Finance | October 8, 2017 11:44 am

North Korea Produces Shadowy ‘Donju’ Merchant Class Who Flaunt Sanctions

Rich money class finds role under Kim Jong-un and influence in Pyongyang.

North Korea
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 14, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the "Dropping and Target-striking Contest of KPA Special Operation Forces - 2017" at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has overseen a special forces commando operation, state media said on April 13, as tensions soar with Washington over Pyongyang's nuclear programme. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Not everyone in North Korea has been suffering under the despotic rule of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

There is a small, but powerful merchant class of North Koreans dubbed the donju (“masters of money”), who generally hide in the shadows of Asian black markets, but are now front and center in a profile courtesy of The Daily Beast

That private business elite have found trading partners in China and parts of Southeast Asia unfettered by international sanctions towards the Kim regime over the dictator’s aggressive nuclear program — and have used the foreign currency they earn to gain a place in Pyongyang politics.

And no one, according to the report, has been more successful than the shadowy Cha Chol Ma, who may be the richest person in the country outside the Kim family.  Cha is the son-in-law of the late Ri Je Kang, who once tutored Kim Jong Un.

He was previously served in a leadership capacity in North Korea’s legislative body, the Supreme People’s Assembly, having left his post in 2015 or 2016. Since leaving government, Cha has apparently continued to be a valuable asset towards it and a major driver of building a market economy in a country renowned outside its borders for the harsh lives of its citizenry.  Though the economy still clearly has far to go.

“Now, in the North Korean capital, young men and women spend hours in gyms each day to see and be seen,” writes The Daily Beast‘s Brendon Hong. “Their wardrobes are packed with apparel from fast fashion outlets such as Zara or H&M, as well as handbags and accessories from the standard roster of Western European luxury brands.”