Archive for the ‘Black markets’ Category

Growth and Geography of Markets in North Korea

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some shameless self-promotion: the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS released a report yesterday where I (with the help of Curtis and others) study how North Korea’s formalized markets have grown over time, and how they are distributed geographically using satellite imagery from Google Earth. The report is available here. These are the main findings:

  • With a few exceptions, formalized markets have grown in North Korea over the past few years. In some cities, they have more than doubled, while other cities have seen only nominal or no changes. Only Pyongsong, the capital of South Pyong’an Province, has seen a significant decline in aggregate market space.
  • There exists only a weak correlation between population size and aggregate market space. The correlation between aggregate market space per capita and proximity to Pyongyang, a large driver for demand in the North Korean economy, is also relatively weak. 

The largest aggregate market space per capita can be found in cities in the southwestern part of the country. This suggests that trade on formal markets may be driven by other factors than those commonly assumed, such as sea route trade and agriculture.


A new defector survey about market trade in North Korea, and what it says (maybe) about Kim Jong-un

Friday, August 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

In Wall Street Journal, Jeyup Kwaak reports on a new defector survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (08-26-2015) (added emphasis):

The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies annually surveys more than 100 North Koreans who defected in the prior calendar year. The results provide firsthand insight into developments in the isolated state, though its researchers said they shouldn’t be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.


The latest survey, of 146 North Koreans who escaped in 2014, shows significant growth from the previous year in the number of people saying they conducted private business activities and paid bribes to enable them. A little more than half said they received no money from the state, down from last year’s survey but up from the one released in 2013.

Experts say between half and three-quarters of North Koreans’ income comes from quasi-illegal market activities, such as trade of basic goods smuggled in from China, but sporadic crackdowns by national or regional security officials lead to irregular business and bribery. Defectors say officials often collect fees when they set up a booth at a market.

The results themselves do not present a new trend. Several previous defector studies indicate that markets are perhaps the most important source of income and sustenance for many (if not most) North Koreans. However, a few things are interesting to note.

The links may not be entirely clear, but it is at least symbolic that the current survey, albeit with a very small number of interviewees, suggests that support for Kim Jong-un and the leadership may not be waning, at the same time as market activity continues unabated. This at least calls into question an assumption that sometimes occurs that market trade would lead people to become more critical of the regime.

Again, too much shouldn’t be read too much into a small study with participants that probably are not geographically or socially representative of North Korea as a whole. Defectors as a group rarely are. But perhaps one could imagine that market trade being so institutionalized and regulated by the regime would make it more synonymous with the regime itself. I.e., if market trading is seen as something positive, maybe this reflects positively on the regime as well — perhaps the market has been co-opted.

The article also reminds us of the rather peculiar combination of dynamics seen under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, market trade seems to continue unabated domestically, and initiatives like the new special economic zones and the agricultural reforms show that there is at the very minimum some new thinking going on.

But on the other hand, border controls have been tightened to a degree rarely seen since the mid-1990s, according to defector reports. Just today, DailyNK reports (in Korean) that resident in the Sino-Korean borderlands have seen their access to the Amnok river, often used for laundry by locals, increasingly restricted as of late. As the WSJ writes,

Just 614 North Koreans made it to the South in the first half of this year, compared with 2,706 in the 2011 calendar year, according to the most recent ministry data.

The drop in North Koreans who visited China on legal visas so far this year should perhaps also be seen in this context.

Taken together, the tightened border controls on the one hand, and the seemingly changing (one could say “progressive”) rhetoric on economic matters on the other, paint a mixed picture.

In the early days of Kim Jong-un, the question was whether he was a reformer or a hardliner. A few years into his rule, it seems he might be neither and both at the same time.


Grasshopper markets (메뚜기시장)

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

According to Reuters:

From the dark alleys of Pyongyang, the showpiece North Korean capital, tiny specks of torchlight shine carefully into the eyes of passersby, leading to bustling and illegal street markets where traders, usually women, call out “buy, buy!”

The “maeddugi shijang”, or “grasshopper markets,” get their name from the lightning-quick way traders must pack up and hop from place to place to evade authorities in a country making a grudging embrace of free enterprise.

As markets have taken hold in North Korea, the government has sporadically legalized and formalized them, while at the same time imposing new crackdowns, taxes, and bribes, forcing smaller traders back on to the streets where they set up “grasshopper markets” selling goods for cash.

“The grasshopper markets form in places near stations, on the roads to the (official) market, and around schools and parks,” said Seol Song Ah, a defector who left North Korea in 2011 and now works with the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with sources inside North Korea.

“Wherever there are people, there are grasshopper markets.”

The markets are less well-stocked than official shops but offer convenience, carrying items from pots, socks, batteries, and cigarettes to fresh meat, according to residents of Pyongyang and defectors from the isolated country.

The informal, movable markets represent the new, grassroots driven economic reality in a country which is no longer truly collectivized, or communist – a change that began during the devastating famine of the 1990s and has since gained momentum.


Grasshoppers date to the 1980s, when old women started selling sweet potatoes and bean curd by roadsides, according to Seol, and have proliferated in recent years as more people, squeezed by new government regulations on the marketplace, have returned to underground trade.

In recent months, those who trade in the grasshopper markets have become known as “tick merchants” because they are hard to remove, and have therefore had restrictions on them slowly eased as security services struggle to shut them down, according to the Daily NK.

Still, because grasshopper markets are illegal, they are highly sensitive in the authoritarian country. A diplomatic source in Pyongyang who has visited grasshopper markets said he was followed by the “bowibu”, or secret police, down the dark grasshopper alleys.

“Trying to take a photo of a grasshopper market is one of the only times I’ve been seriously apprehended by the secret police,” the diplomatic source said.

A former foreign resident of Pyongyang said he had also never managed to photograph a grasshopper market.

“The one time I tried, the market ladies had vanished in the time it took me to get my camera from my pocket and raise it to take the shot,” the resident said.

