North Korea’s wholesale outdoor markets, or “jangmadang”, normally have 3,000 to 10,000 tables or stalls. Defectors say the Pyongsong wholesale market, near the North’s capital, Pyongyang, is the biggest.
“You need more than one day to thoroughly look around the Pyongsong market,” said Lee So Yeon, 40, a defector who said she supplied goods to the market before she came to South Korea in 2008.
To work at a market, a merchant buys a stall and pays a daily tax. Lee O.P., who sold such clothes in the northeastern town of Musan before making it to South Korea in 2014, said her stall at the Musan market cost 100 Chinese yuan ($15) around 2000. The daily tax she paid market supervisors, 500-1,000 North Korean won, was the equivalent of 6 to 12 U.S. cents under the unofficial exchange rate ordinary North Koreans use; the North’s official exchange rate is much higher.
South Korean-made clothes, shoes and soap opera CDs are especially popular at the markets, though it’s illegal in the North to sell goods made by its archrival. Regular police crackdowns have not sapped demand. When North Korean police officers found people wearing South Korean clothes or dresses they consider too skimpy or tight, they often took them to back alleys and ripped parts of the garments with razors or scissors, according to defectors.
“Young women, who are teenagers or those in their early 20s, like wearing South Korean clothes … they go out with men and care a lot about beauty and fashion,” said Cha, who had supplied clothes and other products to a market in the southwestern Hwanghae province.
The markets have given North Koreans a taste of foreign culture, eroded their dependence upon a government that no longer feeds them and opened up a new gap between rich and poor. There is little to suggest that the country’s authoritarian rule has weakened, but at the same time, experts say, the North must take care to avoid economic policies that harm the markets.