Women Cross DMZ: A Q&A, and closing thoughts (updated)

In the end, nothing illustrated the absurdity of Women Cross DMZ, the march to end the Korean War, better than the fact that it began with homages to Kim Il-Sung, the man who started the Korean War. Its emotional apex was reduced to a bus ride and a wait in an immigration line. It ended with organizer Christine Ahn ducking reporters to avoid questions about her reported comments praising Kim Il Sung (here’s the original Korean article from Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun). It was left to Gloria Steinem and unnamed march organizers to deny the statements and protest against the Rodong Sinmun‘s reporting on Ahn’s behalf, pitting Ahn and Women Cross DMZ against Pyongyang’s propagandists. I’ve yet to see Ahn herself deny the various statements attributed to her. We’re left wondering which of two sources is less credible — Ahn or the Rodong Sinmun.*

What a pity that both sides can’t lose.

Judging by how Pyongyang orchestrated and covered Women Cross DMZ (skip to 28:00), my suspicions about how Pyongyang would exploit it were validated. Judging by how The L.A. Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and even The Independent covered it, many reporters agree. The Washington Post wrote that in the end, the march had “many more detractors” than supporters. CNN focused on Women Cross DMZ’s failure to address North Korea’s human rights abuses, including forced abortions and infanticides, and described Women Cross DMZ’s venues in North Korea as “very staged events.” News media also carried North Korean defectorsdenunciations of the march. In the end, not even The New York Times could ignore the criticism. As a P.R. stunt, Women Cross DMZ was a fiasco.

A few days ago, before the Women Cross DMZ delegation arrived in Pyongyang, James Pearson, a Reuters correspondent who covers Korea, and the author of the new book, “North Korea Confidential,” contacted me to probe the basis for my skepticism. Due to space limits, most of my responses (but not all) ended up on the cutting room floor, but Mr. Pearson agreed to let me post his questions and my responses in full. Here they are, just as I provided them to Mr. Pearson, except that I added the hyperlinks.

Q: Would signing a peace treaty bring any improvement in inter-Korean relations?

A: If North Korea won’t abide by an Armistice, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, two agreed frameworks (one with Bill Clinton and one with George W. Bush), a Leap Day deal (with Barack Obama), or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s hard to see how a peace treaty would secure peace. If Pyongyang really wants peace, it should stop threatening and making war. What Pyongyang really wants is to use peace talks to lift U.N. sanctions, gain recognition as a nuclear state, and extract “security guarantees” to silence criticism of its crimes against humanity.

Q: Why are so many people focused on the signing of a peace treaty, 62 years after the guns fell silent?

A: Everyone wants peace, but I’m not sure I agree that “many” people are focused on a peace treaty as the best way to secure it. Pyongyang’s interest in a peace treaty is probably focused on other benefits it would seek during the negotiation of a peace treaty, including sanctions relief, recognition of its nuclear status, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and security guarantees that would amount to acquiescence to its crimes against humanity. More fundamentally, peace begins at home. A nation that makes war on its own people will eventually make war on other nations, too. A lasting peace will only be possible when Pyongyang respects human life and dignity.

Q: Does North Korea not have more pressing internal issues, which are not the product of the lack of a peace treaty?

A: Clearly. Outside Pyongyang, between 70 and 80 percent of the people barely have enough to eat during the lean season, the health care system can’t provide basic medicines, public health is abysmal, drug addiction is rife, electricity is sporadic, communications are extremely limited, and the railroads barely run. The education system is more focused on indoctrination than teaching the skills people need in the information age. So many North Korean men are stunted by malnutrition that the military lowered its physical standards. The gap between rich and poor is wide and growing. All of those problems are directly rooted in state policies that prioritize central control over the well-being of the people.

Q: Why are you so critical of the organisers? Is calling for peace not a fundamentally good thing?

A: We all want peace, but selective pacifism isn’t the way to secure it. That’s just propaganda for one side. Look at Christine Ahn’s reactions to North Korea’s acts of war and aggression. She supports conspiracy theories denying North Korea’s responsibility for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors, and the terrorist threats that drove “The Interview” from theaters here in America last year. She justifies North Korea’s 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. She denies Kim Jong Il’s responsibility for the starvation of up to 2 million North Koreans, despite the fact that he could have fed all of his people with a fraction of what he spent on weapons and luxuries for himself. Women Cross DMZ’s web site reflects this same selective view of North Korea.

Q: Can you point to any evidence that Christine Ahn or any of the other organisers are members of pro-Pyongyang organisations (or that those organisations are pro-Pyongyang) as you state in this 2009 blog post?

A: I’d prefer to stick to a discussion of this march, and Christine Ahn’s role in it. Her most objectionable rhetoric is published under her own name in independent publications.

Q: Do you get the sense the organisers have misled some of the participants at all?

