Archive for Human Trafficking

Hard times for North Korean mines, and miners

Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.

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A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:

“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]

Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.

Separately, the Daily NK reported on November 25th that operations at Musan, North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, had halted due to power shortages caused by low rainfall, and that this had caused “major disruptions” to the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. (The report makes no reference to a price dispute with China. It seems improbable that both stories are true.)

Meanwhile, the regime is trying to raise coal production, perhaps to offset its lost iron ore revenue, by drafting slave labor from prisoners sentenced for “minor” offenses like selling smuggled CDs, and “conducting illegal business operations.”

“Upon orders to produce more coal, the state has been forcing male prisoners, who have been sent to labor training camps for misdemeanors, to coal mines,” a source in South Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Labor training camps refer to correctional facilities under the Ministry of People’s Security that hold criminals who have committed less serious crimes. They are held in these camps from anywhere between one to six months, where they carry out intense labor. Usually prisoners of these camps are mobilized to construction sites or farm areas, and coal mine work is considered an extreme exception,  reflecting the serious rate of power deficiency currently facing the North.

The prisoners are worked day and night at coal towns some kilometers away, eating and sleeping on site. [Daily NK]

The article goes on to detail a long list of occupational hazards (collapses, accidents due to lack of lighting) that either kill the miners or drain away their lives (malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and respiratory problems due to coal dust and poor ventilation).

She explained once such case, “A few days ago, a prisoner in his 40s fell unconscious from suffocation and then died from the added malnutrition. He then received ‘parole,’” going on to add, “With more residents learning about the conditions at coal mines for those in labor training camps, rumors are spreading that if you land yourself in a training camp, you come out dead.”

“Women who have their husbands in these camps are passing on bribes to security officials and trying everything they can to get them out,” she asserted. “As they get to know of how the inmates are working, not even because of a serious crime, people are saying even during the Japanese colonial period they did exploit people this much.” 

Although the drafting of prisoners as unskilled labor suggests a labor shortage, some (other?) part of the North Korean government is exporting (skilled?) mine laborers to Malaysia, where the conditions sound hardly better than inside North Korea itself.

Malaysia has defended the use of North Korean labourers in its mining industry, saying they are particularly good workers because of their dedication, strength and bravery.

After a North Korean was among those killed in a mine explosion at the weekend, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, told reporters that the men had been working legally under a special agreement between Pyongyang and authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

“When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough,” Wan Junaidi said. “No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs — that is why [we] need foreign workers. In the coal-mining sector, only Britain, China and North Korea have highly-skilled workers.” [….]

The minister’s comments come just two days after three men — Tun Tun Win, 36, from Burma; Kardianto, 38, from Indonesia; and Pang Chung-hyok, 29, from North Korea — were killed after a blast ripped through the mine on Saturday morning. Another 29 men were injured, seven of them from North Korea. Forty-nine of the 119 foreign workers at the Sarawak mine were North Koreans. [The Guardian]

The report quotes “defectors’ groups” as saying there may be as many as 65,000 North Koreans working abroad now. The usual suspicions arise that the workers in Malaysia are receiving anywhere from zero to 15% of their salaries, as at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Siberian logging camps, and Qatar’s new World Cup construction sites.

Collectively, mineral products constitute North Korea’s largest legal exports. The trend bears watching, not only because of its potential effects on North Korea’s economy and society, but also because the regime may feel tempted to substitute falling mineral exports with illicit exports, or by exporting more food.

Qatar, the sponsor of ISIS, is using N. Korean slave labor to build a World Cup village

One North Korean worker helping to build the high-rise said: “People like us don’t usually get paid. The money does not come to the person directly. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the [North Korean recruitment] company’s business.”

A project manager of the lavish development said the workers “don’t have a single rial themselves” and “borrow money from us if they need small things like cigarettes”.

“The descriptions of the conditions North Korean workers endure in Qatar – abuse of vulnerability, withholding of wages and excessive overtime – are highly indicative of state-sponsored trafficking for forced labour,” a modern form of slavery, said Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International.

Sources in Qatar estimate there may be as many as 3,000 North Koreans working on projects across the emirate. [The Guardian]

I realize that choosing the most loathesome friends imaginable is an established custom in Qatar, but does FIFA have any standards? Oh, right. But on the positive side, at least the presence of the North Koreans should make it easier for Qataris to sneak a drink now and then.

The Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs insists it takes the issue of worker payment very seriously, but says that no North Koreans have complained. No, I don’t suppose they have.

HT: Deadspin

I can’t stand watching this, but I hope millions of others can.

Sorry, I’m a father, and I couldn’t even make it through this trailer. Reading this has already traumatized me enough to make me start this site and document these places, and honestly, that’s already as much as I can take.

If you can’t stand it either, then send it to a friend. Until this ends.

Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).  Let the rewrite commence!

Nov. 29, 2012

Another quote I can’t resist giving you, about one of Kirkpatrick’s interviews with an escaped North Korean:

After our own trip to the buffet, we began the interview. The subject of our conversation was starvation.

Further on, there is this passage:

A commonplace observation of North Koreans who reached China was that Chinese dogs ate better than North Korean humans. The hungry refugees marveled at watching dogs devour scraps that were more nutritious than anything they had seen for years. They also marveled at seeing dogs. In North Korea, most of the dogs had been eaten.

One senses that Kirkpatrick longed to write this book not only because she had a story to tell, but because she had the literary impulse in her to tell it well in clear, high-impact prose.

Kirkpatrick’s second chapter is about religion in North Korea, a topic she introduces early because it has two levels of impact on the subject matter.  You already know, of course, that religion motivates most of the underground railroad’s conductors, but the complete ignorance of North Koreans about Christianity means that their first contact with it is a particularly strong shock to their systems.  It must be especially so for people who’ve broken with a lifetime of spiritual indoctrination, and the regime must understand that.

Kirkpatrick closes her chapter with an anecdote about my friend Tim Peters, and it speaks volumes about modern South Korean society:

In Seoul, Peters made his pitch to an assembly of divinity students at Chongshin University. Chongshin’s famous divinity school was founded in Pyongyang in 1901 and relocated south during the Korean War. Today, its graduates disperse to the four corners of the world to preach the Gospel. One would think that the school’s roots in the North would give it a special interest in reaching out to North Koreans. That was not what Peters found.

