Throughout this year, North Korea has stressed the need for a “frontal breakthrough” against challenges facing the country to overcome economic difficulties. In line with this drive, it calls for securing “self-reliance” in many areas, including the production of high quality goods. North Korean authorities have urged factories in different regions to continue making efforts to receive quality certifications. Recently, North Korean media outlets have released a series of articles about a growing number of products with certification marks.
Today, we’re going to learn more about quality certifications in North Korea from lawyer Oh Hyun-jong.
North Korea says that dozens of production units in the country, including a shoe factory in Wonsan and the Goksan Factory in Pyongyang, have improved the quality of their goods through quality certifications. It explains that the “February 2 Product” title, which is one of the local quality certification marks, has been given to a hundred products in the first half of this year alone. To be more specific, North Korea says some 40 production units and 100 factories have earned certification marks for quality management or food safety control. About ten manufacturers of medical products, in particular, have reportedly obtained the goods manufacturing practices or GMP for medicinal products for their round pills, capsules, granules and injections.
The North Korean media have been eager to highlight products with quality certifications in an apparent move to stress that the country is capable enough to produce quality goods locally and to improve its economy that has been hit hard this year by COVID-19 and flood damage.
North Korea has let state supervisors manage product quality since 1981.
The country enacted the quality supervision law in 1997 and revised or supplemented it three times until 2003. There are 15-thousand quality supervisors nationwide, and they are in charge of product quality management and policies. In 2015, North Korea changed the National Quality Supervision Bureau to the National Quality Supervision Commission.
Quality supervisors are dispatched from quality supervision offices installed in 170 factories and production associations across North Korea. They oversee the production of goods, of course, and also instill political ideology, that is, socialism, in workers in the factories. They are paid by the central government, not the factories, so they are under control of the government. The supervisors should carry out their work in accordance with detailed regulations concerning projects requiring state supervision. They examine the entire production process, from raw materials and techniques to product performance and packaging. Products are required to get the “pass” stamp before moving on to the next stage. All products have their own card, in which their manufacturing process is recorded from the first day of production. Through this system, supervisors can detect any quality change from moment to moment. So, if a problem arises, they can handle it right away.
Among the quality certifications managed by the National Quality Supervision Commission, the most famous one is the “December 15 Quality Medal.” It is given to North Korea’s best quality products that can be put on the global market. It was created in 2012 with the purpose of promoting exports by ensuring the quality of premium goods.
The first recipient of the “December 15 Quality Medal” is Pyongyang Liquor produced at the Taedong River Foodstuff Factory. It earned the prestigious mark in 2014. North Korea explained that it decided to give due recognition to its premium liquor in order to nurture it as a globally competitive product.
The certification mark got its name to commemorate the specific date, December 15, 2012, when leader Kim Jong-un instructed officials to encourage socialist competition and promote exports. To be qualified for the certification, products should meet six standards. They include high quality goods with global competitiveness, products that are made with local materials and facilities to contribute to improving public livelihoods and those introducing new technologies and holding a dominant position in both domestic and international markets. The certification is mostly given to major export items, and it is managed by the National Quality Supervision Commission under the Cabinet.
Another quality certification in North Korea is “February 2 Product.” Former leader Kim Il-sung held a rally of quality supervisors on February 2, 1981, to instruct them to show more commitment to their job. Since then, quality goods have obtained a certification named after this particulate date. As part of efforts to improve the quality of locally produced goods, North Korea holds exhibitions of consumer products every year to promote competition among factories and gives this certification to outstanding products.
North Korea selects good quality products each year and registers them as the “February 2nd Product.” It is said that local residents are very satisfied with products with this certification. To publicize the certification, the country holds competitions or exhibitions for factories in each province. As a result, more products from local factories have recently earned the title. Meanwhile, many plants, including a bag manufacturer in Pyongyang and the Kanggye Koryo Medicine Pharmaceutical Factory, have received the “December 15th Quality Medal.”
Apart from domestic quality certifications, North Korea makes efforts to get its products to obtain international ones. It has been confirmed that a number of North Korean-made food and medical products have received international certifications such as the GMP and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point or HACCP.
North Korea is making greater efforts to get international certifications as well, especially for food and medicine. The Taedonggang beer named after the Taedong River, which is familiar even to South Koreans, was certified with ISO 9001 in 2008. ISO 9001 is an international standard defining the requirements for a quality management system. The beer also earned ISO 22000, a standard dealing with food safety, as well as HACCP. ISO 22000 was also issued for kimchi produced at the Ryugyong Kimchi Factory, where leader Kim Jong-un inspected twice, and Pyongyang soju, which is regarded as national liquor in North Korea. Pyongsu Pharma, a joint venture between North Korea and a Swiss firm, obtained the GMP in 2007. Since then, the GMP certification has expanded to dozens of factories in the North, including a factory in Sinuiju that produces a luxury cosmetics brand called “Spring Fragrance.”
A North Korean media outlet has recently carried an interview with officials of a food factory. During the interview, they said that they only had to achieve a production goal in terms of quantity in the past but they have produced delicious and healthy food products since the introduction of quality certifications. This shows a change in perception of North Korean producers, who are now more responsive to consumer demand. We hope North Korea will produce many more high quality goods so we can find North Korean products easily in the global market.