By Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein
The Nobel Laureates and prominent activists who recently crossed into North Korea showed a shocking lack of sympathy for the North Korean people.
In May, a group calling itself Women Cross DMZ carried out a highly publicized “peace march” across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea from South Korea. The thirty women activists called for an end to the Korean War — the two sides of the conflict signed an armistice, but not a peace treaty, in 1953 and remain technically at war — and argued that the crossing was a bold new way to push for peace and unification. Their goal of bringing female perspectives into a male-dominated discussion was an admirable one. And yet, the women became, willingly or unwillingly, shills for North Korea’s dictatorship.
Festivities began when the participants touched down in Pyongyang in mid-May to a warm welcome and a series of feasts. To the delight of its North Korean hosts, the delegation included such high-profile individuals as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, and filmmaker Abigail Disney; U.S.-based activist Christine Ahn planned the trip, with guidance from North Korean officials in New York and Pyongyang. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and eight other Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, endorsed the marchers and their stated quest to bring attention to the “forgotten” Korean War. The Women Cross DMZ campaign generated positive coverage from the world’s top news outlets including the Associated Press, the New York Times, and Time magazine, which wrote in their defense. Senior Brookings Institution official Katharine H.S. Moon gave a stamp of approval, while Politico published a fawning tribute from a friend of Ahn’s.
But for a group of activists known for defiantly speaking truth to power and supporting the disenfranchised, the marchers showed a surprising credulity, docility, and lack of sympathy for the suffering North Korean people. Mairead Maguire, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in Northern Ireland, gushed about the “wonderful work being done in Pyongyang for the people.” In a statement broadcasted by North Korean state media, she applauded the regime’s schools and hospitals, saying they had “such a wonderful healthcare system.” Maguire’s praise was filmed as part of a 24-minute video produced by Minjok Tongshin, a Los Angeles-based news outlet endorsed and celebrated by the regime. The video also shows the marchers visiting memorial sites honoring Presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the father-son duo who starved millions of North Koreans and sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths in labor camps.
Jodie Evans, from the American antiwar group Codepink, expressed frustrations with electricity shortages and was irritated by the Kim family personality cult, yet enjoyed “amazing” dinners. After visiting the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, she learned that he “was the Che Guevara of Korea.” Evans is right inasmuch as Che Guevara was a psychopathic killer who used executions and labor camps to deal with his opponents, but we don’t think that this is what she meant.
Then there is the behavior of Codepink co-founder Medea Benjamin, who heckles President Barack Obama and engages in anti-government protests and street theater in the United States. The Benjamin we see in photos and videos from North Korea is soft-spoken and smiling. Gone is the activism, fury, and desire to shake the system. (Starting in October, Benjamin and her San Francisco-based nonprofit Global Exchange will offer paid access to North Korea, so travelers can experience the country’s celebrations for the founding of North Korea’s political party and Kim Il Sung’s April 15 birthday.)
Just before the marchers crossed south on May 24, they said they were celebrated with a 5,000-person parade marked by grandiloquent speeches, propaganda banners, and food served on golden plates. Perhaps the good treatment explains their double standards, because while Women Cross DMZ never protested in North Korea, after passing from dictatorship to democracy on May 24, they joined a street demonstration against a South Korean military base. Former U.S. soldier and diplomat Ann Wright wrote about how the base would destroy a marine environment, including a “unique geologic rock formation.” For all her concern about rocks, Wright proved her value to Pyongyang by not uttering a single word about the millions of humans her hosts repress every day. And when asked about human rights in North Korea at a press conference in South Korea, Steinem put the Kims on equal moral footing with the rest of the world by stating that “a breach of human rights anywhere, is a breach of human rights everywhere.”
After leaving North Korea, former Twitter designer Coleen Baik was giddy about her “DPRK BOOTY!” — regime gifts that said: “Let us make our country, our motherland, ever more prosperous, true to the great leader comrade Kim Il Sung’s intention.” (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, is what Pyongyang calls its country.) Imagine human rights activists returning from Pinochet’s Chile or Apartheid South Africa and boasting about agitprop souvenirs.
