Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

20 March, 2012

Shop Not Where You Please, Lest I Be Displeased

By Aaron
20 March, 2012

Here's a letter to The Korea Times:
You report that the “Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) plans to force discount stores to close two days per month on either Sundays or holidays” in a supposed attempt to boost the performance of smaller stores and traditional markets (“Discount stores face obligatory shutdowns on Sundays, holidays,” 20 March, 2012).

In reality, such measures merely punish consumers who, through their shopping habits, have expressed a preference for largerdiscount stores. Shoppers are attracted to these retail outlets for a variety of reasons – convenience, cleanliness, location, selection, and many others – but never once has a consumer been hogtied and forced to shop in such a store. The success of stores like E-Mart, HomePlus, and Lotte Mart is but a testament to their ability to meet the needs and desires of their customers.

Unfortunately, in expressing these desires, consumers have run afoul of local officials who distrust the market order when it does not accord with their own desires. These bureaucrats will thus forcibly block peaceful interactions between consumers and retailers by compelling certain retailers to close their doors. The message from City Hall: any business which successfully pleases consumers can expect swift punishment for its efforts.

In an attempt at courtesy, however, a Seoul official is quoted in your article as saying that the city will publicize these closures on buses and subways so that “citizens will not be inconvenienced.”

Alas, the Seoul government has long since ceased to care about the convenience of its citizens.

Aaron McKenzie
Research Fellow, Center for Free Enterprise
Seoul, South Korea

01 March, 2012

A Deadly Surfeit of Politics: North Korean Refugees in China

By Aaron
01 March, 2012

Casey Lartigue, my colleague here at CFE, likes to remark that "even if you take no interest in politics, politics always takes an interest in you." Politicians and government bureaucrats wake up everyday with some new harebrained idea - usually more than one - that is sure to cost you money, freedom, or both, and woe unto those who get in the way of their plans.

There may be no more vivid or tragic example of politics taking an unwanted interest in people than that of North Korean refugees in China. These are folks whose lives have been defined by the worst sort of politics imaginable in their homeland but whose courageous escape into China simply makes them pawns in a different political fight. That their struggle, hardly a new issue, is now being publicly acknowledged by South Korean lawmakers in this election year is evidence of this.

Depending on the source, there are either 11,000 (USCRI, 2009), 30,000-50,000 (CRS 2007), or 100,000-400,000 (Lankov, 2004) North Korean refugees residing in China at any one time. If they are caught by Chinese authorities, they are sent back to North Korea where they face severe punishment, torture, and often death. The fact that the estimates of their numbers vary so widely is a testament to the life of fear and uncertainty that these refugees lead.

The South Korean Constitution proclaims Seoul the only legitimate government on the Korean peninsula, and thus, all North Koreans are technically citizens of South Korea. And until the 1980s, when conditions in South Korea were not vastly better than those in the North, Seoul actively sought to entice North Koreans to defect, both as propaganda tools and because the most common defectors were high-ranking bureaucrats or North Korean Air Force officers like No Kum-Sok, who in 1953 flew his MiG-15 to South Korea and collected $100,000 for his troubles.

Since the 1990s, however, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of famines left North Korea broke and hungry, the average refugee has become a former manual laborer who left North Korea for reasons more material than political and who has great difficulty adjusting to life in South Korea. The successive administrations of South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and the implementation of a “Sunshine Policy” which stressed cooperation with North Korea, further inhibited the South’s inclination to discuss, much less accept, refugees from the North lest the South be perceived as angling for the collapse of North Korea. Indeed, following a 2004 airlift of 468 North Korean refugees from Vietnam, then-Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young advised NGOs not to help or encourage defectors, as it “could harm inter-Korean relations.” The Lee Myung-bak administration, which came to office in early 2008, has been more willing to accept North Korean refugees, but the latest kerfuffle with China is a surprisingly public recognition of this longstanding issue.

China, of course, is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 protocol), which has long been considered the first and final word on the classification of refugees. In essence, a person is entitled to refugee status if she faces persecution upon returning to her country, regardless of why she left in the first place. China, however, treats North Koreans as “economic migrants,” claiming that most North Koreans in China are transients who hop back and forth between the countries in search of food, medicine, or work – all of which is true but, again, the key to the 1951 Convention is that it is “forward-looking," asking what will happen if that refugee is shipped back to North Korea. Not surprisingly, though, China is hardly eager to have disruptive packs of refugees streaming through their country, adding to the latent “Korean-ness” of the Yanbian Prefecture (presently about 40% ethnic Korean) and potentially aiding in the collapse of North Korea. As Beijing sees it, any official recognition of North Korean refugees as such could exacerbate all of these problems.

As mentioned, most individuals who escape North Korea nowadays do so not from any political motivation, but simply for the sake of sheer survival. They want to feed themselves and their families, create a better life for their loved ones, or simply watch an hour of TV without having to hear about Great Successor’s latest trip to a turnip farm. In short, they want the luxury of focusing their minds on something other than politics – you know, the things that actually matter in life. Unfortunately, even if they manage to survive and escape North Korea, politics still has plans for them, plans that could cost them their lives.