The debate about South Korea’s role in (not) improving human rights in the North seems to intensify by the hour. Freedom House is the latest to testify for the prosecution. If you believe the latest report from the Chosun Ilbo, the State Department is reeling from the vitriolic South Korean reaction to U.S. Human Rights Envoy Jay Lefkowitz over labor conditions in North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Park:
Another U.S. government insider also said the controversial piece by Lefkowitz had not gone through normal advance review procedures. That implies that Lefkowitz’s harsh critique of South Korea’s little-monitored aid to the North and suggestion that North Korean workers at the complex are exploited would not have gone into the paper unchanged.
The damage being done, however, the department chose to use the same phrase as the envoy: “The world knows little about what actually goes on at Kaesong.
We obviously don’t know who that “insider” is, or what he really knows, but the report’s implication is almost certainly false. It’s certainly possible that State is backpedaling, but as I’ll soon explain, the chances of Lefkowitz’s statement not being vetted are next to nil.
I’ve already dealt with the South Koreans’ false response on food aid today and want to discuss Kaesong. The pro-business, nationalistic take of the Chosun Ilbo is that the U.S. is in a “bind” over Korean ire at Lefkowitz’s “slur.” How the U.S. is in a “bind” over this escapes me, and the Chosun Ilbo doesn’t explain. “Slur” means “a disparaging remark; an aspersion.” “Aspersion” means “An unfavorable or damaging remark; slander.” “Slander,” of course, requires that the remark be false, which it was not. Let’s review what Amb. Lefkowitz said about Kaesong:
America’s friends in Asia must be careful not to squander whatever influence they may have to bring about change in North Korea.
That’s too important a point to blow past — regardless of the actual conditions at Kaesong — because of conditions elsewhere in the North. Kaesong is a cash cow for Kim Jong Il, who has been doing a fine job of extracting cash from South Korea for the last decade, but who still hasn’t given a single meaningful concession on nukes, abductees, human rights, transparency for food aid delivery, or the 10,000-plus artillery tubes dug in at the DMZ at pointing South. South Korea, a nation with 1,000 of its southern citizens and 22 million of its northern ones in bondage has a duty to represent those citizens by extracting some mitigation of the conditions of their captivity in return.
Near Kaesong, a city just north of the Demilitarized Zone, 15 South Korean companies recently opened an industrial park using North Korean labor. So far, the consortium has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the North with more to come. A South Korean official enthusiastically described it as, “a cooperative project benefiting both the South and the North, and at the same time, a peace project overcoming the wall of the Cold War through economic cooperation.”
But the world knows little about what actually goes on at Kaesong, and given North Korea’s track record, there is ample cause for concern about worker exploitation. The South Korean companies apparently pay less than $2 a day per worker, and there is no guarantee that the workers see even this small amount.
That may actually be overstating the wages, as we’ll see. What Amb. Lefkowitz is really saying here is that we don’t know much, because the North Koreans themselves aren’t willing to let us know much. A U.S. delegation was allowed to visit recently, and I’ve spoken to a member of that delegation. Findings? Not many. They saw some nice, shiny factories, but they didn’t get much of a look under the hood. All we really know about labor conditions in Kaesong is what we’re likely to infer absent persuasive information to the contrary. Might some transparency be appropriate? Is it the fault of the United States that North Korea won’t let us interview a few of the workers in private? If they’re really as plump and content as oompa-loompas in a magical chocolate factory, what’s the harm in letting us interview a few of them in private? Why not make sure that at least some of the benefits from Kaesong go to those who need it desperately, instead of letting Kim Jong Il blow it all on MiGs, nukes, and luxury sedans?
The North Korean government deducts a “social fee” from their wages and empowers “labor brokers” to control the rest. Moreover, the site is fenced in, and the North Korean workers must come and go through a single entrance manned by armed soldiers. While the conditions at Kaesong may be marginally better than elsewhere in the North, substantial economic assistance to North Korea should be linked to human-rights progress for all North Koreans.
Those circumstances don’t exactly give much comfort, and I’ll simply redirect you to this post, which quotes extensively from several press reports that feed our worst suspicions by describing an atmosphere of pervasive, Orwellian control and isolation of the workers. Among the few specifics found? Te workers there keep just 40 cents a day, or $8 a month, and the unguarded admission by one of the South Korean bosses that Kaesong workers can’t form independent unions.
At a minimum, North Korea should allow an independent party, such as the International Labor Organization, to inspect and assess Kaesong and report its findings to the U.N.
And again, what’s really the harm in that? Except maybe this, of course (see Article 2). But isn’t multilateralism sacrosanct?
Having examined Lefkowitz’s remarks, are they really out of line? Well, here’s a record of him making very similar remarks at the Heritage Foundation back in early April, which is normally enough time to avert an international incident. Lefkowitz also said just about exactly the same at the NK Freedom Day rally, which means we’re now up to three times he’s said essentially the same thing publicly. Still not enough? Here’s a link to his prepared written statement, given on Capitol Hill last Thursday, which I also attended. If you read it, you’ll see that it’s also very similar to the WSJ piece. As anyone familiar with Washington bureaucracy knows, you don’t testify in Congress without your written testimony being vetted extensively. Meaning? Meaning I question the accuracy of the Chosun Ilbo’s report. Amb. Lefkowitz has now made very similar comments publicly four times over the course of nearly a month, including a written statement to a key committee of Congress. Not vetted? Please.
Finally, let’s see what U.S. law tells us about Kaesong in the context that’s the real deal-breaker: trade with the United States. The Tariff Act of 1930, specifically 19 U.S.C. sec. 1307, defines “forced labor” to mean —
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.
Anyone want to try to lawyer Kaesong products out of that definition? If you can’t, then goods made “wholly or in part” at Kaesong may not be imported into the United States and are even barred from U.S. ports. Do not clear customs, do not collect $200.
Lefkowitz is dead-on — not just morally, but legally. Based on the best information we have, the workers at Kaesong didn’t choose their work voluntarily, can’t quit, can’t organize, and have no say about the pay or working conditions.
How is that not slave labor?
How is it “interfering in South Korea’s internal affairs” that the U.S. refuses to make a special exception to its slave labor laws for Kim Jong Il and his unscrupulous business partners in Seoul?