Shaun Rein, who runs his own China related marketing firm and is best known for his Forbes column, is a polarizing figure among the Chinese blogosphere as many view him as an absolute apologist for the Chinese government and wonder how he got his gig at Forbes, while there are others (it seems a group that grows smaller by the day) who will defend him. I’ve read his articles, had the occassional spit up/chortle moment, but for the most part he’s a decent writer when sticking to business topics and who cares if he’s a China apologist (though I wish he’d just admit it), I think we all are from time to time. That is until today of course. The Peking Duck tore apart Rein’s writing on the Google China situation, calling it the single most irritating article on the topic, now Rein’s wrote the single most irritating article about North Korea (find it here).
Rein starts out taking some wedding related potshots at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and goes on to denounce more US sanctions against the hermit kingdom. In the opening of the 2nd paragraph he asks, “Does the U.S. need to do something to help North Koreans? Yes, absolutely.” This is jaw dropping statement number 1. In the midst of a domestic financial crisis and two wars, what moral imperative does the US have to help keep an aging, insane dictator in power? The answer is absolutely none.
If we can get past that, he goes on to write:
The quality of life there is abominable. Let me tell you about my main experiences with North Koreans. In the mid-1990s I found myself the only non-North Korean in a class studying Chinese in northeast China. My classmates wore clothes that were threadbare even by the standards of rural China back then. They seemed to be in a competition to wear the most Kim Il-Sung buttons they could pin onto their clothing (Kim Il-Sung was the father of Kim Jong-Il and eternal president of North Korea).
Hmm…Is he basing the US’ need to help North Korea based on what he witnessed in the late 90s?!? Also, having attended classes with a number of North Koreans and through trips to Yanbian in the late 90s/early 2000s, I sort of wonder about his experiences. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Korean wearing more than 2 buttons, one each for Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Also, while the North Koreans could very easily be picked out of a crowd due to their clothing style and materials (much of it a polyester like material North Korea invented), the way my classmates dressed would not be described as “threadbare”, though those types could occasionally be spotted in Yanji and were typically a sign of a recent arrival.
Rein goes on to rail against sanctions, using the Cuba and Iran example, as well as Israel in Gaza, and declares the political science 101 idea that “economic sanctions serve only to impoverish citizens of sanctioned countries while empowering their (usually despotic) regimes.” Okay, I think we all can generally agree with that, the problem is that cooperating with the government can be even worse. Hillary should know all too well how to deal with North Korea, one of the ultimate mistakes of her husband’s presidency was its appeasement of North Korea, when Kim brazenly had his cake and ate it too, not stopping his work to build nuclear weapons while at the same time receiving US aid. After that slap in the face, can you blame the US for taking a nuanced approach to dealing with North Korea. Or for not thinking they have the “moral imperative” to help the country. Further, and most damning, is the reality that a lot of international aid to North Korea gets intercepted by the government, military, or friends of corrupt officials and ends up on the black market, it’s just used as a source of income for the North Korean government. I’m going to skip Rein’s writings on China’s role in North Korea policy as its incredibly basic and adds nothing to the article.
What I want to get at are his crazy ideas for the future of US-North Korea relations. Here he goes, hold in the laughter:
The best way to create a stable and secure North Korea is to do the opposite of what we are doing now. We should lift our economic sanctions and invest more money in the country. We should encourage companies like Nike and General Electric to invest there.
Umm…I don’t think he’s encouraging Nike to start selling shoes there, as nobody but the very elites could afford a new pair of Air Jordans while building factories in North Korea is too stupid for words. Let us disregard the fact that North Korea is a government teetering on the edge and its impossible to tell what will happen when Kim Jong-Il passes away. Why would a publicly traded company like Nike or GE risk entering North Korea?!? They would have to build factories and train workers from scratch, even the simplest things like electricity 12 hours a day is far from a given in North Korea. Seeing how things have gone with North Korea’s “opening up” in Kaesong and Kumgangsan (including the death of a South Korean tourist at the hands of North Korean soldiers) would give anybody pause. The entry of Nike into North Korea would just be giving away a bargaining chip to North Korea, and one can only imagine how the American workers would be treated whenever Dear Leader deems it necessary to get more from the international community.
It feels like piling on, already beating a horse long dead, but we’re almost done. Rein doesn’t purport himself to be an expert on Europe, so I’m not going to get into his Hitler appeasement=World War II, Airbus=no more wars example. Rein offers:
Not long ago, many people criticized Apple, Mattel and other American companies for manufacturing there because labor conditions there were bad and the government was unlike America’s. But the quality of life in China is far better now, and people have more freedom than they could have imagined even a decade ago.
I hope that Rein regrets writing this article, comparing the response of Americans to China in 2008-09 to North Korea in 2010 is ludicrous. I also wonder what freedoms the Chinese people have gained in 2010 that they didn’t have in 2000 (the correct answer, zero). Rein closes with the thought “We should be pushing for the same kind of reform and growth in North Korea.” That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t take a China expert to tell Rein that Deng Xiaoping took steps in the late ’70s “reform and opening up” era to liberalize China and make it more open and palatable for foreign countries to build ties with the country and for foreign companies to enter the market. As head of the North Korean government, Kim’s “moral imperative” to step forward and open up his country is far greater than any tenuous role the US has to play in the North. Until Kim, or whoever comes next, shows themselves to be a rational actor and promotes openness, it would be downright stupid for the US to promote business ties with the Kim’s Communist kingdom.