North Korea's hunt for hard currency to fund military spending

North Korea's hunt for hard currency to fund military spending
North Korea, which has not registered a single suspected case of Ebola, closed its borders to foreign tourists on October 24.

SEOUL - Three years since Kim Jong Un took over as North Korea's supreme leader, the impoverished communist country is showing some signs of change.

Regular, government-supplied food rations have been mostly replaced by food sold on the black market. Known as ''jangmadang,'' an ancient Korean word for marketplace, the trade is effectively endorsed by the regime.

There are an estimated 400 such markets across North Korea, including in the capital Pyongyang. Besides food, they also sell household electric appliances, which are mostly imported from China. The markets are said to supply 60-70 per cent of the basic daily goods used by North Koreans.

The Kim regime is promoting reforms to stimulate the economy by allowing farmers and businesses to buy materials and sell products on their own. As an incentive, the government has raised their cut of the profits. The policy has given rise to some relatively affluent North Koreans, who are now beginning new businesses. They operate plants rented by the government, and transport Chinese products to major cities by trains and publicly owned vehicles.

In the three years to 2013, North Korea's real economic growth rates were 0.8 per cent, 1.3 per cent and 1.1 per cent, according to the Bank of Korea. The economy is believed to have continued growing, albeit slightly, in 2014. Many economists say the North Korean economy has stabilized somewhat after limping along for years. Food supply has improved, thanks partly to a spate of good weather, and prices of consumer goods remain stable.

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