Most N. Koreans earn living from markets: Survey

SEOUL • North Koreans are becoming more independent of the ruling Kim regime, with the vast majority of households earning their living through markets rather than relying on the state, according to a new survey that attempts to shed light on ordinary life inside the isolated country.

Getting reliable information from North Korea is notoriously difficult given the restrictions on movement and information inside the totalitarian state. But the Beyond Parallel project run by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think-tank, is trying to extract more information from North Koreans who live and work in the country, as opposed to the more prevalent surveys of those who have escaped from the nation.

Its latest "micro-survey" found that 72 per cent of respondents - or 26 of the 36 North Koreans polled - said they earned all or almost all income through the markets. Nine others said they earned more than three-quarters of their living this way.

Beyond Parallel asked a non-government agency that works inside North Korea to conduct the surveys which polled 36 people - 20 men and 16 women - aged 28 to 80. They come from a variety of backgrounds - working such jobs as doctor, labourer, housewife, factory worker and company president - and live across the country.

Most of the questioning in the surveys was done in and around markets, where there is freer communication, said Mr Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chairmanship at CSIS and runs Beyond Parallel.

Given the constraints of working in tightly controlled North Korea, the surveys were not carried out by a person with a name badge and a clipboard. Some respondents might not even have known they were being surveyed.

The findings were consistent with a 2015 survey of North Korean defectors conducted by researchers at Seoul National University. Three-quarters of respondents in that survey estimated that 70 per cent or more of North Koreans were engaged in market activity or some other kind of personal business.

Markets began to operate in the communist nation during the mid-1990s, when a devastating famine ripped through North Korea and the regime was unable to supply food rations. The markets have been growing ever since but have exploded under Mr Kim Jong Un's regime, chipping away at people's reliance on the state. There are now more than 400 markets, called "jangmadang", where ordinary North Koreans can buy and sell and keep their profits, in addition to the state-run markets, which also have grown in number under Mr Kim's rule.

This has brought about a huge change in the way that people interact with one another and has loosened the regime's ability to use food as a method of control, analysts say.

Other subjects explored in earlier polls included how North Koreans think and talk about the regime in private.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Most N. Koreans earn living from markets: Survey'. Print Edition | Subscribe