With food prices on the rise in North Korea, a Pyongyang restaurant serving the city’s signature dish has had to abandon price controls, causing a more than twentyfold increase and making a casual meal outside the house an expensive luxury that ordinary residents of the capital can no longer afford, sources told RFA.
Naengmyeon is a savory buckwheat noodle dish served cold that is enjoyed by many during the hot summer months. Though the dish is believed to have originated in North Korea, it exploded in popularity in the South after the Korean War and is available in Korean restaurants worldwide.
The two most popular styles of naengmyeon are the spicy, brothless variety that originated in the eastern coastal city of Hamhung, and Pyongyang naengmyeon, served in chilled beef broth, with a healthy accompaniment of vegetables and sliced beef, if available.
In Pyongyang, naengmyeon in a state-run restaurant could be had for about 300 won (U.S. $0.05), a price that was locked in by government policy to keep the cost of living stable for the capital’s residents, who have the privilege of not living in the impoverished provinces, sources told RFA.
But food shortages brought on by the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of all trade with China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic have made prices in even the state-run Pyongyang restaurants skyrocket to the point that a quick lunch of cold noodles is too expensive for the average person.
“Okryu-gwan, a state-run restaurant that is an official showcase restaurant of Pyongyang and specializes in naengmyeon has raised the price above the state-controlled rate to actual market price, causing resentment among the people,” a resident of the capital city recently told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The symbolism of Okryu-gwan as an institution that serves the people has completely disappeared, because the price of food, which had always been low because of price controls, has suddenly increased more than twenty times,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Okryu-gwan has a storied history. Originally founded in the 1960s under the direction of national founder and then leader Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, the restaurant was in some ways a center of culinary culture in the city, according to the source. Okryu-gwan was the site of a luncheon during the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, where Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In symbolically dined at the same table, with Pyongyang naengmyeon as the main course.
Food supplies had always been guaranteed by the government, and this allowed the restaurant to keep prices well below market cost, making it one of the most popular dining destinations in the city.
“The restaurant provided meal vouchers to the factories and neighborhood watch units. Then they provided food, such as naengmyeon, to people who could have the meal vouchers at a low, nationally guaranteed price,” the source said.
“However, since June, the meal voucher disappeared, and they raised the price from 300 won ($0.05) for a bowl of naengmyeon to the market price of 7,000 won ($1.15),” the source said.
“The average monthly salary of ordinary workers in Pyongyang is 2,000 to 3,000 won ($0.32-0.49), but a bowl of naengmyeon is more than two months’ wages, so how can ordinary citizens afford that?”
Divided by class
Even though Okryu-gwan had in the past been affordable, there had always been a two-tiered system in place, the source explained.
“These state-run restaurants would provide food at market prices to foreigners, high-ranking officials, and the rich,” said the source.
“The privileged people who could pay market price dined in a separate space inside Okryu-gwan and were able to enjoy various other dishes besides naengmyeon. But ordinary people who had to show a meal voucher would only be able to eat naengmyeon,” the source said.
Another resident of Pyongyang confirmed to RFA Sept. 5 that Okryu-gwan had raised its prices to market rates.
“The price increase, coupled with shortened restaurant hours due to the food shortage, has caused a drop-off in the number of customers visiting the restaurant to eat naengmyeon,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The second source said that the sharp increase in the restaurant’s prices signified that Okryu-gwan no longer has the mission of serving the citizens of the capital.
“Criticism from the citizens is pouring in. Before the pandemic, Okryu-gwan was open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. with plenty of food supplied by the state. These days it’s only open twice a day, from noon to 2 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. because of the food shortage,” the second source said.
“It’s not only Okryu-gwan, but also other famous restaurants made to serve the people like Cheongryu-gwan, the Koryo Hotel restaurant, and the restaurant at the Daesung Department Store have raised their food prices all at once.”
The price increases are causing the people to grumble that the country’s leadership does not care about them, according to the second source.
“The citizens complain that General Secretary Kim Jong Un has repeatedly emphasized his ‘people-first principle’ in various important government meetings this year, but their living standards continue to get worse and worse.”
A quarter century after famine killed as many as a tenth of North Korea’s 23 million people, the food situation in North Korea is again dire, with starvation deaths reported in the wake of the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of trade with China in Jan. 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In addition to heavy rains in summer that caused severe flooding and destroyed crops in some areas, output at many farms is reduced by a lack of equipment and materials, a result of the long closure of the border with China.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.