[Exclusive] Private ownership of land now legal in North Korea

Tuesday 28th June, 2016

An apartment in Munsu-dong, North Korea/Picture taken from the Ministry of Unification

The North Korean government has recently allowed the possession and sale of real estate for citizens, to a limited extent.

A New Focus correspondent inside North Korea reported through telephone: “Until now, the North Korean government had deemed the private purchase of land or real property as illegal. However, there has been an obvious increase recently in the number of construction companies building apartment blocks and so forth. It appears that the state has realised the limitations of the current legislation and are taking countermeasures. These include new rules relating to the boundaries of newly-constructed buildings, or where land can be bought, and the penalties, mainly confiscation, for exceeding those boundaries.”

The correspondent also reported that the maximum area of land that one family is allowed to possess, as specified by the state, is 26 pyeong (1 pyeong is equivalent to 3.3058 m2). When asked what the motive was behind the changed legislation, the correspondent answered, “North Korea previously did not allow the possession or purchase of land or real estate, but in reality, that was only true for the poor. Those who had money could buy and sell property. In fact, it’s a growing trend in North Korea at the moment.”

So it appears that people had been buying and selling property even before these reforms were introduced, so why introduce them now? The correspondent likened the recent changes to the 7.1 economic reform measures introduced in 2002. The state recognises that large disparities between the cheap, informal market prices and the exuberant prices insisted by the state could lead to the weakening of state-led economic institutions, and have adjusted accordingly. The trading of property between ordinary North Koreans may already have been a common yet illegal practice, but the state has now stepped in and made it legal, but only as long as the area of the land was under 26 pyeong.

A luxury house in North Korea may look something like this: a two-storey house with a steam bath or a gym for playing table-tennis. There would also be a yard, complete with fresh grass. As the market continues to thrive in North Korea, many of these materials have become available through China, and as a result, more people are specialising in jobs such as interior design, building construction or property agency. If a house is built on new land, the manager of the properties unit in that area would come to check on the property’s measurements, and bribing would ensue. However, the rules on constructing extensions on existing homes are a little more lenient.

One-story home owners in congested areas usually looked to extend their homes vertically, until the government began inspecting those properties late last year and fining the owners. In addition, rules as to the number of steam baths specified that there was only to be one steam bath per ten People’s Units. However, North Korean citizens could easily bribe officials to push the limitations for home construction or to install another bath.

Wealthy North Koreans have found a way of circumventing the limitations by buying properties adjacent to one another and bribing officials to push boundaries even further. On the other hand, poorer North Koreans have found the new legislation to be suffocating, since the boundaries affected the land they owned for farming, and as such, much of their land was confiscated.

The North Korean state may have known about the informal exchange of property on the market but only recently recognised its extent, and withdrew the rights of the properties unit to give permission for construction projects. Assuming this power and putting down specific guidelines, the reforms are justified by the hope to “curb capitalist greed” and “conserve the natural environment”.

Though the legalisation of private ownership of land may seem like a glimmer of hope for North Koreans, the extent to the ownership is so limited that ordinary people, especially those that are poor, feel cheated, as if the land that they had been living on was taken from them and sold to somebody else without their prior permission.

These days, a popular saying can be heard amongst North Koren citizens: “International trade sanctions have driven the North Korean state into selling off its own land.”


By Ju-Hee Park, Joyce Williams

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