Prices rise with summer heat

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2015-07-20 16:26

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain the content of Unification Media Group [UMG] broadcasts into North Korea. UMG is a consortium created by Radio Free Chosun [RFC] and Open Radio for North Korea [ONK], shortwave radio stations targeting North Korea; The Daily NK, an internet periodical reporting on all aspects of North Korea; and OTV, an NGO-based internet television channel.

This is NK Market Trends, bringing you weekly updates on the North Korean economy. This week we sat down with reporter Kang Mi Jin to discuss the latest trends; but first, lets take a look at how the jangmadang [market] has been doing.

The price of a kilogram of rice cost 5150 KPW in Pyongyang, 5200 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5500 KPW in Hyesan.  1 USD  exchanged for  8200 KPW in Pyongyang and Sinuiju, and 8155 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of corn kernels cost 2,000 KPW in Pyongyang and Sinuiju, and 2,300 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of pork cost 14,000 KPW in Pyongyang and Sinuiju, and 15,000 in Hyesan. A kg of gasoline cost 9,300 in Pyongyang and Sinuiju, and 8,500 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of diesel cost 5,100 KPW in Pyongyang, 5,300 KPW in and Sinuiju, and 5,500 KPW in Hyesan. This has been a rundown on North Koreas latest market prices.*

1. Prices have begun to gradually rise. What is the reason?

According to the latest reports from NK, the drought and the heat wave are the main reasons behind the rise. In addition, seasonal goods are very much in demand right now. Today, I want to focus on the recent rise in prices and the good news that seasonal goods are very much in demand.  

2. July seems to be a time of the year when families find it difficult to carry on their livelihoods. On that note, perhaps it would be good for everyone if prices dont rise too much. What goods have risen in price?

Goods whose prices are rising are those that are directly related to peoples daily lives such as foodstuffs and vegetables. It wouldnt be an exaggeration to say that most people have meals only in the morning and the evening. The price of bok choy for instance has risen from 500 to 600 KPW this month. Cucumbers are also in season right now, but a kilogram of them costs 3,000 KPW right now. A kilogram of leaf mustard, which is also a summer staple crop and chases away the summer heat, costs 2,500 KPW. Our insiders tell us that people are sighing because leaf mustard kimchi is so difficult to eat nowadays.

3. Im sure that the rise in prices of everyday vegetables negatively affects both sellers and buyers. How have the people adapted to the new prices?

Yes, this situation is certainly not ideal for both sides. Usually, when the price of vegetables in the markets rise, then people will buy their vegetables directly from the countryside because vegetables can be bought at a lower price there than at the markets. When I lived in NK, I lived mostly in the countryside, and even when I moved to the city, I still lived where garden plots were available. This meant that I didnt have to worry about vegetable prices in the markets. I also was able to distribute my home-grown bok choy, radishes, tomatoes, and cucumbers to my relatives and acquaintances who lived in the city center. Farmers will sometimes travel into the city to sell vegetables directly to the consumers and at a cheaper price than that in the markets. This arrangement benefits both buyer and seller.

4. Then people living in the countryside wont have to buy all their vegetables from the markets. As you said, it is a good idea for urban dwellers to go to the countryside for their groceries. In South Korea, parents who live in the countryside will often give some of their produce to their city dwelling children. Is it the same in North Korea?

Parental love for their children is certainly no different in NK than in SK.  It is customary to share good things with your children and even acquaintances. I always gave vegetables to my friends and family whenever they visited me and asked for some. But I have to admit that I sometimes did it very unwillingly.  This is because youre always aware of how much it will cost to purchase vegetables in the markets, and to give away vegetables for free, even to friends and family, was not so easy at times.

North Koreans try not to eat or take anything from others for free, because they have experienced and continue to undergo economic hardship, everyone knows everything has a price.  For this reason, most North Koreans try to take others situations into account and be considerate. Sometimes I would give fewer vegetables to someone who was inconsiderate or oblivious to these facts, but I would always regret being so ungenerous right afterwards.

5. Which vegetables are in demand in the markets?

Cold noodles are very popular right now due to the summer heat. This means that cucumbers, which are used to garnish the noodles and used in other cold dishes, are selling very well. The fact that the price of cucumbers is rising despite the fact that it is in season shows that cucumbers are very much in demand.

The price of a kilogram of cucumbers is 3,000 KPW, and even if the price was to rise even higher, I still think that it would sell very well.  Leaf mustard is also a hot vegetable. If cucumbers are essential to cold noodles, then leaf mustard is just as essential for kimchi. As everyone knows, kimchi is a staple food in Korea. When I lived in NK, I used to make kimchi with leaf mustard between May and July, just as kimchi from the previous year was finished. The hot flavor of the leaf mustard makes one forget the heat; I feel hungry right now at just the thought of eating leaf mustard kimchi.

6. The weather is very hot these days. In South Korea, ice cream is the best way to chase away the heat. Can you elaborate on the popularity of ice cream in North Korea?

