Monday, December 29, 2014

Does Korea need laws against hate crimes and hate speech?

Recently, a teenager exploded a homemade acid bomb during a talk show that was held by Shin Eun-mi and Hwang Sun for making pro-North Korean remarks.

In a different case, when a grieving father was going on a hunger strike to protest for an independent investigation to determine what caused the sinking of the Sewol that took his child's life, Ilbe members staged a “binge-eating” counter-protest a walking distance away from the man because they thought that he was being used by progressive lawmakers to destabilize the conservative government.

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According to a Professor Choung Wan, from Kyung Hee University Law School, who was quoted by Claire Lee in the Korea Herald for this article, the former was a terror attack and an act of hate crime whereas the latter was a hate crime that was also an act of violence and discrimination.

In regards to the latter, Professor Choung said, “Expressing your opinion is one thing, but if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”

Hate crimes and hate speech often get lumped together, but I think it is important to distinguish the two. For one, the former is an act that is committed against another individual that violates his right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, the latter is simply a form of speech – though admittedly one of the more vile types.

As such, I thought that it'd be best if I wrote about the two topics separately.


Hate Crimes

As I read what Professor Choung had to say about the matter, I could not help but have some additional thoughts of my own.

Firstly, I had to wonder if Professor Choung thinks it is acceptable to have a government that passes laws that attempt to regulate the content of people's thoughts. A little Big Brother-ish, if you ask me.

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Secondly, even if Professor Choung does think it is acceptable to have such laws, his personal opinion is made irrelevant by the fact that such laws are doomed to fail. Case in point, lawmakers can pass all the laws they want to make people think that prostitution is immoral. None of it will change the fact that prostitution will always remain the world's oldest profession, and theirs the second-oldest; and not by much!

Thirdly, with the exception of those stories that involved the severely mentally ill, I do not recall reading about any crime that was committed against another person out of love. In fact, most criminals either hold indifference or contempt for their victims. Doesn't that mean that almost all crimes are hate crimes? Furthermore, wouldn't that mean that designating some crimes as “hate crimes” but others as not mean that some crimes will be more punitively punished than others for no other reason than some people's arbitrary perceptions of hate?

Furthermore, though it is true that intent matters when a crime is committed, I do not see how designating a crime as being “hateful” does more than the current existing judicial system. For instance, let's say that a man has planned to murder his child in order to collect insurance benefits, and he succeeds in his grisly act. Now let's say there is a second man who planned to murder his child because the child is not his – the child is his wife's whom she had from a prior marriage – and an interracial one at that to boot. This second man despises the child for not being his and for being “a racial abomination.” The second man also succeeds in his grisly act.

In either scenario, would the child be any less or more dead? Would either act be any less or more premeditated?

Yes, intent matters but that is already handled by the justice system.

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Introducing “hate crime” into the justice system does several things:

  • It will attempt to regulate the content of people's thoughts, and will effectively criminalize unpopular thoughts.
  • It will arbitrarily make some laws and crimes worse than others. Though laws can never be completely objective, it is paramount to keep it as objective as possible.
  • It will potentially punitively punish people more than they deserve to be punished. The law is supposed to dispense justice; not revenge. Proportionality is key.
  • It will serve as a redundant law that does nothing that the current legal system does not already do besides serving a political purpose.

What it will NOT do is actually succeed in reducing crimes.


Hate Speech (Part 1)

It's worth repeating that Professor Choung said, “Expressing your opinion is one thing, but if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”

Let's take an example. Let's say there is a man who thinks that all Koreans are an inferior race that ought to be exterminated. Let's also say that this man is very vocal about that belief. However, he does not act upon it, and simply tells whoever is willing to listen that all Koreans should be killed.

Such a man would certainly be considered obnoxious, among other things, but can anyone objectively prove that he has hurt others by speaking his mind? Of course the things that he says could hurt some people's feelings, but hurt feelings are very difficult to quantify. Some people might get into a fit of rage, others might be saddened, while others might not even care.

I doubt that even Einstein can quantify that
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Now if it can be proven that the man incited violence through his words, itself no easy task, then we would be talking about a very different subject. However, like the intent behind the committing of a crime, the incitement of violence is already something that the legal system deals with. The current legal system does not need any further reinforcement from hate speech laws.

