Books & Films Fiskings Useful Idiocy

Nothing to Offer, by Glyn Ford

Glyn Ford was a socialist member of the European Parliament until, under even its fringe-friendly rules, he lost his seat by placing fifth in the EP elections. Ford, an early defender of North Korea’s right to possess nuclear weapons, now finds himself with one less demand on his time, and so he reviews Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. I’m not sure whether Ford himself or the Tribune Magazine is responsible for the headline under which his review is published: “North Korea: Grim, but that’s no reason to make things up.” Dig into the accusation, however, and the substance of the charge of “making things up” comes down to this.

1. Ford claims that some completely different person, also a journalist, made up a story about her cell phone being confiscated at the airport.

2. Demick “travels with” Nick Eberstadt by citing him in her acknowledgments, and Eberstadt is (hiss!) a neocon, meaning, any foreign policy thinker to the right of Jimmy Carter and to the left of (choose one) Joachim Von Ribbentrop or Pat Buchanan. Ford might also have pointed out that on Pages 295-296, Demick also cites such liberal sources as Good Friends, former Ambassador Donald Gregg, Tony Banbury of the World Food Program, Katharina Zellweger of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, lefty columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, classical liberal and former Amnesty Exec Director David Hawk, and Leonid Petrov. She also thanks Scott Snyder, Bradley Martin, and Michael Breen, all relative moderates. If there’s any imbalance in the ideological orientation of Demick’s sources, it may be that people like Christine Ahn and Glyn Ford have lacked the intellectual means and will, respectively, to make much of a scholarly impact on this topic.

I wish Ford were equally forthright about just who he “is traveling with” — to borrow his phrase — by disclosing the frequency with which he is cited affectionately by the Korea Central News Agency, something the North Korean regime reserves for its favored stooges. If there is any relevance in Ford’s selective citation to Demick’s acknowledgment of Eberstadt, I find far more weight in KCNA’s frequent use of Ford as a propaganda prop.

3. Demick relates that one of her subjects witnessed the selektion of pregnant detainees, which the subject presumed preceded the forced abortion of their babies. Ford reproduces only the text in bold:

The guards strip-searched the new arrivals, separating those who obviously pregnant and sending them off for abortions, no matter how advanced the pregnancy. The assumption was that the babies’ fathers were Chinese.

I could quibble that Ford takes this quotation out of context on several levels. First, his truncation of Demick’s sentence could cause a reader to believe that “obviously” modifies “sending” rather than “pregnant.” Judge for yourself, but I don’t believe the passage even implies that the subject witnessed a forced abortion, so Ford is reading into the passage a deception that isn’t there. The greater problem of context and interpretation arises from the way Demick tells her story, using the narrative of her subjects as a vehicle to discuss the findings of scholarly researched and published reports. There might be fair criticisms of that approach, but Ford doesn’t offer them. Plenty of readers might be content to read those narrations alone; they’re readable, interesting, and incorporate rational inferences drawn from the knowable facts. For those inclined to read (or pick at) Demick’s book for scholarly research or criticism, she offers numerous footnotes for citations and clarifications, which Ford duly finds.

So who is deceiving who here? Ford at least implies that the claims of forced abortion are nonsense. They might be — it’s not as if North Korea allows Red Cross inspections — but that’s not what the available evidence suggests now. Yoonok Chang’s 2006 survey of 1,300 North Korea refugees (52% of them women) found that fully 5% of North Korean refugees reported personally witnessing “forced abortions or infanticide performed on women who were pregnant when repatriated from China to North Korea and suspected of carrying binational children” (see footnote 14). Or we could examine this study, or David Hawk’s research from 2003, among others. A reasonable reader would conclude that this evidence is less than conclusive to prove the charge but more than enough for Glyn Ford and others with Kim Jong Il’s ear to demand transparency and an explanation. Ford’s review is yet another lost opportunity to do this. Instead, he does what North Korea’s apologists always do: he rests on argumentum ad ignorantium.

There are other problems, too. Ford states that the subjects of Demick’s book left North Korea for “non-ideological” reasons, which is flat wrong (schoolgirl howler, indeed; what book was he reading?). Every one of the stories in “Nothing to Envy” represents a different path toward political disillusionment. For some, the decision to break with the system came only after they could see, for example, that Chinese dogs eat better than North Korean doctors (page 257). Mi-Ran and her family decided to go to South Korea after their father, a South Korean POW, died (page 206), but scarcely dared to confront their own intentions at first. Kim Hyuck, on his release from Camp 12, “decided that his only chance was to make a break for South Korea.” (Page 260) Jung-San secretly listened to foreign broadcasts, came to loathe the system and decide to flee (pages 195-97), and “spent three years saving money for his escape,” (page 275) with the specific purpose of defecting to the South via a consulate in China. I could go on. Ford then rakes up the ugly business of human trafficking across the Chinese border, a business into which North Koreans presumably wouldn’t place themselves if their homeland wasn’t a hell on earth and China wasn’t a flagrant violator of the Refugee Convention. I saw no other point in this than portraying the refugees themselves to be whores, pimps, and low-lifes, and to quote Ford directly, “fools.”

