Markets abuzz amid New Year’s festivities

While South Koreans eat songpyeong made of rice gluten, North Koreans boil rice gluten and then
make dumplings out of it. The left picture shows North Korean-style pounded rice cakes, and the
 picture on the right shows North Korean nongma (potato) noodles.

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
(markets, official or otherwise) has been doing. We’ll begin by providing a
rundown of 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 5,400 KPW in Pyongyang, 5,400
KPW in Sinuiju, and 5,500 KPW in Hyesan. The USD was trading at 8,640 KPW in
Pyongyang, 8,760 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,800 KPW in Hyesan. The Renminbi was
trading at 1,320 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,340 in Sinuiju, and 1,350 in Hyesan.
Moving along, the cost of one kg of corn kernels was 2,050 KPW in Pyongyang,
2,100 KPW in Sinuiju, and 2,200 KPW in Hyesan. One kg of pork was selling at
12,000 KPW in Pyongyang, and 12,500 KPW in Sinuiju and Hyesan. Gasoline was
trading at 7,500 KPW per kg in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of
diesel fuel was selling at 5,500 KPW in Pyongyang, 5,450 KPW in Sinuiju, and
5,350 KPW in Hyesan. This has been a rundown of the latest market prices in
North Korea.

1. Thank you for that rundown of the latest market prices in
North Korea. Recently there has been a lot of snow and the weather has become
quite chilly. People everywhere are bundling up to keep out the cold. Despite
the fact that the weather is freezing and it is December, everyone is busily
preparing for the New Year. Now, reporter Kang Mi Jin will give us an update on
the recent flurry of market activity that has accompanied preparations for New Year’s.

Yes, because of the New Year’s celebrations, the past couple of weeks have been some of the busiest for
the markets. This week, as the holiday drew even closer, merchants and buyers
really picked up the pace. Unlike the South, where the standard of living
is far higher and thus people can more easily make their preparations, dropping
by the nearest shop or market to pick up what they need accordingly, North
Koreans have to start their preparations early to make sure they get everything.
It’s much less convenient. 

I remember when I came to the South I found it very
hard to shake off this habit of preparing for holidays very early, probably
because it was ingrained in me after more than 10 years of living that way. Ah,
I’m getting a bit sidetracked, shall we talk about how North Koreans go about
their holiday preparations?

2.Yes, we tend to visit local shops and markets just one or
two days in advance of the holidays to pick up what we need, so when you say
that North Koreans take ten or more days to prepare it is quite surprising!
Tell us more about it.

Yes, we as a people seem to love food made from rice. In the
South people eat ddeokguk (rice cake soup) to ring in the New Year, but
Northerners prefer to eat songpyeon (half-moon shaped rice cakes stuffed with
sweet or semi-sweet feeling steamed over pine needles). Particularly in regions
where rice is not very abundant, everyone in the North looks forward to the
holidays, recognizing them as an especially happy time. People think, “A day
when we can eat rice is a happy day.” When people make ddeok (rice cake), they will
definitely have rice, right? I think I should start by explaining what it is
that North Koreans eat on the holidays. 

Ddeok, noodles, and dumplings (mandu) are
indispensable in every region during the holidays. To make ddeok, you need
rice, and to make mandu, you need flour. Noodles made in each region differ
slightly; for example, in Yanggang province, people eat a lot of nongma
(potato) noodles. This is probably why the best-selling items on the market
right now are flour, rice, and other ingredients that families use to make
holiday foods.

3. So this explains the rise in profits made by those market
sellers who are selling basic ingredients like rice and flour. 

Right, although families don’t usually buy items like flour,
it’s an essential ingredient for holiday food, so people buy between 1-5kg. One
shop proprietor in Hyesan has sold 200kg of flour just over the last few days!
When she sells her flour she loads the scales generously, and even gives buyers
tips on how to make delicious bread with the flour, or tells them the proper
ratio of flour and water for making good mandu.  

You know, when I heard this, my first thought was ah yes,
marketing is the most fundamental part of doing business. For our listeners,
the term ‘marketing’ is frequently used around the world, including South Korea, to describe using a
variety of methods to sell more items. If people in Yanggang Province didn’t
eat nongma noodles on the holidays, these sellers wouldn’t be able to survive,
but because long noodles are a symbol of long life people keep promoting them
as such, noodles are selling very well too.

4. Yes, it seems as though on the holidays, good sales
wouldn’t just be limited to staples like rice and others, but also extend to
goods like oil. What do you think?

