25 Apr Episode 35: The Total Blackout of the Korean Left
Citations Needed | April 25, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you everyone for joining us this week.
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Nima: (Jokingly) And I was like ‘Super easy? Hardly any work?’ And I still was like, ‘Ehhhhh, but I have to like work with Adam.’
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Adam: A quick production note before we move on to the show, I have since moved to Chicago in the last few weeks. For those who are wondering, my Twitter handle is now stolen valor.
Nima: That’s not true. That’s a lie.
Adam: I’m AdamJohnsonNYC, but I now live in Chicago, Illinois. So I want to apologize for my stolen valor and for anyone who wants to make glib criticisms about Brooklyn leftist, that’s no longer true for me. I no longer live in Brooklyn. I now live in the city of Chicago where evidently winter never ends.
Nima: No, it’s true. It’s a freezing place.
Adam: No angry letters from Chicago residents. Thank you. So today’s show, very excited about. We are revisiting the issue of the Korean conflict, which is sort of an imperfect description, but we’ll use it. We did an episode on it for, for our second episode, which was really an in-depth episode about the history of the Korean conflict and how it, how it informs the current way we talk about it. If you haven’t, you should listen to that episode, it’s actually a good background.
Adam: And today’s show we’re going to focus on um, a very common problem that the way the media covers Korea that we think is actually super detrimental to any sort of meaningful peace effort in the Korean Peninsula, which is the almost uniform eraser of the South Korean or generally speaking, we’ll say the Korean left, the peace movements in Korea are almost never given any kind of credence whatsoever at all. And weapons contractor funded think tanks and super important Serious People, capital ‘S,’ capital ‘P,’ are routinely held up as the neutral arbiters of Korea. One of the things we don’t like to do on the show is the like, listen to person X or listened to group X, in the sense that it becomes fetishized, but it is objectively true that actual Korean voices, especially those that are, that are from the left or from the peace movement, are almost non-existent when talking heads jump into articles analyzing what’s going on in Korea.
Nima: To actually try and remedy that we will be speaking today with Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families and ensure women’s leadership in peace-building.
Christine Ahn: It’s so amazing to me how much of the media just doesn’t get the Korean situation at all and part of it has to do with the South Korean government and Moon Jae-in’s masterful diplomacy. I mean frankly, I mean he knows what a narcissistic psychopath, I mean, I don’t know that he knows that, but I mean they clearly know and have studied very closely Donald Trump and they have made statements such that it is because of Donald Trump and the US’ maximum pressure campaign and they have known all the gracious ways to frame things.
Nima: We actually, um, really wanted to address this topic namely because things regarding North Korea policy, regarding North Korea and the Korean Peninsula in general seem to be reaching a different stage than they have been in for, um, the past, I don’t know, six plus decades. And what we hear from the media now is that the Trump administration, the noble and peace-building Trump administration, has now given it’s a quote unquote “blessing” for North and South Korea to basically discuss an end to hostilities. But there’s an inherent problem in this framing of the issue. Namely, South Korea is not a party to the “temporary” armistice that was signed to basically put the Korean War on hiatus indefinitely in 1953. South Korea is not a part of that agreement. So to end the war and the conflict officially, um, it’s not up to North and South Korea, but surprise surprise, it’s actually primarily the responsibility of the United States, which was a direct signatory through the U.S.-led United Nations Command. So, the armistice was actually signed between that United Nations command, which is basically all about the United States, South Korea was a member of it but not a direct signatory. So it’s that UN Command and North Korea and China. So those are the three parties that actually need to officially put an end to this, um, which is often not talked about, its often as if this is some sort of still festering civil war between two sides of the same peninsula.
Adam: And so one of the ways that this narrative is loaded and we’ll talk to, um, Christine Ahn about this later, is that the people you hear from the media is increasingly pro-war voices. So, I did a piece for FAIR last year where there’s this thing called the THAAD missile system, which is a very controversial, supposedly defense missile system. But of course, all defensive missile systems are also offensive missile systems.
Nima: THAAD, incidentally, stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
Adam: Right. THAAD is built by Lockheed Martin. Now, Lockheed Martin is one of the top three funders, as we’ve discussed before on the show, for the Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS], which is a very hawkish think tank that is funded almost exclusively by weapons contractors, large corporations and Gulf Emirati and Western governments.
Nima: Yeah. A lot of oil companies.
Adam: So I did a survey of 30 quotes by CSIS about the Korean situation and every single one of them to the T, and this was just over a year period and the outlets range from Wired to The Christian Science Monitor to The New York Times, the Voice of America, to Reuters, to Business Insider, who publishes their press releases all the time, every single one of them, to the T, from CSIS promoted the THAAD missile system and said it was essential to South Korean security.
And every single one of these articles that discuss THAAD, not a single one of them talk to anyone in the Korean peace movement or anyone in the Korean left or anyone in Korea at all, frankly, unless they were the sort of token Korean that worked for a think tank, right? Western think tank. And what you get is a very distorted narrative of what Koreans actually want. Because at the same time, the summer of last year, there was a poll taken that found that 56 percent of Koreans opposed the THAAD missile system and viewed it as a provocation of North Korea and they didn’t want it.
Nima: Right, and yet that will never be factored in. That will never appear.
