Back to the 90s, “Grass Porridge”

Daily NK
Kim Young Jin
9/26/2006

September, once again prices of rice rising in Jangmadang, North Korea.

At Sunam markets in Chungjin, North Hamkyung province:

1Kg rice=1,400 won ($0.46) . This is the highest prices have reached.
1kg of corn is a high 450 won.

The districts within North Hamkyung province such as Onsung, Hoiryeong and Musan are no different.

1kg rice at Onsung and Hoiryeong averages 1,200won ($0.40) and has risen to 1,300won at Musan. On average corn is costing 380~400won per kilo.

Although autumn harvest has begun throughout all of North Korea, the cost of food at Jangmadang continues to rise and the common North Korean experiences greater difficulties as a result of food shortage. Defectors have informed that poverty has become so severe in North Hamkyung province that the nightmares of mass starvation in the mid-90’s is once again tormenting a laborer’s dinner table with the reappearance of ‘grass porridge.’

On 23rd September, defector Choi Soon Nyu (pseudonym, 58, Chungjin, North Hamkyung province) came to China passing through Hoiryeong. She said “At Sunam markets in Chungjin, the price of rice has risen to 1,400won per kilo and corn has even reached 400won per kilo. Poor laborers have resorted to putting pig’s fodder into corn porridge to suffice a meal and the number of people eating grass porridge is growing.”

A tourist Jang Ha Cheol (pseudonym, Dancheon, North Hamkyung province) who entered China on 14th September through China’s Tuman customs said “In the districts of North Hamkyung rice surpassed 1,000won per kilo in July. Since the end of August, rice at Jangmadang in Dancheon and Chungjin averaged 1,300won per kilo.”

The current cost of rice nearing 1,400won per kilo at Chungjin Jangmadang is a record breaking figure. Mr. Han, an activist who has been working for 5 years at an NGO which supports defectors in China said “On the basis of information gathered through consultations with defectors for the past 3 years, it can be said that the current cost of rice at Chungjin is the highest ever in history.”

Mr. Han explained “Even during the ‘Special period’ last October where North Korean authorities strictly controlled selling food at Jangmadang, trade amongst the people did not exceed 1,000won per kilo of rice. Normally when autumn harvest begins in late September, food wholesalers and foreign marketers at Jangmadang release their units of rice kept in storage and so the cost of rice generally tends to have a depreciating effect.”

“Living costs” simultaneously escalate

North Koreans discuss amongst themselves that soon a ‘2,000won ($0.66) rice period’ will come, further raising feelings of anxiety.

Park Sung Cheol (pseudonym, 41, Gilju, North Hamkyung province) who defected to China on 17th September said “There is not a single person who is worried that they will be unable to afford rice as the costs continue to rise. In any case the staple diet for the people is corn. However, if the cost of rice rises then the cost of corn will rise accordingly and general living costs will rise also. As a result, escalating rice prices is not only a basic issue of food costs but a coupling indication that living standards will only get tighter.”

In actual, the general cost of living in North Korea is simultaneously on the rise. Pork in North Hamkyung province which averaged 2,300~2,800won per kilo in the recent spring is now nearing 4,000won (1.33). It appears that within half a year, the cost has risen no less than 60%. Corn oil and spices are averaging similar standards.

In regards to the recent ‘Skyrocketing rice prices at Jangmadang’ in North Korea, NGO’s and defectors in China are conjecturing “This year, as a result of negative farming produce and tightening of regulations by North Korean authorities after the missile launch, it seems that insecurity is lurking within North Korea and hence strategically, food that was kept in storage by food wholesalers, foreign markets and the military is not being sold at Jangmadang.”

Above all, talks coming from within North Korea suggest that compared to last year, this year food output will be regulated on a large scale.

North Korean citizens are forecasting a negative harvest as in the provinces of Pyongnam and Hwanghae, rice harvest failed due to the flood last summer and even in North Hamkyung province where corn farming is prevalent, drought has continuously soiled the area since spring. As a result, it is estimated that the harvest output this year will not even surmount 40% compared to the previous year.

In addition, since the missile launch on July 5th, North Korean authorities have been indicating that “All military families should independently prepare for 90 days of wartime rationing.” “Workers in official departments and transportation business should independently prepare for 30 days of wartime rationing.” As a result, concerns are rising within North Korea as these orders resemble the measures of policy control during the period of nuclear threat in ’93.

For these reasons defectors and NGO’s analyze that the ‘Big Hand’ at Jangmadang maneuvered by food wholesalers, foreign markets and the military are safekeeping rice in storage and watching the price of rice surge even though the harvest season has arrived.

A missionary Jung working in China said “According to testimonies of recent defectors, excluding North Korean companies collaborating with foreign movements based in China, merely 20% of locations are distributing rations despite making quotas. It is estimated that more than 70% of workers are being neglected and not receiving any rations.”

He further remarked “As long as half the nation’s distribution and companies and are in possession of a months necessary rations, only 5% of laborers will ever receive it.”

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