Communist North Korea has postponed a planned clampdown on market trading for fear of provoking widespread public resistance, a South Korean aid group said yesterday.
The regime, apparently fearful of undermining the state-directed economy, in late November announced plans to ban general markets that sell consumer goods from early this year.
It decreed that farmers’ markets known as jangmadang, some of which currently open daily, would be allowed to operate just three times a month and could sell only vegetables and certain other farm products.
Staples such as rice and corn were to be sold only at state distribution centers.
The restrictions have now been postponed for six months in a move welcomed by citizens, the aid group Good Friends said in its newsletter.
“Local officials gave a flurry of opinions that there would be bigger hardship ... if those markets were closed and the opinions seem to have been considered,” an unnamed senior Pyongyang official told the aid group, which has good contacts in the North.
“Some even said the shutdown of the general markets is tantamount to inviting an uprising,” another official was quoted as saying.
The markets sprang up after the famine years of the mid-to-late 1990s, when the official food distribution system broke down and people were forced to trade and to travel around the impoverished nation to survive.
But North Korea has sporadically clamped down on the fast-growing free markets for fear they could undermine the state’s control, analysts and observers said.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based online newspaper, has also said plans to restrict the farmers’ markets have been delayed “in anticipation of resistance from citizens.”
It said the farmers’ markets are still operating normally in Pyongyang, although the sale of imported consumer goods from China had become more restricted.
The newspaper quoted a source as saying curbs on the markets would have forced more people to rely on the official food rationing system, “But the state is not in a position to provide for the citizens right now.”
The state rationing system has in any case virtually broken down outside the capital, the source said, meaning it would be impossible in practice to curb the food markets.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said that Pyongyang’s attempts to clamp down on markets would fail.
“The state needs to be able to feed ... and clothe its residents in order to ban the general markets and bring back the rationing system, but North Korea just cannot afford to do so,” Koh said. “Furthermore, it’s not easy to force people, who have already got used to the market system, back to the previous state-controlled system.”
The Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies had earlier predicted that the curbs would prove unenforceable and said in a commentary they could spark rioting.
Last March thousands of women started a rare street protest in the northeastern city of Chongjin against a clampdown on street vendors and hawkers.