A rare video of a North Korean market illustrated the extent of economic devastation in the communist state after it cracked down on capitalist influence and revalued its currency in November.
The video was shot in October and again last month with a hidden camera by two North Koreans who recently fled the country. The film shows a market in On-sung, Ham-Kyung Province, a small town at the northern tip of North Korea bordering China.
In order to revamp its failing economy, North Korea had started to experiment with a state-controlled market system in 2002, but the outside world had not been able to witness its existence especially in the rural areas where foreign visitors are hardly ever given access.
In the released video filmed in October before the currency change, the market in On-sung is thriving with vendors selling and customers buying cosmetics, tobacco, used clothes, seafood and oil.
The hustle and bustle in these experimental markets has come to an end, which can be seen in the released video that filmed the same market last month. The market is a ghost town. Stalls are mostly empty while few are seen selling basic items such as corn.
Caleb Mission says that is a typical scene these days in the North after the government announced the disastrous currency revaluation last November.
The failed attempt to curb inflation and restrict free markets only deepened food shortages, triggered outrage and riots, and led to the execution of Park Nam-Ki, 73, last March, the man known to have headed the reform.
"Simply speaking, the currency reform was a complete failure and Kim Jong Il's authority was negatively damaged. Someone had to pay for it," explained Jeong Hyung-Gon, researcher at Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
Video of the market before the government's crackdown shows three kinds of vendors, including official vendors licensed and taxed by the state, illegal street vendors selling food outside the permitted area, and so-called "grasshopper vendors" who lay out their goods temporarily near the town's train station.
A soldier in the video extorts sweaters from a vendor, and another officer riding a bicycle swears at an illegal street hawker ordering him to leave the area.
"In the north, these patrol soldiers represent power. There's nothing people can do when they come around just taking what they want or often give favors to their close relatives," said Pastor Kim Seung-Eun, 45, head of Caleb Mission, a Christian group supporting North Korean refugees. Kim's group commissioned the hidden video project together with Chosun Media, a subsidiary of South Korea's largest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
In order to survive, Kim says street and grasshopper vendors offer bribes to officials as well. In the video, a woman crouched on the street selling sausage and alcohol offer her goods to a soldier while a merchant wearing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's trademark black Rayban style sunglasses share the food. Pastor Kim explained that this scene is of a merchant entertaining a duty officer.
Several women brawl and haggle over how they could fairly trade noodles for corn while passersby curiously watch the fight. Illegal vendors, mostly women, sell homemade food such as pancakes.