The Koreas

North Korea’s Ginseng Drama

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The Koreas

North Korea’s Ginseng Drama

There’s a reason the medicinal plant became fodder for a North Korean soap opera.

North Korea’s Ginseng Drama
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Richardfabi

In a soap opera series aired recently in North Korea, there was no divorce, cheating, or shocking revelations of dark secrets.  Instead, the lead characters’ struggle was tied to a more unusual cause: ginseng.

The drama tells the story of a group of characters who dedicated their lives to protecting North Korean ginseng from Japanese invaders.

To outsiders, talking about ginseng in a soap opera could may seem odd, but it is very timely for the North Korean government given its latest moves to promote the ginseng industry.

The North Korean authorities, for instance, recently adopted a new law to monitor the production and distribution of ginseng. The new law lays out legal requirements for the guidance and control of the cultivation and purchase of ginseng, as well as the production and sale of processed ginseng products, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“The adoption of this law provides the legal guarantee for increasing insam [a Korean word for ginseng] production, one of the specialities of the country, and further promoting the people’s health,” KCNA said.

Separately, the government also formed an association to supervise the cultivation, purchase, processing, and export of ginseng.

Such moves by Pyongyang seem aimed to industrialize the production of ginseng, which is widely used in Asia as a medicine and health supplement, and to utilize it as a source of foreign currency.

That makes sense, given the international sanctions that have limited the North’s ability to generate foreign currency in many different economic sectors. However, it seems like the central government failed to anticipate the possible backlash this new law would have, domestically and overseas.

Domestically, the new law has apparently caused discontent among many government organizations that previously used ginseng as a channel to earn foreign money.

Until now, numerous government agencies and even the military have bought ginseng from the North Korean city of Kaeseong and set up processing plants in Pyongyang to produce different ginseng products and sell them in luxury hotels in Pyongyang and overseas markets, according to Radio Free Asia.

Under the new law, however, no organization can purchase ginseng from Kaeseong individually, and all ginseng purchases, distribution, production, and sales are subject to the central government’s approval.

This leaves no room for an individual government organization to take part, causing discontent among high-level officials within government agencies and the military.

North Korean officials are not alone in being unhappy about this new law. China’s state-run English daily Global Times reported last month that there were mixed reactions in China concerning the impact on the trade and cultivation of ginseng.

Global Times quoted analysts and ginseng planters as saying that Pyongyang’s move might bring “potential challenges” to China’s domestic ginseng industry.

North Korea’s ginseng law will “definitely challenge domestic industry,” as Pyongyang’s move to expand exports to China will drive China’s domestic products into the corner, a Chinese ginseng planter surnamed Zhang told Global Times.

Zhang added that the North Korean and Chinese ginseng are actually the same plant, but Korean ones are “more natural due to using less fertilizers and pesticides and are therefore being sold for two to three times the price of domestic ginseng,” according to Global Times.

The paper added that Chinese ginseng slices were sold for between 50 and 160 Chinese yuan ($7-24)  per 100 grams on Taobao, China’s e-commerce giant, while North Korean ginseng was traded at about 299 yuan ($45) for the same amount as of January 27.

In contrast, the atmosphere in South Korea is a bit different. Many local governments and industry participants seem to see potential in possible cooperation with the North in the ginseng industry.

Local cities including Ganghwa, Samcheok, and Paju, for example, included the development of the ginseng industry as one of their plans for inter-Korean cooperation projects.

The Association of Korean Medicine has also expressed its interest in North Korea’s ginseng industry. In a conference held in December last year, Choi Hyuk-yong, chairman of the association, said it is beneficial for South Korean to import herbal medicine, including ginseng products, from North Korea as they are cheaper than those produced in the South and still have great quality.

It’s the same ginseng, but everyone has a different perspective. No wonder it became the topic of a soap opera in North Korea.