How should we understand North Korean market crackdowns?

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports (in Korean) that a “inspection unit against anti-socialist activities”, is active on Hyesan markets, inspecting goods and confiscating ones deemed either illegally smuggled in from China, or harmful for people’s health, such as narcotics. Such “units” (“그루빠”) are fairly common in North Korea, and typically consist of officials from various public security agencies cooperating to get at a specific, problematic tendency in certain areas or spheres of society.

We’ve seen quite a lot of news over the past few months, and even years, of market crackdowns under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, this is simply the North Korean state apparatus being itself, and cracking down on “deviant” behavior such as smuggling, and trading of a range of, likely often arbitrarily, forbidden goods, and not least foreign media and information. Unsurprisingly, the agents conducting these searches tend to often quietly disappear if given the right amount of cash or cigarettes:

소식통은 “이 단속 그루빠는 장사꾼들에게 여러 트집을 잡지만 결국 돈이나 담배를 받으면 몇 마디하고 슬그머니 물러난다”면서 “갑자기 그루빠들이 열을 올려서 주민들은 ‘무슨 꿍꿍이가 있느냐, 돈벌이를 하려는 것이냐’며 불평을 한다”고 전했다.

On the other hand, however, one could see this as a process of the state making the market more regularized and based on rules. Kim Jong-un seems to appreciate the stability and wealth brought by the markets, and has worked to integrate them further into the regular economic system. Clamping down on smuggling and trade deemed unsuitable from the state’s perspective, in a way, is part of this process. Clampdowns like this, in a way, seem to go in parallel with increasing regularization of market trade, through the permit regime, designated market buildings, and the like. The North Korean government’s acceptance and institutionalization of the markets has never been driven by an ideological commitment to free-market liberalism, but rather, by the opposite: aspirations for stability, and greater economic control.