Going back to Ilbe's “binge-eating” protest, there is no argument whatsoever that it was done in very bad taste. No one with a properly functioning brain could possibly see that as civilized behavior. But did they actually cause harm to others? I am sure that the grieving father, who has my deepest sympathies, suffered emotional distress. And there are certainly existing laws that deal with that, too. Provided that there is a clever enough lawyer under his employ, I am sure that the man could claim for some damages. However, the man would have been able to do the same had the counter-protesters been members of a French mime troupe who were miming people drowning.

But the important question is whether or not the “binge-eating” counter-protest was an act of violence. Did the act, as atrocious as it was, threaten the man's common rights or civil rights or civil liberties? Did he have to fear for his life or safety? Unless such a case can be made, it is quite farfetched to claim that the counter-protest was an act of violence.

As for Professor Choung's claim that expressing opinions that hurt others is a form of discrimination, I cannot even begin to comprehend how Professor Choung came to that conclusion.

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Hate Speech (Part 2)

Freedom of speech is one of the most important bedrocks of a democratic republic. It is based on the belief that each individual is his own sovereign, and, therefore, has the fundamental right to hold any thought that he deems worthy – even if that thought seems despicable to everyone else in the world. By extension, being prosecuted and/or persecuted for no other reason than for expressing that thought is a violation of that sovereignty.

The fact of the matter is that when people defend the right to free speech, no one ever defends Thomas Jefferson or Nelson Mandela. That is because neither Jefferson nor Mandela needs to be defended. The words that they left behind have moved others to the point that they themselves moved mountains. If humanity ever becomes extinct and we are to be discovered by archaeologists of another species in the future, I greatly hope that they will remember us as the species that produced Jefferson and Mandela, rather than as the species that produced “2 Girls 1 Cup.”

No, we do not need to defend Jefferson or Mandela. What we do need to defend are the dregs – those most offensive and disagreeable. To quote none other than Larry Flynt:

If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you. Because I'm the worst.”

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All over the world, from college campuses to parliaments to anonymous internet forums, more and more people seem to be forgetting just how important free speech is. Many people are all too willing to add a caveat here or a qualification there to say “Hey, I believe in freedom of speech, too, but you can’t say that.”

What many people who accept such a thought hardly ever seem to consider is that the that they consider unacceptable can always change in the future, and not in a way that they might necessarily approve of.

Criminalizing certain actions in order to protect the rights of others is one thing. Criminalizing thought is an entirely different thing that is not only doomed to fail, but also anathema to the principles on which a free society must be based.


Combating Prejudice

What I found most telling about Professor Choung's view of the world was when he reportedly said:

“And there is no ‘natural’ way of combating prejudice. For many, it does not go away ‘naturally.’ That is why we need to regulate hate speech. Seemingly innocuous prejudice may snowball into more pernicious forms (when expressed and shared by many), and result in dangerous consequences.”

Is there truly no “natural” way to combat prejudice? For those who believe that, then by necessity, they must believe that racism in America only began to be combated in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Never mind that anti-racist movements can be traced back to the Renaissance. Furthermore, can anyone offer any evidence of regulating hate speech leading to an end or decrease in prejudice?

If Professor Choung is truly afraid of innocuous prejudice snowballing into more pernicious forms when they are expressed and shared by many, wouldn't it make more sense to let people who hold such views to express their thoughts publicly so that they may compete in the free marketplace of ideas? Or does he doubt the strength of his own views that he fears they may wither in the face of binge-eating fools?

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One would hope that a legal scholar would know better than to make statements without offering evidence, and to have given serious thoughts to the unintended consequences of the laws that he proposes.


Conclusion

Article 21, Section 1 of the Republic of Korea Constitution says:

All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association.

Section 4 says:

Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.

And Article 37, Section 2 says:

The freedoms and rights of citizens may be restricted by Act only when necessary for national security, the maintenance of law and order or for public welfare. Even when such restriction is imposed, no essential aspect of the freedom or right shall be violated.

The law guarantees the people's right to free speech and already specifies when and how free speech might need to be curtailed. It is true that despite the existence of these laws, people's freedom of speech is not always respected. However, that is a different topic. What is important is that it is difficult enough to protect freedom of speech as it is without having to further contend with hate speech legislation.

