Sunday, July 27, 2014

Korea Needs to Liberalize Its Rice Market

I realize that I said that my next post was going to be my second installment of “Super Fun Economic Review” about the Korean government's increasing hints about depreciating the value of the Won.

Rest assured, that post is coming. However, it's taking longer than I had anticipated.  In the meantime, I wanted to upload this post.

Just today, I read an article in The Diplomat about Korea's refusal to liberalize its domestic rice market to international trade. A few days ago, I also read a very impressive article about this same topic that was written by Eric Deok-jin Song who works over at the Korea-based libertarian think tank, Center for Free Enterprise (자유경제원).

As the article was written only in Korean, however, I have taken the liberty of translating the article into English.

I think that this is a good time to state that I am not affiliated with the Center for Free Enterprise in any way whatsoever. Furthermore, any mistakes in the translation are mine and mine alone.

The first two picture files in this post were from the original post, but I have added the other pictures myself.

Is rice life? How much longer will the taxpayers' money be spent to subsidize rice? Rice has already been losing its status as the country's staple food. From 1995 to 2014 whereas rice production increased about 10%, the amount of rice that has been imported has increased 8 fold. The only two countries in the world that have not opened up their rice markets are Korea and the Philippines. Continuing to subsidize rice is a waste of the taxpayers' money.

The white signboard that the man is carrying reads "쌀은 생명이다," which means "Rice is Life."
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The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Livestock says, “For the future of the rice market, the best decision that we have made was to begin to import rice, but to impose tariffs on imported rice.”

With the government on one hand that says that the opening up the rice market can no longer be delayed and opposing farmers on the other hand claiming that such a move would cause irreversible harm, the differences between the two sides are sharply contrasted. It should be noted that Korea made a promise to the international community to open up its rice market in the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade talks in 1994.

By claiming that rice is unique to Koreans, the Korean rice market has received “preferential treatment” and has been waived from opening up the market at great cost. What was the great cost? For failing to open up the market, Korea was obligated to import up to 51,000 tonnes of rice in 1995. That obligation has steadily increased and this year, Korea is obligated to import up to 409,000 tonnes of rice this year alone. At the end of this year, Korea's grace period will come to an end. Korea can no longer afford to delay opening up the market.

The first two lines above and below the Korean and the Philippines flags say "The only two countries in the world that have not opened their rice markets are Korea and the Philippines."
The circles and the text in the middle of those circles say "Rice production has fallen from 4,690,000 tonnes to 4,230,000 tonnes.  Korea has had to increase its obligatory rice imports from 50,000 tonnes to 400,000 tonnes.  An average Korean's rice consumption has fallen from 532 bowls per year to 336 bowls per year."
The last line says, "How much longer will the taxpayers' money be spent to subsidize rice? How much longer will we be forced to import rice?  It is time to compete with imported rice."
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Despite having protected the rice market much more and much longer than any other industry, Korea's agriculture industry has barely survived. Despite continuous large-scale investments, Korea's agriculture industry's competitiveness remains at a standstill. Due to a decline in the number of farming households, more and more people have begun to abandon their farms. As a result, only senior citizens and low-income families continue to live in rural areas, which threatens to shrink Korea's agriculture industry even further. Although rice production has increased somewhat, average income has fallen, which has caused a great income disparity.

Opening up the rice market will provide our agriculture market with new opportunities. Korean agricultural products are popular in China. That is because the Korean brand is considered a trustworthy brand by Chinese consumers. Opening the rice market will not lead to imported rice flooding the Korean market but rather an increase in our exports to overseas markets. Now is the time to increase the rice industry's competitiveness and to focus on the debate of raising tariffs.

Korea's agricultural industry stands at a crossroad. It can either crash as a declining industry tends to do or it can find ways to become a competitive industry. Using competitiveness as a springboard, it has to find the right direction in order to become an advanced agricultural industry. It has to extricate itself from all of its excessive protections and move away from its land-intensive production methods in order to pursue more capital-intensive production methods.