A: I’m not privy to what Ahn told the other participants, but the Women Cross DMZ’s web site contains some misleading claims. For example, it claims that “crippling sanctions against the government make it difficult for ordinary people to access the basics needed for survival.” This is false, and it suggests an ignorance of what the sanctions actually do. U.N. and U.S. sanctions are narrowly focused on weapons, luxury goods, and illicit activities like money laundering, counterfeiting, and drug dealing.

The sanctions don’t apply to food and medicine and take pains to avoid humanitarian effects. North Korea’s trade with the U.S. is restricted, but the U.S. has never been a major trading partner of North Korea. U.N. sanctions didn’t apply until 2006, years after a famine starved as many as 2 million North Koreans to death. Today, the U.N. is asking for $111 million from foreign donors for food aid for North Koreans, but last year, Kim Jong Un spent $644 million on luxury goods; in 2013, he spent $300 million on leisure facilities like a ski resort, a water park, and a dolphin aquarium; and in 2012, he spent $1.3 billion on just his missile program. North Koreans aren’t hungry because of sanctions. They’re hungry because they aren’t a priority for Kim Jong Un, and because Kim Jong Un himself has thrown all the resources at his disposal at keeping them isolated. To suggest otherwise is misleading. Worse, it shields Pyongyang from accountability for the policies that are starving the North Korean people.

Q: How do you think the event will be represented in North Korea?

A: Pyongyang will use this event to undermine criticism of its human rights record, including the extensive report of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found “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.” At a time when Pyongyang is under unprecedented pressure to end these crimes, it will use Steinem’s visit to portray the world’s best-known feminist as at least a tacit supporter of the regime.

Of course, Gloria Steinem could refute that portrayal by calling on Kim Jong Un to protect North Korean women from rape, murder, infanticide, forced abortion, and sex trafficking. She might also call on Pyongyang to end its sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs of foreign leaders. That would be a courageous act that would rightfully earn her high praise.

Q: The organisers say they are marching for ‘International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament’, May 24th, but that date is better known on the Korean peninsula for the anniversary of the sanctions placed on North Korea by the South after the sinking of the Cheon’an. What is the significance of this date, and how do you think that’ll play out internally in both North and South Korea?

A: I can’t speak for how the organizers view the significance of the date, but calls to lift sanctions won’t get much traction when North Korea itself is threatening to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Park. As for the political impact of the march, it may well be overshadowed by disagreements over Kaesong, North Korea’s missile tests, debates about its nuclear capabilities, and its bloody purges.

Q: Why do you think the North Koreans gave the go ahead for this?

A: Pyongyang is selective about what foreigners it lets in. It prefers visitors it thinks it can control, who will bring in hard currency, or who are willing to help it propagate its views and demands.

Q: Why have the South Koreans agreed?

A: Hopefully, the South Korean government is smart enough to realize that denying the marchers permission to enter would backfire. South Korea is supposed to be the “free” Korea, although it sometimes censors non-violent expression it deems pro-North Korean. This is a mistake in my view.

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Overall, the coverage of Women Cross DMZ presented both sides of the issue, and that’s all anyone can ask. I do have two criticisms. On one hand, the New York Times’s coverage has been almost completely uncritical, and has done no due diligence on the march organizers’ motives or ideological history. It has almost completely skirted important questions about whether the marchers will stand up for the rights of North Korean women.

But I also have a complaint about coverage that has been more critical of the march. To be an apologist for North Korea is an odious thing. If a reporter describes someone that way, she undertakes an obligation to cite examples and evidence to support that charge. As much as I disagree with Christine Ahn’s views, I think everyone deserves that basic level of fairness, and space and time limits are no excuse to fall short of that obligation. The difference between legitimate criticism and McCarthyism is evidence, and the opportunity to respond to it.

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* Update: Two different reporters have gotten responses from Ahn, albeit slightly inconsistent ones, about what she said in Pyongyang. John Power says Ahn told him that she was “misquoted” by the Rodong Sinmum with respect to Kim Il-Sung devoting his life to the freedom and liberation of Koreans, but was “ushered away” before she could elaborate on what she really did say.

Writing at Forbes, however, Don Kirk quotes Ahn as saying the Rodong Sinmun quote was a “mistake in translation.” Ahn previously denied that any member of Women Cross DMZ called the U.S. “a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human right abuses.” Which leaves this quote from the Rodong Sinmun unaccounted for:

The power of the women is inexhaustible as they love justice and peace and aspire after the bright future of children. But their human rights are being mercilessly trampled down in the capitalist countries.
Speakers extended full support and firm solidarity to the struggle of the Korean people for the reunification and peace of the country, saying that the tragedy of the Korean nation who has lived divided into two for a long period should be ended as early as possible.

Someone is lying.

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Update 2: See also The Wall Street Journal‘s report.