Cases of theft spike in North Korea’s markets during the kimchi-making season

Chongjin Market (taken in 2017). Image: Daily NK

The kimchi-making season is now in full-throttle and there are reports that spring onions, chili peppers, sesame seeds, and other ingredients required for making kimchi are being stolen from markets in North Korea.

“There has been a rise in people stealing produce as the demand rises for ingredients needed to make kimchi,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on November 28.

“One such case occurred in Chongjin’s Sunam Market. Two women carrying bags of rice approached some merchants standing in line to sell dried chili peppers, telling them that they came from the countryside to sell rice and wanted to check the price of red peppers.”

He explained that the perceived customers appeared normal but were sweating because of how heavy the bags of rice were. Looking over the chili peppers out for sale, the two women put their bags of rice down in front of a merchant in his 60s, stated that his produce looked good, and asked him to put some on a scale to weigh them.

“The merchant put them on the scale but the women shook their head, claiming that the scale seemed to be measuring more peppers than were actually there,” the source continued.

“The merchant replied angrily that it was a false accusation, prompting the women to respond that they would have another vendor weigh them. They grabbed a handful of the peppers and went off to do so, and the merchant didn’t object because they left their rice bags behind.”

A separate source in North Hamgyong Province with knowledge of the incident added, “The women failed to return after 10 minutes, however, and the merchant began to get worried. When he opened the bags of rice, what he found instead was sand.”

Knowing that he had been robbed, he reported the incident to the local police officer in the market. A search was conducted for the women, but they were nowhere to be found.

Chongjin Sunam Market is twice the size of South Korea’s Dongdaemun Market.

An additional source in North Hamgyong Province shared a separate incident, wherein a group of teenagers roamed around the market, stealing red pepper powder and other spices.

“It doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to grab the products and make it out of the market,” she noted.

Merchants are frequently robbed, so they are generally on guard. However, competition in the market is fierce, so scams like the one involving the two women and the scale often occur.

“Thieves in North Korea are generally stealing to survive and they are usually active in front of train stations and in markets,” said a defector named Kim Myung Ok (alias, in her 50s) who previously conducted business in Ryanggang Province.

“The police make their rounds and the merchants are careful, but there are so many thieves, and they’re very good at what they do.”