With North Korean leader Kim Jong Un emphasizing a “complete” solution to the nation’s food problems during the recent Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee, local grain prices have apparently been relatively stable as of late. Within North Korea, there is even talk that state-run food shops are playing a role in stabilizing grain prices. 

According to a survey of multiple Daily NK sources on Jan. 11, a kilogram of rice cost KPW 4,500 in Pyongyang, KPW 4,600 in Sinuiju and KPW 4,700 in Hyesan. This was about KPW 100 more than it was in each region half a month ago on Dec. 27, but still within the KPW 4,000 – 5,000 range.

Of course, grain prices stabilize every year between the start of the harvest in October and the Lunar New Year the following year; compared to previous years, however, the price of rice was relatively less volatile between last fall and the present. 

Between October 2020 and the end of January 2021, the price of rice continued to fluctuate between KPW 3,500 and 5,000.

Not only did the price fluctuate by KPW 1,000 a kilogram over 15 day periods, but regional prices differed by up to KPW 1,000, too.

In contrast, rice prices per region have been falling relatively smoothly between last October to the present, while regional price differentials are just KPW 100 to 500.

Corn prices, too, have been smoothly fluctuating by just KPW 100 to 200 from KPW 2,000 a kilogram between October and the present.

As of Jan. 11, a kilogram of corn cost KPW 2,200 in Pyongyang, KPW 2,150 in Sinuiju, and KPW 2,400 in Hyesan.

Prices have increased since November of last year, but not sharply as of yet.

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 )

Meanwhile, North Koreans are reportedly saying that state food shops have played a positive role in stabilizing grain prices, at least to a certain extent.

Sources in North Korea say the state has apparently prevented market prices from steeply climbing by selling rice and corn at set prices through the food shops. While some people complained about the state’s attempt to control food prices at first, more people praise the shops now, they claimed. 

Unified Command 82, the unit tasked with curbing so-called “anti-socialist and non-socialist” activity, has also apparently played a role in stabilizing grain prices by cracking down on grain merchants engaged in hoarding or profiteering. 

However, just how well the state food shops can perform their function and role will become clearer after March and April, when the so-called “barley hump” begins.

This is because the state food shops can prevent market prices from rising by selling rice and corn at low prices when supply shortages lead to price hikes.

Grain merchants speculate that grain prices may increase from the end of January, when preparations begin for the Day of the Shining Star, the holiday marking the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. This is because demand for grain spikes to produce candy, oil, alcohol, and other gifts for the holiday.

One merchant told Daily NK that even if the state food shops say they will sell rice and corn at lower-than-market prices, they will not be able to do so when warehouses have no rice. He said the time will come when the state cannot sell food even when prices are rising unless, of course, the country receives food imports from China.

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.