Tell me who you boycott and I’ll tell you who you are: On Indiana, S. Africa & N. Korea

As I write this, advocacy groups nationwide are recomposing the tested strategy of using economic isolation to coerce an oppressive, backward regime to improve its human rights practices. The regime, unfortunately, isn’t North Korea; it’s Indiana. That strategy, however, is a moral muscle memory to those of us who came of age as America and Europe mobilized to boycott and sanction apartheid out of existence. Then, when President Reagan came out for “constructive engagement” with South Africa, he was met with such universal outrage that congressional Republicans abandoned him and overrode his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Until F.W. de Klerk put South Africa irreversibly on the path to democracy, breaking the cultural or economic boycotts would have been career suicide for any celebrity, and would have risked a shareholder revolt in any corporation.

By May of 1990, however, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and South Africa was on that path, irreversibly. By then, it did not trouble my conscience to accept a temporary job there. I arrived there just late enough to watch apartheid die from the vantage of a conservative mining town just outside Johannesburg, one repeal at a time, but just soon enough to witness a system that was grossly unjust, profoundly loathsome, and only recently and reluctantly self-aware of this. The best thing that could be said of it was that it was a far cry from North Korea.

So it has always been. Tell me what you boycott and I’ll know what you hate; tell me what you hate and I’ll know what you believe; tell me what you believe and I’ll know who you are. I might even tell you.

In 1986, half of the Republicans in Congress (including then-freshman Sen. Mitch McConnell) defied President Reagan and voted to override his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed a wide range of trade and economic sanctions against South Africa, but relatively few financial sanctions. On that occasion, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the Senate’s most important proponent of that legislation, said, “The Senate’s action today expressed the best ideals of the American people. The message to countries all over the world is, the United States will lead, and we’re proud to lead.” Can anyone imagine Jim Webb or Rand Paul saying such a thing today without recognizing it as a strip-tease of burlesque electoral cynicism?

Reading the text of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act today, I’m struck by the similarity of strategies between that bill and the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, although the bills’ specific legal authorities are very different.

Ted Kennedy’s leadership of anti-apartheid sanctions legislation is one of the issues where history remembers him the most fondly today. History has been less kind to Ronald Reagan’s opposition to it. Today, Ted and Bobby Kennedy’s anti-apartheid legacy carries on, through the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which has emerged as the strongest liberal force for sanctions against North Korea. Say what you will about the Kennedy family — and no one will accuse it of political neutrality — but it’s hard to argue with the moral consistency of those positions on both South Africa and North Korea. Nothing speaks more highly of their principle than the fact that they’ve pressed the Senate to pass legislation that was drafted at the direction of a conservative Republican Committee Chair, Ed Royce.

Don’t tell me the sanctions didn’t work against South Africa. They certainly did not work in the way that North Korea sanctions would, but to many of the white South Africans I met then, the prospect of rugby and football matches against New Zealand and Australia did much to compensate for their fears about their future as a minority among an empowered majority. South Africans were also sensitive about their nation’s image, as all people are, and as Koreans are to a far greater degree than most. Yes, many South Africans expressed their resentment of the sanctions, but they also grudgingly accepted the importance of lifting them. That acceptance allowed de Klerk to win the general election of 1989 and the referendum of 1992 (by which time change was a fait accompli).

There are, of course, more differences than similarities between North Korea and South Africa. The former oligarchy is far more determined, malignant, and violent, but it is also more vulnerable to financial isolation. Unlike South Africa, North Korea does not sit on mountains of gold, diamonds, and platinum, and it has a relatively greater reliance on the hard currency that runs through our banking system.

From a strictly moral perspective, there is no principled argument that it was unjust to engage the apartheid regime, yet just to engage North Korea’s. For all its evils, apartheid did not consign hundreds of thousands of people to political prison camps, or starve a million or two to death. For that matter, North Korea is every bit as racist as South Africa ever was, and even manages to have its own system for imprisoning a majority of its people in economic injustice, poverty, and hunger from the cradle to the grave. (It also compounds the sins of mass starvation, domestic terror, arbitrary execution, and democide with both sexism and homophobia.) Despite the world’s unfocused outrage, North Korea denies the very commission of its crimes against humanity, a nearly sure sign that it means to go on perpetuating them, as long as we allow it to.

Let’s also be clear about this: all foreigners in North Korea are engaging with the regime — either intelligence agents, or a hand-picked elite beholden to its preservation and enrichment. Those who claim to be engaging with “ordinary” North Koreans are either fooling themselves, or trying to fool you. 

