Humanitarian with a guillotine (Korea Times, February 1, 2013) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ``I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” For many well-intentioned activists, politicians, and intellectuals, that should be updated as: ``We are here to help you. You’re under arrest.”

For example, ``sex workers” around the world oppose anti-prostitution laws. Prostitutes may not know the theoretical arguments but they do know in reality that prohibiting prostitution means they lack protection in dealing with abusive pimps and madams, violent patrons and crooked cops.

Locally, a Korean woman busted for prostitution recently appealed to the courts pleading, ``I cannot survive without this job. I don’t want to be treated as a criminal for making a living the only way I can.”

How should someone who genuinely wants to help her respond? If you say ``arrest her” then you are qualified to be a “harmful humanitarian.” In your desire to help, you have eliminated what she considers to be her best option at the moment.

I certainly support rescuing people forced into prostitution who want to escape, but sex workers not seeking to be rescued should be left alone or offered viable options, not arrested.

The humanitarian with a guillotine, to borrow a phrase from Isabel Paterson, doesn’t stop there. Many kind-hearted people decry ``sweatshops,” even though people line up to work for ``slave-labor” companies that pay more than other available options. Sweatshops aren’t ideal, but they are better than no shops. There are real world consequences when humanitarians block options for people with limited choices.

In 1993, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin proposed banning imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. In 2001, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, ``The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets ― and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.”

Despite their good intentions, humanitarians like Harkin are like arsonists returning to the scene of their crime. Unlike arsonists admiring their destruction, harmful humanitarians are shocked to see the road to hell paved with their good intentions. So many patiently discuss how things ``ought to be” ― as if they were in Michael Sandel’s justice class at Harvard University discussing how to rearrange society like pieces on a chess board.

Humanitarians are at their worst when their well-intentioned policies prevent people from saving themselves. According to the Korean Network for Organ Sharing, about 22,000 people in Korea are waiting for donated organs. Annually, about 900 die while waiting for transplants. The Ministry of Health and Welfare successfully discovered 754 illicit deals in 2011, meaning that even more people would have died.

Do humanitarians want more moralizing about organs or more organs available? Using government power to thwart market transactions between willing buyers and sellers means that many people die annually needlessly or prematurely while organs that could save them are buried or cremated.

Doctors take the `Hippocratic Oath, typically summarized by the Latin phrase “primum non nocere” or ``first do no harm.” Given the existing problem, ``it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”

Activists, politicians and intellectuals need a similar oath vowing to offer alternatives rather arresting the people they say they want to help.

Casey Lartigue, Jr. is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu
Korea Times link


Michael Breen discussion at 10 Magazine

Yesterday I attended a discussion with writer Michael Breen, hosted by Barry Welsh.

Very often, when I attend a speech or discussion about a topic I know a lot about, I often think about ways the speaker/facilitator/discussant could have done better. But I didn't feel that way about Breen, it was one of those times that I really felt like I had a lot to learn and should listen more than talk. He's been in Korea for three decades, working as a reporter, commentator, communications specialist. He reminds me of Andrei Lankov in that his analysis seems to be based on observation of how things work rather than trying to get the world to fit his biases. I don't know him, so his friends may say he is a raging ideologue, but that's not the impression I had yesterday and based on his writings.

Michael Breen (L) and Casey Lartigue
I first read his book The Koreans about a decade ago. It was a delightful read, that was both warm to Koreans but also critical at times. Yesterday I did ask him about his critics, he first kind of dismissed them, but then also did seem to be a bit hurt that people thought he didn't like Korea. I suspect that "tribal worriers" snipped his quotes out of context, and labeled him as anti-Korean for having the nerve to use his brain to comment on what he saw and heard.

I also asked him about the $1 million Samsung case against him, which he discussed at length, with a lot of humor mixed in. By the way, no direct quotes here, I took some notes but not with the goal of writing an article, just a mixture of his comments with my own thoughts.

Several things I agreed with it:

* Koreans are less interested in reunification.

