The prized mushroom that may help fund Pyongyang

What North Korea has to do with three men arrested in Japan for illicit trafficking of ‘matsutake’

It was early morning on May 12 when Japan’s finest came knocking.

In coordinated raids by the police forces of the Kyoto, Kanagawa, Shimane and Yamaguchi prefectures, three portly middle aged and elderly men were taken away in handcuffs and charged with smuggling one of the world’s rarest, most prized mushrooms: the matsutake.

The first was 70-year-old businessman Kim Yong Jak, president of the Chosen Tokusanbutsu Hanbai trading corporation. Based out of Taito Ward, Tokyo, Chosen Tokusanbutsu Hanbai was the largest importer of North Korean mushrooms in Japan before a government ban in 2006. Also arrested was an associate, the 63-year-old Kazuhide Yamanaka, identified as a former employee of the company. Yamanaka was later acquitted for being “forced” to participate in their moneymaking scheme.

The third was 50-year-old Ho Jong Do, known by his Japanese name Masamichi Kyo. His father, Ho Jong Man, was chairman of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japaan, better known as Chongryon (or Chōsen Sōren), and an esteemed member of North Korea’s parliament.

Despite not being a significant activist for the group, according to police, Kyo acted as an executive for Chongryon’s Adachi branch and, due to his low-level position, he was not under the same level of surveillance as his comrades. It was this lax policy which had meant he could travel to North Korea on behalf of his dad to pick up the North Korea-grown matsutake.

“(Ho Jeong Do) is widely regarded as (Chongryon)’s bookkeeper,” a source close to Chongryon was quoted as saying to the Japan Times. “He kept a low profile … and only served in a senior post at one of the group’s local chapters in Tokyo.”

On September 27, 2010, the case against them goes, Ho and his fellow conspirators illegally imported somewhere in the region of 1,800 kg of the stuff, a shipment worth 4.5 million yen (a little more than $36,000), through Kansai Airport in Osaka, a major violation of Japan’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, which bans the import of matsutake from the DPRK. To get around this law, the mushrooms were to be sold as having come from China, but police said an elemental analysis of the products proved they had been grown in North Korea.

“This is a false accusation,” Ho told reporters as he was marched out of his condo in the Adachi ward by investigators, shielding himself from photographers with a mask and baseball cap.

“I’ll never cooperate because this is an unjustified arrest,” he added in a statement from jail.

It all leads, authorities say, back to Pyongyang. A year ago authorities had searched Ho’s residence, the offices of Chosen Tokusanbutsu Hanbai and 11 other locations associated with Chongryon. Confiscating documents, the police say, they came across one concerning mushroom smuggling, carrying the name of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and the best wishes from “General Kim Jong Il.” The arrests shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, and in March the house of Chongryon’s chairman was searched once again by police.

“Japan’s government is responsible for any deterioration in bilateral ties,” Ho told reporters. “The raid is unlawful and discriminatory, it’s illegal and unforgivable.”

Two South Koreans were also arrested: Lee Tong-choi, age 61, and Yoshihiko Kin, 42, president and employee, respectively, of what the Japan Times called “a Tokyo-based trading house.” Their crime, too, was alleged matsutake mushroom smuggling.

chongryon photo

Chongryong headquarters in Tokyo. Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson

CHONGRYON AND THE MUSHROOMS

The arrests shone a light into the workings of an organization that many see as a puppet for North Korean interests in Japan; workings that, due to its role as the de facto embassy of the DPRK, have long gone unexamined.

Chongryon, or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, was founded in early days of the Cold War. When the Korean Peninsula was split, the Korean diaspora in Japan chose sides: Those loyal to the South chose Mindan (Korean Residents United in Japan), and those loyal to the North chose Chongryon. And despite Mindan enjoying the larger membership, the pro-DPRK side has long been far more active in Japanese-Korean life than its capitalist counterpart, said Daniel Roh, an expert on the financial politics of North Korea, because of its charitable activities and the committed support of Kim Il Sung.

In theory Chongryon is a non-profit organization and does not make money – Japanese law requires it not to. But its membership are loyal, pay their fees on time, and are often successful and wealthy businessmen.

“Their businesses include pachiko game parlor(s) (among others), restaurant(s), food processing, trading and banking (in the form of credit unions),” Roh said. “These credit unions have been a backbone of the Chongryon and NK-prone (Japanese Koreans).”

And despite this official non-profit status, Chongryon’s historic wealth has mean it has been under constant pressure to send money home to the socialist motherland. And like any other North Korean embassy, it must send dues back to Pyongyang. The lifeline for this illicit end of proceedings, Roh said, was historically the Mangyongbong-92 ship, now moored in Wonsan and used as a cruise liner for tourists.

