Cosmetics smuggled from South boom in North

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Cosmetics smuggled from South boom in North


The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, went on a field guidance trip to Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory, the state-run Rodong Sinmun reported on Feb. 5. [Rodong Sinmun]

It appears that some of the most sought-after South Korean products in North Korea are cosmetics.

Sulwhasoo, a domestic brand that produces brighteners, powders and cleansers, is particularly popular among the Pyongyang elite, and allegedly loved by first lady Lee Sol-ju.

North Korea also produces its own cosmetic products: Its Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory churns out Unhasu (Galaxy)-brand items - mostly skin creams - while a rival cosmetics factory in Sinuiju produces Bomhyanggi (Spring Scent).

The Rodong Sinmun, the state-run newspaper of the North Korean Workers’ Party, reported on Feb. 5 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently made a visit to the factory in the capital, where he admired its products.

“The demands for cosmetics increase day by day,” Kim was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “Our cosmetics factories should produce more products so female workers can improve their appearance.”

Kim remarked on the quality of the brand’s cosmetics.

“Enhance the quality of our cosmetic products,” he said. “Make our people want to use Unhasu, rather than brands from other countries. Let’s make it so that markets worldwide know about our Unhasu brand.”

Kim’s emphasis on boosting sales and reputation was likely an allusion to the fact that many South Korean and Chinese products are brought into the Communist state via Chinese trade channels. South Korean cosmetics are popular, in particular, among North Korea’s female university students, who - like their Southern counterparts - prefer more expensive, high-quality items to cheaply made domestic or Chinese merchandise.

Though inexpensive Chinese-made cosmetics frequently enter North Korean markets, their low quality makes them largely avoided.

But despite rampant poverty in North Korea, many young women manage to purchase pricey cosmetic items with the help of their parents, who hold some sway in North Korean society.

If not, five to six women typically collect money to buy South Korean cosmetics from an unauthorized market and then divide the lot into smaller bottles. This method was the same adopted by South Korean women to buy expensive foreign cosmetics in the post-war 1950s and ’60s.

South Korean cosmetics are especially favored by North Korean students, who are eager to brag and parade their costly items in front of their friends. In their eyes, beauty is much stronger than ideology.

Still, there are minders everywhere in the reclusive regime, and police and school authorities don’t treat the phenomenon lightly. But the crackdowns do little to curb demand for South Korean cosmetics.

The same holds true in South Korea, where students are constantly plugged into their smartphones as parents and teachers attempt to suppress their use.

But besides price and status, why are North Koreans so interested in South Korean cosmetics?

The reason is simple: Because North Korean women, like many women the world over, want to look and feel beautiful, and no political ideology can curb that desire.

From a financial standpoint, officials from the National Defense Commission determined that importing South Korean cosmetics would lead to substantial gains. If inter-Korean relations improve and South Korean cosmetics can legally cross over the border, North Koreans could buy South Korean cosmetics at lower prices, and South Korea would have a new market for its products. Perhaps it could even help pave the way for reunification.

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