Market Research

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Once upon a time, North Korea prided itself on being the country that came the closest to the complete the eradication of markets, those notorious dens of private commerce and capitalist spirits. It seems that in the 1960s markets were indeed formally outlawed for a brief while. Later, they made a moderate comeback, but they remained marginal to the life of most North Koreans until around 1990.

And then things changed. The slow-motion collapse of the Stalinist economy began in the late 1980s, and in a few years this slide developed into a free fall. By 1996, the old economy of coal mines, mammoth plants, and chimney smokes was dead, rations were not forthcoming, and many North Koreans had to resort to commerce to survive. The markets began to grow.

There is a large volume of evidence about these markets, and now I would like to say a few words about one of them. This market was described in the Pukhan monthly by a former female vendor who recently defected to the South and now lives in Seoul. It is located in a relatively large North Korean city, somewhat close to the border with China.

This market began to operate on a large scale in the mid-1990s. Initially, the local authorities felt a great unease about this new institution, and even launched occasional eradication campaigns, which are still well remembered in the city. The victims were largely old ladies who were first to initiate the market trade.

The poor “halmonis’’ were dragged to the police station by policemen who occasionally shouted some appropriate slogans, like “down with speculation!’’ But such bizarre sights did not last long: by around 1996, the authorities gave in and ceased to fight the market which alone made survival of the population possible.

The market ground is a space some 50 to 100 meters-square, surrounded by a high wall made of crude cinder blocks (the sort of very large bricks that are widely used as construction material in the North). Inside the market, there are rows of stalls used by the vendors.

The gates are closed when the market is not in operation _ that is, between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. The guards and managers ensure that nobody stays inside the market after hours. But this does not mean that trade only takes place inside the walled space of the officially allocated area. A great amount of bartering, both legal and semi-legal, happens outside the wall. There, trade lasts much longer, and the food stalls do not close until 10 or 11 p.m.

Outside the gates, one can also find a bicycle shed (guarded, of course, since bicycle theft is very common now), a storeroom where vendors can leave their merchandise for the night, and a canteen. There are also private canteens around, as well as some private storeroom facilities, but those institutions try to keep a low profile and not attract any excessive attention from the authorities.

Most of the goods on sale are imported from overseas, largely from China, but there are South Korean products as well. The latter are generally admired for their high quality, but often become the targets of bans and confiscations.

The market has a manager appointed by the local government, and the manager is assisted in his hard work by a staff of 6-8 people. There is also a police box permanently staffed by a policeman, as well as a small office of the Ministry for Protection of the State Security, the North Korean political police. Yes, a market has its own representative of this agency.

Once again, the Kims have out-Stalined Stalin: even in the most paranoiac times of recent Russian history one could not imagine a KGB operative being posted to every single countryside market! The administration enforces law and order, makes sure that nothing improper or forbidden takes place, and also collects the market fee that is paid by every vendor.

One of the major problems is the regular confiscations of prohibited goods (often this means goods produced in South Korea). During a check, a group of policemen goes along the stalls checking all goods in search for forbidden merchandise. Everything is put into a pushcart. The market is arranged in such a way that vendors cannot hide their merchandise from an inspector’s eye, so resistance is futile.

The confiscated goods are supposed to be sent to a special “commercial shop.’’ Such shops normally buy and sell the production of local handicraftsmen at market prices (as opposed to the fixed prices of the state commercial system, now almost defunct). There are rumors that some goods are taken by the market managers and police officers for their private use.

Well, quite likely… although for some minor transgression a payment of roughly 15 percent of the price of the confiscated merchandise will be probably sufficient to get the goods back. But from what is known, it appears that the North Korean officials do not overuse the right, more or less at their discretion, to confiscate goods for extracting bribes.

On an average day, the market (both its walled and open sections) attracts some 8,000 vendors and 50,000-60,000 shoppers. The vendors are predominantly female, and this reflects an interesting peculiarity of North Korea’s new capitalism: to a surprising degree it is dominated by women. But that is another story…


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