The only other argument that those who argue for the passing and implementing of hate speech laws seems to be that other countries have already passed hate speech and hate crime laws. The Korea Herald article makes sure to point out countries like Germany, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Norway, and the Netherlands as paragons of virtue for having passed their hate speech and hate crime laws.

I don't understand how anyone could think that such an argument is convincing or deep.

Engaging in acts that are racist or sexist or any other motive based on hate is ugly. But color me unconvinced and unimpressed when people make baseless claims about the dubious virtues of legislation.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Does Capitalism Breed Nepotism?


By now, most people must have heard about the incident in Korean Air that has been dubbed “Nut Rage.”

For those who are still unaware, a Korean Air executive, Ms. Cho Hyun-ah, who is the airline's head of cabin service and the daughter of the company's boss, created a ruckus on one of her company's planes that was headed from New York to Incheon. Ms. Cho had caused a delay in the flight when she demanded that a senior crew member be removed from the flight when the crew member failed to serve macadamia nuts “properly.” According to the story, the crew member served Ms. Cho the nuts in a bag, instead of serving the nuts on a plate.



When the news broke out on social media, justice was swift and terrible. Ms. Cho resigned from her position as head of cabin service, but continued to be an executive at the company. When that failed to satiate the fury of the Internet mob, she resigned from all of her roles from the company.

Justice had been served. Seemingly.

In a way, I can understand where Ms. Cho came from (assuming that the anger was purely based on her disappointment over improper service; and that her attitude having been the result of being her father's daughter did not play any role in her action).

What she did lack was tact. She could have resolved the situation so much more amicably. She could have given a stern one-on-one pep talk. She could have gently reminded the crew member of the company's regulations about how to properly serve food to first class passengers. However, she chose to be as dramatic as possible and turned herself into a symbol that represents everything that people hate about the rich.

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But we have to go back to the question. Does capitalism, indeed, breed nepotism? This question is not without merit. After all, Ms. Cho is her father's daughter.

However, I am disinclined to agree with the statement. I do not think that capitalism breeds nepotism at all.

Firstly, we have to recognize one thing – no matter how much we may talk about individualism, human society has always revolved around the family. Before meritocracy and individualism, children joining the family was standard practice, and in many ways, it still is.

Well, not all family businesses are created equal
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As time has progressed, with social and economic equality becoming more important to many people, nowadays people like to imagine that they are more ambivalent about family ties. However, there seems very little evidence to say that is actually the case.

Therefore, it would seem that nepotism is far older than capitalism.

Secondly, generally speaking, the children of wealthy parents tend to be highly qualified individuals in their own right. Though admittedly they went to the best schools because their wealthy parents paid for their pricey education, it does not change the fact that they have often gone to the best schools. Furthermore, due to the pressure that is often placed on them to be excellent in whatever they do, they often excel in their own right.

This, too, is much older than capitalism.

Thirdly, what do Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Corazon Aquino, Indira Gandhi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Park Geun-hye have in common?

I have heard many people point to these female Asian leaders to express their disappointment with the American people's inability/unwillingness to (yet) elect a woman to the White House. However, those people are only telling a half-truth. What they don't tend to mention is that people from India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Korea appear to be more willing to elect women because people in those societies tend to value family affiliations more.

Whether we like to admit it or not, women's advancement (at least in politics) often seems to begin at the altar.

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Fourth, nepotism is not unique to humans.

So, due to the historical precedence that nepotism has over capitalism, and that it is not unique to humans, it would appear that capitalism does not breed nepotism. However, considering that the rich tend to marry only among themselves, it would seem that at the very least, capitalism does enforce nepotism and vice versa. After all, one of the main reasons why people continue to work to earn more money than they need for themselves is to ensure that they can provide a more comfortable life for their children.

Is there a cure for nepotism? Well, I am not entirely sure if nepotism is actually a disease that requires a cure. More than anything else, it seems like it is an ingrained part of our more inner-psyche that cannot be easily extricated by mere legislation. Perhaps if all humans evolved to treat the rule of law as sacrosanct, we may see changing attitudes toward nepotism (and perhaps even toward the notion of family itself). Until, then, however, whether the prevailing economic system is based on laissez-faire capitalism, crony capitalism, corporatism, welfarism, socialism, communism, or whatever other -ism there is, it seems that we will not be ridding ourselves of nepotism any time soon.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Trouble with Non-Economists talking about Economics, Part 2

The other day, a Facebook acquaintance linked a post on his Facebook page, which showed up on my news feed. It was a link to a website called Korea Exposé. The title of the article was “Disposable Workers of Hyper-Capitalist Korea.”

