DPRK market restrictions ineffective

Granted that information from the DPRK is nearly impossible to verify, it seems likely that the DPRK government continues to encounter difficulties implementing its most restrictive market regulations.  They have tried repeatedly to impose rules which dictate who may work in the markets, how to allocate vending slots, what goods may be sold in the markets, what prices may be charged, and when markets may open. 

With each new rule vendors and entrepreneurs respond by fighting back against the authorities (sometimes violently) or simply moving to the black market, which (as in other communist countries) composes a significant portion of the nation’s GDP.

The DPRK’s most recent market regulation (issued in the autumn of 2008) is the 10-day rule—prohibiting markets from opening except every tenth day.  This rule was supposed to take effect in March 2009, yet it has not been successfully implemented—even in the areas where Pyongyang exercises the most control (large cities).

According to the Daily NK:

The North Korean authorities issued a decree in October, 2008 aimed at shifting the existing market system over to a 10-day market system and restricting the range of items being sold, but by mid-March of this year there was no market where the decree had been properly implemented.

Decrees attached to the entrances to markets were all removed and only the specific list of restricted goods is posted there. However, secondhand goods have been strictly regulated in some regions, so conflicts between citizens have arisen.

Each story about the failure of market restrictions stresses the inconsistency with which the rules are imposed across the country.  In other words, local conditions predict the effectiveness of Pyongyang’s dictates.  This is perhaps due to the DPRK’s market governance structure.  Local markets are controlled by a local Market Management Office which is in turn subordinate to each City People’s Committee.  According to the Worker’s Party organizational chart (view here), each City People’s Committee is subordinate to a Provincial People’s Committee (PPC), and all PPCs are subordinate to the Central Committee of the Workers Party.  

This governance structure puts three layers of bureaucracy between the Central Committee and the actual markets, perhaps allowing local leaders to exercise significant discretion over market operations.  True, random inspection units from the central authorities can make surprise visits, but their numbers are likely too small to enforce country-wide compliance, particularly when local officials can benefit from accomodating traders.

Still, these kinds of stories are both disconcerting and pleasing.  Why disconcerting?  Because the expectation by “Western” analysts (including myself) that market legitimization signaled a stable policy shift by Pyongyang has proven unjustified.  The good news, however, is that the DPRK’s markets are proving surprisingly robust.

In 2003, North Korean authorities “legalized” markets throughout the country by converting previously existing “farmers’ markets” into “combined general markets” and allowing all traders sell their wares. After the legislation was passed, markets began to spring up in neighborhoods across the country–even in Pyongyang.

Although it is clear now that this was a politically defensive move on the part of the central government,  North Koreans now reportedly spend more than 80 percent of their incomes in these markets.  Despite authorities’ efforts to assert more control over the markets, they have (paradoxically) become the social safety net of socialist Korea. 


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