The heavy rains have slowed in North Korea, giving way to a blistering heat wave. To find out how residents beat the heat, we turn to economic reporter Kang Mi Jin.
Although the temperatures may be on par with those in South Korea, the North lacks air conditioners, reliable electricity, and refrigerators, making the heat that much harder to bear.
Most North Koreans are outside during the day because of the nature of their occupations. To cool off, they turn to an ice cream called kka-kka-oh, ice snacks, or ice water. Sources in Pyongyang said that the number of merchants selling these products is on the rise, indicative of increasing demand.
Can you tell us a bit about the ice cream sold in the North? How is it different from ice cream in other places?
The names of the products are different. There is one product called ice cream, another is called kka-kka-oh, and there are other things called ice snacks and Eskimo. When we say ice cream in North Korea, we are referring to a smooth, creamy product served in a cone. Eskimo is used to describe the kind of ice cream that people eat in South Korea and elsewhere. Ice snacks refer to products that are made by freezing saccharin, sugar, and coloring inside water ice.
North Korean residents who are relatively well-off tend to eat Eskimo, kka-kka-oh, and ice cream. Those who are struggling buy ice snacks and ice water.
It seems that consumer choices have diversified a bit.
Yes, that’s fair to say. It used to be the case that there were only one or two different types of ice cream, namely kka-kka-oh and eskimo. But now, blueberry, coffee, milk, walnut, and various fruit flavored ice creams have all emerged for sale.
Just a few years ago, vendors were making kka-kka-oh in their homes and transporting it to the market to sell. But recently, state enterprises have started producing it on an industrial scale. A significant portion of ice cream products currently on sale at the market have been produced at these factories.
But an opposing trend has also emerged. Some residents have started imitating the eskimo products made by the factories. In Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, some merchants produce and even package their own kka-kka-oh for sale at the market.
But that means that some merchants are selling ice cream without packaging? How do they do that?
The state enterprises put their ice cream and cocoa in plastic packaging, which lists basic information, like the ingredients and the factory that manufactured it. But the individuals who make and sell ice cream don’t use any packaging at all.
These individuals produce ice cream by putting the ingredients in long, slender aluminum tubes that they freeze. When customers come, they just dispense the desired amount directly from the tube.
If it’s a really hot day and sales are slow, sometimes it will melt. When that happens, they put the tubes back in the cooler, and then bring it to a freezer so they can refreeze and sell it.
North Korean customers don’t find it odd that the ice cream is sold without any packaging?
North Korean consumers aren’t so picky about the ingredients of a given product or inquiring about the expiration date. There are some customers who like the factory-made ice cream, but there are also many who prefer the homemade variety. The perception right now is that homemade kka-kka-oh is just as good in taste and quality as the factory-made alternative.
But consumers in North Korea are beginning to become more discerning about taste. In response, merchants are competing to meet the expectations of their customers. This can be seen as part of North Korea’s generally evolving marketization.
You mentioned earlier that market vendors will refreeze and sell melted ice cream. Does this speak to the low quality of the conditions that they have to work in?
Yes, that’s certainly the case. The industrial scale ice cream producers have access to refrigerating equipment, but individual vendors have no such appliances. They make the kakao and put it in a cooler, then head to the market. The problem is that warm air goes in the cooler every time they reach in to get more product, so the kka-kka-oh melts relatively quickly. This puts a limit on the amount that the vendors can sell at a time.