Emily Litella of N. Korea journalists meets David Irving of N. Korea scholars

Last week, NK News correspondents Hamish MacDonald and Ole Jakob Skåtun wrote some of the most biased, error-riddled reporting I’ve ever seen published in a major newspaper. Their target was a grant program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) to support human rights and freedom of information in North Korea, and to support the recommendations of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. MacDonald and Skåtun argued that the program could endanger lives, lead to more Kenneth Bae crises, set back bilateral diplomacy, edge aside humanitarian and “engagement” programs, and conflict with the recommendations of the COI report.

For me, this story began when I received a message from MacDonald in April with a series of questions, requesting my comment. (I’ve often responded to similar requests from NK News correspondents, and admire the work that many of them have done. I still marvel at the quality of the investigation that went into this one in particular.)

It wouldn’t be fair to print Mr. MacDonald’s email without his permission, so I won’t. But his questions were so loaded that they made my spidey sense tingle like the loins of a sailor after a rum-sodden shore leave in Marseille. My assigned role, so it seemed, would be to supply a token counterpoint to clothe an opinion piece in the pretense of balance. Only I already knew that my counterpoint would be circumcised and swaddled in its unread depths. I missed this briss, and I’m glad I did.

Now that Mr. MacDonald’s work has validated my worst fears about it, and now that the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian have sown his agitprop around the world without bothering to check its numerous misstatements of fact, misquotations, and mischaracterizations, I feel a sense of duty to help the truth get its pants on and zipped. If that image isn’t already awkward enough, I even find myself in the unfamiliar position of defending the U.S. State Department for doing something that’s legal, moral, and potentially good policy.

What the solicitation says.

Let’s review the wording of the solicitation, which Mr. MacDonald claims to have given “a close reading.” Its objectives include:

  • Strengthening international campaigns that increase awareness and advocacy for North Korea human rights.
  • Strengthening the capacity of non-Western organizations that mobilize action for human rights in North Korea in their countries;
  • Amplifying efforts to document abuses within, and focus attention and action on North Korea’s political prison camp system, including the fate of disappeared persons in North Korea;
  • Raising awareness of democratic principles, including addressing workers’ rights, disability rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and other rights;
  • Strengthening the capacity of organizations documenting human rights and labor rights abuses in the DPRK.

So far, not one of these objectives necessarily involves people, things, or information crossing North Korea’s borders, with the possible exception of refugees (whose exodus presumably isn’t driven by the lure of grant funding). The specific language that gives Mr. MacDonald his case of the vapors, however, is this:

  • Promoting access to information into, out of, and within North Korea. Projects can include the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea. Content should include informative and engaging ways to educate and shape North Korean understanding and attitudes toward human rights and democratic principles.

State’s proposal includes “the production of media” and “methods to send information into North Korea,” but doesn’t specify how it would be sent. To the extent the solicitation contemplates the physical (as opposed to the virtual) movement of information across the border, it could just as well harness the markets and smuggling networks that have been moving DVDs into North Korea for years.

What the solicitation doesn’t say.

Where the solicitation doesn’t support MacDonald’s argument, he misquotes it and mutilates its meaning so that it does. He claims, for example, that it “strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects” — period, no ellipsis. In fact, the full sentence actually reads, “DRL strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects unless they have an explicit component related to the requested program objectives listed above.”

It’s hard to see how one inadvertently loses half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original. MacDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Reichel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Reichel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)

This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.

MacDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument is largely a creation of MacDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.

(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we had imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)

The first 800 words of MacDonald’s article quote two experts, both sympathetic to his own view.

“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”

But the thinking through of likely consequences is supposed to happen after the proposals are submitted — after State knows what they are and who is making them. Furthermore, DRL has published detailed grant evaluation criteria that explicitly require consideration of the possible consequences:

In particularly challenging operating environments, proposals should include contingency plans for overcoming potential difficulties in executing the original work plan and address any operational or programmatic security concerns and how they will be addressed.

If you really do give the solicitation a careful read, you’ll see the link to those evaluation criteria, but in his haste to accuse the State Department of recklessness, MacDonald overlooked it. Hoare must also have thought that the argument was too good to check. He eagerly accused the State of giving “no consideration” to the risks. It’s easy enough to see why. Hoare makes no secret of his view that what he calls “the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you like), was not producing any benefits for anybody.”

Evidently, promoting freedom of information inside North Korea — or as you might also describe it, engagement with the North Korean people — is too confrontational for Hoare’s taste. (Never mind the perfectly awful record of “reforming” North Korea by propping up its regime, complete with its steadily advancing nuclear programs and its crimes against humanity, with hard currency.)

