Unification Media Group (UMG): It’s time to talk about market trends in North Korea with Daily NK’s reporter Mi Jin Kang. One of North Korea’s most famous fruits is the Hoeryong white apricot. What’s the story behind this fruit?
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): In South Korea, it’s not unusual to have fruits and vegetables available even when they’re out of season. But modern refrigeration is still lacking in North Korea, so many of the fruits and vegetables are only available in season. White apricots in particular are difficult to store, so they can only be enjoyed around harvest time.
Sources inside North Korea reported that the white apricot season ended last week. The white apricots were selling at slightly higher than average rates when the harvest began in mid-July, but their price has since reduced daily. Sources reported that 1 kg of white apricots were sold for 400 to 500 KPW at the Hoeryong market (in North Hamgyong Province) last week.
That is 5-6 times cheaper than in other years. The sources said that most regions bought the white apricots at a higher price with the exception of Hoeryong, where they’re grown. According to the sources, this year brought in a good harvest.
UMG: I’ve heard a lot about the white apricot, but I don’t know much about it. Could you tell us about the fruit?
Kang: The white apricot is typically produced in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province. It has been designated by the North Korean government as natural treasure number 439. It’s regarded as a delicious, special fruit and if you catch a whiff of it, you’ll find it irresistible.
It has a rich scent and sweetness, so both adults and children enjoy it, but is hard to purchase out of season. According to North Korean sources, not only is the white apricot tasty, it’s profitable because the pits can be used to manufacture various other foods. For example, there’s an apricot-flavored snack in North Korea.
In fact, people also believe that the apricot pits help prevent lung cancer. The day before yesterday, I was in touch with a woman from Ryanggang Province who said that it’s common to see residents picking up apricot pits not only in the market, but also in the fields. She said land managers also appreciate that the surrounding areas get cleaned up as people pick up the abandoned pits.
UMG: Hearing you describe it, I can smell white apricots filling this broadcasting booth. It seems that people really enjoy it, but are they available throughout the country?
Yes, even in the 2000s when the North Korean railways were not operating properly, white apricots were being delivered throughout the country. At that time, large quantities were being distributed in service cars (cars carrying freight and people). But more was delivered to the counties and provinces near Hoeryong.
Because the harvest period for white apricots is in the summer, when you load them in a van, they rot faster. The farther away from the production plants, the higher the costs, so the apricots were usually distributed up to Ryanggang Province and both Hamgyong provinces.
UMG: What’s the difference in price for the white apricot between Hoeryong and elsewhere?
Kang: Commodity prices actually varied widely from 1990 to 2000 when the markets emerged in North Korea. The difference in prices even between night and day was significant. My understanding is that prices for most commodities these days, except for specialty items, do not vary that widely between the regions.
Hoeryong white apricots are particular to the region. They rot easily because they’re carried in a frail state, and thus can only be transported short distances. This makes the fruit more expensive outside the province. For example, it’s 1000 KPW/kg in Hoeryong, but 4000 KPW/kg in Hyesan’s market in Ryanggang Province.
The supply also affects the cost. North Korean sources report that the price in Hyesan’s market was 7000 KPW/kg in 2017 and 12,000/kg in 2018. This year, it began at 6500/kg and ended up at 4000/kg. So the lower the supply, the higher the price.
Host: You mentioned that it’s hard to buy the white apricot out of season. What kind of processed foods are made from it?
Kang: White apricot jam made is sold in some areas like Pyongyang and Wonsan in Kangwon Province. In North Korea, white apricot jam is called white apricot sweet sauce. It’s categorized and sold as a healthy product.
The apricot’s aroma is infused in the jam and it’s a popular snack for kids. It’s tasty and white apricot includes amygdalin, a chemical that soothes coughing. It’s also thought to be effective in treating lung diseases like bronchitis. And that’s why people pick up white apricot seeds from the fields.
UMG: You mentioned earlier that the white apricot tree is designated as a natural treasure in North Korea. When did it become designated and what are its unique features?
Kang: The white apricot tree, which is grown extensively around the Chang-ho district in Hoeryong city, North Hamgyong Province, received protection as a natural treasure in January 1980 by the National Conservation Union. The tree is grown in an orchard 350 meters above sea level in the hills of this particular area. A tall white apricot tree is around 5 meters tall; a small one is three to four meters.
In the spring, the white apricot tree blossoms to the point that the whole city of Hoeryong looks white. Many of the families in Hoeryong have a few white apricot trees around their homes. The tree is normally round and yellowish white in color, like the apricot itself, but gets slightly reddish on the side that receives more sunlight. The fruit is sweet rather than sour, contains a lot of water, and has an aroma.
Each white apricot weighs about 40 to 50 grams. But this year the harvest was good so most are around 50 grams. It’s said that Hoeryong residents can’t ignore the profits that white apricots generate. North Korean sources said that the fruit produced in the orchards is sold at wholesale prices and then distributed to other areas for sale.