By Aashni Rebello | Edited by Samarth Khanduri
‘Pyongyang claims to have successfully tested a nuclear warhead,’ ‘7 public executions in the past decade for watching K-Pop,’ ‘60% of North Koreans live in extreme poverty.’
Bombarded with these headlines, it is hardly surprising that the rest of the world sees North Korea as a dark hole, where its people are brainwashed by the dictator and his government. It seems as though the totalitarian regime is a stagnant economy with no hope for the future. Buried behind these headlines, however, is a major revolution unfolding in the country. A revolution that uses no arms and ammunition, no violence or force but is an economic uprising led by the people themselves, the rise of the ‘Jangmadang.’
A devastating famine ravaged the country in the 1990’s. The regime’s inefficient public distribution system did not have sufficient resources to feed the people, resulting in more than one million deaths. The government prioritised the ruling elite while allocating food, and families dependent on state jobs earned meagre wages. This infuriated the common man. The public’s desperation and necessity gave rise to an invaluable means to fend for themselves and led to the embellishment of small businesses. These businesses eventually evolved into markets called the Jangmadang. The people born during the famine grew up during the creation of the Jangmadang. This generation consists of ‘native capitalists’ who learnt the hard way that the only way to survive in North Korea was by participating in the markets and by becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
A private market in North Korea
This was an unseen notion, given the command economy where the government alone took all economic decisions and the citizens were too afraid to challenge the status quo. A revolution in the making! Private markets are technically illegal in a communist nation and the Kim Jong Un government did impose initial crackdowns. However, the government realised that private enterprise was too large to control. The state instead found itself profiting from the very activities they stood against. The markets also proved to be helpful to the government in achieving its goal of self-sufficiency. Since these ‘Black Markets’ were reforming the country, the government became more lenient towards them.
What started as informal trading for survival has now grown into a sophisticated network that includes hundreds of marketplaces across the country. Private markets have seen an uptick, along with the quality and choice of goods available. As per a micro survey conducted within North Korea, 72% of the respondents are directly or indirectly dependent on market activity. As of 2021, private activity makes up 38% of the economy, compared to the 29% contributed by government-led programmes. The government seems to be moving away from traditional communism and is prioritising economic growth and rapid development.
The Jangmadang has also provided increased access to forbidden foreign media and outside information. DVD’s and memory sticks containing Chinese news and South Korean films and music are now commonplace. This is revolutionising the way North Koreans view the previously indoctrinated understanding of life outside the secretive nation. It equips the common man with a weapon more powerful than nuclear arsenal or ballistic missile – the ability to think and reason for themselves. They become the recipients of more than just the ideologies of the state and get a wider view of the world which changes their perspectives and coaxes them to challenge the oppressive regime.
From the outside, it looks like North Korea hasn’t changed much. But an economic revolution is taking place from within. What rose from the ashes of a devastating famine has moved on to become the primary driver of change in an impoverished, restrictive and tightly controlled economy. And, this revolutionary uprising started from the grassroot level, with the ordinary citizen helping himself. This leaves us with little doubt about the power of the people who are bringing about irreversible change in the world’s most authoritarian economy by freeing themselves and providing a hopeful future for their children. The Jangmadang will continue to rise, expand and prosper in North Korea and go on to embody the North Korean dream.