It is no secret that (fairly or unfairly) Korea is known as being relatively unsympathetic to workers' rights (see here). So I agreed with the author before even reading his article that Korean workers could be treated better than they are treated. But is Korea hyper-capitalist? It is certainly news to me.

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So I gave it a read. Not too surprisingly, the author, Se-Woong Koo, started off his post by providing a list of workers being abused by their supervisors, employers, and customers. It's always a good idea to start a blog post with an emotional punch to the readers' guts. It makes sure that the readers stay interested and keep reading. Perhaps I should start doing that more often, too.

The author then says that during a discussion among his friends, many of whom are academics specializing in Korea, as they tried to figure out the root cause of all this violence against workers,

...the disagreement came down to whether we should primarily fault capitalism or Korea’s culture and recent history of colonialism, militarisation, and entrenched biases against manual labour.

Who in Korea has not had this exact same conversation multiple times? I (and I am sure that countless others) have engaged in, as well as watched, this same conversation so many times that it has become a cliché. If learned academics who specialize in Korea are having the same conversation as the rest of us laity, then I do believe that the debate over whether or not higher education is necessary to produce well-educated citizens is over.

But it gets better (or worse, I suppose) when the author says

It is true that capitalism in an unregulated form fundamentally dehumanises individual workers as nothing more than providers of labour, for which wage is seen as sufficient compensation.

That's quite the powerful statement – dehumanize. When I saw that, I was reminded of an old joke I once heard. A man meets up with an old friend whom he has not seen in decades. As the friends are exchanging pleasantries, the friend asks the man how is wife is. The man answers, “My wife? Compared to what?”

Well, let's for a moment put aside the fact that capitalism does not actually dehumanize people because capitalism is much more than simply about mass production, but about mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses (in order to make a profit). Also, let's, for the sake of argument, assume that Korea is indeed a hyper-capitalist society.

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Are Korean workers worse off today than they were, let's say, forty years ago? How about thirty or twenty or ten years ago? Or how about a hundred years ago? I am going to go out on a limb and say that anyone who is going to say that Korean workers were better off in the past than they are today is going to have a very difficult time trying to come up with an objective, backed-up-by-data answer.

To his credit, the author does add a definition for hyper-capitalism. He says:

It means that South Korea, as a rapidly developed economic powerhouse, has embraced and refined capitalism to the point unseen in other countries, a fact noted with no small amount of pride.

You will note that this is yet another assertion that the author makes without giving any sort of evidence. Especially considering the fact that the Korean economy bears some resemblance to the Japanese economy, it is quite unlikely that Korea's hyper-capitalism has been “unseen in other countries.”

Then there was this nugget:

But the term also implies that something is off with the South Korean version of capitalism, which has thoroughly succeeded in inculcating conviction in money as the singular measure of good both public and private, unencumbered by state regulation or respect for basic rights. Being the ‘purest’ form of capitalism, it also represents the worst form of the ideology imaginable.

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Whether or not money is considered to be “the singular measure of good both public and private” is debatable. Although money is certainly very important (my favorite moral defense of money came from Ayn Rand's AtlasShrugged when one of her heroes, Francisco D'Anconia gives a speech that became popularly known as “the root of money” speech), there seems to be no evidence to suggest that money is “the singular measure of good both public and private.”

But that's a philosophical discussion, which could go on forever without ever changing any of the debaters' minds. The real debate that we have is with the author's assertion that Korea's version of capitalism is “unencumbered by state regulation or respect for basic rights.”

Right now, as of this writing, Korea has 14,975 government regulations on the books. Two laws that I can think of that the Korean government recently passed are the Retail Structure Improvement Act, which prevents telecommunication companies (under the threat of criminal prosecution) from subsidizing their customers any amount more than ₩345,000 and the Book Discount Law, which prevents retail bookstores from selling books at a discount any higher than 15%.

Although it has not been made into law just yet, the International Direct Purchase Law is a proposed law, which will regulate how much, how, and what individual consumers will be able to purchase from international websites such as Amazon or eBay.

