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.


NEXT: The Original Mad Man

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  1. Threadjack!

    Nasty Weigel takedown at the WSJ today.

    A sample:

    We learned about it from David Weigel, the erstwhile journolist best known for his recent firing by the Washington Post Co. Weigel, who now works for the Washington Post Co., says he expects Dems “to react with a combination of teeth-gnashing and head-in-hands-depression” to the Pew finding. He can sympathize:

    1. This too:

      Obama, uncharacteristically, didn’t blame Bush for TARP. Instead, he sought to share credit for what he cast as an unpopular but necessary measure. To judge by the results of the Pew poll, voters are very generous to Obama in apportioning this credit.

    2. I just don’t get Dave. How do you hang out at Reason yet become such a rah-raher for lefty statism? He’s really lost it–I always thought he leaned leftwards, but now he’s sounding like the lesser-known Hannity of the left.

    3. And this:

      In any case, why would one expect voters to know that Bush, not Obama, signed TARP? It’s not as though the Democrats have put the program at the center of their anti-Bush campaign. Trying to do so would be more than a little awkward, since it was a bipartisan bill whose congressional supporters included not just Obama but also his vice president, four members of his cabinet, and most of his party’s congressional leaders, including both the House speaker and the Senate Democratic leader.

      Word. NPR keeps bringing up the fact that people confuse TARP (American Structured Securities Rescue Act for a Prudent Economy) with stimulus, and that Bush passed TARP blah blah blah.

      TARP is the ONE thing that the Democrats seem to agree that Bush did right, and on the domestic economic front, it’s probably the one thing he did that was the most wrong.

      1. American Structured Securities Rescue Act for a Prudent Economy


      2. Obama voted for TARP in the Senate, so that’s a distinction without a difference anyway. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have signed it if he were president at the time.

        1. But he objected to it in committe, I’m sure, so he’s absolved. Or something.

          1. Did he vote against it before he voted for it?

  2. Only $10 million in debt?

    I’m sure they could print up at least that much in under a week.

    1. Do the Czech’s need kindling so badly that they would accept North Korean currency?

      And, furthermore, does rice paper even burn that well?

    2. Once, when drinking in fancy London hotel bar, I overheard a Chinese banker and an English one discussing doing business with North Korea. I suspected that they were referring to that source of currency.

      Or perhaps that’s what they wanted me to think. 😉

  3. So, when does Cummings get his Duranty Pulitzer Prize?

    1. Maybe when he teams up with Michael Bellesiles to write a book showing that guns weren’t used during the Korean War.

      1. Hey now, he didn’t falsify the evidence. When he couldn’t get his hands on the Chicago gun owner records from the 19th Century because they were destroyed in a fire, he used the time honored method of computer modeling to extrapolate their content instead.

  4. Next up for Cumings: His film Mission to Pyongyang, starring Walter Huston, is being released by Warner Brothers.

  5. I can’t believe The Atlantic has gone so deeply into “Palin’s Vagina: Secret Jew?” territory in only six years that it’s impossible to imagine a single piece that good appearing in it ever again.

  6. The DPRK Reduced to Trading in Ginseng

    Twenty-seven centuries of advances in commercial exchange, dating back to the Lydian invention of money, wiped out in a single lifetime.

  7. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution recently recommended the book, and was hit by a deluge of people with long memories of Cumings. I’ve read enough of Cumings in Asia Times (a rag guaranteed to send anyone with economic sense or contextual knowledge into fits) to know that he’ll garnish his valuable bites with gobs of mayonnaise-like criticism of US foreign policy. I’ll wait for another author to cover it, thank you.

  8. I don’t believe this, NK has universal healthcare and no corporations. Why is this progressive paradise trading in ginseng. Well, I think money is evil anyways so people should be able to trade in ginseng.

    1. They’re being kept down by the White Man.

      1. And South Korea is not, I guess.

        1. They’re a bunch of Uncle Tongs.

  9. Im a bit baffled by this line ftfa:

    “and if there are no grounds for confrontation, Kim Jong Il can be expected to create them. All the more reason, then, for America to heed Harrison’s advice and pull out.”

    Eh? So KJI will make stuff up if we are not there to blame, so we should leave..?

