The injunction that “all politics is local” first appeared way back in the 1930s, and it has not gone out of fashion since. In recent days it has been invoked in a column in the Greenwich Sentinel, a splendid-sounding local publication serving “almost 16000 homes and businesses” in an affluent corner of Connecticut, and over at The Villager, which used it to highlight the point that even though Donald Trump may “garner the most headlines these days, it’s our local candidates and officeholders who will likely propel voters to the polls in November.”
In South Korea, the invocation is the same but the content looks somewhat different. Take last week, when a group of thirteen North Koreans (one manager and twelve staff) arrived in Seoul after fleeing en masse from a DPRK restaurant in Ningbo, China.
According to the Ministry of Unification, the group’s story is a simple and inspiring one: the young women and their male manager – who controlled the North Korean passports they would use to travel – deserted their posts at the restaurant and fled for the South because they “realized the reality of South Korea by watching South Korean TV dramas and movies and were disillusioned with the North’s ideological campaigns.” An open-and-shut case of escape from an oppressive regime to the access and opportunity available elsewhere.
It sounds somewhat reasonable.
It is not particularly hard to imagine disillusionment setting in even among the relatively affluent, well-connected and generally loyal staff of North Korean restaurants abroad. Perhaps the conservative South Korean media is right: Seoul’s entreaties to Koreans not to visit the restaurants are hitting the bottom line, and staff are burdened by the hard currency earning requirements placed upon them by Pyongyang.
It is not particularly hard to imagine disillusionment setting in even among the relatively affluent, well-connected and generally loyal staff of North Korean restaurants abroad
At one such restaurant just a few short weeks ago, business was certainly less than brisk. It may be better to run from such a situation than be recalled in the event of closure, even without the lure of South Korea’s much-vaunted cultural production.
Look closely, though, and things take a turn. On Saturday the Kyunghyang Sinmun, one of two main left-wing dailies in the South, was quick to place the news of the mass defection in a resolutely domestic context. The intimation was that the news was deliberately timed to influence parliamentary elections set to take place on April 13th. For Kyunghyang, this was another case of the “North Wind” at work; inter-Korean relations impetrated for domestic objectives.
The evidence for this protestation is mixed and mostly circumstantial.
On Friday morning, the paper recounted, President Park Geun-hye dropped by a couple of state-funded organizations designed to foster creative entrepreneurship in provincial areas. In the afternoon, she was harshly criticized by opposition parties for doing exactly that, with her tour portrayed as de facto election campaigning for the ruling party, which she is not allowed to do. Shortly thereafter at 5 PM, the defection press conference was announced by the Ministry of Unification.
What, Kyunghyang asked, are we to make of it?
If the timing was a little uncanny, the context lent was no less so. Though it may sound absurd to describe restaurant staff anywhere as members of an elite, this is the world we live in.
Though it may sound absurd to describe restaurant staff anywhere as members of an elite, this is the world we live in
Jobs in North Korea’s JV restaurants – overseas, comparatively liberal, and better paid than jobs available at home – are desirable, and getting one requires political connections and modest bribes for the right gatekeepers. I once asked a server at a restaurant in China whether she had attended Mangyongdae School, that hyper-elite institution in Pyongyang for the offspring of revolutionary loyalists. She claimed that she had.
This is consequential because the South Korean government does not ordinarily announce such defections.
There has been a spate of defections of the children of elites in the Kim Jong Un era – triggering, in at least a handful of cases, the defection of their parents as well. Yet little of this has appeared in the public domain. According to reports on Monday, the Ministry of Unification may not have wished to release news of the latest defections, either, out of concern for the well-being of relatives back in North Korea. Hankyoreh claims that the Blue House overruled it.
As former Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae concluded in a 2005 edited volume, “North [Korea] seems to prefer a South Korean government with which they can maintain distance.” Many believe the same is true of South Korean conservatives.
At the very least, we can be sure that whenever there is distance and antagonism between Pyongyang and Seoul, space will open up for clashes to envelop South Korean politics. Events like Friday’s press conference cannot be readily understood without a grasp of this domestic context.
North Korea is invoked in South Korea for a range of purely domestic purposes, all the time.
Tip O’Neill was absolutely right.
The author is an academic who is currently traveling in a sensitive area of the PRC-DPRK borderlands. As such, the author’s identity will be revealed after the completion of this period of travel.
Main picture: Ministry of Unification, Republic of Korea
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