In November 2018, The New York Times ran a front-page article titled “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception.”
Co-authored by Pulitzer-winning correspondent David E. Sanger, the article cited satellite imagery and a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to argue that North Korea was continuing to secretly develop missiles in violation of the June 2018 Singapore agreement between Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
However, the prominently embedded satellite photo was actually dated March 2018—three months before Kim and Trump met in Singapore—and the missile bases presented as damning evidence of Kim’s duplicity had been known to South Korea for at least two years.
The Times’s deception is part of a larger media propaganda campaign against North Korea that has helped condition the U.S. public to accept draconian U.S. sanctions policies, the spending of billions of dollars per year beefing up the South Korean military, and the $7.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative that includes a major naval build-up in the South China Sea.
Felix Abt was one of the first foreign entrepreneurs to work in North Korea, and the founding president of the first foreign chamber of commerce in North Korea, set up by a dozen resident foreign business people in 2005, and co-founder and director of the Pyongyang Business School.
He has just published a book entitled A Land of Prison Camps, Starving Slaves and Nuclear Bombs? An Alternative Account to the Western Media’s Blinkered North Korea Portrayal, which debunks the media’s narrative of North Korea as a “monolithic gulag network filled with slaves” and a “hellhole…rife with suffering and starvation.”
Abt’s first memoir, A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2014), was blacklisted in Western media.
In this latest book, he writes that, “for decades, the United States has been waging a vitriolic public-opinion war against North Korea,” which functions as a “necessary bogeyman to persuade the American taxpayers that the mammoth defense budgets for the benefit of one of its largest and most profitable industries, is justified.”
Forgotten is the litany of crimes committed by the United States against North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), including the systematic incineration of North Korean cities and villages with napalm, bombing dams to cause flooding on the rice fields and thus mass starvation, and dropping plague-infected flies in order to spread disease.
For all the hysteria in U.S. media about North Korea’s nuclear threat, Abt was told by almost everyone he met that North Korea needed nuclear weapons for defensive purposes to prevent a first strike from America—which threatened to destroy their country as it had done in the Korean War. Kim Jong-un would never be crazy enough to risk the catastrophic results of firing the weapons first.
Not Even Up to the Level of the National Enquirer
The multitude of outrageous stories about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un do not generally match basic journalistic standards—or even those of the National Inquirer.
Often, they rely on defectors who are paid by the South Korean government and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to spread disinformation.
In August 2013, the London Telegraph reported that Kim Jong-un had his ex-lover executed by firing squad because she allegedly made a pornographic film, though later the same publication reported that she had reappeared on North Korean television.
ABC ridiculously also reported that all male university students in Pyongyang were required to get haircuts exactly like Kim Jong-Un, though later there were reports that Kim had banned leather coats to stop people from copying his style.
“Critical thinking just goes out the window on North Korea,” observed Chad O’Carroll, founder of the NK News website.
A More Positive Picture Than in U.S. Demonology
Abt found that, while propaganda does abound in North Korea, the claim about a total news blackout is false. Kids recited to him old Korean folktales, not regime propaganda, and many people read foreign literature.
Despite the crippling U.S. sanctions, North Korea has a growing economy, replete with an emerging entrepreneurial middle class and has made important technological advances.
Kim Chaek University of Technology, for example, developed a cranial CT scanner, which it sells to domestic hospitals.
Dr. Kee B. Park, a neurosurgeon on the faculty at Harvard University who has traveled to North Korea 18 times to advise its health programs, told Abt that the images from the CT scan he had seen in North Korea were “of satisfactory quality,” and could “help doctors detect a variety of diseases and conditions.”
Despite sanctions that banned fertilizer, spare parts for agricultural machines and fuel for farm vehicles, Kim Chaek University had also developed methods that increased the yields of rice crops while decreasing plant disease.
Lies About Famine
During the 1990s, when North Korea experienced a famine precipitated by natural disasters and exacerbated by a drastic reduction in oil imports from the crumbling Soviet Union, Western think tanks, activists, and media from the Wall Street Journal to Reuters amplified the death toll by five times, thereby vilifying “evil” North Korea.
They claimed more than 3 million deaths out of a population of 22 million when the actual number was below 500,000, according to the French coordinator of the United Nations food distribution efforts. (The U.S. Census Bureau gave an estimate of between 500,000 and 600,000).
Despite a much-improved situation in the 2000s, the U.S. and world media continued to run stories every autumn quoting international aid agencies saying that North Korea was once again on the brink of mass starvation.
Abt reports that, with no indigenous sources of oil and natural gas, North Korea depends on imported energy inputs to produce fertilizers and pesticides, to fuel irrigation equipment and agricultural machinery and to transport seeds and crops.
The UN prohibition on essential energy imports thus helped provoke the collapse of North Korea’s agricultural production in 2018 to levels similar to those of the famine years—though the source of the crisis was ignored, and human rights groups in the West shamefully did not call for the lifting of the sanctions.
Despite all of its problems, North Korea still ranks above India on the Global Hunger Index. The country has improved its agricultural productivity through land reclamation projects and imported potato varieties from Europe that were cheap, easy to grow and nutritious.
