North Korea’s antique food rationing

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

Travelers’ tales told by those who escape to South Korea are among the only sources of information about North Korea. And now, those who make their way to the South are talking about the end of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the rationing system that was supposed to ensure food security. No more.

When in 2002 the North Korean government introduced what the foreign media chose to describe as “reform measures”, one of the components of new policy was a dramatic reduction of the PDS. However, from reports about the so-called “1st of July measures”, many foreign readers and and observers got an impression that the PDS was introduced by Pyongyang during escalating food shortages some time in the early 1990s. This was not the case. As a matter of fact, the PDS has been a quintessential feature of North Korean life for many decades.

To some extent, this reflected a peculiarity of the centrally planned economy. In such an economy, prices are fixed, so demands and supply cannot be balanced by price fluctuation in a “natural” way as in a market economy. Therefore, governments that adopted central planning nearly always had to step in and start deciding how to distribute scarce goods. But in most communist countries, only the more prestigious and valuable goods were subject to rationing and distribution. In the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the comprehensive rationing system ceased to operate in the late 1940s, although from the 1970s it was partially reborn under the pressure of mounting economic problems. In most communist countries of Eastern Europe, food was no longer rationed from around 1950.

In North Korea, rationing was first introduced in 1946, initially only for the employees of state companies. By the mid-1950s, this group of beneficiaries included 3 million to 3.4 million people, a majority of the entire population at the time, according to a Soviet intelligence report. In those days, the daily rations included 600-900 grams of grain per working adult, depending on the type of job and its exertion and calorie demands. These norms were to remain essentially unchanged for the next four decades.

The Public Distribution System was augmented by free trade, conducted both at the markets and in private shops. However, in December 1957 free trade in grain was outlawed: all cereals were to be distributed through the PDS only. It seems that this ban was enforced quite efficiently, so until the late 1980s, few if any North Koreans would dare sell or buy grain on the market. In 1957-58 the authorities closed down all private shops and undertook an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of private markets as well.

Throughout the 1960s, less and less could be bought and sold freely in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Soy sauce, cabbage, radishes and other basic ingredients of Koreans’ staple food could not be bought without rationing coupons in the state shops, which eventually became distribution points rather than centers of retail. From around 1970, almost nothing except stationery and books could be purchased without producing a ration coupon. Of course, there were markets, even if in the late 1960s they were almost exterminated as well. However, markets were not flourishing, and prices there were exorbitant. Back in 1985, a chicken would cost some 40 won (at today’s exchange rate about US$18), more than half of the average monthly salary.

Meanwhile, official prices of cereals and other daily necessities were kept at a very low level, providing North Korean propaganda with good material for boasting. For decades, one kilogram of rice cost 0.08 won (over this time, the average monthly salary increased from about 50 to about 100 won). But the prices did not matter much: even if a person had money, he or she could not buy more than was allowed by the state.

Actually, trade in a normal sense of the word nearly ceased to exist in North Korea in the 1960s. As Nickolas Eberstadt, the world’s leading expert on the North Korean economy, put it: “Clearly, the medium of domestic currency was almost marginal to the operation of the DPRK economy … In this respect, the DPRK is an extreme outlier from the modern economic experience. The only other economy to come close would be Cambodia in the late 1970s, under the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, when the Pol Pot leadership simply abolished money for a time.”

Basically, every North Korean, including inmates of mushrooming prison camps, was entitled to a certain amount of cereals. The largest amount, 900g daily, was reserved for workers engaged in hard manual labor: steelworkers, miners, loggers and others. A majority of the population was entitled to a daily ration of 700g. College and high-school students were given 600g and younger students received 300-400g, depending on their age. Retirees were also entitled to 300g of cereals. The North Koreans were given some other foodstuffs – cabbage, soy sauce and other products – but in terms of nutrition almost all calories in their diet came from rice and other cereals.

The rice rations were paid every 15th day. On an established day, a family representative, usually a housewife, since it was daytime, went to the distribution center with her identification and rationing coupons for her entire family. She produced the coupons, paid the token price and then took home the rice for the next two weeks.

Rations consisted of a mix of different grains. In the 1970s, in Pyongyang rice represented as much as 70% of the allowance, but even in those relatively prosperous times, in more remote areas rations consisted entirely of corn and barley, which have fewer calories than rice – but excessive weight has never been a problem in North Korea. The proportions between rice and other less valuable kinds of grains depended largely on one’s place of residence, with Pyongyang and other major cities being most privileged.

But what about meat and fish? Well, there were no regular norms for providing these luxuries. As a rule, a family was issued about a kilogram of meat two or three times a year, normally on the eve of major holidays – especially North Korean founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Milk was provided to schoolchildren in Pyongyang in very small quantities. Sugar was dropped from the rations in the early 1970s, and since then could be bought only by lucky owners of foreign currency (for a hyper-Stalinist regime, North Korea always had a remarkably relaxed currency-control system). Admittedly, fish was more available, but still not a part of daily diet.

