North Korean trading company operator ambivalent on humanitarian aid from South

Editor’s Note: Following a report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stating that 40% of North Koreans are “in urgent need of food assistance,” the South Korean government and local civic and religious organizations have moved to take humanitarian action to mitigate the problem. However, rice prices are in a holding pattern across North Korea’s markets and sources are reporting no increase in food shortages. Daily NK is publishing an interview series featuring North Korean residents across a range of demographics in an effort to gain a better understanding of the picture on the ground regarding the country’s food security and the practicality of getting humanitarian aid to those who need it most.

Sakju County, North Pyongan Province
Sakju County, North Pyongan Province. Image: Daily NK

Through multiple external-facing state media outlets, North Korea has called South Korea’s moves to provide the country with humanitarian aid “empty rhetoric,” “patronizing,” and a “non-essential and secondary issue” in improving inter-Korean relations.

But what do North Korean residents think about South Korea’s moves to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea? Daily NK has found that many North Koreans are not fully cognizant of what is happening; however, trading company heads are more informed than regular North Koreans.

A North Korean who runs a trading company near the Sino-North Korean border spoke with Daily NK over two days on May 19 and May 20.

“If [South Korea] gives us rice, it’s of course a good thing. But our people are not yet starving, so I think the government is right to refuse the aid,” he said. We didn’t beg [for food] during the Arduous March (widespread famine of the mid-1990s). This is an issue that involves our pride.”

When the Daily NK reporter explained that North Korean officials had not yet released an official statement, he took their side, appearing to have confidence in whatever the authorities decided to do.

“If the authorities don’t want to receive the rice from South Korea, there must be a good reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if our pride played some part in us enduring self-sufficiently for so long,” he said.

Daily NK also asked the trading company operator about his thoughts on a recent report by UN agencies stating that North Korea’s food situation was the worst in 10 years. He responded that while there are signs the North Korean economy is worsening, it’s still not in dire straits.

“It’s not easy to do business nowadays in the trading sector so I’ve been busy drawing up plans to sell various products based on their price. Nowadays, businesses are not doing so well in the markets either, but people aren’t starving,” he said.

“People living in the cities are using money they have saved up and are living at a similar level to the past. Families with economic difficulties are surviving by just reducing the number of times they buy manufactured products and meat.”

Despite a poor farming season last year, the rice prices in the local markets in late May rose to around 4,000 KPW per kilogram, but have generally stabilized. Likewise, the currency rate has not fluctuated a great deal, staying at around 8,000 KPW per dollar.

The trading company operator, however, said that rice aid could held improve the lives of North Koreans. He even suggested that a large number of North Koreans want the aid.

“I think there’s a lot of people who would like South Korean aid. It’s not the place of a trading company to get involved in affairs handled by the Central Party, but I think helping people live better by receiving the aid is the right thing to do,” he said.

“Most of the rice wouldn’t go to regular North Koreans. It would go to orphanages, childcare centers, elderly care centers and hospitals. If the aid is given to the military and shock brigades, this would relieve pressure on local markets to provide them with supplies. Ultimately, I think the aid would help regular North Koreans live better lives.”