Peters described his interaction with the students at Chongshin. “Who’s going to India?” he asked the assembled seminarians. Lots of hands shot up. India is a popular spot for missionary work, and the South Korean students clearly were enthusiastic about the prospect of working there.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s helping North Koreans?’ ” At this point in his story, Peters paused and looked around him. It was if he still had the prospective missionaries in his sight and was waiting to count the raised hands.

Finally, he answered his own question. “Nothing.”

In Chapter 3, we have another anecdote to file under “things we already knew” — in this case, that too many of those who represent us abroad are Nevilles Chamberlain without umbrellas to protect them from the disapproving scowls of the angels.  Listen to Evans Revere tell Kirkpatrick the story of some of the first North Korean defectors to show up at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and try to find a good reason not to loathe him:  

Revere went to the front entrance. After his questions in Mandarin also failed to elicit a response, something about the two men prompted him to try Korean, which he also spoke. The men responded with big smiles and a torrent of words. “I had a hard time at first placing their accent,” Revere said. “But then it dawned on me. I couldn’t quite believe it, but they were from North Korea.”

If the North Koreans had been soldiers or officials with important information to impart, Revere said, the United States might have been able to figure out a way to extract them from China. But they were just farmers and not worth diplomatic intervention, and they didn’t know enough to ask for political asylum.

Nor, for the sake of two just-farmers, did Evans see that it was “worth” prompting them to ask, although it was mighty sweet of him to give them a ride to the train station.  Do you suppose he stuffed a dollar bill in each of their shirt pockets and wished them the best of luck evading the ChiCom police all the way to Hong Kong?

Interesting observations about music in Chapter 3:

“No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said at the time of that Cold War visit. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

Well, maybe one day I’ll “get” jazz.  As to Richard Claydermann — I can go no further than, “To each his own.”  (On the other hand, the subversive messages that Prokofiev and Shostakovitch passed under the noses of Stalin’s censors have always been clear enough for me.)  Now this would be a hardship:

The North Korean regime also bans individual composers whose biographies it deems dangerous. Among them is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s greatest piano music. Rachmaninoff is verboten because he fled his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the United States.

Really?  But then, his music is openly sentimental, and sentiment is a dangerous thing to allow people to feel.  (Irony — I’m listening to Dvorak’s Ninth as I write this, and I don’t know of another classical piece that evokes freedom more.  Maybe I just associate it with the open, sagebrush-scented landscapes between the Black Hills and the Badlands I so often crossed in my childhood, but I doubt that’s all there is to it.)

(Update:  iTunes just shuffled to “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)


One of the best things about books like “Escape from North Korea” and “Nothing to Envy” is that for a few minutes, they make us think about North Korea as a humanitarian problem, and maybe even think about the diplomatic implications of dealing with people who place no value on human life.  I urge you to watch this extraordinarily powerful ten-minute speech by my good friend, Adrian Hong, in an event about Kirkpatrick’s book (she’s sitting to his right).  The speech struck a chord with The Washington Post‘s Max Fischer, which is itself a victory in a delaying action against those who sell out the North Korean people for a few promises that would surely be broken within a year.

After having had to correct his online review, Adam Cathcart swings at Hong and misses again, this time in the comment thread to Fischer’s post.  Cathcart begins by trying to associate Hong with “an ambitious agenda embracing the Arabic world,” falsely linking Hong to a completely unrelated entity that also happens to have “Pegasus” in its name.  He then twists Hong’s use of the word “preemptively” — in a context that Hong most likely meant in the diplomatic or humanitarian sense — to build a straw man (Cathcart:  “All these nascent rebels need is a small (to use Hong’s word) “preemptive’ push, the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus will tumble faster than you can say ‘nuclear Fuehrerbunker'”).

That’s a stretch.  In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy, which Cathcart links, Hong advocates nothing more aggressive than broadcasting to the North Korean people, along with financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian pressure on the regime.  Hong mentions the possibility of an internal uprising, as plenty of other observers across the political spectrum have, but says, “[I]t is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment.”  If Hong has ever advocated what Cathcart obviously wants the Putinjugend trolls on that comment thread to infer, Cathcart ought to cite stronger evidence.

On the other hand, if Cathcart ever wants to challenge an actual advocate of a Libyan Solution for North Korea, he doesn’t need to imagine one, because I’m right here.  If there’s broad agreement that North Korea’s regime is inherently unstable, then the case of Syria shows what happens when you abdicate your nation’s interest in influencing the course of history.  As recently as 2010, no serious thinker believed a revolution was imminent in Libya or Syria.  Nor did anyone advocate sacrificing “engagement” with either regime to build relations with their disorganized and oppressed populations — populations that would soon produce militias, guerrilla armies, and a number of terrorists (in Syria, a growing number).  I certainly won’t defend the way this administration handled issues like embassy security or public communications in Libya, but its policy of building early alliances with the rebels while avoiding a ground war was sound, and stands a far better chance of producing a good outcome than our passive policy in Syria.


Dec. 6, 2012.  Here is a review, published in the Christian Science Monitor, and an interview with the author on National Public Radio.


Jan 2, 2013.  Last fall, the Hands-Off-North-Korea gang called for its smelling salts after the House passed the North Korea Refugee Adoption Act. The bill would have required the State Department to “develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens” and, when possible, “assist in the family reunification of … orphaned North Korean children.” Some of these children are kkotjaebi, children who are orphaned and abandoned inside North Korea and managed to flee across the border on their own, but most are the children of North Korean mothers and Chinese men. These kids are conceived in circumstances that vary from consensual marriage to forcible rape, and sometimes in the gray area between the two. Nor do these children fit into either nationality, which is never a good thing in that part of Asia. We already know what North Korea does with racially impure babies. As Kirkpatrick relates:

The South Korean government debriefs every refugee who arrives in Seoul and reports its findings in an annual publication. Many of the refugees have spent time in North Korean prisons, and the section on pregnant women is a parade of horrors. The matter- of-fact, staccato language of the government report only heightens the atrocity:

“Gave birth to a baby . . . but they put vinyl cover [over the baby’s face] and left it to die, accusing the baby of [being] Chinese.”

“Gave birth to a baby on way to hard labor. Baby died.”

“Hospital aborted baby at seven-month pregnancy because she had lived with a Chinese man.”

“The agents forced her to run one hundred laps around a track because she had a Chinese seed in her. She collapsed after sixty laps and the baby was aborted.”

If China had not sent these women back to North Korea, their babies would merely face lifetimes lived in fear and without education, medical care, or a future. Because their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) are in China illegally, and because their fathers may not claim them, many of these kids become orphans. Chapter 5 of Escape from North Korea explains all of the different categories of North Korean and half-North Korean children whose lives and futures are scarred in very different ways by China’s cruelty to them.  I can’t summarize it better here, so I won’t try. Read the book. That one chapter is worth the price.

