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Archive for August 28th, 2012

There’s small choice in rotten apples.  –  William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (I,i)

Newsweek magazine, like its rival/soul sister Time, has been degenerating into yellow journalism at least since the term “moral panic” was coined in 1972; the primary reason is probably the rise of television news in the 1960s.  By the 1980s several of my English teachers were declaring it was no longer a credible source, and by the early ‘90s its main function seemed to be supporting prohibitionism by publishing disinformation-laden scare stories about sex, drugs, kids, stuff kids like, and drug-using kids having sex.  One favorite target is the internet, but that’s not surprising considering it’s the reason for the plummeting revenues of the past few years, which eventually resulted in the magazine’s sale to an entrepreneur on August 2nd, 2010 for the price of $1.  Not long after that it merged with the Daily Beast, which considering the latter’s own credibility issues hasn’t exactly helped.  Case in point, this recent article which claims to be about “human trafficking” in China, but actually appears to be an extended ad for the rescue industry.  It’s not the worst thing Newsweek has published lately, but it lies somewhere in the space between “Why Are Obama’s Critics so Dumb?” from January and “The John Next Door” from July of last year.

Steven Kim, an American businessman…may be the world’s leading expert on the market for North Korean brides…[while] living in China, overseeing the manufacture of chairs…he heard about a secret church that catered to…South Korean businessmen…Kim…became a regular attendee…and…began to assist North Korean refugees…[by providing] safe houses, food, clothing, and money; eventually he organized secret passage across China to third countries…Many of them turned out to be women fleeing from the Chinese men who had purchased them…

If the rest of the story continued like that you wouldn’t be reading it here.  But apparently Kim’s religious devotion, the four years he spent in a Chinese prison after he was caught, and the potential for massive profits in the rescue industry drove him to shift his focus from helping people who wanted to escape, to interfering in the lives of those who don’t:

Today he runs 318 Partners, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing trafficked women in China…The only practical escape route for fugitives from North Korea is through China, and…roughly 80 percent of those thousands of refugees are women and girls who have become “commodities for purchase”…Ever since the one-child policy went into effect in 1979, Beijing has enforced it through fines, imprisonment, forced abortion, sterilization, and…infanticide.  The policy has had its intended effect of slowing the rate of expansion of China’s population.  But there has been an unwelcome side effect:  an unnaturally high male-to-female ratio…The result is an epic surplus of bachelors…[who] are often desperate—for companionship, for sex, for household help…

Chinese men want wives; North Korean women want to escape North Korea to the relatively-better conditions of China.  Therefore marriage brokers have arisen to put them together; the system is no more foolproof at making good matches than the biochemical-infatuation system prevalent in America, but nobody’s proposing that women be “rescued” from that.  When observed through the distorting lens of “trafficking” rhetoric, however, it becomes something else entirely:

…a chain of “suppliers,” “wholesale providers,” and “retail sellers” has developed…suppliers lure women from their homes with promises of a lucrative trip to China…if trickery fails, recruiters have been known to resort to kidnapping…wholesaler[s]…escort the women past Chinese ID checks to a safer place farther from the border…some of the women are sold directly to Korean-Chinese men who live in the region.  From the woman’s point of view, this is usually the better option.  Life with a Korean-Chinese man, in a community where the Korean language is spoken, is preferable to life with a Han Chinese man who speaks only Mandarin and whose culture and food will be unfamiliar.  Other brides…are resold to retailers…[who] in turn sell the women to their clients…for between $1,200 and $1,500…depending upon her age and appearance.

As I pointed out in “Creating the Crisis”, horrible political situations (such as North Korean tyranny or the government-created gender imbalance in China) are bound to create brutal, coercive environments where bona fide human trafficking or even chattel slavery can thrive, and I have no doubt that crimes such as those described here really are committed in some instances.  But how many of these transactions are based in fraud or violence and how many in women taking a calculated risk to get out of North Korea?  Does denying women agency and applying slave-trade dysphemisms really help outsiders to understand why men might conduct this sort of business and women go along with it?  The next paragraph struggles valiantly to make the women look like helpless victims, but careful reading reveals the truth:

At some point the woman realizes what is happening to her.  She then has two choices:  go through with the marriage or try to escape.  This is not really a choice.  The woman is on her own in a strange country…Most accept the inevitable and agree to be sold.  They reason, not illogically, that life with a Chinese husband, even an abusive one, is preferable to arrest, repatriation, and automatic imprisonment in a North Korean labor camp for illegally leaving the country…

Why does a “slave” need to “agree to be sold”?

…Because the woman has no official identity papers, the marriage cannot be legally registered.  Such pseudomarriages may be voluntary—at least in the sense that the woman has the theoretical option of turning down a man’s offer.  But it is wrong to consider it a true choice.  It is “a means of survival or livelihood,” says Lee Keum-soon, a senior researcher with the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul…In many cases, she says, a voluntary marriage is indistinguishable from a forced marriage.  The woman’s few alternatives may include prostitution or online stripping.  A woman who cannot speak Chinese would not be able to work in a restaurant or a store.  The North Korean woman “would quickly realize that there was no alternative but to establish a live-in relationship with a Chinese man…as a relatively safe means of staying in China.”  If a woman has relatives in China, they often urge her, not without reason, to strike a bargain with a Chinese man who will feed and house her in exchange for her labor and sexual favors…

If you can’t see the problem here, you need to reread “A False Dichotomy”.  By these standards, how many life-choices are “true” ones?  Do Chinese farmers “choose” to live in a country with no available women?  Do the so-called “traffickers” choose to live in government-destroyed countries with few means of getting ahead?  Obviously these women feel that staying in China, even under these conditions, is preferable to returning to North Korea, just as many people consider working in a sweatshop preferable to working on a farm.  It doesn’t help poor, disadvantaged people when educated, successful ones try to shut down some of their extremely limited options for the “crime” of failure to rise to Utopian levels.

As is typical for this type of article, it then descends into a long, lurid personal narrative designed to appeal to the reader’s emotions; in this case the writer willfully conflates the actions of “traffickers” with the brutality and corruption perpetrated by police and government officials in both countries.  It then returns to Kim, who admits that many of the “trafficked” women he endangers by his meddling tell him to get lost, but when he does manage to talk one of them into leaving with him he “sometimes asks the rescued women to pledge to pay back $1,000 of the costs once they get to Seoul and receive financial help from the South Korean government.”  In other words, he convinces them to allow him to illegally smuggle them out of their current situations and into another country, then charges them for the privilege.  Sound familiar?

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