When I was in Korea in the mid-1990s, Koreans seemed to believe that reunification was an imperative. At that time, it was difficult to find anyone who would question the necessity. America, China and Japan were all against it, scared about 70 million Koreans being united, about Koreans having the bomb.

The difference I see now is that people seem to mouth the pro-unification phrases even when they don't really believe them (as they will admit indirectly by talking about the "gradual" process needed because of transition costs). Saying you are against reunification is like saying you hate your mother. Even if you do hate her, you don't say it.

The audience, by the way, was very interested in reunification--too much, in fact. As I've said before, there should be a limit of three reunification questions at non-reunification discussions, and preferably the last three questions.

* Koreans haven't reunified because of Koreans, and mainly because of North Koreans

I strongly agree with this point. There are outside interests, sure, but if Koreans were really interested in reunification, then it would happen. There is no way Washington could stand in the way of leaders from North and South Korea coming together and figuring out a way to reunify. At this point, Obama could take credit for it, bring troops back home, save American taxpayers money--and get those soldiers on the welfare line where Obama is putting a lot of other Americans. China and Japan have interests, of course, but if Koreans want to be reunified, then they'd have direct talks.

By the way, I have made this point to Korean leftists, and they typically lose their minds about it--I have even been accused of being against Koreans or being a CIA agent for making the point.

* Skeptical the new NK leader can make real change soon.

Breen said it well, that the new NK leader has been dropped into a system where he can't really do what he wants, even if he wants to make change. He will need the political skill 'to do nothing at first.' I read years ago that the most dangerous time for dictators is the first few years--because the interests tied to the previous regime are still jockeying for position, trying to get themselves near power. A dictator who survives the first few years is likely to die in office from old age or, after an extended reign of power, once he appears physically weak and the "selectorate" can no longer count on him.

* Don't rely on President Park

A Korean student asked about how President-elect Park will lead Koreans. Breen said that he is not a big believer in individual leaders. I have an article in today's Korea Times arguing that the various people writing Open Letters to President Park need to think more about what they can do rather than looking at her to save Korea. Presidents are limited by what they can accomplish, as even Obama has found out (four years later, he is no longer talking about lowering the sea levels or other idealistic things he talked about when he was Senator Obama).

I don't believe this only about democracy. Even capitalism will survive its many critics, because people naturally trade.

* Koreans take Netizens too seriously

I am amazed when I read newspaper articles quoting articles from Netizens. It may be Breen's journalistic bias of relying on credible sources rather than, as he said, 'Some guy waiting for his mom to finish cooking dinner.' I suspect it has to do with the (at least stated publicly) focus on democracy and need to hear the opinions of "the people."

* High level of envy in Korean society

It is a collectivist, egalitarian society (yes, things are changing, as they always seem to be). People who show off can expect to be targeted by those Netizens. Stories about rich people upset people in ways that seem psychotic to me.

There's an often-quoted Korean comment/joke about a person getting a stomach ache when his cousin buys real estate. I suspect that the development of markets has made this problem even worse in Korea--after all, under a market economy, rather than a dictatorship, it is more difficult to blame others for your failures. In an egalitarian society, it is even more difficult to explain why someone who went to school with you is now rich while you are still struggling to pay your bills.

* Korea remains a race-based society, although things are changing

Yes, I know that Korea is a race-based society, but it was interesting to hear Breen apply that to various issues. Such as, the way Koreans have viewed outsiders, based on their nationality--Americans? Freedom. British? Gentleman. French? Cultured. Of course, that is changing as more Koreans travel abroad.

He cited the analysis from The Cleanest Race that the Kim family has been able to keep power because the system is race-based nationalism, not that the country is communist. They build on the idea that Koreans are pure, innocent, have been victims throughout history--therefore, they need a great leader to protect them. That resonates with South Korean intellectuals.

