Archive for the ‘Farmers markets’ Category

The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.


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.


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


Effort to prevent outflow of capital into markets

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Since the start of the Kim Jong Un era, North Korea has introduced elements of a market economy while at the same time sought ways to mitigate the side effects caused by the rapid spread of market mechanisms.

The Choson Sinbo, mouthpiece of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (also known as Chongryon), revealed on February 22, 2015 that on a number of cooperative farms there are now ‘purchasing sites’ where farmers can barter and exchange goods. The newspaper explained that “[On the cooperative farms] there are purchasing sites where cheap goods are displayed and farmers are able to trade distributed agricultural products […] Through these sites it can prevent farmers from liquidating their produce and thus prevent funds from flowing into the market.”

Through the introduction of the ‘field responsibility system,’ North Korea has reportedly been able to meet demand for daily necessities at these purchasing sites. The state controls these sites in order to prevent farmers from taking goods to the jangmadang or the market when the surplus, which returns to the farmers, increases. Since entering the Kim Jong Un era, the field responsibility system has been expanded throughout the country and is credited with having contributed to North Korea’s increase in agricultural production. The system divides the bunjo (the small production teams on the cooperative farm) into family-sized units of 3 to 5 people and entrusts these units with the work of cultivating small-sized fields.

A system similar to the purchasing sites of the cooperative farms can be found in the city as well. The Choson Sinbo revealed that “[North Korean factories] are purchasing items like food and basic commodities produced in the country and are distributing them to workers as a portion of their wages.” In the years following Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, wages increased exponentially due to the introduction of incentives and the increase in the autonomy of factories and businesses. But because the threat of inflation becomes significant if those increased wages are paid entirely in cash, it is reported that businesses pay a part of workers’ wages in goods and commodities.

The Choson Sinbo added that the ‘Hwanggumbol Shop,’ a convenience store that has been appearing here and there in Pyongyang since December of last year, is also an effort by the state to prevent the rapid expansion of the market. The newspaper explained that the state-operated store focuses on supplying “cheaper prices than the market” and that the goal of the store is to guarantee “the circulation of money through state-operated stores.”

State-operated stores are an attempt to prevent the market from taking a central place in the circulation of money. This is accomplished by having state-run stores supply goods at a lower price than the market and thereby attract consumers. Different from the past, the current regime intends to utilize the market rather than restrict it. It is believed that North Korea will try to keep the market in a condition in which it can be suitably managed.


Kim Jong-un’s directions on improving economic management

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

High ranking North Korean officials have relayed that, since last year, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has on several occasions provided direction on improvements for economic management methods and that some new measures are being implemented on an experimental basis.

In a May 10, 2013 interview with the Choson Sinbo, North Korean Cabinet secretariat Kim Ki Chol and National Planning Committee director Ri Yong Min relayed that “Kim Jung Un spoke on several occasions, both this year and last, about the time to fix economic management practices and delegated related responsibilities to students and laborers.” The officials added, “We are holding rounds of consultation and discussion together with research institutes and representatives of several economic sectors.”

The officials further stated that “Out of these consultations have emerged a number of promising economic proposals which we are putting into practice on an experimental basis. In the case that they show positive results, we plan to introduce them across the country. Most remain in the research stage.” These remarks indicate that North Korea is embarking on some kind of economic reform measures.

These statements seem to confirm that North Korea’s economic measures are being driven by the direct orders of Kim Jung Un, such as the ‘June 28 Measure’ (i.e., policy on agriculture). They also suggest that once measures clear the testing stage, they will be implemented on a national scale.

They also explained that while additional new economic control measures are being adopted, these measures at the same time deal with issues related to production planning, price adjustment, and currency circulation. They added that new laws would have to be created, and explained that measures were being expanded that allow for the expansion of authority in the interest of reinvigorating production at factories and industrial sites.

Mention of price adjustment and currency circulation suggests that North Korea’s new economic reforms may not be limited to farms, factories, and industrial sites; rather, it hints at the possibility that North Korea will embark on much larger scale reform extending to the financial sector.

They explained that some farms which carried out the national plan last year implemented land distribution, and contributed to the right of factories and industrial sites to sell and trade freely. They added that such steps reflected the demands of workers.