“The boat carried not only human beings, but cargo including high-tech machines, bribery items and cold cash in yen and dollar,” he said.

But what are Chongryon officials doing smuggling mushrooms, and what makes the matsutake so special?

Prized for its rich umami taste and mystical connection to Japan’s past, it’s the most renowned mushroom in East Asia. Langdon Cook, a Seattle-based journalist whose book The Mushroom Hunters chronicles the lives of the often-underground work of mushroom foragers in the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest, describes the flavor of the matsutake as having a “spicyness with hints of cinnamon, and other exotic spices and it’s actually quite fragrant.”

“It’s a mushroom that, I guess you could say, is really tied up in certain ideas that the Japanese have about life in the countryside, in the rural areas,” he said. “A sort of life that’s almost non-existent today. It’s very much tied up in the psyche of the Japanese. And so they’re willing to shell out considerable yen for the pleasure of eating it.”

“Matsutake are the mushroom in Japan,” agrees Michael Ashkenazi, a senior researcher and project manager at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion and author, along with Jeanne Jacob, of Food Culture in Japan.

“For fungi aficionados, the flavor, and notably the aroma, is far superior to any other mushroom.”

Like their European equivalent, the truffle, the matsutake is usually not farmed, but found growing wild. The name literally translates to “pine mushroom,” and is traditionally found in what are known as the “mushroom hills” surrounding Kyoto – areas of forest so valuable for their harvests that they are often snapped up by corporations or wealthy families.

“The best flavor comes from wild mushrooms in established pine forests,” said Ashkenazi. “Farmed mushrooms have a distinctly inferior flavor.”

Because of this rarity, a single mushroom with the perfect shape and no blemishes can fetch up to 10,000 yen – nearly $80. Inferior versions, with blemishes or imported from abroad, sell for roughly 1,000 to 2,000 yen.

“The best matsutake are available only in high-end shops and markets,” Ashkenazi said. “Of course, they are easier to get directly from a forest owner, if one knows someone. In my experience, the imported variety have a notoriously inferior flavor and texture. They also sell for a 10th of the price.”

But there has been a general decline in matsutake productivity in the red pine forests of Japan in recent decades, he said, related to complex environmental factors.

“It has to do with changing tree canopies, as well as some invasive species that are prompting the decline, and also there is a social component,” said Cook. “You have fewer people living in the rural areas and those people are not using the forests in the same way that they used to.”

In essence, where once rural people would rake up broad leaves to use as fuel, creating conditions ideal for the growth of wild matsutake, fossil fuels mean that the leaves stay where they are, and the conditions in which Matsutake thrive are not present.

“The Japanese often turn their noses up to matsutake that’s harvested outside of the country,” he said. “They particularly love their local matsutake from the red pine forests of Japan, but the problem is those forests are not producing enough to satisfy the market.”

“They have to look abroad to satisfy their matsutake demand,” Cooper said. “And so large quantities are coming from North America. I’ve heard that they are (coming from Korea) as well, and China, and elsewhere.”

When the Japanese government moved to ban the North Korean version of the mushroom in 2006, matsutake imported by Chongryon-linked businesses, such as those of Kim Yong Jak, represented 30 percent of the local market.

WHY NOW?

Chongryon declined to comment for this article, but its friends in North Korea have had much to say, decrying as the investigation an act of political persecution by Korea’s old imperial masters and a violation, due to its status as the de facto DPRK embassy in Japan, of its sovereignty.

“Such tyrannical action deliberately taken on the threshold of the 60th anniversary of the formation of Chongryon is touching off towering resentment of all the Koreans,” an article in state media quoted a spokesperson of the DPRK-Japan Exchange Association as having said.

“The repeated politically-motivated suppression of Chongryon and Koreans in Japan should never be overlooked as it is a wanton violation of the sovereignty of the DPRK.”

“I suppose the prime minister and government had known in advance about the arrest, so they could’ve stopped it, but they didn’t,” a source in Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency told NK News on condition of anonymity. “There might have been a political reason that the government didn’t stop the arrest.”

Pyongyang has been quick to raise one of the more sensitive issues in Japan-DPRK relations: how North Korea abducted Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983 to teach Japanese language and culture to North Korea’s future spies.

Efforts to return the prisoners or their remains have been ongoing since 2002, but the DPRK’s nuclear testing in the mid-2000s further stalled them. Last year the two sides agreed that Pyongyang would investigate the case in return for a lessening of Japanese sanctions.

