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North Korea's overseas apologists dismiss 'propaganda' about torture, repression

Reuters

Women walk past portraits of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Monday.

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

Anyone reading North Korea’s state-owned news agency could be forgiven for thinking that North Korea has legions of supporters throughout the world.

“U.S. and Its Allies' Moves to Stifle DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- or North Korea] Protested in Britain,” “Independent DPRK Praised by Bangladeshi Organization,” and “Day of Sun to Be Celebrated in Italy” are just three of the numerous headlines on KCNA’s English-language site trumpeting overseas support for Kim Jong Un’s regime.

In response to North Korea's announcement that they will be deploying "small, light" nuclear strikes, the Pentagon has announced it is sending an anti-ballistic missile system to Guam. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

But given the reports by human-rights groups detailing the horror of daily life in North Korea, who are the foreigners taking Pyongyang’s side?

Last month, the United Nations set up an inquiry to investigate “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.”

Amnesty International’s North Korea researcher Rajiv Narayan welcomed the move, adding that “millions of people in North Korea suffer extreme forms of repression" with hundreds of thousands of adults and children "in political prison camps and other forms of detention where forced hard labor, torture and other ill treatment is systemic.”

But Andy Brooks, a 63-year-old British communist, has one word to sum up such reports: “propaganda.”

He complained that “unsubstantiated claims” were “constantly thrown at the DPRK,” referring to North Korea's official name.

“People who visit come back with different stories,” he said.

'Everyone has a job'
Brooks, secretary-general of the U.K.’s New Communist Party, highlighted the recent visit to North Korea by “the American baseball man” – meaning retired basketball star Dennis Rodman.

“He didn’t see any of this and he’s certainly not a communist,” he said.

After being filmed spending time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, basketball legend Dennis Rodman said that while he doesn't "condone what he does," the dictator is "a good guy" and a friend. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo reports.

Brooks, who declined to say how many members his party has, had no doubt when asked if he thought North Koreans had a good life.

“Oh yes. They have free education, everyone has a job. I think everyone has housing and so on. It has, in my view, a very high standard of living,” he said. “One of the proofs of the pudding is the longevity. The average lifespan is 74, 75.”

Brooks said he had made “many trips” to North Korea and had lunch with Kim Jong Il, the late “Supreme Leader,” who he said was a “great communist thinker.”

Kim Jong Il was the son of his predecessor Kim Il Sung and father of his successor Kim Jong Un, but Brooks said he did not regard this passage of power from father to son as hereditary.

“It’s more complicated than that … I think the way to put this, the way I see it, in the DPRK nothing is done except by committees, every decision is collective from the smallest to the highest. The decisions in the DPRK are not the will of one man,” he said.

Richard Engel journeys to North Korea in this latest episode of Hidden Planet. Engel witnesses a military parade, one of the state events that North Korea has come to be known for, but he also journeys through parts of the country rarely seen by American eyes. Engel goes shopping in a North Korean store, visits computer science students who have never heard of Facebook and takes a train ride through parts of the country that reveal barren fields.

“It’s a socialist society in which most things are nationalized. It’s under social ownership and they’re trying to develop their part of the country in accordance with the principles they uphold,” he said.

Asked if he’d rather live in the U.S. or North Korea, he said “oh, North Korea, it goes without saying for me, absolutely.”

“You look at the great extremes in the U.S., a country so wealthy, a country that could feed the entire world and there are people starving in the streets,” he said.

However, even fellow communists disown people like Brooks.

Mark Fischer, national organizer of the Communist Party of Great Britain, described pro-North Korean leftists as “a tiny family group of ultra-Stalinist loops -- the political equivalent of what happens when cousins marry.”

Fischer, who said his party has several hundred members, said over the years Stalinists had looked for a country embodied their philosophy and had gradually run out of options.

“These people really are in the Stalinist last-chance saloon,” he said. “They’ve looked to somewhere as the socialist motherland and it’s got … more absurd as time has gone on. They are kind of living fossils.”

David Guttenfelder / AP

As chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, David Guttenfelder has had unprecedented access to communist North Korea. Here's a rare look at daily life in the secretive country.

Asked to explain how someone could support North Korea, Fischer said “to be honest with you, I think there must be a degree of double-think, Orwellian double-think.”

Seoul-based analyst Daniel Pinkston, of the International Crisis Group, said the North's "apologists" were ignoring its human-rights abuses.

“I see a lot of these people crying about U.S. imperialism, the unfair system … if they are crying out about all this injustice, why don’t they just go join the KPA [the North’s Korean People’s Army]?” he said.

“They sit behind their computers in London or Brazilia or New York and send out these kinds of outrageous comments,” he said.

“Just go, nobody is stopping you, go and live in North Korea.”

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