I don’t need to tell you that the U.S. government is capable of screwing anything up, of course, but that’s beside the point. Nothing in this solicitation suggests that it calls on foreigners to engage in the sort of risky smuggling that MacDonald is talking about. The only contraband these putative grantees would be carrying is the straw from which MacDonald built them.

This kind of engagement could save lives.

On the other hand, thousands of North Koreans are already risking their lives to cross North Korea’s borders now — as traders, refugees, smugglers, migrant workers, and guerrilla journalists. Information flows in and out of North Korea with this commerce, all of which already involves the risk of imprisonment and death. The guerrilla journalists face the greatest risk, because they’re willing to risk their lives to tell us the truth about their country.

This is dangerous, and if I get caught, I know I’d immediately be executed as a traitor to the Korean people. But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday, something is going to change.

                                                             – a North Korean guerrilla journalist


[PBS Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea]

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea has been cracking down on cross-border trade, information flows, and refugees — successfully. North Korea and China have built hundreds of miles of fencing along their shared border. North Korea recently set up checkpoints in (among other places) a hospital and a hotel across the Chinese border to try to stop illegal border-crossers. It has chilled cross-border travel. It has brought in a small army of junior petty despots from Pyongyang to rat on the locals in the border regions. Armed with signal trackers, it is hunting down users of illegal Chinese cell phones — users who include traders, smugglers, conductors on North Korea’s underground railroad, and the guerrilla correspondents of the Daily NK, Free North Korea Radio, and Rimjingang. By most accounts, this crackdown is working. Gradually, our independent sources of information about North Korea, and North Koreans’ independent sources of information about us, are being snuffed out.

Kim Jong Un isn’t doing those things because he wants to open North Korea to the world and reform it. He’s doing them because he wants to wall out outside information and commerce that he doesn’t control. He knows that these cracks in North Korea’s information blockade have changed North Korea more in five years than a century of leash-and-collar exchange programs could.

More than anything, independent markets have had a profound impact on North Korea’s food crisis. Some scholars have argued that food supplied by markets did more to end the Great Famine than international aid. Today, about 80% of North Koreans now depend on these markets for their livelihoods. But markets will never reach their potential as agents of change and food security until they can tap into a free flow of information.

Technology could also provide safer, less detectable, and perhaps completely virtual paths across North Korea’s borders. Some of these have the potential to obliterate North Korea’s information blockade. That would save, not endanger, the lives of guerrilla journalists — and their comrades, and their families. It could help us understand of the true state of humanitarian conditions in North Korea, and focus our response at a time of rising donor fatigue. It could help markets and growers respond to shortages and feed the hungry, and even lead to the formation of clandestine humanitarian NGOs, labor unions, clinics, and churches. It could allow for the creation of a safe, independent, online banking system for market traders, and exiles supporting their families from abroad. It could reveal more evidence of Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and mobilize global pressure toward their cessation — evidence like this footage taken by a Rimjingang correspondent:

It could help get people out, too — people like Hyeonseo Lee, who’ve become important witnesses in our understanding of conditions inside North Korea.

If you’re blessed with an average imagination, you might be able to imagine ways to use technology to move information across North Korea’s borders virtually. Some of those ways require human beings to cross borders, and some don’t. Some are easier to conceal than others. I’m not going to elaborate on all of them for you and my readers in Pyongyang (hey there!), but if you aren’t blessed with an average imagination, you can read what others have written in one open source.

(See also Chris Green, who had some objections of his own.)

The State Department is doing what U.S. law requires, not North Korean law.

Because MacDonald didn’t research the grant program’s legal context, he missed the logical conclusion of his own argument — that State should obey North Korea’s censorship laws and disregard those of the U.S. Congress.

In 2004, the President signed the North Korea Human Rights Act (since reauthorized). Section 104 of the NKHRA is entitled, “Actions to promote freedom of information.” That section authorizes the President “to take such actions as may be necessary to increase the availability of information inside North Korea by increasing the availability of sources of information not controlled by the Government of North Korea, including sources such as radios capable of receiving broadcasting from outside North Korea.” It authorizes the President to appropriate up to $2 million each year through Fiscal Year 2017 for that purpose, money that remains available until expended. Section 104 also requires the President to make annual classified reports to Congress on what it has done to further those purposes.

