Commentary Magazine


Topic: dissidents

Betrayal of Dissidents at Core of Realism

Alana Goodman is absolutely correct that the Obama administration’s treatment of Chen Guangcheng is abominable. But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires.

In the 1970s, realists sought to kill the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which tied relations with the Soviet Union to freedom of emigration. Realists claimed that emigration—predominantly by Soviet Jewry—was not a core U.S. interest and that congressional meddling risked rapprochement with the Soviet Union. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that dissidents and ex-communist officials both testified as to how Jackson-Vanik de-legitimized the Soviet Union and shook it to its core. Alas, few realists are students of history. As Sen. John Kerry auditions for a second-term Obama administration secretary of state appointment, he burnishes his credentials by undercutting any attempt to tie U.S. relations with Russia to human rights. Indeed, when it comes to the Magnitsky bill, it is clear he was for it before he was against it.

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Alana Goodman is absolutely correct that the Obama administration’s treatment of Chen Guangcheng is abominable. But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires.

In the 1970s, realists sought to kill the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which tied relations with the Soviet Union to freedom of emigration. Realists claimed that emigration—predominantly by Soviet Jewry—was not a core U.S. interest and that congressional meddling risked rapprochement with the Soviet Union. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that dissidents and ex-communist officials both testified as to how Jackson-Vanik de-legitimized the Soviet Union and shook it to its core. Alas, few realists are students of history. As Sen. John Kerry auditions for a second-term Obama administration secretary of state appointment, he burnishes his credentials by undercutting any attempt to tie U.S. relations with Russia to human rights. Indeed, when it comes to the Magnitsky bill, it is clear he was for it before he was against it.

The UN is little better. It is tragic that this incident from nearly a decade ago has long since disappeared from public consciousness:

“On January 25, 2003, an Iraqi man stopped a UN-marked Land Cruiser right outside the UN compound in Baghdad, pleading, ‘Save me! Save me!’ According to a CNN report of the incident, the unarmed man then boarded the UN car and refused to get out. Appearing agitated and frightened, the young man, with a closely trimmed beard and a mustache, sat inside the white UN-marked SUB for 10 minutes, the Associated Press reported. Then, according to CNN, an Iraqi guard struggled to pull him out, while an unfazed UN inspector watched from the passenger seat.”

The UN handed the man over to Saddam Hussein’s security forces; he has never been seen again. Kofi Annan did not care. For Kofi, Saddam was a man he could do business with (literally), and he wanted nothing to get in the way.

Realists will always find an excuse to ignore dissidents and dismiss their fight for freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, what these realists see as sophistication not only is amoral, but actively undercuts long-term U.S. security.

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Report: U.S. Pressured Chinese Dissident to Leave Embassy

Disgraceful beyond words:

Speaking by phone from his hospital room in Beijing on Wednesday night, a shaken Chen Guangcheng told the Associated Press that U.S. officials relayed the threat from the Chinese side.

Chen, who fled to the embassy six day ago, left under an agreement in which he would receive medical care, be reunited with his family and allowed to attend university in a safe place. He says he now fears for his safety and wants to leave.

A U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat, but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy.

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Disgraceful beyond words:

Speaking by phone from his hospital room in Beijing on Wednesday night, a shaken Chen Guangcheng told the Associated Press that U.S. officials relayed the threat from the Chinese side.

Chen, who fled to the embassy six day ago, left under an agreement in which he would receive medical care, be reunited with his family and allowed to attend university in a safe place. He says he now fears for his safety and wants to leave.

A U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat, but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy.

The news that blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng had left the U.S. embassy on his own volition came as a shock this morning. It now appears that it wasn’t the whole story. Why would Chen and his supporters have taken the risks they took in exchange for an “agreement” with the Chinese government that doesn’t guarantee his safety, or the safety of those who helped him escape?

As the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday, this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has turned away a Chinese dissident seeking shelter at the U.S. embassy. And last time it happened, the story did not have a happy ending:

The office of Vice President Joe Biden overruled State and Justice Department officials in denying the political asylum request of a senior Chinese communist official last February over fears the high-level defection would upset the U.S. visit of China’s vice president, according to U.S. officials.

