Refugees Useful Idiocy

Embracing evil

Michael Bassett is an odd character of a kind that draws an increasingly selective audience–people who really, really hate other people who criticize North Korea about human rights.


The most recent targets of Bassett’s rage are a friend of mine, Casey Lartigue, and this woman:

In an article by John Power for The Diplomat, Bassett calls the woman, a North Korean refugee named Yeonmi Park, “a liar” and a “spinstress” for telling The Irish Independent, in her slightly broken English: “Every morning and every … like … some riverside like this [gesturing out the window] you can see the dead bodies floating, and if you go out in the morning and just people dead there.”

Park’s actual words are on video, but Power–or whatever source he drew from–alters her words slightly but materially to, “Every morning at riversides like this you can see dead bodies floating. If you go out in the morning, they are there.” In search of a controversy, Power confronts Park with this misquote, and she responds, “What I meant was … it was the countryside and special border areas and in winters (you could see bodies in rivers).” Or so says John Power.

Power then quotes Felix Abt, a windbag North Korean apologist and Switzerland’s greatest embarrassment to humanity since François Genoud. Abt also accuses Park of lying: “So I did see poverty-stricken areas, infrastructure in shambles, broken bridges over rivers and I would certainly have seen dead bodies if there were any.” Abt, who has also called the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea “a massive exaggeration,” tells Power, “[T]here may have been floating bodies in rivers in the terrible crisis years of the 90s when 600,000 people starved to death according to an estimate by the U.N. official who was then supervising foreign aid during the famine in the country.” (Abt’s sentences are as long as tapeworms.)

Bassett accuses Park of “sensationaliz[ing] the narrative to make everybody think that, you know, this is the ‘90s North Korea. It’s not.”

That is to say, Abt and Bassett insist that Park must be lying because there haven’t been “any” (Abt’s word) bodies found in North Korean rivers since 2000. Well, now…. If only some journalist who would rather inform his readers about a serious story than make a carnival sideshow of it would do some minimal research and conclusively establish just who’s really full of what here:

[February 11, 2008: Another North Korean “sensationalist”]

I’ll give Felix Abt this much–she certainly isn’t floating. Abt claims to have lived and “traveled unaccompanied to even remote provinces of” North Korea at the time this video was taken. Park is 21 now and was 13 when she fled, which would have been around 2006. I wasn’t with Yeonmi Park, so I can’t really prove she’s telling the truth, but I’ve already proven that Abt and Bassett aren’t, and I’m just getting started.

This video is from a 2005 documentary, “Undercover in the Secret State.” The two public executions shown at the beginning of the video were filmed that same year, also a year when Felix Abt lived and traveled widely in North Korea. At the 20-minute mark, dead and dying people are shown lying in the streets. It does not specify what year that footage was taken.

Those scenes are consistent with what many other North Korean refugees have reported in the “post”-famine years? Do Abt and Bassett claim they’re lying, too?

This video was taken in September 2004, also while Felix Abt claims to have lived and traveled widely in North Korea:

[Above: children whose pictures have never been tweeted by Felix Abt.]

This woman left North Korea in 2006, when Felix Abt lived and traveled widely in North Korea:

Abt left North Korea in 2009, but insists that conditions in North Korea have improved recently. Plenty of North Koreans disagree, and so do your lying eyes. This video, depicting something else Abt presumably never saw in all his travels, was taken in 2012, after Abt left:

[She gave her life to help an armchair hegemon she never
met win an argument on the internet.]

Since 2012, the bodies of dead North Koreans have floated as far as the coast of Japan. As to Abt’s failure to spot any labor camps, I’m sure Ezra Pound never toured Sachsenhausen, either:

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 12.00.21 PM

Abt and Bassett are demonstrably wrong, and if there was any decency in either of them, they’d apologize to Yeonmi Park, publicly and prominently. Which is why they won’t.

Power’s article quotes me, accurately, as calling Felix Abt an “apologist,” as did one of the few people to review his book, for The South China Morning Post. (Power follows me on Twitter, but he never contacted me before he wrote his article, not that it’s any loss to me.) Abt claims to have a sufficient basis of knowledge to deny Park’s allegations. But if he traveled as extensively in North Korea as he claims without seeing any of these things, he’s either lying or too blind to read a cuckoo clock at high noon. Here is a man who has pursued his own human rights inquiry with the tenacity of O.J.’s search for the real killer.

As for Bassett, I can’t see how he could be in any better position to accuse Miss Park of lying than I am to vouch for Bassett’s claim that he experienced “brain injury related problems” arising from his military service, but I’ve read enough of his writing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. I’ve never met Bassett and don’t particularly care to, but I thank him for his service and wish him a full and speedy recovery. I’m not sure whether I should loathe Bassett or pity him, or whether those reactions are mutually exclusive. However you explain him, I can’t see what useful skill, knowledge, or judgment he brings to any discussion about North Korea.

