The Jangmadang Generation


Written by Cho Jinsoo for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR. Original Korean article can be found at https://www.yinks.or.kr/.


The 1990’s in North Korea was a period of interconnection between the external Cold War, which had been ongoing since the mid 1980’s, and the internal crisis of the 1990s known as the Arduous March (1995-1999). Starting with the collapse of socialism in eastern Europe in 1989, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, support to North Korea from these countries was halted. To overcome these domestic and foreign crises, North Korea leapt into a nuclear testing strategy from the early 1990s, but in the midst of this Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and due to a 2 year-long drought North Korea suffered shortages of food, energy, and foreign currency, all of which resulted in the collapse of the public distribution system.

During the Great Famine North Korean citizens came to survive by creating markets (henceforth: jangmadang) across the country to solve issues of food, clothing, and housing. The self-sustaining marketization created in North Korea is a social phenomenon that cannot be found elsewhere in the world and can be seen as the emergence of a new economic entity within North Korean society.[1] Amid repeated cycles of regulation and concession under the North Korean regime’s anti-marketization policy, the jangmadang evolved to incorporate the characteristics of a black market along with its original market functions. Furthermore, the desire for voluntary marketization, as chosen by North Korean citizens, became the catalyst for this evolution to reach present-day North Korea’s unique economic system.[2]

The “Jangmadang Generation” refers to North Korean youths currently in their 20s to mid-30s and can be defined as the generation that grew up after spending their childhoods in the midst of the Arduous March. They are a generation who did not experience the public distribution system and grew up in a theoretically communist nation as capitalists who accepted the market in their daily lives.[3] After the Arduous March, it is often said among North Koreans that they live as socialists during the day and capitalists at night.[4] It is not easy to observe and study the jangmadang generation.

Often referred to as the ‘Hermit Kingdom,’ North Korea’s 70-year maintenance of a closed socialist system has rendered local case studies impossible, and in the case of literary research, although many North Korean documents are provided at the Information Center on North Korea under the Ministry of Unification [of South Korea], as North Korean literature is used as a political tool to maintain the system through the Party’s control of discourse, there is the limitation of a one-sided perspective. In particular, after Kim Il-Sung’s push for “positive conversion” (influence of one’s mindset through positive examples) and the elimination of critical reporting from newspapers, following the 1967 establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System in 1967, all literature became focused on the Leader (Suryong). For this reason, it is not easy to find articles related to jangmadang themselves or the jangmadang generation, which represent micro-changes in post-Arduous March North Korea.

Even so, I was able to find several articles showing that North Korea was concerned about youths, of which one is as follows. In a 2018 article published in People’s Education (2018 Vol. 5) it states that today’s youths are easily influenced by bourgeois ideology since they are not aware of how hard their parents suffered in the past and did not experience the revolutionary struggle against imperialism.[5] It goes on to say that if youths are contaminated by the indecent winds of liberalization, they degenerate into organizational life hating liberalists who cannot easily be redeemed.

In order to study the jangmadang generation, in depth interviews must be conducted directly with young North Korean defectors who are of the jangmadang generation. Since the mid-1990s the number of North Korean defectors has increased to around 30,000 individuals and through them it is possible to get an admittedly limited, micro-view into North Korean society. However, due to strengthened border controls and falling defector numbers since the Kim Jong-un regime took office in 2012, it is not easy to meet a member of the jangmadang generation, which reached their youth through a childhood and adolescence during the Arduous March.

In preparing for a research article 2 years ago, I, with some difficulty, met with individuals of the jangmadang generation in their early, mid, and late 20s and conducted in-depth interviews, which led to me developing an interest in this generation. I was struck by the speed at which these young individuals, for whom at that time it had been less than 4 or 5 years since they had defected from North Korea, were adapting to their new lives in South Korea and feeling confident and relaxed. In fact, those who have worked with members of the jangmadang generation note that they adapt to South Korean society faster than previous North Korean generations. I remember being taken aback by the fact that the interview results were answers that broke preconceived notions about North Korean citizens.

The Jangmadang Generation, a documentary created by LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), an INGO dedicated to helping North Korean defectors, was published on the Washington Post website in 2017.[6] In this documentary, which is comprised of interviews with 8 individuals of the jangmadang generation, Directors Sokeel Park and Chad Vickery state that they hope audiences will come to see the creativity and potential of the jangmadang generation, which is at the forefront of societal change in North Korea. The interviewees state that their parents grew up in a generation when everything was provided by the State through the public distribution system, whereas from an early age they themselves have had to take care of everything on their own and grew up thinking that they would have to pioneer their own futures. Since early childhood they turned their eyes to business, embodied a sense of the capitalist market, and took bold action without concern for the micro-control (as opposed to macro-control) that operates in sub-networks throughout society. This is because illegal acts, such are bribery, are an inevitability when engaging in capitalistic jangmadang activities in the theoretically communist nation of North Korea.

Additionally, another factor that has significantly influenced the jangmadang generation, is the South Korean and foreign movies and TV series which they were exposed to from an early age through CDs, DVDs, and USBs that flowed in through black markets. In the wake of the Arduous March, they carefully broke free from the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ and grew up indirectly seeing and feeling the outside world. In the documentary, a 25-year-old woman from Hyesan, Yanggang-do, a region famous for smuggling to and from China, said that she started smuggling from the age of 15. However, even if she was able to smuggle in trendy clothes from South Korean dramas, due to the difficulty of exposing the clothing or advertising, she would sell the clothes after having her model-like friends roam the markets all day while alternating through 10 sets of clothes to make them known and create a trend.

In the post-Arduous March era, while many people have paid focus to North Korea’s hereditary ruling elites or nuclear issue, a new generation has grown within North Korean society which will lead the future of North Korea. Significant difficulties still remain in examining and researching the jangmadang generation, but it is necessary to at least recognize the existence of and pay attention to this generation.


*** Cho Jinsoo is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Works Cited:

[1] Kim Jeong-Yoo and Yoon Seung Bi, “An Evolutionary Analysis of the Change Process of North Korea’s ‘Jangmadang’,” Journal of Social Science 45(3) (2019), p. 87. (김정유·윤승비, “북한 '장마당'의 변화과정에 대한 진화론적 분석,” 『사회과학연구』 제45권 제3호 (2019), p.87.)

[2] Ibid, p.88.

[3] Anna Fifield, “A New Film Captures North Korea’s ‘Bold and Audacious’ Millennials”, The Washington Post, December 15, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/12/15/the-jangmadang-generation-new-film-shows-how-millennials-are-changing-north-korea/, accessed December 28, 2020.

[4] Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh, The Hidden People of North Korea: EverydayLife in the Hermit Kingdom (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), p.193.

[5] “The Destructive Effect of Cultural Penetration by Bourgeois Ideology on Young Students,” People’s Education, 2018 Vol. 5 (Overall Vol. 690), (Pyongyang: Education Newpaper Agency, 2018), pp. 27-28. (“부르죠아 사상 문화적 침투가 청소년 학생들에게 미치는 해독성,” 『인민교육 5호(9-10월)』, 2018년 10월15일, pp.27-28.)

[6] Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), “The Millenials of North Korea: The Jangmadang Generation,” December 19, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvsqpwI_IfU, accessed December 28, 2018.


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