As I've told people--if North Korea allowed contact from the outside world, it is likely that it would be the South Korean government that would be worried about intellectuals rushing in. And that one reason the South Korean government is concerned about allowing South Koreans go to North Korea is that many of them would come back with a good impression of the country (which I've learned to be true in conversations with Korean-Americans and Koreans who have gone to North Korea, especially those with a progressive or leftist outlook). The comparison I've made is to those Western intellectuals who visited Germany and the Soviet Union even as people were being slaughtered by those governments and came back praising those socialist/communist leaders for taking care of their people.

When I was in South Korea in the mid-1990s, I talked with many South Koreans who said they were "proud" of Kim Il-Sung. He was able to rule an entire country, to fend off America. I hear less of that pride in North Korean leadership these days.

* Lotteria, a local fast food joint, is terrible.

He said it was terrible 30 years ago when he tried it. I'm surprised the place stays open even though there are many more food choices than there were 30 years ago. I went there several times--You may like it, if you like your food consistently warm or cold.

Thing I disagreed with

* He likes dictatorship in a cynical way

It may have just been a throw-away line, but when I asked about it, his explanation was that (1) when Korea was suffering under a dictatorship that people wanted to talk to foreign reporters and (2) when people suffer under a dictatorship, they are more real, they develop traditions. Now, they just want to dance.

And I say: That's wonderful! Let them dance, if they choose to do so. I look forward to the day that North Koreans can dance in the streets or whatever it is they would do if they didn't live under a dictatorship.

I suspect Breen's comments are based on being a reporter--reporters tend to love drama. Reporting about a cat stuck in a tree isn't as exciting as reporting on the revolution. Careers get made based on dramatic situations, not mundane events.


* A "black" leader (like Jesse Jackson) could not have gotten elected, it had to be a mixed race person

Perhaps. Hard to know one way or the other. An Obama with Jesse Jackson's past would have had no chance, that is definitely true. But Obama is a slick guy who avoided controversial stands on issues or clouded the view with his double-talk so that he appeared to be a moderate.


Open letter to Park's advisers (Korea Times, by Casey Lartigue, Jr.)

As soon as Park Geun-hye won the 2012 presidential election, she became like the main character in ``The Marriage of Figaro” (``The Day of Madness”). She was getting so much advice from so many people that she didn’t know which way to turn.

Some of the advice in open letters and wish lists for the President-elect has been good. I’d like to offer this advice to her many advisers: Focus on what you can do.

My first reason for this is that by the time 2018 rolls around, many South Koreans will be happy to see Park on her way home or behind bars. Even if she follows through on what 49 million people in Korea want, they are likely to be disappointed by the inevitable compromise on their particular issue.

Due to compromises and ``only Nixon could go to China” strategies, presidents in democracies rarely leave office more respected than when they were initially elected. Political leaders are scapegoats for people waiting for supermen (or superwomen) to fix problems.

The easy explanation for the animosity is that politicians are liars ― an explanation I accept, with an asterisk. How could they not be liars? Voters demand that politicians promise two contradictory things: firstly, more government action and second, lower taxes.

Similarly, Park ran a smart campaign that embraced both fiscal restraint and expanded welfare. On the campaign trail, the contradiction could survive but in office, actual decisions will have to be made. She is likely to support political compromises that will disappoint her supporters while still outraging opponents who even hate what she has for breakfast.

The complaint that politicians are liars masks a more terrifying reality: Politicians don’t know how to fix most social problems. If Park knew, for example, how to reduce the suicide rate, why didn’t she do something about it during her 14 years in the National Assembly?

Now, as president, she supposedly knows or can pick the right people to come up with solutions for a national wish list growing by the day. If people are looking to political society, then it means that civil society has failed, yet people won’t be satisfied with political solutions forced on them.

The second reason to focus on what you can do: It keeps you active. Of course, there are some things that only elected leaders can do, such as ordering troops into action. For most social policies, however, you don’t need to wait for the president before you get involved with a cause.

In the 1956 book ``The Anti-Capitalist Mentality,” economist Ludwig von Mises argued that people loathe capitalism because it takes away the excuse for their own failures. At the office or in a kingdom, people blame the boss or king for their own inaction or individual failures.

