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Authorities in North Korea are naming and shaming merchants accused of profiteering from scarce goods to get them to “volunteer” to donate large amounts of money to the government, sources in the country told RFA.

In a country whose chronic shortages of food and other essentials were made worse with the closure of the border and suspension of all trade with China since January 2020 on coronavirus concerns, merchants have been able to buy up supplies of scarce and expensive goods and jack their prices even higher.

“The local branch of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea hosted a meeting where they criticized their members for stocking up on goods and selling them at a higher price,” a resident of Yongchon county in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 26.

“Some of the members are not happy enough to sell a packet of imported seasoning with a profit of 5,000 won (U.S. $0.82). They need to sell it for at least 10,000 won in profit. Such greed is an example of antisocialist culture, according to the union,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Nearly all merchants in the local marketplaces are women, working to bring in income for their families while men report to their low-paying government-assigned jobs. With no official jobs, they are officially classified as “housewives,” with automatic membership in the women’s union.

“The authorities are suddenly getting into the Socialist Women’s Union members’ business because the union itself is not small and they all make money at the local market,” the source said.

But even though the authorities are using the sessions to criticize hoarding, stopping the practice is not their actual goal, according to the source.

“At the end of the lecture they appeal to the union members’ sense of patriotism, asking them to volunteer to donate money because the country is in dire need due to the current economic situation,” said the source.

“Residents are criticizing the authorities, saying that they cunningly used the carrot-and-stick approach to extract large amounts of money from union members,” added the source.

Market manipulation

Although the border has been closed since last year, smugglers have been sneaking goods from China to North Korea by ship after maritime trade partially resumed in May of this year, according to the source.

The source said that Chinese seasonings and cooking oil are in extremely high demand because imports were unavailable for so long.

This has created an opportunity for merchants in the border city of Sinuiju, who buy an entire ship’s cargo of seasonings, making them artificially scarce.

According to the source, a 480-gram (17-ounce) box of seasoning costs about 7,000 or 8,000 won at the port in Sinuiju, but it it sells for 15,000 to 20,000 won on the market. Wheat flour, meanwhile, costs 8,000 to 9,000 won at port, but 13,000 to 15,000 on the market.

In South Pyongan province, the local women’s union gathered members and “showed video footage of a local market secretly filmed by the authorities,” said a resident of Unsan county.

“There were scenes of merchants buying up all the daily necessities, which have become scarce due to the pandemic, and selling them back at a high price,” the second source said.

“All the merchants in the video are members of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea,” the second source said.

The government lecturer compared the profiteering traders to capitalists who don’t mind taking advantage of people their parents’ age to make money, then urged the union members to adhere to socialist principles of helping and guiding one another even when doing business, according to the second source.

“The members laughed at the lecture, saying, ‘Business is the act of buying and selling things to make money. What do they mean by helping and guiding one another? Are they helping and guiding us when they collect taxes from us?’”

The cash-strapped North Korean government often finds ways to siphon money out of the people’s pockets.

RFA reported last month that rural households in some parts of the country were made to pay about 20,000 won for the construction of propaganda murals, while in August citizens who had been mobilized for flood relief work could buy their way out of it for about 30,000 won.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.