On Buzzfeed’s McCarthyite smears against Korean Americans

This week I wrote to Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith about a story his publication ran on July 11 that smeared several Korean American peace and community groups as “fronts” for North Korea, using as its source a well-known fabricator who has spent the past three years red-baiting me as well.

I asked Smith to correct the story and run my letter as a way to ameliorate the damage Buzzfeed has done by printing such garbage. Yesterday I was informed by Buzzfeed’s “World News Editor” Hayes Brown that not only would Buzzfeed not issue a correction, but that it would not print my letter.

The fact that Ben Smith apparently approved this decision disappointed me. He knows me and is familiar with my journalism. “It was a pleasure to get to know your work, and I look forward to reading you more,” he emailed me in 2014 when we were discussing a potential project that never came to fruition. For him to allow McCarthyite smears to stand, even to someone he knows, speaks volumes about his commitment to journalistic ethics and integrity.

I was not surprised, however, by Brown’s response and actions as the editor of the story. I recently obtained a resume showing that Brown worked for at least two years for one of the country’s largest intelligence contractors, SRA International, as a “Cyber Policy Analyst” for the Department of Homeland Security (SRA is now known as CSRA following its merger with CSC, one of the National Security Agency’s most important contractors). During his time with SRA, Hayes held a “Top Secret-Active” security clearance. In his resume, he also claims to be a specialist on Asian Studies.

In my emails with Brown, I asked if his work as an intelligence contractor for DHS was relevant to his involvement with the Korea story. He rejected that idea, and downplayed his contractor role, as you will see in the emails below. I disagree and believe his previous job at SRA and DHS is relevant – highly so.

It is significant that he has never disclosed his top secret clearance in any of his biographical materials, and is typically described on his media sites as a mere “contractor.” Brown has also chosen not to disclose his security clearance or his work for SRA in articles about intelligence contractors, as in this 2013 piece from ThinkProgress (he did not reply to an email about this). 

As an editor, I’m sure Brown will appreciate the fact that I allowed him to respond to this post, in contrast to Buzzfeed‘s reprehensible decision not to seek comment from the individuals and organizations attacked in his Korea story. What follows is my full letter, as sent to Buzzfeed on July 13, and my emails with Brown last night.

To:                 Ben Smith and Hayes Brown

From:            Tim Shorrock, with comments from Gloria Steinem

Date:              July 13, 2016

The following is my response to an article that appeared in Buzzfeed News on July 11. I’m an author (“Spies for Hire”) who grew up in Seoul and Tokyo. I’ve been writing about Korea and East Asia for decades, including for The Nation. I wrote this after consulting with Christine Ahn, a Korean-American policy analyst and one of the founders of Women Cross DMZ, which is falsely characterized in the article as a “front” group for North Korea.

In “Meet North Korea’s Number One Fan In The United States,” published on July 11, 2016, you have allowed a known fabricator, Lawrence Peck, to smear several organizations founded by Korean-Americans with baseless, unsubstantiated charges of being “fronts” for the North Korean government of Kim Jong Un.

I’m writing to urge you to correct this article by stating clearly and unequivocally that Mr. Peck’s charge that Women Cross DMZ is a “front” for North Korea has no basis in fact and was printed without any evidence from Mr. Peck and no verification by your reporter Beimeng Fu and your national security editor Hayes Brown.

I have learned that Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, spoke extensively to Ms. Fu, yet was given no opportunity to comment before Ms. Fu printed Mr. Peck’s false and defamatory allegations about her organization. I consider it serious journalistic malpractice to allow a questionable source to make false claims without giving the subjects of those charges an opportunity to respond.

The night the article appeared, I emailed Mr. Brown about this matter. He responded that Buzzfeed quoted Mr. Peck “because he’s presented himself as one of the few people looking into North Korean groups in the US, but [Buzzfeed] didn’t take his word as gospel…” He also noted that Buzzfeed made “sure to both note that Women Cross DMZ has on other occasions denied the sort of claims he made.”

