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North Korean regime would ‘collapse’ without free markets

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Screenshot of Google Earth Satellite image of Chaeha Market in Sinuiju. Screenshot taken 11/23/2016.

“If North Korea shuts downs markets, it will collapse too,” defector Cha Ri-hyuk explains. Satellite images and testimonies from those who have fled the oppressive regime of Kim Jong-un are demonstrating the power of markets. A new report from Hyung-Jin Kim looks at this phenomenon in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

These markets, jangamadangs, are primarily supplied with goods smuggled from China or South Korea. There are hundreds of markets where people can purchase anything from skinny jeans to locally made food. Although South Korean products are illegal, the demand for clothes and entertainment from South Korea is especially high. One defector, Lee O.P., says that despite charging high prices, she would still sell out of South Korean products. She sold clothes in the market until she was able to defect to South Korea.

The regime has not just accepted that these markets are the new normal, but likely relies on them:

North Korea has tolerated — and taxed — some market activities since the country’s state rationing systems crumbled amid an economic crisis and famine that killed an estimated hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s. The economic boost the markets provide has helped leader Kim Jong Un keep a grip on power and further his nuclear ambitions, leaving the North’s harsh political system and alleged human rights abuses largely untouched.

But some political analysts note that market activities are gradually infusing North Koreans with new ways of thinking that eventually could loosen the authoritarian government’s hold over its 24 million people.

“It’s like potential forces which can fundamentally shake the North’s systems are growing,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. [emphasis added]

It’s unclear whether these markets could lead to the fall of the regime or have helped prop it up. What is beyond doubt is that without these markets, North Koreans would struggle to provide for their families or themselves. After the horrific famine and subsequent economic crisis, the state rationing system fell apart. Although most North Koreans had no interest in going against the regime, they had to eat and thus the markets came about. Defectors who spoke to the AP have noted that the public rationing systems still don’t operate. From Kim:

The markets have given North Koreans a taste of foreign culture, eroded their dependence upon a government that no longer feeds them and opened up a new gap between rich and poor. There is little to suggest that the country’s authoritarian rule has weakened, but at the same time, experts say, the North must take care to avoid economic policies that harm the markets. For instance, the 2009 botched currency reform reportedly triggered widespread public complaints that led to the execution of a top Workers’ Party official.

There are risks in the business, whether authorities are hunting for contraband, cracking down on foreign currency or simply committing graft. Lee O.P. says she decided to flee after police officers confiscated her whole savings for unauthorized phone calls with her daughter who already defected to South Korea.

According to a 2011 survey from Haggard and Noland reported by BBC News, 69 percent of respondents made over half of their income from market activities rather than through government assigned employment or through state enterprise.

Women are especially benefiting from these markets. I recently spoke with Suzanne Scholte, Chairwoman of the North Korean Freedom Coalition. She lamented that women of North Korea are “second class, even third class citizens …  and are treated like dogs.” North Koreans enjoy zero human rights, but women are treated especially poorly. They are not seen as equals in any sense of the word. Most vendors and buyers in these markets are women. They can forge their own paths by purchasing the goods they want or making their own money selling goods.

Read Hyung-Jin Kim’s “Defectors: N. Korea would fall without capitalistic markets” at the Washington Post. Visit Religion & Liberty in early 2017 for Scholte’s full interview about North Korea and human rights abuses there.

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Sarah Stanley

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