If North Korea can make fake Viagra for export, why can’t it make TB drugs for sick North Koreans?

Since the collapse of North Korea’s nominally free public health system, contagious diseases have spread widely, but only a lucky few North Koreans have been able to find medicine and medical care. Most of its people get by on whatever health care they can afford and whatever drugs they can find. A lucky few use retired doctors or doctors who moonlight after regular working hours. Some pay steep bribes to get access to care and medicine in state hospitals and clinics. Some buy medicine from market vendors, which may or may not be fake. The least fortunate rely on unlicensed healers, soothe their pain with methamphetamine or opium, or simply go without.

As the Washington Post recently discovered, however, if you’re a foreigner with hard currency, it’s not at all hard to buy medicine in Pyongyang. In May, a Post reporter visited the North Korean capital, possibly for the recent Workers’ Party congress, and “bought a box of the North ­Korean-produced medicine to treat erectile dysfunction.” He then “sent it to a Pfizer lab in Massachusetts to be tested.”

Surprisingly, each dose of Neo-Viagra — brown granules in a vial that looks like traditional Korean medicine — turned out to contain 50 milligrams of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. The little blue genuine Viagra pills come in 50- and 100-milligram doses.

“Lab analysis of the product known as ‘Neo-Viagra’ . . . did detect the presence of sildenafil,” said Yasar Yaman, Asia-Pacific director for Pfizer’s global security team. “Sildenafil is the active ingredient in Viagra, however this is a different formulation to the sildenafil found in authentic Pfizer tablets.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This finding should not have been too “surprising,” given longstanding rumors that North Korea sells many counterfeit products, including Viagra, as Fifield notes later. This was my favorite line in the story, by the way:

Pfizer couldn’t say whether the medicine would actually work or was safe because it had not conducted any clinical trials, and the reporter was not successful in convincing any male acquaintances to try it.

Pfizer told the Post that it was “‘currently reviewing’ whether to take any action against the North Korean manufacturers for patent or copyright infringement.” Pfizer’s lawyers will find that it is possible to sue a foreign government that engages in “commercial activity;” but historically, the plaintiffs who’ve obtained large civil judgments against the North Korean government for its terrorist acts have found it difficult to find North Korean assets to attach. A more promising strategy may be to identify and sue the Chinese and Russian companies that are selling the North Korean viagra and try to attach their assets.

Websites based in China and Russia have been selling Kumdang; Neo-Viagra; Tetrodocain, which purports to treat an array of diseases including tuberculosis and HIV; and Chonghwal, which is said to do the same job as Viagra. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

There is, needless to say, no independent scientific evidence for the effectiveness of North Korea’s cure for HIV. There is evidence that other North Korean “medicine” is toxic or harmful. An investigation by Radio Free Asia found that North Korean doctors in Tanzania have prescribed “medications containing high percentages of lethal heavy metals to patients.” According to an anonymously sourced story published by Radio Free Asia, North Korea has at least two factories that make supplements to enhance the performance of athletes, and it reports that those drugs are in high demand among the elites in Pyongyang for “recreational” use. RFA did not test a sample, but South Korea’s Ministry for Food and Drug Safety did analyze samples of North Korean-made supplements for sale in Asian countries and found that some “exceeded the permitted levels of hazardous heavy metal substances,” including mercury, arsenic, and lead. Another, called Keum Dang No. 2, contained “[n]arcotic components.” Vietnamese authorities suspended sale of the supplements following the reports.

Much later in her story, Fifield alludes in passing to the greater harm done to the North Korean people.

Indeed, North Korea’s pharmaceutical factories have largely ground to a halt along with the rest of the industrial sector, and many pharmaceutical products are imported from China to be sold in the markets. Medicines for chronic outbreaks are donated by humanitarian organizations, such as the drugs to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that are imported from South Korea.

I don’t want to move off this point just yet. Instead, I want to turn to another story by the same reporter from last March. Its tone is much darker than the quirky tale of the fake-but-effective Viagra and the plucky little regime that defies the world to sell boner pills to middle-aged guys with more money and libido than sense.

The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.

After the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions this month as punishment for North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launch, South Korea this week imposed direct sanctions of its own. But unlike the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently passed by Congress, the South Korean measures do not make a general exception for humanitarian aid.

That has hamstrung the ­Eugene Bell Foundation, which treats people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea but cannot get the export licenses it needs to ship medicine from the South to its treatment facilities in the North.

