From Mickey Mouse to mayonnaise, Kim Jong Un opens North a crack

In North Korea, intolerance of high tech goods, consumer culture, and new forms of entertainment is changing for elites and their kids in urban areas. Some 2.4 million citizens now own cell phones. 

Vincent Yu/AP
A North Korean woman looks out from a bus window in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 16, 2014.

In an evident small-scale relaxing of North Korea’s rigid isolation, young leader Kim Jong Un is allowing new kinds of Western and American pop culture symbols to appear in his country, including Mickey Mouse and NBA stars like former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman – figures well known in the West, but not until recently in the North.

The regime of Mr. Kim, who took over the family’s totalitarian dynasty from his late father two-year ago, is also curbing its harsh intolerance of high-tech gadgets and consumer goods, the possession of which could sometimes mean prison or worse.

Some 2.4 million North Koreans now subscribe to mobile phones according to Orascom Telecom Media & Technology Holding of Egypt, which provides cell service here. Since mid-2014, phones loaded with high tech games and romance novels have arrived in Pyongyang, the capital. North Koreans can now own Google Android smart phones with 30 foreign games included, such as Talking Tom and Plant vs. Zombies, even as access to the Internet and 3G is still unavailable.

“I hit the cat (of Talking Tom) when I am upset,” said Mr. Park, a tour guide and recent college graduate. Park believes his 4.7 inch “Pyongyang Touch” mobile purchased here is a rebranded Samsung model, and that his colleague’s “Arirang” phone is a rebranded Sony.

Chinese mobile brands, Huawei and ZTE, also are openly available in city markets.

Despite crippling conditions in many places, Kim has expanded the availability of previously forbidden products to a broader swath of the nation’s elite and their offspring in urban areas – partly to placate new generations of Koreans and party to offer perks to regime loyalists the Kim needs support from.

Digital cameras, credit cards, and cosmetics – the basics of Western and Chinese consumer culture -- are now showing up in one of the world’s most ideologically rigid states, as witnessed in a recent tourist visit. Analysts say aid from and trade with neighboring China is a significant source of wealth and goods.

Previously unavailable foreign products, including German beer, shampoo, toothpaste and Japanese mayonnaise are on the increase. Coffee has become a common drink, and some restaurants even serve espresso from Italian espresso machines.

“After years of economic reforms and exchanges with the outside world, the government is no longer able to control its citizens’ minds in the old rigid fashion,” said Zhang Yushan, North Korea expert at China’s Jilin Academy of Social Sciences. He says North Koreans are demanding more.

To Mr. Park, the guide, a mobile phone and camera are an opportunity to taste something of modern life and they symbolize hope and progress, he says.

For the young generation of the country’s elite, digital cameras and mobile phones are required accessories and common birthday gifts. Park’s $100 digital camera is a Chinese made Samsung. He bought that instead of the locally available alternative, a Nikon digital single-lens reflex for $1,000. Japanese brands Casio and Canon are also found on the shelves.

The message if not the reality is that daily life is improving. Along with support from China, there’s an apparent improvement of light industry, a project that began under Kim’s father, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

Factories that in 2007 didn’t have the needed parts to produce such basics as candy, instant noodles and soda water, are now manufacturing more advanced products like frozen dumplings, sausages, sneakers and cosmetics.

The variety of cosmetics have increased significantly, with wrinkle- elimination and skin- whitening creams on shelves.

Change is also evident in a debit-card system introduced by the government in 2011, an essential service in the modern financial world. The “Narae” card is accepted at hotels, restaurants and shops in Pyongyang, Wonsan and Kaesong.

Popular broadcast entertainment, movies and TV, are another bellwether of change: Official TV channels present more foreign programming – Western cartoons and Chinese movies.Qianfu or Lurk, a Chinese spy TV series, is now popular here. Leading actor Sun Honglei attracts female audiences with the character’s willingness to help his wife with chores in the show.

"State propaganda emphasizes the need to innovate and to adapt certain foreign ideas and practices,” said Geoffrey See, managing director of the non-profit Choson Exchange, which provides economic and legal training in the North. (Mr. See notes that official restrictions on information and foreign cultural products have also intensified in many cases.)

The relaxation is significant partly since the idea of leisure time was officially disallowed under Kim Jong Il, whose famed “military-first policy” kept the nation on high alert in anticipation of a potential US or South Korean attack. One hears for the first time of North Koreans taking vacations.

The buddings of consumer culture are seen in Pyongyang and Wonsan in the form of soft-serve ice cream machines, and the sale of birthday cakes with swirled rose frosting. In early 2000 there was one flavor of popsicle readily available; now there are more than a dozen.

Yet, food and power shortages remain in much of the country, and a gap has widened between the privileged in the city and those living second-class lives in the countryside. Most ordinary North Koreans can’t afford a camera. Wood-burning steam-powered trucks are still seen running outside Pyongyang. And many people rely on their feet or on hitchhiking for transportation.

How much a new consumer and entertainment oriented direction might upset the stability of the regime, is a subject of speculation.

Georgy Toloraya, a North Korea expert at Russia’s Russkiy Foundation says many North Koreans have simply abandoned the country’s all pervasive ideological teachings. “A lot of them have simply stopped reading the Rodong Sinmun (the regime’s propaganda daily)” Mr. Toloraya says. 

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