The DPRK Reduced to Trading in Ginseng


This is pretty much where a communist economy—with, as they used to say, Korean characteristics—leads you. The government of Pyongyang is attempting to pay off its $10 million debt to the Czech Republic, accrued when Prague was occupied by the Russians, in ginseng. The AP has details:

North Korea proposed during talks in July that the Czechs forgive 95 percent of the debt but that was unacceptable, Czech officials said. The Czechs then suggested the North Koreans could pay in goods.

North Korea proposed sending medical products made of ginseng. The ginseng root is touted as a cure-all for everything from headaches to sexual dysfunction.

The ministry said it has not received an official offer yet.

On a related note, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both positively review a new history of the Korean War by Bruce Cumings, the University of Chicago historian who thinks that the DPRK is deeply misunderstood in the West. I've ordered the book and will probably write something on it in the future (though it sounds like an updated version of Izzy Stone's Hidden History of the Korean War), but just as background on Cumings, I recommend this piece in The Atlantic by historian B.R. Meyers, author of the terrific new book on North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race. It is worth quoting at some length:

You've just finished your life's work, a bold new history of the Watergate burglary in which you manage to prove that the White House was out of the loop, but the ink is hardly dry when an eighteen-minute tape surfaces in a Yorba Linda thrift shop, and soon the whole country is listening to Nixon gangsta-rap about how he personally jimmied the door open. It's every revisionist's nightmare, but Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, has come closest to living it. In a book concluded in 1990 he argued that the Korean War started as "a local affair," and that the conventional notion of a Soviet-sponsored invasion of the South was just so much Cold War paranoia. In 1991 Russian authorities started declassifying the Soviet archives, which soon revealed that Kim Il Sung had sent dozens of telegrams begging Stalin for a green light to invade, and that the two met in Moscow repeatedly to plan the event. Initially hailed as "magisterial," The Origins of the Korean War soon gathered up its robes and retired to chambers. The book was such a valuable source of information on Korea in the 1940s, however, that many hoped the author would find a way to fix things and put it back into print.

Instead Cumings went on to write an account of postwar Korea that instances the North's "miracle rice," "autarkic" economy, and prescient energy policy (an "unqualified success") to refute what he calls the "basket-case" view of the country. With even worse timing than its predecessor, Korea's Place in the Sun (1997) went on sale just as the world was learning of a devastating famine wrought by Pyongyang's misrule. The author must have wondered if he was snakebit. But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More's Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it's as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime's gulags aren't as bad as they're made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time.

Be sure to read the whole thing.