“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield, March 9, 2016]

Let’s stipulate that when South Korea temporarily blocked that shipment of tuberculosis drugs, it made a misstep. U.N. sanctions emphasize that sanctions should be administered to avoid adverse impact on humanitarian aid programs. Blocking humanitarian aid shipments does nothing to help enforce sanctions, and only plays into the hands of dishonest or ill-informed criticisms that sanctions only hurt the North Korean people. The Post’s headline for that story played into that narrative perfectly. It read, “North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk as sanctions hamper medicine shipments.” (Emphasis mine.)

The best I can say for this headline — reporters don’t necessarily write their own headlines — is that it isn’t entirely false. As narrowly applied to South Korea’s unilateral sanctions, it was true at that time. It’s also true that U.N. and U.S. sanctions have had indirect effects on humanitarian aid, but only for reasons that the North Korean government itself could easily avoid. Because North Korea co-mingles its proliferation-related transactions with the transactions it uses for other, non-sanctioned purposes, aid groups report that banks have also hesitated to process transactions related to aid shipments, too. That’s unfortunate.

It’s also unfortunate that the aid groups that operate in North Korea under the watchful eyes of state minders — and who must keep the recent examples of Regina Feindt and Sandra Suh in mind — use those delays as excuses to blame sanctions for the hardships of the North Korean people. What makes that criticism dishonest — even unethical — is those same groups’ consistent refusal to hold the North Korean government responsible for the deliberate policies and priorities that impoverish the North Korean people to begin with. You will often hear NGOs criticize U.S. or U.N. sanctions for hampering shipments of TB drugs, but you will never hear these same NGOs call on Kim Jong-un to produce TB drugs instead of Viagra, supplements, methamphetamine (see also), or narcotics to sell for a profit.

The press also bears its share of blame for failing to raise legitimate questions about that narrative. One of those questions is why a regime that can afford yachts, jewelry, and luxury sedans can’t afford to import medicine. Another is why a regime that can make Viagra to raise cash can’t make TB drugs for its sick citizens. In that light, headlines that blame sanctions for denying the North Korean people medicine — medicine their own government has the means to make and provide, but has chosen not to — are misleading at best. 

I’m not a pharmaceutical expert, so the assumption I’m making is that it’s no more difficult to make anti-TB drugs than it is to make Viagra. I invite readers to question that assumption. What’s clear is that Pyongyang has the means to produce advanced pharmaceuticals when it smells a cash profit. Unfortunately, the welfare of the North Korean people is a lower priority than whatever priorities Kim Jong-un has in mind for the revenue he earns by exporting his country’s health care workers and drugs for sale to foreign buyers. 

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No Pyongyang Spring this year, either

The reasons why North Korea is holding a party congress are still a matter of conjecture to those of us fortunate enough not to live there. The congress is almost certainly related to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power in some way. It will probably reinforce the personality cult. The regime’s organization charts and wiring diagrams may be rearranged. Pessimists suspect that there will be more bloody purges or another nuclear test. Optimists still hold hope that His Corpulency will validate their frustrated predictions of reform.

Certainly nothing in the regime’s behavior before or during the congress supports the optimistic view. The preparations for the congress were mostly marked by increased repression and surveillance, exhausting mass mobilizations for forced labor, confiscatory “loyalty” payments, and crackdowns on market trading.

Nor is there any sign of glasnost in how the regime has treated the foreign press. So far, it has paraded them through a circuit of model farms, a model kindergarten,

a “children’s palace,” where children are militarized and made to perform,

a model factory,

a munitions museum, 

where reporters were shown an example of “indigenous” weapons,

 

and even a model barbershop.

Some of the foreign reporters are naive enough to think this is how North Koreans actually live.

And, inevitably …

Some observers justify compromises with the truth.

Others ask the minders and props in this play hard questions. They don’t get answers, but at least they tell us so, which reveals something — about themselves, if not about North Korea, which refuses to change. 

So, when The Event itself began, the minders left the reporters standing on a street corner outside, reading foreign websites on their smartphones to learn what they could about events happening 500 meters away.

The odds seem unlikely that the 130 foreign journalists currently in Pyongyang to cover the congress will be allowed to report any useful information, other than the useful fact that Pyongyang is isn’t letting them report any useful information.

There are, however, a few useful dramatizations of things we already knew. For example, the money is still worthless.

And the regime, which still can’t feed its people, has finished building a new headquarters for the bank that prints the worthless money.

Pyongyang has long benefited from cultivating the hope that it would reform, which optimistic policymakers, naive academics, foreign profiteers, and Pyongyang’s small, noisy band of apologists have long cited as an argument against sanctions and other forms of pressure. If there were any truth to the reform theories, you’d think Pyongyang would want to amplify them for a global audience, if only as a tactic for strategic deception. So far, it seems to be making little pretense in that direction.

Then, there is the adage that personnel is policy. The officials who are ascendant among the top ranks Pyongyang today are not reformers but hard-liners. But at the mid-to-low levels, older party cadres are being excluded from the congress, in favor of younger (but less experienced, and often, less ideologically inclined) cadres who have proven their loyalty to Kim Jong-un through successful performance at his pet projects. This doesn’t foreshadow the adoption of reformist policies, but might further widen the gulf between Pyongyang and the provinces, and between the highest officials and the lower ranks of the ruling party.

The short, unhappy reign of His Porcine Majesty has been one running disappointment for wishful thinkers in northwest Washington, but that is much less important than the disappointment of the desperately poor from North Hamgyeong to South Hwanghae. 

“Discontent among the people has risen high because of the closed politics of three successive generations,” the RFA quoted a source in Jakang Province. “For North Koreans, reform and openness is no longer just a wish but a must.” [….]

“If all Kim does is repeat the same old revolutionary slogans without clear commitment to reform and open policy, it will be an irreversible disaster for Kim’s stable reign,” another source was quoted as saying. “Citizens are now waiting for the seventh party congress, and regard reform and openness the issues for survival that cannot be delayed any longer.” [Korea Times]

I genuinely wish Pyongyang would finally go through the agricultural reforms it has been promising since 2012, even if in practice, those “reforms” would amount to little more than sharecropping, an arrangement few of us would associate with economic justice. And for all the excitement this has caused among certain North Korea-watching academics, actual North Koreans are much more interested in abandoning the collectives entirely, clearing private plots, and illegally growing food to sell in the markets — a trend that is impossible to measure, but which probably averted a famine despite last year’s drought.

What North Koreans really need isn’t marginal experiments with the collective system or a new New Economic Policy, it’s fundamental land reform that gives land to the tillers. This would do nothing to solve the nuclear crisis or alleviate North Korea’s other humanitarian crises, but it would effect dramatic improvements in North Korea’s food situation. But the unfortunate conclusion I draw is that this regime prefers a hungry population. It’s more easily cowed. And as for political reform, who seriously speaks of that today?

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The Kim Jong-un New Year speech Rorschach test

  • Wall Street Journal: “North Korean Leader Threatens ‘Sacred War,’ Pledges Economic Growth”
  • Reuters: “North Korea’s Kim blames South for mistrust in New Year speech”
  • AP: “North Korean leader talks war but doesn’t comment on nukes”
  • Yonhap: “N.K. leader vows to improve ties with S. Korea”

Um, hey, Yonhap, you might want to hold that soda straw up to your other eyepatch.

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Was it worth it?

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. 

~   ~   ~

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?

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North Korea versus the media: Any guesses?

Today, I offer you two journalists’ perspectives on North Korea’s most recent efforts to use journalists as unwitting propagandists and image-makers, and how well the journalists resisted it. First, the fiercely independent Don Kirk reports on how North Korea censored journalists who crossed the border to cover the family reunions supervised hostage visitations at Kumgang.

The problem exploded as reporters accompanying nearly 400 South Koreans on the first of two sets of reunions entered North Korea at the eastern end of the demilitarized zone that’s divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. North Korean officials spent more than an hour studying the contents of the laptops of the 29 journalists on the visit – and held on to some laptops for two or three hours after discovering material they found objectionable.

Among items they wanted expunged — besides references to human rights abuses — was anything that appeared to cast North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un in an unfavorable light or was critical of the North’s nuclear and missile programs and economic problems.

South Korean journalists, writing about the reunions from Seoul on the basis of the pool reports, including print as well as video and audio feeds, were sharply critical in private of what they saw as the weak-kneed response of the unification ministry and the South Korean Red Cross, which selects family members lucky to go on the basis of a lottery. The journalists called for the ministry to adopt a firm stance on behalf of the media in dealing with the North Koreans – a challenge that the ministry feared would complicate and compromise efforts at holding future reunions.

