Donald Gregg’s weird, surreal, sad spectacle

In all the stages of North Korea’s reaction to U.N. action on the Commission of Inquiry report, none was quite so surreal as an event held on Monday, October 20th, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. There, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and Cheonan conspiracy theorist Donald Gregg moderated a “conversation” about human rights with North Korean diplomat (I use the term advisedly) Jang Il Hun.

If that seems about as wise as inviting Larry Flynt into a papal conclave, the video and transcript of the event must be seen to be believed. There is probably more vibrant debate in most sessions of the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly than there was between Gregg and Jang, who at one point even thanked Gregg for his “complimentary remarks” about North Korea. Gregg’s role that day was to suborn mendacity, prompting Jang to tell lie after flagrant lie.

Thankfully, at around the 35 minutes mark, a few audience members were allowed to question Jang, whose answers said little but revealed plenty. Also thankfully, the New York Times lede couldn’t have been the sort of publicity Gregg must hoped to create:

One of North Korea’s most senior diplomats warned on Monday that if any effort was made to charge the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, the North would take unspecified “countermeasures.” [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger]

Jang’s threat of “all countermeasures” was directed at the United States, for what he described as the Obama Administration’s pursuit of “regime change.”

As you know, my people (inaudible) our supreme leadership are very dear to their hearts. And we hold him in highest esteem, hold our respected Martial Kim Jong-un in highest esteem. And by saying about the leadership of, we thought that it was directed our leadership at the highest level, and we could not stand — we could no longer sit idle, just watching and responding back, and we have to — we think we have to take action on our own in response to such a political plot. [Jang Il Hun, Council on Foreign Relations,  Oct. 20, 2014]

Isn’t it wonderful when diplomats can bring civilized people together to resolve their differences rationally? Incidentally—and stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere—President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”

Although Gregg sold the event as a discussion about human rights, that turned out to be a bait-and-switch for Gregg to advocate for sidelining human rights in any diplomacy with North Korea. For example, Gregg invited Jang to agree with the statement of a former TASS bureau chief about U.S.-Soviet talks in the 1980s, saying, “If human rights had entered into that discussion, no progress would ever have been made.” (Incredibly, an embarrassed-looking Jang corrected Gregg—they were discussed!) Gregg also took pains to get Jang to say that China and Russia (good role models, to be sure) have never raised human rights in their discussions with the North Koreans. Later, Gregg’s co-discussant, Jerome Cohen, added, “I don’t think discussion of human rights is the best way to start our bilateral discussion on a positive note.”

In any event, Jang made it clear enough that the discussion would be a waste of time when he called the U.N. debate about human rights in North Korea a “very great fuss about human rights violations, as they call it,” and adding this in reference to a potential ICC referral:

[W]e cannot — we can no longer stand at this kind of maneuvers pursued by the United States and the European allies. Our position has been very consistent and well-known. We totally rejected the resolution on human rights against my country offered by — sponsored by the European Union and Japan at the U.N. Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly every year. We totally reject. We totally and categorically reject the contents of the report. None of such violations exist in my country, and in no way can they exist, also. [Jang, CFR event,  Oct. 20, 2014]

Jang even appears to have retracted North Korea’s alleged admission that it has labor camps, although his statement is so confusing and contradictory that it’s hard to be sure.

She just mentioned about the labor camp. We totally rejected the existence of the — whatever form it takes, the camps. The terminology — I don’t like it. And some press carries the story about the briefing done by colleagues at the United Nations a few days ago. And they report as if they found a new labor camp. But it doesn’t simply exist in my country.

We call it reformatory, right? And (inaudible) at the time that we mentioned about (inaudible) through labor, detentions (inaudible) but the Western media says that he admitted to the existence of labor camp. That’s not true. I was there. I listened to him. So any camp of any kind does not exist in my country.

We have the same system, I think, like the United States and other countries that they — what we call reformatory is a prison. It’s a normal prison, as in other countries that the prisoners are detained, like American citizen (inaudible)

Worse, Gregg may have contributed a falsehood of his own, although I suspect it was more likely a bias-assisted misunderstanding than a deliberate lie. In his very first question of Jang, referring to the head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Gregg asked, “How would you respond to Mr. Kirby’s statement that under Kim Jong Un there has been an improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea?” Gregg repeated this assertion several times.