The officials were reserved in their comments in regard to the timing of any future announcements related to North Korean economic measures: “If successes are consistent we can advance the reforms on a wide scale; but, for now, we need to keep an eye on progress.”

The officials added that they were being retrained in management at the University of the People’s Economy and taking classes about farm management and management at Kim Bo Hyun College.

North Korea emphasized the construction of an economic powerhouse at the beginning of May, and it is currently heating up in the fields of industry and farming by encouraging an increase in production. In relation to this, the Korean Workers’ Party is mobilizing media sources including the Rodong Sinmun, the Korean Central News Agency, and Korean Central Broadcasting.

Particularly, these media sources are emphasizing that obtaining a nuclear deterrent is the greatest asset on the road to economic construction. They are also claiming that increase in production is one means for the achievement of the new economic line of pursuing simultaneously economic construction and building of a nuclear force.

Now that the annual US-ROK joint unit tactical military field training drills, i.e., ‘Foal Eagle’, have concluded (as of April 30) and tensions on the Korean peninsula have subsided somewhat, North Korea’s new economic line is being assessed as one which is aimed at enhancing the economic livelihoods of North Koreans.


North Korean markets heavily filled with Chinese products and currency

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

After North Korea’s currency revaluation in 2009, North Korean currency is still unstable and North Korean markets near the DPRK-China border are reportedly filled with Chinese merchandise, with transactions being conducted mainly in Chinese yuan.

An online newspaper, the Daily NK, reported that markets in the city of Hyesan (Ryanggang Province) and surrounding areas are using Chinese yuan as the primary currency for transactions rather than local North Korean won.  Rice prices are standard indicators of inflation in North Korea and even rice was reported to be exchanged in yuan.  As the monetary value of domestic currency continues to fall, North Korea is experiencing hyperinflation and North Koreans are showing a preference for the more stable Chinese yuan over won.

With an exception of rice, vegetables, and seafood, manufactured goods including confectioneries, the daily necessities for sale in these markets are mostly from China.  As well, some South Korean items such as instant noodles, Choco Pies, and butane gas are sold openly in the markets.

Border areas have a higher rate of Chinese yuan usage than inland areas, as for years traders have been buying Chinese goods with Chinese yuan to sell in the domestic markets.  However, with the unstable domestic currency, more and more North Koreans have been using Chinese yuan over the last three years.  Some report goods bought with North Korean won must be converted to the CNY exchange rate.

As of mid-April, the exchange rate of 100 CNY to KPW was 130,000. However, Pyongsong and Pyongyang cities used mainly US dollars and local won in equal rates.

A video recording obtained by the Daily NK unveiled the landscape of the marketplace and nearby alley markets of  Hyesan and surrounding areas.  Items for sale include jackets, mufflers, gloves, coats and other winter clothing as well as cosmetics, perfumes, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other daily goods. Transactions were being made in Chinese yuan.

North Korean authorities are waging a crackdown against the use of the yuan in the markets but merchants continue to use yuan in secret.

The high number of Chinese goods in North Korean markets can be attributed to the failed production system of the people’s economy of North Korea, which began to tumble in the late 1990s. As the regime began to invest excessively in its military sector, production in the manufacturing sector declined.

Although North Korean products appear in the markets, most people prefer Chinese goods due to their better quality.

A recent article in the official state economics journal of North Korea, Kyongje Yongu (Journal of Economic Research), criticized the “trade companies for focusing on only one or two countries,” expressing concerns that, “the whole nation may experience political and economic pressure from trade companies that restrict foreign trade to only one country.”

Kim Jong Un has also expressed official disapproval against “import syndrome” of the people and regarded it as an obstacle hindering the development of North Korea’s light industry.

Although no specific country was named, it is believed that China makes up over 80 percent of North Korea’s total foreign trade. North Korea continues to show vigilance against its rising dependence on China.


Market expansion: Sinuiju

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

For years the center of commercial life in Sinuiju has been the Chaeha-dong Market (채하시장). It has seen consistent growth since 2002:


Google Earth image date: 2002-4-29


Google Earth image date: 2004-1-27 (note the street trading around the market)


Google Earth image date: 2005-1-29


Google Earth image date: 2009-10-11

The market pretty much remained this size until 2011-4-19, the last day that satellite imagery records this structure.