These assertions are akin to allowing a source who’s “presented himself” as an expert on crime to accuse someone of a crime, and then saying the accused “denies” the accusation. The damage is done. Surely Mr. Brown –who I understand previously worked for a prominent national security contractor and has expertise in China and East Asia – can do better than this.

Despite Mr. Brown’s claims to the contrary, Ms. Fu’s entire piece hinges on Peck’s analysis and is framed by his paranoia of “pro-North Koreans” operating underground in the United States. The Korean-Americans Ms. Fu had the chance to observe are portrayed as shady operatives “under the radar on U.S. soil” when in fact Mr. Roh’s website, Minjok Tongshin, is publicly available on the web, and his meetings easily accessible to the public (incidentally, Mr. Roh’s views may be unpopular, but expressing his views on North Korea is protected speech in the United States).

In fact, there is nothing “under the radar” here, yet Ms. Fu, with the support of her editor, uses Peck’s broad brush analysis to falsely paint other groups, such as Nodutdol, as clandestine “pro-North Korea” organizations with no evidence whatsoever – except for Peck’s word. That is a travesty.

Mr. Peck, for your information, is a professional red-baiter and North Korea hater with no identifiable institutional support. He attacks anyone who believes in dialogue and citizen engagement with North Korea as “pro-North sympathizers” and worse. The engagement approach, as your editor should know, is endorsed by many prominent individuals, including Donald Gregg, the former CIA Station Chief in Seoul, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (who told CBS News that Women Cross DMZ “was a a very good opportunity to help promote reconciliation between the two Koreas”) and even a few officials in the Obama administration.

Mr. Peck works closely, and coordinates his work, with the most radical right-wing groups in South Korea and within the extreme edges of the North Korean defector community. His primary audience is a core group of agitators in Seoul and Washington who seek regime change in North Korea and, like him, detest those who seek a diplomatic approach. He has virtually no credibility within the foreign press corps in South Korea, and most Korean experts view him as fringe and untrustworthy.

Your reporter could easily have verified Peck’s credibility (or lack of) with reporters who cover the peninsula, such as James Pearson of Reuters or Sang-hun Choe of The New York Times. She could have also spoken to well-known academic experts, such as John Delury (of Yonsei University) or Katherine Moon (of Wellesley College and the Brookings Institution). Instead, she simply reported Peck’s accusations as fact.

But not only are Mr. Peck’s charges baseless; he fabricates dangerous lies about individuals and organizations. I’ve been a target of his red-baiting myself. Recently, after an article of mine that was translated from The Nation went viral in South Korea, Peck attacked me in a right-wing publication in Seoul, calling me a communist and North Korean “sympathizer” (along with Noam Chomsky). In 2015, he tried to convince the Reuters bureau in Seoul that I belonged to two “pro-North Korean” organizations in Berkeley and Seoul; all of these claims are totally false and without any foundation whatsoever (wisely, Reuters ignored Peck).

Mr. Peck has been particularly vicious in his attacks on Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ. In your article, he claims – as he has on many occasions – that Women Cross DMZ is a “front group” for North Korea. In fact, he has gone much further than that.

In May, on the eve of a visit by the group to Seoul to participate in another women’s peace walk along the southern border of the DMZ, Mr. Peck gave a press conference charging that the May 2015 women’s peace walk was initiated by a North Korean diplomat named Pak Chol, and that Ms. Ahn was under his “influence.” In his statement, which was described in Yonhap News, Peck said, “Facts have emerged which indicate that the Women Cross project was likely a political influence operation by North Korea targeting [South Korea], and the US, and accomplished by the North’s intelligence service in conjunction with Ahn and some of her colleagues.”

This is an outright lie. I’ve known Ms. Ahn for many years. Because I’m a well-established writer on Korean affairs, Ms. Ahn sought my advice about her march in 2010, long before she approached the North and South Korean governments for permission to walk through their territories. I was in touch with her through the entire process and was lucky enough to witness the women cross the border at the DMZ, which I wrote about for Politico.