Still, when Bassett makes the conspiratorial charge that Park is “being fed a narrative” and “being told to perform,” I feel the need to clarify that I’ve never met Yeonmi Park or discussed any sanctions legislation with her, although I hope to do both in the near future. Park says word of the legislation I helped write–along some brilliant, hard-working staffers from both parties, and at the direction of leaders like Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Elliot Engel–has spread among North Korean refugees, and that they approve. I’m profoundly honored to hear this. Obviously, I value their views far more than I value the views of Bassett or Abt.

Strangely, Bassett says he “does not doubt other defectors and accepts the findings of the recent UN Commission of Inquiry’s report,” which found evidence of crimes against humanity. If Bassett really read that report–and I can’t say much for his reading comprehension skills with respect to H.R. 1771–he knows that many other witnesses testified before the COI about crimes as bad as, or worse than, those Miss Park described in her interview, including rape, infanticide, mass starvation, and systematic mass murder.

So what’s Bassett’s point? If the COI’s broader charges are true, and if his own argumentum-ad-ignorantiam denial of bodies lying in North Korean rivers and streets is demonstrably false, why bully this young woman after all she’s been through? Does Bassett also accuse her of lying about the time her mother allowed herself to be raped to save Yeonmi, then just 13, from the same fate? Was he there? Does he suggest that things like that don’t happen, either? Is he just gratuitously mean, or is there some more sympathetic explanation for him? I don’t pretend to know.

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There are now 25,000 North Koreans living in South Korea. Survey data collected from refugees in China while Abt lived in North Korea tell us that nearly all of them claim to have seen starvation, extrajudicial execution, or other human rights abuses. About 300 of them testified before the Commission of Inquiry. If it were possible to check out all of their stories, I’m sure some of them would turn out to have been exaggerated. Many more would be authenticated as true, as Bassett and Abt seem to concede. Some North Koreans will take the horrors they saw to their graves. Many others already have. Kim Jong Un has denied us access to most of the corroborating evidence. That, by itself, looks like circumstantial evidence of something.

North Korea takes the position that all of these refugees really are liars who fled their homes, their friends, and their families—and risked their lives—to slander their homeland. It has launched a smear campaign against the most prominent of them. The fact that Abt and Bassett are doing the same now may be a complete coincidence.

But if all of these people really are lying, why is North Korea the world’s most closed and secretive country? Why not give the Red Cross free access to the places people like me—and dozens of survivors and former guards—call prison camps, and be done with it? Why not let the World Food Program inspect and distribute food freely? Aren’t Abt and Bassett tired enough of this argument to join in those calls, or are they afraid of what we’d see? Wouldn’t North Korea’s acceptance of some transparency be an easy way to thwart whatever hidden agenda its critics allegedly harbor, or to refute the argument that North Korea is pathologically opposed to reform? Why not prove me wrong, so that I can take up woodworking again?

Of course, Abt must realize that joining in such a call might jeopardize his business interests in Pyongyang, but I’m sure he could find another profession equally suited to his character, like selling cutlery to ISIS, or picking through the dirt at Auschwitz to scavenge for gold fillings.

Finally, if Bassett and Abt’s claims are so easily discredited, what’s the point of printing them, other than to draw traffic to a freak show where two men, each a strange and questionable specimen in his own way, libel a young refugee woman about her escape from a living hell? Regardless of John Power’s intentions, was exploiting all concerned really worth it?

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Note to commenters: This thread will be moderated. I will delete any threats, needlessly crude language, or previously unpublished details about Bassett or Abt’s personal lives. I wouldn’t piss on Felix Abt if he was on fire, but I take Bassett at his word that he was injured in the service of his country, which is why I’ve followed my better judgment and ignored him until I felt obliged to defend Yeonmi Park from his bullying and libel. In that spirit, I removed the reference to a caption contest.


  1. @freeze North Korea in a state of total isolation

    With all due respect, the isolation North Korea is experiencing is self inflicted, they want it. Everything out there suggests the little dictator is happy playing leader in his impoverished nation. He’ll wheel out the threats and play the Nuclear card to try and negotiate a better deal for his country but there’s nothing out there to suggest there’s a real desire for real lasting change.

    Show me some real evidence of democracy emerging in North Korea Felix.


  2. Excellent article. But I feel if Bassett is public open about his love for the North Korean regime then there is no benefit of the doubt. In my opinion you give him a free pass because he is a ex service man like yourself and he is American. But Abt gets no benefit as he is neither American or ex military. Bassett is a threat to US security. They are but twisted to believe that North Korea is Utopian Paradise.



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