Kirkpatrick finds interesting subjects to help her tell her story and help you feel it on a human level, but on an academic level, the scale of this problem had already been documented exhaustively.  I’d recommend you begin with this extensive and detailed report from Human Rights WatchThe Christian Science Monitor, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Refugees International, which in 2008 cited a South Korean NGO’s claim that there may be 10,000 “stateless children born to north Korean refugee women and Chinese men” who were born in the preceding decade and in need of assistance.  The evidence for the problem was never seriously in dispute until Congress finally got around to doing something about it this year — thereby causing hurt feelings at the Ministry for People’s Security and Foreign Policy in Focus — by trying to “facilitate the immediate care, family reunification, and, if necessary and appropriate, the adoption of any eligible North Korean children living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees.”

Someone named Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, in this fine representation of FPIF’s typical level of scholarship and class, elegantly translates “necessary and appropriate” as “baby scooping.” Dobbs’s own experience as an adoptee obviously wasn’t favorable, and while I don’t know what she went through as a child, it’s clear that something has driven her toward a bitterness that defies logic. For example, Dobbs thinks allowing Americans to adopt Korean children was “a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War,” and that the new bill’s proponents are “naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives.” (It is widely known that these groups often rub elbows at bar mitzvahs and e-meter auditing parties. Presumably, Dobbs believes the European Parliament is also made up of neoconservatives and neocolonialists.) Without citing a single named source who appears to have direct knowledge of the facts, Dobbs denies that there is a problem of stateless orphans of North Korean parents in China, period. Also, we have always been at war with Eastasia. In the end, I’m left with more sorrow for Dobbs than anger.

Christine Hong doesn’t care for the bill, either. Remember her? Back in 2010, she bitterly denounced the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea. You may also remember that this was pretty much the only U.S. response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing of 46 sailors, for which Hong’s disapproval of which was lost in a cloud of nuance and angst. This can happen to folk who love peace more than you and me.

(Both Dobbs and Hong are members of Christine Ahn’s Korea Policy Institute.  You all remember Christine Ahn, right?)

In this long piece at 38 North, Hong calls the bill “an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises” based on “a dangerous fiction,” but later insists that China has solved this non-existent problem. Her sources for this? One unnamed aid worker of unknown affiliation and “[a] Yanji municipal social welfare officer with the People’s Policy Bureau. Seriously. (I also reached out to a well-known aid worker with up-to-date information about North Korean and half-North Korean kids in China. He insists that China most certainly has not solved the problem.)  And 38 North actually published this? Aside from it being disjointed, rambling, intellectually sloppy, poorly researched, and contrary to the overwhelming weight of credible evidence, I’m sure it’s an perfectly fine contribution to our discourse on this topic.

I should have also said “moot,” because this week, the Senate passed a version that bypasses Hong’s semantic argument that these children are “not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans.” The Senate bill now includes “North Korean-origin children residing in other countries or children of one North Korean parent residing outside North Korea who are fleeing persecution or are living as de jure or de facto stateless persons.”  Happy now, Christine? Somehow, I doubt it.  Really, her biggest problem with this bill seems to be the way its advocates paint a “hellish picture” of North Korea’s expendable people and their children.

Naturally, Hong ends up arguing that the answer is more food aid to North Korea, or rather, to the regime that would have us believe hat droughts and floods have ruined 19 consecutive harvests, exclusively in North Korea, except in Pyongyang. (Hong blames North Korea’s hunger on politicians and activists supporting this bill, and of course, sanctions.) But deciding to give North Korea aid is one thing; getting North Korea to accept it is another. It rejected one offer of food aid in 2009, possibly over U.S. demands to monitor the distribution of the aid, and then expelled most American aid workers from private NGOs.  Although the U.S. government has regularly expressed that it was ready to resume food aid to North Korea, it took until last year to get North Korea to agree to take it, only to renege on an agreement that would have provided food aid in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The U.S. also demanded essential requirements for monitoring to make sure it got to those who needed it most. The conditions were less restrictive than what the U.N. might have demanded in, say, Sudan or anywhere else, but Hong criticizes even those minimal safeguards as heavy-handed U.S. demands for “unprecedented access.”

Regardless of the terms on which North Korea would accept it free of charge, food is far below the nose cone of the Kim Dynasty’s hierarchy of fiscal priorities; the regime spent enough on just its latest one rocket launch to feed the entire country for a year.  It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that the regime had decided to keep its people hungry (or rather, certain classes of them). Yet however inadvertently, Hong stumbles over a part of the truth — North Korean orphans in China are a small part of the humanitarian problem here. After all, very few North Korean orphans will ever make it that far. North Korean orphans are in China are just the biggest humanitarian problem we can begin to solve now, in some small way.

Of course, this lame duck session of Congress ends Thursday, which means that this bill could still die in a conference committee or on the President’s desk.  That means that the likes of Dobbs and Hong can go right back to paving other peoples’ road to Hell with their own intentions, which I’ll let you characterize as you see fit.  If you’re having difficulty making those judgments, then Escape from North Korea is a book you have to read.

China Targets North Korean Refugees and the Activists Who Help Them

So those reports that China would stop repatriating North Korean refugees were probably disinformation after all. Instead, China is launching yet another pogrom against North Korean refugees, which coincides with a wider sweep against foreigners that got its impetus (or pretext) from one drunken Brit. China is also targeting foreigners who are helping North Korean refugees:

“I heard that police and security staff are in every nook of the streets. All defectors must take shelter and cannot come out of it,” he said. “Most of the brokers appear to have returned home due to the crackdown. Chinese residents also refuse to help defectors in dire need of their support.” [….]

The clampdown also targets activist groups that have been operating near the border areas to help North Korean refugees. Chinese authorities take issue with their visas, which are mostly intended for tourism, not activism, activists said. Kim Young-hwan, a renowned human rights activist, and his three colleagues have been held in China for unspecified reasons since late March. They have been denied access to their families, the South Korean consulate and legal assistance.

“In recent weeks, more and more missionaries and activists have been ordered to leave the country. (The Chinese authorities) even threatened to punish them out if they don’t return home quickly,” said Peter Chung, chief of the Justice for North Korea, an activist group based in Seoul.

