North Korea Reinstates Controls on Grain Sales

Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick
10/3/2005

North Korea Reinstates Controls on Grain Sales Rice and other foods will be distributed by the government and banned at markets.

Rolling back some of its economic reforms, North Korea is banning the sale of rice and other grains at private markets and strengthening its old communist-style public distribution system under which all citizens are supposed to get rations, aid groups and North Korea experts say.

The changes were supposed to be implemented Oct. 10, a holiday in North Korea marking the 60th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party. But reports from the World Food Program office in Pyongyang, the capital, indicate that merchants have been told already that they can no longer sell grain.

The United Nations agency said in a statement on its website that “as of Oct. 1, reports are that cereal sales in the markets will cease and public distribution centers will take over countrywide distribution.”

North Korea experts say the moves do not necessarily indicate an abrupt U-turn in the impoverished country’s economic policies, so much as concern that change was taking place too quickly.

“I think it is a transitional necessity. You can’t move too fast into free—market economics without softening the blow for people who have grown up in a planned economy,” Richard Ragan, who heads the World Food Program office in Pyongyang, said in a recent telephone interview. “This is not that different from what you saw happening in China in the 1990s.”

Lee Young Hwa, a Japan—based human rights worker who has close contacts with traders at the Chinese—North Korean border, believes the new restrictions on markets are designed to boost the power of the Workers’ Party and curb the role of the military in the economy.

“The military people control the food sold at the market. Nobody else has the trucks or the access to gasoline to move food around the country. The leadership fears that their economic reforms aren’t working because everything is controlled by the military, and they want to take back control,” Lee said.

For years, there have been accusations that the military was pilfering humanitarian shipments of rice and other aid, keeping the best for its own and selling the rest at markets. Secretly taped video footage obtained last year by human rights workers shows apparently unopened sacks of rice given by the U.S. and other donors being sold illegally at a market in the northern city of Chongjin.

On the open market, a pound of rice costs 15 to 25 cents — an impossible sum for many North Koreans, whose average salary of $1 per month keeps them on the verge of starvation.

Under the new rules, rice, as well as other staples such as corn, is to be sold at public distribution centers at subsidized prices and in rationed quantities. Markets, which have been gradually legalized since 2002, will still be permitted to sell vegetables, produce, clothing and other goods.

Cho Myong Chol, a former North Korean economist who lives in Seoul, said he believed North Korea would continue with market reforms but at a slower pace. “Since the economic reforms in 2002, the gap between the haves and the have—nots has become so extreme that there is an imbalance that is causing social unrest and dissatisfaction. I think they needed to do something about food to keep control.”

It remains to be seen whether the changes will help ordinary North Koreans. The government recently informed U.N. aid officials that it was cutting back their operations and no longer needed large donations of rice and other foodstuffs. Experts believe North Korea is concerned about the U.N. ‘s monitoring requirements and prefers direct aid from countries such as South Korea and China, which place fewer restrictions on donations.

Until the 1990s, the public distribution system introduced by North Korean founder Kim Ii Sung was the hallmark of a nation that claimed to provide its people with everything from rice to shoes. But the system collapsed in the early l990s, exacerbating a famine that killed an estimated 2 million people — about 10% of the population. The public distribution system still operates, but at reduced capacity.

Although North Koreans today buy much of what they need at markets, the government doesn’t like to admit it and insists that the cradle—to—grave system of social welfare remains.

“We are still a communist country. Nothing has changed. I get everything I need through the public distribution system,” said Yoon So Jung, 25, a guide interviewed last week at Mt. Kumgang, one of the few areas of the country open for tourism.

But pressed about her pink windbreaker, Yoon admitted hesitantly, “Well that, I bought at the market.”

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