Costco's a popular place in Korea, as this QiRanger video illustrates.
After a two-month hiatus - best and most succinctly explained by the travels and travails involved in moving from Seoul to Southern California - this post marks my return to this dank, dusty corner of the internet. I may (or may not) have much to say about our new surroundings and our adaptation to them after ten years abroad, but for now matters of greater substance are clambering for attention.
In uprooting ourselves and moving to a different hemisphere, I naturally anticipated a fair bit of uncertainty about life, at least in the short term. In one respect, however, I needn't have worried, as some things simply never change. To wit: politicians and government bureaucrats the world over bring to their jobs a nitpicky thuggishness that makes me feel at home wherever I happen to be.
Dating back to at least last year, the city government of Seoul has done its damndest to force large discount retailers such as E-Mart, Lotte Mart, HomePlus, and Costco to close their doors on two Sundays each month, claiming that such closures would redound to the benefit of traditional markets and mom-and-pop stores (see here and here for my earlier commentary). Nevermind that these same small businesses make up a sizable portion of Costco's clientele; and nevermind that never - not once - has a housewife found herself snatched off the street by goons from HomePlus and forced to buy her chicken feet from the local Tesco outlet; and nevermind that a Seoul court ruled that the city government had overstepped its bounds in forcing E-Mart, Lotte Mart, and HomePlus to close (Costco, importantly, was not party to the lawsuit), thus paving the way for the three retailers to resume unfettered operations. Never you mind any of that: what the government wants, it shall get by means fair or foul.
When Costco - which, as mentioned, was not party to the lawsuit against the city - resumed Sunday operations in the wake of the court decision, the Seoul government began to levy fines of 10 million KRW (+/- US$9,500) for each Sunday the retailer opened in violation of the prohibition. According to the city, Costco was not eligible to resume selling its 55 gallon drums of mayonnaise on Sundays because it had not partnered up with the other big box stores in the legal battle against the prohibition. According to Costco, "Screw you, Seoul city government. Our profits are such that we can simply pay the fine and continue giving our customers what our overflowing parking lot indicates they want."
That Costco officials clearly have a better understanding of the rule of law and of legal precedent than do those at Seoul City Hall has only served to infuriate local officials. And as Stafford Lumsden (aka The Chosun Bimbo) brought to my attention, hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned. Last week, the city launched a series of inspections on Costco stores around Seoul, citing the retailer for violating "a total of 41 rules concerning sanitation, price tags, waste disposal, product design, parking and traffic control, emergency lights, firefighting equipment and other safety measures." Costco now faces a two-week suspension on meat sales and the city has decided to double down, literally, by penalizing Costco 20 million KRW for each of the three Sundays it opened its doors.
Of course, this bullying of Costco may be good politics for Seoul's elected officials, who can claim that, in one stroke, they are both protecting "the little guy" from an evil Big Business while also bolstering their nationalist bonafides by sticking it to an evil Multinational Big Business.
Consider, however, that Costco is guilty of nothing but unlocking its doors and allowing folks to come inside for a look around. That's it. Indeed, the only reason that the government is pushing for these closures is that the large retailers are so darn popular - else how could politicians claim they were a threat to any other business? What the government is actually doing, then, is punishing Korean consumers for shopping decisions that do not accord with their political needs and preferences. After all, it is consumers who, on the most convenient shopping day of the week, will have to look elsewhere and pay higher prices for their groceries.
Rather than allow free citizens to peacefully shop where they please, local officials - in cahoots with organized interest groups like small retailers and traditional market associations - have turned to the playbook of thugs in their battle against consumers and peaceful association.
As I've said repeatedly on this site, if you have to resort to the use of force to implement your idea - in this case, "helping small business" - then your idea was probably lousy from the outset.