Not Applicable: Shopping in Pyongyang
This review is not about an individual shop but about shopping, or really the lack of it, generally. It also provides some detail not included in my Walk in Pyongyang review - the attached pictures were taken in Sungri Street which was the first part of that walk.
The High Street of a typical three million person city anywhere else in the world would typically feature the likes of Hugo Boss, Tiffany’s, Cartier, Chanel, Country Road and such like. Not so Pyongyang.
Tourists do not come to ‘High Street’ Pyongyang to shop for two reasons. Firstly there is nothing that you would really want to buy and secondly even if there was you are forbidden from buying it as it is illegal for you to hold the local currency and credit cards are not accepted. Local shops are generally not permitted to accept foreign currencies.
As I have indicated in numerous other places on this page and on my North Korea page commercialism is pretty much non existent in North Korea and as there is no advertising the concept of a shop window enticing buyers to part with their money is an anathema to how things are done here.
In the main, if you are not part of the elite, you buy what you need to survive not what you want or desire. While there are shopping centres aka supermarkets and very basic department stores which look like supermarkets and department stores inside – though with very limited choice - the shops in the city centre, High Street if you like, are much more basic and are very simply marked with a small sign above the door basically signifying what you might expect to find inside. And inside you will need to go to see what is on offer as there are no window displays, though some shops do have windows allowing you a peek in.
The shop in picture I attached is a bakery. The posters in the windows are advertising the Pyongyang Marathon and events related to the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung and not the shop’s latest bread offering. That in picture 2 has something to do with footwear (perhaps a Korean speaker can translate for me?). Behind the window in picture 3 was a very rudimentary restaurant but that is not why I took this picture. I took it as an example of the ingenuity of the shop owner. The line on the top of the main branch of the tree, starting from the bottom right hand corner, is a large crack in the glass. On the assumption that the shop owner could not afford to replace the pane of glass he/she turned the whole pane into a pleasant looking piece of art.
A recent phenomena on the streets are small kiosks selling snacks. These seemed to be reasonably popular with local people. Again, tourists are not permitted to purchase from these kiosks though, in the unlikely event that there was something in them that took your fancy, I imagine your guide may be able to get it for you. That said, an attempt to get our guides assistance in acquiring something from a street seller at another location was thwarted by the guide who said we much use the official tourist/hotel shops, for our own convenience.
In reality tourists are limited to hotel shops, gift shops at tourist attractions and the Foreign Language Bookshop. In all of these places purchases are made with hard currency.
The overseas guide who accompanied us said that occasionally tourists are permitted to visit local markets but when we asked the local guide if this was possible she indicated that it was not permitted. I suspect it being early spring there was nothing in the market and had it been harvest time our request may have been acquiesced to.
Now having had a flavour of Sungri Street and enjoyed your shopping experience there let's now formally have a walk in Pyongyang.
What to buy: Nothing!
What to pay: Not Applicable
- Budget Travel
Foreign Language Bookshop: Buy a book or two
“Books are treasure – house of knowledge and the textbooks for a person’s life” Kim Il-sung
Prior to going to North Korea you will be advised by your tour operator as to what books and reading material you can and cannot take into North Korea. In addition to the type of literature banned by most countries there are two broad types of literature which you cannot take into North Korea – religious material beyond that required for your personal needs and material produced in the west related to the North Korean Leaders, the Workers Party, North Korean politics and history.
You will not come across religious material for sale within North Korea but material on North Korea, the Party and its Leaders is readily available.
Your introduction to North Korean literature will most likely be a copy of the Pyongyang Times and other magazines which you will have found on your flight into Pyongyang.
In another review I noted that Kim Il-sung had over 10,800 works to his name and that his son and grandson – the current leader – were also prolific writers.
Much of the written material you will find has been written by one of the three leaders and is about themselves and their teachings (no sense of modesty here!) and of that written by others, the majority of it is written about the leaders.
It almost goes without saying that everything written in North Korea is subject to strict censorship controls. You will need to bear this in mind as you read it. Of course you have, unlike the general populace, the opportunity to read the other side before you visit North Korea or on your departure.
The majority of foreign language books available are in English but numerous other languages are also reasonably well catered for. While all the hotels we stayed in and most souvenir shops we visited had a selection of good revolutionary and patriotic literature for sale the best place to stock up is in the Foreign Language Bookshop in Pyongyang.
The concept of a foreign language bookshop in most other countries is that it generally sells books imported from other countries as written, in their original language. In North Korea the concept is that they take books written in Korean (and written in North Korea) and translate them in other languages. I don’t recall seeing any books in the shop imported from overseas. If you require the latest Jeffery Archer novel or Mills and Boon bring it in (and out) with you.
The bookshop, located in an austere green coloured building, is a stones throw from Kim Il-sung Square and will almost certainly be a stop on your tour. Like all other shops there is little on the outside to identify it as a shop – no name, no window displays and no grand entrance like those we are accustomed to in other countries.