The South Korean government has raised the issue of Kim Young Hwang’s prolonged detention to the Chinese government, to little apparent effect. There is also this suspicious event to consider:

Kang Ho-bin, a South Korean human rights activist and survivor of an apparent assassination attempt in 2011, died in a car accident in China on Sunday.

Kang, who had been working for North Korean human rights in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture for more than 10 years, died in a car accident on Sunday as he was driving to a church at about 2 p.m. Officials at the church said that Chinese authorities have not elaborated on the accident, but said that Kang is suspected of having fallen asleep at the wheel.

Although the Chinese authorities were initially vague about the accident, raising suspicions about the circumstances of Kang’s death, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since said that there is no evidence to suggest North Korean involvement.

China is, however, collaborating with the North Korean regime to import hand-picked North Korean workers to labor in Chinese factories. In the past, the regime has collected “voluntary” contributions from expatriate workers’ wages, leaving them barely enough to live on. Even so, their pre-tax pay is probably still much less than the wages that even Chinese workers would accept, which means that two nominally socialist regimes get to split the profits generated from the use of slave labor. If anyone out there can help me identify which companies are using that labor, there are legal methods to prevent goods produced with this labor from being imported into the United States.

Kaesong Updates

A bus accident, apparently caused in part by bad weather, has killed 10 North Korean workers and injured 40 others at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which, by the way, subsidizes Kim Jong Il to the tune of $50 million per month.

Give a thought to the poor families of the dead … and the wounded as well. I’m not sure how much of that substantial sum goes into providing suitable medical care for the North Korean people, but my best information about health care in North Korea falls short of the expectations U.N. apparatchik Margaret Chan raised last May Day.

Meanwhile, we all eagerly await angry calls by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions for an investigation into the safety of the North Korean workers.

The complex itself continues to persist as an artificial, subsidized entity despite a growing consensus that it’s a failure as a business model.

[T]he managers’ biggest difficulty has been a decline in orders from South Korean buyers, who they said had stopped buying from Kaesong factories for fear the complex might suddenly be closed down for political reasons. They also said they were worried that the North would close the complex if the South resumed its political broadcasts.

“We are being used as bargaining chips in a political game,” said Jimmy Bae, director of strategic planning at Cuckoo Electronics, a South Korean electronics company that has a $10 million factory in the complex. [N.Y. Times]

Russia’s North Korean Gulag

Fred Fry links to a BBC report on Russia’s exploitation of North Korean labor.

It’s striking how much capitalism at its worst resembles socialism at its worst.

The Comfort Women of Our Time: North Korean Women Are Turning to Prostitution to Survive

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Laura Ling and Euna Lee went to China to tell the story of what it means to be a North Korean woman today. What it means, increasingly, is having no future, and often, having no means to keep body and soul united but sacrificing the latter to preserve whatever remains of the former. If the historically weighty term “comfort woman” means a woman coerced into prostitution by the actions of an oppressive government, the women of North Korea are the comfort women of our time, and in these times, men and women in China and both Koreas are their exploiters, and often, their means of survival.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that the North Korean regime is directly impressing women into prostitution against their will, [Update: I stand corrected] but the regime’s actions, while less direct than those of the Japanese 60 years ago, frequently have the same ultimate effect. For an apt illustration, let’s return to the story of Ban Yong Mee:

Born in the town of Sinuiju, the city across the river from Dandong, Miss Ban studied hard at school to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. But despite getting excellent grades, a medical college refused her application on the grounds that she was from an ideologically “unreliable” family.

The problem was her grandfather, who had been a moderately prosperous businessman before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. His fabrics factory employed only a few dozen people, yet in the eyes of North Korea’s communist leadership he was an exploiter, capitalist and counter-revolutionary threat.

His factory was confiscated, he was executed as a “public enemy”, and ever since, his descendants have been treated with suspicion – Miss Ban’s parents were forced to work on a cooperative farm.

Rejected from medical school, Miss Ban attempted to join the Korean People’s Army and was rejected for the same reason. “They said, ‘We don’t need a person who may betray us any moment and whom we can’t trust’,” she said with a sad smile. “They think that I want revenge for my grandfather.”

Instead, she had no choice but to join her parents, toiling in the co-operative’s rice fields. [London Telegraph]

Miss Ban became a victim of the North Korean regime’s system of political castes known as
, meaning she was written off as unworthy and expendable. Some of the women in Miss Ban’s position say they were lured into Chinese brothels with false promises. Miss Ban makes no such claim. She admits knowingly selling herself to a brothel. There was simply no other alternative. Miss Ban was a subject of a nominally socialist regime that smothers private markets but which chooses to squander its resources on weapons and white elephants for the Inner Party rather than provide for its people, and which refuses to let other countries feed them, either:

“Most of us had absolutely nothing to eat,” she said, recalling the famines in the communist state that killed an estimated 300,000 people between 1995 and 1998. “We went to the hills to look for edible grass, wild animals and birds. I remember we even ate insects and caterpillars.” [London Telegraph]

Other North Korean women interviewed for this report, most likely having no idea of their own songbun status, simply claim that they were hungry — often because a provider died, leaving then no other means of support. A few others were targeted and abducted by the North Korean accomplices of Chinese gangs.

Like all North Korean refugees in China, Ms. Ban lived as a hunted fugitive under an unadjudged death sentence — the constant fear of being sent back to die in a North Korean gulag, or in front of a North Korean firing squad. One day, Chinese police caught her with fake documents. The price of Miss Ban’s survival was giving in to the sexual demands of six of the policemen and turning over all the earnings she had. And still, that was better than the alternative:

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”[London Telegraph]

Open News recently published several reports on the rising trend in this industry — forcing North Korean women to perform in front of web cams for South Korean customers hundreds of miles away. The South Korean partners in these ventures supply the Korean-Chinese pimps with South Korean national ID’s (presumably fake) for the North Korean women, so that they can chat online on South Korean web sites. According to Open News, the women don’t discuss where they come from, but the South Korean customers certainly recognize their North Korean dialects. Let it never be said that South Koreans never did anything for starving North Koreans, although there are things to be said for this commerce — it’s probably better than physical rape, and it’s still probably keeping more North Koreans alive than anything Kim Dae Jung or Roh Moo Hyun ever did for North Korea’s expendable classes. Here’s your “We Are One” feel-good moment of the year:

Mr. B told us that these chatting girls from North Korea have to do more than what is stated above because the more they work, the more money they can earn.

These chatting girls work usually around midnight. Because there are lots of customers after 6 pm, the work continues from 1 am to 4 am. There is no fixed time when the work will be done. It is also possible these women be driven by customer during the day.

Mr. A and Mr. B both said that these women are not free from supervision of the managers even after their work is done. They are confined 24 hours and not allowed to leave the building. Even if some are exceptionally allowed out, they will be accompanied with managers to be under their control. [Open News]

The women must meet earnings quotas or risk losing even this life, such as it is. But the earning potential is still phenomenal by North Korean standards:

These “North Korean refugee chatting girls” have a sales target (a mandatory minimum sales amount assigned by the employer) that must be met each day. The amount varies by employer; the lowest sales target is known to be 50,000 won (South Korean) per day, or 220,000 won per week.

According to Mr. A’s testimony, however, it is actually easy to earn a daily average of 100,000 won. Accordingly, it is easy to earn 500,000 won per week or 2 million won per month, in which case the chatting woman would receive an income (calculated as 30 percent of the sales revenue) of 600,000 won (approximately 4,000 yuan) (Note 1). Furthermore, the income is directly proportional to the duration of the chat; the longer the women draw out the chat, the higher their income. [Open News]

In North Korea itself, women and children are also being forced into prostitution by a deteriorating food situation and a state that won’t provide for them:

“Around stations in big cities, you can see many pimps affiliated to inns . . . . They approach pedestrians, euphemistically saying that “˜I am selling a bed,’ or “˜selling a flower.'” Sadly, some of those forced to survive this way are children. [Daily NK]

The beneficiaries of the majority’s misery are the minority with power and money. The Daily NK has previously reported on a prostitution scandal in which twenty North Korean officials in Hamhung were purged, and several senior military officers were shot for patronizing a “tea house.” This month, the Daily NK reports that in the city of Hyesan, the regime engaged in an inspection campaign directed at hotels that are selling women and girls to North Korean and foreign customers:

At the Hyemyung Inn, located in Hyemyung-dong, the superintendant, Mr. Lee, and the manager Mr. Baek allegedly ran a prostitution ring from 2005, despite the fact that it is a state-operated residential facility frequently used by Central Party officials. They charged 10,000 to 15,000 North Korean won per room for officials, and 4,000 won per room to average customers.

According to the source, prostitution at the Hyemyung Inn took place behind the disguise of flower sales. The superintendant and the manager connected male customers to various “flowers” according to their demands. What has been causing the most shock is the apparent coercion of girls as young as middle-school graduates into working at the inns.

The women selling flowers were classified into those selling “red flowers” (girls in their late teens~early 20s), “blue flowers” (unmarried women over 25), “yellow flowers” (married women) and “purple flowers” (widows). The superintendant was provided with the women through another supplier. These prostitutes divided payments for their services with the suppliers at a 40:60 or 50:50 ratio.

The source explained, “The most expensive ‘red flower’ costs around 20,000 won for two hours and 40,000 won for the entire night. It was even revealed that the supplier has good connections in China, so some of his women crossed the border and went as far as Changbai in China to work.” [Daily NK]

This time, different government actions are implicated in the rise of survival prostitution — the regime’s attack on the markets many North Koreans depend on to survive, and the mass mobilization that takes them away from the hard work of getting by day by day:

The source also explained, “Since the 150-Day Battle began, the number of women selling their bodies has progressively increased.” As households are being mobilized for farm labor and construction projects, and the markets are opening at past 4pm, the income of households in the cities has dramatically decreased, resulting in greater numbers of women engaging in sex trafficking as a means of survival. [Daily NK]

Take nothing I say here as a moral objection to voluntary commercial sex among free and consenting adults. Certainly there are greater social evils than this in North Korea today. Take this as an objection to an oligarchy that deprives human beings of their aspirations and their innate potential, and which forces them to choose between a degradation in a brothel or dessication in a grave.

The Blood of Children on Their Hands (Updated)

[Update: Someone I trust tells me that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are anguished by the blog posts and news stories going around about this aspect of their story. Obviously, we’d love to hear Ling and Lee’s side of it, but according to my friend, they’re under a great deal of pressure from Current TV (among others) not to talk. Expect Ling and Lee to say more in the next few days about the precautions they took to prevent incriminating information from falling into the hands of the North Koreans, and much more about the very harsh treatment they endured from the North Koreans themselves. They may dispute some of what Durihana is saying to the Chosun Ilbo and other media. I got no additional information about how they crossed the border. I look forward to hearing their side of it, but every day they don’t speak up for 25 hunted children is another day those children are vulnerable to the Chinese police sending them to their deaths.

Al Gore, if you’re reading this, it’s time to speak out against Manbearpig before he kills again.]

I’m now being flooded with e-mails with links to this story, and I’m simply horrified. A fascist dictatorship with a seat in the U.N. Security Council rounds up innocent women and children, probably to ship them to Kim Jong Il’s slaughterhouses, and three inexplicably stupid and reckless Americans unwittingly helped them do it:

Lee said Laura Ling, Euna Lee and a man named Mitch Koss met him at a hotel in Yanji, in China’s Jilin Province, on March 14. They said they wanted to gather information about North Korean women who were working in adult videos at the North Korean-Chinese border area and on other North Korean women who were sold into the Chinese countryside.

They also wanted to know about children born to North Korean women and Chinese men. At the time, Lee was protecting some 21 children who had been abandoned by their Chinese families after their mothers were taken back to the North at five orphanages.

“I allowed them to collect information about the children on condition that they would not film their faces,” he said.

The three visited an orphanage the following day. Euna Lee, who speaks fluent Korean, asked children to send video messages to their mothers who had been deported to the North, and to bow to their mothers in front of the camera. But Lee said he stopped them from filming the scene.

The next day, the journalists filmed North Korean women at the border. They crossed the border and were arrested by North Korean soldiers on March 17. Ling and Lee were taken to North Korea, but Koss made it back and was arrested by Chinese border guards and handed over the video footage he was carrying. [Chosun Ilbo]

But it was information the Chinese gestapo found on Mitch Koss that caused the most heart-wrenching part of this:

On the early morning of Mar. 19, Chinese police raided Lee’s house and confiscated his computer, camera and various documents. “The documents contained the personal information of 25 North Korean orphans in addition to the children staying at the orphanages, and the phone numbers and addresses of human rights activists and their future plans,” he said. “I was interrogated intensively by three Korean-Chinese police officers until March 26. It was during interrogation that I found out that Chinese police had confiscated the video.”

