experimental fields
Farmland in Chongsan-ri, between Nampo and Pyongyang. (Flickr, Creative Commons)

As North Korea’s food shortages are worsening amid rising grain prices, the country’s people are facing their worst spring famine since the country closed its borders due to COVID-19 in early 2020.

According to Daily NK’s regular price survey, the market price of 1kg of rice as of May 1 was KPW 5,100 in Pyongyang, KPW 5,300 in Sinuiju and KPW 5,550 in Hyesan. The price of rice has remained above KPW 5,000 for a month since reaching that level in early April.

The market price of corn has also remained in the upper KPW 2,000s, with 1kg of corn selling for KPW 2,700 in Pyongyang, KPW 2,800 in Sinuiju and KPW 2,850 in Hyesan, also as of May 1.

A comparison of spring food prices (early March to early May) during the three years since North Korea closed its borders shows that this year’s grain prices are the highest of all.

In the spring of 2020, immediately after the borders were closed, the average price of 1kg of rice was in the upper KPW 4,000s (KPW 4,700 in Pyongyang, KPW 4,680 in Sinuiju and KPW 4,991 in Hyesan). During the same period last year, the average price was in the upper KPW 3,000s and lower KPW 4,000s (KPW 3,720 in Pyongyang, KPW 3,890 in Sinuiju and KPW 4,200 in Hyesan).

Rice prices were somewhat lower in 2021 because the North Korean authorities were focusing on stabilizing grain prices while a network of state-run food stores began operations on a trial basis.

This is the first year the price of rice has been above KPW 5,000 in the spring, when it is particularly difficult for North Koreans to keep food on the table. And since the price of corn — a staple food for low income earners — has also reached its highest point this year, these prices are likely to feel even more expensive for North Koreans.

From early March to early May 2020, the average price of 1kg of corn was in the mid-KPW 1,000s (KPW 1,413 in Pyongyang, KPW 1,365 in Sinuiju and KPW 1,600 in Hyesan). In spring 2021, the price was in the low-to-mid-KPW 2000s (KPW 2,280 in Pyongyang, KPW 2,300 in Sinuiju and KPW 2,480 in Hyesan).

However, the price of corn this year has risen above KPW 2,700, or more than half the price of rice. The marked rise in corn prices may be due to the fact that the North Korean authorities are expanding wheat cultivation at the expense of corn.

In a policy speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly at the end of September 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave orders to “more than double the area cultivated with wheat and barley and increase the area of upland and lowland rice cultivation around the country. We need to increase yields of white rice and wheat so as to create the conditions for the public to adopt more civilized dietary habits.”

However, wheat and barley crops were damaged by snowfall reported in North Hamgyong Province and other parts of North Korea through the end of March and a lack of rainfall from April to the present is likely to create drought conditions.

The State Hydro-Meteorological Administration — which serves as North Korea’s weather service — reported that April temperatures were about 2.3 degrees Celsius higher than usual, while the country only saw about 44% of its typical rainfall.

That has reportedly prompted officials from North Korea’s Agricultural Commission to visit major collective farms and scrutinize crop growth and development.

Under those circumstances, the state-run food stores have dispatched purchasing agents to collective farms to set aside as many potatoes as possible from the June harvest.

“The inminban [people’s units] are instructing people to hang on until the potato harvest in June, since the price of rice should go down a little at that point. We’ll have to wait and see whether the potatoes will be supplied to the public and whether that will bring down the price of rice and corn,” a source in the country recently told Daily NK.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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