Archive for Useful Idiocy

Dennis Rodman, back from rehab, recounts hallucinations from last visit to Pyongyang

So Dennis Rodman is out of rehab and talking to the media again. In this interview, he’s described as “a potential source of information about a country that is inaccessible to most of the world,” so let’s test that.

Rodman’s first major revelation is that Jang Song Thaek wasn’t really executed several weeks before Rodman’s last trip to Pyongyang. In fact, Rodman says that on his last trip, Jang was “standing right behind me.”

Also, Kim Jong Un is “doing everything for these people” by building them the things they need most, like a ski resort and a water park. Asked again about North Korea’s political prison camps, Rodman said, “You name any country in the world… Which country does not have that shit? Every country has that.” Noted.

Somewhere in Langley, a CIA officer is putting down his pen, folding up his pad, and shaking his head in silent pity.

Can Rodman at least give us a lucid response to questions about his reported legal troubles for violating sanctions regulations?

DR: When I go there, it’s going to be a problem coming back. Because they could actually stop me from coming back. They could actually pull my passport. They already told me that. They’re afraid of me because I know so much.

DJ: “They” being…?

DR: Americans. Our government. They’ve got to be careful what they say, what they do, so I respect that. But for me, I mean, it’s freedom of speech. I’m not hurting anybody, I’m not putting anybody in danger, I’m just telling what I see. I have that leverage now that no one in the world has.

DJ: Is it true you’re being indicted by the U.S. Treasury?

DR: They want to indict me. And I’m like, “For what?” Treason. They’ve threatened me. They said I gave his wife a fur coat, a dress, I gave all these gifts. I was like, “I did? No I didn’t!”

I have to say, I’m disappointed that no one asked Rodman about the apocryphal report that he chundered and shat his way through the Koryo Hotel.

More consistent with expert opinion is the observation that Kim’s wife “don’t dress like a typical [North] Korean.” “She likes Gucci, Versace.” Oh, and North Korea wants a peace treaty, and to keep its nukes. What can we conclude from all of this? That they have yet to invent a rehab for what ails Dennis Rodman.

Eagerly awaiting Christine Ahn’s reaction to North Korea’s sexism and homophobia

Now that North Korea’s state media have called South Korea’s female president a “whore,” a “prostitute,” a “crazy bitch,” and a “comfort woman,” no one will ever have to invent sexism again to deflect criticism of North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and whoever does will, from this date forward, have to argue her away around real, vicious, state-sponsored misogyny.

What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [....]

She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]

Separately, the Rodong Sinmun called Park a “political whore” who had “oil[ed] her tongue on Obama.” In the last month, North Korea has also called Park a “crazy bitch” and “human scum,” and overflown her residence with reconnaissance UAVs. It called her (admittedly implausible) reunification plan “a psychopath’s dream” and told her to “keep[] her disgusting mouth closed.” And as I noted at the time, North Korea called Park “a political prostitute” last November.

Where to begin? I suppose equally statesmanlike ideas can heard at police booking desks anywhere, from men who have been arrested for violating restraining orders, although in every “Cops” episode I’ve seen, the censors left a bit more to the imagination. (Also, those men didn’t learn their English in Pyongyang.) In any event, it’s safe to conclude that the charm offensive and that anti-”slander” deal are both over.

No self-described feminist can ever overlook this language without forfeiting either her claim to feminism or her credibility. In case you wonder, this is not an empty hypothesis. I can name at least one self-described feminist (and maybe one more) who has overlooked this, will almost assuredly continue to do so, and is occasionally invited to appear on broadcasts whose audiences must number in the hundreds (also, Al Jazeera). Something tells me Pyongyang’s latest isn’t a deal-breaker for her. Or, for that matter, for Al Jazeera.

Now, unlike the reporters at AFP, I didn’t find where KCNA allegedly called our African-American President a “pimp,” but “fancy man” suggests as much, and invokes crude racial and sexual stereotypes of pimps in purple leisure suits that even North Korean propaganda writers can’t be ignorant of. Only North Korea could get away with language like this. (I wonder what Dennis Rodman thinks about it. No, on further thought, I suppose I don’t.)

I offer no opinion as to whether these words lower KCNA’s own bar after last week’s homophobic slurs against Justice Kirby. But I do hope Stephen Bosworth and Robert Gallucci read this part:

The outcome of Obama’s south Korean junket clearly proved that the DPRK was entirely just when it judged and determined that it should counter the U.S., the sworn enemy, by force only, not just talking, and should finally settle accounts with it through an all-out nuclear showdown. 

Oh, and North Korea is saying that it’s done with South Korea as long as Park is President.

There is no remedy for Park and there is nothing to expect from her as far as the inter-Korean relations are concerned as long as she remains a boss of Chongwadae. [....]

Genes remain unchanged. Needless to say, her present behavior suggests that her fate will be just the same as that of her father Park Chung Hee who met a miserable death after being forsaken by his master and public while crying out for “unification by prevailing over communism” and “unification by stamping out communism”. 

The DPRK will never pardon anyone who dares challenge its dignity, social system and its line of simultaneously developing the two fronts, the statement warned. 

On a related note, North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, also threatened a preemptive attack and to obliterate South Korea this week. Discuss among yourselves.

Oh, and North Korea’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-il, enlarged the definition of diplomacy recently by saying that “Pyongyang has drawn a ‘red line’ for the U.S.,” accused arch-neocon Barack Obama of being “hell-bent on regime change,” and said that “[t]he U.S. itself may be in danger if it keeps denying our self-defensive military measures.” (Ri also said that there “are no [human rights] abuses” in North Korea, and that North Korea has “best social system in the world.”)

It’s sad to consider that somewhere in this world, the composition of such language is deemed a talent that qualifies a person for high diplomatic office. But these are, after all, just words. The more important feminist grievances against North Korea ought to be against petty despotisms like forbidding women from wearing pants or riding bicycles, or telling them what hairstyles they can wear, or the greater despotisms that deny them their life’s aspirations and force them into sexual slavery instead.

Feds investigating Rodman for violating N. Korea sanctions

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

U.S. Commerce ** 2014-01-10 at 12.48.39 PM

You’re welcome, feds! Email me and we’ll do coffee sometime. On me.

Hey … isn’t that video of Dennis Rodman personally giving banned luxury goods to Kim Jong Un?

Skip to the two-minute mark. Well, that certainly looks incriminating. (Hat tip to a reader.)

[I guess he picked the wrong week to quit drinking.]

If you haven’t read my post explaining the ban on importing luxury goods to North Korea, you should probably start there.* And since you ask, yes, as a matter of fact, I do believe the bottles are engraved with likenesses of Kim and Rodman.

Just to be clear, I don’t think Dennis Rodman should do time over five bottles of liquor, but when you flaunt your disregard for the law, you almost force the feds to do something about it, even if that something is a modest civil penalty and a Cautionary Letter.

Of course, five bottles of liquor may not be quite the full extent of it, either. Chad O’Carroll at NK News has done some first-rate investigation of this story. Don’t miss this one — it’s an absolute must-read.

It’s hard to watch something this … insane and not laugh. Try harder; so will I. The luxury goods ban is in place because most of the other 23 million North Koreans are living on the verge of starvation while this tiny oligarchy lives like this. There’s nothing funny about that.

