Trendy Asian lifestyle chain opens in North Korea


WHEN Miniso said in January that its stores “will bring Koreans the happiness of stress-free shopping,” you’d be forgiven for thinking they were referring to the department store-loving Seoulists. In fact, the housewares store, co-founded by a Chinese entrepreneur and a Japanese designer, announced that it would take its capitalist trinkets to (apparently socialist) North Korea. As part of a joint venture agreement with one of the country’s state-owned enterprises, it agreed to establish the first chain of foreign-branded stores in Pyongyang, the showcase capital of the poor country.

The first Miniso store opened there in April, eight months after opening its first store in South Korea and just before its launch in America. His arrival is remarkable in a place where branded displays are scarce (with the exception of a handful of billboards advertising a local auto company, Pyeonghwa Motors).

Miniso’s coup in the Secret Realm is part of a global breakthrough. Since opening its first store in Guangzhou, China in 2013, it has signed agreements to expand into more than 50 countries, from Mexico to Mongolia; it has more than 1,800 points of sale in total. Revenue amounted to 10 billion yuan ($ 1.5 billion) in 2016, nearly double the previous year.

Ye Guofu, the Chinese entrepreneur who co-founded Miniso with Junya Miyake, who heads her design team in Tokyo, sends some 200 buyers around the world to search for ideas. New household items hit its shelves every week, from nail polish to bath rugs and frying pans. Its few expensive products cost no more than about $ 40. Its young fans see it as a cross between three popular Japanese retailers: Daiso, a chain of 100, where everything costs less than 90 cents; Uniqlo, a clothing company with minimalist design; and Muji, a lifestyle chain with a wide range of products. Others complain that it deceptively hides its Japanese character (he says it was founded in Tokyo, although there are only four stores and over 1,000 in China) to appeal to consumers. Asians eager to kawaii, or Japan’s mark of cuteness.

Anecdotal evidence from Pyongyang suggests that the city’s coterie of privileged North Koreans are already enthusiastic. On a recent visit, a foreign resident mainly saw toys, cosmetics and decorative balls selling for between $ 2 and $ 10. The price tags at Miniso are in North Korean won, but customers have to pay in dollars, euros or Chinese yuan, a shame on the regime, which knows its won are worthless. The store is in a lotus flower-shaped building on Ryomyong Street, a cluster of apartments and high-rise stores (pictured) opened in April with fanfare by Kim Jong Un, the leader of the North, who took over the power upon the death of his father. in 2011.

The young Mr. Kim has promised more leisure and consumption to his oppressed: shopping malls, renovated fairgrounds and a water park have been inaugurated in recent years in the capital. This helps to explain the entry of Miniso, who says he wants not only to “enrich the choices of people in North Korea, but also to improve the standard of living of the people”. Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University in South Korea expects Miniso to be supplied with locally produced products soon as well. Still, this is not a market for the faint hearted. Egyptian Orascom Telecom entered into a joint venture with the state in 2008 to set up North Korea’s first 3G cellular network. It has yet to repatriate profits, and in 2015 he said the North Korean state had created a second carrier to compete with its own network.

This article appeared in the Affairs section of the print edition under the headline “Minisocialist”


Lyle L. Maltby

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