‘Asia hero’ to offer help to NorthIn his more than five decades in journalism, Bernard Krisher has covered most countries in Asia, met countless presidents and prime ministers, and is the only person to ever have a one-on-one interview with the Emperor of Japan. (Krisher interviewed Emperor Hirohito in 1975.)
Krisher, 80, was named an Asian hero by Time Magazine in 2005 for his philanthropic work in Cambodia, where he runs the Cambodia Daily newspaper and a charity that builds primary schools and provides free medical care to the poor.
Tokyo-based Krisher has long involvement with Korea and even lays claim to having provided the name for Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy of engaging North Korea. In 1997, following the North’s devastating floods of 1995, he traveled to Pyongyang and donated rice, medical equipment and even an ambulance, which for a time put him at loggerheads with the U.S. Treasury. He received more than $95,000 in donations.
Krisher is returning to Pyongyang in May and hopes to donate more food and medicine. He recently talked to Korea JoongAng Daily Chief Editor Anthony Spaeth.
Q. Did you really come up with the name of the Sunshine Policy of engagement of North Korea? Can you tell us how that came about?
A. At a symposium in Seoul, where both the foreign minister of Korea and Kim Dae-jung were sitting on the stage, I asked the foreign minister if he knew of Aesop’s fable “The Wind and the Sun,” in which the Wind and the Sun make a bet on how to get a passing traveler to remove his cloak. The Wind blows as hard as he can, but the traveler just grips his cloak tighter. The Sun shines on him and the traveler removes his cloak. I asked the foreign minister if this fable couldn’t be applied to dealings with North Korea - by giving them some sunshine, couldn’t that move North Korea to be friendlier to the South? The foreign minister replied that he was not the weatherman and didn’t have a reply. Subsequently, Kim Dae-jung told me that my suggestion had an impact on him, leading him to develop his Sunshine policy.
You are traveling to Pyongyang in May on a humanitarian mission. What will you do there?
I’ve been invited to attend a medical conference which I will attend. I plan to donate some medical books and journals to the Kim Man Yu Hospital and also contribute antibiotics and food to the starving population there, as I did before in the mid-1990’s when there was a dire food shortage following devastating floods.
Will you meet the new leader Kim Jong-un?
I don’t know. I haven’t asked. But if he suddenly appears to meet me or our delegation, I will of course be there.
How many times have you been to North Korea? And can you tell us about your humanitarian relief efforts in the past?
I’ve been there at least six times. The first time was in 1979 when Prince Sihanouk, who was living in exile there, invited me to visit him and I interviewed him for Newsweek reporting on his exile following a coup d’etat by Lon Nol, which caused him to live abroad in Beijing and Pyongyang. He was invited to live there in gratitude for his recognizing the Chinese and North Korean governments in defiance of a request by the United States to recognize Taiwan and South Korea instead. The U.S. threatened to cut off aid to Cambodia, and Sihanouk responded, “To hell with your aid. We are a sovereign nation and we’ll recognize whomever we wish.” This gesture caused both Chinese Premier Chou En-lai and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung to invite Sihanouk to live in Beijing and Pyongyang, respectively, where they offered him generous hospitality and luxurious quarters.
Your humanitarian aid to the North got you in trouble with the U.S. government in the 1990’s. Can you describe that?
At the time, the U.S. Treasury Department closed my bank account, which had the name “North Korea Flood Relief,” on the grounds that it appeared I was sending money to the North Korean government. I challenged this decision with a letter to President Bill Clinton and also posted my letter on my Web site (www.northkorea.org). I never got a response from the White House or the State Department but subsequently I received a letter from my bank saying the Treasury Department had rescinded its request, and the bank reopened the account and I could continue to use it, which I did.
This time the Internal Revenue Service registered my new organization, North Korea Food Relief, and although it does not have tax deductible status, I am soliciting donations and would appreciate any South Koreans contributing to this fund as many did in the 1990s. When I mention this to North Koreans during my visits there, they were greatly appreciative.
How much did you raise in the 1990’s? What did you buy with it and give to North Korea?
I raised more than $195,000 in cash and in kind and purchased rice, powdered milk, antibiotics and an ambulance, which I shipped to North Korea and distributed personally.
How can ordinary people contribute to your program?
They can send us a U.S. dollar check issued to “North Korea Food Relief” that can be cashed by a bank in the United States and mail it to Bernard Krisher, 4-1-7-605 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (150-0012) Japan.
Is it illegal for South Koreans to contribute?
I don’t think it is illegal because in the past the government allowed me to solicit contributions, make speeches, and I received sizeable contributions from people, including students. It would be outrageous if the Korean government prohibits its people to contribute funds to alleviate the hunger of people in a neighboring country. If they do, I would urge donors to break the law and obey a higher law that urges them to help anyone in need. Ultimately such higher laws become the law.
Aside from North Korea, you have a long involvement with South Korea as former Tokyo bureau chief of Newsweek and Fortune. You were particularly involved with the South Korean story during the kidnapping of former President Kim Dae-jung in Tokyo. Can you tell us more about your dealings with the South Korean dictatorships?
I covered South Korea from Tokyo for Newsweek from 1962, and witnessed the fall of the Syngman Rhee regime and the Park Chung Hee coup, which I critiqued heavily. I used to visit Kim Dae-jung when he was under house arrest, as well as others who were victims of the dictatorship. As a result, Park’s KCIA agents used to follow me around, and Park once tried to expel me from Korea. Ambassador Richard Sneider warned the regime that if they did that, the U.S. government would protest vehemently. Consequently I was not expelled nor was my visa ever canceled, and I continued to cover Korea. Ultimately Park granted me an exclusive interview in the Blue House. When Chun Doo-hwan succeeded Park after his assassination, he also gave me an exclusive interview in which I tried to persuade him not to punish Kim Dae Jung. I think this had some effect so that Kim was able subsequently to move ahead, re-enter politics and ultimately ran for president and was elected.
By Anthony Spaeth [firstname.lastname@example.org]