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The Confederation of Farmers Alliance that has long opposed the opening of the rice market has already begun to engage in all-night sit-ins and other forms of protests. Instead of engaging in unreasonable protests, they have to embrace market principles and the entrepreneurial spirit. In order to transform the industry into a competitive one, and to transform it from one focused on
공자유전 (耕者有田), which is established in Article 121 of the Republic of Korea Constitution which states that “the State shall endeavor to uphold the notion that those who till the land will use the land,” to one that is focused on 경자용전 (經者用田), which is the notion that those who can manage the land can use the land. Furthermore, the regulations and restrictions on the agriculture industry ought to be abolished.

Only this effort can lead to an increase in new capital investment that is needed to increase the industry's competitiveness and establish an international business that can compete globally.

That large businesses are always opposed to entering the agriculture industry in Korea is worrisome. Dongbu Group, which had built a state-of-the-art facilities in a tomato production facility but faced opposition from farmers groups and had no choice but to discard millions of tomatoes. Dongbu Group had even signed a contract to export domestically produced tomatoes to Japan. However, the farmers and the farmers groups opposed this. After having lost millions, Dongbu Group withdrew from the tomato business.

Toyota, the symbol of Japanese manufacturing, on the other hand, has built and is strengthening their agricultural productivity. The agriculture business is gaining strength to becoming a vital business in the future.

Whenever a free trade agreement has been signed be it with Chile, the United States, the European Union, ASEAN, Australia, or Canada, the farmers have never failed to angrily protest. Yet even with the importing of Chilean grapes, domestic grape production has increased. The beef market has been opened but Korea's beef industry has not weakened. It is the same with other agricultural goods. The farmers have begun to improve their quality, scientific methods, and have begun to become more competitive.

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Although competition and opening up markets can threaten domestic businesses initially, it has in fact strengthened the domestic industry.

Agricultural products have increased in value and improved their income levels. People have to accept this new change and farmers must stop thinking of themselves as farmers and instead think of themselves as “farmakers” and “farmarkets.” Farmers have to accept the entrepreneurial spirit that can only exist within capitalism and only this can ensure the successful development of a competitive agricultural industry.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Super Fun Economic Review – Part 1: The Boring News Stuff Before We Dive Into the Fun Stuff

Economics can be a very dry subject to many people. In fact, when I first came across the topic of economics while I was in high school, the only thing I knew about the subject was that it is a study about money that I don't have.

I would have slept through the whole class in high school had it not been for the fact that my economics teacher, Mrs. Charice Lai, was a smoking hot woman who had the amazing ability to make lessons about the Production Possibility Curve and the differences between comparative and absolute advantages sound like she was reading from a dirty romance novel.

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Hence, I paid very close attention in class and before I knew it, I was majoring in economics in college. My other major was political science. So what was it like majoring in both economics and political science? Other than realizing that double majoring in the social sciences during a world-wide economic slump was probably not the best investment decision that I had ever made in my life, the other lesson that I learned can be summed up by this quote from the esteemed economist Thomas Sowell.

The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I do write a fair deal about economics. And I plan to keep doing it. Mark Twain did say that people should write what they know. But it is a very dry topic and I don't have Charice Lai's curves or sultry voice.

However, when I read a series of news articles recently about Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan's views about Korea's economy, its future, exchange rate policies, taxes, and income distribution, I knew that I had to write about it. Unfortunately, there is way too much to write in response to everything he has said and done in the past month. My longest post to date, “The Philosophy of Snowpiercer” was a thirty-minute read (yes, I timed it) but it was at least about a fun movie. A single post that long about economics would bore most everyone to tears. More realistically, it would remain unread.


So, the first decision that I made was that I am going to write this post as a series just like I did when I wrote about the “Are You All Right” Movement. The second decision that I made was that I am going to make this as relatable as possible by trying to incorporate anecdotes, jokes, analogies, etc.

However, before we can get to the fun part, we do have to slog through some of the boring parts that were in the news. If we don't, then you will have no idea where all of this rambling is coming from.

So here we go. This will mark the first of the series “Super Fun Economic Review” – Part 1: The Boring News Stuff Before We Dive Into the Fun Stuff.

(Of course it is a ridiculous title that is begging for clicks! Would you have clicked on the link if it had been “A Critique of Expansionist Fiscal and Monetary Policies?”)

