[FOUNTAIN]A mushrooming cloud

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[FOUNTAIN]A mushrooming cloud

The Japanese have special attachment to songi mushrooms, or matsutake. “Have you had your matsutake?” is a graceful greeting in autumn. They value the aroma of the mushroom more than the taste. They also have a tradition of carrying the songi mushroom, torn into a certain size and wrapped in the classic high-quality paper called washi. The 1,200-year-old poetry collection “Manyoshu,” or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” contains a poem praising the aroma of matsutake. The love for the mushroom might be engraved in the Japanese genes.
To North Korea, the songi mushroom is not only a lucrative product bringing in much-needed foreign currency but also an indispensable diplomatic resource. Chairman Kim Jong-il promised former President Kim Dae-jung that he would send songi mushrooms in the fall at the summit meeting in June 2000. Three months later, a special envoy visiting Seoul in September brought 300 boxes of songi mushrooms picked from Mt. Chilbo. The unexpected gift was distributed among influential Koreans, who sampled the taste of a “symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation.”
A summit meeting between Japan and North Korea was held in September 2002, and when then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was returning to Tokyo, Chairman Kim presented 300 boxes of songi mushrooms. However, as soon as Mr. Koizumi arrived in Japan, the generous gift from the North Korean strongman turned into a headache. When the image of the boxes was aired on television, parliament members condemned Mr. Koizumi for receiving such gifts without resolving the abduction issue. The Japanese government initially refused to confirm the contents, but in the end, acknowledged that they were fresh food and had been disposed of already. The whereabouts of the mushrooms are still unknown.
The North Korean songi mushrooms are undergoing trials again. As Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests despite international concerns, imports of North Korean products have been banned to block the flow of money to the North Korean regime. Last year, 17 billion yen ($142.4 million) worth of North Korean mushrooms, about 783 tons, were consumed in Japan, a quarter of the matsutake consumption there.
The explosion of a nuclear bomb results in gigantic mushroom clouds in the sky. Such catastrophes have already been witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I do not want to be reminded of a nuclear test by Chairman Kim’s well-intended mushroom gifts. Everybody can enjoy the flavor and nutrition of mushrooms, but nobody wants to see a mushroom cloud ever again.

by Yeh Young-june

The writer is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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