Daily NK recently obtained video footage of so-called “grasshopper merchants” urgently scattering away from where they were seated to avoid a crackdown by North Korean authorities.
The video footage, which was taken last month and obtained through a Daily NK source in China, begins in a busy downtown street in Hyesan, Yanggang Province. Everyone appears to be engaging in commerce. Then, suddenly, the merchants begin staring in a certain direction. They realize agents of the city branch of the Ministry of Social Security have begun a crackdown.
The video quality is not good, but it does fully convey the merchants’ sense of urgency and unease. Moreover, the merchants clear from the scene quickly, as if this sort of thing has happened before. They must do this because they will keep their goods only if they avoid getting caught by the agents.
It is also interesting that one of the merchants, in the upper right of the video, is seen trying to sell just one more item. The scattering merchants contrasts with that of the ordinary locals, who are simply standing around watching as if curious to what has happened.
In principle, North Korea allows commercial activity only at official stands in the country’s “General Markets.” Merchants who receive official stalls can safely do business in return for paying market fees to the North Korean authorities. However, some North Koreans open stalls along the street or near general markets rather than at official market stands, and these merchants are targeted during crackdowns. The merchants constantly move around to avoid being caught, which is why they are called “grasshopper merchants.”
North Korea’s Ministry of Social Security have recently intensified their crackdowns, confiscating the goods of these “grasshopper merchants.” What this suggests is that although the authorities may have connived in illegal activity in the past – collecting from “grasshopper merchants” cheaper market fees than from the formal market stands – they will no longer do so.
North Korean authorities clearly desire to put an end to the increasingly commercial activity taking place outside of their control. With North Korean society in chaos due to international sanctions and COVID-19 and ideological laxity among the locals accelerating, the government appears intent to bolster unity toward the regime through intensified “social control.”
What stands out in the video is that merchants are selling items in sizes and quantities they can easily carry and move about. They are prepared to pick up and flee whenever and wherever the authorities launch a crackdown. This is a basic survival strategy for North Koreans in a society where crackdowns and social control have become commonplace.
Also interesting is that all the locals in the video are wearing masks. It is apparently routine for locals to wear masks even outdoors.
North Korea’s emergency quarantine law, which was enacted last year, calls on citizens to “wear masks at all times and maintain a certain distance from one another” during the emergency quarantine period (Article 55). The law also levies fines of KPW 5,000 for failing to don masks (Article 59).
Based on the video, locals appear to be adhering to the mask requirement given fears over COVID-19 and fines if they disobey the government’s mask mandate.