In much of the countryside, humanitarian groups say North Koreans live in grinding poverty. But in the capital, there is clearly money to spend.
You can buy anything your heart desires in one North Korean department store: premium blended whisky, jewelry and perfume. Or you can pick up a brand new drum set or a saxophone that’s carefully displayed in a glass case.
But there’s a catch. The department store is cash only.
New images released as part of a yearlong investigation by NK Pro, an independent North Korea monitoring group, shows just what money can buy in two luxury Pyongyang department stores.
If Western sanctions are meant to punish the ruling elite, it doesn’t appear to be working. Several items for sale in the NK Pro photos appear to be banned.
But why does the regime go to all the trouble of getting luxury goods to Pyongyang?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likes to keep the ruling elite loyal with sweeteners says Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korea defector who helped finance illicit imports into North Korea. But he adds there is another reason.
“They earn a lot of dollars and cash from these luxurious department stores by selling all these goods and they re-allocate these dollars into their priorities like the nuclear and missile program,” he said. “Luxury goods sales help them build more missile and nuclear material.”
Kim Kwang Jin says the luxury stores are part of the secretive Office 39 — a group the US government describes as a slush fund for the regime.