 

* Or, you can watch it on Arirang News, whose report uses language nearly identical to my post, but spares me the burden of attribution. Start at 1:45. You’re welcome.

So, Dennis — other than that, how is the trip going so far?

Dennis Rodman’s September trip to North Korea included a trip to Kim’s yacht near Wonsan, which Rodman described as “like going to Hawaii or Ibiza.” Evidently, this trip hasn’t been as pleasant:

A day after the former basketball star sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and led a squad of former NBA players in a friendly game, Rodman issued the apology through publicist Jules Feiler in an email message to The Associated Press.

“I want to apologize,” Rodman said. “I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.

“I want to first apologize to Kenneth Bae’s family. I want to apologize to my teammates and my management team. I also want to apologize to Chris Cuomo. I embarrassed a lot of people. I’m very sorry. At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.” [AP]

Even Kim Jong Un appears to have been taken by surprise when Rodman burst into “Happy Birthday.” And Max Fisher, who often emphasizes the quirky aspects of North Korea, thinks “Rodman may have crossed some sort of line,” and has reached “the point where what he’s doing stops being funny and becomes something more serious.”

So, to summarize — Rodman has fallen off the wagon, made himself into a national pariah, driven away some of the retired players who joined his tour, hardened global attitudes against his new best pal, and quite possibly freaked out Kim Jong Un himself — which may be the most unwise thing he’s done all week.

If anyone asks Rodman what he gave Kim Jong Un for his birthday, we might also learn whether he’s also in legal trouble for violating U.S. sanctions laws.

But at least he still has Jesse Jackson, who isn’t wrong when he says that Rodman is the reason we’re talking about North Korea. And to be fair here, a lot of us have piled on Rodman for not talking about human rights, but he is, after all, just a washed-up basketball player. What people are really upset about is Rodman’s effusive and cretinous affection for a mass murderer. If Rodman had just stuck with the story that he’s not a diplomat and that’s not his job, plenty of people would have accepted that.

As Rodman implies, it’s the diplomats who are responsible for talking to Kim Jong Un about human rights. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un isn’t willing to meet with them, and the specific person whose job it is to “promote and coordinate North Korean human rights and humanitarian issues“ is a nice, quiet man you’ve never heard of because he’s wholly ineffective in that role, because he’s trying not to rock any diplomatic boats (or, if you prefer, yachts).

But strategic silence isn’t going to change North Korea or achieve our national interests. We brought Iran back to the bargaining table by sanctioning it to the edge of extinction. Why not North Korea? Because the Obama Administration has no North Korea policy, and its sanctions against North Korea are pale shadow of our sanctions against Iran. Our sanctions against Iran were forced down the Obama Administration’s throat by Congress. Hopefully, that will happen with North Korea next.

But what then? Even when our diplomats do meet with the North Koreans, they do everything they can to sideline, bury, and marginalize the question of human rights. Rodman certainly is the easiest target here, but the smarminess of our diplomats, the incompetence of the Obama Administration, and — above all — the atrocious conduct of Kim Jong Un himself are really more deserving of serious criticism.

[Update: This post has been corrected to note that Rodman's "Ibiza" experience in Wonsan was in September 2013, and not his "last" trip to North Korea (which was in December). Oh, and it was Rodman, not Kim Jong Un, who sang "Happy Birthday" to Kim Jong Un.]

And now, a long list of people who think Dennis Rodman is a tool.

Update: Jesus wept (hat tip):

~  ~  ~

Charles D. Smith, one of the former players who went to Pyongyang with Dennis Rodman, is still in Pyongyang, but he’s already saying he feels “remorse” for going because of the public backlash against the trip, and because of Rodman’s mouth:

“The way some of the statements and things that Dennis has said has tainted our efforts,” Smith said. “Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on — he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later.”

[....]

“I feel bad for Dennis, I feel bad for the players,” Smith said afterward, adding that when he played for the United States in the 1988 Olympics he felt elation. “I felt huge, I felt on top of the world. But I feel the reverse now,” he said. “I feel a lot of remorse for the guys because we are doing something positive, but it’s a lot bigger than us. We are not naive, we understand why things are being portrayed the way they are. We can’t do anything about that, if we could we would. 

“We’re not skilled in those particular areas,” he added. “Dennis is definitely not skilled in those particular areas.”

Smith isn’t the only one:

Many of the players on Tuesday expressed second thoughts about going ahead because of an outpouring of criticism back home in the United States.

As of yesterday, both the NBA and the National Basketball Retired Players’ Association had publicly denounced the trip.

I know I’ve already reported on the press event with Suzanne Scholte, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and Rep. Elliot Engel, but I have to link Time’s report on that event, which notes that Engel “is working on bipartisan legislation to expand and enforce sanctions on North Korea.” Also joining Engel were “a mother and daughter who escaped North Korea.” The daughter said this:

Jo Jin Hye, a 26-year-old North Korean escapee who fled the country with her mother and sister and now lives in Virginia, echoed the appeal to call off the match. Jo had previously testified before a United Nations commission on human rights abuses in the country.

“I want to say, NBA player people, please don’t make Kim Jong Un happy. And I want to say if you want to help North Korea, just help normal people like us. Just the North Korean people, not the North Korean government,” he said.

Next up, Kenneth Bae’s sister, who really should be doing more interviews and making more public statements about her brother:

His sister, Terri Chung, told Anderson Cooper 360 that Rodman’s comments were shocking and outrageous. But she said she was upset because Rodman didn’t use his relationship with Kim to help gain her brother’s release from the hospital. “He was in a position to do some good and to help advocate for Kenneth,” she said. “He refused to do so. But then instead he has chosen to hurl these outrageous accusations against Kenneth. He clearly doesn’t know anything about Kenneth, about his case. And so we were appalled by that.”

She said her brother was in North Korea legally working as a tour operator. She hoped one of the former basketball players would take a chance to ask for amnesty for him. “This isn’t some game. This is about a person’s life,” she said. [CNN]

The White House piles on:

“I did not see some of the comments that Mr. Rodman made, but I am not going to dignify that outburst with a response,” Carney added. “I am simply going to say that we remain gravely concerned about Kenneth Bae’s health and continue to urge the DPRK authorities to grant his amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.” [CNN]

I’ll close with the most surprising source of criticism.

Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN he was “disappointed” by Rodman’s performance. I think Dennis Rodman crossed a line this morning by implying that Kenneth Bae might be guilty, by suggesting that there was a crime,” the politician said. “There is no crime. Kenneth Bae is an American detainee that’s been there a year in bad health, who deserves to come home.”

He said Rodman “drank a little bit too much of the Kool-Aid from the North Koreans.” [CNN]

Anything to stay relevant, I suppose.

Thanks to Dennis Rodman, several hundred million more people now know that North Korea is one of the world’s worst human rights violators, has a massive gulag system, is inhabited by shrunken, half-starved people, and is led by an impulsive, morbidly obese playboy. Keep on rocking, Dennis.

Source: Dennis Rodman brought luxury gifts to Kim Jong Un (and that’s punishable by 20 years in prison).

