I can't think of any two papers more different in their approach to news as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Likewise, I can't think of any two reporters more different in their views of the North Korean situation as Nicholas Kristof and Kang Chol—hwan. Both newspapers recently published editorials on the growing problem of North Korea, Kristof in the New York Times and Kang as a guest columnist in the Wall Street Journal. It might help to look at their backgrounds before comparing their viewpoints.
At eighteen years of age, future New York Times reporter Nick Kristof entered his freshman year at Harvard, having spent his childhood days growing up in on a cherry farm near Yamhill, Oregon, and raising sheep for his Future Farmers of America project. Winner of a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, Kristof set off for Europe and never looked back. He hopscotched across the world——studying Arabic in Cairo and Chinese in Taipei——and then backpacked across Africa and Asia. His career as a reporter began in 1984, covering economics and business for the New York Times.
He was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 (along with his wife) for coverage of China's Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Mr. Kristof has won other prizes including the George Polk and the Overseas Press Club Awards. Mr. Kristof and his wife are co—authors of "China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power" and "Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia."
According to his official biography ,
"Mr. Kristof has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to well over 100 countries. He has had unpleasant experiences with malaria, mobs, war and an African airplane crash."
Half a world away, Kang Chol—hwan spent his eighteenth birthday at the Yodok concentration camp in North Korea, near the Chinese border. At this point in time Kang and his entire family had been imprisoned for nine years where they endured starvation, witnessed public executions, and worked as slave laborers 363 days a year [They were given days off on the birthdays of Kim Il—Sung and Kim Jong—Il].
Kang ate rats, frogs, insects and salamanders to survive at Yodok, according to his autobiography, and witnessed the deaths of hundreds of inmates from starvation, disease, execution or overwork. Released from Yodok upon nearing their 10—year anniversary at the camp, Kang and his family were banished to the countryside, far away from the showcase city of Pyongyang, his hometown.
He is the first known survivor from the Yodok concentration camp to escape North Korea, stating that the only lesson of his imprisonment was about "man's limitless capacity to be vicious." Kang first fled to China, and then to South Korea by hiding in a cargo ship's hold containing thousands of live medicinal snakes, and then in the ship's oil tank.
Had he been able to stay in Pyongyang after his release, he might have met Nick Kristof, who was in North Korea for a visit, was by then the New York Times Beijing bureau chief. Within a year of Kristof's visit, Kang had defected to South Korea and had started on the road towards leadership in the North Korean exile community.
After earning his college degree in Seoul, Kang became a reporter for the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo and authored the autobiographical book Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.
Last month, he was invited to speak with President George W. Bush at the White House, where it was revealed that Kang's book had become required reading among select members of the National Security Council and the State Department.
Now that the backgrounds of Kristof and Kang are clear, let's review what each of them has to say about North Korea.
From Kristof, we have:
President Bush and his top officials are studiously pretending not to notice, but here in the most bizarre country in the world, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong il, is throwing down a nuclear gantlet at Mr. Bush's feet.
Senior North Korean officials here say the country has just resumed the construction of two major nuclear reactors that it stopped work on back in 1994. Before construction resumed, the C.I.A. estimated that it would take "several years" to complete the two reactors, but that they would then produce enough plutonium to make about 50 nuclear weapons each year.
This is the most regimented, militarized and oppressive country in the world, but the government seems very firmly in control. And this new reactor construction, if it is sustained, is both scary and another sign that U.S. policy toward North Korea has utterly failed.
The Bush administration has refused to negotiate with North Korea one on one, or to offer a clear and substantial package to coax Mr. Kim away from his nuclear arsenal. Instead, Mr. Bush has focused on enticing North Korea into six—party talks. The North finally agreed on Saturday to end a yearlong stalemate and join another round of those talks.
Mr. Bush is being suckered. Those talks are unlikely to get anywhere, and they simply give the North time to add to its nuclear capacity.
Kristof clearly points the finger of blame at President Bush for the nucleariztion of North Korea, in a dispatch datelined Pyongyang. He believes that the U.S. policy of six—way talks is doomed to failure. One—on—one disarmament negotiations with the Kim regime are the way to go Coincidentally, the bargaining position of the Kim regime.
Kang, in contrast, criticizes not on a US failure to negotiate, but on the appeasement policies of the South Korean government:
More than seven years have passed since South Korea began this policy of indiscriminate assistance. How successful has it been? To judge by progress in the country's human—rights situation, or in its willingness to dismantle its nuclear—weapons program, throwing aid at this regime has been demonstrably counterproductive. The human—rights situation has worsened and food shortages remain unabated. As for disarmament talks, Pyongyang has boycotted the negotiating table for more than a year. Supporters of Seoul's "Sunshine Policy" claim that tensions on the peninsula have been eased and that the policy has contributed toward a settlement of peace. This is a bare—faced lie. As the South Korean government sings its peace songs, Kim Jong Il openly declares possession of nuclear weapons.