The more modern ``Leadership Attribution" theory posits that people identify with a hero or villain (such as, Hollywood caricatures of heroes or villains, or sports fans blaming or praising a coach).

In the past, Koreans blamed kings for droughts; in more modern times, they have praised dictator Park Chung-hee for Korea’s economic growth and blamed Kim Young-sam as being ``unlucky” following a series of catastrophes in the mid-1990s.

So what should Park do as president? I don’t care. I hope she feels the same way about the things I want to do when it comes to social policy. Well, well, I guess I do have advice for her after all.

Casey Lartigue, Jr., is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu

 Korea Times link


Last two weeks: Fan Death of the People, For the People, By the People

Attempted Fan Death Homicide

Fan Death--in which people allegedly die when sleeping in a closed room with a fan on--has been written about in Slate magazine.

As I wrote in 2010:
the air conditioner is broken at work...
my coworker located a fan, and pointed it directly at me--then closed the door when he left.
is this an attempt on my life?
Check out fan death, still one of my all-time favorite Web sites.
I wonder, have there any been any attempts at killing someone through fan death? Such as, a wife closing the door and turning on the fan while her drunk husband slept.
Or attempted fan death suicides?

* * *

Half of the Women on the Net are the Men on the Net

A friend said it more than a decade--a lot of the "women" on the Internet are actually men pretending to be women.

For some reason it has become a national story in America about a Notre Dame football player getting scammed. Another story is about NFL and NBA players also getting contacted by men pretending to be women.

1) As mentioned in the NFL/NBA story, it isn't surprising considering that those are young, single guys, with many women around them.

2) I suppose players are hesitant to reject "Friend" requests from people--especially those who are heterosexual getting requests from good-looking women.

3) Could there ever be a case of a woman pretending to be a man and a man pretending to be a woman chatting away on the Internet?

The rich talk back

Golfer Phil Mickelson spoke too much truth when he said he was thinking about leaving California because of the high tax rate. He had the choice to either fight or back down--he chose to back down.

1) His mistake? Giving taxes as a reason when he wasn't ready to fight over that. He should have said he was moving to Florida to be closer to his mother (I don't know where she lives or if she is really alive) or to do volunteer work helping some liberal cause.

2) Rich people should know that is impolite to complain about high taxes. The U.S. government needs money now, and the rich are supposed to give regardless of the rate.

3) Rich people and businesses occasionally abandon a state because of high taxes, but they don't always make a big deal about it, as French actor Gerard Depardieu did when he left France's 75% rate on the wealthy for Russia's flat tax of 13%. Geniuses in Maryland were sure that businesses would stay in the state, until they started leaving. New York governor David Paterson was happy when Rush Limbaugh left New York because of high taxes, saying he would have raised taxes sooner. But Paterson wasn't smiling when other rich people followed Limbaugh. As Paterson later admitted:

"You heard the mantra, 'Tax the rich, tax the rich,"' Paterson said Wednesday at a gathering of newspaper editors at an Associated Press event in Syracuse. "We've done that. We've probably lost jobs and driven people out of the state."
Anyway, President Obama will carry on with his plans to tax the rich, despite the consequences. Politicians can't resist the political temptation of punishing the rich in the short term despite the long-term consequences.

* * *

Will Korean politicians ever have "Laissez-faire" Syndrome

Lee Chang-sup, executive managing editor of the Korea Times, makes a great point when he writes: "Small firms need to overcome Peter Pan Syndrome."

Among the interesting points and statistics:
In 2011, 111 (of 1,422) medium-sized firms broke into smaller firms in an attempt to benefit from various government funding programs.
The media encourages government support for small firms and portrays small companies as victims of conglomerates. Similarly, the National Assembly is sometimes blindly bipartisan in increasing financial, institutional and regulatory support for small companies.