Adam: And, so if I’m reading these 30 different articles, I come away with the impression that not only is the THAAD missile system essential to the security of South Korea, that, but that its sort of broadly accepted as being so in Korea itself when that’s not the case. So you have a hundred percent uniformity pro THAAD, pro western think tank and you have zero Korean peace activists or Korean leftists or anyone who represents the 56 percent who opposed it and of course the current Korean President Moon Jae-in was swept into power after an impeachment of his predecessor based on a peace and reconciliation platform which he appears to be carrying through. Um, and this is upsetting the, the normal corridors of power who want to maintain an American military presence that the doorstep of China and maintain the status quo with a little bit of wiggle room around the margins in terms of concessions in North Korea. And so we thought that it would be super interesting to talk to someone who deals in this space and is completely almost uniformly ignored. Not invited on to MSNBC, not invited onto cable shows, very rarely. And for the record, The New York Times occasionally will do sort of a token piece on the Korean peace movement, but it’s always kind of this separate article. We’re not invited to the adult table to talk about serious things.
Nima: It actually has to do with policy and certainly nothing to do with ending a decades and decades long conflict that’s really just been kept going and exacerbated by the United States.
Nima: Uh, I wanted to point out, one kind of really emblematic article, uh, recently featured in The Atlantic magazine, was written by a Brookings Fellow, Thomas Wright, he’s the director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in foreign policy for the Project on International Order and Strategy, which sounds extremely serious, of course. So he writes for a Brookings, hawkish, think tank of course. And so he had an article in March, as I said, published in The Atlantic talking about the potential for peace talks, the potential for actual reconciliation and the end to this conflict. And he is worried the article is headlined, “The Biggest Danger of North Korea Talks” and it’s sub-headlined that, “Kim Jong-un is offering a deal at a price that could be way too high — and that the president,” he means Trump, “could easily accept.”
So what Thomas Wright is arguing, he’s really worried about what might be put forth by North Korea and here’s why, he references an interview given by Steve Bannon just a few days before he was, um, kicked out of the White House talking about what a deal with China and North Korea would look like. Um, and it gives insight into what actually might be accepted by the Trump administration. And so part of what this deal would look like is a deal in which, “China got North Korea to freeze its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula.” That is the horror show that might befall the US empire if there’s actually peace on the Korean peninsula. And here’s what Thomas Wright opines on this terrifying prospect of actual nuclear inspections and no more U.S. occupation. Here’s what Thomas Wright says, “Such a deal would be widely regarded as an unmitigated disaster for the United States.”
Adam: Widely regarded. Widely regarded.
Nima: (Laughs) Widely regarded.
Adam: ‘Most economists believe-’
Nima: Right. ‘Some say.’ Ah, “It would trade one of America’s most important alliances for a promise to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program where it is- which is to say, it would legitimize it’s existing arsenal.” So, okay. The problem for this Brookings Fellow and what he says, which is a widely regarded opinion, is that an actual end to hostilities, actually bringing the North Korean nuclear program, which is not under the auspices of the non-proliferation treaty, is not inspected by the IAEA, it would bring that under an inspection regime, which would, guess what, make the entire world safer and also it would mean removing U.S. troops from the peninsula, which is kind of like a main sticking point for the North Korean government and has been for decades. That’s kind of the entire point. This of course is seen as a veritable non-starter for people who think that they’re really serious about talking foreign policy in our press.
Adam: You know, all these sort of premises are taken for granted. These aren’t really debatable. They’re not really debated in American media much at all, which is why for people who deal in this space who are trying to confront some of these, these assumptions, these axioms that are never really debated much less subverted. Right? It’s very frustrating to sort of get it through the thick skull of your average American public because this is one of these cases where what the American public and what the American pundit class thinks is hugely consequential to Koreans because again, the U.S. runs the military of South Korea, so, it’s not an abstract thing. And so Korean activists and Korean American activists like our guest Christine Ahn have made a concerted effort to try to get it through their skulls that a lot of their, a glib assumptions about the Korean conflict are very loaded and very unhelpful and oftentimes racists and bad. And so I’m super excited to talk to Christine Ahn. I’ve been a fan of her work for many years, as I know Nima you have too. And so without further ado-
Nima: Christine Ahn is founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ. We will be speaking with her in just a minute. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, reunite families and ensure women’s leadership in peace-building. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed Christine.
Christine Ahn: Thank you for having me.
Adam: We were discussing at the top of the show the kind of hidden Korean left and the peace movement in Korea that almost never gets, I would say virtually never gets, with the exception of maybe The Nation and some stuff on Democracy Now, it never gets any media attention. The western media or the media in the United States specifically is populated overwhelmingly by think tank types, sort of mercenary types. Um, CSIS, the Council on Foreign Relations, sort of weapons contractor funded, very Western oriented think tanks. Can you tell us about the work that you’ve done and the relationship that that work has with the narrative in the American media and if it’s ever reflected at all or not?
