In The Weekly Standard: North Korea’s war on women

I believe, having written this, that I’ve gotten out of my system everything I’ve ever wanted to write about Christine Ahn and Women Cross DMZ.

For this year.

I just hope Gloria Steinem doesn’t leave her feminism at home when she goes to Pyongyang. Millions of North Korean women need her support, more desperately than she’s willing to see.

On the same topic, see also this op-ed, in The Washington Post, by Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu.

Why North Korea should be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism

Read the full report, here.

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Many, many thanks to Greg Scarlatoiu, Suzanne Scholte, Nick Eberstadt, and Marcus Noland for their kind comments at yesterday’s launch event, and to everyone who showed up at 6:00 on a Monday night. Special thanks to the HRNK interns who made it all possible — especially to Rosa and to Raymond, who meticulously checked every last cite and footnote.

Seiler: N. Korea isn’t serious about denuclearization

Sydney Seiler, the special envoy for the six-party talks, spoke this week at CSIS, where he affirmed what Ambassador Mark Lippert said last week — that North Korea isn’t ready for serious talks.

“They (the North Koreans) may not have learned any lesson (from the Iran nuclear deal). If they had learned any lesson, then we would have perhaps seen it earlier,” he said during the seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Iranian deal “clearly demonstrates our willingness to engage countries with whom the United States has had long-standing differences,” Seiler said, adding that there should be no doubt the U.S. remains committed to a negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

“It is the DPRK, however, that has not yet decided to embark on this path. It has repeatedly rejected offers for dialogue. It has repeatedly and openly violated commitments … to abandon its nuclear program. It continues to ignore international obligations,” Seiler said. [Yonhap]

One could view this as throwing cold water on the silly notion that President Obama can achieve an eleventh-hour deal with the North Koreans, along the lines of his deal with the Cubans, and his unfinished deal with the Iranians. One could also view it as pleading for the North Koreans to make enough of a pretense at seriousness to allow this administration the same relatively graceful exit it afforded George W. Bush.

But if the North Koreans aren’t willing to give President Obama even that much, what is the alternative? Sung Kim, the administration’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, bristled at this hearing when its North Korea policy was described as “strategic patience,” but how else can one describe this? To call it a policy may be too generous.

Seiler stressed that the U.S. is not opposed to talking to North Korea, but that negotiations must focus on denuclearization. The communist regime should also halt its nuclear activity and refrain from nuclear and missile tests before talks resume.

“We seek negotiations … And indeed the entire international community is looking for this type of policy shift in Pyongyang and that policy shift would be positively responded to,” he said.

Seiler, who is rumored to be one of this administration’s more tough-minded policymakers, rightly recognizes that a freeze deal would probably get us nothing more than the last freeze deals — the agreed frameworks and the Leap Day agreement — got us. Without disarmament, a freeze deal would probably be worse than useless. After all, if a freeze is ultimately about buying time, Pyongyang’s price for that freeze would buy Pyongyang more time than a freeze would buy for us.

Rule out appeasement and war, and what is this administration’s policy? Its sanctions are weak and hollow, and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything to catalyze North Korea to change from within. The word “strategic” implies purpose, but there is no sign of a purpose or plan behind the administration’s patience. Meanwhile, North Korea is growing its nuclear arsenal, proliferating missiles and chemical weapons (and maybe more), and inside North Korea, people are dying. No policy is less bad than a policy that would exacerbate these threats with more appeasement, but no policy at all is no longer acceptable. But by all appearances, that’s what President Obama has.

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Update: In a transparent effort to pressure President Obama into some sort of freeze deal with Kim Jong Un, China is upping its assessment of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Our State Department Harfs:

“We certainly have been and remain concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program. And we’ve been working with the five parties, as we’ve talked about, to pressure North Korea to return to credible and authentic denuclearization talks,” State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf said in response to the report. [….]

Asked if the Chinese assessment raises alarm, Harf said, “We’ve had alarms for a long time about North Korea’s nuclear program. A very high level of alarm. That’s why we have worked with our partners to see what we can do to get them back to the table. [Yonhap]

Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, adds:

“Our partners, along with the wider international community, have consistently made clear to the DPRK that it will not be accepted as a nuclear power,” he said in a statement submitted for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, saying the five-party unity “has never been stronger.”

If Pyongyang were smart enough to extend them the courtesy of a lie, and pretend that it was prepared to disarm, would these people be desperate enough to take it? My guess is that some of them would.

Craig Urquhart: Withdraw U.S. soldiers from Korea

Writing at NK News, Craig Urquhart makes a punchy but powerful case for withdrawing U.S. soldiers from South Korea:

South Korea has been allowed to act like an overgrown child for decades. The U.S. exercised exclusive military command because South Korea could not be trusted not to start a world war, and now resists the American push to transfer operational command. It relies on U.S. protection when it flubs its own diplomatic efforts. It carved out a state-sponsored industrial policy that flouted fair trade rules, but was given a generous pass, and now pretends that this was entirely a South Korean achievement. It received aid from the IMF during the Asian Currency crisis, but has made little headway in financial reform.

The United States has been bailing South Korea out militarily, politically and diplomatically since UN troops landed at Incheon.

The “Miracle on the Han” is indeed miraculous, but it came prepackaged with serious design flaws that South Korea is too smug to address. South Korea was allowed access to foreign markets without reciprocating; sheltering industries breeds inefficiency and creates justified resentment overseas. “Get-rich-quick” economic policies artificially concentrate wealth and power into the hands of a tiny class of fratricidal, laughably dysfunctional and incompetent elites. Favoritism and collusion enables society-wide institutional corruption. “Bbali bbali” (“speed first!”) development encourages a culture of shoddy workmanship and corner-cutting, which, when combined with corruption, actively endangers South Korean society. Rigid, military-inspired corporate cultures stymie the development of creative and knowledge industries, while heavy regulation drowns out domestic and foreign competition, allowing gargantuan family combines, the infamous chaebol like Samsung and LG, to treat South Koreans like indentured laborers and captive consumers. Government interference in the economy makes South Korea more like a nation-sized “company town” than a modern state.

South Koreans are both proud of and enraged by their chaebol. This schizophrenia is a direct result of the economic model spearheaded by South Korea’s 1960s and 1970s dictator, Park Chung-hee. While ostensibly successful, this model was also deeply flawed, yet few will openly admit that the rot was built-in and does not come from pernicious outsiders. Political actors blame vague and sinister-sounding foreign forces for manifestly domestic economic and social issues. They can do this because Korea abdicates responsibility for its own mistakes. [Craig Urquhart, NK News]

Hear, hear. Real patriotism is the companion of national confidence, and as long as South Korea keeps thousands of foreign troops forward deployed near the DMZ, it won’t gain a sense of national confidence, or a sense that it must “own” the consequences of its own policies. One of those policies is the continuation of South Korea’s cuts in its own Army, despite the fact that it lacks the strength to stabilize North Korea in the event of a regime collapse. Another is its policy of sustaining North Korea financially, through projects like Kaesong, which is a de facto subsidy of Kim Jong Un’s misrule.

I’ve also come to believe that USFK’s deterrent effect is dangerously overstated. The presence of U.S. forces gave President Obama a veto against retaliation for the attacks of 2010. That makes U.S. forces more like the opposite of a deterrent against North Korean attacks. I’m not advocating a total withdrawal. Things like anti-missile batteries, air power, and joint naval installations deter attacks and support South Korea’s defense. A large ground component in South Korea, however, is an expensive and counterproductive anachronism.

