Care for a glass of cold Taedonggang beer? Ever tried Unhasu skin cream?
Consumer brands aren’t the first things most people associate with North Korea, which has recently seized global attention with a nuclear test followed by a long-range rocket launch. But its young leader, Kim Jong Un, apparently wants his isolated country to be known for some of the more pleasant things in life, too.
North Korean commercials tout the “soft, smooth and fragrant taste” of Taedonggang. And Kim called for Unhasu cosmetics to become internationally recognized during a visit to a factory last year.
The notoriously repressive North Korean regime is widely considered to oversee the least free economy in the world. But glimmers of more market-driven activity have been reported in recent years as Kim has made economic development a key part of his platform.
“They cannot go back, they have lost the mechanisms of a command economy — of a Soviet-style economy,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. “And what’s really remarkable about Kim Jong Un is you can see he’s not trying to go back.”
The risk, however, is that Kim’s commitment to his nuclear weapons program could result in heavier international sanctions that suffocate the country’s fledgling economic progress.
North Korea watchers have noticed a series of developments since Kim inherited power in 2011 from his late father, Kim Jong Il, who famously crushed moves toward freer economic activity.
“After the inauguration of the Kim Jong Un regime, we have been witnessing many changes including new restaurants — Western style — and cafes and taxis running on the street,” said Joong-ho Kim, a researcher at South Korea’s Eximbank.
The list also includes a new ski resort and an amusement park, all of which are welcome developments for the ruling elite and any other residents of Pyongyang, the capital, who might be wealthy enough to benefit.
But in rural areas, there are still reports of food insecurity and malnutrition, indicating the existence of an increasingly divergent two-track economy.
Farmers, though, are now believed to work with incentive-led schemes that allow them to keep more if they grow more, a change from some of the disastrous economic decisions of the Kim Jong Il era that helped plunge the country into famine.
To sell its products internationally, heavily sanctioned North Korea has few options. Its long-standing ally and neighbor China is estimated to account for 90% of all North Korean trade.
“That’s really North Korea’s only economic portal to the whole world,” Delury said. “So i think some of what we’re seeing — by North Korean standards, innovative branding and marketing of their products — is genuinely targeting Chinese consumers to see if they can get into the Chinese market.”
But he cautioned that some of the imagery is in reality a political effort by Kim Jong Un to cast himself as the leader of middle-class North Koreans who are enjoying consumer products forbidden only a generation ago.
The young leader’s recent decisions to carry out the country’s fourth nuclear test and another long-range rocket launch have raised the prospect of deeper international sanctions.
“The one positive thing we have happening in North Korea is the transformation of the economy,” Delury said. “It’s a dilemma for policymakers — it’s a dilemma at the U.N. Security Council right now.”