Hot potato! Produce prices surge in drought

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, let’s take a look at how
the jangmadang [market] did this past week. 

We’ll begin by providing a rundown on the
price of rice, the currency conversion rates, and the cost of other goods in
North Korean markets. The price of 1 kg of rice was 5,500 KPW in Pyongyang,
5,500 KPW in Sinuiju and 6,000 KPW in Hyesan. The USD was trading at 8,360 KPW
in Pyongyang, 8,400 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,490 KPW in Hyesan, which represents a
slight rise compared to last week’s rates. Moving along, the cost of 1 kg of
corn kernels was 2,400 KPW in Pyongyang and Sinuiju and 2,600 KPW in Hyesan. One kg of
pork was selling at 14,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 14,300 KPW in Sinuiju, and 15,000
KPW in Hyesan. Gasoline was trading at 9,450 KPW per kg in Pyongyang and
Sinuiju and at 8,450 KPW per kg in Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of diesel fuel was
selling at 5,100 KPW in Pyongyang and 5,200 KPW in Sinuiju and Hyesan. This has
been a weekly rundown on North Korea’s latest market prices.

1. Similar to South Korea, there have been
some drought conditions in the North as of late. I want to ask you if the
drought conditions in North Korea have reached a serious level or not. Are the
residents showing signs of distress over the drought?

Yes, unlike South Korea, where facilities
are in place to prevent emergency water shortages, North Korea has trouble
providing even electricity, which means that the system’s ability to cope with
the drought conditions is quite poor. An inside source informed Daily NK
through a telephone conversation that the drought is so severe that farmers
have taken to going out to water their parched crops in the wee hours of the
morning and at night. Cereals and grains have grown a bit, but despite the
residents’ efforts, the crops are simply not getting the moisture they require.
Right now is prime seed planting time for autumn greens, but as the drought
continues, residents have no big expectations for that harvest either. This has
many people quite distraught.

It might not seem like a big problem for
other countries, but these autumn greens are called the “half year foodstuff”
in North Korea because they provide such a huge proportion of the residents’
nutrition. Now that the drought has affected their autumn greens, people are
really anxious about how they will get enough food.

Also, in about a week’s time, the early or
new potatoes are expected to come in. The residents, who have suffered through
extended spring shortages, normally look forward to the bountiful potatoes, but
the word on the street is that these new potatoes are not having a great
season. This rumor has driven the price of potatoes through the roof in the

2. Oh, so it seems like the extended
drought season has had an adverse effect on potatoes, one of the crops that
normally helps residents through this difficult time. As the rumor continues to
spread about the early potato’s poor season, we would expect to see its market
rate continue to climb. How severely has the cost of potatoes for sale in the
jangmadang (or market) been affected thus far?

Yes, that’s true. According to an inside
source, the cost of potatoes in Yangkang Province’s Hyesan Agricultural Market
is approximately 2,000 KPW per kg. This represents a massive 1,300 KPW rise
when compared to last year’s prices. It’s quite rare to see the cost of
potatoes shoot up to the 2,000 KPW mark. This has sent residents into a minor
panic. For the same price, it would have been possible to buy about three times
as many potatoes this same time last year. This is putting a strain on many
residents’ ability to put together a nutritious meal. At the Hyesan jangmadang, whole ears of corn are selling for 1,800 KPW per kg. Next to that figure, it’s plain to see
that the relative cost of potatoes is exorbitantly high. Residents can protest,
but at the end of the day, they don’t have any better options.

An informant has alerted us to the fact
that there is a reason that residents are buying the potatoes despite the price
hike. Supplementing rice or cornmeal with potato has traditionally been a cheap
way to add calories to a simple meal. But the price has continued to rise as
rumors continue to swirl that the early potato harvest was meager in both
Daehongdan and Baekamgun.  

3. We have seen an across the board rise in
prices at the markets recently. If the drought continues, should we expect to
see the crop yield take a hit?  

Of course, there will be some negative
influence there. The cost of goods in North Korea is usually connected very
closely with the exchange rate. When the exchange rate goes up, so does the
cost of rice. But when the cost of rice rises, then the cost of other products
also tend to rise. If the drought continues, we should expect to see it deal a
devastating blow to the agricultural system. Both state farms and collective
farms will have to wrestle with the difficulty of the extended dry season.
Ordinary residents who have small patches of farm and garden for personal use
will also no doubt suffer.

The biggest thing to worry about during a
drought is the health of the residents. Ever since state ration distributions
stopped, the residents have become accustomed to providing for themselves. That
has been difficult enough. But now because of the weather conditions, the
prospect of putting food on the table for your family has become that much
harder. Yangkang Province is particularly vulnerable to droughts, so the
residents there are extra focused and worried about it.

4. Drought conditions in North Korea are
not a rare occurrence. What are authorities doing in order to prepare for
overcoming this difficult time?

