Materialism in the DPRK

Lankov is on a roll again:

“Theirs is a dirty rich house. They have all seven contraptions!” These seven gadgets are the major status symbols in the North. The list has been changing, but now, in the early 2000s, it comprises the following : TV set, refrigerator, washing machine, electric fan, sewing machine, tape recorder and camera.

Only a tiny fraction of all North Korean households own all these “contraptions”. In the mid-1990s, the average black market cost of the entire package was 30,000 won or, roughly, some 30 (!) times the monthly salary of an average worker.

Nowadays TV sets can be found in approximately 40 percent of North Korean households, but they are very unevenly spread across the country. In Pyongyang and major cities a majority of households obviously have a TV, while in the countryside they remain a rarity. No precise statistics about numbers of TV sets and their distribution has ever been released: from Pyongyang’s point of view even such innocuous information is a state secret.

Even though the North began colour broadcasting before the South, the old-style black-and-white TVs still outnumber colour sets. Most of the TVs are old, imported from the “fraternal socialist countries” (especially Romania and the USSR) or locally assembled. The elite families have Japanese sets which are seen as an important status symbol.

VCRs have begun to spread among the more affluent households.

Cameras are owned by roughly 20 percent of North Korean families. A vast majority of them are old Soviet-made manual cameras

Electric fans are relatively common. Of course, air conditioning is unheard of.

Meanwhile, washing machines and refrigerators remain luxuries. Washing machines have been locally produced since the 1970s, but even in Pyongyang few houses can boast owning such an appliance.

TV sets and some of the other “seven contraptions” used to be distributed through government shops where prices were low, although one had to wait years for permission to buy a particular item (without such permission no shop would sell it). However, neither washing machines nor fridges could be bought officially, even in the best of times. They had to be acquired via the black market. In recent years the distribution system has collapsed completely, and the black market provides the only way to become an owner of the “seven contraptions” – if you can afford to spend some 30 average annual salaries, that is…

Despite the famine, the number of people who can afford these gadgets seems to be growing. This reflects the steady increase of inequality in the North.


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