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How to Piss Off Engagers in 10 Easy Lessons

11 March 2014

During the past 20 years the world has gained increasingly detailed knowledge about the DPRK from a variety of sources, including refugees and defectors, academic researchers, businesspeople, government negotiators, and humanitarian aid workers. Despite this knowledge, North Koreans continue to surprise us. Which means that either we have not really understood the knowledge we have gained, or the knowledge we think we have gained does not correspond (or no longer corresponds) to reality.

This is actually very good news for us in the knowledge industry, because our bread and butter (or kimchi and bean paste) depends on the general level of public ignorance. Quantum probability theory aside, most of us believe there is a singular reality for us to discover, and human brains are constructed to find meaning in our perceptions, regardless of how limited is our access to truth.

Neuroscience has pointed to a close link between our perceptions and our emotions. The strength of this link is inversely proportional to the strength of the evidence that supports any particular perception. In the absence of verifiable evidence, we cling more tightly to our own unique interpretation of perceived reality. Since we are prone to shy away from ambiguity, we tend to be more defensive about convictions that stabilize our worldview.

Since almost all knowledge pertaining to North Korea is of an ambiguous nature, it should not be surprising that there are numerous schools of thought on how to deal with the DPRK government. And this is not just a question of academic enlightenment. The North’s system acts like a monkey wrench in a globalizing desiderium for justice, peace and democracy. It is quite natural that this would only increase the likelihood of emotional outbursts among those who feel strongly about their convictions.

In order to simplify, one might divide those with the strongest convictions into optimists and pessimists. The half-full crowd believes that a worst-case scenario can be avoided with patience and diplomacy. The half-empty crowd believes that things probably need to get worse before they get better, so we might as well help the process along with pressure-cooking tactics.

And that’s where the fun starts. If you want to affect human (including political) behavior but have less than incontestable knowledge, you need to win friends and influence a lot of people. Rational argument is not enough to sway people to your side. Emotional impact is far more effective in building a constituency. One of my favorite radio programs on CBC is The Debaters, where comedians attempt to sway the audience by being funny rather than factual, by using humor and wit rather than rational argument. The most popular are usually those who succeed in tearing down their opponents instead of offering any rationale for their own position, demonstrating the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.

Much of what goes for “informed dialogue” among so-called DPRK experts reminds me of The Debaters. Critiques of opposing positions are far more prolific than constructive problem-solving ideas. Except that in this case, a sense of humor is almost completely lacking. Fortunately, another emotion can easily be substituted for humor: anger. This changes the object of the game only very slightly. Instead of delivering the funniest lines, the winner is the one who elicits the angriest response from the opponent.

A recent article featured on NK News entitled “Subverted Engagement[1] elicited an angry exchange between the author, B.R. Myers,[2] and an American who shall go nameless. In fact, I also found myself getting rather angry when I read it, and a former colleague of mine became furious. Ten points for B.R. Myers!

That got me thinking. Maybe I’m due for a regime change… I mean career change. (“Overdue” is probably a better adjective since I’m already retired.) Having spent decades as a confirmed “engager,” I could deftly switch sides and teach the younger generation what it takes to send proponents of engagement with North Korea into apoplectic rage. A course outline might look something like the following:

Lesson 1: Choose your audience carefully.

Since the object of the game is to increase your approval rating, choose a publisher who can reach a wide-ranging and preferably ill-informed audience. Avoid learned journals, because: a) they will expect academic rigor; b) they will have peers reviewing your writing before it is accepted for publication; and c) at the end of the day nobody actually reads them. If you’re an academic yourself, you might make some disparaging remark about the “fact” that peer reviewers are always of the pro-engagement type.[3]

Lesson 2: Use historical platitudes.

If you choose carefully, you can find well-known historical moments that have an immediate visceral effect on your readers. Whether it proves your point is a secondary consideration. Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” nicely hides the fact that bad historians are condemned to misrepresent the past. You might imply that engagers are appeasers like Neville Chamberlain when he signed the Munich Agreement. You might refer to South Africa to prove that sanctions can bring down a distasteful regime. Invoking the names of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot brings a certain holier-than-thou perspective to this tactic. What else does one need to know about history? If you are writing around the time of ongoing Olympics, it might suit your purpose to begin your article with a reference to the Berlin Olympics of 1936.[4] (Especially after no less a historian than Russia’s former chess champion Garry Kasparov compares Putin’s Sochi to Hitler’s Berlin.[5])

Lesson 3: Keep it vague.

Defining terms just gets in the way of a good argument. Don’t be too eager to specify what you mean by the term “engager.” In order to make the article really irritating, lump together all kinds of people you disagree with and call them all “engagers.”[6] After all, if the shoe fits, they will wear it. If that seems a little too obvious, add adjectives like “self-styled” or “subversive.” These make it sound like you’re defining terms, but they are sufficiently flexible to be massaged to any degree. After you introduce such adjectives, you needn’t use them again. Revert to the blanket term “engagers.” This causes confusion and irritation in your opponents while at the same time giving you an escape mechanism. When challenged, you can easily claim that of course you didn’t mean all engagers.[7]

Lesson 4: Highlight only the weakest arguments.

Once you have established a sufficiently wide catchment for the term “engagers,” you are free to put the most banal arguments into the mouth of “typical” engagers.[8] Follow this with your own clever quip, but make sure to keep both sides of the argument on a metaphoric level. Keep it emotional by ridiculing opponents. Remember that your aim is to win friends to your cause, not to engage in rational discussion. Your riposte should say something so obvious that uninformed readers will immediately grasp the absurdity of the exchange.[9] In order to drive home your victory, imply that even ardent engagers surrender to your unassailable logic at this stage, offering an even weaker comeback.[10]

Lesson 5: Equate engagers with tourists and fellow-travelers.

Nothing is quite so irritating to engagers as being classed as unwitting or witless dupes of the DPRK regime. During the Cold War, McCarthyists defined Communist sympathizers as “fellow-travelers.” Vladimir Lenin called them “useful idiots.” It is best not to use these terms, especially if you wish to reach a generation that has no idea what you mean. You could imply an uncritical personal relationship by referring to “engagers’ North Korean pals.” The disrespectful term “suck-up” provides just the right clarity and emotional punch for a younger demographic. Comparing engagers to tourists adds another twist of the knife.[11] It implies that all interactions with North Koreans are orchestrated by their tour guides. Make sure to mention that bowing to statues of DPRK leaders is mandatory for all foreigners, even though that practice has been completely optional since the mid-1990s.[12] Please note that this tactic works well even if your own sole access to North Korea has been as part of a tour group.

Lesson 6: Be careful how you describe North Koreans.

If the point of your campaign is to irritate engagers, it will be necessary to indicate how they are outsmarted by North Koreans. By the same token, you must avoid the claim by engagers that North Koreans are smart enough to know that change is in their own best interest. One way to do this is to divide the North Korean people into manipulative elites and gullible locals. This allows you to say North Koreans are both stupid and smart. Of course, it is politically incorrect to label ordinary people as “stupid” or “gullible.” Instead, lay all the blame for the people’s blindness on the regime’s propaganda,[13] while in the same breath accusing engagers of having contempt for North Korean intelligence.[14]

Lesson 7: Place engagers at the extreme end of a continuum.

Communications research has repeatedly demonstrated that opinions follow a natural bell curve. Only a minority of people feel comfortable at the extremes. To get the majority of your readers on your side, you must present your position as the reasonable middle ground. Therefore do everything you can to demonstrate that engagers occupy an extreme position. Pick your sources carefully. Selectively vilify prominent engagers you dislike and balance this with engagers you like. Favorably quote people that readers would not normally consider to be on your side.[15] Subtly separate sources that history buffs might consider to be on the same side.[16] Exaggerate the prominence and representativity of engagers that best suit your arguments.[17] Make an entirely surprising statement that differentiates you from more radical opponents of engagement.[18]

Lesson 8: Imply that Washington is a hotbed of engagers.

You don’t actually need to believe this, but it helps to kill the impression that you are a lackey of American government interests. (Something a Canadian like me can fully appreciate). Grossly overestimate the influence of engagers on the US administration. The best way to do this without being flatly contradicted is to use the concept of an increasing influence, without specifying the starting point.[19] After all, changes from 0% to 1% and from 99% to 100% both qualify as increases. Since readers might be tempted to ask why the influence of engagers should not increase, deftly imply that engagers are a vehicle for North Korea’s “soft diplomacy.”[20] Pretend that you have insider information that can accurately gauge the temperature of emotions inside the US State Department. And while you’re at it, why not imply that State Department employees are airheads?[21] (Something a Canadian like me can also appreciate!)

Lesson 9: Exaggerate the influence of engagers on the media.

Almost any statement on the influence of the media will make sense in the absence of scientific evidence. Engagers regularly bemoan the inability of the media to present a nuanced view of North Korea, preferring to revel in the sensational, the shocking and the bizarre. Since this is statistically quite close to the truth, it is important for opponents of engagement to claim the contrary. One way to do this is to accuse engagers of being overactive in defense of their minority position.[22] A better way is to raise the specter of a North Korean threat to the independence of the Western (or at least American) media.[23] Since such blanket statements might well be challenged, make sure you build in a fall-back position. The best way to do this is to compare the influence engagers might have in our media with the influence they certainly do not exert on North Korea’s media.[24] If you happen to have done research and published a book on the North Korean media, you needn’t worry about the absurdity of comparative scale. Uninformed readers will be impressed by your modesty and gravitate to the apparent logic of your arguments.

Lesson 10: Offer no alternative to engagement.

If you have been in this game long enough, you will certainly be aware that the DPRK has survived every conceivable alternative to engagement during the past 60 years. Whatever the reason you are in the business of debunking engagers, you will be wise not to fall into the trap of exposing the vacuousness of your argument by supplying even the hint of a solution to the Korean conundrum. Better not to expose the reality that every solution short of an all-out war with China will involve some level of engagement. Instead, repeat your central unassailable mantra over and over again.[25] Repetition will burn it into the reader’s brain. If the point is simplistic enough, even those who disagree with you will begin to regard it as significant “common sense.”

One final piece of advice: If your aim is to criticize the gullibility of the US media, don’t end your article with an example from the Canadian press. Granted, Canadians have pretty much swallowed US corporate media culture hook line and sinker, but we’d like to believe we have retained a certain je ne sais quoi. There is no need to piss off Canadians en masse. Some of my best friends are subversive engagers, and we’re kind of proud that it took a Canadian to introduce an American basketball player to a North Korean dictator.[26] “A quintessentially Canadian gift for getting along with everyone?” Hell yeah!


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations by B.R. Myers come from his opinion piece, “Subverted Engagement” on NK News and subsequent comments found below that article.

[2] B.R. Myers is a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University, ROK, and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.

[3] Myers: “They serve as peer-reviewers for academic journals, deciding what gets into print.”

[4] Myers: “Contrary to a Western canard, the German crowds at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 cheered and applauded Jesse Owens, and went home with their faith in Nazism unshaken. Most of the foreign visitors, on the other hand, returned to their countries with a better view of Hitler than before.”

[5] “Sochi is to Putin what Berlin in 1936 was to Hitler, says Garry Kasparov,”

[6] Myers: “This usually comes about through interviews with self-styled engagers: charity workers, tour operators, exchange organizers, industrialists, film-makers.”

[7] Myers: “Had he read the piece closely enough to notice that his name does not turn up in it at all, he would have understood from the context the exact sense in which I use the word ‘engager.’ Virtually everyone else commenting on the piece has understood it, so it can’t be that hard. To spell it out: I use the word ‘engager’ in allusion to the term ‘subversive engagement,’ therefore in regard to people engaged in non-government contact and work with North Korea.”

[8] Myers: “’The North Koreans will see we’re not monsters. They will see they can work with us. How can that not be a plus?’”

[9] Myers: “My stock response is to say that the North Koreans already know we don’t have horns.”

[10] Myers: “’Okay, but it can’t hurt. Worth a try, eh?’”

[11] Myers: “Besides, no tour-group is complete without at least one suck-up.”

[12] Myers: “Actually, when engagement makes money for the regime, and treats Pyongyangites to the spectacle of Americans bowing before statues, it does more to strengthen the status quo than to weaken it.”

[13] Myers: “The regime spins these visits as pilgrimages, and the locals are invested enough in the national life-lie to believe it.”

[14] Myers: “This complacency reflects the deep contempt for North Korean intelligence that one finds across the commentariat.”

[15] Tariq Ali, a writer with decidedly left-wing credentials, or prominent engager John Everard’s book “Only Beautiful, Please.”

[16] Former President Jimmy Carter gets a NO; Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Advisor gets a YES.

[17] Leon Sigal, Tony Namkung, Han S. Park, Billy Graham and Mun Ik-hwan.

[18] Myers: “I agree that much of the hyperbole about the regime’s awfulness needs correcting: references to the country as one giant gulag, for example, or the effort to pass off the same stale photographs of the famine as reflections of current reality.”

[19] Myers: “The engagers are a growing influence inside the Pyongyang-watching community, even though they are deeply compromised by their need to maintain access, to stay on the regime’s good side. They sit on panels at Washington intelligence conferences.”

[20] Myers: “The effect of North Korea’s soft diplomacy on American decision-making should not be underestimated.”

[21] Myers: “It is likely that despite the media’s mockery of Rodman himself, his assertions of the Marshal’s niceness sank in with the folks at State, boosting advocates of a softer approach.”

[22] Myers: “They weigh in, usually with anecdotal counter-evidence, on everything they disagree with.”

[23] Myers: “What worries me is the subversion of our media.”

[24] Myers: “It is a mild influence, granted, but still far more than the engagers’ North Korean pals would ever exert on the KCNA.”

[25] Myers: “I would rather focus here on the near-unanimous assumption that in any ‘subversive engagement,’ we will naturally be the subverting party.” “No doubt about it, these exchanges are bringing the West and North Korea a little closer every day. Too bad only one side is moving … Again, though, my point was a very moderate one. If I may repeat it: Contact between Westerners and North Koreans does more to influence Western perception/discussion of North Korea to Pyongyang’s advantage than to influence North Korean perception/discussion of the West to ours. My conclusion was that we all need to be more aware of this.”

[26] Myers: “Judging from the tone of the magazine piece, interviewer and interviewee are equally proud of this attainment, as if it reflected a quintessentially Canadian gift for getting along with everyone.”

Reader Feedback

11 Responses to “How to Piss Off Engagers in 10 Easy Lessons”

  1. […] in Weingarten’s essay: “A recent article featured on NK News entitled “Subverted Engagement”[1] elicited an angry exchange between the author, B.R. Myers,[2] and an American who shall go […]

  2. […] in Weingarten’s essay: “A recent article featured on NK News entitled “Subverted Engagement”[1] elicited an angry exchange between the author, B.R. Myers,[2] and an American who shall go […]

  3. Charles Park says:

    Here! Here! Ruediger Frank! Now can we have a word from BR Myers?

    Definitely, engagement is not a very precise term. I mean, we’ve been engaged with North Korea for the past 60+ years – the kind of engagement the likes of Joshua Stanton (and South Korea’s National Security Law) would support – e.g., military to military, government to government. Seriously, he (Stanton? Myers?) is not against all engagement. So through the decades, engagement was about militaries and diplomacy. But what has it achieved? Has it led to reunification? Has it led to denuclearization? Has it led to North Korean joining the world community?

    The end of the Cold War, the Arduous March, and the subsequent incapacitation of North Korea’s PDS forced the North Korean government to grudgingly open the country up to all sorts of engagements – UN WFP and other orgs., NGO humanitarian orgs., tourism, foreign direct investments, teacher exchanges, student exchanges, cultural exchanges, etc. They have even created 14+ special economic zones and have said, “Please come engage us commercially, invest in us”.

    Do these activities benefit only the regime or benefit the regime in the way as to make it a greater threat to the rest of the world? First, even if it did it wouldn’t matter. The US-ROK military forces and capabilities are so far ahead and significant that DPRK will never be able to seriously challenge them. Any “real” provocation (not the ones we typically here about) would be suicidal. Economic and political theories teach us that all human beings are rational actors and most of the time rational actors are not suicidal.

    Also more likely these exchanges probably benefit the elites but these elites are too numerous to be considered singularly as “the regime”. The case of Jang Seong Taek shows us that even at the topmost echelons of government, power, and blood-ties, there is diversity. The changes that has occurred in North Korea as the result of the destruction of the PDS is so traumatic and dramatic that the traditional levers of control – its cultish ideology and non-judicial police state – are often revealed to be merely a formality. More than ever, there are divergent interests at all levels of society, including among the topmost elites. Then the more we make contacts and interact with more North Koreans, the more the diversity becomes encouraged and promoted the more diverse the engagers and engagement modes.

    Then engagement of the kind that the likes of Myers and Stanton criticize are vital. It’s only been possible because of the present realities in DPRK. The topmost leadership may still be skittish at these engagements and at opening but the society is very changed irreversibly, as Frank says. Someday the DPRK leadership may relax their fears about implosion and finally engage the world like China has. While one or two engagement won’t have done it would have been due to all the thousands of people, organizations, and interactions which combined in a way to create a sufficient momentum for genuine reform, not the de facto benign neglect suboptimal kind we have seen in the past decade and a half.

    No? Joshua Stanton?

  4. Charles Armstrong says:

    I have little to add to Ruediger’s insightful remarks about how North Korea has changed, and will continue to change in ways that we cannot predict and that the regime ultimately cannot control. But there are two aspects of the anti-engagement argument that I have always found puzzling. First, there is the “all-or-nothing” attitude toward the effects of engagement. Is instant regime change the only acceptable outcome? China is not anyone’s idea of liberal democracy, but few would deny that it is a far better place for most of its citizens than it was forty years ago, that much of this improvement is the result of China’s involvement with the outside world, and that this involvement was triggered (at least in part) by the US decision to engage with China in the early 1970s – a time when China was about as ideologically extreme as North Korea is today. Second, opposition to engagement shows a peculiar lack of confidence in the superiority and attractiveness of capitalist democracy. It would be naive and arrogant to assume that we can outsmart the North Koreans at every turn, but it would be grossly overestimating the abilities of the DPRK leaders to think that they can manipulate us and control events just as they please. Unexpected consequences are about the only thing we can confidently predict, especially when a closed society begins to open up.

  5. Rudiger Frank says:

    You are right, emotion will take us nowhere. This matter is too serious. So let me try a more sober response to your initial point (the “lost list”).
    Something few people will deny is that North Korea has in the past 20 years changed a lot. It is still North Korea, no doubt about that. Many things remain unchanged, but there is also substantial progress. When I came there in 1991, there were no restaurants to eat out except in hotels. There were no regular taxis, and hardly any other car on the streets. No traffic lights, no modern communication facilities, no inflow of information. No narae or koryo card. No pongsa sent’o, no sangjom, no street vendors except on major holidays. The PDS was intact and the major source of food. There was no brand awareness (a professor of mine had a golden Rolex and did not know what that was except that it was a gift from the leader on the occasion of his hwangap; “I can’t eat it”, he said). There were three different, not interchangeable domestic currencies. Even if you had “real” money, you could buy nothing except in designated hard currency stores. Kim Il-sung was still alive. There had been no major famine yet. No summit meeting with the South Korean president had taken place. Markets were held 3 times a month, they were not held everywhere, and only agricultural products were traded. There had been no Agreed Framework, and it had not yet been broken either. No space rockets, hardly any Western tourists. No cars were produced in North Korea, and no gadgets such as tablet computers. Drivers used not to turn on the lights of their cars at night in order to save on bulb and battery life. Even in PY people dressed pretty much similarly. Most products in hard currency stores were Japanese, including beer, coke, and stationary. There were no goats and orchards, no Kim Jong-il statues, and all slogans were painted red-and-white. Diplomatic relations with most European countries did not exist. Entertainment for youngsters? No way. No Golden Lane, no roller blades. No bicycles in the capital either. No mention about “cost, prices, and profit” in the constitution. No training seminars for North Korean officials at home and abroad to teach them about the market economy. No PUST, no Choson Exchange. No Western NGOs like the WFP with their extensive field visits. No Vienna Coffee Shop, no Pizza place, no Hamburgers. No Kaesong Industrial Zone, no Mt. Kumgang resort. No middle class. I guess I am running out of space, but this list of minor and major issues can be continued.
    Whether these changes are a fruit of engagement, or whether they are a result of pressure is and will always be in the eye of the beholder. Some things might even have happened with or without engagement or pressure. And nobody will say that North Korea is now the Promised Land of democracy and the free market. But I do also not see, not at all, the point of saying that nothing has changed there at all. And what we see is not all there is, to be sure. The transformation that the NK society has undergone as a consequence of all these superficial things is as profound as it often remains hidden to the eyes of many visitors and observers.
    As for what the PY leadership wants: who cares. If there is one thing I know about planning, then it is this: it usually does not work as expected. Whether they hope to be able to contain the beast (controlled state capitalism) or whether they are willing to risk true reforms is not the point; they started a process that is irreversible. It can be slowed down, but this is it. The more resources the regime gets, the more it wants. There will never be enough. And eventually, the current system will reach its limitations in providing “more”. In a way, South Korea and its transition since Park CH is a case in point. It would be naive to expect that a particular engagement measure will trigger a particular reaction in PY. This has been the big misunderstanding about the Sunshine Policy. Engagement can and will shape the environment, but specific decisions and actions will still depend on what the folks in PY want. My argument is that they will eventually start to want what we want them to want, and they won’t even notice. The NK propaganda calls that the “sweet poison of capitalism”.
    Regarding your last remark, I kind of agree, but in a different sense. You are right in questioning whether we should sacrifice many for the sake of few. But I think this is exactly what non-engagement does. Engagement means to swallow our pride and accept that a few cadres become even fatter, and that a few other cadres celebrate our alleged weakness. But the point is that we are not weak. Talk to people who have lived in societies like North Korea (like me, for example) and who have seen them disintegrate piece by piece over the cause of many years despite all repression, propaganda and triumphant expressions of ideological strength. Rather than attempting central planning of change in North Korea, we should believe in our own gospel and rely a bit more on the Invisible Hand.

  6. Glad to be of help, Mr. Frank, although I’d have preferred a cogent and substantiated defense of the idea itself; after all, its results also speak rather cogently for themselves. I suppose pointing that out “pisses off” people who are so invested in the idea emotionally that they’re unwilling to assess its merits rationally, but so what? Emotion is no substitute for evidence. Is this a forum for the discussion of ideas or an intellectual hospice for dying ideas?

    Let me offer a proposition: Pyongyang seeks just that level of controlled state capitalism necessary to finance its own control. I don’t know how many opportunities for engagement on your terms Pyongyang has to decline or channel into hermetically sealed containers before its intentions become obvious. Has it occurred to you that the current management in Pyongyang just isn’t interested in engagement on your terms? Sure, the people of North Korea are, to the extent you can actually reach them, but the more resources the regime gets, the more it uses those resources to cut off the cross-border human, mercantile, and digital traffic that’s driving real change from below.

    If my proposition is correct, engagement with the few comes at the expense of engagement with the many. It does more to retard change and reform than catalyze them. Do you have a rational response to that argument, or did I just piss you off again by asking for one?

  7. Ruediger Frank says:

    Indeed, thanks a lot for so nicely illustrating what I wanted to say. This is exactly how you can piss off engagers, Mr. Stanton. Bravo.

  8. And of course, an engager could make the opposite argument. But to pass the laugh test, he would have to offer some evidence (between you and me) that engagement with Pyongyang (as opposed to the smuggling and information leakage that Pyongyang is successfully shutting down today) has contributed to any sort of progress or change.

  9. Personally, my favorite tactic is to airbrush away the long list of profound economic and social changes engagement with Pyongyang has triggered in North Korean society, all of its diplomatic accomplishments in denuclearizing North Korea, and all that it has done to make North Korea less of a threat to its neighbors (and its own people).

    Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced that list.

  10. Rudiger Frank says:

    I would offer Lesson 11: Claim success, delegate failures
    Between you and me, we know that engagers will eventually succeed in bringing change to North Korea. So what – no problem. To piss them off, make sure that you claim loudly and with all the media power you have that this change happened only thanks to your pressure and hardline policies, and that this change is final proof that you were right all the time. Let them do the work; all you need to do is harvest.
    Rudiger Frank

  11. […] recent article featured on NK News entitled “Subverted Engagement”[1] elicited an angry exchange between the author, B.R. Myers,[2] and an American who shall go […]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.