Popularity of Fake Goods Grows at North Korea's Black Markets

north-korea-kim-jong-un-shoes-jan21-2015.jpg North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) looks at a pair of shoes during a visit to the Ryuwon shoe factory at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Jan. 21, 2015.

North Koreans increasingly are purchasing counterfeit products made by individuals rather than buying authentic goods produced by state factories because of the competitive prices and quality of the lookalikes, sources inside the reclusive country said.

Scores of fake factory products made by individuals are being sold at jangmadang (private black markets), but they are limited to items that individuals can easily imitate and make, they said.

Many residents are buying fake Shinuiju sneakers, which attracted nationwide attention after leader Kim Jong Un appeared wearing the shoes in September during an inspection tour of recovery work following massive flooding in the northeastern city of Rason, a source in Sinuiju city told RFA’s Korean Service.

“For example, Shinuiju sneakers are one of the signature factory products distributed nationally, but the ones sold at jangmadang are mostly counterfeits made by individuals,” he said. “You can find few pairs of genuine Shinuiju shoes there."

Counterfeit shoes are even gaining popularity at jangmadang in Shinuiju, capital of North Pyongan province, which is home to the sneaker factories.

Although short supplies of factory-made items are partly to blame for the rise in demand for counterfeit goods, the trend fundamentally reflects the competitiveness of fakes, sources said.

“As for Shinuiju sneakers, North Koreans knowingly buy the counterfeit shoes because they are cheaper than the originals and better in quality,” the source in Sinuiju said.

The Shinuiju factory’s two units produce footwear for Kim Jong Un and his family, and Central Party cadres and high-ranking officials, respectively, but not for ordinary citizens, according to a report on the Daily NK website, citing a source in North Pyongan province.

Fake Sinuiju shoes made with mixed fabrics that come in blue are called daebali (big foot) and can be bought at markets in North and South Pyongan provinces for about U.S. $2.78, while black sneakers made of a polyester fiber are called sobali (small foot) and can be purchased for U.S. $2.18, the report said.

The growing popularity of fake goods is not only limited to clothing, but also includes personal items and snacks.

“Bars of soap and laundry detergent made by the Spring Scent Cosmetics Factory that are sold at jangmadang are mostly fakes,” another source in Shinuiju said. “Residents prefer the fakes because factory originals are in short supply and more expensive.”

North Koreans also make lookalikes of sweets and cookies that are offered free by the state to celebrate the birthdays of former leaders Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country from 1948 to 1994, and Kim Jung Il, his son who ruled from 1994 to 2011, sources said.

A resident of North Hamgyong province who recently visited China, for example, said he noticed that a bag of candy being passed around was a counterfeit made by individuals in North Korea.

“These candies were similar to ones offered to children as a gift by the state on Kim Il Sung’s birthday last April,” he said. “Though fake candies look rather dark and don’t have any scent, they still taste as good as factory candies.”

Ultimately, the growing popularity of various fakes at jangmadang reflects the people’s understanding of the market economy and their propensity for consumerism coupled with the tendency of North Korean authorities to tolerate the spread of the black markets, sources said.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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