Writing at The Weekly Standard today, Dennis Halpin informs us that Dennis Rodman (no relation) was bringing more than his august presence to Kim Jong Un’s birthday party. Halpin, citing a “diplomatic source” he understandably won’t name but says is reliable, claims that Rodman was also carrying “several hundred dollars’ worth of Irish Jameson whiskey,” “European crystal, an Italian suit for him, and Italian clothing, a fur coat, and an English Mulberry handbag” for Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju.

The level of detail here is compelling. According to Halpin’s source, the total value of the gifts is “well over $10,000.” Halpin is a former U.S. Consul in Busan, Korea, a former House committee staffer, a scholar at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, and (full disclosure) a good friend of mine. I trust Dennis Halpin, but I obviously can’t vouch for the source who provided him the information. The circumstances would suggest that the source’s government collected detailed intelligence, which it now seeks to publicize. Furthermore, Halpin’s information is only current up to the point of Rodman’s arrival in Beijing, so it doesn’t prove that Rodman actually brought his gifts into North Korea.

Those questions, however, should be easy to answer. Ask Dennis Rodman anything and he’ll talk. The man can’t keep his mouth shut.

In his article, Halpin notes that bringing luxury goods into North Korea is prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions (several of them, in fact). Those sanctions were first imposed in 2006, after North Korea’s first nuclear test, as a response to Kim Jong Il’s obscene luxury purchases as his people went hungry. Most North Koreans starve to death out of sight and out of mind, but a North Korean guerrilla journalist did film this victim in June 2010, a few months before her decomposed body was found in the fields nearby.

A U.N. report recently found that 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat, yet Kim Jong Un recently spent $300 millionthree times what the World Food Program recently asked foreign governments to donate to feed hungry North Koreans — on such amenities as a ski resort, a water park, a dolphinarium, an amusement park, and a 3-D cinema.

But since when has anyone enforced a U.N. resolution against North Korea? For example, if Chinese customs inspected Rodman’s gifts and let them onto the flight for Pyongyang, that should tell you all you need to know about China’s compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions it voted for.

~  ~  ~

Unfortunately for Rodman, in 2010, President Obama signed an implementing executive order, Executive Order 13,551, that provides for some harsh penalties for any U.S. person found “to have, directly or indirectly, imported, exported, or reexported luxury goods to or into North Korea.”

Executive Order 13,551 is promulgated under the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. app. sec. 1701 et seq., and authorizes the Treasury Department “to employ all powers granted to the President” under the IEEPA to enforce it. As Treasury makes clear, those powers include the criminal penalties provided in Section 206 of the IEEPA, including up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $1,000,000. There are also civil penalties.

The definition of “luxury goods” is found at Supplement 1 to 15 C.F.R. Part 746. Rodman’s gifts clearly fall within the proscribed categories. In fact, according to Section 746.4 of that Part, licenses for the export of “designer clothing,” “fashion accessories,” and “wine and other alcoholic beverages” to North Korea are subject to “a general policy of denial.”

Although exports to North Korea are not always prohibited, they must be licensed by the Treasury Department. Treasury imposes export licensing requirements on sanctioned countries to ensure that U.S. exports don’t provide targeted governments with sensitive technology or violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, which the U.S. is obligated to enforce. Violations of Executive Order 13,551 are also prohibited under a Treasury regulation, 31 C.F.R. sec. 510.201(b).

The fact that these were gifts seems to be of little consequence. The executive order prohibits imports, exports, and reexports, and doesn’t make the payment of compensation a necessary element of a violation.

(As I noted recently, U.S. sanctions against North Korea are actually much, much weaker than those pertaining to Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Burma. They are more analogous to our sanctions against Belarus and Zimbabwe. Although North Korea is holding one U.S. citizen captive and recently held another for several weeks over his Korean War service, there are no travel sanctions preventing U.S. citizens from visiting North Korea.)

Rodman, who has compared North Korea’s political prison camps to prisons in the United States, could soon gain some first-hand experience in (at least) one side of that equation.

Halpin also alleges that Irish bookmaker Paddy Power financed Rodman’s trip due to contractual obligations. Financing Rodman’s trip wouldn’t necessarily mean that Paddy Power financed luxury gifts to Kim Jong Un, but under EU sanctions regulations, it is prohibited “to sell, supply, transfer or export, directly or indirectly, luxury goods” to North Korea, including high quality “spirits and spirituous beverages,” “handbags and similar articles,” “garments,” and “lead crystal glassware.”

I don’t know if Rodman had an export license for his gifts, of course. If he did, that should be a scandal for the Treasury Department that issued the license, the State Department that denied any U.S. government involvement in Rodman’s trip, and the administration.

I strongly doubt, however, that Rodman had a license. If I’m right about that, and if Rodman exported those items into North Korea, he’d be well advised to stop talking and lawyer up. Having done a fair amount of criminal defense work in the Army, however, it’s my experience that criminal suspects almost never understand this intuitively. In Rodman’s case, it’s especially doubtful that his good sense can suppress his compulsion to attract attention. And if you saw this today, you’d be hard pressed to disagree:

[The expressions on the faces of the other players: priceless.]

My guess is that any reporter who simply asks Rodman what he carried to North Korea will elicit an admissible, and probably incriminating, statement.

Having said this, I’ve already explained why Rodman has, inadvertently, done a tremendous service for the cause of human rights in North Korea by unwittingly publicizing the horrors there. More importantly, his association with Kim Jong Un is likely discrediting the North Korean dictator among his minions, and could even hasten his downfall.

Given the choice, I would rather see Rodman stigmatized and shunned as an international imbecile-at-large than made into a martyr for his ideas, however repellent. Ideally, the feds would fine him just enough to keep him from profiting from his endorsements, but not enough to keep him from going back to Pyongyang, while running his mouth all the way there and back.

Update:  According to North Korea’s official “news” service, “Rodman presented Kim Jong Un with a gift he prepared with the deepest respect for him.” No further details.

Lifestyles of the Deeply Stupid, Pyongyang Edition (or, Dennis Rodman, the accidental activist)

Despite the loss of his sponsor, Dennis Rodman is back in Pyongyang with several other NBA has-beens for what Rodman calls a “birthday present” basketball exhibition game for Kim Jong Un. Rodman appears to be taking his talking points directly from KCNA:

“The marshal is actually trying to change this country in a great way,” Rodman said of Kim, using the leader’s official title. “I think that people thought that this was a joke, and Dennis Rodman is just doing this because fame and fortune.” Instead, he said, he sees the game as a “birthday present” for Kim and his country. “Just to even have us here, it’s an awesome feeling. I want these guys here to show the world, and speak about North Korea in a great light,” he said. “I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.” [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Separately, as he was departing from Beijing, Rodman said this:

“It’s about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea,” Rodman told The Associated Press in an interview outside his hotel before heading to the Beijing airport with the team. “People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad.” [Fox News / AP]

I think Anderson Cooper said it best when he called Rodman “deeply stupid.”

When a reporter from Sky News suggested to Rodman that he had a responsibility to raise the issue of human rights as the only American with such access to the  North Korea leader, Rodman responded “That’s not my job. The only thing I am doing right now, I am only doing one thing: this game is for his birthday. It’s for his birthday. “And I hope that if this opens doors and we can actually talk about certain things, then we can do certain things, but I am not going to sit there and go in and say ‘Hey guy, you’re doing the wrong thing.’” “That’s not the right thing to do. He’s my friend first. He’s my friend. I don’t give a (expletive). I tell the world: he’s my (expletive) friend, I love him.”

