Border Control Capitalism Refugees

Seoul & Pyongyang join forces to fund N. Korea’s rich, starve its poor

Our endlessly unrequited vigil for North Korean reform continues:

Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.

Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.

North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.

Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.

“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”

The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said. [Reuters, Bill Tarrant]

More about Lee here. This is exactly the kind of behavior a rational person should expect from North Korea. What’s inexplicable is that South Korea — which sends cash to Kim Jong-Un through Kaesong — also prevents North Korean refugees from remitting money back to their relatives.

Sending money across the border – or private communications of any kind with the North – is also illegal in South Korea.

The money from defectors goes into North Korea’s increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.

Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.

That is to say, Seoul continues to push direct economic engagement with Pyongyang years after the failure of that policy became objectively undeniable, and despite legitimate concerns about how Pyongyang is using that money, yet shuts down forms of economic engagement that could be feeding the hungry, catalyzing the growth of a market economy, subverting the state’s propaganda, and loosening the dependence of the people on the regime.