If you’ve been watching events closely enough, however, there are clear signs that some key policymakers would like to reduce or withdraw USFK. For example, last October, at a news conference in Berlin, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was “prepared to reduce its military presence in Asia if North Korea rejoins nuclear negotiations and follows through on its denuclearization commitment.” Kerry’s comment drew swift and hard push-back from the South Korean Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se. Yun “attempted to dilute” Kerry’s comments by saying,“The reduction of the U.S. Forces Korea is an issue that can be discussed in the distant future when the North’s denuclearization is being actualized.” Yun likely has complete confidence that this condition precedent would never come to pass, but it’s less clear that Kerry grasps this. Even so, after Yun talked to Kerry, Kerry was forced to backpedal:

It is too premature to talk about reducing American forces in the Korean Peninsula without “authentic and credible” negotiations with Pyongyang about ending its nuclear program, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday.

Kerry said the United States was willing to restart denuclearization talks with North Korea although he emphasized “there is no value in talks just for the sake of talks.” [….]

“The mere entering into talks is not an invitation to take any actions regarding troops or anything else,” Kerry said after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. “If anything, it would be way too premature to have any thought or even discussion of such thing.” [Reuters]

Behind the scenes, Republican and Democratic administrations have been trying to extricate U.S. forces from Korea since the great wave of anti-Americanism of 2003. Kerry’s exchange with Yun came shortly after the Pentagon had agreed to an indefinite pause on the OPCON transfer. The following month, however, the Pentagon decided to withdraw and deactivate the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the Second Infantry Division from Korea, a/k/a the Iron Brigade, which had been posted in Korea since 1965. To keep the force numbers at the same level on paper,“similarly sized, fully trained units would be rotated into South Korea for nine-month tours,” although this move would clearly give the U.S. more flexibility to refrain from entering a renewed conflict in Korea.

Kerry’s speedy retreat (from withdrawal!) is understandable to anyone who knows the power of South Korea’s influence machine in Washington. Through the Korea Foundation and other groups, it gives generously to a number of influential think tanks here, which in turn are funded by South Korea’s corporate conglomerates. Ordinarily, rational people don’t throw money at goals that don’t serve their interests. Obviously, those donors believe that it serves their interests to sustain the status quo. Whether that serves America’s interests is an entirely different question. Frankly, I doubt that it serves the interests of ordinary South Koreans, much less the interests of the North Korean people. This suggests a second reason for reducing USFK’s presence — that the scale of this alliance, and the influence machine it has spawned, inhibits the emergence of a more clear-eyed approach to North Korea.

Obama Administration hints at sanctioning N. Korean human rights violators

A year after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found the North Korean government responsible for crimes against humanity whose “gravity, scale and nature … reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” action at the U.N. has effectively stalled in the face of Chinese and Russian veto threats. As I have written before, Congress can impose effective sanctions on those responsible in ways that the U.N. can’t and the Obama Administration won’t. But now, the administration is warning that it is “reviewing options” to hold North Korean officials accountable for their crimes against humanity:

“We’re reviewing options related to accountability for North Korean officials responsible for serious human rights violations, which the Commission of Inquiry concluded in many instances may amount to crimes against humanity,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service, in reference to a United Nations panel report on North Korea’s human rights conditions released in February 2014.

The State Department official said Friday the U.S. will work with the international community to press for North Korea “to stop these serious violations, to close its prison camps, to urge greater freedoms for North Koreans and to seek ways to advance accountability for those most responsible.” [VOA]

According to the VOA report, the spokesman and Sung Kim, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy have both suggested, separately, that the Obama Administration could use the new Executive Order 13,687 to do this. That order would allow the blocking of any property of persons who “have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support  for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Government of North Korea or any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order.” This may be the most important provision in EO 13,687, because what really makes financial sanctions programs work is the in terrorem effect they have on third-country enablers, and their tendency to isolate the target financially.

The prerequisite to designating a third-country enabler, however, is to first block some agency, entity, subsidiary, or official of the North Korean government or its ruling party that the enabler materially assists. And here, the Obama Administration has shown a degree of restraint that borders on the farcical — it has yet to determine that Kim Jong Un is an official of the government of North Korea for purposes of this executive order. (As my Uncle Irving might have asked at such a moment, “Is the Pope Catholic?”) So far, the administration has used EO 13,687 to re-designate just three previously designated North Korean government agencies, and just ten mid-to-low-level arms dealers who were probably all replaced by other mid-to-low-level arms dealers months ago.

Not one North Korean entity or foreign enabler has yet been sanctioned specifically for human rights violations. In comparison, the administration maintains and enforces robust human rights-based sanctions against Iran, Burma, and Sudan, to name a few examples. If the administration wants to demonstrate some seriousness here, it might start by designating the German company that’s reportedly selling Pyongyang its advanced detection equipment to track down North Koreans who use illegal cell phones.

The likely stimulus for these latest statements is a strong denunciation of Kim Jong Un’s crimes by Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the leading proponent of sanctions legislation against North Korea (full disclosure: I assisted with the drafting of that legislation). Both the administration and the North Koreans seem worried about the legislation, for different reasons. Pyongyang knows that in the financial weapon, the “Americans have finally have found a way to hurt us.”* An administration that has stayed its hand for six years, and whose political influence on foreign policy is ebbing, may now be fearful that Congress will seize the initiative, and with it, the President’s relevance during his final years in office.

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* Grammatical error in original.

RFA: North Korea tells overseas workers to attack journalists

Ever since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report last year, North Korea has been particularly sensitive to accusations of human rights violations. It shouldn’t surprise us that this sensitivity is especially keen when the scrutiny threatens to cut off a growing source of hard currency — its export of what amounts to slave labor to places like Russia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Press reports on the working conditions of these workers, and the regime’s spotty history of paying their (paltry) wages, have embarrassed the regime, embarrassed companies and governments that use North Korean labor, and sometimes, disrupted those arrangements.

Now, according to a new report from Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang is reacting to renewed media scrutiny of overseas North Korean laborers about like you’d expect Pyongyang to react to that:

“Particularly, when a foreign reporter or human rights activists tries to take a picture or film you, take the camera, camcorder or cell phone from them and smash it,” the document said, according to Do.

“They [North Korean workers] must physically smash them, but also they must pull out internal memory cards such as SD cards and then return the broken cameras or camcorders to their owners,” he said.

Workers are also directed to physically attack the journalists and investigators:

The action guide also instructs workers not to hesitate to respond with violence and to gang up on those trying to video or photograph them, he said.

“The action guide even includes a series of details: Do not kill, but inflict a blow or fracture until the person’s body is physically damaged,” Do said.

If a person apologizes while a North Korean is beating him, the North Korean must record his words with a video camera or cellphone and give the recording to the supervisor or manager of the work unit to which they belong, Do said.

“If North Korean workers block activities by preventing or beating a South Korean who is reporter or human rights activist, they will be evaluated according to their actions,” he said. “But if they don’t [follow the guidelines] and pictures or videos appear on the Internet or TV, they’ll be punished.” [RFA]

A caution is in order on the sourcing of the story: it’s attributed to an NGO, the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees (CHNK), citing “sources inside North Korea.” Although CHNK itself is a respected NGO, we’re in no position to evaluate the reliability and basis of knowledge of CHNK’s own anonymous sources.

If the report can be confirmed, it could have significant policy implications. It would amount to an order by the North Korean government to subnational groups to commit politically motivated violence against non-combatant citizens of other nations on foreign soil. In this case, Pyongyang’s political motivation is to suppress the work of journalists and NGOs, and to preempt policy discussions among governments. It’s far from the most egregious example of North Korean sponsorship of international terrorism — the direction to refrain from murder may even count as progress — but if these orders are attempted or carried out, they could meet the legal standard for the hate that dare not speak its name (at least in Foggy Bottom).