Really? And did Kirby even say that? As to the first, Human Rights Watch has said, “There has been no discernible improvement in human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea … since Kim Jong-Un assumed power after his father’s death in 2011.” These people will also tell you that things haven’t gotten better, and may have gotten worse. The Commission of Inquiry certainly didn’t point to any improvements when it said this:

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission — established by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 — says in a report that is unprecedented in scope.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the report says, adding that “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.” [….]

“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” the report says, adding that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Feb. 17, 2014]

I searched far and wide for evidence that Kirby had said that human rights had improved in under Kim Jong Un. I didn’t find it, but I found where Kirby said that they hadn’t:

Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved. [Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 3, 2014]

Since the CFR event, commenting on North Korea’s so-called “charm offensive,” Kirby said,

“This is the moment of truth and it is extremely important that it should not be traded away for a little bit of charm…. A few honeyed words expressed in the last few weeks by the representative of North Korea facing the reality of the outrage of the international community hasn’t improved one iota the position of human rights on the ground.” [Kyodo News, Oct. 23, 2014]

He expanded further on conditions in the North at this event, on October 27th. Start at 5:40:

Listen carefully, and I think you’ll see exactly what Kirby said that Gregg misunderstood. In that clip, Kirby doesn’t quite deny saying what Gregg claims he said, but what Kirby does say isn’t compatible with Gregg’s alleged quotation of him.

Questioning both the accuracy of Gregg’s quotation and the truth of the assertion, I e-mailed Ambassador Gregg to ask for the source of his quote. I’ll give him credit for this much—he sent a prompt and courteous reply, and gave me permission to print it. Here is his response:

I was the commentator at the meeting of 16 April 2014, when Michael Kirby presented his report to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I commented that the report was a “call to action,” not to try to overthrow North Korea, but to get them to change their draconian internal policies. I8 then asked Kirby whether his report indicated any changes in the severity of North Korean policies during the very long period that the report covered.

According to my notes, Kirby replied that “there is a reduction in the number of prisoners and things seem easier under Kim Jong Un.” [E-mail message from Amb. Donald Gregg, Oct. 24, 2014]

I found no evidence of such a statement on CFR’s site; indeed, I found no record of the event. Maybe it was off the record. Gregg also referred me to a third person he said could corroborate the Kirby quote. He didn’t, and I’m not going to bring his name into this. Kirby didn’t respond to my request for comment.

The last sentence in Gregg’s quote contains three claims—two assertions, and the claim that Justice Kirby made them. I’ll take them one at a time. First, the best available evidence does suggest that the number of prisoners in the camps has fallen. More recent scholarship reduced estimates of the number of prisoners in the camps by about half—from 200,000 to about 100,000.

Now, let me tell you why: (1) newer information suggests that the 200,000 estimate may have been too high; (2) the population of one camp, Camp 18—always the country club of North Korean gulags—appears to have been “released in place,” with the fence lines removed (see update); (3) conditions in the remaining camps have worsened, causing a rise in death rates and a consequent reduction in prisoner populations; and (4) most ominously, perhaps tens of thousands of men, women, and children simply vanished from Camp 22, without a trace, when that camp was closed down in 2011, before Kim Jong Un came to power. Three years later, not one witness or survivor has come forward to explain their fate.

Thus, (1) doesn’t suggest an improvement, (2) does, and (3) and (4) both suggest that with respect to this important part of North Korea’s human rights picture, things are far worse than they were four years ago. Recent satellite imagery also tells us that several camps, including Camp 12 at Cheongo-Ri, Camp 14 at Kaechon, Camp 16 at Hwaseong, and Camp 25 at Chongjin have been expanded.

But aside from the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people, how else might “things seem easier under Kim Jong Un?” Border crackdowns mean fewer refugees are getting out, less information is getting in, and it’s more dangerous for hungry people to receive money from their relatives in the South. The vast majority of North Koreans continue to live at the edge of starvation despite improved harvests. Kim Jong Un’s spending on luxury goods has tripled since his coronation even as the World Food Program may is considering pulling out of North Korea for lack of funding. Today, Kim Jong Un is exporting food his hungry subjects should be eating.

