North Korea's information age dawns in the 'jangmadang'

Tuesday 19th February, 2013

A woman and boy transporting goods in North Korea. Photographer: Roman Harak

With last month’s visit to North Korea by Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, there was much media speculation of whether North Korea might open up to the Internet. After his visit, Schmidt issued a statement that North Korea must enter the information age in line with the rest of the world. he warned that if this did not happen, the nation’s economic development would suffer.

Nevertheless, the information age has already dawned in North Korea, through the jangmadang.

After the mass famine and ‘Arduous March’ of the 90s, during which the Public Distribution System on which North Koreans depended on for survival collapsed, North Koreans were forced to survive on their own. One of the most effective ways to do so was through trading in 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 worth it did not used to have. For example, once news of an international food aid shipment spreads, the price of rice will drop in the jangmadang. Those who hear this news first by listening to outside radio may choose to sell the rice before the drop in price. In this way, access to outside information is now a valuable commodity in the pursuit of profitability.

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 more efficiently. The mobile phone is an important tool for staying abreast of fluctuations in exchange rate and demand of goods.”

This kind of connectivity is even more important in the jangmadang of the remote provinces. In fact, many refugees testify that the further you travel from Pyongyang, the stronger the informational influence of the jangmadang in the everyday life of the people. The further away you are from the totalitarian grip of Kim Jong-un’s regime, the more you may participate in the dawn of North Korea’s information age.


North Koreans living in remote provinces are more familiar with market forces than Pyongyang’s residents. They are also more sensitive to outside information determining fluctuations in currency exchange, which can dramatically affect prices in the jangmadang.

The onset of the information age in the remote provinces can actually be seen as reinforcing the onset of the information age in Pyongyang itself.

Of course, this is not an information age triggered by computers and the internet, as per Eric Schmidt’s recommendation. And significantly, 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 not with merely regime actors but with these ordinary North Koreans, who are still compelled to live behind an information blockade enforced by the regime.

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