The Korean border-crossing farce

American feminist icon Gloria Steinem has taken a lot of criticism from elements of the Left for helping to lead a CIA-funded effort to disrupt Communist-sponsored “youth festivals” in Vienna in 1959 and in Helsinki in 1962.

Old “New Leftist” Tom Hayden wrote disapprovingly in The Nation last year:

Steinem recruited about one hundred Americans into a delegation to confront the 17,000 youth at the 1959 Vienna Youth Festival under the banners of Marxism and national liberation. Her bloc employed dirty tricks to disrupt the proceedings, including distributing anti-communist propaganda to fill a shortage of toilet paper and invading discussion groups to attack communist dogma. Pleased with her work in Vienna, the CIA sent Steinem to lead a similar delegation to Helsinki in 1962, where the CIA courted African students with American jazz and… left “memorable images of Steinem parting the beaded curtains to enter the nightclub as if she was Mata Hari.”

Distributing anti-communist leaflets, criticizing communist dogma, and American jazz are “dirty tricks”? When it comes to presenting a democratic and liberal alternative to Leninism, those “tricks” are about as clean as they come.

The New Left of the 1960s, of which Hayden was a leader, was notable for its anti-anti-communism. I see he hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades.

Steinem, to her credit, has never publicly regretted those activities: “If I had a choice I would do it again.”

But I am disappointed in Steinem and the other women (including two Nobel Peace Prize winners) who chose to participate in a farcical crossing of the border from North Korea to South Korea in the name of “peace and reconciliation.”

The activists said they acted as “citizen diplomats” in North Korea, speaking with women at a series of events during their time there.

“We can learn on paper and on screen,” Steinem said. “But the ability to understand, not just learn, happens when we are together and able to empathize.”

Does Steinem actually believe that any of the North Korean women they met were free to say (or even think) anything other than what the regime allowed?

The participants have been rightfully condemned by human rights activists.

“It is absolutely outrageous that they completely ignore the suffering of the North Korean people, especially North Korean women,” said Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition.

“If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ,” Scholte said ahead of the event.

North Korean women who cross into China often become victims of human trafficking, ending up being forced to work in the sex industry or sold as brides to rural Chinese men.

The reported abuses for North Korean women are not limited to the Chinese border. North Korean defectors have testified of rape and abuse in prison camps by fellow inmates or guards.

If Steinem and the other women had taken the opportunity while in North Korea to publicly call attention to (for example) the horrific prison camps where hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are incarcerated and where succeeding generations are punished for the “crimes” of their parents, they probably would have been promptly expelled from the country. But they would have done immeasurably more good than they did with their regime-approved propaganda show.