The Most Underreported Foreign News Stories of 2013


Our "reporters" just don't want to dig into the largely untold story of the ongoing, mostly secret, negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime over the fate of several Americans held in Iran. And yet, if the Iran-Contra story is a reliable guide, it is altogether possible that hostage negotiations are at the heart of the "relationship" that Obama is trying to forge with the mullahs.

I was the "secret back channel to Iran" for a few months in 1985.  That channel was originally arranged by the Saudis, who arranged for the Israelis to meet Manouchehr Ghorbanifar, who in turn arranged for the Israelis and the Americans (both me and a retired CIA official) to meet high-ranking Iranians. The conversations covered several subjects, but the "hook" that catalyzed the meetings was the fact that Iran, and its creature Hezbollah, held several American hostages, the most notable of whom was William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut.

The Reagan administration was very concerned about Buckley's fate (and there were others as well), and as the conversations proceeded, the hostage question became a central issue. As Ghorbanifar warned, we all became hostages to the hostages. Buckley died under torture, and in my time there was just one "success." An American clergyman was released.

I was asked by a good reporter from the New York Times, Steve Engelberg (who now runs ProPublica), if he was missing anything about the hostage release. I couldn't tell him about the secret negotiations, but I suggested that he ask "what did the Iranians get for it?" The point being that the Iranian regime didn't go in for many acts of Christian charity. After the story of the arms deals with Iran became public, Engelberg told me that he should have paid closer attention.

Over the past few years, similar negotiations have been going on, and similar deals have been made. This was made quite clear by President Obama himself when he had his "historic conversation" with Iranian President Rouhani, during which Obama talked about three American hostages in Iran. This is no secret; it was briefed to the press by the White House. Yet there has been no serious followup. The closest thing to coverage has been the story of the release of an Iranian scientist who had been jailed in California for sanctions-busting.  And that story was broken in the Israeli press, not the American media.

If you read that story, you will see several things the American media refuse to investigate: the secret talks that have been going on for years; the hostage swaps that have been part of the "relationship"; the role of Oman as a key intermediary.

It's a very important story, because as the Israeli account stresses, it is a key part of the buildup to the "agreement" reached in Geneva, and it is of a piece with that lopsided deal. In this matter, as in the nuclear deal, Iran got a lot and we are still asking for them to fulfill promises. If Obama asked Rouhani about the American hostages, and if the United States released an Iranian involved in criminal activity in the United States, you can be sure that Obama expected the release of American hostages, notably Robert Levinson, whom we have recently learned was working for the CIA.

One final teaser:  I am sworn to secrecy on the details, but if the reporters worked a bit on this stuff, they'd find a lot more where Levinson came from. And they might wonder if Obama, like Reagan, became hostage to the hostages.

Michael is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a highly regarded expert on Iran’s Green Movement and maintains close ties to opposition groups inside Iran. He blogs at Faster, Please.


One of the most underreported stories of 2013 is the one simmering in the background, known mostly to the public through the horror-comic figure of Kim Jong-un: North Korea. RAND’s recent paper, "Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse," should be required reading for those interested in the subject.

It paints the picture of a mangy tiger stuck atop a pole, unable to climb further, yet incapable of going down. The problem for everyone -- South Korea, Japan, the United States (and surprisingly even North Korea itself) -- is what happens when the North Korean tiger eventually falls to the ground. Academics in Beijing having openly given the Kim Family Regime (KFR) ten years to survive, tops.

And when it collapses an imploding North Korea will at best unleash a World War Z-style horde of starving, desperate refugees on both China and South Korea, or at worst precipitate a regional nuclear war. The problem, we learn, really begins with Ronald Reagan. In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese and Russian subsidies to Pyongyang dropped dramatically. North Korea, already impoverished, went into a tailspin without those checks and sits with half the GDP of 15 years ago and unable to rise.