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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Update: New Focus also reports that the regime has tightened controls on its expat workers in China:

As a basic rule, it is understood that all workers must move in groups of at least fifteen people. But furthermore, television viewing is strictly prohibited. This is because South Korean dramas play regularly on Chinese broadcasts. If any labourer is caught moving out of bounds, away from the workplace and watching television, they will be sent straight back to North Korea the next day.

Previously, North Korean overseas labourers were allowed some degree of freedom, even being able to leave the workplace, provided that they moved in groups of two or three. However, during the lead up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, the rules have changed and controls have tightened significantly.

To conclude, it can be observed that the North Korean government, in an effort to raise hard currency, is increasing its export labour, and, in addition, tightening its grip on them, especially in light of foreign influences such as Hallyu (the Korean Wave). The North Korean government has clearly shown, once again, its concerns and fears regarding the threat of exposure to Western cultural influences.

Or, I would add, its fears regarding the threat of Western exposure to how North Korea treats its people.

On Chris Hill in Iraq: “It was frightening how a person could so poison a place.”

I had long wondered why, after a difficult confirmation battle for the post, Chris Hill’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq was so brief. A friend (thank you) points me to this lengthy article in Politico, adapted from The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky, that does much to explain the brevity of Hill’s tenure, and much more. In it, Hill comes across like one of the caricatured out-of-touch diplomats from The Ugly American.

For six months, General O had tried hard to support the leadership of Chris Hill, the new American ambassador who had taken up his post in April 2009. But Odierno had begun to despair. It was clear that Hill, though a career diplomat, lacked regional experience and was miscast in the role in Baghdad. In fact, he had not wanted the job, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had persuaded him to take it; she admitted as much to General O, he told me, when he met her in early 2010 in Washington to discuss the dysfunction at the embassy. General O complained that Hill did not engage with Iraqis or with others in the diplomatic community—his only focus appeared to be monitoring the activities of the U.S. military.

It was frightening how a person could so poison a place. Hill brought with him a small cabal who were new to Iraq and marginalized all those with experience in the country. The highly knowledgeable and well-regarded Arabist Robert Ford had cut short his tour as ambassador to Algeria to return to Iraq for a third tour and turned down another ambassadorship to stay on in Iraq and serve as Hill’s deputy. But Hill appeared not to want Ford’s advice on political issues and pressured him to depart the post early in 2010. In his staff meetings, Hill made clear how much he disliked Iraq and Iraqis. Instead, he was focused on making the embassy “normal” like other U.S. embassies. That apparently meant having grass within the embassy compound. The initial attempts to plant seed had failed when birds ate it all, but eventually, great rolls of lawn turf were brought in—I had no idea from where—and took root. By the end of his tenure, there was grass on which the ambassador could play lacrosse. [Politico]

According to an old adage, personnel is policy. The fact that Hillary Clinton not only approved of Hill’s performance after the fiasco of Agreed Framework II became manifest, but also insisted on putting Hill into the most critical diplomatic position on earth just as SOFA negotiations began is more than a simple misjudgment. It’s disqualifying on two levels — as a reflection of Clinton’s misjudgment of North Korea, and as a significant contribution to the rise of ISIS.

If the first unforgivable error was the decision to invade Iraq (along with the way the invasion was executed), the second unforgivable error was the manner in which we abandoned Iraq to the likes of ISIS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, after it had been stabilized at such great cost. Is there one viable candidate in the next presidential election whose fingerprints are not on one of those two historic misjudgments, or who can credibly say he would not have committed either of them?

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Update: Of course, Hillary Clinton has the distinction of having her fingerprints on both of them.

Expert: cash shortage could undermine Kim Jong Un’s succession

You won’t find a more authoritative open-source study of North Korea’s police state than the one Ken Gause did for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. When it comes to North Korea’s internal security, kremlinology, and command systems, Gause earns a great deal of respect among North Korea watchers. So when Ken Gause tells Yonhap that Kim Jong Un “has not fully consolidated his power,” and is at risk of failing to do so “in a couple of years” because of a lack of hard currency, I pay attention to that. Gause explains:

“The royal economy, which is part of the economy surrounding the Kim family, is losing money. They can’t bring in as much money. He’s having to spend about twice as much money than his father did to buy support within the regime,” Gause said. “He doesn’t have the resources to be able to consolidate his power and buy relationships.”

Power struggles, which have been frozen in place since Kim’s execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, could thaw out in one to two years, and if those power struggles happen, Kim no longer has the regent structure around to protect him, the expert said.

“He is now directly exposed to those power struggles and he can be undermined by that. Not toppled, not coup, but marginalized and turned into a puppet. I think that would happen within the next two to five years. I really think he needs to do this within the next couple of years,” Gause said.

The economic problem is one of three things Kim must address to consolidate the power he inherited from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in late 2011, the expert said. The two other tasks are to purge potential adversaries and bring in people and to make progress in defense systems, such as the missile and nuclear programs. [Yonhap]

Gause, who is generally supportive of the regime-“engagement” view of which I’m a skeptic, thinks this financial desperation explains why Pyongyang is “largely maintaining its charm offensive toward South Korea” and refraining from greater provocations. I could cite some counterexamples: the 2012 missile test, the 2013 nuke test, the 2013 closure of Kaesong, the 2014 cyberattacks on Sony and the South Korean nuclear power plants, and the escalating threats against the leaflet balloons. Still, this doesn’t necessarily refute Gause’s theory, if you believe that the point of those provocations was to extort money and sanctions relief from South Korea and the United States.

I would love to believe that Gause is right about this, and that Kim Jong Un is a softer target for financial sanctions than even I had believed. That is why I feel such a sense of duty to question it. The main problem I have with Gause’s theory is that the regime isn’t spending like it’s desperate. North Korea’s known spending on imported luxury goods has tripled since Kim Jong Un came to power. Foreign observers have noted the recent building boom in Pyongyang, including new bank towers, leisure facilities that are far out of reach for most North Koreans, and a crash program to build new housing (pun not intended). Pyongyang has increased its defense spending by 16% in the last five years, to more than $10 billion. As we used to say in South Dakota, you can’t eat like a sparrow and shit like a goose. (Not for long, anyway.)

What can we tell about North Korea’s (legal) income sources? Along the border with China, the signs are more mixed. Anna Fifield’s recent report from the Chinese side of the border suggests that import commerce is brisk, although the statistics tell a somewhat different story. On the other hand, exports are soft, with China’s refusal to accept North Korean coal shipments being a particular danger. The critical mining sector is showing signs of distress as a result.

Of course, governments have been known to spend beyond their means. In America, we can sustain that by printing bonds. Mindful of the rather slow market for North Korean government securities lately, I can only suppose that if Kim Jong Un is spending beyond his means, he’s sustaining that by selling gold, or (more likely) by drawing on his offshore cash reserves, which could be enough to sustain him for years. That would make this a particularly opportune time to trap those reserves abroad by blocking them out of the financial system.

Wondering about the basis for Gause’s conclusion, I emailed him, and he kindly agreed to let me print his comments.

While it is true that the KJU regime has opened up the taps to provide goods to the elites, the amount of funding the regime is bringing in through Kim family channels (Office 39, etc…) is shrinking. Events that used to be punctuated with gifts, for example, have given way to expressions of appreciation. The average elite (director level or above) in the past could expect on average around $20K in luxury goods from the SL each year. No more, the largess gravy train has come to an end.

At some point, KJU’s ability to keep up with the rising expectations and the requirements for largess in the regime could hamper his ability to consolidate his power. This is in part, I believe, driving the regime’s prolonged charm campaign. Reinvigorating the people’s economy would free up resources and give Kim more flexibility in running the regime.