Christine Ahn: It’s an excellent question and it is something that just, you know, is something that I don’t even recognize because I’m so in it. (Laughs) It’s sort of like what they say, when a frog is like going into boiling water and, you know, it’s uh, it’s been extraordinarily difficult because on the one hand you are kind of swimming up stream because you are challenging the paradigm about, um, you’re on the one hand educating an American population that knows nothing about Korea, you know, where does Korea even exist on a map? So we’re dealing with a highly uneducated, ignorant American population in terms of foreign affairs or in terms of what the US government does around the world in terms of its foreign policy, in terms of its military policy, in terms of its economic policy. So that’s on one hand. And then on the other hand is, um, this kind of a narrative about the U.S. liberating, um, South Korea from the clutches of Communism and um, you know, why the U.S. fought in the Korean War to defend freedom. And that is such a powerful narrative that, uh, to even talk critically about the ongoing U.S. military occupation, that they’re actually can be a vital movement, whether it’s on Jeju Island fighting against the US naval base there, or in Pyeongtaek, which is the world’s largest military base in South Korea, you know, that has massive sizes of football stadiums in the center of South Korea. Um, you know, it just, it’s, uh, it’s so much work to actually unpackage that kind of disabuse, the dominant paradigm and then to always be going up against these other spokespeople.
But you’re right, they represent the military industrial complex. They, they represent the status quo that justifies the ongoing militarization, the ongoing massive investments of US public dollars towards perpetual war when, you know, and, and so when we, I mean, it’s so much more difficult to actually speak critically when you’re also doing this work, right? I mean, it’s, I need to get access to go into North Korea. I also need to get access into South Korea. And, and now I’m in a position where I actually, I mean, it’s just so surreal to me that last summer I was almost denied entry into South Korea because of retribution from the former neo conservative president Park Geun-hye, who was ousted by the Candlelight Revolution in South Korea, um, and swept in Moon Jae-in who reversed the travel ban. But, you know, just to kind of be, um, for my peace work, for my, um, my honesty, uh, for being a truth teller, you know, basically subject to all these kind of national agendas that want so much the status quo to remain the same. So, um, thank you for highlighting the extraordinarily difficult work it is to kind of be, um, telling the truth, trying to give voice to an extraordinarily powerful movement in South Korea that has been working very steadily, very covertly, you know, especially in the last decade under very repressive conditions under Lee Myung-bak and then Park Geun-hye, um, you know, to be doing their work to kind of challenge US militarization. Um, and so, yeah.
And so now I feel like it is a new day. I mean, I just returned from South Korea last week. I was able to reconnect with some of the pioneers of the women’s peace movement. These are women who in the 1990s engaged with North Korean women, um, you know, that have been working to bridge the divide, the division, the ongoing war and, you know, it’s just, it’s just an extraordinary feeling to have the, to get from them, a sense of openness, the openness, the freedom to speak quite openly about their feelings about reunification, about the potential end of this war. Um, and so yeah, I just feel like it’s a new day and there are just amazing things that are taking place in South Korea that I feel is just making their democracy even better and better. So, um, so thank you for pointing out the ordinarily hard work that people like me and other activists that know this more critical history face in and talking about US/Korea policy on the media.
Adam: Absolutely. Yeah cause obviously there’s so much of a cartoon narrative ingrained in the average American’s brain and the average American votes for and supports and provides money for the system that, that obviously runs the security apparatus of South Korea. So there’s a huge stake there. There is meaningful gestures of late to actually end the war, which is obviously very tremendous news, very hard-fought news. Can you give us a quick update on what the status of that is and what the reactionary forces are doing to sort of prevent that from happening?
Christine Ahn: So very interesting. You know, just in the last few weeks we’ve seen just a tidal wave shift from potential war taking place on the Korean Peninsula from the U.S. conducting a bloody nose strike, um, you know, launching preventive war to assure that a long range North Korean missile carrying a nuclear warhead couldn’t reach the United States. Um, to now, you know, President Trump at a meeting yesterday with Shinzō Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, basically declaring that, you know, one day, hopefully soon, Koreans will be able to live in peace and uh, and united. I mean, it was just unbelievable to actually listen to President Trump and actually agree with something that he had to say. Um, and so, you know, it’s, uh, next week on the 27th, um, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader and the South Korean president will be meeting at Panmunjom. It’s the site where the armistice agreement was signed. That was the cease-fire that North Korea, China, and the United States representing the UN command. South Korea did not sign that cease-fire basically halting the war. Um, and they promised within 90 days to return for, you know, signing a peace accord and that never took place. And so basically 67 years later, um, you know, the, the Korean War has languished on and so just in the last few days, uh, South Korea disclosed that they have been discussing how to put, you know, the historic hostilities aside. And I think that was quite a brilliant diplomatic move on the part of the two Korea’s, I mean, on the one hand, we hear a lot in the mainstream media that the reason why Kim Jong-un was brought to the table was because of the success of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, which is really basically more sanctions, um, you know, forcing the isolation of North Korea from the international community that that is what brought North Korea and that is just not the case.
The real thing is that North Korea achieved what they felt that they had reached militarily enough power to defend its sovereignty. And also the diplomatic gestures coming from the South Korean president who promised North Korea in his first major foreign policy speech in Berlin last year that he would see through a peace treaty to end the Korean War if North Korea committed to denuclearization. And, um, you know, but he also sent a very clear message to Washington, you know, uh, around the same time that North Korea conducted its last missile test, which was there will not be a Korean conflict on the peninsula without the South Korean government’s approval, which was, I think, a very symbolic message to the Trump administration that, uh, you know, they aren’t willing to go along with US designs for a preemptive strike. And so, um, I think this gesture, the coming together of the two Korea’s for the Olympic ceremony that led to the truce and then now all these kinds of already cultural social exchanges. My brother in law actually led the artist delegation from South Korea to do a major performance in Pyongyang. And so you just see these extraordinary things taking place by leaps and bounds. And so, um, that will take place. And then soon after that, sometime in May or possibly in June, Donald Trump is set to meet with Kim Jong-un and we’re not sure where the location is and everybody is so fixated on where are they meeting? And, um, but, you know, I think that the critical point is again, back to the media and back to, um, the way that the Korean War is painted in this country is that it is just a civil war between North and South Korea, when in fact, I mean that has been just something that I have been hammering home for over a decade now, which is it’s the United States that must sign a peace treaty with the DPRK and China must also be included because legally those three are the signatories to the cease fire agreement. And South Korea can definitely make overtures and just as they did in 2000 and in 2007, there have been numerous inter Korean agreements where they have begun the process of reconciliation towards gradual reunification.
But, um, you know, what we saw in the last Sunshine era and Moon Jae-in, who’s the president now, South Korea, he was the chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun who was the last president, liberal president that oversaw the Sunshine years. And, you know, he knows well that progress in inter Korean reconciliation and peace is greatly constrained by the United States. And so that’s where I have been kind of, you know, when I talk, when I give talks to communities around the US, I say we want so much to prevent there to be a war, but this is our war people. The US lead the UN command, we led an indiscriminate bombing campaign, where more US bombs were dropped on the Korean Peninsula then all of Japan and all of the Asia Pacific theater during World War Two, we have to understand that the kind of heinous war crimes that were committed against the Korean people during the Korean War, bombing of dams that completely flooded farms. Eighty percent of North Korean cities incinerated. The only thing standing in some of these cities were chimneys. It felt like to journalists that were walking through there, covering this, that it felt like to them they were walking on the moon. So we have to know this history. We have to bring it back. We have to say the United States military is a signatory to this armistice agreement. And so when we want the Korean War, when we want a peace treaty to be signed, that means that is incumbent upon Donald Trump, upon the US government to bring closure to this war.
Nima: So about that. I see that already the media is going to paint Trump as the victorious, diplomatic savior in this story, which obviously is completely insane and so I love that you’re pointing out that that narrative completely distorts and is the mirror opposite of reality when it comes to Korea and that there is this history of cross-cultural work and of diplomacy on the actual Korean peninsula and that its the United States that reached a point where they couldn’t go further with their threats and that that has tipped the scale. Not this kind of magnanimous overture by a guy who basically is just going to say the last thing that someone else just said to him and who has time and again painted North Korea and its leadership and its people as these dehumanized caricatures. So what happens for the media narrative? How does the media narrative get it right in this case? Or does it not matter that they do as long as the people of North Korea will not be under siege and under threat anymore?
Christine Ahn: I know. Well, I mean, I, it’s so amazing to me how much the media just doesn’t get the Korean situation at all and part of it has to do with the South Korean government and Moon Jae-in’s masterful diplomacy. I mean frankly, I mean he knows what a narcissistic psychopath, I mean, I don’t know that he knows that, but I mean they clearly know and have studied very closely Donald Trump and they have made statements such that it is because of Donald Trump and the US’ maximum pressure campaign and they have known all the gracious ways to frame things so that he feels um, you know, that this is-
Christine Ahn: I mean, it’s like everybody’s managing somebody that is really like injured person, an unwell person.
Nima: Right, right. You could just kind of pat them on the head and be like, ‘Yup, you did this.’
Christine Ahn: Exactly!
Nima: And then actually go about your business of, like, making peace.
Christine Ahn: Right. Absolutely. So I think in that sense Moon Jae-in has been very masterful. Um, but the reality is, I mean, you know, the back story, which we of course will never this right? In the mainstream media, in the corporate military media, military industrial complexes, you know, why did this shift take place? And I would say for sure this, like, the threat of a US preventive war, quote unquote “preventive war” whatever that is, illegal, preemptive strike against North, had so much freaked out the North and the South Koreans that uh, you know, I mean the Congressional Research Service says that what in the opening of a conventional military conflict, 300,000 people would be killed, right? Because if you think you’re going to go and do these like precision strikes on North Korea where they have hidden, they have it on mobile sites. I mean, you know, they have the experience of surviving an indiscriminate US bombing campaign. Do you think, and they have witnessed what has happened to Libya. What has happened to Iraq. Do you think that, you know, I mean, we think we have another thing coming in terms of thinking that it would be a stealth, um, mission. And so there would be a counter strike. There’s 87 US bases. There are 30,000 US troops in South Korea. Um, there would be a counter retaliation. So South Korea has seen very clearly, I mean we saw the whole situation with that guy, Victor Cha, who is a hawk and he even, he couldn’t be confirmed by the Trump administration because he wouldn’t endorse their bloody nose strategy. So we see that the Trump administration pushed so hard. McMaster, um, you know, the crazies in the Trump administration pushed so hard that it basically brought the two Korea’s together. And I think that this like recent gesture that they were going to resolve the conflict, you know, diplomatically that they were going to help bring an end has basically taken away, um, the raison d’être for the US to say, ‘we are going to go and do this pre, you know, if negotiations with Pyongyang don’t go well, then we have to go to plan b.’ Well, South Korea is basically taking away that, that, uh, that reason, that justification. So I think that’s a brilliant move. Um, and, and so yeah, here we are, it’s a new day and, you know, but we are still dealing. You’re absolutely right. I mean, when I saw your first question, you know, the image that came to mind was the New Yorker cartoon cover, um, of, uh, of Kim Jong-un as a little toddler playing with all these like nuclear weapons.
