Category Archives: Fiskings

Emily Litella of N. Korea journalists meets David Irving of N. Korea scholars

Last week, NK News correspondents Hamish MacDonald and Ole Jakob Skåtun wrote some of the most biased, error-riddled reporting I’ve ever seen published in a major newspaper. Their target was a grant program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) to support human rights and freedom of information in North Korea, and to support the recommendations of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. MacDonald and Skåtun argued that the program could endanger lives, lead to more Kenneth Bae crises, set back bilateral diplomacy, edge aside humanitarian and “engagement” programs, and conflict with the recommendations of the COI report.

For me, this story began when I received a message from MacDonald in April with a series of questions, requesting my comment. (I’ve often responded to similar requests from NK News correspondents, and admire the work that many of them have done. I still marvel at the quality of the investigation that went into this one in particular.)

It wouldn’t be fair to print Mr. MacDonald’s email without his permission, so I won’t. But his questions were so loaded that they made my spidey sense tingle like the loins of a sailor after a rum-sodden shore leave in Marseille. My assigned role, so it seemed, would be to supply a token counterpoint to clothe an opinion piece in the pretense of balance.

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Christine Hong really should tell us what she thinks about Kim Jong Un’s sweet new ski resort.

Kim Jong Un’s reign must be a dark time for North Korea’s apologists on the far left. Those who elevate equality above all other values (or say they do) must be hard pressed to find solidarity with a regime that has imposed the world’s most obscene case of economic and social injustice. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was no paragon of socialist equality. Since his dynastic succession, Kim Jong Un has added the arch-heresies of gaudy consumerism and an adoration of the coarsest elements of pop culture.

Even Bruce Cumings — Bruce Cumings — recently called Kim Jong Un “a modern Caligula,” and for once, I can’t argue with him. Off-hand, I can’t think of a richer target for “critical studies” than this one:

Kim Jong Un ski

Even so, U.C. Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Christine Hong, writing at something called “Critical Asian Studies,” lobs a verbose, meandering screed at advocates for the human rights of Kim Jong Un’s subjects, a growing number of whom are themselves North Korean, and whom Hong quite casually calls “typically ‘beneficiaries of past injustice'” and “future violence.”

Typically,” she says, apparently unconcerned that such sweeping bigotry and assignment of original sin would draw any challenge.

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In case this isn’t self-evident, all analysis of North Korean New Year’s speeches is crap.*

In this year’s annual New Year’s Day message, Kim Jong Un boasted about his squalid little kingdom’s “brilliant successes in building a thriving socialist country and defending socialism,” its “upsurge … in production in several sectors and units of the national economy,” its “brilliant victory in the acute showdown with the imperialists,” and its “policies of respecting the people and loving them.” It’s crap like this that makes me proud of how little I’ve contributed to the torrent of junk analysis foisted on you after every one of these speeches.

To analyze a North Korean New Year’s speech is to embark on an intellectual misadventure. It can’t be otherwise when you start with an input that must be discounted by the mendacity of political promises in general, the mendacity of this regime in particular, and Kim Jong Un’s personal unsteadiness and detachment from declared principle. The meaning of the words degrades further under analysis that invariably veers toward wishful thinking, baseless speculation, or the ridiculous over-analysis of information that is almost entirely useless. Rudiger Frank provides an example of the latter by expending 4,039 words of sonorous, pedantic linguistic parsing on a 4,416-word speech, and even attempts to find year-on-year empirical trends in the frequency of usage of specific words.

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Mansourov praises Kim Jong Un’s “surprisingly good” domestic policies, sees “hope in the air.”

Writing at 38 North, the last fantasyland of Sunshine’s remaining advocates, Alexandre Mansourov argues that “Kim Jong Un’s domestic policy record” so far has been “surprisingly good.”