To me, however, the most striking thing about the comparison between South Africa then and North Korea now is the extent to which the arguments about engagement and isolation mirror each other, except with their polarities reversed. Today, it is conservative Republican Ed Royce who is the conscience of the Congress on North Korea policy, who is leading a bi-partisan coalition to isolate North Korea, and who is challenging the cynicism of the State Department. Below the fold, I’ve reprinted liberal Democratic Representative William Gray’s response to President Reagan on anti-apartheid sanctions. At one point, Gray even invokes North Korea sanctions (which then included sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act) as a comparison to those against South Africa.

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Daily NK: Fire destroys Kim Jong Il’s fake birthplace (updated)

Update, September 2015: Subsequent reporting by NK News calls the Daily NK‘s report into question.

~   ~   ~

This report has been circulating in Korean-language sources for a few days, and the Donga Ilbo has reported that a large fire was burning (and had been extinguished) in that area, but this is the first time I’ve seen it reported in English.

A raging wildfire that broke out on October 21st in North Korea’s Samjiyon County, Yangkang Province is said to have burned down former leader Kim Jong Il’s home on Mount Baekdu near Milyong, the alleged birthplace of the late leader, the Daily NK has learned.

“The fire in Samjiyon County has spread to Baekam County putting the country in a state of emergency,” a source in Yangkang Province told the Daily NK on Tuesday. “The Baekdu Milyong home and most of the historic revolutionary landmarks have gone up in flames.” [Daily NK]

Here’s a photo of the alleged birthplace. AP reporters Eric Talmadge and David Guttenfelder where there as recently as June. So far, there have been no references to the story in official North Korean media. If the report isn’t true, we should expect to see a denial soon.

Of course, Kim Jong Il was actually born in Khabarovsk, but no matter. According to the Daily NK‘s sources, multiple security agencies are already surging into the area to “investigate” the cause of the fire. I wonder how many real people are going to punished as scapegoats, for the sake of fake history.

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The WaPo has noticed how Korean-Americans’ political power

… in northern Virginia has grown dramatically in recent years, and accuses politicians of “pandering” to them. To that, I’d ask you to name any well-organized constituency that can’t make a politician pander now and then, and I’ll show you a constituency that isn’t organized at all. We have the worst political system there is, except for all of the others, and in our political system, constituencies matter very much.

The WaPo dwells on what it doesn’t like about the uses of this new power, but as one who has personally encouraged Korean-Americans to embrace and harness that power, I think the editors also overlook the extent to which Korean-Americans are emerging as a powerful liberating force on their ancestral homeland (second item) and on our government’s policy toward North Korea. Inevitably, as the generations change, the sensibilities and priorities of Korean-Americans will increasingly mesh with those of other Americans, but that doesn’t have to mean forgetting Korea’s interests, history, and perspective.

No, I suppose I’m no more excited about “East Sea” than I would be about asking Koreans to call the Gulf of Mexico the South Gulf, because place names should have universal descriptive value, but I have a very different view of recognizing the comfort women, only some of whom were Korean. If the fear of making German tourists uncomfortable didn’t prevent us from building a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall, I don’t see why Japanese-Americans (except deniers) should feel any discomfort about a comfort women memorial government behind the Fairfax County Government Center. The test for any historical recognition should not be whom it might offend, but whether it is true.

I also have to wonder if we’d be seeing any of this controversy today if it weren’t for the stupidity of Shinzo Abe.

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Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.


Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:


For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

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I interrupt this hiatus (briefly)

Recently, I was pleased to learn that Miss Hannah Kim, about whom I wrote admiringly here and here several years ago, is now a staffer for Korean War veteran and Congressman Charles Rangel.  Because I have a certain weakness for Miss Kim’s inner beauty (I say this in all sincerity) I find myself unable to (resist embarrassing her or) refuse her kind request to post a link to her latest piece in the Huffington Post.  Here is the gist of it:

As a grateful Korean-American I have been for quite some time obsessed with getting recognition for our Korean War veterans, whom I am proud to call my “Grandpas.” Afraid that many young people like me might not be aware, I am writing to invite them to salute America’s 1.8 million-plus “Forgotten Heroes” as our nation commemorates the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Day on July 27.

These Heroes average age 85, and sadly many will not be with us for the 70th Anniversary. Already for too long, they have been largely forgotten by the public because the Korean War was sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War.

So every year my volunteer group, Remember727, holds an event in Washington, D.C., where at 7:27 p.m. we light a candle to pay tribute to their sacrifices and to hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula. It is tragic that after six decades the Two Koreas technically remain at war and is the only divided nation in the world.

