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Cooking oil prices in North Korea remain high despite more imports

Cooking oil prices in North Korea remain high despite more imports from China, the result of the government diverting the new supplies to food factories in preparation for a major holiday, sources in the country told RFA.

Food prices skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Sino-Korean border was shut down and all trade was suspended for about two years, starting in January 2020. As supplies dwindled, sugar, cooking oil and other ingredients became unaffordable luxuries to many North Korean families.

Poor harvests in North Korea in both 2020 and 2021 added market pressure by creating shortages of staples like rice and corn.

Ahead of the Day of the Sun, a holiday celebrating the life of leader Kim Jong Un’s late grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, North Korean authorities began importing more ingredients for cakes and sweets, but residents outside the capital Pyongyang are not seeing much benefit.

Though freight trains laden with cooking oil are now rolling in from China, North Koreans are not seeing a price drop, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“In early April, the news spread that the Dandong-Sinuiju freight train was importing 20 cargo compartments of sugar, flour and cooking oil almost every other day, raising hopes that the cooking oil prices would fall soon,” he said.

“However, the price of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of cooking oil is still equivalent to 5 kg (11 lbs.) of rice. Residents are wondering where all the imported cooking oil is going. They are complaining that they don’t know when they will be able to add oil to their dishes,” the source said.

The current price of cooking oil is 22,000 won per kg ($7.43 per lb.) at the marketplace in Sinuiju, a border city that lies across the Yalu River from China’s Dandong, the source said.

Locally produced cooking oil costs 25,000 won per kg. In 2019, before the pandemic, cooking oil cost 13,000 to 15,000 won per kg.

In contrast, prices for flour are falling as supplies increasingly come in via maritime trade through Sinuiju and are distributed to local markets as far away as South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang. At the height of the pandemic, flour cost as much as 30,000 won per kilogram, but now it costs 11,000 to 12,000 won per kilogram.

In the city of Pyongsong in South Pyongan, food factories received orders to increase production of sweets, instant noodles and bread, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Raw materials such as flour, sugar, and cooking oil are imported on the Dandong-Sinuiju weekly freight train,” the second source said.

“On the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, authorities ordered the import of food materials from China by increasing the frequency of freight trains. They ordered gifts of sweets and food to distribute to high-ranking officials, national contributors and Pyongyang citizens,” he said.

Residents of the capital Pyongyang live lives of privilege, with more access to luxuries than people living in the provinces.

“Food products from the Dandong-Sinuiju freight train are not released to the market,” the second source said.

“After the cargo is disinfected at the Uiju food-quarantine facilities, it is only supplied to food production plants in Pyongyang and other food production companies under the party and the military. The price of food products in the marketplace is not going down,” he said.

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.