Going shopping in the DPRK

Before I left for the DPRK, I wrote that I thought souvenir selection there would be limited. For a fiendish postcard writer like myself, I worried that there would be hardly any postcards and those few that might be available would be fought over by my tour group. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was much more to buy than I was expecting. While there definitely wasn’t an abundance of souvenirs of Disneyland proportions, souvenirs were available in every city, even the cities in the north of the country which hardly see any tourists. For example, in Wonsan and Hamhung I found collections of city postcards with English captions, yet that’s all I found there. Here is the postcard I mailed myself, which I received Tuesday. It shows the Tower of the Juche Idea:

I look at books as souvenirs, and book lovers would appreciate that all the hotels, no matter how small or how remote, had a bookstore. The DPRK regime makes sure that the holy words of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il are disseminated among hotel guests. Often the stores were dark when we arrived, which indicated all too often that our tour groups were the only ones staying at the hotel. The entire hotels were dark when our bus pulled up; the eternal darkness and power shortages of the DPRK will be the subject of a future travel post. The hotel staff opened up the bookstore for us and did a brisk business as I was not alone in raiding the bookshelves or the souvenir stands within. I quickly established a reputation among my guides and fellow travellers as a book nut, often wandering off to find the hotel bookstore before the groups had even checked in.

The Yanggakdo Hotel and Pyongyang Koryo Hotel had large bookstores where I spent numerous evenings poring over the stacks.  One of the restrictions we had was of photographing store interiors. While I could freely take pictures of storefronts, as I did here with the Foreign Language Bookstore,

as I walked through the streets of Pyongyang, I was prohibited from taking pictures inside any store, including the stores in the hotels. I expressed this frustration to my fellow travellers. One of them mentioned that since I was always dropping so much money on books, I would stand a better chance of getting approval to photograph the Yanggakdo bookstore if I had made a substantial purchase there first. I felt confident in asking, after I had bought out half the store. The storekeeper denied me nonetheless.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to me at the time, I had already posted a photo of the Yanggakdo bookstore. See my post dated Wednesday, April 20, 2011 entitled See You in Pyongyang. The Yanggakdo Hotel bookstore is the third photo from the top (or bottom). The Koryo Hotel bookstore, however, was in a less busy area, almost hidden away on the second floor. In all the other hotels I had stayed, I had found their bookstores without asking, even in smaller hotels which too had hidden their bookstores up on the second floor. In the Koryo Hotel, however, I had to ask where it was. The store had a wide-open layout and was not surrounded by glass walls. This arrangement made it much easier to photograph discreetly, and the lack of glass meant no reflection of flash when I went there after hours to shoot pictures of it:

All North Korean bookstores had two framed signs with messages in English from the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. A large framed photograph of both Leaders was always on display with the framed declarations.

Books were available in Korean and translated into many languages. English was the most plentiful, and I also saw translations in Chinese, Russian, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Italian. I bought French translations of two titles when English translations were not available or if they never existed. I even bought two children’s books written in Korean when I couldn’t resist the propaganda value of their front cover imagery.

By far, the most prolific authors in all DPRK bookstores were none other than the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. I bought many colourful thin tracts by both Leaders for a euro each, often based on their titles alone. I bought other books for the same reason:

earthUS e


US im

Here are two pages from an English-Korean phrasebook:

Take a look at the receipts for my purchases:

The first blank on the bottom of each receipt is for the year. Instead of 2011, the cashiers filled it in with “100”. All the receipts are filled out this way. With one exception, the cashier wrote “100 (2011)”, probably for my benefit as a foreigner to understand. In a move to rerecord history based on the life their own Great Leader Kim Il Sung, in 1997 the North Korean government declared 1912, the year of Kim’s birth, as Juche year 1. In line with the designation of years originating with the birth of Christ, the North Korean regime in effect created their own Christ in Kim Il Sung. One might say that the Great Leader had long already occupied godlike status in the DPRK. If there was ever any doubt about this, there was no mistaking the regime’s intent at divine exaltation. Thus one sees throughout North Korea the year written as 100 (2011), and sometimes without the parentheses. Look at my visa again. There is no 2011 anywhere, but there is the Juche year 100:

Unlike with the birth of Christ, however, Kim’s year of birth is not regarded as year 0. This way of numbering years only has relevance if the date is on or after 1912, for there are no negative Juche years prior to 1912. I would think it must be hard to remember to recalculate each year starting from 1912.

Postcards were sold at the bookstores or at kiosks next to tourist attractions. As was my experience in Peking, I found it impossible to buy a single postcard individually. Postcards always came in packets of ten according to theme. The postcard packets came in many languages with translations of the captions. English captions were hard to come by and I often had to settle for postcards with Chinese or Korean captions. I always identified the image on the card when I sent it.

Bookstores also stocked souvenirs such as pins, but not any of the Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il pins that every DPRK citizen must wear. These pins, as could be seen on the shirts of all the guides in one of my recent posts, can be seen in closeup here:

Pins for sale to tourists are represented in the haul I brought home:

I got the DPRK weightlifting pin for myself and a DPRK skating pin for Mark (not seen as it is currently on his lapel). Two pins show the Juche flame, one in Korean and one in English. There are two Pyongyang pins, one Arirang Mass Games pin, and even a pin showing the two towers of the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel.

It was surprising, not to mention quite comical. to find fully decorated Christmas trees in the lobbies of many hotels, including the Koryo Hotel. These artificial evergreens were decorated with lights as well as Christmas ornaments. We had to wonder why they were there, since Christmas is not celebrated in North Korea. We felt that early September was way too early for festive interiors, even in hotels catering primarily to foreigners. I wonder if Northern retailers associated Christmas trees with a busy boom of buying, identifying lights and tinsel with prosperity. Here’s a decorated tree inside a hotel’s clothing store. I had to wait till the coast was clear before I could take this picture:

There were no souvenir T-shirts for sale at that store, yet I was fortunate to find five T-shirts that I liked at other hotel gift stores, and at Pyongyang’s Stamp Shop. I bought one shirt at the gift store near the Arch of Triumph. It was at this gift store that I found the treasured Pyongyang traffic lady dolls. As the capital becomes more and more re-electrified, the sweethearts of the road, the Pyongyang traffic ladies, are seen less and less. There were two models of each doll, made in the DPRK:

Not all the souvenirs were paid for. Some were free. Some were *gasp* stolen. The freebies are from the hotels. The Yanggakdo and Koryo Hotels provided all the usual toiletries, however the Koryo offered more goodies and in fancier little boxes. I left my roommate’s special Pyongyang bedspread (my own was different and generic) in Hamhung. It was a warm fleece that looked beautiful:

Air Koryo airplanes were my next quarry. The freebie barf bags, moist towelettes, sugar and powdered milk packets all came home with me, as well as a few stolen photographs of the inside of the aircraft (note no barriers in the overhead bins, not even cheap netting):


We hoped there was no turbulence!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *