Meet the new boss – capitalist vocab enters through market

As a result of North Korea’s budding
marketization, there have been some linguistic changes. These days, it is not
unusual to hear the capitalist-infused word ‘boss’ in the jangmadang
(marketplace). In order to draw in customer’s attention and start the process
of negotiating, the vendors refer to passersby as ‘bosses.’

In a telephone conversation with the Daily
NK on October 27th, an inside source from North Pyongan Province reported that it is quite commonplace for tradespeople to use the word ‘boss.’

Two additional sources in South Pyongan
Province corroborated this trend.  

“If you travel to Sinuiju City’s Chae-ha
Market, the vendors will call out to the passing customers from behind their
stands. They say things like, ‘Boss, nice to see you!’ The vendors often look
at the people’s clothing and appearance as a way to gauge whether they have a
lot of money or not,” she added.

“Upon being called ‘boss,’ people are
usually a bit embarrassed but it generally puts them in a good mood and
inflates their ego. Calling them simply, ‘Hey Mister!’ or ‘Excuse me, Miss!’ is
not entirely bad, but it has no connotation of class, so there’s no opportunity
for the vendor to use flattery to their advantage.”

It is estimated that the word ‘boss’ first
appeared in North Korea sometime in the 1990s. It has a bit of a different
meaning from the Western or even South Korean meaning of the word. When South
Korean vendors call their customers ‘boss’ in department stores, it has a
slightly different nuance from the North Korean usage. 

For many years, private
ownership was banned in North Korea (technically, it still is, but de facto
private operations of all manner are ubiquitous) so companies were also
non-existent. For that reason, the North Korean concept of ‘boss’ was largely
absent from the lexicon.

In the 1990s, the North Korean regime began
a multi-agency push for foreign currency earning enterprises in order to make
up for the food shortage. This effort involved Party agencies, the military,
and civic units engaged in competitive market activities to bring in foreign
cash to prop up the regime. To keep up socialist appearances, these state
enterprises were all called ‘ABC Factory’ or ‘123 Operation.’  

These enterprises were different from the
China-facing trade companies, which were called ‘ABC Trading Company.’ This was
the first appearance of the word ‘company.’ At that point, employees of these
trading companies began to be call their leaders ‘boss.’

Ordinary folks were awestruck by the sudden
normalization of this vocabulary, once considered the antithesis of the tenets
of socialism. 
Production units in the North are overseen by Party members, referred to as ‘management secretary,’ or ‘under secretary,’ while the in-house leader is
simple called, ‘manager.’

‘Boss’ is entirely unambiguous in its
meaning. It does not have any connotations reminiscent of the Korean Workers’
Party, and it does not mean ‘manager.’ When people use it, they’re describing a
person who exists outside the world of cadres and factory managers; they’re
pointing to an idea that doesn’t exist in the socialist worldview.

A ‘boss’ usually means a tradesperson who
interfaces with foreigners such as the Chinese to earn money. In the 1990s,
many people starved due to lack of food and money to buy it. These ‘bosses’
were the ones who eventually found a way to bring food and money into North
Korea from China. Furthermore, the ‘bosses’ brought money making opportunities
to people in desperate need. That’s why the word is infused with a sense of
respect and loyalty.

The word reflects the new status, jobs, and
skills that people aspire to. Notably, unlike most aspects of life in North
Korea, one’s ability to shoot up through the ranks is less contingent on
background: even those with poor songbun (caste system designated by
family background and political loyalty) still have a chance to become a

Moreover, those failing to gain entry into
the Workers’ Party–once the preferred method to secure relatively favorable living conditions, though such interest is known to be waning –have
been known to gain the title, ‘boss.’ Even former prisoners of re-education camps comprise a robust portion of the ‘boss’ contingent. 

According to the source, qualifications to become a ‘boss’ boil down to connections, knowledge,
and ability to mobilize enough financial resources to conduct business with
China. ‘Boss’ standing sits in a space of its own, shirking conventional methods–i.e., military,
Party, and administration ties-to command wealth and power.

“It all started when the heads of Chinese
trading companies began referring to any given North Korean counterpart as
‘boss.’ I think becoming a ‘boss’ is the ultimate goal of many North Koreans,”
the source said.

So, then, it makes sense that an increasing number
of vendors in the marketplace are using the term to catch people’s’ attention.

“It used to be the case that vendors would
speak rather informally to people, using a grammatical form meant to be used
with friends. But now even 50-year-old merchants are speaking very respectfully
to 20-year-old customers. The language conventions have changed dramatically,”
she explained.  

“As the market continues to grow and
competition heats up, we can predict that this kind of respectful attitude
towards customers to be an upwards trend. In the years ahead, I fully
anticipate that calling one’s customers ‘boss’ will be considered basic politeness.”

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at