International sanctions not a concern for some market vendors in North Korea

Tongil Market in Pyongyang. Image: Daily NK

North Korea’s markets continue to face stagnation despite a steady stream of market goers and products being sold. Market vendors, however, say that sales have fallen because customers just don’t have as much money on hand.

Daily NK recently conducted an interview with a resident living on the outskirts of Pyongyang. This is what she had to say.

“Ordinary North Koreans don’t have much money on hand anymore due to economic stagnation over the past three years. Markets open and people go there, but that’s just to look around. They don’t buy anything. Vendors still try to sell their wares because that’s the only way they can survive. They yell out for people to come and look at what they’re selling even if no one responds.”

The source told Daily NK that since 2016, when international sanctions were implemented in full force, the country’s economy faltered and most consumers now only buy cheap corn and vegetables at the market, rarely buying anything else.

“Electronic goods, freezers and other products were hot items three years ago, but nobody buys them now. Vendors sell Chinese-made electronics for only 150 dollars, but people don’t buy them because there’s no electricity to use them.”

This situation has led to an increased burden on the working class. Traders are facing reduced income because sales have dropped but still have to pay market fees.

“The working elderly say that they can only earn enough per day to buy snacks for their grandchildren, or around 5,000 North Korean won. That sum, however, is considerable for the average resident. Vendors selling food have to pay market fees, which are 200 won a day. Those selling bags or clothes have to pay 2,000 won a day. Vendors look enviously on other merchants who actually sell things and try even harder to entice customers. You know that just by looking into their eyes.”

However, there are cases where vendors help each other out.

“Someone working in the market may buy something from another vendor if that person bought from them in the past. Everyone knows that life is hard. They will get together to drink sometimes and restaurant owners will try to entice them to their venues. If a merchant is friends with a restaurant owner, they’ll feel pressure to visit that restaurant.”

North Koreans don’t have much money on hand and avoid spending any money they have earned at the local markets. This atmosphere has led people to say that things are so tough that even those working as “gisaeng (female entertainers) have to go out into the (farm) fields and work.”

Daily NK recently reported that most North Koreans at the local markets prefer the use of foreign currency. Small-scale transactions use North Korean won, but larger transactions of 10,000 won or more tend to use foreign currency.

Van heads into Dandong from Sinuiju. Image: Daily NK file photo

“People barely acknowledge the use of North Korean won. They try to use Chinese or US currency more. North Koreans use won to buy food, but for anything costing 10,000 won or more they use foreign currency because too many North Korean bills would be needed for the transaction. North Koreans think that the won has no real value, colloquially likening it to ‘the bubbles that emerge in the thick cereal gruel fed to pigs’. They take good care of the US dollars in their possession. While they may say they “hate” America, they call the country the “dollar kingdom.”

“North Koreans were always poor, so they don’t pay much attention to the sanctions,” the source said when asked whether international sanctions have made it more difficult for North Koreans to survive.

“There are so many trucks on the Yalu River bridge that the bridge is going to collapse! China is welcoming our products so I don’t think sanctions will do much good.”