So, where is the “unencumbered by state regulation” and the “'purest' form of capitalism?”

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As for the author's comment about Korea's hyper-capitalism being “unencumbered by respect for basic rights,” though it's true that there have been many instances of Korean workers being abused, it's quite telling that he neglects to mention that Korean labor unions are some of the most militant in the world (see here, here, here, here, and here). Perhaps it could be argued that many business leaders have no respect for basic workers' rights. But that is entirely different from saying that workers have no rights.

And finally, the author says

the Park Geun-hye administration’s current motto is “Creative Economy”, a thinly veiled euphemism for deregulation.

For proof of President Park's love affair with deregulation, he provides a link to the Korea Herald, where President Park championed deregulation as the best way to revitalize South Korea's economy and create jobs.

Admittedly, there are fewer government regulations now than there were at the beginning of the year. There are currently 14,975 regulations while there were 15,282 regulations in January.

However, we also have to look at the net effects of President Park's policies related to the economy, all of which are intertwined. Aside from the three laws that I already mentioned, the Korean government and prosecutors have also been using Kakao Talk logs to monitor people, which has done more to damage the company than its competitors ever could, and expanding the welfare state. The government is also currently discussing providing free homes for newlywed couples as well as other welfare programs.

On the one hand, President Park's “creative economy” is trying to make it easier for businesses to lay off workers, while on the other, it is also slowly but surely removing the disincentives of staying unemployed via welfare programs.

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Considering the potential net effects of the “creative economy,” it might be far too early, and also too much of a stretch to claim that it is a euphemism for deregulation.

At the end of the blog post, it says that the author, Se-Woong Koo, earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University. It does not say what he got his Ph.D in. However, something tells me that it was not in economics.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Free Homes for Newlywed Couples. Seriously?

Despite the fact that lawmakers in Korea's National Assembly are still struggling to find funding for existing welfare programs a la free school meals and child-care programs, it seems that the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Party, the moribund main opposition party, has proposed yet another welfare program.

(One, does this mean that we can finally all agree that “free” is not really free? Two, I hope NPAD's advisers are unpaid interns. Even the most amateur gambler will tell you never to double down on a losing hand unless you are really good at bluffing, which the NPAD is not good at doing.)

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Specifically, NPAD lawmaker Representative Hong Jong-hak stated that his party intends to push to provide up to 30,000 free homes for newlywed couples, as well as push to lower the National Housing Fund's interest rates.

Representative Hong said that the NPAD Party will push to allocate ₩243.2 billion (US$221.7 million) for the project in next year's budget.

Again, the National Assembly is still struggling to fund existing welfare programs.

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In an article in the JoongAng Ilbo, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transportation released a report to Saenuri lawmakers that stated that “assuming that the National Housing Fund's 2015 interest rates are held constant, constructing 30,000 homes over a period of four years will cost up to ₩3.6 trillion (US$3.2 billion). Furthermore, constructing 100,000 homes over a period of four years will cost up to ₩12.1 trillion (US$10.7 billion)”

Sense seemed to prevail when members of the ruling Saenuri Party opposed the NPAD Party's plans. They said that the plan was “unfeasible.”

However, lest anyone begins to think that the Saenuri Party is somehow the bastion of rational thought, I think this would be a good time to remind everyone that it is the same party that is still throwing its full weight behind Abenomics' even-uglier stepsister, Choinomics.

You decide which is which
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At this point, I could go into an in-depth discussion about economic theories and present different kinds of arguments to state why this latest proposal is a harebrained idea.

I could talk in-depth about the Laffer Curve, which postulates that after a certain point of taxation, tax revenues actually fall rather than rise.

I could also talk, again, about Frédéric Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy, which explains how opportunity costs affect economic activity in unforeseeable ways.

I could also talk about how economists/partisan economists/politicians can never predict economic conditions of the future (as even the OECD admits) because central bankers and political leaders who like to think of themselves as enlightened leaders tend to only see positive signs in the economy than spot potential problems because, like everyone else in the world, they like to think that they are doing a good job (see confirmation bias). This is why no one should ever trust a politician when a politician says “Trust me.”

