Life Without Money

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

For decades, money did not really matter in the North Korean economy and society. Levels of consumption were not determined by money expended, but rather by access to goods. Everything was distributed, and almost nothing was actually sold, at least from the 1970s when the Public Distribution system reached the height of its power.

Indeed, the history of the North Korean retail industries between 1948 and 1975 was one of a gradual demise of trade as it is generally known elsewhere. By the late 1940s most employees of state enterprises were being issued ration coupons. These coupons allowed them to buy goods at heavily subsidized prices. If they were not happy with them, they could go to the market.

In 1958 private trade in grain and cereals became illegal. For a while vegetables and meat were not rationed, but the number of items subject to distribution kept increasing, and by around 1975 the state shops had actually become nothing but outlets of the PDS. It was legal to buy and sell most goods on the market (grain and liquor remained an exception), however the North Korean economy was so structured that few goods could be produced outside the official economy. For this reason few goods could be channeled to the private markets. Thus, market prices were exorbitant, and people had to survive on what was supplied through the PDS.

However, the economic disaster and famine of 1996-2000 changed this situation. Markets began to spread across the country with amazing speed. In the years 1995-1997 nearly all plants and factories ceased to operate. In the worst period, in early 1997, the average utilization of major plants was reportedly a mere 46 percent of their capacity.

In most areas people still received ration coupons, but these coupons often could not be exchanged for food. Only in Pyongyang and some other politically important areas did food continue to be distributed through the late 1990s, but even here the norms were dramatically reduced: from the pre-crisis level of 500-700 grams a day (depending on one’s perceived value to the state) to merely 150-250 grams daily in the worst days of the famine. Even such small rations were not available to everybody. According to research by Meredith Woo-Cumings, as few as 6 percent of the entire population relied on the PDS in 1997.

Thus, many people, including myself, came to the conclusion that the PDS had died. This impression was reinforced in 2002 when the `economy improvement measures’ (never officially called `reforms’) were introduced. Then it was normally supposed by outside observers that consumption needs would be satisfied through markets.

But in 2004 and early 2005 new data emerged from the ever secretive North. It became clear that the Public Distribution System had not been dismantled. Indeed, it made a moderate comeback, largely due to foreign food aid which was largely channeled through the PDS.

Of course, the PDS does not even remotely reach its earlier ubiquitous levels. According to the FAO, the U.N. food and agriculture agency, in early 2005 the Public Distribution System was “the main source of cereals for the 70 percent of the population living in urban areas.’’ Farmers do not get food from the PDS. During the period November 2003 through October 2004, the average actual allocation through the PDS was about 305 grams, representing about half of a person’s daily needs. According to the World Food Program, in early 2005 rations were cut down to 250 grams per person per day — 40 percent of the internationally recommended minimum.

In October 2005 the North Korean government told its populace that the PDS would be re-started soon. So far, it seems that in Pyongyang the PDS indeed works at the 1990 level, but outside the capital the market remains the only place to find food.

In such a situation, the ability and willingness to engage in private business became a major guarantor of physical survival. A witty local observer described the situation in post-famine North Korea: “Those who could not trade are long dead, and we are only left with survivors hanging around now.’’

The major coping mechanisms are support from relatives in the countryside, wild food collection, and kitchen garden production. According to an FAO survey undertaken in late 2004, 57 percent of the PDS dependent population and “nearly all’’ farmers have kitchen gardens; about 60 to 80 percent of PDS dependents and 65 percent of coop-farmers gather wild foods; and 40 percent of surveyed households receive some support from relatives in the countryside (either as gifts or as part of barter deals).

It is important that farmers are allocated far larger rations, about 219 kilograms of cereals a year or 600 grams a day. They also have larger kitchen plots and can sometimes hide some additional food from hillside cultivation which is less strictly controlled by the state. According to the FAO estimates, kitchen gardens alone give the average farming household some 10 percent of its income.

As has been the case for decades, only a part of rations come as rice. Barley and maize, far less nutritious, comprise a large proportion of cereal consumption. The North Koreans’ approach to maize is clear from the fact that the rice/maize barter ratio is 1/2: for one kilogram of rice one expects to get two kilos of maize, and vice versa. In the period from September 2003 to September 2004 maize accounted for about half of all cereals distributed through the PDS.

But why is the PDS necessary, or why is it not possible to get rid of it altogether? The answer to this question is largely political and, as our readers guess, this will be another story.


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