May 16, 2022

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The fish-trading young pioneers of North Korea’s market economy

How "running traders" during the 1990s laid the groundwork for the DPRK's fledging private markets

I want to introduce you, readers, to Ms. Pak (not her real name, of course), a North Korean small trader. She left her country about a decade ago, but back in the early 2000s, she was one of the first foot soldiers of the emerging market economy. Back then this economy was not exactly in its infancy, but the level of sophistication was well below what we can see now: at the end of the day, it was the efforts of millions of people like Ms. Pak which helped to pull the North Korean economy from the abyss of the 1990s.

Ms. Pak graduated from a high school in a small countryside town. Her family was poor and occupied an unremarkable place in the elaborate songbun system: she was not at the bottom of this class structure, but slightly below average, so the idea of going to a college did not cross her mind. College was for the top 15% or so of all students, and she was clearly average, so she did what people around her expected: she went to work a semi-skilled job at a local factory.