But, by the time 2012 came to a close, one could detect hope in the air, and new positive expectations about the future. There was also plenty of public thirst for new information and foreign experiences, and an especially surprising amount of joy and enthusiasm on the streets of Pyongyang, now illuminated by jumbotrons, the multicolor lights of the newly built residential complex on Changjon Street, and the spectacular 2013 new year fireworks. Whatever happened last year in North Korea, it obviously lifted the spirits and hopes of its population, and the leadership led by Kim Jong Un deserves some credit for that.  [Alexandre Mansourov, 38 North]

Mansourov bases this on an amalgamation of marginally significant regime reports he accepts at face value, cryptic rumors of purges and rehabilitations, his overreading of empty sloganeering, and the shallow proposition that equates the plagiarism of pop culture with reform.  I cannot write a better answer to this superficial thinking than one brave North Korean woman did when she said this to a New York Times reporter:

“Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” she asked tartly, wringing her hands as she recounted the chronic malnutrition that has sickened her two sons and taken the lives of less-well-off neighbors.

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Is the paradigm shifting on hunger in North Korea? (Also, fiskings of Chris Hill and Selig Harrison)

OFK regulars should all know how much regard I have for Christopher Hill. So are my own preconceptions causing me to find something vaguely repellent in the way Hill frames the issue of food aid, or do others see things the way I do?

Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world? If so, and if denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand, what could such a decision mean for eventual relations among Korean peoples living in the northern and southern parts of a unified country?

In the coming weeks, South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits (also in terms of human lives) that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring. [link]

But of course, famine wouldn’t induce regime collapse, for the same reason it didn’t induce regime collapse between 1993 and 2000: because the last thing starving people are thinking about is overthrowing their government. What I think Chris Hill fundamentally misunderstandings about North Korea in this case is that the regime uses hunger to cow its subjects.

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You Say That Like It’s a Bad Thing: “China Hand” Fears Treasury Sanctions

I’m apparently not the only one who cocked an eyebrow at the refusal of a State Department spokesman recently to rule out applying new sanctions to be directed at North Korea to third-country entities.

The United States Wednesday did not preclude the possibility of freezing North Korean assets in foreign banks to effectively cut off resources for the North’s development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“I’m not going to predict any particular step that we’re contemplating, but these are steps that are available to us under existing U.S. international law,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters at a daily news briefing.

He was responding to the question if Washington was considering freezing North Korean assets at foreign banks just like it froze more than US$25 million in North Korean accounts in Banco Delta Asia in Macau in 2005. [Yonhap]

Whether we actually set about doing this or not, the response itself is significant. One only hopes that investors in Kim Jong Il’s regime will take enough heed to proceed in an orderly manner to the rooftops of their embassies in Pyongyang with semaphore flags and briefcases stuffed with all the dollars — and yuan — they can carry.

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Fareed Zakaria shows us how anyone can earn a living as a North Korea expert!

zakaria.jpgNext time my brother and I argue about why I’m not big a fan of Fareed Zakaria, I think I’ll point him to this CNN.com link where Zakaria gives us his “analysis” of the Cheonan Incident. The interviewer asks him a series of questions, which I rephrase. Zakaria then spits up State Department talking points and pulp he stole from wire service reports, and then blends this with his own analysis.

I’ve hosed the pulp, talking points, and context off of Zakaria’s analysis, leaving it naked and exposed for you to gawk upon. So Fareed — the Norks sank that ship. What’s up with that?

The truth is that North Korea is such a strange and strangely governed place that no one really knows.

So is there a danger we’ll end up going to war?

It’s dangerous because it suggests that North Korea is acting in an unpredictable way.

So why did Kim Jong Il do it?

What’s strange about this is that it’s not entirely clear what the purpose behind it is.

And what about the ChiComs? What’s their deal, Fareed?

That, to me, is the greatest mystery of this whole puzzle.

Thank you, Mr. Zakaria, for that penetrating insight.

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On Second Thought, Don’t Keep Your Day Job, Either.

feffer1.jpgAs a public service to OFK readers, I’d like to remind you that on Day Two of the Cheonan crisis, Noam Chomsky’s favorite Korea analyst and military expert, John Feffer, was quoted thusly:

“I doubt that North Korea was involved in the incident,” said John Feffer, co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It didn’t seem to involve any artillery fire from the North.

Feffer disagreed with the assumption that North Korea attacked the South Korean naval vessel, noting this incident is different from the previous clashes that involved fishing boats of the two Koreas crossing their sea border.

