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A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P6: The food stamp story

Thursday, November 17, 2016, 17:19 GMT+7

While citizens of the capital of Pyongyang have fared relatively well, people in other parts of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea still worry about a scarcity of food.

Choe Un Mi, the tour guide for a group of two Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporters and other companions who recently traveled there, revealed that each person in North Korea was granted 600 grams of food per day and one kilogram of meat each month.

It is a situation that bears a striking resemblance to the subsidy period in Vietnam, which ended in 1986.

During the subsidy period, food and all goods and services were purchased using coupons or food stamps issued by the Vietnamese government.

The Tuoi Tre reporters’ investigation reveals a long history behind the rationing of food.

Living in Pyongyang a privilege

Today the North Korean government continues to run the state-subsidy program and grants food and daily necessities to citizens in the form of coupons or stamps.

Le Quang Ba, Vietnamese Ambassador to North Korea between 2011 and 2014, recalled seeing different kinds of stamps, which look similar to their Vietnamese counterparts back in the 1980s and are no larger than the average postage stamp.

The stamps are used for food and fuel, while residents have their own record book of food purchases, just as Vietnamese people did during their subsidy period.

There are different distribution outlets according to the stamps received.

Professor and Architect Nguyen Quoc Thong, deputy chair of the Vietnam Association of Architects, recollected average people in plain clothes or even in army uniforms queuing up in front of shops with their bags or rucksacks during his visit to Pyongyang in August 2016.

His assumption that they were buying food and necessities with their stamps was confirmed by a diplomatic officer.

According to former Vietnamese Ambassador to North Korea Duong Chinh Thuc, the East Asian country was not suffering from food scarcity during the mid-1990s.

“During my term in North Korea, there was enough rice to go round, with each citizen granted 13.5 kilograms a month. However, food got gradually harder to come by as a devastating result of the embargo the U.S. imposed on the nation,” he recalled.

Without taking into consideration other kinds of food and daily essentials, such a regime satisfies the ‘quantum of solace’ that international aid organizations have set.

“Maybe residents of Pyongyang are entitled to such a food rationing regime. Living there is a privilege. The country considers the capital a fortress of socialism, for those living there this is a great advantage,” one diplomatic officer said.

“There are checkpoints on roads to and from Pyongyang. Goods brought into or out of the capital are closely scrutinized,” he noted.

The countryside not so bright

Pham Ngoc Canh, who studied in Hamhŭng City, North Korea's second largest city, in 1967, shared his hopes that “Vietnamese rural areas would one day be on a par with those of North Korea’s,” as soon as he set foot on the country.     

Around 90 percent of North Korea’s rural areas were connected to the national grid back then.

The country’s industry sector also made strides thanks to the infrastructure left behind by Japan.

The old North Korea would produce most of its agricultural machinery which was capable of performing various tasks in preparing, sowing and harvesting the soil.

Former Ambassador Ba still remembers his visit to a farm, around 50 kilometers from Pyongyang.

“All production phases there were mechanized. I maneuvered the machine for half a day, while my wife put seedlings into the machine,” he recalled.   

Despite mechanized agriculture, North Korea remains crippled by geographical disadvantages including all-mountainous terrain, narrow delta strips, and limited agricultural soil.

Its frigid climate also results in only one crop per year and relentless crop failures, which have plunged the country into prolonged food shortages.  

As observed by former Ambassador Duong Chinh Thuc, North Korea has experienced unrelenting crop failures since the late 1980s, which worsen every year thanks to the U.S. embargo.

Farmers are left empty-handed after their sole crop fails for consecutive years.

Former Ambassador Ba calculated that with a population of almost 25 million, North Korea needs more than seven million metric tons of food each year to eradicate hunger based on the average benchmark of 300kg/per capita/year.

However, the country harvests less than six million metric tons even in its best year, leaving it in dire need of at least half a million tons of food every year.

The constant food deficiency and priority given to the capital city Pyongyang, and perhaps some other cities, paint a gloomy picture for rural areas, the diplomat stressed.

“I visited many families in North Korea. I always opened their ‘rice record book,’ which featured mostly corn, including near-rotten ones, sweet potatoes and small potatoes,” Ba said. 

“There were months when locals received up to 10 kilograms of corn and potatoes, with rice nowhere to be seen.”

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports, due to prolonged drought in 2015, North Korea’s total amount of staple grains dropped by nine percent to approximately 5.4 million metric tons compared to 5.9 million metric tons in 2014.

This is the first fall since 2010 with the country’s staple grain security situation predicted to deteriorate.

Rice, the crucial staple grain, plummeted by 26 percent to a mere 1.9 million metric tons.

Corn, the second most important staple, shrank by three percent to 2.29 million metric tons.

Meanwhile drought- and heat-resistant plants saw soaring yields, with soybean rising by 37 percent to 220,000 metric tons and cereals tripling the yield of 2014, rising to 156,000 metric tons.

FAO estimated North Korea’s import demand for the 2015-2016 season was 694,000 metric tons.

However, the North Korean government imported a mere 300,000 metric tons, only half of the estimated deficiency.

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