Home delivery in North Korea

A resident in North Korea is scanning the QR Code of Manmulsang, an online shopping platform with delivery service (Image / Korean Central Television)

With around five million people, or 19% of the population, owning mobile phones, delivery service through online platforms is making its appearance in North Korea. 

The country’s first online shopping mall, Okryu, appeared in April 2015. It was followed by others with distinct local names, such as Naenara, Abnal, Kwanghung, Unpasan, and Manmulsang. This last one is the country’s Amazon in terms of popularity.

These websites are referred to as “electronic commerce service systems” or “electronic stores” and are operated by the Service General Bureau of the People, a central administrative body. 

To promote the electronic order payment system, the bureau operates a delivery service that uses motorcycles or vans depending on the distance and quantity of products ordered.

Recently, a QR code-based electronic payment system has been implemented. But actual online payment is still very much in its infancy. 

“When I was there I had a mobile phone, but I never actually used the Okryu app,” said Lim, 30, who has been in South Korea since 2019. “That was because back then the system wasn’t developed enough to allow for electronic payments in rural areas.”

“But I hear from more recent defectors that they regularly bought things through online apps. However, it seems it still doesn’t work for shoes and clothes,” he said.

“With items like tofu, rice, oil, or rice cakes, you can call the shop and order, and they deliver directly. You can also order food for special occasions like Lunar New Year or 60th birthday parties, as well as bento boxes for picnics,” he said.

Of course, the concept of home delivery is not totally new. It began in the 1990s with firewood, said Choi Seo-ah, who is in her mid-50s.

“It was during the Arduous March,” she said, referring to the famine of that time. “People started trading in markets to survive. People without capital would collect wood from the mountains and sell it. Some would secretly mine coal from coal mines to sell.” 

“They would lumber and coal onto carts and take them to the markets to sell,” she explained. “If you paid for a whole cartload, they would deliver it to your home. You could even request regular deliveries.” 

Women played a major role in initiating this, Choi said. “It was heartbreaking to see them with permanently blackened hands pulling carts with their sons.”

“In my city, phone orders for delivery are common now,” said Kim, 35, a defector from Hoeryong, near the Chinese border. “You can order rice and food and they will bring it by bicycle or motorcycle. After multiple orders, I sometimes gave a little extra as a tip.” 

One popular spot in the city was a noodle restaurant located in front of a statue of Kim Il-sung’s wife, Kim Jong-suk. “I was friendly with the staff there and could call in an order and have it delivered,” she said.

She said that while this type of phone delivery service is popular, ordinary citizens seldom place orders through apps. It’s usually traders who do that. 

“Merchants order goods in bulk through online apps, receive them at home, and resell them,” Kim said. “Those with more money order accessories to sell. However, I didn’t buy that much. I was receiving financial support from my family in South Korea, and worried that if I bought too much, the authorities might get suspicious and wonder where I got my money.”

Choi said that for everyone to be able to enjoy using the delivery system, rather than just a privileged few, a market economy that allows people to live comfortably is crucial.

“To purchase goods with a mobile app, you need to deposit money in a bank and link it to an account,” she said. “But how many people have enough money to deposit in a bank? Ordinary people don’t. That’s why they don’t use phone apps to make payments.”

Since the 2000s, the government has tried to revitalize its economy with measures such as the Central Bank Law in 2004 and the Commercial Bank Law in 2006. In 2010, the Central Bank issued a “Narae” electronic payment card, linked to bank accounts, allowing payment for goods and services in foreign currency within the country. 

But this is insufficient. Ordinary citizens won’t be able to fully embrace e-commerce until the economy is opened.

It may not be realistic to expect they will have the freedom that Kim Jong-un enjoys, buying a $1,900 Dior puffer for his daughter Kim Ju-ae, but perhaps we can hope for a day when they can at least order food for delivery.

Lee Jia

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