To overcome ‘barley hump’, necessity is the mother of invention

This is “NK Market Trends,” bringing you
weekly updates on the North Korean economy. For the third week of March, we
have reporter Seol Song Ah joining us for the show. One of the things we’d like
to look at is how North Koreans are doing in light of the stronger
international sanctions from the international community. March also brings with it the so-called “barley hump” that occurs before
the rice and corn is harvested in July and August, and we’re eager to know how residents are coping. 

Right. According to the cycle of nature,
March is when everything comes back to life and spring begins. I was listening
to a song called “Cherry Blossom Ending” today on the way to work, and it made
me feel really good. But, I don’t think you’ll be seeing a lot of North Koreans
humming songs like “Cherry Blossom Ending.” It’s more of a time where the only thing you can think about is getting over the “barley hump.”

This is the case not only in the cities but
in rural areas as well. In March, people don’t even have kimchi, and so they have to worry about scrounging up side dishes to eat. Of
course, in the case of donju [newly affluent middle class], they can just buy what
they need at the markets, but there really aren’t a lot of rich people in any given
city in North Korea. So, today, I’d like to introduce you to some side dishes that people in
the central areas prepare around this time of the year.

So for people in the South, March may be a
month of “Cherry Blossom Ending” but it’s more about side dish worries for
those in the North. I remember even during my grandmother’s generation, people
had to start being conservative with their food in March because of the “barley
hump,” but I’ve never had to go through that.

I had also heard from my parents that back
in the 1960s conditions in the North used to be better, but if you told the
current generation that now they would wonder what you’re even talking about.
Especially for North Koreans who have to worry about how to get by every day,
March signals the start of poverty. You have to earn money to put rice in your
husband’s bowl and mixed grains in your children’s bowl; as a mother and wife in North Korea, it’s just… ineffable how it feels to not have side dishes to put on the table.

Households that do slightly better in the
North are able to pickle some radishes while they do kimjang [making and
sharing of kimchi] in the winter, but most people aren’t able to do so. Market
vendors that are able to anticipate this demand in the spring, invest a bit of
seed money during the fall season to pickle radishes and then sell them in
March. One kilogram of these radishes sells for about 1,000 KPW at the markets.

It’s not all that expensive compared to
rice, so in the spring it becomes the most popular side dish. If you buy a
kilo, a three- or four-person family can enjoy it for about two days. You can
either just wash the radish in cold water and slice it up into pieces or
families that have some seasoning will mix it in with the radish. Some other
dishes people can easily enjoy are dwenjang jijim (soybean paste pancakes) and
geondengi jjim (steamed brined shrimp).

I can almost imagine what a dining table in
the North would look like in the spring. I’ve never heard of dwenjang jijim.
Geondengi jjim also sounds interesting.  

Dwenjang (soybean paste) is rare in the
North. Homes that were able to make meju (fermented blocks of soybeans) in
the winter would be busy making dwenjang with it by March, but this does not apply to most people. The bulk of residents head to the markets and buy 1kg of dwenjang to eat little by little. These conditions gave birth to a uniquely North Korean dish called dwenjang jiji. You mix
water into some flour and add a few spoons of dwenjang and salt. Then you cook
the batter on a pan and cut it out into little biscuit shapes. A plate of that
on the table is a sign that you have a frugal homemaker in the kitchen.

The same goes for geondengi jjim. You buy a
kilogram at the market and then place it in an aluminum bowl and put it in the
middle when you’re cooking rice. If you have an egg that you can mix in, it
tastes really good, but that’s a luxury for many. Even if all you have is this
steamed shrimp, if you mix it in with your cornmeal and rice, it tastes great.
It’s also cheap, so it helps you not worry too much about side dishes in the
spring. One kilogram of factory-made dwenjang or brined shrimp is said to fetch
around 1,200 to 2,000 KPW.

How’s the taste of the factory stuff in comparison?

Well, there’s kong
dwenjang, which is made with leftover bean scraps after extracting the oil, and
then there’s gangnaengi dwenjang that’s made using ground corn kernels for
animal feed. The rural factory-made dwenjang variants don’t taste very good, but they’re cheap
so people eat them often. The dwenjang made with soybeans by individuals tastes
much better, so when it’s sold in the market it costs about twice that of
factory-made dwenjang.  

Of course, what’s produced in Pyongyang
food factories tastes much different. So Pyongyang gochujang (chili paste) or
kong dwenjang made at the Pyongyang Songsin dwenjang factory is not like what’s
made in provincial factories. You can think of it as dwenjang made for cadres, donju [newly affluent middle class], and Pyongyang residents.

I can’t even begin to understand a society
that ends up having different dwenjang for different classes. How about kimchi?
What do people do about it during the “barley hump”?

It’s not like you can’t eat it at all. You
won’t get winter kimchi, but there are types you can get in the spring. Dallae
(wild chives) kimchi is one of the popular ones. In areas like the Pyongan
Provinces, March is the season for dallae. Some people only dig up dallae and
sell it in the markets. It’s not sold by the kilo but instead in smaller

If you go in the evening right before the market is about to close, you
can get a good amount for about 500 KPW. You can slice up a radish, season it
with salt along with the dallae and then add some water to it after it’s taken
the salt a bit. This makes it mulkimchi (non-spicy kimchi with water). You can
get a good deal out of your money, and it’s a nice refreshing dish, so it’s a
good treat in the spring. 

There’s also mumallengi (seasoned dried radish) that
you can make by buying some dried radish at the market, soaking it in some
water, and then adding some chili powder and spices. Once you hit mid-April,
you start getting vegetables from small plots, so these are the main dishes
people will eat until they reach that period.

We learned a lot about what people do to
get by and what they put on the table in the spring. As we close, we’ll get a
look at the market prices in the North.

We’ll start off with last week’s rice
prices, the foreign exchange rate, and other price movements. Some markets are
showing minor upticks in prices after international sanctions kicked in, but
there aren’t that many reported changes. The price of 1 kg of rice was 5,100
KPW in Pyongyang, 5,150 KPW in Sinuiju, and 5,080 KPW in Hyesan. The cost of 1
kg of corn kernels was 2,200 KPW in Pyongyang, 2,190 KPW in Sinuiju, and 2,300
KPW in Hyesan.

The USD was trading at 8,150 KPW in
Pyongyang, 8,200 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,170 KPW in Hyesan. The Renminbi was
trading at 1,300 KPW in Pyongyang, 1,290 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1,270 KPW in
Hyesan–a little lower than last week. Moving along, 1 kg of pork was selling
at 11,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 12,000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 11,700 KPW in Hyesan.
Gasoline was trading at 7,100 KPW per kg in Pyongyang, 7,160 KPW in Sinuiju,
and 7,200 KPW in Hyesan. Finally, 1 kg of diesel fuel was selling at 5,450 KPW
in Pyongyang, and 5,300 KPW in Sinuiju and 5,200 KPW in Hyesan. This has been a
rundown of the latest market prices in North Korea.

*This segment reflects market conditions for the week of March 14-18.