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The Life I Experienced in North Korea
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2015-04-08 11:33:49
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The Life I Experienced in North Korea

Development of market activities in North Korea


KIM Yun-Hee

Escaped from North Korea in 2007

Entered South Korea in 2008



Markets in North Korea


The size of markets in North Korea is not large. They are about 150 pyeong (500m2). There is a standard 60cm frontage that is set out and given to each person who is selling things. Restricted to that space, people sell agricultural products, fish and good imported from China, although depending on what they sell there is an assigned rent fee for the market spaces. You have to pay for the space you are renting. Market patrols collect renting fees daily in exchange for rent tickets. In those small spaces capitalism is developing. It is at the crossroads of whether it lives or dies. If you ask how the goods that are bought and sold come about, because Chinese traders can easily come and go into North Korea, when a person needs something, they can tell them the price and contract for it. When that person selects an item and buys it, they make a contract with the trader and agree on a price. For competitive items, that person sets the price and realises a profit. Because the goods that Chinese traders carry in with them are better than others’, there is a big margin of profit remaining.


While Chinese traders have started coming in, you can also see markets coming into being. Now that North Koreans are aware that they “have to earn money”, it is because Chinese people started frequently coming in and out. At that time, because the state distributed food, people had a food card and people’s lives depended on the distribution system. If you had a food card you could buy a pair of socks for 50 North Korean cents. If you received a salary and took with you 60 or 70 North Korean won, you bought soybean paste, soy sauce, socks, toothbrushes etc. My husband had to go to his work place according to the Labour Law. He earnt as much as 60 won in a month and could go to a store and buy food. From time to time we bought ‘clothes’, but I don’t know how we wore those things at that time. After encountering Chinese people, who are selling goods in the North Korean markets wearing trendy and fashionable clothing, we were inclined to follow their fashion trends. The size of markets has increased a lot now since Chinese goods arrived, and is divided into a fish section, agricultural goods, Chinese medicine, shoes and imported goods etc. At that time people who had money did not need more and there was no need to save.


Popular South Korean Goods


These days in North Korea demand for goods made in South Korea is high. From the start of the 1980s while the economy was developing people distinguished about where a product was from, whether it was from South Korea, Japan or China. The top level was Korean goods. There were times when the Social Security agents gathered people together and gave special lectures, and the Social Security Agents would wear socks with holes in the fingers and say, “This was made in South Korea.” They took pains to suppress awareness of South Korean products, but I saw them with my own eyes. As I have now come to South Korea and live here, I feel that the cosmetics and clothes that I used in the North were by comparison not good. I want to tell people about this and even send clothes to North Korea through Chinese traders. It’s not only me, but many defectors who think this way. In North Korea also demand for South Korean goods is getting very high. If there is a good product, I deal with Chinese traders to match the price demand. Awareness of South Korean goods is high, but as you cannot purchase them freely it is impossible to estimate.


When you buy South Korean goods, you can’t import them directly from South Korea or deal directly with South Koreans. I send good products through Chinese traders. Now in North Korea, angora is trendy. I buy angora in South Korea for between 1,000 and 1,500 South Korean won, and can sell it in North Korea for over 10,000 won. I sell more than 10,000 pieces. You can sell angora from early autumn until late spring. If before people thought about ‘food and clothing’ now this has changed to ‘clothing and food’. People think “I will have to wear this now.” Society is developing and people’s awareness has also developed. Now in the North people’s preferred women’s clothing is angora, for young people in their 20s and 30s its ‘hoodie’ clothing. The thinking of people over 30 is not ‘clothing before food’ but has changed to ‘food before clothing’.


The label of goods made in South Korea, when they cross Chinese customs, is cut off before they enter North Korea. It’s not appropriate if they say ‘Made in Korea’. As unlabelled goods cannot pass customs they are changed to ‘Made in China’ and sent through. As close to 10 years have passed, North Koreans have developed the ability to discern products. When they look at them, signs immediately appear that the good is made in South Korea. Awareness is spreading that even if it is new clothing, the clothes that people prefer to wear are made in South Korea rather than China.


Currency Reform


The impact of currency reform in July 1992 was large. I also suffered greatly. Compared to that time, the impact now is larger. In 1992, I estimate the difference between people who lived well and those that didn’t at about 1%, but I think that last year, no matter how much money they lacked, among citizens in South Hamgyong Province and Kangwon Province there was no one that didn’t have 100,000 won. 99% of North Korean citizens were impacted by the currency reform. People think “I’d rather eat porridge everyday to save as much money as possible.”


After currency reform, trade became very wide-spread and within 2 years the arduous march began. Ever since that time, while awareness that “If I don’t earn through my own power I will die” has spread awareness of capitalism has (also) been created.

