If you look carefully enough in the alleyways of North Korean cities, you’ll find individual vendors and even, perhaps, the bigger jangmadangs (black markets). It is here where people exchange a variety of goods, from rice and roasted sweet potatoes to cosmetics and South Korean movies to heating fuel.
This is not something the regime will admit openly, as such private enterprise undermines the state philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. However, after the collapse of the public distribution system, the government have been forced to increasingly tolerate such illicit activities, as they provide too many North Koreans the only means for their economic and physical survival.
So I was naturally shocked when one of the North Korean guides confided in me that he had once traveled to one of the larger jangmadangs to purchase a Baekdu cat. Why? To help his mother with the rodent problem in her restaurant.
I can’t help but wonder if his openness to discuss with me his personal engagement in the private market should be taken as a sign that these deep economic changes we so often read about taking place in North Korea are there to stay.