The hottest ticket in town: Bread attains status symbol in North Korea

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

Forget the designer purse - bread is the symbol of status in North Korea. Pic: GettyImages/13-Smile
Forget the designer purse - bread is the symbol of status in North Korea. Pic: GettyImages/13-Smile

Related tags: North Korea, Wheat flour, Bread, Radio Free Asia, CIA

The volatile price of flour is purported to be a whopping £17/kg in North Korea, meaning that a loaf of bread today is seen as a symbol of wealth among locals.

According to reports from Radio Free Asia (RFA), flour was priced at 4,000-4,600 North Korean Won (£3.67-£4.22) per kilogramme in 2019.

The pandemic then caused it to skyrocket to as much as 30,000 NKW (£27.52) per kilogramme.

It has now settled at around 18,000 won ($16.51) per kilogramme, much lower than during COVID, but still three times more expensive than rice, long considered a luxury reserved for the wealthiest North Koreans. The majority of the populace mix rice with other ingredients or replace it with the cheaper corn or millet, said RFA.

A source told the US-funded non-profit news source that foods made with flour are typically brought out to flaunt a host’s standing to dinner guests.

“It’s the most prosperous households that can buy imported flour from the marketplace and make foods like bread and jijim (savory pancakes).”

Flour and COVID

North Korea relied heavily on Russia and China for its flour imports. The country’s climate, terrain and soil conditions are not particularly favourable for farming – reportedly only 1.48m hectares of cropland out of a total area of 12m hectares. Compounding the situation is its farming methods. According to BBC report, Pyongyang may have some of the world’s most sophisticated military tech, but it lacks the modern machinery needed for farming.

The outbreak of the COVID pandemic caused North Korea to close its borders in January 2020, halting almost all trade and causing internal flour prices to soar. In addition, the country was hit by floods, which reduced the yield of grain grown in the country even further.

China resumed trade with North Korea in January this year – with imports (mainly wheat flour and edible oil) leaping to $173.4m from $13m a year earlier – but the reclusive country quickly shut boarders again amid a renewed outbreak in China, said RFA.

According to data from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), North Korea is facing food shortages estimated at 860,000 tons – about two to three months of food use.

The CIA’s World Factbook reports, “A large portion of the population suffers from low levels of food consumption and very poor dietary diversity; the economic constraints, particularly resulting from the global impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic, have increased the population's vulnerability to food insecurity.”

Hot ticket

Bread is a universal food, bound in culinary tradition in one form or another in every country around the world – a symbol of culture, history and anthropology, of hunger and of wealth. In fact, in North Korea, it is considered more desirable than a luxury handbag or watch.

“When the price of flour is more than two or three times that of rice, as it is now, bread and mandu (dumplings) suddenly become food that only the high-ranking officials and fabulously wealthy can afford to eat. So, foods made with flour are now a symbol of wealth,”​ said the RFA source.

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