Trade Fair Gives North Koreans a View of World

Special to The Times

With the microphones broken and toilets damaged, a most unusual capitalist-style trade fair was launched in the world’s most ideologically rigid communist state.

Over a four-day period last month, about 20,000 curious North Koreans filed through a cavernous exhibition hall here to ogle seldom-seen products such as imported chocolates and wireless telephones. The obligatory oversize photograph of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, a proponent of strictly socialist economic principles, loomed over the exhibit booths.

By the standards of Asian trade shows, the event in the North Korean capital was rather small and dowdy, offering a hodgepodge of products.

“This is a low-end exhibition.... It’s so different from South Korea’s that it is hard to imagine that the two used to be the same country,” said Albert Chen, a sales representative for a Taiwanese sewing machine manufacturer.


But it nonetheless offered the isolated North Koreans a rare glimpse into the spice and variety of commerce in the outside world at a time when they are testing the waters of capitalism.

“The trade fair is an important window for the North Koreans,” said Tony Michell, a Seoul-based consultant who works with European firms doing business in North Korea.

There was a motley assortment of merchandise that ranged from Chinese-made sunglasses and cigarette lighters to computerized pig-feeding equipment from Germany. The foreign sales representatives in attendance said they were struck by the North Koreans’ enthusiasm and eagerness to learn.

“They desperately want to understand all of these technologies,” said a Beijing-based representative who gave only his first name, Colin. He ran an exhibit of wireless communications equipment that attracted curiosity from the North Koreans.

“The nation’s basic science training is very good. They just don’t know yet how to apply what they’ve learned. But once they access these new technologies, they will learn very fast.”

Trade fairs are among the halting moves North Korea has made to steer its economy toward a freer market. Last year, the government dropped its rationing and public distribution system and loosened price controls and exchange rates.

Public markets were recently legalized, and rules have been eased for Chinese traders trying to sell their products in North Korea.

Nevertheless, the government’s ambivalence about opening the economy was apparent in the tight controls on the fair itself. All visits were strictly regulated.

North Korean visitors, usually middle-aged men in dark suits on prearranged tours, lined up at the entrance and filed into the hall.

Whenever North Koreans spoke with foreign businessmen, there were at least two colleagues looking over their shoulders. There did not appear to be any individual North Korean entrepreneurs -- only representatives of state-controlled entities.

One Taiwanese businessman told of a North Korean who sat down at his booth briefly, but immediately got up and left without a word after another North Korean tapped him warningly on the shoulder.

“My interpreter didn’t really want to explain what happened but indicated that the guy didn’t get approval for conducting any kind of conversation,” said the businessman, who asked not to be quoted by name. Another exhibitor, a European who works frequently in Asia and also asked not to be quoted by name, observed, “North Korea is not that much different from any other poor country, like northern Thailand, but the people in Thailand are free and not difficult to reach.”

This was the sixth annual international trade fair held in Pyongyang. Companies from five countries attended, while last year there were representatives of 15.

Businesspeople attributed this year’s meager attendance to fears of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which had forced the fair to be delayed from mid-May, rather than the prolonged standoff with the United States over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

Foreign traders said that the North Koreans have so little access to merchandise from the outside world that they tended to buy everything, regardless of whether they really needed it, wasting a lot of money.

Gianpiero Foddis, a technician for an Italian tile company, Longinotti, said he was surprised that last year the North Koreans bought more than $1-million worth of equipment for making luxury tiles.

“What they bought is one of the most expensive [tile-making] machines in the world. But the electricity is not stable. The people are not professionals and the quality of the material is not good,” Foddis said. “It might fail after a few months.”

“People are starving, but they are spending money on purchasing the most expensive equipment,” said another businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Several salespeople complained that it was difficult to give the North Koreans advice about what to buy because they tended to be secretive or vague about what they intended to do with their purchases.

A Taiwanese businessman who works frequently in Pyongyang recounted with frustration trying to explain to the North Koreans that it would be foolish to start eel- processing farms because of the unsuitable weather.

“Ideas about marketing and economics are not really in their minds. We always try to convince them not to buy every single machine, but they never take our advice seriously,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

Among the most popular of the 70 exhibition booths at the fair were those selling consumer goods, especially baby clothes, candies and chocolates. North Koreans, many carrying dollars despite an official edict against the U.S. currency because of the political tension, tried to buy hard-to-find products.

Several customers asked that next time the exhibitors bring shampoo and toothbrushes, which are hard to obtain in North Korea.

Of even greater interest to the North Koreans than the products were the foreign visitors themselves. The North Korean interpreters at the fair said they had volunteered to work for free for the chance to practice their English.

One of them confided to a reporter that there was only one instructor at Pyongyang College of Foreign Languages who is a native English speaker, and that teacher had a British accent.

“Since we are having political troubles with the United States, we don’t study American English but British English in schools. But I want to learn American English because the language is easier and more comfortable to speak,” the North Korean interpreter said.

Special correspondent Cai reported from Pyongyang and staff writer Demick from Seoul.