QR Codes in Pyongyang

 One of many new bottled water brands.

One of many new bottled water brands.

Readers in some countries may not be too familiar with QR codes, but in China they are ubiquitous. Now they're popping up in Pyongyang, too.

QR codes (Quick Response Codes) are a kind of matrix barcode, usually in square shape. You use your phone (or other device) to scan them, and they release information - this might mean taking you to a website, offering up a discount code or exchanging contact information.

In Pyongyang, these codes have been showing up in all kinds of ways in the last six months: to mark exhibition items at the Sci-Tech Complex, in inventory systems at supermarkets, and on consumer products. 

While none of the Koreans we asked about QR codes knew anything about them, they were fascinated when we generated a QR code on a phone that contained a short sample text, and then had another workshop leader scan the code with an app that converted it back into text. The Koreans were like, “whoa, how did you do that!?”

 QR Codes at the Museum

QR Codes at the Museum

Codes we scanned didn't appear to take us anywhere. But this may be because the information linked to went to a domestic intra-net portal we don't have access to.

When we visited the Sci-Tech-Complex, the guide claimed the QR codes on some items contained additional information about the exhibited item, but this didn't seem to work. The information encoded in the QR codes we have scanned so far always seems to be some kind of ID.

We think this means that she was describing a system in which that they use museum devices to scan the codes and then link the ID in the code to some explanation about the exhibition item in their computer system. This would be a fun feature in the museum and perhaps is not yet rolled out: we'll check on it next we visit.

Meanwhile, as smart phone proliferate and more retailers exist to compete for their hard-won won, QR codes will likely be a part of the convenience that they offer for ordering and information. QR codes are so big in China, this wouldn't be surprising, since their giant neighbor is where most North Korean entrepreneurs have witnesses this kind of competition for customers.

 Imported wine with a locally generated QR code.

Imported wine with a locally generated QR code.