The authorities’ plan revolves around
mobilizing citizens to do extra work in response to poor conditions and
facilities. Just a little bit ago, there was an article in Rodong Sinmun
saying, “We’ve planted over 80% of our rice crops, and are on our way to
declaring victory over the drought.” The residents are really worrying about
the dry season, but North Korean authorities are more concerned about
reinforcing their political system through propaganda efforts. The authorities
emphasize that their plans are to thoroughly provide for each and every citizen
as the country enters drought season. Last year, the regime focused on
construction on a waterway in the yellow sea during the drought season. In the
same way, emphasis is being placed on water-procuring projects this year.

Considering that water is considered the
lifeblood of farming, this year there have been special instructions to quickly
develop and operate reservoirs and pump facilities. Even though Kim Jong Un
stepped up to issue that policy, residents are reporting that there isn’t
enough electricity to bring the plan to life. The authorities are declaring, “Let’s
beat the drought!” and mobilizing the residents every day, but the reality is
that the residents don’t expect to receive any of the fruits of their labor
when autumn harvest comes around. So there’s a lot of discontent around that.

Every minute they spend breaking their
backs working on the collective farms is a minute they can’t spend on their
private farms. If the residents were paid for the mobilization work, then they
likely wouldn’t complain about the arduous work. The regime does not seem to
have any plans to pay the mobilized residents, however.

5. So because of the mobilizations, we can
expect to see a setback in the residents’ ability to harvest their own crops.
If the fall crop is hindered because of this, the lives of ordinary people are
going to get extraordinarily difficult. I’m curious how the residents might be
able to overcome this difficulty?

The authorities are mobilizing the
residents just about every day. Now of course the residents are opposed to
this, but if they don’t attend when called, they have to pay a fine. So most
people just end up going. Nonetheless, people have to tend to their personal
plots. Staff is being appointed with this in mind, giving breaks in turn to
those who need to farm their private crops.

Even though the regime is issuing reckless
orders to mobilize even residents in emergency situations in terms of food
security, the people are working it out amongst themselves. In this way, they
are finding a way to get the state work done while also planning for the fall
harvest on their own. The mobilization orders are being carried out by inminban
[people’s unit] or by business/factory management. But the inminban and
business leaders also have a family to feed, so they understand. These leaders
are being flexible about how people commit their time to the group in order to
get the project done.

Also, big sellers at the jangmadang market
are contributing what is being called “relief funds” to their local unit. This
money is being used to provide the mobilized residents with snacks and other
foods during their break time. When I was a seller in the jangmadang, there was
a woman I knew who sold twisted bread sticks. Whenever there was a
mobilization, this woman would send out the twisted bread sticks and meatballs
fried in egg out to the working team. These people are excused from the
mobilization work.

In each unit you get a few people who cannot
participate, so they find a way to contribute in either food or money to
compensate for their absence. On one occasion when it was hot, we even got sent
Kka-Kka-oh, a kind of popsicle, so that was actually kind of nice. But this
kind of excused absence is only granted to those with good songbun [family
political background and loyalty].

Those with even a little bit of dirt on
their records suffer political consequences and judgment when they try the same
thing. In the neighborhood that I lived in, one young person was constantly battling
with superiors and complaining about how difficult the mobilization work was.
This young person was investigated for venting his frustrations and his whole
family ended up being sent away. We don’t know where to. This is why people
with poor songbun are the ones that typically go out to do mobilization work. 

6. As the drought continues and a poor
early potato harvest is expected by all, is there anything the residents are
doing to prepare for the hardship period?

Yeah, during a drought season, the potatoes
never come in right. If the price of the new potatoes does not decrease a bit
one week ahead of harvest time, that means that there’s going to be a very
meager yield. It’s very unfortunate to say, but the residents have no real
alternative or method for coping with this shortcoming. That’s because they
have already planted everything they have. The only things that remain are the
seeds for the autumn greens. And the only thing they can do in that case is
just plant everything they have and hope they get enough to eat.

Other than that, residents can try to
hustle real hard in the jangmadang to make up for the difference. But when the
harvest is bad, that affects the markets, so that plan is also insufficient.
That’s why a prolonged drought is so devastating to all members of North Korean
society. The only thing left to do is eat a lot of greens instead. Can that
even be called a legitimate backup plan?

7. Oh, is that so? North Koreans must be
begging for the day when the dry seasons no longer sting so badly.

It was the same for me. I feel empathy and
sadness for the North Koreans who are toiling to pull weeds and plant manure in
the grass for the state. But as long as Kim Jong Un’s regime remains in power,
this sadness and worry has little chance of dissipating. Kim Jong Un has grown
fat while his people continue to suffer. I want to urge him to suspend the
construction of vanity projects and focus on boosting the living standards of
ordinary people. I want to tell the North Korean residents listening to this
broadcast that they should hang in there because the era of unification is not
so far away!