North Korea's new advertising men try out pitches to new consumer class

In theory, the state is meant to control everything that North Koreans get to see but the rise of the so-called 'money masters' is giving way to a wave of very basic advertising.
A man looks at advertising posters describing pharmaceuticals in a shop in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 4, 2016.
A man looks at advertising posters describing pharmaceuticals in a shop in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 4, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - "Pyongyang Spirit: A drink you won't forget after drinking once", reads the text of an ad for a clear, vodka-like North Korean alcohol.

No country is further from Madison Avenue than Soviet-style North Korea, but advertising is beginning to emerge as makers of goods try to pitch products to a rising group of consumers and a wealthy class of citizens.

From whitening toothpaste made from natural ingredients to sea-cucumber snacks that claim to fight cancer and tuberculosis, more goods are being sold in colourful ways to the growing class of "donju", or "masters of money", who generate wealth in a grey market economy that is allowed to operate but is not formally recognised.

North Korean ads are small and subtly placed, and do not yet compete with the colourful socialist realist-syle propaganda posters that line the streets of the capital and praise the ruling Workers' Party or leader Kim Jong Un.

Still, they are a significant departure in a country where state propaganda is supposed to have a monopoly on what ideas are sold to the public.

As with commercials elsewhere, North Korean adverts also prey on the insecurities and aspirations of would-be customers. The advertised properties of health goods, for example, would not be out of place in other Asian countries with a history of traditional herbal medicine.

"The main thing North Korean businesses compete on is quality, but now they're starting to compete in terms of how their products make people feel," said Mr Andray Abrahamian of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based non-governmental organisation that trains North Koreans in business skills.

Pills to make children grow taller are presented with a bottle alongside a cartoon giraffe. A purple gem inside a steel ring promises to cleanse the wearer's blood of all impurities.

Other ads offer services such as car repair, and Android games and programmes to install on North Korean mobile phones.

The rudimentary advertisements are usually printed in colour on A4 or A3-sized laminated paper, placed loosely on shop countertops or enlarged and stuck on shop interior walls. A separate laminated sheet explaining the history of the product sometimes accompanies the ad.

This uniquely North Korean style of advertising may have developed out of trade fairs, Mr Abrahamian said.

As the "donju" have earned money in the unofficial economy, the flaunting of wealth has become more commonplace, especially in Pyongyang where those with access to political capital are often the wealthiest traders.

The advertisements seem acceptable inside shops, but not outdoors, Abrahamian said. During North Korea's recent Workers'Party congress, ads could be seen in several Pyongyang shops.

For many years, the only notable ads in North Korea were related to inter-Korean projects from rich, capitalist rival South Korea, during a time of better relations.

Large billboards for Pyonghwa Cars, a joint venture between the North Korean state and South Korea's Unification Church have stood at several intersections in Pyongyang for years. Their facades are occasionally updated.

A TV ad for North Korea's Taedonggang Beer was also viewable several years ago, when South Korean importers took advantage of warming inter-Korean relations to sell the famed brew in Seoul, where it still appears on occasional bar menus, listed as "available when relations are good".

Today's Pyongyang advertisements, however, are targeted at North Koreans.

Advertising space at football games was offered to local companies for the first time last year, with boards at Asian Cup matches going for up to US$40,000 for several games, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Many of the companies advertising at the games were joint ventures between North Korea and outside investors, usually from China. Others, such as the Pothonggang Department Store and the Chollima Tile Factory were very much state affairs.

In another first, the Pyongyang Marathon sold advertising space on runners' bibs this year and also lined up a main sponsor: the Koryo Insam Trading Company, which gave out free ginseng-based energy drinks at the event.

The organisers offered advertising billboards at the marathon from 1,000 euros per space, the source said.

North Korea has a complicated relationship with its growing grey economy. Advertising, a practice more commonly associated with capitalist and consumer-led market economies, is at odds with the centralised Soviet-style economy the isolated country professes to manage.

In justifying it, the state says advertising holds "important significance" within North Korea because it "satisfies the growing material and cultural needs of the people", North Korean academic Kim Kwang Gil wrote in a North Korean economics journal last September.

"By actively introducing new products and guaranteeing a high quality of life and material culture, advertising in a socialist society helps the love and care of our Party efficiently reach out the people."