Rice prices in North Korean markets are reportedly holding steady, despite the prolonged economic slump brought on by tougher quarantine measures to combat COVID-19.

The Daily NK’s continuous tracking of market prices confirmed that, as of Oct. 12, the price of one kilogram of rice in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan stood at KPW 4,500, KPW 4,470 and KPW 4,750, respectively. This is about where the prices stood at the end of January (KPW 4,520, KPW 4,500 and KPW 4,650 on Jan. 27), prior to the closing of the border. 

With trade being suspended due to COVID-19, rice prices briefly surged as high as KPW 5,600 in February and March but began stabilizing from May. From a macroeconomic perspective, little has changed.

With prices of rice stabilizing, the price of other items – with the exception of some home electronics and Chinese-made seasonings – are also returning to where they were prior to the closing of the border.

“Prices in the market did fluctuate due to the suspension of trade and the tightened quarantine against COVID-19, but at the end of the day, items are trading at their previous prices,” a source in Yanggang Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Among the reasons for the stable prices is aggressive action by the authorities.

When the supply of items in the markets fell sharply and few had any idea when products might return, merchants began raising prices. The rumor, however, is that market authorities pressured the merchants, warning that their goods would be seized if they raised prices. This meant that sellers had no choice but to fall in line.

Merchant cell phone
A North Korean merchant using a cell phone at a local market. / Image: Daily NK

It seems North Koreans’ falling purchasing power due to “economic difficulties caused by COVID-19″ has played a part, too.

Describing the mood on the ground, the source said, “Families are tending to avoid purchases, so some merchants appear to be trying to sell their wares cheaply rather than just holding on to them.”

He further noted that, “What merchants have learned over dozens of years is that the faster you sell off your inventory, the better it is for making money. A growing number of merchants believe it’s better to sell a lot at a reasonable price because items don’t sell well when they are expensive.”

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

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Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.