Lee was deported to South Korea on April 8 after paying a fine of 20,000 yuan (approximately W4 million). “The five orphanages were forced to close down one by one,” he said. “I found Chinese relatives for 17 of the 21 orphans and a safe shelter for the remaining four, who have no relatives there.”

Koss declined to comment, and it was not possible to contact Euna Lee.

So if I’m reading this correctly, Pastor Lee was allowed to place 21 kids with shelters or Chinese families — families that appear not to want them, and for the time being — and another 25 kids are being hunted down for deportation to North Korea, or for all we know, already have been. Make what assumptions you will about their fate — I assume that China’s brutality is proportional to its ability to commit any given atrocity outside the presence of witnesses.

Other refugees, denied the assistance of a network to help them escape North Korea, will now be limited to the option of dying in place. There won’t be a Bill Clinton visit for them, and I doubt Bill Richardson raised the subject while he was whoring for the cameras.

I took a call from the Wall Street Journal today, asking for my views on this. What can I say that I haven’t already? It’s distressing beyond belief that this happened. I hope that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee will use some of the media interest they’ve attracted to bring attention to the horrors they were used to help perpetrate. I suppose there is no undoing what is done, but there is atonement in what Ling and Lee could still do to save others.

They’d better start soon. A lifetime may not be enough to repay a karmic debt this ghastly. But that’s still more than can be said for the thugs who run China.

The Winding Road to Redemption

It may be the ultimate case of paving someone else’s road to hell with good intentions.

You may have heard it reported that on a lark, Laura Ling and Euna Lee crossed into North Korea and were captured while carrying video showing the faces of refugees and rescuers, whom Chinese police duly rounded up to send back to a firing squad or worse in North Korea.  Intentional?  Of course not.  Reckless?  Yes, perhaps fatally; yet it’s damage that can’t be undone now, and perhaps Ling and Lee can redeem themselves in some way that can save others from the same fate:

One of the two TV reporters who were freed after being imprisoned in North Korea said Wednesday she hopes her story will lead to more public awareness of …

North Korean refugees?  Political prisoners?  The kids who starved and the women who sold themselves into slavery while Kim Jong Il bought himself yachts, luxury cars, and palaces?  The people (you might faintly recall them) you were doing your original story about?

… the plight of journalists held captive around the world.  [….]

She added that she hopes her ordeal would bring more attention to the plight of other journalists placed under arrest.

“Euna and I are two of the lucky ones whose story of captivity resulted in a happy ending,” she said. “But there are so many journalists imprisoned around the world whose fate is still undecided.”  [AP]

After all, the only people already willing and able to bring attention to those issues are sympathetic colleagues who buy ink by the barrel, plus Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, etc.  Seriously — hasn’t it occurred to you that the fate of some other people somewhere is still undecided?  Or that you might be responsible in some way for putting them in grave danger, however unwittingly?  Or that by drawing the eyes of the world to their Chinese pursuers and North Korean executioners, you just might still save them?

Shouldn’t you at least say, “Sorry ’bout that?”

State Dep’t: NK Trades in Slave Labor

What the State Department is saying about North Korea’s use of forced labor is at least as strident as anything we heard during George W. Bush’s second term.  I suspect we’re seeing a combination of two things here — first, the State Department has internal politics of its own, and the bureaus that deal with labor and refugee issues tend to subscribe less to the diplomacy of connivance than the East Asia Bureau.  Second, with North Korea’s recent behavior pushing an otherwise unimaginable policy shift in the Obama Administration, the East Asia Bureau is no longer able to censor what other parts of State say:

The North Korean government is directly engaged in the trafficking of slave labor, claimed Luis de Baca, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, on Wednesday. He was peaking at a video press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He said the regime is sending North Koreans overseas to work under exploitative contracts with Southeast Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations.

De Baca said European countries no longer accept North Korean workers, citing the example of the Czech Republic which has concluded no labor contract with North Korea since 2007. But he called for diplomatic efforts to persuade countries like Mongolia, Thailand and Laos, which do import labor from North Korea, to protect the workers’ rights.

The tone of Baca’s remarks isn’t that different from the statements we’ve heard from Stuart Levey and Philip Goldberg in relation to North Korea’s finances recently. Read more

China’s “missing women phenomenon” fueling bride trafficking of North Korean refugees

I’ve been reading a few of the articles to come out of North Korea Freedom Week which was April 26-May 2 in Washington, D.C. and among them was particular story focusing on the bride trafficking industry in China.

Not surprisingly, China’s history of favoring baby boys over girls, coupled with its one child policy, has resulted in a severe shortage of women for a generation of bachelors. This shortage is referred to as “the missing women phenomenon” by the World Economic Forum which publishes its Global Gender Gap Index each year. Capitalizing on this major social problem, human traffickers have found a way to make money by selling North Korean brides to single Chinese men along the China-North Korea border.

The problem is so big that the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2008 mentioned the problem in a “Topics of Interest” section, referring to North Korean refugees (interesting word choice compared to the common “defector” label we usually hear) as “highly vulnerable.”

From the article covering the bride trafficking problem:

The shortage of women in China is nothing less than a national disaster ““ in some rural areas Chinese men outnumber women by a 14 to 1 ratio, according to the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea. It is into these rural border areas that North Korean women, desperate to escape the starvation in their homeland, are arriving. For human traffickers, the situation could not be more ideal.

Upon learning about the situation, someone recently asked me where all the Chinese girls have gone throughout the years. I referred him to a 1995 piece written by Tom Hilditch titled, “A Holocaust of Little Girls,” also mentioned in the above article.

The birth of a girl has never been a cause for celebration in China, and stories of peasant farmers drowning new born girls in buckets of water have been commonplace for centuries. Now, however, as a direct result of the one-child policy, the number of baby girls being abandoned, aborted, or dumped on orphanage steps is unprecedented.

(Remember, this was written in 1995.) Hilditch’s piece is worth reading in its entirety as the discoveries revealed in his article are beyond shocking in regard to China’s treatment of baby girls in the 1990s. It’s good background information for the social problems we’re seeing today in China as a generation comes of age.

Regarding the North Korea refugee connection, this particular story is incredibly difficult to read:

Upon entry into China, Mi-Sun Bang fell prey to human traffickers operating on the border. She was sold for $585 to an older, disabled Chinese man, the first of several “husbands” that she would be sold to. The string of abuses and heartache that followed would be enough to crush anyone’s spirit. Her final husband, fourteen years her junior, demanded that she bear him a son. Soon afterwards, Mi-Sun Bang was turned into the authorities and arrested. She was sent back to North Korea, to the horrors of a labor camp.

