Provincial residents in some areas of North Korea voice economic complaints

North Korean resident in South Pyongan Province picks up cigarette butts
North Korean resident in South Pyongan Province picks up cigarette butts. Image: Daily NK

Some North Koreans living outside the country’s major cities are suffering serious economic problems, Daily NK has learned.

“There’s just not enough to eat these days,” a source in North Hamgyong Province-based source on March 20. “There are very few households that are even eating two meals a day.”

“Before the [international] sanctions, people bought a lot of household appliances and clothing at the markets, but now there are more people who are just living day by day. Even though it seems like there are lots of people at the markets, many of them are just walking around aimlessly,” he said.

“There are more merchants who are grumbling that they can’t even earn 10,000 to 20,000 won a day,” the source also mentioned. “The state talks about how all the people are happy here [in North Korea], but the reality is that people are having a really hard time.”

A source in Ryanggang Province added, “My kids are living in a small county near Hyesan and they are having a very difficult time these days. They’ve been saying that more people are talking about how they wish they could cross over [defect] into China.”

The reports suggest that the prolonged international sanctions on North Korea are seriously impacting the lives of ordinary North Koreans. The demand by the North Korean government last month for the US to lift “partial sanctions” seems to have been based on the reality facing the North Korean people.

Another major reason for North Korea’s economic troubles is that most of the country’s resources are focused on Pyongyang and critical infrastructure. This means that the provinces are inevitably faced with a greater economic crisis than other areas and people in these regions have to deal with ever greater degrees of economic distress.

“People talk a lot about how all the money made in the provinces is sent to Pyongyang,” said a separate Ryanggang Province-based source. “They say that the central government just wants to ensure that Pyongyang and its residents are doing well, even if people living in the provinces starve to death.”

She also pointed out that North Korea’s system is structured so that the Supreme Leader’s (Kim Jong Un) orders are a priority and that this system ensures that the country’s resources are not distributed fairly.

The current system is also highly inefficient in how the authorities implement policies.

“Crackdowns by the authorities in the markets have increased lately and there are a lot more things that they are telling us not to do,” said an additional source based in North Hamgyong Province. “For example, manufactured products from China are cheaper than those made in the DPRK, but the authorities are cracking down on markets that try to sell Chinese items.”

The crackdown on Chinese products appears to be part of efforts by the authorities to carry out Kim Jong Un’s orders to restrict the sale of foreign items to ensure more domestically-produced items are sold. However, the state is essentially focusing on carrying out Kim’s orders rather than showing concern for ordinary people’s inability to afford North Korean products.

In recent months, the state has also moved to restrict phone calls made by North Koreans in a wider crackdown on the spread of information over its borders.

“Who will buy North Korean stuff if it’s so expensive? In any case, the materials used to make North Korean products are all Chinese so why are they cracking down on Chinese goods?” the source opined.

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to