De­fec­tors: N. Korea would fall with­out cap­i­tal­is­tic mar­kets

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Hyung-Jin Kim

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA >> Hun­dreds of cap­i­tal­is­tic mar­kets, each with thou­sands of stalls, form the glue that holds North Korea’s so­cial­ist planned econ­omy to­gether, say de­fec­tors who sold medic­i­nal herbs, skinny jeans, TV sets, for­eign drama CDs and other goods there to make a liv­ing.

“Peo­ple there say North Korean mar­kets have ev­ery­thing but a cat’s horn. They truly have ev­ery­thing there,” said Cha Ri-hyuk, 31, who came to South Korea in 2013. “If North Korea shuts downs mar­kets, it will col­lapse too.”

North Korea has tol­er­ated — and taxed — some mar­ket ac­tiv­i­ties since the coun­try’s state ra­tioning sys­tems crum­bled amid an eco­nomic cri­sis and famine that killed an es­ti­mated hun­dreds of thou­sands in the mid-1990s. The eco­nomic boost the mar­kets pro­vide has helped leader Kim Jong Un keep a grip on power and fur­ther his nu­clear am­bi­tions, leav­ing the North’s harsh po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and al­leged hu­man rights abuses largely un­touched.

But some po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts note that mar­ket ac­tiv­i­ties are grad­u­ally in­fus­ing North Kore­ans with new ways of think­ing that even­tu­ally could loosen the au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment’s hold over its 24 mil­lion peo­ple.

“It’s like po­ten­tial forces which can fun­da­men­tally shake the North’s sys­tems are grow­ing,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea ex­pert at South Korea’s Kyung­nam Univer­sity.

Satel­lite pho­tos and tes­ti­monies of de­fec­tors show there are now about 400 mostly out­door mar­kets, called “jang­madang,” in the North. Re­cent sur­veys of refugees sug­gest most or­di­nary North Kore­ans re­sort to mar­ket ac­tiv­i­ties for a liv­ing as the coun­try’s pub­lic ra­tioning sys­tems have never been fully re­stored. Four de­fec­tors who talked to The As­so­ci­ated Press said they re­ceived no ra­tions at all.

North Korea has pe­ri­od­i­cally tried to pre­vent mar­kets from grow­ing too fast by re­strict­ing the op­er­at­ing hours of mar­kets and bar­ring young peo­ple from work­ing there. But such mea­sures of­ten are later with­drawn, ac­cord­ing to ac­tivists spe­cial­iz­ing in North Korea af­fairs.

The harsh­est mea­sure was taken in 2009, when au­thor­i­ties re­placed all cur­rency and lim­ited the amount of old bills cit­i­zens could ex­change in a bid to re­assert con­trol over the econ­omy. But no se­ri­ous mea­sures have been im­ple­mented since Kim as­sumed power in late 2011, af­ter his fa­ther’s death. Kim has vowed to im­prove pub­lic liveli­hood while pour­ing re­sources into weapons pro­grams to cope with what he calls in­creas­ing U.S. mil­i­tary threats.

North Korea rarely al­lows in­ter­na­tional news or­ga­ni­za­tions to con­duct re­port­ing at cap­i­tal­is­tic-style mar­kets. In 2004, how­ever, the AP was given an un­usual chance film Py­ongyang’s crowded yet clean in­door Tongil Mar­ket, where neatly uni­formed mer­chants sold goods in­clud­ing ba­nanas, fish, veg­eta­bles, women’s un­der­wear, shoes and ten­nis rack­ets.

De­fec­tors say the Py­ong­song whole­sale mar­ket, near the North’s cap­i­tal Py­ongyang, is the big­gest.

To work at a mar­ket, a mer­chant buys a stall and pays daily tax to au­thor­i­ties. There is no of­fi­cial data on how much money North Korea col­lects from mar­ket mer­chants ev­ery year.

Items sold in jang­madangs are lo­cally pro­duced, or im­ported or smug­gled from China, South Korea and else­where. South Korean-made clothes, shoes and soap opera CDs are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar, though it’s il­le­gal in the North to sell goods made by its archri­val. Reg­u­lar po­lice crack­downs have not sapped de­mand.

“No mat­ter how high prices for South Korean clothes I called, they were all sold out,” said Lee O.P., who sold such clothes at a Mu­san mar­ket in the north­east be­fore she made it to South Korea in De­cem­ber 2014. She re­quested her first name be iden­ti­fied only as ini­tials due to wor­ries about the safety of rel­a­tives left in the North.

When North Korean po­lice find peo­ple wear­ing South Korean clothes or dresses they con­sider too skimpy or tight, they of­ten take them to back al­leys and rip parts of their gar­ments with ra­zors or scis­sors, ac­cord­ing to Cha and Lee.

The mar­kets have given North Kore­ans a taste of for­eign cul­ture, eroded their de­pen­dence upon a gov­ern­ment that no longer feeds them and opened up a new gap be­tween rich and poor. There is lit­tle to sug­gest that the coun­try’s au­thor­i­tar­ian rule has weak­ened, but at the same time, ex­perts say, the North must take care to avoid eco­nomic poli­cies that harm the mar­kets. For in­stance, the 2009 botched cur­rency re­form re­port­edly trig­gered wide­spread pub­lic com­plaints that led to the ex­e­cu­tion of a top Work­ers’ Party of­fi­cial.

There are risks in the busi­ness, whether au­thor­i­ties are hunt­ing for con­tra­band, crack­ing down on for­eign cur­rency or sim­ply com­mit­ting graft. Lee O.P. says she de­cided to flee af­ter po­lice of­fi­cers con­fis­cated her whole sav­ings for unau­tho­rized phone calls with her daugh­ter who al­ready de­fected to South Korea.

Now in South Korea, Lee O.P. said she was amazed at so­cial welfare pro­grams di­rected at her and other un­der­priv­i­leged peo­ple.

“For me, it’s like North Korea is a cap­i­tal­is­tic coun­try while South Korea is a so­cial­ist coun­try,” she said. “In North Korea, if you don’t have money, you’ll just have to die.”


Peo­ple shop in Tongil Mar­ket in Py­ongyang, North Korea. Hun­dreds of mar­kets have emerged in North Korea since its pub­lic ra­tioning sys­tems fell apart in the mid-1990s. The growth of mar­kets poses a po­ten­tial threat to North Korea’s strict con­trol of its peo­ple but it still al­lows Kim Jong Un’s gov­ern­ment fo­cus on bol­ster­ing its nu­clear arse­nal while let­ting his peo­ple feed them­selves.

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