North Korea’s Fellow Travelers

Gloria Steinem, two Nobel Laureates, and 26 other women will be making a big mistake if they march across the DMZ with Christine Ahn.

Border City Of Panmunjom Remains High Alert
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 23: South Korean soldiers stand guard at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on April 23, 2013 in Panmunjom, South Korea. The tension at Korean Peninsula remains high as North Korea's ballistic missiles have been ready to launch ahead of North Korean Army foundation celebration day on April 25. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

On May 24, a march billed as WomenCrossDMZ will try to pass through the two-mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea in a “symbolic act of peace.” Organized by the Korean-American activist Christine Ahn, the march’s 30 confirmed participants include feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire, filmmaker Abigail Disney, and Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas.

Ahn says that her march, walking from north to south, intends “to help reunite families, improve human rights in North Korea, and end the state of war for 70 million Koreans.” With Steinem and Nobel Laureates on board, the effort has garnered coverage from the New York Times and the Guardian. Ahn, who is in contact with officials from North Korea, said she traveled there to obtain Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s official stamp of approval: an expression of “full support” and a promise to “render all necessary assistances” for plans that even include an “international peace symposium” in Pyongyang, where marchers hope to share “ideas of mobilizing women to bring an end to violent conflict.”

Why would a totalitarian state open its doors to a human rights initiative, let alone provide it with enthusiastic backing? When the Human Rights Foundation, which has extensive contact with the North Korean human rights and defector community, analyzed Ahn’s views and the circumstances behind the march’s planning, the results revealed a startling amount of bad faith.

The website of WomenCrossDMZ claims Ahn is an “organizer for peace and justice.” She is a co-founder of the anodyne-sounding Korea Policy Institute (KPI) and served for several years as a “senior research and policy analyst” at the respected non-profit Global Fund for Women. Born in Seoul and brought to the United States by her parents at the age of three, Ahn obtained a degree in public policy from Georgetown and a certificate in ecological horticulture from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Part of the anti-globalization movement, she writes and speaks frequently about worker exploitation and Western militarism. In a recent CNN interview, she said she was “pro-human rights.”

But the organizations she has worked most closely with — including the KPI and the now-defunct Korea Solidarity Committee — take positions that support or refuse to criticize the Kim dictatorship. And Ahn has spent much of the last 15 years whitewashing a North Korean government that the U.N. Human Rights Commission has said is guilty of “appalling human rights abuses … on a scale unparalleled in the modern world” and “crimes against humanity with strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis.”

Ahn’s bias is evident in the “facts” section of the WomenCrossDMZ website, where it states that 4 million people died in the Korean War, but neglects to mention that Kim Il Sung started the war in 1950. It says 70 million Koreans live in a state of war, but doesn’t mention that 25 million North Koreans live under the boot of a tyrant, while 45 million South Koreans live under a vibrant constitutional democracy that experts rank as free. It says that the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea spend $1 trillion on militarization, but leaves out North Korea’s million-man army. And it entirely omits Kim Jong Un from their “Korea Situation 101” primer.

Ahn, through a representative, denied a pro-North Korean bias, writing that, “our role as international women is to support the desires of the Korean people for a peaceful reconciliation rather than supporting either government.”

Failing to utter a single critical word about North Korea is standard practice for Ahn — and it goes back more than a decade. In her writings and speeches, she consistently avoids criticizing the three generations of Kim dictators. Ahn has managed to tweet 418 times from her Korea-focused personal account without criticizing Pyongyang even once. When she writes about “The Untold Story Behind Human Rights Violations in North Korea,” Ahn doesn’t mention the words “prison camp” or “torture,” but instead says “North Korea has been tarred with the label of a human rights abuser.”

In an interview with the news program Democracy Now! after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 death, Ahn refers to the late tyrant’s legacy as “mixed,” adding that he “inherited a very difficult situation,” and despite harsh weather and U.S. military threats “endured a very difficult famine” in the 1990s. As she put it, “the situation with Kim Jong Il is … that people were hoping for economic improvement in their day-to-day lives, and he was not able to see that through.” She argued that it was an “assumption” that Kim’s mismanagement caused the famine that killed as many as 2.5 million North Koreans, claiming that “most experts” agreed that the main causes were “a series of catastrophic events beyond North Korea’s control.” Ahn even praised the effectiveness of North Korea’s centralized farm system.

But her claims clash with Amnesty International reports on how Kim Jong Il used food as a weapon during the famine, deliberately withholding it from millions not deemed loyal while at the same time spending billions on his military and monuments to his father, North Korea’s founding president Kim Il Sung. And they contradict Doctors Without Borders’ testimony that Pyongyang’s food policy was “the worst case of the manipulation of humanitarian assistance in the world,” and U.N. reports that said Kim “obstructed the delivery of aid to the hungriest regions,” often publicly executing “those who tried to earn, buy, steal, or smuggle in enough food to survive.”

When Ahn cannot duck discussion of North Korean crimes, she resorts to moral equivalence. For example, she writes about a “Korean Spring,” but cheers its potential in the democratic South — not the totalitarian North. At the libertarian website, she discusses how the United States and South Korea “control and suppress dissent,” but fails to mention the North Korean police state. She writes that “South Korea cracks down on dissent,” but somehow forgets that anyone who would dare question Kim’s leadership could face execution or be sent to a network of gulags visible on Google Maps.

Instead, Ahn turns the focus on Washington. In an article about North Korea and International Women’s Day, her culprit is the United States, while the systematic rape and murder of women in North Korean gulags go unmentioned. Ahn once said that “yes, there are human rights violations in North Korea, just as there are human rights violations in the United States.”

Ahn’s trademark whitewashing appears on the WomenCrossDMZ fundraising website, where “crippling sanctions” and “the unresolved Korean conflict” explain away the destitution of North Korea’s schools, hospitals, and people. When one looks for more information on their website, one finds a Women’s International Democratic Federation report listed as a suggested Korean history source. According to Lawrence Peck of the Seoul-based Korean Institute of Liberal Democracy, the Soviet Union controlled the WIDF during the Korean War, where it functioned as a pro-Kim Il Sung communist front group. More than sixty years later, Pyongyang still quotes the WIDF president reportedly praising North Korea’s “matchless military power.”

Ahn’s devotion to the Kim regime shines brightest in personal interviews. Some of her frankest opinions come from a 2008 conversation describing a visit to Pyongyang, where she fondly recalls “beautifully painted political posters” and describes the city’s “serenity and calm” and “timeless, surreal feel.”

If North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had invented the perfect Western propagandist, he couldn’t have done any better than Ahn. For more than 15 years, she has blamed the rest of the world for North Korea’s problems. She has unapologetically carried water, made excuses, fudged history, and served as a mouthpiece for the world’s chief abuser of human rights. Her biggest coup yet, and potentially most effective attempt at hiding North Korea’s crimes, has been to convince Nobel Laureates Gbowee and Maguire to join WomenCrossDMZ.

The grisly details documented by a 2014 U.N. report on North Korea include items that the feminists and women’s rights advocates behind WomenCrossDMZ should not overlook. How do Steinem and an Amnesty International director grin and bear it while the United Nations says North Korean soldiers inflict forced abortion and infanticide on pregnant females caught escaping to China?

In late April, WomenCrossDMZ held a press conference in New York City. Ahn was not in attendance to respond to our question of why the group omits discussion of human rights. But Steinem was: she responded that this was a “bananas question … there are many sins on every side.” Ahn and Steinem’s co-organizer, theology professor Hyun-Kyung Chung, added that “when you go out on a first date, you don’t talk about all the bad things you did last summer.” Fair enough. Even Charles Manson has suitors. But when the suffering of 25 million people living under the world’s most repressive regime is reduced to teenage flirtation, it’s hard to laugh it off. And don’t think for a second that North Korea doesn’t know exactly what it is doing by supporting this group of “peace activists.”

This DMZ spectacle will not produce actual change inside North Korea; it will not ameliorate the misery of millions stuck in a cruel, totalitarian society. Instead, it will only serve to downplay and distract from Pyongyang’s evil system of government and policy of mass human suffering. The 29 women accompanying Ahn on this stroll across the DMZ may have peace in their hearts, and perhaps the best of intentions when it comes to resolving this long-simmering conflict. But by associating themselves with an inveterate apologist for North Korea’s craven regime they do the cause a disservice.

At worst, they will look like handmaidens of Kim Jong Un; at best, like fools. Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire should know better; they should pull out of the march — or at least advocate loudly for the dignity and liberty of North Korean women, from the moment they arrive in Pyongyang.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Correction, May 1, 2015: The Soviet Union began controlling the WIDF during the Korean War; an earlier version had mistakenly stated that the Soviet Union created the WIDF in 1945.

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