George W. Bush, whom I met in the White House last month, knows all of this. His steadfast stance against Kim Jong il and his love toward my fellow suffering North Koreans is about to give results. The darkest moment of the night is right before dawn. My feeling is that North Koreans will be able to see daylight soon. Now is not the time to give in to North Korea's blackmail or to the general feeling of appeasement that pervades the Seoul government. Now is not the time to give aid, or to agree to bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
With his understanding of the situation, Kang is convinced that South Korean aid to the North Koreans was the primary factor in sustaining the Kim regime during the 1990s, when the country's economy was failing and millions starved to death. This continuation of the "Sunshine Policy" by the South Korean government, argues Kang, leaves the US with one hand tied behind its back, as its one—time ally desperately tries to keep the bankrupt regime alive. The purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons program, he says, is to blackmail the world.
North Korea's desire for one—on—one talks with the US clearly do not center on economic aid, as South Korea appears to have the desire and the means to send large amounts of money, food, energy and capital goods to send up North without reciprocation. Instead, North Korea looks to the US mainly for legitimacy (i.e. diplomatic recognition) and security guarantees (i.e. peace treaty) that would allow Kim Jong—Il to keep the regime afloat indefinitely. Its strategy has coincided perfectly with South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" and with the mainstream media's growing calls for accommodating North Korean demands.
Unlike Kristof, Kang believes that time is our ally, and that recent events are indications of North Korean weakness:
Signs that North Korea is once again on the brink of a collapse abound, which probably is why Pyongyang has demanded the 500,000 tons of rice from Seoul. As in the 1990s, the food crisis is affecting the ruling elite, and there are reports that rations have been cut even in Pyongyang. The demise of Kim Jong Il may come unexpectedly fast. He is running out of time. If his regime is not kept alive with artificial aid, he will not have enough time to blackmail the world with a nuclear—weapons program.
This is why Ms. Rice should remain steadfast in resisting calls by Mr. Roh's government in Seoul to give aid to North Korea. Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy, now being repeated by Mr. Roh, has failed most miserably. If it was a genuine mistake, Ms. Rice and the rest of the Bush administration should try to open eyes in Seoul. If Pyongyang has been manipulating policy behind the scenes, America must react by renewing its determination not to deal with Pyongyang.
Kristof and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger obtained their cutting edge reportorial insights during a visit to North Korea interviewing senior officials, as arranged by the Pyongyang regime:
I was able to get a visa to North Korea (after being "banned for life" after my last visit, in 1989, for reasons that remain unclear) by tagging along with The Times's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., on a visit here. The government arranged for us to interview senior officials, including the vice president, the foreign minister and a three—star general. Officials insist that the new reactors are intended solely to provide energy for civilian purposes — and that in any case, North Korea will never transfer nuclear materials abroad.
Don't bet on that. If Pyongyang gets hundreds of weapons by using the new reactors, there will be an unacceptable risk of plutonium's being peddled for cash.
Li Chan Bok, a leading general in the North Korean Army, made it clear that even as the six—party talks staggered on, his country would add to its nuclear arsenal.
"To defend our sovereignty and our system," he said, "we cannot but increase our number of nuclear weapons as a deterrent force."
It's possible that North Korea is bluffing or is resuming construction only to have one more card to negotiate away. But if not, there will be considerable pressure in the U.S. for surgical military strikes to prevent the reactors from becoming operational.
General Li said that if the U.S. launched a surgical strike, the result "will be all—out war." I asked whether that meant North Korea would use nuclear weapons (most likely against Japan). He answered grimly, "I said, 'We will use all means.' "
Like the ABC News reporter who preceeded him in Pyongyang last month, Kristof has himself been suckered into airing North Korean propaganda from specially chosen interviewees who voice menacing threats and inevitably display their loyalty to the totalitarian system. Kristof also seems somewhat proud of having been "banned for life" from North Korea.
Kang should be so fortunate. Upon leaving North Korea, his entire family was sent back to the North Korean gulag, and never heard from again. Should he ever return to to North Korea, he most certainly would face a death sentence for speaking out against the regime. Kang concludes:
Until things change in Seoul, Mr. Bush is the only hope the North Korean people have left. Those who are against him are only going to prolong their suffering.
If there is one point to be made on their differences of opinion, it is that Kristof views President Bush as a obstacle to peace while Kang sees him as "the only hope for the North Korean people". Let their vastly dissimilar backgrounds be a reminder of the perspective they bring to a discussion of US policy towards North Korea.
James Chen blogs here.