The Alternative Reality of Christine Ahn
Dave at No Illusions wants to know more about Christine Ahn, the North Korean apologist (and American, as it turns out) whose views OhMyNews found worthy of the extensive interview I linked and fisked below. Even a cursory exploration of Christine Ahn’s views immediately raises questions about the honesty of OhMyNews’s coverage of her, given its failure to disclose that she is an active member in a pro-Pyongyang organization based in Oakland, California.
North Korea is only the lastest far-left cause for Christine Ahn, and although she certainly appears opposed to just about all U.S. foreign and military policy, most of her issues have been economic: her belief that corporations exploit workers, her opposition to free trade, and advocating government redistribution of food. She takes strong exception to the idea that “corporations/business can do things better than government” and considers the very idea of a “free market” to be “far from reality.” She co-authored a book that even criticized corporations for their charitable giving, advocating the establishment of food-growing collectives instead. She recently published a book on how “globalism” has “shafted” workers. In it, she argues that workers worldwide are at the losing end of a class war waged on them by corporations. Dennis Kucinich wrote the foreward. Ms. Ahn believes that “it is the government’s responsibility to assure the human right to food for all in the United States.” (emphasis mine)
Here is the key to how Ms. Ahn frames her discussions of human rights–she redefines them in terms of wealth redistribution, not in terms of the fundamental human rights most of us would list, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech and religion, a free press, freedom of movement and travel, freedom from arbitary arrest and imprisonment, and the right to a fair trial. Another example:
With this ruling, many of our nation’s farmers, factory workers, office and house cleaners, trash collectors and restaurant and service workers have lost a basic human right. They do the work undesired by most, their jobs lack benefits, child care or a living wage, but if they dare fight for humane working conditions, they can be fired without just cause and back pay. (emphasis mine)
At least, that’s how she usually defines human rights. As we will see, Ms. Ahn freely departs from consistency in her positions on human rights, economic equality, and free trade when she sees an opportunity to attack the United States or a parry a potential criticism against North Korea. Since she adopted North Korea as one of her primary causes, Ms. Ahn has not been above making base appeals to ethnicity and nationalism, either. This NKZone comment virually accuses LiNK members of race treason:
Korean-Americans and South Koreans have come out vocally and forcefully against the NKFA and the NKHRA. And it’s so sad that the Korean-Americans who support these poorly written bills, in particular young college students, are being co-opted by a coalition of right-wing conservative evangelical Christians. But that won’t be for long. Dramatic and energizing changes in South Korea, largely due to the opening of free speech, have unleashed han that is radically altering South Koreans’ understanding of the Korean War and the role of US occupation on the Korean peninsula.
Lest anyone misunderstand, I’ve literally offered up my life to defend Ms. Ahn’s right to free speech–even speech of this low caliber–and would do so again. But freedom of speech should not be mistaken for freedom from critcism, and this is not to be mistaken with patriotic dissent. It’s a poisonous cocktail of race-mongering, Bible-baiting, and America-hating libel. Incidentally, the Essence Korean-English Dictionary defines “han” as “a grudge, resentment, a bitter feeling, spite, hatred, rancor, discontent, regret, unsatisfied desire.” That’s what Ms. Ahn openly wishes on a country that has freely permitted her to attain a good education, a presumably decent living, and a life spent in the pursuit of radical leisure.
What OhMyNews Didn’t Tell You
About Christine Ahn
What OhMyNews said about Christine Ahn is perhaps less significant than what any objective journalist should have told us about her. In the case of Ms. Ahn, what Ms. Jang didn’t bother to tell us is that Christine Ahn is a very active member of the Korea Solidarity Committee, a pro-Pyongyang group based in Oakland, California (the KSC is part of a broader coalition called the Korea Peace Action Coalition, which appears to share indistinguishable views). All of this information is easily found on the Internet. It tells us that there is nothing mainstream about Christine Ahn or the KSC.
The author of the OhMyNews article on Ms. Ahn, Jang Yun Seon, has a history of publishing softball interviews of far-left figures that portray them as mainstream or influential. In this one, entitled “U.S. Imperialism One Big Vicious Circle,” she interviewed an obscure left-wing figure named John Cobb, dubiously calling him “influential.” In a recent interview with a former Unification Minister, Ms. Jang wrote a section heading that summarized his position this way, apparently without intentional irony: “North Korea’s closing the door is a necessary measure in opening and reform.” War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is bliss, and the dreamy ends justify the hellish means.
