Vendors sell goods at a market in Chongjin, northeastern North Korea, in December. (Video footage by sources related to North Korea)

SEOUL--Vendors and customers haggle over prices while pickpockets are on the prowl at a market in Chongjin, northeastern North Korea.

The market workers are mostly women, and their strong spirit and the capitalist attitudes there fly in the face of international sanctions that were said to have crippled the North Korean economy.

Markets like these have created a “new class” of rich merchants who could eventually challenge the authority of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to insiders.

Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to hold their second summit on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Observers say Kim, having accomplished his military goals, is now looking to improve the country’s economy.

Footage obtained by The Asahi Shimbun of the market in Chongjin in December offers a glimpse into economic activity at the local level.

The video was provided by sources related to North Korea.

Kim Hyeong-soo, executive director of the Northern Research Association in South Korea who defected from North Korea in 2009, explained the video content.

Between 500 and 1,000 merchants work at the market on a concrete floor.

“The ground has been solidified to do business on rainy or snowy days,” said Kim, who is also an expert in biotechnology.

The market is basically open every day except for national holidays. But during harvest times, when merchants have to help out on farms, the market business hours are shortened.

Most of the market workers are women because men generally work at state-run factories or mines.

But more men have recently worked at the market after paying bribes to their companies for permission to take a leave from their duties, Kim said.

Walls have been set up around the market for security purposes and to prevent unauthorized vendors from selling their goods there.

The vendors are each assigned low compartments in a small area.

Kim said merchants pay guarantee money to the market’s management office to secure those spots. Every evening, the vendors pay part of their earnings to management staff who patrol the market, according to Kim.

In the video footage, merchants diligently explain the prices of wheat, soybeans, glutinous rice and other products. One merchant points out that 1 kilogram of starch costs 7,000 won, but then relents, “OK, it’s fine to sell it for just 6,000 won.”

According to Kim, government-designated price lists are usually posted in front of the market, but no one follows them.

“Capitalism dominates the market,” he said. “They are desperate to sell high and buy low even by just a little bit.”

Price-setting for products frequently leads to quarrels between merchants.

The food can take “three routes” to the market. The first is from harvests at cooperative farms, excluding those distributed to military or government members.

The second route is through imports from China, including smuggled goods.

The third route involves illegal siphoning of the military’s rice. The North Korean military sells its military supply rice and buys cheap corn, making the best use of the price gap.

When merchants complete their business for the day, they leave unsold goods and other items at the management office in the market or at a nearby house before going home.

Residents who live near the market can become affluent from the fees they collect to store the food items of the merchants.

“Now, they are making a business out of anything they can think of,” Kim said.

The video footage also shows women with small bags hanging from their shoulders.

Kim said merchants put the proceeds in a red envelope that is said to bring fortune. The bags with envelopes are hung from their necks and hidden in their clothes to thwart the growing number of pickpockets in the market.

According to the South Korean government, Pyongyang officially authorizes 460 markets.

Many unofficial markets are also operating, Kim said. Some venders sell bicycles and other items on streets leading to an official market. They put just one sample product on display.

“If a patrol questions them, they simply say they are waiting for someone,” Kim said

According to Philo Kim, a professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, more than 1 million North Koreans work as merchants at markets, and they are leading a birth of a “new class.”

An analysis by South Korean experts of North Korea’s economy showed that several thousand people emerged as a new class at the end of the Kim Jong Il regime. They are now considered rich, with asserts worth at least $10,000.

They hire workers and enter such industries as construction, trade or transportation.

North Koreans have a saying: “We have two ‘dang.’ We need ‘changmadang’ (market) rather than ‘Rodongdang’ (North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party).”

“Mammonism (worship of money) has spread in North Korea,” Kim Hyeong-soo said.

Tae Yong Ho, a former North Korean ambassador to Britain who fled to South Korea, said: “Capitalism has proceeded more and more. The generation of people who don’t have unconditional loyalty to Kim Jong Un will be a major force in this country in 10 years.”

The average monthly salary of a public servant in North Korea is reportedly 5,000 won.

North Korea’s official exchange rate is 108 won per U.S. dollar. But the rate only applies to distribution products for high-ranking officials.

Ordinary citizens must use an exchange rate of 8,000 won per dollar.

A family of four needs more than 100,000 won a month to survive, according to estimates.

In the video footage, merchants sold 1 kg of rice for 4,300 won and 1 kg of soybeans for 3,500 won.

Despite the recent price hike of rice to 7,000 won and the international community’s economic sanctions, North Korea’s economy appears relatively stable.

“The current situation might have occurred because this is the season right after the harvest,” Kim Hyeong-soo said.

He said food prices should be observed between February and May, after the previous year’s harvest has all been consumed and before the goods from next spring’s harvest reach the market.

In his first greeting message of 2019, Kim Jong Un emphasized an “independent economy” and indicated he holds low expectations for a rapid improvement in ties with the United States.

However, if the North Korean leader comes away empty-handed from the next summit with Trump, the distance between citizens desperate to make a living and the leader could widen.