Imagine you’re a high-ranking North Korean bureaucrat living in Pyongyang, have a few thousand euros burning a hole in your pocket, and need to purchase a 36” flat screen TV, leather couch, cigarettes, and tortilla chips. Where do you go? The Paradise Department Store, obviously. Stocked full of electronics, clothing, and groceries, it’s the closest thing to Super Walmart you’ll encounter in Pyongyang.
When we arrived at the Paradise Department Store it was devoid of customers, save for two North Korean men wandering the various floors scoping out the available merchandise. This department store is in no way representative of stores throughout North Korea, as the shelves are stocked full of foreign goods that are rarely found outside Pyongyang. It’s a hard currency (i.e., euro) store, so the customers tend to be foreign diplomats, aid-workers, the North Korean nomenklatura, and tourists such as ourselves. You will not encounter a typical North Korean citizen here. We, of course, weren’t in the market for TVs or washing machines, but had been dropped off at the department store so we could stock up on snacks for the long drive south to the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Since I had arrived in Pyongyang loaded down with bags of trail mix and Snickers bars, I didn’t need any snacks, so headed straight towards the liquor aisle to pick up a few bottles of soju to take back to the US. As soon as I grabbed a bottle off the shelf, a clerk took a shopping cart, rushed over to me, placed the bottle in the cart, and then proceeded to follow me around the store. My next stop was the cigarette counter. I’m not a smoker, but our guide mentioned that it was a good idea to bring packs of cigarettes to hand out to the North Korean soldiers serving at the DMZ, so I picked up a few cartons for that purpose. In the display case, there was a cheap looking pack of cigarettes emblazoned with Korean writing and a red flag. I thought it would make a good souvenir, so asked one of the clerks for a pack. She shook her head. “These are no good.”
“Oh, that’s fine. I just want one pack.”
Faced with a dumb U.S. Imperialist who obviously wasn’t comprehending the inferiority of this particular cigarette brand, the clerk called over another clerk with a stronger command of the English language.
“Hi.” I pointed at the pack of cigarettes. “I just want one pack of these.”
The new clerk shook her head. “These are not good cigarettes.”
“That’s OK, I’m not going to smoke them. I just want them as a souvenir.”
“These are not good.” She motioned to another pack of cigarettes. “These are much better quality.”
“Well, uh, I don’t intend to smoke them, I was just going to…”
“You do not want to buy these cigarettes,” she replied sternly. “They are expired.”
I wanted to say, “Look, dudes, you’re going about this the wrong way. I’m supposed to pick an inferior product, and you are supposed to gladly accept my money.” But I was defeated. No matter how long I argued with them, they would not let me buy this pack of cigarettes. This was my crash course in North Korean style capitalism, where the customer was always wrong.
(I did eventually find and purchase a pack of those cigarettes at one of our hotel’s gift shops. The clerk didn’t even try and sell me on a different brand.)
The payment system at the Paradise Department Store is very similar to what existed in many Soviet-era stores (and, to some extent, still exists in stores throughout the former Soviet republics). With my personal shopping assistant in tow, I approached the register (or what I assumed to be the register, anyways). They calculated the total cost of my purchases and handed me a piece of paper with the amount due. I handed over a euro bill (American Express is definitely not accepted here) but they just shook their heads and pointed to a cashier booth in the opposite corner of the store. I paid the cashier, collected my receipt, and returned to the non-register, where the clerks bagged my items and then handed them over to me after ensuring I had paid for my purchases. A very efficient system, indeed.
Below are some of the goods for sale at the Paradise Department Store: