North Korea is seeing an uptick in loach farming as residents hope to survive poor economic conditions and food shortages by raising the small mudfish to consume or to sell in the marketplace, sources in the country told RFA.
The species of loach native to China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula lives in the muddy waters of streams, creeks and rice paddies and is easy to catch and raise. The loaches are most often boiled into a thick soup called chueo-tang, seasoned with perilla seed powder, garlic and other vegetables, and said to replenish stamina and promote healthy skin.
As the rainy season starts in the Korean peninsula, rural citizens in the North are digging ditches near their houses to make mud puddles, a perfect habitat for the protein-packed loaches, a resident of Songchon county, South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“During the rainy season, they can make a wide and deep puddle and fill it with rainwater. After about two weeks, soft mud appears on the bottom of the puddle which provides a good environment for loach farming,” he said.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the flow of goods across borders has been suspended and the routes of business were blocked. The increase in loach farming is one of the alternative means of livelihood people devised after agonizing about how to make a living,” the source said.
Most North Korean families cannot support themselves with the salaries from their government-assigned jobs, and therefore must go into business for themselves. Out of this necessity, a nascent market economy has emerged.
Much of that economy depends on the purchase and sale of Chinese goods, but Beijing and Pyongyang shut down the Sino-Korean border at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020 and suspended all trade, a move that left many people with no means of earning a living.
Earlier this year, rail freight resumed briefly, but new outbreaks of the virus in China led to another shutdown.
Now people who once traded Chinese products, either imported or smuggled across the border, are turning to the ubiquitous mudfish to get by.
The source said loaches are in high demand in North Korea, as they are high in protein and nutritional value and cost less than pork.
They also reproduce quickly, he said. A farm built using baby loaches during the rainy season, which is roughly July through August, will produce enough mudfish to sell at the marketplace only three or four months later. People can sell the loaches and use the money to buy food, or they and their families can eat the fish themselves.
People in Yomju county, in the northwestern province of North Pyongan, are getting into the loach farming business in large numbers, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The province lies just across the border from China, and the lack of trade with North Korea’s northern neighbor has forced many to find other ways to support themselves.
“After freight train service was completely suspended at the end of April, there seems to be no hope that border trade will resume. Merchants who used to sell imported goods in the marketplace are changing their business to something else,” the second source said.
“They deal with the shortage of imported goods by using domestic resources. … They can set up a greenhouse for vegetables on top of their apartments or a loach farm in their yard if they have a house,” he said.
The loach farming business is popular because it is easy to get started, the second source said.
“They do not require a lot of initial investment. If you can make a puddle when it rains, like in the rainy season now … the rainwater collects and creates soft, natural mud. The mud is the key condition for loach farming,” he said.
“When soft mud appears on the bottom of the puddle, farmers put a layer of cow dung on it. After about a week, microorganisms are thriving and the baby loaches can eat them for food. So residents are looking for a way to live off of loach farming,” the second source said.
Loaches are sold for 4,000 to 5,000 won per kilogram (U.S. $0.25 to 0.31) in North Korean markets. They are in higher demand in autumn, which is the peak season for chueo-tang. Loach prices can almost double to 7,000 to 8,000 won per kilogram during the fall months.
The two sources said that the loaches being raised now are intended for sale after the prices rise.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean.