This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Local governments in North Korea are scrambling to make candies in preparation for a nationwide celebration of leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday in January, but the government is forcing hungry citizens to pay for it, sources in the country told RFA.
At a time when the country is struggling with food shortages said to be almost as bad as the 1990s famine, the nationwide baking project has made a huge dent in flour and sugar supplies, doubling prices, and funneling money away from the people who need it to buy food for themselves.
“Since yesterday, the price of one kilogram of flour has jumped from 12,000 won (U.S. $2.40) to 30,000 won ($6). The price of sugar has also jumped from 13,000 won to 25,000 won,” a resident of Unsan, South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“It’s all because the central government has ordered that each province must produce and supply confections as gifts for children from Kim Jong Un for his birthday on January 8,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The gift of sweets to children on or around the birthday of the country’s leader or his predecessors has been a longtime tradition in the north, dating back to the era of Kim’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung.
Early on in Kim Jong Un’s rule, candies were supplied to expectant mothers and students in daycare and elementary schools on Jan. 8, but since 2019, the government expanded candy gifts to every child across the country, to be received on Jan. 1.
“The amount of imported flour and sugar circulating in local markets is very limited because border trade has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prices for flour and sugar will continue to rise until food factories finish producing the confections,” said the source from Unsan.
The current economic devastation and widespread food shortages are due to North Korea’s closed border with China and suspension of all trade with Beijing at the start of the pandemic, almost two years ago.
The lack of food imports to bridge the gap between domestic production and demand made shortages more pronounced. The closed border also makes it harder for the country to scrape together enough sugar for candy, as most of it prior to the pandemic had been coming from China, according to the source.
With prices on the rise, some local governments are forcing the people to pay for the ingredients.
“Starting today, food factories in Uiju county have started producing confections for Kim Jong Un’s birthday present,” a resident of the county in North Pyongan province, in the country’s northwest, told RFA.
“To purchase the raw materials for confections, the county party directly imposed a tax of 5,000 won on each household,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The local government has a deadline to finish the candy by Dec. 20, so it has started directly controlling distribution of all flour and sugar in the county to secure enough of each ingredient to the food factories, according to the second source.
The result has been that even less flour and sugar reach the markets.
“They even demanded each house provide one egg for confection production. As people must purchase the eggs for donation at the local marketplace, the market is running out of eggs,” the second source said.
“Residents are angry that the authorities are wiping out the pockets of the people at a time like this to make candy for children, supposedly from Kim Jong Un for his birthday.”
RFA reported in March 2020 that celebrations, including production of candy gifts, for the birth anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, were scaled down that February due to the start of the pandemic.
By March 2020, however, the whole country was ordered to scramble to make enough candy to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birth anniversary in April that year.