Corruption blamed for poor quality of snacks distributed to children for leader's birthday

[As Heard in North Korea]
Seol Song Ah  |  2018-02-13 17:53

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

Unification Media Group (UMG): The North Korean authorities are preparing to hand out snack foods as gifts for the nations children to mark the birthday of Kim Jong Il on February 16. While the exercise in gift-giving may have helped build feelings of national unity among citizens in the past, the effect appears to have worn off in recent times. Today we sit down with reporter Seol Song Ah for a closer look into the birthday gift system and how it has changed over the years.

Seol Song Ah (Seol): As it was for Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8, children attending schools across the country will receive about a kilo of snacks each to mark Kim Jong Il's birthday on February 16. The tradition of giving snacks and clothes to children began with the 65th birthday of Kim Il Sung in 1977 and has continued ever since

However, as the economy ran into difficulties, the government began charging a fee for clothes in 1987, and with the famine of the 1990s, the authorities ordered factories in the provinces to ensure that snack items could be supplied. Thereafter, the factories had to figure out a way to come up with the resources themselves, as they knew there would be political consequences if they failed to meet the manufacturing quotas.

These state-run factories must procure the ingredients through international trade and domestic markets. One of the direct consequences is that the factories overlook quality issues with the ingredients they do manage to acquire. 

UMG: It seems that provincial government leaders would be quite worried about central government orders regarding snack manufacturing for the birthdays of the countrys leaders.

Seol: If factories do not fulfill their quotas, they know theyll be in trouble. For the manufacturing of candy and snacks, all kinds of ingredients are needed, including sugar, flour, oil, etc, which they have to obtain from Chinese companies. Other ingredients like corn and soy-based products can be obtained from local farms and factories. But despite North Koreas boasts of self-reliance, they lack sufficient resources domestically to meet their production goals.

So when they are short on materials, they order local residents to somehow come up with the difference. Before each birthday of any of the three Kim leaders, residents are charged with an additional tax for sesame seeds, soybeans, eggs, and other items. For example, rural residents in South Pyongan Province must provide 2 kg of soybeans, while city residents must pay 5,000 KPW to the government for this specific tax. The snacks given out as gifts for the occasion end up looking and tasting quite different depending on various factors in each region.

UMG: The manufactured snacks must be of a lower quality than items available in the markets. Is this due to a shortage of ingredients?

Seol: More than an ingredients shortage, its a societal problem originating from the leader glorification goal of the gift system. The government is trying to stress self-reliance and elicit loyalty from the people through gifts, but factory workers are not compensated for these forced manufacturing assignments. Workers have a hard time being inspired by the government when they work under such conditions. 

This is where corruption among both cadres and workers begins to creep into the system. Mid-level cadres are known to siphon off a portion of the ingredients that are offered to the factories by locals. Workers also steal some of the ingredients during the manufacturing process. 

Food factory workers say that "a year's worth of farming can be acquired during the snack gift manufacturing season." They consider stealing ingredients to be a substitute for the lack of a salary or state distribution system. So in the end, the snacks are produced without the proper amounts of oil, sugar, and other ingredients, resulting in poor-tasting final products. People are not permitted to express openly that the snacks taste bad, but the fact that people think it tastes bad does contradict the god-like image of the leader that is emphasized on these occasions. 

UMG: So the poor quality of the gifts has an effect on recipients. Surely there must be some sort of quality control in place for these products?

Seol: Every factory has a quality control manager, and there are rules for the manufacturing of these special gift items. All items must be approved by inspectors before being distributed. But the problem is that these managers have to earn a living too, which usually involves overlooking costly issues and of course accepting bribes. 

In contrast, however, the items manufactured for sale in the markets undergo more stringent inspection, where customer demands dictate quality and even packaging. A source in South Pyongan Province told me that the majority of snacks, candy, and chocolates available in the markets there are manufactured in Pyongyang factories like the Taesong Foodstuff Factory. She also said that the taste and packaging of these items meet the level of South Korean products.

The source told me that even though Chinese snacks are cheaper, consumers still prefer the domestic fare, which they consider to be just as good. The prices for these North Korean products are roughly as follows: 10,000 KPW for 1 kg of cookies or crackers, 7,000 KPW for 1 kg of candy, and 4-5,000 KPW for homemade snack items. The snacks that comprise the gift packages are also sold in the markets and are actually the cheapest options, but they are not very popular.

UMG: You mentioned earlier that clothes like school uniforms used to be included as part of the birthday gift packages. Does the burden of manufacturing these items also fall upon the factories in the provinces?

Seol: Yes, of course. Lumber from the northern regions of North Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces are sold to China in exchange for these materials, while South Pyongan Province mostly exports coal in order to raise the funds. As the government has committed to 12 years of compulsory education for all children, the manufacturing of school uniforms has became an important goal for them.

I spoke with one defector who left the North in 2010 but who used to work for one of the clothing factories involved in this process. He said that they mostly used Chinese materials to make school uniforms. Previously, state-owned trade companies had provided textiles for them when they could not come up with the items themselves, but they later had to start paying for materials.

The price of school uniforms in the markets has also risen significantly in recent years. In 2006, residents would pay just 100-120 KPW to receive a uniform from the state. But now, uniforms are offered every 2 to 3 years at a cost of about 7-9,000 KPW. There is a fear that the manufacturing of uniforms will cease entirely now with the inability to acquire materials due to international sanctions. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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