Conversations from North Korea – Economy
We spoke with a North Korean citizen living in Musan, North Hamkyung Province. We talk about the market economy of North Korea and the lives of North Korean citizens in the area.
How are living standards among North Korean citizens in recent times?
Things are still bad. But the majority of residents have different strategies used to overcome hardship. The North Korean government may offer incentives in return for obedient labour, but may don’t trust the state. We have a saying that any people who were destined to die have already died during the Arduous March.
Now, people manage to get by using whatever means possible. There are still those who die of starvation. But people who die like that nowadays do not get any pity. Because now, if you work hard for yourself, you can avoid death by starvation. This attitude is the outcome for those who managed to survive through the Arduous March.
The State Security Department, and other Party organs, continue their surveillance and inspections. Any economic activities that involve moving large amounts of money are under their constant surveillance. Any North Korean individual who has a large amount of money is deemed to have gained those funds through illegal means. So these people keep State Security agents and high-ranking officials on their side, and use these relationships to further their economic status.
On the other hand, most North Koreans here live almost hand-to-mouth. To get by, many rely on selling food, manufactured goods, groceries, seafood, mountain herbs or manning food stalls to make money. It is easiest to make profit by running a foodstall. This brings bigger profits for comparatively little capital. In border areas like Musan, Hyesan and Onseong, smuggling and brokering are very popular ways to earn a living.
What are the trading conditions and prices like?
There aren’t too many state-approved marketplaces. If you want to rent a stall in a state-approved marketplace, a set percentage of your earnings must be offered to the government. Traders prefer to lay out their goods in bustling areas, where there are more customers. We call these grasshopper markets. Authorities are constantly pouncing on these grasshopper market traders to impound their goods. But the people still prefer these kinds of marketplaces, because of their lower prices.
The price of rice has fluctuated the most recently. In April it was 4500 Won, in May it was 5000 Won, and in June it inflated to 6000 Won. The price of rice determines the price of other goods as well. The cost of living is quite high at the moment.
How is the electricity supply and provision nowadays?
Not good. Electricity provision is more important than food rations. North Korean people want nothing more than to try using electricity uninterrupted for twenty-four hours. Television reports everyday that a power plant facility is being constructed to improve the situation but so far, no changes can be seen for us.
Mass imports of batteries from China are all the rage. But they are quite expensive. Some people make a living by charging batteries for a sum. There are people who connect to power in government buildings and leech their electricity. If this is discovered by the State Security, these people have to be ready to suffer immense punishment. Bribing relevant authorities to secure this kind of electricity is possible for those who can do so.
This year, a public declaration was made that the use of electricity without government consent would not be tolerated. The penalty includes execution.
What is the diet of ordinary people like nowadays?
People are not eating rice gruel everyday like they used to. As long as there is one breadwinner in the family, a market trader, you can eat corn or rice and have three meals a day. People who work in offices or state enterprises can generally also eat their fill, as long as they are prudent about it.
What you might call the middle class in North Korea, they eat white rice with corn kernels for many meals. We call this 5:5 or 7:3 rice, according to how much corn and rice is mixed. Among children, they make friendship groups differently according to the ratio sometimes.
Meanwhile, those families who have cabbage kimchi with their meals in the summer can be considered the affluent class, or the families of government officials. In North Korea, cabbages are usuaully seen in winter. But only officials can afford cabbages in every season, cultivated in greenhouses.
Reporting by Lee, Cheol-Mu.
Read in Korean.