On the next available image, dated 2012-10-30, we can see the market has been destroyed. It appears that the space is being transformed into a new park, much like we have seen being built in different parts of Pyongyang over the last year.


However, the story is not as sad as the story of the Phyongsong Market (formerly the country’s largest). A new market has been built on the outskirts of the city to replace the Chaeha Market:




This new market is over twice the size of the old Chaeha Market. Its dimensions are approximately 183m x 60m. We only have one satellite image of this market, and it is closed.  It is unclear how busy it is on market day (approximately every ten days) or how much of the area around the market and road leading to the market is filled with additional vendors.

The DPRK has a mixed relationship with these markets.  On the one hand they are a clear rebuke of the state’s old socialist ideology and the official socialist retail distribution system.  To date no North Korean leader has ever publicly visited a market as part of an inspection or guidance tour.  The closest we have seen was when Choe Yong-rim visited the Pyongyang Underground Shop (under Kim Il-sung Square) on 2011-11-17.

On the other hand, however, many state-owned and August 3 factories and companies now sell directly through these markets rather than official shops and distribution channels (which allows them to stockpile cash rather than relying on account transfers with the central bank). Additionally these markets are integrated into the public finance system.  The state charges a fee for vending slots in these markets and party inspectors regularly patrol them to enforce (imperfectly) various dictates.

It would be interesting to know if this market was built before or after Kim Jong il died (2011-12-17). This would be a powerful signal of the intentions of Kim Jong-un’s economic team. From the available public imagery, however, it is not possible to say at this point.


Stall-sharing returns to Hyesan

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Pictured Above (Google Earth): The Hyesan Market (L) and a street market (R).

According to the Daily NK:

The authorities in Hyesan have embarked on an experiment that permits multiple traders to utilize each stall in the city jangmadang (market).

A source from the Yankang Province city told Daily NK on the 30th, “Hyesan Municipal People’s Committee has been struggling for a while to decide what to do with all these traders in the streets outside the market. So, they’ve decided to try and co-opt them by restarting stall-sharing arrangements. Any trader, even ones who used to trade in the streets, can now operate inside the market as long as they are ready to pay.”

“The traders rotate six days a week, and on Sundays the original stallholder gets to decide who trades there,” the source went on.

However, many of the original stallholders are reportedly angry at the move, according to the source, with many asking why they are being stopped from trading for almost half the week.

“But,” she said, “the Market Management Office is having none of it, so they have little choice but to oblige.”

The idea of stall-sharing has been tried before in Hyesan, but with little success. “Just last year they ordered the same thing to happen,” the source recalled, “but it wasn’t long before things went back to normal.”

That being said, she went on, “Now because the order has come from the Upper (Central Party), they are really trying to do it.”

Defectors from the city and others with experience of trading directly in the market say the measure has far more to do with controlling traders working illegally on the city streets than improving the efficiency of the market itself. In fact, they say the measure is likely to have a deleterious effect on market operations.

Seo Ok Ran, a 42-year old defector now living in the Dongdaemun area of Seoul pointed out, “Last year when they did this I had a hard time finding the right stallholders for the items I needed. At the end of the day, it just reduces trade.”

It is unclear whether the new rules are being applied nationwide, or are restricted to the area under the remit of Hyesan Municipal People’s Committee.

Read the full story here:
Stall-Sharing Returns to Hyesan
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin


Chongjin’s “Mansudae-style” apartments

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Pictured above (Google Earth): Pohang District, Chongjin (in red)

UPDATE 1 (2012-8-23): The Daily NK, which has been the only organization to cover the housing construction in Chongjin (see original post below), reports on the classic problem of political allocation of resources (in this case housing) in socialist economies. According to the article:

A source from Chongjin told Daily NK yesterday, “This rumor started going around that the apartments they are building would first go to decorated soldiers, veterans and discharged military officers, and then the rest would be distributed to ordinary people. As soon as that happened, a group of 40 or more people, many of whom had already seen their former homes demolished and thought they had priority on the housing list, got really angry.”

“The crowd went repeatedly to both the local administrative office and the district people’s committee to demand that a list of those assigned homes be made public,” he added.

