By JEAN H. LEE, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — In his last public appearance, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il went shopping.
He peered at the prices affixed to shelves packed with everything from Pantene shampoo to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And he nodded his approval of Pyongyang's version of Walmart, which was soon to open courtesy of China.
The visit played up a decidedly un-communist development in North Korea: A new culture of commerce is springing up, with China as its inspiration and source. The market-savvy Chinese are introducing the pleasures of the megamart to a small niche of North Koreans, and flooding the country's border regions with cheap goods.
And they are doing it with the full approval of North Korea's leadership. The new consumerism is part of a campaign launched three years ago to build up the economy, and so the image of new leader Kim Jong Un.
At the Kwangbok area supermarket in downtown Pyongyang, that translates into lime green frying pans, pink Minnie Mouse pajamas, popcorn and a line of silvery high heels sparkling in the sunlight.
"It is very good to come to this shop and buy goods which I like by feeling them and looking over them myself," said shopper Pak So Jong, bundled up in a winter jacket with a furry collar, as she examined bags of locally made sweets and biscuits a few days after the store's opening.
In many ways, North Korea can seem like the land time forgot. Dignitaries are ferried around in ancient but immaculate Mercedes Benzes, and the boxy, beige telephones at the five-star Koryo Hotel look like something out of "Austin Powers."
Billboards in the capital, Pyongyang, are likely to feature the latest Workers' Party slogans, not advertisements, and there are no shopping malls, McDonald's golden arches or Starbucks coffee shops.
At least, not yet.
Outside Pyongyang, much of the country remains impoverished. Millions rely on state-provided food, but poor agricultural yields mean they'll get only a fraction of what they need to survive, according to the World Food Program.
Still, there are signs that a newfound consumer culture is taking hold both in Pyongyang and in the border towns where Chinese-made goods are bought and sold every day.
Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 regularly stages exhibitions of goods to show off what deputy manager Kim Ja Son calls "socialist commerce," borrowing a phrase attributed by state media to Kim Jong Il.
The displays boast what North Korea's newly modernized factories are producing, including perfume, rubber boots, silk blankets and hand towels printed with the words "peace" and "friendship." What the North Koreans aren't making themselves is coming in from China: cellphones, laptop computers, cars, Spalding basketballs, bicycles, pressure cookers, karaoke machines, ping pong sets, even Gucci knockoffs.
Business with China, North Korea's largest trading partner, has boomed in the last two years. In 2010, North Korea did $3.5 billion in trade with China, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. And for the first 11 months of 2011, that figure was up to $5.1 billion, a jump of nearly 70 percent from 2010, according to China's Commerce Ministry.
And it's not just Chinese-made goods on North Korean shelves. The Kwangbok shopping center is also introducing North Korean shoppers to popular American, European and Japanese items they've never seen before: Skippy peanut butter, Spanish olive oil and Snoopy, all shipped in from China.
The Kwangbok center was born when North Korea recruited China's Feihaimengxin International Trade Co. to partner with its Korea Taesong Trading Corp. to transform the old shop in the Kwangbok district of western Pyongyang into a gleaming supermarket. Feihaimengxin has a 65 percent stake in the supermarket, according to the Beijing-registered private company — an unusual arrangement for North Korea, where most enterprises are state-owned and the ruling philosophy is "juche," or self-reliance.
But as the new consumerism is reshaping the face of the capital, it is also stretching an already huge gap between elites in Pyongyang, who have access to valuable foreign currency, and working-class people elsewhere, who have few ways to add to their low salaries.