When Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, ascended to power more than a decade ago, he repeated two promises that his family has made since founding the country in 1948: to strengthen the military and to improve the economy.
On the military front, Kim, 38, has delivered more than his father and grandfather who ruled before him, accelerating the country’s nuclear and missile programmes.
On the economic front, he has struggled, an already isolated country made more so by years of international sanctions over his nuclear programme and border closures since the coronavirus pandemic.
Its trade with the outside world devastated, North Korea is scrambling for US dollars and other hard currency, not just to feed its people but to finance Mr Kim’s military and economic ambitions.
It is smuggling coal and stealing cryptocurrency. It is also trying to squeeze every bit of cash from the public, selling smartphones and other imported goods to the moneyed class, as well as collecting “loyalty” donations in exchange for political favours.
State-run stores are a critical piece. Customers can use US dollars to pay for international brands of instant noodles, deodorant, diapers and shampoo, while change is returned in North Korean won.
Such transactions, and other activities, have allowed Mr Kim to keep US dollars flowing into his coffers. It has given him the means to expand the country’s arsenal and capabilities, including testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in December.