SEOUL—Authorities in North Korea are enforcing rigid price controls in the country's farmers' markets, usually a lifeline for small traders trying to make enough money to survive in the isolated Stalinist state.
Government price controls are now being imposed on non-food items in the markets, with frequent spot checks by state security police to monitor sales of sought-after household goods such as spoons, toothbrushes, and candles.
Price tags for more than 35 items were posted at farmers’ markets in Hweryong , Onsung, and Moosan cities in northern Hamgyong province, where North Korea's poorest people go to buy the hard-to-find necessities of life.
"Market administrators and security agents take turns asking repeatedly about the price of various items," a North Korean who recently defected to the South said in an interview.
"According to the government-imposed price tags, a toothbrush costs 200 won, a spoon 150 won, and 10 candles 1,000 won."
This compares with unregulated prices of 250 won for a toothbrush, 200 won for a spoon, and 1,300-1500 won for a bundle of 10 candles.
An average monthly salary for a worker in North Korea is about 2,500 won.
...They had to impose some restrictions to make sure that these ever expanding markets did not erode the social and political status quo."
Lim Soo-Ho, researcher
“If someone asks the price, the vendors will be sure to give you the price dictated by the authorities, but they will not actually sell anything for that price," the defector said.
Another South Korean-based defector agreed.
"When the inspectors come by, they see the official price on the tag, but when buyers come by, the vendors never sell for that price, but for a higher one," the defector said.
"If buyers ask the vendor to sell for the government-imposed price, the vendors simply tell them to try to purchase for that price from somebody else."
To avoid the watchful eye of the authorities, some vendors simply avoid going to farmers’ markets, and instead set up small bazaars elsewhere to sell manufactured goods.
The moves are the latest in a series of restrictions aimed at the unofficial system of farmers' markets, which started up to allow farmers to trade produce not bought up by the state, to make ends meet.
Women, the most active traders, in particular have been targeted, with a ban on trading for all women under the age of 49.
As the state-run ration distribution system ran into trouble beginning around 2002, the North Korean authorities allowed the establishment of large open markets, which grew so large that regulating them became difficult.
In a political climate where absolute obedience to government dictates is expected, the markets began to look dangerously free, experts said.
"The North Korean authorities faced a dilemma, as they had to impose some restrictions to make sure that these ever-expanding markets did not erode the social and political status quo," said Samsung Economic Research Institute researcher Lim Soo-Ho.
"At the same time they could not crack down too harshly on this type of market activity, as the very livelihood and survival of North Korean citizens depended on these markets," Lim said.
Restrictions on the market system have increased since 2005, but particularly in the past year, according to United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea Vitit Muntarbhorn.
"The [North Korean] authorities have been trying to prohibit market activity increasingly," Muntarbhorn told a conference last week at the Korea Economic Institute here.
"The authorities have tried to reimpose the public distribution system … and to cut back on the market system that started to grow, particularly from the year 2002."
He said economic initiatives—particularly on the part of women—had been severely curtailed by the authorities over the past couple of years.
"The authorities have issued directives prohibiting women under 40 years of age, and then raised to 49, from trading ... It is the women who trade most," he said.
"They are very active in trading as a way of supplementing their income," Muntabhorn said.
“It is unconscionable that the authorities have been clamping down on livelihood opportunities of women and others, especially where the authorities are not able or willing to provide adequately for the people."
Original reporting in Korean by Jung Young. Additional reporting by Richard Finney. RFA Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.