'Grasshoppers' make Pyongyang tick

Street vendors in Pyongyang. More people, squeezed by new government regulations on the marketplace, have returned to underground trade, setting up "grasshopper markets", so called because they must constantly pack up and hop from place to place to e
Street vendors in Pyongyang. More people, squeezed by new government regulations on the marketplace, have returned to underground trade, setting up "grasshopper markets", so called because they must constantly pack up and hop from place to place to evade the authorities.PHOTO: REUTERS

North Korea's tough market rules forcing small traders to become illegal street vendors

SEOUL • From the dark alleys of Pyongyang, the showpiece North Korean capital, tiny specks of torchlight shine carefully into the eyes of passers-by, leading to bustling and illegal street markets where traders, usually women, call out: "Buy, buy!"

The maeddugi shijang, or "grasshopper markets", get their name from the lightning-quick way traders must pack up and hop from place to place to evade the authorities in a country making a grudging embrace of free enterprise.

As markets take hold in North Korea, the government has sporadically legalised and formalised them, while at the same time imposing new crackdowns, taxes and bribes, forcing smaller traders to set up "grasshopper markets" selling goods for cash.

"The grasshopper markets form in places near stations, on the roads to the (official) market and around schools and parks," said Mr Seol Song Ah, a defector who left North Korea in 2011 and now works with the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with sources in the North. "Wherever there are people, there are grasshopper markets."

These markets are less well- stocked than official shops but offer convenience, carrying items from pots, socks, batteries and cigarettes to fresh meat, according to residents of Pyongyang and defectors from the isolated country.

The informal, movable markets represent the new, grassroots-driven economic reality in a country which is no longer truly collectivised or communist - a change that began during the devastating famine of the 1990s and has since gained momentum.

The grasshopper markets date back to the 1980s, when old women started selling sweet potatoes and bean curd by roadsides, according to Mr Seol, and have proliferated in recent years as more people, squeezed by new government regulations on the marketplace, return to underground trade.

Those who trade in such markets are known as "tick merchants" because they are hard to remove, and have therefore had restrictions on them slowly eased as security services struggle to shut them down, according to the Daily NK.

Still, because grasshopper markets are illegal, they are highly sensitive in the authoritarian country.

A Pyongyang diplomatic source who has visited grasshopper markets said he was followed by secret police down the dark alleys.

"Trying to take a photo of a grasshopper market is one of the only times I have been seriously apprehended by the secret police," the diplomatic source said.

A former foreign resident of Pyongyang said he too never managed to photograph the market.

"The one time I tried, the market ladies had vanished in the time it took me to get my camera from my pocket and raise it to take the shot," he said. "They are used to disappearing very, very quickly."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline ''Grasshoppers' make Pyongyang tick'. Print Edition | Subscribe