Only opened to foreign tourists in 2015, believe it or not, a visit to Pyongyang’s Kwangbok Department Store is surprisingly, often a highlight for many tourists’ visit to North Korea.
While visiting Pyongyang’s museums and gigantic Socialist / Brutalist monuments are certainly impressive sites and some of the most unique landmarks you’re likely to see anywhere in the world, there’s something wonderfully fascinating about visiting what would ultimately be a relatively “normal” site of a department store in the context of Pyongyang. Technically, no photos are allowed to be taken in the store, however, we’ve managed to source a few shots to give you a sneak peek at the inside of this “secret” department store.
Kwangbok is also the only place in Pyongyang where tourists can use the local currency of Korean Won. Once you arrive, you’ll head to an exchange booth where you can change euro, RMB, USD or Japanese yen for cold hard North Korean cash. We recommend exchanging between €5 and 50 RMB, which is plenty to buy some locally made candy, a few bottles of soju for presents back home or some of this season’s hottest Pyongyang fashion.
Frequented predominantly by Pyongyang’s burgeoning middle class, Kwangbok Department Store is a three-floored, surprisingly modern and well-stocked department store. The ground floor is a typical supermarket, filled with a mixture of locally made products and an unexpected amount of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Russian products. You’ll find beauty products and electronics including the locally made Arirang televisions and smartphones.
Level two features a large homeware selection, seasonal men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and a pharmacy – stocking a mixture of imported medicine and locally made, herbal Korean medicines. Those looking for a cheeky gift for a particular friend can even buy North Korean-made Viagra over the counter!
Heading further up the escalators to the third and final floor you’ll find the famous Kwangbok food court. This is the closest thing Pyongyang’s going to get to its very own “Sizzler,” so grab yourself a tray and take your choice from the array of delicious Korean dishes available from the buffet. Draft beer will set you back around €0.20 and most surprisingly is the Western-style food stall up in the far corner next to a children’s playground, selling hamburgers, hotdogs and French fries. This writer has seen a reoccurring theme in Korean guides going crazy for the waffles sold here, so buy yourself and your Korean guide a waffle for bonus points.
While just a department store, there’s something uniquely “normal” and refreshingly “bland” about wandering around a department store in Pyongyang. In a country so closed off from the rest of the world, to see kids in shopping trolleys with parents purchasing food for the week and groups of friends drinking after-work beers in the upstairs food court is a blatant reminder of the relative “normalness” of North Korea that is so often not depicted in the media or tourists’ photos of their trip to “the Hermit Kingdom.” While photography in department stores around the world is usually a no-go, and let’s be honest, who wants a group of tourists putting a DSLR in your face while you shop for your week’s groceries? It’s a shame that this lesser-seen Pyongyang location isn’t more widely seen by the outside world.