At Kwangbok, a bottle of Great Wall red wine from China costs 81,000 North Korean won — about 300 times the cost of a typical Korean meal. A jar of honey goes for 36,100 won, or about a third of the average monthly salary in 2010 of 103,000 won, according to estimates provided by the Bank of Korea in Seoul.
North Korea has not published economic figures for decades. The U.S. State Department puts North Korea's annual gross domestic product at $1,800 per person, with 20 percent of the nation's income coming from agriculture and 48 percent from industry in 2010.
Even the way the relatively rich and the poor shop is different.
Most North Koreans rely on limited rations from government-subsidized stores in every neighborhood. They supplement their rations with goods from local markets, called "jangmadang," where they can bargain over prices.
In Pyongyang, middle-class shoppers buy items the old-fashioned Soviet way in dim, narrow shops: Customers line up to make their requests to a saleswoman behind a long counter, who then retrieves the items from a small selection on shelves behind her. No browsing, and not much choice even if you could.
Only the rich can afford to shop at the newfangled supermarkets, where customers choose from an array of goods and then take them to a cashier. At the Pothongmun Street meat and fish shop in central Pyongyang, the city's premier butcher and fishmonger, trained cashiers scan and tally up the items. Some even accept the two debit cards available in North Korea to foreigners and locals flush with euros, U.S. dollars or Chinese renminbi.
This Western style of shopping is still novel in North Korea, and two would-be shoppers looked perplexed by refrigerated display cases piled high with pyramids of canned whale meat and chubby rolls of kielbasa, and freezers on the floor stocked with quail meat, goose, chicken and even vacuum-packed pig snouts.
"Pick the items yourself and put them in the basket," a saleswoman in red gently advised them.
The consumer drive mirrors one 50 years ago, when Kim Il Sung was rebuilding North Korea from the ruins of the Korean War. The communist bloc was still intact, and the people were focused on building their fledgling nation. By the 1970s, North Korea had the stronger economy of the two Koreas, before the famine and tension of the 1990s.
North Korea's new economic campaign seeks to draw on the people's memories of that time and their reverence for Kim Il Sung, as well as to create a foundation for the leadership of Kim Jong Un.
For three years, Kim Jong Il laid the groundwork for his son's ascension by ushering in a new, two-pronged focus on the economy along with defense, and made it clear that there was nothing wrong with reaching out to old allies like China. Kim made four extensive trips to China in the last two years of his life, and shopping was high on his sightseeing list.
In May 2010, he visited a supermarket in the Chinese city of Yangzhou run by Suguo Supermarket Co. "Well done!" store officials quoted him as saying in comments posted to the website of China Resource Vanguard Co., the Hong Kong-based company that owns the supermarket chain.
North Korea's welcome to Chinese commerce is felt not just in Pyongyang but also in the border towns. In Rason, in the far northeastern corner where North Korea, China and Russia meet, trucks haul in goods from China, thanks to a road paved with help from the Chinese. At an indoor market visited by The Associated Press last August, women stood behind tables piled high with shampoo, binoculars and high heels. One woman was selling rabbit meat, another live chickens.
Some analysts see the boom in Chinese trade as a political move motivated by Beijing's desire to ensure stability in neighboring North Korea and to buy clout in Pyongyang. However, others say it's pure economic strategy by Chinese companies expanding their reach across Asia.