Illegal nighttime markets pop up in North Korea

New laws forbid selling goods that merchants did not produce themselves, all but killing daytime commerce.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2024.02.28
Illegal nighttime markets pop up in North Korea Vendors display fruits and vegetables on a roadside in Kaesong, North Korea, Nov. 30, 2016.
Ed Jones/AFP

Merchants in North Korea are flocking to illegal night markets to sell their goods because the government has introduced new laws that prohibit the sale of goods that they did not make themselves, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

It’s the latest effort by the government to eliminate the marketplace, where money and goods change hands without any government control.

Since the application of the new laws, the daytime outdoor markets are now empty, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Markets are not as popular as they used to be due to market control by the authorities,” she said. “Instead, many night-time street vendors have appeared throughout downtown Chongjin this winter,” she said, referring to a city in the province.

North Korean marketplaces became widespread after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting end of aid from Moscow.

The centrally planned North Korean economy, designed with the government controlling all commerce, was unable to absorb the shock, which resulted in the 1994-1998 famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people, or possibly more than 2 million, or about 10% of the country by some estimates.

Inflation spiraled out of control and government-assigned jobs no longer paid a living wage, so people had to go into business for themselves to find a way to make ends meet. For many families, opening a stall in the open-air market became a means of survival.

The markets sold manufactured goods smuggled in from China or stolen from the military, or offered services provided by residents, and the government has almost no ability to tax transactions between buyer and seller, paid mostly in U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan.

Shut down

The markets thrived up until the COVID-19 pandemic, when nearly all commerce was shut down due to a closure of the border with China and a suspension of all trade. 

Business had been returning, but the government began enacting policies to kill the marketplaces, including by paying salaries on cash cards that cannot be used outside of government-run stores.

When that did not work, authorities invoked the new laws, which seemingly allow sellers to deal only in homemade handcrafts. This has forced the real commerce to be done secretly at night.

“When it gets dark, everyone comes out to do business around the market and on crowded street corners,” the North Hamgyong resident said. “Although the night markets are secret and illegal, they attract more people than the regular market.”

The secret markets were reminiscent of the famine era of the 1990s, which North Koreans call the “Arduous March,” she said, as the markets were not legalized until 2003.

‘Grasshopper markets’

Prior to 2003, all marketplaces were secret and had to be mobile. When inspectors came around, sellers would quickly pack up their wares and move to another location. These types of markets were called “grasshopper markets,” because people would disperse quickly, like the insects.

“If you go to the night street market, you will find all kinds of goods, including clothes, shoes, other things you need and even sweets,” the North Hamgyong resident said, adding that the night markets have a large variety of foods that aren’t available in the daytime. 

She said that one particular seller with a connection to rural farmers set up a stall with many different types of grain, including rice and corn. She sold out very quickly.

The new nighttime “grasshopper markets” have sprung up because the people are struggling to survive, and the new laws are working against them, another North Hamgyong resident said on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“There are many people who lost their businesses due to market control by the authorities,” he said. “They have no choice but to go to the night street market to make a living.”

Hard to stamp out

It does not only affect the sellers, he said. 

“You won’t be able to buy things you need at a daytime market, so you have no choice but to go to the night street market,” the second resident said. “Night street markets are thriving, but they are so inconvenient.”

In addition to the time, the nighttime markets are also more disorganized, he said. When the daytime markets were legal, sellers would organize themselves into sections for clothes, shoes, food, kitchenware and other products for customer convenience. 

In the night market the sellers just come together and sell whatever they have with no regard for what the next person is selling.

Crime in the night markets is also a problem, the second resident said.

“There are many thieves in the dark narrow alleys and street markets, so you can easily lose your wallet or purse,” he said. “The authorities’ market control is causing inconvenience to residents in so many ways.”

The second resident predicted that no matter how much the authorities try to control the markets, it will be difficult to completely eliminate street markets unless they resolve the problem of how people are supposed to make a living.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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