Well-Connected North Koreans Gain Access to Cosmetics From South

nk-sk-women-makeup-aug-2013.jpg South Korean women apply makeup at a mall in Seoul, Aug. 10. 2013.
Only France

Wealthy women of North Korea’s privileged class are quietly purchasing highly prized wrinkle creams from South Korea through a local trading firm, sources say, suggesting customs officials are being ordered to look the other way and allow the contraband into the country.

A resident of the North Hamgyong provincial capital Chongjin said the age-defying South Korean cosmetics could be obtained in North Korea if a consumer knows the right people and has the money to afford them.

“Along with Chinese cosmetics that are supposed to remove wrinkles, South Korea’s high-end products are being quietly traded in North Korea,” said the source, who spoke with RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity, after recently traveling across the border to China.

The source declined to divulge the brands and companies involved because of the sensitivity of trade between the two Koreas, but told RFA that North Korean consumers of the makeup products are largely the wives and mistresses of high-ranking executives.

“Wives of North Korea’s privileged class and some rich women will purchase these products for a few hundred U.S. dollars without hesitation, if they prove to remove wrinkles and bring their youthful skin back.”

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 cosmetics.

When asked how the North Korean trading firm had learned about the skin products, which are not advertised in South Korea and usually ordered online or purchased from door-to-door salesmen, the source said the products had gained a reputation after being given as gifts by South Korean businessmen.

The source suggested representatives of South Korean companies operating in the inter-Korean joint industrial complex in North Korea’s Kaesong city, and other Southern firms, had presented the cosmetics to their executive counterparts, who gave them to their wives at home in the capital Pyongyang.

The ensuing popularity likely prompted the North Korean trading company to arrange a deal through which it could secretly import the banned products under the protection of a powerful official, according to the source.

Limited trade

Inter-Korean trade is limited to goods produced from the joint factory park in Kaesong. 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.

A source in China, who also declined to use her name, recently confirmed to RFA that she had purchased a South Korean wrinkle cream through a North Korean trading firm there.

“I bought one for 300 yuan (U.S. $48) to confirm whether it was the real thing,” she said, adding that the product had worked.

“These name brand South Korean cosmetics are being imported by a well-known North Korean trading company,” she confirmed.

“Given how thoroughly the North Korean customs agency controls South Korean products, it would be impossible to import such cosmetics unless the trading firm is backed by a powerful player.”

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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