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Wednesday, February 23, 2011     GET REAL

Crying wolf in N. Korea: A tourist-journalist lays on a little drama . . . and anti-Seoul propaganda

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — The image of CNN's Wolf Blitzer of Situation Room fame pretending to be in some kind of danger during six days in Pyongyang in December with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson would inspire derision from anyone who's visited the North Korean capital for several days of tightly monitored sightseeing.


Blitzer had to be preying on the massive ignorance of his viewers when he woke up at 4 a.m. professing to being in a state of fear. Could it have been jetlag that accounted for his early rising after the long flights from Washington to Beijing and then on to Pyongyang? No way. He preferred to talk about war breaking out at any moment while Richardson, a veteran of six previous trips to North Korea, negotiated with diplomats and military types over the near-crisis between North and South Korea.

This flight of fantasy became even more ludicrous as Blitzer sought to give an impression of a "rare" look at the same stuff everyone gets to see on tourist trips to Pyongyang — the Great Study Hall of the People, once described to me by a North Korean minder as "the world's biggest library," classrooms of privileged kids studying English, a look at a fruit farm, a small "factory" of some sort, the usual empty streets and avenues.

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The whole program, aired for nearly an hour by CNN last weekend, reached an apotheosis of silliness on the final day on Dec. 20 when Blitzer wanted to believe he was hearing the distant explosions of South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea around the island that North Koreans shelled in November. Blitzer assured viewers that the island was not all that far away — apparently not willing to reveal that it was 150 miles (231 kilometers) due south, more than a little out of earshot of the loudest blasts.

Blitzer (voice-over): The shelling continues for 94 minutes. To our horror, we can actually hear some of those explosions in Pyongyang. (On camera): It wasn't that far away from that island where we were and all of a sudden, boom, boom, boom, we start hearing some actual — in a distance, you know, not loud some shells and I looked at Tony Namkung [Richardson's top aide], he was the North Korean adviser to Governor Richardson, he looked at me and we knew what was going on.

It would be too simple, however, to dismiss the expedition of Blitzer and Richardson to Pyongyang as a self-serving political junket, a chance for the governor to reap free publicity by appearing as an apostle of peace in a dangerous world.

The fact is, after meeting with Kang Sok-Ju, newly promoted from vice foreign minister to vice premier, and Kim Kye-Gwan, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Richardson did get the word that North Korea had decided not to retaliate as threatened for the exercise that South Korea insisted on holding nearly a month after the North's deadly attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November.

North Korea, after denouncing the exercises as "a bellicose provocation," decided they were "childish playing with fire by cowards," and not worth the trouble of retaliation.

Richardson, on Blitzer's program, said he hoped his talks had helped and the North Koreans now "wanted to move in the right direction" after agreeing to "the proposals that I made," notably for letting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency return to the nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Now, he said, there had to be "deeds, not words."

If Richardson's words mingled false modesty with unwarranted optimism, however, there's no denying that the timing of his visit may have contributed to easing of tensions. Nor is there any doubt that the North Koreans wanted him there for the obvious purpose of advancing their own demands for six-party talks "without preconditions" — a cause that Richardson promoted by saying the North Koreans had told him they were willing to return to talks.

The North Koreans' greatest coup, however, was the skill and ease with which they got CNN to publicize their eagerness to negotiate while the South Koreans appeared as provocateurs for insisting on staging more exercises.

Namkung, a veteran of 40 visits to North Korea, appeared off and on throughout the program, offering supportive views bereft of any trace of doubt about the North's motives, much less any mention of the North's failure to live up to previous nuclear agreements.

The program had time to cut in with news clips but there were no shots of starving people, and the show did not mention the existence of a vast gulag system, public executions or the flight of refugees to China. The only mention of human-rights abuses was in the form of a pro forma quote from the U.S. State Department near the end of the program.

Blitzer reported daily during his "six days in North Korea" while the Korean confrontation was still making top headlines, but the wrap-up special aired at a strangely quiet time in the Korean standoff.

While mayhem sweeps much of the Arab world, news from North Korea has settled into a familiar pattern of talks about talks and efforts to get the North Koreans to cool it in the interests of peace and "stability," a word on which U.S. and Chinese leaders seem to agree. Top-level Chinese officials have been flitting about, descending first on Pyongyang and then on Seoul.

Richardson's visit to Pyongyang conjures memories of others over the years that have intermittently raised hopes. Remember former U.S. president Jimmy Carter's talk with Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il's father, Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, in a boat on the Daedong River in June 1994, three weeks before Kim Il-Sung passed away?

And then there was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to Pyongyang in October 2000, when Kim Jong-Il invited her and sidekick Wendy Sherman to look at a show he had put on for them — a mass display in May Day stadium showing the launching of a long-range satellite on a test flight over Japan in August 1998.

Now the latest news is that North Korea is not only building a new missile launch site in the northwest but also tunneling at the site near the east coast of underground tests of nuclear devices in October 2006 and May 2009. South Korean analysts predict another round of missile tests — short, medium and long-range — and a third nuclear test as another step in the great North-South game.

The testing may well begin after U.S. and South Korean forces begin annual war games next week. The U.S. command reportedly plans to conduct joint exercises with the South Koreans around the same island in the Yellow Sea that the North Koreans shelled three months ago. Blitzer will presumably be well out of earshot.

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