Understanding North Korea 

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

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But among the activists, there is a diversity of voices and opinions. While the Korea Policy Institute has generally been viewed as more leftist, others take a different approach. LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, is a national nonprofit organization with chapters around the country, including UC Berkeley. Jennie Chang, the Berkeley chapter's external affairs coordinator, says its primary goal is to raise awareness about the North Korean human-rights crisis and to raise funds for LiNK's various programs, such as the operation of underground shelters. Last month, it screened the documentary Seoul Train, about the plight of North Koreans trying to escape via a network of underground safe houses operated by South Koreans. "It's really similar to the Nazi concentration camp," said Chang, describing the humanitarian situation in the North. "All the rights and liberties that we know about are not existent in North Korea. ... Eighty-five percent of North Korean women refugees are sex trafficked. It's not really in the media as it should be."

However, other activists are critical of LiNK, especially after its former executive director, Adrian Hong, wrote an essay in The New York Times advocating regime change, which they say would require military intervention and thus lead to a massive humanitarian tragedy. "I think he's kind of a nut," said Oakland resident John Cha. "He's sort of hawkish and says stuff like, 'Oh we have to get rid of Kim Jong Il.' Well, that's fine, but how do you do it? He doesn't have any answers other than, well, 'I'd love to go in and remove him like we did with Saddam.'"

Cha isn't affiliated with any organization but, like the fellows at the Korea Policy Institute, he's been trying to shed light on the US government's misunderstandings about North Korea. "I think they should learn more about the people over there and try to understand them and figure out what they really want," he said. "Historically, the people of North Korea, they really hate the Americans and policymakers. Obama and Hillary, they should understand why they really hate the Americans. They learn this from the moment they are born. They paint Americans as true evil. And, on the other hand, we are painting the North Koreans as evil, so where do you go from there?" Cha hopes his current project, a book on Kim Jong Il, will help his cause, but he laments that prospective publishers seem primarily interested in salacious details. One publisher wanted to know more about the Dear Leader's "wine-drinking habit" and "all those Swedish women," he said. "They're asking some wrong questions."

That's not surprising because the general US population largely remains in the dark when it comes to Korean politics and moving beyond the polarized perception of the United States and democratic South Korea as good, and communist North Korea as evil. "It's weird that the US is so far behind South Korea and Korean Americans in terms of critiquing those ideas and they're still stuck in some kind of old era," said Kim. "But maybe South Koreans and Korean Americans can change the terms of that discussion. I think they have been."


Activists and scholars still face attacks and challenges to correct misinformation about North Korea. A few months ago, Christine Hong noticed a statistic cited in several articles in The New York Times and Washington Post, which alleged that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea's kwan-li-so penal system. Hong was intrigued where the number came from, and discovered the statistic was sourced from the US State Department. So she contacted their Korea desk, which said that the number came from the paper "The Hidden Gulag," written by human-rights advocate David Hawk. Hong discovered that Hawk derived the number from one man, a former North Korean prison guard named Ahn Myong Chol.

"I asked the State Department, when they told me where the statistic had come from, if the State Department had attempted to corroborate Mr. Ahn's testimony with further evidence because it seemed quite flimsy that this statistic would be based upon the testimony of one defector," she said. In response to her query, Hong said a State Department representative e-mailed her that "'the State Department does its best to corroborate information" and that "each report goes through a rigorous vetting and editing process. ... As you know, North Korea is a special case given our limited diplomatic ties and the restrictive nature of the government.' In other words, 'No.'" Even more problematic was the fact that the same prison guard was later quoted saying that North Korea's political prisoners totaled 900,000. "Now it's unclear how the statistic, based upon his knowledge as a former prison guard, and he was at four different prisons or something, went from 150,000 to 200,000 to, several years after being out of the country, to almost a million," Hong continued. "But I would think that any kind of investigator, be it a reporter or the State Department, would really have to take that kind of figure critically." She noted that defector testimony is often problematic — especially with North Koreans — because South Korean and Japanese journalists pay defectors for their testimonies, "so it becomes a kind of mode, a sort of livelihood to constantly produce 'intelligence.'"

In some cases, the government is funding the misinformation, according to Ahn. "I feel like maybe even progressives in this country, they don't really get how much the US government is like spinning propaganda and investing. ... They give tons of money," she said. "If you see that documentary, Kimjongilia, it's like 'Thanks to the National Endowment for Democracy' and these groups, the Citizen Coalition for Human Rights in North Korea. I mean, it's like there is a lot of, I think, funding that is coming, either from the US government directly or the neocon structures, institutions, that are redirecting money to groups that are part of this spinning this propaganda about North Korea."

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