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N. Koreans Sent to Dangerous Mountain to Gather Mushrooms

N. Koreans Sent to Dangerous Mountain to Gather Mushrooms

Posted October. 10, 2007 07:40,   


One scorching day in mid-August 2000, I was all drenched in sweat while searching for pine mushrooms for a week at Mt. Chilbo in Myeongcheon-gun, North Hamgyong Province of North Korea.

For more than 10 hours per day, I had to climb the mountain while shouldering a knapsack containing rice, water, and a cooking pot. At night, I slept curled up near a campfire. And in the morning, I got up at 6:00 a.m. and resumed climbing, because mushrooms are found most at dawn before the dew dried.

From the top of the peculiar-shaped Mt. Chilbo, we can see a valley very clearly. But reaching the valley takes more than a 2-hour journey at one’s full stretch. One slight mistake can bring about a fall down a cliff.

Thirty-something Mr. Choi, my companion who works at a farm, is a native in the stretch of Mt. Chilbo and a renowned pine mushroom collector in his town. He explained many useful things to me.

“That is the No.9 district which the Workers’ Party manages. Pine mushrooms are harvested most in that area, but authorities collect it all. No one is allowed to enter there, and intruders go to jail.”

“You can be a dead man at any second if you go the area over there. It belongs to a villa of our fatherly leader.”

Furthermore, there are so many forbidden places such as the navy bases and the liaison bases.

Mr. Choi once pointed up a steep cliff, saying, “The area is famous for growing black fungus mushrooms, while also claiming many lives.”

When looking up at the cliff thoroughly, I could see many people clinging to it.

He smiled back at my dubious face and asked, “Do you know how much 1kg of black fungus mushroom cost? And do you know how many people die while gathering mushrooms on Mt. Chilbo every year?”

Agents from a government-run office purchase pine mushrooms each season. They pay 10kg of rice for 1kg of top grade pine mushrooms. Currently, 10kg of rice cost only about 15,000 won in North Korea and less than $5 on the black market.

On the other hand, top grade pine mushrooms from North Korea have been sold at 95,000 won per kg in South Korea.

Mushrooms are the main income source of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, exporting its exclusively-purchased mushrooms. Every August and September, the Workers’ Party dispatches people from all over to gather mushrooms and allocates certain goal to each team. People have to make up for the shortage if they cannot achieve the goal. I was also sent to Mt. Chilbo to gather mushrooms.