North Korea Can Now Shop Online

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A website named Okryu now offers products such as women’s clothing, bags, shoes, medicines, cosmetics, furniture and food, all from North Korean manufacturers. The site is aimed at smartphone users, and payments are processed using the country’s main debit card system, according to the Associated Press.

North Korea: Smartphone use growing despite access restrictions

Users of Okyru can only pay in local currency, and the system is sealed off from the rest of the world because it uses North Korea’s own intranet instead of the Internet. The country’s network is strictly for use inside the country, and is known as the “domestic web” by many citizens. The system has existed for years, but it is not widely used due to the fact that few North Koreans have a computer or a smartphone with which they can go online.

That said, it has been noted that the number of smartphone users in North Korea is growing. The government presumably does not see the technology as a threat to the country’s closely controlled social order, because it has overseen the introduction of Okryu.

In rural areas it is still uncommon to see people using smartphones, but many residents of the capital can now be seen using them as they walk around town. Prior to 2008, the use of cellphones in North Korea was either banned entirely or limited to a select elite. However by 2013, there were 2 million mobile and smartphones in the country, which represents nearly one for every 10 residents.

Users can access selected number of sites

Since last year, users of North Korea’s mobile phone network, Koryolink, have been able to look at a small number of local websites on their smartphones. Those sites include the ruling party newspaper, the state news agency, a TV show download site, a local university site and a science and technology site called “Hot Wind.”

The General Bureau of Public Service, a government organization responsible for controlling shops, restaurants and producers of consumer goods, is in charge of overseeing Okryu. Jong Sol Hwa, a Bureau official, confirmed that the site is now fully operational after its arrival was heralded with great fanfare by the state media last month.

As outsiders we have absolutely no idea if the average shopper in North Korea even knows that the site exists, or how popular it is. No one has announced any traffic statistics.

Official demonstration leaves questions unanswered

A television crew from the Associated Press was lucky enough to receive a demonstration of the capabilities of the site from a bureau official. He clicked on the site for the Kumsong Food Factory in the capital, Pyongyang, before scrolling to a packet of cream buns and bringing up the item page. The buns cost 78 North Korean won, which is less than $1, putting the site on a par with stores around the city.

From here users have to type in how many packs of the specific item they want, and hit the buy button. After the user confirms their purchase, their order is placed.

The official demonstration did not show how the delivery of the goods would be made, or how long customers have to wait for their order, both of which are critical to the success of its operations. As with most things in the secretive nation, it will be difficult to find out any detailed information about the service. Foreigners are banned from using Okryu whether they are inside North Korea or abroad.

System could prove a hit with bargain hunters

One particular boon of the service is the fact that the site lists similar items together, enabling users to easily compare prices from different suppliers. The feature is a big bonus seeing as advertising is pretty much non-existent in North Korea, meaning that it is hard for consumers to be sure whether they are getting a good deal. The problem is compounded by the fact that traveling around the country in search of the best prices is also difficult.

Despite its opposition to enabling Internet access for its citizens, it appears that the government of North Korea is happy to allow competition in its online shopping marketplace. It will be interesting to see whether the service catches on, or performs well. It is difficult to envision the government relinquishing its tight grip on information entering and leaving the country via the Internet, but perhaps North Korean citizens will at least be able to join the online shopping revolution already experienced by the rest of the world.

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