In addition to selling books and other reading material the bookshop also sells lots of souvenirs like postcards, pins (but not the ones the locals wear), stamps, propaganda posters, cds, dvds, flags and other items.
Prices are very reasonable (they actually want you to buy their offerings) and this sort of literature makes a good memento of your trip. Among other things, I picked up a condensed biography on Kim Il-sung, “Anecdotes of Kim Il-sung’s Life” (volumes 1 and 2 - each around 60 pages), a book entitled “Korea in the 20th Century – 100 significant events” and a “Panorama of Korea” (in colour!). Yes – all of it could be termed propaganda and I really do regret not buying the cd entitled “The General Is As Immortal as the Sun”.
As with all other shops you will be in, purchases must be paid for in hard currency – Euros, Yuan or US Dollars.
While traveling around the city you will note that the main form of transport is fairly dilapidated trolley-buses. One in particular caught our attention as we were leaving the Foreign Language Bookshop as it broke down.
What to buy: Propaganda
What to pay: Very reasonably priced
- Historical Travel
On the train to China: Can't buy one here
In the dining car of the chinese train, en route back to Beijing
What to buy: There are quite a few things you can't buy in the DPRK. The prime example is of course, the Kim il Sung badge, proudly worn by all members of the Korean Worker's Party. Which is, practically everyone you see.
However, fakes are on sale on the train back to China. I do not advise wearing one on a future trip to the DPRK though. I'm not certain the locals would see the approve.
What to pay: Fake Kim il Sung badge on the train back to China - 2 euro
Stamp Shop: Postcard and Philatelists' Dream
Willettsworld already wrote about the stamp shop but I just wanted to add that it's THE place to buy postcards. They have a lot of run of the mill postcards but if you want to fill your friends' mailboxes with socialist propaganda, this is your place. Twenty of my friends' refrigerator doors now boast postcards of DPRK military prevailing, DPRK workers struggling and DPRK masses uniting.
The stamps had very interesting scenes, too.
My postcards took about 2 weeks to make it to the US. I assumed they were censored so I didn't write anything derogatory.
WARNING. Tear your stamps correctly! I had to replace two stamps because I had torn them incorrectly. Maybe it was because there was a DPRK flag on the stamp, although I hadn't torn the flag.
What to buy: They also sell nice commemorative stamp albums of various collections.
What to pay: April 2011
Post cards US$ 0.25
Post card stamps: US$ 1.00
Album US $20?
- Arts and Culture
- Museum Visits
Rakwon Department Store: Day to day goods
The typical store in North Korea is very barren, with little choices or stocks of goods on the shelves. During your tours, if you watch the stores you pass, you will see that a large store may only sell a few random goods, with most of the shelves and wall space being empty.
However, if you are in P'yongyang and need a few day-to-day goods that cannot be found in the hotel's shops, kindly ask your guides if it would be possible to make a short detour to the Rakwon Department Store.
What to buy: What ever you buy, it will be limited to snacks, drinks and daily needs. This is not a souvenir shop. They do have a small section of clothing and shoes upstairs.
They accept Euros, USD and Chinese RMB. The exchange rate will be calculated on the spot, and your change will likewise be given to you in the same currancy that you paid.
What to pay: Snacks and foods are moderately priced.
Shirts, clothing and any electronics (batteries, film) are more expensive.
Department Store: TV's, lap-tops, beds & furniture - want more?!
You'll get the chance to do some shopping whilst in Pyongyang and we stopped by this small department store which had selections of food items on the ground floor that included some western chocolate products. The next floor up had some electrical and furniture items that your average North Korean could never afford in a million years such as Panasonic LCD widescreen TV's for US$2450 or 343,000 Won! Other items included air conditioning units, washing machines, wardrobe cabinets, beds, hi-fi's and laptop computers. I think they're purely here for show or just for the 'kim' regimes elite personel to buy.
Korea Stamp shop: Stamps and more souvenirs
This shop is right beside the Koryo Hotel which is where you could be staying as it's one of the few hotels where foreigners can stay. The stamp shop displays every single stamp that has ever been issued in North Korea and many of them are available for purchase. Other items to buy here include postcards, A3 reproductions of propaganda posters you see on the streets, T-shirts and other souvenirs.
Foreign Language Bookshop: Souvenirs
This small bookshop lies very near to Kim Il Sung Square - just a stone's throw away, in fact. As the title for this tip suggests, this bookshop is full of books in English, Spanish, French and German so it should suit most visitors. The bookshop also sells pin badges (but not the ones that every adult North Korean wears of Kim Il Sung) and flags. I bought a small DPRK one that you can see in the photo to take to a football match that we were going to see later in the tour (DPRK Vs Turkmenistan is a 2010 World Cup qualifier).
Every hotel store....: Souvenirs, beer, noodles...
Every hotel has a shop where you can buy the main stuff you need.
What to buy: Noodles for your train trip back to Beijing, Tea, Beer, Souvenirs, and so on...
What to pay: Some stuff is very cheap (e.g. beer) other is very expensive (e.g. gingseng tea)