Yes, you can’t make food with only rice and flour, can you?
Staples like oil, hot pepper powder, and garlic are also essential ingredients
and they also sell very well. Although families can use seasonings that they
already have on hand, most defectors say that for some reason North Koreans
don’t like to use condiments that they might have around already when they
prepare holiday food for the New Year. Instead, they throw away old things and
buy all new ingredients.

There’s something of a psychological element to this
practice- the idea of beginning the new year with a clean slate, eating freshly
prepared food, can have an impact on your mindset. However, because most North
Koreans are not particularly well-off, people who are come from particularly
poor households have no choice but to mix old ingredients with new ones.

Because you can’t make new year’s foods without buying
ingredients like garlic and onions at the market, those items sell very well
too. People are buying armfuls of garlic, onions, and other greens daily. 

5.You mentioned North Koreans eating ddeok (rice cakes) for
seol (New Year’s Day), unlike South Koreans who enjoy ddeokguk. 

Right. I only learned after coming to the South that they
eat ddeokguk here. In the North, we eat songpyeon both during seol and Chuseok
(traditional harvest festival). On New Year’s Day, North Koreans always want to
have rice cakes, so it’s a must-have that day. People love it so much that they
say it doesn’t feel like a proper holiday without ddeok. The reason why people
prefer songpyeon is because they can make it without using too much rice. Maybe
that’s why, but since coming to the South, I’ve come to enjoy jeolpyeon (flat
rice cakes without stuffing). If you want to make songpyeon with 1kg of rice,
you have to use about 350g of beans, and since beans are cheaper than rice,
people use a lot of beans to save money by adding more stuffing.  

Even though it’s not easy for people to get by, the fact
that they save up to make ddeok tells you that these holidays mean a lot to
people. When I look at people in the South, they eat all kinds of dishes
including meat until they’re content on these holidays and then often throw
away the leftovers. That seems like such a waste. Just as they say the virtue
in food comes from sharing with others, I’d like to believe one day we’ll be
able to share that food with people in the North.

6. Hearing you say that does remind me of some of my own
wasteful habits. I should try to be more conscious like, as you mentioned,
people in the North are. Tell us then, what kind of food do people make on
national holidays, and how much do they make?

It will differ depending on how well off you are and what
region you’re from. I’m from Yanggang Province, so I’ll give you some examples
from there, even though this again depends on which area of the province you’re
in. The cost of ingredients is going to vary according to the number of family
members. I lived only with my daughter, so we would only prepare half of what
most other families would since they’d typically have anywhere from three to
six members.

For a three-member family, you would need 2kg each of rice,
flour, starch, 1.5kg of glutinous rice, and 500g of beans, so that would be a
total of 8kg. About 500g of the rice goes to cooking regular rice, and then the
remainder is used to make songpyeon. Half of the flour is used to make bread
and the rest goes to mandu. Then, there are also noodles that you
can make. For homes that are well-off enough, they’ll make noodles since you
can eat them even after the holidays. I would make 5kg of it, and it would last
through jeongwol daeboreum (first full moon of the Lunar New Year).

Glutinous rice is hard to come by in Yanggang Province, so
not  a lot of homes make rice cakes with it, but I do remember getting 1kg
of it, and my daughter and I would eat be able to eat rice cakes for a few
days. Families with a lot of children, make dried crackers with flour and share
it with friends that come over, and if you want to do that you need to get a
lot more flour. Most households buy 1kg of pork and mince the fat and stir fry
it with cabbage to use as the filling for dumplings, while the nice chunks of
meat go into the broth later with the dumplings. For other side dishes, we cook
bean sprouts, tofu, mock meat, stir-fried potato strips, sautéed mushrooms, and
a type of bracken picked from the mountains.

7. Each year my mother does all the shopping for New Year’s Day,
so I don’t know how much the ingredients cost, but how about in the North?

At Hyesan Market in Yanggang Province, a kilogram of rice
goes for 5,500 KPW and so does flour, although the cheap variety fetches around
5,000 KPW. Starch is about 4,800 or 5,000 KPW, while glutinous rice is 6,300
KPW. A kilogram of pork costs roughly 12,500 KPW and cooking oil is the same. A
block of tofu will cost you about 1,000 KPW and 1kg of garlic is 7,800 KPW. So
all this considered, for a three-person family, even if you buy conservative
amounts, it would still cost about 50,000 KPW. Deep into the night now, I know
some people in the North will be worried about putting together a holiday meal
for their families but, despite all the hardship and troubles, I really want to wish you all a Happy New Year.

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