Gause adds the enticing news that he has written a book about this topic, which is currently with the editors, and should be published in time to put it on your summer reading list. The book will have a chapter devoted to Pyongyang’s royal-court economy, “[b]ased on extensive interviews over the last [two] years in the region,” including with North Koreans with inside knowledge of the system. Still, Gause concedes that one cannot achieve 100% clarity in studying such an opaque system.

I look forward to reading Gause’s book and will reserve judgment until I do. For now, however, the signs suggest to me that the North Korean regime has more revenue than it did a few years ago. That means that Kim Jong Un has more freedom to make decisions that threaten us and his people. That wouldn’t be happening if the Obama Administration had showed some leadership among its allies, and made a serious effort to enforce financial sanctions on North Korea. Gause is probably right about the fact that Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power is still very unfinished. We continue to read reports of officials being purgedreplaced, and promoted. That means that the window of opportunity has not yet closed.

N. Korea perestroika watch: “Gunfire must be made to resound”

New Focus International has published an “exclusive” report that “North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of People’s Security (MPS)” have begun what amounts to an internal terror campaign against the people, personally ratified by Kim Jong Un in September 2013, and aimed at “the sweeping out of impure and hostile elements.” The campaign consists of a series of crackdowns, collectively known as the “9.8 measures.” According to the report, Kim Jong Un has taken personal oversight* (read: personal responsibility and culpability) for the campaign, ratifying “further instructions” for the goon squads “at the rate of two to three times a month.” The campaign emphasizes the militarization of North Korean society, enforced by what amounts to martial law.

With social command and control and mass human surveillance remaining at the heart of these new slogans and measures, acts regarded as human rights violations such as extrajudicial public executions meted out for political infringements continue to be systematically sanctioned, and are being regarded as more institutionally acceptable under Kim Jong Un than under the rule of Kim Jong Il.

The joint command issued by the Central Military Committee and Central Committee claimed that the order stemmed from a conversation that took place between the Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong and Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un in October 2013, thereby stressing the perceptible authority of these public offices.

It read, “most criminals who are forgiven are likely to commit another crime” and that “the time has come when words are not enough. The sound of gunshot must accompany the destruction of impure and hostile elements, and when necessary, public executions are to be used so that the masses come to their senses”. It also ratified the extra-judicial clause, “if an anti-regime act is uncovered, State Security soldiers are to judge and execute by gunfire of their own accord, and afterwards file a report on the person and crime to Pyongyang”.

The instructions additionally read, “gunfire must be made to resound in order to totally rip from the roots acts such as illegal border activities, flights to the south and smuggling operations” and that “those who attempted to leave during the mourning period of Kim Jong Il must be executed by firing squad and their seed thoroughly annihilated”.

It also stressed the need to prevent further escapes in order to limit international criticism, and read “State Security must take measures to ensure that the talk on ‘human trafficking’ and ‘river-crossings’ by foreigners abroad is not renewed”. [New Focus]

The focus of these efforts is on border control:

To implement this instruction, several newly formed organisations controlled by the Ministry of State Security, which in April 2012 took over the command authority of military troops stationed in the border regions near China, have established offices in Pyongyang and the border regions to seek out escapees, mount operations to bring defectors back to North Korea through coercion or persuasion, gather information and maintain files on defectors, trace their phone calls and correspondence, and maintain special oversight over defectors’ remaining family members in North Korea. [New Focus]

No doubt cognizant of the phases I described in this post, Kim Jong Un is also expelling or banishing a “sizeable numbers of soldiers” from the army, and rotating better-disciplined and more brutal units into the border zone. All of which fits with reports we’ve seen since Kim Jong Un’s coronation, about crackdowns on cross-border trade and information flows.

For example, the Daily NK reports that the MPS has deployed “Rapid Reaction Forces” in the border regions to do “invasive searches at random on passenger trains and around main railway hubs.” Many train passengers bribe local authorities to get travel passes to transport goods for sale, or to attend funerals, wedding, or other family events, and they’re terrified of the brutal MPS squads. If the squads catch people whose “papers are not in order,” as the expression goes, they can arrest them and take them to “collecting points” for up to three months of hard labor.

The regime is also deterring defections by imposing collective punishment on the family members the refugees (some of whom are only migrant workers) leave behind. The family members may be sent to work in state enterprises (in one case, a blast furnace notorious for its working conditions), exiled to remote parts of the country, or sent to prison camps. MPS agents are reportedly extorting between $1,000 and $2,000 from some wealthier family members to spare them from punishment, but as always, North Korea’s poor are out of luck.

For years, it has been common for workers to bribe their way out of showing up at (often, idled) state-owned enterprises. Some of those workers engaged in trade or farming while away from their workplaces. The regime has now cracked down by imposing heavy fines on those found to be absent without leave.

The Daily NK also reports that the regime continues its crackdown on international telephone calls, employing “state-of-the-art devices” (reportedly, made in Germany) to “increase the efficacy of mobile monitoring and detection,” and increasing punishments for making international calls to one year at hard labor for a second offense. MPS officials have announced the new rules at work units, warning that repeat offenders may be sent to prison camps. Few people now risk a cross-border call without a long hike into the mountains. Others tell the Daily NK that in time, MPS officers will start taking bribes to allow cross-border calls, but that doesn’t seem to be widespread yet. The restrictions have been highly effective in re-imposing an information blockade that had begun to leak.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post used the word “control,” but “oversight” is probably a more accurate characterization.

Why does North Korea still need food aid? (Updated)

The UN aid agencies working in North Korea — the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and WHO (writing collectively as Relief Web) — have published a new report. I draw three main conclusions from it. First, despite some reports of improved food production, the humanitarian situation is still bad. Second, aid agencies still aren’t being forthcoming about the most important reasons for that. Third, various UN entities are working at cross purposes, and don’t share a single coherent vision of how to balance providing for North Koreans in need with responding to the aggressive behavior of their government.

The Relief Web report finds that “[f]rom a population of 24.6 million, approximately 70 per cent (18 million) are food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production.” As a misery index, this is a lower estimate than in the December 2013 WFP and FAO study, which found that 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, a difference that’s probably attributable to slightly different questions and methodologies. (The 2013 study looked at consumption during the lean season, the Relief Web report focuses on dietary diversity.) The new report also finds that “[t]he chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate among under-five children is 27.9 per cent (about 540,000) while acutely malnourished (wasting) affects four per cent of children under-five (about 90,000).”

As always, one should accept such estimates with great caution. The regime is very practiced at skewing assessments like these by showing aid workers precisely what it wants them to see. For example, North Korea denied the UN assessment teams access to the entirety of Jagang Province, a remote mountainous area that, according to the same report, has one of North Korea’s highest rates of food insecurity. We also know that — despite the professed principle of “no access, no food,” North Korea has long denied the aid agencies access to its horrific prison camps. Marcus Noland often says that one should never trust a statistic from North Korea that includes a decimal point.

~   ~   ~

So why, after 20 years of aid, can’t this fully industrialized state feed its people? Primarily, the UN finds that “[f]ood production is hampered by a lack of” things that money can buy from any number of commercial sources, including (most obviously) food, but also “agricultural inputs, such as soybean seeds, fertilizer and plastic sheets.” But as OFK readers know, lack of money isn’t an issue for Kim Jong Un.[1]

The report also repeatedly describes North Korea as “vulnerable” to “shocks” like natural disasters, but doesn’t explain how it is that North Korea (again, in contrast to all other industrialized societies) remains vulnerable to famine after two decades of food aid. The report cites “the fragility of the national emergency response capacities,” but that’s an essential government function that other governments prioritize. If you can assemble, equip, and train a million-man army with special forces and a mobile missile force, why not a disaster response agency or EMTs? North Korea is in a temperate zone, not the sahel, so it’s not uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather. When is the last time you heard about anyone going hungry because of extreme weather in South Korea, or for that matter, Mongolia?

