North Koreans hit by food shortages and soaring prices caused by the closing of cross-border trade with China are now finding it hard to buy cooking oil, an essential commodity, sources say.
Cooking oil previously cost less than 10,000 North Korean won, or about U.S. $2 per kilogram, but has now become more expensive, a resident of Puryong county in North Hamgyong province told RFA.
“Now, it costs around 45,000 North Korean won [U.S. $9], and there are cases now where the cooking oil stand is empty due to insufficient quantity in the marketplaces, so people sometimes aren’t able to buy it,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“If you don’t have sugar or seasoning, you just don’t eat it, but oil is essential to our diet,” the source said. “However, it has been a long time since many residents have cooked with cooking oil.”
The source said that he had recently bought a small bottle of cooking oil to help celebrate the New Year and had encountered a group of other women from her village on her way home.
“I was astonished to hear them say that they hadn’t had any cooking oil for a long time and couldn’t even remember when they had it last,” he said. “A woman living next door to me said she had not been able to use cooking oil at all since the fall of last year. She was jealous of the oil that I had.”
Also speaking to RFA, a resident of Manpo city in Chagang province said that cooking oil is now commonly sold in small bottles or plastic bags of 50 or 100 grams.
“And if someone is seen carrying cooking oil packed in 2-kilogram cans, everyone looks at that person with envy,” the source said. “I bought half a bottle, about 500 grams, of oil a couple of months ago, and I’m using it little by little. And when you see other families, you can hardly find side dishes cooked with oil.
“The authorities have said they will solve the cooking-oil problem by cultivating crops of oil plants such as sunflower and castor bean, but in reality we’re not seeing any farms growing oil plants. Total national production would probably be negligible anyway,” he said.
Also missing from many North Korean tables this year is a red bean porridge called patjuk, a popular traditional winter food believed to ward off bad luck in the new year, but now largely out of residents’ reach due to rising prices, sources said.
“Just like last year, many residents cannot afford to make patjuk and are instead making porridge from corn," said a resident of North Hwanghae province, which borders South Korea.
“Only some people have enough money to afford beans, but for regular citizens this has become a luxury,” the source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
North Korea now needs external food aid to meet its basic needs, according to a Dec. 2 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The FAO said North Korea should have imported 1.06 million tons of grain between November 2020 and November 2021 to cover the gap between supply and demand, but trade with China has been on hold since January 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Reported by Chang Gyu Ahn and Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun and Claire Lee. Written in English by Richard Finney.