“The ministry merely suggested that reporters traveling to the second round on Saturday through Monday carry blank laptops.” said the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest selling newspaper. The newspaper quoted a government official as having agreed it was “ ‘a problem’ that ministry officials bent over backwards to accommodate the North’s whims instead of protesting at what many saw as chicanery.” [Don Kirk, Forbes]

Next, the BBC interviews a correspondent who was in Pyongyang to cover the 70th anniversary of its ruling party, the restrictions Pyongyang imposed on his movements, and whether the image comports with reality. The reporter relates that he was led and escorted everywhere, and couldn’t have dreamed of roaming the streets freely to ask citizens how they really felt about life there. Thankfully, some random citizens made their spontaneous emotions visible to reporters in passing journalismobiles, making all of that reporting unnecessary.

We are happy

[Next stop, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.]

But then, near the end of the interview, the correspondent raises the trite (and ironic) complaint that reporting on North Korea too often descends into caricature and propaganda. Huh. I wonder who is planting those caricatures, or that propaganda.

Admittedly, torchlight parades and neat rows of armed, goose-stepping automatons have more pornographic appeal than interviews of refugees with pixelized faces. I’m sure it’s easier to cover model kindergartenspropaganda exhibitions, and political shrines than concentration camps. It must be easier to cover a staged press conference or a regime-planted “re-defection” story than it is to investigate the truth behind it. And I’m sure that it’s far more lucrative for a wire service to sell KCNA photographs to its subscribers than it is to partner with the world’s bravest journalists to tell its readers how the vast majority of North Korean people actually live.

There’s something awfully hypocritical about journalists who bitch about the very caricatures they perpetuate — caricatures that invariably portray North Koreans as soulless automatons — while brave North Korean guerrilla journalists risk torture and death to defy the state’s limits. Or of academics and reporters who criticize “Western portrayals” of North Koreans, while largely ignoring the evidence that many North Koreans are, in fact, highly intelligent and creative beings who risk their lives to express beauty, love, humor, and even genius.

I don’t want to hear any complaints about caricatures and propaganda from the very people who, in the name of commercial expediency, personal safety, or political motivations, let themselves be led around by nose rings, or who let their minders point their lenses at the caricatures and the propaganda. If you’re tired of the caricature, stop perpetuating it. At the very least, tell the other side of the story. Research the things they tell you in Pyongyang, and juxtapose them against what the extrinsic evidence says. You might even consider the (shocking, to some) premise that behind their survival masks, the people of North Korea are as just as human as we are.

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Associated Press holds another N. Korean propaganda exhibit, this time in Pyongyang

In 2011, the AP and the North Korean government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, signed two memoranda of understanding. One of these memoranda allowed the AP to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, staffed in part by North Korean “journalists” from KCNA. The other provided for a joint commemorative photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA in a New York art gallery, “Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung.” That exhibit portrayed North Korea as a land of cherubic babies, happy people who dance in the streets, and schoolchildren who adore Kim Il Sung. In 2012, the AP promoted that exhibit heavily, but as we’ll soon see, the AP seems to have had second thoughts about its media strategy since then.

The AP has denied repeated requests by journalists to disclose those memoranda, but last year, the intrepid freelance journalist Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft, according to which AP agreed to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government.” Although this does raise concerns about AP’s commitment to its own ethical standards — “[t]he newspaper … should vigorously expose wrongdoing, duplicity or misuse of power;” “report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts;” “be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers” and avoid “[e]ven the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest” — let no one question the AP’s fidelity to its agreements with Pyongyang.

Last week, the AP again joined in a North Korean propaganda exhibit to commemorate another anniversary of political importance to the regime. This time, the event was the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party. In contrast to 2012, however, I searched in vain for any sign that AP had covered, mentioned, given interviews about, or promoted this event. So as a public service, I’ll be the second news source (after KCNA) to tell you about it. KCNA doesn’t have permlinks, so I give you screenshots. (Hat tip to a reader for this, by the way.)

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As the AP itself recently reminded us, governments use imagery of their leaders as propaganda, and when they do, journalists have an obligation to maintain their independence and demand the right to look behind the stage management, without fear or favor. The occasion for this was when the Obama White House passed out photos of the President taken by its own photographer, expecting news services to simply publish them.

The AP has a policy against using White House handout photos unless they are of significant news value and were shot in places to which the press does not expect access, such as private residence areas of the White House. The presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have urged their members to stop using White House handout photos and video, saying they amount to propaganda. [AP]

At the time, the AP’s Vice President and Director of Photography, Santiago Lyon, even wrote a New York Times op-ed under the provocative title, “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control,” expanding on the importance of journalists challenging government control of the imagery readers are allowed to see:

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue. [….]