Section 107 of the NKHRA creates the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. Among the specific statutory responsibilities of the Special Envoy are “to engage in discussions with North Korean officials regarding human rights,” “to support international efforts to promote human rights and political freedoms in North Korea,” “to consult with non-governmental organizations who have attempted to address human rights in North Korea, and “to develop an action plan for supporting implementation of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2004/13.” Another of the Special Envoy’s duties is to “make recommendations regarding the funding of activities authorized in sections 7812 and 7814 of this title.” (Section 7814 is the code section in Title 22 that corresponds to Section 104 of the NKHRA.)

Currently, the Special Envoy position is filled by Ambassador Robert King. Because State has appointed and is paying the salary of Ambassador King, fiscal law requires State to carry out the duties assigned to him. So when DRL solicits proposals for programs that “promote human rights and democratic principles for North Koreans,” it is trying (or, at least pretending to try) to carry out the purposes of Section 104.

I’m slightly hopeful that DRL’s newly confirmed Assistant Secretary, Tom Malinowski, may try to remain faithful to his core values (Malinowski’s previous job was Washington Director of Human Rights Watch). I’m only slightly hopeful, because if anything, the State Department’s administration of these authorities has long suffered from an excess of caution, a lack of imagination, and a tendency to defer to North Korean and Chinese sensitivities.

In other words, this grant program is what U.S. law both authorizes and mandates. Oh, and DRL has been awarding similar grants for years. (See, e.g., DRL-12-RFP-01-DPRK-120316.)

Yes, that’s right — this great investigative scoop about a neocon conspiracy within John Kerry’s State Department isn’t even news.

MacDonald mischaracterizes the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report.

MacDonald argues that the grant proposal is inconsistent with the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s protection of the identity of its witnesses, which MacDonald characterizes as a “strict ‘first do no harm” philosophy. This is simply untrue. The fact that the COI protected the identities of many of its witnesses says nothing about what individual states and NGOs should do to help brave North Koreans bring change to their country. In fact, if you actually read the COI report’s recommendations, it calls on governments to do just what State is trying to do through this grant program:

1224. States, foundations and engaged business enterprises should provide more support for the work of civil society organizations to improve the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including efforts to document human rights violations and to broadcast accessible information into each country. Eventually, and once conditions are deemed to be appropriate, such foundations and enterprises should join forces with concerned Governments to coordinate efforts to adopt a coherent plan for the development of the country, creation of livelihoods for the population and the advancement of the human rights situation.

Note the COI’s implication that “conditions” are not yet “appropriate” for “a coherent plan for the development of the country.”

MacDonald helpfully points out that “the UN’s COI report made no recommendations for individuals to smuggle external media into North Korea.” Yes, if you put it that way, the COI report’s recommendations are (unsurprisingly) silent about “smuggling,” but of course, so is State’s solicitation.

The fact that the report also encourages “inter-Korean dialogue” and “people-to-people contact” is irrelevant to the fact that it also encourages things like “efforts to document human rights violations” — things that the regime would obviously punish if it discovered them. The COI also calls for North Korea to “remove applicable obstacles to people-to-people contact,” something that MacDonald never mentions.

Of course, the objectives of people-to-people contact did not advance much recently when North Korea called the President of the United States a monkey and told him to go live in a jungle in Africa. Likewise, it couldn’t have been good for inter-Korean relations when North Korean state media called the President of South Korea a “whore.” Nor does it show much regard for the COI’s findings to call its Chair “a disgusting old lecher” because he happens to be openly gay. You know what else is bad for the diplomatic ambience? Missile and nuclear tests. As President Park put it, “It takes two hands to clap.”

MacDonald’s main “expert” says she’s afraid of getting people sent to prison camps … whose existence she questions.

It’s odd that MacDonald would rely so heavily on Hazel Smith, of all people, to support an argument that also accuses DRL’s grant program of inconsistency with the COI report. Smith is a British academic who recently co-edited a series of lengthy harangues for a “critical” (in practice, the term is often a euphemism for “Marxist”) journal of Asian studies, with Christine Hong, whose work I fisked here. In a piece of her own for the series, entitled, “Crimes Against Humanity?,” Smith argued that the COI report is probably bullshit anyway:

The world’s media love a story about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) that fits into the genre of mad, bad, and weird, and none of these stories is more guaranteed to find a front page, a prominent internet comment, or a few minutes on the world’s TV news than a piece that illustrates the human rights abuses that allegedly underpin every action of the government and prevent almost everyone of the 24 million North Koreans from living in dignity.1 North Korea hits the news because it is a uniquely horrendous place in which to live—or so the storyline goes. The contributors to this two-part thematic edition of Critical Asian Studies2 show, however, that merely to scratch the surface of received wisdom on North Korea reveals inconsistencies, misrepresentations, and sometimes-downright untruths. To excavate the ground upon which conventional accounts are built is to uncover shaky logical and ethical foundations underpinning “common knowledge” assumptions and argumentative exposition. Some of this is the product of ideological bias, but much more is due to the often unconsciously adopted paradigmatic lens in which knowledge about North Korea is subordinated and filtered through the prism of the classic concerns of national security. This securitization of knowledge about North Korea is evident in scholarship, the policy world, and the media.

