Panel Discusses Implications for Marketization in North Korea


On February 3, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that provides grants to support democracy around the world, held a panel discussion on the state of the North Korean markets (jangmadangs) and its implications for the potential opening of North Korea. Representatives from Daily NK, an online newspaper, shared findings from their three-year field research on the marketization phenomenon.

After the famine that swept through North Korea and left an estimated one million people dead from starvation or hunger-related diseases, the North Korean people lost faith in the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS). Government-authorized and privately-operated jangmadangs emerged across the country and have replaced the PDS as the primary means of goods transaction. The government attempted to eradicate jangmadangs in 2009, but due to large-scale resistance from the people, the government decided to let the market continue to operate.

The majority of the panel consisted of sharing the findings of Daily NK’s three-year field research in North Korea, in which 32 trained journalists went into North Korea and reported the number of government-authorized general markets they counted across the country. Their findings revealed that approximately 387 general markets and 612,661 stalls operate in North Korea. Most goods are imported from China.

Daily NK drew several implications from this research. Grayson Walker, the Communications and International Team leader, said that the Kim Jong-Un regime has ceased to interfere with market activities “unless they pose political threats.” The regime has instead started using the markets and recent economic growth as a propaganda to celebrate Kim Jong-Un’s achievement. The legalization of general markets led to major transformations, such as a decline in rates of starvation. North Korea also experienced a rise in the middle class and a new upper class. Marketization also meant that the country no longer had to rely on the international community for aid.

Daily NK’s research findings indicate that in the long run, the North Korean government is likely to maintain its hold on power. According to Walker, “The economic situation is very very stable in North Korea right now,” and people have become less interested in politics. Popular uprising against the regime has become less likely.

As to whether marketization will lead North Korea to open up to the international community, no panelists gave a clear answer. In Ho Park, a North Korean research head at Daily NK, stated that marketization occurring in conjunction with globalization and information inflow has the potential to influence the democratization process. He encouraged the international community to “assist the markets in diverse ways” and “help the markets grow.” He suggested the provision of technical assistance to North Koreans traveling to and from China for commercial reasons.