The marchers demanded an end to violence, but what did they actually accomplish? North Korea faces internal pressure from smuggled foreign films and technology, and external pressure from the United Nations, which compared Pyongyang’s crimes to those committed by the Nazis and even referred North Korean President Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court. Needing support, the Kim regime was able to use the marchers’ comments and presence domestically to buttress a totalitarian system. And abroad, the marchers helped the regime shift the world’s North Korea conversation away from mass public executions and vast concentration camps, and helped it to establish moral equivalence with South Korea. Consider Gbowee, for example, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for heroically helping end the Liberian civil war. How would she have responded if a group of activists had traveled to Liberia to whitewash the warlord Charles Taylor and praise his government? (We asked her. She has not yet responded.)
The main propaganda coup in North Korea was a “peace symposium,” where state media filmed the marchers listening to hours of grievances about the United States, Japan, and South Korea — all under enormous posters of the Kims. From a policy perspective, the tyranny benefited from famous and credible individuals like Maguire pushing its longtime goals of normalized relations with Western democracies, the securing of a peace treaty, and the lifting of sanctions.
Pyongyang used Women Cross DMZ footage across its propaganda outlets, saying that “the women expressed support and firm solidarity regarding the fight put up by the DPRK people.” Minjok Tongshin editor Roh Kil-nam — recipient of the Kim Il Sung Prize for his pro-North coverage — said it was a “great source of strength [for North Korea] to have these women come here.” Pyongyang quoted in state news media the marchers saying the United States was a “kingdom of terrorism” and quoted Ahn saying that Kim Il Sung had “devoted his entire life to the freedom and liberation of the Korean people.” In Women Cross DMZ’s “Final Closing Statement,” they did not condemn their hosts’ women’s rights abuses, but did complain about their South Korean critics. They also said that Pyongyang had misrepresented their comments. Ahn has repeatedly denied praising Kim Il Sung or attacking the United States — but she can’t deny that the regime uses her as a propaganda tool.
After the trip, filmmaker Abigail Disney parried critics with a New York Times letter admitting that while “the regime of Kim Jong-un is despotic, brutally repressive and kleptocratic,” South Korea is only “somewhat more open” than North Korea. The Economist‘s Democracy Index ranks South Korea as the 21st-freest country in the world (above France, Costa Rica, and Spain) — and ranks North Korea dead last at 167. Perhaps Disney, who has made a career out of filmmaking for human rights, should watch stories from defectors Hyeonseo Lee, Ji Seong-ho, Kang Chol-hwan, Yeonmi Park, or Park Sang-hak.
Unfortunately, the Women Cross DMZ stunt does not appear to be a one-time thing. Ahn recently announced plans to cross from the South to the North in 2016 at Panmunjom, the border village where the Korean War came to a halt. Codepink has announced a U.S. campaign to “continue to educate and put pressure on Congress” with a briefing in late July to push for the end of sanctions.
And on June 30 in San Francisco the nonprofit Global Fund for Women hosted a “Behind the Scenes” with Ahn and Baik. It was a warm and celebratory evening, where the marchers remained perfect ambassadors for the Kim regime. They continued to parrot his arguments that the world needs to be more friendly and open to his government and sidestep his heinous crimes against North Korean women. When asked whether the North or South was a bigger obstacle for peace, the panelists instead singled out the United States. When pressed about whether the women they met with in Pyongyang were actually independent, Ahn sheepishly admitted that the interactions were “probably orchestrated.” She avoided any substantive discussion of dictatorship and instead reduced North Korea’s violent regime to “a bogeyman that will allow the [United States] to justify its military presence.”
We hope that the Women Cross DMZ campaign will abandon moral relativism and take a strong stand against the Kim regime, and for human rights in North Korea. Until then, the “wonderful work” in Pyongyang will continue.