Right now, somewhere in North Korea, agents of the Ministry of People’s Security and State Security Department have just finished reading this article, and are making plans to comb selected areas of His Corpulency’s kingdom for every person who might have had contact with the Christian NGO Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, during the years that it operated in North Korea. Yesterday, The Intercept reported that the Pentagon funneled money to HISG, which smuggled Bibles into North Korea in false compartments at the bottom of its aid shipments, for also agreeing to bring in gizmos to help us keep track of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Apparently, it occurred to someone in the Pentagon that it’s important to have the best possible intelligence about a rogue state’s WMD programs. Especially a state that’s willing to sell them to the highest bidder.
Now, I take it that from a certain nihilistic perspective, if there’s a greater evil than America itself, it’s giving a Bible to some poor wretch who lives in a totalitarian deiocracy that forces him to worship a mummified corpse. Granted, there’s a good ethical question to be asked as to whether putting a Bible in a stranger’s hands is more likely to endanger him than fulfill his spiritual needs, but that’s not the argument The Intercept is riding. I suppose there are ethical arguments to be made about using NGOs as cover for espionage, but it’s not as if North Korea offers a lot of alternatives. (Next time, try “journalist.” Tell ‘em Glenn Greenwald sent you.) Nor is it a practice without widespread precedent by us, by other countries, and by the North Koreans. I don’t remember hearing The Intercept complaining about the revelation by a U.N. Panel of Experts that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau infiltrated UNESCO and the World Food Program, almost assuredly for the purpose of manipulating its monitoring requirements, so that Pyongyang could continue to divert the aid and let millions of underprivileged North Koreans continue to go hungry.
What’s hardest for me to understand, however, is why The Intercept granted anonymity to its government sources and a former HISG worker, but chose to name North Korea (which was apparently just one of the places where HISG operated). Does Matthew Cole know how obsessively and ruthlessly Pyongyang pursues any hint of dissent, or any association with religious ideas? Does he know how Pyongyang uses collective punishment against three generations of the thought criminal’s family? Or the abhorrent conditions in which dissidents are executed publicly, or sent to prolonged deaths in political prison camps as horrific as anything the world has seen since the U.S. Army reached the gates of Mauthausen in 1945? Or is it that these things simply matter less than the compelling public interest value of his Big Story?
And what compelling public interest justified the need to endanger the NGOs that are still working in North Korea — along with hundreds, if not thousands, of North Koreans, and their families? A program that the Pentagon itself voluntarily abandoned three years ago.
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Update: Chad O’Carroll raises a new question — could the whole Intercept story be bullshit anyway?
“I have never heard of HISG or Kay Heramine,” said David Austin, former DPRK Program Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mercy Corps. “None of my former NGO colleagues had ever heard of this group, nor of Kay Hiramine.”
“I have never heard of this guy, or his organization … and North Korea is a small community. We run into each other, we stay at the same hotels, we (often) go to the same churches.”
The source added that even if Heramine’s three trips had taken place with direct Pentagon involvement, they would have been of limited value.
“Three trips over several years is completely meaningless: You have no relationships, there’s no systems setup, and there’s no transportation network,” the source said.
Well, maybe. I suspect the SSD boys will want to interrogate a few dozen (or a few hundred) people before deciding that. What I still can’t rationalize is what ends justify the risk of getting a few hundred innocent men, women, and children shot, tortured, or sent to a gulag. Is unilaterally exposing and disarming the U.S. intelligence community an end that leads to anything but global anarchy and terror — and a backlash that would ultimately do great harm to our civil liberties?