North Korea offers to pay off Czech debt -- with Korean ginseng

The Czech Republic suggested barter when North Korea said it would be hard put to repay a $10 million debt left from cold-war days. But it was thinking zinc ore, not Korean ginseng.

North Korea now wants to pay off some of its outstanding debts – with ginseng root.

North Korea, the world’s most recently declared nuclear weapons power, now wants to pay off some of its outstanding debts – with ginseng root.

The Czech Republic is pleased to discover that cash-poor North Korea hasn’t forgotten $10 million in arrears – dating to heady cold war comrade days, when then-Czechoslovakia sent machinery, trams, and equipment to Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung.

Last month, a delegation from Pyongyang arrived in Prague asking forgiveness of some 95 percent of the old debt. Czech authorities pronounced the request “unacceptable” and said “the debt cannot be forgiven,” according to a Ministry of Finance statement to the Monitor.

Prague, did suggest, however, that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could pay back on a barter arrangement that dates to the Soviet era.

The DPRK then offered some $500,000, or 400 tons' worth, of the piquant root used in tea, medicines, soups, and hand cream. North Korean ginseng is considered one of the finest in quality, called “heaven grade” in Asia.

The problem for Czech authorities is that their entire country only consumes 1.4 tons of ginseng a year; the quantity proposed by Pyongyang would last 200 years.

We'd rather have zinc ore, please

Czech Finance Ministry officials instead suggested Pyongyang pay in zinc ore, which the Central European nation can process or resell, according to Tomas Zidek, Czech deputy finance minister, in the MF DNES Prague daily.

No word back on the zinc counterproposal from the secretive nation sometimes termed the “hermit kingdom.” Czech ministry spokesman Radek Lezatka said that “negotiations will continue” with the DPRK.

North Korea’s woefully ailing economy is treated as a national secret, as is most information inside the tightly controlled Kim regime. North Korea’s international debt figure is widely reported as $12 billion, though this figure dates from a 2001 CIA estimate still notated in the agency's current World Factbook.

North Korea’s economy and energy sector, which benefited from both Chinese and Soviet assistance until the early 1990s, has been reduced to less than a shadow of its former self, often rusting and operating off spare parts.

Harvests are uneven and the population outside the special restricted zone of Pyongyang is subject to food shortages and famine. Much of North Korean assistance comes from China; the bridge across the Yalu River from Dandong was loaded with Chinese trucks headed to Pyongyang for much of the past decade.

This summer brought rains and floods, reportedly higher rice prices, and a curtailing of private trading – all in the midst of ongoing confrontations with South Korea and the US over antisubmarine naval exercises that came after the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship that a UN study attributed to the North.

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