While I might quibble with the choice of Psy as a symbol of Korean-American friendship, it looks like a very worthy event, and I hope you’ll consider going.  I also hope Congressman Rangel realizes how fortunate he is to have one of Capitol Hill’s most competent, persistent, and persuasive staffers on his payroll.

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The Continuum: U.S. Army film from South Korea, 1945-1948

It’s interesting to look back at history from the perspective of what we did not yet know:

The Japanese Army surrenders:

Like all propaganda, these films withhold unpleasant truths.  The sight of these South Korean kkotjaebi in Seoul is just heartbreaking.

North or South, videos like this are just hard to watch.  What bothers me almost as much as seeing this kids crying alone is seeing so many people walk without even stopping to help.

I often marvel at how much South Korea from long ago resembles North Korea today.

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Repatriated South Korean POW Sent to Yodok

An octogenarian South Korean POW has been sent to a North Korean prison camp after he was caught attempting to escape the country and return to his homeland more than 55 years after being captured during the Korean War. [Open News]

According to the report, the “peace forest” that will be Jung’s final destination is the infamous Yodok, or Camp 15.

Follow me in a slightly cynical thought. If we’re going to start using the I.C.C. as a means to hold officials accountable for their unlawful human rights abuses, this would seem to be a clear violation of three documents the Chinese government has signed — the Korean War Armistice Agreement, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its 1968 Protocol. Here’s hoping that someone will file an I.C.C. indictment against the Chinese officials responsible for abetting this old soldier’s torture and almost certain murder. Nothing bad could come of this. On the one hand, it could generate richly deserved bad press and condemnation for China. On the other, it might convince China to take a more active role in limiting the jurisdiction of the I.C.C.

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Why There Is a Cold War in Asia

When someone escapes from North Korea and makes contact with South Koreans, and when China then repatriates that person to North Korea, the North Korean authorities typically execute that person, or send him to die in a prison camp. China has known this for years. That’s why the Chinese government is an accessory to murder when it does things like this:

China has repatriated an 81-year-old former South Korean prisoner of war who had fled North Korea decades after being captured, a newspaper report and an activist said Tuesday. Dong-A Ilbo quoted an unidentified government official as saying the man surnamed Jung was sent back despite intensive diplomatic efforts by Seoul to bring him to the South. [….]

“The government made tremendous diplomatic efforts but he was eventually sent back to the North,” the source was quoted as saying. South Korea had contacted Chinese diplomatic authorities more than 50 times since Jung’s arrest, the daily said. Choi Sung-Yong, an activist who campaigns for the return of South Korean abductees, said Jung was forcibly returned to the North in September last year, about a month after being arrested in China where he was hiding. He said Jung was arrested eight days after he fled the North with the help of South Korean activists. [AFP]

In the end, all of our differences with China over Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Korea, and everything else come down to its contempt for the rights of individual human beings. If China recognized that the condition of humanity carries with it certain basic rights and liberties, it would be a threat to no one, it would have peacefully reunified with Taiwan decades ago, it wouldn’t be plagued with ethnic and labor unrest today, and wary Asian nations wouldn’t be looking for alternative structures to check its thuggish conduct, its hegemonic predations, and most recently, its aggression through its North Korean proxy. That is why Pacific nations need a military alliance, patterned after NATO during the Cold War, to contain China for next 20 years until demographics, economics, religion, and politics catch up with its anachronistic statism. There already is a new Cold War in Asia — it’s just that some would rather not admit it. But I suspect that historians will record that it was presaged by the ugly nationalism of the 2008 Olympics, and “officially” began with the Cheonan Incident.

The Chinese reaction to such an expansive argument will certainly be that I am making too much of one man’s life, which is just my point. Societies and nations are composed of individuals who want the state to serve them, and not the other way around. Gradually, those who can see the significance of an individual’s life are learning to loathe China’s oligarchy, one small injustice at a time. Because this includes growing numbers of the Chinese people, this will be the downfall of the fascist experiment that has functionally replaced the failed Maoist one. In the case of China, that downfall is likely to be more episodic than cataclysmic, but a system can only brutalize so many people before their rage eventually consumes it.

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Dealing with Khmer and North Korean Killers

As the first sentence is finally handed out to a former member of the Khmer Rouge regime, it reminds us of a human rights catastrophe still in progress.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about the history of Cambodia, including the nightmare under the Khmer Rouge, but this is a reminder that someday (may it be very soon), decisions made today will determine the fate of many now running the regime in North Korea.

