Thanks for your patience while I spent a day at work catching up on everything I missed yesterday. As noted, I was invited by the North Korean Freedom Coalition to take part in a 30-minute meeting that U.N. Ambassador John Bolton granted us at his office in New York.
Present were six members of the coalition, including (left to right) myself, Mariam Bell of the Wilberforce Forum, Rabbi Cooper, Ambassador Bolton, Coalition President Suzanne Scholte, stalwart member Sin U Nam, and author and former Pentagon official Chuck Downs (one of the brightest and best-informed people I’ve ever met, with an intellect like a diamond scalpel; Chuck can fill your ear with fascinating facts and Washington secrets for the duration of a five-hour drive).
Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Bolton for some time. No need to guess about my biases.
Our agenda was the horrific state of human rights in North Korea, a situation that I believe to be the worst on earth today, and perhaps as bad as any we have seen since the demise of the Khmer Rouge. Such comparisons inevitably invite questions about the metrics of human misery, but I’m prepared to defend my position.
I begin with the butcher’s bill: during the 1990’s, approximately two million North Koreans starved to death in a famine that was easily preventable at best, and intentionally inflicted at worst. One could point to a wealth of circumstantial evidence from international aid groups and refugees proving that the regime uses food as a weapon of class warfare, but conclusive evidence may have to wait for the fall of the regime. And then, of course, one can discuss the concentration camps, public executions, infanticides, and the constant, stultifying repression anchored in a complete isolation from the outside world.
Of those facts, Ambassador Bolton is well aware, something that became a well-known fact when he spoke these words in August 2003:
“Kim Jong Il, of course, has not had to endure the consequences of his failed policies. While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare. As reported by the State Department Report on Human Rights, we believe that some 400,000 persons died in prison since 1972 and that starvation and executions were common. Entire families, including children, were imprisoned when only one member of the family was accused of a crime.”
North Korea responded in its predictably unique style, denouncing Bolton as “a rude human scum,” language that still inspires luminscent pride in Bolton’s staffers to this day. Ambassador Bolton told us that when President Bush visited Kofi Annan recently, he told the U.N. General Secretary that it was “an embarassment that we’re in power and this is going on.” He also wanted to bring our attention to a new report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (we had brought our own copy). Not surprisingly, North Korea’s record of religious oppression is hideous.
Our specific agenda was to discuss ways to translate those facts into concrete, effective, and nonviolent action. Clearly, our movement is growing and gaining traction, even in some unlikely places, but the progress is never fast enough for the lives we could be too late to save. Every last member of our delegation is opposed to invading or attacking North Korea. I suspect the same also goes for Ambassador Bolton. We were seeking what Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center calls “behavior modification.
We drove from Washington to New York and met Ambassador Bolton at his office. Among the subjects discussed were ways to reach the diplomats assigned to the U.N. and the reporters who cover them, securing protection for refugees, the upcoming U.N. resolution vote and South Korea’s expected abstention, progress since Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz took office, a brief mention of the scene North Korea’s “Ambassador” Han (that is, Rep. Curt Weldon’s guest) made on Capitol Hill, and my own bleak assessment of the WFP’s performance in the face of the next Great Famine. I volunteered specifics to back up my claims, and one of Amb. Bolton’s staffers–one who was responsible for some of Bolton’s more controversial remarks on North Korea–seemed genuinely interested. We also discussed other matters that I agreed not to discuss here.
[Update: I’ve since submitted more details on the famine, and how the WFP isn’t raising the kind of public ruckus that could prevent it. The government of North Korea has sometimes retreated from its more horrific decisions when they were exposed to outside scrutiny.]
Overall impression of the meeting: Bolton is as blunt and direct as advertised, but deserving of the term “diplomatic. He is a careful listener and very rigorous with the facts. He is not passive. He was not just there to listen; he came prepared to offer suggestions, and he was genuinely willing to help us in any way he can. Ambassador Bolton almost manages to conceal his irritation with people who can’t get to the point. He obviously doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and I don’t doubt that he finds aspects of the U.N. insufferable. At the same time, I can conclusively refute the descriptionof Bolton as “humorless. The man’s sense of humor is quite wry. If there’s one thing that must be useful at the United Nations, it must be the ability to appreciate irony. I mean, just start with the institution’s name. When we told Ambassador Bolton of the State Department’s foot-dragging in implementing the North Korean Human Rights Act, for example, he feigned shock and said, “you’re kidding!”
The United Nations, he said, “has got to be a place to solve problems that need solving, rather than a place where problems go, never to emerge.”
He added: “In the United States, there is a broadly shared view that the U.N. is one of many potential instruments to advance U.S. issues, and we have to decide whether a particular issue is best done through the U.N. or best done through some other mechanism. . . .”
“The U.N. is one of many competitors in a marketplace of global problem solving,” Mr. Bolton said. That realization “should be an incentive for the organization to reform.”
One alternative, he said, is for regional organizations to play a larger role. He praised the Organization of American States for its work in Haiti and said he would like the African Union to take on greater responsibilities in Africa.
Either the man is completely fearless, which is quite possible, or he knows a Senate confirmation isn’t in the cards. I could be wrong, and have been before. In fact, I have it on good authority–and not from Amb. Bolton or any of his staff–that Amb. Bolton wanted the job he now holds. It could be that he specifically sought out the opportunity to destroy the entire institution, but that wasn’t my sense of it. My sense is that Amb. Bolton is a latent internationalist who thinks the internationalist system is dying from a lack of universal values on which to base its own actions. Ambassador Bolton seems interested in reestablishing those values, but I sense that he’s realistic about the odds, too. Meanwhile, he’s also willing to steer the United States in a different direction when its values or interests differ from those of the U.N.
Several days before the trip, I suggested that we should present Ambassador Bolton with a plaque to thank him for his blunt words about North Korea, as well as his efforts to make human rights an element of U.S. policy toward the North. I designed the plaque with one photograph, which you see here . . .
. . . and Lincoln’s “half slave, half free” quote. When I presented it to him, I stated that we shared his appreciation that some issues really are black and white. I told Amb. Bolton, not quite half-jokingly, that I hoped he would put it where the Chinese Ambassador would see it. I won’t print his response, however; I’m not sure he’d want me to.
[Update: we hear from one of his staffers that Amb. Bolton genuinely liked the plaque and will in fact put it in his office. If so, we’ve certainly found a good space for our message. Of course, it might just be a case of John Bolton being diplomatic again.]
I also told him about the group of young North Korean refugees I interviewed for this blog, with Brendan Brown’s help, and that those young refugees had singled out “the man with the white moustache” for particular praise. He genuinely seemed to appreciate that.