[....]

When asked if he was aware of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea, Rodman answered “Are you aware that lots of people in America is locked up like that too?”   [Fox News / AP]

Is that so, Dennis? Locked up like this? In a way, Rodman is an archetype of visitors to North Korea. The more contact he has with the place, the less he seems to know about it.

Rodman denies he’s doing this for the money, of course. He claims that “proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea,” which raises the same questions we’ve been debating since Medicins Sans Frontieres left North Korea 20 years ago over its inability to monitor the distribution of its aid. What Rodman didn’t deny, however, was what he’s making from endorsements and other downstream affects of being an attention whore. But there is growing evidence that Rodman is becoming toxic.

NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement Monday night. “The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department,” Stern said. “Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”

Jesse Jackson, who initially sent out two tweets supportive of Rodman, later deleted at least one of them.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the North Korean Freedom Coalition teamed up on Monday to hold a press conference to denounce Rodman’s visit. They were joined by one of the finest human beings on Capitol Hill today, New York Democrat Rep. Elliot Engel, who is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, held a public event in New York Monday to urge a group of ex-NBA players to boycott an upcoming basketball game in Pyongyang. They were joined by two North Korean defectors in the event hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization.

Dennis Rodman and several other NBA old-timers are in the reclusive communist nation for a match against a North Korean team on Wednesday to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong-un. They argue their move is part of “basketball diplomacy,” an expression apparently stemming from “ping pong diplomacy” between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s.

“That’s completely nonsense,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview. He said, “We are not against using sports to try to produce a political breakthrough,” but a problem is the North’s intent. The communist regime is just exploiting the sport for propaganda in a bid to distract global attention from its political unrest and human rights abuses, said Cooper. He quoted Engel as saying that playing a basketball game for the North’s leader is like having lunch with Adolf Hitler.

Cooper said he is also in contact with the National Basketball Retired Players Association to issue a related statement.  [Yonhap, via here]

Whatever the impact on Rodman himself, his visit is doing Kim Jong Un much more harm than good. For years, the greatest disadvantage advocates for North Korean human rights faced wasn’t really disagreement, which is mostly confined to a lunatic fringe, it was simply a lack of attention to the issue. There was no George Clooney or Richard Gere drawing public attention to this issue. Now, in his own perverse way, Dennis Rodman has become our George Clooney.

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. Or, more plausibly, notice.

This is horrid stuff, on many levels. Its hackneyed language reads as if it was taped together out of ribbons from Chomsky’s shredder bin. As “scholarship,” it offers no useful data or citations of factual evidence about North Korea. Its citations of “authority” are, with few exceptions, pre-owned arguments and epithets borrowed from the co-habitants of Hong’s own echo chamber. Its most distinctive qualities are the yawning sloppiness of its arguments, and a sentence structure that combines the verbal economy of a filibuster with the literary coherence of a cattle auction. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so many words yield so little light or joy.

Hong first attacks the definition of human rights itself (“a hegemonic interpretive lens”), in a transparent effort to strip this term of any useful meaning. If I understand her correctly, she’s complaining that “the privileged ideological frame” that disapproves of the mass imprisonment and murder of political prisoners — and their kids — has influenced more people than “other epistemic forms” that perpetrate it. But if “human rights” means anything, no advocate for that concept could abide how North Korea treats its people today.

Next, Hong tries to pound the words of human rights advocates into a Jell-O mold of Don Rumsfeld’s head, arguing that human rights advocacy must be a subterfuge for invading North Korea — a straw man argument against something no one of consequence supports. In her strained effort to make all human rights advocates sound like a caricature of … well, me, Hong omits any mention of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry or the powerful words of its avowedly liberal, openly gay Chair.

Hong mendaciously accuses the U.S. of “withholding” humanitarian aid; in fact, Pyongyang has impeded the delivery of aid by the U.S. and U.N., and diverted aid to its loyalists and military. Rather than allow monitoring and other safeguards against diversion, Pyongyang forced the World Food Program to slash its feeding program from 6.5 million recipients to just 1.9 million (later increased to 2.4 million), rejected 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid, and expelled U.S. aid workers. It agreed to, then quickly reneged on, a moratorium on missile launches for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. When it received more food aid, it bought less food from abroad and spent the difference on other “priorities.” Some NGOs, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, withdrew rather than help Pyongyang use food as a tool of control.

Then, Hong plods onward to a factually selective, ham-handed evasion of the Kim Dynasty’s responsibility for everything from the Korean War (“a civil and revolutionary war, a people’s war” frustrated by a “counterrevolutionary” U.N. intervention), its atrocities against own people, and the squalid life it imposes on them.

Hong blames this squalor on “the violence of sanctions” that “predictably stifle the economic growth of North Korea, in effect declaring it off-limits to potential investors and restricting the country’s access to capital, as well as exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.” Having found a scapegoat at a safe distance from Pyongyang, Hong calls the sanctions “formidable,” which is curious, because they are not formidable, and also because she fails to cite any of the authorities on which U.S. or U.N. sanctions rest, or explain what any of those authorities do. This, evidently, is what passes for scholarship in some quarters.

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Christine Hong really has no idea what U.S. or U.N. sanctions do (that’s the more charitable of the two alternatives that come to mind). Had Hong bothered to read the object of her criticism, she would know that those sanctions are not, as she would have her readers to imagine, a broad-based attack on North Korea’s economy, but a set of limited sanctions focused on North Korea’s trafficking in WMD components and technology, weapons, contraband like drugs and counterfeit currency, and luxury goods — and poorly enforced at that, as we’ll soon see. Hong doesn’t offer any analysis of what legitimate industry would, but for sanctions, lift North Korea’s economy with Chollima speed.

(To be fair, Hong would have her readers imagine that our North Korea sanctions are almost as tough and comprehensive as I wish they really were. Of course, I favor broad exceptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, I’d make the transparent delivery of humanitarian aid a specific objective of a sanctions program, and I’d forfeit Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten wealth to pay for it.)

~  ~  ~

Hong takes great care not to mention that a principal target of sanctions is Kim Jong Un’s appetite for luxury goods. After all, how in the world could she defend that? Still, I’d love to know, and each non-sequitur Hong offered only made me wonder how she would justify, say, a decision by the leader of a half-starved nation to spend millions of dollars on a ski resort.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 10.48.05 AM

Yonhap, quoting the South Korean National Intelligence Service, reports that Kim Jong Un spent $300 million building “leisure and sports facilities, including the ski resort,” at a time when 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat. That expenditure is three times the amount that the World Food Program asked donor nations to contribute to feed hungy North Koreans last summer.

There’s nothing new about this pattern. I’ve already elaborated on some of the luxuries Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un bought that cost more than the amount needed to feed every hungry North Korean. I’ve explained why each of the MiG-29s in these satellite images killed as many North Koreans by starvation as one B-29 killed at Nagasaki. Lest any future prosecutor have difficulty proving his charges against the one responsible, KCNA helpfully offers that the ski resort was “built on the personal initiative of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and under his wise leadership.” (The unlinkable KCNA article is preserved below the jump.)