“There have been naval clashes between North and South in the past, but these have usually involved rising tensions, warnings, fishing boats crossing the NLL,” he said. “But this was, as far as we know, a surprise. And there was no larger reason why the North might engage in such a surprise attack. [Yonhap]

Today, readers (thank you) point me to Feffer’s return from seclusion. He now concedes the North Korean culpability that he’d initially denied, and even admits that President Lee was “reluctant to point the finger at North Korea in the first place.” This might have been a good beginning to an honest admission that he’d erred before a global audience because of his lack of objectivity, and his general ignorance of North Korea and military matters in general.

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The Head of the World Health Organization Bears May Day Greetings from Pyongyang! (Update: No Signs of Obesity There!)

chan.jpgIt could have been worse, I suppose, had I awakened this morning to the clatter of panzerkampfwagens rolling through the D.C. suburbs blaring the Horst Wessel Lied from loudspeakers. But if the prospect of the U.N. as Government of Earth horrifies you any less, get a load of what Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organization, holds up as the very model of a peachy health care system:

UN health agency chief Margaret Chan said on Friday after a visit to North Korea that the country’s health system would be the envy for most developing countries although it faced “challenges”. “Based on what I have seen, I can tell you they have something that most other developing countries would envy,” she told journalists, despite reports of renewed famine in parts of the country.

“To give you a couple of examples, DPRK has no lack of doctors and nurses, as we see in other developing countries, most of their doctors and nurse have migrated,” the director general of the World Health Organisation said. She also highlighted its “very elaborate health infrastructure” extending to a district network of household doctors, she added. [AFP]

The factual ignorance and the prevailing moral retardation of the United Nations even manage to put the Catholic Church’s recent troubles into perspective.

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Hankyoreh “Experts:” North Korea Sank the Cheonan, But It’s Still South Korea’s Fault

I expect the Hanky and its fellow travelers to be committed 24/7 tools of North Korea, but for God’s sake, people, your country is in mourning. Is this really the time?

People’s Solitary for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) General Secretary Kim Min-young offered his diagnosis of the situation, saying, “If the government had faithfully executed the existing agreement between North Korea and South Korea for the peaceful use of the waters near the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, things would not have escalated into a confrontation scenario.

Implicitly, this is an agreement that the North Koreans did it, even as it argues that they did it because President Lee forced them to. What the “General Secretary” is really saying is that the responsibility for what he assumes to have been a deliberate attack lies with the South Korean government for protecting its territory rather than surrendering it. He is justifying a sneak attack just off the shores of an island North Korea explicitly ceded in the Korean War Armistice agreement. One could not make such an argument on the day South Korea buried 40 of its sailors without having lost sight of how the needless theft of their lives has profoundly aggrieved thousands of people who loved them, people who will spend the rest of their lives missing them.

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Nothing to Offer, by Glyn Ford

Glyn Ford was a socialist member of the European Parliament until, under even its fringe-friendly rules, he lost his seat by placing fifth in the EP elections. Ford, an early defender of North Korea’s right to possess nuclear weapons, now finds himself with one less demand on his time, and so he reviews Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. I’m not sure whether Ford himself or the Tribune Magazine is responsible for the headline under which his review is published: “North Korea: Grim, but that’s no reason to make things up.” Dig into the accusation, however, and the substance of the charge of “making things up” comes down to this.

1. Ford claims that some completely different person, also a journalist, made up a story about her cell phone being confiscated at the airport.

2. Demick “travels with” Nick Eberstadt by citing him in her acknowledgments, and Eberstadt is (hiss!) a neocon, meaning, any foreign policy thinker to the right of Jimmy Carter and to the left of (choose one) Joachim Von Ribbentrop or Pat Buchanan. Ford might also have pointed out that on Pages 295-296, Demick also cites such liberal sources as Good Friends, former Ambassador Donald Gregg, Tony Banbury of the World Food Program, Katharina Zellweger of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, lefty columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, classical liberal and former Amnesty Exec Director David Hawk, and Leonid Petrov.

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Jackass Mails Hash to Self in South Korea, Does Time, Compares Self to Laura Ling and Euna Lee

When the news of Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s release broke, I warned you that you were going to read a lot of really stupid things, and you are.  But a reader also forwards a link to something completely unexpected from Cullen Thomas, writing at The Daily Beast.

What could be more useful in making sense of an isolated and unpredictable rogue state’s holding of journalists as hostages than the unique perspective of a hash-smoking ex-con who did time in Chonan, South Korea?  Screw Mitch Koss.  Has the CIA debriefed this guy?