Liquor and tobacco were rationed as well. A commoner was entitled to have booze a few times a year, before the major official holidays. On the eve of an official holiday, commoners were issued rationing coupons that allowed them to buy one bottle of soju (a traditional Korean liquor) and three bottles of beer. In case of some family event, people had to go to a local office and petition, then they were issued “special liquor coupons”. To prove their eligibility, they had to produce an official certificate confirming that their family was indeed having a wedding or a funeral. The norm was five bottles per family.

The Public Distribution System dealt not only with foodstuffs but also with consumables. Some durables were simply outside the system – for example, refrigerators, which were seen as an ultimate luxury item, a North Korean analogue to a sports car. But some other durables, such as color television sets, were distributed to people via long waiting lists. Normally, distribution of such goods was handled by their work units, with the party secretary being in a position to deny or speed up access.

Of course, the North Korean elite took good care of themselves. The cadres were entitled to special rations that were much more generous than those accorded to the humble folk – and also included goods of higher quality.

In general, the system worked – at least as long as the North Koreans were separated from the outside world and could not compare their lives with the lives of people in more prosperous countries (actually, official propaganda insisted that there was no more prosperous country than North Korea). The private markets, even when they were finally re-legalized around 1969, remained marginal to the economy. Common people went there only on special occasions.

Actually, the ration of 700g a day might appear generous, at least concerning calories. However, even in the late 1970s, malnutrition was not unknown in North Korea. The reason is that the official 700g was increasingly a theoretical norm.

The first downsizing of the rations took place in 1973 when the country’s economic growth began to decelerate. In September 1973 it was declared that “due to the dangerous international situation” the rations would be reduced: every fortnight two daily rations would be sacrificed for the strategic reserves. In 1989 the rations were cut further – by 10%: this was necessary, the authorities explained, to prepare the country for the forthcoming International Youth Festival. In 1992 a new 10% cut was imposed. These cuts meant that on the eve of North Korea’s Great Famine of 1995-99, the average worker received less than 500g of cereals. A retiree had to subsist on 220g – not exactly a generous amount.

From 1992 the North Korean media began to explain that for better health one only had to have two meals a day (the tradition of three meals was described as excessive and unhealthy). In those times people in some remote areas could not get food. They were still issued rationing coupons, but actual delivery of rations was delayed for days, and then for weeks.

And then came the real catastrophe. In July and August 1995, unusually heavy rains led to disastrous floods. The authorities blamed the floods for all subsequent food disasters, though in fact the situation had been deteriorating from the mid-1980s.

In 1996, the country harvested some 3 million tons of grain – just above half of the pre-crisis level. In the new situation no rations could be delivered. By 1996 the distribution of food stopped throughout the countryside, with people Pyongyang and some other major cities getting half of what they used to receive in better times.

The Public Distribution System survived in some areas longer than in others. In 1999-2000 South Korean sociologists conducted a large-scale survey of North Korean defectors in China. One of the questions was “when did the PDS cease to function in your native county?” Some 23.5% said this happened in 1993 or before, 40.9% said 1994 and 31.5% told the pollsters that the rations were no longer delivered in 1995. The survey needs some correction, since most of its participants came from northern provinces that were hit much harder than central or southern parts of the country. In all probability, the nationwide result would be different, with delivery stopped in most areas around 1995 or 1996, rather than 1993 or 1994. But it was stopped in any case, and the population was left to its own devices for survival.

The collapse of the PDS in 1993-95 is remembered by most North Koreans as a turning point in their lives. The events are often described as having taken place “before the distribution ended” or “before the distribution ended”. Indeed, the end of the PDS (which was never formally abolished) heralded the start of a new life. Old certainties were gone, and nobody could take for granted even one’s own physical survival.

Markets spread across entire country, with the population engaged in trade and handicraft. The old government economy collapsed, with the country’s gross national product shrinking some 50% over a decade. And finally, in 2002, the “July reforms” heralded that the North Korean government finally admitted the situation that had existed for a few years. Retail prices of basic goods and services were increased dramatically, obviously in an attempt to approximate the market prices. Thus one kilogram of rice, which used to cost 0.08 won, has since July 2002 cost 44 won, or some 550 times as much. Wages have risen as well. It was estimated that the average increase in wages has been approximately 2,500% (that is, 25 times). At the same time, prices have increased 30-40 times.

These changes were widely interpreted as a sign of reforms. They can be better described as a reluctant admission of the facts that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and his government could not possibly change.

Perhaps the fate of the Public Distribution System is yet another confirmation of this collapsing state of affairs. When in the spring of 2004 the South Korean media printed reports about complete abolition of the system, the North Korean officials denied this. However, nowadays the PDS operates only in major urban centers inhabited by more privileged groups – exactly as it did from around 1996. These groups have to be kept content, and they are still enjoying access to some amount of almost free food.

And what about others, the majority of the population? They have to go to the markets even if a monthly salary of a university professor is not sufficient to buy seven kilograms of rice. But nobody in North Korea lives on official salary these days. Well, almost nobody – apart from the privileged few who receive high salaries, often in hard currency. Paradoxically, they are often the people who still can use the Public Distribution System.


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