OMN also fails to mention the long-standing connections between the KSC and OMN columnist Cheong Woon-Sik, most recently infamous for this logical masterpiece: Two Koreas Ensnared in U.S. Nuclear Trap. Cheong’s thesis is that both Koreas’ violations of their nonproliferation obligations–and their subsequent outings–are the fault of (all together now . . ) America.
To their credit, both Ms. Ahn and Mr. Cheong both admit that North Korea is repressive. Here ends the discussion, abruptly, and with the word “but.” The KSC saves its real energy for the United States, which it simultaneously accuses of trying to provoke a war with North Korea and preserving a state of eternal tension so that President Bush and his cronies in the military-industrial complex can sell more arms to the South Koreans.
The Korea Solidarity Committee Uncritically
Supports Pyongyang’s Views and
Reflexively Opposes U.S. Views
In a recent “solidarity” letter to a Korean farmers’ anti-free trade group, the KSC described its views this way:
As Korean Americans committed to working for justice, peace and human rights as part of a global movement for social change, we at KSC are truly inspired by your work. We draw strength from the Korean farmers’ movement that refuse neoliberal trade policies; the anti-war and anti-imperialism activists that demand sovereignty and peaceful reunification of North and South Korea; and the labor movement that stands up for the rights of all workers. THANK YOU for your important work, and we are proud to support you in this struggle.
Korea Solidarity Committee (KSC)
If you’re seeking to tell the world where you stand ideologically, you could do worse than belting out words like “imperialism,” “struggle,” and “solidarity.” Elsewhere on its Web page, the KSC declares its “desire to debunk the racist portrayals of North Korea, and to present a more critical perspective on the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis.” Before the election, the KSC claimed that “there is no difference” between President Bush and Senator Kerry on the issue of North Korea; it did not support either candidate. It opposes the South Korean military presence in Iraq through “popular resistance,” participates in anti-Iraq war protests with A.N.S.W.E.R., and opposes a U.S. military presence pretty much everywhere else–even in Haiti. Noam Chomsky features prominently on its reading list. It strongly opposed the North Korea Human Rights Act, calling it “U.S. aggression,” and reminded us again of its alternative definition of “human rights:”
Human rights are a legitimate international concern – but they cannot be systematically addressed until movement is made towards ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula. If passed, this bill will severely jeopardize this movement.
. . . .
While purporting to promote human rights for North Koreans, this bill actually stands in the way of meeting the most basic human rights, such as the right to food, by politicizing humanitarian and other aid.
As we will see later, not even this dramatic redefinition of “human rights” permits a consistent defense of North Korea, and Ms. Ahn repeatedly makes demonstrably false statements and half-truths in her tortured effort to do so.
Ms. Ahn’s KSC affiliation and pro-Pyongyang views may also explain why she was able to get a North Korean visa, while Rebecca McKinnon wasn’t. Even Lonely Planet says that Americans who wish to visit North Korea “can pretty much forget about it,” although you can always get in with the help of Alejandro Cao de Benos, the official Webmaster of North Korea and the president of the “Korean Friendship Association,” an organization so avowedly pro-Kim Jong Il that its members write poems and learn songs in tribute to him.
The KSC’s Views on Mass Starvation
in North Korea
This photograph, from KSC’s Web site, is a fair representative of the KSC’s view–that U.S. sanctions are to blame for the deaths of North Korean kids. North Korea isn’t even burdened with the easy, morally neutral blame (some would say excuse) for “mismanagement.” Christine Ahn agrees:
[M]ost experts agree that geopolitical and ecological events led to a one-two punch that resulted in the North Korean famine in the 1990s. The first major blow to North Korean food production was the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the socialist trading bloc, which eliminated North Korea’s major trading partners. The end of subsidized oil from the former Soviet Union and China literally halted the tractors of North Korean farmers. The second blow-major droughts and floods that were the worst of the century-destroyed much of the harvest and forced Pyongyang to seek Western and Japanese aid.