The report also reminds us not to assume that increased food production, even if we’ve measured it accurately, translates to a better nutritional situation:

DPR Korea’s Crop Production and Food Security Assessment (CPFSA), carried out by the Government in November 2014, reported a modest increase of 48,700 MT in cereal production in 2014, despite a prolonged dry-spell from spring to autumn. However, production did not reach the targeted level, which was higher than previous years due to increases in consumption patterns, as well as the need to use cereals for seed and livestock feed. As a result the shortfall of cereal increased from 40,000 MT in 2013 to 891,508 MT in 2014. Soybean production also decreased to 160,364 MT in 2014; approximately 1.83 per cent lower than 2013 and the third consecutive year of decline. Crop rotations of soybeans are critical to improve nitrogen levels in the soil and also to provide dietary protein for a number of protein-rich products, such as soymilk, soy-sauce and soy-flour. The estimated level of vegetable production was 0.45 million MT against a requirement of 2.50 million MT, leaving a gap of 2 million MT. Despite improved harvests in some crops, the food security situation will remains similar to previous years with poor food consumption in most households. [Page 7]

Does “increases in consumption patterns” mean that people are eating more, that the UN is adjusting expectations to account for what a human being needs to eat, or is it just creative accounting? I can’t tell.

What Relief Web doesn’t explain is that private, gray-market (sotoji) farming is another important component in North Korea’s food production story that UN survey statistics can’t measure. Andrei Lankov once wrote that in some areas, sotoji farming could account for “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” To some extent, and despite all of the renewed talk of agricultural reform, the state’s confiscatory policies toward sotoji agriculture may also be offsetting these nominal increases, but to an unknowable degree. The crackdown is manifested in two ways: increased fees for the use of the plots, and the confiscation of some plots in the name of reforestation. In the recent past, the regime has also exported “excess” production for hard currency. Stories like these cause me to wonder, at times, whether Pyongyang is deliberately limiting the food supply.[2]

According to the report, donor fatigue is a growing problem: “[F]unding for United Nations (UN) agencies decreased substantially over the past decade, from US$300 million in 2004 to less than $50 million in 2014.” It isn’t hard to think of any number of sound reasons for that, from the regime’s own culpably malignant priorities, to its interference with aid workers (see also Steph Haggard’s comment on this) by limiting access or expelling them, to the aid agencies’ own refusal to confront those problems frankly and directly. The UN agencies still appear to be relying on the state’s Public Distribution System, a system that experts will tell you barely functions at all.

Perhaps donors should still do more to meet UN’s requests for vaccination programs to prevent tuberculosis, malaria, and cervical cancer, and for the treatment of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even medicine isn’t completely free of the risk of diversion, however, which means that monitoring is still important.

~   ~   ~

Of course, what the report does not confront is the fact that North Korea shouldn’t need humanitarian aid at all. According to Marcus Noland, North Korea could close its food gap with “less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of [its] military budget.” Its known annual spending on luxury goods is six times the amount of the UN’s latest appeal for North Korea. Its gap between rich and poor is obscene and growing. Similarly, every North Korean who died in the Great Famine of the 1990s was a victim of Kim Jong Il’s priorities — not weather, not lack of resources, and not sanctions. And yet the report says this:

Recent political developments resulted in further international sanctions on DPR Korea, creating additional constraints in providing vital assistance. As a result of sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank imposed in March 2013, led to the significant issues and delays in transferring funding into DPRK throughout 2014. UN agencies put in place contingencies to continue programmes, with lifesaving activities prioritised. Measures to reduce in-country payments included maximizing off-shore payments and minimizing in-country operating expenses. The inability of UN agencies to use their regular banking routes created multiple operational obstacles and affected in-country procurement, monitoring visits, effective programme delivery, in-country capacity building programmes and general operating expenditures. [Page 15]

Now, here is what a UN Panel of Experts charged with monitoring the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions just said about that same topic:

209. While the Panel has been made aware of allegations that sanctions are contributing to food shortages, its assessment has found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid. National legislative or procedural steps taken by Member States or private sector industry have been reported as prohibiting or delaying the passage of certain goods to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these measures from United Nations sanctions. The Panel will continue to seek information on the issue. 210. Although the resolutions underline that the sanctions measures are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, there is no exemption mechanism in the resolutions under embargoes to that end. The Panel therefore recommends that the Committee propose to the Security Council exemptions under embargoes, provided that such items are confirmed to be solely for food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes. [U.N. Panel of Experts, Feb. 2015 report]

The latter recommendation, of course, is both humane and sensible. Sanctions resolutions and legislation should always contain flexible waiver and exemption provisions for purely humanitarian transactions. But agonizing dilemmas like these again point us to Pyongyang’s skill at using its own poor as human shields to divide the world’s response to its offenses and outrages.

To the extent sanctions have complicated aid delivery, the UN Relief Web report attributes that to “recent political developments” — that is, Kim Jong Un’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in February 2013 — and then says that this “resulted in further international sanctions” by the UN Security Council. The U.S. Treasury Department is obligated to enforce UN sanctions, so when Treasury concluded that North Korea was using its Foreign Trade Bank “to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network,” it blocked that bank out of the dollar system. It’s unfortunate that North Korea also forced humanitarian groups to use the same bank, but thankfully, according to Ghulam Isaczai, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, UN aid agencies have “been able to work around” those complications “and still bring in humanitarian aid to support the population.”

On close reading, the “complications” the aid agencies cite are related to “local procurement.” Those complications only exist because Pyongyang is demanding payment for that local procurement in U.S. dollars. In plain English, it looks like Pyongyang is charging UN aid agencies for fuel and labor in hard currency, leaving the aid agencies to feed poor North Koreans, while Pyongyang spends its own cash on ski resorts, limousines, private jets, and flat screen TVs.

Despite all of this, the aid agencies and NGOs choose to reserve all of their public criticism for the U.S., because they know the U.S. can’t expel them from North Korea, and actually cares if North Koreans starve. But that selective criticism only does more harm to their credibility and fuels more donor fatigue. Last month, in a supreme irony, Pyongyang expelled the Country Director of one of the NGOs that complained when Treasury blocked the Foreign Trade Bank.

And of course, the latest UN Panel of Experts report also contains this explosive allegation:

202. On 30 January 2014, the French Ministry of Economy and Finance ordered the freezing of assets held by two Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals affiliated with the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Mr. Kim Yong Nam and Mr. Kim Su Gwang, and one affiliated with the Korean United Development Bank, Ms. Kim Su Gyong, on the grounds that they were likely to engage in activities prohibited by the resolutions (Table 11).

203. At the time of the freeze order, Mr. Kim Yong Nam was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a contract as an employee at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Mr. Kim Su Gwang was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a position as an international civil servant at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. Ms. Kim Su Gyong works at the Korean United Development Bank in Pyongyang and was engaged in financial activities under false pretences in order to conceal the involvement of her country. The three are related and have all provided support to Reconnaissance General Bureau officers abroad. Additional information obtained by the Panel regarding these individuals is summarized in annex 49.

One can only speculate as to how that infiltration has affected the WFP’s internal integrity or external messaging. The very fact that the WFP hired a North Korean government official into its headquarters in Rome is disturbing, much less a spy. After all, the WFP’s own Inspector General reports give the WFP ample notice of the risk of manipulation and diversion. I’ve yet to hear a single report that the WFP has begun an investigation, or fired the spy.

Let’s make no mistake here — sanctions are not the reason North Koreans are going hungry. UN aid agencies have an obligation to be honest about the greater causes, including North Korea’s inequality, military spending, and its restrictions on aid workers. If the aid agencies don’t protect their candor and integrity, the donor fatigue problem will only worsen.

