North Korea’s Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

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Filed under China, economics, Korea, labor, migration, nationalism

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