Pine mushrooms smuggled from North Korea into China are being seized from private traders by security agents, who sometimes sell the sought-after delicacy to smuggling gangs and pocket the profits, North Korean sources say.
Considered a valuable source of foreign currency by North Korea’s cash-strapped regime, the mushrooms fetch low prices when sold directly to trading firms controlled by the country’s military, a source in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“North Korea rarely buys pine mushrooms at a proper price at [official] purchasing offices,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They say whatever they can to downgrade the value of the first and second-best quality pine mushrooms, and give the seller only a kilogram of flour, or about 3 Chinese yuan [U.S. $0.44], for each kilogram of pine mushrooms, “ the source said.
“But middlemen who buy pine mushrooms for smuggling to China will pay from 200 to 300 Chinese yuan [U.S. $29.22 to $43.83] per kilogram, so people do their best to sell pine mushrooms to the middlemen instead,” he said.
To crack down on the private trade. North Korea’s security agency has now set up checkpoints on all the roads leading to mountain areas where the mushrooms are found, and some traders lose every mushroom they have collected when they are caught, the source said.
“The authorities are desperately trying to stop the private pine mushroom trade,” he said.
Pocketing the money
Also speaking to RFA, a second North Hamgyong source said that many of the pine mushrooms now being smuggled across the river into China have been bought from individual collectors at “a proper price.”
“However, some of the mushrooms being smuggled are the same ones seized earlier, and these are now being smuggled by the security agents and judicial authorities themselves,” he said.
Security agents based in Hoeryong city recently carried out a surprise crackdown on the trade and seized about 10 kilograms of the mushrooms, the source said, adding, “But the agents then sold the seized mushrooms to the smugglers and pocketed all the money.”
These authorities constantly warn people away from the private trade, telling them that those who “sneak mushrooms” out of the country are “eating the Party’s funds,” the source said.
“However, they shamelessly smuggle the same pine mushrooms that they have seized from individuals, so they are heavily criticized by the people,” he said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.