Vilifying the victim: U.S. journalists Ling and Lee ignore the role of U.S. policy in impoverishing north Korea

By Stephen Gowans

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the U.S. journalists who snuck into north Korea and were captured, tried and sentenced by north Korean authorities, have recounted their story in the September 1st edition of The Los Angeles Times. Their op-ed piece is more a propaganda offensive aimed at vilifying north Korea (and excusing their crime) than an honest account of their ordeal.

The journalists, freed last month after former U.S. president Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to arrange their release, acknowledged that they entered north Korea illegally, a charge U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton originally dismissed as baseless. The U.S. media, acting in its accustomed role as unofficial propaganda apparatus of the U.S. government, accepted Clinton’s claim, never wondering whether the charges were indeed baseless or how Clinton could know one way or the other.

But while admitting their actions were illegal, the two journalists nevertheless sought to extenuate their guilt. “There were no signs marking the international border, no fences, no barbed wire,” they wrote, suggesting they stumbled innocently into north Korea, and that part of the blame lies with north Korea for failing mark its border clearly. They also suggested that their guide had ‘set them up.’

But it’s clear the two journalists (a third, cameraman Mitch Goss, eluded capture) knew they had crossed an international border. They were led by a seasoned Korean Chinese guide who knew the terrain. And they recognized that the frozen Tumen River, which they walked across, marked the frontier. When “our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river” (i.e., the international border) “we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side,” the pair wrote.

Ling and Lee had travelled to the area to interview what they called “several North Korean defectors – women who had left poverty and repression in their homeland.” The designation of the women, economic migrants, as ‘defectors’ (are Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande ‘defectors’?) is a standard practice of Western journalists seeking to vilify an ideological enemy. So too is the obligatory reference to ‘repression.’

Yet while the journalists invoked hoary anti-communist shibboleths, they failed to cite even the flimsiest evidence the women were fleeing repression, noting only that “most of the North Koreans we spoke with said they were fleeing poverty and food shortages.”

Indeed, it is poverty, not political repression, which compels north Koreans to leave their country. They leave in search of a better life elsewhere, just as poverty compels countless Latin Americans to migrate to the United States, many illegally, also in search of a better life.

Ling and Lee failed to ask, or indeed to illuminate, why north Koreans are poor and short of food in the first place, implying, in the standard U.S. media fashion, that north Korea’s command economy has failed north Koreans. The real reason has much to do with U.S. foreign policy.

Korea scholar Bruce Cumings explains that north Korea “has been sanctioned since 1950, when the Korean War began. It’s been isolated by the United States since the regime was formed in 1948.” [1] Why? According to David Straub, director of the U.S. State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004, “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” [2] U.S. policy since 1948 has been to pressure north Korea militarily and economically to open its doors to U.S. exports, investments and military bases. Pyongyang has, however, successfully resisted Washington’s pressure, remaining closed to U.S. domination, and therefore remaining of virtually no value to the U.S. corporate class. As a consequence, it is an object of U.S. enmity.

Despite being sanctioned, north Korea managed to rebuild after the Korean War (the U.S. Air Force flattened every structure in the country over one story) and was able to grow economically at a faster pace than south Korea, until the mid 1980s. And this despite the reality that south Korea received huge injections of aid from the United States and Japan, while Pyongyang received far less from the Soviet Union and China.

A major set-back came when the socialist bloc collapsed. North Korea was deprived of its markets, and this eliminated counter-pressure against the West’s sanctions. Now, the sanctions bit more deeply.

On top of economic warfare, north Korea faced unceasing U.S. military hostility. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed on Korean soil, and continue to be stationed there, while 40,000 more are deployed in nearby Japan. U.S. warships patrol the country’s maritime borders, and U.S. warplanes fly menacingly close to its airspace. Washington introduced battlefield nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula soon after the war, and while claiming the weapons have since been withdrawn, refuses to renounce the first strike use of strategic nuclear weapons against north Korea – and refused even before Pyongyang acquired its own nuclear weapons capability. The principal reason north Korea embarked on a program of nuclear proliferation is to deter U.S. nuclear aggression. Had the U.S. Strategic Command not announced in the early 1990s that, with the Soviet Union having collapsed, it was re-targeting some of its missiles on north Korea, Pyongyang might never have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North_Korea_by_Latuff2North Korea hasn’t been the only country to face Washington’s hostile treatment. What Felix Greene wrote in 1970 of China and Cuba, remains true of north Korea today.

“The United States imposed a 100 percent embargo on trade with these countries; she employs great pressure to prevent her allies from trading with them; she arms and finances their enemies; she harasses their shipping; she threatens them with atomic missiles which she announces are pre-targeted and pre-programmed to destroy their major cities; her spy ships prowl just beyond these countries’ legal territorial waters; her reconnaissance planes fly constantly over their territory. And having done all in their power to disrupt these countries’ efforts to rebuild their societies by means of blockades to prevent essential goods from reaching them, any temporary difficulties and setbacks these countries may encounter are magnified and exaggerated and presented as proof that a socialist revolutionary government is ‘unworkable’.” [3]

Faced with much larger, hostile adversaries (south Korea’s military budget is many times larger than north Korea’s) Pyongyang has been forced to channel a crushingly large percentage of its meagre budget into defense. With scarce resources going to the military, productive investments can’t be made. That, in combination with sanctions and financial isolation, has meant poverty for millions of north Koreans.