Shorn of its subsidies and terminally inefficient, as many as 3.5 million people starved in the early 1990s. Things got so bad that North Korea reluctantly allowed a black market to arise to avoid total starvation. The present result of that expedient was a curious society that is run at the lowest levels by illegal traders and producers bribing apparatchiks to look away while at the highest levels a nomenklatura labors in is fantasy world on starvation wages made bearable only by a direct provision of state housing, food, and commodities.

Everything that works in North Korea is illegal, and the black market created a permanent threat to the Kim Family Regime since the money is mostly in the black market. From time to time the regime devalues the currency, replacing the existing bills in circulation by revaluing them one for a hundred in order to destroy the cash of the private sector, which has countered by dealing in foreign currency, effectively destroying the Kim Family Regime scrip.

Today the average North Korean is almost 20 times poorer than his South Korean counterpart and sits, except in Pyongyang, mostly in darkness. When South Korea donated electricity to the North in a humanitarian gesture, the rickety electric grid shorted out under the unexpected juice and the experiment was terminated. People have forgotten what it is for the lights to work or to eat to their fill. Food reserves are nil as the country has not produced at self-sufficiency in decades.

Ten years, the Beijing academic predicted, ten years at the most. We learn from RAND that many politicians in South Korea dread the terminal diagnosis, for in the best-case collapse scenario, only 3 to 4 million starving people are expected to head straight for the DMZ, heedless of barbed wire and landmines in a mad scramble for food. China is bracing for an even bigger tide across the Yalu and has probably prepared plans to meet the horde at least 20 miles inside North Korea, to hold them on the Korean side of the border in order to prevent human locusts from ravaging the Chinese countryside.

The nightmare scenario, according to RAND, is that if North Korea does not collapse sweetly, it may be swept up in a civil war, with both the ROKs and the Chinese compelled to intervene, not only to feed the starving millions but to bring the vast stocks of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons which the KFR have developed over the years under control. In that collapse, such weapons would be the nearest thing to gold.

Nor is America without its concerns. RAND author Bruce Bennett points out that a collapsing North Korea might in extremis fire a ballistic missile at Japan, the U.S. or even -- in a fit of incompetence of irrationality -- at China. Failing that, the NOKORs still have thousands of artillery pieces overlooking Pyongyang, able to destroy where they could not build. Nobody knows how crazy the NOKORs are and nobody wants to find out.

South Korean politicians almost wish Ronald Reagan had never been born and that the Soviets were still around to feed the NOKORs. But since they’re not, rehabilitating North Korea, assuming the Chinese don’t take it over, will force the ROKs to double the income tax for at least 10 years. And in exchange, they will get a sullen nation literally stunted into midgets from malnutrition, where even the average intelligence level has been retarded by brain damage from hunger.

And that’s the best case. The worst case is so bad nobody wants to think about it.

It will surprise readers to learn that nobody worries more about that day than the North Korean elite themselves. When the collapse comes, they understand they will all be out of a job, no better qualified than janitors in South Korea. So they are determined not to sell themselves over cheaply. Both the ROKs and the Chinese know they must bribe the North Korean elite to come along quietly, for although Pyongyang cannot withstand either Seoul or Beijing, they can make a mess of things.

Ironically, the Kim Family Regime may be looking for a way out, because the natives are restless and while they have so far been able to put down challenges by killing any dissidents down to the grandchildren, they cannot keep it up forever. Kim Jong-Un must be looking for a way to survive but cannot see his way to any neat transition any more than Seoul can.

Everyone is trapped in the Communist hell that was constructed by Kim Il-sung and there is no way out. That’s the story that lies underneath the veneer of the grotesque soap opera in Pyongyang, the one we laugh at but don’t understand. The least reported story of the year.

Imagine then, if you will, Dennis Rodman, not as a court clown, but as the unintentional bearer of a message in a bottle, qualified precisely because of the one thing he surely is not: a member of the secret or diplomatic service of the West. What does the note in the bottle say: “Help me? Help me?”

But how, fat boy? How?

Richard has been a software developer for nearly 15 years. Before that, he worked in forestry, assisted in the negotiations between Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines and the Cabinet, organized tribespeople in the Philippines and played a role in the anti-Marcos movement. He blogs at The Belmont Club.