Slave to the Blog: The Can’t Catch a Break Edition

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



All this talk of nuclear brinkmanship is making my head hurt (if allergies weren’t enough) so I thought that today we would step back from the latest on North Korean TELs and address more quotidian issues. Three tales of groups of people who just can’t catch a break.

Let’s start heavy and go light. Or at least lighter.

Religious believers do not fare well in North Korea, and Christians appear to be targeted for particularly vicious abuse. And according to RFA, Chinese authorities recently arrested two South Korean pastors who serve the North Korean refugee population in the border region. Refugee testimony collected by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights suggests that as few as 23 percent of arrested Christians survive detention—18 percent are affirmatively reported to have been killed at the hands of the state, with the fate of the remainder unknown.

Well, at least no one’s gotten killed thus far in the ongoing travails of Egyptian cell phone company, Orascom Telecom. Nevertheless, the tale is not pretty. First the North Korean government sets up a competing cell phone service. Then, when the firm wants to repatriate profits, the North Korean government insists on applying the black market exchange rate that one could find in a back alley market in Hyesan, effectively wiping out the gain, materially damaging the firm’s accounts and forcing a refiling of documents with the Egyptian Security and Exchange Commission. Then it is revealed that former CEO Naguib Sawiris and other officials are US citizens and hence could be in legal jeopardy with regards to sanctions evasion. Now, just to add insult to material injury, according to reporting by Dagyum Ji at NK News, the North Korean government is further tilting the playing field against Orascom, not allowing it to provide certain services that the state-owned rival is permitted to offer. It’s enough to make a Sphinx cry.

North Korean refugees mismanaging money and ending up in dire straits is a staple theme of the refugee literature. But Jonathan Cheng, Min Sun Lee and Clément Bürge have a really heartbreaking piece in the Wall Street Journal on how financially illiterate North Korean refugees are targeted for scams. The South Korean government has responded by increasing financial education at the Hanawon refugee processing center and moved away from the model of providing graduates large lump sum stipends. And younger North Koreans, who grew up with markets, seem better capable of navigating South Korean capitalism. But one scam Cheng, Lee, and Bürge document bilked 230 refugees out of roughly $14 million. About 165 of the victims lost everything and three committed suicide. And the worst part: the scam was perpetrated by another refugee.

But it’s not just the Benjamins: the ever-fascinating Daily NK has a piece on how North Korean refugees are being excluded from South Korean matchmaking services. At least Naguib Sawiris can keep his Tinder account.

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