With public discontent rising as prices of imported items skyrocket following North Korea’s closure of the Sino-North Korean border due to COVID-19, Pyongyang has recently increased imports of Chinese consumer goods, Daily NK has learned.

As imports of some items still face limitations, however, prices continue to soar, in some cases to 100 times what they were prior to the closure of the border.

According to a source in Yanggang Province on Thursday, Chinese industrial goods such as TVs and rice cookers have been hard to find in North Korean markets since the closure of the border, as have been consumer goods like cosmetics, detergents and stationery supplies.

Moreover, even if you can find Chinese goods in the markets, prices are reportedly so high due to the lack of imports that ordinary people cannot buy them.

A bottle of Chinese shampoo was RMB 30 (about USD 4.65) prior to the closure of the border. However, that price recently skyrocketed to RMB 800 (around USD 123).

Even Chinese cosmetics are selling for RMB 1,200 (USD 185), despite North Koreans preferring better quality South Korean brands.

The source said even the price of previously ubiquitous Chinese pens has soared over 100 fold. “However, since there aren’t any, you can’t find them in markets,” he added. 

In response, North Korean authorities imported several Chinese foodstuff items in high public demand for the first time this year in August. 

grasshopper market exchange rate
A “grasshopper market,” or unofficial market, in a village near Pyongyang. / Image: Posted online by a Chinese blogger named Lóng Wǔ*Láng Zhī Wěn (龙五*狼之吻 )

According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA)’s report on North Korean trade published late last month, North Korea imported sugar, cooking oil and seasonings from China in August, but this had little impact on market prices. 

In Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province — a region in North Korea’s interior — sugar cost KPW 23,600 in September, seasonings cost KPW 175,000, and cooking oil cost KPW 24,300. In the border city of Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, sugar cost KPW 17,000, seasonings cost KPW 120,000, and cooking oil cost KPW 25,000. Generally, these prices were similar or slightly higher than those of the previous month.

The report said North Korean trade with China has continuously increased for three months, but that trade was still limited to a few specific items. It also said it appeared the imported items had yet to hit markets or were quantitatively insufficient to satisfy market demand.

According to Daily NK’s own reporting, the number of North Koreans complaining of malnutrition due to lack of foodstuffs such as cooking oil has skyrocketed during the protracted border closure.

North Korea’s recent expansion of imports of foodstuffs from China is apparently a response to this situation.

However, with North Korea continuing to restrict trade to mostly state trading companies dealing in predetermined items and totals, observers believe the increase in trade will not result in publicly tangible price decreases.

Another source in North Korea said party policy is to maintain the current trade restrictions until the end of the year. “Imports could increase depending on the item, but it will be tough to boost imports so that people can actually feel it,” he added.

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.