Members of North Korea’s privileged inner circle are lining up to purchase expensive imported luxury items, leaving stores unable to meet demand, according to officials and residents of Pyongyang, in stark contrast to daily life in much of the nation’s impoverished countryside.
An official of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea from North Hamgyeong province, near the border with China, said that the country’s elite class is “going beyond bounds in living a life of luxury” in the capital.
In some cases, shelves with expensive items turn empty immediately after they are restocked, underscoring the ironic pent-up demand for luxury goods in a country where in certain areas securing a single meal can be a major challenge.
“A one-piece dress from U.S. fashion house St. John is in vogue among rich women in Pyongyang … [and] there is a shortage even though it costs U.S. $2,000,” the official told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity following a recent visit to the capital.
Additional sources confirmed that the value of the dress was enough to purchase two tons of rice and five tons of corn in North Korea, which frequently suffers from food shortages, and could support a family of four for up to three years.
Sources said there are about a dozen department stores in Pyongyang which sell luxury items, some of which deal in both domestic and foreign products, while others sell imported goods exclusively.
Two of the most popular stores stocking lavish products from abroad in the capital were recently opened by Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The stores are located on Ansangtaek St. in the Moran Hills district and in Eastern Pyongyang’s Rugosa Rose [Haedanghwa] Hall.
At the store on Ansangtaek St. it is not uncommon to see long lines anxious to purchase the imported goods, the Party official said, while the seven-story store at Rugosa Rose Hall is also similarly packed with patrons.
Among the more popular items for women are Chanel stockings at U.S. $250 per pair and perfumes at around U.S. $300 per bottle, while men were buying up Rolex watches at more than U.S. $10,000 a piece, the official said.
He said that imported luxury watches had gained popularity as a more subtle means of exhibiting wealth amongst the well-to-do in Pyongyang, while wearing a Swiss Rolex watch is an indication of access to frequent overseas travel.
A second source in Pyongyang, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA that the operations of Jang’s two luxury brand stores were opaque.
“The import luxury brand shops on Ansangtaek St. and in Rugosa Rose Hall are operated by Jang Song Thaek, and nobody knows where the items originated or how the profits are used,” the source said.
U.N. sanctions prohibit exports of luxury items to the North, including certain kinds of jewelry and precious stones, yachts, luxury automobiles, and racing cars.
The Pyongyang resident said that for the privileged class, life in the capital often involves dressing in goods purchased from the luxury stores, eating at expensive restaurants in Kaesong Youth Park, and staying at extravagant hotels in the Moran Hill district.
Last month, sources told RFA that tailors in North Korea had been producing knockoff designer clothing to cater to Pyongyang elites inspired by the fashions of First Lady Ri Sol Ju, who has displayed a penchant for luxury brands and been photographed in chic outfits.
Known for sporting high heels, sparkly broaches, and foreign designer wear, the celebrity wife has blazed a new fashion trail in an impoverished country where most are relegated to a Spartan communist dress code of sharp haircuts and patriotic pins.
Luxury store owner Jang is seen as a powerful player in Pyongyang politics and is believed to have assumed a caretaker role during young Kim Jong Un’s precarious transition to power in the wake of his father Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack in December 2011.
Jang, the Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, was brother-in-law to the elder Kim, who was known for his taste for exquisite wines, rare cigars, and fine foods.
Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.