The Xinhua correspondent in Pyongyang is perhaps the most prominent foreign journalist to wonder how a swish new shopping mall there selling Western and South Korean luxury brands stays in business.
Dubai Yu in a piece for the state-run biweekly Globe said it is a "mystery" how people in the impoverished country can afford lifestyles reminiscent of the upper class in Beijing and Shanghai.
Yu has been reporting from the North Korean capital for about a year now.
According to the magazine, the Haedanghwa mall contains not only a high-end shopping center but restaurants, a health club, swimming pool, sauna, massage parlor and beauty salon.
All prices are at least 50 percent more expensive than the same facilities available in other parts of Pyongyang, and indeed outside North Korea. A soothing message costs US$30, while the swimming pool, health club, message parlor and beauty shop on the third floor requires paying $15 for entrance alone.
A Korean restaurant on the second floor charges $50 to $70 for a single serving of bulgogi (seasoned grilled beef), which even foreigners living in Pyongyang find exorbitant.
Using the facilities at the mall once can easily cost $100. Yet the mall is always crowded.
Yu reports meeting dapper North Korean men there who would fit into any wealthy crowd in Beijing or Shanghai.
The Taedonggang Diplomatic Club, Pyongyang's bastion of opulence until the mall opened, has launched a desperate campaign to lure back customers. Until mid-June, its swimming pool was segregated, with foreigners and North Koreans having to use it on alternate days. But now it is open to all comers as long as they can pay.
Yu said he spotted "wealthy, handsome men" and "wealthy, fair-skinned women clad in revealing swim suits" at the pool. They were wearing expensive watches while swimming, and one showed off a water-proof Rolex bought in Dubai.
The reporter said many changes have taken place in the North Korean capital over the last year. The Changchon district of Pyongyang is called "North Korea's Manhattan" or "little Dubai." The area has seen a string of restaurants and shops open up recently which accept North Korean won, Chinese yuan and U.S. dollars. Patrons can pay $8 for a dish of bibimbap (rice with assorted vegetables), which according to the absurd official exchange rate is 8,000 North Korean won. The black market rate is 7,320 won for a dollar.
Most North Koreans can only dream about spending that kind of money. The average North Korean laborer makes only 3,000 won a month. Residents of Pyongyang, who are considered the elite, can get by on that amount since the state sells rice, noodles, cooking oil, eggs, meat and other food products at very cheap prices. They go to the black market only to buy goods they cannot find in state-run stores.