North Korean officials import luxury foods ahead of Lunar New Year

People complain that authorities bend the rules so officials can properly eat on Seollal.
By Hyemin Son
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North Korean officials import luxury foods ahead of Lunar New Year This photo of a North Korean ship heading to Ryongychon, North Korea, full of imported food from China was provided by a North Korean source in Donggang, China.

Ships arriving from China carrying fruits, oil and sugar are entering North Korea across the Yalu River border to deliver the goods ahead of Seollal, the Lunar New Year holiday, but sources told RFA the goods were for officials of the State Security Department, not for the general public.

Seollal, along with the harvest holiday Chuseok, are the two most important holidays in both North and South Korea. During both holidays families gather together and pay respects to their ancestors while sharing a huge feast.

North Korea is suffering from severe food shortages, mostly due to the closure of the border with China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Jan. 2020. Though rail freight between the two countries resumed last week, many of the key ingredients are still in short supply.

But those with power and privilege will use it to make sure their family can have a proper feast, the sources said.

“Since the beginning of last week in Ryongychon Port, which faces Donggang Port in China, small and medium-sized vessels have been frequently going to and from both ports across the Yalu River, at the point where it joins the West Sea,” an official from a trading agency told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday, using a Korean term for the sea between China and the Korean peninsula, known internationally as the Yellow Sea.

“These ships are mainly loaded with fruits, cooking oil and sugar, and all the ships … belong to the General Bureau of Border Security, under the Ministry of State Security,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The authorities gave special permission to the trading companies run by the bureau to import supplies needed for Seollal so that officials of the Ministry of State Security could celebrate properly, he said.

“The ships are able to go into Donggang in the morning and load up on boxes of food, then return to Ryongchon around 4 p.m. Before they can unload their goods, the ships must go through a thorough quarantine and disinfection procedure before the food can be put in storage,” the official said.

“After a week, the food is put on freight vehicles and transported to each region and supplied as gifts to officials from the ministry in each region,” he said.

A source living near the port in Donggang said time is of the essence when North Korean ships arrive.

“The workers from the Donghang food company load the fruits and food boxes onto the boats, which immediately leave once loading is finished and the items covered,” he said.

From there, they travel to Ryongchon to be unloaded by workers at the pier.

“All the goods coming into Ryongchon ahead of Seollal are covered with a blue screen when we unload it, so the general public cannot recognize the contents,” a third source working at the pier in Ryongchon told RFA on condition of anonymity.

“But the people here in Ryongchon are all aware that the ships are carrying holiday goods for officials of the Ministry of State Security,” the worker said.

Residents are resentful that they make special exceptions for themselves while the people suffer, the dockworker said.

“The authorities closed off the border under the pretext of COVID-19, but they have no qualms reopening maritime trade so they can get their holiday gifts.”

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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