The details and issues addressed in South Korea’s pending North Korean Human Rights Act* will help shape how the process attempting to achieve some sort of justice plays out and which SK government agencies will be responsible for what between now and then (eg, properly interviewing, recording, and storing witness testimony for later prosecution). For a discussion of some of the “details and issues”, see this post from last year.

Obviously, other factors (how the regime falls and neighboring countries’ roles in that and the aftermath) will be involved in what happens to the perpetrators of mass human rights violations in the North, but to the extent it has a say, South Korea, needs to awaken from its apathy now to be ready later.

If there ever is an attempted reunification, as Vitit Muntarbhorn said on this very topic at the PSCORE seminar this spring, “If you don’t know the truth, you cannot heal properly.“ (this quote came at 4:42, but he starts talking about the NKHR bill around 1:36)

Let us hope the North Korean people won’t have to wait 30 years after liberation for their shot in court!

*For those of you in Seoul, there will be a seminar Wednesday on the pending NKHR bill:

A Second Discussion on North Korean Issues and Policy

Subject: How Shall We Proceed with the NK Human Rights Bill?
When: Wed., July 28th, 2-4pm
Where: National Assembly — Constitutional Memorial Hall, 2nd Floor, Large Lecture Hall (헌정기념관 2층대강당)
Sponsored by: National Assemly Human Rights Forum and the Association of NK Human Rights Organizations (ANKHRO)
북한인권문제정책협의회 제2차 북한인권토론회

주제: 북한인권법 어떻게 할 것인가?
주최: 국회인권포럼 ,북한인권단체연합회
일시: 7월 28일(수) 오후2시~4시
장소: 국회의사당 헌정기념관 2층대강당

☞ 오시는 길
[9호선 국회의사당역 하차] 1번, 5번 출구로 나와 도보 이용
[5호선 여의도역 하차] 5번 출구, 버스 162, 261, 262, 461번
[1호선 대방역] 360, 363번 버스 이용
[1호선 영등포역] 5615, 5618번 버스 이용

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China, Korea, and the Persistence of Mendacity

It’s nice to see Koreans calling China on its P.R. blunders with greater frequency these days:

In its feature on the 60th anniversary of the start of the 1950-53 Korean War, the International Herald Leader, a newsweekly of the Xinhua News Agency, said the North Korean army launched the war by crossing the 38th parallel and seizing South Korean capital Seoul in three days.

The article immediately drew attention, with some placing significance on China’s first admission of military aggression by North Korea at the start of the war.

However, the article was soon removed from the weekly’s Web site as well as the sites of Xinhua and other portals. It is suspected that the Beijing government had a hand in removing the pieces, fearing the repercussions from North Korea. But the fiasco leaves us feeling bitter, as our two states could form a constructive and mature partnership based on an accurate acknowledgement of historical events. [Joongang Ilbo]

We apologize for the fault in the subtitles. The persons responsible for sacking those who were just sacked, have been exiled to the countryside.

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North Korea Demands $65 Trillion Dollars from U.S. Government

In case you thought there was an end in sight to North Korea’s demands before it would agree to disarm:

The Obama administration ridiculed North Korea on Friday for claiming $65 trillion from the United States in Korean War damages, saying the communist nation is an economic “basket case” due its own failed policies.

Have the North Koreans actually looked at our balance sheets lately? While it’s probable that the Congressional Budget Office has been working nights to recompute our deficit projections ever since Robert Byrd died, I still don’t think we’re going to find this kind of change in our sofa cushions.

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Some Korean War Anniversary Links

On this, the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, it’s gratifying to see that not all Korean films are anti-American propaganda harangues:

The 15-year-old boy prayed silently beside a freshly dug grave as he and other prisoners waited to be shot by a North Korean firing squad. Kim Man-kyu, barely taller than his M-1 rifle, had fought with other South Korean student volunteers in an 11-hour battle before being captured just weeks into the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Suddenly, a fighter jet appeared and bombed and fired machine guns at the area,” recalled Kim, now a 75-year-old retired pastor. Under attack, the North Koreans abandoned the execution of the prisoners, including some American soldiers.

About 100,000 South Korean students volunteered to fight in the Korean War, which broke out 60 years ago Friday. More than 1,970 perished, according to the War Memorial of Korea, a national museum in Seoul.

Kim was one of 71 students whose story is told in a blockbuster, star-studded film, “71 — In to the Fire,” which opened to huge audiences in South Korea last week. The distributor plans to release the movie in the United States and Japan too, though no dates have been set. [AP, Kwang-Tae Kim]

From the looks of things, there’s still plenty of ignorance to overcome.