Last year in North Korea, on the day of currency reform, people said such things like “My life became a living hell,” “I’m going to hang myself” and “Owning Chinese or American currency equates treason.”


But while living in North Korea, I felt that the things the authorities explain officially will have to be carried out or continued, but those times are rare. They do the proclaimed part strictly, but fail to keep it up. When 10-15 days have passed, the language abruptly goes back.


Nowadays North Koreans do not believe in ‘What is proclaimed’, even if in an uproar. This time, families connected with banks have an opportunity to make money. When the new currency comes out, it seems like you can’t use the old currency, but you can. There is a rule that “If you save your money in a bank for 5 years, after 5 years we will give it back.” That rule can change later and the banks can pilfer the money under the counter.


Therefore bank workers this time can collect money. When they do currency reform, they restrict every household to 100,000 won and given 1,000 won (in exchange); and if there if 2,000 households it is not 20,000,000 won that comes down to the bank but as much as 10 times that amount that enters. The banks are under managers’ control such that directors and managers can easily manipulate the records and take advantage of the government’s financial provision. Unlike South Korea, the banks are not transparent.


Bank Transactions


There is one central bank in Pyongyang and a branch office in each region, such as Musan and Chongjin regional banks. There is a type for dealing with only small amounts of money and, like South Korea, there is a 365 (days a year) savings place. The savings places are outlets of the branch office.


In South Korea if you entrust your money to a bank, you get interest, and when necessary can withdraw money and use it; if you are a business you can get a loan, but in North Korea that is totally impossible; that system does not exist. Saving at a bank is like putting your money in someone else’s pocket, so people change their money to dollars or Chinese currency and manage it themselves. Therefore, in that country if you have dollars or Yuan you are regarded as traitors. Although the government knows this they made it so that people can’t use Yuan or dollars but not even one month has passed and you can use dollars or Yuan again. As I said while I felt and experienced directly their inability to carry parts (of the currency reform) out, it is becoming more difficult.


Bank loans match people’s opinions of each other if you say “Why don’t we get into a deal?” Even if a borrower does not tell the purpose of getting a loan, when one asks to borrow 100,000 won, he or she is expected to pay back with the interest, 20,000 won to the lender. My credibility is completely up to the lender’s perception of me through previous relationship with the lender.

Standard average bank interest for one month is 20%. In that case if two months pass you get 40%. If one borrows 2,000 Chinese Yuan, then one has to pay 600 Yuan as interest every month. Some people go to China for intention to make more money and pay back the high interest, but many fail to make enough money from living in China. In three months, people’s debt increased by 1,800 Yuan. As you can see, exorbitant usury happens a lot in North Korea.


North Korea’s Restaurants


When North Korea reformed its economy and people’s salary went from 100 won to 1,000 won, and then to nearly 2,000 won, markets developed and people learned about money. At that time in the country there were places called social distributional agency. With one ticket for rice and one North Korean won, you can exchange them for 200 g of rice and side-dish. However, when food distribution discontinued, tickets for rice disappeared and restaurants, including Songchon restaurant, dog-meat restaurants and rice-soup restaurants closed altogether. Then capitalism evolved and the restaurants reopened with the governmental authorizations.

The restaurants in Pyongyang, such as Ok-Ryu Kwan and Chong-Ryu Kwan, most people can go to and eat out. But one bowl of soup in Ok-Ryu Kwan is 1,700 won. You have to pay that price or the equivalent in tickets to be able to use the restaurants. That’s too much money for ordinary people to pay for one meal. I know that most large restaurants are under the management of the government.


Traveling within North Korea


In the 1990s there was insufficient food and national controls disappeared so many people didn’t receive permission and just could go about look for food as they wanted to. Even today in North Korea without a travel permit you can’t go to a different place. But now, different to those times, if you offer a bribe you can easily travel.


There is a repeat stamp for the travel pass, and if that stamp is stamped on your travel pass you can continually use the travel permit. The travel permit is 1,000 won and if you pay 500 won more and request the repeat travel stamp they will give it to you.


Evidence of Family in North Korea


There is a North Korean citizen’s registration record as evidence of family in North Korea. These are in the charge of a North Korean Public Security citizen registration office. These citizen registration records contain not only family relations but also a family’s historical background, family’s political thought, relevant officer’s surveillance record etc also is recorded. It’s not only pure blood relations but also contains personal contents such as that your “father couldn’t join the party.”


But the family relations confirmation record is not important. Like South Korea, wherever you get employment, whenever you are employed, you are certified only according to what your oral testimony is and who your mother and father are. When fighting crime the records are looked at but in most cases it’s not necessary.