Gloria Steinem must have had her first reservations about “Women Cross DMZ” when the march’s organizer was outed as a North Korean apologist, and reporters began to ask her uncomfortable questions about North Korea’s war on women. Since then, Steinem has had to duck questions about the regime’s rape and murder of female prisoners, the endemic and unpunished rapes of North Korean women by its soldiers, and the infanticides and forced abortions this regime inflicts on North Korean refugee women and their babies. Steinem dismissed calls to speak up for North Korea’s millions of vulnerable women as “a bananas question.”
Of course, things could always get worse, and so they did. After this inauspicious start, the “peace” march has been overshadowed by North Korean missile tests and a gruesome purge. Now, a lengthy sexist screed about South Korean President Park Geun Hye, published by North Korea’s official “news” service, has given Steinem a whole new set of questions to duck.
What’s interesting about this particular screed is its selective translation. I’ll give you the English version first. It’s probably one-third as long as the original, and it’s pretty standard fare for North Korea’s inimitable Korean Central News Agency:
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N. Korea increasingly relies on expat labor for hard currency
A series of new reports suggests that the export of labor has become a major source of income for Pyongyang. The Financial Times cites an NGO estimate that the regime earns $1.5 to $2.3 billion a year from contract labor, in line with educated estimates of its annual revenue from missile sales ($1.5 billion) or arms deals with Iran ($1.5 billion to $2 billion). Ahn Myeong-Cheol, a former prison camp guard and leader of the NGO NK Watch, says that there are now 100,000 North Koreans working overseas, double the number it had posted overseas in 2012. Ahn believes North Korea is increasing its use of contract labor to compensate for arms revenue lost to U.N. Security Council sanctions. Marzuki Darusman gives the lower estimate of 20,000. In testimony appended to the end of this post, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea puts the figure at around 53,000. He also offers this very specific breakdown:
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Currently, 16 countries reportedly host workers sent by the North Korean regime: Russia (20,000), China (19,000), Mongolia (1,300), Kuwait 5,000), UAE (2,000), Qatar (1,800), Angola (1,000), Poland (400-500), Malaysia (300), Oman (300), Libya (300), Myanmar (200), Nigeria (200), Algeria (200), Equatorial Guinea (200) and Ethiopia (100).4 Although North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), all but two of the 16 states officially hosting North Korean workers are ILO members.
In April 2013, Kim Jong Un pulled 50,000 North Korean workers out of Kaesong, in retaliation for South Korea’s support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094. The shutdown lasted for five months and cost investors (and ultimately, the South Korean government that still subsidizes them) millions of dollars. Kaesong eventually recovered to pre-shutdown levels of operation, but the shutdown probably scared away potential foreign investors for years. A few months after the shutdown ended, a new dispute arose when North Korea told Kaesong investors to pay back taxes for the period of the shutdown.
Today, Kaesong is the subject of another North-South impasse. In February, Pyongyang announced a minimum “wage” increase of $4-per-month-per-worker. Seoul refused to accept the increase, told South Korean firms not to pay it, and threatened those that did with an unspecified “corresponding punishment.” For its part, Pyongyang threatened those that didn’t pay with a 15% “arrears charge.” Some of the South Korean firms (49 out of 124) defied their own government and paid anyway. Now, the North Korean workers have begun a work slowdown:
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Seoul has requested its companies not to send out March paychecks, vowing to punish violators. Despite the warning, 49 out of 124 South Korean companies have paid March wages to the North’s workers apparently after threats from the North.
You’ve often seen me write about the importance of “financial transparency” in transactions with North Korea. For a decade, economic engagement has mostly been done by one of two models: (1) controlled interactions with members of the elite, the actual effects of which are negligible at best; and (2) barbed-wire capitalism, where a few North Korean officials relay orders from foreign managers to hand-picked workers, and where the regime seals the whole enterprise off to prevent it from influencing the local community.
The former are, for the most part, of little financial significance. The latter may represent a significant source of income for illegitimate uses, and may also help the regime hide its flows of dirty money.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way by now. The idea behind economic engagement was to gradually draw North Korea into compliance with the rules that the civilized world lives by. Yet ten years later, the South Korean Unification Ministry can’t tell us how much (if anything) Kaesong’s workers receive after the regime takes its cut from their wages, and the Undersecretary of the Treasury recently expressed his concern about just how North Korea is spending that money.