“They are used to disappearing very, very quickly”.

Read the full story here:
In North Korean grassroots capitalism, ticks and grasshoppers skip
James Pearson


Choco Pies in North Korea (UPDATED)

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015


Pictured above (Source here): A Choco Pie wrapper in Pyongyang (October 2014)

UPDATE 6 (2015-7-14): The Daily NK reports that the DPRK’s ‘Choco Pie’ knock-off falls far short:

Daily NK has obtained a North Korean snack rolled out to squash demand for a popular South Korean treat that had first become a sensation among factory workers in the inter-Korean industrial complex and spread across the country. Known as ‘Chocolate Danseolgi,’ the snack displays a striking resemblance with the much-loved South Korean ‘Choco Pie’.

The new treat is said to have been produced to cut off fantasies about the capitalist world its workers may harbor.


Starting last month, North Korea has been providing its Kaesong factory workers with ‘Danseolgi’, according to a source who has ties with the North and passed on the new snack to Daily NK on the condition of anonymity. This comes after Pyongyang banned supplies of the famed ‘Choco Pie’ within the industrial complex last year, as they were being sold by the workers on the black market for good returns and gaining greater popularity across the country.

The South Korean ‘Choco Pie’ snack was first introduced to Kaesong workers in 2006. Due to its soaring popularity, many had come to develop a sense of curiosity or fantasies about the South, the source said. Seeing the chocolate cake snack with marshmallow filling win over so much love, Pyongyang set out to create an alternative in the hopes of choking off demand.

Last year, after banning ‘Choco Pie’ supplies, the North tried to force South Korean firms to provide its factory workers with a home-grown chocolate double-layered cake snack, and this year in March, it even rolled out a chocolate coated rice cake treat also similar to an existing South Korean product.

Despite these efforts, local goods have failed to take off, as Kaesong workers are already acquainted with tastes from South Korea and are only eating the ‘Danseolgi’ as they have no other choice, according to the source.

The treat is one of the “latest products” put out for Kaesong workers. “It was smuggled out of the country by way of a North Korean trader in the Rason Economic Special Zone who works with Chinese traders,” she explained.

“Currently in the North, the ‘Chocolate Danseolgi’ is being distributed to workers as supplies, and they’re not sold on North Korea’s regular markets,” she asserted. Every last ingredient used to make the snack, from the butter to the chocolate, is imported from China.

Predictably, Kaesong workers invariably far prefer the taste of the original chocolate snack from South Korea, the source said, adding, “North Korea will never be able to produce the South’s Choco Pie.”

One of Daily NK’s reporters who tried out the North Korean ‘Danseolgi’ described the snack as “decidedly lacking in chocolate flavor ” and “being overwhelmingly pungent of butter.” The wrapper claims to include marshmallow in the product, but our taste tester reported any semblance of its texture to be nonexistent and noted that the cake itself is incredibly prone to crumbling.

UPDATE 5 (2015-6-9): DPRK asks that all South Korean food served in the KIC be replaced by North Korean substitutes. According to Voice of America:

North Korea has asked South Korean businesses at the Kaesong industrial complex to replace all foodstuffs given to its workers at the inter-Korean park with North Korea-made products.

A representative of the South Korean businesses, who visited the complex Tuesday, told VOA’s Korean Service that South Korean companies began distributing North Korean substitutes for popular South Korean food supplies to the North Korean workers as early as March. Almost all South Korea-made food products have now been replaced with North Korean products.

Choco Pie, a popular South Korean snack cake, also has been replaced with a similar North Korea-made sweet. The chocolate covered cake with marshmallow filling has become one of the most popular items in the North’s black markets. Other North Korea-made foodstuffs given to the workers include instant noodles with chicken broth and condiments.

In an attempt to keep South Korean foodstuffs from the complex, the North is imposing an additional business tax on the companies for bringing in South Korea-made products. About 50 South Korean businesses supplying food for the complex face bankruptcy, according to representatives of the South Korean businesses.

Some business owners have expressed concern about the quality of North Korean foodstuffs. One representative said some workers are suffering from food poisoning after the switch.

A South Korean official who asked to remain anonymous told VOA the North Korean move is aimed at blocking the flow of South Korean products into the North and earning foreign currency.

South Korean companies have been providing about $60 per month in snacks to each North Korean worker. With approximately 53,000 workers at the complex, Pyongyang can now garner up to $3 million every month from the snack sales.

UPDATE 4 (2014-9-24): According to the Daily NK, workers in the KIC are receiving a different dessert than the Choco Pie now. Also, the Kumunsan Company is producing substitute goods, and they are winning over consumers:

[…] the once popular South Korean snack Choco Pie is seeing a decline in its asking price. In June, Pyongyang demanded that South Korean companies at the industrial complex stop distributing Choco Pies to workers there, as officials had found it problematic that North Korean workers were saving the snacks and selling them in the markets. More recently, the northern workers have been receiving Chaltteok Pie (찰떡) [a chocolate covered rice cake from the South], individually packaged coffee, yulmucha (율무차)[grainy tea made with Job’s Tears], and candy bars.

“In Pyongyang, at the ‘Geumeunsan Trade Company,’ (금운산, Kumunsan Trade Corporation) they have been baking bread for about a year,” the source said, adding, “Of all the different kinds of bread, the most popular are the ones with butter inside, and they are less than 1000 KPW– much cheaper than Choco Pie.”

The trade company is an affiliate of the Military Mobilization Department [Military Manpower Administration in South Korea], which deals with the procurement of military supplies among its many functions. They either directly import the goods or obtain them from military factories in various locations across the country, and oversee the manufacturing of military equipment and machinery.

Geumeunsan Trade Company maintains branches in multiple areas, including Rasun and Cheongjin, and the office in Pyongyang imports ingredients such as flour, sugar, and cooking oil directly from China. According to the source, the raw material prices are cheaper than in the  North’s markets, and the products taste good, allowing it to monopolize the confectionery market there.

