North eases trade rules on corn, rice

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North eases trade rules on corn, rice

North Korea has added corn and rice to the list of items to be monitored for price hikes at markets in Pyongyang, a South Korean official said yesterday, suggesting that food staples are increasingly traded privately in the capital as its rationing system falters.

A Unification Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the information’s classified nature, said North Korean authorities recently introduced price caps on the two staples at markets in Pyongyang.

“The regime appears to be increasingly allowing markets to take over the role its rationing system once played,” the official said, adding that the two items were not on the monitor list when his ministry obtained a copy of the document in February.

North Korea allows a limited number of markets to operate independently under strict rules. The country apparently cracked down on its growing merchant class when it conducted a sweeping currency reform last year.

Observers say the botched reform worsened food shortages by causing merchants to hoard food stocks, even triggering rare acts of social unrest in some parts of the country. Pyongyang has so far been generally considered immune from the food shortages.

In addition to the food woes, North Korea has been placed under tough U.S.-led sanctions for its nuclear testing and alleged sinking of the South Korean Cheonan vessel in March. The U.S. said this week that it is considering more measures to make the North abandon its nuclear arms programs.

In a related development, a Unification Ministry report said earlier this week that the price of farm products such as beans, chicken, corn and rice shot up two to three times from February to July.

The report said the increases can also be attributed to the appreciation of the Chinese yuan. Because North Korea imports many of its products from China, the rise of the yuan’s value can also affect the purchasing power of North Korea.

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