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Fake meat and free markets: Here’s how North Korea feeds itself

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Fake meat and free markets: Here’s how North Korea feeds itself

SEOUL (Reuters) – Take the dregs left from making soy bean oil, which usually go to feed the pigs. Press and roll them into a sandy-colored paste. Stuff with rice, and top with chilli sauce. The dish’s name, injogogi, means “man-made meat.”

In North Korea for years it was a recipe for survival. Today it is a popular street food, traded alongside other goods and services on informal markets, known as jangmadang. Defectors say there are hundreds of these markets.

The creation and informal trade of injogogi and other foods offers a window into a barter economy that has kept North Korea afloat despite years of isolation, abuse and sanctions.

“Back in the day, people had injogogi to fill themselves up as a substitute for meat,” said Cho Ui-sung, a North Korean who defected to the South in 2014. “Now people eat it for its taste.”

North Korea was set up with backing from the Soviet Union as a socialist state. The Soviet collapse in 1991 crippled the North Korean economy and brought down its centralized food distribution system. As many as three million people died. Those who survived were forced to forage, barter and invent meals from whatever they found. Since people started to use their own initiative, studies indicate, person-to-person dealings have become the way millions of North Koreans procure basic necessities such as food and clothing.

But the prevalence of informal markets also makes it hard to understand the exact state of the North Korean economy. And this makes it hard to measure how badly sanctions, which do not apply to North Korean food imports, are hurting ordinary people.

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Pyongyang has said the curbs threaten the survival of its children. Defectors say a poor corn harvest this year has made it hard for people in rural areas to feed themselves. The agencies who want to help find all this hard to measure.

Pyongyang says 70 percent of North Koreans still use the state’s central distribution system as their main source of food, the same number of people that the U.N. estimates are “food insecure.” The system consistently provides lower food rations than the government’s daily target, according to U.N. food agency the World Food Programme (WFP). The U.N. uses this information to call on member states to provide food aid for North Korea — $76 million for “nutrition support” alone at its last request, of which it has received $42 million.

But surveys and anecdotal evidence from defectors suggest private markets are the main source of supply for most North Koreans.

“It becomes sort of ridiculous to analyze food distribution in North Korea by focusing on an archaic system that’s lost so much of its significance over the past couple of decades,” said Benjamin Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who researches the North Korean economy.

The WFP and the U.N.’s other main food aid agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization, said the U.N. relies on all available information and inputs, including official statistics. The agencies have a permanent office in Pyongyang and make regular visits to Public Distribution Centers, farms and occasionally markets in North Korea.

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