Restrictions on the selling of South Korean-made goods have recently begun to loosen in North Korea, with some North Korean observers suggesting that the authorities are preparing for improving inter-Korean relations and more exchanges.
“In the past, the authorities cracked down hard on the selling of South Korean goods in the markets, but the situation has improved a bit,” said a North Pyongan Province-based source on October 1. “People are saying it’s because of improvements in the inter-Korean relationship.”
The source added that, “South Korean toothpaste, secondhand clothes, and medicines are being sold a lot in the markets,” and that, “amoxycillin (a type of antibiotic similar to penicillin), cold medicines, and vitamins are also available. The South Korean cold medicine is considered effective so it’s popular.”
Historically, the North Korean authorities have cracked down harshly on the sale of South Korean products in the country’s markets by shutting down sales counters and imposing fines. North Koreans have thus pointed to the recent inter-Korean summits as the reason for the sudden loosening of restrictions.
Following the first inter-Korean summit this year, North Korea conducted a massive crackdown across the country on the spread of “capitalist culture” by establishing an “anti-Socialism Group.” The underlying reason may have been due to factors other than the summits.
The source pointed out that an important reason behind the loosening of the restrictions is the order handed down by Kim Jong Un in July in response to North Koreans protesting the anti-Socialist crackdown that instructed the country’s legal agencies “not to make an enemy of the people.”
“The secretarial department of the Enterprise Office ordered in July that the anti-socialist crackdown should not be conducted too strongly,” said a source in South Pyongan Province, adding that Kim Jong Un’s order may have led to a loosening of the anti-socialist crackdown.
However, North Korean merchants are still unable to openly sell South Korean goods in the markets. The monitoring of such activity has loosened, but continues. Some merchants circumvent surveillance by the authorities by discreetly selling the goods, which are popular with ordinary North Koreans, or changing the labels to declare they were manufactured in China.
“If the anti-socialist group finds out that merchants are selling South Korean goods, they will come and crackdown on that activity, so they have to be careful,” said the North Pyongan Province-based source. “If they find out when the authorities make their rounds, they hide the goods.”
He said that there are frequent strong protests by merchants against the authorities cracking down on the sale of South Korean goods, adding that he had seen a lot of instances where merchants and officials argued over the issue.
“In early September, I saw anti-socialist group officials and merchants get into an argument at a market,” he said.
“One official told the merchants that ‘the central government has ordered [us] to crackdown [on this activity],’ but the merchants responded that the sale of the goods was their lifeline and told them to stop disrupting their businesses.”
The South Pyongan Province-based source added, “That there are frequent fights between officials and merchants has been reported up the line.
“Even the officials themselves are reporting to the central government that crackdowns need to be loosened so that the people can make a living and that there are people starving [because of the crackdowns]. The authorities are unsure about what to do,” she said.
Both sources reported that North Koreans believe that it is their right to conduct business to support their livelihoods and are proactive in protecting this right. Some merchants have proclaimed strongly that everyone, except those living off of state rations, are committing acts of “anti-socialism” and that even those those conducting the crackdowns are anti-socialist” themselves.
North Korea’s general markets and nearby street vendors are selling illegal goods, including South Korean products, despite government restrictions, according to the source. Despite the crackdowns, many merchants offer all kinds of services to their customers to make more profit and sell South Korean goods despite the threat of punishment.