Yokotas

Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, parents of Japanese abductee Megumi Yokota. Photo by Kosuke Takahashi

“The raid was carried out as Pyongyang looks into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted to the North,” said Chongryon chairman Ho Jong Man when his house was raided back in March, sending a thinly veiled threat that continued Japanese government meddling in his organization’s affairs could halt the search.

A source who regularly works with the Japanese government and who spoke on condition of anonymity told NK News the arrests are a means of undermining Pyongyang’s Japanese affiliate ahead of negotiations, making sure it is excluded from negotiations on the abductee issue.

“(The) Japanese government doesn’t want to use Chongryon (as in the past) in negotiations with North Korea,” the source said. “This incident will have some influence on the ongoing negotiations, but won’t end them. They will resume eventually.”

Japan’s ministry for the abduction issue has not yet commented on how the Chongyron investigation will affect negotiations. But Nishioka Tsutomu of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN), and a lecturer at Tokyo Christian University, told NK News that despite not being directly involved in the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea, Chongryon has certainly played a role.

“North Korean spies got in contact with Chongryon members … and made underground organizations with them,” he said. “This underground organization abducted Japanese (citizens).”

“Since this is an organization which has carried out so many illegal actions, I believe Chongryun should be abolished and it will be best for Japan.”

So how would a group even go about smuggling mushrooms? The matsutake itself is delicate, and “highly perishable,” said Cook, and must be rushed to market within a few days once harvested.

“… the mushrooms are surprisingly sturdy, though, and they can travel,” Cooper said. “But like I said, you really need to move quickly because it’s a highly perishable product.”

And in contrast to other substances that could be smuggled – drugs, for example – the matsutake is big.

“These mushrooms can be very large so we’re talking about fairly large pallets of these mushrooms,” said Cooper. “I would think that logistically it would be very difficult.”

shinzo abe photo

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo by U.S. Embassy Tokyo

BUSINESS IS CHANGING

So why on earth is Pyongyang bothering? According to a directive from Pyongyang found by investigators working on the case, the smuggling is part of a “national project” by North Korea’s government to generate income for the state. Dated as having been sent to Chongryon sometime around the time of Japan’s decision to reintroduce sanctions on the country – a decision many said would bring up the price of the product – it indicates Pyongyang’s involvement.

While the direct connection between the mushroom business of Ho and the North Korean government remains a contested matter, Japan’s leading Yomuiri Shinbun newspaper reported on May 27 that documents found in his home revealed a series of transactions between Chongryon and Office 39,Pyongyang’s notorious slush fund tasked with generating hard currency for the country’s elites and its nuclear program.

Chongyron’s financial troubles are also well-known. Burdened by debts of more than $750 million andthe rapid decline of many of the schools it manages, Chōsen Sōren faced significant financial and political difficulties long before Ho Jong Man was made chairman of the organization in 2012, and it makes sense that the organization would move to make money in whatever way it could.

This as North Korea ups its production of mushrooms, with a February announcement by the KCNA imploring citizens to help “turn ours into a country of mushrooms by making mushroom cultivation scientific, intensive and industrialized!” Many of these illicit matsutake could be coming from the area surrounding Mount Chilbo in the northeast of the country, an area densely populated by the pine trees essential to a good harvest of matsutake, or songi, as it is known in Korean.

“Songi mushroom of Mount Chilbo is peculiar in flavor, taste and soft fiber,” according to a 2013 reportin KCNA.

“The mushroom is 8 to 20 cm across in its flat cap and 10 to 20 cm high … when it reaches its full growth. The cap is of brown color, getting darker towards its center,” the editorial reads. “As it is very rich in protein and anti-carcinogenic substances, it has widely been accepted for the treatment of heart, liver and (bronchial) diseases.”

Whatever the health benefits of the songi, the Japanese government doesn’t want it in Japan. The long-unspoken policy of not interfering in Chongyron’s business is changing, and the language of the authorities indicates this is just the beginning.

“Our country is ruled by law and it is natural to conduct an investigation based on law and evidence,” the Abe government’s chief cabinet secretary told reporters after the May arrests. “There is no change in our position to strongly demand North Korea promptly carry out an investigation (on Japanese abductees).”

Ishida Ken of Miyatsuka North Korea Research Institute is skeptical that the arrests are simply a matter of Japanese police following the law to a tee, and argues there’s clearly other forces at play here.

“Of course Japanese police said that it was just following the law,” he told NK News. “However, it’s hard to imagine that only few kilograms of illegally imported mushrooms could have made such a huge case.

“I doubt they will even be able to prosecute them in the end for only doing that.”

Emil Truszkowski contributed to this report.

Featured Image: matsutake by conbon33 on 2008-08-04 07:39:09

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