North Korea’s Jangmadang walls are growing higher

Thursday 3rd October, 2013

After North Korea’s official distribution system and economy collapsed in the mid-90s, markets were begrudgingly allowed by the state. It started with the trade of basic goods such as rice, vegetables and essential items. Since then, the North Korean people have come to be able to buy and sell all that they need in their daily lives outside the official state economy, the jangmadang (marketplace), as it evolved into an organized system.

Although the quality of life for most ordinary citizens may have not improved too much – at least compared to the significant increase in market activity – the range and quality of goods in these markets has become higher than ever before.

One North Korean refugee explains her wonder at markets in South Korea: “When I went to a market after settling in South Korea, I was amazed that the items on sale, as well as the methods used to sell them, were pretty similar to North Korea.” It was not the contrast, but similarities, that caught her by surprise.

Much of North Korea remains in poverty with the official planned economy never really having succeeded in sustaining its people since the mid-90s. To take one example, North Koreans in the countryside people use bartering to get by, which indicates two things: they must fend for themselves outside the official economic system, and they do not have faith in the state currency.

Yet the jangmadang of North Korea – arguably more developed in the provinces than in the capital show-city of Pyongyang, precisely because of looser controls outside this zone – is becoming much more sophisticated. And as the jangmadang developed to become increasingly diversified and stratified, the walls enclosing this liminal place have become higher: various refugees who worked in the markets remark how one day, they realized that it was no longer possible to look over the fence as a passer-by.

(To be continued)

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