Sanctions fears drive soy sauce safeguard

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2016-07-04 16:11

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain the content of Unification Media Group [UMG] radio broadcasts into North Korea. UMG is a consortium created by Radio Free Chosun [RFC] and Open Radio for North Korea [ONK], shortwave radio stations targeting North Korea; The Daily NK, an internet periodical reporting on all aspects of North Korea; and OTV, an NGO-based internet television channel.

Its time for another round of our weekly Market Trends, which provides us with an opportunity to explore North Korean economic developments in detail. Today we're going to look at how the perceived threat of sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves, has changed life on the ground in North Korea. For more, we turn to Daily NK reporter Kang Mi Jin. 

Hello. Residents are hedging against further isolation and turning their efforts to finding food from unconventional sources. This comes amid a propaganda push by the regime cautioning residents to make reparations against the [external] scheme to destroy North Korea through isolation," which foments concerns of an eventual ban on foodstuffs among the population. Certainly, from an outside vantage point, we know that the possibility of such a scenario is improbable, but inside the perceived fear is very real. 

Sources in Ryanggang Province report a movement there to incorporate more domestically-sourced goods into the daily diet, thus introducing new goods into the fray. Particularly noteworthy is a strand of soy sauce made from the chaga mushroom, a type of fungus that grows on birch and other hardwood trees.  Apparently, residents really enjoy the natural, clean taste of the chaga soy sauce and a growing number of health-conscious people actually prefer it. 

When I lived in North Korea, however, these mushrooms were by and large exported to China, where they are typically rendered into traditional medicines. 

So this method of making soy sauce is unprecedented in North Korea then? 

Yes. North Korean residents make soy sauce in various ways, but the traditional method is to mix salt, water, and fermented soybeans together and let that mixture ferment for three to four months. The end product is then used as soy sauce. This is the primary method used in North and South Pyongyan Provinces and North and South Hwanghae Provinces, where consumption rates of soy sauce are more concentrated. 

Others use a sugar-based method to make soy sauce. With 200 grams of sugar one can produce up to 10 liters of soy sauce. To do so, one must first fry the sugar in a cast iron cauldron until the color changes, upon which cold water is added. That mixture is brought to a boil and seasoned with salt and a healthy sprinkling of MSG, but not so much that the flavor becomes oily. Surprisingly, the sugar-derived soy sauce had almost no difference in taste compared to that made with soy beans. 

Chaga soy sauce, on the other hand, involves a different process entirely. You must soak the mushroom in lukewarm water for 2-3 days to draw out the brownish residue released by the fungus. After skimming off the residue, the remaining liquid is seasoned with salt and then boiled again. If one can spare it, a bit of sugar really bumps up the flavor.  

However, in Ryanggang Province, where I used to live before escaping to South Korea, most people tend to use more soybean paste than soy sauce, choosing to buy only a small quantity at the markets and parcel it out in small increments rather than making it themselves at home. 

Who produces the soy sauce sold at the markets? 

Food factories do, but that soy sauce rarely reaches the majority of the population. The reason is that the supply of soy beans given to the factory is primarily used to make candy for children as well as red pepper paste for Party members. This means that most ordinary residents are left with no option but to make their own soy sauce. I also used to produce my own soy sauce, but my recipe was different from the current recipe used by residents nowadays. 

Are there any restrictions on mushroom gathering? 

Unlike South Korea, where one requires a license or permit to gather bracken or mushrooms, no such equivalent regulations exist. Therefore it is fairly easy for residents to gather enough mushrooms to produce a years supply of soy sauce.  

Thank you for that report. We'll close with a rundown of the latest market prices. 

Prices across the board have either remained stable or dropped slightly. A kg of rice cost 4900 KPW in Pyongyang, 5000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 4800 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of corn [kernels] cost 1300 KPW in Pyongyang, 1150 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1200 KPW in Hyesan. The dollar exchange rate was 8170 KPW in Pyongyang, 8280 KPW in Sinuiju and 8290 in Hyesan. The yuan exchange rate was 1255 KPW in Pyongyang, 1260 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1270 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of pork cost 9000 KPW in Pyongyang, 10000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 10000 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of gasoline cost 6000 KPW in Pyongyang, 7000 KPW in Sinuiju, and 9450 KPW in Hyesan. A kg of diesel cost 4500 KPW in Pyongyang, 5600 KPW in Sinuiju, and 6520 KPW in Hyesan.

*This segment reflects market conditions from June 20-29.

*Translated by Abraham An

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Won Pyongyang Sinuiju Hyesan
Exchange Rate 8,000 8,070 8,105
Rice Price 4,690 4,870 5,000