It was outrageous for your reporter and editor to allow Mr. Peck’s slander of Women Cross DMZ as a “front” for North Korea to stand with just a silent denial from the organization. For your information, its membership includes two Nobel Peace Laureates, a retired US Army Colonel, a regional director of Amnesty International, professors, human rights lawyers and a US Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee, the revered American feminist Gloria Steinem.

Here is a direct quote from Ms. Steinem about Mr. Peck’s accusations, sent to me yesterday:

I’ve known Christine Ahn since 2011 when we were both protesting the building of a U.S. naval base on Jeju Island at the tip of South Korea. She was clearly a smart, effective and independent organizer. We stayed friends, and in October 2013, Christine asked if an international delegation of women peacemakers could get permission from both governments to cross the DMZ, would I join? I said yes, I had lost high school classmates to the Korean War, and I was worried that, with no public discussion to the contrary, people assumed that the division of Korea was permanent. In fact, the Armistice Agreement that halted the war was designed to last three months until there could be peace talks.

Since the success of our peace walk, we’ve worked closely with Korean women peacemakers to call for these peace talks. We’re not a “front” for anyone, but a transparent group speaking only for ourselves. We act on our own, speak for ourselves, and participate in Women Cross DMZ because the Korean War must end with a peace agreement. A half century of official silence hasn’t worked, so why not try ordinary people talking?”

To verify her statement, please feel free to contact Ms. Steinem (note: I provided her email address).

To summarize, your article is inconsistent with the standards of journalistic practice and endangers pro-peace individuals, especially in South Korea where mere accusations of being pro-North can land them in jail. I request that you correct Ms. Fu’s article as soon as possible and run my statement as a rejoinder.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Tim Shorrock

Washington DC

Here is my full email exchange with Hayes Brown about the story and his previous work as an intelligence contractor.

Hayes Brown 4:46 PM to me, Ben

Tim, Mr. Peck was not the only person that Beimeng spoke to for this story — including defectors, Korean-American organization leaders, and scholars alike — and I disagree with your assessment that it hinged on his analysis. Moreover, you’re right that Roh’s site and views are protected under America’s freedom of speech. His ability to say what he likes in defense of a country where he’d be able to do nothing of the sort is the point of a story where you’ve chosen to focus on one aspect. We’ve read over your lengthy statement and are declining to publish it; we are also going to refrain from making any additional changes to the story at this time. We stand by Beimeng and if you chose to publish your statement elsewhere, I’ll happily read it there. Thanks, Hayes

Tim Shorrock 7:19 PM to Hayes, Ben

OK, you have decided to publish a McCarthyite smear on an entire community of Korean Americans on the basis of one man with a record of fraudulent smears, and you even defend your decision not to seek comment from those attacked. I will publish my full statement and more since you seem to have no compunction about committing journalistic malpractice.

Meanwhile, because I believe your editing and political background is entirely relevant to your approach to this story, I will publish with my statement the full details of your recent role as an intelligence contractor. According to a resume you submitted to a government contractor in 2012, you were a Cyber Policy Analyst with SRA International Inc., holding a Top Secret and Active security clearance, working for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications. Your specialization in college was Asian Studies, and you learned Mandarin Chinese.

In this position, with your top secret clearance, were you working on issues pertaining to North Korea, which has been a major target of US cybersecurity policies? Were you blogging for sites such as At Water’s Edge and UN Dispatch while you were working for DHS? Do you still hold your security clearance? My full statement will be published after you have a chance to respond to my questions.

Tim Shorrock

Hayes Brown 7:28 PM to me

Hi Tim. I really disagree with you when you say my first real job out of college tinted my editing of this story but you’re the one who’s actually writing this up. “Cyber Policy Analyst” was the title but I was literally moving files digitally between CS&C’s branches. It was seriously an office admin gig; none of my work when I was 24 ever involved North Korea and I didn’t even get my TS clearance until right before I left the contract. I was blogging for those sites, the first of which was my personal site, and no, my clearance is no longer active since I let it lapse when I left SRA years ago. Thanks for reaching out.

Tim Shorrock 7:31 PM to Hayes

Got it. I will run your full statement. In doing so, I will be providing you what you refused to do to the Korean Americans you smeared. How a guy with your thin background became a national security editor at any publication is amazing.

