An Image I’ll Never Shake

… the head of a murdered child, laid out in a field in a North Korean village, with residents brought down to see if anyone knew whose child this had been. Like twelve other wandering, homeless children before him, he had been lured into one of the last remaining restaurants in the starving district. Once the owner lured the children in, she would bathe them, and then strangle them. And butcher them. And then, she would sell their flesh to her customers as pork.

The man who told us the story, one of the first six refugees (two links) to be resettled in the United States, claimed to have unwittingly eaten some of the meat.

We’ve heard stories like this for years, but the roomful of reporters at the Capitol Hill press conference recoiled.

Also striking: how physically tiny North Koreans are, compared to the South Koreans.

[Updated now.]

[Here’s a previous press interview.]


It’s a quarter to eleven, and I haven’t told my wife the story (she doesn’t read this blog often, and there are times when I prefer that). Ordinarily, we talk about everything. I think this one will haunt me for a while. Having children of your own makes stories like that hard to take. You tend to project.

I was also struck by the fact that these frail little people were in a press conference in a secure Senate office building, at the center of the world’s most powerful democracy, and yet they wouldn’t appear before cameras without dark glasses and ball caps to disguise their identity. Throughout the duration of the press conference, I caught several of them looking down to hide behind the bills of their ball caps, which only made them seem smaller. Several expressed gratitude to America, to the activists who supported the cause of their countrymen, the Korean-Americans who hosted them, and to God, whom they believed had allowed them to live so that they could tell their stories to the world. I was gratified to have been the only one who made them smile. I asked a question. But before I did, I said, using the best Korean I can manage, I welcomed them to America. Invariably, North Koreans love seeing Caucasians speak to them in Korean. The smiles were all wide and sincere. Seeing these poor wretches smile was another image I won’t easily shake.

My question: “What benefits have you and other ordinary people in North Korea seen from the Sunshine Policy and international food aid?” I had one response, from one of the women: none; “they” should stop it. Not that the answer wasn’t a fairly obvious one from people with such painfully frail bodies.

Sanctions Watch / Legislation

There’s already a lot of talk swirling about some fairly dramatic changes in the direction of U.S. policy toward both Koreas, and I’ll start with what the published reports say before I segue back to what Sam Brownback and Congressman Joe Pitts (also there today) said. Yes, there will be sanctions. My prediction that the President is likely to reimpose the trade and travel sanctions lifted in 1999 looks like a good bet:

A visiting U.S. Treasury Department official, Stuart Levey, described Washington’s policy direction to Korean government policymakers during a visit here from Sunday through Tuesday. Yesterday, a government official described those discussions to journalists, and the Treasury posted a cautious statement by Mr. Levey on its Web site.

True enough; the statement (see 7/18) is nothing special. You can always count on Brian Lee’s reporting to be detailed, thorough, and accurate.

The Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence had planned his visit before the July 5 North Korean missile tests, but the incident added urgency to the consultations. Giving no details of the content of the discussions, Mr. Levey said in his statement he and Korean officials had discussed issues including “the new United Nations Security Council resolution that requires all member states to prevent the transfer of any financial resources in relation to DPRK’s missile or WMD programs.” DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name; WMD means weapons of mass destruction.

Hmmm. Levey wants to talk about interpreting that new Security Council resolution — the one that Lee Jong Seok wants to interpret narrowly. That’s ominous news for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” view of the financial sanction. Keep a close eye on that one.

Mr. Levey is also stopping in Tokyo, Hanoi and Singapore on his swing through Asia. Seoul was his first stop. The trip came at a time when Japan is planning its own sanctions, perhaps including a ban on cash remittances to the North.

More here at the Chosun Ilbo, which talks of it like it’s a done deal. I’m starting to think that Stuart Levey’s money laundering sanctions could be the unlikely undoing of Kim Jong Il that tax evasion was for Al Capone. Lesson for Iran: fuck with Stuart Levey at your mortal peril.

But sanctions never work! Milosevic isn’t around to back me up on that one anymore, but depending on the target’s access to France and China other markets, they can work … to a point. It was ultimately a courageous opposition movement that threw out Slobo, but sanctions fanned popular discontent and weakened the state’s machinery of oppression. The problem is that an opposition barely exists in North Korea, as far as we can tell, meaning we’d better start helping them to direct their discontent in more meaningful directions. But North Korea is already starving, so sanctions won’t do anything. Yes, one of North Korea’s economies is living on grass and tree bark. The other, which is dependent on foreign exchange, drives Mercedes sedans and has cash on hand to build missiles, and to buy MiGs and submarines. That’s the economy we need to target, because it depends on foreign exchange for its survival. Destroy the regime-sustaining economy and the regime has to start pitching people out of the ship of state. Try to pitch too many out at once and the whole thing capsizes. Destroy the regime-sustaining economy and you gain the leverage to reach the people, starting through food aid and working steadily toward better things.

Or, failing that, you can always shower the villages with Tokarevs and RPG’s.

The North Korea Nonproliferation Act of 2006

Sam Brownback didn’t get everything he wanted from the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, as a comparison to his unsuccessful North Korean Freedom Act of 2003 shows. Brownback proposed several ideas, some old, some new. One old idea was a requirement to make human rights a part of the agenda in our talks with North Korea. Three points here: first, this is already a part of the NKHRA; second, it has to remain nonbinding, or else it opens up thorny separation of powers issues; Third, and most importantly, what talks?

