Alley merchants [also known as grasshopper
merchants]– those who sell goods in alleyways to avoid crackdowns by Ministry
of People’s Safety [MPS] officials–are now referred to as “tick merchants,” a
term coined after their rapid proliferation, according to sources within North
Affiliated with city and county People’s
Committees throughout North Korea, official marketplaces are run by a
management center, charged with collecting and handling fees for
vendors renting stalls from which to sell their sundry goods.
However, securing a location for their operations is not feasible for a
multitude of residents. “Many don’t have enough money to afford to pay for a
stall in the marketplace, so they either sell goods in the alleys of villages
or by crossroads in close proximity to the jangmadang [North Korea’s system of
markets],” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 9th.
Regulation of these “alley merchants,” of
whom there are countless numbers, is carried out by the Ministry of
People’s Safety and patrol units falling under its umbrella. Frequently, these officials are know to extort merchants under the pretense of
regulating illegal market activity, confiscating their goods, only to turn
around and return the merchandise as soon as their bribe demands have been met.
Despite the incessant threat of crackdowns and extortion by these officials, “grasshopper vendors” are determined to
continue selling their items, desperate to hold onto their “lifelines,” according to
the source, who noted a marked difference in this particular sector of the market economy since just last year.
Of this situation, she said, “With February 16th [Kim Jong Il’s birthday]
fast approaching, the number of alley merchants has surged [to sell goods for
residents preparing for the holiday], as has the number of MPS officials.” She went on to explain that last year, however, these “grasshopper merchants” largely abided orders, fleeing the premises after the MPS units arrived for fear of the repercussions. But
this year most are staying put in these makeshift alleyway market areas, even
saying things to the officials like, ‘If we got our rations, do you think
we would be putting ourselves through this?’
This is how the newly coined term, ‘tick
merchant’, came into existence: derived from a common expression in North Korea–regarding how impossible ticks are to remove and keep away before another comes along–these merchants are much the same–refusing to budge despite the consequences, determined to claim their spot in the market system.
Recently, investigations launched by the Central
Party, aimed at rooting out reckless misconduct of MPS officials toward
residents, are also thought to be contributing to the ease on
regulation of these alley merchants. This, coupled with the bribe culture
continually infiltrating the “tick merchant” realm–just as in the rest of North
Korea–has seen the number of those engaged in these operations spike; nominal bribes of
cash or goods ensure, at least for the time being, that they can do business in
relative peace. Not unlike those with official stalls inside the market, some
even reportedly pay periodic fees directly to the market management, all but
guaranteeing their exemption from regulation.
The residents, and even the MPS officials
themselves, are not overly preoccupied with regulations and clampdowns,
because, as the source put it, “it becomes increasingly difficult for officials
to crackdown on merchants selling in the surrounding areas of the markets, entirely reliant on selling goods to survive.”
Many are concerned that the leniency pervading these alley way operations may be fleeting, but the source asserted things will never return to the past. “When the investigations on the Ministry of
People’s Safety officials are over, regulation of the alley markets is expected
to become stringent again. Still, at this point, it’s next to impossible for
these officials to make residents, largely dependent on business to maintain
their livelihoods, obey them, meaning eradicating these ‘tick merchants’ is
just as improbable,” she concluded.