The defector, Wang Lijun, was turned away after 30 hours inside the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and given over to China’s Ministry of State Security, the political police and intelligence service.

Wang has not been seen since Feb. 7 and remains under investigation. His attempt to flee China set off a major power struggle within the ruling Communist Party and led to the ouster of leftist Politburo member Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife on murder charges.

If U.S. officials actually did pressure Chen into leaving the embassy, they just put him and his entire family in grave danger.

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The Country With No Artists

There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

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There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

It’s quite a claim to say that in a country of 20 million – even a prison-state like North Korea – not one person has dared to put ink to paper and create images that aren’t permitted by the government. Underground artists have sprouted even in severely oppressive societies like the Soviet Union and current-day Iran. But then, if anyone is familiar with the inscrutable subject of North Korean art, it is Song Byeok. Once recruited as a propaganda painter for the regime, Song was later imprisoned and tortured by the DPRK after trying to cross the Chinese border to find food. He eventually did escape the country, and now uses his paintbrush to satirize and condemn the regime he was once compelled to glorify.

Song’s most recognizable image, hanging on a nearby wall, is a massive painting of the late Dear Leader donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress and coquettish pose. Behind me is one of Song’s more disturbing works, a painting of bony-legged, toothless children embracing a bloblike Kim Jong Il as he crushes them in a bearhug. On a nearby table lies what, at first glance, appears to be a traditional Korean ink scrollpainting. But instead of rolling hills and farmlands, it is a panorama of totalitarianism, complete with looming monuments to the omniscient rulers and forced labor camps.

Song’s paintings strike an odd balance between humor and horror. Many evoke the classic pop art style, with solid backgrounds, cheerful commercial allusions, and bright primary colors serving as a haunting contrast to the subject matter.

The artist has a quiet manner, and speaks little to no English. We talked through a translator. On Friday night, he opened his first art expo in D.C. to a packed house, and during our interview on Saturday afternoon people trickled in and out of the exhibit, buying prints of his work.

Despite Song’s artistic training, he claims that he never considered drawing anything anti-government while living in North Korea. Not due to fear of discovery, he explained, but because the independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state.

“The fact is that I would never even think about it,” said Song. “That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”

The dearth of art may seem like the least of concerns in a country where many die of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. But the physical suffering is only one tragedy of North Korea. Other tyrants have also starved and brutalized the bodies of their own people, but the North Korean government has achieved unprecedented success when it comes to starving its peoples’ minds and souls. The DPRK’s oppression is so total that Song maintains he once couldn’t even fathom drawing anything subversive about a government he eventually risked death and torture to try to escape.

The truth is, nobody – not even Song Byeok – can say with absolute certainty that there are no underground artists inside the borders of North Korea. Though if any exist, we would likely never know about or see their work.

The other alternative, far more unsettling, is that Song is right – that North Korea truly and horribly is the first state in the world where art has ceased to exist.

While Song is now out of the physical reach of the North Korean government, some shackles remain. Even “Song Byeok” is a pseudonym, to protect family still in the country. He says his art has already caught the eye of the upper ranks of the regime, something he’s openly proud of.

Song views his art as more than just a mode of self-expression and catharsis. He acknowledges that his work has a political objective, and says his main goal “is to be able to inform the people about how valuable freedom is.”

That desire extends beyond just North Korea. “The next country I’m planning to portray is Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan, and the way they’re treated in the name of religion,” he told me, adding that he was disturbed by the fact that Afghan women can be stoned to death for simply running away with someone they love.

But for now, the artist seems preoccupied with his home country, and his hope that “North Korea can get better.” Song says his paintings are ideally intended to reach the public of North Korea, as implausible as that idea seems. “They’ll pass out of shock,” he predicted.

Song said that even in a country without artists, the public would still grasp the meaning of his paintings. “[They] will definitely understand the message,” he told me. “Because unconsciously they do know something is not right in society. That’s why they would understand right away.”

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