The Kwangbok Department store is Pyongyang’s largest and most famous department store. Opened in 2015, it is a marked reflection of an evolving consumer culture in the DPRK, resembling in pretty much every way a typical multilayered store which could be found anywhere else in the world. With a number of floors, the store boasts a wide range of services and facilities, including an extensive food supermarket, a food court, currency change services, electronics, home goods, sports wear and clothing. Although a wide range of imports are available, many of the featured products are in fact domestically produced in the UK. Visitors note its extremely busy and bustling character, again akin to those in the rest of the world.
The first thing that visitors going to the store should need to know about is that it only accepts North Korean money. This is of course unusual, given tourists are in fact required to bring Euros, Dollars and RMB to spend in the country. Thus, one needs to get DPRK cash to spend here. Luckily, the store has its own currency swap booth where tourists can exchange a wide range of international currencies to buy DPRK won. This of course allows you to finally get some as a keep sake!
The Kwangbok Department Store Supermarket section is impressive, again simply for the fact it bares no difference to an ordinary one in the outside world. Containing many isles, the supermarket sells a wide variety of frozen food, snacks and treats, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, bathroom items and other every day necessities. The electonics section involves a number of brands imported from China. Still, the sheer variety of locally manufactured products are also surprising. To enter the supermarket however, visitors must go through a security process which involves checking their bags on both the way in and the way out of the facility to prevent to theft.
The Food Court
The supermarket’s enormous food court will leave visitors spoilt for choice. There’s a variety of food on offer including varieties of Korean food, Chinese food and as the biggest surprise: Fast Food. The fast food outlet sells chicken burgers, pizzas, fries, hotdogs, fried chicken, wraps, ice cream, milkshakes and egg tarts. What is remarkable is that if you buy some fries, the box is constructed in the same style and colours as that of McDonalds! Interesting to think how that inspiration got there! What also makes the food court an interesting experience is that it also has a children’s play area with plastic climbing frames, a ball pit and a slide!
Clothing & Sportswear
The Kwangbok’s sports section offers yet more twists. The clothing area of the store illustrates the increasing role of modern fashion in high end Pyongyang society, with an articulate variety of clothing and high profile brands also featuring. Foreigners visiting can also receive tailoring services and buy suits. In addition, the sportswear section also provides a surprising amount of modern gear accommodating to do a number of sports and activities.
Conclusion: Not the North Korea you were expecting
The Kwangbok Department store is a unique representation of a change in the DPRK. Whilst of course its services are not available to everyone, it is nevertheless a reminder of the type of life and culture the country is experimenting with and will be shaping the future through. It does not mirror the image of a deprived and desperate country. Some will inevitably say the store is propaganda. However, any visitor to it will note that it is always extremely busy and full, making the idea of it being purely “for show” a bit over the top. Perhaps not everyone can afford to shop there, but experts are confident it is a legitimate shift to consumerism. As one professor noted, “Furthermore, and despite its privileged status as having been visited by the leaders, this marketplace is real; I saw hundreds of North Koreans shopping there“