The persistence of famine, however, is due to economic sanctions led by the U.S. and its refusal to end the 50-year Korean War. What is scarcely known about North Korea is that up until the 1980s, North Korea’s agricultural and economic growth far outpaced South Korea.
Blaming U.S. trade sanctions is an odd position for Ms. Ahn to take, given her strenous opposition to free trade generally. Here’s more of Christine Ahn on the famine and the NKHRA:
The NKHRA is based on the assumption that the famine in North Korea was a result of Chief of State Kim Jong Il ´s mismanagement of the country. However, most experts agree that the main cause of famine was a series of catastrophic events beyond North Korea ´s control. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought an end to the shipments of oil needed to run tractors and other agricultural machinery. The second cause was the historic droughts and floods that destroyed 300,000 hectares of agricultural land and devastated 1.9 million tons of grain.
At least she didn’t call him “Dear Leader.” Contary to Ms. Ahn’s assertions, however, most experts do not agree that “geopolitical and ecological events” alone caused the North Korean famine. The World Food Program a U.N. agency that reliably softens any criticism of governments, lists a series of causes for food shortages, which include natural disasters (all of which presumably also struck South Korea), as well as “deforestation and consequent silting of rivers, economic downturn, lack of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers, limited capacity to access international capital markets and import food,” and “a new economic adjustment policy [leading] to increased wages and higher prices on staple foods, accommodation and utilities.”
KSC on the Distribution of Food Aid
in North Korea
Ms. Ahn sees no particular reason for concern that food is reaching the hungry; she supports giving food aid directly to the regime, with no strings attached:
The monitoring of humanitarian aid, strangely, seems less of an issue to the relief agencies providing the aid. In 2003, James Morris, Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP), testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: ‘It would be wrong for me to depict the regime in Pyongyang as totally uncooperative,’ he said, noting that the WFP staff have access to 85 percent of the population and that they ‘believe that most food is getting through to the women and children who need it.’
Not totally uncooperative, you say? It’s hardly glowing praise, but do go on:
A recent study by UNICEF showed that food aid is reaching the most vulnerable North Koreans. From 1998 to 2002, the number of underweight children dropped by two-thirds, acute malnutrition was almost cut in half, and chronic malnutrition dropped by one-third. Caritas International, the largest private humanitarian network in North Korea, is confident that food aid is reaching the most needy.
Medicins Sans Frontieres does not agree:
Even population groups such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly, who are specifically targeted for assistance by the United Nations World Food Program, are being denied food aid.
MSF pulled out of North Korea in 1998 because the North Korean government restricted its operations and prevented its workers from monitoring food distribution, adding that “violations of humanitarian principles have made conditions impossible for international aid organisations.” At the time, MSF also claimed that the regime was discriminating against certain classes in its distribution of food:
North Korean refugees across the Chinese border spoke of widespread famine, and reported that the authorities had distributed international aid according to social position and party loyalty.
Amnesty International also recently issued a paper, entitled “Starved of Rights,” that reports that North Korean continues to use food as a weapon against members of lower political classes.
As millions starved, there were reports that food aid was diverted to the military and the black market. The World Food Program also complained, at the very height of the famine, that the North Korean government was preventing to from monitoring the distribution of food aid.
This suggests more than irresponsibility or incompetence in the distribution of aid. It suggests the use of food as a weapon of mass murder against members of North Korea’s disfavored political classes, a class system that David Hawk, author of a detailed report on the North Korean gulag system (and opponent of the NKHRA) calls “political apartheid.”
Here, I will state one small point of agreement with Ms. Ahn. I do agree that feeding the people should be everyone’s first priority. I merely disagree that the North Korean government is likely to distribute the food to the hungry, which means that I’m prepared to go to some admittedly extreme lengths to feed them. Any effective program to aid the people of North Korea must begin with the assumption that the hungry won’t see food that isn’t given directly to them, away from the watchful eyes of the state.
Christine Ahn on the North Korean Health System
Not surprisingly, she offers unqualified praise:
The World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies have praised their delivery of basic health services, noting that North Korean children were far better vaccinated than American children, and that life expectancy rates in North Korea surpassed that of South Korea.