“The company has brought in foreign equipment and technology, putting it ahead of the South’s Choco Pie in price and taste,” he said, concluding, “This is why with the introduction of these different breads in Pyongyang, the price of Choco Pie [from the South] has dropped to 500 KPW from 1,200 KPW.”

See also this story in Radio Free Asia.

Read the full story here:
Kaesong Goods Fetch Highest Market Prices
Daily NK
Seol Song Ah

UPDATE 3 (2014-7-1): Media reports claim that the DPRK has banned the use/possession of Choco Pies in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. According to the Washington Post:

By some estimates, as many as 2.5 million Choco Pies were traded monthly — though it’s unclear who exactly was so assiduously following Choco Pie markets.

Regardless of its volume, the trade will now surely be shrinking.

According to recent reports in the South Korean press, North Korean authorities have now banned the South Korean-produced Choco Pie at the Kaesong Industrial Complex following a lengthy crackdown on the chocolate treat that has made it scarce in Pyongyang.

Before, workers could pocket as many as 20 pies every night of work. But now, South Korean factory staff said they’ll instead get sausages, instant noodles, powdered coffee or chocolate bars as a bonus.

More information here and here.

UPDATE 2 (2013-9-20): Is the DPRK manufacturing a counterfeit Choc Pie? According to the Daily NK:


Pictured Above: Ryongsong Foodstuff Factory, Ryongsong District, Pyongyang (Google Earth)

The price of a North Korean own-brand “Choco Pie” fell to just 500 won in domestic markets following news that the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) was to reopen, Daily NK has learned. The local version of the chocolate snack, which is made by Orion in South Korea, had previously risen to 3000 won on the back of the protracted KIC closure.

A source in Pyongyang reported to Daily NK on the 19th, “Sometime around May, Yongseong [Ryongsong] Foodstuff Factory in Pyongyang started selling ‘Choco Pies’ in the markets. People hadn’t seen a Choco Pie since Kaesong stopped, so their reaction was really something.”

“People were surprised because the packets said ‘Choco Pie’ and ‘Choco Rice Cake’ [a similar product with a glutinous rice center], and they couldn’t tell the difference between them and those from the ‘neighborhood below’ [South Korea] unless they checked closely,” the source went on. “Sure, people could tell they weren’t the real thing as soon as they ate them, but they were still pretty satisfied.”

According to the source, after South Korean Choco Pies disappeared from North Korean markets following the closure of the KIC, domestic traders started looking into importing the original South Korean and similar Chinese versions of the popular treat. However, the cost and difficulty of doing so meant that very few ended up crossing the border.

Therefore, attention turned to domestic production. The source explained, “Production volumes were low at first, and the state tried to control the flow of the product into the markets. They were 500 won a piece at the end of the first month; but that had risen to 3000 won by the end of last month. But the price sank back down upon news of the KIC re-start.”

“As soon as Choco Pies stopped coming out of the KIC, Yeongsong Foodstuffs Factory moved quickly and must have made quite a bit of money,” he guessed. “They were trying to imitate the South Korean pies but the product was way too sweet, which is partly why the price collapsed on the news of Kaesong.”

Only 60% (32,000) of the pre-closure North Korean workforce (53,000) returned to work when the KIC re-opened for a “trial run” on September 16th. At the same time, South Korean businesses, many facing financial difficulties after five months of nonproductive shutdown, have reportedly reduced the quantity of Choco Pies and other snacks previously distributed to workers. It is unclear what effect these circumstances could have on the price of goods flowing out of the KIC over the longer term.

Read the full story here:
NK Choco Pie Price Falls on KIC News
Daily NK

UPDATE 1 (2011-10-31): According to the Daily NK, North Korean management in the Complex requested back in August that South Korean businesses stop offering ‘Choco-pies’ (a South Korean snack) to North Korean workers and give them cash instead.

ORIGINAL POST (2009-5-20): Donald Kirk has a must-read article in today’s Asia Times on the subtle ways that the Kaesong Industrial Zone is undermining Pyongyang’s control over the North Korean people.  He points out that the DPRK’s verbal attacks on South Korea, combined with demands for new land, labor, and road use contracts in the Kaesong complex, are an attempt to blame South Korea when Kim Jong-il finally closes the project.

Quoting from the article:

Think Choco Pie, the thick wafer-like confection, all pastry and cream, served in the Kaesong Industrial Complex as a daily dessert for the 40,000 North Koreans who toil for 100 South Korean companies with factories in the complex.

“North Koreans love Choco Pie,” said Ha Tae-keung, president of NK Open Radio, which beams two hours of news daily into North Korea from its base in Seoul. “It’s an invasion of the stomach.”

North Korean workers, and the friends and family members for whom they save their daily treats, may salivate over Choco Pie, but it’s giving a severe stomach ache to senior officials fearful of the infiltration of South Korean culture in all corners of their Hermit Kingdom.

Choco Pie – along with other favorite South Korean cakes and candies as well as instant coffee – has come to symbolize the image of the capitalist South as a multi-tentacle beast that may be impossible to digest.

For Kim Jong-il, suffering from diabetes, recovering from a stroke and hoping to survive a few more years while grooming his neophyte youngest son, in his mid-20s, to succeed him, the best way to deal with the Kaesong complex, 60 kilometers north of Seoul and just above the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, may be to spit it out.

It’s for this reason, said Ha, that North Korea has precipitously scrapped the agreements under which South Korean companies operate in the complex, built and managed by Hyundai Asan, an offshoot of the sprawling South Korean Hyundai empire.

“He’s come to see Kaesong as a burden rather than an asset, and is inclined to shut it down,” said Ha.

