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North Korea may finally be embracing a more consumer-friendly culture

North Korea may finally be embracing a more consumer-friendly culture

Tensions between North Korea and the US continue to rise, and the US State Department’s ban on travel to North Korea is being implemented this weekend.

Still, there are signs that cultural changes are slowly starting to take root in the hermit kingdom.

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There are only three billboards up in the capital city of Pyongyang, and there are no advertisements on television or in the newspapers. But supermarkets there are beginning to show signs of branding, and customer-driven sales like “buy-two-get-one-free” discounts are becoming more common.

The North Korean consumer landscape has evolved dramatically under Kim Jong Un.

Under a five-year plan for the economy Kim Jong Un announced in May 2017, North Korean factories are putting a new priority on making more and better daily-life products.

At stores such as Potonggang, customers can pay with either cash or bank debit cards.

More products made in Pyongyang are found in rural areas these days, and vice versa. Although the use of US dollars or Chinese yuan remains widespread, more people are using prepaid cards or local bills at the checkout counter — suggesting greater buying power in general and more confidence in the stability of the national currency.

As for available products, there are 120 varieties of “May Day Stadium” brand ice cream.

Pyongyang’s brewery, Taedonggang, recently added an eighth beer to its product line.

The shelves are lined with dozens of brands of domestically made cigarettes, sugary soft drinks, and colorfully packaged chips or canned soups.

In specialty shops, the latest “Pyongyang” model smartphones — probably Chinese-made but rebranded to have a locally made appearance — go for $200.

Despite the ever-tightening sanctions, consumer products are still coming in from all over the world.

Buying a can of Pokka coffee from Japan is easy, and costs about 80 cents.

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Song Un Pyol, a manager at Potonggang, said of the store’s hours: “In 2015, our dear respected Marshal Kim Jong Un made sure that we serve from 10 in the morning to eight in the evening so one can use late night at any given time, as many working people often used the shop during the evening after work.”

Market forces bring new forms of competition, uncertainty and change that are the antithesis of the centrally controlled, state-run economy of the North Korea of old.

Markets are like a genie offering to grant the wish of wealth — but at the potential cost of political instability.

Once the genie has been released from its bottle, it’s very hard to put it back in.