Wow. Those Hostages Eat a Lot.

I didn’t say much about Yu Song Jin during his 137 days as a guest of Kim Jong Il, mainly because I really didn’t care that much about the predicament in which he placed himself. Yu, a South Korean employee at the Kaesong Industrial Park, was accused of attempting to infect one of the hand-picked North Korean factory slaves with his thoughtcrimes — an offense that, if true, might have endangered her life. I’m no great fan of North Korea profiting by crossing the line from the arbitrary cult-enforcement that passes for law there to outright hostage-taking, but Yu’s case never caused me the conflict or angst that the case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling did. I have little sympathy for anyone stupid and amoral enough to willfully accept employment at Kaesong, nor do I accept the self-serving “arbeit macht frei” lies used to justify it. A South Korean at Kaesong assumes at least some small portion of the risks the North Korean slaves there live with every day of their lives.

Today, we learn some of what it cost Hyun Jeong-Un, the Chairwoman of Hyundai Asan Corporation, to get Yu back, in addition to a set of jammies and some health books. There’s no confirmation as to whether “Final Exit” was among them, but let’s not forget that Hyun became Chairwoman of a company that lives or dies with Kim Jong Il’s whims after her husband flung himself from a skyscraper after being implicated for making illegal payments to North Korea. Hyun’s late husband thus acted as one of the bag men who helped Kim Dae Jung buy his Nobel Prize with the embezzled money of South Korean taxpayers and shareholders, and with the involuntary servitude of North Koreans.

Today, we learn that the North Koreans billed Hyundai Asan for $20,000. Mind you, insurance will cover the cost, which is itemized as room and board at $115 a night for 137 days, not ransom.

Duly noted.

How Hyundai Asan or South Korea justify this payment under UNSCR 1874 is beyond me, which may be why Kim Jong Il was satisfied that he’d won a significant victory by extracting even this modest sum (U.S.S. Pueblo lawyers, take note). The lesson? Doing business with the North Koreans is always more expensive than it would initially seem, and it eventually demands the corruption of everyone who partakes, though Ms. Hyun initially offered token resistance.

For their part, the North Koreans sound glad to be rid of Mr. Yu. The ingrate even had the temerity to burden his hosts with repeated requests for more rice and complaints about the side dishes. Yu should thank the deity or fetish object of his choice that the North Koreans didn’t add a ten-year sentence in Yodok to his troubles.


  1. her husband flung himself from a skyscraper

    That never did get resolved, did it? Well, not resolved. It never took off – when it had all the signs of a hot story. If it had been in the US, Hollywood would have already made a movie about it with some of its big actors:

    The guy was the son of the founder, correct?

    The father’s ancestral home was in the North. He became a J.P. Morgan-type success, most likely in a rough manner, like the robber barons in the US. a great movie plot point. But, in his old age, he softened and wanted to use his power and wealth to bring reconciliation with SK’s brothers to the North. Who didn’t get weepy-eyed watching him drive his Bonanza!!-sized herd of cattle across the DMZ? Cinematic gold…

    Then there is the smoke-filled room conspiracy angle: Besides his nostalgia for his old home, he had to be working behind the scenes with the Korean government. Well, if I remember correctly, it was actually exposed that the government was working through him to avoid a potential backlash. And it is the South Korean government who wanted to push the mountain tours and economic projects.

    Then the father-figure dies and his son takes over – and at a time the South Korean government is beginning to balk at secretly or overtly paying Hyundai back for what it was doing in the North largely on the government’s behalf.

    And plagued by the impossible demands of doing what the leaders of his country wanted vs the economic pressure to run Hyundai as a business instead of a funnel for Pyongyang’s cash payments – he does a header off a skyscraper.

    Or, since this is a movie, maybe the KCIA helped him off the ledge…Or maybe he jumped because the government had fully turned on him and his father by investigating the funneling of wealth to Kim Jong-Il.

    This certainly has the makings of a political thriller…


  2. usinkorea’s comment on the Hyundai-ROKGOV back-room dealings got me to thinking again about something not really related to this post, but I’ll ask here anyway (please indulge me, Mr Stanton).

    Corruption still persists in Korea, as demonstrated by what usinkorea mentioned above, though probably at nothing like the same levels as before (either that or they’re just getting more savvy at hiding it, now that the public is much less tolerant of it and can more easily find out about it).

    Next-door Japan, which has been a model for South Korea’s economic development since the Park era, isn’t all that much better (read the Japan Times for a while and you’ll see what I mean), so I’m not sure it offers much of a model for elimination of corruption. Not sure about Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, or any other East Asian entities either.

    So my question is: Is there any reasonably “corruption-free” (or at least “low-corruption) country which would provide South Korea a good model for the elimination (or large-scale eradication) of corruption?


  3. I can give a somewhat wild guess as a broad answer to Kushibo’s question:

    It seems to me such a reduction in corruption can be roughly found in each of the top-tier, Western capitalist nations of Western Europe and the US. I think the broad trend in most of these cases might have been connected (as a similarity) in part to the Japanese and South Korean rapid economic development but failure to break up monopolies:

    Corruption was in large part undermined when the government attached crony industrialism/capitalism.

    The Korean and Japanese economies rose rapidly on the back of government support for massive conglomerates. Maybe the JP Morgans and other robber barons that helped springboard the US ahead of Western Europe in economic terms are roughly the same as these two Asian versions.

    I can’t speak on Japan, but South Korea hasn’t gone after the power of the conglomerates, not like the US did in breaking up giant monopolies. Maybe the chaebol are not as powerful as they used to be in influencing the government. They certainly aren’t as powerful as when the worked closely with Park Chung-Hee (well, Park had the power there, but he wanted to use it to work hand-in-hand with the chaebol he wanted to use to develop Korean industry), but they are still powerful.

    Maybe opening up the Korean consumer market more to foreign product competition and promoting competition between Korean companies and regulating the chaebol in terms of influencing politics – and stifling competition within Korea – would help lower corruption…???…


  4. usinkorea wrote:

    It seems to me such a reduction in corruption can be roughly found in each of the top-tier, Western capitalist nations of Western Europe and the US.

    Respectfully, usinkorea, I disagree. While I think you bring up a good point that breaking apart the chaebol and zaibatsu (is that word still used?) would be good, I think that speaks more to toward economic structure than the issue of corruption itself. Granted, they are tied together somewhat, since large “groups” can wield more influence, but Taiwan has fewer of them and still has (as far as I’m aware) similar levels of problems with corruption.

    The US is fraught with corruption in the form of money influence in politics. I see it a lot in Hawaii and less so in Orange County, but it was there in California as well. Back east and in Washington, it seems much worse, and it heavily distorts issues like health care, military spending and activities, housing development, the banking industry, etc.

    Indeed, some indices suggest that the US is not as good as, say, Northern Europe in this regard. But beyond merely finding a country with a lower level of corruption (or a higher degree of transparency), I’m curious about finding one that may have had similar problems as Korea has/had and effectively dealt with them.


  5. I no next to nothing about Taiwan and can’t say anything about it…

    What I was talking about wasn’t really the US today. I was talking about the economic development of the US and other Western national that led the first industrial revolutions, and I think there might be some rough parallels to Korea and possibly Japan in the area of how corruption in a growing economy occurs (rather than in a despotic situation in which corruption is rampant but also deadly to the economy).

    The point — I vaguely remember the idea that there was a time in American economic and political development when the monopolies and political machines were broken up due to the amount of corruption they put out. Those titans of the conglomerates had helped develop the US into an economic powerhouse, but the level of influence they — or just level of connections — they had with political machines began to hurt too much to the point something was done about it in sometimes dramatic fashion.

    The first part of that clearly happened in Korea’s rapid economic rise. Possibly in Japan too. But, the second part – the shifting away from monopolies in dramatic fashion has not happened. I don’t know how well it would fit to say that the political machines in Korea have been set back or not. I don’t know enough to even guess…


  6. PS — on corruption in America today – I think the cost of running elections is one of the key factors if not the key factor and something needs to be done — but I haven’t heard any ideas I really liked along those lines…


  7. Ditto on the cost of running elections. That is, in fact, one of the very things I was thinking about. It does seem at times as if we in the US have basically legalized (or at least formalized) quid-pro-quo corruption so we don’t have to deal with its eradication. Consequently, I don’t think the US is a particularly good model for a country trying to get rid of corruption.


  8. Fine. But I’d add a caution about definitions of corruption. Like when I pointed out that despotic regimes live on corruption, but the way they go about it cripples the economy and the standard of living for all but a tiny minority.

    Perhaps a key factor in gauging corruption in history is the standard of living of the people: Looking back at the periods of American history I’ve been mentioning, the robber barons and political machines, wasn’t a significant part of breaking both up — the ability of the masses to see a big need for reform in labor conditions? and market prices? and making regulations that helped limit the vast economic boom-n-bust swings of the mid-1800s through to the Great Depression?

    If we look at South Korea in the 1980s, maybe it does somewhat fit the vague idea I’m talking about: After the death of Park Chung-Hee, and as the Korean economy really took off, wasn’t labor reform successful in changing things? and we know clearly that democracy grew during the period, though not without some struggles/clashes.

    I read a book once, I think it was Cultural Materialism, written in the early 1980s before advocates of socialism (communism) took a big hit with the collapse of the Soviet and other examples, that said the reason why capitalism in America had survived when it had failed in other industrial nations was — that the great whoever had spread the wealth around enough to satisfy enough people that revolution/a fundamental change in the economic system couldn’t gain enough strength to take place…

    Maybe that is what brings down overabundant corruption —- once the people no longer have faith in what is going on, they look to change it…


  9. I see what you mean, usinkorea, and I don’t think I really disagree with any of your conclusions. But I’m just not sure if the American model goes enough toward what I’m asking?

    Granting for a moment that Korea (and Japan?) needs to do what the US did in the 19th century vis-à-vis monopolies or giant corporations, the US still falls way to short (at least in my opinion) in terms of how quid pro quo corporate influence.

    So I guess what I’m asking is a two-parter: (a) What are the areas where Korea has dysfunctional corruption, lack of transparency that leads to corruption or dysfunction, and/or too much corporate influence in government and social decision-making; and (b) what other countries have had similar problems but have successfully dealt with them?

    The US is an appropriate example for part of it, but by no means all of it. Maybe South Korea should be looking to northern Europe for examples. But are those examples appropriate?

    It’s sort of like health care, where we tend to look at what we’re familiar with when in fact there are better examples elsewhere. Canada and the UK may not be the best examples of a universal health coverage system for the US, which still prefers an emphasis on private businesses working in a little-curtailed market system. Maybe Hawaii, Taiwan, or South Korea, then, are better models for the US. I know now I’m really getting off topic, so maybe I’ll make a little post on that elsewhere and let people comment.