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. Only I already knew that my counterpoint would be circumcised and swaddled in its unread depths. I missed this briss, and I’m glad I did.
Now that Mr. MacDonald’s work has validated my worst fears about it, and now that the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian have sown his agitprop around the world without bothering to check its numerous misstatements of fact, misquotations, and mischaracterizations, I feel a sense of duty to help the truth get its pants on and zipped. If that image isn’t already awkward enough, I even find myself in the unfamiliar position of defending the U.S. State Department for doing something that’s legal, moral, and potentially good policy.
What the solicitation says.
Let’s review the wording of the solicitation, which Mr. MacDonald claims to have given “a close reading.” Its objectives include:
- Strengthening international campaigns that increase awareness and advocacy for North Korea human rights.
- Strengthening the capacity of non-Western organizations that mobilize action for human rights in North Korea in their countries;
- Amplifying efforts to document abuses within, and focus attention and action on North Korea’s political prison camp system, including the fate of disappeared persons in North Korea;
- Raising awareness of democratic principles, including addressing workers’ rights, disability rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and other rights;
- Strengthening the capacity of organizations documenting human rights and labor rights abuses in the DPRK.
So far, not one of these objectives necessarily involves people, things, or information crossing North Korea’s borders, with the possible exception of refugees (whose exodus presumably isn’t driven by the lure of grant funding). The specific language that gives Mr. MacDonald his case of the vapors, however, is this:
- Promoting access to information into, out of, and within North Korea. Projects can include the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea. Content should include informative and engaging ways to educate and shape North Korean understanding and attitudes toward human rights and democratic principles.
State’s proposal includes “the production of media” and “methods to send information into North Korea,” but doesn’t specify how it would be sent. To the extent the solicitation contemplates the physical (as opposed to the virtual) movement of information across the border, it could just as well harness the markets and smuggling networks that have been moving DVDs into North Korea for years.
What the solicitation doesn’t say.
Where the solicitation doesn’t support MacDonald’s argument, he misquotes it and mutilates its meaning so that it does. He claims, for example, that it “strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects” — period, no ellipsis. In fact, the full sentence actually reads, “DRL strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects unless they have an explicit component related to the requested program objectives listed above.”
It’s hard to see how one could inadvertently lose half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original language. McDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Riechel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Riechel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)
This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.
McDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument, however, is a creation of McDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.
(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)
It’s hard to see how one inadvertently loses half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original. MacDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Reichel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Reichel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)
This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.
MacDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument is largely a creation of MacDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.
(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we had imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)
The first 800 words of MacDonald’s article quote two experts, both sympathetic to his own view.
“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”
But the thinking through of likely consequences is supposed to happen after the proposals are submitted — after State knows what they are and who is making them. Furthermore, DRL has published detailed grant evaluation criteria that explicitly require consideration of the possible consequences:
In particularly challenging operating environments, proposals should include contingency plans for overcoming potential difficulties in executing the original work plan and address any operational or programmatic security concerns and how they will be addressed.
If you really do give the solicitation a careful read, you’ll see the link to those evaluation criteria, but in his haste to accuse the State Department of recklessness, MacDonald overlooked it. Hoare must also have thought that the argument was too good to check. He eagerly accused the State of giving “no consideration” to the risks. It’s easy enough to see why. Hoare makes no secret of his view that what he calls “the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you like), was not producing any benefits for anybody.”
Evidently, promoting freedom of information inside North Korea — or as you might also describe it, engagement with the North Korean people — is too confrontational for Hoare’s taste. (Never mind the perfectly awful record of “reforming” North Korea by propping up its regime, complete with its steadily advancing nuclear programs and its crimes against humanity, with hard currency.)
I don’t need to tell you that the U.S. government is capable of screwing anything up, of course, but that’s beside the point. Nothing in this solicitation suggests that it calls on foreigners to engage in the sort of risky smuggling that MacDonald is talking about. The only contraband these putative grantees would be carrying is the straw from which MacDonald built them.
This kind of engagement could save lives.
On the other hand, thousands of North Koreans are already risking their lives to cross North Korea’s borders now — as traders, refugees, smugglers, migrant workers, and guerrilla journalists. Information flows in and out of North Korea with this commerce, all of which already involves the risk of imprisonment and death. The guerrilla journalists face the greatest risk, because they’re willing to risk their lives to tell us the truth about their country.
This is dangerous, and if I get caught, I know I’d immediately be executed as a traitor to the Korean people. But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday, something is going to change.
– a North Korean guerrilla journalist
[PBS Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea]
Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea has been cracking down on cross-border trade, information flows, and refugees — successfully. North Korea and China have built hundreds of miles of fencing along their shared border. North Korea recently set up checkpoints in (among other places) a hospital and a hotel across the Chinese border to try to stop illegal border-crossers. It has chilled cross-border travel. It has brought in a small army of junior petty despots from Pyongyang to rat on the locals in the border regions. Armed with signal trackers, it is hunting down users of illegal Chinese cell phones — users who include traders, smugglers, conductors on North Korea’s underground railroad, and the guerrilla correspondents of the Daily NK, Free North Korea Radio, and Rimjingang. By most accounts, this crackdown is working. Gradually, our independent sources of information about North Korea, and North Koreans’ independent sources of information about us, are being snuffed out.
Kim Jong Un isn’t doing those things because he wants to open North Korea to the world and reform it. He’s doing them because he wants to wall out outside information and commerce that he doesn’t control. He knows that these cracks in North Korea’s information blockade have changed North Korea more in five years than a century of leash-and-collar exchange programs could.
More than anything, independent markets have had a profound impact on North Korea’s food crisis. Some scholars have argued that food supplied by markets did more to end the Great Famine than international aid. Today, about 80% of North Koreans now depend on these markets for their livelihoods. But markets will never reach their potential as agents of change and food security until they can tap into a free flow of information.
Technology could also provide safer, less detectable, and perhaps completely virtual paths across North Korea’s borders. Some of these have the potential to obliterate North Korea’s information blockade. That would save, not endanger, the lives of guerrilla journalists — and their comrades, and their families. It could help us understand of the true state of humanitarian conditions in North Korea, and focus our response at a time of rising donor fatigue. It could help markets and growers respond to shortages and feed the hungry, and even lead to the formation of clandestine humanitarian NGOs, labor unions, clinics, and churches. Continue reading »