Merchants trying to keep shops open despite forced mobilization and mandatory lectures

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2018-01-18 17:11

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

Unification Media Group (UMG): Today we are joined once again by special correspondent Kang Mi Jin for the latest look inside local news and events in North Korea. First well look at the early January mass mobilization of residents to procure compost under the governments orders. 

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Yes, residents have been mobilized to gather compost, as is the norm each year at the beginning of January. Throughout the country, work groups and other organizations of residents are given assignments for compost production, and requirements vary by organization. For example, the quota for members of the Women's Association last year was 1.2 tons of compost per person, while other residents had to engage in compost production throughout the first quarter of the year. And this is on top of attending government-mandated lectures.

One source with whom I spoke a couple of days ago said, "With the compost mobilization, mandatory lectures focused on the New Year's address, and trying to earn a living outside all of this, we dont have enough time to rest."

UMG: What else have you learned from speaking with residents about the mounting difficulties?

Kang: I have heard from residents that in the northern regions, some groups are using independent "compost middlemen." I have also heard confirmation from full-time farmers and ordinary housewives alike that the official forced mobilization for compost production has begun, and that they are also having to attend lectures related to Kim Jong Uns official New Year's address.

The housewives I spoke with are going through an extremely busy time. Every week, they must attend two lectures in addition to three consecutive days of work dedicated to producing compost. Subsequently, there is little time left to work towards earning a living for their families through market activities.

The average compost quota is around 1.2-1.5 tons per person, with students receiving the smallest production requirements, and Women's Association and company workers receiving the largest.

UMG: These mandatory labor requirements are having such a negative impact on the women who have been the drivers of market progress. What else have you heard lately?

Kang: I recently spoke with a person in North Korea who had just traveled to Wonsan in Kangwon Province. According to this source, burglaries are occurring daily in the Ichon area, and police are responding with a particularly striking apathy. Apparently, locals know the cause of the break-ins, but are hesitant to discuss it. 

This is an area so well known for its army presence that people say the population is 'half military,' and with the poor harvest last year and shortage of army provisions, its easy to suspect burglary by military members. With residents in Kangwon also out procuring compost for the mobilization during the day, empty homes become an easy target. 

UMG: People must be anxious about leaving their homes for mobilization work knowing that robberies are on the rise.

Kang: Yes, but they are not only worried about burglaries. There have also been reports of physical confrontations between residents and burglars, so they are afraid of getting hurt or even killed, which has happened in some cases. 

Also, when people are questioned by judges or investigators in these cases, they are often steered towards the suggestion that the crime must have been committed by someone close to them, who knew their schedule. So people are becoming much less trusting of their neighbors. 

UMG: What about the market trends since the start of the new year?

Kang: I spoke with a source in Ryanggang last week who told me about the popular winter items. Because it has been snowing a lot more this year, boots and wool-lined shoes are selling quite well. A lot of people have waited until now to purchase these kinds of items because they tend to be more expensive just prior to the start of winter.

Then there is the Samjiyon construction project that the authorities are focusing on, which has brought more bribery demands that residents have to accommodate. As a result of material offerings demanded by the authorities, shovels, winter work gloves, scarves, belts, and other related items are selling well in the markets. Most people who have to provide gloves or scarves to the military are opting to buy them in the market instead of making them, because they are too busy working in the markets themselves. Merchants are watching these trends and acquiring these popular items for sale.

I have memories of making these kinds of items myself each winter back when I lived in North Korea. One time, the husband of one of my friends was preparing to enter the Workers Party, so we had to produce gloves (to offer). We unraveled a whole comforter and used the cotton to make 100 pairs of gloves. Every winter, people must offer these kinds of things to the government, but now the market is helping supplement some of the work. 

UMG: Just like in South Korea, seasonal items tend to take over the market. 

Kang: That's right. Merchants towards the end of last year were already reacting to rumors of a coming colder winter by securing related stock, which has led to some newer items like winter shoes appearing in the markets as well. 
There is one interesting innovation related to coal-fired stoves people use to heat their homes in winter. Since the ones people have in their homes are often old and produce fumes and ash which can lead to quarrels with neighbors, people are offering various services in the markets to repair the stoves and fix these problems to prevent ashes from flying out, for example.  

The source who told me about this said it was not being offered in a jangmadang setting, so they did not know the price for these converted coal stoves. Nevertheless, I felt heartened to know that market activity is improving to such an extent these days.
Additionally, with solar panels becoming increasingly common, electric heaters are also easy to find in the markets. These are all signs of the great adaptability of the North Korean people, which has only strengthened over time. Kim Jong Un is demanding the people become independent, and these developments indeed reflect their ability to survive through self-reliance. 
UMG: Thank you for once again providing us with such important insights into the North Korean market. Next, lets take a look at the recent market prices. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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