Why won't people read my blog post about Supply Side Policies and Competitiveness???
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Anyway, with less than a week to go for the July 30th by-elections, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party is predicted to lose its majority in the National Assembly. Considering the rapid-paced economic announcements that have been coming out of the Blue House and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, it would seem that both President Park and the Saenuri Party are desperately trying to stave off defeat. And there is no other time that politicians pander more than when they are truly desperate.

For example, it was reported in an article in The Korea Times that Saenuri Party lawmaker, Representative Kim Moo-seong, said that the government ought to depreciate the value of the Won. He said, “There is a Currency War going on in the world right now and the Bank of Korea ought to come up with ways to adjust the exchange rate. However, the Bank of Korea has not come up with any measures. We have to depreciate the currency.” (This was translated from the Korean text, which does not appear in the English version.)

In the same article, the newly appointed Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said that there are too many corporations that are hoarding excessive profits. In order to ensure that “more money goes to households,” he said that he would push for tax breaks to provide incentives for corporations to increase wages and dividends for small investors. However, if those corporations that have surplus profits build up internal savings without raising wages or dividends, the government will then tax the “excess profits.”

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Furthermore, Minister Choi also said that low growth, low inflation, and an excessive current account surplus are signs that Korea may follow in the path of Japan at the start of its so-called “lost two decades.”

Therefore, in an attempt to avoid a much-feared long period of deflation that Japan went through, it was just reported today (July 25th 2014) that the Korean government plans to inject the economy with a 41 trillion (US$39.8 billion) stimulus package to revive the sagging economy. Minister Choi also said, “The government plans to use expansionary measures until the economy shows clear signs of recovery.”

As further measures, the government plans to expand tax deductions for people who use debit cards to make purchases from 30 percent to 40 percent. The government also plans to increase tax deductions for households that earn ₩70 million in annual salaries or less that plan to purchase homes and also plans to increase government-provided home mortgages.

So, that's the background information that you need to know for now. Stay tuned for the next installment that will deal with the topic of currency depreciation.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Paying for North Korean Cheerleaders?

With the 2014 Asian Games set to begin in Incheon in September, the North Koreans initially proposed to send up to 150 cheerleaders to the games. At the time, the total cost of hosting the cheerleaders and the North Korean athletes were estimated to be around ₩1.5 billion (US$1.45 million).

Since then, however, the North Koreans have declared that they would send up to 350 athletes and 350 cheerleaders. Of course, this does not count the bodyguards and the political minders that the North Koreans will most likely send to ensure that none of their athletes or cheerleaders gets any ideas about defecting.

If South Korea ends up paying for the North Korean delegation as it has in the past during the days of the so-called Sunshine Policy, then I have a feeling that it would cost more than the aforementioned ₩1.5 billion.

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During the negotiations about how many delegates the North Korean government was planning to send (Does it strike anyone else that it is ludicrous for the meeting to have taken place at all?), the South Korean government, which seems to have grown something that resembles a backbone, did not play the game that the North Koreans wanted. A South Korean government official reportedly said:

At past international sporting events, it was customary to provide all accommodation free of charge for the North Koreans, but we decided to adhere to international practice this time. And under Olympic Council of Asia regulations, each country is responsible for the expenses incurred by its athletes and cheering squads, although accommodation subsidies are provided for underdeveloped countries that are sending a small group of athletes.

On top of that, South Korean government officials told the North Koreans that their flags that they wanted to bring were too big and could become a safety issue.

When the North Koreans were told that they were not going to get a free lunch and that their flags were going to be the same size as everyone else, as per their typical behavior, the North Koreans huffed and they puffed and said something about how South Korea displayed an “improper attitude” to the talks.

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The fact that the North Koreans even brought up these ridiculous demands should not come as a surprise to anyone.

North Korea is a nation of thugs – a country that was founded on the principle of taking everything from everyone and giving it to the Supreme Leader. What is money to the North Koreans? To everyone else who lives in capitalist(ish) economies, money is a tool of exchange – it is what people use to trade with others.

And we have to keep in mind that unless forced to do so, no one in the world trades down. People always trade up. What that means is before I decide to pay for a product, I will always make sure that the product will be of higher value to me than the money that I would give up in exchange for the product. When we accept money in payment for our effort, we do so only on the conviction that we will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. In other words, people trade value for value. That is what money is used for.

