Imported foodstuffs have grown even more scarce in North Korean markets with the continued closure of the Sino-North Korean border. 

With even ordinary foodstuffs such as cooking oil in short supply, many more North Koreans now complain of health problems due to malnutrition.

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Wednesday, a source in North Korea said with the border closure growing protracted, there are no imported foodstuffs from China or Southeast Asia in the markets. “Many people haven’t tasted oil in over a year because there’s almost no soybean oil coming in,” he said.

Prior to the closure of the border, Chinese soybean oil was selling for around KPW 10,000 a kilogram in North Korean markets. Recently, however, it was reportedly selling for more than KPW 30,000, triple earlier prices.

And with even this overpriced oil disappearing, it has become next to impossible to buy imported cooking oil in markets, said the source.

With locals facing worsening economic difficulties, many people cannot eat meat; now deprived of even cooking oil, more and more people are suffering health problems such as lethargy and poor eyesight.

Kim Jong Un soybean oil
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pictured on an on-the-spot visit to the Pyongyang Basic Food Factory in 2013. In front of him, are rows of soybean oil recently produced by the factory. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Faced with growing public discontent over shortages of imported foodstuffs and rising prices, North Korean authorities reportedly even issued an order for localities to produce cooking oil, including soybean oil, on their own.

Responding to the order, regional parties and people’s committees have reportedly formulated plans to cultivate soybeans and sunflowers to produce and supply domestically manufactured cooking oil.

In fact, in April, the party committee of Kapsan County, Yanggang Province, ordered locals to surrender their small private plots for soybean production, telling residents the authorities would provide them with soybean oil.

With shortages of imported foodstuffs worsening nationwide, localities across the country are apparently attempting to produce food supplies on their own.

However, these local initiatives will likely be easier said than done.

This is because North Korea’s mountainous terrain provides little arable land, and with farming supplies now in short supply, cultivating new crops will prove difficult.

“If there’s land to cultivate, you cultivate staples like rice or potatoes, not crops for oil,” said the source. “It’s completely ineffective to plant sunflowers or soybeans to get oil.

“The problem would be resolved if you lifted the border closure and allowed trade like the old days. I don’t understand why they keep making the problem worse,” he continued, adding, “There are an increasing number of food-short families with little to nothing to eat, but there are also more and more people with just barely enough to eat who are suffering from malnourishment.”

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to