It turns out, however, that the WHO’s latest report is more than two years old and was prepared in collaboration with the North Korean government, casting considerable doubt on the reliability of its statistics. She even fails to cite the WHO’s own statistics accurately; for example, South Korea actually has a life expectancy that’s a full decade longer than North Korea. The latest WHO statistics don’t actually address North Korea’s child innoculation rates, but they indicate that North Korea’s child mortality rates are approximately seven times higher than in the United States. Medicins Sans Frontieres’s assessment of North Korea’s health situation is particularly bleak:
The public health system of North Korea is in disrepair: regular vaccinations stopped in 1994, leaving a whole generation susceptible to preventable diseases; there is a shortage of antibiotics and other medical materials; health centres lack proper heating, electricity, fuel and food; water quality is poor; disinfectants are in short supply.
In one especially disturbing incident, aid workers were actually prevented from treating 600 sick children of “mysterious” background. North Korea today is literally crawling with dying children, many of them sick, starving, amputees, or alcoholics. You can see video of them starving and dying while North Korean soldiers ignore them or eat here.
Christine Ahn’s Praise
for North Korea’s Juche System
Ms. Ahn either can’t or doesn’t choose to hide her admiration for the North Korean system. With that admiration comes the implicit conclusion that she is untroubled by that system’s repression. Her silence about the repression bolsters that conclusion. To Ms. Ahn, North Korea’s problems are all the result of America’s “stranglehold” on North Korea:
After North Korea signed the armistice, the North Korean people set out to rebuild their devastated nation according to the juche philosophy that promoted self-reliance and national independence. This inspired two New York Times writers in 1972 to note with astonishment that this country, the size of Mississippi, had developed a “well organized and highly industrialized socialist economy, largely self-sufficient, with a disciplined and productive work force.”
Despite their efforts to remain food sovereign, and because of events beyond their control, North Korea could not sustain the stranglehold of the United States. For five decades, the U.S. has pursued military and economic policies that have held 22 million North Koreans hostage and threatened them with nuclear annihilation. These same mad politics are driving the insane military budgets of both nations, diverting vital government resources that would improve the welfare of its people.
Economic policies–such as sparing North Korea the economic slavery of free trade, something Ms. Ahn bitterly condemns in other contexts? Ms. Ahn even wrote this bit of praise for North Korea’s agricultural system. In the process, she minimizes the mass starvation that has reportedly killed two million people and is starving and permanently stunting millions more:
On a recent trip to North Korea, I expected to find a depressed society completely devoid of foreigners, but this was not the case. I met many conservation agriculturalists from around the world who were working with the government to move their food production to a more sustainable, less energy-intensive model.
To be fair, Ms. Ahn admitted in her OMN interview that she saw hungry children outside her hotel when she visited Pyongyang (a view not entirely consistent with her depiction of North Korea as a very normal place here and here). Whichever view Ms. Ahn espouses today, it’s rather frightening that an obviously intelligent, literate, and articulate person could hold up the world’s hungriest, most dysfunctional nation as a model for “sustainable, less energy-intensive” agriculture.
KSC Ignores Inequality
in North Korea
Christine Ahn’s passion for reducing the gap between rich and poor does not apply to North Korea, where that gap is probably among the highest of any nation on earth. The photograph at left is of a Pyongyang bowling alley, apparently of recent manufacture and some considerable expense. The Korean Friendship Association regularly leads foreign tour group, perhaps even including Ms. Ahn herself, through this facility. If the recent report by Russian diplomat Konstantin Pulikovsky bears any truth, this luxury is just a small taste of the resources the North Korean elite spends on itself while ordinary people starve:
In 1998, a Mercedes-Benz representative was taken aback when Kim ordered 200 Class S Mercedeses at $100,000 apiece; the $20 million price tag was one fifth of the aid promised to North Korea that year by the United Nations. An avid womanizer, Kim has been married at least four times, once to a dancer, and is said to favor leggy Scandinavian blondes. As a young man, he created “pleasure teams” to service him and his father. One defector described a party at which women band members gyrated in tank tops and microminis while the guests cheered them on with toasts of a fiery rice liquor called Eternal Youth. A visitor to Kim’s seven-story pleasure palace in Pyongyang (complete with karaoke machine) watched him riding about his pool on a raft propelled by an automatic wave maker, as a female doctor and a pretty nurse swam alongside.