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The Dictator’s Daughter Strikes Again

Fighting for Baek Nam-gi, the South Korean farmer-activist

The family of Baek Nam-gi introducing themselves at the "Gwangju Eve" rally in Gwangju, May 17, 1980. Credit: Doraji Baek

The family of Baek Nam-gi introducing themselves at the “Gwangju Eve” rally in Gwangju, May 17, 1980. Credit: Doraji Baek

Seoul—Inside the intensive-care unit (ICU) of Seoul National University Hospital, Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old farmer and lifelong political activist, lies in a deep coma. His skull is still partially open after his surgery last November, when he was rushed here after being knocked violently to the ground by a burst from a high-powered water cannon deployed by the police forces of President Park Geun-hye’s government. They were trying to block a massive demonstration of 130,000 people in downtown Seoul protesting Park’s labor and trade policies.

I am here with Doraji Monica Baek, his eldest daughter, a slim, quiet woman who works as an editor for a local publisher of novels. She has asked me to accompany her to the ICU to visit her father. Baek had read my article in The Nation last December about the events that brought her father here as part of her family’s quest for justice. I feel a mixture of sorrow and privilege as we stand quietly by his bed, where he lies motionless except for the deep heaves in his chest as a machine forces him to breathe in and out. I touch her arm, and she places her hand on mine. There are no words at moments like this.

Mr. Baek, whose prognosis is not good, has become a symbol to many Koreans of the increasingly harsh response of the Park government toward dissent. Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.50.10In particular, people are angry and disgusted with police violence and a climate of impunity in which the government refuses to take responsibility for the actions of police officials. In Baek’s case, Park’s government has never apologized to his family and, according to human-rights activists, promoted officials involved in the November incident, including the police commander who ran the operation that day…

Thus begins my latest piece in The Nation, where you can read the rest of the story. But, first, click here to view the incredible footage from the November demonstration, where you can see Mr. Baek being directly targeted by the water cannons, as his daughter charges in the article. Below are some more photos, including a shot of Doraji and I at SNU hospital and several from the demonstration for justice on Monday in Seoul, organized by Amnesty International Korea and other organizations, at the exact spot where Mr. Baek was knocked to the ground. Finally, after the photos I’ve posted more information about Mr. Baek and the issues raised by his injuries, provided by AI Korea.  

Update for Korean readers: I spoke about my visit with Mr. Baek and his daughter in this interview with Voice of the People in Seoul.

tim shorrock and doraji baek

Seoul demonstration for Baek Nam-gi, Monday May 30. Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Seoul demonstration for Baek Nam-gi, Monday May 30. Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

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Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Credit: Amnesty International Korea

Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.28.09
Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.29.00
Screenshot 2016-06-02 18.29.18

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Gwangju: Preserving the vicious nature of martial law, 1980

DSCN3078

I spent most of the last three weeks in South Korea, primarily in  Gwangju, Jeju and Seoul. I was invited to Gwangju by the city, along with three American journalists who witnessed the uprising and the final military takeover on May 27, 1980.

On our last day there, we visited a replica of a military prison that was used during and after the uprising. Hundreds of young Koreans who had demonstrated and fought for their democracy were sent here, where they were tortured, placed in extreme stress positions, and beaten before being tried in military courts where General Chun’s martial law commanders acted as judge, prosecutor and jury.

Some 3,000 young people from Gwangju went through this prison, including my friend Lee Jae-Eui, one of the leaders of the uprising and the author of Kwangju Diarya famous account of the events that took place in May 1980 (and sadly out of print). Our guides were three men who survived the prison. DSCN3062They were led by Lee Dong Gye, the man in this picture who led the tour. One of his comrades, the man in the far right in the courtroom picture, can be seen in the old photo of defendants at one of the mass trials; he’s the man with the mustache at the far left. Interspersed are photographs from the events themselves, showing the incredible brutality displayed by the paratroopers sent by General Chun Doo Hwan to Gwangju (incredibly, he denied recently that he had anything to do with this decision, which he was convicted for in the 1990s; he was later pardoned by President Kim Young Sam, at the request of the great dissident leader and president Kim Dae Jung, the man Chun almost killed).

