N.Korean Regime to Ban Open-Air Markets

  • By Kim Myong-song

    March 04, 2021 13:49

    Open-air markets will likely be banned again in North Korea in another sign that the regime is increasingly fraying at the seams.

    The markets have been a lifeline for a destitute population after the state failed to supply rations in the provinces. But now the regime wants to put them under state control, according to intelligence authorities here on Wednesday.

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has declared war on "anti-socialist" activities in a frantic attempt to shore up his power amid a collapsing economy and complete border closure that has made even supplies in Pyongyang, where the elite live, hard to come by.

    Open-air black markets were born amid the famine of the mid-1990s but gradually grew to become the heart of a nascent market economy after they were officially sanctioned by former leader Kim Jong-il in 2002. There are an estimated 500 officially sanctioned open-air markets, where 1.1 million traders sell farm produce and consumer goods mostly imported from China by open or clandestine routes. 

    When he came into power, Kim Jong-un took economic reform measures, including giving limited autonomy to some factories, enterprises and collective farms. As a result, the number of open-air markets more than doubled from some 200 in 2010 to about 460 in 2017.

    But now the crackpot country's finances are close to collapse and he seems determined to turn the clock back and hold on to power by Draconian means.

    North Koreans shop in an open-air market in August 2017, in this grab from TV Chosun.

    One defector who used to be a senior official in the North said, "This is an attempt to restore the centralized planned economy by putting private economic activities under state control as it has become difficult to control people."

    The regime is seeking to ban all private food transactions and set up state food distribution centers instead. All food from collective farms and individuals will be confiscated and then sold back to the people.

    One source said, "It's an attempt to stabilize food prices and supply by forcefully collecting food stockpiled by people amid the dire straits caused by international sanctions and border lockdown."

    A similar policy already failed once. In the early 2000s, the regime attempted to collect all grain production and sell it from state-run stores at fixed prices, but that only resulted in driving grey-market food prices up.

    The regime is going to ban even small private enterprises like barbers, hairdressers, private tutors and porters.

    The market control policy seems to be aimed at overcoming alarming signs of "individualism" boosted by the marketization process. The regime is also cracking down on the clandestine distribution of South Korean soap operas and music videos.

    Last December, the regime declared war on South Korean pop culture by enacting an "anti-reactionary" culture law. "North Koreans are familiar with South Korean soap operas, films and music they can get in open-air markets," the source said.

    "In the past, South Korean soap operas and songs were introduced into the North through video and cassette tapes, but now they're spreading much faster among young North Koreans through USB sticks," said another defector who was also was a senior official. 

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