On the train journey across Russia in 2001, Kim dined on lobster–with silver chopsticks–and fine wines flown in from Paris. “He prefers Bordeaux and Burgundy,” reported Pulikovsky in his published account of the trip, which caused a minor diplomatic flap for its indiscretions. Kim has actually cut back on his drinking to about a half bottle of red wine a night. For many years the then Dear Leader favored Hennes-sy VSOP cognac, but in 1992 he switched to Hennessy Paradis, at $630 a bottle. In 1994 Hennessy confirmed that Kim was its single biggest buyer of cognac for two years running. When, at the pleading of his doctors, Kim quit smoking (three packs of Dunhills a day), every senior officer in the North Korean Army was required to quit smoking with him.
In his private railway car, meals sometimes ran to 20 courses. Kim the gourmand is also fond of the American teenage staple, pizza. In 1999 he imported pizza ovens and two Milanese chefs to teach the North Koreans how to make pizza. One of the chefs, Ermanno Furlanis, later reported (in an article entitled “I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il”) that he endured a “brainwashing session” to learn to eliminate capers and anchovies after the Pyongyang higher-ups deemed one of the lamb dishes to be too salty.
If you sincerely believe in a right to food and equitable distribution of wealth, it’s hard to escape some tough questions while you’re tying your bowling shoes: just how much rice can you buy for the price of a 40-lane bowling alley or a Mercedez S-Class? How many children could you feed and vaccinate for the cost of some of the Dear Leader’s personal amenities, such as his bevy of mistresses, his imported cars, or his 10,000-bottle wine cellar? If you believe that weapons purchases steal from the mouths of the hungry, why doesn’t that believe apply to North Korea’s arms purchases?
KSC on the Mass Murder of North Koreans
I could find no statement in which Christine Ahn directly addresses deaths that are unquestionably state-directed homicide. It’s impossible to know how many North Koreans have died in gulags, gas chambers, through forced abortions, or by a policy of infanticide against defectors and prisoners. The North Korean government has refused all calls–such as this one by the Simon Wiesanthal Center–for inspections of the sites of the alleged atrocties. What all of this evidence tells us, if we will hear it, is that we could give North Korea Nebraska’s entire 2005 harvest, and members of the “hostile classes” and the gulag inmates would still starve. The available evidence strongly suggests that the regime wants a substantial percentage of its own people to die.
KSC on North Korean Refugees
You might suspect that Christine Ahn supports sanctuary for the North Korean refugees, based on some of her writings on the subject of immigration:
[I]mmigration and displacement is [sic] very much tied to globalization. People often say, “well these people should be lucky that they get to come to this country and work.” Clearly, such a statement says so much about that person’s intelligence, but it also signals the lack of humanity and compassion. Does that mean that people, whether they are immigrants or not, aren’t entitled to a life of dignity and humanity?
So why not North Koreans, too? Contrast that tone with the KSC’s views on accepting North Korean refugees, which are decidedly less compassionate:
The humanitarian plight of refugees living in fear in China must be addressed. However, the NKFA provisions offering safe haven to North Koreans in the U.S. are unrealistic, as China allows North Koreans to leave the country only on a case-by-case basis. . . .
Where is the KSC’s fearlessness confrontation of human rights abuses when China is clearly doing just that, in direct violation of the U.N. Convention on Refugees? Not even a demand to pressure China to meet its obligations under international law? It almost seems that in the eyes of the KSC, only the United States can do wrong.
. . . And realistically, given the de-funding of assistance for U.S. refugees; massive cuts in welfare and health benefits to non-and to U.S. citizens; the mass monitoring, incarceration, and deportation of refugees previously viewed as political friends of the U.S.; and the low levels of admissions of refugees in recent years
. . .yes, I think I saw this coming.
. . . it is unlikely that many North Korean refugees will be admitted to the U.S. Moreover, NKFA provisions regarding the admission of North Korean refugees, due to their complexity, are unlikely to be passed by Congress, at this time.
In other words, we shouldn’t change the law because it’s not legal under existing law, and because it’s so complicated that Congress won’t pass it. It seems to be something worse than circular reasoning.
The NKFA nevertheless risks encouraging large numbers of defections by North Koreans without overcoming the aforementioned obstacles to their admission to the U.S. If anything, efforts to promote massive defections could cause China and North Korea to tighten the border, which would sever a vital lifeline for those who travel back and forth across the border carrying food and other goods, thus worsening the plight of refugees there.
Finally, the author has a valid point. I’m the first to admit that life in the United States will be an extraordinary adjustment for North Koreans–mostly because of the pyschological depravity of their homland–but then again, the streets of Washington are now full of Somalias, Ethiopians, and Ivorians. Some make it here; some don’t. In any case, their odds here are a lot better than they are in Chongjin. All changes to our legal system balance costs against benefits. Ms. Ahn simply fails to see the benefit of saving North Koreans from hell on earth. As for the second argument, China and North Korea have deployed large numbers of soldiers and militia to close the border, but it doesn’t seem to be terribly effective.
Moreover, “Since the outflow of North Korean refugees is originally driven by the food shortage, building refugee camps or coordinating a massive flight [of refugees] without resolving the food crisis would not solve the fundamental problem,” South Korean civic organizations say. Clearly, food and medical aid to the border regions in China and North Korea should be a priority in any effort to alleviate the suffering of North Koreans refugees.
Again, we are being steered into a circular argument. We can’t resolve the food crisis because the North Korean regime is brutal and isn’t transparent; we are then told that the only way to achieve reform and transparency is to offer North Korea “food first.” This is a formula reducing North Korea’s population by another two million . . . not to mention the South Korea and the United States.
The “root cause”beneath all of this is a government that by every measure appears to want many of its own people dead. You can’t reform a system that sociopathic. Regime change addresses that root cause; sustaining the regime extends and exacerbates it.
The KSC on Repressive
Ms. Ahn revealed much about her view of human rights with this statement:
“We mustn’t forget that the Congress and president who signed the NKHRA are the people who stood on security and human rights to illegally invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Stop. Is she actually suggesting that the Afghan people were better off living like this? Had we followed Ms. Ahn’s prescription, this is how life would still be for the Afghan people. Has anyone (other than the new Afghan government, through its election) asked any Afghans whether they would support that?
I can claim to be one of those who cared about the Afghan people when no one else did. I was writing Congress on behalf of the people of Afghanistan and giving hundreds of hours of my time to teach English to Afghan refugees back when I was still a high school kid.
While the Soviet Air Force was killing millions of Afghans–while it was strafing refugee caravans, massacring entire villages, using chemical weapons, and running one of world’s most hideous dungeons at Pol-e-Charki, the left was too busy making Central America safe for forced collectivization and Cuban-built thousand-foot runways to care. And now, they expect us to believe that they do care? The child above, at right was wounded by Soviet bombing of his village. Moments after an MSF volunteer took this photograph, he died. The left never did a thing for him then.
Today, Christine Ahn stands bravely against atrocities like the one pictured at left. It shows Afghan women voting for the first time ever. It is a distorted compassion indeed that might pay lip service to giving these women the right to vote, but which fiercely opposes any action that could conceiveably give them any hope of exercising it.
Christine Ahn’s Final Irony
Ditto the inmates in the gulags in North Korea–at least, those who would live to see their freedom. It might be the ultimate irony. Christine Ahn has become the unwitting accomplice of what she detests the most–corporate enslavement of workers, such as those at the Kaesong Industrial Park. Those workers aren’t like the ones she wrote about in Shafted. They can’t quit, form unions, go on strike, or demand better pay or working conditions. They really are slaves. They will earn just $58 a month (one assumes the money will be paid through the North Korean government; one wonders if the workers will even see this much) and South Korean corporations will earn a small fortune from stealing their labor.
Christine Ahn undoubtedly hasn’t the slightest intention of bringing about such a result, but those are the wages of han. She forgot that han for the rich does not equal compassion for the poor, that han for corporations does not equal compassion for workers, and that han for America does not equal compassion for Korea. Somewhere, Christine Ahn forgot that not everything in life is a zero-sum game and let han be her guide. If her views prevail, the result will be more years of slavery, hunger, and perhaps even war for the Korean people.