When the possible North Korea drop of the Ebola travel ban leaves people breathless, well, I think I need a change of scene…
But let’s start with at least semi-serious issues.
Earlier this week I reviewed the tussle over the Kaesong Industrial Complex. KIC is interesting in part because in the extraordinarily polarized world of South Korean politics, it seems to be one of the few things that generates a consensus. Consequently, it’s always a bull market in South Korea for good news on KIC. To wit, a Yonhap story with the headline “Kaesong-based firms bask in decent growth: data.” The lede is that 10 firms invested in KIC have experienced 10 percent annual earnings growth since 2005, no mean feat. But there are something like 120 firms operating in KIC, so I do not know if these world beaters are representative or not. Nor do I know what share of these earnings could be attributed to their operations at KIC. But, hey, it grabbed my attention, and that’s more than half the battle in journalism. The story goes on to cite that case of the watchmaker Romanson which has seen its shares skyrocket and makes reference to the Hi Korea Unification Renaissance Stock Fund which has delivered close to a 10 percent return since its launch in May. File this under “news you can use.”
Next up, shenanigans involving the disposition of the Chongryon or Chosensoren (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) headquarters in Tokyo. When we last checked in November, the Japanese Supreme Court had declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling permitting the sale of the building, seized years ago after a Chongryon-affiliated credit union collapsed. According to reporting by Julian Ryall in the South China Morning Post, after the sale of the building had fallen through twice (once the buyer was a religious group with reported links to North Korean gangsters, the second time a mysterious shell company in Mongolia), the building was successfully sold to a Japanese property company, Marunaka Holdings, for 2.21 billion yen who demanded that the Chongryon decamp so that the site could be redeveloped. So far, so good. Then Marunaka sold the building to Gurin Forisuto (Green Forest), an obscure company with no experience in property and no apparent financial clout, for 4.4 billion yen, a tidy profit. Here’s where it gets interesting. Green Forest is operated by Takeharu Inamura who reportedly is affiliated with the Chongryon and is a business partner of Wang Xinghu, a former Chinese diplomat who was identified in the Japanese Diet as a spy thought to be in the employ of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. Some Japanese politicians and commentators cried foul, arguing that this transaction was an attempt to circumvent the law prohibiting sales to connected parties, while others went further asserting that the government of China had supplied the funds, possibly to curry favor with the North Koreans who have been tilting toward Russia. For his part, Prime Minister Abe said that he would not link the imbroglio over the building to the issue of Japanese abductees thought to be held by Pyongyang.
Last week, I tried to triangulate what we know about the agricultural economy and the food situation. Forgot to add one modestly interesting thing I stumbled across: a report that the National Geographic Society working from UN system data had determined that the North Korean diet had changed little over the last 50 years. According to the report, adult caloric intake had risen from 1,878 in 1961 to 2,103 in 2011, noticeably below the 2,500 recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Hazel Smith has argued that an even higher figure is advisable given North Korea's severe winters. The study examined dietary patterns in 22 countries and found that North Koreans had the most grain-heavy diet in the survey. Estimated meat consumption had actually fallen from 141 grams per day in 1989 just before the economic collapse to 67 grams in 2011.
Over the same period, as anyone who takes a casual intergenerational scan on the streets of Seoul can tell you, the South Korean diet changed dramatically, with daily caloric intake rising from 2,140 to 3,329 per person. The grain share of caloric intake dropped from 82 percent to 43 percent, while meat rose from 2 percent to 12 percent. As a point of comparison, the estimated global average daily caloric consumption is 2,870 while us super-sized Americans scarf down a whopping 3,641 calories per day on average. Needless to say, the usual cautions apply with respect to the accuracy of the North Korean estimates.
No harm, no foul: last January Dennis Halpin caused a stir by observing that Ambassador Dennis Rodman of the “7-star lifestyle” and Irish gambling concern Paddy Power might have violated UN and US sanctions by taking luxury gifts to North Korea. Now according to NK News (sorry, behind a pay wall), the leaked UN Panel of Experts report, US and EU authorities are declining to prosecute the Worm and Paddy Power respectively, indicating that while they believed that there was probably a violation of the law, the evidence was not sufficiently clear to justify prosecution.
Finally, Ebola. There is lots of buzz about the North Koreans lifting the travel ban. And if I were a tour operator this would matter to me. But in the broader scheme of things, to me this whole story says less about public health than North Korean caprice and paranoia.
You feelin’ alright?