Ford’s contempt for the refugees themselves contends to be the most repulsive thing he writes, but there is also this:

Certainly the North Koreans bear some responsibility for the famine, yet there is no mention of the fact that the CIA were well aware of what was happening and said nothing, maintaining a silence even when Pyongyang appealed for assistance in 1996 to an initially sceptical (sic) world. And there is lots more where that comes from.

Did he really say some?

Now that is an odd construct: holding the CIA responsible for a famine in the Earth’s great intelligence Black Hole, rather than on the world’s most secretive and controlling regime, one that could have found sufficient resources to import food had its priorities not been distracted by shopping sprees for aluminum tubing, MiG’s, and a pizza chef for Kim Jong Il. I will leave it to Andrew Natsios to make the case that North Korea blocked access and monitoring by aid workers, and diverted food aid from neediest people and regions to those that were the most politically favored. Contrary to Ford’s allegation, Natsios argues there was considerable and prolonged debate within the U.S. government about the food situation in North Korea. There still is, for that matter. North Korea itself has never allowed sufficient access and transparency to allow for a reliable nutritional survey.

Ford’s final non-sequitur worth mentioning is to echo North Korea’s demand for a peace treaty, a bit of nonsense I’ve already dealt with here and here, but which Ford really ought to put into the context of North Korea’s recent unilateral renunciation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

In the end, you have to at least credit Glyn Ford for having brass to publish his review in the place with libel laws like Britain’s. His readers would have been better served by more careful reading, and more honest writing.


  1. There must be a special circle in hell for North Korean apologists, at least those who persist when so much of the story is now knowable.

    He’s getting skewered over on that web site, whose editor was guilty of that headline.
    (I myself suggested that karmic retribution should await Mr Ford)


  2. slim said – I could not agree with you more.

    In reading history I come across apologists for the Nazi regime and Stalin and Mao. I just hope that whoever writes the history will name names so future generations won’t forget. That’s what George Orwell did and he was hated by some of the apologists for that.


  3. slim wrote:

    There must be a special circle in hell for North Korean apologists, at least those who persist when so much of the story is now knowable.

    It’s interesting that that very phrase has been used by a lot of people — apparently all independently — in the last few days. The Marmot, I myself, and even Korean Run Diary all came up with essentially the same headline for that scumbag from South Korea rounding up North Koreans in China.

    Before I wish perdition on any apologist, though, I would consider their motivation and what they actually know. It is perceivable (and I think this actually describes some of them) that some apologists are so locked into a paradigm about the US and Western media that they possess an essentially knee-jerk belief that a flood of negative press is a sure sign that the opposite is closer to the truth, while others — and I would put Bruce Cumings in this category — know of the range of atrocities and choose to downplay them or play up those on “our” side, and they do so out of personal aggrandizement. And someone like Professor Cumings has far, far, far more influence — especially on the chinboistas — than Mr Ford or Ms Ahn.

    Wow, I just made a nasty accusation there, but after reading Professor Cumings drone on and on about South Korean and American atrocities in “Korea’s Place in the Sun” (I think that’s where) while giving a couple sentences about far, far, far worse and more numerous tragedies in the North, I just grew to loathe him in the way Joshua seems to detest Christine Ahn (or at least her views).


  4. On the issue of abortions in the gulags, more confirmation is available in a solid 2005 collection of testimonies, Je regrette d’être né là-bas. Corée du Nord : l’enfer et l’exil [I Regret Being Born Over There: North Korea, The Hell and the Exile], p. 87.

    Besides being a reminder that there are all kinds of Europeans who agree with you and David Hawk on all manner of issues, one complication which the above collection of testimonies calls to mind is the fact that, in some cases, North Korean women are carrying children conceived with men who they have sworn to eternally hate.

    And the whole point of Demick’s footnotes isn’t to “bury” facts but to make things clear. To assume that no one will read them is an obvious mistake by the reviewer. Anyway,thanks for the solid post.


  5. Being a committed international Socialist (by which I do not mean a Social Democrat) in the 20th and 21st centuries has meant allying oneself with a long line of unsavory actors. I don’t know why people like Ford do it.



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