While the Kim Jong il government focuses its attention on cultural infiltration from the South, there appears to be little it is doing, or can do, about cultural infiltration from China–the DPRK’s most significant trading and political partner to the north:

When it comes to South Korean cultural infiltration, however, North Korea has far more to fear from the entry of goods from China than from the Kaesong complex. South Korean DVDs and CDs, even soft-core porn movies made in the South, are now distributed surreptitiously throughout North Korea. Electronic gadgetry, MP3 and MP4 players, TV sets, radios and rice cookers, also shipped via China, are also available for those with the money to pay for them.

Read the full article here:
Pyongyang chokes on sweet capitalism
Asia Times
Donald Kirk


DPRK’s mixed signals on market labor regulations under Kim Jong-un

Monday, June 29th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-6-29): Men under 60 banned from market activities. According to the Daily NK:

With Kim Jong Un at the helm of North Korea, the age limit for commercial activities has been removed for women; for men, however, this limit has recently been raised, allowing only those in their 60s or over to enter market life.

This runs contrary to not long ago, when one could easily spot men in their 40s inhabiting stalls in the marketplace, often selling shoes or offering bike repair services– a common occurrence since residents took to market activities to cope with the widespread famine ravaging in the mid-1990s.

This has changed in almost an instant under the new mandate. “Actions have been taken so that men under 60 cannot run businesses in the jangmadang (market), as the Central Party demands that men should remain loyal to their workplaces,” a source from Yangkang Province informed Daily NK through a telephone conversation on June 26th.

Daily NK’s sources in two other provinces confirmed the news of this directive but for their safety their locations remain confidential.

“At markets in Hyesan there used to be men in their 40s running shoe repair business, cigarette stands or barbershops. But they’re all gone now, and even the stores such as bike shop or key repair shop are being run by men in their 60s,” the source added.

Men’s role in the marketplace has been rigidly controlled since the Kim Jong Un came to power, aimed at preventing workers from doing business rather than fulfilling their roles at state-run factories and enterprises. Women, however, have enjoyed relative freedom in their commercial activities.

Some men have long turned to offering up ‘8.3 money’ to escape the workplace and go out to try their hand at doing business.

The term ‘8.3 Money’ is related to a program of limited enterprise autonomy put in place by Kim Jong Il in 1984. As part of the plan, workers are encouraged to earn money outside their state-mandated workplaces and present de facto tax payments back to their employers. Such contributions are not necessarily defined in monetary terms: wild edible greens and valuable medical herbs (some of which fetch a high price in China) can also be contributions, for instance.

“Most of these men run wholesale or transportation of goods, carrying goods for retail dealers using ‘servi-cha.’ Some men under 60, who once sold goods in the jangmadang, have now turned to the transportation business,” he explained.

In the past, trains were almost the only viable means of long-distance transportation in North Korea. Then, as private business began to grow and the railways further deteriorated, vehicles such as trucks and cars belonging to military bases, state security and state enterprises were pushed into service to earn money for moving people, known as the ‘servi-cha’ industry.

“Even at the beginning of the last year there were many young men selling coal briquettes, salt and other food products [at markets in Pyongsong] but now they’re nowhere to be found,” the source said, citing a merchant from Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province.

Women’s relative freedom in doing business has created avenues for men despite to stay in the game, allowing them to team up with a female counterpart in order to evade the new directive, he said, explaining that in these cases, “men take care of transportation and wholesale of goods, while women take care of actual selling of goods. In this way, they can avoid the regulations.”

According to the source, the Kim Jong Un era has seen little control over people’s market activities. As a result, the number of stores has increased in most of the marketplaces in the whole country, vitalizing residents’ commercial activities.

The logic behind the freshest regulation is that to the extent that the regime has allowed commercial activities–an autonomous means of living for the people who have been suffering chronic shortages of food–men should devote themselves to their state-ordered workplace.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-3-23):  It appears there is an informal easing up on unauthorized street vendors near marketplaces. According to the Daily NK:

Alley merchants [also known as grasshopper merchants]– those who sell goods in alleyways to avoid crackdowns by Ministry of People’s Safety [MPS] officials–are now referred to as “tick merchants,” a term coined after their rapid proliferation, according to sources within North Korea.

Affiliated with city and county People’s Committees throughout North Korea, official marketplaces are run by a management center, charged with collecting and handling fees for vendors renting stalls from which to sell their sundry goods.

However, securing a location for their operations is not feasible for a multitude of residents. “Many don’t have enough money to afford to pay for a stall in the marketplace, so they either sell goods in the alleys of villages or by crossroads in close proximity to the jangmadang [North Korea’s system of markets],” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 9th.

Regulation of these “alley merchants,” of whom there are countless numbers, is carried out by the Ministry of People’s Safety and patrol units falling under its umbrella. Frequently, these officials are know to extort merchants under the pretense of regulating illegal market activity, confiscating their goods, only to turn around and return the merchandise as soon as their bribe demands have been met.

Despite the incessant threat of crackdowns and extortion by these officials, “grasshopper vendors” are determined to continue selling their items, desperate to hold onto their “lifelines,” according to the source, who noted a marked difference in this particular sector of the market economy since just last year.

Of this situation, she said, “With February 16th [Kim Jong Il’s birthday] fast approaching, the number of alley merchants has surged [to sell goods for residents preparing for the holiday], as has the number of MPS officials.” She went on to explain that last year, however, these “grasshopper merchants” largely abided orders, fleeing the premises after the MPS units arrived for fear of the repercussions. But this year most are staying put in these makeshift alleyway market areas, even saying things to the officials like, ‘If we got our rations, do you think we would be putting ourselves through this?’

This is how the newly coined term, ‘tick merchant’, came into existence: derived from a common expression in North Korea–regarding how impossible ticks are to remove and keep away before another comes along–these merchants are much the same–refusing to budge despite the consequences, determined to claim their spot in the market system.

Recently, investigations launched by the Central Party, aimed at rooting out reckless misconduct of MPS officials toward residents, are also thought to be contributing to the ease on regulation of these alley merchants. This, coupled with the bribe culture continually infiltrating the “tick merchant” realm–just as in the rest of North Korea–has seen the number of those engaged in these operations spike; nominal bribes of cash or goods ensure, at least for the time being, that they can do business in relative peace. Not unlike those with official stalls inside the market, some even reportedly pay periodic fees directly to the market management, all but guaranteeing their exemption from regulation.