The U.N. Panel of Experts now expresses a related worry — that North Korea could be using its ostensibly legal businesses to conceal and launder the proceeds of illicit activity:A few days ago, we saw that North Korean diplomats have been smuggling gold to earn hard currency for Pyongyang. Continue reading »
I think Marzuki Darusman is a good man who means well, but it’s difficult to derive a coherent policy from this:
“This is a new thing, spotlighting the leadership and ridiculing the leadership. In any authoritarian, totalitarian system, that is an Achilles’ heel,” Darusman said in an interview in Tokyo, where he held talks with the government on an investigation into North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.
If this kind of ridicule seeps into North Korea, it could become lethal for the regime, he said. “If they want to preserve their system, the only way to do that is not to close themselves off from the international community but to actively engage,” he said. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
OK, so they need “engagement”–presumably, trade–to preserve the system, which we all agree should not be preserved. So should we cut off trade?
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But the world also should be actively engaging with the Kim regime to draw it out of its self-imposed isolation, Marzuki Darusman said Friday, calling the United States’ increasingly aggressive approach toward North Korea “unfortunate.”
“In the overall picture, I think much hinges on the way the U.S. acts,” said Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia. A harder line against North Korea could “stall or delay the process that needs to be put into place,” he said.
North Korea has offered to stop testing nuclear weapons — something that several U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit — if President Obama cancels annual military exercises (full KNCA article below the fold.) Which sounds something like a bank robber promising to stop robbing you if you disable your alarm system and leave the safe unlocked.
Which is almost exactly what the Korean Defense Ministry thought. To his credit, President Obama saw this for what it was:
“The DPRK (North Korea) statement that inappropriately links routine U.S.-ROK (South Korea) exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is an implicit threat,” a State Department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.
“Our annual joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea are transparent, defense-oriented and have been carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years,” the spokesperson said.
North Korea should “immediately cease all threats, reduce tensions and take the steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations,” the spokesperson said. [Yonhap]
Sounds kind of like they want to test a nuke, huh?
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Yonhap reports that, according to a poll commissioned by the Database Center for North Korean Human rights, 73.1% of South Korean adults surveyed support approval of a human rights law. That would be even better news if the respondents actually knew what the law would do; I can’t say I do.
(While you’re at NKDB’s site, be sure to have a look at their Google Earth Visual Atlas.)
It’s also good news that less than 20% opposed “meddling” in the “internal” issue of North Korean human rights. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the issue. Asked how to address it, 40% said international pressure, and 32% said dialogue.
The findings fuel my suspicion that nothing has been quite so influential within South Korean society about human rights in the North as peer pressure.
Even assuming that the methodology of this poll is solid, I’m not aware of any base line for those numbers allowing an apples-to-apples comparison showing how the trends have changed. Still, my guess is that these numbers are less sympathetic to Pyongyang than they would have been ten years ago. They also fit with the trends I identified in this post. See also this and this. Continue reading »
For months now, we’ve heard Park Geun Hye telling us about how reunification would be a “jackpot” for both Koreas, but we’ve never heard her explain just how she intends to achieve this result. This left some rather important questions unanswered.
Having heard so much from President Park about Phase 3 (profit!) and so little about Phases 1 or 2, at least we know that she’s asking us to resume the collection of underpants:
South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Wednesday that Seoul and Washington should make greater efforts to engage North Korea, saying that dialogues would make pressure on the communist regime more effective. [….]
Until now, Seoul and Washington focused on inducing Pyongyang to change by cooperatively putting pressure upon it. [Yonhap]
Oh, no they haven’t. They’ve simultaneously pursued the mutually inconsistent objectives of economic sanctions and economic subsidies, chasing talks without acquiring the leverage for those talks to succeed.
However, to make the pressure more effective, dialogues and cooperation are also necessary,” Ryoo said during the forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Wow. I can’t believe no one ever thought of that.
