Through the looking glass

The NKEconWatch site carries a lot of interesting reports on North Korea, including this one on conflicting reports of the food situation in North Korea. So is the DPRK going to have a bumper harvest this year or are millions facing starvation (again) ? For foreign tourists, food was plentiful and varied. Ironically, the only mediocre meals we got were at the Yanggakdo Casino Hotel in Pyongyang. Other than those, I would rate all the meals as 7-8.5 out of 10.

I must admit that very often we were served more food than we could finish, and the thought did cross my mind that this would be really sinful if reports of famine in the countryside were true. 

So, how bad are things really ? I certainly did not see any fat people in North Korea. It wasn’t obvious at that time, but looking over my photos, I realize some of the performers at the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace were pretty skinny. Sign of poor nutrition or just to be expected given their rigorous training and the propensity of show business, even or especially in the West, towards anorexia ?

In a previous post, I highlighted the number of street stalls that we saw on our tour. In Pyongyang and Wonsan, at least, people appear to  have sufficient discretionary income to spend it on snacks, drinks and so on. According to this report,

North Korean food wholesalers have become the suppliers of rice for markets since the government ceased to ration foodstuffs. They now contract with farms, paying in advance of harvest seasons so that the farms can use the funds to purchase fuel and other supplies necessary for preparing and transporting the food.

It would seem, therefore, that they have gone the Chinese route of first freeing up the farm sector to raise production. And after reading this, I better understand why the Chonsam farm was so responsive to our demand for persimmons. They are not neophytes to capitalism. In fact, they are headed way down the slippery slope.

So what’s going on ? The UNWFP reports that areas in the Northeastern provinces and the West Coast are facing food shortages. We didn’t go to those areas and it’s not inconceivable that some parts of the country are in fact in trouble even though others are doing ok. One of the remarkable things about North Korea was the number of people we saw walking along the highway even in rural areas. With insufficient fuel/transport, I would imagine that if you’re a farmer in the hills and your crop fails, you’re pretty much on your own.


One place we did not see any street stalls was Kaesong. This is surprising because Kaesong is a Special Economic Zone and the site of several South Korean-owned factories. On the face of it, one would expect people there to have somewhat higher disposable incomes than people in other regions. But no street stalls. Was this because of tighter ideological control due to Kaesong’s proximity to the DMZ and the very presence of the South Korean factories, or were the stalls just deemed to be eyesores and hidden out of sight ?

Kaesong was also very curious for other reasons, too. Some other blogs by visitors to North Korea mention having to wear blue name tags and I noticed that some other Western tourists in the Yanggakdo hotel had them too, although our group didn’t. Different practices by different organizers, or are Singaporeans just deemed to be safer ?

This picture was taken outside the Thongil Restaurant in Kaesong. If you look closely at the Asian tourists in the picture, you will notice that they too have those blue name tags. The girls in orange jackets and holding walkie-talkies are not tourists. They were not there when we arrived, but when we came out after lunch, they were there and clearly tasked with ensuring that foreign visitors not stray. My guess is that this tour group is a South Korean group, which would explain the tighter security measures. Despite the cancellation of South Korean tours to Mt Kumgang after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed there in July, tours to Kaesong were allowed to continue.

Renovations were taking place in the Thongil restaurant so presumably there is sufficient business to justify the expense. Overall, in fact, the tourist business seemed to be doing well. Our tour leader commented that there were new souvenir shops where there were none previously, and I noticed renovations at the Sandowon hotel in Wonsan as well.  There was a building under construction opposite this restaurant, although I don’t know whether that is tourism-related. See this article for a DPRK-watcher’s views of the impact of S Korean tourism on the North.

New World Order ?

I didn’t take either of these images, but this post is called “Through The Looking Glass”, isn’t it ? Satellite TV was available in the Yonggakdo Casino Hotel, and there was definitely something surreal about watching a live broadcast of China launching a space-walk mission on CCTV and then flipping to BBC and hearing about the collapse of Washington Mutual amidst the financial crisis emanating from the US. Of course, at the same time, the melamine adulteration scandal was widening in China and the US was on the path towards electing a black president. So who knows ?  Maybe nothing is what it seems to be.

Opening the economy ?

One of the many surprises of North Korea was the number of blue-and-white stalls selling drinks, snacks and other tidbits set up by the roadside. According to our Singaporean tour leader, these were new, as she had not seen them in her previous trips to North Korea including one as recently as Spring 2007. Our Korean guide told us that these were state-owned and it is true that all of them did follow the same blue-and-white colour scheme and many of the ones we saw in the towns did seem to be extensions of existing state-run stores. In the smaller villages outside Wonsan, however, several of the stalls  looked more like they were independently-run outfits.

Wonsan outskirts

Drive-in beer stand !
Setting up shop seems to be a family affair

The density of stalls seemed to be higher in Wonsan than Pyongyang despite much higher population density in the latter. A sign of looser ideological control in the provinces, or just a natural consequence of Wonsan being closer to the farms ?