Murphy's Law: Where MREs Are Really Loved


July 24, 2014: In South Korea the police have uncovered yet another group of South Koreans selling discarded American MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) to South Korean civilians. These entrepreneurs get about two dollars per MRE. The South Koreans are being prosecuted for violating health rules (the MREs were not stored safely) not for stealing MREs. This is not a new problem but rather one that won’t go away. For example, back in 2009 South Korean police arrested 51 people for illegally selling MREs. No Americans were arrested because, well, the G.I.'s didn't exactly sell the MREs to the South Korea civilians. The facts in these situations go like this;

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 now that is fairly recent and 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. These MRE incidents also involve rural South Koreans looking to make some extra cash doing what rural people have been doing since the Americans arrived after World War II.

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. Up to 20 percent of the MREs police seize each year are past their expiration date. These are clear health code violations, as are those found to be stored improperly.

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 several thousand MRE's get into the civilian economy every year. That's a lot, but then consider that while there are only 29,000 U.S. troops in the country, and less than half of them do field exercises. A decade ago there were a lot more American personnel out in the countryside with MREs and rural folk now speak of this as the good old days.

The "stolen" MREs were sold in shops and flea markets. For many South Koreans who like to hunt or go camping the MREs are very useful. Camping and hunting are popular activities with newly affluent South Koreans and much of eastern South Korea is mountainous forests. Until the 1960s Amur tigers roamed wild in those mountains. It’s not unusual for South Korean hunters and campers to prefer MREs, which were originally designed for 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 item 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 worldwide, 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 gets some respect. The purloined MREs in South Korea sometimes sold on the market for twice what the U.S. government paid for them. MREs are available for sale to civilians in the United States, and in the last few years have become available to South Korean civilians as well. But these legal MREs cost more than they do in the United States and the black market MREs sell for less. This happened to Spam, but American military personnel stopped getting Spam as part of their field rations over half a century ago and now it is a major import item.

When South Korean police ask U.S. commanders if they want seized MREs back, they are told, no. The U.S. has plenty of MREs and it isn't worth the effort to inspect the "stolen" ones to find the expired or damaged ones. So the police burn the MREs, except for some that policemen will take and eat, if only out of curiosity, or because they like them.





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