The residents, and even the MPS officials themselves, are not overly preoccupied with regulations and clampdowns, because, as the source put it, “it becomes increasingly difficult for officials to crackdown on merchants selling in the surrounding areas of the markets, entirely reliant on selling goods to survive.”

Many are concerned that the leniency pervading these alley way operations may be fleeting, but the source asserted things will never return to the past. “When the investigations on the Ministry of People’s Safety officials are over, regulation of the alley markets is expected to become stringent again. Still, at this point, it’s next to impossible for these officials to make residents, largely dependent on business to maintain their livelihoods, obey them, meaning eradicating these ‘tick merchants’ is just as improbable,” she concluded.

And the DPRK has begun lifting age restrictions on market vendors. According to the Daily NK:

Amid relaxation of restrictions on market activities, the North Korean authorities began lifting age restrictions for vendors at the end of last year in some regions and, more recently, scrapping the ban nationwide.

“The authorities have been quite lax with clampdowns and regulations of official markets as of late,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on March 20th. “Those previously not permitted stall rights to sell their products are now being granted these privileges, greatly increasing the number of stalls. Also, women below the age of 50 are no longer prohibited from selling at the markets.”

In the absence of age restrictions, markets have seen a marked increase of women selling goods there. According to the source, the North Korean authorities previously regulated trade activities by women under 50 to deter shirking of ideological study sessions or–even more importantly– nationwide mobilization directives for agricultural or construction efforts, The authorities compromised by granting these women permission to participate in these compulsory organization activities only in the morning, freeing up the afternoon for market activities.

“Since last year, the authorities didn’t really implement clampdowns and have even showed a great deal of leniency to those selling in the alleys. As a result, women who previously idled away at home have been propelled into market life, selling everywhere they can,” she explained.

Unsurprisingly, most women are perplexed, if cautiously elated, by the leniency shown by a system that has wielded such stringent power and regulation over them for so long. “The shift in sanctions feels like hell has frozen over,” many have remarked, adding that they “finally have the opportunity to make ends meet.” Still, many are wary, noting that “you never know when the authorities will abruptly declare a new policy or revert to stringent clampdowns.”

She added that while the state did not lift the restriction to “improve people’s lives” as it claims, it has had a positive impact nevertheless. According to the source, North Korea’s motives for the lift begin and end with procuring funds. “There are thousands of stalls in Hyesan Market; this yields huge profits for the state who collect the fees vendors pay to use the space,” she pointed out.

That said, she maintained a sanguine outlook, remarking how empowering it is to see women effecting change in the markets by expanding their inroads into this sector, while making significant, if not dominant, fiscal contributions within their individual households. “Whereas there were only older women in the markets in the past, you can now easily spot women in their 20s and 30s in the industry,” she explained.

Surprisingly, the reduced regulations have increased rather than diminished participation in state mobilization efforts– such as compost collection or “loyalty singing sessions”– because women are afforded a bit more breathing room from unceasing concerns about how to secure their next meal. The positive results are already palpable, according to the source, who said that “most families are better off now due to women’s increased forays into the market domain.”

Read the full story here:
Crackdowns Ease Up on Alley Merchants
Daily NK
Seol Song Ah

NK Lifts Market Age Restrictions
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin


On the role of the military police in smuggling

Friday, June 12th, 2015

According to Radio Free Asia:

North Korea’s military police force, which operates outside of the control of the normal authorities, is the driving force behind smuggling in the country, despite a nationwide crackdown on the practice, according to sources inside the hermit kingdom.

Sources said that as a result of North Korea’s “military first” policy, the military police wield a vast amount of influence over a far-reaching network of contacts in the nation, which allows them to facilitate smuggling by soldiers along the border with China.

“Most smuggling has been carried out by soldiers, and it’s particularly difficult to smuggle in massive quantities without the help of the military police,” a source in North Hamgyong province on the border with China recently told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The military police smuggle precious metals, such as gold, silver, copper, nickel, industrial diamonds and molybdenum. They also smuggle resources belonging to the nation, and plants and animals, as well as historical items, cultural artifacts, drugs, and medicinal herbs,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Military police help smuggle the goods into China in return for consumer goods, such as food, fertilizer and daily necessities, which are then peddled inside of North Korea, he said.

North Korea’s military police force is divided into the Pyongyang Military Police under the direct control of the military’s central General Staff Department, the Mobile Military Police, the Garrison Military Police serving each provincial branch of the military, and the Train Crew Military Police, the source said.

The Garrison and Train Crew divisions are those most directly involved in smuggling, he said.

A second source living in Yanggang province, which also borders China, confirmed that the Garrison Military Police have been particularly helpful in furthering the work of the nation’s smugglers.

“There’s no problem using trains and cars [to smuggle] with the help of the Garrison Military Police, and people say, no matter how severe the crackdown is, all paths lie open if you have pull with that division,” said the source, who is a resident of Yanggang’s capital Hyesan.

“A few days ago in Hyesan, a military policeman stopped a vehicle and forced the people to get out and load [smuggled] goods sent for a military camp, but driver and passengers couldn’t say a word [in protest].”

Likewise, he said, smuggling has been carried out systematically by members of the Garrison Military Police along the border with China.

Sources in North Korea agreed that as long as the economy remains in shambles and the “military first” policy remains in effect, not only resources belonging to the nation, but historical items and cultural artifacts, will continue to flood out of the country into China.

Lucrative practice

In March, sources told RFA that authorities in North Korea were offering a variety of incentives, including increased food rations and Workers’ Party membership, to informants on would-be smugglers who try to cross the frozen Tumen River into China during the lean months of the winter season.

