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North Korea moves against a tiny pocket of capitalism

Officials had allowed a robust trade along the border with China, centered on the city of Chongjin. But now they are rolling back reforms and preaching self-sufficiency; residents fear starvation.

July 05, 2009|Barbara Demick

Kim Chol Hee, a trader from Yanji, a Chinese city near the border with a large ethnic Korean population, said it was harder now than at any time in the 10 years he's been in business to import from North Korea.

"I used to bring in squid, crab, steel parts from Chongjin. We can still buy seafood, but the North Korean government won't let us buy steel," he said Kim. "They say they need to keep all their resources for themselves."

Along the Tumen River, which runs along the border and which traders and defectors used to cross freely, North Korean guards are now posted every 10 yards instead of every 100 yards as they were a few years ago, residents say.

The crackdown has mainly targeted North Hamgyong province, which has had the most vibrant markets in the country because of its proximity to the Chinese border and its distance from Pyongyang, the capital.

Edicts from Pyongyang often have been met with resistance. In the province's main city, Chongjin, vendors held a rare public protest in March 2008 outside the main Sunnam market after officials tried to ban younger women from trading, according to Good Friends, a Seoul-based Buddhist charity.

"Give us food or let us trade," hundreds of woman reportedly chanted.

The protests forced Chongjin officials to reverse the order. But this year, Pyongyang has become more insistent.

"The controls are very strict right now," said Lee. "If they find clothing with a South Korean label, the police will take it away. They'll confiscate Chinese clothing too unless it's old and ugly."

"They tell us we can't use Chinese makeup because it will give you blisters. . . . Chinese cookies will make you sick, they tell us."

Kilju residents have not dared to hold public protests against the restriction. But the Korean Workers Party nonetheless might be fighting a losing battle. Much of the trading is done by people with powerful connections in the provincial government and the military. Many state-owned enterprises do illegal trading to raise cash for their operations.

For example, trader Kim Young Chul says he is responsible for raising about $900 each year for his work unit by selling ginseng, while he and his partners keep any additional profits.

"I have a lot of freedom. They don't dare ask me too many questions in North Korea, because I work for the ministry," said Kim.

Just as quickly as the Korean Workers' Party issues a decree, people find a way to circumvent it. Vendors banned from the market bring out their mothers and grandmothers, while secretly running the businesses from behind the scenes. Others sell banned good from their homes, or simply stash it behind other merchandise.

"If you want to buy cosmetics in Kilju, you still can find them, but they are usually hidden underneath the table," Lee said.

Once a loyal member of the Workers' Party, Lee said she had remained devoted to Kim Jong Il up to her departure from North Korea in May, vowing that she would return home as soon as she got money for her family.

"Even the day I left, I was singing songs about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in my house," said Lee. "Now that I've come to China, I'm not so sure.

"I begin to think isn't it a waste to be spending money on a nuclear weapon when people are starving."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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