I recently went to North Korea for vacation…. I know it is not high on the list at your local travel agency, but I have wanted to visit North Korea for the last few years and this last spring festival seemed like the best time to make the plunge. The reason I have been interested in North Korea is because there are very few places like it left in the world. My love for travel and adventure was my main reason for wanting to visit North Korea.
My second reason for wanting to visit was my interest in frontier markets. I have always been interested in the future of advertising and marketing, and early on in my life, I noticed North America and Europe were falling behind. They are stuck in the past and they are being outpaced by Asian competitors. Japan and South Korea in the 80’s-90’s, China in the 2000’s-2010’s and now all of Asia is surging past more established markets. About a year ago, I read “Here’s Why I’m Dying To Invest In North Korea” an article on Business Insider by Jim Rogers. Along with my previous interest, this article, time off, and money, it made for the perfect excuse to pack my bag, get on a rickety plane, and “explore” North Korea.
Advertising in North Korea: Where are the ads?
One of the first things I was looking for when I arrived was advertising in North Korea, but without fail the advertising was missing! Where are the ads? In their pursuit to defeat capitalism and remain a pure socialist state, North Korea discouraged advertising. This means almost all stores, signs, TV channels, and radio stations are devoid of advertisement. After 6 days of traveling around Pyongyang and neighboring cities, I was left wondering about the future potential of advertising in North Korea.
I am not delusional about the current situation facing North Korea, but there were cracks in their socialist utopia. The cracks of spreading capitalism were evident all around the capital. The most obvious was in the large number of imported cars. Brilliance Auto Group, a Chinese auto maker has been importing cars, taxis, and bus into North Korea at a healthy rate. Almost every new car on the road was unmistakably Chinese made, but rebranded (Pyeonghwa Motors) to fool the local populous.
Pyeonghwa Motors was one of the only visible advertisers in North Korea. I saw two billboards during my trip in North Korea. I was unable to take a picture of the adverting in North Korea, but here are a few shots from other travelers.
Pyeonghwa Motors is not the only advertiser in North Korea
While I was researching more about advertising in North Korea, I found Pyeonghwa Motors is not the only advertiser in North Korea. There are other brands risking their socialist reputations for market share and profit. According to the BBC, Taedonggang Beer launched the first TV beer commercial. In the article it stated, “Young women in traditional Korean dress are shown serving trays of beer to men in Western suits. Billed as the “Pride of Pyongyang”, the advert promises drinkers that the beer will help ease stress.” It represents the new look of Pyongyang,” the two-and-a-half minute advert says. “It will be a familiar part of our lives.” Taedonggang Beer Factory has been making the brew since buying a British brewery and shipping it lock, stock and barrel from the UK in 2002.”
The Taedonggang Beer company also ran an info style commercial:
Pyeonghwa Motors & Taedonggang Beer Leading
Although advertising in North Korea is still new, there are signs that more companies are interested in the commercial value. In a recent article by North Korean Economy Watch, it is becoming clear that more brands are looking for advertising opportunities. The article stated, “On June 16, 2015 Korean Central Television (KCTV) broadcast the second match of the Russian World Cup Asian qualifying rounds. The match, in which North Korea and Uzbekistan played, was held at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium, where advertisements by North Korean companies such as Kaesong Koryo Ginseng and the Pyongyang Building Materials Factory appeared in force. Kaesong Koryo Ginseng and Choson Kumgang Group in particular appeared to have spent a lot of money sponsoring the event, as most every ad belonged to one of these companies.”
It appears that Pyeonghwa Motors and Taedonggang Beer have been leading the way for many companies to explore the “capitalist” idea of advertising. The real questions is how long will it take and will the North Korean market open up? I don’t have an answer to these questions, but it is clear that the market is slowly embracing advertising. With China looking for new market opportunities and advertisers seeing the befits, I think it is only a matter of time before we see more advertising in North Korea.
Final Thoughts on Advertising in North Korea
I only spent a short time in North Korea, but I see a lot of potential for advertisers once the market opens up. There are around 24 million people in North Korea, whom have never been exposed to major advertising campaigns. This is a relatively untapped market with the potential to become a major trading partner with South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. Maybe 30-50 years from now this market will be saturated with advertising, but today there were almost no adverts. I think this is a frontier market that needs another 20-25 years, but it is never too earlier for major brands to start considering potential partnerships with Chinese brands already operating in North Korea.
More on North Korea:
- My First Impressions of North Korea (This is my travel site)
- No Country For Mad Men: Advertising in North Korea
- How North Koreans ads in western newspapers backfired
- You Should Consider North Korea as an Investment