And where does our effort, the goods that we produce, come from? They don't magically appear out of thin air. We have to use our minds to create something that is worth selling. If we didn't use our minds, we wouldn't be able to create a single thing.

In sum, money is the tool that we use to exchange with each other the efforts of our minds.

That is why money is sacred. That is why we hate those who steal and commit fraud. Thieves, through no merit of their own with the exception of thuggery and skulduggery, take from the rest of us what we have rightfully earned by the sweat of our brow. That is why in a civilized society, thieves are shamed and punished (or at least ought to be).

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What do North Korean officials know about money? They certainly know that it is something that they need to buy luxury cars, French cognac, Uzbek caviar, and Danish pork. But what do they know about earning money? Why go through the trouble of earning money when they can just get easy riches by printing counterfeit money or producing crystal meth or selling women as sex slaves?

They have no rational minds to speak of – only power lust and the desire for unearned greatness. They wouldn't even know how to begin to think of something as being sacred. They are unthinking brutes, and the only good thing that they could ever possibly do for themselves and the rest of the world is to commit mass suicide.

However, now that I think about it, I think I may have been far too charitable to people who live south of the DMZ when I said that everyone who lives in capitalist(ish) economies knows that money is a tool of exchange. There are clearly some people who not only lack that knowledge, but also lack anything that resembles a brain altogether.

Case in point, The Korea Times published an editorial about how Seoul should have been the one to initiate this unbelievable fiasco by having invited North Korea to participate in a regional sports festival in South Korea and offering to pay the cost. The editorial goes on to say that Seoul needs to be more magnanimous and tolerant, no longer citing “international standards” or “popular sentiment.”

Never mind that the North Korean government is responsible for numerous crimes against humanity as well as against South Korean sailors, marines, soldiers, civilians, and diplomats. As far as The Korea Times' editorial staff is concerned, Seoul ought to be more magnanimous and tolerant toward these thugs who have threatened to attack us AND actually attacked us on numerous occasions.

When faced with such incredible stupidity, I suppose there really is only one thing that can be said.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

“Voting Against Their Own Interest” - You should probably stop saying this.

The majority of people in the world, except perhaps the mentally ill, seldom ever claim to be Marxists anymore. Whenever progressives are accused of being Marxists or socialists, they mock their simple-minded opponents and go on their merry way.

However, we have to keep in mind the famous quote about the greatest trick the Devil ever having played was how he convinced the world that he didn't exist.

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The great irony of present-day Marxists is that the majority of people who are either consciously or subconsciously influenced by Marxism have never read any of Marx's works. Then there are those who have read his works and who have failed to understand Marx.

(Joseph A. Schumpeter listed in his book, “History of Economic Analysis” (Page 362, “Concerning the Marxist System”) quite a formidable and hefty set of prerequisites that people have to read in order to properly understand Marx. This probably explains why so many people are reluctant and/or unable to fully understand Marxism.)

Regardless of whether people have read or not read or understood or not understood Marx, many people have uncritically accepted many of his views as gospel truth. And I am willing to bet that most of those people don't even know that they are channeling Marx.

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For example, one thing that I have heard many progressives complain about often is that, especially after having been “influenced” by the “corporate media,” far too many middle to low income earners “vote against their own interest.” For proof simply do a Google search for “vote against their own interest.”

However, we have to ask what people mean by “interest” when they pose their question. In every single instance, when that question is asked, what they almost always mean by “interest” is the interests of the group that the individuals supposedly belong to.

For example, people often ask why ethnic minorities or women vote for conservative parties, or why the low-to-middle income earners vote for tax breaks for the “super rich.” Notice how no one ever asks why a particular woman or member of an ethnic minority group might vote for a conservative politician or why individuals would vote for tax breaks that they themselves might not benefit from immediately. It's always about the group.

This goes back to Marx's belief, which he stated in the Communist Manifesto, that “the history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles.” As far as Marx was concerned, “interests” are something definite and apart from a person's ideas.

It was a belief that Marx himself contradicted in the same damned book. As Marx was not a member of the proletariat, he conveniently added that “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour... a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class.”

If it is possible for some people to extricate themselves from the trappings of their own class and its supposedly inherent interests, then the law is really not a law! Too many Progressives, however, don't seem to be able to see the contradiction to question their own beliefs when they talk about people “voting against their own interests.” They believe that the “interest” of a class is obvious and that there could be no doubt about what it is.

I suppose it is much easier to assume that people who do not agree with them are brainwashed class traitors than individuals who genuinely have their own independent minds that happen to be opposed to theirs.

Furthermore, this idea about class interest is an idea that is all too similar to that of racists. Racists tend to believe that members of a race all look and think alike. That they should all behave in a particular way. That there are certain things that all members of a certain racial group should inherently like and dislike. Replace the word “race” with “class” and you get the same argument!

It all comes down to collectivism. Modern-day Marxists (whether they know that they are channeling Marx or not) do not believe in individualism. They may say that they do, but their inner most philosophy seems to say otherwise.

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The quote about the Devil may be attributed to Charles Baudelaire but in all fairness, Kevin Spacey did make it sound much better.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Soccer is just an illusion and we need to wake up to reality.

Everyone is fan of some kind of sport and football is one of the most popular sports in the world. As for me, I don’t care much for football. My sport of choice has always been economics with a side of politics.

I bet there would have been fewer economically illiterate people in the world if economics had been taught like this.

Anyway, I was on the bus on my way to work when I heard the Brazil-Germany game being announced on the radio. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone can be in the mood for anything else besides a strong cup of coffee at half past six in the morning. But I heard the score being announced.

Seven to nothing.”  (The game ended seven to one.)

I might not be a football fan, but even I know that that is not the kind of score that you hear very often. Especially when the losing side is Brazil.

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From what I have seen in the news, Brazilians appear to be in mourning. Although it is doubtful that Brazilians are going to begin to dislike football, it is quite likely that more and more Brazilians will begin to question the wisdom of having hosted the World Cup in the first place.

Brazil is now the seventh largest economy in the world and is one the BRIC economies that is a darling case study of successful developing economics. The problem with GDP rankings, however, is that looking at the GDP alone belies the other smaller, but not less important, economic details that often plague a country.

For example, Brazil has some of the highest tax rates in the world, has 35 pensioners for every 100 contributing workers despite the fact that 62% of Brazilians are under 29 years of age. It has also one of the most corrupt governments in the world. To make matters worse, Brazil will have to face the consequences of holding down government-regulated prices when it faces inflationary pressures in about a year or so. Others seem to take an even dimmer view of Brazil’s persistent rate of inflation.

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Despite all of these economic problems, however, the Brazilian government insisted on hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which is estimated to have cost more than US$11 billion. As frightening as the price tag may be, though it is not reported so much now, even days before the games started, stadiums remained unfinished or did not meet safety standards. However, this doesn’t even begin to count the human costs (more on the human cost here and here) that were involved in hosting the games.

Considering the immense costs of the World Cup, it would seem that the promise of economic development that the World Cup brings to its host countries is a lie. This should not come as a surprise, however. The only reason why governments get involved in hosting the World Cup is that it is not profitable. If it were profitable, there would be no need for massive government subsidies, which these games really are.

However, it’s not just the World Cup that is a drain on the host country’s economy. The Olympics is another financial nightmare. Just ask the Greeks what they think about the 2004 Olympic Games (more about the cost of hosting the Olympics can be found here). It’s for such reasons that the residents of Munich sensibly voted NOT to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

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The smartest thing that I have heard come out of this World Cup game was from Antonio Hipolito, a Brazilian man who works at a bookstore in a wealthy part of Rio, who said this right after the Brazil-Germany match:

Soccer is just an illusion and we need to wake up to reality.

It is sound advice that Brazilians should heed.

Now, how about that 17th Incheon Asian Games, which apparently has cost US$1.62 billion (whereby the cost of housing North Korean cheerleaders alone is estimated to cost up to ₩1.5 billion), and the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics?

