Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Selig Harrison peddles his wariness on PBS's "Newshour" (and Balbina Hwang slaps him down, ever so politely)

My iPod listenings during my daily five-km jog consist of NPR's 7 a.m. newscast, the New York Times Front Page podcast, and then the various segments from PBS's "Newshour," in order of interest. The latter, I've often said, is one of the best programs in America for getting a full-spectrum, objective look at important domestic and international issues.

Yesterday, "Newshour" addressed President Lee's announcement that South Korea will shut down all trade with North Korea (except Kaesŏng), with a discussion between guests Selig Harrison on the left and Balbina Hwang on planet Earth (preceded by this news story).

They started off with Mr Harrison, the contempt for whom by the likes of people like Joshua Stanton I can clearly understand. Mr Harrison is almost Bruce Cumings-like in his ability to downplay the North's transgressions while highlighting to the point of distortion every conceivable and imagined transgression by the South.

Indeed, when it comes to North Korea, both are so far to the left you can't see them because of the curvature of the Earth. I dare say I half suspect that Mr Harrison is on the take from the chinboistas, if he is not an actual fifth columnist himself (and if we're ever both in Seoul at the same time, sue me for defamation, mutherfu¢ker!). [Edit: my, that wasn't very professional of me.]

He started out by essentially blaming South Korea for North Korea's murder of nearly four dozen sailors. In response to host Judy Woodruff's question about whether President Lee's response was appropriate:
No, I don't think so. I think that the problem is that South Korea abrogated agreements that were made -- an agreement that was made between North Korea and South Korea in June 2000, when the former president, Kim Dae-jung, went and had a summit with Kim Jong Il, and they made an agreement that the two countries would coexist and that South Korea's -- what North Korea considered South Korea's past objective of trying to bring about the collapse and the absorption of North Korea by the South would end with a new period that has been called the sunshine policy of Kim Dae-jung.

Now, what happened was when -- when became Lee Myung-Bak became the president, he repudiated this agreement. ... came into office and repudiated what had been done by his two predecessors, which had created the peaceful situation, where there was no military tension at all for eight years.
Fortunately, Ms Hwang called him out on this, including a mention of the deadly 2002 incident in the Yellow Sea that occurred two years after the 2000 Kim-Kim summit:
First of all, it is not true that there was absolutely no military provocations in the eight years of the sunshine policy. It's actually 10 years. In 2002, there was a very distressing naval incident in which I believe 12 South Korean sailors were killed and maimed.
Okay, back to the abrogation. During my jog I kept thinking "proportionate response, proportionate response": Even if everything Mr Harrison said about President Lee reneging on Sunshine Policy is valid, does that justify or invite such a brazen act of murder?

Such denial and distortions are not new for Mr Harrison, who seems to have swallowed hook, line, and sinker of the idea that South Korea's conservatives are forcing Kim Jong-il behave badly. "Context," he tells us, must be understood in order to grasp the meaning of this murder:
What I am saying is, you have to look at this in the context of what has been going on before. It's not -- this is not something that just came out of the blue. This is the climax of two years of a completely different policy on the part of South Korea, which has really spooked North Korea.
Ms Hwang goes on to set the record straight, calling President Lee's announcement "absolutely the correct response" (a notable point since vocal North Korea opponents like Joshua Stanton were not too terribly impressed by President Lee's announcement). She also reminded viewers that the conservative president did not actually repudiate Sunshine Policy and has been "very careful about not doing so."

Moreover, she also underscored that "it's very clear who has instigated this" — in the face of Mr Harrison's suggestion that North Korea might not actually be behind the attack —  calling it "a surprise attack" and "a violation of the armistice agreement."

She also made an intriguing point about why President Lee might not have called out Kim Jong-il by name as being responsible:
What is very interesting about President Lee Myung-Bak's statement here is that he is actually giving the North Koreans a face-saving way out, actually providing a way to de-escalate.

What he didn't do was declare that this was the personal responsibility of the dear leader, Kim Jong Il. What he said was, the North Korean regime should find those responsible and punish them. That actually allows the regime then to scapegoat or to actually pinpoint exactly who was responsible and does provide a way out.
Mr Harrison insisted again on obfuscating Pyongyang's responsibility for this murderous attack:
I don't think that this can be solved through North-South diplomacy, except in one important area, which is the negotiations on the sea boundary in the Yellow Sea, which is disputed, and which was involved in the episode that you referred to before and is involved in this episode.

And, you know, the U.N. ordained a certain boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea after the Korean [War], which North Korea never accepted. So, you need diplomacy on the sea boundary between North and South Korea. You need the return to the six-party talks, where this whole issue could be brought up, but where denuclearization should also be brought up.
The dispute over the Northern Limit Line (NLL, that disputed maritime border), was only peripherally involved in the sinking of the Chonan, since it was sunk in waters off an island both Pyongyang and Seoul recognize as South Korea's, what would be undisputed waters (Ms Hwang makes that point as well).