I was more interested in two bills Sen. Brownback (and Rep. Joe Pitts, also in attendance) promised to introduce in Congress. The first sounded like a legislative retread of Executive Order 13,382, which already permits the President to freeze the assets of companies doing WMD business with North Korea. I’ll withhold final judgment until I see the legislation, but it doesn’t appear to do anything new, so much as hedge Congress’s bets against the ascendancy of a more dovish Congress of President in the future. Significantly, Brownback claimed to have bipartisan support for the bill.

(Aside: I walked right past Hillary Clinton on the way there; Clinton is one of those people who looks the same in person as she does on TV, only more made-up. This is no compliment.)

A Northeast Asian Security Framework

The second proposal was more interesting ““ a proposal to establish a northeast Asian security framework, an idea that probably causes bowel to relax spasmodically in Beijing. An Asian NATO? It wasn’t entirely clear. Senator Brownback compared it to the Helsinki Framework, which monitored human rights conditions in the Soviet Bloc and conditioned trade and aid on progress in those conditions. North Korea, obviously, is in a far more advanced state of tyranny than the Soviet Union was in the 1970’s, so someone envisions either a very long process or the inevitability of a sudden and violent revolution if the repression is relaxed. Brownback also envisions some sort of a politico-military structure here, too. He spoke of the rise of nationalism, including an oblique reference to the Tokdo non-crisis as a “minor but symbolic” territorial dispute. He also spoke of a rising Russian-Chinese axis (he did not use that word) meant to frustrate the U.S. and its primary interest in spreading democracy.

Those of us who wanted fire-eating regime change rhetoric were not disappointed. “Our problem with North Korea,” Brownback said, “is the regime itself.” He called for an end to treating North Korea as a permanent fixture, and for a policy of spreading democracy there. He compared the North Korean camps to those run by the Nazis and asks what we would have thought. (Answer: not much. No pictures means no problem. We always seem to need pictures. It’s almost always too late by the time we have them.) He reminded us that 10% of North Korea’s population has died of murder and starvation under Kim Jong Il’s rule. He reminded us that Kim Jong Il’s missiles took the lives of millions through starvation before they were even launched. Although he expressed his appreciation for China’s vote for the recent U.N. resolution, he later spoke of the need to talk about and improve human rights in China itself.


This post wouldn’t be complete without noting two other people who were present. One was Rep. Park Jin, with whom I exchanged cards. Park is a polished fellow who speaks English, and who was appropriately coy when I suggested — and I believe this — that he would be Korea’s next Foreign Minister (unless Ban Ki Moon jumps ship, of course). The other was the Rev. Sam Kim of the Korean Churches’ Committee, who promised to welcome all North Korean refugees with “open arms and a full heart.

‘Yoduk Story’ Update

A number of us had lunch with the producer of “Yoduk Story” afterward — my second lunch with him in as many weeks, but always as part of a larger group. I’d say more about it, but there’s not a lot to say yet. The production has booked the National Theater for September, and will go on to New York and L.A. later. The organizers don’t want to do a show just for Korean-Americans; they want a diverse audience. And all of the groups at the core of North Korea activism in Washington are stepping up to play a role. My fear is that without the help of some people who actually know how to put on a show and turn a profit, we could have a case of life imitating “The Producers.” If anyone out there has ideas, experience, knowledge, or money to contribute, I hope you’ll drop a comment below. If this works, it could continue to draw good publicity to the cause and educate thousands of people about what’s happening up North.

More posts on the subject here.


  1. I used to think such unimaginable story was just that – imagination or exageration of sick kind. But I’m beginning to think it’s real considering the plight of throwaway children in many poor countries but condition at DPRK with food shortage resulting in cold blooded murder and cannibalism is truly sad and testament of DPRK as worst country to live in.

    Yeah sunshine to all PIG Uri, No and midget Kim dictator fans – this is what you support.


  2. Joshua, this was a great post with a lot of interesting details.

    The refugees probably disguised themselves to protect their relatives and friends in NK from reprisals.

    The story about the butchered children was unforgettable and horrific.

    Regarding food aid, South Korea should insist on monitored food aid being sent to all the provinces of NK. SK should collaborate with the WFP.

    I would really like to watch ‘Yoduk Story’. I wish there was a DVD of the show.


  3. Also striking: how physically tiny North Koreans are, compared to the South Koreans.
    There was a physiological study conducted a few years ago about the increasing difference in body size between the Koreas. I’ll quote (my own blog entry:

    The northerners in their 60s are pretty close to the respective average in the south, men 164.38 cm and women 151.77 cm (southern averages 164.10 and 151.20), but the younger the generation the bigger the southerners are compared to the northerners. For those in their early 20s, the difference is 6-7 cm: men 164.88/170.80 and women 153.97/160.60.
    Park notes that the difference is going to grow even bigger for the younger generations, when the effects of the 1990s’ food crisis begins to take its toll. “If the nutrition of the North Korean children improves, there will be some increase in the height, but if the nutritional improvement takes place in the mid-teens, it’s more likely to have effect on weight than height.”


  4. speaking of Yoduk Story DVDs, does anyone happen to know if a soundtrack is available? I have been wanting to get a copy of the 아버지 (father) song since I saw the show.