The Blog

Useful Idiots in Our Time

7:40 AM, Feb 28, 2013 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Kiev
Living in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, one becomes highly sensitive to public figures who look away from genocidal, government-created famines. The Holodomor or “Extermination By Hunger” was a 1932-33 famine in Stalin-era Ukraine that cost the lives of as many as 7.5 million people. This act of genocide has been officially acknowledged only in the last decade—more than 7 decades later and 15 years after the Soviet state responsible for it ceased to exist.

JStalin Secretary general CCCP 1942

At the time of the famine, a steady parade of “useful idiots” kept the world from knowing what was really happening in the Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR. This derogatory label has long been credited to Lenin, shorthand for those westerners who acted as propagandists and apologists for the atrocities of the Soviet government. The poster child for this class of western dilettantes is of course Lincoln Steffens, who returned in 1919 from a newly-created Soviet Union that was mired in civil war, hunger, terror and wholesale executions to declare, “I have seen the future and it works.”

Steffens was reporting on a U.S. mission to provide food aid to a Soviet Union that could not feed itself. He was the first of an ignominious wave of political tourists, like the British-born New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who gave readers in the West during the 1930s a completely false picture of what was taking place in the USSR, as tens of millions perished from Stalin’s police-state terror.

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, secretary of Energy and ambassador to the U.N., seems intent on following in the footsteps of Steffens and Duranty. His February 2 op-ed in the Washington Post, “Time For A Reboot With North Korea,” while recognizing that much of what visitors there see is "staged," nonetheless waxed rhapsodic: " we saw acclaimed acrobats perform an adaptation of a feudal love story in front of thousands of families in a freezing theater; we saw children playing in the snow in the streets." 

The op-ed piece was part of the fallout from Richardson’s January trip to North Korea with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. The official version is that Richardson had organised a private humanitarian mission to seek the release of a Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old South Korean-born American citizen who was arrested on charges of “hostile acts” against North Korea while visiting there as a tourist last November, and that Google’s Schmidt was just invited along for the ride.

But, sources I spoke to Beijing told me that the inclusion of Richardson was Google’s idea and they thought “given his previous interactions with the North Koreans, he might smooth the way for some of the people that Schmidt wanted to meet.” Richardson, according to this version, needed not only Google’s name to get the attention of the DPRK’s higher-ups—anxious to bask in the glow of one of the foremost high technology firms in the world—but he also needed Google to finance the trip.

Only a political ambulance-chaser like Richardson would use other people’s money to go and gladhand the North Koreans and then exhort the Obama administration, which opposed the trip, to move towards a position of more engagement with the DPRK. Moreover, only the most cynical of political hacks would call for "courageous leadership" to improve relations with an unrepentant regime responsible for the deaths of millions of its people, through famine and repression. Indeed, only days before Richardson's self-serving op-ed there were reports from North Korea report that this year’s famine has driven people to resort to cannibalism.

What makes today's useful idiots even less forgivable is that the truth about the nature of the current North Korean regime is not as hard to find as honest reporting on the Soviet Union was in the early part of the 20th century. Barbara Demick’s 2010 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea, for instance, is heartbreaking. One passage recalls the journey of a physician, Kim Ji-eun, who made a dangerous night crossing of the river separating the DPRK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the middle of winter. Illegally escaping to the Chinese side is stage one of the a long and dangerous journey that North Koreans undertake in the hopes of escaping and eventually gaining asylum in South Korea.

The North Korean doctor could no longer bear the deaths of dozens of children at the hospital where she had no food or meds to give to them as they wasted away from malnutrition. “They would look at me with accusing eyes. Even four-year olds knew they were dying and I wasn’t doing anything to help them,” she recounted for Demick. “All I was capable of doing was to cry with their mothers over their bodies afterwards.”

Dr. Kim crossed the frozen river and at dawn went to the closest Chinese village in search of food. She found a farmhouse with an unlocked gate and when she opened it there was a metal bowl of rice mixed with meat scraps sitting on the ground – a veritable luxury in North Korea. She wondered why someone would leave unattended a bowl of rice, which is a meal for the well-to-do in the DPRK. That is, until she heard a dog barking and had a shocking revelation. At that moment, as Demick writes, she “could not deny what was staring her in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

The day is coming when the world will be asking why we looked away from North Korea’s genocidal nightmare, how anyone could call for engagement with a ruling order that has systematically starved millions to death over decades. Somehow, I think the answer “we were waiting for a reboot” is not going to be a morally defensible answer.

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense correspondent for Jane’s Information Group in London covering Asia, the former USSR and Latin America. He lives in Kiev, Ukraine.

Recent Blog Posts