If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time. [NYT]

Indeed they do. While I have no information to suggest that the AP has republished these particular photographs — rather, it seems to prefer that we didn’t notice at all — it has repeatedly published photographs from KCNA photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, who is detailed to the AP. The AP’s corporate leadership has, more than once, allowed the North Korean government to publicly associate it with propaganda photographs of its leader. I’ll give a few last quotes from the Associated Press Media Editors standards:

Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.

The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy.

It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

Yet again, foreigners come to Pyongyang certain that their presence will be a liberalizing influence. Yet again, it is not Pyongyang’s standards that change; instead, the foreigners subordinate their own standards to Pyongyang’s, and we’re left asking, “Who changed who?”

More posts on the Associated Press’s troubling compromises with North Korea, here.

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Stephens didn’t call for isolation, he called for objectivity and full disclosure (updated).

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:

If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.

Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)

In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point.

Stephens didn’t argue that reporters shouldn’t go to North Korea. He argued that when regimes put express or implied limits on their reporting, they should “spell out what those rules are, so that readers can judge for themselves whether reports … are censored, self-censored, or genuinely comprehensive and unfiltered.” He argued that they should avoid (or at the very least, disclose) regime entanglements and conflicts of interest. He argued that they should be skeptical, not obedient. That if they must submit to self-censorship, they have a duty to tell us that. (Fifield obviously agrees, saying, “In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.”)

Stephens argued that reporter’s duty is to show their readers the subject as it is, not as the regime wants it shown. They should show its reality, not a fraud. That they should not deceive their readers by mislabeling an illusion as “Everyday DPRK.” When other reporters ask them important questions about self-censorship, accuracy, and conflicts of interest, they should answer them, not duck them, or shunt them off to softball interviews.

Above all, journalists shouldn’t lie to us and tell us they aren’t censored when they clearly are. (Because if the AP’s reporting isn’t restricted, why haven’t they gone to Camp 22, interviewed residents of Hoeryong privately, and explained the fate of its prisoners? If AP’s reporters aren’t being censored, it can only mean they simply don’t care.)

Fifield says she has met those standards, and I see no reason to doubt that she has. The AP—the main target of Stephen’s column—has fallen short of all of them, and Fifield offers no defense of how the AP has comported itself. In fact, if you read what Fifield and Stephens are saying about how reporters should behave in North Korea, they’re saying the same things.

If Fifield can follow these basic rules, so can AP. After all, that’s what the AP’s own ethical standards tell it to do. I posit that the AP has made a conscious choice to abandon its standards, obey its minders, and show us the fraudulent illusion the regime wants to show us out of a combination of gullibility and greed. That is how a free press loses the trust of a free people.

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Update: A journalist and reader tells me that Guttenfelder is no longer with the AP, and that it was The New York Times that commissioned this work. It’s worrisome to see the Times’s coverage of North Korea, which was never particularly good, make the same mistakes that have caused so much harm to AP’s reputation for such small rewards.

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WSJ’s Bret Stephens, on the latest rare glimpse of N. Korea: “Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.”

Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”

Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.

I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]

Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Characteristically for an AP alumnus, Guttenfelder won’t answer.*

I wrote Mr. Guttenfelder to ask him about his work in the country, including whether he had ever encountered evidence of malnutrition or human-rights abuses. He did not answer directly but referred me to previous interviews, which emphasize that his work is “uncensored.” That’s quite a claim, given that he admits that he “travels with a guide,” and “I don’t interview people privately.” [….]

Needless to say, none of this crosses Mr. Guttenfelder’s lens. In making the regime seem almost normal, he invites us to forget what it is. Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.

James Pearson of Reuters first identified “rare glimpse” as a cliché of editorial self-promotion, and later as a Twitter meme for Korea-watching cynics. What delights the cynics so much about these “rare glimpses” is that usually, the work thus described isn’t rare at all; it’s simply another case of a journalist going to the effort of obtaining a visa and an airline ticket, obeying her minder’s instructions, and depressing the shutter button as her minder leads her to each stage of a well-worn circuit of propaganda backdrops. This happens to describe Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea perfectly. It is as beautifully composed and visually appealing as it is fraudulent, as much a disgrace to journalism as any words ever written by Walter Duranty.

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* A previous version of this post stated that Guttenfelder shot the photographs in this essay for the Associated Press. A reader informs me that Guttenfelder has left AP after having completed multiple assignments as an AP photojournalist in North Korea. It was The New York Times that commissioned Guttenfelder’s photographs.

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Last year’s analysis proves that this year’s analysis of N. Korea’s New Year speech will also be crap

The worst news of the day is that KCNA is working again. That means that as you read this, somewhere in northwest D.C., America’s best-credentialed astrologers are sifting through a desert of despotism for grains of glasnost.

