June 8, 2009: South Korean police recently arrested 51 people for illegally selling American military rations (MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat). No Americans were arrested because, well, the G.I.'s didn't exactly sell the MREs to the South Korea civilians. The facts are these;
U.S. troops are frequently out on "field exercises" (where a unit moves out into the countryside as they would in wartime.) During these exercises, the troops often eat a lot of MREs. When the troops move on, they leave trash behind, including uneaten MREs. Even though South Korea is pretty prosperous, for over half a century, rural Koreans have been in the custom of cleaning up areas where U.S. troops camped out, recycling anything useful they could find. In the past, the troops would purposely leave behind whatever they could get away with, in the knowledge that the locals would benefit from it.
U.S. forces keep large stocks of MREs, in case there's a war. When the MREs reach their expiration date (about ten years after manufacture), they have to be tossed out. Sometimes Korean civilians intercept these doomed MREs, and take them to flea markets for resale. About 20 percent of the MREs police seized during the recent arrests were past their expiration date.
In some cases, troops will take MREs to their barracks, or, with the growing number allowed to bring families over, home. These are often given, or sold, to Koreans.
Police estimate that 20,000 MRE's got into the civilian economy over the last three years. That's a lot, but then consider that while there are only 34,000 U.S. troops in the country, about half of them do field exercises.
The "stolen" MREs were sold in shops and flea markets. South Koreans who like to hunt or go camping (both are popular activities, because much of eastern South Korea is mountainous forests where, until the 1960s, Amur tigers roamed wild) like to pack MREs, which were originally designed to this. Many Koreans actually like the MREs, or at least some of them. While American fast food is common in South Korea, the MREs contain dishes familiar to Americans, but generally unknown in South Korea. Thus MREs are seen as exotic foreign cuisine.
This is not the first time South Koreans adopted American food as exotic. After World War II, and during the Korean War (1950-53) American troops brought Spam (canned, precooked chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, plus salt, water and sugar). Spam was a World War II wartime expedient, to use pork products that would usually be tossed, to produce a non-perishable food for the troops. Many of the soldiers actually liked it, but there was so much Spam shipped overseas, that many troops got tired of it. Lots of Spam was given to hungry civilians, who considered it a treat. This was especially true in Asia, where pork has long been very popular. South Korea is still a big market for Spam, where the cans are packed in festive packaging for gift giving.
Thus the MREs follow in the tradition of Spam, finally finding a place where the lowly field rations get some respect. The purloined MREs in South Korea were selling on the market for twice what the U.S. government paid for them. MREs are available for sale to civilians in the United States, so this incident will probably alert some smart food importer to start buying direct from U.S. manufacturers for the South Korea civilian market. Just like what happened to Spam.
When South Korean police asked U.S. commanders if they wanted the seized MREs back, they were told, no. The U.S. had plenty of MREs and it wasn't worth the effort to inspect the "stolen" ones to find the expired or damaged ones. So the police will probably burn the MREs, except for some that policemen will take and eat, if only out of curiosity, or because they like them.