The North Korean authorities have been cracking down on unofficial or “black” markets in some parts of the country. According to reports from Daily NK sources on Nov. 18, the raids are jeopardizing the livelihood of the local merchants.
In North Korea, razzias on street merchants aren’t unusual occurrences – they typically happen ahead of important holidays or political events. Daily NK reported a crackdown on street merchants, also called “grasshopper merchants,” in 2017.
The raids are normally conducted by local police or neighborhood patrols. This time, however, a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK: “The authorities have created a designated team to crack down on sellers” which conduct “a large scale sweep of the street merchants.”
“The scenes on the markets remind of gang fights,” he explained.
Further sources stated it was quite rare for dedicated teams to conduct raids on merchants without any apparent reason such as state holidays or public appearances of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
OFFICIAL MARKETS LOSING REVENUE
North Korea created state-sanctioned “General Markets” in 2003. To be able to participate in markets, merchants have to rent out spaces and market stalls by paying a market fee, or jangse. Those who are unable to do so, however, rather sell their goods in “unofficial markets” – away from government control. These under-the-table markets are generally referred to colloquially as jangmadang or “grasshopper markets.”
Daily NK sources said that merchants working in these unofficial markets pay around 50-70% of the market fees paid by merchants in official markets. The authorities who collect these fees do so in return for turning a blind eye to their activities.
However, those incomes are apparently not sufficient enough to fill the hole in the pockets of official markets – just the contrary. As the country’s financial struggles have forced many merchants to leave their local “official” trading venues, the collected amount of market fees at official markets has decreased considerably.
In Pyongsong’s Okjon Market, for example, North Korean authorities tried to stem the resulting financial loss by raising the market fees on merchants in the market.
POSSIBLE REASONS FOR THE RAIDS
Daily NK’s sources have speculated about possible reasons behind the current raids on black markets.
One explanation could be, for instance, that the crackdowns are intended to pressure unregistered merchants into paying higher bribes to the authorities.
The crackdowns might also have originated from an order issued by Kim Jong Un, a source told Daily NK. “According to a rumor, Kim Jong Un saw the street merchants and criticized them for not following the rules,” he said. “That’s when the crackdowns started. The authorities have also recently handed down an order to eliminate ‘unregistered commercial transactions.’”
Further sources think this regulatory measure could be an attempt to incorporate unofficial markets into the official ones to better facilitate their management. However, they were unable to tell whether such an initiative had been imposed on all North Korean markets.
HURTING THE UNDERPRIVILEGED
Those “unofficial” merchants affected by the unexpected raids are now expressing their discontent, a Daily NK source said.
“Street merchants are people who get by barely by selling food, water and other goods near railway stations, bus terminals, or markets with a lot of pedestrians,” he explained. “Even among all merchants, they’re the most underprivileged.”
This year has been particularly difficult for the North Korean people, according to the source. “The harvest wasn’t good and all of the hogs we raised as food source died from African Swine Fever. The lives of North Koreans have gotten harder,” he said. Hence, “the people who have just barely been able to survive by selling food on the streets are really unhappy – because now the government is taking away their only way to survive.”
*Translated by Violet Kim and edited by Laura Geigenberger
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