This may be the most significant known incident of anti-regime resistance by North Korean civilians since the Ajumma Rebellion that followed the 2009 currency confiscation:
A massive brawl between Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] agents and vendors at a marketplace in Musan County last Friday has led to an urgent dispatch of county security and safety agents along with the complete shuttering of the market. The clash occurred after angry vendors tried to resist the confiscation of their goods by market surveillance authorities, Daily NK has learned.
“When the agents who manage the market took away manufactured goods from the vendors, they got upset and started arguing with the agents. Soon other merchants and officials nearby joined in and it ended up turning into a free-for-all between the two groups,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Sunday.
This incident was corroborated by an additional source in the same province.
“An altercation that started with cursing and fistfights turned into mayhem as crowds watching got agitated and joined in with weapons, resulting in many casualties,” he said, noting that armed agents with the State Security Department [SSD] and the MPS from the country were dispatched and after shutting down the market they hauled off everyone everyone involved, including the injured and deceased.
The confrontation occurred unexpectedly and the site was immediately sealed off, making it hard to estimate exactly how many were involved. However, the source said dozens are thought to have been injured on either side.
A witness at the scene described the market as being “jam packed” and thick with an atmosphere of intimidation hanging over what really amounted to a “riot,” he said. [Daily NK]
According to the report, the city has been isolated and the local market is closed, causing much hardship for the people. Discontent was already high because of the drought and the failed potato harvest.
The report follows the regime’s recent decision to ban market activities by men under 60. It will be interesting to watch, over the next few weeks, whether this incident suggests that a wider crackdown against the markets is underway, or whether this merely represents theft by uniformed shake-down artists. As I wrote here recently, there is a long-standing pattern in North Korea of the regime relaxing controls on markets for a few months, or years, only to crack down later.
Over the last few months, the regime had relaxed market controls significantly while focusing its attention on sealing the border and purging the military. But as we also learned in late 2009, the market is the only institution in North Korea that isn’t under Pyongyang’s absolute control. As such, it’s the only institution capable of resisting the state with any measure of success.
Notably, residents have not raised questions as to why such an incident would have occurred, with many suggesting “something larger needs to happen.” Most agree authorities brought the incident upon themselves by cracking down on people during such difficult times, the source reported.
Although few foreign observers have bothered to compile the history of popular resistance to the North Korean regime—reports that are largely impossible to verify—that reported history turns out to be rather extensive. Recently, most of that resistance has actually come from inside the military, from soldiers who fragged officers and fellow soldiers over hazing and abuse. So why has all of that resistance failed to change the system? It’s likely that the state’s fear of resistance has probably stayed its hand in many ways we can’t know, and has gradually pushed back the state’s economic control.
This incident, however, like others that preceded it (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), won’t threaten the state’s control, because North Koreans have such a limited capacity for intra-national communication and organization, and for international information operations to report, photograph, and film incidents like these and attract global media interest. As a result, this protest has probably already been isolated and contained. Like nearly all of the anti-regime incidents linked in this post, it was about personal grievances, mostly economic ones. But as the Arab Spring taught us, isolated, personal, and economic grievances have a way of re-contextualizing into broader movements with broader political objectives.
If the walls within the vast ice cube tray that is North Korean society were to break down, a strong wind could build a ripple on one side of the tray into a great wave on the other. Until those walls break down, that wave will not come.