At any rate, with nearly four dozen killed, we are beyond merely "bringing it up" as one of several topics to discuss yet again, although Ms Hwang and Mr Harrison both agree that this should be handled diplomatically.

I often recommend "Newshour" for the way it deftly presents the two main sides of an issue, giving a fair listen to both, but one must be prepared to hear some galling stuff from the side you don't agree with. Like when Mr Harrison shines the shadow of doubt on the Chonan investigation's conclusions:
SELIG HARRISON: Secretary Clinton used the word precarious. It is dangerous, because I don't know whether North Korea did this. I wouldn't be surprised if they did it, because of — I think that they...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't know whether North Korea...

SELIG HARRISON: I don't feel that we have had this evidence laid out, that it hasn't been — it is, after all, evidence that a South Korean investigation produced.

BALBINA HWANG: It — no, it was actually an international effort.

SELIG HARRISON: They brought in international people, but this wasn't conducted by an international — and I'm not saying that they didn't do it.

All right, indeed. Unless you are going to make a "Gulf of Tonkin" or "Remember the Maine" sort of claim, stop it with the insidious "we don't know if they really did it" insinuations.

In the end, I wish Ms Woodruff had gone with Ms Hwang first so that her airtime wouldn't be wasted mopping up after Mr Harrison's mess.

There's a bit more to the interview, so even though I ended up including more of it in this fisking than I'd intended (and I really didn't mean to do a fisking), go give it a listen.


  1. Wow! I didn't realize that Selig Harrison was so bad. I have only known about him from reading Bruce Cumings' Another Country in which Cumings praised Harrison's work. That should have told me all I needed to know,! Some people will just dispute what is right before their eyes!

    Nice blogpost!

  2. The hallmark of freedom is that absolute nit-wits can get air time.

  3. Hey Kushibo, question for you. What does it mean that the North Koreans recognise that Baengnyongdo is South Korean? I've seen people saying this on Marmot's Hole too. I'm curious what the actual official line on this is on the North Korea side.

    Is it the same way that Argentina "recognizes" the Malvinas are British or the Japanese "recognize" that Takeshima is Korean? De facto but not de jure?

    Surely on some official level both the North and South governments still claim to be the official government of the entire Korean peninsula, plus or minus some bits around Paektusan. Does the North have a separate agreement with the South over which bits are under temporary Southern "military occupation"? Rhee never signed the armistice and the islands issue wasn't dealt with there anyway.

    If you look at this
    (KCNA from July 21st 1999) it seems that the North are (were) claiming a maritime demarcation line in the West Sea that is basically the midpoint between Hwanghae and Gyeonggi; it comes out of the DMZ and then heads mainly south-westerly, putting Baengnyongdo firmly in the Nothern bit.

    Do you know what the official North Korean line is on all this?

  4. Eujin, that's a very legitimate question. Given that the DPRK claims all of the ROK as DPRK territory — and vice versa — what we're really talking about here is whether the DPRK acknowledges ROK control over the islands.

    I don't have my books in front of me, so this is all off the top of my head, and I won't pretend to be an expert on it. I believe that the Armistice recognized Paengnyŏngdo, Taech'ŏngdo, and the Yŏnpyŏngdo Islands all as ROK-controlled lands. This is apparent, I believe, in the maritime border they propose instead of the NLL. Their "line" provides a ROK corridor to the islands.

    This would be "de facto" recognition, not "de jure," but then again, ROK control over everything we call South Korea is, in Pyongyang's eyes I believe, "de facto" and not "de jure."

    So from that DPRK-proposed corridor to those islands, I'm assuming that the DPRK acknowledges ROK control of those islands. And the DPRK would have no reason to consider that disputed "lost" territory, given that (I think), Paengnyŏngdo was originally part of the territory south of the 38th Parallel that originally divided the peninsula at the end of World War II (along with part of Ongjin Peninsula, which was eventually lost to North Korea.

    As for the name, I really don't know what the North Koreans call it. It's a good bet they don't call it the 북방한계선, since they would refer to it as a southern border, not a northern one.

  5. Thanks for that reply. I knew you'd know the answer, and off the top of your head too ;-) .

    You're right (I just checked) that the islands are mentioned in the armistice as being under UNC (not ROK) control, but that basically settles that issue. Apart from idly speculating whether the Chonan was sunk in one of those corridors (bizarre that they are) I just noticed reading the text that the armisitce states (in the context of the Han Estuary) "Civil shipping of each side shall have unrestricted access to the land under the military control of that side." I wonder how the North interprets that.

  6. It's now some months later, after the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do [Yeonpyeong], but here is a post containing the wording from the actual Armistice agreement. As I thought, the language clearly states that the so-called "Five Islands of the West Sea" (서해 5도) are South Korea's. It even mentions each of them by name.

  7. Great job, Ms. Hwang! Keeping them honest.


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