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.
WHAT CAN BE SAID of Demick and the Los Angeles Times? First, favorable propaganda of this sort would never be written if the regime in question were suspected of rightwing extremism. As one commentator on Roger L. Simon's blog eloquently put it:
Imagine if the LAT had printed this story in the '70s . . . "South Africa Without the Rancor": As I was traveling in Kenya I came across this South African businessman. He did not want to give out his name. We talked of the current strain in relations between South Africa and the rest of the world. "The press is always so negative. Every story is bad, bad, bad. Every country has human rights problems, is your country perfect? We are just like everyone else, we marry, we love, we fight, we're charitable. You can't impose your western standards on everyone, we are different and we should be allowed our own expression of government. We come from a tribal society and we have needed strong leaders and the idea of democracy is foreign to us. Our blacks have their own autonomous states within the South African structure and they really don't want independence or equality. Our blacks thrive under our strong leadership and Botha is really no different then any tribal king. It is the constant aggression of the west that is the cause of friction between us." . . .
A lie about a Communist country is just not as bad as a lie about a racist country.
Second, the hypocrisy of Times editor John Carroll knows no bounds. It was Carroll who just last year blasted much of New Media as "pseudojournalism." Carroll has yet to speak about the use of his paper's front page to present the rosiest of views of the North Korean gulag-state.
There are no circumstances that justify puffing an evil regime, and no excuse for mistaking an obvious intelligence operative for a "businessman." The Times's status as West coast tip sheet for the Democratic party is annoying, but its shilling for Kim Jong Il is disgusting.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.