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea’s luxury goods imports in 2006, long after the famine ended, mostly humanitarian reasons. Historically, North Korean dictators have preferred European brands. Since at least 2007, EU regulations have prohibited persons and businesses under the jurisdiction of its member states from directly or indirectly selling or transferring “luxury items,” a term defined to specifically include “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports.”

Last summer, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea ski lift equipment worth almost exactly as much as Switzerland’s annual humanitarian aid allocation for North Korea, North Korea called the refusal “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.” Today, as if for the express purpose of taunting the world, KCNA borrows the operative word of the U.N. sanctions in describing Masik Pass as a place “for the people to enable them enjoy luxury and comfort under socialism.”

Masik Pass has done the world two great services. First, it has helped make an even bigger fool of Christine Hong, and second, it has illustrated how poorly the world is enforcing those sanctions. After the Rodong Sinmun published these photos, a Swedish manufacturer expressed surprise at seeing his company’s snow canons there. Immediate suspicions fell upon a Chinese reseller. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, NK News’s Chad O’Carroll notes that plenty of other equipment at Masik Pass appears to have been imported in violation of U.N. sanctions, and even identifies the manufacturers, prices, and countries of origin:

A “Ski-Doo” Snowmobile manufactured by Canadian owned Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles was visible in pictures circulated by AFP, while at least seven snow blowers produced by Sweden’s Areco and at two snow ploughs produced by Italy’s Prinoth were visible in pictures released Thursday. A further snow plough produced by Germany’s Pisten Bully was also visible.

[....]

Johan Erling, the chief executive of Areco said that he had “no idea” how at least seven Areco snow cannons had turned up in North Korea, pointing out they could have been supplied through any number of intermediaries, formal or informal.

Mr Erling said that the seven snow blowers pictured by KCNA, known as the Areco Supersnow, cost anything between £13,900 to £22,400 each.

How North Korea could have acquired so many without his company’s knowledge was beyond him, Mr Erling said. Areco sells around 40 units per year to its Chinese reseller and the units pictured in North Korea are no more than 1.5 years old, he added.

The Italian produced snow ploughs visible in the picture published by KCNA are the Prinoth BR350 (yellow) and Prinoth Bison X (silver).

A previously owned BR350, first produced in 2006, is currently selling on a Canadian website for £48,400 while the Bison X, first produced in 2008, has a higher market value.

The red plough is a Pisten Bully unit, made in Germany. Units like the one pictured can be found online from £70,000.

Neither Prinorth, Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles or Pisten Bully could be reached for comment about the transfer of equipment to North Korea.

Bjørn-Erik Skjærvik, a Norwegian snowmobile reseller, said the unit pictured by AFP is the Skidoo GT550, produced in either 2011, 2012 or 2013. The GT series retail between £4500 to £7260 each.

Observers had already questioned just how many of “the people” will really enjoy Masik Pass. The fact that North Korea had to photoshop an image to manufacture a crowd of skiers suggests an answer.

photoshop of ski resort

[via, incredibly enough, The Hankyoreh]

In the top image, the man in the green-and-black jacket appears in triplicate, and the building in the foreground, if compared to the Rodong Sinmun slideshow and other images, appears to have been cropped and inserted, but turned 90 degrees in the process (study the eaves of the roof).

Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, conspicuous consumption puts North Korea’s left-leaning apologists on ground they can’t defend, and that increasing numbers of them won’t even try to defend. Once, John Feffer offered an apologia for Kim Jong Il’s policy choice to sacrifice millions of people for North Korea’s “defense” against imperialist hegemons. Hong won’t offer a defense against Kim Jong Un’s obscene squandering on waterparks, amusement parks, 3D cinemas, and ski resorts. Instead, she chooses the obtuse alternative of ignoring their existence. But pretending that there is no elephant in the room is not an argument; it is a tacit admission that the argument is too ridiculous for even the regime’s most tendentious apologists to offer.

Read more

Does this mean we can all forget about Dennis Rodman again?

Kim Jong Un has proven to be beneath the corporate image of the Irish online gambling company, Paddy Power, which has withdrawn from sponsoring Dennis Rodman’s basketball invitational, planned for Kim Jong Un’s birthday in January. Rodman’s mouthpiece says that he plans to continue with the game anyway, but The Simon Wiesenthal Center is asking other former NBA players to boycott the game:

“Everyone it seems, except Dennis Rodman, understands that this is not a game to promote peace, but an undeserved birthday gift to murderous tyrant who heads a regime with the worst human rights record on the planet,” charged Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and long-time activist for human rights in North Korea.

“Playing a basketball game in Pyongyang before a handful of cronies of the youthful dictator gives Kim Jong Un an undeserved birthday present that enables Kim to change the narrative for the international media from focusing attention on his execution of his uncle, on North Korea’s brutal gulag, and his nuclear missile threats against his neighbors.”

“There may yet be a time and place for basketball diplomacy in North Korea, but now is neither the time and Kim’s birthday party isn’t the place for such a gesture. We hope ex-NBAers will do the right thing,” Cooper concluded.

More from the Simon Wiesenthal Center here. This open letter by gulag survivor Shin Dong Hyok, published in The Washington Post, must have been equally or more devastating to Rodman’s project:

Mr. Rodman, I cannot presume to tell you to cancel your trip to North Korea. It is your right as an American to travel wherever you wish and to say whatever you want. It is your right to drink fancy wines and enjoy yourself in luxurious parties, as you reportedly did in your previous trips to Pyongyang. But as you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do. Just last week, Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his uncle. Recent satellite pictures show that some of the North’s labor camps, including Camp 14, may be expanding. The U.N. World Food Programme says four out of five North Koreans are hungry. Severe malnutrition has stunted and cognitively impaired hundreds of thousands of children. Young North Korean women fleeing the country in search of food are often sold into human-trafficking rings in China and beyond.

If the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s call prevents Rodman from assembling a quorum for his birthday gift to Kim Jong Un, the ironic outcome of the tournament would be to galvanize public outrage against North Korea’s atrocities and shift public sentiment toward a boycott of its regime.

Ironically, I’ve come to believe that Rodman’s visits to North Korea did serious damage to Kim Jong Un. Domestically, they exploded sixty years of state propaganda that portrayed “pure” North Koreans as morally and culturally superior to corrupting and decadent foreign influences, and portrayed the “Paektu Bloodline” as the fastidious, martial, and devoted paragons of this xenophobic guerrilla state. Internationally, Kim Jong Un’s public receptions of Rodman likely shifted the still-developing consensus of foreign scholars and policy-makers to one that sees Kim Jong Un as a an impetuous bacchanalian who adopted a washed-up ex-athlete and global laughingstock as his court jester, while shunning foreign leaders, diplomats, and business leaders.

Most importantly, Rodman’s visit drew international attention to North Korea’s atrocities and cemented its reputation as the world’s worst violator of human rights. Every time Rodman visits North Korea, thousands more people visit these pages, and millions more read the dismayed reactions of people like Shin Dong Hyok and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. For Rodman, the consequence will be a reversion to the more obscure sort of infamy he’d enjoyed for the last decade. For North Korea, with its dependency on hard currency from abroad, the consequences could be far greater.

Say, do you suppose Merrill Newman bought the wrong North Korea travel guide?

