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Culture

North Korea sees a beautiful future ahead : Kim Jong-un is keen on developing the nation’s cosmetics industry

July 11,2018
[YONHAP, INTERNET CAPTURE]
The inside of a cosmetics factory in Pyongyang. The factory creates products for North Korean cosmetics brand Unhasu. [YONHAP]
Kim Jong-un walks through a cosmetics factory in Pyongyang with his wife Ri Sol-ju on July 1. Products from North Korean cosmetics brand Unhasu. [YONHAP, INTERNET CAPTURE]
There’s a famous anecdote that dates back to 1998, shortly after the first round of tours were admitted to Mount Kumgang in North Korea. A North Korean staff member asked a South Korean woman working as a part of Hyundai Asan’s tour team, “Why did you shave off your eyebrows when they’re perfectly fine?”


The Korean attendant, who had become well-acquainted with her curious North Korean friend, answered that she shaved off some parts of her eyebrow and filled it in with eyebrow pencil to make her eyes look prettier. The North Korean worker asked, “What’s an eyebrow pencil?”

A few days after she explained to her North Korean friend what an eyebrow pencil was and gave her one of her pencils, she saw dozens of other North Korean attendants grooming their eyebrows in a South Korean style and looking pleased with themselves.
The Mount Kumgang tour site acted as a site of cultural exchange where young North Korean women learned the art of makeup from the skilled South Korean women, at a time when makeup and cosmetics were considered by North Koreans as a luxury they couldn’t afford.

The idea of grooming oneself with makeup and cosmetics had been considered a luxury out of reach for ordinary women in North Korea, but not any more. In a socialist society focused on equality, wearing colorful makeup to stand out from the rest may have raised eyebrows in the past, but these days, cosmetic products are slowly starting to become a routine part of women’s lives in North Korea. The country’s own beauty brands have stepped their game up, while global cosmetic brands have been spotted in Pyongyang.

Interest in beauty had been oppressed under the conservative air of the Juche Ideology (North Korea’s ideology on political, economic and military self-reliance), according to Nam Sung-wook, professor in the department of North Korean Studies at Korea University. In research carried out by Nam’s team in 2016, 16.7 percent of 200 women who escaped from North Korea said that they did not wear makeup at all, while 6.8 percent said that they wore tinted cosmetics on their eyes or lips.

This wasn’t because makeup was illegal in North Korea. State founder Kim Il Sung wrote in one of his books, “Sometimes there were cosmetic products in seized goods such as powders or creams. The troops would throw them away or stamp on them, but that infuriated me. I found it heartbreaking that the women had lived in hardship throughout the year, without [the chance to wear] powders.”

So, one year after North Korea was founded in 1948, the country’s first cosmetics factory was constructed in Sinuiju, and a second was built in Pyongyang in 1957. Toothpaste, shampoo and soap were the primary products of the factory because manufacturers decided that other goods were inessential, and because much of the ingredients were dependent on imported chemicals. Kim Jong-il is said to have visited one of the factories and said, “Give more high quality cosmetic products to the people,” but no fundamental changes were made.

Innovation came with the reign of the young Kim Jong-un. While Kim criticized the heavy reliance on imported products, he compared North Korean goods to foreign ones to spur for higher quality. “Foreign mascaras stay even when [people] are in water, but our products make [women’s] eyes [look like] raccoon’s eyes even with just a yawn,” Kim is reported to have told workers during a visit in 2015. Kim had been very specific in pointing out the problems in North Korean beauty products, which some assume to be influenced by his two closest female confidants, wife Ri Sol-ju and sister Kim Yo-jong.

During a visit to a cosmetics factory, Kim Jong-un reportedly compared the quality of North Korean products to foreign brands such as Lancome, Chanel and Shiseido, demanding for better goods in his own country. “Unhasu is popular, but don’t stop there and fight so that it can compete with other global brand products,” said Kim.

On July 5, the Choson Sinbo, a newspaper run by North Koreans in Japan, revealed the exterior and interior of a cosmetics factory in Pyongyang. On the outer walls of the building is a big placard that reads “[Let’s make] our cosmetics global quality,” with a painting of late leader Kim Jong-il looking over the factory right next to the entrance. Inside the factory are various products manufactured under brand names such Unhasu, the most popular North Korean beauty brand, including daily care product lines comprised of lotions and creams, and also colored cosmetics from powders and foundations to eye shadows and mascara. Similarly, the factory in Sinuiju produces goods for Bomhyanggi, which sells not only the basic skin care products, but also anti-aging products, perfumes and lipsticks.

The North Korean cosmetics market was calculated at $72 million in 2016, a mere 0.6 percent of the South Korean market.

Cosmetics are still out of reach for the general public, with a set of six lotions and creams selling for 365,100 North Korean won ($405.65). The average laborer in the country earns a mere 3,000 won a month. Yet, with influential female figures high up in the regime and the country slowly opening its doors to the world, the market is expected to grow in the coming years. North Korea imported $1.33 million worth of cosmetics in 2009. That number rose to $11.4 million in 2014.

According to a North Korean defector, a Bulgari perfume is the number one bribe to give, and women are said to have married the right guy if she gets a South Korean beauty product as a gift.

“There were powdered creams sold that had components of Kaesong Korean ginseng which blocks sunlight, as well as brightening and wrinkle-care,” said Kang Dong-wan, professor of Donga University, who recently made a visit to the border regions of China and North Korea. “The powdered creams had ‘BB’ written on its packaging, which is the name it goes by in Korea and other countries. It may be a move to target the foreign market.”

BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, LIM HYUNG-DONG AND YOON SO-YEON [oon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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