Strangely, the prison is located just a short walk from the Holiday Inn hotel where we stayed in Gwangju. As I walked through, I couldn’t help but remember how the U.S. ambassador at the time, William Gleysteen, once told me how relieved he and other U.S. officials were when the South Korean Army retook the city; in contrast to the paratroopers who did most of the killing in the opening days of the uprising, he said, the regular army troops acted with “restraint.” Well, if this is “restraint,” black is white and war is peace.

Our guides had great dignity and only mentioned the U.S. role when asked about it. Prompted by one of the visitors, Mr. Lee angrily recalled how U.S. General John Wickham, who was the U.S. Commander in Chief in Korea during Gwangju, said at the time that “Koreans are like lemmings,” meaning that they’ll follow any military strongman, no matter what. He let that arrogant remark sink in as we contemplated their terrible treatment at the prison. “That was a definite humiliation of the Korean people,” he finally said.

Indeed. I applaud Gwangju for keeping this prison intact and showing it to the world. Click here for a short film from MBC in Korea (in Korean) showing how the prison serves as a lesson to Koreans to never allow this to happen again. The final photo is the celebration on May 17 on the street where the great battles of Gwangju took place in 1980 – “Gwangju Eve” this event is called. Although there is still division in South Korea about the legacy of Gwangju, you can see that the people of this city are proud of their revolutionary heritage, and will never give up their struggle for full democracy and accountability in South Korea.

During the Gwangju Uprising, 165 people were killed, 3,139 were wounded, and 76 went missing. Many South Koreans believe the totals were much higher, and could have reached over 1,000 killed.

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Guest Post: South Korea Bans Korean-German from Kwangju

lee jong-hyeon (yi eun-hi)In an extraordinary and undemocratic act, the South Korean government has prevented Lee Jong-Hyeon, a 79 year-old Korean living in Germany to enter the country to attend commemoration ceremonies remembering the May 18, 1980, uprising in Kwangju. He arrived on May 12th and was expelled on May 13th. According to the Hankyoreh newspaper,

Lee had been officially invited to attend the Asia Forum, which [opened] in Gwangju on May 17, organized by the May 18 Memorial Foundation. He had been planning to stay in South Korea until May 19, during which time he would have attended the May 18 memorial ceremony and given a presentation about the democratization movement in Germany since the 1980s. Lee has visited South Korea in 1990, 1994, 2004 and 2010, and this is the first time he has been refused entry.

Today I received a dispatch from Ok-Hee Jeong, a journalist based in Berlin, based on an interview she conducted with Mr. Lee shortly after he returned to Germany. Her story is reprinted here, with permission. It was translated by Ian Clotworthy. 

The South Korean State‘s Fear of An Old Man

By Ok-Hee Jeong

Lee Jong-Hyeon remains in shock. The South Korean native, a citizen of Germany and resident of Duisburg for the last forty years, was detained upon arrival at Incheon Airport and deported back to Germany the next day. The right to enter Korea was refused, in accordance with articles 11 and 12 of the South Korean immigration law, which states, “there is justified concern, that he will harm the state and poses a danger to public life.“ To Lee, that is ridiculous. “How can an old man like me pose a danger to public life?“ he asks.

Lee came to Germany as an immigrant worker in the 1960s. Like many other South Koreans at the time, he worked as a coal miner in the industrial western Ruhr area. Later, he went to college, married a German woman and had two children. This short man with snow-white hair is now a grandfather, and enjoys a quiet retirement with his wife Ursula.

Although well-integrated in German society, his heart has always been  in his homeland. When he left South Korea, the country was under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-Hee, father of current president Park Geun-Hye. Together with other South Koreans and Germans, Rhee created organizations that campaigned for democracy and peaceful reunification in Korea.

