Sources have reported a large increase in the number of ‘grasshopper traders’ in the alleyways around many of North Korea’s markets.
‘Grasshopper traders’ are individuals who conduct their trade activities without an official permit beyond official market boundaries, meaning that when security forces arrive they have to jump, like grasshoppers, to a new location. Growth in this kind of phenomenon would tend to suggest that the class of capital-holding middle class traders is shrinking, while the number of those trading day-to-day in order to make ends meet is growing. It is also related to the fact that official efforts to eliminate grasshopper trading are not as strict as they have been.
One source living in the traditionally more affluent capital, Pyongyang, explained to The Daily NK today that even there, “The number of grasshopper traders has increased a lot of late. There are too many to count,” adding that in the case of Hadang Market, the normal 100-200 grasshopper traders has grown to between 300-400 over a very short period.
Another source from Yangkang Province agreed, saying, “There are grasshopper traders camped in every alleyway around Hyesan Market. People are coming in twice the numbers they normally do, so cracking down on them is not easy.” Other local sources have revealed that markets in the provinces of North Hamkyung and Pyongan are in much the same state.
As expected, with an increasing degree of grasshopper trading comes an increasing number of market watch guards. However, whereas in the past those caught engaging in grasshopper trading stood to lose their wares, nowadays grasshopper traders are just warned about their conduct.
The Pyongyang source explained, “The number of market watch guards has increased by around ten, but their crackdowns are much weaker than they used to be. I know that the authorities have ordered them not to confiscate traders’ wares by force, just to enforce public order.”
This appears to be because the authorities fear that some of their excesses are inflicting too much harm on public opinion.
The Pyongyang source explained, “In many cases people oppose the young market watch guards’ attempts to take the belongings of traders by force, saying ‘they are worse than the Japanese’, and the authorities seem to care about that.”
Officials and the security forces are also being careful about their conduct because of fear of investigation, and this may also be affecting the market environment. Rumors are circulating which suggest that some cadres are being punished for things such as taking bribes.
On this point, the Pyongyang source added, “The central Party is conducting an inspection of the public organs charged with controlling the markets. The word is that people working for these organs are being investigated for things like taking bribes, going to the homes of traders to demand things, or just taking what they want from market stalls.”