Ambassador Gifford’s Trojan Rabbit

Just in time for North Korea’s latest nuke test scare, Mike Gifford, the British Ambassador to North Korea, takes to the pages of the L.A. Times to urge readers to support “engagement” with North Korea, although not very convincingly. Gifford begins with a litany of reasons why we either shouldn’t, or can’t — human rights (reason enough to isolate South Africa and Sudan, but not North Korea, apparently); WMD proliferation, attacks, and threats (followed by U.N. sanctions that impose financial transparency requirements North Korea can’t meet); the closure of Kaesong (further depressing the already-low level of investor confidence).


Allow me to help Gifford refute his own thesis by citing another example — Kumgang Mountain. There is no better paragon for engagement with North Korea than Kumgang, which sucked up massive subsidies by South Korea that still didn’t cover the massive losses of its investors, but which did provide Kim Jong Il “tens of millions a year in hard cash” to sustain his misrule. Hardly anyone ever talked about how Kim Jong Il spent all this money, but Swedish investigative journalist Bertil Lintner cited an October 2000 conference paper by our friend Marcus Noland, alleging that money paid by South Korea’s Hyundai Asan company to the North Koreans had gone “into the Macau bank account of ‘Bureau 39’,” for what Noland calls “regime maintenance.”

As for the countervailing benefits of Kumgang, well, there weren’t any. Tourists were kept within hermetically sealed boundaries that prevented any meaningful contact with the North Korean people, and were guided and watched at all times. Those who broke the rules were arrested or forced to write confessions. One who slipped the bounds was shot. This was the last straw for the South Korean government, which stopped the flow of South Korean tourists (and cash). North Korea then confiscated the whole expensive shebang.

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[A screen shot from the actual Kumgang web site. Yes, it’s still live.]

Five years later, South Korea is talking about another round of bail-outs for the companies that lost money on Kumgang. So it always goes with engaging North Korea.

Gifford also acknowledges (with apparent approval) that the U.N. has responded to some of North Korea’s assorted outrages by tightening sanctions. These require targeted financial isolation of North Korea to the extent that the money could be used for WMDs, weapons, and luxury goods. And yet, Gifford still calls for more “engagement.” So, exactly what kind of engagement can he still plausibly advocate? The answer turns out to be “nothing much”:

We are negotiating an extension of a highly successful English-language teacher training program we sponsor, which operates in six Pyongyang universities and one middle school.

So they’re teaching English to the scions of pre-selected regime loyalists, most or all of whom are presumably in Pyongyang? Huzzah for them. Do you suppose they’re using John Locke or John Stuart Mill as course texts? Neither did I. In which case, it’s far from clear how this will transform North Korea. It’s not as if the students will have a wide range of English reading materials to choose from.

Through the British government’s Chevening Scholarships, we recently sent two postgraduate students from North Korea to study at Cambridge University. We are also funding smaller-scale projects supporting the elderly, the disabled and nursing mothers.

So, that’s … two down and 22,999,998 to go.

U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and half a dozen international civil society organizations with operations in North Korea work bravely with limited funds to improve the lives of ordinary people through better healthcare, sanitation, education, disability rights and agriculture — crucial in the face of malnutrition and deprivation outside the capital.

Who’s against that? Oh, right. Kim Jong Un is against that. For over a decade, he and his father manipulated foreign NGOs into feeding their loyalists while they used food as a weapon against the lower castes, and then spent the savings on European luxuries (Gifford’s ulterior motives now begin to emerge). Otherwise, Gifford argues against a straw man. I’ve long wished we could deliver food to every hungry North Korean, provided we could be reasonably certain of helping them (we can’t be).

They deserve our support, as do the outside organizations working to end North Korea’s human rights abuses, in which freedom of expression, movement, religion and thought are severely curtailed.

And how many organizations are currently working inside North Korea to promote freedom of expression, movement, relation, and thought?

Anyone who criticizes the government or party is punished severely, and knowledge of the outside world — where it exists — is extremely minimal or distorted.

So, that’s … zero.

On the other hand, North Korea does have an inexhaustible appetite for a ski resorts, water parks, fitness centers, dolphinaria (which I guess is a word), mausolea (ditto), MiGs, missiles, nukes, and a whole lot of things that aren’t much use to starving people. You could say these things are changing North Korea. You just can’t say they’re changing it for the better.

U.S. law isn’t what’s isolating North Korea. North Korean exports haven’t been welcome here since 2011, but so what? North Korea wasn’t exporting anything to us before that; it doesn’t make anything we want to buy, and in any event, it can still export to China and South Korea. U.S. companies can export to North Korea if they obtain the necessary licenses, and provided they aren’t trading in things banned by U.N. resolution (luxury items, WMD components, or weapons), but generally don’t because North Korea tends to dishonor contracts (sound familiar?) and can’t get letters of credit. Americans aren’t prohibited from traveling to North Korea; it’s North Korea that doesn’t allow its people to come here. You can read North Korean news sites here; now try to read the L.A. Times in Pyongyang.

