A screenshot of materials recently obtained by Daily NK written by the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department / Image: Daily NK

North Korean authorities recently designated streetside commerce as a “crime against the people” and have begun ideological education efforts to tamper down discontent surrounding government crackdowns on street merchants. 

Daily NK recently obtained “political activity materials” written by the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department entitled “Let’s Completely Eliminate the Phenomenon of Commerce near Markets and in the Streets.” The materials were used during lectures at factories, enterprises and inminban (people’s units) throughout the country from early to mid-November.

The materials start by saying, “COVID-19 is causing great anxiety and concern in the international community as it spreads throughout the entire world, while the appearance of variants is causing a major global disaster.”

The materials then say that with the authorities declaring a national quarantine emergency and closing the border to stop infections, some “unawake” people were in a flap over “temporary difficulties” and obstructing quarantine efforts by carrying out “chaotic” commerce near markets and on the streets. Essentially, the authorities are stressing the justification for the controls on streetside commerce.

Daily NK previously reported that North Korean authorities — led by the Ministry of Social Security — have strengthened their controls on streetside commerce since March, forcefully confiscating the wares of so-called “grasshopper merchants,” as streetside merchants are called in North Korea. They have gradually strengthened their crackdown since then, dragging off people involved in the trade to forced labor camps.

Despite the “mop-up operation,” however, locals reportedly continue to engage in streetside commerce to overcome economic difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, evading surveillance by regulators. People have also expressed considerable bitterness over being prevented from doing business as they like. Aware that people are very unhappy, the authorities have begun ideological education efforts in response.

The materials condemned “many people” for “creating disorder near markets and on the street, failing even to wear masks” and “threatening quarantine efforts by serving food of questionable sanitation and safety,” all out of an obsession with “earning just a few coins more.”

The materials accused the merchants of placing “individual interests over those of society and the collective.”

In particular, the documents declared that conducting commerce near markets and in the streets – using those spaces to earn money during the emergency quarantine period – is a “conscious crime against the people” that sparks discontent and causes commotion. They called it an “enemy act” that threatens the North Korean system.

Even though North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a direct special order in mid-June calling for a resolution to food issues, the situation has yet to improve. Regular provisions of food have not taken place, outside of those for certain privileged classes in Pyongyang. 

Despite this, the authorities are essentially using the lectures to pressure locals who engage in streetside commerce by labeling them “reactionary elements,” rather than focus on resolving the country’s existing food issues.

A Daily NK source said that with the authorities failing to provide food, the prohibition against streetside commerce amounts to “telling people to starve to death.” He said the lectures appear aimed at raising tension and forcefully suppressing public discontent with food shortages.

The materials even agitated against people who “engage in commerce in the streets, obsessed with their personal interests and a few coins,” asking lecture attendees, “What should we make of such people?” This amounts to a call for all citizens to unite to defeat street merchants, the source claimed. 

However, the source noted that many people are saying that things must be pretty tough if street sellers are still trying to make money despite enduring subhuman treatment from young people patrolling the streets.

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