That is to say, critics of North Korea’s human rights abuses are all motivated by imperialism. It doesn’t occur to Smith that both the nuclear crisis and the human rights crisis are rooted in the fact that the people running North Korea are, to use the academic term for it, assholes. Sure, she tactically concedes, North Korea might have an oppressive government … but …

It is common to see accounts of life in North Korea that disregard scientific protocols. Basic chronological logic is ignored and bits of isolated “data” are used to support large claims that supposedly are truthful for any era and every part of society. Defector accounts are regularly misused in this way. Accounts that are speculative or unsubstantiated and where research processes cannot be replicated are also antithetical to even the most basic forms of science, yet these form a mainstay of common knowledge on North Korea. Much of North Korean “analysis” displays the classic error made of neophyte students, which is to look for “facts” that fit prior assumptions. In the case of North Korea, these are dominated by security concerns to the extent that understandings about all aspects of North Korean society, economy, and government are subsumed under and within a securitized understanding. Within this “securitized” perspective, “knowledge” outcomes are predetermined by the use of highly biased assumptions that are very often smuggled in unannounced. The prevalence of this approach is so strong that we can say that poor science is a hallmark of the securitization of knowledge on North Korea.

I reckon that if you translated Dennis Rodman’s views into academic jargon, you’d get roughly this. If Christine Hong is the Florence Foster Jenkins of North Korea scholarship, Hazel Smith is its David Irving. Still, I suppose it can be called progress of some kind when Smith says this to MacDonald:

“They may not be aware of the complications of what they are doing – that by paying people to go into North Korea with anti-government propaganda on USBs that they are effectively choosing to send people off to labour camps …”

That’s an odd thing to say for someone who so recently questioned the very existence of those camps, and what the survivors have said about the conditions inside them. Again, quoting from Smith’s recent article for “Critical Asian Studies:”

Christine Hong’s article “The Mirror of North Korean Human Rights: Technologies of Liberation, Technologies of War” points to the disturbing congruence between the particularized version of human rights monitoring that uses satellite photos to identify prison camps and the aerial photography used by U.S. Armed Forces in the Korean War (1950-1953).8 Hong shows that the pictures described as representing prison camps are by no means clear or definitive visually such that even a U.S. congressional committee chair sympathetic to the narrative that uses these pictures as definitive evidence of camps and “gulags” is compelled to ask just what it is these grainy, blurred, gray images that contain no recognizable structures or human beings are supposed to be showing.

By all means, read the evidence and the witness testimonies, compare them to the imagery, and decide for yourself.

The point is not whether North Korea has prisons or not: all countries do and many are situated in rural locations away from main population centers for the same reasons: to facilitate isolation of prisoners and minimize risk to nearby populations. The point is that these non-definitive images are portrayed with certitude as physical prisons and as prisons that are uniquely horrendous compared to prisons anywhere else in the world. Both of these claims may in fact be true, but these pictures do not demonstrate either of these claims and neither do statements elicited by North Korean defectors that they “recognize” these facilities from these photos substantiate the claims made with such certainty by the proponents of satellite imagery as “proof” of North Korean human rights abuses. 

I’ll summarize: there’s insufficient evidence that the camps exist, therefore we should act as if they don’t, and also, we shouldn’t do anything that would uncover that evidence, because that might get people sent to the camps. Hazel Smith may call herself an expert on North Korea, but judging by her writings, no one outside of Pyongyang, including her, knows a thing about it.

If you think the comparison to David Irving is harsh, remember — Irving doesn’t squarely deny the Holocaust; he just questions the truthfulness of Jewish and Allied witnesses, argues that Hitler knew nothing of the killings, and argues that historians have greatly exaggerated their scale. Smith doesn’t squarely deny that the camps might exist; she just characterizes them as ordinary prisons, denies that they’re as bad as the witnesses say they are, summarily discounts witness corroboration of satellite images of the camps, and questions that the imagery shows prison camps at all. She uses North Korea’s very concealment of the evidence as a shield to deny it.