In line with the requirements of the prevailing situation, the officers and men of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces should sharpen the sword for defending the leader, system and people, and members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards should conduct combat and political training in a real-war atmosphere, thereby beefing up their combat efficiency and getting fully prepared for an all-people resistance so that they can defend their own provinces, counties and villages by themselves.

By carrying out the Party’s line of promoting the two fronts simultaneously, the defence industry sector should step up the efforts to make the munitions production Juche-oriented, modern and scientific and proactively develop and perfect powerful cutting-edge military hardware of our own style.

I have no analysis to offer of the speech itself. To the extent it means anything at all, it looks like a lot of the same old garbage to me — calls for boosting the military, sciences, and agricultural and coal production. Instead, I offer analysis of the analysis, for which last year’s effort is pretty much evergreen, and even includes some examples of past analyses that haven’t held up especially well.

Here is the part of this year’s speech that the natterers they will seize on:

We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the south Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.

And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created. In the future, too, we will make every effort to substantially promote dialogue and negotiations.

Here are Pyongyang’s conditions for that, which most of the natterers (or at least, the ones who will get the most media attention) will assuredly ignore.

The large-scale war games ceaselessly held every year in south Korea are the root cause of the escalating tension on the peninsula and the danger of nuclear war facing our nation. It is needless to say that there can be neither trustworthy dialogue nor improved inter-Korean relations in such a gruesome atmosphere in which war drills are staged against the dialogue partner.

To cling to nuclear war drills against the fellow countrymen in collusion with aggressive outside forces is an extremely dangerous act of inviting calamity.

We will resolutely react against and mete out punishment to any acts of provocation and war moves that infringe upon the sovereignty and dignity of our country.

The south Korean authorities should discontinue all war moves including the reckless military exercises they conduct with foreign forces and choose to ease the tension on the Korean peninsula and create a peaceful environment.

The United States, the very one that divided our nation into two and has imposed the suffering of national division upon it for 70 years, should desist from pursuing the anachronistic policy hostile towards the DPRK and reckless acts of aggression and boldly make a policy switch.

The north and the south should refrain from seeking confrontation of systems while absolutizing their own ideologies and systems but achieve great national unity true to the principle of By Our Nation Itself to satisfactorily resolve the reunification issue in conformity with the common interests of the nation.

If they try to force their ideologies and systems upon each other, they will never settle the national reunification issue in a peaceful way, only bringing confrontation and war.

And here is Pyongyang’s closing thought. Imagine yourself reading this in Chongjin or Hamhung, and try not to weep:

Last year, in the international arena, hostilities and bloodshed persisted in several countries and regions due to the imperialists’ outrageous arbitrariness and undisguised infringement upon their sovereignty, which posed a serious threat to global peace and security.

Especially, owing to the United States’ extremely hostile policy aimed at isolating and suffocating our Republic, the bulwark of socialism and fortress of independence and justice, the vicious cycle of tension never ceased and the danger of war grew further on the Korean peninsula.

The United States and its vassal forces are resorting to the despicable “human rights” racket as they were foiled in their attempt to destroy our self-defensive nuclear deterrent and stifle our Republic by force.

The present situation, in which high-handedness based on strength is rampant and justice and truth are trampled ruthlessly in the international arena, eloquently demonstrates that we were just in our efforts to firmly consolidate our self-reliant defence capability with the nuclear deterrent as its backbone and safeguard our national sovereignty, the lifeblood of the country, under the unfurled banner of Songun.

As long as the enemy persists in its moves to stifle our socialist system, we will consistently adhere to the Songun politics and the line of promoting the two fronts simultaneously and firmly defend the sovereignty of the country and the dignity of the nation, no matter how the international situation and the structure of relations of our surrounding countries may change. On the basis of the revolutionary principles and independent stand, we will expand and develop foreign relations in a multilateral and positive way, giving top priority to the dignity and interests of the country.

Readers are cordially invited to submit particularly ill-supported analysis in the comments, for dissection next year.

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Podcast interview with me on Kim Jong Un

I hope Brad Jackson wasn’t too disappointed, not only by all the ways I found to say, “I don’t know,” but also by my questioning of much of the nonsense stories that so many “news” and listicle sites have propagated about North Korea lately. If you “know” less by the end of the interview than at the beginning, I’ll feel that I’ve done some good.

The proliferation of so much superficial nonsense must be more than a function of its inexhaustible supply. I suppose it’s also a function of our psychological need for a shield of amusement and condescension to protect us from the dreadful truth. I wonder if the inflexibly wishful thinking of so many scholars is a different expression of the same need.

The latest example of this is The Daily Mail’s exclusive report that Kim Jong Un actually disappeared for 40 days because he was being fitted with a gastric band. It’s almost certainly fiction, but fiction for mere profit still occupies a higher ethical plane than fiction for propaganda.

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North Korea ranks 197th out of 197 countries for press freedom this year,

… according to Freedom House.

Remember 2011, when Pyongyang’s deal with the Associated Press was supposed to usher in a new era of press freedom in North Korea? Wouldn’t it be great if one of the AP’s editors or correspondents would sit for an interview, review how that’s worked out, and answer hard questions about the North Korean regime’s restrictions on the access and coverage? I don’t mean softball interviews like this; I mean the kind of hard questions that make them execute evasive maneuvers, or walk away in a huff.

Come to think of it, we may need a whole new system to rank the press freedom of news agencies. I wonder how engagement with North Korea has affected the AP’s ranking.

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A young Korean-American activist has started a campaign to push the BBC…

to start broadcasting to North Korea. His name is Youngchan Justin Choi, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting his campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Choi, the financial cost of broadcasting to North Korea would be just a few million dollars — a tiny amount. When a publicly funded global media conglomerate refuses to broadcast to a country where the need is as great as it is in North Korea, I start to wonder what other motives are left unsaid. If we see the BBC open a Pyongyang Bureau next year, we’ll have our answer.

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Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

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I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [….]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

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Is Yonhap disinforming us about China and crude oil?

If they keep feeding us the same false story after it’s been debunked, perhaps a little paranoia is in order. Again, the report is that China hasn’t export any crude oil to North Korea. The report is based on KOTRA statistics that show no crude oil shipments — which may or may not go unreported as “donations” — but those statistics also show a sharp rise in exports of refined petroleum products like diesel and jet fuel.

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Update: NK News has more information that debunks Yonhap’s story. Apparently, North Korea is also getting fuel from a spiteful Russia now. Why does Yonhap want us to believe this? I suppose the most likely explanation is just a reporters’ careless reading of the KOTRA statistics, but it does cross my mind that someone might want Americans to believe that China is finally putting pressure on North Korea.

If I were to pick a pressure point against North Korea, however, it wouldn’t be fuel, which has dual-use applications, including the growing and transportation of food. A fuel cut-off would hurt too many of the wrong people.

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John Kerry was right about North Korea (and so was John Bolton)

More than six months after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found Kim Jong Un responsible for crimes against humanity, our State Department has offered no credible or coherent policy response to that report. At least it hadn’t until last week, when our Secretary of State, John Kerry — no doubt, after much agonizing deliberation — finally authorized the deployment of precision-guided tactical ballistic words:

“But make no mistake, we are also speaking out about the horrific human rights situation,” Kerry said. “We strongly supported the extraordinary United Nation’s investigation this year that revealed other grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down, not tomorrow, not next week, but now, and we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said.

Kerry also said that the U.S. “will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia without arrogance but also without apology.” [Yonhap]

North Korea’s reaction to this was predictable and characteristic. It accused John Kerry of being a neocon pursuing a regime change agenda through fabricated accusations.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry let loose a spate of invectives against the DPRK over its “human rights issue” in a speech on the U.S. “Asia policy” held in Hawaii recently.

Unfit for his position, Kerry pulled up the DPRK, telling sheer lies and citing groundless data. This is the most undisguised expression of the U.S. inveterate repugnancy and hostile policy toward the DPRK. [….]

Lurking behind this is a sinister political aim to tarnish the DPRK’s image at any cost and stir up the international understanding that its social system is the object to be removed by force of arms in a bid to justify the U.S. and south Korean warmongers’ military threat. 

In recent years the U.S. has become noisy in its anti-DPRK “human rights” racket not because of any sincere interest in improving “human rights” but in pursuance of its design to bring down the social system of the DPRK under the pretext of “human rights issue”. [….]

In the DPRK the popular masses enjoy genuine rights as true masters of the country and human rights are strictly guaranteed by the state law. [Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang)]

In a separate Korean-language piece, which did not translate into English very well, North Korea called Kerrya wolf with a ‘hideous lantern jaw.’” North Korea’s derogation of the appearance of foreign leaders is odd, given that its propagandists have inadvertently acknowledged their absolute monarch’s resemblance to a post-op Chaz Bono.

