Heavy rain, salt scarcity in North Korea may complicate kimchi season

Stores of a favored salt variety used to make the popular dish have been washed away in the past month.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2022.08.24
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Heavy rain, salt scarcity in North Korea may complicate kimchi season North Korea’s Kwisong Saltern, seen in this 2016 photo, produces salt from ultra-salinated water pumped from underground.
KCNA via Reuters

A salt shortage in North Korea made worse by heavy rains this summer could disrupt the country’s kimchi-making season this autumn, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea is in the thick of its July-August rainy season, and sources have reported that heavy rains and flooding have destroyed crops, businesses and homes.

The rains have also dissolved mountains of salt piled up outdoors, especially on the country’s west coast, which produces the variety of salt preferred for cooking.

Now merchants are desperately scouring the countryside to find as much salt as they can, as prices will likely skyrocket when demand spikes higher during the approaching kimchi season.

Kimchi is traditionally made in the fall on the Korean peninsula. Arguably Korea’s most well-known food, kimchi arose out of the necessity of preserving vegetables so they could last through the long Siberian winter.

These days, merchants from all over the country are flocking to each salt field on the West Coast, including here in South Pyongan province,” a resident of Onchon county in the province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“This is because of a rampant shortage of salt. The salt fields on the West Coast failed to produce sufficient salt this year to cover for last year,” the source said.

Even before the rains came in mid-July, the country was low on salt.

“Last year, the authorities banned the production of salt, warning of a high risk of [coronavirus] infection through the sea,” the source said. International health experts have not identified contact with saltwater as a risk for contracting COVID-19.  

North Korea in May declared a national “maximum emergency” after a major outbreak of coronavirus in the previous month. The resulting lockdown prevented salt production in Onchon county, according to the source.

“From mid-July, inclement weather and pouring rain have again disrupted salt production,” said the source. “There is no storage for salt in the salt fields, so the salt produced is piled up outdoors to remove the brine.

“All of the salt that had been stored has dissolved. This was ruinous to all the salt mills in the county,” the source said.

According to the source, salt has been in short supply in North Korea since the “Arduous March,” what Koreans call the 1994-1998 North Korean famine which killed millions, up to 10 percent of the population by some estimates. 

“The authorities assigned many young people to each salt mill from last year to solve the salt shortage, but they have yet to see any effect,” said the source.

“Residents who work in the salt mills steal a little bit of salt every time they come home from work and store it in their house, then they sell it during the kimchi season, when the salt prices go up,” said the source. “This pays for their food and coal. This year, very few houses have enough salt to sell in the fall. The residents are worrying about how they will survive this upcoming winter.” 

The disruption to salt production this year is expected to decrease output nationwide by more than half compared to last year, but there is a possibility that production could increase slightly if there is good weather at the end of this month, the source said.

The rains and the coronavirus also disrupted production in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, a source from the city of Chongjin told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Even with the nationwide shortage, people still want the salt from the West Coast, according to the second source.

“It is because there is a tidal flat in the West Sea, so the salt produced there is rich in minerals,” the second source said, referring to the body of water west of the peninsula, known internationally as the Yellow Sea.

“Cooking with [West Sea] salt tastes better. The salt from the West Sea is considered the best quality,” said the second source.

“Currently, the price of 1 kg of salt in the market exceeds 2,200 won per kilogram (U.S. $0.12 per lb.), but it is certain that it will rise even more when kimchi season comes,” the second source said. “I used to worry about food. Now I even worry about salt. This world is cruel.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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