North Korea’s medicinal plant-picking season in full throttle

Medicinal plants on offer at a health food store in Pyongyang
Medicinal plants on offer at a health food store in Pyongyang. Image: Daily NK

With the onset of summer, North Koreans in Ryanggang Province are busily collecting medicinal plants, Daily NK sources report.

Ryanggang Province is a mountainous region of the country upstream of both the Tumen and Yalu rivers. With the exception of the province’s northernmost region, the area is surrounded by mountains 2,000 meters or higher. The average altitude of the province is 1,339 meters. Medicinal plants from the province are very popular due to the area’s high altitude.

North Korean medicinal plants are not restricted for export under international sanctions. Most of the plants are exported to China through smuggling rings for medicinal use. This under-the-table industry helps to provide many North Koreans in the area with extra income.

“It’s the right time for medicinal plants to be harvested, so there’s a lot more selaginella and gentian in the local markets nowadays,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source. “Trading companies are really busy collecting medicinal plants from each village in the province.”

Traders are demanding that ordinary North Koreans take part in the collecting of medicinal plants desired by Chinese consumers. “People head to the mountains to collect gentian during the spring and summer because the plants are considered more potent during those periods,” said the source. “Medicinal plants collected in Ryanggang Province are considered particularly potent, so even people from other regions come to the province to pick them.”

The source also added that a wide variety of medicinal plants, including Chinese clematis, are completely sold out at local markets within days. “Doctors and traders buy what they need at the markets, so the plants sell like hotcakes,” said the source.

Hyesan residents also buy the plants to help treat fevers and simple ailments, a separate source in Ryanggang Province added.

“The mountains in the province are more than 2,000 meters high so the wild plants that grow there go for a premium price, even when they are smuggled. Many people pick the plants in Pukgyongson, which is on the border between Paekam County in Ryanggang Province and North Hamgyong Province,” said the source.

“People can buy several sacks of flour after a weeks’ picking of the plants. They just stay up in the mountains during that time to pick what they can.”

She also added that there is competition and even fights between locals and outsiders picking the plants.

“Even students from the Pharmacology College in Sariwon (in North Hwanghae Province) pick medicinal plants in the area,” she said. “People say that it’s because of the mountains – not the Workers’ Party of Korea – that they can survive here.”