Slave to the Blog: Always Something Happening in August


Missiles, smuggling, executions, fishing, herbal Viagra, and the return of Steve Park

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



It’s a received lesson in the economics trade that crises happen in August when markets are thin and everyone is on vacation. (Sort of like the proverbial wisdom of the Korea desk that, presumably out of spite, the DPRK likes to schedule ICBM launches and nuclear tests on American three-day weekends.)

Speaking of missiles, earlier this year the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) filed a formal complaint with North Korea regarding the threat to civilian aviation flying in and out of Incheon airport created by the jamming of GPS signals. The ICAO is back at work: this time the issue is the North’s disregard of treaty obligations to provide advance warning of missile launches that could affect nearby planes and ships. I’m all for international cooperation, but somehow I don’t see demarches from ICAO altering North Korean practices.

Another hardy perennial is smuggling by North Korean diplomats. Last year a North Korean diplomat was expelled from Bangladesh for trying to smuggle nearly 60 pounds of gold through the Dhaka airport. Now another diplomat has been asked to leave the country on suspicion of trying to smuggle $450,000 of electronics and cigarettes into the country. It’s hard to know what to make of this. I have a casual impression that the number of such incidents is on the rise, but I do not have a data set on diplomatic expulsions which would allow me to test this proposition. (Leo Byrne at NKNews has an amusing anecdote about North Korean diplomats requesting that Danish authorities permit them to import enough cigarettes duty-free to keep the staff puffing away for 28 years!) We know that North Korean embassies are partly self-funded, and different units are expected to send remittances to Pyongyang.  What I don’t know is whether this possible uptick in violations is tied to economic difficulties created by sanctions.

An American doctor prescribed my late mother-in-law Viagra three times a day to deal with pulmonary emphysema. (This was the original target condition for the drug; the sexual aspects were an unforeseen side effect.) When she went back to Ghana the local pharmacist initially refused to fill the prescription, thinking that it was a scam and my mother-in-law was planning on selling the stuff. When we persuaded him that it was on the level, he actually sold it to her at the wholesale price, since close to 100 pills a month would be a heavy lift for an old lady.

Well, if she had lived another ten years, perhaps my late mother-in-law could have tried a North Korean alternative. In a case of life imitating art (or at least satirical blog posts), the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reports that the country may have come up with an herbal alternative to Vitamin V, “Neo-Viagra,” for men (and women) who need a boost. Helpfully, the treatment also relieves high blood pressure and back pain. Sounds like a godsend for middle-aged men everywhere. Now there is some sanctions-busting we could all get behind.

If the Neo-Viagra doesn’t work, one could always try fish, even if the bumper sticker from my youth read “Eat Fish, Live Longer. Eat Oysters, Love Longer.” But I digress. Last month a South Korean parliamentarian announced that North Korea had sold $30 million of Yellow Sea fishing rights to China. My take on this news was that it was sad: North Korea’s fishing fleet had become so dilapidated and inefficient that the country would be better off selling the rights to the Chinese fleet and taking the cash, even if the Chinese activity reduced the North Korean catch. Now there are reports in the South Korean press that the North has sold fishing rights in the East Sea to China as well. It is claimed that total revenue from selling rights is $75 million annually, inclusive of the $30 million for Yellow Sea rights.

A familiar saying among American state government officials is “thank God for Mississippi.” I wonder if Third World diplomats have a similar saying for North Korea.

Life on a North Korean fishing vessel is hard, and the North has been criticized for its treatment of sailors. Many would prefer going abroad for work. Longtime activist for North Korean human rights, Joanna Hosaniak, now a deputy director general of the Seoul-based NGO, Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), has written an essay for NK News arguing that allowing North Koreans to work in human rights-respecting jurisdictions like the EU may be preferable to barring them. The title of the essay, “Why sending overseas North Korean workers home won’t improve human rights” is a bit misleading, since the argument is framed in terms of Europe, and I doubt that Hosaniak (or anyone else for that matter) would argue that North Koreans are likely to get much of an introduction to human rights constructing soccer stadiums in Qatar. Josh Stanton provides a rejoinder.

But even sweating bullets in the Arabian sun must beat taking bullets while tied to a pole.  Yonhap quotes an unnamed source indicating that North Korea has executed 60 people this year thus far. This would be keeping pace with the average of 90 executions annually in recent years, which barring calamities in Iran and Saudi Arabia, would keep North Korea at the top of the executions per capita table. Number 1 in slavery! Number 1 in executions per capita! A familiar saying among American state government officials is “thank God for Mississippi.” I wonder if Third World diplomats have a similar saying for North Korea.

Finally, obsessive readers of this blog may remember an elderly Korean man named Steve Park, who periodically surfaces in this blog, usually in connection to some opaque operation of dubious legality involving North Korea. Among his business ventures have been importing North Korean beer and soju, and revitalizing the shuttered Mt. Kumgang tourist project. When we last checked in roughly a year ago, the Department of Justice had stripped him of his foreign agent registration and prohibited him from representing Pyongyang over failure to file paperwork or pay taxes going back to 2008. This was on top of earlier legal entanglements over his failure to register as a foreign agent, and convictions for repeatedly lying to the FBI regarding contacts with South Korean intelligence agents. Given the gravity of those convictions, Park got a relative slap on the wrist—18 months probation and a $300 fine. To me the real questions were whether Park was just a typical Korean of his generation who didn’t like either paperwork or taxes, or whether he was something more sinister; and was the US government just incompetent (read the original post—which leans heavily on the reporting of Hunter Walker—for all the mishaps in pursuit of Park), or did someone—the CIA, perhaps?—turn Park and was letting him loose to operate relatively freely as an intelligence gathering asset.

In NK News Justin Rohrlich reviews some of this history and updates it a bit: apparently Park’s now down to a one-person firm, Korea Pyongyang USA, has had its contract to restart Mt. Kumgang extended through the end of this year. Wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

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