SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea encourages its beauty-conscious, middle-class women to favor domestic cosmetics over foreign brands to boost their self-confidence as international sanctions tighten.
The promotion of indigenous beauty has been a political strategy since the days of the founder of the state, Kim Il Sung, but has become more focussed under his oversized grandson Kim Jong Un.
The international popularity of the South Korean k-beauty trend in recent years – innovative cosmetic products containing natural ingredients such as ginseng and slug – has increased, according to defectors who fled the north and experts studying the isolated state.
But North Korea's push must first turn into a formula of success hampered by quality issues and restrictions on sourcing foreign ingredients due to sanctions related to its nuclear program.
Leader Kim Jong Un was once rejected by domestic beauty products.
"Foreign eyeliners or mascaras stay in the water even after immersion, but local products even cause raccoon eyes to yawn," Kim said during his visit to a Pyongyang cosmetics factory in 201
But since then Kim has visited cosmetics factories several times with his wife to promote the products.
Earlier this year, North Korea's state-run television station KRT broadcast a video about the Pyongyang cosmetics factory showing a woman substituting domestic products for Chanel products.
"Many domestic customers from abroad visit our store. Sheet mask, lipstick and cleansing products are bestsellers, "said Yang Su Jong, sales assistant at the Pyongyang cosmetics factory, to Reuters last year for a rare visit to the capital.
Chanel said in response to Reuters' questions that no products were exported to North Korea and that the items offered there were probably counterfeit or redirected products.
FIRST LADIES AND GIRLS BAND
North Korea has long regulated the appearance of its citizens. Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, banned hair dyes, blue jeans, and English-language clothing as the secluded country tried to keep Western influences out.
But that has changed since Kim came to power in 2011 and made public appearances with First Lady Ri Sol Ju, a former member of a pop orchestra.
Nam Sung-wook, professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University, said the short haircut and colorful suits of the young First Lady appealed to the desire to express themselves within the confines of North Korean society.
"In the era of Kim Jong Il, there was no role for the First Lady," said Nam. "But the era of Kim Jong Un produced the first woman, Ri Sol Ju, who promoted the regime's interest in cosmetics."
Kang Na-ra is a North Korean renegade who claims to have bought South Korean cosmetics on well-known private markets as jangmadang, the backbone of the informal market economy of the North.
"I really wanted to copy the make-up style of K-Pop Idol when I was in the North," she said.
Today, women are encouraged to follow style trends dictated by the First Lady or the "Moranbong" band, Pyongyang's all-female response to K-Pop.
"North Korea is such a strictly controlled society and a style we can follow is very limited. Ri Sol Ju or Moranbong band members are our only acceptable role models, "said 21-year-old Kang, who fled to the South in 2014 and now runs a YouTube channel sharing tips on beauty and North Korean culture.
NEW MARKET AND BORDERS
The Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory delivered their first batch of Unhasu cosmetics in May to a new boutique in Moscow, Russian media reported.
Korean Care, another Russian cosmetics retailer selling South Korean products online, began importing North Korean beauty products directly from Pyongyang last year.
The company, which targets Russian women and has over 10,000 customers, said the selling point for North Korean products is their natural ingredients and minimal preservatives.
"I'm a fan of all kinds of new cosmetics and it was particularly interesting because it's North Korean," said Margarita Kiselyova, 45, a Russian customer who bought aloe vera moisturizer and anti-aging cream. "Overall, I am satisfied with the quality."
Nam, a Korean University expert and leading South Korean cosmetics company Amorepacific, tested 64 North Korean products and found seven quality issues, including traces of potentially harmful ingredients such as methylparabens, propylparabens and talc.
Amorepacific told Reuters that there are no further details about the tests.
According to Pyongyang Cosmetic Factory, the Unhasu line has been certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) for quality assurance, but Reuters was unable to independently verify these allegations.
"The development of new cosmetic products requires the supply of new materials and substances from overseas, but current United States sanctions prohibit the import of chemicals from the North, which makes product development difficult," said Nam.
Most North Koreans still prefer more expensive South Korean products, especially for gifts, said Kang Mi-jin, an economist who regularly speaks with North Koreans on the news website Daily NK Outliers led.
"Although hard to come by, people are trying to buy South Korean cosmetics as a wedding present for their fiancée as it is considered the best and symbol of wealth," said Kang Mi-jin.
coverage of Minwoo Park; Additional reporting by Yijin Kim in SEOUL, Thomas Suen in PYONGYANG, Sarah White in PARIS, Anna Rzhevkina in MOSCOW; Edited by Jack Kim and Lincoln Feast.