most “normal” of all – it really could have been any other department store in any other part of the world. On the other hand, did these shoppers actually represent the most privileged citizens in North Korea, able to afford Japanese goods and allowed to mingle with foreigners? Perhaps.
Bring on the branded goods
The second floor housed clothing, accessories, and furniture departments, while the electronics and beauty departments were back on the ground floor. Although clothes and bags were displayed on racks for browsing, smaller items like watches and leather goods were kept in glass counters and on back shelves, guarded by sales assistants and out of reach of eager shoppers. I tried to ask for one of those embellished parasols all North Korean women seemed to carry, but had no luck – all the lady had were plain brollies.
As one would expect, there were no South Korean brands to be found in the store. Electronic appliances bore Chinese or Japanese labels, but there was a limited selection of European brand cosmetics at the “beauty counters”: Estee Lauder eye pencils, Dior mascaras, Lancome lipsticks and the like.
The price is right: how much do things cost in North Korea?
So I went around checking the prices of various household goods (I’m strange like that 😛 )
TV, washing machine: 8 million won ($1038)
Seiko watch: 1.2 million won ($156)
Single size mattress: 800,000 won ($104)
Well that sounds cheap for what looked like a pretty decent mattress.
Finally, I began one of my favorite activities when travelling to any country: supermarket shopping! An ice cream cost 1,000 won; a packet of pine flour/paste, 25,000 won. While fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t available, there was an eyebrow-raising abundance of dried goods, liquor, and ginseng drinks.
When the security guard at the exit asked for my receipt I feared he would keep it, but luckily he was only checking that I’d paid.
Pics or it didn’t happen
I know, I know. A picture speaks a thousand words. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but you can check out these insider shots of the department store, as well as other pics of shopping in Pyongyang, by Aram Pan of DPRK 360 (click left, not right, to browse onward). Enjoy!