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A criminal's medal: John Pilger on rewarding Israel

As deserving as Blair, Howard and Uribe are of the Bush freedom medal, others cry out for a place in history.

On 13 January, George W Bush presented presidential “medals of freedom”, said to be America’s highest recognition of devotion to freedom and peace. Among the recipients were Tony Blair, the epic liar who, with Bush, bears responsibility for the physical, social and cultural destruction of an ­entire nation; John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia and minor American vassal who led the most openly racist government in his country’s modern era; and Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, whose government, according to the latest study of that murderous state, is “responsible for more than 90 per cent of all cases of torture”.

As satire was made redundant years ago when Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch were ­honoured for their contributions to the betterment of humanity, Bush's ceremony was, at least, telling of a system of which he and his freshly minted successor are products. Although more spectacular in its choreographed histrionics, Barack Obama's inauguration carried a similar Orwellian message of inverted truth. The continuity between the two administrations has been as seamless as the transfer of the odious Bono's allegiance, symbolised by President Obama's oath-taking on the steps of Congress - where, only days earlier, the House of Representatives, dominated by the new president's party, the Democrats, voted 390-5 to back Israel's massacres in Gaza.

The supply of American weapons used in the massacres was authorised previously by such a margin. These included the Hellfire missile, which sucks the air out of lungs, ruptures livers and amputates arms and legs without the necessity of shrapnel: a "major advance", according to the specialist literature. As a senator, the then President-elect Obama raised no objection to these state-of-the-art [sic] weapons being rushed to Israel - worth $22bn in 2008 - in time for the long-planned assault on Gaza's fenced and helpless population. This is ­understandable; it is how the system works. On no other issue does Congress and the president, Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, give such absolute support. By comparison, the ­German Reichstag in the 1930s was a treasure of ­democratic and principled debate.

Listen to newsreaders use pejoratives for Palestinians, calling them militants when they are resisters to invasion

This is not to say that presidents and members of Congress fail to recognise the Israel "lobbyists" in their midst as thugs and political blackmailers, though they never say so in public, because they fear them. For their part, the Israelis' current, phoney "unilateral ceasefire" in Gaza is designed not to embarrass, not yet, its new man in the White House. Obama's single acknowledgement of the "suffering" of the Palestinians has been long eclipsed by his loyalty oaths to Tel Aviv (even promising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which not even Bush did) and his appointment of probably the most pro-Zionist administration for a generation.

As deserving as Blair, Howard and Uribe are of the Bush freedom medal, others cry out for a place in their company. With the assault on Gaza a defining moment of truth and lies, principle and cowardice, peace and war, justice and injustice, I have two nominees. My first is the government and society of Israel. (I checked; the freedom medal can be awarded collectively.) "Few of us," wrote Arthur Miller, "can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."

The bleak irony of this should be clear to all in Israel, yet its denial has emboldened a militarist, racist cult that uses every epithet against the Palestinians that was once directed at Jews, with the exception of extermination - and even that is not entirely excluded, as the deputy ­defence minister, Matan Vilnai, noted last year with his threat of a shoah (holocaust).

In 1948, the year Israel's right to exist was granted and Palestine's annulled, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and other leading Jews in the United States warned the administration not to get involved with "fascists" such as Menachem Begin, who became an Israeli prime minister.

This fascism, which was not often flouted openly, was the harbinger of Likud and Kadima. These are today "mainstream" political parties, whose influence, in the treatment of the Palestinians, covers a national "consensus" - that is the source of the present terror in Palestine: the brutal dispossessions and perfidious controls, the humiliation and cruelty by statute. The mirror of this is domestic violence at home. Conscripted soldiers return from their "war" on Palestinian women and children and make war on their own. Young whites drafted into South Africa's apartheid army did the same. Inhumanity on such a scale cannot be buried indefinitely. When Desmond Tutu described his experience ?in Palestine and Israel as "worse than apartheid", he pointed out that not even in white supremacist South Africa were there the equivalent of "Jews only" roads. Uri Avnery, one of Israel's bravest dissidents, says his country's leaders suffer from "moral insanity": a prerequisite, I should add, for the award of a Bush freedom medal.