Christine Ahn: Like, you know, and I just think, um, you know, brings me back to a famous quote by a guy named Donald MacIntyre who actually used to be the sole bureau chief of Time magazine. And he, and he basically said, yeah, these characterizations like caricatures of North Korean leaders, especially Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, I mean, you know, the way that they are portrayed, that they’re unpredictable, that they’re, you know, it’s all these like jingoistic, Orientalistic, you know, can’t be trusted, um, these characterizations and you either get that or you get the kind of goose-stepping marching North Korean soldiers or you get the images of emaciated North Korean children. So all you get is this image of North Korea is like a militaristic, like crazy hell bent, you know, basket case, hell bent on destroying the world and, you know, that is just, you know, what does that do? That just, number one, it just justifies U.S. policy, which is actually responsible for creating those characterizations of why North Korea is so militaristic. Why they are so persistent on defending their sovereignty through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Why they endured a famine in the 1990s because of brutal sanctions. Because after massive, you know, climate disaster they weren’t able to even obtain, um, funds just as any other capitalist country could from the IMF or the World Bank to bail them out in their, um, you know, predicament. And so I just feel like, you know, it just normalizes the kind of aggressive US policy against North Korea and it also just like paves the road in the event that we are ready to drop bombs on the North Korean people.
Nima: So, do you think, um, that the threats coming from the United States that really never stopped but certainly came out of a different mouth this time, Donald Trump’s mouth. Do you think those were deemed to be more credible? Like how did you, in the peace movement, feel about those? Were they all just bluster and the same old? Or was there a different sort of tenor in them this time around which actually did drive North and South together in a different way or was that happening parallel with the like, yeah, whatever that the US is doing, whatever it’s doing over there?
Christine Ahn: Well, I think there’s a few things that shifted. So number one, I mean we are dealing with an administration that is so unpredictable and a cabinet that is, you know, so hard line, um, and that has no diplomatic capacity. Um, on the other hand, you know, you’re also dealing with a situation where, I mean, the thing with the Victor Cha thing I think really terrified us in the peace movement. I mean we saw like the way that tensions really escalated last year, but then just to like the way that the Wall Street Journal covered the bloody nose strike and then Victor Cha coming forward and saying he couldn’t be confirmed because he couldn’t endorse that. I think that was like kind of a come-to-Jesus moment that wow the US is seriously considering this because I think, do you remember when Steve Bannon on his way out, he did that interview with Bob Kuttner, at The American Prospect? And he said, ‘uh, the North Koreans have us, there’s just no way that we could do a military option because of the counter retaliation, you know, and what it would do to our allies in South Korea.’ So I would, I would say that there’s a part of us in the peace movement that’s like, yeah, I think that’s right, you know, I mean really is the US going to do that? And then, um, you know, a few things shifted. I mean obviously the bloody nose strategy, but the thing that has not been covered so much that I think is very much behind the Trump administration’s decision to engage with North Korea is the new, um, the Pentagon strategy about, um, who are the new enemies. It’s no longer ISIS who are the new enemies, Russia and China. We know from the Obama administration that, um, you know, the US was pivoting to Asia from Clinton’s, you know, foreign policy. Her first major paper in foreign affairs that we were moving 60 percent of our military from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. Uh, you know, and it was never like blatantly pointing to China. But clearly that’s not the case anymore. I mean, the Pentagon has identified a new cold war, Russia and China as the enemies and you know, I think that, um, they see North Korea and North Korea, you know, is masterful and kind of playing enemies against each other to advance its interests. And so my hope is that in this moment, both South and North Korea feel that they have to come together, Korea for Korea, because they are facing these geopolitical powers surrounding them. China, Russia, Japan, the US all with their own geopolitical interests. And so Korea unfortunately has played this awful geopolitical role, you know, that peninsula jutting out from China and Russia and you know, between, you know, on the other side is Japan and obviously the US like, um, you know, in it’s struggle for empire domination against China. So, you know, I think all of that is kind of coming into play, which is really ultimately led, I think the US to, um, to pursue some kind of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea.
Adam: It seems like to me that the starting premise of every single major pundit and we, we discussed many of these at the top of the show is the idea of any kind of reconciliation between the North and the South as being A) sort of unimaginable that we just can’t imagine it, right? People speak about the flood of refugees and then they kind of speak in these sort of as if North Korea is one large concentration camp being liberated by the Americans. Um, and the second thing is the idea that it’s somehow quote “bad for America” or bad for America’s standing, that there is some sort of gesture towards peace because I guess the assumption is that the South Koreans are being duped by the evil North Koreans and sort of don’t know what’s in their own best interest. Can you talk a bit about how it’s sort of like you’re the very starting premise that almost everyone operates under is that A) a peace agreement is impossible and meaningful reconciliation is impossible and that B) it’s against the “America’s interest,” how hard it is to sort of push back against those premises and is there any space at all in major media, whether it’s cable or newspapers, to even have that kind of conversation? And how does that compare to how the conversation takes place in Korean media?
