Let’s start with something serious before wandering off into the usual North Korean weirdness. It drives me nuts when people talk abstractly about “Chinese style reform” or even “agricultural reform” as though some vague aspiration will translate into results on the ground. So it’s nice when someone bothers to look under the hood. IFES recently put out a good piece (based on a February 2015 Chosun Sinbo story) on how the North Korean government is trying to square providing enhanced material incentives to farmers with continuing prohibitions on the sale of their staple produce in the market. The basic message is that the government is establishing “purchasing sites” on the cooperative farms where farmers can barter their allotment of grain for consumer goods. No indication how the implicit prices are established but the report is quite explicit that the motivation of this approach is to prevent agricultural output from leaking into the market. Here in America we had a system like that at mines and large plantations. It was called the “company store.” It was generally regarded as a means of control.
In the meantime, the North and South continue their tussle at Kaesong. In the midst of this brouhaha, Pyongyang announced that it would start labeling North Korean goods “Made in Korea,” presumably to better obfuscate their origins in the eyes of customs inspectors around the world. Reminded me of the old urban myth that in the 1930s Japan created a town called “Usa” so that it could label products “Made in USA.” Sadly the story is apocryphal, the Kyushu island town of Usa has been there since before the United States of America were a gleam in Thomas Jefferson’s eye. I doubt the North Koreans care.
I wonder if South Korean businessmen would. Xinhua reports that before heading off to Kaesong, a group of 10 South Korean businessmen urged the government to restrain balloon leafletting carried out mainly by North Korean refugees living in South Korea. Chung Ki-sup, chief of the council for South Korean firms operating factories in Kaesong told reporters “If the anti-DPRK leaflets scattering is restrained, the wage issue on the Kaesong industrial complex will be easily resolved.”(Brings new resonance to the saying “capital is a coward.”) Park Sang-hak, leader the Fighters for a Free North Korea, knuckled under and announced a suspension his group’s activities, but another refugee, Lee Min-bok, head of Campaign for Helping North Korea in a Direct Way, said his group would press on, favorable wind currents permitting. Park had been talking about ballooning copies of “The Interview” into North Korea. Last I heard he was claiming that he might un-suspend his group's activities and send the movie if the North Koreans don't apologize for sinking the Cheonan. (If that's the case, I'd plug in my DVD player.) If Park really wanted to shake up the system he might consider the parody “This Ain’t the Interview—XXX.” Wonder if he could get a grant to do the dubbing? If there’s a hedge fund manager flaky enough to underwrite the production of a rap video in Pyongyang, there has to be one sufficiently nuts for this assignment. Kickstarter, anyone?
And if you’re not down on the farm or toiling away at Kaesong, you could get exported. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul released a report earlier this month based on interviews with 20 refugees who had been involved in the organized export of labor. The analysis concluded that the workers received only 10 percent of their wages and that the programs earned $2 billion in foreign exchange for the North Korean regime. On the face of it, the estimated revenues seem high—they would imply that each of 50,000 workers were bringing in $40,000 a year for what is largely manual labor in countries with per capita incomes well below that level, but the allegation that the state is siphoning off a lion’s share of the earnings seems eminently plausible.
As if on cue, UN Special Rapporteur for North Korean Human Rights, Marzuki Darusman, who appears to have inherited the Human Rights Energizer Bunny mantle from Justice Michael Kirby, announced that he would be looking into these allegations, using such terms as “bonded laborers or slave laborers” in his remarks. Darusman indicated that since the bulk of these laborers are thought to be employed in China, that he had reiterated his request to visit that country. A spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry was quoted as responding “China hopes the international community can fairly and objectively view North Korea's human rights situation and pay attention to the difficulties and challenges North Korea faces in its social and economic development and provide more constructive assistance.” In non-diplo speak, that’s “get lost.”
Some of those “bonded or slave” laborers are toiling in Qatar, building sites for the 2022 World Cup. Earlier this month, FIFA, possibly the only international sports body that could make the IOC look like paragons of morality, announced that it was withdrawing $1.66 million in financial assistance for soccer activities in North Korea, due to international sanctions. Normally I am supportive of entities respecting sanctions but this really is a little rich: so it’s OK to use North Korean slave labor to build stadiums in foreign countries, but it’s not OK to either help North Koreans learn the game, or to build and maintain facilities in their own country?
Toiling away on the farm just to get ripped off at the “purchasing site,” dealing with South Korean bosses at Kaesong, getting shipped off to God knows where for the benefit of the regime, it could make anyone depressed. And as Yoonok Chang, Steph Haggard and I have demonstrated, depressed they are. The Hana Foundation recently released a survey of 1,785 North Korean refugees in South Korea. The survey discovered that 20.5 percent of the respondents had experienced suicidal thoughts, roughly three times South Korea’s already elevated national average. A majority of the respondents were in need of counseling for depression or anxiety.
These surveys typically find that the problems are worse for women. Another recent survey, this one done by Professor Lee Im-soon at the Soonchunhyang University medical school found that almost 30 percent of the North Korean refugee women in his study were infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), a rate two to three times higher than the South Korean national average. These women just can’t catch a break.
Here in America, one of the more uplifting developments over the past 30 years has been the rise of women’s sports in the wake of Title IX. Monday night while cooking dinner I had the television in my kitchen tuned to the Maryland-Princeton game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament. President Obama, whose wife graduated from Princeton and whose niece plays for Princeton, had made a great show out of picking Princeton over Maryland in his bracket. Early in the second half Maryland center Brionna Jones was seriously schooling her Princeton opponent, and when guard Lexie Brown hit a three, announcer Doris Burke observed that it wouldn’t go down in the box score, but Jones was partly responsible for that score, since Princeton was forced to sag on her to protect their center who had just picked up her third foul. Well, “North Korea” doesn’t appear in this next story but I expect this development is being followed closely in Pyongyang.
Earlier this month, Swiss authorities announced that they had confiscated $380 million of funds associated with former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and were returning the proceeds to the Nigerian treasury. Rumor has it that the Kim clan used to keep their money in Switzerland but may have moved some or all of it to Liechtenstein when they got worried that the Swiss might go wobbly on them. Now the story is that much of the money is in accounts in Shanghai. If the Chinese really wanted to send a signal…
And President Obama? Well, the Maryland ladies had some fun with him. Or at least a cardboard cutout of him. Go Terps.