North Korea’s Local Markets Bustle as War Threat Fades

2013-05-17
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Goods bound for North Korea at a customs checkpoint near the border in Dandong, China, in a file photo.
Goods bound for North Korea at a customs checkpoint near the border in Dandong, China, in a file photo.
AFP

Activity at local markets in North Korea has picked up in recent weeks since Pyongyang toned down threats of war against South Korea and the U.S., according to traders along the Chinese border.

Both black and authorized markets had quieted down during weeks of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula in March and April, with border restrictions tightened and many North Koreans busy with war drills and other preparations, sources said.

But this month, with Pyongyang’s war rhetoric dying down, the marketplaces have started bustling again, according to traders who bring goods to North Korea from neighboring China—the isolated country’s main trading partner and source of goods.

“Business is going well because North Korea’s markets are recovered, and they hadn’t until May,” an ethnic Chinese North Korean who runs a small trading business between China and Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another North Korean of Chinese descent who conducts trade between China and Chongjin in North Hamgyong province, and who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said some traders and merchants are doing so well they are running out of inventory.

“Since the situation in North Korean markets is good, Chinese products are in short supply,” he told RFA, adding that he would be picking up extra inventory on his next trip because business was booming.

“I planned to buy 50,000 yuan [about U.S. $8,000] worth of products, but actually I’ll be buying another 20,000 to 30,000 yuan [U.S. $3,000 to $5,000] worth of extra products.”

Returning to normal

Pyongyang began issuing vitriolic war rhetoric after the United Nations in March imposed a new regimen of sanctions in response to the North’s third nuclear test on February 12, raising ominous prospects of a nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula.

North and South Korea are still in a standoff over negotiations about the suspension of the Kaesong industrial park, a key cooperation project.

But daily life is returning to normal for North Koreans, with the markets along with it, while smuggling activities along the Chinese border that fuel the country's thriving black market trade are also picking up, traders said.

“Recently, smuggling has been very active along both sides of the river [border],” a source from Dandong in northeastern China said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“A large amount of herbs and vegetables grown in North Korea are illegally traded for Chinese rice and fertilizer.”

“Vigorous smuggling between China and North Korea shows that the North has regained its stability,” he added.

However, business could slow down again once the rice planting season begins, with local marketplaces open for shorter hours, sources said.

At least three quarters of North Korea’s imports come from China—Pyongyang’s main diplomatic and economic ally—and the U.N. has said the success of the new sanctions depends largely on Beijing.

Annual trade between the two countries is worth some U.S. $6 billion, but in the first quarter of this year it dropped more than 7 percent, with China's exports to North Korea down 13.8 percent to U.S. $720 million, according to the Reuters news agency.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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