A North Korean family making kimchi. Image: KCNA.
Unification Media Group (UMG): The gap between the rich and poor in North Korea is evident in all areas of life, like housing, jobs and medical care. And now, it is becoming more evident in a central aspect of Korean culture: making kimchi. The wealthy in North Korea, including the emerging business elite called the donju and the politically-connected party cadres, make relatively smaller quantities of kimchi.
But for poorer households, kimchi is still relied upon as the food provisions for half a year, so large quantities are made. There are also differences in the quality of ingredients chosen. Depending on purchasing power, residents can choose between pricier domestic ingredients or cheaper imports. The authorities, recognizing this trend, are using it to generate revenue for the regime. For more, we turn turn to reporter Seol Song Ah.
Seol Song Ah (Seol): Whether you’re in North or South Korea, kimchi is a beloved side dish all over the peninsula. For most North Korean residents until recently, the emphasis on kimchi has been as an all-important source of reliable long-lasting sustenance. This aspect has been more important than its status as a cultural cuisine. But marketization and the polarization of economic status has influenced the situation. The rich now prefer to make small amounts, and simply buy the rest as needed. In addition, urban residents have come up with novel methods of storing and preserving the fermented side dish.
There are also differences in the way that residents purchase kimchi-making ingredients. Donju and cadres can afford domestic ingredients, while ordinary residents go for cheaper imports. Rather than attempting to address this growing disparity of income, the North Korean authorities have been busy transforming the kimchi market into a nationalized business venture. To understand how the situation is developing, Daily NK consulted with inside informants in North Korea.
UMG: You mentioned that winter kimchi used to be regarded as a store of food for half a year, but that’s beginning to change. Can you tell us more about that?
Seol: There are differences in perception within North Korea depending on region and income level. Let’s start with geographic distribution. The wealthier areas no longer regard kimchi as a precious source of food that needs to last a long time. This includes the central areas like Pyongyang, and large cities like North Pyongan Province’s Sinuiju City and North Hamgyong Province’s Chongjin City.
“Pyongsong City residents generally make about 100 kilograms of winter kimchi,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK during a telephone call on December 27. This is much less than the hundreds of kilos typically seen in other areas. “The cadres and donju make less than this, or just buy what they want in the markets,” the source added.
The income gap is also an important factor. Ordinary residents make anywhere from hundreds of kilograms to a ton of kimchi and it’s eaten as a major staple. A warm bowl of kimchi stew is good to stave off hunger for a short time, the thinking goes. This is a particularly good solution for rural residents, who have gardens and can grow their own vegetables to make the kimchi. It’s the urban residents who aren’t making a substantial living that encounter difficulties. These people have trouble affording expensive cabbage and radish in the market, and so aren’t able to make as much as they might like to.
UMG: How about the differences in the ingredients available?
Seol: Cadres, donju, and the politically-connected buy domestic ingredients. Residents grow red pepper flakes, garlic, sesame seeds, and ginger in their vegetable gardens and then sell them in the marketplace. The fragrant marinade used to make the kimchi from these domestic ingredients is considered second-to-none.
It’s also possible to buy red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger that has been imported from China. The source informed Daily NK that the imported products are inferior to the North Korean varieties and are considered second-rate. The price reflects this perception; they cost half as much as the domestic equivalents.
“The Chinese-made red pepper flakes have other additives, so the price of the kimchi suffers,” a North Pyongan Province source said. “This year, North Korean-made red pepper flakes cost 15,000 KPW, while the Chinese varieties sell for just 7,500 KPW. But people who can afford it choose the North Korean variety.” The garlic, ginger, and other ingredients are also subject to similar price differences between the imported and domestic versions.
UMG: Even the ingredients used to make the kimchi marinade are imported from China. How about the cabbage and radish? Is that all from North Korea?
As the winter kimchi season approaches, there are some imports of cabbage and radish from China coming into the North Hamgyong border region. However, large smuggling operations have been affected by sanctions and it has become harder to smuggle in the veggies.
All of the vegetable produce raised on private plots and state farms in the inland regions of North and South Pyongan Provinces are brought for sale in the markets as kimchi-making ingredients. There are different varieties and sizes of cabbage available for sale, all differing in price and quality. For example, sochongbang cabbage is not very large, but it is packed with more yellow leaves on the inside, pushing up demand and making it the most expensive.
The state-run farms recently began cultivating western cabbage. It’s characterized by a sweet and mild flavor and its smaller size. The middle class tends to like using this type of cabbage.
UMG: It seems like the middle class makes a small amount and buys their kimchi in the market thereafter, so they don’t make large quantities in the winter. Is that right?
Seol: As recently as the year 2000, city dwellers were digging out kimchi storage spaces near the entrances to their apartment buildings. They would bury two or three jars and keep it underground to store. This is the traditional way to store kimchi as it ferments, and it is said that doing it this way helps give it a crisp, refreshing flavor.
But things are different these days. City dwellers and the middle class don’t make so much anymore, and store the kimchi they’ve made in smaller containers on their apartment verandas. They use earthenware storage vessels to help recreate the “underground” flavor. Responding to the increased demand for these storage vessels, state-run ceramics factories began to increase the production of ceramic jars a few years ago, which are good for holding less than 100 kilograms. These are sold for a profit in the market, providing revenue for the regime.
“About five years ago, the Jjikdong Ceramics Factory in Sunchon City started selling smaller sized kimchi storage vessels for sale in the markets,” said a South Pyongan source. “Ordinary ceramic jars capable of holding about 100 kilograms of kimchi sell for 20,000 KPW, while the earthenware version sells for about 40,000 KPW.”
UMG: Are there any other new methods of kimchi storage emerging?
Seol: Wealthy cadres and the donju are now using specialized kimchi refrigerators. Although electricity is not reliably provided to the entire population, the elites and upper middle class have their own access to power. The kimchi fridges are imported from China. People place them in their kitchen and stuff them with kimchi to enjoy at their convenience. There are both South Korean and Chinese refrigerators available.
With these new fridges installed in their kitchens, the wealthy are transforming the design and functionality of their kitchens. The closer you get to the downtown city centers, the less prevalent kimchi-making culture is, and the more common it is for people to buy their kimchi in the markets. In Pyongyang, there are more elite cadres and wealthy residents, so there’s more kimchi being purchased. Responding to the sudden jump in demand, there are reports that kimchi factories are being newly built in the region. The huge Ryumong Kimchi Factory is one example.
UMG: Kim Jong Un visited the Ryumong Factory and gave on-the-spot guidance that was covered in the state media. But the factory’s existence is a reflection of market demand, something that the authorities are not eager to recognize.
Seol: According to the state-media report, the Ryugyong Kimchi Factory in Pyongyang is capable of making over 2,000 tons of kimchi, over 2,000 tons of pickled soybean, and over 200 tons of processed mushroom products in one year. Kim Jong Un visited the factory last January, saying, “The Ryugyong Kimchi Factory shall serve as a model for the creation of similar kimchi factories in every province.”
There has been no news of such factories being created in the provinces, but the statement can be seen as an expression of the regime’s plan to use the kimchi market as a source of income.