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Eating Depends on the Black Market
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2016-01-21 12:13:00
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Eating Depends on the Black Market

KIM Ui Joon
(Wife of KIM Won Hyung)

Good Old Days in the 1960s

I was born in a farm family in 1943 under the rule of Japanese imperialism. My hometown is Uncheon-gun, Northern Province of Pyeong-An. After graduation from a high school, I began to work on a farm and got married in 1967.

One of my distant relatives, who acted as a matchmaker, arranged the marriage. Now I think that at that time food was the most abundant in North Korea ever since.

My husband was rationed 700g and I, a mere housewife, 300g. A driver's monthly wage was about 20 ? 30 won, and there were enough goods in the national stores. One kilogram of sugar cost 2 won, one kilogram of pork 4 won, and cooking oil 4 won too. So until the early 1970s food shortage was not a problem although we were not so rich as the executive members were.

However, nowhere else can sugar be found now than the black market. The price is so high that one-kilogram cost 200 won. Considering that my husband's wage is about 120 ? 130 won, you will know how expensive it is. In fact, it doesn't make sense since even the wages have not come out regularly for the last several years. 

In hindsight, the former Soviet Union and China offered a lot of grants to North Korea, their alliance at the peak of the cold war during the 1960s. Thanks to the grants, postwar recovery and people's daily lives were going on without any big trouble. The government authorities also seemed to care for their people. But since the 1970s when Kim Jung Il came into power people's well being was no more a priority and the rations decreased. 

In the 1990s the economic situation was the most suffering and it was, of course, because of collapse of the Soviet Union.
Until 1993 you could receive your ration only with your 'efforts'. First thing of the 'efforts' is to go to the distribution center earlier than others. Food was distributed semimonthly in 1992, 93 and for the worse, sometimes it wasn't equally distributed to all people. So everyone became desperate to secure his or her own portion. There was a long line of people in front of the center very early in the morning. 

Second is to help with grain transportation. There was a time when trucks weren't able to carry food from the food agency for lack of fuel. Since my house was only 2 kilometers away from the distribution center, my family managed to provide fuel. The entire neighborhood thanked us for that, so they let us go ahead of others to get the rations. 

And since then, only the chief food, for example rice or corns, was distributed. Soy and bean paste and salt were also distributed previously, but the situation just got worse. The so-called rice ration contained rice for only 15% and in good times up to 30%. Right after the harvest times it reached 50% and around December other grains such as corns account for more than 50%. 

In this way the food condition was gradually getting worse, and there was no food distribution at all sometimes. 

In Shin Ui Joo where we lived, the distribution stopped in 1995. One day, ration tickets were issued, so we went to the distribution center. 'The grains didn't arrive yet. Wait for another about 15 days' said an official. We did wait that long; however, the grains did not come. Given no other choice we had to get some food at a farm nearby. Since then food is hardly ever distributed. Although the distribution center is open, no work is done. It was in September 1996 that we received corn rations for the last time. We can't remember anything, which happened before the year. 

But the ration tickets are still issued. They are nothing but an empty promise. The situation is this tough, but the authorities just continue to keep the attitude ? 'When the situation gets better, we'll give rations.'

Formerly on the occasion of Kim Il Sung's or Kim Jung Il's birthday a special ration was offered, for example, meat and alcoholic drinks. On the birthday of Kim Jung Il in 1997 it was only one bottle of alcohol for a head of a family and 200 ? 300 grams of biscuits for kids. 

When the food distribution almost disappeared, I found out something to eat at the black market and sent it to my son's house. My daughter-in-law was pregnant. 

Black Market 

Even before the food distribution stopped, we had to go to the black market to buy seasonings such as soybean and salt, fish, pork, shoes and clothes etc. 

At the black market there are enough if not abundant grains or materials. Since old times there has been an official farmer's market in Shin Ui Joo where farmers sell their surplus agricultural products. But as the rations were cut off there came into being some non-official markets here and there. 

Only with sufficient money we could provide as much food as needed for our family members because more and more farmers brought agricultural products to make money. 

Money was remitted from my mother-in-law or my husband's brother in US. My husband children also earned enough money. So I managed to buy grains or vegetables if not meat or fish, and had no difficulty having three meals a day. 

Recent markets emerged without official permission, but because of no food distribution, the authorities have no choice but to close their eyes to them. Still, safety officials from time to time rush for to keep them under control and confiscate the goods. 

The officials do that only to share the things among themselves. I am just stifled with their arrogance, but I can understand that they also cannot but abuse their authority. The rations are left undone many times even with the security or safety officials. 

At the black markets you can purchase daily necessities and medicines, let alone farm products. If you have money, you can get all the necessities of life at least. 

One egg cost you 25 won and a packet of Chinese cigarettes 30 ? 50 won. Yes, they are quite expensive, but what else can you do?

Corn Cooking

It has been a long time since a corn-rice became our chief food. Because of the name of a corn-rice you may think that it is a dish of rice with corn grains, but it is not. When a corn gets milled, it is ground into the size of rice, and that is why it is called so. With it we cook hot cereals or steam it. 

When we cook hot cereals we boil some dried radish leaves first and then put some ground grass. We apply salt to it, but it has no special taste. 

In winter we mix it with kimchi. We prepare kimchi usually in November, but only in a small amount because of its high price. If we eat it until April, it is satisfactory and generally it runs out around January or February. If a family prepares some kimchi it means that they are quite rich. In 1996 there were a lot of families who weren't able to prepare any for lack of money. 

Other than kimchi we put radish leaves. Even if there are fish and meat at the black markets, it takes a lot of courage to buy some. One codfish is about 70 ? 80 won and one kilogram of pork 300 ? 350 won. The last time when I ate pork in North Korea was in January 1997. I bought some at a black market and cooked soup with it.