Changing China

Giant on the move

North Korea, through a shopwindow darkly

December 11, 2009

North Korean soldiers.jpg


When people want to know what’s happening in North Korea, their first stop is often the Chinese border city of Dandong. It’s one of the few places where North Koreans interact with the outside world. There are truck drivers and traders, and also spies, missionaries and refugees, not to mention reporters.

 We went to Dandong this week to see if we could find out about the impact of North Korea’s currency change. The government has capped the amount of old currency that could be traded for new, effectively lopping off the savings of many small traders and a new merchant class.

 The Chinese traders told us that in North Korea, many shops and markets have closed while people wait to figure out the value of the new money. They tended to be reluctant to go on record, for fear that prickly North Korean customers would get offended if they were quoted saying anything negative.

 But just looking at the goods for sale in Dandong gives a little idea of life in North Korea. North Koreans don’t buy heated floor mats popular with Koreans living in China’s Northeast, one shopkeeper said, because there’s not much electricity in North Korea.

Powerful lanterns, on the other hand, are very popular, said another shopkeeper. She displays the lanterns right by pink baby shoes and bright pink children’s boots – I imagined many truck drivers are tempted to spend a little extra pocket change on their daughters or nieces.

The duty free shop at Dandong’s customs checkpoint has brandy, just like everywhere else in the world. But it also has boy’s winter clothes, and leather shoes for men. It even offers an elegant, quasi-Victorian porcelain coffee set.

The bulk cargoes shipped across the border range from industrial equipment to fruit, but one trading firm was busy filling orders for over a dozen personal cars. In fact, cars seem popular enough that an auto ornaments store is considering opening a service to supply cars bound for North Korea with fuzzy seat covers and other ornaments.

In the meantime, the drivers who come in buy floor mats and rear view mirror dangling things – I guess fuzzy dice has universal appeal.

video credit: KJ Kwon


I’m interested to see how the currency revaluation will affect Chinese tourism in NK, and also the broader Chinese government reaction about it. From what I’ve read recently, the Chinese government’s not pleased about this, though their response remains to be seen.

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