The sources said the rewards appeared to have been ordered by the Kim Jong Un regime as part of a bid to crackdown on the country’s pervasive smuggling problem.

In January, sources said that demands by North Korean border guards for a greater share of the profits of smuggling had slowed the movement of commodities across the border with China, causing hardships for North Koreans who earn a living by trafficking in goods.

They said at the time that because of tightened security measures put in place over the last year, the fees charged by guards delivering goods across the border had risen as high as 30 to 40 percent of the smugglers’ profit compared to 11 percent previously.

Read the full story here:
Radio Free Asia
Jieun Kim


North Korea’s “donju”

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

According to Reuters:

Nail salons, massage parlors, cafes and other signs of consumerism were unheard of in rigidly controlled North Korea just a few years ago, but they are slowly emerging in one of the world’s last bastions of Cold War socialism.

North Korea operates a centrally-planned economy modeled on the former Soviet Union where Western-style conspicuous consumption is anathema.

But as a growing middle class of North Koreans earns more money in the unofficial economy, the demand for products such as cosmetics, smartphones, imported fruit juices and foreign clothes is on the rise, according to residents and visitors.

There are now 2.5 million North Korean mobile phone subscribers in a country of 24 million people. Even some state-owned factories are diversifying product lines from rationed daily necessities to meet the demand for non-essential goods.

“Nobody needs to drink coffee, and nobody needs to spend money on it, but people do. This is what’s happening in Pyongyang, and it’s a change,” said Nils Weisensee, a coffee roaster from Germany who works with the Singapore-based Choson Exchange NGO to train North Koreans in business skills.

While the repressive and impoverished country is still years away from becoming a consumer paradise, it is now home to a rising class of rich North Koreans known as “Donju”, meaning “masters of money”, thanks to the growing unofficial economy.

Some Donju spend their cash on private English tuition for their children, or on South Korean or Japanese clothes, according to research by the South Korean government-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), in Seoul.

“People can choose between toothpaste that uses crystals or nanotechnology to make it more effective than normal toothpaste, or a special one flavored for children,” said Weisensee.

Many of the Donju have made money trading in informal markets, or by setting up small businesses. Some businesses operate as a form of public-private partnership, where staff of state enterprises are given permission to start quasi-autonomous profit-making enterprises.

Around 70 percent of that profit goes to the state, with the rest going to individuals, according to defectors from the country, including Choi Song-min, who ran a shipping service before fleeing to the South in 2011.

“For example, at a Chongjin city branch of the transport ministry, they might say to their bosses ‘how about we sell coffee to the people waiting for our buses'” said Choi, who now writes for the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, and has regular contact with sources inside the North.

At the food section of the Kwangbok Department Store in central Pyongyang, moneyed shoppers can choose between a wide variety of consumer foods like fruit juices, chocolates and soda, according to Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours.

“People weren’t just buying basic foods. They were considering factors other than price, by buying the imported orange juice instead of the local one, for example,” said Collings, who leads regular tourist trips to North Korea.

Even leader Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying North Korean-made cosmetics should compete in quality with foreign luxury brands like Chanel and Christian Dior, according to the Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan.

“These nouveau-riche who make money in the markets need a channel for consumption,” said Ahn Chan-il, 63, a North Korean defector and former South Korean intelligence official who receives information from contacts inside North Korea.

“Things like cars, massages, raffles, pet dogs. North Korean people are already riding on the back of the tiger that is the market economy, not the regime,” said Ahn.


North Korean consumer capitalism is very much in its early days, residents of Pyongyang said. A chronic energy shortage, brutally repressive government and deeply ingrained corruption ensure that the pace of change is sluggish, and limited.

“What use are these new, kitschily-decorated places that mostly imitate Chinese nouveau-riche life if there is no electricity to cook the food?” a diplomatic source in Pyongyang told Reuters.

One area of downtown Pyongyang, jokingly known by foreign residents as “Pyonghattan” or “Dubai”, is home to expensive department stores, a sushi restaurant and a 24-hour coffee shop.

“Oftentimes you will be turned away, not because you are a foreigner, but because there is just no energy to operate the kitchen. Good luck trying to get a proper meal in Pyongyang after 10 p.m.,” said the source.

Defectors said the consumer boom extends to cities beyond Pyongyang, where bustling markets or train stations are now home to small coffee stalls, and wearing jewelry is an outward and accepted sign of status.

Ahn said the nearby city of Pyongsong is where many well-off North Koreans live, thanks to wholesale businesses importing products from China.

Choi said the coffee drinking trend for moneyed North Koreans began to appear last year: “To look cool, the Donju, party officials and young people like college students go to coffee shops to meet people”.

Read the full story here:
Pyongyang Bling: The rise of North Korea’s consumer comrades
James Pearson and Ju-min Park


DPRK real estate market: sustained boom, or bubble?

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

According to the Hankyoreh:

“They say there are apartments in Pyongyang selling for US$200,000.”

Jung Eun-yi, a research professor at Gyeongsang National University, was talking about how rapidly housing prices in North Korea have been rising. Jung had just returned from spending January and February in Dandong, China, where she had been tracking trends in the North Korean housing market. In July 2014, the highest price for an apartment in Pyongyang that heard about in Dandong had been US$100,000.

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that an apartment worth US$100,000 had doubled in value to US$200,000 in the past six months. Nevertheless, the appearance of apartments worth US$200,000 indicates just how quickly Pyongyang apartments are increasing in quality, size, and value.

Jung is one of the foremost experts in South Korea on prices in the North Korean housing market. She received considerable interest from the media because of a paper that she presented at the World Conference on North Korean Studies at the end of Oct. 2014 in which she reported that some apartments in Pyongyang were selling for US$100,000.

In 2013, she had gained attention in the academic community by publishing a paper that included a detailed breakdown of housing prices in the North Korean city of Musan, North Hamgyong Province, down to the neighborhood.

