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Seoul's double-talk on reunification
By David Scofield

Accusations of pro-North Korean sympathies, sit-ins, civil disobedience and the general chaos that have surrounded the Our Open Party's (OOP's) moves to abolish the National Security Law (NSL) may be just the beginning, as the expected abolition of the law could well presage a wider process to amend South Korea's constitution to conform with the OOP's (also known as the Uri Party's) pro-North Korea policies.

The NSL was initially designed to thwart attempts by North Korea to ideologically co-opt South Koreans, and it includes prohibitions and stiff penalties for those who extol the virtues of, accept payment from, and offer support to the North Korean system. Of course, supporting North Korea or even advocating North Korea's political beliefs is certainly no longer taboo in South Korea. Indeed, pro-North Korea activities, under the guise of pro-reconciliation initiatives, now receive popular support and substantial government largesse. That the NSL is an anachronism in South Korea is obvious, but the changes will likely not stop there. The OOP expects to repeal the law this month, though the opposition is fighting it tooth and nail.

Next up, the constitution
The constitution legally defines South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK), as the entire peninsula and its adjacent islands. North Korea and its citizens are part of South Korea, according to Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution - another legal definition increasingly incongruent with South Korea's North Korea policies. The government has made no specific proposals as yet.

Not only have President Roh Moo-hyun and his party repeatedly declared that the removal or downfall of the North Korean system is not in the interests of their government, but they also took a further step late last month, announcing policy changes that will make it much harder for North Koreans to escape through China, transit through third nations, and arrive in South Korea. Seoul has announced travel bans on those South Koreans believed to act as brokers, those who facilitate the transit of refugees through China and on to third countries, avoiding the Chinese police and the North Korean agents bent on finding and repatriating them. The agents receive bonuses, or bounties, based on the number they capture. Those returned face imprisonment or death.

More than 6,000 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In, 2004, however, 1,890 defected to the South, an increase of 50% increase over 2003.

South Korea has always been bound to accept those from the North who do make it to Seoul. However, in defiance of the constitution, and humanity, Roh's government is beginning to close the door, indicating that those who have "criminal records" in North Korea or China may not be accepted. That's right. Those who have run afoul of the despots in the North no longer are welcome in South Korea. Indeed, Vice Unification Minister Lee Bong-jo further suggested that those found to have committed crimes in North Korea could be tried in South Korea, a legal procedure only possible if the judiciary asserts South Korean jurisdiction over all of North Korea.

North Koreans who do make it to South Korea could well challenge these latest measures constitutionally. After all, South Korea cannot legally bar North Koreans - legally defined as Korean citizens - from entering the South, especially since the government is asserting its legal jurisdiction over North Korea by offering to locally adjudicate the cases of those who upset the North's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Of course, if South Korea's criminal code extends to those accused of crimes in the North, what of the South Korean labor laws and human-rights code? Unfortunately for the refugees, Seoul has also announced a reduction in the settlement monies paid. As of next year, the stipend given to refugees arriving will be cut from about US$26,000 to less than $10,000. The resettlement money is often used to pay the brokers who helped them arrive in Seoul.

Cheap wages for Northern brethren
South Korean manufacturers can hardly contain their excitement these days at the prospect of using North Korea labor at a mere $57.50 per month ($7.50 of that reportedly goes to the Dear Leader's cognac fund) - the negotiated rate at the recently opened Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea. Gaeseong, a symbol of Korean economic brotherhood, is just across the border in the North, where South Korean firms have established light manufacturing firms using North Korean labor. But since these workers are legally "South Koreans", as specified by the ROK constitution covering the entire peninsula with extended legal jurisdiction, then would it not be illegal to pay them salaries amounting to less than a tenth the nationally defined minimum wage?

Will the South Korean government next shift its sights to the constitution, amending the document in order to legally recognize North Korea as an independent state and its citizens as foreigners in South Korea?

Of course, to recognize North Korea and its citizens as foreign nationals would seem to fly in the face of unification efforts. But then again the policies of Roh's administration are not designed to bring about the speedy unification of the two Koreas. In fact the effect has been quite the opposite. South Korea's leadership does not want the expense and potential upheaval that unification would bring. Instead they are working with and funding the North Korean leadership in efforts to fortify the regime and prevent the consequences of regime collapse and unification.

Roh, a former human-rights lawyer, believes that thwarting the flow of hungry North Koreans is the next necessary step. Sealing the North Koreans within North Korea ensures a pliant, cheap labor source, a resource that many economists in South Korea have proclaimed will allow South Korea's firms a cost advantage over even the poorest of the world's workers. Chinese laborers on average receive almost twice the rate that South Korean firms will pay their North Korean brethren toiling for South Korean companies in the new industrial park.

Callous and indifferent, to be sure, but who can argue with the potential profits? As Lee Woo-chun, president of the South Korean engine component manufacturer Dosco Co, explained last year, "If I can get good workers, I would build factories anywhere, even if the country were ruled by a regime worse than that of Kim Jong-il."

And what of the outrage surely being voiced by South Korea's young progressives, the vanguard of the Korean Zeitgeist? According to a government poll released last week, there is little dissent as more than 60% of South Koreans support the government's moves to restrict and thwart broker-assisted defections from the North - constitutional designations of Korean inclusivity not withstanding.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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Jan 4, 2005
Asia Times Online Community

See no evil: US-N Korea report (Dec 21, '04)

NE Asia alarmed by US tougher NK stance (Dec 10, '04)

Seoul to scrap anti-N Korea law (Nov 2, '04)

S Korea's perilous revisionism (Aug 3, '04)

N Korean refugees: Beginning of a flood? (Jul 29, '04)

Double jeopardy for NK defectors (May 18, '04)


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