Finally, I could talk about the pitfalls of populism. I could talk about how populism is, by its very nature, more focused on “redistribution” rather than thinking of ways to create new wealth. I could talk about how the problem with populists is that for all their flowery rhetoric, most of them have little to no idea about how to realize their lofty goals without having to “break a few eggs.” I could talk about how populism may be an attractive means to achieving short-term political victories, but that in the long-term, when its leadership finally has to own up to its own inadequacies, it will also have to contend with an enraged public that was promised Nirvana but delivered anything but.

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I could talk about all that. But I won't. Going into an in-depth conversation about those topics requires sober thought, seriousness, and rational thought. However, politicians clearly have no such capability.

If this “homes for newlywed couples” is the best idea that NPAD lawmakers can come up with, I don't think that Saenuri lawmakers could possibly ask for a more loyal opposition as the Saenuri Party will be guaranteed to win one election after another, not because the Saenuri Party is wise or prudent, but only because it is a little less stupid than the NPAD Party.

Gods help us all.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: "A Capitalist in North Korea"

When I saw the book for the first time about three weeks ago, the book called out to me. The title of the book was “A Capitalist in North Korea – My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.”

As though the title wasn't enough to pique my curiosity, the cover of the book showed a picture of what looks like a typical North Korean propaganda poster – communist revolutionaries looking proudly toward their bright future. However, instead of being represented by a picture of Kim Il-sung or his son or his grandson, the bright future is represented by the Sign of the Dollar.

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I had never heard of either the book or the author, Felix Abt, a Swiss national who was appointed by ABB as its director for North Korea, before. As soon as I saw the book, I knew that I had to read it.

I expected to read about bureaucratic red tape, the effects of sanctions, the “culture shock” of introducing capitalism to a citizenry that has known nothing but the Kim Dynasty's juche, and the slow but sure growth of capitalism in North Korea. I expected to get enlightenment. What I got was disappointment.

The book is only 317 pages long. It should not take more than a couple of days to finish reading such a book. It took me three weeks; and what a painful three weeks it was as I had to figuratively flog myself to finally finish it.

In the first opening pages of the book, he mentions the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. Despite the mountains of evidence that points to North Korea's involvement in the sinking of the corvette (here, here, here, here, and here), Abt openly doubts North Korea's involvement because “a prominent Korean seismologist and and an Israeli geologist suggested, based on an analysis of seismic and acoustic waves, that the ship probably hit a South Korean mine.”

A bitter taste in my mouth began to form before I even began the first chapter. However, he then immediately says that “all of it plays into a bigger picture of geopolitical bullying.”

The last time I checked, it was the North Koreans who were firing artillery, rockets, missiles, kidnapping foreign citizens, and threatening war against its neighbors.

The book is not without its merits. There were the bits of information that I had hoped for and expected. However, out of the book's 317 pages, relevant information could not have been printed on more than twenty to thirty pages.  The rest of it was utter rubbish.

Abt seems to find it funny as he acknowledges that others have called him North Korea's useful idiot.” But what he does not seem to know is that he also seems to have gone fully native after he had lived in North Korea for so long. By that, I mean that Abt seems to have fully adopted the North Korean method of being as erratically contradictory as often as possible.

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For example, Abt insists that North Koreans are not at all brainwashed. In fact, he compares North Korean propaganda to advertisements that people see in other countries. Specifically, he says “the world businesses engage in another form of propaganda: advertising. The only difference is that it advances a cause of consumerism rather than politics.” To hammer home the point, he also rhetorically asks if Americans “get brainwashed by cravings for McDonald's and Starbucks seeing their logos smothered all over the country.”

Never mind that McDonald's and Starbucks are merely corporations that do not have the ability to arrest or gun down those who do not like their products. But as far as Abt is concerned, they are both morally equivalent.

But I was willing to let it go. Perhaps we did have it all wrong about the North Koreans being brainwashed. After all, he lived in North Korea for seven years. Wouldn't he know better? However, even before I could acclimate myself to believing what he said, he contradicts himself by saying that the patriotic songs that North Koreans sing are not about their love for their country, but rather their love for their leaders. In fact, North Korea's supposedly most popular melody is a catchy tune about how North Koreans cannot exist without “General” Kim Jong-il who has “extraordinary talents and virtues.”