~   ~   ~

It’s the same story in other parts of the UN bureaucracy, where a whistleblower scandal is arising from the export of computers to North Korea:

At the center of the debate is the World Intellectual Property Organization, whose mandate includes helping governments create patent systems, allowing it to send technical equipment to sanctioned countries such as North Korea and Iran. Critics including former Justice Department official John Yoo argued that the computers could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

When three WIPO officials raised concerns over the shipments with member states in 2012, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee began an investigation. WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry blocked two of them from testifying before the committee and later fired one before he was due to publicly criticize the agency’s leadership, according to the three whistle-blowers, James Pooley, Miranda Brown and Moncef Kateb. [Swissinfo]

As The Daily NK noted when this story first broke in 2012, this isn’t just about a few loose MacBooks; it involves “advanced computer technology and data-storage servers.” How advanced? It would be nice to know a little more about just what that technology was. It may turn out that obstructing the whistleblowers’ testimony was a greater sin than the sanctions violation.

~   ~   ~

There is, of course, a fourth U.N. report that no one is even talking about here — the Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights. It would do much to inform the other reports, especially Relief Web’s. Unfortunately, there is no UN bureaucracy whose job it is to represent the interests of that report’s subjects, or to implement its recommendations.

More broadly, all four reports point to a widening divide between different UN bodies, their interests, and their influences. It’s clear that North Korea has succeeded in wedging those divides to pit concerns for the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people against the interests of the Security Council in enforcing sanctions meant to disarm North Korea, thus exploiting the former and weakening the latter. No one in the UN is mediating and adjudicating these conflicting interests, even where (as with humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions) sensible compromises are within easy reach. Consequently, “United Nations” is again proven to be an oxymoron.

The obvious conclusion one draws is of a leadership vacuum in the higher reaches of the UN. But perhaps strong leadership that stifles free debate and disclosure would be even worse. That’s especially so when one considers that the leader is Ban Ki-moon.

~   ~   ~

Updates, 15 April 2015:

[1] More about North Korea’s financial means, and how it chooses to spend it: North Korea increased its military spending by 16 percent over the last five years, to $10.2 billion (with a “b”) last year. That’s nearly 100 times the $111 million (with an “million) UN is asking for.

[2] Today, the Daily NK published another fascinating report on private farming, and it makes me wonder if we’re missing the real ag-reform story. To North Korean farmers, June 28th is so 2012:

While the North Korean authorities continue to push the bunjo [cooperative farm production unit] system, residents, on the other hand, are largely focusing on cultivating individual plots. According to sources within the country, this is because after failing to see the increased allotment of production under the nascent  system, discontent with the state’s hollow promises has spread rapidly among the population.

“As preparations for spring cultivation are in full swing, people feel that individual farming is far more of a priority than collective farming. It’s a major shift from last year,” a source from Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on April 13th. “With spring upon us, more households are facing decreased food supplies, so groups of residents have been gathering together to commiserate and mull over the matter together.”

North Korea stipulated in its “June 28th Measures,” announced in 2012, plans for the state to establish a “new economic management system in its own style.” Under the new system, production units on cooperative farms shrank from groups of 10 to 25, to smaller factions [pojeon] of 4 to 6 members. The state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers taking 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded. [Daily NK]

According to the report, farmers have been cheated so many times now that they distrust the state to keep its share-cropping promises. Instead, they’re doing what they can to slip outside the state’s system and grow food privately. The story even causes me to wonder whether the June 28th measures were nothing more than a way to pacify farmers whose sotoji farms were being confiscated, or whose crops were being cut down.

60 Minutes on the Sony attacks

Gone were the inside-job theories, except that one expert, when asked, allows the bare possibility that an insider might have made the North Koreans’ work easier. Like the heads of the FBI and the NSA, all the experts 60 Minutes interviewed are convinced that North Korea was behind the attack.

Worse, the attack itself was not all that sophisticated, when compared to what the U.S. and other governments are capable of today. An equally unsophisticated attack would have taken out 80% of corporate networks. All it takes is for one user in the network to click on the wrong attachment or fake update. Only then will most companies realize how dependent they are on their networks.

The IT security experts acknowledge that hacking North Korea is futility itself. The only real deterrent is to go after the leadership and its revenue streams. The Obama administration has only pretended to do that.

Justice for Rev. Kim Dong Shik: Court orders N. Korea to pay $330M in damages

Asher Perlin, the lawyer who argued and won the case against North Korea at the Court of Appeals on behalf of Rev. Kim Dong Shik’s family, writes in to direct me to this news:

An Israeli NGO announced on Monday that a US federal court in Washington, DC has granted it a historic $330 million default award judgment against North Korea in a civil damages trial for wrongful death, torture and kidnapping.

The judgment, only announced Monday, but written on April 9, included $15 million dollars each to the son and brother of Reverend Dong Shik Kim, presumed dead, as well as $300 million in punitive damages. [Jerusalem Post]

In 2000, Rev. Kim was in China helping North Korean refugees who had escaped from their homeland. North Korean agents kidnapped Rev. Kim and dragged him across the border. He’s believed to have died of starvation at a North Korean military base near Pyongyang. In 2005, the South Koreans caught one of the kidnappers, charged him with Rev. Kim’s kidnapping, and convicted him of the crime.

In August 2013, a District Court found that the evidence was insufficient to prove that North Korea killed Rev. Kim after the North Koreans hustled him over the border (undoubtedly, under the noses of Chinese border guards) and dismissed the case. Kim’s family appealed, and last December, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court.

Shurat Hadin Director Nitzana Darshan-Leitner said, “The district court was holding us to a standard that no family, who had a loved one kidnapped and murdered by an outlaw regime like North Korea could ever satisfy.”

“Virtually no one has ever returned from the camps and been able to testify about the fate of individual Korean prisoners. This is an important human rights decision that will be utilized in all political abduction cases going forward. We are proud that an Israeli NGO was able to assist this family of a Korean priest living in the US … during this holiday season.” 

The NGO also said that the US should re-add North Korea to the US State Department’s watch list, from which North Korea was removed in 2008 during a period of warming of relations.

Perlin said the court “sent a message that repressive regimes cannot exploit their repression to gain advantage in US courts.”

He added that “the fact that all witnesses were either murdered, imprisoned or are in grave fear of retaliation by the DPRK regime should not immunize North Korea from liability.”  [Jerusalem Post]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Rev. Kim’s kidnapping is just one example of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, along with multiple assassination attempts directed at defectors and dissidents, several shipments of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, threats against American moviegoers, and an attempt by North Korean hackers to cause malfunctions in the reactors of South Korean nuclear power plants.

The $330 million judgment now sits alongside $378 million awarded to the victims of the 1972 Lod Airport massacre (and their children), and $69 million to survivors of the U.S.S. Pueblo. That’s a total, so far, of $777 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but it’s not a grand total.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth found North Korea provided training, technical assistance, and rocket components to Hezbollah, and held that the North Korean government was liable for the attacks. A Special Master is deciding and apportioning the damages North Korea owes to each plaintiff.

Now, the hunt begins for North Korean assets to levy to satisfy the judgment, which may be the more challenging part of the Kim family’s pursuit of justice. I wish Mr. Perlin good hunting.

Help! Help! I’m being repressed! (Part 2)

Christine Ahn’s pursuit of global fame is having unintended consequences, mostly for Gloria Steinem. At Hot Air, Noah Rothman writes, “If women’s rights are also human rights, then North Korea is no friend to either.” He accuses Ahn and Steinem (and other “progressives”) of turning “a blind eye toward real abuses in order to support the cause of totalitarian statism.”

