North Korea’s produce market beleaguered by poor infrastructure

Unification Media Group (UMG): In North Korea, certain hard-to-store fruits and vegetables can be almost impossible to find in the marketplace if they are out of season. For more, we turn to special economic correspondent Kang Mi Jin. 
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Here in South Korea, I can eat my favorite fruits pretty much whenever I like. But when I’m happy in times like this, my thoughts often turn to the people of my hometown in North Korea. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m able to eat plums, oriental melons, and blueberries, etc. out of season, while their lives are so much harder and little luxuries like this are out of reach. Recently, I was on a call with a North Korean source whose daughter was begging her to buy strawberries even though they’re no longer in season. In the end, the mother lost her patience and yelled at her.  
For this week’s edition of market trends, I’m going to talk about the differences between in-season and out-of-season fruits. How do North Koreans buy out-of-season fruits? According to an inside informant, it’s quite difficult these days to find out-of-season fruits and even some in-season varieties have become tough to find. Fruits that are hard to preserve and store are particularly difficult to track down right now. 
UMG: So you’re saying that after the harvest period ends, the supply of these fruits and vegetables drops off significantly? 
Kang: Yes, that’s true. There are many reasons why. First, the transportation infrastructure is not as good as it is in developed nations. Fuel costs have also risen, imposing another layer of restriction. That’s why it’s difficult to find fruits and veggies for sale in markets far away from their site of production. Typical examples of hard-to-store fruits include strawberries and peaches. 
The peaches produced in North and South Pyongan Provinces and Hwanghae Provinces mostly go to Pyongyang, military units, and kindergartens. Peaches have a tendency to bruise and get mushy over time. Even if protected well in firm containers, the peaches will typically go soft in about 3 days or so. So it’s not easy to transport them over long distances. Even when peaches are in season, they need to be transported inside a very short window. Peaches sold outside of their local growing regions are therefore typically on the expensive side. 
Strawberries are the same. Of course, strawberries are grown in greenhouses and their season starts around July. When they are in season, they’re easy to buy. But now it’s rare to see strawberries in the markets. According to an inside source who cultivates strawberries in a Ryanggang Province greenhouse, they are not allocated as much area as grain crops, and their storage and refrigeration infrastructure is bad. 
Strawberries can be imported from China, but merchants don’t consider them a good business option because they spoil easily. Bananas and pineapples are not produced in North Korea and can only be purchased if they are imported from China. The availability of these fruits, therefore, is less tied to the seasons and local production cycles. 
UMG: Can you explain how the vegetable supply is affected by these constraints? 
Kang: It’s hard to find fresh eggplant, squash, cucumber, spinach, or onions after their seasons have passed. Some vegetables reach the market regardless of the season, but most of these have been dried or cured in salt. The wider ownership of refrigerators by ordinary residents is a relatively recent phenomenon in North Korea. And even those with a fridge are still vulnerable to power outages. 
That’s why many people rely on curing and drying to extend the shelf life of their produce. Cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, cabbage, radish, onion, and spinach are all dried or cured as a way to preserve them. 
It’s now possible for North Koreans to buy vegetables that have been imported from China, including tomatoes and cucumbers. But the transportation and distribution of other vegetables, like spinach, onions, and eggplant is not smooth enough to provide a steady and ample supply. On the other had, supply for easy-to-store veggies like garlic and chives is available year round. 
UMG: Can you break down some of the prices for the produce you’ve mentioned?
Kang: In a Ryanggang Province market, the last crop of cucumbers and eggplants is out for sale right now, with each selling for about 1,000 KPW per kilogram. Up until last week, the final crop of strawberries was out for sale, going for about 8,435 KPW per kilogram. There is a very small amount still left over, selling for about 9,000-10,000 KPW per kilogram. 
Zucchinis will also soon disappear from the markets. Unlike in South Korea, where the production, distribution, and sales processes are all seamlessly linked, North Korea’s produce industry is very disjointed and inefficient. 
North Korean residents have recently turned to using solar panels to address the country’s chronic power shortages. However, most families have not reached a standard of living that enables them to own a personal refrigerator. This affects the demand for fruits and vegetables, because long term storage in the home is much more difficult without a fridge.
The availability of produce that has been cultivated in North Korea tends to be limited to its harvest cycle, but the produce imported from China tends to be longer lasting and is not subject to the same sorts of seasonal constraints. 
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