For instance, in order to obtain support, firms must keep employees below 300 and capital below $8 million. Once employment and capital surpass these figures, a company will no longer be eligible for 160 support programs. Further, once a company’s assets surpass $5 billion, it will face various investment restrictions.
160 support programs for business?
“Korea has the world’s best support program for small companies. Small firms enjoy credit guarantees, subsidized loans, tax deductions and partial exemptions for hiring people with disabilities,” according to former chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission Chin Dong-soo. Policymakers and scholars of many developing countries regard Korea a good model for small business.
Germany and Taiwan are two model economies powered by small companies although these countries do not have the comprehensive support programs offered in Korea. It is more difficult to allow small firms to go bankrupt in Korea than in Germany and Taiwan. This is another indication that small Korean firms are overprotected. Overprotection often breeds moral hazard.
Of course, the conclusion is for the government to remain deeply involved?
Park should become the first head of state to change the business support programs, in order to encourage medium-sized firms to pursue growth and efficiency. To this end, she could introduce an incentive system for medium-sized firms to become large companies.
My prediction is that in another decade or two, another managing editor will be writing about the failed program initiated by former President Park.

* * *

Government's suicide prevention plan failed, time to revise failed plan

According to John Power of the Korea Herald:

More than 15,500 people here took their own lives in 2010, making suicide the leading cause of death for those under 40 and fourth-leading cause of death overall. 
Officialdom’s recent efforts to stem the rising tide of avoidable deaths have shown little success. Whereas the government’s suicide reeducation strategy for 2004-2010 had targeted a 20 percent decline in the number of people taking their own lives, the suicide rate rose more than 30 percent over the period. In 2011, the National Assembly passed a law providing government funding for counseling and other suicide reduction efforts, the effect of which is yet to be borne out by statistics.

In a statement to The Korea Herald, the deputy head of mental health policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Moon Sang-jun, said the ministry’s current goal was for a 20 percent reduction in the suicide rate. 
Nothing in the article makes me think they will reduce the rate. I'm an outsider to Korea, but the stress, superficiality, "steps" that must be taken at certain times (school, job, marriage, kids), the focus on burdens rather than joy are factors that outweigh the things discussed by the experts.

Government of "The People"...Or "People"

Managing editor Oh Young Jin suggests ("With the people" 1/13/13) that new president-elect Park Geun-Hye should update former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg speech "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth" to add "with the people."

"With the People" sounds really nice.

But I don't blog to be nice. What's wrong with it? Mainly, "the people." My suggestions:

1) "... that government of individuals, by individuals, for individuals shall not perish from the Earth."

2) "of people, by people, for people."

"The people" is a collective. Government should be focused on protecting individual rights. "The people" sounds like something Michael Sandel or communitarians would be for, so that the rights of individuals could be overriden when "the people" want to do something.

Advice starts in the newsroom

Managing editor Oh made a great suggestion: "Let's give Park some time." He correctly points out that people have been criticizing many things about the president-elect even though she hasn't even taken over as president.

In fact, that is such a great point, I hope he will walk over to the newsroom and read his article to the news and feature reporters. The same day Oh made that point, the Korea Times ran 11 articles mentioning Park, including five that mentioned her in the headline.

Updated until January 27, 2013


Hyeon-Seo Lee, speaker at Ted 2013!

Update: Hyeon-seo's speech at TED has been posted. Watch, share, link, comment.

Congratulations to HyeonSeo Lee, a wonderful young lady who was born in North Korea, now lives in South Korea, and will soon be speaking at TED's annual gathering from February 25-March 1. She is the first North Korean refugee to speak at Ted.

I was the co-chair of the campaign to raise awareness about her last summer. Thanks to my co-chair Jane Bojung Park for her inspiration and energy. David Choo and many other fantastic folks were also a part of our team.

Campaign to get her on Ted

HyeonSeo's Facebook page

Here's the speech she gave last year at Ted's tryouts.

Article in Korean announcing this.

Ted2013 speaker lineup.

Hyeon-Seo's profile at Ted.

Casey Lartigue, Jane Bojung Park, Hyeon-Seo Lee and David Choo, summer 2012

She is now on the cover of CNN.


