Since late last year, authorities had stipulated that only women older than 30 could conduct business in the open market. That age limit was subsequently raised to over 40 and then to 45. By the end of last year, the age was raised to 50.
Younger women, nevertheless, had found ways to deceive authorities. One popular method was to form a partnership with older women. Another was to accompany older family members such as mothers-in-law or aunts to the market stalls they owned.
In early March, the authorities began to dismantle stalls that were owned by women younger than 50. That infuriated women who were already agitated over news of executions.
Hundreds of women swarmed the market manager’s office in protest. It was a spontaneous outburst almost never seen in North Korea, according to the sources.
“They shouted and demanded either to let them continue doing business in the open market or otherwise resume food distribution," a source said.
“It was not like South Korean-style protests we used to watch on TV. There were no organizers or leaders, but the number swelled into thousands in a very short time.”
The scene was scary and surreal. But even more bizarre was that security officers did not try very hard to disperse the gathering.
“Instead, a security man explained to me that the true reason why those 15 women were shot was not because they helped villagers cross the border or arranged human trafficking," one source said. "The reason was because they were engaged in spying for South Korea. They had been feeding such harmful information as the price of things in the open markets.”
According to the sources, the protest continued into the next day, and the market management office withdrew the age restriction on March 5.