We were a bit surprised when our Comrade-Guide, as he insisted we call him, gave in to our demands for a department store visit. Until then, touring North Korea had been a frustrating experience. Herded from one scenic spot to another, hustled through public streets and hindered from talking to locals, we found that the trip seemed hopeless. At last, then, our group—journalists pretending we were tourists—had arrived, a sunny afternoon in downtown Pyongyang. We made our way through the crowd in Department Store Number 1, surrounded, or so we thought, by those “brainwashed citizens of the last Stalinist State” we had read about.
Brainwashed? Couldn’t say. But there was something wrong with this place. On the street outside, there was not a single pedestrian in sight. The customers seemed to file out of the subway and into the store, like an army of toy soldiers. And why were all the men wearing ties? Inside, cigarette lighters lay painstakingly arranged on a shelf, undisturbed, as if none had ever been bought. Books and note pads were in neat even piles, obviously untouched. Even prices were bizarre: why pay over two thousand North Korean won for an accordion if a bicycle costs less than two hundred? A middle-aged woman approached a sales clerk. “I’d like a yellow sweater,” she said in a flat tone. Without hesitating, the assistant reached behind her and picked up the sweater, already waiting. The customer paid for it and walked away. “That was quick,” I thought. No haggling over price, size, or color. Was it for her son? Was it for herself? Would it even fit? Later on, as we left the store, I looked back and saw the same woman again. This time, however, she had given back the yellow sweater and was walking off. But of course! The whole store, all five floors of it, was staffed by actors, hundreds of them, pretending to buy and sell. For the benefit of a few visiting tourists, they were there to perform, to pretend that they were living in a “normal” country, one with no shortages or restrictions of any kind.