But it's just a song with a catchy tune. Who cares about that? It's true. One song does not brainwash an entire country. But then Abt later says that North Koreans “would jump into torrential floods at the risk of their lives to save portraits of Kim Il-sung.”

He then mentions that “around 40 percent of elementary school classes are on the childhood of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il” and that North Koreans are “taught from an early age to be proud of being Koreans rather than coming from a “less fortunate” race such as the Japanese.” And during art festivals for schoolchildren, kindergartners make drawings titled “Let's cut the throat of US imperialism!”

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According to Abt, North Koreans are so the-opposite-of-brainwashed that a senior party cadre asked rhetorically why North Koreans should have statistics about suicide. After all, “Our people are among the happiest on earth,” the senior party cadre supposedly claimed.

It is a sentiment that Abt seems to share as he adds, “Astoundingly, I never came across people (North Koreans) who would have criticized or even challenged the system, nor did I meet expatriates who had heard about such cases.”

Because your average North Korean, who has learned his whole life to be careful of what he says in front of even those that he loves and trusts, would then outwardly speak ill of the regime to a foreigner?

I suppose Abt thinks that people ought to have their minds so broken that they would become unwitting assassins a la “The Manchurian Candidate” for Abt to consider someone to have become brainwashed.

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Another glaring contradiction in his book was about the way Christians are treated in the country. He says:

“A true Christian believer in today's North Korea would be branded as a traitor of the worst kind. During the century before the DPRK was founded, white American Protestants from the Bible belt promoted Christianity as the religion of a superior foreign race, making it today antithetical to the revolution.”

However, a few pages later, he says:

“Despite stereotypes that North Korea overwhelmingly represses the Christian religion, the government usually doesn't see the Lord as a serious threat to its earthly system. I once asked a senior security official if they did not feel threatened by Moon's Unification Church, active in North Korea in the hospitality and car manufacturing industries. He answered quite candidly: “Well, you know, it's a cat-and-mouse game.” It's a never-ending contest that the North Koreans will make sure the other side can never win.”

So which is it? Are North Korean Christians branded as traitors or does the North Korean regime not see Christianity as a threat? As I said, just like the regime itself, Abt appears to have embraced its dual-personality disorder.

At least Jim Carrey tried to be funny
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The part where Abt appears to have accepted North Korean propaganda as his own is when he complains on numerous occasions about the havoc that international sanctions have had on North Korea's economy. He mentions that if it just weren't for the sanctions, the North Koreans would have access to state-of-the-art technology that they so richly deserve.

However, he never once mentions why North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned nation in the world. He mentions North Korea's nuclear tests in passing, but never once stops to ponder that the North Korean leadership has no one to blame for the sanctions that have been placed on it but itself.

Throughout the whole book, Abt does not utter a single word about North Korea being the country that instigated the Korean War or the fact that North Korea secretly bought nuclear technology from Pakistan or that it has launched missiles over its neighbors or kidnapped foreign citizens or conducted terrorist attacks against South Korea in the past (here and here).

The only thing that he said that seemed to make any sense was how ineffective the sanctions were. He claimed that, too often, sanctions do not hurt criminals or government officials, but rather ordinary citizens.

So what does he say when sanctions are finally fine-tuned so that it will only specifically hurt the North Korean leadership? He says:

In July 2012, the UN Security Council released a report on sanctions, according to the AP news agency, which wrote: “No violations involving nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or ballistic missiles were mentioned in the 74-page report to the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions, published Friday.” On the other hand, the document highlighted North Korea's responsibility for illegally imported luxury goods including tobacco, bottles of sake, secondhand pianos, and several secondhand Mercedes Benz cars. It is stunning that these would be considered serious crimes which the Security Council had to urgently address.”

So now that the Security Council has gotten it right, he thinks it's a waste of time.  How very convenient.

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However, the most outrageous thing that he claims in the book is about the human rights violations in that country, which the world is finally paying some attention to.

Abt admits that anywhere between 120,000 to 200,000 people are being held in prison camps, but then brushes it all aside by saying that that figure “represents less than 1 per cent of the total population.”

He further acts as a North Korea-apologist by comparing that figure to American incarceration rates, because America is “home to the highest documented percentage of prison inmates in the world.” Like as though the conditions of imprisoned Americans could be compared to the North Korean practice of imprisoning three generations of an entire family in gulags for the “political crimes” of one person!