The San Jose Mercury News identifies the U.S. citizen arrested in North Korea three weeks ago — yes, that’s right — as Merrill Newman, age 85, of Palo Alto, California. He was arrested on October 26th, when the North Koreans pulled him off his flight out of Pyongyang Sunan before it took off. For whatever reason, we’re only just hearing about it now, although dozens more Americans might have entered North Korea since then, and might have benefited from knowing that the North Koreans had just arrested another one of their countrymen. Even so, the risks ought to have been obvious.

Another Channing House resident, who did not want to give her name, said she spoke with Newman before he left on his trip.

“I said, ‘Why do you want to go to a place that’s dangerous? I wouldn’t want to go,’” she said. “His reaction was very relaxed, with a smile. He went just as a fun trip. He wasn’t there for any particular reason. They were travelling.”

The State Department isn’t confirming Newman’s identity; rather, it’s hiding behind a cramped interpretation of the Privacy Act. We still don’t know why North Korea arrested him, either. Newman’s wife could execute a Privacy Act waiver and dispense with that issue, given that Newman’s identity is being reported in the press.

This bio tells us that Merrill served as an infantry officer during the Korean War and was a high school teacher and a Red Cross volunteer for many years. One of his neighbors says he won the Silver Star for his service. From what I can tell, Newman seems like a nice man, and I feel bad for him. Maybe at 85 years old, you’re entitled to be forgiven for a lapse in judgment. But he’s also a good example of why Americans need to be protected from their gullibility about North Korea, and from tour companies that take their money and tell them that they’ll be perfectly safe there.

Now, the weird part. A person named Merrill E. Newman wrote this Amazon review of the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea, expressing an interest in traveling to North Korea, saying that the book “seems to reflect deep knowledge of the area,” and calling it “a must have if you are considering a trip to North Korea.” Judging by outcomes alone, and assuming that Newman read this guidebook, it failed to accomplish its core mission of keeping its purchaser out of a North Korean prison. And the author of that guidebook? None other than Robert Wiloughby, which is either the real name or a sock puppet name of Robin Tudge, about whom Marcus Noland wrote this biting post the other day. If you click the “look inside” link for Wiloughby’s book, you’ll get this list of “useful” Korean phrases.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 3.28.36 PM

[Update: Korean speakers will note that at least one of the phrases is a mistranslation. It says "identified," but the Korean verb "tong-il hada" actually means "reunified" in this context. In Pyongyang, it really means North Korea absorbs South Korea. I can't imagine that too many tourists would need to use the phrase "fancy abolishing taxation" as frequently as, say, "Where's the bathroom," and, "Do you sell Imodium?," although it does cause me to wonder if Wiloughby's next edition will tell us the Korean translation for "someone set us up the bomb."]

Wiloughby’s choice of phrases reminds me of how this Atlantic article described Lee Harvey Oswald’s motives for defecting to the Soviet Union:

I think that the initial appeal [for him] came through communism, or Marxism, with its very violent and bellicose language and its appeals to overturning established wisdoms or powers. And that certainly [played] into—or fueled or comported with—Oswald’s anger and sense of dislocation.

The first lesson of this sad episode is, “Stay the fuck out of North Korea.” For those who aren’t capable of learning the first lesson, the second lesson is, “Find yourself a better guidebook.” After all, more just societies have been known to prosecute the authors of the guidebooks rather than their gullible users.

Do you suppose this whole unfortunate international incident might have begun with a needlessly suggestive tobacco purchase?

Elle Magazine makes a morally retarded fashion statement about North Korea

When I first saw the report here that an Elle Magazine columnist had declared “North Korea chic” to be one of this year’s top fashion trends, I immediately assumed that someone was failing to appreciate someone’s rather tasteless parody. When Americans do think of North Korea, they often infantilize it. Tasteless parodies may be our third-most common reaction to North Korea, after apathy and passive disgust. Sadly, having seen the screenshot of Joe Zee’s post, I think Zee was seriously suggesting that “North Korea chic” was a real trend:

This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.

Which made me laugh — because, you know, take no prisoners! And kill off the ones you have! Ha-ha! Get it?

As of last night, the offending page had been removed from the slide show and sent to Elle’s memory hole. All that remained were some reader comments (if one really “reads” Elle) that, given the venue, were encouraging for their relative moral depth.

This is disgusting and not funny. North Korea chic? Where are the starving and beaten children, women and men? Learn about what’s really happening in North Korea before you make stupid titles like this.

Not to mention ‘take-no-prisoners tailoring’. Way to cheapen the experience of people suffering in gulags up and down North Korea, Elle.

Leaving the slide for “N” nondescript only makes it more evident of the ignorant mistake you made. How about you stop hiring “fashionistas” and hire someone can use a dictionary or is actually aware of current trends? Nautical? Navy? Neon? I could go on if you are at a loss of ideas.

Elle does not acknowledge removing the image or apologize for publishing it in the first place, but does acknowledge its readers’ outrage in an unsigned post written in a shallow, bouncy style you’re more used to seeing in Tiger Beat (don’t try to deny it). I left a comment at that last link. Perhaps you’ll want to leave a comment of your own?

Max Fisher weighs in here, with the inevitable Asma Assad comparison. See also here and here.

Is the next Banco Delta Asia in Malaysia?

Over the weekend, a lot people were giggling at the decision by Paul Chan, President of HELP University, to award an honorary degree in economics of Kim Jong Un. Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish, who first revealed the story, obligingly prints Chan’s manifesto, which reads like the work of a true belieber — a man who writes as if he has spent an inordinate amount of time watching High School Musical over and over again. I have fond memories of my friendships with Malaysian students during law school, so it saddens me to say that this can’t be unrelated to the weirdness of Malaysia’s political culture. At the end of the day, however, the main consequence of this will be to make HELP University look ridiculous, and to highlight how little Kim Jong Un really knows about economics.

What concerns me more is how the weirdness of Malaysia’s political culture may play a role in North Korea’s illicit arms deals and the evasion of U.N. Security Council sanctions. The Korea Herald has called Malaysia “a cornerstone for North Korea’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia.” Malaysian banks are suspected of hosting offshore bank accounts for North Korea, and of serving as financial intermediaries for North Korea’s arms deals with Burma, long after those transactions were banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions. As of July, Malaysia had not yet provided the U.N. a report of its compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea. Today, it is one of just two states that still has direct Air Koryo flights to Pyongyang.

Breaking: Baby Born in Pyongyang. Not Breaking: 600 Others Die in Wonsan

If I could ask Dennis Rodman one question, notwithstanding the fact that the answer would only be a string of obscenities and non-sequiturs anyway, it would be this:  Would you have played Sun City?

I’ve already argued the comparison between North Korea and South Africa once, so I see no need to rewrite it. I went to work in South Africa for three months in 1990–after Mandela was released, and after the government had begun to repeal the apartheid laws.

I’m old enough to remember a time when the correct way to respond to severe and pervasive human rights violations was to enforce a cultural and economic boycott against the perpetrators, to show our moral outrage to them, and to deny them the cultural and economic benefits of the outside world.

Like all analogies, it’s imperfect, particularly because the abuses in North Korea are far worse than they were in South Africa.

You may also have heard about the AP’s exclusive(!) scoop that Kim Jong Un has a daughter (and there was much rejoicing ….). Oh, wait, sorry–Dennis Rodman actually told us that, too. Anyway, every child is born innocent, and here’s wishing she lives a longer, healthier life than most other kids born in North Korea today, and that no one ever puts her in charge of anything.