With both Irving and Smith, crude atheism is replaced by clever agnosticism that seeks to reduce the moral profile of the subject, dull calls to act on it, and discredit the refugees, scholars, and activists behind those calls. Smith’s use of North Korea’s oppression as an excuse to oppose supporting any resistance to it would have been just as much at home in the Warsaw Ghetto as it is at Camp 16.

Smith then accuses her own critics of “shutting down debate” by responding to the questions she raises about the academic integrity of scholars who oppose her views. Nonsense. As one whose integrity Hong has questioned, with Smith’s approval, I claim standing to defend myself. I don’t think David Irving should have been prosecuted, banned, or deported for his views, and I don’t advocate any such thing in Smith’s case, either. But an academic who tries to influence world opinion through argumentum ad ignorantiam and circular reasoning shouldn’t expect to be above criticism and ridicule.

An honest answer to the doubts Smith raises, of course, would be to call on North Korea to let the Red Cross inspect the camps, and to give free and unfettered access to U.N. food aid monitors (Smith mildly criticizes North Korea for its opacity, but if she’s ever joined in a call for North Korea to reveal the evidence to the world, I’m not aware of it). Of course there is plenty about North Korea that we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Isn’t that the whole point of a grant program to “document abuses within … North Korea’s political prison camp system”? Only now that a government is trying to do that, Smith is dead-set against it.

Despite Smith’s fringe views, MacDonald gives so much space to her in the beginning of his article that it’s hard to tell where her argument ends and his begins. The first 729 words of MacDonald’s 2,089-word article are devoted entirely to the criticisms of Smith (quoted for 148 words), Hoare (75), and MacDonald himself. In fact, the first argument in support of the grant program appears at 826 words in, more than the word limit of an entire New York Times op-ed. All of the supportive quotes are much shorter than Smith’s, and most are buried near the end.

Who’s afraid of real engagement?

What’s especially odd about this argument in this context is that it is supported by two people (Hazel Smith here, and James Hoare here) who defend “engagement” with North Korea — or rather, with its government — ostensibly to reform it. Except that they only defend the kinds of engagement that line Kim Jong Un’s pockets and pay for machinery of oppression that isolates everyone else.

There is little (if any) evidence that 20 years of pay-for-play engagement with Pyongyang have catalyzed any reforms in North Korea (In fact, North Korean officials still bristle at the very word “reform”). There is ample evidence, however, that illegal or semi-legal activities like smuggling, markets, and the private businesses of lower-caste North Koreans have driven profound economic and social changes, which could eventually bring profound political changes, too.

It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to lump all “engagers” in with the likes of Hazel Smith and James Hoare. Andrei Lankov is one, and he’s also a proponent of what one could fairly describe as information smuggling. But isn’t it odd that, when confronted with the kinds of engagement that really are changing North Korea — engagement with the North Koreans who are willing to risk their lives to change their country — the likes of Smith, Hoare, and MacDonald are suddenly dead-set against it?

What you think of State’s proposal really depends on whether you believe that we should stand by while North Korea oppresses its people, throw money at the oppressors, or aid those who already risking their lives to fight it.

~   ~   ~

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Hamish MacDonald’s name. I regret the error and have corrected it. Chad O’Carroll also thinks I mistakenly described the original article as an opinion piece, but that wasn’t a mistake, that was my description. Had the piece been labeled as opinion, I might have ignored it. News is held to a higher standard. It should be factually accurate and balanced, and I don’t believe the original article meets that standard.

O’Carroll also argues that the piece never said that Bae and Ling had DRL grants. I never say they said that, either, but then why bring them up at all? The article doesn’t say either way, which only serves to confuse the reader.

O’Carroll says that the post completely overlooks the fact that NK News article quoted supporters of the grant program. Actually, I referenced this in the last sentence of the penultimate section.

He also notes that the article never says that DRL’s program does risk arrests, only that it could. I think that’s a distinction without a difference. It should be clear enough to the reader what the authors are suggesting. Nonetheless, and in the interest of clarity, I changed “would” to “could”in the first paragraph of the post.

I do think O’Carroll raises a legitimate criticism about my reference to “MacDonald’s implication that NGOs who are trying to report the news or rescue refugees from North Korea are only in it for the money.” That’s the characterization of the writers of The Guardian‘s subtitle to Chris Green’s piece, but I agree with O’Carroll that it lacks support in the original article, so I removed it.

To be clear, I’m still a fan of NK News, just not this article. It’s because some of their work has been so good that I’d hate to see its standards decline.