N. Korea’s jangmadang markets raise questions of regime resilience


Credit: RFA


Anything to break the information blockade in North Korea should be encouraged, from USB drives containing foreign films to radios that can be tuned to news broadcasts from abroad, says the highest ranking diplomat to defect from the Hermit State, The Washington Post reported recently.

“I would like to make it possible for people to rise up,” said Thae Yong Ho. “We should educate the North Korean people so that they can have their own ‘Korean Spring.’”

The dissemination of information within North Korea and the availability of knowledge about developments within the totalitarian state amounts to a remarkable shift, said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Coupled with an emerging process of marketization, the country appears to be entering a new phase which raises questions about the regime’s resilience, he told a NED forum on the jangmadang (private markets).

North Korean markets are regulated by the government and must include an official entrance, restroom facilities, a fence, a roof and a management office, said Grayson Walker (above, second from right), the head of the communications and international teams at the Daily NK, a NED-funded news source reporting on North Korea. Daily NK trained 32 Chinese travelers in reporting skills, of whom nine reported back on the scale and economic importance of markets in North Korea markets.

Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House annually rank North Korea one of the least, if not the least, free countries for reporters. So the reporters tallying the number of stalls inside each market couldn’t blatantly thumb through and jot a line for each stall they saw. Instead they needed to get creative. The reporters walked into the market with a heap of beans in one pocket. For every 100 stalls they counted, 10 stalls for smaller markets, they would transfer one bean to the other pocket, keeping an informal tally of how many stalls existed.

By the end of the report, these journalists counted 612,661 stalls in 387 markets using beans. The bean-counting system, Walker admitted, was not fool-proof but she estimated that there are between 500,000 and 1 million stalls in North Korea. The regime cannot and will not intervene to impede market activities because five million people – some 16 percent of the population – rely on markets for their livelihood, Walker added.

Marketization has eradicated mass starvation, while reducing both unemployment and homelessness, Walker noted. At current rates of 10 percent annual growth, North Korea is no longer desperate for aid from their neighbors South Korea. North Korea is in fine shape financially and is “not a sub-Saharan African country.”

Using Google Earth satellite images, Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS, noted that the number of gas stations and cell phone networks has also increased, potentially as a result of the marketization.

President Kim Jung Un isn’t interested in stopping the marketization not only because of a fear of uprising from the five million reliant people, but also because it’s a way for his regime to look more favorable to the people, said In Ho Park, a former president of Daily NK. Rather than suppressing the general markets, the regime is highlighting them in pro-government propaganda.

Park reminded the NED audience that only women can work the markets as the men are assigned to work elsewhere. He said it was too early to tell if marketization will lead to democratization but market activities at least generate cooperation, breaking down the acute citizen atomization and isolation long cultivated by the regime.

Grant Whittington is an intern at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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