Illegal street markets in North Korea come and go in a flash as capitalism grudgingly accepted

A street vendor checks her produce on a street as another woman looks on in Pyongyang, North Korea.
A street vendor checks her produce on a street as another woman looks on in Pyongyang, North Korea. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) - 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 have taken 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 back on to the streets, where they 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 inside North Korea. "Wherever there are people, there are grasshopper markets."

The 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.

Grasshoppers date 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, have returned to underground trade.

In recent months, those who trade in the grasshopper markets have become 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 diplomatic source in Pyongyang who has visited grasshopper markets said he was followed by the bowibu, or secret police, down the dark grasshopper alleys.

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

A former foreign resident of Pyongyang said he had also never managed to photograph a grasshopper 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," the resident said.

"They are used to disappearing very, very quickly".