September 21, 2023

Shocked Soviets: What embassy records reveal about North Korean market activity

Declassified archives show DPRK was a tough place to live even during era now remembered for stability

Unofficial markets have long been a pivotal part of the North Korean economy, providing much-needed goods to a population underserved by the official state distribution system and a key source of income for many households. And despite recent state crackdowns, these markets have become so important that they are unlikely to completely disappear.

Given the prevalence of these markets, it is tempting to assume that they have always existed in the DPRK. But even half a century ago this was not the case, and declassified Soviet-era archives provide new insights into the feeble state of the country’s market trade in the past.