Defectors and experts say North Korea would fall without capitalistic markets

Hundreds of capitalistic markets, each with thousands of stalls, form the glue that holds North Korea’s socialist planned economy together, say defectors who sold medicinal herbs, skinny jeans, TV sets, foreign drama CDs and other goods there to make a living.

Says Cha Ri-hyuk, 31, who defected to South Korea in 2013, “If North Korea shuts down the markets, it will collapse.”

Some political analysts note that market activities are gradually infusing North Koreans with new ways of thinking that eventually could loosen the authoritarian government’s hold over its 24 million people.

“It’s like North Korea has so far allowed markets that it can control,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. “But materialism, individualism and the idea of pursuits of profits are taking root in the minds of ordinary people. So potential forces which can fundamentally shake the North’s systems are growing.”

Satellite photos and testimonies of defectors show there are now about 400 big, mostly outdoor markets, called “jangmadang,” in the North. Items sold there are locally produced, or imported or smuggled from countries including China, South Korea and Japan.

The nascent consumer economy has led to the emergence of a new class of rich people called “donju” — “masters of money.” They usually start at markets and invest their savings in larger ventures that state authorities struggle to finance — such as apartment construction, taxi operations and mining works.

Jangmadangs are now an important part of the North’s economy, with merchants paying taxes that help the cash-strapped country operate, experts say. North Korean millennials are sometimes called the “jangmadang generation.” Read more

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