When the dictator Park Chung-Hee was killed by his own secret police chief Kim Jae-Kyu in 1979, there was a new wave of hope among South Koreans, at home and abroad, that the long-hoped for era of democracy would begin. But the hope didn‘t last. In May 1980, the German cameraman Jürgen Hinzpeter captured footage of the massacre in the city of Gwangju after General Chun Doo-Hwan carried out his military coup. In this massacre, hundreds of people were brutally slaughtered; many are still unaccounted for.

Images of the atrocities of that day enraged Lee, and made him rise to the vanguard of the struggle in Germany. He worked with others to exert international pressure upon the Chun military regime and to express solidarity with the South Korean people. It fills the 79-year old with pride, that the South Koreans attained democracy in 1987 with their own power.

“I just couldn‘t believe it, when I was refused entry at the airport,” Rhee told me. “My son called the Germany Embassy in Seoul from Berlin, but the staff there said they could do nothing, that it was an internal matter for South Korea.“ Rhee felt also abandoned by his chosen homeland of Germany. In addition to disbelief, there is a mix of anger and sadness in Rhee‘s voice. “How can a government behave like this? What was my crime? I suspect, the refusal of entry has something to do with my visits to North Korea.“

He remembers the expulsion of the Korean-American activist Shin Eun-Mi from South Korea after being accused of glorifying North Korea one year ago. Her crime: mentioning that North Korean beer was delicious and that the Nakdong river was clean, in a public talk. She made those remarks in a series of talks about her travels in North Korea, which South Koreans may not visit.

For this, she was branded a North Korean sympathizer, and ordered to leave the country for five years. The accusation of being a North Korean sympathizer is taken seriously in this divided country, where anti-communism used to be a favorite tool of the Park and Chun dictatorships as they sought to silence government critics.

“The first time I visited North Korea was a conference with sixty other Koreans from abroad. Later in 1994 I was there, because my brother, who lived in North Korea, had died. During the sunshine policy of [former president] Roh Moo-Hyun‘s government in 2007, I was there at a summit of North and South Korea, with hundreds of other representatives present. But that can‘t be the reason [I was expelled this time]. I also visited South Korea in 2007 and 2010, and had no problems with entering the country. But what has happened now? he wonders.

In South Korea, the sociologist Kim Dong-Choon of Sungkonghoe university says, “our young democracy has been in retreat for 8 years, because politicians with the orientation of the 1970s cold war ideology are still in power. I think that Rhee‘s role is significant and very symbolic, so Park‘s government has used this measure to make an example of him.“

Rhee finds these developments to be worrying, and sees the refusal of entry as a further sign of the regression of democratic values. “People sacrificed their lives for democracy in our country, and now it is being hollowed out, piece by piece,” he says. But the 79-year old comes across as unrelenting. “The democracy of my homeland was so hard-won, that I cannot simply stop fighting for it! Never!” he told me.

Ok-Hee Jeong is a Berlin-based German journalist. Her articles were published, among others, in ZEIT Online, taz, FAZ (Germany) and in WOZ (Switzerland).

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My Gwangju FOIA Documents Get a Home – In Gwangju

mayor yoonThis week I agreed to donate my entire collection of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents on U.S. policy in South Korea from 1979 to 1980 to the city of Kwangju. Mayor Yoon and I worked out the agreement on May 18 after I held extensive discussions with his human rights staff. The process will take a while, but eventually the city’s archive – which just opened last year – will get all 4,000 pages of declassified documents from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the CIA. They will be open to researchers and eventually copied in PDF format so anyone can search them. I’m very proud that they will find a home in the great city of Kwangju, the scene of a massive uprising against military rule that lasted from May 18 to May 27, 1980. This was a great accomplishment for me, and I thank Mayor Yoon and his wonderful staff for their assistance. I was invited to Kwangju this week for the commemorations along with three reporters who were there at the time of the uprising: Norman Thorpe of the Asian Wall Street Journal, Bradley Martin of The Baltimore Sun, and Donald Kirk of the London Observer. To get a take on what they observed, read Martin’s extraordinary story about his last interview with Yoon Sang-won, the leader of the uprising who died on the night of May 27, 1980, when U.S.-sanctioned South Korean forces sent from the DMZ retook the city and ended the 10-day rebellion.

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