In North Korea,  the type of ice cream most frequently consumed is called kka-kka-oh [popsicle]. The price of it in Hyesan market ranges from 300-1,000 KPW.  The lower price range, 300-500 KPW, is made with water and flavor packets containing saccharin from China. The 1,000 KPW kka-kka-oh contains milk and sugar, so its more expensive.   In South Korea, customers have a wide range of ice cream with different tastes and ingredients to choose from. However, in North Korea, people cant choose to eat only the good things. Moreover, since the time of the year is the barley hump, most people do not have much spare money, so they buy the absolute cheapest type of ice cream.

7. In South Korea, there is a wide range of ice cream, each type going by a different name. What about in North Korea?

There are several kinds of ice cream in North Korea, but far fewer than South Korea. The large cities like Pyongyang, Wonsan, and Hamhung certainly have a larger variety of ice cream than in the smaller towns. Another difference of the ice cream market between the two Koreas is that the number of customers is smaller in the North. Moreover, its difficult to make kka-kka-oh in the countryside because of frequent and unpredictable power shortages.

In addition to kka-kka-oh, some people will sell flavored ice.  Different regions will have different coloring and saccharin in their flavored ices.  For instance, the ones made in Yangkang Province are made with blueberry extract. Ice water and street food also do well during the summer in North Korea.

8. I heard from one North Korean defector that she sold flavored water while living in North Korea. Is flavored water popular?

Yes. Now that I think of it, my daughter bought flavored water more often than kka-kka-oh. Flavored water is usually made by pouring in blueberry extract, saccharine, and big ice cubes into the water. There are 100 and 200 KPW cups, and the difference is in the size. This water is unexpectedly popular, especially among the elderly whose teeth are not sound, and also among little children. In reality, whatever is most effective at chasing away the heat, whether its kka-kka-oh or cold water, is the most popular.

Flavored water without ice doesnt sell well at all, so sellers have to buy enough to meet demand but avoid waste. My friends mother used to sell flavored water, and I still clearly remember what she once said: ice by itself doesnt melt very fast, but it starts melting so fast when the cubes are put into the flavored water. In the same way, a person with only one idea remains the same, but he changes all too quickly when a new idea enters his head.

Back then, I didnt realize the hidden meaning in her statement. When I think about it now, the aged, who have lived through a world of tempest, were quicker to experience disillusionment with the NK society than us.

9. I was curious from the outset about whether kka-kka-oh vendors or ice water vendors have their own market stand?

I almost missed this point. Usually, when the vendor is an individual proprietor, he or she wont have a display stand, and they will wander around on the streets. Water vendors also dont have their own stand, and so stand on the street to wait for a buyer. Imagine a situation where a kka-kka-oh vendor is blocking everyones path by taking up space in the middle of the street. 

Obviously, many people will find it difficult to get by, and become angry at the vendor. This will slow down business, and make other merchants angry at the kka-kka-oh vendor. Eventually, people will begin to tell the vendor to leave, and threaten to ask the market administrator to evict him. Since no one benefits in such a situation, kka-kka-oh and ice cream vendors try to sell their goods in a way that discomforts no one, which is to take up spots outside the market or on the streets.

10. Are the vendors who dont own a display stand, like kka-kka-oh vendors, seasonal merchants?

Yes. As I mentioned, kka-kka-oh vendors usually sell their goods outside the market. Merchants who sell only seasonal goods, like kka-kka-oh or red radishes, dont have an authorized display stand, so that they naturally go outside the market to sell their goods. However, these merchants dont regret this fact, and even enjoy the flexibility they get from selling seasonal goods and from not being tied down to a stand. Also, seasonal merchants can make as much money during one season as any other merchants.

11. Does the state crack down on kka-kka-oh vendors who sell on the street?

When the Ministry of Peoples Security chooses to crackdown on the market, the target is not just the kka-kka-oh vendors, but all the merchants in the market. The commercial activity near the market entrance or just outside of it, where kka-kka-oh vendors take up space, is not tightly regulated. However, they can get swept up along with the main targets when the state chooses to strictly enforce its regulations. However, because enforcement is not uncommon, vendors are used to such events.

Have you heard of such a thing as grasshopper merchants? Kka-kka-oh vendors would be classified as a grasshopper merchant.

12. Lastly, could you please explain what you mean by grasshopper merchants.

The term grasshopper merchant is used by North Koreans. You know how grasshoppers sit still, then suddenly hop away when they sense human or animal movement? Similarly, vendors with no display stand will stay in one spot until the police show up, at which point, they get away as quickly as possible. The term grasshopper merchant is obviously derived from the similar behaviors of the insects and the merchants. In the last few years, grasshopper merchants have been able to do business without too much worry of a crackdown by the state, and I hope that this calm state of things will continue into the future.

*This segment reflects market conditions for the week of July 13th-17th.

*Translated by Abraham An

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