How corn in North Korea became a staple

Wednesday 19th October, 2016

With its multiple uses – food, currency, and alcohol – corn is an indispensable part of the ordinary North Korean citizen’s life. An insight into corn and the unofficial economy in North Korea. 

The price of rice in rural regions along the Amnok River separating China and North Korea has soared recently due to the recent flood disaster in North Hamkyung Province.

According to an inside source in North Korea, “High quality grain sold in Hyesan averaged about 5500 won [per kilo] previously, now increased by 150 won. Lesser quality rice usually costing 4600 won has risen to 4800 won. Traders around Musan and Hoeryeong are on the move to purchase large amounts of rice at the moment. Thanks to mobile phone technology, they can check fluctuations in the price of rice in each province constantly. People expect that the price will not fall even during autumn.” Autumn is when rice should be most abundant.

Not only has rice risen, but so has corn, he said: “In Hyesan markets, corn usually priced at 1150 to 1200 won is now 1350 won. Flour ground from corn has also risen by 100 won. Households that bulk buy corn flour to brew alcohol have seen this as an opportunity to sell their pre-purchased flour in the markets.”

Corn flour that is uncharacteristically white has been making appearances all around the markets in Hyesan. The correspondent explained, “People say that it’s a new kind of powder pulverised from white corn, but the reaction from consumers have been so far negative. It doesn’t produce as much alcohol as the original corn flour, which is yellow in colour. What is odd is that when one actually does pulverise white corn through a machine, the flour is glutinous, and is quite tasty when eaten with rice. There are rumours amongst the traders that the white flour might be mixed with rice hulls, to increase the weight of the loads.”

During autumn, when corn flour is most abundant, many households brew their own alcohol to sell. Alcohol produced by the state becomes increasingly scarce, so many people make their own. In North Korea, where white rice is scarce, ordinary citizens also often use corn as currency.

Kim Hye-Ok left Musan, North Korea in 2015. She testified, “In our neighbourhood, the People’s Unit consisted of thirty families, seven to eight of which used corn flour to make alcohol. Corn flour’s most popular use was to make alcohol, not because corn flour was particularly plentiful, but for other reasons. For one, the residue collected after straining the alcohol is a by-product that can be fed to livestock, like pigs.”

When asked if people could grind their own corn instead of buying it, she answered, “It is almost impossible for the ordinary North Korean to grind it at home using a machine, as electric blackouts happen so frequently. You would have to be a trader in the business. As the number of households that made alcohol increased, so too did the price of corn flour. Sometime along the way, an industry of unofficial factories opened up, specializing in only ground corn. People bought the flour to make alcohol, but these days the potency of the alcohol is low although the same amount of flour is being used.”

Describing the corn flour business, the interviewee said, “Corn goes into the machine, and the machine reduces them to a powder. The sound of the machines is deafening. While the machines are running, the trader and owner of the machines never leaves the room. It is because her workers may resort to stealing some flour. The trader then takes the flour home in large bags and locks the door to her factory to make sure that nobody can enter. After that, she empties the flour into a large container and pours water into it.”

She continued, “For about ten kilos of powder, she adds one to one-and-a-half litres of water and makes a mixture using her hands. After achieving a relatively smooth consistency she mixes it again, this time using a large stick. This way, the flour feels heavier and more plentiful. After that she puts it back in the bags and goes out to the markets.”

According to her, it is quite normal for North Koreans to cheat and lie to one another. “People touch the flour and eye it suspiciously. The trader would tell them that the flour clumps because they have come fresh out of the machines and have not had time to dry. What can they do but buy it? They need to make alcohol, and give food to the pigs.”

Kim concluded, “Most people already know the truth about the corn flour, and simply shrug it off. People know that the trader who owns the machines has it just as hard. If she sold the corn flour fresh from the machines, she would not be likely to make a profit. As for the workers, the trader usually takes the majority of the corn flour but leaves just enough behind for the people who work in their factories to take home. There needs to be something for everyone.”


Reporting by Park, Ju-hee.

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