(File Photo) A market supervisor scolds a young woman (left) for not paying the market fee. Photographed in Pyeongseong, South Pyongan Province in March, 2013 (ASIAPRESS)

◆ Nervous residents frustrated by economic deterioration

Residents are becoming increasingly agitated as the economy continues to deteriorate due to the Kim Jong-un regime’s strong coronavirus prevention measures and decision to close the border. At markets, struggling merchants are confronting authorities, protesting against the government’s market crackdowns and price interventions. (Kang Ji-won / ISHIMARU Jiro)

North Korea closed its border with China in late January to stop the influx of the coronavirus, bringing trade almost entirely to a halt. This brought an immediate rise in the prices of imported goods, prompting the authorities to set price ceilings for rice and Chinese-made goods. Since February, police officials have been monitoring prices at markets and cracking down on merchants found to be selling at higher rates.

If merchants are found to be exceeding the set prices, police are authorized to confiscate their supplies. At the same time, Kim Jong-un’s concern for the strength of the local currency has prompted authorities to confiscate Chinese yuan and other foreign currency from merchants who are caught handling it at markets.

◆ Tension rising at the markets as merchants resentment with authorities boils over

A reporting partner living in Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, told ASIAPRESS of a recent incident witnessed at the market on May 3, saying “The constant pressure of the police’s crackdown caused one of the merchants to snap. He yelled at the officer, ‘You tell us don’t do this, don’t do that! How are we supposed to live?’ A commotion erupted with many merchants arguing loudly with the police. The atmosphere at the market had certainly become much more tense. It seemed like it would absolutely explode that day. It is said to be much the same in other cities.”

It is not known if that particular incident was the cause, but the attitude of the police officer was much different in the week after, according to the reporting partner. The Ministry of People’s Security has apparently ordered local governments “to not allow crackdown officers to violate residents’ human rights.” The phrase “do not violate human rights” was said to be used explicitly by the authorities.

Meanwhile, there are said to be many cases of dissatisfied residents reporting merchants for charging prices that exceed the government’s limits.

North Korea’s exports to China amounted to just $610,000 in March, down 96.2% from the year before, according to trade statistics released by the Chinese customs authorities on April 23. According to the data, imports fell 90.8% from the year before, to a total of $18.03 million.

The sharp decline in trade has devastated the North Korean economy, causing many residents to lament, “We will starve to death before we die of the coronavirus.” Although there are rumors that trade with China may be resumed in late May or early June, the outlook remains unclear.

※ ASIAPRESS contacts its reporting partners in North Korea through smuggled Chinese mobile phones.

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