South Korean rice for sale in North Korea’s markets as inspections ease

Fruit from China for sale in a market in Hyesan
Fruit from China for sale in a market in Hyesan. Image: Kang Dong Wan

Rice labeled with South Korea as the place of origin is being openly sold in North Korea’s markets. The bags are clearly labelled ‘Republic of Korea’ and bear the name of the district in South Korea where it was grown, according to sources inside the country.

“In front of a vendor stall, there’s a sign that reads ‘Rice from the plains of Honam’. It means the rice is from South Korea,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK. Honam is the largest rice-growing region in South Korea and North Korean merchants are openly displaying the name.

“Republic of Korea is written on the rice bags and they also state whether they’re from Seoul or the rural areas. Rumors usually precede the arrival of South Korean rice in the market, which happens occasionally,” said the source.

However, it has yet to be confirmed whether the South Korean rice circulating in North Korea’s markets is actually from the South. Some merchants may simply be trying to make more money by falsely claiming the place of origin, as products from South Korea are often preferred.

“It’s more expensive than rice from China, but 400 won cheaper than rice from North Korea,” said the source.

As of July 15 in one market in North Pyongan Province, North Korean rice was being sold for 4800 won per kilo, while South Korean rice was at 4400 won, and Chinese rice at 4150 won.

However, poorer North Korean residents tend to buy cheaper rice, which still sells better in the markets.

The market management staff are not taking steps to prevent the merchants from selling the South Korean produce.

“They don’t crack down on it; they leave food alone. They used to be strict about it before, but from about three years ago, they started loosening up and now merchants offer South Korean rice,” said a separate source in North Pyongan Province.

He added that many of those who work in the markets have formed mutual symbiotic relationships, with rice merchants sharing inspection dates, updates and information with each other, while inspection units often give merchants forewarning before conducting a raid.

“The inspectors themselves do not want to make a fuss over rice when people are having difficulty making ends meet. As long as officials from the central government do not catch the merchants, it will be fine. If the merchants properly hide South Korean rice during a raid, then there’s no problem,” he said.

A ship loaded with South Korean rice (as food aid) awaits departure at Port Kunsan in May 2018
A ship loaded with South Korean rice (as food aid) awaits departure at Port Kunsan in May 2018. Image: Yonhap News Agency

Last week, North Korea refused to accept South Korea’s food aid–via the World Food Programme (WFP)–citing disapproval  of Seoul’s plan to conduct joint military exercise with the U.S. this month.

However, earlier this week an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said that discussions are still underway between the WFP and North Korea regarding the rice provision.

Some in North Korea are reacting cynically toward the South Korean government’s intention to send food aid. “We [North Koreans] bought rice labelled Republic of Korea at a market before. We have never received aid. Ordinary people are not expecting rice aid,” a source in Pyongyang said.

“If South Korean rice is brought into North Korea, rice prices in the markets will fall. Residents do not always eat cheap North Korean rice; they tend to buy the cheapest.”