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N. Korea’s Fragrance Industry

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-11-29

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ KBS News
Have you heard of “scent-tech”? In scent-tech, digital technology, such as artificial intelligence or AI and the Internet of Things, is incorporated into scent. Digital perfumery, which explores ideal fragrance combinations using AI or digital olfactory technology, is a good example. Relevant research is also in progress in the medical field, like how to detect cancer using an electronic nose. 

The fragrance market gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people stayed indoors for a long time. COVID-19 was declared endemic, but the market is expected to grow fast, in line with technological development. 

Today, we’ll take a look at North Korea’s fragrance industry with Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification. 

Early this year, college students created a special perfume, which became an interesting subject of conversation. 

The perfume contained the memories of a North Korean defector who went hiking to Mt. Baekdu with his friends when he was a student. 

Upon smelling the perfume, you may feel very excited, just like when you go on a picnic. Later, the scents of sandalwood and musk blend together, creating an atmosphere of soft and magnificent Mt. Baekdu in the background.

Users of the perfume said that it smells wonderful, giving off the cool scent of wood and the fresh scent of grass in harmony. Some of the users may feel as if they were walking on Mt. Baekdu. Among North Korean defectors, some may remember hiking to the mountain when they were younger. Perfumes have special meaning in an emotional sense, as they bring back past memories. 

Is it common for North Korean people to use perfumes? In fact, perfumes do not have a very positive meaning in North Korean literature. 

Perfumes are often described negatively in North Korean literature. The expression, “smelling of perfume,” is used to portray a greedy, corrupt person in Western society. A strong and exotic foreign-made perfume has a very negative image. For example, “Sense of Civilization” published in the August 2000 edition of Literature of North Korea shows a person who wears a world-famous French perfume all over her body every day. She is depicted as a South Korean woman who blindly follows the U.S. Similarly, a person giving off a strong smell of perfume is described as an industrial spy. 

In an unusual case, a North Korean short story titled I Love You released in 2018 shows a man, not a woman, using a perfume. Written by author Ryom Ye-song, the story begins with the heroine Yu-jong who has finished developing locally-produced hair perm solution, ready to begin pilot production. But the male protagonist Jong-in, who was appointed as the head of a research center, postpones Yu-jong’s plan. The story is mainly about North Korea’s policy of promoting domestic production of light industry goods. 

Leader Kim Jong-un has stressed the importance of producing goods locally since his early days in office. When he visited the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory in 2015, he instructed officials to improve the quality of cosmetics to attain the world level. In 2016, North Korea created a new slogan “self-reliance first.” 

In the story I Love You, Yu-jong struggles to develop a perm solution domestically. Analysts say that the scene has the purpose of publicizing the authorities’ policies. 

While responding quickly to party policies, North Korean literature is very conservative about real changes. It is circumspect about new products or technologies that enrich people’s lives. For example, the newly rich and the middle class enjoy coffee at cafés in Pyongyang and drink bottled water, instead of tap water. In line with the growing number of mobile phone users, many locals have ordered products through their smartphones. But these changes are not shown in literature. It does not give a full description of consumption trends of a particular class as well as elements that could create a sense of disharmony between classes and violate ethics of collectivism. But when it comes to the authorities’ policies that should be promoted among the public, North Korean stories convey them in a convincing way.  

But in this short story featuring the theme of domestic production of light industry goods, the male protagonist smells of perfume. 

I could smell the subtle fragrance of his perfume. It was a strange smell that he never had in college… Some people are attracted by foreign things only, once they studied or lived abroad. Because of those people, things that belong to my country—things that people worked so hard to create—are being ignored. It’s heartbreaking. 

Yu-jong is disappointed with the smell of Jong-in’s perfume. 

The smell of Jong-in’s perfume makes Yu-jong mistakenly believe that he is a vain man who prefers foreign products and disparages things of his own country. The unfamiliar smell might be the scent of perfume but it could be a seductive smell from the opposite gender, like a pheromone. That is, Yu-jong may feel sensual attraction towards Jong-in, due to the smell. It could be the factor that makes Yu-jong’s morality clash with her mind. 

In the story, the scent of Jong-in’s perfume contrasts with the strong smell of a chemical reagent developed by Yu-jong. Analysts say that the smell of the reagent represents the level of North Korea’s technology. 

Unlike the fragrance of Jong-in’s perfume, the strong smell of Yu-jong’s reagent is almost a bad smell. This indicates that the quality of local products is lower than that of foreign ones, reflecting the limitations of North Korean goods. The strong smell of the reagent symbolizes North Korea that fails to catch up with world-class technology, while the attractive smell of Jong-in’s perfume represents a foreign country armed with advanced technology. By contrasting the two different smells, the story shows that it is important to raise the quality of products to a world-class level even if they are produced domestically.  