In his email response to me about his statement that human rights in North Korea has improved under Kim Jong Un, Gregg also volunteered this curious statement:

As you note, I used this quote when presiding at the 20 October meeting with Jang Il Hun. Jang did not reply to it one way or the other.

In fact, Jang seized on Gregg’s claim (see video at 12:15), no doubt describing Kim Jong Un’s heroic efforts to feed the “more than 82 percent of households [that] do not have acceptable household food consumption during the lean season:”

So it’s no surprise that the many changes are taking place in my country that will contribute to the improved enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by our people. Maybe one can (inaudible) recently visited my country and they have witnessed that every day we witnessed changes that are very inductive to the further development of my society, thus leading the promotion and protection (inaudible) ski resort, horse track, pleasure parks all over the country are springing up every day, and all for the enjoyment of the pleasant lives of our people. [Jang Il Hun, Council on Foreign Relations,  Oct. 20, 2014]

Yes, $300 million worth, in a year when the World Food Program was asking foreign governments to donate $200 million to feed 2.4 million hungry North Korean women and children for two years.

And what about the North’s stultifying repression? Jang argued that juche is a substitute for human rights, thus nationalizing and expropriating the very idea of individual rights into a collective holding of the state—an argument strikingly similar to Christine Hong’s, incidentally. Jang boasted, “We also guarantee the sovereignty of the country which crystallized interests of the people with our strong military force,” because what are human rights without the right to be starved so that your overlords can build more missiles?

Still, the most surreal moment must have been when Gregg, in his best James Dresnok impersonation, actually read an excerpt from North Korea’s own human rights report. Start at the 14 minute mark:

Granted, I’ve seen Americans do similar things before, but those Americans were in Pyongyang wearing prison uniforms, and the bravest of them were flashing the Hawaiian good luck sign.

Inadvertently, Gregg highlighted the greatest obstacle to the very dialogue he promotes, setting Jang up to “clarify” the “difficult issue” of Pyongyang reneging on the Leap Day Agreement, and prompting Jang to say that the deal-breaking “satellite” launch had been planned months before, “in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.” (But of course!) Jang added that because North Korea was “under serious threat, including the imposing of tougher sanctions … in response, we had no other choice but to take countermeasures.” In any event, Jang said that Pyongyang is waiting Obama out—as if it expects the next POTUS to be friendlier.

So, if I understand Gregg’s position, the U.N. shouldn’t raise the issue of North Korea’s crimes against humanity (despite the deaths of millions, and testimony of dozens of witnesses confirming horrific atrocities) because the inquiry (which Pyongyang boycotted) was one-sided and the evidence (the testimony of dozens of witnesses, corroborated by satellite imagery and other extrinsic evidence) contradicts Pyongyang’s official positions (which aren’t subject to verification, so take their word for it) and things are getting better anyway (a misstatement based on a likely misquote) and member states should relegate the issue to a bilateral dialogue instead (where Pyongyang will say that there’s nothing to discuss, because it’s all lies), but only after other states first engage in dialogue with Pyongyang about nuclear weapons (which Kim Jong Un says he’ll never relinquish, despite four separate U.N. resolutions prohibiting them) and a freeze of missile tests (except for April 15th, February 16th, and other important holidays) which North Korea says it needs because Barack Obama wants to overthrow the regime (by talking about human rights).

One brilliant exchange at the end of the event, at the 52-minute mark, almost redeemed it. Gary Bass, whom Sanger describes as “a Princeton University professor who has written extensively on human rights and national security,” was allowed to question Jang on the camps and satellite imagery at some length. Start at 52 minutes:

Someone buy that man a beer, if only for the priceless expressions on Gregg’s face during that exchange. As Gregg wrote in his email to me, “I was disappointed that Jang did not have better answers to the barrage of questions that came at him. I told him in advance of the meeting that he would be under heavy disapproval from those focused entirely on human rights issues.” Gregg finally saved Jang by circling back to his apocryphal quote of Kirby, leaving Bass unable to extract a straight answer from Jang, but having made his point.

I’m sure Gregg is a nice enough person, and he’s had an extraordinary career, but it’s hard to reconcile how a man with Gregg’s background could become … this. If diplomats of Gregg’s present caliber had represented us in 1945, they’d have landed in Berlin on the way to Yalta to fetch Ribbentrop, because engagement.

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Update: I see someone else came to a similar conclusion.

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