Amid North Korea’s economic woes, repairing shoes is big business

Shoe repairmen earn more in a day than government officials earn in a month.
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
2023.03.14
Amid North Korea’s economic woes, repairing shoes is big business An employee assembles leather shoes at the Wonsan Leather Shoes Factory in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, North Korea, on Oct. 28, 2020.
AP

North Korea’s economic hardship has been miserable for most people, but it’s been a boon for the lowly shoe repairman, who is earning more in a day than local government officials earn in a month, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Times are so tough that new shoes are an expense that most people cannot afford. So instead, they flock to the local marketplaces to repair their old, worn out ones. 

“The person making the most money in the Unsan county marketplace is the shoe repairman. He is easily making at least 10,000 won (U.S.$1.19) every day,” a resident of the county in South Pyongan province said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Another source, in the northwestern province of North Hamgyong, said a cobbler can sometimes make as much as 50,000 won, or nearly U.S.$6.00.

That’s far higher than the local party secretary’s official monthly salary of about 4,500 won, or about 54 U.S. cents.

Most North Koreans have not been able to survive on the monthly salary from their government-assigned jobs since the country’s economy collapsed in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Instead, families have gone into business for themselves, and a large portion of those businesses involve buying and selling products imported from China in the local marketplaces. 

The closing of the border with China at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic dealt a devastating blow to North Korea’s already fragile economy, and sapped the livelihoods of people who relied on the constant flow of Chinese imports. 

Although freight trade has resumed, the economy is still reeling from the chaos caused by the more than two-year shutdown, and many people are still struggling.

Fewer Chinese imports

Government officials are in a different situation though. Even though their salaries are only nominally higher than the average worker, they are able to use the power and influence associated with their position to support themselves, either by taking bribes from businesses or running businesses themselves.

Since the onset of the pandemic meant fewer Chinese-made clothes and shoes were coming into North Korea, citizens have been repairing what they can over the past three years. 

For clothes, a simple needle and thread is enough to mend torn shirts or darn holey socks. But shoes require more expertise and tools, the source said.

“Worn out shoes must be taken to a shoe repair shop for more complicated things like sole soldering,” the source said.

“The shoe repair shop is located at the entrance of the marketplace, and has a constant flow of customers from morning to evening,” he said. “People who want to repair their shoes keep rushing in with worn uppers or sneakers with holes in the soles.”

Factories hurting too

The border shutdown hasn’t only hurt small businesses, state-owned factories saw disruptions in their supply chain of raw materials, meaning they too could not produce as high as demand.

“After more than three years of this COVID-19 lockdown, the Sinuiju Shoe Factory is still experiencing production delays because materials still cannot come in,” the second source from North Hamgyong province said.

“Sneakers and shoes are produced in little batches using recycled materials brought in through a state-run junk shop,” he said.

The few shoes that the factory produces are not affordable to most North Koreans, according to the second source. The cheapest ones sell for over 30,000 won ($3.57) in the market.

“Buying a new pair of shoes has now become a dream for residents who can barely make a living,” the second source said. “Most residents wear old shoes that have been repaired several times at repair shops.”

The new school year is about to begin in North Korea, so students are flocking to the repair shops to fix their shoes before it starts, the second source said. 

People are noticing the crowds of customers and are considering a career change. 

“Since shoe repairers make good money,” he said, “many residents now want to open new repair shops.” 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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