The Markets of Pyongyang


In 2006–08 Pyongyang had two kinds of markets. The first were "official" markets that had started out many years earlier as farmers markets selling only food but have since grown into officially sanctioned permanent structures selling also a wide variety of nonfood items. The second were the unofficial and unregulated markets—colloquially known as "frog markets"1 because the traders would jump up like frogs and run off with their wares at the first sign of trouble2—which continued to sell mostly food. The markets reintroduced into DPRK society habits of trading and an independence from state supplies, which the regime had spent decades trying to eliminate. They acted too as centers of foreign-currency trading and of information exchange. Markets were hard hit by the regime’s November 2009 attempts to rein them in, but by late 2010 the official markets had largely recovered, although the frog markets had not.

There is no place for these markets in the DPRK’s ideology, and their continued existence presents the DPRK government with a political challenge. The frog markets in particular were acts of mass disobedience. Moreover, the markets already seem to act as foci for the exchange of news and ideas, a role that is likely to grow if the regime stumbles. The survival of the markets in the face of determined regime attempts to curtail them testifies both to their resilience and to the difficulties the regime now faces in enforcing its ideology.

This paper is based mainly on the author’s own experiences of the markets of Pyongyang, which he visited often during the nearly two and a half years he spent as the UK Ambassador to the DPRK from February 2006 to July 2008. 

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