The development of North Korean markets and their rising walls

Wednesday 23rd October, 2013

(See here for Part 1)

As reported previously, ‘BB cream’ (a type of make-up popular in Seoul) has become increasingly popular among wealthier women in Pyongyang. In fact, it is thought of as a must-have item in many places, except in the poverty-stricken rural regions. Interestingly, different grades of BB cream exist. Generally speaking, South Korean brands are more highly sought after than Chinese makes.

Around the time of the great famine in the mid- and late-1990s, North Korea’s markets were still quite primitive. The ulbaja or fences around the marketplaces were not high. There would be a wooden board above the entrance to the market, reading ‘Farmer’s Market’. Memories of the marketplace from this time are characteristically localised, tinged with a kind of pastoral nostalgia: “In the marketplace, I could hear the barking of puppies brought in from afar to be sold, as well as the hearty laughs and chatter of our elders. They sold grains and vegetable seeds, measured out in matchboxes,” according to a recent refugee.

As the famine progressed, there were dramatic changes in the nature of these markets in the eyes of North Koreans. According to their accounts, as state rations stopped and more and more people lost their livelihoods, a rising number of people in the border areas travelled across to China, bringing back goods to sell in the markets.

In the words of one refugee, “The younger people who had now begun to trade in the markets began to sell all kinds of clothes and household appliances that had never been seen before. As these younger traders took control of the market, the older people who used to work there selling and bartering basic foodstuffs were gradually pushed out.”

The marketplace was no longer merely a place for selling agricultural produce, and it developed into a more stratified system. Markets came to be divided into high-end and low-end sections. Low-value items are sold from small stalls in the low-end sections while industrial products, accessories, shoes, electronics and makeup are sold in the high-end sections.

These developments mirror the phenomenon in which valuable South Korean goods, such as Choco-pies, may only be purchased through sellers who trade among the elite. Such traders work outside the bounds of the common markets, peddling wares affordable only to higher-ranked officials and North Korea’s more successful businessmen.

A 'ttoari' market in Najin, North Korea.

A ‘ttoari’ market in Najin, North Korea.

As most North Korean marketplace vendors must fit all their wares within an allotted space of about forty centimetres, many kinds of creative solutions have arisen. Stall-keepers selling clothes may hang their products from nets set up behind the regulated area, or display them within the area in a tightly packed manner with only the collar of each shirt visible. Wealthier traders may rent two spaces instead of one.

Refugee Kim Young explains that since vendors can get away with products hung very high, individual stall walls have become higher and higher – along with the fences surrounding the marketplace itself.

The increasing visibility of the demarcation between private stalls, as well as between the marketplace and the rest of North Korea, is perhaps an apt metaphor for the increasing distance between practical market laws and official state propaganda. This is because for the North Korean interviewer and interviewees involved in this story, the rising walls around the marketplaces and stalls were considered a symbol of the growth and development of North Korea’s market economy, and its separation from the state system.

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