A Gift of Rice for Lunar New Year: Propaganda versus Reality

A truck burning wood as fuel is seen moving on the main street in Rason, North Korea. Screenshot of footage secretly filmed sometime between January and August 2023 and obtained via HRF’s partner.

SEOUL – For Lunar New Year, which falls this year on Saturday, February 10, the recently established grain sales centers (which replaced the old distribution centers), were authorized to sell 3 kilograms of rice to each household. Officials characterized this as a thoughtful gesture by the Workers’ Party. But our impression from sources in North Korea is that citizens increasingly see such things as impractical propaganda.

The government sets the standard ration for the working head of a household at 700 grams per day. For dependents, it is 300 grams. These amounts are charged at 5,400 won per kilogram. Extra rice is available but is priced at 6,000 won. The 3 kilograms for Lunar New Year is being sold at the regular ration rate and costs 16,200 won per household, which is a saving of 1,800 won.

The authorities instruct that food be sold at low prices, but in reality, the grain sales centers are run by private individuals who often refuse to release it in defiance of an order to sell at less than the cost price. That is a particular concern now. Total grain production in a given year is determined in December. Less than a month after the latest report, the price of food rose rapidly, causing considerable anxiety among the populace.

Despite this, at a key Workers Party meeting at the end of December, the authorities claimed there had been an overproduction of grain, suggesting that the food shortage issue would be addressed. Thus, there is a big difference between the public pronouncements and the situation experienced on the ground.

Power is another challenge. Electricity is available for one hour from 6am and for one hour from 7pm. (On New Year’s Day and Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8, electricity was available for five hours each day). Those who can’t afford it, can’t even use candles or diesel lanterns.

Elevators in apartment blocks don’t operate due to the power outages. Some residents of better-quality apartments have been collecting money to set up private generators which they run at set times. The elevator problem explains why apartments on the 10th floor and above are cheaper. Residents have to hike up and down every time they go out. In Pyongyang, apartments above the 20th floor are mainly occupied by old people. Placing elderly parents in the top floors ensures they will stay home. It is seen as a form of “parental care” by better-off families who can afford to separate place for their parents.

As with electricity, so it is with drinking water. Tap water is available in the morning and evening. There are slight differences by region and between Pyongyang and provincial cities, but on average, water is available for one to two hours a day. Households living high up in high rises have difficulty with tap water because of insufficient pressure and have to haul water up from lower floors.

Each apartment has a concrete water tank that can hold more than a ton of water. The taps are turned on 24 hours a day to make sure they don’t miss the moment when the water is flowing. Sometimes, when the water is supplied for more than two hours, there are stories of water in the hallways and stairwells when residents are away at work.

This is not the only inconvenience caused by the lack of running water. While most people defecate outside before returning home, doing so at night presents a problem. Because of this, there is always a disgusting odor wafting around apartments in Pyongyang and the provinces. Some unscrupulous residents throw their own waste out of apartment windows instead of disposing of it in a cesspit. This leads to a lot of hustle and bustle in the mornings as people try to clean up. It is a well-known myth in Pyongyang and the provinces that if you walk under your apartment at night, you might be struck by a missile thrown by someone who can’t be bothered to walk downstairs in the dark.

As this portrait suggests, for ordinary people, discomfort is evident in all areas of their lives. Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, continues to pursue military expansion, nuclear development and missile tests.

The regime propagates the arrival of a new era of transformation and a new frontier of revitalization and development. But these fail to give anyone hope of a better life. Slogans such as the Great Transition Year and the Great Transformation Year have been drummed into their ears for nearly 80 years. From 1945 onward, Kim Il Sung promised people would have “rice and meat soup” and live in “silk and tile houses.” These promises continued under Kim Jong Il. But shortly after he came to power, Kim Jong Un, sang a different tune. “It is the firm determination of our party to let our people no longer have to tighten their belts but enjoy socialist wealth to the fullest,” he said. 

Few took him literally, but his words nevertheless raised expectations. Now, as millions worry about securing their daily food and as they see homeless people wandering around the countryside, they find little reason to hope.

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