Bottom-up Marketization
After the state-socialist economy collapsed in the 1990s, the regime was no longer able to provide for the people, and up to a million North Koreans lost their lives in the resultant famine. Through this great adversity the North Korean people had to survive by their own strength, so they abandoned defunct work units, got creative, and engaged in illegal market activities and foraging to get food. This led to a process known as “marketization from below.”

North Korean women in particular emerged from more traditional roles to play a key role in this process, and to this day many market activities continue to be female-dominated. The market became the primary source of food for ordinary North Koreans outside the ruling elite, and as food markets gradually grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services, the market mindset and profit motive spread throughout North Korean society.

Over the past decade the regime has vacillated between grudging tolerance and active crackdowns on the markets, but the people have proven their resilience. After the 2009 currency reform debacle the regime must now realize that the markets are a fact of life that they must learn to live with.