This would all be awfully funny if it weren’t really so awful.

As for the AP, maybe they should amend their undisclosed MOUs with the North Korean government to replace their news bureau with a web cam mounted on a windowsill. They don’t seem to be getting much for their money lately. That’s probably the best possible outcome for the rest of us, because at least they’re cranking out less disinformation, propaganda, and fauxtography than they did during the first year of their experiment.

 

Rodman on North Korean gulags: “We do the same thing here.”

Update: Video:

OH, AND HE ALSO SAID, “DON’T HATE ME”:  Hearing those words makes me wish we could fast-forward through whatever remains of Dennis Rodman’s biography and go straight to the perfect epitaph.  One of the drawbacks of our age is the constant mind-rape we endure from the forcible penetrations of unwanted information.  I’ll eventually die regretting all I know about Dennis Rodman because so many people enjoy watching the moral and financial despair of other people.  Thanks to those people, I now know enough about Rodman to expect no more than that he would have appropriated some small portion of his diminished wealth toward the employment of adult supervision.

Lacking this, it was only incidental that Rodman stopped in Pyongyang on his long journey toward self-destruction, but I’m glad that this stop was the thing that made him the next-most-hated ex-athlete in America, after O.J.  Even more than Bill Richardson and Steve Schmidt before him, Rodman is unwittingly teaching us why North Korea deserves to be a global pariah. Dennis Rodman may be the only man in America who could damage Kim Jong Un’s reputation by association, not so much because he’s a human train wreck but because his presence amid so much death and suffering represents the inequality, extravagance, and frivolity of its regime. It invites comparisons to Caligula, or to the Bourbon royalty of pre-revolutionary France.

*          *          *

REUTERS’ COVERAGE of Rodman provides enough context for its readers to be aghast when he says Kim “is like his grandfather and his father, who are great leaders, he is an awesome kid, very honest and loves his wife so much,” just “an awesome kid.”  The AP, on the other hand, makes no reference to the starvation or oppression of the North Korean people in the context of Rodman’s bacchanalian feasting with Kim.

*          *          *

FREEDOM HOUSE: “History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

*          *          *

HERE IS THE SINGLE MOST THOUGHTFUL THING I’ve read about this story, via Wired. Don’t miss this one. If there’s any criticism I can offer, it’s that the author misses the real source of change in North Korea — the rise of cross-border smuggling and market trading.

*          *          *

TIME HAS A USEFUL LIST of things it hopes Dennis Rodman learned about North Korea (he hasn’t and won’t, but plenty of Time’s readers will). (hat tip: Commentary)

*          *          *

EDUCATED PEOPLE SAY THE DUMBEST SHIT SOMETIMES:  If Scott Neuman of NPR really thinks that “a pierced, tattooed and occasionally cross-dressing former basketball star is now one of the West’s leading experts on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un” — and he probably doesn’t — does Neuman now suggest that we should, in deference to Rodman’s cognitive and moral authority, accept that “his country [...] love him,” and that “[t]he guy’s really awesome.” It’s a pretty stupid article, even if Neuman was probably making light of Rodman. We’re already oversupplied with superficial drive-by “analysis” of North Korea as it is.

*          *          *

ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS I’VE LEARNED by studying North Korea is something I’ve learned about us — that our concept of intelligence is linear, simplistic, and flawed, and that knowledge means nothing if you can’t process your facts logically. That’s why a guy who barely graduated from high school can reach a useful conclusion about North Korea based on a few facts, while another guy, whom some academics take seriously as an actual expert on North Korea, can weave a rambling and painfully dull list of obscure irrelevancies, non-sequiturs, distortions, and half-truths into a conclusion that was pulled from the rubbish heap of history and into print without so much as a gentle dusting.

We tend to assign value to each other (and our views) in proportion to education, but the older I get, the more see that the best predictor of success in life is what we call “good judgment,” a combination of impulse control, determination, interpersonal skill, and common sense.  If we can agree that Dennis Rodman lacks all of those qualities, then let’s not call him an “expert” on anything. Similarly, let’s not confuse education for expertise.  The two don’t always coincide.

This Just In: North Korea fails to absorb any of Dennis Rodman’s tact, class, gentility, or gravitas.

So yet again, we learn that visitors do not change North Korea. The tricky part is getting out before North Korea changes the visitor.

Since I broach the engagement-versus-isolation debate, it’s been argued enough times that I seldom hear any new arguments, but this one by Michael Totten, in response to the reliably trite Nick Kristof, is a terrific deconstruction of mirror-imaging by both the North Koreans and the Americans who don’t understand how they think.

The answer to the debated question, of course, is “both,” but we’ve gotten the mechanics of it exactly backwards.  By engaging North Korea’s regime on its terms — lots of cash, no questions asked — we’ve provided it the financial and political means to isolate and immiserate its people, the ones we should have been finding ways to engage in spite of the regime.

What would be the death blow for totalitarianism in North Korea?  Aid workers from free societies — kindly Bible-thumping missionaries from Missouri and Busan, side-by-side with German hipsters with pierced lips and eyebrows — all passing out humanitarian aid in the bleakest quarters of Hamhung and Wonsan, unimpeded by the regime’s minders.  That will only be possible when the regime is so constricted financially that it is forced to allow that to save the residue of its elite.

Update:  Via Spencer Ackerman, Rodman can’t even keep his Koreas straight, so he may also be ignorant of how conditions are for most of the North Korean people.  Kudos to Ackerman for trying to shift the focus back to that.

Would Dennis Rodman have played Sun City?

Visit Pyongyang – An idiom used to describe a desperate plea for media attention (see also Jump the Shark) by a washed-up celebrity or politician (see Jimmy Carter, Bill Richardson, Ric Flair) who, lacking the residual talent to attract such attention by any other means or device, visits the one place on Earth where any publicity-seeker whose name is vaguely recalled by persons over 40 can be assured of making global headlines without being arrested, indicted, or otherwise worthy of public interest. Lacks the mortality risks of space travel (see Lance Bass) or Celebrity Rehab, but does require travel on Air Koryo.

I don’t intend to spend a lot of time writing about Dennis Rodman, so I will answer Max Fisher’s question this way:  “No.”

If no right-thinking person would visit or do business with apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s, how can any right-thinking person justify paying money to Kim Jong Un-era North Korea? It would be (mildly) interesting to know what Dennis Rodman’s views on apartheid were, but I don’t have to go out on a long limb to suppose that he thinks it was unjust. He would be right about that, of course.

There were some important differences between these two dictatorships, but none supports a defense of Rodman.  The most important one is that present-day North Korea kills a thousand-fold more people and keeps the survivors in a state of infinitely greater misery.  Other important differences can be seen in this historic video of “Sun City,” a single used to popularize an artistic boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. There is a manifestly hypocritical difference in elite mass opinion about how to treat these two dictatorships — isolate (bad) South Africa, engage (worse) North Korea:

A third difference is all the b-roll that was available to fill this video. There is, of course, nothing like this in North Korea (well, almost nothing). If P.W. Botha had known how to run a real dictatorship, there wouldn’t have been a Sun City, there might not have been a boycott, and there might still be apartheid in South Africa today.