Still, let’s at least be objective enough to acknowledge that both Kerry and the North Koreans make valid points. Our Secretary does look a bit like Jay Leno — if Harry Reid had embalmed him — and such a fearsome mandible might just be capable of masticating unshelled Brazil nuts. I could go on, but I’ve done enough work for the North Koreans for one night.

Of course, it is Kerry who speaks the greater part of the truth. Not only were his assertions true, but it was important for him to make them, because by failing to make them, he would have acceded to one of the greatest outrages of our age. I don’t think John Kerry has been a very good Secretary of State — for example, I’m skeptical that he’ll execute a North Korea policy that goes beyond talk — but differences of policy shouldn’t divide us so much that they blind us to what is true and what must be said, no matter who says it, and regardless of one’s party affiliation, preference, or bias.

Mr Bolton said that while Kim Jong-il lived like royalty, for millions of his people, life was a “hellish nightmare”. “While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food,” he said. [BBC]

Naturally, Kerry was statesmanlike enough to join with his colleague across the aisle and associate himself with this necessary denunciation. Right?

At a critical moment with North Korea, in a speech that he gave in Seoul, that he attacked Kim Jung-Il, whom we all attacked, we all dislike, we all recognize is, you know, someone we’d love to see removed or in a different–you know, not leading that country; but, on the other hand, at this critical moment, to almost 50 times in one speech personally vilify him, was to almost guarantee the outcome of the diplomatic effort that he was engaged in. [Sen. Exec. Rept. 109-1, May 18, 2005]

By now, you’ve guessed that the critic was then-Senator John Kerry, in a confirmation hearing on John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Most of the news coverage of Bolton at the time largely mirrored Kerry’s criticism. It was cited as a reason for calling Bolton “controversial” and “an iconoclast” who “shattered diplomatic niceties and stirred anger.” Hardly a word was written about the temperamental immaturity of North Korea’s language.

There is, of course, no such reaction to Kerry’s tiff with the North Koreans in the newspapers today, nor should there be. So what justifies the distinction? If the moment (2003) when Bolton spoke those words was critical, the words themselves don’t seem to have spoiled the diplomatic ambience too badly. After calling Bolton a “scum and human bloodsucker” and refusing further negotiations with him, North Korea negotiated with another diplomat more to its liking instead. At the time, The New York Times said that Bolton’s absence was “to the relief of North Korean officials and not a few State Department colleagues” (colleagues of whom?). But let’s pick that back up again in a moment.

If we are not at an equally critical moment today, it is only because the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy — to the extent there is a policy at all — is so completely stalled, and North Korea has shown no interest in returning to the talks that our Secretary of State is waiting for it to show up for. Other than that, the clearest difference between Kerry’s statement and Bolton’s is that only one of them was made by the Secretary of State.

I don’t deny that the Bush policy on human rights in North Korea was also all talk, and I also recognize the Bush Administration’s responsibility for deepening the difficulty of Obama and Kerry’s position, if only because it eventually adopted a policy very much like the one that Kerry had advocated.

Ironically, the outcome that Kerry hoped for in May 2005 was North Korea’s signature on an agreement to disarm. The Bush Administration would not only achieve that very outcome four months later, it would also achieve it all over again in 2007! If that sounds like an outstanding record, it isn’t. Let’s just hope that Kerry isn’t vilifying Kim Jong Il’s son and heir today as part of his master plan to guarantee an equally successful outcome.

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Update: The State Department declines to respond to North Korea’s comments.

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Also, Rimjin-gang did it better seven months ago, so there’s that.

Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, denied the opportunity to do reporting of the apartment collapse story by his North Korean hosts and partners last May, offers an honest assessment of the unknowns as the next best thing, three months after the fact. Despite Talmadge’s obviously earnest effort, he doesn’t quite succeed, but least he’s willing to raise some hard questions about North Korea’s construction boom:

In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo. Housing, however, hits closer to home.

Good for Talmadge for having the guts to raise that, and yes, it was the correct decision to report what he could report, despite those handicaps. But in the end, writing about news you didn’t report is known as blogging.

And it is possible to do reporting about North Korea. Look what NK News was able to report about the collapse without a physical presence, and what Rimjin-gang’s guerrilla correspondent reported about the shoddy construction methods clandestinely, at the risk of his life, four months before the building fell.

If Talmadge is walking the tightrope I think he is, Access to Pyongyang has done more to impede the quality of AP’s reporting than to advance it. Talmadge, who clearly wants to tell his readers the truth, has the gross misfortunate of working for the Comcast of news services. So much for the AP opening a window into North Korea.

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