In the story, Yu-jong’s mother sprays perfume on her daughter’s clothes that smell like a reagent to deodorize the unpleasant smell. Perfumes appear in this North Korean literary work, reflecting a change in the country’s perception about fragrance products and the relevant industry. 

In 2012, right after leader Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea established a perfume trading company with French perfume manufacturer Jean Niel to improve the quality of food and light industry goods and to promote economic and technological cooperation and exchanges. Analysts say that demand for fragrance is on the rise in North Korea. 

Perfume has become one of the daily necessities that support civilized life in the Kim Jong-un era. It is not essential for survival but people use it to create a good atmosphere and feel great. Therefore, rising demand for perfumes could mean that a capitalistic consumer culture has emerged in the communist state. It also means that North Korea now believes fragrance is important in producing quality goods. The fragrance industry involves not only perfumes but also most of the products we use, including air fresheners, soaps, cosmetics, shampoos, rinses and so on. Other products that the North Korean fragrance industry focuses on include deodorants and aromatherapy for relaxation and healing. 

It is said that North Korea’s National Industrial Art Exhibition in 2021 showcased perfumes, scented candles and edible aromatic products made by the Pyongyang Essential Oil Factory. North Korean media reported that the factory developed natural perfumes using collected flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds growing in the country’s mountains and fields. 

The media said that the factory produces dozens of perfumes scented with apple, peach, strawberry, fresh mugwort, ginseng, pine needle and the like. The media added that these fragrant materials are used to produce foodstuffs such as tangerine soda, apple-scented candies and strawberry-scented snacks as well as other products like cosmetics sold under the brand name “Spring Scent,” home fragrances, bathroom fragrances, facial soaps and detergents.  

In October last year, North Korea’s propaganda website “Naenara” said that natural fragrance and perfume products under the “Okryu” brand produced by the Pyongyang Essential Oil Factory were well received in the market. 

An article titled “Pyongyang Essential Oil Factory” was published in the January 2021 edition of Foreign Trade of the DPR Korea, which is North Korea’s foreign trade magazine. According to the article, the factory on the banks of the Taedong River integrates research and production to produce natural, edible and industrial essential oil. The Essential Oil Research Institute at the factory is equipped with competent researchers and modern facilities to produce functional products using natural oil. It predicts that North Korea’s pollution-free natural aromatics that are abundant in flora will create high demand in the international market. 

By strengthening the material and technological basis of the fragrance industry, North Korea seeks to carry out cooperation and exchanges with foreign countries interested in natural fragrance products. It also hopes to increase the value of the products as an export item and foster the industry as one of the strategies for economic development from a long-term perspective. Moving beyond simply producing quality products and selling them in the domestic market, North Korea is paving the way for exports. 

In 2020, North Korean propaganda outlets reported that the country established its own production process for perfume, which is a luxury item. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper unveiled a photo of the inside of the Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory, noting that workers, engineers and laborers recently installed a new, modernized perfume production process at the factory. In an article titled “Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory Establishes New Perfume Production Process, Produces 10 More Perfumes,” a propaganda website called “Meari” stressed that the factory succeeded in finding a proper mixing ratio for fragrance composition. 

Experts say that North Korea is highlighting the development of perfume technology to emphasize the government’s policy stance characterized by “self-reliance” and “head-on breakthrough.” 

The domestic production of perfumes has to do with North Korea’s economic structure, in which the country cannot rely on imports. By setting up a perfume factory, the North laid the basic framework for locally producing many different types of fragrance products. It is said that when per capita GDP increases, sensory consumption typically shifts from taste to smell. 

The fragrance industry isn’t just about perfumes. Many light industry goods used in daily life, such as cosmetics, shampoos, soaps and air fresheners, require fragrances, which therefore prove useful in various areas. Not just focusing on product features, the fragrance products are also expanding individual preferences and giving a broader range of choices. Fragrance plays a role in improving the quality of products. In the food processing industry, it is also fragrance or flavoring that enhances the taste of food. North Korea’s fragrance industry is expected to develop further in the future, as it is related to daily necessities and the food industry as well.

The fragrance industry is expanding its scope from perfumes and cosmetics to various other areas including food, beverage, medicine, marketing and entertainment, with its market size increasing globally. We’ll have to wait and see how North Korea’s fragrance industry may develop amid international sanctions. 

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