It seems that Koreans might need to heed Senhor Hipolito’s advice, too.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Psychology Testing in the Korean Military is a Joke

For those of you who have been keeping up with the news, a Korean soldier, who has only been identified as Lim () killed five other soldiers and injured seven others before deserting his post with his K-2 rifle and 60 rounds of ammunition on Saturday.

It has been reported that the military has deployed several helicopters and special commandos to capture Sergeant Lim.

(Lim is a conscript and his rank is byeong-jang (병장), which does not have an equivalent in the US Army.)

And as it stands right now, the soldier who was conscripted in December 2012 and was to be discharged from active duty in September, opened fire at some of the soldiers who has been ordered to capture him. A platoon leader, who has also been thus far unidentified, suffered gunshot wounds during the firefight.

It was also reported that when Lim took a personality test in April 2013, he was classified as a “Grade-A” soldier that needed “special attention” and was unfit for duty at a general outpost (GOP). In Korean, those kinds of soldiers are known as gwan-shim byeong-sa (관심병사). When he took the test again in November 2013, he was classified as a “Grade-B” soldier who still needed attention, but was able to carry out the GOP mission.

When he took the personality test again in March this year, he was evaluated as having no special problems.

It has been further reported that there are about 1,800 other soldiers that have also been classified as requiring “special attention” in the 22nd Army Infantry Division, where Lim had been stationed.

As of this writing, he has yet to be apprehended, though his capture, dead or alive, is inevitable.

Location 1 is the GOP where the incident originally took place and Location 2 is where Sergeant Lim is currently engaged in a one-man guerrilla war.
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From this point on, I will attempt to use my experience to speculate as to how this incident happened. Of course, I do not make any claims to know this soldier or what he thought or what the military is currently trying to do. I am going to explain the system that allowed something like this to happen.

I served in the ROK Army from June 2011 to March 2013. Though I don’t think about those boys in the military very often as I am very busy with my job, my personal life, and blogging, I do think about them from time to time. And it is heartbreaking whenever these kinds of news stories emerge.

After all, this was not the first time that a shooting incident like this has taken place.

Like anyone else who has served in the Korean military, I, too, have taken these tests before. I took it once before I was conscripted, once more during boot camp, and then took the test at least once every two months during the remainder of my time in the Army.

The test is mandatory for all conscripts and consists of around 200 to 300 questions; many of them that are similar to each other and merely worded differently. They are multiple choice questions. The simplest ones are “yes or no” questions and some of the harder ones are answered by grading how strongly one feels about the question; the answers ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The following are some of those questions that I recall at the top of my head:

  • I think that life is not worthwhile.
  • I often hear voices although no one is around me.
  • I feel that the world is out to get me.
  • If I died, no one would notice.
  • I often contemplate suicide.
  • I am afraid of what kind of life I will lead after being discharged.

Of course, there are many other questions. The ones that I picked are the questions that the examiners look out for the most. Other questions are mostly used to know how well an individual might adapt to Army life, or how optimistic/contented or pessimistic/dissatisfied a person is.

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Though I am sure that not all military bases does this the same way, in my experience, failing this test was not an option. Let me explain.

Firstly, if it were to be discovered that a soldier was deliberately answering the questions to appear suicidal when the soldier is actually mentally fit, there is the possibility that he could be thrown into the brig. Not an altogether pleasant experience, I hear. On top of that, the time that a soldier spends in the brig does not count toward the number of days that he must serve in the military. For example, if a soldier is sent to the brig for a week, his service is extended by a week.

Secondly, before it is determined that a soldier is faking the results, if a soldier raises those red flags, that soldier is made to retake the test at least one or two more times. If the soldier still raises those red flags, then the company commander (who is usually a captain) will have a discussion about that soldier with the rest of his squad, his squad leader (who is usually a byeong-jang), and his platoon commander (who is usually a non-commissioned officer).

If it is deduced that the soldier is not faking it, the company commander, after consultations with the battalion commander (who is usually a major or a lieutenant colonel) will then order that soldier to go to a place called “the green camp.” That is where all the maladjusted end up going where they are constantly watched to make sure that they do not try to hurt others or themselves. They are also never allowed to go anywhere alone; not even to the bathroom. They are mostly made to watch videos (that are usually badly made PowerPoint slides) that have been made by the Defense Department during “mental training lessons” (정신교육) that are meant to instill pride and self-esteem.

