September 25, 2023

How the “Arduous March” created North Korea’s antique trade

In the 90s, desperate for food, many North Koreans turned to pottery smuggling

For a majority of the North Koreans, the 1990s were a decade of famine, mass death and social disintegration. But for a small minority of adventurous, entrepreneurial, ruthless and hard-working people it was, in some ways, a dream time, years when somebody with no capital to invest, and with little connections, could make a fortune in few years (with a remarkably high probability of perishing in the process).

Many, but not all, get-rich schemes of the 1990s would be illegal in any state, let alone North Korea. These schemes involved narcotics, counterfeit tobacco, and antiques (both real and fake). Indeed, the antique trade, which boomed from approximately 1995 to 2005, was second only to illicit drugs in terms of both profits and risks.