Wider availability of canned foods reflects market development in North Korea

Unification Media Group  |  2018-05-18 00:34
Unification Media Group (UMG): Its time for another weekly update and were speaking with reporter Kang Mi Jin to hear about the newest social and economic trends in North Korea. Mi Jin, can you tell us the latest? 

Kang Mi Jin (Kang): People in both North and South Korea are caught up in the atmosphere of the historic summit meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong Un. North Korean residents - seeing what they can of the meeting through the party-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun and the state television channel Korean Central TV - are making their own assessments of the events as they unfold. 

In South Korea, many parts of the summit were broadcast live and there was some realtime information about the developments, but delivery was more restricted in North Korea. However, there is a region in the country where information is spreading very actively: the northern border area near China. Information from abroad is being transmitted through smugglers and overseas merchants, and then travelling quite quickly through the grapevine. Arising from this, outside observers believe that ordinary residents expectations about the summit have been elevated.   

UMG: What kinds of expectations do the residents generally have about the meaning and consequences of the summit? 

Kang: North Koreans ordinarily do not have the luxury to travel and are on the receiving end of surveillance and crackdowns on behavior. Therefore, I think many of them are hoping for a relaxation on this front. Further, they are dreaming that economic revitalization can bring their living standard up to par with Chinas. 

North Koreans have pride - they believe a united North and South Korea could be a global power. After speaking with North Koreans on the phone, its clear that they believe North Korea to be a world class military power. By combining and cooperating with the advanced South, they believe no country in the world - no matter how powerful - would dare disturb them. That is the united Korea they are dreaming about. 

One resident expressed very specific desires for increased cooperation between the complementary parts of the North and South Korean economies, adding in a desire to lessen dependency on China. The resident said, How great would it be to send our natural resources like minerals to our ethnic brethren in the South to use for economic development rather than selling it for a pittance to China?

UMG: Seems like the residents are thinking optimistically about unification because of the summit. Any other news to relay? 

Kang: Yes, we have received reports that, as usual, North Koreas authorities are violating human rights during crackdowns on the residents. 

One resident was arrested on the spot by a Ministry of Public Safety (police) officer for facilitating a remittance in the border region. He was locked up in the local police station in a freezing-cold, stone room that was so cold he could have contracted frostbite. The prison guard, seeing him shivering, said, Guilty people like you dont get to be warm. In such conditions, the residents are exposed to dangers such as kidney inflammation and frostbite. 

UMG: And what are the latest market trends? Any changes related to the improving ties with the South and the summit between the leaders?

Kang: I regularly take stock of the markets in order to do this analysis on a weekly basis. This week, I was impressed by just how much the markets have changed in the past few years. One aspect of this change is the wider presence of North Korean-made instant foods. 

An inside source informed Daily NK about this trend, describing the emergence of instant foods that resembled some of those available in the South. Thereafter, Daily NK acquired a few of these items from North Korea.

Ill introduce a few of these canned goods today. Some of these products have been available for a while, but they were previously only purchased by the wealthy and those who received them from suppliers. The fact that canned foods are now widely available and accessible to normal folks is indicative of dramatic change. 

UMG: What kinds of foods are sold in these cans?

Kang: There are meat and seafood varieties, and now there are rice and juk (porridge) options out there as well. These canned foods are referred to as tong-jollim and Kkang-tong food products. 

Ill describe some of the cans that we were able to acquire. In the meat category, we have beef and pork. The beef and pork cans weigh about 450 grams apiece. In the seafood category, we have atka mackerel. We also have nutritional juk with pine nuts. 

There is also a canned version of boiled glutinous rice, which is good for families on vacation or those eating outside. Its used for in-flight meals on Air Koryo flights. 

In addition to the cans we acquired, there are other options for sale in North Koreas markets, including sardines and fruits, which tend to sell more in the capital city of Pyongyang than in the rural areas. The source said that, North Korean people cant afford to eat expensive canned fruit. Foreigners who come and go in the areas of Pyongyang and Wonsan eat them, but in the rural areas, pork, beef, and juk are more popular. 

UMG: When I speak to defectors, many say that they couldnt afford beef while living in North Korea. So now that its available in a can, its a big difference. 

Kang: Cows were considered an important method of production, and so residents really couldnt afford to eat beef. At that time, it was forbidden to butcher cows and those that did so faced punishment. But the world has changed. 

Now, even ordinary residents can eat beef. Many residents think of beef as a healthy, nutrient-packed food. There was previously a problem at a livestock farm in Kangwon Province. Land has been cultivated to fix this problem. And now every market in the country sells beef, lamb, and diverse meats at a price point that normal people can afford. 

UMG: How often can the residents afford to buy these items?

Kang: One resident with whom I spoke informed me that ordinary people cannot eat this kind of food all the time. Theyll eat it occasionally, or maybe on special occasions, such as a birthday, group meeting or a school graduation party. 

I inquired about the prices, and discovered that the beef, pork, and mackerel cans sell for about 13,000 KPW (about 1.60 USD). Thats enough to buy about 2.7 kilograms of rice at todays prices. 

The juk and glutinous boiled rice sells for 10,000 KPW (about 1.25 USD). There are also more parents feeding their children baby food and milk powder. The juk is being sold as a healthy option for children. There are also new instant foods in can form, including spicy chicken feet, garlic, anchovy-flavored noodle soup, and North Korean-style ramen instant noodles.  
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