Five North Koreans visiting China spoke to NPR recently, offering a rare insight into how political dictates have had an extraordinary social impact in their own homes. All of them count among the elite, who have enough money to enter China legally and hope to return to their families North Korea.
“In the past, our husbands would bring home rations, and we’d live off that,” says Mrs. Kim. “Now there are no rations, and the women support the families. If we don’t make money, they starve, so life is hard for women.”
Facing a catastrophic famine in the mid-1990s, the state had reduced — and then mostly stopped — giving out the rations, known as the Public Distribution System.
By then, markets had sprung up illegally to keep people alive, and have thrived despite the state’s numerous attempts to roll them back. The government had imposed a welter of restrictions on market activity, including forbidding anyone except older women from market trading. Those restrictions have largely been relaxed recently.
Most women trade in the markets, orjangmadang. Mrs. Kim gets up at 4:30 each morning to feed the animals she sells, and also brews alcohol illegally. Every minute of the day is spent figuring out how to feed her family, including an adult son and daughter whose state-run jobs do not provide enough to live on.
For almost half of North Korean families, private trading forms the only source of income, according to research done by American academics at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.