Based on the data collected during her most recent stay in Dandong, Jung argues that there are signs that the housing market in North Korea is turning into a real estate market, rather like South Korea. If a housing market is one in which houses are bought simply for the purpose of living in them, a real estate market is formed when people start to see the houses they buy both as a residence and an investment.

What enabled Jung to publish such a pioneering paper on the North Korean housing market is that she spends all four months of her summer and winter vacations each year in Dandong, where she researches trends in the North Korean housing market.

Jung says that there are several reasons why she is interested in the North Korean housing market. The market offers hints at how the North Korean market economy is developing; it reflects the economic policies that the Kim Jong-un regime are adopting; and it provides a great deal of information about the appearance of a propertied class inside North Korea and about the growing wealth gap between the rich and poor.

What follows is a summary of the interview that Jung gave to the Hankyoreh on Mar. 30, organized by topic.

North Korea’s housing market: most profitable business area

Jung explains that one of the biggest recent changes in the North Korean housing market is the participation of North Korean trading companies. The reason, she says, is that building and selling houses has become even more lucrative than trade.

Why would that be? Jung explains that, while there is a lot of potential demand, there is a limited number of suppliers, creating a monopoly in the market. In other words, it’s easy to find buyers once you build a house.

But there’s just one catch. Before trade companies can jump into the housing market, they have to be working with someone who has connections in North Korea’s bureaucratic system.

As of now, housing transactions in North Korea are technically illegal. Given this situation, it is essential that a business have access to someone who can negotiate the bureaucracy so that it can provide the person buying the house with the permit that is legally required for them to move in.

According to Jung, no matter how much financial backing a developer may have, “they will fail without a partner who can cut through all the red tape.”

The growth of the house-buying class

Jung says that the price of housing in North Korea is linked to rice and US dollars (the exchange rate). When calculations are made in rice, the preferred unit is the ton.

The growth in a housing market that involves the movement of such huge amounts of rice and dollars implies that an increasing number of people in North Korea have that much purchasing ability.

The increasing level of purchasing power, or disposable income, can also be verified in the fact that houses in North Korea are improving in quality every day.

The concept of the “front room” was introduced in some ritzier North Korean houses back in the 1990s. Front room means a living room that includes a kitchen with a sink, rather than the traditional coal-burning kitchen. But even since then, houses have been becoming more elaborate, some using high-quality materials from China.

However, the very increase in the number of people with property – the consumers of these new houses – also implies that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Behind every house that is sold is a family whose financial destitution leaves them no choice but to sell the house in which they had been living. In this way, the growth of the housing market in North Korea offers another glimpse at the growing wealth disparity there.

Predictions for the North Korean housing market 

Jung expects that the North Korean real estate market will continue to expand for a significant period of time. Just as in South Korea, there was also an explosion in demand for houses in North Korea starting in the early 1980s because of the baby boomers, the generation of those born around 1957.

However, the demand in North Korea was suppressed by the “arduous march,” Jung believes. During this famine in the mid-1990s, when the severe shortage of food caused people to starve to death, the massive flight of people out of the country actually led to an increase in the number of vacant houses around North Korea’s border with China.

But with the subsequent development of private markets and the appearance of people with money to spend in the 2000s, these vacant residences were the first to be sold at cut-rate prices. This signaled the beginning of growth in the housing market.

Housing prices in North Korea increased rapidly then faltered during the currency reform in 2009, when the Kim Jong-il regime attempted to put limits on these markets. But from 2011 to 2014, after the North Korean government started to tolerate the markets again, housing prices soared once more.

Jung believes that the growth trend in North Korean housing prices will continue for the time being. The reason is that demand for housing both among baby boomers and among new members of the propertied class is likely to continue.

The North Korean housing market and Kim Jong-un’s economic reforms

Jung explains that the regime of Kim Jong-un is taking steps toward normalizing the housing market. Presumably, the regime has concluded that the official economy of the country is suffering major losses because the housing market is outside of the system.

As one example, Jung cites housing deals between private citizens in the 1990s. While the volume of transactions greatly increased during this period, the failure to solve the issue of legal collateral resulted in unending disputes about these transactions.

There was also widespread corruption connected with them. Jung says that sometimes the housing allocation department of the urban management bureau of the people’s committee – which is in charge of issuing residential licenses – would confiscate houses that had been illegally bought by low-ranking officials and then conduct business with those houses themselves. Since the housing market did not go beyond individuals making money, it did not benefit government finances.

Jung believes that the Kim Jong-un regime was trying to stamp out this kind of corruption when it established housing delegation offices in 2013. These offices are public organizations whose purpose is to take money from public citizens and to build them a new house. The existence of this organization is another example that both central planning and market forces are at work in the North Korean economy today.

Jung sees this as being part of efforts to institutionalize market mechanisms. “This is evidence that the Kim Jong-un regime is going beyond the military-first policy known as Songun that was instituted by Kim’s father and moving down the path toward socialist capitalism,” she said.

Housing market: A market economy learning center

According to Jung, the housing market is turning into a “learning center” writ large for the market economy – not just for the Kim regime, but for the North Korean public. Most crucially, housing prices in North Korea are already being decided based on a variety of factors, including access to transportation, markets, nearby facilities, and even the number of floors. As an example, Jung mentioned the price of apartments in Musan, a county in North Hamgyong Province. The most expensive apartments on the market there are seven-story buildings for “people of national merit.” But the most expensive, she said, are not the seven-story blocks, but the five-story ones. The smaller buildings go for more because they don’t have elevators, which makes them better for moving firewood. One- to two-story buildings are less popular because they are seen as similar to South Korea’s, Jung added. Even in North Korea, a number of different variables go into shaping housing market prices.

