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Seeing the Good in North Korea

The Los Angeles Times looks at North Korea, without rancor.

11:00 PM, Mar 10, 2005 • By HUGH HEWITT
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A FRONT PAGE STORY in the March 1, 2005 Los Angeles Times was headlined "North Korea, Without the Rancor." The author, Barbara Demick, met with a North Korean businessman in a North Korean-owned karaoke bar in Beijing. The article presented this "businessman's" view of the world. His views were favorable of Kim Jung Il, dismissive of human rights complaints about North Korea's brutal treatment of its people, and silent about both the famine (that is believed to have killed 2 million in the 1990s) and the North Koreans' obstruction of international relief efforts.

The entire article should be read but these are the choice quotes:

* "There's never been a positive article about North Korea, not one," he said. "We're portrayed as monsters, inhuman, Dracula . . . with horns on our heads."

* "Now that we are members of the nuclear club, we can start talking on an equal footing. In the past, the U.S. tried to whip us, as though they were saying, 'Little boy, don't play with dangerous things.'"

* "We were hoping for change from the U.S. administration. We expected some clear-cut positive change," the North Korean said. "Instead, Condoleezza Rice immediately committed the mistake of calling us an outpost of tyranny. North Koreans are most sensitive when they hear that kind of remark."

* "We Asians are traditional people," he said. "We prefer to have a benevolent father leader."

* "Is there any country where there is a 100 percent guarantee of human rights? Certainly not the United States," the businessman said. "There is a question of what is a political prisoner. Maybe these people are not political prisoners but social agitators."

* "There is love [in North Korea]. There is hate. There is fighting. There is charity. . . . People marry. They divorce. They make children," he said. "People are just trying to live a normal life."

A STORM OF CRITICISM broke out on the web in response to the Times's decision to cede its front page to this one-sided view of North Korea. The name "Walter Duranty" was thrown about, as Demick's whitewash reminded many of the infamous New York Times reporter's glowing reports from the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

After publishing Demick's piece, the Times went to ground. Two days later they published exactly one letter--a complimentary letter!--out of the avalanche of correspondence they received. Via email, Demick explained that she had found the "businessman's" account repellent (even though her article did not betray her feelings). She and others said she ought to be judged not on the basis of her paean to Kim Jong Il, but by the totality of her work.

(A review of her work over the past two years does not yield up any extensive assessments of the life of North Koreans, but rather sidelong glances at small parts of the story, such as a look at Kim Jong Il's culinary excesses and the plight of women fleeing North Korea across the border with China.)

The March 1 article mentioned the State Department's report on human rights in North Korea, but only in passing, and with none of the detail that might have provided readers with a grasp of how the life of ordinary North Koreans has become under the crazed Kim Jong Il.

I SENT DEMICK SOME QUESTIONS, which she responded to in guarded but revealing ways. She refused, for example, to answer in straightforward fashion the question of whether Kim Jong Il is evil. Asked about North Koreas nuclear proliferation, she replied that while they may have violated the "spirit" of the 1994 deal with the United States, there were "loopholes" in the agreement that made it possible that they were in "technical compliance" with the deal. (You can read all of her responses here.)

What the totality of Demick's work demonstrates is that neither she nor her editors are in a hurry to detail the horrific nature of the North Korean regime. In fact, they work to smooth over that shocking picture, even to the extent of providing a front-page apologia.