NK News.org

by Shirley Lee




What is that North Koreans really want? Stability? Freedom? MacBooks? Starbucks? These are the kind of questions that keep NK NEWS awake at night.


Seo Young-seok spent two weeks in the North Korea border regions of China, a place buzzing with North Korean traders coming in and out of the country. He found out first hand what it is that right now North Koreans really want, and the results are surprising.


From fashion items usually associated with Brooklyn hipsters to fake mobile phones and an insane sauna machine that looks like it has come from space, NK NEWS  corroborated traders’ claims with testimonies of other North Koreans living outside North Korea, so we can say with confidence that what you see below really is what’s on the mind of North Koreans right now. Enjoy!



North Korean attitudes towards sex are quickly changing. The orthodox atmosphere shaped by the strict monitoring of the authorities means that North Koreans may not be as open-minded as the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the biggest socio-cultural transformation of late is said to be the increasing use of condoms. Coupled with the observation that female students’ bags often contain condoms, it seems that attitudes towards sex in North Korea really are changing.

Sadly these changes are not so much related to lifestyle, but more to do with an increasing number of women selling their bodies to earn a living. This is one reason why STDs have become a serious concern for the Pyongyang government. Perhaps this is also why condom use – previously restricted to the elite – is now quickly spreading to ordinary North Koreans. Condom ownership is also perceived as a status symbol. And as there are not enough to go around, some reports even suggest condoms can be re-used. But while the popularity of condoms suggest that attitudes to sex may be changing, awareness of STDs is said to have not improved.



In the North Korean popular consciousness, Aspirin is a miracle drug that can cure not only flu and stroke, but even prevent cancer. Merchants who sell Aspirin reinforce this perception by saying, “As long as you have Aspirin, you don’t need to see a doctor.” Perhaps because of this craze for Aspirin, counterfeit Aspirin is often sold on the markets. In cases of Aspirin imported from China, most supplies do not come with any packaging, so popping the pain-reliever comes with extra risk.

The most coveted Aspirin in North Korea is said to be Aspirin sent as part of relief efforts by NGOs or UN agencies. These pills come in recognizable packaging, and the pills themselves have incised lettering on them. Due to the credibility associated with these factors, such pills sell for astronomical prices. In addition to Aspirin, any pills that have a Red Cross logo also sell for extremely high prices. This is why North Korean officials duly sell such relief effort medicines onto the black markets. It is in this fierce and competitive arena that prices for medicines are created.



Compared to last year, the mobile phone has increased in popularity, with KoryoLink now reported to have 1.5 million subscribers. A source in Hunchun, Yanbian says that travelling just 30 minutes from Rason allows one to see just how fast North Korea is changing, explaining that mobile phone are an example of this transformation. In China, mobile phones only came into general use around 30 years after reforms, but in North Korea, mobile phones are fast becoming a common sight. This has had a curious knock-on effect, which has become a trend of its own: as the mobile phone has turned into a symbol of wealth, fake mobile phones are increasingly seen in the markets. They don’t work, but can be carried around just for show. And while North Korean children used to like to play with toy guns, now they prefer to play with toy mobile phones.



Skinny jeans are becoming a sensation among North Korean women. The authorities criticize them, saying that they damage socialist morals because they come from the culture of ‘capitalist scum’. But despite their best efforts, the government has not been successful in controlling the instinctive desire of North Korean women to be fashionable. So alhough getting caught wearing skinny jeans can lead to criticism sessions and other penalties, women still want to wear them.

Apparently, the skinny jeans phenomenon started after Kim Jong Un ordered that women too should wear trousers and Ri Sol-ju was seen wearing new kinds of clothes. In the North Korean markets, more and more merchants are stocking skinny jeans.



North Korean winters are very cold, a key factor in understanding why the heated vest is perceived by citizens s as a must-have item. This is truer the further north you go, due to the harsh conditions there. One source who comes from Musan, told us, “Once winter comes to Musan and snow starts to fall, you won’t see the ground all winter. The heated vest is really popular here.”

The popularity of the heated vest is aided by the fact that few urban houses have central heating in North Korea (many in the countryside though are kept warm using the traditional ‘ondol’ system). Due to frequent power cuts and the lack of coal, urban North Koreans find it hard to endure the cold.



South Korean soap operas come in at sixth place, despite continuous efforts by the DPRK authorities to stamp them out. North Koreans admire and imitate South Korean actors for what they see as the pinnacle of sophistication. For this reason, the ‘Korean Wave’ (hallyu) cannot be left off our list.



It may be due to the harsh North Korean winters that quite a few of North Korea’s 10 most coveted items are related to battling the cold. Just like last year, briquettes are high on the MUST HAVE list. With every North Korean household rushing to prepare for winter, coal becomes as expensive as gold by autumn. And as North Korea exports its natural resources, they say that coal trades on the domestic black markets for twice the price of export prices.



There is popular method of bathing that may perhaps be unique to North Korea. This is the ‘steam green-house’, which is an encasing of plastic twice the size of a man. North Koreans hang it on the ceiling and enter holding a bucket of hot water. The encasing then expands with the steam, creating a sauna effect. Inside, one can mix hot water with cold to take a ‘steam green-house’ bath.

This is also made in China. They are so popular that stocks run out before winter hits. There is even a 2-person model for increased convenience. It is a relief that North Koreans can at least enjoy a hot bath in freezing mid-winter.



This one may seem strange, seeing that Kim Jong-un is not as respected as his father or grandfather before him were. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un’s hairstyle is proving to be a hit among North Korean men. In the way that Kim Jong-il’s jamba was the desired fashion item of his time, Kim Jong-un’s hairstyle is the equivalent for this era. It helps that the hairstyle doesn’t require much skill to emulate: just use a shaver (barikang) to shave off the sides and voilà! No need even to visit the barbershop.



With the extraordinary popularity of South Korean soap operas in North Korea, portable DVD players have also become popular. A DVD player that must be connected to a television set was harder to keep away from the authorities’ prying eyes, but the portable DVD player can be hidden away easily. Moreover, it isn’t too difficult to obtain and remains affordable for an ordinary North Korean family.

This is thanks to Chinese businessmen, who produce items according to the needs of the North Korean market. For about US$20, a North Korean can purchase a Chinese-made portable DVD player. In the past, a DVD was required, but now, North Koreans can watch movies off of a USB stick. This makes it even easier to conceal from the authorities and is a perfect fit for ordinary North Koreans. The portable DVD players is one of the items which North Korean can enjoy ‘thanks to China’


With credits to New Focus International.