Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Markets in North Korea are nothing new!

Yesterday I read an interesting book review post by Andrei Lankov on Reason.com titled "North Korea's Grassroots Capitalism:  How creeping market forces are improving life in the Hermit Kingdom".  He reviewed a book by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson.   The review, and presumably the book, describe North Korea's nascent market economy with some interesting detail, noting that "The first sentence of the first chapter makes things clear: "'Communist' and 'collectivized' are utterly outdated labels for a North Korean economy which now heavily relies on thriving person-to-person market exchanges in which individuals buy and sell private property for the purpose of generating profit."" (The photograph at the left is of a roadside market in Chongdan County, in southwestern North Korea. Click to see a full-size version) Later Lankov notes that "The private economy, however powerful, remains in a kind of limbo, neither recognized nor systematically suppressed by the state." The The book apparently contains a great deal of anecdotal evidence about the penetration of computers, mobile devices, USB sticks and the like in North Korea.
 Lankov's review concludes with the observation that "Remarkably, all this marketization was essentially spontaneous. The old Leninist command economy quietly expired after it was deprived of the Soviet subsidies that had kept it afloat, and the North Korean people more or less created a new system from scratch. There were no neoliberal economic advisers, and there was no reform drive from above. At best, the government was willing to turn a blind eye on developments that contradicted the official line. The new system emerged by itself—a result, as the Leninists used to say, of "the collective creative activity of the toiling masses."" I'm going to read the book, but based on the review alone, I think a major point has been overlooked. For most of its history, Korea was an agrarian, peasant society, and periodic markets are a part of that history stretching from ancient times to the present. The photographs of North Korean markets embedded in this post look pretty much like the periodic markets (farmers markets we might call them) that spring up on a regular basis all over South Korea, but are more common in small towns and rural areas than in the largest cities.

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