Christine Ahn: Well, I mean, that’s what’s so extraordinary is, you know, sometimes when I talk about the past efforts and why it’s so critical for peace on the great Korean peninsula to prevail is for the U.S. to have closure with North Korea. I bring up the June 15 joint declaration between North and South Korea where, you know, the leader Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, the North Korean leader should have won it too. It takes two to tango. But Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, they signed this June 15 agreement where both sides agreed to begin family reunions, civil society exchanges and the joint economic zones basically using South Korean capital and energy and North Korean labor. And you know, that that went on. And I was just kind of revisiting some of the statistics at the height of the Sunshine era, half a million people from North and South Korea engaged with one another. So I mean for a peninsula that has been at war for 70 years, where, um, all these characterizations from both sides, I mean, in some ways they are caricatures of each other. I mean, you have the capitalist, you know, most wired country in the world in the South and then you have, you know, communists the most closed off country in the North and in many ways like they, um, they feed off of each other and so, you know, but yet there was in those Sunshine years, like extraordinary connection and engagement. And so when I actually bring up this, people have no idea that that actually took place.
Christine Ahn: And that, you know, a lot of that progress was derailed because of who? Who was in office at that time? George W. Bush. When Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president came to the United States in 2000 and you know, or in 2001 or 2002. And, and basically begged for the US’ support in their inter Korean peace process. He basically got, um, you know, he got just like the royal finger and then what happened soon after that? North Korea appeared on the axis of evil. And, uh, and so yeah, we have to, you know, unfortunately this is where I feel that we have not succeeded in providing a critical history, a critical understanding to the American and even to the left, that just still has this, you know, really distorted view. I mean, there is a Korean American writer, her name is Suki Kim, and she wrote a book called, Without You, There Is No Us. And she basically went undercover to, uh, teach, you know, English to North Korean students at this, uh, PUST, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, it’s a Christian school, started, you know, and has the partnership with Rice University. And so a lot of them are like Korean Americans that go, they teach agriculture, science. Um, and, you know, it’s, it’s a way to, um, try to bring some of the North Korean elite. I mean, yes, they are going to be elite, but who goes to Harvard and who goes to a Yale, I mean, hello? Mostly elite members of the United States. I mean, you know, I understand that she has this experience of the North Korean regime. The regime is repressive, its authoritative. There’s really no question about that. But what are the structural conditions that make them so? And would actually change that? Uh, would it be more engagement? What has worked in the past? What about countries like China, that have now, I mean, yes, it’s still a repressive country, but there is far more freedom than there was 20 years ago and the conditions of most Chinese people have improved. And so, um, you know, but this woman, she has become the darling of a liberal media and, even for The Intercept, um, and you know, for those of us that have this critical history that engage with North Koreans that want peace to be on the Korean peninsula, where, I mean I’m deeply disturbed by some of the things that she says, which is there can only be, um, you know, basically the only path forward is regime change. That is highly problematic to me. I feel very, um, very anxious when I hear people that allegedly care about the human rights of North Korean people advocating for such reckless policies like regime change as if that has ever succeeded in the past. And that has actually led to improve conditions for people. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan. Look at what’s happening in Syria. Is this really the strategy that is going to lead to peace or improved human rights?
Nima: Right. It’s sort of the Reading Lolita in Tehran problem, where there’s this book that is certainly based on real experiences that outline real, real issues, real problems. And yet it’s just glommed on to by a certain sector of society because it paints the image that is expected to be painted. It’s like a feedback loop.
Christine Ahn: No, it’s absolutely. Another prominent author on North Korea and authority has become Barbara Demick. And it’s really interesting because, you know, she, um, what is it? Nothing To Envy is her book and you know, I’m sure it’s just, it’s sold so many copies is a national, you know, New York Times best seller and um, you know, it’s, I mean, even though she probably paints a more nuanced picture, um, it’s very interesting if you actually go back, I think she was working for the LA Times based in China and if you read some of her earlier work she had a much more, um, I want to say sympathetic view, a more kind of critical view. And then, you know, it’s like she’s, she like wrote this book and it takes me back to what Donald MacIntyre of Time magazine says, which is when you like portray this country and these people in this way, um, it’s what sells. I mean, you know, and so I don’t mean to be facetious here, but I just think that, you know, if I were to all of a sudden change my point of view or to like cast North Koreans as these like crazy robots that are mindless people and that really the US is the savior. I just wonder how many more interviews that I could get. I just think it’s so fascinating. I used to be, I actually have had a few opportunities to be on CNN and I’ve had two instances where once, for example, they invited me to be on and they had, um, it was about North Korean human rights and I basically like started. Um, and I went forward with a critical view and somebody pulled the plug and they basically said, ‘oh, we’re, we’re, oh, sorry, a satellite, you know, there was a satellite something.’ And um, and I just, I felt like, oh my gosh, I felt like it was in the Twilight Zone that did, that really happen? But it happens.
Adam: Yeah, you really can’t deviate from the narrative.
Christine Ahn: Yeah.
Adam: There’s an interesting subset of sort of high to middle brow liberal commentator who says that an official state enemy of the U.S. is Hitler 2.0 year after year after year after year, keeps getting boosted by the media and then at the eleventh hour acts shocked that people would want to go to war with that country.