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But then probably to defend himself, he claims:

“While I clearly disavow any human rights abuses in North Korea and anywhere else in the world, I'm a businessman who has never visited any gulag or prison. I am not a human rights expert.”

Seeing how he admits that he is not a human rights expert, one would think that he would remain silent about this topic from here on out. However, he does not.

To be specific, Abt has some choice words about North Korean defectors who speak ill of North Korean human rights violations. He claims that “as 70 percent of them (North Korean defectors) remain jobless in South Korea, they can make a living by selling dubious information.”

There are approximately 27,000 North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. And there are thousands more who live elsewhere around the world. You would think that if there was, indeed, a conspiracy among North Korean defectors to sell a grand lie, it would be a matter of time before that lie was punctured. But such logic seems to escape Abt.

Abt also adds that “the intelligence services, academics, book authors, journalists, and human rights and political activists who interview these defectors almost ceaselessly after their arrival in South Korea have an impact on their narrative, too. Those who know the North Korean refugee resettlement process in South Korea are aware of how easily individual accounts evolve over time from mild accounts of hunger or seeking economic opportunities to romantic tales of escape against all odds.”

To add the cherry to his insult against North Korean defectors and their testimony, he adds that “while it is a serious issue, North Korea's foes are equally guilty of using rights rhetoric as a political tool to further isolate and corner the regime.”

Like as though the regime did not isolate and corner itself for decades with its juche and songun policies.

In a different but related issue, Abt also says that throughout his seven years in North Korea, he had never seen a single starving person. To be specific, he claims, “In the mid-2000s, I did not come across starving people, though I did see scores of thin Koreans who looked malnourished.”

I suppose that it's possible that Abt had never seen this young woman or others like her (see here, here, and here). But do they not exist because he had never seen them? In his mind, it seems to be so.


And what does Abt have to say about those videos of North Koreans who are foraging for food? They're not starving! He claims that foraging for food is a traditional pastime. To be specific, he says:

“What many outside North Korea generally ignore is that the much-quoted “foraging for food” is an age-old North and South Korean tradition, a result of the absence of arable land in the North to grow crops. For centuries, Koreans from all over the peninsula have consumed wild mushrooms and edibles – long before the foundation of the DPRK – and they still love to eat them.”

Of course. That must be why so many South Koreans also go out to forage for food everyday. Oh right. They don't.

But just so that Abt makes it clear that there is hunger in North Korea and that the North Korean government is doing its best to “take care of its people,” Abt says “Amazingly, Kim Jong-il was, unlike other Asian leaders, highly enthusiastic about potatoes and soybeans and gave them a role in agricultural development.”

Abt never mentions that it is likely that other Asian leaders were not enthusiastic about potatoes or soybeans for their own countries' agricultural development because they did not have to be.

There are far too many other contradictions that he writes, as well as far too many statements that cannot be taken as anything other than the defense of the North Korean dictatorship. In fact, I dog-eared all the pages that I felt contained such statements. If I mentioned every single instance of this, however, I would have to scan and upload the entire book!

Despite Abt's insistence that he is apolitical, this book is essentially a political book more than anything else; and it is excruciatingly awful. In Abt's narrative, North Korea is not evil in the slightest bit. In fact, there are plenty of other evil regimes in the world, which, therefore, naturally, exonerates North Korea of all its sins. And if it has sinned, Abt never saw any of it! He's just a businessman, for heaven's sake! Nobody is either good or bad. Never mind reality!

Truly “A Capitalist in North Korea” can be called enlightening only by devaluing the term.

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Throughout this entire book, it is amazing how Abt manages to sustain an oozy, cynical tone, which is the book's most striking feature. Its sheer stupidity is disgusting and without reprieve. Its sense of morality is non-existent. From almost any page of the book, I could hear a hollow, ghostly voice droning on repeatedly “There is no good or evil – it just is.”

Well, I saw evil in the pages of this book. And I saw that evil was impotent, irrational, stupid, vain, and blind.

If anyone chooses to fork over their hard-earned money for this book, I will certainly not try to dissuade them. After all, who knows how to best spend their own money than the individuals themselves? However, if there is anyone who still wishes to purchase this book, might I suggest a cheaper and more practical brand of toilet paper? Charmin, perhaps?

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