Pine mushrooms shipped en masse to Pyongyang: inter-Korean summit gifts?

Chilbosan mushrooms presented as gifts during the 2007 inter-Korean summit. Image: The Roh Moo Hyun Foundation

Premium pine mushrooms have traditionally been a major export item for North Korea. Sources report that a large shipment was recently sent to the country’s capital, Pyongyang. Given past precedent, the mushrooms could be presented as gifts during the upcoming inter-Korean summit planned for September 18-20 in Pyongyang.

“The authorities are sending premium pine mushrooms grown in Hamgyong Province to Pyongyang,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on September 13. “Pine mushrooms have been sent to Pyongyang in the past to supply the city’s luxury restaurants, but officials seem to be spending more time choosing the best ones and are sending more than usual.”

A separate source in North Hamgyong Province corroborated this news, while noting some people suspect that [the authorities] are planning to give the mushrooms to President Moon Jae In during the summit.

North Korea sent three tons of Chilbosan pine mushrooms to South Korea’s Blue House as a Chuseok gift after the 2000 inter-Korean summit, and another four tons of the mushrooms following the 2007 inter-Korean summit.

A former high-ranking North Korean official who defected to South Korea told Daily NK, “You have to sell [eat] the pine mushrooms quickly if you want them to stay fresh,” and that “pine mushrooms were given as gifts at the first two inter-Korean summits so it seems it will happen this time as well.”  

Rumors of the mushrooms being intended as gifts for the inter-Korean summit seem credible, as they would normally be sold for a large profit in China.

The North Korean authorities have mobilized residents to pick pine mushrooms during the harvesting season under the pretext of “earning foreign currency for loyalty [to the regime].” In exchange for the harvested mushrooms, the authorities have given people flour, ground sugar, and [rubber] boots.

The specifics of the exchange varies by year, but generally the authorities give North Koreans ten kilos of flour per kilo of pine mushrooms. Ten kilos of flour is worth around 60,000 North Korean won (around US $7.50), and the mushrooms go for around 350-400 yuan ($51-58) per kilo in Yanji, China. So for the authorities, pine mushrooms can earn a profit of around $43-51 per kilo.

The North Korean state is experiencing difficulties obtaining funds due to international sanctions, and observers suspect there are specific reasons why the authorities have recently given up the import of altoran [a type of small potato] to earn foreign currency.

The cultivation and harvest of pine mushrooms is handled by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP)’s Office 39, which manages Kim Jong Un’s state funds. The distribution and sale of the mushrooms is prohibited domestically, and severe punishment awaits those who illegally distribute or smuggle mushrooms out of the country.

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