Gifts for women hint at changing times

This is “NK Market Trends,” bringing you
news about the North Korean economy every week, and today, we are accompanied
by reporter Kang Mi Jin. But first, let’s take a look at the market’s
performance over the past week.*

A kg of rice cost 5400 KPW in Pyongyang,
5400 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5500 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of corn kernels cost 2050 KPW
in Pyongyang. 2100 in Sinuiju, and 2200 KPW in Hyesan. The exchange rate was
8640 KPW to the dollar in Pyongyang, 8760 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8800 KPW in
Hyesan. The exchange rate for the Chinese Renminbi was 1320 KPW per yuan in Pyongyang,
1340 KPW per yuan in Sinuiju, and 1350 KPW per yuan in Hyesan. A kg of pork
cost 12,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 12,500 KPW in Sinuiju and Hyesan. A kg of
gasoline cost 7500 KPW in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan. A kg of diesel cost
5550 KPW in Pyongyang, 5450 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5350 KPW in Hyesan. This has
been a rundown of the Weekly Marketplace Prices.

1. That was a rundown of this week’s
prices. The weather has become quite cold and it has been snowing a lot
recently in North Korea. That means that North Korean people all over the
country are bundling up and trying to keep warm. However, this week we have
heard some news that warms the heart. Reporter Kang Mijin is here to tell us
all about it. 

Hello. That’s right. Even here in South
Korea, the weather has become much colder over the past week. But reports
indicate that it is even colder up North. But there’s one trend that is helping
to lighten people’s spirits during this chilly season. It appears that husbands
are beginning to prepare gifts for their wives in time for the New Year’s
Holiday. And the wives are making nutritious and delicious meals to keep their
men healthy and strong. Today, we’re going to talk all about the love being
expressed between men and women in North Korea.  

In South Korea, people may be accustomed to
hearing stories of men tenderly addressing their wife’s needs, but in the
heavily patriarchal society of North Korea, such stories have been a bit harder
to hear.

Because of this, even receiving a small
present is an occasion of great joy for North Korean women. These days, the
gift-giving trend is becoming more and more commonplace. We’ve been getting
reports that the number of women receiving gifts from their husbands is on the
rise. Just hearing this news lifts my spirits. I am assuming that North Korean
ladies are feeling a bit of the same. Can I ask you a personal question, Kyoung Ju Lee? Do you have a boyfriend?

Yes, I do. 

Have you ever received makeup as a gift
from your boyfriend?

Yes, many times. 

How did it feel to receive a gift from him? 

I was thankful to know he was thinking of
me. It also made me want to return the favor by taking care of him.

It’s been awhile since the stronger
elements of patriarchy have withered away in South Korea, and still women react
strongly to such gifts. In contrast, women in the North are doubly happy
because the gifts come as something of a surprise. Women gather together to
excitedly chat and boast about the gifts they received from their men. Because
of this, the wealth gap becomes very apparent during these kinds of

2. I’m curious what sorts of gifts the men
are buying for their wives?

That varies according to economic class.
But the gifts vary wildly from shoes to makeup to watches, rings, and winter
coats.  I was smiling from ear to ear from start to finish when I
conversed with our inside source this week. To hear about husbands going to all
this trouble to present a small token of their affection is quite moving.
Listening to the sources speak, I felt as if I were the one receiving all the
gifts. I also thought about how my old friends in North Korea are probably
feeling pretty good about this trend as well. The culture has caught up to the
fact that the women are working extra hard to raise the kids and earn a living,
and the men are expressing their gratitude through these gifts.

3. We’re of the understanding that the
women in North Korea contribute substantially to the family’s financial well
being. And since the women are usually the ones to earn the money in the
family, I’m wondering how the men are getting the money to buy the gifts?

Yes, that’s true. Many men save up in a
secret fund for just such occasions. They can earn a little money on the side
by doing part time work or using their skills to earn a bit of money here and
there. If they live near the border with China in places like Yanggang
Province, they might do a bit of smuggling. Or else they might stand at a
transport hub and offer to carry people’s luggage for them. Artistic fellows
might earn some money by selling pictures. Men without any marketable talents
might just save up the allowance they receive from their wives in order to buy
a gift. 

