North Koreans ask why Kim Jong Un can enjoy K-pop but they can't

Kang Mi Jin  |  2018-04-13 11:52

"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): Its time for a weekly recap of North Koreas market news with reporter Kang Mi Jin. First, can you tell us about the latest social trends? 

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): There is a feeling of optimism over North-South relations these days after the recent performances in Pyongyang by South Korean musicians, although it remains illegal for people to sing South Korean songs. A source in Hoeryong (North Hamgyong Province) told me over the phone a few days ago that local police recently imprisoned a person for doing this. 

The individual in question was apparently attending a friend's birthday party when they began to sing a cheerful South Korean tune, after which they all began singing and dancing to the song together. But then others in the vicinity who were not invited to the party heard the loud singing and reported them to police. The police came to investigate the group and the person who started the singing was deemed the leader. They are still imprisoned. 
The source reported complaints from the individual's family over how it could be possible for it to be a crime when just last week, central party cadres in Pyongyang were openly watching and singing along to South Korean songs.

UMG: What else are you hearing about Kim Jong Uns attendance at the K-pop performances last week?

Kang: It seems that people are dreaming of an end to restrictions on "Hallyu" (South Korean cultural exports and their influence) considering that they saw not only Kim Jong Un and other elite officials at the concert, but also a selection of ordinary Pyongyang workers in the crowd. They may be anticipating changes that will allow them to freely watch South Korean dramas and listen to K-pop. The source repeated comments he overheard about how seeing Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju pictured in the Rodong Sinmun watching South Korean performances made them believe it will soon no longer be a crime for others to view this kind of media. 

But then again, news of continued punishment of South Korean media consumers in the same week may diminish their optimism. The source told me that many people are asserting that they should be able to sing and dance to South Korean songs after seeing Kim Jong Un at the performance. But since they dont know when Kim will officially change the rules, many still believe its necessary to stay reserved for the time being.

UMG: What other news have you heard from inside the country?

Kang: Another source in Chongjin (North Hamgyong Province) confirmed the optimism people are feeling after cooperation over the Pyeongchang Olympics. He said that most people with whom he spoke in the Chongjin Sunam Market and in the alley market in the Ranam district believed that the poor economic conditions may soon improve because of this North-South cooperation. 

Information spreads around the country primarily through the markets, so this news has also coincided with a drop in corn prices in Chongjin due to rumors that talks between Russia and North Korea will bring more corn into the country. The source said that there are more people suffering economically this year compared to last, and that while its possible that the effects of these rumors may be merely psychological, the general feeling is a real belief in change. 

UMG: Now lets move on to the latest market trends.

Kang: Just as South Koreans are enjoying the blooming cherry blossoms and warmer weather, North Koreans are also preparing for the coming spring. This also means that market trends are changing in accordance with the season. For example, winter coat prices are going down. 

One source told me that they specifically waited until spring to buy one of the coats, saving enough money to buy 50 kg of rice just by waiting. Im really impressed by the way she plans ahead to save money for her family, even though they don't have much extra cash at all. 

The prices for other items like lighter jackets and school uniforms have gone up too. These price hikes, however small, are still quite burdensome to people who are anticipating economic difficulties between harvests. 

UMG: Could you tell us more about the specific prices for some of these items in the markets today?

Kang: Women's "mink padding" coats, which were 1.56 million KPW (195 USD) in February, are now sold for around 1.3 million KPW (162 USD) in the markets of Musan and Chongjin. With rice hovering around 5,000 KPW per kilogram nationwide in recent months, a person would have been able to buy over 50 kg of rice with the 260,000 KPW they saved just by waiting to buy the coat.

On the other hand, some people may have lost money by waiting to buy other products. Summer-season school uniforms were around 50,000 KPW in the previous quarter, but now cost around 60,000 KPW. To demonstrate how much money the difference really is to a family during these difficult economic times, 10,000 KPW can buy 20 kg of salt – a whole year's worth. 

Lighter jackets are quite popular at this time of year and a large array of styles and designs can be found in the markets. Prices range from 650,000 to 780,000 KPW (81-97 USD) in the markets of Hyesan these days, depending on the material quality and design.

This marks a significant jump from 80,000 to 110,000 KPW (10-13 USD) compared to the previous quarter. Prices for these "jumpers" have varied wildly over time. They went for around 50,000 KPW (6 USD) in 2012, 60,000-130,000 KPW (7-16 USD) in 2013, as high as 190,000 KPW (23 USD) in 2014, and 220,000 KPW (27 USD) in 2016 and 2017, according to the source. This means that the most recent prices are the most expensive for jumpers seen to date. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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