Kim Jong-il Is Losing the War with Open-Air Markets

  • By Park Doo-sik from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    March 04, 2011 13:05

    Park Doo-sik

    North Korea's Sinuiju area on the border with China is turning into a virtual battlefield, sources in the Stalinist country say. Around Feb. 15, members of a border guard unit were caught by a security patrol in the act of trying to cross the Apnok (or Yalu) River with stolen copper, and fired back at the patrol and fled. Sinuiju is the main gateway to China.

    And on Feb. 18, vendors in the market mobbed a policeman, who hit a vendor while trying to crack down on private trade, and staged a protest that soon attracted others. Following the two incidents, the State Security Department and troops were apparently deployed to the area, harassing people and watching their every move.

    The factor that these incidents have in common is essentially trade. The soldiers were trying to sell the stolen copper, and the vendors wanted to go about their business unmolested. Crackdowns on North Korea's burgeoning open-air markets are not confined to Sinuiju. Yet without them, there is no real North Korean economy. The ration system crumbled during the grave famines in the mid- and late 1990s. Instead, North Koreans opened the markets by themselves, and they emerged as the pillar of the North Korean economy in the 2000s.

    This small-scale capitalism is now common throughout the North. Now, there are two economic system in North Korea: special rations for the residents of Pyongyang and the privileged and open-air markets where ordinary people to manage their lives to some extent, according to a survey of North Korean defectors conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification.

    The Kim Jong-il regime largely tries to ignore the growing power of the open-air markets, since it is incapable of shutting them down. This is partly because corrupt officials in the party, government, military and state-owned companies are boosting their own income in the markets. But every now and again the regime has another shot at suppressing small-scale capitalism. A case in point was the 2009 currency reform, which was a scheme to suppress the nascent middle class by devaluing their savings. It was a complete fiasco, and Park Nam-gi, the former director of the Workers Party's Planning and Finance Department, was executed in March last year to take the fall. The markets, however, have not vanished.

    The crackdown recently resumed in a bid to block the flow of news through the markets about the Middle East uprisings. Orders were given to remove the partitions between stalls to eradicate privacy where words of mouth could be safely exchanged. North Korea analysts say frequent protests recently about bread-and-butter issues in the North are directly linked to this clumsy crackdown.

    The Jasmine Revolutions that started in Tunisia and moved to Egypt, and elsewhere, plunging Libya into a state of civil war, were touched off by the self-immolation of a street vendor in December last year. When police confiscated all the fruit he had to sell that day, the young man burned himself to death. As a result the dictators of three countries whose combined tenures run 95 years have been driven out or are about to be deposed.

    The North Korean situation is much worse than in the three North African countries, but many experts have said that the North lacks a core class of people capable of leading an organized uprising.

    In August last year the Chosun Ilbo released video footage of the Chaeha market in Sinuiju. The clip shows tough women in their 40s and 50s waving their arms and shouting to sell goods from their stalls. All of them will have a hard time now under the new crackdown. Looking at the footage again, I have a hunch that these women's will no longer bend before the regime. The green shoots cracking through the concrete of the North Korean system may be growing much bigger and have deeper roots than we think.

    • Copyright © Chosunilbo &
    Previous Next
    All Headlines Back to Top