Peace Through War, as Explained by Christine Ahn

I see Kim Jong Il is broke again:

Fifty-seven years after the end of the bloody Korean conflict, always unpredictable North Korea on Monday proposed a peace treaty to formally end the hostilities. The communist state suggested that once a treaty was underway, it would return to the stalled six-party talks to end the regime’s nuclear ambitions. But first, North Korean officials say, they want international sanctions imposed last year to be lifted immediately. The proposal was met with skepticism from the U.S. and its allies, including South Korea. [L.A. Times, John M. Glionna]

Anything will do when the idea is to change the subject away from disarmament and back toward getting those sanctions lifted. They must be working.

It’s awfully curious that North Korea’s demand follows right in line with several months of a campaign by Christine Ahn, and I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what that means (many thanks to a friend for forwarding). Ahn’s work never disappoints, and despite bearing the misgivings that are the companion of cheap thrills, I can’t quite restrain myself from stocking a dark corner of my hard drive with Ahn’s work and opening a bottle when the occasion arises. What it lacks in reason and factual accuracy, Ahn’s writing makes up for with its hidden linguistic treasures (“tote the line;” the “haddabugees” of Pyongtaek); stilted, groan-inducing dogma (“tired old tropes about North Korea, many of which are blatantly untrue” — and which ones?); and howlers (“the significant progress made towards reconciliation and reunification over the past decade” — such as?). There is also another trait that Ahn has perfected recently — the odd cohabitation of self-pity and self-aggrandizement, written like the pretentious delusion of a self-imagined dissident’s clandestine Nobel acceptance speech, smuggled past the guards in a visiting journalist’s body cavity:

And despite my feeling very marginal here in the United States, I also realize how incredible it is that despite all the misinformation, despite the cold war mentality that my family carried with it when it left South Korea during the Park Chung-hee era, and despite the daily propaganda we get from U.S. media, I have learned the people’s history of Korea.

But trust me, I know it takes a lot of work, a dedication to studying, learning, and keeping an open mind and heart. And it takes tremendous courage in the face of being attacked, red-baited, isolated from your family to know this truth. And even more courage to be willing to write and speak publicly about it. But as many people in this room can attest, once you know the truth and the real history, you cannot turn your back on it. You are endowed with a responsibility to do what you can to challenge the official narrative and contribute to the healing.

I suppose I am not aggrandizing myself unjustly to accept my own small role in Ms. Ahn’s sense of persecution, which leaves Ms. Ahn with no compassion to spare the people locked up in Camp 22. I will take this as affirmation that the particularly vicious kind of persecution known as “criticism” is having precisely the intended effect. So let’s continue.

True to her “fringe” dogma, Ahn places almost the entire blame for dividing Korea on the United States, feebly absolving Stalin and Kim Il Sung. She again repeats her “trope” that the U.S. has “occupied” South Korea for the last 60 years, presumably including the ten years in which Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun begged the Pentagon not to reduce troop levels, the occasion on which South Korea lobbied furiously to stop Jimmy Carter from withdrawing all of them, and the occasion when Ronald Reagan forced Chun Doo Hwan to accede to free elections. It’s all familiar enough, until Ms. Ahn strays upon the most unintentionally and delectably fitting part of her argument, her quotation of Anna Louise Strong, who once said of Stalin’s gulag,

The labour camps have won a high reputation throughout the Soviet Union as places where tens of thousands of men have been reclaimed …. So well-known and effective is the Soviet method of remaking human beings … that criminals occasionally now apply to be readmitted. [quoted in Paul Johnson, Modern Times, rev. ed. 1991, p. 275]

I also thought of tens of thousands of men — and women — “reclaimed” by the permafrost when I flew over Magadan on my way to Korea a few years ago, although I’d never heard that word used to describe it. Strong may be one of those names best dropped from the safe distance of time to an audience of readers who will presume it, without really knowing otherwise, to be a sign of the author’s scholarship. Let me follow Ms. Ahn back to the archives of dead intelligentsia to quote Malcom Muggeridge, who described Strong as “an enormous woman with a very red face, a lot of white hair, and an expression of stupidity so overwhelming that it amounted to a kind of strange beauty.”

As always, Ahn’s writing is most noteworthy for what it doesn’t say. Lacking any capacity for shame, Ahn didn’t mind beginning her campaign for a peace treaty with North Korea roughly six weeks after Kim Jong Il unilaterally renounced the Korea War armistice. Not even Ahn could have been ignorant of this fact, which she conceals from her readers, even as she “commemorates” the armistice, yet calls it “nothing to celebrate.” Plenty of soldiers and Korean civilians would disagree. For all its limitations, the cease fire held up well enough when the North Koreans weren’t sending commandos to kill South Korean presidents, abducting South Korean citizens, or provoking naval skirmishes. To those of us who live in a world of linear logic, an armistice is also a good first step toward a peace treaty and a good test of the parties’ commitment to a more lasting peace. I’d like to think that unlike Ahn, North Korea at least had enough shame to wait a decent interval to demand a peace treaty after renouncing the armistice (just kidding!). And so it goes: Ahn denounces the U.S. bombing of North Korean cities, to which I offer no defense because it is indefensible, but never mentions who started the war. Nor does Ahn mention North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, part of a series of provocations that began just two months into Obama’s presidency, at a time when he’d shown interest in deeping U.S. “engagement” of the North. This is the closest she comes to acknowledging that:

And in North Korea you have a situation where they are weary of US denuclearization deals, having gone through lengthy negotiations with Clinton and then Bush–and then having these scuttled by neocons. Most American policymakers and the media tote the line that the North Koreans haven’t upheld their part of the bargain, but can anyone tell me where are the two light water reactors promised in 1994? The problem with the false promises made by previous administrations is that the pro-engagement forces in North Korea have lost face, only further emboldening their hardliner counterparts who argue that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are its best defense. If we look to Iraq, in many ways, they have been right.

Nice of her to tell us where Obama ought to be taking us here.

The response to North Korea’s proposal was swift and coordinated — a jarring contrast to how things would have gone during the Roh presidency. South Korea rejected North Korea’s demand first; the U.S. rejected shortly thereafter. It’s moments like this when I savor imagining what the Nobel Committee members must be thinking. This is pretty much what Bush would have done, although half the newspapers and wire services in the world would have quoted Selig Harrison denouncing him for it.

Another part of our answer to North Korea’s proposal might have been to ask the North to reaffirm its commitment to the cease-fire. For good measure, we could even ask South Korea to affirm it, something that Syngman Rhee wouldn’t do in 1953. Then again, North Korea’s repudiation of cease-fire also has its advantages when we intercept North Korean ships and planes.


  1. ‘(”tired old tropes about North Korea, many of which are blatantly untrue” — and which ones?); ‘

    I’m more interested in knowing which ones she thinks ARE true. Ms. Ahn’s linguistic treasures nearly drove me to open a bottle of acetaminophen to cure a dizzying headache wrought by reading text that veered back and forth between first and second person narrative modes.


  2. From a post made in 2007:

    “Another interesting fact I would never have guessed: “Billy Graham’s late wife, Ruth, attended Christian boarding school in Pyongyang as a teen in the 1920s.” Heh? I’ll file that one right next to the ones about Mohammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver. ”

    Actually, it’s true. In Billy Graham’s biography there is a whole chapter devoted to this story. (I believe there is also video footage of Ruth talking about it).

    It actually led to Billy Graham evangelising in pyongyang sometime in the 80’s (I think), and now his son, Franklin Graham has been continuing his work. ( )