North Korean authorities have imposed limits on the operating hours of local markets nationwide to encourage residents to go the fields and collect manure to use as fertilizer in light of a shortage of chemical fertilizer, sources inside the country said.
On Jan. 9, authorities shortened the operating hours of jangmadang to 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. from the regular operating hours of 8 a.m. (noon in some areas) to 9 p.m. so North Koreans could focus on the “first battle” of the new year—manure collection.
Such mandatory mass mobilization campaigns, or “battles” as the regime likes to call them, are routine in North Korea, where authorities use them to mobilize manpower for various projects and measure citizens’ loyalty to the state and Korean Workers’ Party.
The move has caused great discontent among locals, many of whom shop for food and other necessities during the day, they said.
“The North Korean authorities have changed the operating hours of the local markets to the same operating hours as they did last year during the ‘200-day battle’ period starting on Jan. 9, which is the day after [leader] Kim Jong Un’s birthday,” said a source from Jagang province, in a reference to the regime’s early 2016 effort to jumpstart a new five-year economic plan for the nation.
“With the change in operating hours, there are signs of rising prices,” he said.
Between April and October 2015, when North Korea held a 70th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party, authorities restricted the operating hours of the local markets from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and made people work on construction projects, the source said.
They did the same during the “200-day battle,” he said.
The source said that as the number of complaints about the limited market hours has grown, authorities are making excuses that the move is an unavoidable measure for the “first battle” of the New Year, he said.
“As a result of limiting the operating hours, the prices of groceries including eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts have all gone up,” the source said.
But a source who works in the agricultural sector in North Hamgyong province supported the move.
“In order to produce manure for the New Year, there is no choice except to limit the operating hours of markets,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
Fertilizer imports not enough
Chemical fertilizers—the most important component in the North Korean farming industry—are mainly produced from crude petroleum.
North Korea made a large purchase of crude oil at low prices from Russia last year, so the country was able to produce a considerable amount of fertilizer on its own, said the source who works in the agricultural sector in North Hamgyong province.
But it still had to import some chemical fertilizer from China in 2016 to make up for shortages, he said, adding that this year the situation is “totally different” because it is now more difficult to import fertilizer from China.
There is now a slowdown in trade with China as many private Chinese traders who operate in North Korea return home to celebrate the Lunar New Year which begins on Jan. 28, sources said. This, along with the limited market operating hours, has led to a general increase in product prices, he said.
The source from North Hamgyong province also said that while residents in various cities feel they are being inconvenienced by the limited operating hours of local markets, the markets in general have not had normal operating hours since 2015 because of the regime’s continuous “battles.”
Residents are expressing their discontent and questioning how authorities will be able to guarantee them their livelihoods if they have less time to shop for food and other necessities in local markets and must pay higher prices for products, he said.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.