Adam: It’s like, look, if you really think the country’s one large concentration camp full of starving people, then why don’t you support regime change? I mean there’s a marriage between the sort of international liberal, sort of liberal human rights concern, troll industrial complex, which we talk about in episode eight and I think a lot of those people are sort of good, are in good faith or mean well and the obviously neoconservative sort of regime change brigade and oftentimes the line is very blurred. I mean, if you look at reviews of the book you mentioned they almost uniformly paint North Korea as a hostage situation. And the way we deal with hostage situations is we either negotiate or we go in and kick down the door and try to rescue the hostages and if that’s how you view the situation then of course, I mean it almost makes any kind of reconciliation or peace impossible because you’ve, you’ve turned the entire situation into one into a multimillion people hostage situation.
Nima: Right. On purpose.
Adam: Yeah, and then of course we’re going to act shocked when people want to bomb them. It’s like, well, I mean that’s the logical implication of what you’re saying.
Christine Ahn: Absolutely.
Nima: So, Christine, a lot of the work you do is women-led and centered and focused. Can you talk to us about this more feminist oriented peace movement and why, not only that’s important, but why that’s important for American activists to learn from and how that can be brought home here to the work that needs to be done in our own society?
Christine Ahn: Well, it’s kind of where I was trained. I mean, I really grew up in kind of two movements, I mean many movements, but for many years I worked with, um, lots of women’s organizations. The Women of Color Resource Center, The Global Fund for Women. So I really kind of grew up, um, you know, developed a lot of my ideologies working with other feminists and especially feminists from the global south and feminists, you know, third world feminists that live here in the US. And so, um, you know, kind of taking that and then my work with the Korean movements for peace and democracy and, and reunification. It really, um, kind of came to a head, you know, when I had this vision of mobilizing women globally for peace in Korea and crossing the DMZ as a feminist anti militarist act that um, you know, it’s the most militarized border in the world. And it is the one thing that still has 1.2 million land mines, mostly US landmines that were put in place, you know, in this 2.5 mile wide, you know, across 150 miles of the Korean Peninsula. And so, um, you know, I mean not to make light of it, but it’s, you know, the more we can continue to cross that no man’s land, to cross the world’s most fortified border I think is like bringing, you know, kind of like opening the ch’i for the Korean peninsula. And um, I mean it’s just the absurdity that people from North and South Korea, I mean really one Korean people not being able to see each other, you know, families like still being separated after three generations. Like Korean people still being at war. Just, you know, it’s just the tragedy of it. And so on the 75th anniversary of Korea’s division by cold war powers. It really felt, you know, this kind of, as a Korean American, as a US citizen, a deep sense of responsibility that we had to do something to support peace on the Korean peninsula. And that was also, you know, at the height of very intense repression of the South Korean progressive movements by Park Geun-hye. I mean, these are reunification and peace activists that were fined, were imprisoned, you know, I mean, the opposition political party that has always been very pro engagement was basically disbanded. The situation was so bad. And so just having studied the efforts of North and South Korean women building piece across the DMZ, you know, when in times of impasse between the two Koreas it has been so critically important for the international community to support them. And in fact, the first meeting of North and South Korean women and the 1990s was facilitated by a Japanese woman, a member of the Japanese Diet. And so, um, you know, it’s this deep sense of international solidarity, but also just a recognition that those of us in the US have a responsibility to help bring closure to this war. This is our war and it’s not something that is just happening over there, but it has implications for us here at home.
And so, yeah, that’s, you know, I believe in the power of women and now we have not only international and national laws and policies that mandate that women should be involved at all levels of the peace-building prevention process. But that we um, now have studies, you know, there was a major study that came out in 2015 looking at three decades and 40 major conflicts and all but one of the peace agreements that were signed, you know, they lead to peace deals when women’s groups were involved. And when women were at the table helping to draft that peace agreement. They had a 35 percent chance of lasting 15 years or longer. So women not only help make the peace agreements happen, we actually help bring them to life. We help them be lasting and more durable. And so I believe in women and I, you know, it’s been, um, it’s, you know, when I was in North Korea we did this action where we brought four parts of this quilt, cause, you know, just as in a lot of different cultures, like, there are specific women’s art forms and there’s something called the jogak-bo and it’s uh, you know, it’s basically like before there were family portraits, there was the jogak-bo, it was like a woman who used to take parts of clothing from her children’s first birthday or her husband’s soldier uniform and like basically weave together the story of her life. And it was passed on from generations to generations. And during the Korean War, during, as bombs are being dropped, you know, that’s where Korean families would put their most valuable belongings quickly, wrap it up and carry it on their heads and flea basically to go down south, away from the conflict. And, um, we brought parts of different quadrants of the jogak-bo. We had from the international women, we had the North Korean women, the South Korean women and the Korean Diaspora and we brought all the pieces together. And when we were in North Korea, we did the stitching ceremony after we had a peace symposium with the North Korean women where several North Korean women shared the impact of the war on their lives. And there was a woman that actually was seven years old during the Korean War. And she had no hands. I mean basically her hands were shot at when she was a young child by what she claims was U.S. soldiers. And um, and she was, you know, basically testifying like about, like if there were another conflict just then just as during the Korean War, women and children would suffer the most. And after hearing just these devastating stories about the ongoing impact of the war on their lives and just seeing it, you know, as you travel around the country and stitching this thing together as a symbolic gesture of stitching back the Korean peninsula and our responsibility to do so. I mean, it was just this like powerful moment. And it was funny because before I had asked the lead organizer, Mr. Oh, who was, you know, one of the North Korean male officials overseeing the whole thing. And um, he said, ‘Oh, miss,’ because I said, ‘Can we sing this song called, you know, Our Hope Is For Reunification?’ It’s a song that is sung in Korean in both North and South by all the peace movements. And he said, ‘Oh, Miss Ahn, I don’t think that would be appropriate, you know, we are in a very tight schedule.’ And the North Korean women as we were stitching started to sing the song and it was just this moment where just the whole room lit up and this energy and this possibility of forgiveness and love that transcended, you know, so much enmity and mistrust. It just, it felt like this is why women have to do this work, you know?
