Last night, CNN became the first news organization to do its due diligence on Christine Ahn, the organizer of the “Women Cross DMZ” march, and to call Gloria Steinem on this questionable association (Steinem stands by Ahn). CNN aired interviews with Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and Korea scholar and former CIA Analyst Sue Terry.
CNN’s report is a case study on how quickly a little scrutiny turns fame into infamy. CNN deserves praise for conducting that scrutiny; unfortunately, and probably due to time constraints, it didn’t offer (or give Scarlatoiu or Terry a chance to offer) much evidence to substantiate the charge that Ahn is “pro-North Korean.” It’s possible to believe that the charge is accurate, and also to believe that CNN’s failure to substantiate it was unfair. When you call a person something as odious as a “North Korean sympathizer,” that’s the duty you incur. Here, I feel compelled to prove the charge, using Ahn’s own words to prove it.
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Ahn has long led a group called the “Korea Solidarity Committee,” or KSC, which describes itself as “a group of progressive Korean American activists, students and artists” in the San Francisco Bay Area, who were inspired by “a desire to debunk the racist portrayals of North Korea, and present a more critical perspective on the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis.” I don’t know if Ahn calls herself a Communist or not, but she is on sisterly terms with Judith LeBlanc, a former Vice-Chair of the Communist Party, USA, a legacy Stalinist rump faction led for years by Gus Hall.
Ahn opposed human rights legislation for North Korea that funded broadcasting to North Korea, and that provided for aid and asylum for North Korean refugees, calling it an effort “by hawkish conservatives and Christian fundamentalists with the intention of bringing regime change in North Korea.” (As if that would be a bad thing.) To Ahn, “In order to debate about North Korean human rights . . . [w]e must go beyond political freedom to include economic and social rights; we must discuss human rights based on history and facts; and we must prepare not war or sanctions, but a peaceful and inclusive base to improve human rights.”
Ahn claims to be merely “pro-peace,” except that you’ll never catch her criticizing North Korea for breaking it. For example, to Ahn, the “root cause” of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, an attack that killed two ROK Marines and two civilians, was the illegitimacy of South Korea’s claim to the waters around it, the failure of South Korea to turn those waters into a neutral “peace zone,” and the failure of the United States to redraw the boundary unilaterally in the North’s favor, regardless of South Korea’s views on the matter.
On at least two separate occasions, Ahn has referred to North Korea’s “alleged” sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an attack that killed 44 South Korean sailors, despite the findings of an international investigation team that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the ship. This was almost certainly a nod to a conspiracy industry that grew up in left-wing South Korean circles that were in denial after the attack. If Ahn has ever acknowledged North Korea’s responsibility for the attack, I can’t find where she ever has. (Update: In this tweet, Ahn expressed support for conspiracy theories denying North Korea’s responsibility for the attack.)
It hardly gives one confidence in Ahn’s advocacy of a peace treaty with North Korea that Pyongyang can’t abide by an Armistice, or that Ahn won’t hold it accountable for the most flagrant violations of it.
Despite evidence that North Korea wasted resources that would have been enough — many times over — to feed the victims of North Korea’s Great Famine, Ahn doesn’t acknowledge Kim Jong Il’s responsibility for this completely preventable tragedy. Ahn has praised North Koreans for “rebuild[ing] their devastated nation according to the juche philosophy that promoted self-reliance and national independence,” which she credits for developing the North into “well organized and highly industrialized socialist economy, largely self-sufficient, with a disciplined and productive work force” — emphasis on disciplined! — until it could no longer withstand “the stranglehold of the United States.”
(I doubt that Christine Ahn has ever read a sanctions resolution, statute, regulation, or executive order, but if you want to understand how little those sanctions really do, here’s my detailed legal analysis of them.)
Ahn decries “the assumption that the famine in North Korea was a result of Chief of State Kim Jong Il’s mismanagement of the country,” and assails “attributing the cause of North Korea’s famine to an ‘evil dictator.’” Ahn blames the famine on a combination of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., “droughts and floods that . . . destroyed much of the harvest,” and “economic sanctions led by the U.S. and its refusal to end the 50-year Korean War.” Ahn never acknowledges that throughout much of the famine, the U.S. was the largest donor to food aid programs in North Korea, or that North Korean authorities diverted much of the aid and manipulated aid workers into distributing it on the basis of political caste, rather than humanitarian need. As for the droughts and floods, those have struck North Korea for 25 consecutive years now, hardly ever crossing the DMZ and never causing a famine in South Korea. For some reason.
Whether there is still famine in North Korea on a smaller scale or not, many people there are still malnourished, and the World Food Program is still appealing for aid. In a 2010 op-ed, Ahn again blamed American sanctions, which at the time were narrowly targeted at North Korean entities linked to proliferation, for restricting Pyongyang’s “ability to purchase the materials it needs to meet the basic food, healthcare, sanitation and educational needs of its people.” Yet according to the economist Marcus Noland, North Korea’s food gap “could be closed for something on the order of $8 million to $19 million — less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of the military budget.”
Meanwhile, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s (known) annual spending on luxury goods has skyrocketed to over $600 million a year. Ahn calls the Obama administration’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea’s weapons and luxury goods imports “problematic,” claiming that some of North Korea’s ships were either falsely accused of smuggling, or were carrying dual-use cargo (ahem).
To Christine Ahn, “North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the symptom, not the root cause of the conflict” between it and the U.S., South Korea, and the U.N. Security Council. She criticizes the view “that denuclearization must be managed before security guarantees can be addressed.” In a 2013 article for Foreign Policy in Focus, Ahn saw just two reasons for tensions with North Korea — not North Korea’s nuclear test a month before, or the missile test that preceded it, but President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, and the joint exercises that U.S. and South Korean forces have carried out for years. On one hand, Ahn defends North Korea’s military buildup; on the other hand, she wants to “starve the empire” by defunding the Pentagon.
Read, follow the links, and decide for yourself, but you can’t be a selective pacifist. There is a difference between being pro-peace and simply being on the other side. It’s not McCarthyism if you back your charge with evidence, and no one is suggesting that Ahn’s speech should be censored or that her march should be stopped. Its motives should simply be understood for what they are.
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Update: I’ve published a more detailed case that Ahn is a North Korean apologist here, at The Weekly Standard.