North Koreans Turn to Schools to Barter for Goods

north-korea-wonsan-classroom-dec16-2011.jpg A teacher addresses elementary school students in Wonsan, Kangwon province, North Korea, Dec. 16, 2011.

Schools in North Korea are increasingly replacing black markets as preferred places for shopping for small personal items, offering students, their parents and teachers safe places to barter instead of buying goods in dodgy private black markets, sources inside the reclusive country said.

The small-scale trading of consumer goods, called ssobi (service), has been very active at schools, which have emerged as the primary places for bartering because they are safer than private black markets (jangmadang) where shoppers are sometimes cheated or sold inferior goods by transient merchants.

“Currently, jangmadang are gradually changing from retail trade to wholesale trade,” a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service. “And the trading of consumer goods among residents is slowly changing into a bartering style, with schools as the main marketplaces.”

Students and teachers have been trading small items such as ballpoint pens or tobacco for a long time, he said.

“Nowadays, students bargain for such items among themselves with a small amount of food or underwear before actually trading them away near their homes or inside their classrooms,” he said.

Since Kim Jong Un assumed power three years ago, the North Korean government has tacitly approved individuals’ commercial activities on a small, family-sized scale.

But such activities have led to fierce competition among those involved in commercial trading mainly in jangmadang. Now that these merchants face increased competition from bartering activities at schools, some of them have improved their services and products, sources said.

Adults who do not like to shop in jangmadang and prefer less expensive and more reliable products are the ones who are driving their children to engage in this kind of trading practice, the source in North Hamgyong province said.

When disputes over trading arise among students, teachers serve as mediators to help find a satisfactory solution, he said.

“Parents call the mobile phones of their children’s teachers to tell them about various items they want to trade, their bargaining prices, and a list of daily necessities they really want,” a source in Yanggang province said.

Teachers routinely keep “trading books” with all the details of their bartering with parents, he said.

Although the teachers show only minimal enthusiasm when it comes to preparing materials for students, they will spend hours maintaining their trading books and even work late into the evening compiling the information, he said.

Schools also participate in large-scale trading with other schools.

Weeyon Elementary School in Hyesan city, for example, sent its in-school surveillance equipment made in China to Masan Advanced Middle School in return for the latter’s coal supply for winter heating, the source said.

But the bartering that take place at schools is “very problematic in terms of education” because it distracts students from their studies and involves them in commercial transactions, he said.

“However, this kind of bartering will increase more and more because it involves less risk of defective items or fakes being traded,” he said.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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