[Update: I’ve made indirect contact with a North Korean defector familiar with how Pyongyang Soju is made. Based on that information, the product is not manufactured in a forced labor camp. I hope to have more specific information about the materials and labor practices later.]
The Chicago Tribune and the Hankook Ilbo are both reporting that North Korea is about to export of shipment of soju to the United States.
US-North Korean trade is rare as Washington imposes sanctions on Pyongyang, which it lists as a state sponsor of terror. Imports need approval from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. But Steve Park, 59, the Korean-American importer, told Hankook he secured the office’s approval last July. Park said a cargo ship carrying 2,520 boxes of soju, or some 60,000 bottles, left the North’s western port of Nampo for the United States on April 9.
“If the customs procedures go as scheduled, the soju will be sold at US stores, marketplaces and restaurants as early as late this month or early next month,” Park was quoted as saying. [AFP]
Let’s hope customs procedures don’t go smoothy, and there could be a few more hurdles to stagger past:
Alcohol importation into the U.S. needs authorization from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Because North Korea is subject to U.S. sanctions, Park Il U would also need a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
North Korea is among the countries subject to the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act. Washington agreed in February to begin discussions with North Korea on removing it from the list, one of a series of economic and political concessions offered in exchange for the North’s promise in an international agreement to start dismantling its nuclear program. [Chicago Tribune]
Leave aside for a moment such questions as how Kim Jong Il will spend your money, or what all those upstream factories are dumping into the Taedong (or, as Richardson notes, that the stuff tastes putrid). When it comes to North Korea, I posit that all labor is slave labor to one degree or another, and the odds that Mr. Park’s soju is made by laborers who can choose their jobs or negotiate their wages are next to nil. Park says his soju is made somewhere in Pyongyang; this article claims to show a picture of inside of the bottling plant. That may answer one of your questions, but if you’re inherently skeptical about what the North Korean government says, then wonder with me just how sure can we be that Mr. Park‘s soju isn’t distilled, say, here:
Google Earth gives us a closer view of Camp 18’s distillery:
As North Korean gulags go, Camp 18 is one of the less horrid places to find yourself enslaved. It’s run by a slightly less sadistic secret police organization, the Peoples’ Safety Agency (North Korea has a proliferation of them, and they’re all in competition with each other). Just across the river, at Camp 14, the usual guard force, the National Security Agency, is in charge, and conditions are far more brutal.
Still, Camp 18 does have its very own public execution site:
Typically, the political criminal is sent to Camp 14, but in his infinite mercy, Kim Jong Il sends his family to Camp 18, just across the Taedong. That means that at this spot, just 3 1/2 miles upstream from the distillery, a husband might even be able to stand on one side of the Taedong River and watch his wife’s execution on the other side.
Of course, I have no way of knowing where Mr. Park’s soju is really made, and my point here is that neither do we, and neither does Mr. Park. I rather doubt he cares. I did call up the importer to ask for his side of the story, but he didn’t return my call. Nor do I think he particularly cares how Kim Jong Il spends the profits of this commerce. His merchandise probably dulls the mind somewhat less than self-serving pap like this:
“The North Korean government shows a positive response to this business in that its product is to be exported to the US, which has long been considered as a hostile country, through legal procedures,” he said.
“I think this will serve as a good opportunity to improve relations between the two countries in the future.”
Huzzah for Mr. Park if he sleeps soundly at night. If his soju sales take off, he has other products to add to his line. For example, according to survivor Kang Chol Hwan, at Camp 15, a/k/a Yodok, there was “a distillery for corn, acorn, and snake brandy.” Former guard Ahn Myung Chol reported that at the worst of the Camps, the infamous Camp 22, there was a “distillery that produced soy sauce and whiskeys.” And if Pyongyang soju really is made in Pyongyang, we’re still talking about labor conditions that are highly suspect. The State Department lists North Korea as a Tier 3 country for human trafficking concern. That’s the worst classification that can be assigned, shared by only 11 other countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Here’s a section from State’s 2006 human trafficking report on North Korea:
The Government of North Korea does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government does not acknowledge that trafficking is occurring, either within the country or transnationally. The government also contributes to the problem through forced labor prison camps, where thousands of North Koreans live in slave-like conditions, receiving very little food and no medical assistance…. The D.R.P.K. regime reportedly provides workers for foreign investors operating in North Korean industrial parks. There are concerns that this labor may be exploitative, with the D.P.R.K. government keeping most or all of the foreign exchange paid and then paying workers in local, nonconvertible currency.
A Tier 3 designation supposedly means that “it is the policy of the United States” not to provide that country aid, but tell that to Chris Hill. And since the State Department is in charge of this regulatory scheme, it’s also meaningless for keeping out products made with forced labor, which the Tariff Act defines this way:
… all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily. For purposes of this section, the term “˜’forced labor or/and indentured labor” includes forced or indentured child labor.
If we know that a product is made with forced labor, as we have reason to suspect in the case of Kaesong, it can’t legally be landed in a U.S. port. But what if we only have reason to suspect, and we have no way of verifying the actual facts? In such a case, even a Tier 3 classification has few real consequences for a country’s ability to export goods to the United States unless. There is a Labor Department black list, but it does not include a direct ban on the import of suspect goods. And good luck with arranging that plant visit to Pyongyang, much less Camp 18, whose existence the regime denies entirely. If you think it will do any good, here’s how you can write a letter to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs to nominate a particular product for that list.
Later today, I’ll be filing a request to the Office of Foreign Asset Control under the Freedom of Information Act. I’ll be seeking a copy of Mr. Park’s license request, certain policies used to evaluate the request, and the license itself (along with other OFAC licenses for North Korea). I’m going to be looking for any information about where Mr. Park’s merchandise is made and what assurances he can make regarding the labor conditions there.
If you’re a journalist and want the first look at this information, please e-mail me, because journalists get expedited FOIA treatment. I’ll write the request and help you analyze it, and you get a chance to report it first. A win-win?
The FOIA request will probably take months to bear fruit, and if it does, it may show us few of the facts we really need, so I need your help. If you know anyone who has escaped from North Korea, please ask them what they know about how and where Pyongyang Soju is made, and then please drop me a line at the e-mail address in the third right-hand sidebar. If anyone can provide a statement containing specific information that Pyongyang Soju is made with forced labor, we can use the procedures of 19 C.F.R. sec. 12.42 to block its importation into the United States.