Bang Mi-Sun, you will recall, has been mentioned on this blog before.

While the North Korean government can hardly be counted upon to help ease the situation, the Chinese can – to a limited extent. According to the State Department, China has made some active efforts at assisting victims of human trafficking by setting up shelters with the help of UNICEF, however, the country lacks any sort of coherent victim identification system which is a consistent hurdle in dealing with the problem.

Despite showing efforts to improve human trafficking within its borders, China was placed on the State Department’s “Tier 2 Watch List” for the fourth consecutive year in 2008 for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and for failure “to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking from the previous year, particularly in terms of punishment of trafficking crimes and the protection of Chinese and foreign victims of trafficking.”

(For what it’s worth, North Korea was branded a “Tier 3″ nation on the very same State Department report – and with a much worse report card than China. Its country narrative may be found here, but you’ll have to scroll down a bit to read it. Countries are listed alphabetically.)

North Korean Johns in Need of More Effective Consumer Protection

As a worker at a state enterprise, at Chongjin city, North Hamkyung Province, he came to Pyungsung City on a business trip. As a beautiful woman approached him and said the motel had a warm cozy room as well as a “high-class waiting room” (rooms where prostitutes wait for travelers who want sexual intercourse), he went to a one-story house in Yangji-dong. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

What could possibly go wrong with a story that begins like that?

For those of you with a more (ahem) academic interest in the subject matter, Open Radio offers a comprehensive history of North Korea’s newest oldest profession:

Prostitutes form groups with other ones. Each group has the ringleader (the “Big sister”). Rank among prostitutes is decided according to the age and work experience. Best customer unconditionally goes to the “Big sister. If someone disobeys this rule, one has to leave the group and the region. “˜Cadets’ are put together a team with the “˜Drillmaster Sister’ and two people help each other in serving the customer. Each prostitute group has its territory. There are other kinds that wander around one province to the other. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

Despite the martial rank structure — no surprise to observers of camp town culture in South Korea, by the way — the industry’s customary military discount is now a thing of the past. That’s a pretty harsh thing when you consider how few opportunities North Korean soldiers have for dating or marriage. And I’ll just let you figure out the rest of that by yourself.

There’s going to be a lot of moral and social decay evident when the regime finally collapses.

The Power of Truth

Freedom rises over Korea, into the air over the most oppressed and darkened place on earth. The video clips that follow are from the BBC, Al Jazzeera, the Voice of America, and New Tang Dynasty Television.


The people who are launching these balloons are, in large part, North Koreans who could not live — or stand living — in their homeland, and who can find no other means to connect with those they left behind. Others are South Koreans whose loved ones were stolen from them by North Korean abductors. How emotionally stunted must one be not to consider, for an instant, the sorrow these people must feel? Who could fail to understand their need to somehow connect with those they love, but with whom ordinary means of communication could, if they were possible at all, be a death sentence for them?

The balloons are being launched from South Korean territory, and from South Korean waters — from a country that thousands of Americans soldiers who helped to defend it were told was free. The balloons also contain money that hungry people might use to buy food and seed a nascent underground economy, and that economy might feed even more people Kim Jong Il won’t by drawing smuggled food from across the Chinese border. The leaflets are non-violent expression. They could not possibly do harm to anything worth preserving. They do not so much as resemble anything harmful or dangerous, either to the eye or on a radar scope. For the starving and oppressed, these leaflets could carry the hope to live on, to fight on, and to stand for a future worth living in.

Someone please explain the downside of this. How easy and shallow a thing for those with something to live for to deny a future to those who have nothing.

But we must preserve relations with the North Koreans! (Which really means, with one of them.) And to what end? After billions in aid over more than a decade, engaging Kim Jong Il’s regime had accomplished what, exactly? Where is the measurable transformation of North Korea’s totalitarian system? How many North Koreans have seen their lives improved? Are there fewer North Korean guns pointed at South Korean cities? Is its system of government kinder, gentler, or more transparent? Is North Korea less of a nuclear danger to South Korea and the rest of the world? Have North Korea’s “expendable” people ceased to starve and die? Has the North reformed its economy? Can anyone point to a single tangible benefit the world has gained by prolonging this wretched regime, much less some benefit that outweighs all of the misery millions have experienced as it was prolonged?

Ah, but there are those lucky hand-picked 30,000 at the Kaesong Industrial Park. Though their wages were stolen by their oppressors and exchanged for short rations of food and goods, their exploiters would say that the lives of their rented slaves were at least a little better than those of their neighbors for a while. By this logic, a foreign pedophile who flies to Cambodia should be commended as long as he buys his victim a hot breakfast. In the unlikely event the leaflet balloons have played some part in ending this vile, regime-sustaining exploitation, all the better.

To support the balloon leaflet launches, please join me in contributing to the North Korean Freedom Coalition.

Update: Here’s a photo essay of the balloon launches. More here and here at the BBC.

“On the Border”

Today, on Capitol Hill, I had a chance to see an excerpt of that Chosun Ilbo documentary on human trafficking in North Korea. As my friend had said, it does indeed depict drug smuggling. One smuggler is actually interviewed on night vision, just as he emerges from the freezing Tumen River with a load of drugs he is smuggling into China. His source? His brother, a soldier, who is pilfering from a state pharmaceutical factory in Nampo. I wasn’t able to determine what kind of drug, but it was probably either meth or opium.

I’ve been promised a chance to see a longer piece, and begged (probably without success) for a teaser clip I can post here. You won’t want to miss this one.

Chosun Ilbo Produces Four-Part Documentary on N. Korean Refugees

[Update: OK, that TBS network that’s showing this series turns out not to be this one, but a Japanese network. I’ll let you know about U.S. broadcast times when I hear more.]

Yesterday, I wrote about a disturbing economic trend in North Korea that I hadn’t known previously — the regime’s practice of lending food at usurious interest rates. The original report from Good Friends doesn’t specifically say what the penalty for non-payment is, but it must be starvation or worse, since women are willing to sell themselves into sexual slavery to help their families repay those loans: 

A 26-year-old North Korean woman, Mun Yun-hee crossed the Duman or Tumen River into China in the dawn of Oct. 22 last year, which at that point was some 40 m wide, guided by a human trafficker. She was being sold to a single middle-aged Chinese farmer into a kind of indentured servitude-cum-companionship. Both of them wore only panties, having stored their trousers and shoes in bags, because if you are found wearing wet clothes across the river deep at night, it is a dead giveaway that you are a North Korean refugee.

