Must-Read on North Korean Markets: DailyNK’s The Creation of the North Korean Market System by In Ho Park

August 28, 2017 7:00 AM

For some time, DailyNK has been providing the community of North Korea watchers with the incredible service of their in-depth reporting, as well as information on market prices. Recently, they have released an excellent 90 page report on the state of play in the North Korean markets that is the most up-to-date thing we have. The report gains force from the fact that it is based on over 30 informants, fully a third of which reported from inside North Korea on markets in their vicinity.

I had the honor of writing the preface to the monograph, which was edited and translated by a team including Christopher Green (also of Sino-NK fame), Grayson Walker, Peter Ward and Colin Swerko. The report can be found here; it is a large .pdf so takes a few minutes to download.

A few of the things that stand out:

  • The General Markets are no longer functioning in a legal limbo; they are an established institution. The report calculates that there may be as many as 600,000 to 1 million stalls in the country, potentially engaging as much as a quarter of the non-military, non-farm population. The market is not going away.
  • For those with an historical bent, the report makes note of the history of Japanese returnees and an earlier Chinese community in getting the marketization process going.
  • State retail stores survived lean times by essentially become hybrid public-private institutions.
  • Sectoral analyses of transport, housing and underground financial markets deepen the story. The surprises to me centered both on how far along the real estate market has developed, but the relatively limited findings with respect to underground financial markets beyond those dealing with foreign exchange.

There are also some broader implications here. On the one hand, estimates of growth are probably almost all low given the vibrancy of this sector. From the perspective of the regime, the byungjin line sure looks like it is working. At the same time, the report suggests that the economy is also much more open—and thus vulnerable—than the leadership might even fully appreciate. At the time, I asked whether the Trump administration had the nerve to pick a fight with China over its trade relationship with North Korea, and the answer now appears to be “yes.” But China is pushing back, too, suggesting that the tugging over China-DPRK trade ties—and the markets that trade feeds—are far from over.

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