A ship bound for North Korea from Cuba, the Chong Chon Gang, was seized last week. In addition to two MiG fighter jets, there were 10,000 tons of unrefined brown sugar on board.
For an ordinary North Korean citizen, sugar may not be unaffordable, but it is certainly an extravagance. Rice in North Korea is around 6000 won a kilo at present. The price of sugar fluctuates according to Chinese exchange rates, but it is usually 1.5 times the price of rice.
At present, the price of sugar is at around 9000 won. That amount would buy you around 5kg of salt, so salt would be the first choice for most North Korean consumers.
According to Kim Jong-ho (43) who left North Korea in the middle of last year, “Ordinary people buy rice and if they have money left they buy salt, radish or cabbage and other basic foodstuffs. Most wouldn’t even think of spending their money on luxuries like sugar.”
Sweetness is considered a special treat that is reserved for special occasions and state holidays.
In North Korea, children wait longingly for the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il because that’s when they get sweets. It is referred to as the happiest holiday for children.
Seol Jin-ok left North Korea in late 2012. She tells us, “I once hit my child because he had tasted a candy and threw tantrums because I couldn’t buy him any.”
She couldn’t understand why in South Korea, parents would stop children eating sweets, saying that it stopped them from getting hungry – “Sugar doesn’t fill you up! Why would they stop them eating it?”
But there is something more popular that sugar – that is saccharin, which is both cheaper and sweeter. Jin-ok tells us that she sometimes stopped her child crying by giving it saccharin-sweetened water instead of using the more expensive milk powder.
However, sugar is still popular enough that North Korea’s markets have separate sugar stalls. Their customers are those who will use it to then make bread and sweets to sell in the markets.
Most of this sugar is from China, and with the growth of the markets, it comes through both official and black market channels.
Because of a lack of supplies, North Korean food producers have found it almost impossible to make sweets or jellies. Apart from Company No. 9, a factory that produces foods for the Kim household, most other factories ceased production during the famine of the mid-90s.
But as individuals are more able to acquire sugar and the cottage industry in manufacturing sweets has grown, demand for sugar in turn has increased again.
In addition, there is sugar for Party officials and sugar for ordinary citizens, with white sugar broadly speaking for Party cadres and brown sugar for ordinary citizens.
But with recent rumours that white sugar has been contaminated with chemicals, brown sugar has become more desirable even among Party cadres. And while for Party cadres sweetness is not a luxury, for ordinary citizens, it’s like gold dust.