In The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker writes that Ahn “has long been uncritical of North Korea, a country that has some committed some of the worst human rights abuses on record,” and wonders how it could be that “this group of women has so far been mum on the violence occurring at the hands of the Kim regime in North Korea: executions, rape, forced starvation, and enslavement, according to a 2014 United Nations report on North Korea’s human rights abuses.” Crocker also prints this poignant quote from a North Korean refugee:

“It’s tragic that Pyongyang will allow a group of foreign women to cross the DMZ, but will not allow its own people to do the same,” says 32-year-old Hyeonseo Lee, who fled North Korea when she was 15 and currently lives in Seoul.

“All of us defectors are heartbroken that we cannot visit our hometown or meet our loved ones. So I hope these 30 brave women will ask the North Korean leadership to allow North Koreans to cross the DMZ as well.”

It’s not clear if Ms. Lee, who is brave, used the word “brave” ironically while referring to Ahn and Steinem, who lack the courage (or the inclination) to ask the North Koreans uncomfortable questions about women’s rights. Crocker also relates the weirdness of Ahn’s media strategy when asked difficult questions:

After agreeing to an interview by email on Tuesday, Ahn declined to answer a series of questions posed by the Daily Beast, referring a reporter to a Buzzfeed story before signing off cryptically, “Be on the right side of history!”

Steinem also declined to comment for Crocker’s article.

This unwanted scrutiny must be quite a come-down after the (metaphorical) tongue bath Ahn’s project received from this New York Times op-ed, which is labeled as a news story. The reporter, Rick Gladstone, does not betray the slightest hint of objectivity, or of having researched Ahn’s background or motives. He never mentions any of the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that inform relevant-seeming questions about how the North Korean regime treats women, or what Ahn and Steinem plan to say or do about that. Just to give you an idea of what Gladstone didn’t consider fit to print, or even to inquire about, here’s a quote from the COI’s report:

318. Witnesses have testified that violence against women is not limited to the home, and that it is common to see women being beaten and sexually assaulted in public.  Officials are not only increasingly engaging in corruption in order to support their low or non-existent salaries, they are also exacting penalties and punishment in the form of sexual abuse and violence as there is no fear of punishment.  As more women assume the responsibility for feeding their families due to the dire economic and food situation, more women are traversing through and lingering in public spaces, selling and transporting their goods. The male dominated state, agents who police the marketplace, inspectors on trains and soldiers are increasingly committing acts of sexual assault on women in public spaces. The Commission received testimony that while rape of minors is severely punished in the DPRK, the rape of adults is not really considered a crime. 

Gladstone quotes a number of Ahn’s supporters, but not one skeptic or critic. Nor does he ask the most obvious question about Ahn’s objective — what’s the point of a peace treaty with a regime that can’t abide by an Armistice, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, two agreed frameworks, a Leap Day deal, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It is, on balance, some of the most biased, shallowest, and least objective reporting I’ve seen in the Times or anywhere else. Maybe I’ll write to the Times‘s Public Editor. Or maybe you will.

Ahn decries CNN’s “shamefulreport, but takes some comfort in the sympathetic writing of one Kathleen Richards, writing at “The Stranger.” “The Stranger” turns out to be a blog I’ve never heard of, although it sounds much more like the name a truck stop serial killer would sign on the notes he leaves for the police on the bodies of his victims. Flippantly, Richards writes, “For some reason, human rights violations are considered unique to North Korea.”

Trigger warning, Kathleen: if you read this and have a soul, you may realize that you’re on the wrong side of history.

* Ms Kim Hye-sook described how the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them. None of the victims talked about their experience openly for fear of being punished. However, a number of female prisoners recounted their traumatic experiences to her in confidence.   Another witness reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls. 

* A former guard in Camp No. 11 described how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp. After the official raped the women, the victims were killed.

As far as I know, human rights violations of this nature and scale, committed by government authorities against female political prisoners with impunity, really are unique to North Korea.

Bang Mi Sun

[North Korean defector Bang Mi-Sun shows scars she received in a North Korean prison camp. Via.]

Richards’ name didn’t ring a bell until an astute reader pointed out that she was also the author of this 2009 article in the Oakland East Bay Express. Yes, that Oakland East Bay Express, that alt-lefty rag with a room-temperature circulation that took up Ahn’s cause by writing, not about the substance of the criticism of Ahn I wrote on my blog, but about what I did for a living when I wasn’t blogging. Richards’s name didn’t ring a bell because at the time, she went by the name of Kathleen Wentz. Wentz/Richards distinguished herself by coming closer than anyone has ever come to being sued by me for libel when she implied — falsely — that I’d used the resources of my place of employment to investigate Ahn. (But no one reads the Oakland East Bay Express. What damages could I prove?) It was a rather ridiculous lie for Richards to tell, given that every quote by Ahn I’ve ever cited has been a matter of public record. It may explain why, six years later, Richards writes for something called “The Stranger.” Award one point to “there is a God.”

Anyway, just in case you believed Ahn when she described Richards as “[a] sane voice in the media,” without mentioning that Richards is actually Ahn’s longstanding associate and hack mouthpiece.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 7.18.07 AM

[But of course, all defectors lie. All 25,000 of them.]

The same astute reader also saw Ahn’s latest piece-o’work in the Puffington Host,* promoting her “peace” march, and caught that Ahn may have betrayed some T.M.I.: “After I returned from Pyongyang, I received the following confirmation from the DPRK mission to the United Nations.” Ahn then quotes the North Korean reply, expressing Pyongyang’s “full support” — surprise!

The North Korean reply lists a number of Pyongyang’s external propaganda front groups — “Korean Committee for Solidarity With World Peoples, the Democratic Women’s Union of Korea, the Committee for Overseas Compatriots of Korea and other related organizations” — that will watch their every move, “render all necessary assistances to the event for its success” to commemorate the “70th anniversary of liberation and simultaneous division of our beloved country and nation.” Ahn’s handler expresses the hope that the march “will be a specially significant contribution to terminating the current status of war, replacing armistice with peace agreement, and thereby achieving permanent peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula.”

That is to say, by her own admission, Ahn been in direct “correspondence or intercourse with” a “foreign government or any officer or agent thereof,” with the undisguised intent to serve as its agent of influence. If you’ve kept up with the Iran debate, you know by now that I’ve just quoted the Logan Act, an antiquated and constitutionally questionable law that a number of pundits and signers of a White House petition recently accused Tom Cotton and 46 Republican Senators of violating. I’ve already expressed the view that the senators should not have sent the letter in question out of deference to the President’s authority, despite my sympathy with the view that Iran is irredeemably mendacious, that the deal is vague and unfinished, and (to any person of average judgment) a license to nuke up. But hey, who’s up for prosecuting Christine Ahn for violating the Logan Act, too?

Not me. Reading further, the Logan Act also requires that the correspondent have the “intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.” I’m willing to speculate that Ahn is chock-a-block with the intent to defeat the measures of the United States, but the idea of prosecuting any American for non-violent expression, however gargantuan an imbecile or a hypocrite she may be, offends the First Amendment. As for whether Ahn intended to influence the conduct of the North Korean government, I suspect that the opposite is more likely, assuming any influence was even necessary.

One point of raising this issue is to show that the calls to prosecute Senator Cotton were silly, politically motivated, and (if acted upon) unconstitutional. But if proponents of prosecuting Cotton would like to upgrade their position to merely silly and unconstitutional, let them call for Ahn’s prosecution, too. What I would be up for is repealing the Logan Act.

My other point is how remarkably open Ahn is about the directness of her relationship, coordination, and political cooperation with the government of North Korea. A case could even be made that Ahn should register under the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act. Whether that would advance any worthwhile goal that can’t be advanced by public debate is another matter.

