DPRK farm life worsens on market price instability

Institutie for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 10-08-25-1

The quality of life among North Korea’s agricultural workers has reportedly worsened sharply in recent times. It appears that the aftermath of last November’s currency reform measure has finally reached as far as the farmhouse. According to a report by the group Daily NK, in the town of Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, only 4~5 families per neighborhood unit (around 30 families) manage to eat rice, in the way of ‘corn rice’, three times per day. Most households eat boiled ears of corn or gruel-like corn soup.

While it was thought that the currency reforms would ease the food shortages of farming households, their lives have grown more difficult due to the sudden fluctuations of market prices, driving down the number of farmers able to sell their yields at market. In the Onsong market, rice sold for an average of 1050 won per kilogram on August 20. Compared to the beginning of the month, prices were down approximately 100 won, but are still more than twice as high as just a few months ago. This is, in part, due to the foreign currency exchange rate. One Chinese Yuan is trading for 215 North Korean won.

Actually, North Korean farmers were about the only beneficiaries of the currency reform. Last December saw the biggest public distribution of goods ever. Commerce was up around 15~20 percent over the year prior. In addition, follow-up measures allowed families to collect 10,000-20,000 won each. However, as market prices became increasingly unstable during the first half of this year, it became harder for farmers to sell their goods. Because rice prices would double or triple, then drop again, month after month, it was difficult for a farmer to take 20~30 kilograms of corn to market and get the price they wanted. On top of this, the price of household goods was climbing, driving up the cost of living.

In North Korea, all farmers are obligated to work on cooperative farms, but are also allowed private plots to raise goods for supplementary income. Therefore, when they have an opportunity, most make their way to a local market to sell their goods. The regime considers this ‘supplementary’ income, but actually, the money earned from this practice is what most live off of, using profits from their corn sales to buy other food or necessities. For these farmers, not only is it difficult to sell their crops, but circumstances make it tough even to harvest them. In the case of one farmer in Onsong who works a 1500 pyong private plot, he harvests approximately three tons of corn per year. As those at the cooperative farm receive only 300 kilograms of corn in rations, three tons is not an insignificant amount. However, due to the cost of fertilizer, bribes to authorities, bribes to inspectors, etc., he is left with only around one ton. With fertilizer shortages this spring, considerably less fertilizer was available for private plots.

Even if the farmer saw yields similar to last fall, at today’s prices, he would be able to make only around 500,000 won. This is little more than the 40,000 won/month market traders can make. Farmers with plots of only 500~600 pyong have an even more difficult time. A source explained, “As stories of growing starvation in Kangwon Province spread, people are becoming more distraught,” and, “a family of four lives off of gruel made from one kilogram of potatoes or corn per day.”


One Response to “DPRK farm life worsens on market price instability”

  1. Mike Saunders says:

    I’m a little confused about the ‘only 500,000 won’ remark. Is this new won or old won? If it is new won, then isn’t this quite a lot? The currency revaluation supposedly limited life savings to 3,000 won… which means 40,000/month is quite a lot if you take life savings to mean ‘saving up over many years’. I’m wondering what the income for people such as factory workers would be like, for a comparison.

    Converting 500,000 won into USD is only about $300 using the quoted Yuan exchange rate. If this how the market is really trading then the situation is extremely dire, but its really hard to tell without more information about other workers.