Doing Business Is a Battle

Dandong, China — North Korean citizen A sells garments from China in a Pyongyang jangmadang. He said that he has not personally observed deaths from starvation and the jangmadang rice price sharply dropped. However, two out of five households are getting by only on porridge and even then, they only get by on two meals a day. With the exception of leaders, he explained that no one is truly full.

“The price of rice in Pyongyang has risen to 3,000 won per 1kg, but since late May, the high-quality polished rice has been around 2,500 won, the medium quality rice around 2,400 won and unpolished brown rice around 2,300 won. Wild rice imported from Northeast Asia has been around 2,300 won.

With the broadcasting of news of the impending rice delivery from the U.S. and the decline in the price of rice, there have been an increasing amount of people who have been trying to sell the rice for a lower price in advance. The price of corn is still around 1,500 won. Rice is not lacking in the jangmadang, but corn has been. The reason for that is that last year, there was a rumor that planting soy and making tofu is lucrative, so everyone planted soy instead of corn.”

According to A, approximately 40% of the people–20% of the cadres in Pyongyang and 20% of the affluent class–eat rice. They said that there is not too big of a concern due to the fact that the next year’s food provision is already prepared at the end of the year each year. 40% of average civilians eat a mixture made of corn and rice or consume corn rice or noodles instead and the 20% of the population which falls into the lowest class is supposed to get by on just porridge.

These 20% of the citizens usually mix corn, vegetables and tofu skins and make a porridge out of these ingredients. After May, when spring cabbage is in season and costs around 40 won per kilogram, the situation has become a bit easier. Tofu is supposed to cost around 200 won per bundle, which can feed a family of four when it is made into porridge.

“Nowadays, the way to survive is selling in the jangmadang. With the exception of the residents of the Joong-district and its vicinity, who are often mobilized to national events, seven out of 10 households do business in the jangmadang. In the Pyongyang Tongil (unification) Market alone, the number of people doing business is between 5,000~6,000 people. The size of a street-stand is approximately 50cm by 50cm large. There are also about 2,000 people selling outside of the market.”

“The price of rice goes down with the news of rice aid from the U.S.”

“There are people also selling in the alleyways. The Tongil Market usually consists of people from the Tongil Street, so merchants from the other regions cannot do business there. In the Tongil Market alone, there are around 8,000 people [doing business]. Because the Market is so large, the cadres from the other regions frequently come to buy goods.”

Mr. A said that in the markets, the sale of industrial goods (all kinds of products such as clothing brought from China) and cosmetics are supposed to be lucrative. The traders usually bring in about 5,000 won per day and 15,000 won per month. Such an amount of money can buy about 2kg of rice per day. The people who make a lot of money are the marine product merchants. They make around 7,000~8,000 won per day. Marine products are often purchased by officials who have money and rice.

The people in the lowest class do not have the capital to do business, so a majority of them sell noodles or food. They make about 1,500 won per day, which can purchase about a kilogram of corn. People who sell food sell rice, sidedishes, and snacks on site. To them, selling is a battle to survive.

“Pyongyang people buy food with the money they make from selling. However, with the worsening of the food situation, there are households who eat two meals of rice per day. Households that used to eat rice would mix rice and corn 50/50, but now they eat 20/80 or 30/70. Even then, there are quite a few people among the rice-consuming households that receive aid from the outside. They also get by on money sent by relatives in China or people who have defected. If they are in the transportation business or are at foreign-currency making organizations, they do better than average citizens.”

A also said that the farmers last year in a farm near Pyongyang received 70% of one year’s worth of distribution. Nonetheless, compared to the provinces, the situation in Pyongyang is a lot better. However, the food provision is always lacking because of the insufficient food and people having to buy necessary clothing or items.

As a result, private gardens and private fields on a steep incline of a mountain are absolutely necessary. People channel agricultural products such as vegetables from collective farms and sell them or go around to remote mountainous districts in Pyongyang, exchange them with farmers, who do farming in their private fields in mountains, for corn and industrial goods.

Mr. A relayed that not-so-affluent households raise several domestic cattle, collect medicinal herbs or brew liquor to sell. The remnants of the liquor are used as livestock feed. Selling two bottles of liquor made of corn as raw material generates about 500 won in profit. However, the authorities have strictly been regulating brewing liquor in homes, resulting in difficult situations. If exposed for making liquor, both the person-in-charge and the People’s Party Unit chairman are banished to the countryside.

“People who make the most amount of money are marine product merchants.”

Beekeeping is seasonally supposed to be lucrative. In May when the acacia flowers start to bloom, the number of people who collect honey in the mountains increases. In the surrounding areas of Pyongyang, there are at least trees on the mountains, so beekeeping has been feasible. One person can collect about 100kg of honey per month by keeping around 15 beehives. The honey is usually consumed by people who want to use it in medicine or by officials.

He said that factory workers do not receive provisions even in the field, so they can do nothing else but to get by on their skills. So the Pyongyang citizens try to do foreign-currency earning through all kinds of methods. Their mentality is that going to Russia or the Middle East to earn money is the path of success.

“The utmost goal of workers in Pyongyang is to go to another country to earn money. Recently, they have even gone to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once they leave, they do not return for three years. They can go back or stay in Pyongyang. Workers who have gone to Russia or to Congo for farming come back with 10,000~20,000 dollars in three years.”

“With that money, they can buy a house and prepare a significant amount of capital for business. Those who have gone abroad not only do the work ordered by organizations, but also engage in private farming, do business and save as much money as they can. There have been a quite a few people around me who have gone abroad recently to make money this way. Out of 100 male workers, there is at least one or two. In order to go overseas, one has to pay 300~400 dollars in bribes.”

Mr. A said that the mentality among the civilians of laborers who go overseas to make money is not so positive, however. The reason is that such hard-earned money is not used for benevolent purposes. Also, once the workers come back with some money, they buy luxury apartments, so do not have so much leftover money afterwards.”

At the end of the interview, he said, “The situation of Chosun (North Korea) people is difficult. However, after the March of Tribulation, people made money through private gardens, the assistance of relatives, doing business, going overseas, or theft. So nowadays, the state demands individuals to pay money under all sorts of pretext. While goods are lacking, the regime float currency every day. Therefore, prices are going through the roof. In Shinuiju, the inspection over the customs is still being carried out. If the state opens customs, the citizens will not starve, but it has been failed to do so.”