The drab, grey exterior of Kwangbok Supermarket blends easily into its surroundings in Pyongyang. The building does not aspire to resemble a gleaming mall, nor does it need to. For the majority of the city’s three million residents, the sheer experience of shopping at a supermarket is enough of a draw.
In North Korea, most citizens still depend on state-supplied rations, which are known for being meagre. The United Nations, in a plea for aid issued in 2015, claimed that 70 percent of the country’s population was food insecure. According to Jean Lee, the former chief of the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau, even middle-class people in the capital generally shop at Soviet-style stores, where they queue up at counters to request items, and there is “no browsing, and not much choice even if you could.”
Kwangbok, on the other hand, offers plenty of options. Such surfeit, which grants shoppers a feeling of autonomy, is rare in this socialist society. The supermarket’s three floors are stacked with imported items nearly impossible to find elsewhere in the country. But even as its shelves display luxury goods, a closer look at Kwangbok underscores the inequality that is rampant in today’s North Korea.