Confessions of a 'boring imperialist'

The American human rights activists Image copyright AFP

It's usually journalists who give other people a hard time, rather than vice-versa, but the BBC's Stephen Evans is smarting from an insult he received during a recent news conference in South Korea... and an older wound inflicted long ago, by Mick Jagger.

It's not often that I get called a British imperialist by people holding a press conference. It's not the way I think of myself and it's not usual for the subject of a news event to turn on one of the reporters at that news event.

But it did happen the other day. A group of activists from a human rights organisation based in New York came to Seoul to talk about their plans for sending tens of thousands of copies of the movie, The Interview, on USB sticks into North Korea. The men from the American group wore dark glasses and strode to the cameras like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. There was a grand speech about freedom.

Which is fine, but I thought it might be good to ask whether it was the proper place of Americans to come to South Korea and make such provocative gestures at a time of great tension. Who, I also wondered, funded their organisation? Had the CIA put any money in?

The place erupted. The main speaker detected my accent and asked me if I was from the imperialist nation of Britain. The questions, I was told, were unprofessional.

Image copyright Getty Images

It made me realise how perceptions of North Korea in the United States are often different from perceptions in South Korea where I live and work. Many South Koreans have no doubt of the viciousness of the regime in Pyongyang. In the last five years, a South Korean military ship has been sunk, the south says, by a northern torpedo. Troops from both sides were killed in a clash at Yeonpyeong island off the coast of the peninsula.

The repression of the regime in Pyongyang was documented in a UN report which cited murder, rape and starvation of prisoners. I speak often to a man who was imprisoned in North Korea and who will bear the trauma of what he calls torture until the day he dies. Indeed, he often says that he is on the verge of suicide.

South Koreans know the evils of the north but they also know they share a peninsula, a history and common blood with those there. And they're in the firing line so they weigh their protests carefully - good, perhaps, to send propaganda but not good to provoke a war.

Those most insistent on provocation are often defectors, some of whom believe with good cause that they are the targets of North Korean hit-men.

But they are not always to be trusted. As one Korean told me, they have an interest in selling their story strong. Many find it hard to get work and come to rely on support groups for defectors, and these groups in turn are sometimes reliant on outside money. Defectors write memoirs and to sell, the books need to be a strong read.

In recent days, one prominent escapee from the North has admitted that crucial facts in his published account were untrue. Shin Dong-Hyuk has campaigned prominently to highlight abuses in the north, testifying before a United Nations commission. But he has now apologised on Facebook after over-stating the suffering.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Shin Dong-Hyuk apologised for inaccuracies

It all shows the difficulty of assessing the testimony of those who escape and, it should be said, of those Westerners who go to North Korea, heavily supervised, but who return with a rose-tinted view.

Ideology intrudes and complexity goes out of the window. I think that's why the activists from the American human rights group didn't like my awkward questions, but, as I told them afterwards, robust scepticism is what democracy is all about. It's in the best tradition of British journalism, imperial or not.

By the way, I've been called worse things than a British Imperialist by those holding a press-conference. In a spirit of mischief, I once had the impertinence to ask Mick Jagger about the completely legal tax arrangements of the Rolling Stones.

He replied in front of a New York plaza full of adoring hacks that I was from the "Boring Broadcasting Corporation". Now, that hurt, particularly since I've spent a life-time saying the Stones are better even than the Beatles. Mick, Mick - not "boring". Please, Mick. Not "boring".

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