North Koreans are finding it more difficult than ever to find imported food products in the country’s markets, Daily NK has learned. Indeed, prices of some items are now seven times higher than they were before the blockade was put in place early last year. 

A source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK last Friday that the price of one kilogram of flour at the Pyongsong Okjon General Market was KPW 11,200 on Mar. 23, more than three times higher than in October of last year. 

The cost of sugar has reportedly skyrocketed to KPW 30,100 per kilogram – seven times higher than the October 2020 price of KPW 4,180 per kilogram. North Korean soybean oil is currently being traded at KPW 27,800 per kilogram, more than double the price from October of last year. 

Because Okjon Market is North Korea’s largest wholesale market, even Pyongyang-based merchants come to Pyongsong to order goods.

As a wholesale market that mainly distributes products to other regions of North Korea, it generally has lower prices than markets in other regions, including those near the border.

This means that the prices of Chinese food products at markets near the border are likely even higher than those at Okjon.

Market official on patrol in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province
Market official on patrol in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

The source also told Daily NK that it is becoming difficult to find Chinese flavor enhancers, soybean oil, imported medicines, fertilizers, pesticides, and tropical fruits such as tangerines and bananas. 

“We can’t even buy food products such as seasoning or condiments, let alone things like underclothes, cloth, or agricultural products brought in from China,” the source said. “Even if we could find them, they are so expensive that we can’t buy them.”

Because Chinese imports are either too expensive or impossible to find, merchants have had to sell locally-produced replacements. 

The price of sugar has become so prohibitive that some markets have begun selling a replacement called “grape sugar powder.” The flour-like white powder is said to have a syrupy-sweet taste.

Grape sugar powder is manufactured by mixing various chemicals in pharmaceutical factories.

Meanwhile, prominent official markets located away from the Sino-North Korean border, including Okjon Market, are reportedly opening at 10 AM and closing at 6 PM. 

Last year, North Korean authorities declared an “80-day battle” to reach the country’s economic targets, limiting market operation hours to three hours between 3 PM and 6 PM. This policy reportedly led to great discontent among merchants.

Business hours were increased back to eight hours at the beginning of this year, but with the start of the agricultural season just around the corner, opening hours will likely shift to 4 PM to 8 PM to accommodate all the people mobilized to assist with farming.

“There has to be a steady flow of goods and consistent business hours for anyone to make money, but all we get is more interference from the authorities,” the source said. “People keep saying that trade will resume, but no measures [have been implemented by the authorities] to actually make that happen.”

*Translated by S & J

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.