Slave to the Blog: Back in the Saddle, Pt. 2


Conscription, construction, and other occupational hazards
Marcus Noland (PIIE)



North Korea is, it's a funny country. That is, they're good at making missiles and bombs, and they can't bring in a rice crop."—President Bill Clinton

While it’s true that North Korea’s rice crop is faltering (though not catastrophically so) and the country continues to beaver away on missiles and bombs (the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sent what must be their third warning of the year to the DPRK over missile shots without adequate warning), like Donald Trump the DPRK doesn’t want to give up the good old days, and for North Korea that means a million man (technically, person) army. The problem is that for a variety of reasons, including the aftereffects of the 1990s famine, the country faces a shrinking cohort of young people for conscription. Having previously lowered height and weight standards, according to RFA reporting, the country is scrapping exemptions for only sons of cooperative farm and mine families, as well as student and family exemptions. The new rules are reportedly being applied to women as well as men.

One of the purposes to which the country has put those soldiers to use is as construction workers in foreign countries because their military status allows their bosses to discipline them in ways that might be problematic with civilian workers, and, as one source observed, they “don’t need to be compensated like civilians.”

Construction may not be combat but it can be hazardous nonetheless. Yonhap reports that at least 40 North Koreans have died this year to date while on overseas work assignments. The causes include accidents, inadequate medical care, and suicide. Around twenty workers reportedly died of yellow fever in Angola after being dispatched there without receiving proper vaccinations. Two hundred years ago West Africa was known as “White Man’s Grave” for similar reasons. It is extraordinary that this could happen in the 21st century.

But it’s not just North Koreans dying under questionable circumstances. AP reports that three Chinese fisherman died as a result of a confrontation with the South Korean coast guard. The South Korean coast guard intercepted a Chinese ship allegedly engaged in illegal fishing within South Korean waters. The Chinese ship attempted to flee and when the South Koreans boarded, they threw nonlethal “flashbang” grenades into the ship’s locked steering room. A fire erupted and the Chinese are thought to have died due to inhalation of toxic fumes. Chinese ships have a history of violent clashes with the South Korean coast guard and the latest incident could further inflame an increasingly tense relationship between Seoul and Beijing. Obviously, this development is undesirable. But consider the alternative. As discussed in previous posts, North Korea has been selling its fishing rights to China. So the alternative to desperate Chinese fishermen confronting the South Korean coast guard would be even more desperate North Korean fishermen confronting the South Korean coast guard. In which capital would you place greater confidence to keep a minor naval confrontation from escalating, Beijing or Pyongyang? Like, I said, consider the alternative.

(Man, I have so much material I might need to do part three of this catch-up. Now if my old boss would just stick to the DPRK and stop talking about Obamacare.)

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