An Orwellian Dystopia—or Something Else?
Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick, in her 2010 best-selling book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, compared North Korea to George Orwell’s Oceania, a futuristic dystopia where the “only color to be found was in propaganda posters.”
Melanie Kirkpatrick reported in the Wall Street Journal that North Korea kept its “citizens in the dark ages,” with ”foreign goods being kept out.”
In reality, it was not the North Korean government but U.S. sanctions that kept foreign goods out—including household items like lipstick, salami sausages, knives and watches, whose importation was all banned.
And while there are certainly oppressive features of society, including a harsh criminal justice system, life in North Korea in Abt’s observations is far from dystopic or out of the dark ages.
Rather, it is not very different from other countries: Buildings are painted in all kinds of colors (color is not only found in propaganda posters), the people enjoy pizza, sweets, and other delicacies along with trips to the beach, and kids ride bikes, roller-skate and play other games in the street.
Women particularly thrive as North Korea’s constitution accords them equal social status and rights with men, and a range of benefits including maternity leave.
Rather than being starved or downtrodden, most of the workers that Abt met were reasonably well compensated and diligent. The pharmaceutical company that he ran was obsessed with quality and achieved good manufacturing practices as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), winning bidding competitions against foreign competitors.
North Korea’s airline, Air Koryo, meanwhile, meets high safety standards despite being called in the West the “world’s worst airline.”
Tantamount to Another Act of War
A cruel feature of the sanctions policy was its denying North Koreans the opportunity to work abroad, shattering the aspirations of many working people.
North Korean painters are now prohibited from selling their paintings abroad. Other sanctions have prevented North Korea from rebuilding water supplies and drainage systems, causing an upsurge of health problems, and blocked it from importing mechanical parts and fuel to operate agricultural machinery, causing food shortages.
Because U.S. and UK credit and financial institutions were prohibited from dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK-North Korea), North Korean importers and exporters had to travel to their foreign suppliers with suitcases stashed with cash or empty money bags to collect payments.
The sanctions furthermore a) helped prevent the signing of a 9-digit dollar contract with a Swiss company that would have greatly improved North Korea’s power network; b) led to reduction in quality and availability of medicines; c) destroyed the possibility of safe mines because of the banning of the import of mine-safety equipment; and d) forced numerous garment factories to close, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.
A businessman adversely impacted by sanctions told Abt that he considered the sanctions “tantamount to another act of war by hostile Western powers,” adding that “we in our company have never done anything wrong or illegal.”
As America Wishes It to Be Viewed
Abt concludes his book by noting that, “given the dominant U.S.-centric North Korea narrative, with no other voice to offer balance or express the true reality, it is hard to blame the general global populace for accepting the situation as America and its supporters wish it to be viewed.”
Perhaps if more Americans learned about the history of the Korean War and its barbarism, they might show some empathy for North Koreans and try and better understand the country’s policies; or perhaps, if more foreign exchanges are established, they might press their government to end the brutal sanctions and to pursue a formal end to the Korean War.
Until that time, we can expect that North Korea will be continuously invoked as a reference point for tyranny and its leader ridiculed, in quasi-racist fashion, as a clownish dictator.
Abt points out that North Korea has more female bank managers than does South Korea. ↑
CovertAction Magazine is made possible by subscriptions, orders and donations from readers like you.
When you donate to CovertAction Magazine, you are supporting investigative journalism. Your contributions go directly to supporting the development, production, editing, and dissemination of the Magazine.
CovertAction Magazine does not receive corporate or government sponsorship. Yet, we hold a steadfast commitment to providing compensation for writers, editorial and technical support. Your support helps facilitate this compensation as well as increase the caliber of this work.
Please make a donation by clicking on the donate logo above and enter the amount and your credit or debit card information.
CovertAction Magazine, CovertAction Quarterly and CovertAction Information Bulletin are projects of CovertAction Institute, Inc., a not-for-profit organization incorporated in the State of New York.
We sincerely thank you for your support.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s). CovertAction Institute, Inc. (CAI), including its Board of Directors (BD), Editorial Board (EB), Advisory Board (AB), staff, volunteers and its projects (including CovertAction Magazine) are not responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in this article. This article also does not necessarily represent the views the BD, the EB, the AB, staff, volunteers, or any members of its projects.
Differing viewpoints: CAM publishes articles with differing viewpoints in an effort to nurture vibrant debate and thoughtful critical analysis. Feel free to comment on the articles in the comment section and/or send your letters to the Editors, which we will publish in the Letters column.
Copyrighted Material: This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. As a not-for-profit charitable organization incorporated in the State of New York, we are making such material available in an effort to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. You can read more about ‘fair use’ and US Copyright Law at the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.
Republishing: CovertAction Magazine (CAM) grants permission to cross-post CAM articles on not-for-profit community internet sites as long as the source is acknowledged together with a hyperlink to the original CovertAction Magazine article. Also, kindly let us know at info@CovertActionMagazine.com. For publication of CAM articles in print or other forms including commercial internet sites, contact: info@CovertActionMagazine.com.
By using this site, you agree to these terms above.
About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.