Life magazine releases these photos of the Korean War, for the first time.


From the New York Times, a collection of perspectives.


Korean War vets, including two Medal of Honor winners, visit the DMZ.


A South Korean veteran who spent 46 years as a prisoner of the North Koreans has published his memoirs.


In North Korea, surviving veterans are fortunate enough to receive extra rice rations. I don’t doubt that for many North Korean veterans, their honored place in society reinforces their belief in the state’s ideology. For some, however, who might have watched loved ones starve during the famine years, there must be gnawing questions about whether theirs was a system really worth fighting for.


Some messages of thanks from Korea: here, and this from President Lee Myung-Bak in the L.A. Times. It’s not the same message published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that I linked the other day, suggesting a concerted and dedicated effort to show his appreciation to the American people.

This is a good start, but it’s more important that Koreans, especially younger Koreans, have a better understanding of their own history and reality. Meanwhile, back in Seoul, Lee called on North Korea to stop its “reckless” behavior.

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Lee, Bush Commemorate 60th Anniversary of the Korean War

Golly, this was a nice thing of President Lee to say:

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer our deepest, most sincere gratitude to all the American veterans and their families for what they did. The friendship and bond that we share is reinforced by the strong and robust military alliance, which in turn was the basis for the Republic of Korea’s remarkable twin achievements of the past six decades, namely achieving economic growth and becoming a true liberal democracy. [President Lee Myung-Bak, Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

If only President Lee’s own constituents actually believed this. I was ready to suggest that it’s them President Lee should be addressing until I saw that George W. Bush had emerged as our newest global goodwill ambassador. The former president, who is best known and loved by Koreans everywhere as the man who removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, was in Seoul the other day, also commemorating the anniversary, where he addressed a crowd of 60,000 (!) at a prayer meeting in a stadium:

“While South Korea prospers, the people of North Korea have suffered profoundly,” he said, adding communism had resulted in “dire poverty, mass starvation and brutal suppression”. “In recent years the suffering has been compounded by the leader who wasted North Korea’s precious few resources on personal luxuries and nuclear weapons programmes.” [….]

Bush, a devout Christian, described the 1950-53 conflict as an unforgotten war, saying “an act of unprovoked aggression” had led to an unnatural division in Northeast Asia. “It will never be forgotten by those who served and by those who were saved, and it must not be forgotten by the world,” he said.

The presence of US troops in South Korea showed Washington’s strong commitment to defending its ally, he said, adding the South’s prosperity is “a shining example of the power of freedom and faith”. [AFP]

As all 60,000 of those in attendance thought, as if with one mind: Just as long as our daughters stay out of Hongdae at night. Oddly enough, not all Koreans truly appreciate President Bush for his conciliatory outreach toward Kim Jong Il or his aid for the North Korean people, at least before he was ousted by a cabal of neocon hard-liners in 2009:

“It is just nonsense to bring to the Korean War prayer meeting the former US President Bush, who started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have him give testimony,” they said in a joint statement.

Funny how these people never seem to hold grudges against those who start wars in Korea. But then, they’re not really anti-war. They’re just on the other side.

And in related news, Foreign Policy Magazine has voted Kim Jong Il the world’s worst dictator this year, easily edging out Robert Mugabe.

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Don’t Know Much About History

Just the latest example of historical myopia from the kids in South Korea.

As the university was announcing the plans, the Chosun Ilbo reported a Gallup poll in Korea that showed 62.9 percent of teens and 58.2 percent in their 20s did not know when the Korean War broke out. Also, only 43.9 percent of those surveyed said North Korea is to blame for starting the Korean War, with the figure among teenagers 38 percent and 36 percent for 20-somethings. Some 18 percent of teens and 25 percent of those in their 20s said both North and South Korea are responsible.

Until just a few years ago, some teachers who are members of the hardline Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union have been teaching that the Korean War was a battle for liberation led by the North. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, a state-run broadcaster aired a documentary on Memorial Day praising China’s Mao Zedong, who backed the North in the Korean War. [Chosun Ilbo]

One of the points I’ve made for years about the USFK is that it’s an impediment to South Korea’s progress toward political maturity, which is in turn impeded by its lack of a confident sense of self-sufficient nationhood. That may be the only thing North Korea has today that South Korea doesn’t, and you can see emotional hunger for this sense among certain demographics in South Korea, though no to the same extent as the North Koreans’ physical hunger for South Korean rice and ChocoPies. Somehow, I don’t think Koreans would be so prosaic about the genesis of their form of government if they had to mobilize to Israeli proportions to defend it.

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