One can only hope that Rodman will eventually perceive his surroundings with the moral clarity that Muhammad Ali did despite the ravages of Parkinson’s disease (hat tip to me for that cite).

Breaking: North Korea Still Poor, Ignorant, and Run by Narcissistic Assholes

I’ve never expected anything good to come from a Bill Richardson visit to Pyongyang, and this visit fulfilled my expectations. A lot of journalists, bloggers, and academics in Washington and New York made a big deal out of this. (It was good for our traffic.) But in the places that really count — in Chongjin and Hamhung and Uijongbu and even in Pyongyang — it didn’t change a thing.  It will not reduce the black market price of corn, it will not improve conditions in the camps, it will not save a single kkotjaebi from an early and lonely death, it will not crack open the borders or let in the truth, it will not slow the crackdowns on defections or South Korean soap operas, and it will not reduce the risk of a nuclear test or an attack on South Korea. It did not free Ken Bae or any of the Japanese or South Korean abductees or signal a Pyongyang Spring. But there was one delightful surprise in this — it did cost Kim Jong Bill his cred.

Maybe this post isn’t a complete waste of time after all.

Just a few years ago, Richardson was in the running for Secretary of State. Sure, we hard-line types have always loathed Richardson, but the appeasers loved him, and he was at least respected by the center-left swing voters of the North Korea Industry. Judging from the tone of the commentary coming from the swing voters now, Richardson has lost them. I usually agree with Don Kirk, so I’m not surprised that he sees the trip as a failure. On the other hand, when the New York Times scores your “engagement” trip 1-0 Pyongyang, your wardrobe has malfunctioned. At least one swing voter, Nir Rosen, was inspired to completely rethink engagement and aid in this thoughtful essay. Stephan Haggard admits to scratching his head at the futility of it all. With few exceptions, those who didn’t criticize the trip ridiculed it.

Worse for Richardson, even the North Koreans gave him the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Consider: KCNA is reporting today that a Vice-Premier met with a visiting Chinese delegation led by a Vice-Minister of Commerce. What North Korean of any stature met Richardson? The Rodong is touting that Kim Jong Un received a gift from the Chicoms; but characterized the Richardson visit as one to pay “tribute,” and said nothing about who greeted him. (As for Schmidt, KCNA reports that some North Koreans taught him a thing or two about technology.) Moving on to quasi-official media — that is, a certain foreign-owned news service that employs KNCA “reporters” – AP Pyongyang says they “met with officials,” but doesn’t identify anyone of significance. Why, when Richardson visited in 2010, he at least rated Ri Yong HoThat’s no way to treat your favorite tool. 

We know Richardson’s score, but how did the North Koreans do? That depends on what you think they wanted, and that question gets to the heart of a long-standing debate about the motivations and pathology behind North Korea’s foreign policy. Is it (a) all about domestic reenforcement, are they (b) trying to improve relations with and extract aid and investment from us, or do they (c) really want a Grand Opening to the world? (These theories aren’t mutually exclusive — myself, I’m 85% (a), 0% (c), and 15% (b), provided that (b) supports (a) and excludes the possibility of (c). Still with me?)

Let’s take these theories in inverse order, starting with (c). Schmidt’s pleas notwithstanding, the North Koreans certainly didn’t show any hint that they intend to open their society or economy in any meaningful way.  (The better reporting on the subject strongly suggests the very opposite.) They may want their own people to think that Google and the U.S. recognize them as global technology leaders, but that would only reenforce a North Korean sense of self-reliant isolation.  Also, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because that goes back to (a).

If (b) or (c) were true, you’d think the North Koreans would have at least empowered a proponent of (b) and (c) in America’s public debate in America about the utility and timing of the visit. The most obvious way to do that would have been to release Ken Bae, who is currently doing time in a North Korean jail for being dumb enough to believe (c).* Releasing Bae would have swung the argument in Richardson’s favor with a certain percentage of the audience. True to my previous prediction, however, the North Koreans aren’t letting Mr. Bae go just yet, at least until his captivity helps ensure that Susan Rice gives in to the Great Wall of China and abandons all hope of getting the U.N. to sanction it for that missile test.

Also, if (b) or (c) were true, this was a huge lost opportunity for the North Koreans. Imagine the reaction here if Kim Jong Un showed up unexpectedly, shook the hands of Richardson and Schmidt, and spent just five minutes talking about some hobby of his — say, Starcraft or the NBA or bondage porn or assassinating your siblings — in front of David Guttenfelder’s fully erect lens. This wouldn’t have made the visit any less meaningless, but it would have caused a mediagasm of talk about how enlightened and open-minded Kim Jong Un is as the dying went on unimpeded and safely out of our sight. That didn’t happen — praise be to Zeus — because sending His Porcine Majesty to meet some has-been ex-governor would have lowered His stature. Not that further proof is really needed, but this tells us that North Korea isn’t terribly interested in (c) or even that much (b), no matter how fervently some of us may want it. It is also is our segue to (a).

A lot of us hard-line types have been talking about what a great propaganda victory this was for North Korea, but we seldom explain our argument very well.  How, specifically, does facilitating propaganda that Kim Jong Un is the Man of the Year, the Sexiest Man Alive, and the object of global respect, fear, and adoration stabilize the North Korean regime? Why, indeed, is KCNA filled with reports about delegations from Juche societies in Burkina Faso and Ecuador? Could any North Korean possibly believe that for the rest of the world, excluding Korea bloggers, it’s all about North Korea?

Oddly enough, I believe the answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a uniquely North Korean phenomenon.

2010012914361781550_1

[Hat Tip]

This is one of those things that’s about 50% less mysterious to me for having lived in South Korea. For most Americans, it really isn’t all about Korea, but Koreans continue to expend finite diplomatic and financial resources on billboards, front-page newspapers ads, wines, and essay contests about two uninhabited lumps of guano that South Korea already occupies. The Tokdo Complex is diagnosed by one’s sincere and emphatic belief that people all over the world obviously care much more deeply about Korea than they do about other places, and therefore they must care deeply about Tokdo than they do about Darfur, Tibet, or less explicably, Camp 22. Now, as the former owners of Dokdo Sushi in Rockville, Maryland must realize by now, we really don’t. But the emotional roots of the Tokdo Complex must run deeper than 1945 and must also appeal to a powerful psychological need. If I’m right about that, North Korea’s propaganda machine feeds this, and probably also believes it to a certain extent. I can even believe this propaganda is an effective adhesive for people who latently despise the regime and His Porcine Majesty, and who would actively participate in its violent overthrow if they saw any prospect that this could be accomplished successfully.

What I can’t explain is why the Tokdo Complex doesn’t apply to China’s moves on Mount Paektu, its lease of Rajin to China, or China’s treatment of North Korean women like comfort women, or worse. All of these things seem like important matters of territorial integrity, nationhood, sovereignty, and humanity, yet they hardly exist in the public consciousness of South Koreans. For that matter, I’ve never known of a place so obsessed with the atrocities of the past, yet so apathetic about the atrocities of the present.  If you can explain that, then for God’s sake, do.

 

* Assuming, of course, that Ken Bae’s purpose for being in North Korea really was to be a tour guide.  I don’t really know what he was doing there or why he was arrested. He’s not my client.