This story reminded me very much of my experience of being held and tried for a crime in South Korea in the 1990s. Yes, North and South have their obvious differences, ….

Sure, the cases aren’t exactly alike.  But aside from the offenses, the absence of hostage-holding and nuclear brinkmanship in one case, the completely different ways in which the two Korean different judicial systems are unfair, the utter lack of international and political sympathy or interest in one case, North Korea’s routine torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, the lack of any socially redeeming behavior on Thomas’s part, the fact that South Korea hasn’t isolated itself from the entire world — in short, the lack of any greater interest, significance, or newsworthiness to Thomas’s story — it’s a great analogy.

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Being Irrational and Ill-Informed Still No Barrier to Getting a Global Audience

No one in the Obama Administration sounds terribly interested in North Korea’s offer of a bilateral dialogue about what concessions America is prepared to grant North Korea this year, but at the Christian Science Monitor, Professor Zhiqun Zhu of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (you remember it from the matchbook covers, right?) calls North Korea’s statement “a rare opportunity” and writes one of the most scary-stupid things I’ve read all year:

Frankly, it is unrealistic for the US to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear technology. The reason is simple: The nuclear card is the only one North Korea has; it will not easily give it away. The ostrich policy of refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state has to be ditched. A solution to the North Korea conundrum must begin with recognizing the fact that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear weapons and will remain nuclear-capable.  [link]

So North Korea will never bargain away its nuclear weapons, meaning the United States must bargain anyway!   Reading Zhu’s argument is like watching an animal give live birth and eat its own young.  When he’s done refuting any U.S. incentive to bargain with North Korea over nukes that it won’t give up, we’re left to infer that our only incentive is to agree on the price of extortion, which is an endlessly renewable expense that America is expected to shoulder:

The impoverished North needs the nuclear program as a bargaining chip.

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Stoopid Idea of the Week

A talentless buffoon named Peter Carlson wants to share his epiphany with us:

I’ve got a better idea: Obama should invite Kim to the United States and let him wander around for a couple of weeks, sipping cocktails with capitalists, visiting a home economics class in Iowa and mingling with Hollywood stars.

Fifty years ago, in similar circumstances, that’s what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did. And it worked, sort of. [Peter Carlson, Washington Post]

An equally sensible idea would be to reform a pedophile by inviting him to a strip club instead of maximum security.  Clearly, someone who lives in this house will not envy our standards of living; someone who keeps this movie collection will not be transformed by exposure to the liberalizing influence of our culture; and someone who keeps his people this isolated will not be forced into perestroika when he loses the next Great Kitchen Debate (as if North Koreans would be allowed to watch it all live on CNN).

There are two ways to read Mr. Carlson’s piece — as a serious proposal, or as a feeble mockery meant to trivialize the very real horror that Kim Jong Il has made of North Korea.  Whichever interpretation you choose, Carlson reveals no thought, reasoning, or writing skill that merits ink in the Washington Post.

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A Volunteer on a Fool’s Errand: Leon Sigal Defends North Korea from Barack Obama

sigal.jpgLet us bow our heads and give thanks for the levity we receive from Leon V. Sigal, whom I first draped in clownish heraldry when he denied the very possibility of North Korean nuclear assistance to Syria … until he didn’t.  I can see how a professional apologist for North Korea — there’s a booth for that at career day, you know — might be in a contrite mood, but then, we often make the mistake of imputing reasonable behavior on those who hold unreasonable views.  Not content to slink away quietly and husband some hidden thimbleful of credibility, Sigal instead attempts to address some stubborn and unwanted truths, but in much the way that a trapped housefly addresses the existence of a window pane.

Today, Leon Sigal wants you to know that Barack Obama is a hegemonist neocon who provoked North Korea’s missile and nuke tests:

Despite the promise of change, the Obama administration has started to address North Korea just as the Clinton and Bush administrations did–accusing it of wrongdoing and trying to punish it for its transgressions. As Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test demonstrates, the crime-and-punishment approach has never worked in the past and it won’t work now. Instead, sustained diplomatic give-and-take is the only way to stop future North Korean nuclear and missile tests and convince it to halt its nuclear program.  Pyongyang was not alone in failing to keep its agreements.

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