|▲ Namyang, as viewed from across the border in China (ⓒ DailyNK file photo)|
Chinese traders are operating with the permission of the North Korean authorities in the public market in Namyang, part of rural Onsung County in North Hamkyung Province.
The news has aroused considerable surprise, even arousing claims of a ‘Kim Jong Eun-style opening’.
A North Hamkyung Province source explained the scene to Daily NK today, saying, “From the start of this month, Chinese traders have been coming through Tumen to trade with locals in Namyang market. They are staying from 9AM to 5PM.”
Namyang has a small population and lies far from significant population centers. However, there is a customs house located in the immediate vicinity, making it a key contact point for cross-border trade.
According to the source, “Somewhere between 50 and 70 of them come in for the day, and take up around a third of the stall space.” Namyang market used to have approximately 100 stalls, but it has apparently been expanded to accommodate the new arrivals.
The Chinese traders sell a range of items, including some that are formally forbidden such as grains, but also fruits, processed foods including instant noodles, clothing and shoes. Most also take the chance to trade the other way, buying natural products such as seaweed and seafood, wild herbs and mushrooms to sell in China.
The move is surprising because while ethnic Chinese citizens residing in North Korea have long played the role of wholesaler to the country’s domestic markets thanks to the relative ease with which they can traverse the Sino-North Korean border, it is unprecedented for ordinary Chinese citizens to be allowed to trade directly in domestic North Korean markets.
Naturally, most North Koreans in the area welcome the new presence, because it both shortens supply chains and brings down prices, while also allowing them to order products directly from China and, with a slice of luck, receive them within 24 hours.
According to the source, “There are even people already coming up from Chongjin to trade fish with the Chinese! The security services are cracking down on cross-border activities, but the number of people is continuing to rise all the same.”
However, existing North Korean traders do harbor unease at the new situation, mostly because they are being forced to yield market share to the Chinese, whose products are frequently cheaper and mostly of a higher quality than those they offer. In many cases, the North Korean traders have little hope of competing with their Chinese counterparts, not least since the latter can move more freely between the two countries.
The move is said to be one outcome of Chinese demands made when Kim Jong Il visited North Korea's sole major ally in 2010. As such, it joins the leasing of port facilities at Raijin and Chongjin and the construction of a road between Namyang and Chongjin as outcomes of the former leader’s visit.
However, it could just as easily be rescinded as continued. According to the source, “Onsung County cadres say that they opened up because the General (Kim Jong Il) ordered it, but that comrade Kim Jong Eun has said they need to keep a close eye on things. Because of the [freedom of information] effect it might have on the people, a limit to the number of Chinese people being allowed in has been set.”
In one of few previous examples of something similar, Chinese citizens were permitted to trade in the immediate vicinity of Wonjeong-ri Customs House near the special economic area at Raijin-Sonbong in around 1996. However, this was not allowed to become permanent.