South Korean-Made Dress Fabric a Hit in North

2014-03-18
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nk-dresses-jul-2013.jpg
North Korean women wearing colorful dresses walk along a street in central Pyongyang, July 28, 2013.
AFP PHOTO/RIA NOVOSTI

North Koreans shopping in Chinese border towns are paying sky-high prices for South Korean-made fabric used for traditional women’s dresses, ignoring cheaper domestically made equivalents, according to traders and merchants.

North Koreans buy the fabric for the dresses, known in the North as “choson-ot” and in the South as “hanbok,” for hundreds or thousands of Chinese yuan—prices unaffordable for average North Koreans, traders in the border towns said.  

“All the fabrics I sell are from South Korea and most of my customers are North Korean,” a merchant in the Chinese city of Dandong, an important cross-border trading city across the river from North Korea’s Sinuiju, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.

The fabric North Koreans buy at shops in Dandong range in price from around 700 to 800 yuan (about U.S. $115 to $130) for one dress’s worth, and can go up to 4,000 yuan (U.S. $650) for more elaborate, embroidered designs.

Like all South Korean products, the cloth is forbidden in North Korea, but traders are able to bring it across the border to sell on the black market as long as it does not have any labels with Korean writing on it, traders said.

North Koreans prefer the South Korean-made fabric for their higher quality and brighter patterns, another trader in Dandong said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“North Koreans believe that fabrics from South Korea are the best for the clothes they need for wedding ceremonies and special events,” he said.

Expensive taste

The average North Korean worker officially makes the equivalent of only several Chinese yuan or about U.S. $0.50 per month based on prevailing market rates, though many supplement their income in other ways.

But members of the country’s elite are much better off and can afford to buy the South Korean fabric, the trader said.   

“Anyone who has money or is well-off can buy South Korean fabrics.”  

The fabric is often given as bribes to officials by border-crossers, another trader said.

“In addition to merchants who do their business in the border region, there are many people who travel to China to visit relatives and buy South Korean fabrics,” another trader in Dandong said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Most of these fabrics go into the hands of cadres who allow them access to China.”  

Some of the fabric for sale in Chinese border cities is material that has been sent to North Korea to be embroidered there, then are brought back to China to be sold in stores, the first trader in Dandong said.

Inter-Korean trade is limited to goods produced from a joint factory park in Kaesong, North Korea.  All other economic exchanges between the two Koreas have been banned by Seoul in the aftermath of North Korea’s attack on the South Korean ship Cheonan in May 2010.    

The two Koreas are divided along the world's most heavily fortified border since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Over the weekend, North Korea fired off 25 short-range missiles toward the East Sea, Seoul's military said, the latest show of force in response to the ongoing joint South Korea-U.S. military drills, Yonhap news agency reported.

Reported by Jun-ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Robert Lauler. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.