Rising product prices dampen Chuseok holiday spirit

Many North Koreans spent less on table offerings for this year’s Chuseok festivities compared to years past. International sanctions appear to be putting a squeeze on Chinese imports into the country, while prices in the market are also on their way up, owing to rising oil costs.    
“It might be due to the international sanctions, but prices are just not going down,” one inside source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK. “In the past, prices could spike for a few days and then return to normal, but that’s not what’s happening now. So the merchants are concerned, and consumers are searching high and low for cheaper goods.” 
Unstable oil prices are also thought to be having a ripple effect throughout the economy. “Product wholesalers typically use servicha [vehicles that transport goods and people for a fee] to move their wares, so diesel and gasoline prices have an impact on product costs. If oil prices rise, product prices do as well,” the source explained.
Due to a confluence of interacting factors – the Chuseok holiday, international sanctions, a lackluster annual harvest, and oil prices – merchants are having a difficult time stabilizing prices. For these reasons, many residents do not expect prices to drop anytime soon. 
The circumstances affected the way that people prepared for the Chuseok holiday. “The cost of table offerings [used on the holiday] went up a little a few days ago, so people went around and around the markets, hunting for items that they can afford. Pork was selling for KPW 15,000 a kilo [around October 1] but two days later it was going for KPW 20,000,” a source in Ryanggang Province said.
“A lot of different foods are needed to prepare the offering table, and the prices of these – including rice, flour, soybean oil, fruit, and pork – went up. Bananas were selling for KPW 1,100 each last year, but were 1,300 this year.”
Most residents therefore opted to buy smaller quantities of the items needed for the holiday ceremony, or excluded certain ones. “Many residents used grains that they grew themselves to prepare the table this year. To reduce the amount of rice needed for the meal, some families used more potato rice cake (rather than the pure rice cake variety),” the North Hamgyong Province-based source said.
Spending on Chuseok-related items is heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. Poorer families in North Hamgyong Province are thought to have spent around KPW 60,000 (about US $7) for the meal, while better-off families could afford a setting in the KPW 120,000-200,000 range ($15-$25), and the wealthy are known to have paid between KPW 500,000-1,000,000 ($60-$120).
Both sources explained how this difference in purchasing power is reflected in the amount of food purchased for the holiday. Depending on finances, a family might buy between 2-6 kg of rice, 3-5 kg of flour, 1-3 kg of soy, 3-15 squares of tofu, and 2-6 types of fruit. Some families decided not to buy pork, while other families bought as much as 5 kg of the pricey meat. 
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. Many of her articles are featured in the Jangmadang section of the Daily NK website. She has been interviewed by the New York Times and LA Times, among others, and is a contributor on North Korea issues for TBS and KBS.