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Grain prices in North Korean marketplaces faltered briefly before the Lunar New Year in early February, but they are now moving upward again. The upward swing has sparked speculation that the country has entered the “barley hump,” a period of food shortages that lasts until the spring harvest. 

According to Daily NK’s regular survey of North Korean market prices, a kilogram of rice was trading for KPW 5,000 at a marketplace in Pyongyang on Feb. 18. This is the first time Pyongyang rice prices have risen above KPW 5,000 per kilogram since November 2023.

In the previous survey of Pyongyang market prices on Feb. 4, rice was trading for KPW 4,850 per kilogram, indicating that rice prices have risen by 3.1% over the past two weeks.

Prices rose by a similar amount in other areas. A kilogram of rice was selling for KPW 5,500 at a market in Hyesan, Yanggang Province—an area with relatively high prices—on Feb. 18. That represented an increase of 3.8% from two weeks ago.

In Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, rice prices increased by a modest amount. The Daily NK survey found that a kilogram of rice there was trading for KPW 5,100 on Feb. 18, up 2% from the previous survey two weeks before.

The average rice price is currently KPW 5,200, which is 13.3% cheaper than the average price in the same period last year (KPW 6,000). However, that’s also 8.3% higher than the average price in mid-February 2021 (KPW 4,800) and in 2022.

Granted, rice prices in 2022 were anomalous because rice output was sharply reduced by pandemic-era restrictions on imports of farming commodities and a string of natural disasters, including typhoons, floods, and a drought. However, current market prices for rice are still higher than they were following typical harvests in 2020 and 2021.

Notably, corn prices in North Korean markets have risen more than twice as much as rice prices.

A kilogram of corn was selling for KPW 2,600 at a marketplace in Pyongyang on Feb. 18, representing an 8.3% increase from the price two weeks ago.

The survey found that corn prices at a market in Sinuiju rose by a similar amount as in Pyongyang, while the market price in Hyesan was KPW 3,000. This is the first time the price of corn in North Korean markets has reached KPW 3,000 since September 2023.

Corn prices fell a little below KPW 2,000 per kilogram in December 2023, immediately following the country’s rice harvest. But in the following months, corn prices have continued to rise, recently entering the KPW 2,500-3,000 range in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan.

Is North Korea in the midst of the barley hump? 

There is some speculation in North Korea that the country has already entered the lean period that lasts until the spring harvest, commonly referred to as the “barley hump.” 

“Prices of corn and rice keep going up at marketplaces because they’re in short supply. The fact is that grain prices will keep rising until the wheat, barley, and potato crops in the summer,” said a source in Pyongyang.

However, market prices of grain could fall if the North Korean authorities increase grain imports and place the imports on the market.

Amid increasingly cordial ties with Russia, North Korea has been importing large amounts of food products, including wheat and cooking oil, and energy products, including gasoline, diesel, and natural gas, from Russia.

But wheat imported from Russia is selling for KPW 8,000 per kilogram at marketplaces, which is much higher than rice. Thus, Russian rice is not replacing rice and corn, both staple foods for North Koreans. 

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to [email protected].

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