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The Ballad Of The 13-Year-Old North Korean Capitalist


In North Korea, private businesses are illegal - or at least they're technically illegal. People aren't supposed to buy and sell stuff to each other, but they do it anyway. NPR's Zoe Chace, of our Planet Money team, has this story of a young North Korean woman who knew a business opportunity when she saw it, and had no qualms about pursuing it. One word - socks.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: She's just 23 years old. Easily excited, she wears makeup, a bright pink dress, likes to speak a little bit of English.

JOO YANG: OK, my name is Joo Yang. I was born in 1991 and my hometown is Chongjin province in North Korea.

CHACE: In North Korea when Joo Yang grew up, there wasn't enough food, there wasn't enough of anything. But still, at 13, she was into clothes and pretty things. There weren't many choices of what to wear in North Korea. Things we'd consider basic necessities became little ways to show off your fashion sense.

YANG: (Through translator) It's is very cold where I came from. The fashion items are socks and gloves. Those are the accents to your outfit. So many people would purposely show off their socks by keeping their pants short.

CHACE: One day, one of Joo Yang's friends came to school with a whole bunch of brand-new socks from a relative in China.

YANG: (Through translator) My friend always has the best clothing - socks, gloves. Like I remember - now, what is the character - with cat and the mouse? Tom and Jerry - those characters were on the socks. And I had an idea. I thought - maybe I could buy some socks from her and sell them in my village for profit.

CHACE: For profit. She'd mark up the price 30 percent for something cute and squirrel away the money. Joo Yang became the sock monger of her village. And there were actually lots of little businesses run by her neighbors out of their living rooms, filling in gaps left by the government. Joo Yang was good at selling stuff and ambitious. When she got older, she went to work in a government warehouse. There was nothing to do at her official job, so she opened a little kiosk, selling gloves and cigarettes to the other workers.

YANG: (Through translator) It was fun being able to make money.

CHACE: I kept asking - weren't you scared, didn't you have to and it a secret? And she was like - you don't get how it worked. It wasn't a secret, it was a quid pro quo. The State Security Department officials weren't paid enough by the government. They survived off bribes from people like me.

YANG: (Through translator) I would always carry some cigarettes with me to keep them as a bribe in case I got caught. And if I needed to travel, I'd tell them where I'm going, and discretely put the cigarettes in their pockets.

CHACE: Joo Yang says a lot of commerce is happening right out in the open. Large marketplaces with stalls, selling things the government could not supply. North Korea's government needed the Joo Yang's, but it also resented the Joo Yang's. People were getting rich by North Korean standards.

YANG: (Through translator) There are no banks in North Korea, so people keep their money at home. So what I did was put the old and crumbled paper money on the floor and cover the money with a piece of linoleum from China. Every time I had to leave the cover, I could see nicely fitted pile of paper money, which kept coming.

CHACE: Not long ago, North Korea decided to crack down on its new middle class - try to reset the economy back 40 years. It was November 30, 2009, the North Korean government decided to issue a new currency. And it printed out a bunch of brand-new notes. But you could only exchange about $40 worth of old notes for new ones. So any savings you're holding onto under the linoleum floor were wiped out. People through their worthless old currency into the street. Joo Yang - she decided it was time to get out - not just out of the business, but out of North Korea. She snuck into China - missionaries eventually got her on a plane to South Korea.

YANG: (Through translator) You know, you're supposed to sit tight with your seatbelts on in the airplane - I didn't sit still. I walked around the aisles, back and forth, and looking out this window and that window.

YANG: Joo Yang says even with that crackdown, she knows little businesses still survive in North Korea. Today, Joo Yang is in Seoul, a place stuffed with entrepreneurship and competition. And she's still killing it. She's on a South Korean TV show that teaches South Koreans about North Korea. It's called "Now On My Way To Meet You." She's a star.



CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News.


This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zoe Chace explains the mysteries of the global economy for NPR's Planet Money. As a reporter for the team, Chace knows how to find compelling stories in unlikely places, including a lollipop factory in Ohio struggling to stay open, a pasta plant in Italy where everyone calls in sick, and a recording studio in New York mixing Rihanna's next hit.