Dana Rohrabacher vs. Selig Harrison

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North Korea / Op-Ed / US-North Korea relations

North Korea analyst Selig Harrison, an “old North Korea hand” if there ever was one, the closest thing this country has to an oracle as regards the North Koreans, has got a few facts to share with the rest of us.  To the extent he has a primary “bias,” it seems to be a desire to accelerate and facilitate a process of North Korean opening up and reform.  Harrison has got decades of experience dealing with North Korea, and one can’t simply scoff it away by calling the man names.

He isn’t some Charles Lindbergh in 1940; nor is he Edgar Snow in 1970 (although, like Snow with the PRC, Harrison has contacts in the top DPRK echelons and sometimes serves as a bearer of signals from Pyongyang).  Selig Harrison has no interest in seeing North Korea as a permanent nuclear power which threatens the national security of the United States.

Selig Harrison in Beijing

Selig Harrison in Beijing

Dana Rohrabacher, on the other hand, has less experience with Korean affairs.  He does, however, have a very impressive world view that emphasizes human rights and a moral outlook in U.S. foreign policy.  He is also quite taken with the issue of human rights in North Korea and speaks out powerfully about gulags in the North as well as the failings of communism more generally.

Dana Rohrabacher, right, with the late Tom Lantos at the dedication of Monument to the Victims of Communism, California, Sept. 2007

Dana Rohrabacher, right, with the late Tom Lantos at the dedication of "Monument to the Victims of Communism," California, Sept. 2007

So when these two men clashed on February 12, 2009, at a House hearing, there was much to be learned.  Here are a few excerpts, with a touch of analysis.

Around page 29, Harrison is wrapping up a long discussion of the tension between diplomatic need for ambiguity with the very real imperatives of former negotiator Chris Hill for tangible progress on the nuclear issue.  An argument advanced consistently by Harrison is the existence of a group of unnamed pragmatists vs. the evident hardliners in Pyongyang:

HARRISON: So, there is an argument in Pyongyang, they got politics too, you
know, there is an argument in Pyongyang for keeping the process
going because we took them off the terrorist list, and at the same
time the pragmatists did not win the argument that some
verification compromise should be made in return for that, just
what Hill wanted, of course, because Kim Jong Il had had a stroke,
and the day-to-day control of all this had shifted during the months
when this was going on. The stroke was in August.
And one very interesting thing, you know, Hill was trying to
carry this thing forward and he got—he wanted to go to Pyongyang
in the critical stage of this, and the hardliners did not want him
to come, and the pragmatists worked out a compromise which was,
okay, he will not come as a state guest. We will put him in the
Potonggang Hotel which is one of the hotels in Pyongyang, and he
will not be a state guest but he can stay in the hotel at his expense,
U.S. Government’s expense, and come over to see us and
talk to us. That was the internal compromise in North Korea. So
he went there and did not get what he had hoped he would get.
I have given you a long answer but you have raised a very tricky
question and a very raw nerve in the whole process, and I am not
quite sure what Chris Hill would have said if he were sitting here,
but that is the way I perceive it.

At this point, with timing befitting a Shakespearean drama, enters the man who will challenge all of this subtlety with blunt and moral force:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. The gentleman from California, Mr. Rohrabacher.
Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much. I am sorry I was a little
late in getting here. We did have votes on the floor, and Mr.
Harrison, I think that we have a different way of looking at the
world. From listening to your testimony today, it seems you are
telling us that peace and progress in the world will come through
accommodation with evil and tyrants and gangsters and murders
and all the other scum of this world that prey upon decent people.
Accommodations with them is going to make it a better world?

Would not what you are proposing today would have left the Soviet
Union in power had we just simply decided that we are going
to have an accommodation rather than seeking change within the
Soviet system? Correct me if I am wrong, that is my interpretation
of what you are telling us.

How would you respond to this?  There is plenty of room to hit back, certainly, starting with the choice of oratory.  Words like “scum” and “gangster” feel damned good coming off the lips, but they also mirror precisely the very vitriolic rhetoric of North Korean propaganda.  We’re not likely to get very far dealing with the face-conscious North Koreans in this fashion.  IN other words, you can think they are scum, go ahead, and they very well may be.  (After all, are they not promoters of a state health care system?)  But there is nothing to be gained in verbal smashdowns against straw men.  Not calling them gangsters, pygmies, or children does not by extension mean that one advocates a policy of appeasement toward the North Koreans.

But Harrison goes straight to the core of Rohrbacher’s attack: it is, more or less, a way of calling Harrison a commie.

Harrison responds (beginning on page 30 of the hearing transcript, for those of you who are packing footnotes):

Mr. HARRISON. I did not say anything, Congressman Rohrabacher,
about a better world, and I do not like the North Korean
regime anymore than you do.
My testimony, if your voting schedule permitted you to hear
Mr. HARRISON [continuing]. Was that we should be capping their
nuclear program rather than allowing it to grow beyond the four
or five that the Bush administration’s unrealistic policies had given
us because we do not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons,
precisely because we know that it is a regime that we have not
made our peace with yet.
Mr. ROHRABACHER. I guess what I was referring——
Mr. HARRISON. So I do not think I said anything about nirvana
developing from negotiations——
Mr. ROHRABACHER. I think I was referring to your statement
that in order to deal with them that they are going to have to be
assured that we do not want to change their government, that we
do not want to have a regime change in North Korea; that we are
not going to have progress as long as they have that fear.
I believe the United States Government should put dictatorships
in fear that they will be replaced by democratic government. I
think that is part of our obligation as free people is to back up the
people of North Korea and Burma and other type of dictatorships.