    1. Yeah. The reason to withdraw back in 2004 specifically was because the left-wing SK government was saying that the problems on the peninsula were a US-NK dispute in which SK was neutral, not an NK-SK dispute where the US was simply there to protect SK.

      Spending American tax dollars on helping defend South Koreans’ freedom from North Korean aggression is actually pretty unobjectionable by my lights; it’s not self-defense, but it’s close enough kin that it’s low on my list of things to eliminate. If I’m going to be taxed to protect Hawaii, why not also to protect Korea? Borders are pretty arbitrary; why should the boundaries of self-defense for someone living in El Paso, Texas include Puerto Rico and Guam, but not Seoul? By treaty, the South Koreans are also at least nominally committed to my defense, too.

      But only as long as the South Koreans believe and acknowledge that we’re doing them a favor by being there. If they say we’re the problem, that NK is being provoked by us, our response should be, “Fine, if we’re not helping, we’re outta here.”

      Now, SK replaced that government with one that actually blames NK. So I’m fine with contributing to their defense; as long as we’re wasting taxpayer money on even less legitimate ends (Social Security, Medicare, AFDC, the Department of Education, farm subsidies, buildings named after Robert Byrd), might as well protect another free people from violence and tyranny, too.

  10. In Cummings defense, Thomas More’s Utopia was very commie (no private property, only communal ownership of land, etc.)

    1. In More’s defense, he was a true believer in his Christian faith who was surrounded by a world in which wealth came from literally stealing from others.

      1. I understand that there’s some question as to whether More was advocating his Utopia or whether the message was something else.

        1. “Utopia” is latin for “no where” suggesting he was at the least writing a form of 16th century science fiction and didn’t intend it to be taken literally.

          Telling, Moore’s “no where” followed the template of all utopian dreamers since. He envisioned an authoritarian society managed by an intellectual elite guided by “reason.” In the end, Moore’s though experiment boils down to, “wouldn’t it be great is the world was run by people like me?” In this he echoed Plato.

          Isn’t it shocking that over the millennia, intellectuals have, after many decades of honest thought, all come to the conclusion that the best possible world is one in which intellectuals are the most powerful and highest status members of society? I mean what are the odds? They must have all been really surprised at the coincidence.

    2. Throw in his later endorsement of public executions for heretics and you’ve got a true proto-commie.

      1. And it should be no surprise that every attempt at Utopia (save private communities that people could leave) has ended up with starvation and execution of heretics.

  11. Chicago historian who thinks that the DPRK is deeply misunderstood in the West.

    Well, yeah, yes it probably is deeply misunderstood. Any society that becomes what the DPRK has become, and maintains any sort of authority is definitely deeply misunderstood by me.

  12. Is the $10 million of ginseng products meant to imply that Czechs suffer sexual dysfunction? Nice international burn.

    Bruce Cumings sounds like one of those intolerably pompous cocksmokers/chin-stroking mall sushi joint bores who bloviates about how the least interesting and impressive thing from Asia is still better than the best thing from America.

  13. More’s Utopia would be a horrible place to live. Ugh.

  14. South Korea has long dominated the market in ginseng products, with mainland China also doing a brisk business in ginseng roots.

    The South Koreans produce numerous extracts, tinctures, ginseng beverages, even chewing gum and soap with ginseng in them.

    For many years, the South Korean government controlled the ginseng trade through the Office of Monopoly, which had the sole right to sell red ginseng products. Inferior roots could be sold on the free market as white ginseng.

    Some years ago, South Korea deregulated, and now red ginseng products are produced by private companies in a competitive situation.

    North Korean ginseng products are rare enough the Czechs could probably sell them on Ebay as collectibles.

    1. Why doesn’t North Korea do that and skip the middle man?

      1. Oh fuck, that’s right, you need electricity to sell on eBay.

    2. Ironically, Wisconsin is now one of the largest ginseng producing areas outside of Korea.

      1. I have heard that most of the ginseng products that come from China is actually made from ginseng exported from the US to China first.

        1. Ginseng products made in China or South Korea are made from ginseng cultivated in those countries. There is little wild ginseng left in Asia because it has been used for thousands of years.

          American wild ginseng commands a premium price in Asian markets because it is wild. Wisconsin is the main source in the USA for wild ginseng, but some is found in neighboring states.

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