North Korea food crisis prompts lifting of restrictions on private markets
To battle the problem of starvation in North Korea, the government is allowing local markets to stay open longer and sell food without restrictions.
North Korea appears to be allowing private enterprise in local markets in a desperate search for an antidote to rising hunger and potential unrest.Skip to next paragraph
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South Korean analysts, with contacts inside North Korea, report a loosening of state restrictions on the private sales of goods as North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il smooths the way for the takeover of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
The lifting of state restrictions on the operation of local markets selling food and other goods comes amid reports of an economy that is now descending to the level of the 1990s, when aid experts estimate two million people died of disease and starvation. Several years ago, markets were opened briefly – for similar reasons – before authorities again clamped down.
The most definitive report on free-market opening comes from Good Friends, a non-governmental organization in Seoul that has long attempted to provide food and other aid to North Koreans and receives information by a network of informants inside the North. Food rations have also been suspended, according to the group.
Private stands selling food and small items are operating with minimal official harassment, according to these reports, though it’s not clear whether they are fully legal or simply given tacit acceptance.
A guiding factor appears to be the desire to appease conflicting forces, including a small but influential middle class that suffered huge losses from revaluation of the currency. It’s critical, say South Korean analysts, to settle differences in the run-up to an extraordinary convention of the ruling Workers’ Party in September at which leadership changes – notably confirmation of a post for Kim Jong-un – are expected.
The real impact of the current reforms, though, is far from clear. “Although markets are entirely open,” says Good Friends, “the purchasing power is still weak and markets have not been vitalized due to the small volume of goods in circulation, so it is difficult for residents to make a living by engaging in commerce.”
Good Friends quotes what it says was a directive issued by the ruling Workers’ Party on May 26 in which authorities reportedly acknowledged they were unable to “take any immediate measures” to rectify “the worse than expected food situation.”
The directive included what Good Friends called a “blanket permission to open markets,” decreeing that “everyone can do business” and ordering local officials not to “regulate commerce.”
North Korean authorities “decided to allow everyone to have access to markets and overturned their original plan to close down the general market and exercise strong control,” says the Good Friends report.
Specifically, according to Good Friends, the new decree does away with rules that forbade anyone except women over 40 from working or even shopping at private markets and also abolishes tight restrictions on market hours.
The report quotes one official as saying that “the living standard drastically decreased since the currency exchange” in which revaluation of the exchange rate for North Korean into foreign currency made the savings of millions of North Koreans almost worthless.
“The government cannot provide distribution so they have to bring the market back up,” the official is quoted as saying. With “death due to starvation” now “out of control,” says the official, “opening markets is a reasonable resolution.”
Choi Jin Wook, in charge of analyzing North Korean issues at the Korea Institute of National Unification, reports “North Korea has suspended food rations” – and “it’s very possible North Korea is running out of food.”