Blueberries are flying off the shelves at a much faster rate than last year in the markets of North Korea’s Ryanggang Province. This is likely because their season is about to draw to a close and because they are being exported abroad and consumed by domestic shoppers. For more, we turn to Special Economic Correspondent Kang Mi Jin.
Ryanggang Province is located in the northern part of North Korean in the alpine region. Blueberries sales in the market there are quite strong right now. A local source has informed Daily NK that the price has skyrocketed as a result of this increased demand, with blueberries selling for over 10,000 KPW more per kilogram than they did last year.
Blueberries went on sale in August in Ryanggang Province, and their price has been steadily climbing since. The source explained that exports to China explain a sizable portion of these ballooning prices.
At this time, a number of groups are absorbed in the process of exporting blueberries for the purpose of earning foreign currency in Samjiyon County, Daehongdan County, and Baekam County, where the blueberries are grown. Groups involved include students, members of the Women’s Socialist Union, and laborers. But they aren’t the only ones in on the act. Private individuals build small huts on the hillsides and cultivate their own blueberries to sell.
Can you explain how the blueberries are exported to China?
Sure. According to information given to Daily NK by inside informants, Chinese merchants are buying large quantities of blueberries in the markets of Yanggang Province. While this trend is nothing new, this year has seen a larger amount of merchants buying up vaster quantities of the berries, which has inflated the price.
Because of this, the blueberry-producer regions have been transformed into temporary wholesale hubs. The areas are engrossed in blueberry sales annually during this time. The wholesalers go to the production regions because they can get cheaper prices than if they try to buy in the markets.
Samjiyon County and Taehongdan County are particularly bustling with wholesalers. The producers are happy to sell the fruits at a cheaper price to wholesalers who come directly to the farm because they save on transportation costs and can ensure that the goods are fresh.
The higher prices are good news for North Koreans on the sales side, who are walking around with wide grins. More individuals have entered the market with an eye to sell to Chinese merchants. The source added that the demand does not stop at export markets, however, because more and more domestic shoppers are also showing an interest in blueberries.
For some time, the state’s cultivation and sale of Paektu Mountain blueberries for the purpose of earning foreign currency have involved mobilizing the residents to contribute their labor for little to nothing in return. What’s new this year?
Yes, that’s is true. Around this time every year, residents in Ryanggang Province are mobilized. This involves students, workers, and Women’s Socialist Union members. Last year, for instance, the Hyesan Women’s Socialist Union was sent to Taehongdan County and Paekam County to work for 12 days on the blueberry farms. The requirement varies from year to year, but in general the residents are ordered to gather between 60 and 100 kg of the berries.
Because the blueberries have come in better this year than years past, the conditions for the residents are slightly improved. If the harvest is good, it is easy to collect 20 kg in one day, but if it isn’t good, it’s a difficult endeavor to collect 5 kg in one day. It is harder to collect when there are lots of people. Because individuals hoping to earn money are also out on the farms, the fields are packed with people.
Normally, to collect the blueberries, you have to go about 8 kilometers outside the city to medium sized farms in the valley, or even further to get to larger farms. Because of this, many people stay at barracks built on site.
Can you break down the price of blueberries at Ryanggang Province markets?
Yes, according to a conversation I had a few days ago with a local informant, blueberries in Hyesan Market and the Yeongbong area are selling for KPW 33,000 per kg. This is KPW 11,000 more than last year. I’ve been researching these prices for many years: in 2014, blueberries sold for KPW 11,000-15,000 per kg and in 2015, they sold for about KPW 22,000 per kg. So we can see that this upward trend is a years-long and continuing phenomenon.
Last year, the blueberry harvest was not particularly strong. The price was nonetheless around KPW 20,000. The fact that prices have risen so much this year is good news for the residents involved in the production and sale of blueberries. The price is set to drop within a period of days, so many residents involved are working double time and staying up late to try to sell as many as they can before that happens.
You mentioned that students are mobilized to participate in the blueberry harvest. Does that mean they are responsible for the same workload that adults do on the farms?
No, the students have smaller quotas to fulfill. The school departments in each region make a quota and then they pass the orders down. The amount is different depending on the age group. The amount that each student picks is not fixed by the central authorities. Every school and region have different amounts. The parents of the students are likely hoping that their children are given small amounts to pick.