The United States used the same strategy against the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration spent massively on an arms build-up in the 1980s in an effort to spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [4] As the Soviets struggled to keep pace, their more limited resources were diverted increasingly into arms spending. Improvements in living standards were slowed and investment and consumption expenditures were forced to take a back seat to military outlays. U.S. cold warrior Robert McNamara explained the strategy.

“The Soviet Union came out of the Second World War with a brilliant military victory. With heavy casualty and high economic expenditure…this country had three priorities for its plan after the war. 1. Renewing the country’s infrastructure completely so the Soviet people could reach the promise of communism; 2. Rebuilding and renewing the country’s defense in the face of the stalking capitalist world; 3. Gaining new friends in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the Third World…

“If the United States succeeds in engaging the Soviet Union in an arms race, then all these plans would go out the window…Our goal was very simple: the second priority would, if possible, replace the first priority. In other words, first increasing the military expenditure and last, improving the people’s standard of living…and of course this would affect the third priority as well.

“What is the meaning of this? It means that if the Soviet Union is dragged into an arms race and a massive portion of its budget, 40 percent if possible, is allocated to this purpose, then a lesser amount would be left for improving the people’s lives, and therefore, the dream of communism, which so many people are awaiting around the world, would be postponed and the friends of the Soviet Union and the supporters of the idea of communism would have to wait a long time…On the basis of this calculation, the arms race may even threaten Soviet ideology in Moscow.” [5]

With few socialist countries left, and Cuba and north Korea struggling with poverty, the received doctrine is that socialism is unworkable. But as author William Blum points out,

“…every socialist experiment of any significance in the twentieth century — without exception — was either overthrown, invaded, corrupted, perverted, subverted, destabilized, or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States and its allies.

“Not one socialist government or movement — from the Russian Revolution to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Communist China to the FMLN in El Salvador — not one was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.

“It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” [6]

“North Korea is the most sanctioned nation in the world,” noted then U.S. president George W. Bush in 2008, adding that it would remain the most sanctioned nation on earth for some time. [7] Is it any wonder north Koreans are poor and short of food?

While the causes of north Korea’s difficulties are partly endogenous, they are largely exogenous. In an effort to discredit socialism and create the impression that it is misguided and unworkable, anti-communist ideologues attribute all of north Korea’s difficulties to internal factors, deliberately ignoring the larger external causes. Ling and Lee portray themselves as motivated by humanitarian concern over the plight of impoverished and hungry north Koreans, seeking only to bring their hardships to light. But if they were genuinely galvanized to bring relief to north Koreans, they would have trained their sights on the anti-north Korea policies their own government has implemented, rather than blaming the victim. Poor and hungry north Koreans aren’t sneaking across the border into China because they’re repressed, and they’re not poor and hungry because socialism is incapable of providing for their material needs. Prior to the collapse of the socialist bloc, north Korea was a rapidly industrializing country that left U.S. State Department planners in despair that their south Korean neo-colony would never catch up. [8] North Korea’s problems are not related to socialism. Indeed, it is far more likely the case that north Korea’s socialism has mitigated its externally-imposed difficulties. North Korea’s problems have been largely created by Washington, whose goal since W.W.II has been the domination of the Korean peninsula in its entirety, and the destruction of pro-independence forces within.

1. “North Korea warns of new tests as nuclear standoff intensifies,” Democracy Now!, October 11, 2006.

2. Kim Hyun, “U.S. Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.

3. Felix Greene, The Enemy: What Every American Should Know about Imperialism, Vintage, New York, 1970, p. 292.

4. Sean Gervasi, “A full court press: The destabilization of the Soviet Union,” Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990, 21 – 26. 14.

5. Robert McNamara, cited in Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000, p. 138

6. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009.

7. The New York Times, July 6, 2008.

8. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2005.

4 thoughts on “Vilifying the victim: U.S. journalists Ling and Lee ignore the role of U.S. policy in impoverishing north Korea

  1. It sounds like McNamara (& by implication other policy analysts):

    1. Believed that the USSR actually could get to full communism, and

    2. That if this were to occur, it would be a landslide lose for capitalism.

    I consider those major admissions.

  2. Great article! I have recently come across an article about a US lawyer who had visited the DPRK and it presents a fairly different view regarding life there compared to the depictions that are usually presented in the Western news media. It is so interesting to read such articles since almost every time one goes into a bookshop, the only literature available about anything socialist tends to tackle socialism in an extremely negative way. Socialists of all the world, unite! Let us march on and let us continue providing arguments to show that another world is indeed possible!

  3. There are a few inconvenient facts which the LA Times as well as the other standard rags of the US empire fail to mention:

    1. Both women crossed into N. Korea in an area where a river clearly separated N. Korea from China. Didn’t they bother to check a f—— map?

    2. One of these girls sisters attempted the same thing years ago, was successful and the secret footage she got while in N. Korea propelled her career to new heights. It’s obvious that these two misguided journalists tried to do the same.

    3. Whatever the “official” explanation is in the US, there is NO DOUBT that these two journalists DELIBERATELY, CONSCIOUSLY and ILLEGALLY attempted to cross the borer into N. Korea. But they got caught.

    They are not saints or heroes!

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