Chinese presence in the North Korean real estate market 

Jung also noted that some Chinese people have begun branching into the North Korean real estate market. Chinese residents of North Korea who were interviewed in Dandong indicated that more and more Chinese have begun investing after seeing the real estate. North Korea has not yet made its housing fully open to foreigners, but those who invest in North Korea are reportedly allowed to buy housing for temporary residence. It’s a sign that regulations on foreign activities are being relaxed. As a result, an increasing number of Chinese people are investing in needed areas such as toll processing and solar energy development in Pyongyang and other places – and acquiring housing and land in the process. The strategy is twofold: immediate gains, along with more long-term profits from the land.

The real estate housewives of North Korea? 

“It hasn’t reached that point yet, but the signs are there.” According to Jung, relatively rigid enforcement of the one-family, one-home rule in North Korea means the country has yet to develop a visible community of “housewife speculators” buying and selling homes for profit. But there have been cases of people buying homes under their mother’s name, or investing when a house is still incomplete and cheaper before turning around and selling at a higher price when it is finished, she added. Both are similar to the kinds of behaviors seen among South Korea’s housewife speculators. As these activities increase, Jung notes, the idea of the home as a place of residence only is giving way to the idea of real estate as an investment – even in North Korea.

The increasingly market-oriented nature of the North Korean housing market, and the Kim Jong-un regime’s attempts to incorporate the changes into its system, led Jung to predict that the shift toward market economy principles will only grow and intensify going ahead. The question now is whether this market-oriented real estate market will lead North Korea to reprise the disastrous experience of ’70s-era Gangnam as the economy grows – or whether the result will be something completely different.

Read the full story here:
North Korean real estate market: sustained boom, or bubble?
Kim Bo-geun


How to run a “private” bus company in the DPRK

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

More independent transportation companies, run by the donju, or new affluent middle-class, are springing up in North Korea’s main transit hubs and driving up fares.

“There is a growing number of bus and truck companies operating not only in Pyongyang but nationwide,” a source from North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK last Friday. “People are buying buses or trucks and then paying the state a certain fee to open up transportation companies authorized by the central authorities.”

She explained that those members of the donju with significant amounts of money establish contacts with central bodies and win over the right to operate. “The ‘Pyongyang Transit and Trade Company’ and the ‘General Bureau of Transportation,’ which fall under the Cabinet, write up permits for individual donju and are authorizing the operations in exchange for a certain amount of the profits,” she said, adding that each region has bus companies that come from those two Pyongyang-based offices, creating a de facto public-private collaborative operation.

The donju, by importing second-hand buses from China for 3,000 to 4,000 USD, are overtly raking in profits and revolutionizing bus transportation in North Korea; personal bus transportation was only available in two to three cities in the early 2000s, including Pyongyang, but now it has spread nationwide. According to the source, some companies own anywhere from dozens to hundreds of buses.

“The fare between Chongjin and Musan used to be 8,000 KPW [1 USD] until just two years ago, but now it has jumped to 50,000 KPW [6.25 USD]. The bus that runs between Chongjin and Kim Chaek is currently 80,000 KPW [10 USD] – ten times the original price,” she noted. “Donju are raising the fares to whatever they want depending on the oil prices and exchange rate with the Chinese yuan.”

In the North’s main cities, state-run trams, trolleys, and long-distance buses do operate, but the vehicles are old and the companies beset by economic difficulties. The number of donju-run companies, however, is increasing by the day, leaving the state no choice but to accept their money and grant them license to operate.

“People are happy that there are more options for transportation but there are a lot of complaints about the expensive fares,” the source said. “Some say it’s not unusual for such companies to be operating in the way they do considering the dilapidated condition of state companies, but in the end it’s the regular people who bear the brunt of it all.”

Additional posts on the DPRK’s bus networks here.

Read the full story here:
Transportation Options Taking Off
Daily NK
Choi Song Min


‘Donju’ step in on state construction

Monday, March 16th, 2015


Pictured Above (Google Earth): The Sunchon Thermal Power Plant Health complex

According to the Daily NK:

The donju —North Korea’s nouveau riche — have recently been expanding their business inroads. Whereas this contingent previously forayed in wholesale/retail businesses, the burgeoning real estate market, and transportation, they are now yielding profits by increasingly partaking in state construction projects, Daily NK has learned.

“The South Pyongan Sunchon Thermal Power Plant recently built swimming pools and bathhouses by utilizing waste heat recovery, a project in which several of the donju invested,” a source in South Pyongan Province informed Daily NK on the 16th. “The authorities merely granted permission—the entire project was undertaken with the money invested by the donju.”

The recently constructed swimming pool can hold up to 200 people, creating potential for significant financial profits to be split 50/50 between the state-run power plant and the donju investors, according to the source. She noted that since last year, the Sunchon Thermal Power Plant has already reaped in significant construction funds through residual revenue from the swimming pool.

“The swimming pools, bathhouses, and steam room facilities boast modern amenities, such as restaurants and snack bars, attracting scores of patrons,” she explained. “All the waste heat from the power plant turbines was squandered until the launch of this construction project, which was based on a proposal by the donju to redirect the secondary heat in order to establish swimming pools and steam bathhouses.”

Those members of the donju with more expendable wealth have impressive business acumen, utilizing connections with executives of state-run enterprises in order to partake in various profitable ventures. “The donju are doing what the state cannot ,” the source pointed out.

She expounded on this by saying that donju business domains are rapidly expanding to encompass state construction endeavors. Beset by financial difficulties, North Korean officials are heavily reliant on the donju to implement state-run construction projects, creating a de facto “public-private partnership.” Party cadres forge a symbiotic relationship with the donju: the former receive immense kickbacks from the latter, who are more than willing to pay for the opportunity to expand their business terrains.

“The city of Sinuiju has been carrying out a large-scale national project of building apartments recently,” a different source based in the city told Daily NK. As previously reported by Daily NK, a multitude of the donju have invested in this large-scale venture.

“The donju are investing in the apartment construction under the condition of attaining a certain degree of leasing rights; in other words, they will effectively own the place and charge rent to individuals to reap in profits,” she concluded.

Read the full story here:
‘Donju’ Step In on State Construction
Daily NK
Seol Song Ah