Instead we have—have we not subsidized North Korea these last
10 years in terms of fuel and food? Without that, perhaps they
would have collapsed on their own.

Mr. HARRISON. North Korea has changed a lot in the last 10
years. I have been going there since 1972. And when I went there
in 1972, the first of my 11 visits, it was a very monolithic dictatorship.
Now you have a great deal of marketization. You have people
trying to make a buck. You have access of information coming in
from China and from South Korea in spite of the efforts of the regime
to keep it from happening.

[HARRISON]: The argument between us is not over our objective. We share the
same values. I want to see this regime in North Korea evolve into
something gradually closer to our concept of the way a society
should operate, just as I would like to see China, and China has
moved in that direction. I mean, dealing with China, I am sure you
would have said the same thing back in the seventies when some
of us were talking about——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. I hate to tell you this, but when I take a look
at the liberalization in China, I do say the same things about
China today, which is still the world’s worst human rights abuse.

Mr. HARRISON. Well, the difference between China—you have
what I think, I mean, you talk in tough terms, sir, but I think you
are taking a very unrealistic view of things. You do not change societies,
countries of 1 billion people overnight. The process is China
has changed enormously since 1972 in the direction that is desirable
in terms of our values
, and I think North Korea will evolve
in the direction of greater human rights and more open economy,
more and more congruent with that of South Korea, more and more
open to foreign influences to the extent that we helped open it up
and let the winds of freedom blow in, and they are not going to [31] blow in with a bunch of balloons from South Korea, or with tough
rhetoric. The winds of freedom will get into North Korea to the extent
that we engage them and gradually open them up as we have
been doing, as we did very successfully during the Clinton administration.
I do not mean that on a partisan level.
So, I think the argument is kind of circular. We do want the
same end result, that I can assure you.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Well, then we do have a disagreement.
Mr. HARRISON. If your end result is——
Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much.
Mr. HARRISON. If your end result has to be that everything in
North Korea collapses, and you have millions and millions of refugees
going into South Korea and Japan in order to have the

Mr. ROHRABACHER. One last question. Do you think it was a good
thing that the communist government in Germany, in East Germany,
collapsed? Was that a good thing? And why should we not
be trying to do for the people of Korea who deserve to be unified,
deserve to live their lives in a modicum of decency and freedom,
why should we not wish the same for them as we did for the people
of Germany?

Mr. HARRISON. I think that the geopolitical factors that were at
play then and the way in which Germany changed are very different
from the ones in Korea.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Okay, thank you, sir.

This is such a rich exchange, encompassing a struggle between possibly misguided pragmatism and bull-headed principle, between historical analogies (is North Korea East Germany in 1988 or the PRC in 1971?), between competing visions of reality (is North Korea engaged in a process of marketization or is that completely trumped by the fact of their labor camps?) and ultimately about change.

What stimulates change in North Korea, and what is the end result?

You will notice that Rohrabacher, with the great skill of an experienced debater who is always, always, up against the clock, throws a few provocations out without expecting any response at the end of his remarks.  When Harrison calls him on it (“your end state results in huge refugee outflows, Dana” in so many words), Rohrabacher steps back from the prespice to let someone else clean up the mess.

Let us hope this is not a metaphor for a post-Kim North Korea.

In the meantime, further discussion about facilitating “the winds of freedom” among the North Koreans — which I strongly believe can be pushed forward and faster by more people-to-people exchanges through multiple and especially cultural channels — will continue.

As Rohrabacher shoots his final bolt and his conservative California colleague Edward Royce gets ready to pump Harrison with eager queries about the Pakistan connection (yet another area of Harrison’s unquestioned expertise), the chair of the hearing steps in with further confirmation that Dana Rohrabacher is a man who is both comfortable with a shotgun in his hand and who has already had a very rich life experience indeed:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. I thank the gentleman from California. He
and I also have some basic disagreements, but we always agree to
disagree. But my good friend from California and I visited Pakistan
at one time, and I had to hold a 45-revolver and he had a shotgun
for fear that somebody would come and kill us, but Dana, thanks
for your questions. But it is always good to have this. This is why
we have a democracy like this.

Somehow I have a feeling that if we could just get Dana Rohrabacher on a shooting range with Chang Song-taek for discussion of their respective Glocks, or if Rohrabacher could realize that North Koreans believe strongly in the right to bear arms in both North Hamgyong province and Orange County, or if Selig Harrison could get the North Korean Mansudae Arts Troupe into the Orange County Arts Center auditorium to boost its faltering ticket sales figures, things would be just a little bit better for everyone.

Dana with a shotgun on the 405!

Republican Leaflet from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Casey, Steven.  Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Republican propaganda from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Steven Casey's Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) a book which unfortunately dwells almost zero on how the Truman administration was planning to justify an ongoing US/UN occupation of North Korea in October 1950. One answer: war crimes trials for the Kim family! a story for another post.

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.


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