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“Our two countries should therefore strengthen our coordination for engagement as well. We will need to show Pyongyang clearly what it can earn by giving up the path of provocation and isolation and choosing the path of dialogue and cooperation,” he said.
Washington Post alumnus Max Fisher, now writing at Vox, presents a graph and data showing how, despite all of its abhorrent behavior, North Korea’s trade (most of it with China and South Korea) has grown, and how that leads to more abhorrent behavior.
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The way it’s supposed to work is that North Korea’s belligerence, aggression, and horrific human rights abuses lead the world to isolate it economically, imposing a punishing cost and deterring future misdeeds. What’s actually happening is that North Korea is being rewarded with more trade, which is still extremely small, but growing nonetheless, enriching and entrenching the ruling Kim Jong Un government, even as it expands its hostile nuclear and missile programs. [….]
But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota.
North Korea has unilaterally raised those “wages” that South Korean companies pay the North Korean regime for labor at Kaesong—wages that the workers probably never see, and that for all the Unification Ministry knows, are used to buy iron maidens, centrifuge bearings, and 300-millimeter rocket fuses. The Unification Ministry isn’t happy, but only because wage hikes are bad for business:
“Our firm position is that it’s impossible to revise the wage system without consultations between the South and North,” the unification ministry official told reporters on background. The government will soon deliver the position to the North in writing, he added. He pointed out that wages are an important element of the complex’s competitiveness. [….]
The two sides have a 49-point agreement on the working conditions for them. The North abruptly informed the South of its plan to revise 13 of the stipulations last week. The measure includes the scrapping of a 5-percent cap on the annual increase rates in their minimum wages and hikes in overtime payment. [Yonhap]
Remember, these are the people our State Department expects to make and keep a nuclear freeze deal.
I can’t imagine why any sensible investor, lured by the promise of low wages and taxes, would plow his money into one of the world’s most politically risky places, knowing full well that those low wages can unexpectedly turn not-that-low, that the taxes can unexpectedly turn high, and that the products can’t legally be imported into the United States. Continue reading »
Speaking at the International Democrat Union last Friday, Park said this:
In a luncheon meeting with the party leaders, President Park Geun-hye said North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons had resulted in the country’s isolation and dire human rights conditions.
“Now the North Korean people are faced with hunger and a tragic humanitarian situation as the North sticks to the path of… isolation by developing nuclear arms,” Park said during the luncheon at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.
“I request consistent attention and support from IDU members as international support and cooperation are vital for improving the North Korean situation and bringing about unification of the two Koreas,” she said. [Yonhap]
So that explains that.
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Writing in The New York Times, Kim recalls a young North Korean student who made her uncomfortable with his risky questions about government in America:
What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.
That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.
“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”
The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie? [N.Y. Times]
If the student wasn’t a counterintelligence plant, Kim would make one of the more credible cases I’ve yet seen for permissive engagement. Still, there must be other ways of reaching young North Koreans–both inside Pyongyang and beyond–that are less risky for both the teachers and the students. Continue reading »
An unidentified small manufacturer for watch and mobile phones cases on Wednesday submitted an application for dissolution to the committee handling affairs at the joint park, according to officials from Seoul’s unification ministry.
It marked the second case since June 2009 that South Korean firms operating at the Kaesong Complex have closed their businesses. It also marked the first time since the operation of the park had been halted briefly last year.
The company, which had employed about 100 North Korean workers, has been suffering from business setbacks since 2012 as its annual sales fell to US$300,000 from its peak of some $700,000. [Yonhap]
The other firm referenced is Skinnet, an apparel manufacturer. Another company, LivingArt, the maker of the much-ballyhooed “peace pots,” went bankrupt in 2006. Its head was subsequently indicted for embezzlement.
