Dana Rohrabacher vs. Selig Harrison

North Korea analyst Selig Harrison, an “old North Korea hand” if there ever was one, has returned from Pyongyang bearing 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 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.

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, far right, with the late Tom Lantos at a speech by George W. Bush dedicating the “Monument to the Victims of Communism” in Washington, D.C., in September 2007. Image via American Hungarian Federation. 


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 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 it——


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 change——

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 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.

Update: Selig Harrison died on 30 December 2016. The full text of his 12 February 2009 US House committee testimony is no longer available online, although much of his output from that year is still accessible and is likely to turn up in his papers, which are housed at Duke University


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. 



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