A wholesaler of counterfeit leather goods in North Korea’s Pyongsong Market was recently arrested for opposing government efforts after the Eighth Party Congress to ensure that all goods produced in the country meet state-set quality standards, Daily NK has learned.

“Members of Cabinet commercial bureau inspection team staged a raid on Pyongsong Market on Mar. 1, and proceeded to hold meetings with several wholesalers and the managers of factories producing counterfeit goods at the market’s management office,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Friday. “The next day, a woman surnamed Oh, who was called the ‘ringleader of leather,’ was arrested by the Ministry of Social Security for refusing to abide by national measures regarding the restructuring of the socialist commercial system.”

Pyongsong is one of North Korea’s centers of production for counterfeit goods as business people in the area have long developed skills in copying foreign-made products. The many talented people in science and technology who reside in the city, faced with difficulties feeding their families just through government rations, have had to turn to selling the know-how they have obtained through research on national projects to local business people. At night, they have earned money by visiting counterfeit goods factories to provide lessons on how to produce such goods.

Good-quality yet inexpensive leather-made counterfeit goods – ranging from bags and shoes to coats – have been produced in large quantities in Pyongsong. Demand for these goods is high because it tends to be difficult to tell them apart from genuine articles.

North Pyongan Province’s commercial department spoke with private business people, including Oh, who had long worked in producing and selling leather counterfeit goods to explain to them about the party’s policies regarding the “restructuring of the socialist commercial system” and to instruct them that only goods that have received approval from the National Quality Monitoring Committee can be sold in the markets.

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Pyongsong’s city center. / Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Before the Eighth Party Congress, the authorities paid little attention to what kind of products business people sold – only that they pay their market fees on time. Through this recent incident, however, the authorities have made it clear that because the National Quality Monitoring Committee has created a system to manage and monitor the production processes and quality of goods, the goods of private business people will be subject to “due diligence” procedures.

Oh, however, refused to comply with this procedures, complaining that since leather was no longer being imported over the border from China because of the border closure there would be little need for a system to manage and monitor production and conduct quality control activities. She also questioned why the government was telling her what to do with leather goods that had been produced during the winter, before the Eighth Party Congress.

Following her rejection of the procedures, inspectors from the Cabinet’s commercial bureau conducted another meeting with her at the market on Mar. 1, but Oh continued to push back against the procedures. The inspectors reported this to the Central Committee and requested that her case be dealt with “legally.” Oh was then arrested by members of the Ministry of Social Security’s investigation bureau.

The investigation bureau reportedly told Oh that “individualistic elements like you are so prevalent that the state can’t conduct its plans and are causing worry on the part of the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un].” They threatened to treat her comments as anti-party behavior while also threatening to confiscate all the production equipment at the factory she owned.

Angered by this, Oh countered that “the state has only lazy officials who refuse to use their heads, and because they don’t think of the country’s development as something they need to do themselves, their know-how is worse than those of individuals.” She also protested that she would rather die than have them take away her leather production equipment.

During several rounds of interrogations, ministry officials found that Oh had connections with several scientists and researchers in regards to her counterfeit product production activities, and tried to get her to name names. Oh, however, refused to do so and she is now undergoing “severe torture.”

Ministry officials, accompanied by security officials from the Academy of Sciences, are conducting interrogations of scientists and researchers at the Pyongsong facility who have had even limited contact with Oh, along with trying to account for all chemical reagents and other supplies in the facility’s research labs.

“As news of [Oh’s case] has spread, many business people are complaining that the government is coming out of nowhere to control and manage the means of production they have created after having shown no interest in what business people have put everything into selling,” the source said.

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