Mun was led to a hideout, and the agent left. Asked why she crossed the river, she replied, “My father starved to death late in the 1990s, and my mother is blind from hunger.” Her family owed 300 kg of corns, beans and rice and sold herself for the sake of her blind mother and a younger brother. The middleman paid her 350 yuan, or W46,000 (US$1=W939), equivalent to half of the grain debt. [Chosun Ilbo]

This except describes “On The Border,” which looks to be a very interesting documentary about the trafficking of North Korean women, the comfort women of our time. The Chosun Ilbo says that its team of reporters “spent 10 months, sometimes at considerable risk, gathering the material” for the series. It’s already showing on TBS (more here). The BBC will also run the series.

The Chosun Ilbo producers were apparently aware of this documentary’s political implications, enough so that they paid a visit to Capitol Hill. I have a friend there who saw part of the video and spoke with someone involved in the production. My friend is a reliable source, but of course, this information is third-hand. The video, taken on the border just last fall, shows both human trafficking and drug smuggling.  The documentary’s release was time so that it would not appear until after the South Korean election and the inauguration of the new President. Apparently, the Chosun didn’t want to be accused of trying to influence the presidential election. They were also worried about hearing from the friendly folks in the Ministry of Culture, possibly the same friendly folks who allegedly reached out to the producers of Yoduk Story.

With Comrade Chung, the Red Guards, and various Ministry of Truth types out of the way, expect to see less Sunshine, but more daylight.

Kaesong Workers Recoup Stolen Wages on the Black Market

With all the questions about how much pay  Kaesong workers actually collect, we’ve always  suspected that their earnings  must be  far  more than most of their North Korean neighbors.  For one thing, the workers are hand-picked loyalists; the regime  must want to keep them relatively content.   Yet no one really believed that the workers received the “official” wage of around $60 a month, after “voluntary” deductions and the bite of the inflated official exchange rate.

I figured it was just a matter of time before the Daily NK told us the real deal, and finally, we have a few answers.  As suspected, the regime gets almost all of the cash.  The workers receive ration stamps, or  “commodity provision tickets,” which convey the right to buy scarce  food items and consumer goods at special shops  for “official” prices.  Because those prices are  much lower than ordinary black-market rates,  Kaesong workers then score a tidy profit reselling what they don’t consume.

Currently, the official salary for laborers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex is around 60 USD, a small amount of which is distributed as cash and the rest in the form of “commodity provision tickets.

In the Kaesong Industrial Complex, there are several shops that can only be frequented by Kaesong laborers and the prices at these stores are at inexpensive compared to prices in the jangmadang.  Laborers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex use their “commodity tickets” to purchase products at a cheap price and can make a huge profit by selling the goods, giving the difference to middlemen (currency traders who mediate deals).

Recently, there have even been cases where the middlemen had specific orders for certain items from the Kaesong laborers, asking them to procure a certain amount of rice, oil, and so on. The middlemen can easily make an exorbitant amount of money by selling these goods at the jangmadang.  Kim also said, “Among the laborers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, there are a lot of people who take an item here and there. Then they conspire with bus drivers and hide the goods in the vicinity; once the quantity is fixed, they hand over the goods to middlemen in exchange for money.   [Daily NK]

No wonder North Korean workers pay hefty bribes to score jobs there — sure, the workers are exploited, but this is a far  more privileged  form of exploitation than they’re used to.  If North Korea itself is  a vast prison, Kaesong sounds like the prison laundry. 

Kaesong also turns out to be something of a laboratory in capitalism after all, though not exactly in the way its South Korean  designers must have intended.  And while the North Korean authorities probably either designed or choose to overlook this de facto marketization, they may be less pleased  if the workers are exposed to South Korean consumer goods, or the abundance  in the chow line at lunchtime.  

At the same time, some of our worst suspicions are confirmed:  we have no idea how Kim Jong Il is spending all that cash, and if the workers are essentially  paid in food and have no say in the terms of their employment, how are they not slaves?

‘Pyongyang Soju’ Importer Arrested

hangoverchaser.jpgA Korean American businessman has been arrested by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of hiding his activities as a spy for the South Korean government, AP reported Thursday. According to court documents obtained by the wire agency, Park Il-woo, also known as Steve Park, was a legal resident in the U.S. for the past 20 years and conducted business with North Korea. Park provided information he obtained from his frequent trips to North Korea to the South Korean government in return for payments.  [Chosun Ilbo]

I know others have  already blogged about this story, but something about that name, Steve Park, sounded familiar, so I searched my archives  … and sure enough.  According to this post from last May, “Steve Park” is the importer of Pyongyang Soju, the latest  great breakthrough in trade with North Korea.   OK, you say, “Steve Park” has to be a common name.   The thought occurred to me, but our friend at NK Econ Watch  (a very nice guy with a great blog) helps us close that loophole neatly.  Barring some exceptional coincidence, it’s the same guy.  His activities on behalf of some as-yet unnamed foreign government — want to take any wild guesses? —  turn out to involve items that raise some scary dual-use issues:

For example, during a recorded telephone call, Park relayed to a South Korean official working in Manhattan that officials of the other foreign government had asked Park to help them obtain certain items, including insecticides and anesthetics. However, the complaint alleges, on three occasions in 2005 and 2007, Park gave false information to FBI agents regarding his contacts with or knowledge of certain South Korean officials.  [DOJ Press release, hat tip to  Mins036, who is an excellent  new addition  to the  Marmot’s Hole]

Here’s an interesting question to consider:  if South Korea was sharing Park’s information with the FBI or the CIA, why would we arrest Park and burn someone who was an indirect source for us?  Unless … naw.   Couldn’t be.   Or could it?  The Feds executed search warrants at Park’s apartment, which may yield some phone numbers and e-mails.  I sure would  love to know which Korean diplomats’ tours  are about  to  be  curtailed before they’re quickly and quietly  ushered off to cush posts in Italy or Monaco. 

Contrary to what the Chosun Ilbo reports,  Park was arrested not for espionage, but for lying to investigators and violating our old friend, the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, found  at section 951 of the U.S. Criminal Code.   The FARA  requires that you register with the Justice Department when you act at the direction of, or under the control of, a foreign government.  That’s the same law under which Tongsun Park was convicted for acting as an unregistered Iraqi agent during  Oil-for-Food.   Steve Park is now  staring  at  ten years in Allenwood, so I hope he has a better lawyer than Tongsun Park did.