As the North Korean authorities have shut down major marketplaces across Ryanggang province, in the county's north near the Chinese border, as part of intensified efforts to stop COVID-19, making life harder for citizens who make the bulk of their income from side businesses selling daily necessities.
Typical goods for sale in these markets include clothes, meat and other food items, cooking oil and other goods for household use. The markets provided both a place for consumers to conveniently procure what they need, and put money in the hands of people producing and selling these items.
But the closure has resulted in more people attempting to sell their wares in illegal alleyway grasshopper markets, named for merchants who pick up their goods and quickly flee to another location to avoid raids from authorities. Now, authorities are beginning to more strictly crack down on those small vendors as well.
“Authorities shut down marketplaces in the province starting May 15 as part of their coronavirus measures,” a resident of Ryanggang, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.
“The authorities are stepping up their crackdown to prevent us from starting up grasshopper markets,” the source said.
“In Hyesan, [the capital of the province], there are Hyesin, Wiyon and Ryonbong markets. These markets were open to everyone for three hours between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.,” the source said.
Those markets had already been on reduced hours because of the coronavirus.
“But now these have been closed and the authorities are now starting to crack down on businesses [that try to defy the closure],” said the source.
According to the source, most of the local residents make their living in the marketplaces. In North Korea everyone is assigned a job by the government, but paid a monthly salary less than U.S. $5 on average, much less than what is needed to live on. Most North Korean households need side-jobs to support themselves.
“As most of the residents make their living in marketplaces, residents are getting angry that the government is shutting them down,” said the source.
“[Authorities] aren’t paying attention to the livelihood of residents that have become more difficult due to the coronavirus crisis,” the source said.
Once the official markets were closed down, merchants tried to do things on their own.
“When Wiyon market shut down, some of the merchants opened a grasshopper market in the alley, but the cops showed up and kicked them out,” said the source.
They made even grasshopper markets unavailable, so now there is friction between groups of inspectors and residents,” the source added.
According to the source, residents suspect that the markets are not closing because of coronavirus. They think the government is trying to give them fewer options to get out of being mobilized as labor for government infrastructure projects in rural areas.
“Is it really due to the coronavirus or is it a trick to drive residents to rural mobilization?” the source asked.
Another resident of Ryanggang, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, confirmed to RFA Saturday that grasshopper markets have sprung up all around Hyesan, and the authorities are shutting them down.
“Residents protest fiercely when the cops come in and shut down grasshopper markets,” the second source said.
“Some of the merchants who have to close down when the police come by end up getting in shouting matches and physical fights in the grasshopper market,” the second source said, adding that many of these merchants have no other choice when they have no access to the official marketplaces and the coronavirus has made it that much harder to get by.
“Most of the residents are living from hand to mouth, and they became even more desperate when authorities made the decision to shut down the markets,” the second source said.
“There was even a small disturbance in which residents protested in groups against the police, who tried to suppress them by actually using weapons against them.”
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.