Rare footage of markets and other scenes of North Korean society offers vivid testimony of the major changes that have happened in the reclusive country since a botched currency reform in December last year. The Chosun Ilbo and the Caleb Mission unveiled the footage Tuesday.
It shows an open-air market and train station on Onsong, North Hamgyong Province in October 2009, just before the currency revaluation, and in March this year. Onsong boasted a relatively developed market due to its thriving trade with China, which is just across the border over the Duman (or Tumen) River.
Footage taken in October shows a bustling market, but the same place in March is almost deserted, with only a few traders selling goods. In October, the market was overflowing with food, clothes, shoes, cooking oils, squid and other goods. But three months after the currency debacle, only a few bags of corn are visible in the stalls. Products that were part of South Korean aid shipments to North Korea can also be spotted.
Late last year, the North Korean regime revalued the currency at a rate of 100:1 in an attempt to suppress a nascent market economy and hobble an emerging middle class it sees as a threat. It led to skyrocketing prices due to a shortage of goods and was declared a failure just a month after it was implemented, when authorities began to relax their crackdown on open-air markets.
"Judging by the fact that the market was still deserted even in late March, it appears that retailers are waiting until prices go up even more," said an official at the Unification Ministry. "The sale of goods picked up somewhat after North Korean authorities increased supply by importing products from China and other countries ahead of Kim Il-sung's birthday" on April 15, a North Korean source said.
Onsong market before the currency revaluation used to include both roofed and open-air stalls where unauthorized merchants sold goods on mats placed on the ground. The square in front of the train station was also a bustling market where traders sold products away from the watchful eye of the authorities. But in early March 90 percent of the stalls were empty.
Pastor Kim Sung-eun of the Caleb Mission said, "If the owners of roofed stalls, who paid a fee for official approval to sell goods, disappeared, it suggests that North Korea's middle class has collapsed."
There was also evidence of South Korean aid products being sold in the markets. Bags of grain bearing the South Korean Red Cross symbol could be seen in various parts of the market. Some North Koreans used them as shopping bags. Goods sent as part of aid shipments by South Korea including grain bags are said to be very popular in the North. "There are rumors that high-ranking North Korean officials sold South Korean aid products in the markets, but none of them have been confirmed," a Unification ministry official said.
"The market opens around 8:30 a.m. and closes around 7 p.m. after sunset," said a North Korean defector from Onsong. "It's heartbreaking to see the once bustling market so empty."