Using aid group as front for spying could do untold damage
A North Korean army compound near the town of Uiju is seen through a telescope on the Chinese side of the border. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)
Before speaking out in response to a recent investigative report by The Intercept looking at how the Pentagon used a Christian nongovernmental organization to spy on North Korea, I decided to wait 10 days or so.
Given the seriousness of the allegations, a fair waiting period seemed necessary, allowing corrections or denials by former U.S. military officials.
The ensuing silence has been deafening. A number of opinion articles have circulated since the initial report was published Oct. 26 offering an array of viewpoints from international NGOs, Christian publications and the mainstream media. Unless I'm mistaken, none have been written by a Christian NGO on the Korean peninsula. It is hoped this article can fill that void.
The points I make are not stated lightly nor spring from an anti-U.S. military mindset. Living on the Korean peninsula for decades, I am fully aware and respectful of the memory of the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel who gave their lives to secure freedom on this peninsula, not to mention the vigilance of U.S. forces in Korea for more than six decades up to the present.
I am often heard saying that we NGOs are only able to do our work to help North Koreans in distress because we stand on the shoulders of the Americans — among others — who sacrificed to secure the freedoms now enjoyed in South Korea. To honor the memory of those sacrifices, I feel compelled to comment on recent disclosures relating to a U.S. military-NGO cooperation that does not qualify for the same respect.
Whatever collaboration existed between the Pentagon and Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG — the subject of the report by The Intercept — it represents a train wreck for the aid community in this sensitive region.
Putting aside for a moment the legality of such a military-NGO scheme under U.S. law and within the boundaries of presidential executive orders, there are vital human costs to consider.
The North Korean regime's suspicion of U.S. motives has been nothing short of paranoiac for more than six decades. Any number of sincere and sacrificial aid workers who have dared to enter North Korea on humanitarian grounds have been accused of spying for the U.S. government long before the Pentagon-HISG report.
Some of these aid workers have been detained, intimidated and even tortured. Robert Park, detained for 43 days after going across the border on Christmas Day, 2009, and Kenneth Bae, who spent more than two years in a North Korean prison until his release a year ago, are two such recent cases. Non-American charity volunteers have also faced spying accusations and are subjected to egregious interrogation inside North Korea.
In the absence of denials or refutations of The Intercept story, are we to believe former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the former senior intelligence operative who designed the scheme, Gen. William Boykin, and others in the Pentagon, did not know this? Did they not weigh such extraordinary risks for everyone else entering North Korea?
This is especially relevant if HISG volunteers were blindsided by what appeared to be the extreme secrecy surrounding the project, as implied by The Intercept report.
A second facet of this debacle is the almost inevitable impact on aid workers stationed across the border from North Korea in China. A close friend who had selflessly devoted himself to providing humanitarian assistance to impoverished North Koreans for the past 18 years was detained in mid-2014 by Chinese officials and interrogated for three months under house arrest. He was then put behind bars for many more months as relentless questioning continued. Interrogators repeatedly returned to the subject of whether outside governments and agencies had been involved in funding and influencing his work to help North Koreans in distress.
This aid worker had allowed Kay Hiramine, the founder of HISG, to accompany him inside North Korea on at least one occasion without knowing of the connection to the Pentagon. Did this draw the attention of Chinese or North Korean authorities?
It is certain the governments of both countries will archive The Intercept article for ready reference and will treat this heavily researched report as fact. In turn, this will inevitably color views in Beijing and Pyongyang in the future.
Now comes the "friendly fire" dimension of this military-NGO fiasco. As The Intercept reporter Matthew Cole is quick to point out, Boykin identifies himself as an active evangelical Christian.
The New Testament records Jesus' own words on the defining characteristic of a Christian: "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love to one another" (John 13:35).
An outgoing and protective concern should characterize Christians' care for each other. In the above context, by what stretch of the imagination could the U.S. military's use of Christian aid workers to unknowingly plant eavesdropping equipment in North Korea be construed as a Christian action?
I invite Boykin and Rumsfeld to explain how the risks undertaken by former HISG aid workers were their Christian duty. The military action described in The Intercept article could better be described as the Pentagon throwing Christian aid workers under a bus.
The greater tragedy is that fallout from the Pentagon program, and the article, will likely not be a one-time occurrence. With friends in high places like these, who needs enemies?
The Rev. Tim Peters is a Christian activist and founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian nongovernmental organization. Helping Hands Korea has been providing emergency assistance to North Koreans in distress since 1996.
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