For the North Koreans, the Chinese model offers a safe and sanctioned way to explore commerce within the confines of socialism.
"China is the conduit through which the North Korean economy is becoming more internationalized," said Andray Abrahamian, executive director of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based nonprofit group that since 2009 has conducted workshops on business and economic policy for North Koreans.
There's a newfound thirst among North Koreans to learn about business management and financial policy, and a noticeable openness to all things foreign, said Abrahamian, who has traveled to North Korea several times over the past two years. He said younger North Koreans see business as a way to get ahead — a distinct change from a few years ago, and not just in Pyongyang.
"People in Rason say the attitude in that region toward foreigners has improved remarkably in the last few years as people get comfortable with the idea of trading with foreigners," he said.
Still, the traditional wariness kicks in. During his visit to a market in Rason, officials warned him not to take photos.
Back in Pyongyang, the Kwangbok supermarket is bustling. Shoppers navigate carts up and down aisles packed with 20 types of toothbrushes, a dozen varieties of beers, red carry-on suitcases and rows of black bicycles. In the produce aisle, most of the fruit and vegetables are already sold out.
Salesgirls in fire-engine red jackets deftly ring up shoppers' items and count out their change. One lane is reserved for foreigners, who are allowed to change their money into North Korean won to pay for their goods.
Kim Myong Sim, 32, said she couldn't help but think of late leader Kim Jong Il while shopping at Kwangbok, the place where he last appeared in public. Like most North Koreans, she weaves an obligatory comment about the leader into what she says, even as she chastises her nephew squirming next to the cart.
"You're getting a lot of love and buying a lot of tasty goodies, Yong Gu,'" she admonished, trying to wrest a cellphone from his mittened hands. "You've got to say 'thank you' to your aunt before you run off. You've got to give thanks to the fatherly general (Kim Jong Il) as well."
Outside the store, ornate red and gold plaques commemorate the Dec. 15 visit of Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un. High above the plaques, the Korean name of the store is written in red.
Beneath it, the Chinese name is written in green.
Associated Press reporter Pak Won Il in Pyongyang, and researchers Yu Bing in Beijing and Harald Olsen in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean and photographer David Guttenfelder at twitter.com/dguttenfelder.
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