North Korea

North Korean Embassy Officials So Broke They Run Bootlegging Ops to Make Ends Meet



While waiting for the James Franco-Seth Rogen film The Interview to show up in some theaters on Christmas Day, let's construct a North Korean farce of our own using material in which Pyongyang burlesques itself.

There's promising source material in this (U.K) Telegraph story set in a community of some 700 North Korean refugees (mostly defectors) who have congregated in a part of Surrey called New Malden. The area is home to some 20,000 South Korean immigrants, who employ the northerners in their factories, shops, restaurants, and warehouses.

At the center of the Telegraph's account is one Joo-il Kim, a former army captain who defected in 2007. Mr. Joo-il runs an anti-regime tabloid, Free NK, whose offices are "stacked with crates of noodle cup-a-soups and a karaoke machine." Free NK adheres to the traditions of the British tabloid by mixing its stories about the horrors and absurdities of Kim Jong-un with headlines like, "British man speaks fluent Mandarin after waking up from coma." 

Joo-il assumes he's being monitored by North Korea's diplomats, who have an embassy not far away. Indeed, Joo-il sometimes runs into these diplomats when they're shopping in the supermarket located in his office's building. 

"When I saw them in the grocers, they didn't have enough cash for what they wanted," he told reporter Colin Freeman. "I offered them to lend them some but they said 'no'. To be honest, I actually feel sorry for them. Back in North Korea, we would have to look up to these people, but over here it seems they can't even afford to eat."

That, as they say, is too good to check. A defector—whose relatives at home may have been harshly punished by the regime because of his actions—offering to lend money to the sad-sack representatives of that same regime because they've been left broke. It's like something out of old dissident lit from Eastern Europe. Czech writers like Ludvik Vaculik (A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator) or Bohumil Hrabal or Josef Skvorecky would have recognized the interplay of tyranny and pathos. We can hang the burlesque on either. 

Why these diplomats are penniless is the subject of another, overlapping Colin Freeman story that appears in the same issue of the Telegraph. Pyongyang, he writes, expects all North Korean embassies to be "self-financing." The result is that North Korean officials in other countries have been "arrested for using their diplomatic status to run bootlegging and drug-dealing rackets." An impressive case occurred in 1976, when the North Korean embassy in Denmark tried to import 2.5 million cigarettes "for personal consumption."

That's sufficiently burlesque already, no? Plus, just as the Eastern European writers—especially Skvorecky—often used jazz scenes in their dissenting work, our New Malden script has a potential soundtrack of its own: the place is apparently full of karaoke bars. The rest of the script should be mere typing; it writes itself, playing out against a background of subversive capitalist lounge music.

Hollywoodize away: tangential love interests to pad things out, defections (and re-defections) real and pretended, an overplayed revenge scene, an ear-splitting chase, maybe even some topical hacking (Joo-il believes his paper was hacked by Pyongyang eight months ago), etc. Roll credits. Since we're trying to rise to the level of film-industry quality, don't skimp on the butt jokes.

Bear in mind that Joo-il Kim's personal story, however, is no joke. Back home, his niece died in a famine (along with millions of others), and he doesn't know whether the rest of his family is dead or alive; they may have been imprisoned or executed as a result of his defection. He says he was ready to kill himself during his escape rather than face capture. As far as he's concerned, "life in New Malden is just unimaginably better"than is life in North Korea. 

By the way, while there are 700 North Koreans in New Malden alone, the U.S. admitted only 122 North Korean refugees between 2004 and 2011, and only 25 of those were granted asylum. Apparently, there's been some confusion regarding the status of refugees, since most are quickly granted South Korean citizenship, and may or may not remain eligible for asylum in the U.S.

Others intentionally avoid South Korea. Joo-il Kim, for example, was afraid that if he ended up in either South Korea or the U.S., his family would face the most severe reprisals, as they may have anyway.

Hat tip: Michael Jennings at Samizdata.

NEXT: Jacob Sullum on the State Department's Arbitrary List of Terrorism Sponsors

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  1. When given the choice, who doesn’t avail themselves of the free market?

    1. Where is this ‘free market’ of which you speak? I’ve never seen one.

      1. For all of our well-deserved contempt for the state of rights in the UK, he is living in a free paradise compared to NK.

      2. You must be living in Pyongyang.

    2. I guess all of those lessons to change the nature of man away from his capitalist desires keep on coming up short. The Norks should really switch to common core.

  2. Today, the self-styled revolutionary claims to have witnessed a genuine paradise on earth – and if he ever succeeds in overthrowing Kim Jong-un’s regime, he hopes to replace it with something just like New Malden.

    Lol, I suppose it takes coming from North Korea to genuinely call Britain paradise.

    “Life in New Malden is just unimaginably better than in that in North Korea,” he said. “When the regime in Pyongyang collapses, my aim is to rebuild it with the lessons I have learned in the UK. We will have proper education, decent social welfare, and a transport and tax system.”

    So close, yet so far away in learning the right lessons….

    1. North Korea just lacked the right Top Men.

      1. That’s because Stalin picked a bottom bitch to run that hellhole.


    2. It would be far easier to replace North Korea with South Korea North.

    3. North Korea is so bad that in the 1970s it had to halt all student exchanges with other communist countires, places like the old East Germany, communist Romania and China under Mao because the experience was corrupting the students with freedom and luxury and causing them to question dear leader. I am not makong that up. Think about that for a moment

    4. I’m inclined to give him a pass given his background. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    5. If life in New Malden is unimaginably better than that in North Korea, then bring him to Las Vegas.

  3. I love it that the tabloid’s office has a kariokie machine. The Koreans LOVE their kariokie.

    1. I wonder if it has “Okie from Muskogee” on it.

  4. Needs a Gangnam Style production number.

  5. The question is, why does the left in the west love these totalitarian hellholes so much? Like this doctoral student Advocate editor at CUNY who studied in Cuba. LOVES that system. Wants to burn this place — the one where he’s getting his cushy doctorate in history — down. Don’t get it.

    1. Love of socialism is a luxury of the self-loathing rich. Notice that they people who love socialism the most are not living under it. It looks good on paper to them. Also, I can’t help but notice that many wannabe socialists have mommy and daddy issues. Take a hard look at many socialists and you will find a missing or estranged father. Raging at capitalism is a misdirected grievance against dads who did not love them.

  6. Since the North Koreans are so broke, it should be easy to bribe them to cough up intel. Make arrangements to set up bank accounts for them in Hong Kong or Singapore so that when they defect or when North Korea implodes, they will have a nest egg to begin again in South Korea.

    Plant atomic powered burst transmitters in North Korea, then give the newly recruited Nork agents the low level equipment to transmit to them, which will then relay their messages in random and brief bursts to US satellites overhead. Have the US government buy all the meth and opium they can sell, so that they will be regarded as successful diplomats. Then, balloon drop the drugs back in North Korea. That will make the authorities think workers making the drugs in North Korea are dealing on the side. That will make them execute the drug makers.

    You could also use these agents to plant viruses on the closed North Korean intranet. Wouldn’t it be fun to see all the online computers in North Korea display screen-savers that showed Our Precious Comrade Kim Jong Un screwing a goat? Or maybe flood their intranet with news from the outside of how good life is?

    1. It isn’t that the us couldn’t completely curb stomp NK a hundred different ways. The problem is A: China will get pissed, and B: A few million crazy NK regulers swarming over the SK border shooting everything that moves.

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