Authorities in North Korea are extending a policy limiting the hours of local markets to less than four hours per day under the guise of allowing time to mobilize the public for farm labor.
But sources say that the policy is really a government attempt to limit the public’s access to information from the outside world.
The strategy forces people to shop quickly to get everything they need rather than sit around and discuss world affairs.
People are resentful, though, because the reduced hours limit their ability to earn a living in the market, sources say.
“The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] made the announcement that they will extend the restriction period, reversing the previous announcement that the restriction on the market hours to 4pm-7:30pm would last from May to July,” a source from North Hamgyong province said in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.
“They extended the restriction period to the end of this year, and it will last through the ‘fall battle’ period,” said the source.
The North Korean government applies military phrases to encourage its workers in several industries, including farming. The fall battle refers to the harvest. There are various other farm labor-related “battles” throughout the year, including the spring battle, which refers to planting season, and then the summer battles of maintaining the crops prior to harvest.
Though the government says the restrictions on market hours will now leave time for people to complete their farming work, many long for the days when the markets were open all day long.
“In the past, residents freely used the local markets from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., so they had no difficulty making a living. However, since last year [and up until May], the market was only open from 2 to 7:30 p.m. on order of the authorities,” said the source.
The government further reduced the hours in May for the spring battle to the current 3.5 hour window.
“Since most residents make their living in the local markets, the markets’ business hours are very important,” the source said, adding that the government is really instituting the policy to keep its citizens in the dark.
“The Central Committee concluded [recently] that the local markets are the main channel for residents to obtain information from outside the country, so in May this year, they drastically reduced the market hours under the pretext of mobilization for farm work,” the source said.
Restrictions in the open markets’ operating hours are usually in place for the months in which the agricultural “battles” occur.
“Originally, only the month of May during the farm workers’ mobilization period had limited hours. But they extended it to July, for the weed-control battle,” said the source.
“[The residents] have been patient, though they have been having difficulties making a living with the [reduced] hours,” the source said.
“They are resentful of the authorities’ ruthless restrictions, saying that they can’t be involved in a ‘battle’ when it is a struggle to even make a living,” said the source.
“Rice prices in the market are rising, but it is more difficult to make money because they extended the restriction period once again,” another source, also from North Hamgyong, told RFA.
“People are criticizing the Central Committee, saying that because they are rich they don’t know the struggles of the poor,” the second source said.
The second source explained that with increased food prices, people need more time to make enough money to buy the food they need.
“Because the market hours are being cut short, a lot of us have difficulty getting food, because we can’t carry out business activities,” said the second source.
“People complain, saying that if they extend the restriction period until the end of October when the fall battle ends, it means that they don’t care if people starve to death,” said the source, suggesting that people would struggle to toil at farm work with limited food supplies, even while harvesting crops.
“Every year, even though there are many battles including the battle of rice planting in the spring, the battle of weed control, the battle of mowing, and the battle of fall harvesting, there is nothing that benefits the people themselves,” said the second source.
“The people are wondering what the government is so afraid of.”
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.