Nicholas Kristof, Korea, and the Orientalist Temptation

The stupidity and arrogance of America’s political class is on full display lately, and the White House Correspondent’s “roast” is the least of it (albeit the most visible). The conceit and open identification with Power – i.e., with the very Washington insiders they’re supposed to be guarding against – by our “mainstream” journalists explains why they’re held in such contempt by the public. And what better example of our compromised political class is there than Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and professional “humanitarian” whose calls to send in the Marines are always clothed in the raiment of altruism. It’s people like Kristof that libertarian author Isabel Paterson warned us against when she wrote about the “humanitarian with a guillotine.”

For I can hardly recall a single war of the recent past that Kristof has not wholeheartedly embraced: while he shied away from jumping on the Iraq war bandwagon, he was gung ho for destroying Syria and making it a safe haven for jihadists: he’s never revisited that stance, nor apologized for it in any way. He’s all for arming the Ukrainian government, which is surely one of the most corrupt in the world, and which has a huge neo-Nazi problem. To top it off, he’s one of the loudest voices urging the US to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and support a crew of jihadist rebels “formerly” associated with al-Qaeda.

Oh, and he’s a leading Trump-hater. It’s only natural: after all, it was precisely because of Trump’s “isolationist” (i.e., pro-peace) stances and his determination to effect a radical change in our globalist foreign policy that rallied Kristof and his Davos crowd buddies to the “Stop Trump” cause. Well, they didn’t stop him, and there’s The Donald now, busting through decades of inertia to forge a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.

The anti-Trumpers like Kristof are reeling: why, just a few months ago they were predicting that Trump would bomb North Korea, millions would perish, and the President was busy assembling his “war cabinet” in order to start World War III. Now they’re screaming that he’s being “played” by Kim Jong-un, with all the familiar “wily Asian” racist tropes thrown into the mix. In his most recent column, Kristof reluctantly gives the President “some credit,” but then goes out of his way to show how ignorant he is of Korean affairs by disparaging the whole effort as an elaborate deception authored by Kim Jong-un and inexplicably accepted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump.

“North Korea doesn’t have enough food, it lacks Facebook and Beyoncé, and its diplomats have to ration their use of computers in the Foreign Ministry because of electricity shortages.

“But North Korea excels at choreography and theater, and its officials are well educated, very savvy, and agile with a pirouette. So we have peace breaking out on the Korean Peninsula – and President Trump gets some credit for that.

“As with any circus performance, it’s amazing to behold but not quite as billed.”

Perhaps the lack of Facebook and Beyoncé is a virtue, although the self-satisfied smugness of the Kristofian mentality prevents him from even considering this possibility. But never mind that: what are we to think of some entitled upper class American gloating over the lack of food in North Korea? I mean, this is someone whose market niche as the Mr. Goodie Two-Shoes of American Newspaper Columnists is uncontested: isn’t this kind of pauper-taunting a bit, uh, unseemly?

Plus what’s up with this Orientalist tripe about the “very savvy and agile with a pirouette” North Koreans, who are likened to animals in a circus. Their performance, it seems, is “amazing to behold but not quite as billed.” Well, you know how those Asians are…. The real purpose of all this peace-mongering by the North, we are told, is because

“Kim is now aiming to squirm out of sanctions, build up his economy and retain his nuclear arsenal, all while remaining a global focus of attention.”

How bizarre to argue that the North Koreans want to remain “a global focus of attention” when that “attention” has, up until this point, consisted of harsh economic sanctions, provocative “military exercises” carried out a few miles from their border, endless declarations of condemnation by the UN Security Council, and the alienation of their former allies in Beijing. Kristof infantilizes the North Koreans, and specifically Kim Jong-un, whom he describes in terms one would normally reserve for depicting an unruly teenager. And yet Kristof acknowledges that Kim has “played a weak hand” quite well, fooling those naïve Westerners who think he really wants peace into going along with the charade.

