From the outside, it might look like North Korea hasn’t changed much over the last seven decades. But from the inside, a fundamental shift has been taking place: an economic revolution led by a generation of millennials who grew up as capitalists in a theoretically-communist state.
They are the “Jangmadang Generation,” and they have emerged as the greatest force for change that North Korea has ever seen. Jangmadang are the markets that popped up during the devastating famine in the 1990s when the state could no longer provide for the people. North Koreans turned into entrepreneurs out of necessity. Those with corn made corn noodles; those with beans made tofu. Capitalism took root in this communist society, and the regime had to tolerate it or risk an uprising.
Take Joo Yang, who was 6 years old when the famine began and grew up seeing people dying of starvation or cold. She began thinking about doing business when she was 14, and started out by picking leftover soybeans from the chaff at a factory and selling them.
Or Kang Min, who was separated from his mother when he was 9 years old and never saw her again. He began a new life as a street beggar, or “flower swallow” as they are known in North Korea, and made his living as a pickpocket in the markets, working his way up to importing socks and batteries from China.
Or Danbi, who started importing clothes from China — copies of outfits worn in smuggled South Korean dramas — and had her good-looking friends walk through the markets in them, acting as human advertisements.
As a result of the famine, these kids grew up “bold and audacious,” says the mother of Geumju, another of the Jangmadang Generation.
Fast forward 20 years and those jangmadang are now the centerpiece of towns and cities across North Korea, having been retroactively legalized by a regime that knew it could not put this genie back in the bottle. Read more