It's All About Rice Cookers

Never mind that state media still demonize anything marginally capitalist. In North Korea, nothing shouts "status" like a smuggled kitchen appliance.
2008-06-03
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Cuckoo rice cooker, Seoul.
Cuckoo rice cooker, Seoul.
RFA photo
SEOUL—In tightly closed, pathologically secretive North Korea, nothing says “status” in 2008 like a smuggled South Korean rice cooker. And it seems even cadres in one of the world's last bastions of communism have developed a preference for high-end brands.

The most popular rice cooker in affluent, arch-rival South Korea is the Cuckoo, a Korean homonym for the sound of steam escaping from a pressure valve on the top of the appliance. And while most of Asia scrambles for enough rice to feed itself, a tiny cohort of North Koreans has found a new way to flaunt its clout: with Cuckoo cookers smuggled into the country, presumably through China.

“It is not the majority, but a small number of people in North Korea who own this rice cooker,” one North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in April said in an interview. “It is mostly people who are connected to customs officials, and who use their influence to purchase this item.”

Weakening controls, more smuggled goods

North Korea's legitimate economic activity has plunged since its main patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed in the early 1990s, but experts cite a thriving trade in counterfeit currency, weapons, and other international contraband whose proceeds never appear in any published statistics—and a whole micro-economy based on corruption.

We didn’t know that the pressure rice cooker we manufacture was popular in North Korea.  We found out through the media.
Cuckoo Electronics Marketing Manager Sung Young-Tae

Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has estimated that the country imports nearly twice as much every year as it exports, suggesting a massive black market in both directions.

This has allowed wily, well-connected North Koreans abundant means of obtaining smuggled gadgets and appliances to convey their alpha status. These include music players, color television sets, and foreign mobile phones, all fairly standard status symbols in impoverished countries worldwide.

But rice cookers?

Even the marketing manager of Seoul-based Cuckoo Electronics was surprised to learn that his company’s flagship product had acquired such status as smuggled lucre.

“We didn’t know that the pressure rice cooker we manufacture was popular in North Korea.  We found out through the media,” Sung Young-Tae said. “We do not export this product directly to North Korea, and most probably rice cookers we export to China somehow find their way into North Korea.”

Growing wealth gap

North Korea-watchers see this as further evidence of a growing wealth gap in the nominally communist country, and of the increasing willingness of Pyongyang’s customs officials to take bribes to allow such consumer goods into the country.

“Such phenomena constitute evidence that the collapse of the distribution system in North Korea has vitalized an informal market economy,” Professor Lee Woo-Young from the University of North Korean Studies said. “This in turn induces the further polarization of the North Korean society, thus deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

South Korean business people who travel to North Korea also report that South Korean clothing is becoming popular among those with the capital—monetary or other—to procure them.

The company

Cuckoo Electronics was founded in 1978 and originally incorporated as Sunkwang Electronics Co. Ltd. It became Cuckoo Co. Ltd. in 2002, reflecting its major export label in use since 1999.

Korean-style rice cookers are unique, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, because they gelatinize rice starches more completely than Japanese-style cookers—producing a more glutinous and marginally more nutritious cooked rice.

Original reporting for RFA’s Korean service by Sungwoo Park. Translation and research by Greg Scarlatoiu. Korean service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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