Overall, I don’t see much evidence that Kaesong is growing, attracting significant foreign investment, or declining. The reports about the health of its rebound from the 2012 shutdown have conflicted, but I’m always suspicious that the South Korean Unification Ministry has spun reports from Kaesong to make it look more successful than it is, in order to entice more third-country hostages to the complex. My best guess is that it has bumped against its ceiling, but I’ve been surprised by its resiliency. Continue reading »
Although Delury and Moon may not like the idea of North Korea’s collapse, that is a far more likely scenario than their fantasy of “the gradual merging of North and South.” South Korea has tried to make that dream come true before, through the so-called sunshine policy it pursued from 1998 to 2008, and the result was unambiguous failure. During those years, South Korea gave North Korea $8 billion in investment and assistance. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even handed Kim Jong Il $500 million in cash to stage a summit (an act that earned the former the Nobel Peace Prize). In return, Seoul got, well, nothing. Pyongyang advanced its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, and remained as repressive and dysfunctional as ever. Delury and Moon make no case for why a new sunshine policy would work any better. [Sue Mi Terry, Foreign Affairs]
Granted, arguing with John Delury might sound a bit like Thai boxing Stephen Hawking, but it still shames me a little when a non-native speaker like Terry writes and argues better in her second language than I write in my first. Read the rest on your own. Background here. Continue reading »
For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.
The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:
The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.
True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. Continue reading »
And even this is really the fault of imperialist sanctions, which prohibit the import of “luxury goods” to North Korea:
When the North Korean officials at the U.N. briefing were asked Tuesday to identify human rights problems in their country, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean responded, “We need some facilities where people go and enjoy a bath… Right now, due to problems in the economic field — that is due to the external forces hindrance — we are running short of some of the facilities.”
He cited lack of facilities and did not mention executions, torture allegations or food shortages. [CNN, Madison Park]
Choe’s statement raises some very grave questions — I hope you’ll pardon the use of that word — such as: What kind of a monster prioritizes ski resorts over bath houses? (You can sweat a lot under those ski clothes.) And, how much of the U.N. aid that’s currently squandered on the “third of children under five” who “show signs of stunting” ought, in the interests of decency, be diverted to building bath houses instead? Failing that, would Jimmy Carter accuse us of a human rights violation?
This WTF moment bought to you by an observant CNN correspondent with a taste for irony, who interviewed me Tuesday night to collect guesses about why North Korea has undertaken another one of its periodic charm offensives. Continue reading »
but Robert Koehler has already told you roughly what I think, so I can save most of the keystrokes. North Korea has had more false rehabilitations than Linsday Lohan, Robert Downey Jr., and the entire membership of Grateful Dead, combined. It would take nothing less than the announcement of a coup d’etat for me to take this at all seriously.
I wonder if Pyongyang’s Southern Wind ploy means that its Hostage ploy with Japan is about to blow up, as predicted. For now, Park Geun Hye continues to resist domestic political pressure to lift sanctions until the North actually does something to deserve that.
~ ~ ~
Update: OK, fun’s over. Back to your bunkers:
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The defence ministry said the South’s patrol boat had initially fired a warning shot after the North Korean vessel penetrated half a nautical mile inside the South’s territorial waters.
Instead of retreating immediately, the North patrol boat opened fire, so “our side fired back,” a ministry spokesman said, adding that there neither vessel had directly targetted the other and “no damage” was sustained.
The South’s patrol boat fired “around 90″ rounds in total.
The incident took place at 9:50 am (0050 GMT) near the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong, and the North patrol boat retreated to its side of the border 10 minutes later.
You may recall that several weeks ago, some North Korean workers at Kaesong fell ill with symptoms of benzene poisoning. The bad news is that we still haven’t heard a peep of protests on the workers’ behalf from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, for some reason. The good news is that the Korean government cares enough about appearances to have ordered a safety inquiry:
The South Korean government began a two-month probe Thursday into the working conditions at 33 factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex following reports of a suspected benzene poisoning case there.
All of the selected factories use a relatively large amount of chemical materials, according to the unification ministry.
The ministry commissioned the (South) Korean Industrial Health Association to conduct the probe, which is scheduled to last through Nov. 30. The association’s experts are making an on-site inspection to assess the safety and security of the working conditions “through an objective survey” and take measures for systemic management, said the ministry.
In August, North Korea claimed a number of its workers at two car parts makers operating in the industrial park suffered some symptoms of exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals. [Yonhap]
But the usual problem of transparency in North Korea is already interfering with the investigation’s integrity. Continue reading »