Open Sources, November 20, 2012

CAMP 22 UPDATE:  Radio Free Asia is doubling down on its report of the liquidation and re-purposing of the camp, but after reviewing the satellite imagery and seeing Joe Bermudez’s interpretations reenforce my own conclusions, I find this very difficult to believe.  The truth we can more-or-less prove is horrible enough.


HITCHENS HASN’T BEEN DEAD A YEAR and I miss him already:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described the occluded realm ruled by the Kim family in Pyongyang, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”  [quoted in the N.Y. Times by Michael Totten]

It was closer to the truth in its original context.


I EAGERLY AWAIT THE PRESS CONFERENCE:  South Korea confirms that a refugee couple has returned to the North.  Despite the great difficulties that some North Koreans have adjusting to life in the South, it’s difficult to understand how any sane person — much less two — would return to North Korea of their own free will.  I look forward to some journalist doing a proper job of investigating why this couple went back.  In Park Jong-Suk’s case, the likely answer was hostage-extortion.  But if the regime has made a strategic decision to exhibit re-defections, I wouldn’t put it past it to plant false defectors in the South for this specific purpose.  After all, they’re already known to plant false defectors in the South for other reasons.


I LOVED THIS QUOTE, from a new play about Walter Duranty:

When Stockton asks if Walter was ever a Marxist, for example, Michael replies, “Of course not. You CNN people should know that better than anyone—not reporting Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers so you could keep your cameras in Iraq. It was all about access for you and it was all about access for my father.

I seem to recall an old expression where they say what happens if you don’t learn from history.  It would have been emotionally gratifying to see Duranty lose his Pulitzer, but it would have been more useful for journalism to write a special code of ethics for foreign correspondents working during wars or famines, or within limits set by totalitarian regimes, or reporting (or declining to report) facts concealed by such regimes (case in point — the camps, which are objectively more newsworthy than, say, Gaza, yet much less talked about by the media).

Journalism doesn’t have standardized or enforceable ethics rules like lawyers and doctors must live by, but guidance is available to those who are interested in abiding by it.


MY OWN VIEWS ABOUT PRIVATE NGOs working in North Korea are deeply conflicted.  Ethan Epstein, writing at the Weekly Standard, offers a critical view of the work of Mercy Corps there, and any careful observer of North Korea’s food crisis will immediately understand what’s wrong with this picture:

Actually, in point of fact, Austin described how Mercy Corps doesn’t deliver its aid to North Korea: Along with several other organizations,* it simply ships the goods to a port in the country, where the Korean American Private Exchange Society, an arm of the North Korean foreign ministry, takes delivery and distributes them. Mercy Corps workers are not involved in the distribution. Instead, they are allowed periodic visits to the country to monitor the dispersal and use of the donated goods. But the itinerary is set long before the workers arrive in the country, with no deviations allowed. What’s more, the Mercy Corps workers are chaperoned by members of the North Korean foreign ministry and other officials the entire time they are in the country.

Austin concedes that North Korea is the only country in which Mercy Corps is not allowed to implement its own aid programs—only in North Korea does it simply trust the local regime to do what it says it will do. In every other country that it operates in, no matter how troubled—from Pakistan to Niger, from Burma to Colombia—Mercy Corps has permanent employees who oversee its aid programs. But not in North Korea—the regime won’t allow it. With the exception of infrequent, closely monitored visits, the Kim government has carte blanche to do what it sees fit with the aid. When asked about this stunning lack of oversight, Austin avers, “The [North Korean] government doesn’t take food away, to the best of our knowledge,” before quickly adding, “there’s no evidence of that.”

It’s another case of what Stephan Haggard brilliantly describes as “North Korean exceptionalism.



  1. Regarding the defector couple – remember that defectors ten to be traumatized and thus can become quite unhinged. SK society doesn’t strike me as very therapeutic either.

  2. I hadn’t heard of Mercy Corps until now; and on checking their website, see their non-US HQ is based not far from I used to live in Edinburgh.

    It also boasts that only 12% of funds go to admin costs and wages, which seems reassuringly low compared to other NGOs. This makes their dull acquiescence – which you can absolutely guarantee would not be shown towards the Israeli authorities (Gaza dominates their blog section just now) – in DPRK all the more disappointing.


  3. Joshua, what do you think of NGOs going up and giving treatment for, say, tuberculosis, the cheap medicine of which is directly administered and, should some of it fall out of the hands of the NGO, has little resale value?

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