Open door to N. Koreans (Korea Times, January 16, 2013) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Open door to N. Koreans

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Last Dec. 12, I fired off an opinion piece of about 1,500 words to the Washington Post. It easily could have been 1,600 words, but I deleted all of the curse words. The day before, I had learned that the United States government had rejected visa applications by three of the students at the Mulmangcho School for North Korean refugee adolescents.

Mulmangcho (meaning, ``forget-me-not”) is a small alternative school located in Yeoju, more than an hour south of Seoul. It opened last September with 11 former North Korean children who are orphans or are disadvantaged in some other way. It was founded by former national assembly member Park Sun-young and a distinguished board of directors.

Why were the youngsters rejected? The explanation I got: 1) The U.S. government is concerned that they might not return to South Korea and 2) there was a question about their refugee status because they didn’t have proper paperwork proving they were from North Korea.

North Korean youngsters first live under the boot of the Kim crime family in the North, punished or executed for daring to escape. Those who escape to or are born in China live as stateless people who cannot legally attend school, work, or visit a hospital. Those who make it here struggle to adapt to South Korean society. For some, the U.S. could represent a clean start.

U.S. policy may be catching up to the problem of North Korea’s stateless children. A bill, ``North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012,” on protecting ``stateless children” from North Korea is expected to be signed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Many of these children are orphans or stateless because they were orphaned or abandoned in other countries, mainly China (including to mothers who were kidnapped or sold to Chinese men).

The law calls for the secretary of state to facilitate ``immediate protection for those living outside North Korea through family reunification or, if appropriate and eligible in individual cases, domestic or international adoption.”

That’s certainly a good start. But the U.S. government needs to have a laissez-faire policy when it comes to North Korean refugees. Waive the rules that split hairs over terms like ``defector,” ``refugee” or ``asylum seeker.” Let them in.

That was the policy of the U.S. government, welcoming the world’s ``huddled masses,” until 1924 with the exception of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It is literally life and death for some to escape, as it has been before, and the U.S. government has failed before, too. At a press conference in 1938, U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was asked, ``Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?” In a response that should live in infamy, Roosevelt answered, ``This is not in contemplation. We have the quota system.”

The U.S. has a ``system” today, too, as the youngsters at Mulmangcho have learned. America’s immigration bureaucracy has demands for proper “papers, please,” but it is often difficult for North Korean adolescent refugees to produce such documents. The North Korean government didn’t process any paperwork or stamp their passports on the way out.

North Korea won’t let North Koreans go. China won’t let them pass through. The United States government should make it easier for them to find freedom at last.

The writer is the international adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean Adolescent Refugees in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, and a member of the board of trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu.

Original Korea Times link

Previous commentaries and activities concerning North Korea

North Korean refugees in South Korea, TBS eFM 1010.3, January 1, 2013 (radio interview).
Why I won't go to North Korea, The Korea Times, December 27, 2012 (op-ed). 
GSIS Christmas Drive, December 7-21, 2012.  
To be a good volunteer, use your brain, The Korea Times, December 5, 2012 (op-ed).
Asia Pacific International School fundraiser, November 21, 2012 (speaker, organizer) 
IVC charity fundraiser, Yonsei University, November 20, 2012 (speaker, organizer) 
"Balloon launch to North Korea," Sept. 15, 2012.
"Hyeon-seo Lee on Ted.com" August 28, 2012 (co-chair).
"Reasons for Hope in South (and North) Korea," Atlas Experience, Colorado, USA, April 25, 2012, speaker.
Nothing to Envy? Roundtable with North Korean refugee, April 5, 2012 (moderator) 
"Common Sense" on North Korea, Korea Times, April 2, 2012 (op-ed)
Helping North Koreans 'strike the blow', Korea Times, March 22, 2012 (op-ed)
“Freedmen” from North Korea, Korea Times, March 4, 2012 (op-ed)
The Death of Juche? Roundtable discussion about the development of markets in North Korea, Roundtable, September 28, 2011.
Surprise! North Koreans Love Me The Korea Times, July 2010 
I Believe North Korea! The Korea Times, May 2010