Understanding North Korea 

For years, East Bay activists have been trying to influence US policy toward North Korea. Finally, Washington may be listening.

As a longtime peace activist and progressive, Christine Ahn was used to being on the ideological fringe. But even she wasn't prepared to be red-baited and called a supporter of dictatorship.

It started in 2004. Ahn, then an activist working for Food First, an Oakland nonprofit that looks at the root causes of hunger around the world, was invited to give a speech about North Korea at the Human Rights Commission in South Korea. In her talk, she criticized the American passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, arguing that increased sanctions against the communist country were choking its people and exacerbating their human-rights crisis. Ahn advocated peace and engagement. She also pointed out US hypocrisy. "I said some provocative things," she recalled, calling out American human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, racial biases of the US criminal justice system, and the persistent hunger and poverty of a meaningful segment of the American population.

The crowd's response was overwhelming. "My perspective was obviously very fringe and a bit left, but the Korean people loved it," Ahn said, recalling her surprise. "I was, like, paparazzi'd. .... But it was just like people opened their eyes for a moment here. Okay, let's just stop for a moment here, all this propaganda about North Korea, and just like think about it here in a more pragmatic way. And, obviously, it had resonance."

But one month later, she received an e-mail that tempered her excitement. It was a message from a friend, pointing her to a blog called One Free Korea. A post entitled "The Alternative Reality of Christine Ahn" criticized her viewpoint, labeled her a "North Korean apologist," and detailed facts about her life and her beliefs. Ahn was creeped out. "I mean it was so freaky to have this ten-page article about me," she said. It was authored by Joshua Stanton, a lawyer with the Department of Homeland Security who currently serves as the department's deputy chief for tort litigation. In a recent interview via e-mail, Stanton said he blogs as a private citizen, but added, "I think Ms. Ahn is a reprehensible apologist for mass murder, and for the deliberate, discriminatory mass starvation of men, women, and children."

The incident horrified her. "It freaked me out so much that I was like, 'Oh, I don't think I'll continue doing this peace work,'" said Ahn, who lives in Oakland and is now a fellow at the Korea Policy Institute. But, in fact, she became more vocal, and was interviewed on CNN and talk shows such as the Today Show and KQED's Forum. Meanwhile, her list of critics grew. The following year, Ahn said one of her colleagues in South Korea received a call from the US embassy demanding to know "Who the hell invited Christine Ahn to speak at the panel?" She's now listed on DiscoverTheNetworks.org, a web site by conservative author David Horowitz that she describes as an "online database of all these cells, like terror cells of academics, think-tanks, foundations, Hollywood stars." She's described as a "Supporter of the Communist dictatorship of North Korea."

For decades, a small group of East Bay-based scholars and activists such as Ahn have advocated a more contextualized view of North Korea that takes into account the United States' contribution to and complicity in the situation. While Ahn acknowledges that there is a lot of repression in North Korea, she says that the critique of the country's human rights is highly politicized. Yet for their efforts they've been spied on, red-baited, labeled North Korean sympathizers, fired from jobs, and been the targets of smear campaigns.

Following a series of North Korean nuclear tests and up until its August release of US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, US relations with the country had grown particularly tense. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called its behavior childish; North Korea countered, saying Clinton "looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping." Hazel Smith of the Korea Policy Institute declared that the United States was effectively "sleepwalking to war." Yet since former President Clinton — who nearly bombed the country in 1994 — successfully negotiated the journalists' release, Washington's tenor has changed markedly. US officials recently held talks with a senior North Korean diplomat, although no formal bilateral talks have been scheduled yet, and sanctions are still in effect. The move also eased the tensions between South and North Korea, which had been strained following the inauguration of the South's president, Lee Myung Bak, who took a harder-line stance on North Korea than his predecessor.

Now, activists who were once marginalized may have a chance to influence policy after all. About a month ago, Ahn and Paul Liem, the Berkeley-based president of the Korea Policy Institute, arranged a meeting to discuss US-North Korean relations between themselves, ten other activists, and members of the State Department and Congress, including Frank Januzzi, John Kerry's senior Korea advisor, who also works for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They were received much differently than during past visits, Ahn said. "Something about the Bill Clinton trip really changed the dynamics in a very significant way," she said. "The whole regime-change discourse felt like it was long gone, that was history. It also felt like that they just knew that diplomacy was the way forward and that there had to be some kind of breakthrough with North Korea. It was just a matter of how and when."

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