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In North Korea, a sack of flour separates haves from have-nots

A loaf of bread has become a status symbol in North Korea as prices for flour have increased so sharply that only the wealthiest citizens can afford it, sources in the country told RFA.

Throughout Korean history, white rice has reigned supreme as the basic staple that signified wealth, and poorer people would mix their rice or replace it completely with cheaper grains like millet.

In the case of North Korea, it is still true that only the very wealthy can expect all their meals to contain white rice or have the luxury of eating sweetened rice cakes, called ddeok, as a treat. Most North Koreans subsist primarily on corn and other coarse grains.

But now flour has become so scarce that it costs more than rice, and North Koreans are starting to equate eating bread, or batter-fried foods like savory jijim pancakes, as a sign of wealth, a resident of Kimjongsuk county in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“These days, it’s the most prosperous household that can buy imported flour from the marketplace and make foods like bread and jijim,” said the source.

“Before the pandemic it was the families who could make ddeok or who ate bowls of white rice, who were considered prosperous, because they had to ship the rice from places like Hwanghae province in the country’s grain producing region. But now imported flour is several times more expensive than rice,” she said.

Cheap Russian and Chinese flour was once readily available in large quantities, but imports stopped when North Korea sealed its borders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020 and suspended all trade.

The border has remained closed for the entire pandemic, save for a brief reopening earlier this year that quickly ended only weeks later with a resurgence of the virus in China. Flour’s price has been intimately tied to the ability to import.

Flour in Kimjongsuk county cost 4,000-4,600 won per kilogram (U.S. $0.25-0.29 per pound) in December 2019. During the pandemic the price went as high as 30,000 won per kilogram, then fell to 10,000 when China and North Korea briefly restarted maritime and rail freight. But now that the border is closed again, prices have increased to about 18,000 won.

According to the Osaka-based AsiaPress news outlet that focuses on North Korea, the current price of rice in the country is about 6,600 won per kilogram, up from about 4,200 won at the end of 2019.

“Ordinary residents cannot even dare to buy flour, because it’s even pricier than rice. When the price of flour is more than two or three times that of rice, as it is now, bread and mandu dumplings suddenly become food that only the high-ranking officials and fabulously wealthy can afford to eat. So foods made with flour are now a symbol of wealth,” said the Kimjongsuk source.

Flour had been a cheap ingredient to make snacks and fried dishes less central to the North Korean diet, said a resident of Unsan county, South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang.

“Flour … has become a deluxe ingredient that people use to show off when guests come over,” she told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Last week, for my son’s birthday, I invited his elementary school teacher to my house. I wanted to show respect and sincerity, so I bought some imported flour, which is now costlier than the rice that goes into making ddeok, so I served bread, mandu and jijim,” she said.

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