Trojan Rabbit

The now-belabored point being — the main obstacle to constructive engagement with North Korea is … North Korea. North Korea, or rather the tiny minority that rules it, is determined to prevent the very change that Gifford is asking us to sow. If only. Our friend Nicholas Eberstadt has done us a great service by finding and printing this quote from a North Korean policy pronouncement on the subject of “engagement:”

It is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly. Their bourgeois ideology and culture are reactionary toxins to paralyze people’s ideological consciousness. Through such infiltration, they try to paralyze the independent consciousness of other nations and make them spineless. At the same time, they work to create illusions about capitalism and promote lifestyles among them based on the law of the jungle, in an attempt to induce the collapse of socialist and progressive nations. The ideological and cultural infiltration is their silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination. . . .

Through “economic exchange” and personnel interchange programs too, the imperialists are pushing their infiltration. . . . Exchange and cooperation activities in the economic and cultural fields have been on the rise since the beginning of the new century. The imperialists are making use of these activities as an important lever to push the infiltration of bourgeois ideology and culture. . . .

The imperialists’ ideological and cultural infiltration, if tolerated, will lead to the collapse and degeneration of society, to disorder and chaos, and even to the loss of the gains of the revolution. The collapse of socialism in the 20th Century — and the revival of capitalism in its place — in some countries gave us the serious lesson that social deterioration begins with ideological degeneration and confusion on the ideological front throws every other front of society into chaos and, consequently, all the gains of the revolution go down the drain eventually.

If Gifford thinks the scale and type of activity he cites going to transform North Korea, he’s not only ignorant of recent history, he’s ignorant of North Korea’s ideology. If Gifford wants to argue against the people who are preventing engagement with the North Korean people, he has better things to do right there in Pyongyang.

But then again ….

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  1. How terribly and disturbingly short-sighted.

    Again, another anti-engagement tirade from someone else who has almost assuredly *never* sat down with a North Korean and spoke to them in their language and helped them to work through their desire to help their country take small steps toward what we have in the West. The power of this kind of organic interaction is misunderstood and maligned ONLY by those who have never experienced it first hand.

    What seems to be the main “point” lays bare more ignorance than anything: “The now-belabored point being — the main obstacle to constructive engagement with North Korea is … North Korea.”


    And who is it exactly that you are influencing when you take the time to foster relationships at an organic level with North Koreans in the power base: NORTH KOREA! The folks with which outsiders engage are almost always part of the power base. They have small forms of influence that matter. And they can help bring slow reform and slow change in the years to come. This does NOT mean they want revolution or overthrow, but they are aware that their country has problems. They are sympathetic to the outside and its advantages. And they are smart enough to know who has it better.

    As for the North Korean pronouncement on engagement–who cares? Do you really think that smart, savvy North Koreans who live in PY and are part of the base care about official pronouncements, except as a cue to show the obligatory respect signals to the Kims? If so, you are ignorant of the situation on the ground. In fact, you seem more brainwashed about North Korea than are common North Koreans themselves.

    And, of course, as usual, no alternative to engagement has been offered–par on course for anti-engagement folks. This of course must lead one to assume that the author is satisfied staying the same course of sanctions along with the cold-war stand-off that we’ve had for six decades, and a couple generations. And what has that cold-war stand-off gotten us? It has produced a North Korea that is–in many ways–stronger, more confident, and more dug in than ever before.

    Truth is, engagement DOES lead to change, although it is painstakingly slow. But I guarantee you, it will not take another sixty years.

    Good luck with the continued anti-engagement rhetoric which offers absolutely no other solutions. Common North Koreans all over the North thank you profusely for giving up on them.


  2. First, I’ve spoken to North Koreans in their native language on multiple occasions (in several cases, we were even sitting down). Because these North Koreans were defectors and no minders were present, I’ll guess that the factual value of my conversations was better than any you had. And let me tell you – my North Korean friends don’t favor the Trojan Rabbit Plan any more than I do. You really should try talking to a North Korean without a minder someday. It may enlighten you.

    What’s that, you ask? Statistical evidence to back that up? But of course! You may be interested to learn that of 1300 defectors surveyed, 96% report that they never received any foreign food aid. Today, the majority of North Koreans (80% by some estimates) rely on markets, which largely sell food that’s pilfered, smuggled, or grown on small private plots. Officially, about 10% of North Koreans are beneficiaries of foreign food aid, but that assumes that they’re all receiving that aid, which is a sketchy assumption.

    This doesn’t mean I’m against all engagement — far from it. Read the alternatives I’ve proposed (yes, I’ve proposed alternatives). I’m certainly against your kind of engagement — the kind that pays tolls to and sustains the very firewalls we should be breaking down — but I also favor more aggressive use of broadcasting, information operations, pushing open cell and internet signals, and people and food smuggling. I’m even up for taking the mines out of the DMZ. The truth is, megaflops like Kaesong or Kumgang, won’t change North Korea, and neither will minuscule exchange projects with a few “safe” loyalists the regime give you access to. You’re not going to change North Korea unless you defund its ability to maintain the firewall, and then help ordinary North Koreans get their own access to money, information, and food.

    You insist that your kind of engagement “DOES” work. Really? When? Please give us an example or two of engagement through the regime’s firewall that made a demonstrably significant change in North Korean society. I’ll respond with examples of North Koreans changing it far more by risking their lives to slip the firewalls. Those are the people we ought to be helping.