I might have picked on any number of liberal pundits who almost universally deride the Korean peace initiative: I chose Kristof because he exemplifies the single-minded arrogance of the “humanitarian” interventionists, who — when you get right down to it – make the same arguments as their neoconservative bedfellows:

“When North Korea talks about ‘complete denuclearization,’ it typically means that the U.S. ends its alliance with South Korea, and then North Korea will no longer need nuclear weapons to defend itself. But the US won’t give up the South. And North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the 1950s, and I don’t know any expert who thinks that it will genuinely hand over its arsenal.”

Those strange alien peoples who live in the “Hermit Kingdom” don’t even speak the same language as you and I! To them, “denuclearization” means “nuke the dirty Westerners!” Is Kristof kidding, or is he really this steeped in laughable Asian stereotypes?

And what’s this about how “the US won’t give up the South.” I wasn’t aware that the United States had annexed South Korea, and I’m sure the South Koreans don’t know a thing about this breaking news.

Finally, didn’t Kristof and the other “experts” confidently predict the victory of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election? Didn’t they blithely assume that Brexit would fail at the polls? Tell me again what the “experts” believe will happen – so I can go out and put money on the exact opposite.

Kristof’s arrogance is underscored when he relates a conversation he had with a North Korean official, who told him Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear arsenal because of what happened to Ghadafi. We aren’t supposed to remember that it was Kristof who was the biggest promoter of Hillary’s War in Libya, which led to the establishment of yet another jihadist stronghold in the region.

The whole thing is unreal, says Kristof: Kim isn’t going to give up anything, there will be no inspections, and this is all just a way for both sides to “save face” and back away from the prospect of war.

Kristof’s inability to see what’s really going on in the two Koreas is due to the same ideological blinders that prevented him from sensing the seriousness of Trump’s populist rebellion, and the nationalist uprisings that are occurring all over the world – including on the Korean peninsula. Our political class instinctively despises all forms of nationalism, and especially the American “isolationist” variety, because it would limit the power and reach of Washington’s empire-builders. Their second least favorite kind is what we’re seeing in South Korea, with the election of a new President whose program of decolonization conflicts directly with the plans of the Washington foreign policy elite. President Moon campaigned on a platform of bringing back the “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement with the North that was vetoed by Washington under President Bush II, and never given a real chance to develop: he has a mandate to pursue peace.

Kristof’s woeful ignorance of Korean affairs is underscored by the complete lack of attention paid to President Moon, who is not even mentioned once in the space of a 1000-word column.  The absurdity of this omission should be clear to anyone who knows anything about the origins of the Korean peace initiative and the recent history of South Korea: President Moon has been the key driver of the process which culminated in the Panmunjom Declaration.

Indeed, Kristof writes as if the Korean people are only spear-carriers in a drama starring Trump and Kim Jong-un. And the Americans are the drivers of events, always: lesser peoples are either the ones we are saving or the ones they need to be saved from. Yet after months of Trump’s threats to visit “fire and fury” on the North, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ must be asking: who will save us from the crazy Americans?

This, I believe, did much to generate a countervailing push for peace on the ground in Korea, where the initiative started: however, Trump does indeed deserve credit for the alacrity with which he agreed to meet Kim. Unlike the Bush II administration, Trump seems inclined to get out of the way while the Koreans do the heavy diplomatic lifting –and then take credit for the success if and when it comes.

When Trump brought up Korea at a rally in Michigan, the crowd chanted “Nobel! Nobel!” Of course the rotten Nobel Prize judges, phonies all, would never think of giving Trump anything but the back of their hand — and yet if Trump pulls this one off the whole world will know that he deserves the Prize regardless of what the judges decide.

Of course the really deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize would be President Moon, who fought off attempts by his own hardliners to scotch the peace initiative, and resisted as well attempts by our hardliners to do the same.

When I was a young schoolboy there was a newspaper serial that ran in the Sunday comics called “Impossible! Yet it Happened!” It featured some “impossible” event that occurred despite the protestations of the “experts,” and it invited the skepticism of my rationalistic thirteen-year-old mind. If something was “impossible,” I reasoned, and yet it happened anyway, then it was never “impossible” to begin with! I would ask my readers to apply the same epistemological flexibility to current events, especially overseas events. Expect the unexpected: this should be the working credo of any pundit worth his or her salt these days.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].