Some people think it’s quite burdensome to sneak around earning money
for a whole year just to buy a little gift for their wives, but the majority of
people are of the opinion that since their wives have been practically living
outside, selling in the market for the sake of their families for the past few
decades, a small gift is the least the husbands can do to show their affection.
The women have accumulated a bit more power in the household recently. It’s as
if North Korea were headed towards becoming a matriarchal society. That’s how much
larger the women’s role has become.

4. How much are the gifts that the husbands
are giving to their wives?

Makeup costs about KPW 300,000 (about U.S.
$35), while expensive shoes sell for about KPW 115,000(about U.S. $13) and
cheaper shoes sell for about KPW 94,000 (about U.S. $11). And there are more
expensive ones as well; it all depends upon the shape and style. Winter
jackets sell for about KPW 180,000 – 250,000 (about U.S. $21- $29).

The price of the winter coats depends on
what kind of fabrics that are made of and whether they are stuffed with duck
down or not. These days, many residents make requests to smugglers and traders
travelling to China to bring back goods made in South Korea for them. There’s
even an expression that goes: “If it’s the same price, go for the pink skirt.”
The meaning is that all things being equal, it’s good to go for the most stylish

5. Do the wives know that their husbands
are running around trying to prepare a nice gift for them?

There are some who are in the know, but
most men are planning on surprising their ladies. I think they are worried that
if they spill the beans too early, the gifts won’t mean quite as much. I have a
friend who is preparing a gift for his wife. He asked an acquaintance to buy a
nice pair of shoes for him while travelling to China. Hearing such stories
makes me appreciate how much the lives of North Koreans have improved over the
last few years. High powered cadres in the upper echelons of the Worker’s Party
have been buying gifts for their wives from China for many years, but now it
has become normal for ordinary folks to do the same.  

6. Up until now, the women have worked so
hard, so it is heartwarming to see that their hard work is being appreciated.
I’m guessing that receiving such gifts is going to inspire the women to return
the sentiment, no?

Yeah, I think that is definitely the case.
It will be hard for the women to simply receive the gifts without giving
something back. But I don’t think it will translate directly into physical
gifts. Rather, the women are likely to return their husband’s love for them by
looking after their health and taking good care of them. Through this exchange,
we are offered a little glimpse of the couples’ affection for one another. I
think most women are also going to prepare a delicious and nutritious health
food meal for the New Year’s Holiday.

7. That sounds like a nice tradeoff. What
sorts of health foods are the women going to prepare?

Just like the New Year’s gifts, the type of
the food depends on one’s financial means. The well-off families are likely to
serve beef or lamb. The ordinary folks are more likely to make something called
“yujigo.” The ingredients for yujigo have the same hearty taste as lamb or
beef, but without the hefty price tag. That’s why it’s popularity has been
surging lately. When I was living in North Korea, I regularly cooked yujigo for
the New Year’s holiday. I remember it being particularly good because I could
make a large amount and the whole family could eat their fill.  

8. Can you tell us what yujigo is? 

Yes, I’d be happy to. Honestly I am not
sure where the word “yujigo” originates from. To make it, you put one kg of
glutinous rice, one kg of oil, 10 eggs, and one kg of sugar in a bowl. After
you mix all the ingredients up, you put it in an earthenware pot and steam it
for about 10 hours. Then you put it in a hot roasting wood burning stove for 24
hours. An adult should eat about one spoonful of it at a time. If you eat too
much, it might actually have the opposite effect of a proper health food.
Eating three spoonfuls a day is the perfect amount.

9. Looking at the ingredients, this seems
like a nutrition packed meal, but does eating it really help people to stay
strong and healthy during the winter time?

I think that is the case. That was
definitely true in my personal experience. I felt its absence in the years that
I did not make it. I’ll give you one example. I have a friend whose husband is
extremely susceptible to colds. In fact, to tease him during a particularly bad
year, we called him “cold station.” I asked her why she didn’t make any yujigo for
him. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her. She was so busy with the fall
harvest that she didn’t have a chance to make some health food for him. In the
madness of her work, she had totally forgotten.

From that year forward, my friend made her
husband health food every single year. I want to wish good luck to all the men
and thank them for rewarding their hard working wives with a special gift. The
women certainly deserve your love and recognition. And thank you as well to all
of our listeners. Until next week, good bye!

*This segment reflects market conditions for the week of December 21-25.

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