Good Friends: North Korea Will Close Large Markets in Chongjin, Hamhung

Just minutes after reading Barbara Demick’s description of the sprawling Sunam Market in Chongjin, which she called North Korea’s largest market, my ADD got the best of me, I set aside the book, and clicked on Good Friends’s site, where I saw this:

Soonam Market in Chungjin to be Closed in March

North Korean authorities are to close down Soonam market in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province in March following the shutdown of Pyongsung market in South Pyongan Province last June. The cabinet decided on a measure to cease the operation management of the Soonam market on December 30, which practically means a closure. Hereafter, North Hamgyong Provincial Party Committee will take charge of the closing process and take the party leadership initiative. The provincial party decided “to implement a propaganda campaign project in order to control opinions and utterances of the residents. The intention is to eradicate possible strong resistance of the residents by means of a carefully designed ideology campaign. Having been in operation only for five years, Soonam market is located between Chumok-dong and Chungnam-dong in Soonam District. The Provincial Party plans to demolish the market beginning in March and build trendy parks and houses.

The decision to close Soonam market is expected to shock the residents who rely on trading just like the closing down of Pyonsung market. Soonam market is well-known as “˜the Republic’s Wholesale Market’ along with Pyongsung market. It is a market with the most commercial activities in the country, and business in trucks is active in particular. As such, the market was regarded by the North Korean authorities as a breeding ground of anti-socialist phenomena, especially unlawful activities. Soonam market is also a place where a group of female merchants protested in opposition to a measure that banned women under 50 from doing business in March, 2008, which perplexed the Central Party.

A South Hamgyong Provincial Party official explained, “There is no other reason for the Party to close down Soonam market than to pave the way to the Strong and Prosperous Nation. Currently, approximately more than 40% of residents of Chungjin are estimated to rely on Soonam market, so the impact of its closure is expected to be substantial. Households that make livings by trading at the market are deeply concerned about their future without the market already.

Chupyung Market in Hamheung to be Closed Following Soonam Market

Chupyung market in Hamheung, North Hamgyong Province is soon to be closed following Soonam market in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province. Hamheung City is the largest industrial district in the northern region and has a substantial amount of production and demand of handicraft manufacturing and industrial edge processing products. Located in Sapo District in Hamheung City, Chupyung market is a whole sale market for edge processing products manufactured by individuals. It is as large and crowded with wholesale merchants as Pyongsung market. As the market is crowded and busy, crime activities including fraud and robbery have occurred frequently. As such, authorities announced the closing down decision explaining, “The operating manner of the high-profile markets in the northern region is notorious even overseas. Difficult situations of the residents have been broadcasted (overseas) and often used by the media to criticize the Military First Policy of the Republic. It is certainly defamation of the country’s reputation and authority. All the advantages and disadvantages resulting from the closing down of Pyongsung market in last June are to be analyzed and based on the experience, Soonam market in Chungjin will be closed in the first quarter. In the same period, Chupyong market will be put in a pre-closure phase. After the closure of Soonam market is completed, Chupyong market will finally stop operating in the second quarter. The Party order illustrated that the purpose of the market closure is “to expedite the realization of the Strong and Prosperous Nation, so all the citizens live equally well in the Strong and Prosperous Nation in 2012.

Good Friends gets things wrong sometimes, but this is the kind of thing they tend to get right.

These images show what I believe to be the Sunam Market in Chongjin. These aren’t the same as Curtis‘s place marks, but the long rows of narrow, shiny buildings are consistent may other North Korean markets he has place market. This location also fits well with the descriptions of Demick’s subjects. On the right is a higher-altitude image to give you a wider frame of reference. Click for full size

sunam-market-1700.jpg chongjin-40000.jpg

Here is Curtis’s guess for the main market in Hamhung, which looks right to me. Again, there’s a hi-alt image on the right side to help you see where the market is in relation to other landmarks in the city.

hamhung-market-1000.jpg hamhung-23000.jpg

Once you’ve read Demick’s book, you’ll understand on a stark, human level just how much misery, hardship, and anger closing these markets would mean to many people. The Public Distribution System hasn’t provided enough for North Koreans to live on for over a decade. Even more than in other cities, people in Chongjin depend on those markets for their survival. The process by which the survivors of the famine learned to live by trading is also, for most of them, a process of political disillusionment. People who buy and sell in the markets nurse their anger against the government quietly until it gets between them and their survival. If this report is accurate, closing the Sunam Market is a recipe for an explosion and a massacre. Traders there, and in the border town of Hoeryong, have reacted with protests before. Recent reports from Hamhung suggest that sentiment there is equally combustible. Indeed, all of protests reported to have occurred in North Korea in recent years were reactions to restrictions on market trading. Recent reports suggest that the traders will not take this passively. And if the traders resist, the regime won’t take it lightly.


  1. Thanks for this Josh. Couple of things:

    1. I have some GE stuff to send you later this week related to our previous conversations.

    2. I am reading Ms. Demick’s book right now (I had to purchase my own copy!). On what page is Ms. Demick’s description of the Sunam market?

    3. As an aside, I have located 12 markets in Chongjin. This is nearly the number of markets in Pyongyang (not including state department stores). Other large cities only have 1 or 2. This makes Chongjin the most “marketized” city in the DPRK on a per-capita basis.

    4. As for the Hamhung map pictured above, I received a lot of information from Kim Yong il (PSCORE). He told me that the market along the river (labeled “market 2”) is actually much larger than picture shows. When the market is open, it is full and vendors who also fill up the shore of the river for blocks to the north and south of the market. In other words, the geographical space of the markets drastically understate the number of trades that take place when the markets are open.


  2. Curtis, Start on Page 154 for the description of the Sunam Market. Demick also says that the markets overspill their boundaries.

    I’ve met Yong-il — really liked him. When I met him, for some strange reason, I could still remember how to speak Korean. Hardly needed a translator at all.


  3. Mr. Josh,

    I have just finished reading Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag-The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot and have since then been researching the situation in North Korea. I find your articles very informative and inspiring. I want to help. How can I? I have heard about the mission workers group called Good Friends. What do they do? How can I help them? How can I help North Korea? I find myself in tears now, thinking of all the wretched crimes commited by such egotists as Kim Jung-Il. Please help me, help them.

    [Here is a 2006 post that answers your question. The organizations I recommend are still active. – Joshua]