My other nominee for a Bush freedom medal is that amorphous group known as western­­ ­journalism, which has always made much of its freedom and impartiality. Listen to the way Israeli "spokespersons" and ambassadors are interviewed. How respectfully their official lies are received; how minimally they are challenged. They are one of us, you see: calm and western-sounding, even blonde, female and attractive. The frightened, jabbering voice on the line from Gaza is not one of us. That is the sub­liminal message. Listen to newsreaders use only the pejoratives for the Palestinians, describing them as "militants" when they are resisters to invasion, even heroes, a word never used.

Mark the timeless propaganda that suggests there are two equal powers fighting a "war", not a stricken people, attacked and starved by the world's fourth-largest military power and which ensures they have no places of refuge. And note the omissions - the BBC does not preface its reports with the warning that a foreign power controls its reporters' movements, as it did in Serbia and Argentina, neither does it explain why it shows only glimpses of the remarkable coverage of al-Jazeera from within Gaza.

There are, too, the ubiquitous myths: that Israel has suffered terribly from thousands of missiles fired from Gaza. In truth, the first homemade Qassam rocket was fired across the Israeli border in October 2001; the first fatality occurred in June 2004. Some 24 Israelis have been killed in this way, compared with 5,000 Palestinians killed, more than half of them in Gaza, at least a third of them children. Now imagine if the 1.5 million Gazans had been Jewish, or Kosovar refugees. "The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo . . ." declared the Guardian on 23 March 1999. Inexplicably, the Guardian has yet to call for such "an honorable course" to protect the people of Gaza.

Such is the rule of acceptable victims and unacceptable victims. When reporters break this rule they are accused of "anti-Israel bias" and worse, and their life is made a misery by a hyperactive cyber-army that drafts complaints, provides generic material and coaches people all over the world on how to smear as "anti-Jewish" work they have not seen. These vociferous campaigns are complemented by anonymous death threats, which I and others have experienced. The latest tactic is malicious hacking into websites. But that is desperate, since the times are changing.

Across the world, people once indifferent to the arcane "conflict" in the Middle East now ask the question the BBC and CNN rarely ask: Why does Israel have a right to exist, but Palestine does not? They ask, too, why do the lawless enjoy such special immunity in the pristine world of balance and objectivity?

The perfectly spoken Israeli "spokesman" represents the most lawless regime on earth, ­exotic tyrannies included, according to a tally of United Nations resolutions defied and Geneva Conventions defiled. In France, 80 organisations are working to bring war crimes indictments against Israel's leaders. On 15 January, the fine ­Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, wrote in Ha'aretz that Israeli generals "will not be the only ones to hide in El Al planes lest they be arrested [overseas]".

One day, other journalists and their editors and producers may be called on to not only explain why they did not tell the truth about these criminals but even to stand in the dock with them. No Bush freedom medal is worth that.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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She’s leaving home: the women who left North Korea

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea, as these two books reveal.

Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee were born more than a decade apart and spent much of their early childhood in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates the “hermit state” from China. Both women are strong-willed and resourceful and share a flair for fashion ­inherited from their mothers, who worked as smugglers and rebelled against North Korea’s strict dress codes whenever they could by buying knock-off Chanel handbags or perming their hair. Yet while Lee was born to parents with high songbun (“status”), Park’s parents fell close to the bottom of North Korea’s rigid caste system. Lee remembers “idyllic summers” picnicking in fields and watching children catch dragonflies; Park was so hungry that she caught them to eat.

A few weeks before Lee turned 18, she walked across the frozen Yalu in her fashionable new red shoes, hoping for a short adventure in China. She has never been able to return. Park was just 13 when she fled Hyesan, starving and desperate, with her mother. They are among the 25,000 or so North Koreans to have escaped successfully from one of the most repressive regimes in modern history and two of only a small number of female defectors to tell their ­stories. Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names and Park’s In Order to Live describe their difficult and very different journeys to freedom and offer an unusual insight into the secretive country that they left behind.

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea. The government-sanctioned haircuts, the camp gymnastics displays and the state media’s ridiculous rhetoric linger in the public consciousness much longer than reports of executions and gulags. Both books contain titillating details of the country’s weirdness. Park recalls a campaign for patriots to donate their poo during a fertiliser shortage. At her school, a typical maths question went like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Any child who referred to US citizens without using one of the official descriptions – “American bastard”, “Yankee devil” or “big-nosed Yankee” – was punished for being soft on the enemy.

The most revealing passages describe the rare moments when the alternate universes of North Korea and the rest of the world collide. Park describes watching a bootlegged copy of Titanic and marvelling that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were”. The film gave Park her “first small taste of freedom”. That North Koreans would risk imprisonment or death for pirated video games and Hollywood blockbusters shows how strong the desire for entertainment and novelty can be. Yet Park’s memoir also illustrates the strength of propaganda – how else could you “believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise . . . while devouring movies and TV programmes that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams”?

In some ways, Park and Lee were like teenage girls anywhere – falling in love, mooning over romantic pop, discovering pornography, rebelling against their parents – except that their thoughts, movements and even ambitions were regulated by the regime and the threat of violence was ever present. It was “normal, like air pollution”, Lee writes. Her descriptions are brutally matter-of-fact. She attends the execution of a well-liked smuggler; she writes: “When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist.” In North Korea, she explains, most people try to avoid watching executions unless they know the person, in which case it is customary to attend, as they would a funeral.

To the regime, individuals’ lives might be considered worthless; for human traffickers, however, they have a price. After she crossed the river to China, Park was sold for $260, and her mother for $65. The traffickers wanted to rape Park but her mother offered herself up instead. Later, although still only 13, Park was forced to become the mistress of a trafficker and helped him collect, clean up and sell the women in his charge. There was no opportunity to complain of mistreatment to the authorities, because in China North Korean defectors are routinely arrested and sent back home to almost certain death in a prison camp. Her story sheds light on the dark mechanics of the trafficking industry and the chilling consequences of China’s forced repatriation programmes.

Lee’s journey seems to have been driven less by desperation and more by her irrepressible desire for a better life. What kind of teenager would cross one of the world’s most dangerous borders in her cool new shoes, hoping for a holiday? A naive one, certainly – yet her determination and independence are also remarkable. In China, she chooses to go on the run rather than accept the safety of marriage to her boyfriend, a wealthy if dull Chinese-Korean gamer. By the time Lee makes it to South Korea, she has so effectively adapted to Chinese society – she has acquired Chinese ID, speaks Mandarin fluently and is earning a good wage as a translator – that it takes her a long time to convince officials that she is a North Korean defector. As soon as she is safely in South Korea, she risks everything to help her mother and brother escape.

In publishing their memoirs, Lee and Park are taking yet another big risk. Last year, the UN noted how difficult it was to keep witnesses safe. Many North Korean defectors feared speaking to it, even confidentially, for fear of reprisals. Both Park and Lee are hoping that by going public they can expose human rights abuses in their country and increase the pressure on China to change its policy on its neighbour. Yet their stories also tell of the vulnerability and resilience of refugees all over the world. What despair and courage it takes to wade through the freezing water of the Yalu River, or march unguided across the icy border between China and Mongolia in the dead of night, or clamber into a crowded Jeep traversing the Sahara, or cram your children on to an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean, in the faint hope that anything must be better than what you have left behind.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Tale by Hyeonseo Lee with David John is published by William Collins (304pp, £16.99). In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers is published by Fig Tree (288pp, £18.99).

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide