With last month’s visit to North Korea by Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, much media attention was focused on speculations of whether North Korea might open up to the Internet. After his visit, Schmidt made a statement that North Korea should enter the information age in line with the rest of the world; and warned that if this did not happen, the nation’s economic development might suffer. Nevertheless, the information age has already dawned in North Korea, through the jangmadang.
After the mass famine and ‘Arduous March’ of the 90s, the currency revaluations and the collapse of the Public Distribution System on which North Koreans depended on for survival, North Koreans had to look for ways to survive on their own. One of the most effective ways to do so was through the jangmadang, which means ‘market-place/market-square’ in Korean.
After these illegal markets took hold in the life of the country, access to outside information took on a value it did not used to have. To cite one example, once news of an international food aid shipment spreads, the price of rice will drop in the jangmadang. Those who hear this news before others by listening to outside radio may choose to sell the rice before the drop in price. In this way, access to information now determines the price of basic goods in North Korea.
Oh Ji-hyun is a North Korean refugee who left the country two years ago. A veteran trader in the jangmadang, she told us, “As the jangmadang developed in North Korea, more goods were brought into the country that fit consumers’ demands. Traders came to be in tough competition with each other, and we had to be plugged into a logistical network in order to move our goods efficiently. The mobile phone was an important tool for staying abreast of fluctuations in exchange rate and demand of goods.”
This kind of connectivity is more important in the jangmadang of the remote provinces. In fact, many refugees have testified that the further you travel from Pyongyang, the stronger the influence of the jangmadang in the everyday life of the people. This indicates that the further away you are from the totalitarian grip of Kim Jong-un regime, the more you can participate in the dawn of North Korea’s information age.
This is why North Koreans living in remote provinces are ahead of Pyongyang’s residents in terms of their familiarity with market forces, and are more sensitive to factors such as fluctuations in currency exchange and outside information that affect the prices in the jangmadang. The onset of the information age in the remote provinces is even reinforcing the onset of the information age in Pyongyang itself.
Of course, this is not an information age brought on by computers and the internet, as per Eric Schmidt’s recommendation. Moreover, this is an information revolution instigated not by the regime, but by the people, and in spite of the regime’s restrictions on organic information flow.
North Koreans live in an information age sustained at times by word of mouth, at other times through the use of mobile phones; in either case, the international community must make more efforts to connect with these North Koreans, who are still compelled to live behind an information blockade enforced by the regime.