Privately-run 'standby lodges' meet demand for accommodation

[As Heard in North Korea]
Kang Mi Jin  |  2017-03-09 15:50

"As Heard in North Korea" articles feature content from the Unification Media Group’s [UMG] radio 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.

As the weather warms up and we prepare for the spring, people all over the world are searching online for hotels and other forms of lodging for a quick weekend getaway. Today, we are going to talk about lodging facilities in North Korea.  

A lot of residents go on a short trip for the March 1st holiday in North Korea. Using a pension (holiday home) is an attractive option because there’s no need to worry about what to eat or where to sleep. But North Koreans also have an expression that says, “One suffers whenever they leave the house.” This alludes to the idea that finding accommodation can be a difficult task. On today’s episode of Market Trends, we take a closer look at the current state of North Korea’s lodging industry. 

In South Korea, there are lots of saunas and hotels all over the country, but I’m curious about North Korea. 

Finding lodging is the most difficult thing for North Koreans to arrange when they travel. There aren’t as many facilities as in other countries. There are some state-run inns in the smaller cities, but they can be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Although they tend to be cheap, they’re usually located in remote spaces where petty theft is common. So most people prefer to stay in lodging offered by a local.

This kind of accommodation is called “standby lodging” in North Korea. After the famine struck in the mid-90s, people began to travel further so that they could trade in the markets. They tended to stay in busy areas near the train stations. But because of the chronic energy shortages, trains would sometimes be very late, sometimes by many days. These traders would get stuck, and so the practice of hosting guests in private homes got the name “standby lodging.” In the early 2000s, market trading increased, leading to an uptick in traveling, which in turn caused an increase in standby lodges. Nowadays, even places that are located far away from train stations are called standby lodges. 

What are the costs and benefits of using this kind of service? 

Some standby lodges accept new customers around the clock, while others only accept new guests at night. The lodgers usually decide what is best based on their own family situation. But these families are sometimes subject to investigation by the authorities. The families are supposed to submit a ‘lodging registration’ to the leader of the local inminban [people's unit, or neighborhood watch group]. Ministry of People’s Security officers [the police] visit the standby lodges to confirm whether the family has submitted the appropriate documents to the local inminban. If not, they have to pay a fine. 

However, the established lodgers maintain close relationships with the MPS officers, so they can usually avoid any fines during the inspection period. In some circumstances where the lodge has not submitted the appropriate paperwork, the officers sometimes demand that the guests pay a fine. 

Do you think that the sudden rise in private lodging businesses is also an indication that consumer demand has risen sharply in the last 15 years or so? 

Yes, market controls have loosened up since 2010, leading to an increase in the number of merchants. This has led to an increase in customers, who drive the demand further. “Runner-merchants” respond to this need by selling items wholesale across the region. These merchants have to travel to find new intermediaries to sell to, which means that they also need places to stay while they’re on the road.  

I spoke on the phone with a North Korean recently who informed me that people have begun to take up new perceptions toward romance. They say, “Date alone and marry alone.” Dating culture is growing inside North Korea, and young people often use standby lodges to spend time together. Some family members have been known to visit such rooms to try and expose people having affairs. But that’s a pretty unusual occurrence. These days, money is the top consideration for lodge managers, who are happy to close their eyes to an affair for money. 

Are there any unsavory events happening in these places? 

I heard about an incident from the mid 2000s in Pyongsong City, South Pyongan Province. The daughter of a family that managed a standby lodge was killed by a guest. 

A middle aged man approached a standby lodge outside the center of town and stayed there for a night. He was talkative and friendly. The day after he stayed there, the daughter was dead. Because of this, lodges all over the Pyongsong region began to deny guests out of fear. I was in the region at the time, and I personally had a hard time finding a place to stay. 

It’s possible to earn good money by running a standby lodge, but there are some guests who are alcoholics or criminals who might be dangerous. That’s why it is good for these houses to have a strong man to help settle disputes that might arise. If the guest misplaces their luggage, then the lodge is expected to compensate, so some criminals intentionally ‘lose’ their luggage to try to get money. That’s why the lodges sometimes have security guards at the entrances and exits.   

How much does it cost to stay in these kinds of places? 

I spoke with multiple informants who have traveled all over the country. According to them, it costs 5,000 KPW - 10,000 KPW to stay in a lodge near the Pyongsong Train Station. This fee also covers one breakfast. A lodge near the market costs about 6,000 KPW. A night in a lodge near the train station in Sinuiju City costs about 3,000 KPW and normally 7 or 8 people share a single room.  

In Hyesan City, it costs 5,000 KRW to be near the train station, and 3,000 KRW to be in Yonbong-dong or Masan-dong. In Hamhung City, it costs about 5,000 KPW per night. In Ryanggang Province’s Daehongdan County, an agricultural region, it costs between 2,000 and 3,500 KRW per night. Because the lodges have more flexibility than the state-run inns, prices vary considerably depending on the region and the circumstances. 

We'll close with the market prices, current as of March 2.
Below are the market prices as of February 23. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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2017.03.24
Won Pyongyang Sinuiju Hyesan
Exchange Rate 8,035 8,020 8,105
Rice Price 4,870 4,820 4,800