Kim Jong-Un(der The Radar): North Korea Is Experiencing A Black Market Housing Boom?

North Korea Is Experiencing A Black Market Housing Boom?

By Dan Bratman September 28, 2016
Photo courtesy of

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”J” font=”Bowlby One SC” color_class=”otw-black-text” background_color_class=”otw-no-background” size=”large” border_color_class=”otw-no-border-color”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]ust when you thought the only thing that went boom in North Korea was a nuclear test site, Kim Jong-Un’s personal human ant farm is having a housing boom. Yeah, you read that right. And we’re pretty sure the reporting isn’t trying to be sarcastic—because sarcasm was recently outlawed there.

Like so many things in North Korea, this is kinda weird because it is illegal to buy, sell or rent a house there. In fact, it’s also illegal to watch TV, wear jeans or have anything other than the 28 officially approved haircuts (none of which are a man-bun). But how does a real estate boom happen in a country where ownership is basically illegal?

Related: Drunk(With Power) Architecture: What Happens When Dictators Make Buildings

Well, first, remember that North Korea is not like most places. So, some of the things that are “illegal” the government turns a blind eye to. For example, starting in the 1990’s, a few nascent real estate deals started happening. When a person gets a house (given to them by the government), although they have no property rights, they do get a certificate called an ipsajung—which means “proof of moving in”.  These certificates have no expiration date, so they are used much like a deed or title. But it’s actually a residency certificate. So when a person moves from one place to the other, they can go to the local municipality and change the certificate for a small fee—about the cost of a good bottle of liquor (oh wait, that’s illegal). This lays the groundwork for the officials to wash their hands of whatever nefarious and dirty capitalism might have transpired.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

For the most part, the government has such limited funds to devote to housing their citizens, that they have unofficially let the “grassroots capitalism” that has sprouted up around the country take care of things. Starting around 2000, the state bowed out of the housing market, allowing a black market to flourish. About ten years ago, the average price of a house in Pyongyang was $5,000 (almost all transactions are in US dollars). But nowadays, that same house is going for an average of about $80,000. In many cities, from 2005 to 2010, prices increased ten-fold. Obviously, there is a very small percentage of people who have gotten rich on this black market so the poor continue to be displaced as the rich begin to afford more and more conveniences and “luxury”. Sounding familiar? It’s like Williamsburg in North Korea. Aren’t they worried about citizens starting to form indie bands and leaning about irony?


Just as in any land, certain areas have become most desirable. Units near train stations are the most popular and expensive. Places near markets and offices come a close second. Apartments near universities are also hot on the market. Sound familiar? Is North Korea going to be the next stop on the L train?

While North Korea remains an isolated and mysterious country, it seems unable to escape the international real estate craze. Just like Brooklyn, San Francisco and Vancouver, North Korea seems to be bent on some sort of twisted path of gentrification. So much for Communism and the Totalitarian state.  Too bad sarcasm was outlawed, just when they needed it most.

Dan Bratman



Dan began his career at the age of four when he wrote a poem for his mother about farmers. While his mom believes this was the peak of his career, he went on to publish poetry, fiction and countless articles. For the last seven years, Dan has worked as writer and editor for numerous publications around the world.

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