During the protests, the source said, “Those who found they were not on the list warned that they would not stand idly by if their new homes were stolen from them. They didn’t back down from the guys from the Ministry of People’s Safety either, not for more than 30 minutes.”

The head of the local administrative office vacated his post due to the trouble and hasn’t been seen since, something that has made the aggrieved individuals even angrier. Upper level cadres are also refusing to meet them, and lower level figures are trying to wash their hands of the whole affair, saying that the list of those assigned apartments can no longer be changed. No longer thinking that the problem can be solved at the district level, the group has sent a letter to the provincial authorities outlining their grievances.

“Their point is that the authorities said that only a small number of the apartments would go to those people (decorated soldiers, veterans and discharged military officers), while most of them were supposed to go to ordinary families,” the source explained.

The source also explained the backdrop, saying that thousands of homes in the Namgang and Pohang areas of the Pohang district of the city have been destroyed since last June, and that the displaced residents from those homes have all been living with relatives and friends while waiting for the chance to move into what they thought were to be their new dwellings.

The problem is not over yet, either. According to the source, “It also looks like some facilities like shops and restaurants that were not on the original plans for an area around the amusement park are also being built, which will reduce the volume of housing available. Who can say how people from that area who’ve lost their homes will object if they lose out.”

This article is interesting to me because it answers a couple of questions I have had for some time: “What happens to families displaced by urban construction projects?” [Answer: for the most part, they go live with family members until replacement housing is allocated] and “How is new housing allocated if not through de-facto sales?” [Answer: Ideally through an objective and enforceable list based on “need”. However, this process is often corrupted. See here, here and here].

ORIGINAL POST (2012-8-14): According to the Daily NK:

It has been confirmed that affluent local wholesale traders have been co-opted to support the construction of apartment buildings in Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province.

A Chongjin source told Daily NK yesterday, “The construction of high-rise apartment buildings in the Pohang district of the city is being done by enterprises and ‘shock troops’, but there are also local go-betweens at the forefront connecting affluent traders from the region with the construction teams so that the latter can get materials as needed.”

The source went on, “It seems that most of the province’s rich people have gathered here. You can tell that there are people with genuine power involved in the construction by how fast the buildings are going up now.”

Since last May, Chongjin has been working to follow in the footsteps of the Mansudae area of Pyongyang by constructing apartments for 10,000 households, including 2,000 in the Pohang district. The project is said to be part of North Hamkyung Province Party Secretary Oh Soo Yong’s determined effort to show loyalty to the regime of Kim Jong Eun. However, the Party and state lacks the power to follow through on the plans.

The situation is not rare. Rich people and brokers acting as go-betweens are actively involved in all types of construction projects in North Korea today. This was even the case when Pyongyang planned the building of 100,000 apartments in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung earlier this year. Indeed, all North Koreans know that “without the go-betweens this country’s economy would seize up.”

Usually, the North Korean authorities get factory enterprises and units of ‘shock troops’ to do the state’s construction and set in place plans to secure the necessary cement, steel and other materials, but this part very rarely goes according to plan.

For one thing, factories need to be bribed if the construction sites want to get their materials delivered on time, so the middlemen have a close relationship with the factories. Meanwhile, the rich people who finance the construction later receive a share of the finished apartments in return.

Currently in Chongjin, a home on the 3rd or 4th floor of such an apartment costs about $5,000. A rich man investing $7,000 dollars in the construction of a building can expect to make about $3,000 in profit. Other floors cost $3,000-$4,000 at current rates. However, in Pyongyang prices are much higher, with apartments on the 3rd or 4th floor trading for as much as $10,000 dollars.

The source said, “There are nicely dressed men striding around the construction site checking on progress, and these are the rich folk.”

The publicly available satellite imagery of Chongjin is too old to show recent construction, and since I have no budget, staff, or connections to people who have the ability to get new satellite imagery, I cannot show you any recent pictures.

Despite the lack of physical evidence, however, I have good reason to believe that new residential construction is underway in Chongjin.  This is because I do have publicly-available imagery of other DPRK cities and towns which are being “upgraded” with new apartment blocks. Recently I wrote about construction in Rason. I will post imagery of additional towns and cities if I get the time.

Read the Daily NK story here:
Rich Traders Invest in Chongjin Construction
Daily NK
Choi Song Min