Private flower producers profit on Kim Il Sung’s birthday

It’s time for “NK Market Trends,” where we
showcase North Korea’s latest economic developments. In order to find out what
market activity was like on April 15, Kim Il Sung’s birthday, we now turn to
Reporter Seol Song Ah. Kim Il Sung’s birthday is considered a very important
holiday in North Korea. Can you tell us what kind of market activity is
associated with this day? 

That’s right. April 15 was Kim Il Sung’s birthday,
which means we should pay attention to a few particular parts of the market.
The North Korean residents see Kim Il Sung’s birthday as an opportunity to
re-energize the flower sales industry. On April 14 and 15, you can see a line
of people queuing up on the streets to purchase and sell both real and
artificial flowers. One surprising aspect is that there are more synthetic
flower salespeople than real flower vendors, reflecting just how large the
demand for the former is.

So, from what you’ve said, it seems as if
residents are looking at Kim Il Sung’s birthday more as an economic opportunity
than as a political event. Given that real flowers smell nice and look so
pretty, I am curious about what is driving the popularity for artificial
flowers. Why are they selling so well?

For financial reasons, plain and simple.
Real flowers are quite costly. Artificial flowers are much cheaper. I think we
need to reevaluate the resident’s loyalty to the Kim family. Kim Il Sung’s
birthday is called “The Day of the Sun” and celebrated by placing flowers at
the feet of Kim Il Sung statues. This description might lead one to believe
that the motivations are political in nature, and that might have actually been
the case when the public distribution system was operating in full swing, but
that’s not the case these days. That’s why demand for the cheaper synthetic
flowers has taken off.  

Might we say that the explosion of flowers
is an indicator of the vitality of the markets?

We can do some “back of the envelope” math
in order to get a rudimentary sense for just how much revenue these flower
vendors are pulling in. The population of North Korea is approximately 24
million. If we exclude workers who don’t have enough money to purchase the
flowers, we are left with at least 10 million people. Faux flowers cost KPW
500 each, while real flowers cost about KPW 1000 each. So that would bring the
total revenue to KPW 5 billion – 10 billion (USD 600,000 – 1,200,000).
Excluding azaleas, not many flowers are blooming in North Korea during the
month of April. So that means that any available authentic flowers were grown
in greenhouses specifically for sale during Kim Il Sung’s birthday. If the
timing is right, the growers and artificial flower producers can both really hit the

It seems like people are willing to put in
a lot of hard work in order to make a good payout in North Korea. Am I correct
in assuming that these flowers are for sale at the official general markets?

Yes, there are, but not the kind of flowers
that you use at political events. No residents are foolish enough to sell flowers
inside the official markets themselves leading up to February 16 (Kim Jong Il’s birthday) or April
15. That would be a serious offense. That is why flowers are made
in personal residences and secretly sold on the street or near the entrances of
schools at this time of the year. 
However, at the official general markets, customers can purchase
decorative flowers used to add ornate flourishes to the interior of one’s home,
such as flower ribbons that get draped over mirrors and dressers. These flowers
are all imported from China.

You said earlier that individual people
make and sell the artificial flowers. Can you explain this process to us?

Making artificial flowers in the North Korean
style is not exactly simple. You need coated flower paper, metal wire, paint, plastic, synthetic fibers, and other materials depending on the type of flowers you’re looking to make. These can all be purchased at the general markets. Intensive and delicate labor must be poured into the fabrication of the synthetic flowers. The handicraft techniques used to produce faux flowers is different
for each type.

For example, to make a lotus, you need to
fold either paper or polyester fabric, depending on the type of blossom you plan to make, in half and then paint it slightly with pink paint before
letting it dry. As the paint spreads out, the edges stay white. Then, you take the
bloom and put it on a beer bottle and then fasten with some sewing thread.
After five minutes, you remove the thread, and the paper or fabric will have wrinkles
that make it look just like a real blossoming flower.

Fake flowers need stalks, of course. In
the old days before the markets came to life, car owners would throw old tires
in the junkyard or burn them for fuel. But now that the markets can facilitate
exchanges between total strangers, there is less waste. There are experts who
buy and sort old tires to make a profit. Car tires have a belt and metal wire
inside the rubber. The merchants sell the rubber to shoe makers, the belts to
fishnet makers, and the metal wire to faux flower producers.

If the metal wire was used as the flower
stalks without any additional modifications, it would be a bit too stiff. To
give it some elasticity, it’s heated with fire. The flower makers then take the
leftover paper or fabric from cutting out the flower petals and use it to cover the
stalks. The metal wire is quite flexible after putting it in the fire, so it
can also be used to make a circle of flowers for brides to wear as a veil
during their wedding. Even as April 15 passes, army recruitment is going to
continue, so there will still be customers looking to buy artificial flowers. That’s
because the flowers are given to the new recruits at farewell parties before
they head off to base.

Thank you for that description. It appears
like the flower market in North Korea is just one more instance of the changing
mindset of North Korean residents. Now, let’s take a look at how market prices
are doing in the North this week.*

We’ll start off with the week’s rice
prices, the foreign exchange rate, and other price fluctuations.

The price of 1 kg of rice was 5,120 KPW in
Pyongyang, 5,050 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5,000 KPW in Hyesan. The cost of 1 kg of
corn kernels was 2,100 KPW in Pyongyang, 2,150 KPW in Sinuiju, and 2,200 KPW in
Hyesan. The USD was trading at 8,150 KPW in Pyongyang, 8,260 KPW in Sinuiju,
and 8,055 KPW in Hyesan. The Renminbi was trading at 1,3000 KPW in Pyongyang,
1280 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1,275 KPW in Hyesan–mostly similar to last week.

Moving along, 1 kg of pork was selling at
13,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 13,400 KPW in Sinuiju, and 12,750 KPW in Hyesan.
Gasoline was trading at 10,700 KPW per kg in Pyongyang, 10,580 KPW in Sinuiju,
and 10,700 KPW in Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of diesel fuel was selling at 6,400 KPW
in Pyongyang, 6,500 KPW in Sinuiju, and 6,400 KPW in Hyesan. This has been a
rundown of the latest market prices in North Korea.

*This segment reflects market conditions for the week of April 11-15.

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