Other conscripts also have to watch these videos, too, about once a week, but I was told those at the green camp are made to watch these ad nauseum.

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As I have never been ordered to go to a green camp myself, I have no first-hand knowledge of what goes on in there.

Occasionally, when a soldier’s case appears so extreme that the military does not think that it has the ability to help him, the military will give him an early discharge. However, such instances are very rare.

The test itself is very easy to pass. Even if a soldier does hear phantom voices and does have suicidal tendencies, the hassles that one has to go through can be so damned tedious that most soldiers give the answers that the test givers want to see. Most soldiers who take the test repeatedly and still provide the same answers that raise those red flags despite the tedium and the possibility of wrongfully being thrown into the brig are those who are sincerely disturbed and calling out for help. And the best they usually get is being sent to the green camp.

In other words, the tests are a joke. However, there is no other way to test these soldiers.

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In the battalion that I served, there were approximately 300 conscripts and about 40 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 20 commissioned officers (COs). Each has their own functions and jobs and unless there are outward signs that people can easily notice, it is very hard to know which of these soldiers are ticking time bombs. As mentioned earlier, there are approximately 1,800 soldiers who require “special attention,” but not all of them are potential killers. There is no way to know for sure that there isn’t a soldier who will decide to do something really stupid one day.

The ones who will know best are the squad members themselves. However, there are a lot of disincentives that prevent those conscripts from coming forward. Conscripts are at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole. If they make such reports to their platoon leader, depending on the kind of leader that they get, each and every one of them will be questioned and interrogated to the point of excessive tedium (which means that there will be A LOT of work that they have to catch up on later on, which means that there won’t be much time for them to rest even on the weekends) or they will simply be ignored.

The officers do not have the incentive to help much. Firstly, unlike the conscripts, these officers are in the military by choice. The military is not just some annoying thing that they have to go through. It is their career. And if a conscript, some runt who is only there for twenty-one months, messes up and is later discovered, there is a good chance that those officers might be censured, which means that they won’t get promoted. For an officer, there is no clearer death knell than being passed up for promotion.

Therefore, they prefer not to deal with it and want to see things buried.  Out of sight, out of mind.  A mere 21 months later and those trouble makers will be someone elses problem!

(While I was in the Army, I heard conscripts frequently saying that the officers are not out for their best interests. Some even said that if a war breaks out, they will kill their own officers before they start shooting at the North Koreans.)

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As a result, the conscripts usually try to deal with whatever problems that are on hand by themselves. However, they aren’t psychologists. And being young boys – bored and armed to the teeth – who are usually anywhere from 19 to 22, they have little patience for the gwan-shims. This is why a lot of bullying and hazing takes place.

If a single conscript messes up, it’s not just him that is punished. The entire platoon, and sometimes the entire company is punished. And the officers don’t go unpunished either. In fact, the officers are more severely punished than the conscipts usually are, which goes back to why the officers are not inclined to help.

So, the conscripts try to handle things “locally.” Unfortunately, the bullying and hazing tactics that the conscripts rely on can be extremely counterproductive. Therefore, as useless as these tests are, they are the least bad way to determine if a soldier is a threat to others and/or himself.

The fact that the vast majority of the Korean military is composed of conscripts, young boys who have been forcefully made to serve in the military, is likely the biggest reason why these individuals are there in the first place.

In an all-volunteer military, such individuals, if discovered, can be discharged honorably or otherwise (not that that is any guarantee that psychologically problematic individuals are not weaned out). However, in the case of Korea, where all able-bodied Korean men are forced to serve by decree, it becomes nearly impossible to discharge them.

When there are so many soldiers who will do anything to get out of having to serve in the military (as can be seen here, here, and here), when there are so many who will fake being sick, mentally or physically, the military bureaucracy does not give a lot of opportunities for those who genuinely need help from receiving it.

I stand firmly opposed to military conscription for moral reasons. However, as long as North Korea remains an existential threat to South Korea, it will be nearly impossible to do away with conscription.

Until this view changes, I think that these shootings will not be the last of its kind.

Milton Friedman's Influence on Ending the Draft in the United States