Published February 04, 2008
SEOUL, South Korea – Fancy a sleek made-in-North Korea SUV? How about a pair of boxing gloves from the famously pugnacious communist country?
They're potentially just a click away.
North Korea, known more for nuclear saber-rattling than its consumer products, is offering overseas shoppers the chance to buy hundreds of its goods via the Internet.
Those who keep a close eye on North Korea say the move is likely a bid by the perpetually impoverished country to earn cash and also raise awareness about what it has to offer.
The Web site — available in Korean, English, Chinese, Russian and Japanese — also sells bicycles, commemorative stamps, roller skates and uniforms for Taekwondo, a Korean martial art.
It includes a shopping cart icon and says credit cards are acceptable.
But, much like the North Korean economy, the site doesn't work very well.
It has not been accessible since last Monday. And even when it was up, clicking some of the 14 product categories brought no response.
The electronic shopping mall — http://www.dprk-economy.com/en/Shop/index.php — is part of Web site that provides information about the North Korean economy as well as legal advice for prospective foreign investors. "DPRK" stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The [shopping] section appears to be targeting foreigners and it appears to be aimed at getting the world to know about its economy," an official at South Korea's Unification Ministry handling North Korean economic affairs said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
He said it opened on Dec. 31.
A man who answered the phone in the office of the Web site's administrator in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, said it was North Korean and run in cooperation with a company in China, though he would not give the name of the firm.
Asked about access difficulties, he said the site was being offered on a "trial basis" for now but full service would come "very soon." He said officials were unavailable.
North Korea's Embassy in Beijing, China's capital, would only say it was aware of the Web site.
The existence of the site — which calls itself Chollima after a mythical winged horse — was written about on Jan. 28 by the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper. Some speculate it has had trouble since because it may not have been able to handle a surge of curious visitors.
North Korea, fiercely nationalistic and proud of its policy of self reliance, nevertheless has taken steps in recent years to raise living standards, such as introducing limited free market reforms.
But despite having carried out a nuclear test blast, its economy remains a backwater, stymied by years of mismanagement and isolation. The country has a domestic version of the Internet, though access is strictly limited.
The U.S. government, which does not prohibit trade with North Korea but requires anyone importing its products to the United States to report them prior to doing so, has accused Pyongyang of various financial wrongdoing, including counterfeiting dollars and cigarettes.
The Chollima site says it sells North Korean products "including machinery, building materials, vehicles, industrial art objects, foodstuffs, daily necessities, stamps, artworks, films and software."
Last Monday, three cars produced by Pyeonghwa Motors Corp. were on offer, including the Ppokkugi II, or Cuckoo II, which judging by the attached photo looks like a sport utility vehicle.
A click on the "order" button, however, sends the user to the Web site's administrator, where contact information, such as name and e-mail address, is requested. No price was given.
The e-Shop also sells boxing gloves and three types of bicycle, including battery-powered and folding models.
It wasn't clear how the products would be shipped to buyers.
Experts said North Korea wants to attract foreign investment and also earn much needed hard currency to prop up its economy.
Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the country, said that the Web site being located in Shenyang, a city of 7 million people, is significant as it is the "de facto foreign trade capital of North Korea."
The challenge for the country in peddling its wares, however, is quality.
"They have nothing serious to sell," said Lankov, who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University and studied in North Korea. "Nobody wants the products. Everything is bad."
People looking for something exotic, however, might be interested, he said.