Roh was once touted by the South Korean media as one of the young leaders in his early 30s who were expected to lead the post-unification era when he exported 44 km of barbed-wire fences to Rajin-Sonbong in 1995. North Korea had asked Roh to supply the fences to isolate the area from ordinary North Koreans. In return, the North offered him the use of 33,000 sq. m of land in the free zone for 50 years. [Chosun Ilbo]
Roh was willing to make what we’ll call certain compromises for the greater good of reform and liberalization:
At first, the North threatened to scrap the barbed-wire order, complaining that the deal was revealed to South Korean media. Roh managed to calm the North Koreans, but then they started making new demands. They even told Roh to supply equipment to guards who were posted along the fence, including tazers and high-voltage current generators.
The North Koreans were apparently quite serious about what the New York Times called “barbed-wire capitalism:”
But to let in the air of foreign currency without also letting in the mosquitoes of democracy, North Korea wants to confine capitalism to the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone in the isolated northeast corner of the country, near the borders with Russia and China.
A barbed wire fence, electrified in places, separates the 288-square-mile zone from the rest of North Korea. This despite the fact that a brochure prepared by North Korea’s Committee for Promotion of External Economic Cooperation touts that the zone will become ”a crossroad of human transport and traffic.” [N.Y. Times, Sept. 15, 1996]
Although not much else came of the Rajin-Sonbong zone, the North Koreans did put up the fence, at least. Curtis identified it in satellite imagery. What is not stated is how, exactly, one isolates an area from “ordinary North Koreans” if some of them are allowed to live inside the electric fence. Indeed, I recall having read (but cannot currently find) news reports that the indigenous population inside the zone would have been forcibly relocated. North Korea’s failed plans for a similar trade zone at Sinuiju involved the forcible expulsion of “several hundred thousand local residents.”
Whether this monstrous mass relocation actually came to pass, I cannot say, because thankfully, by 2002 the regime’s ambitious plans were generally acknowledged as a failure. It is always so: this is a regime whose ruthlessness is limited only by its incompetence, and its subjects’ best hope is often that the latter will triumph over the former.
I ask you: is there a better living symbol of the Sunshine Policy than Roh Jeong-Ho, the man wanted to get rich — and naturally, do his part to liberalize and open up North Korea — by selling it barbed wire? North Korea got its barbed wire and stiffed Roh (the barbed-wire salesman, not the dead president), who is now bankrupt, bitter, and lacking in any apparent pity for anyone but himself.
“North Korean government workers operate under a bizarre, performance-based system,” Roh said. “Their performance is gauged based on how much they are able to extort from South Korean businesses.” [….]
“If you’re not careful, you could end up losing everything,” he warned. He added that the business prospects are riddled with traps. “We tend to believe that the North Koreans would be accommodating since we are ‘compatriots,’ but that’s a big mistake,” Roh said. “North Korea extends its invitation to South Korean businesses in order to use them as window dressing to attract Chinese and Russian investors.”
As is inevitably the case with investors in North Korea, a fool and his money — in his case, $1.5 million — are soon parted. This may be one of those rare occasions to celebrate a small victory for karmic justice that precedes the afterlife.
It’s hard to figure out the exact status of the Rajin zone today, as North Korea makes a fresh effort to revive it. Some reports in late 2008 suggested that North Korea had evicted some or all of the Chinese companies that originally bought into Rajin. This is a curious thing; after all, the Chinese thought that they’d purchased an exclusive 50-year lease for the port as recently as 2005.