Um, there’s something about the way in which we’re able to sit around in a circle and hear each other and bring into the conversation about what war means. That is beyond just militarization, which is definitely impacting all of our security. But it’s about our lives, it’s about our children, it’s about how we’re able to feed our children and take care of our families and how we invest to ensure that we have secure lives. I mean, you know, I think that is why women must be at the table. And so we’re going to do it. We’re going to try to reconnect with North and South Korean women. Um, this May, May 23 through the 26 we’ll be in South Korea. May 24 is International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. Women Cross DMZ, my organization, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative we’ve convened 30 international women from like 15 countries. Iraq, from Israel/Palestine, from the Philippines, from Columbia, from countries throughout the Asia Pacific that are being impacted by the unresolved Korean War. Okinawa, mainland Japan, Guam, Hawaii. Um, you know, we are all gathering in South Korea. We hope that North Korean women will come and join us for the symposium. Um, it’s a 50/50 percent chance and then we will walk together along the DMZ and if the North Korean women come, we will send them off back across the DMZ. But right now we are in a fluid moment. This, I know that the summits still have to take place, but we are in a process, we are in a process of dialogue and there is a lot that can happen and if women aren’t here and engaged and involved in the now, it will be so much more difficult for us to be putting forward our interests in any future peace agreement. And so we believe we need to be there right now in South Korea, is where the action is largely taking place. And so we hope that you’ll help follow us on Twitter and help share with the rest of the world.
Adam: Can you tell us the social media we can follow? For our listeners.
Christine Ahn: Yes. The Facebook page is Women Cross DMZ and the Twitter handle is @WomenCrossDMZ. And so, uh, we’ll also post it on our website, womencrossdmz.org. We’re just finalizing all the details. I just came back from South Korea, so all of this will be shared, but it’s the third week of May, International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, May 24. Um, so yeah, hopefully we can live broadcast parts of it, but it’ll be a major gathering. We have to support the green peace process we have to support Moo Jae-in-
Christine Ahn: In pushing back against a potential U.S. war on North Korea.
Adam: Absolutely. I think promoting that is something we’ll try to do on our end, I think to those who are listening, you know, definitely follow and keep touch with that because there is actionable stuff going on here. It’s not just theoretical. So obviously promoting that will help provide a counter narrative to what the media provides, which is sort of one of the things we try to do on the show. So I think that’s probably a good place to wrap it up. I can’t tell you how appreciative we were of this. This was really amazing. Um, lots of really good stuff here for our listeners and for frankly me to chew on that I didn’t know.
Nima: This has been so great, Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ. Uh, thanks again for joining us on Citations Needed.
Christine Ahn: Great. Thanks so much. Bye-bye.
Adam: So, it was great to have Christine Ahn. She’s fighting the most, a lot of activists fight tremendous forces. I think she’s definitely fighting one of the biggest, most messy, most cynical media narratives and political battles you can really fight, quite frankly.
Nima: Well, certainly, we talk about on this show a lot, that there are obviously a great many places where if they’re deemed official enemies of the United States or of European countries or of our best buddies in the Middle East, um, you can say whatever you want about them, especially the media can publish whatever it wants, whatever fantastical nonsense and it is automatically believed in at the very, very top of that list of that being the case is North Korea even more than Iran, even more than Iraq or more than Syria, certainly more than Cuba and Venezuela even. North Korea you can literally say whatever the fuck you want. And people are like, ‘well, it’s a fucking crazy place, so it’s probably true’ and people like Christine doing the real, real work and real work, I mean, she is literally year after year with other activists crossing the DMZ. Talk about like putting your body on the, on the front lines of this work. She is actually in the zone, as she said, the most militarized place in the world almost and doing this year after year she really knows what she’s talking about and it was great to really get her perspective on this.
Adam: Yes, it was. Um, so I guess that about wraps it up. This was a lot to digest. I’m super excited to hear the feedback on social media. I know that our second episode we did on Korea was, if I’m not mistaken, our most downloaded or most popular, so people have been asking for an update and I hope this was helpful.
Nima: So here it was.
Adam: We give the people what they want, we’re very populist.
Nima: That’s true. So, uh, yeah, hit us up on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook, Citations Needed. Of course you can help us out, keep the show going through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. An extra special thank you to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. And the music is by Granddaddy. Catch you next time. Thanks.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 25, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.