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North Korea’s Street Stalls Signal Small-Scale Arrival of Capitalism

Hello to a Market Economy? Street Stalls Flourish in North Korea 0:44

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Street stalls that offer North Koreans a place to spend — or make — money on everything from snow cones to DVDs are flourishing in Pyongyang and other North Korean cities, modest but growing forms of private commerce in a country where capitalism is officially anathema.

In sharp contrast to the common but semi-clandestine activities of old women hawking loose cigarettes on city backstreets or farmers selling their produce in makeshift fruit stands along highways, the kiosks appear to have the support of some important backers and are both conspicuous and spreading fast.

Near Pyongyang's main train station, for example, a hamburger stand is doing good business. A few blocks away is a kiosk that stocks buns and bakery goods. Other kiosks sell flowers, soft drinks and junk food.

Most of the kiosks are decidedly small-time. But fancy ones associated with well-established restaurants or state-approved enterprises are also multiplying, which could suggest the Pyongyang status quo may be trying to tap into, or even develop, the nascent domestic consumer market.

The first street stalls appeared about a decade ago in the capital, organized by the state on holidays to provide citizens with subsidized treats — often in exchange for government-issued coupons — as a show of the leadership's largesse. But following a broader experiment with allowing the stalls to grow in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, they have mushroomed in number and variety.

Pyongyang's acceptance of their spread may have been inevitable.

North Korea's nanny-state system was severely damaged by the country's economic crisis and famine in the 1990s, prompting many North Koreans to sell whatever they could on the black market, either for cash or food, just to survive. Kiosks and the growth of private enterprise in general since then is seen by North Korea watchers as evidence of how the lean years changed people's attitudes toward relying on the state, spurring a kind of grassroots entrepreneurism.

Officials still frown on market-style capitalism, which they see as an anomaly and a potential threat to their old-style centralized, state-run economy. Without their tacit approval, however, the stalls and larger quasi-official marketplaces that have also become a fixture in most cities would not be allowed to operate as openly as they do. It is widely believed by outside observers that bribes and corruption play a role.

Image: A food kiosk in Pyongyang
People buy meals at a food kiosk in Pyongyang, North Korea. Dita Alangkara / AP