When Ahn’s critics point out the illogic, hypocrisy, and repugnance of the views she expresses publicly, her defense is to cry, “McCarthyism!” If one defines McCarthyism as responding to the public harangues of anyone to the political left of David Gergen, we’re all Roy Cohn. But to the rest of us, what distinguishes McCarthyism from political debate is that the former is “unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence,” “mak[es] unfair allegations or us[es] unfair investigative techniques,” and usually is done with the intent to “restrict dissent or political criticism.” That’s a far cry from quoting a person’s own public statements, with hyperlinks to allow the reader to see each of them in context.

I oppose censoring Christine Ahn, and I certainly hope Seoul won’t be stupid enough to deny her permission to march. Rather, I’d like to see Ahn march to Seoul along a route flanked by some of the 25,000 North Korean refugees who’ve made it to South Korea, and who might want to express some views of their own. But peacefully, please.

~   ~   ~

* with apologies to James Taranto

Would Christine Ahn please ask Pyongyang to stop deporting the nice aid workers? For the children?

North Korea has deported U.S. citizen Sandra Suh, a humanitarian aid worker and founder of the L.A.-based NGO Wheat Mission Ministries, who had been working in North Korea since 1998. Pyongyang accused Suh of “plot-breeding and propaganda” — specifically, by showing “propaganda abroad with photos and videos” that she “secretly produced and directed, out of inveterate repugnancy” toward the North, “under the pretense of ‘humanitarianism.'”

The North Korean news agency said Suh had “admitted her acts … seriously insulted the absolute trust” North Koreans place in their leader, Kim Jong Un, and constituted “indelible crimes that infringed on its sovereignty in violation of its law.” It added that she had “apologized for her crimes and earnestly begged for pardon” and that authorities decided to expel her “taking into full consideration her old age.” [L.A. Times]

Judging by its nicely designed web site, Wheat Mission Ministries appears to be run by Korean-Americans, and to work exclusively in North Korea. It has a page on monitoring, where it acknowledges “that 100% accountability is a difficult thing to achieve in DPRK.” Interestingly enough, WMM’s web page also has a page for “photos and videos,” which now says this:

WM is going through a revision process to include pictures and videos. Because of the sensitive nature of providing videos, WM is careful to post videos that are neutral in their content. This will be available soon.

And so it goes. I’m sure WMM’s staff are lovely people with compassionate intentions, but who changed who again? Once again, the price of “engagement” with Pyongyang is not only to compromise the very principle that brought you there, but to submit to the extraterritoriality of its censorship forever. In the end, Suh’s family is just thankful that she didn’t end up a hostage like Kenneth Bae.

Suh is the second humanitarian aid worker deported by Pyongyang in a month, perhaps because Pyongyang is now making enough money commercially that aid inputs threaten to create a destabilizing condition: an adequate supply of food for its “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Thankfully for Pyongyang, that condition has not yet been achieved:

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $111 million to help a vast portion of North Korea’s population now facing a food crisis.

U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea Ghulam Isaczai told VOA the funding will help five U.N. aid agencies working on the ground to continue providing North Koreans with food, clean water and other basics in 2015.

“We are appealing for more aid and support to keep the U.N. operation going. And if we don’t provide the support, the gains we have made over the years will be reversed,” Isaczai said Wednesday.

The United Nations says 70 percent of the population, or 18 million North Koreans, are food insecure and lack nutritional diversity.

But Isaczai said of those, nearly 2 million, mostly children, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly, are in dire need of food assistance, and another 350,000 women and children need vaccines and health supplies.

Malnutrition rates are high, with 27.9 percent of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to a 2012 national nutrition survey quoted by the U.N. [VOA]

Yes, curse those damn sanctions for starving North Korean babies.

The lifestyle of roughly 200,000 to 300,000 elites, Park said, rivals those of well-heeled residents of Manhattan or the residents of Little Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Their average net worth is $50,000 and they typically own Samsung televisions and household pets imported from China.

Elites also have access to lavish dining options in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The restaurants in question charge $70 for Korean barbecue, $8 for Korean bibimbap, or rice mixed with meat and vegetables, though prices cited were for foreign tourists and not locals, reported South Korea’s Kyunghyang Sinmun.

Luxury vehicles are highly coveted within this population, according to Park.

He estimates there are currently 5,000 BMWs, 1,500 used Nissans parked around the areas where the elites lead their enviable lifestyles.

Park and other experts have said the resulting economic and social inequality is beyond comparison to pre-unification East Germany or even to contemporary China. Jung Eun-yi, a researcher at Kyungsang National University in South Korea said luxury apartments valued at $200,000 have begun to emerge in Pyongyang, according to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, by the way, wasn’t able to provide any further information about the reason for the deportations, other than to quote a KCNA statement. But it did report the fascinating fact that “[a]uthorities in Pyongyang have also in the past staged news conferences, during which foreign detainees appeared before the media and made statements that they then recanted after their releases.” Really? Pyongyang stages news conferences that feature people who are under duress? And this is news to the AP?

Suh’s deportation comes just as CNN and others are wondering how Christine Ahn could possibly believe that Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il are blameless (or nearly so) for all the hunger, famine, and suffering that the people of North Korea have endured for the last two decades of dynastic misrule.

What a perfect opportunity for Ahn to preempt a growing consensus that she “has long been uncritical of North Korea, a country that has some committed some of the worst human rights abuses on record,” and for Gloria Steinem to answer critics who accuse her of being “mum” about crimes like “executions, rape, forced starvation, and enslavement.” Perhaps these women are willing to speak truth to power after all, and to call on Pyongyang to let Suh and Feindt return, get on with their work, and resume regular monitoring visits.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 6.33.30 AM

C’mon, Christine. Do it for the children. Show us how much you really care about them.

On N. Korea’s crimes against humanity, Congress can do what Obama won’t and the U.N. can’t.

It’s nearly a sure bet that you hadn’t heard that last month, American diplomats in Geneva co-sponsored yet another resolution (HRC/28/L.18) at the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressing “deep concern about human rights violations in North Korea.” For those who may have lost track, that follows the HRC’s vote to begin an inquiry into human rights in North Korea (March 2013), the presentation of the report (February 2014), an HRC vote endorsing the COI report (April 2014), a General Assembly resolution (November 2014), and eventually, placement of the human rights question on the Security Council’s permanent agenda (December 2014). Placing the issue on the UNSC’s agenda was not subject to a veto for the simple reason that this move, by itself, is likely to amount to approximately nothing as long as China and Russia remain certain to veto any meaningful resolution.

North Korean diplomats reacted to each of these events with lies, denials, whataboutisms, insults, and the occasional racial slur. Safe to say, there is no sign that Pyongyang has any plans to accept political reform.

And yet, the U.S. diplomats have the gall to call the latest HRC resolution introduction “important,” apparently expecting us to forget that the move puts us right back where we were a year ago. Although the U.S. claims to be “extremely concerned” about the North’s crimes against humanity, once again, it led from behind, allowing the EU and Japan to introduce the resolution.

This is not to say that absolutely nothing has been gained. One day, a better president who really is “extremely concerned” about this issue will be better positioned to raise human rights at the Security Council, and to pressure the next South Korean government to let the newly established OHCHR office in Seoul do its work. The best we can hope from President Obama is that he might schedule “briefings” to the Security Council, which China and Russia will skip, and where those who bother to attend will nod along in sagacious impotence. If there was any question that President Obama would earn his Nobel Peace Prize with a serious and meaningful policy response to crimes against humanity comparable to those of the Khmer Rouge, the Bosnian Serbs, and (on a per capita basis) the Nazis, that question is now resolved. Obama will not force a vote on a Chapter VII resolution at the Security Council, an act that would force China and Russia to veto the resolution and forever own Kim Jong Un’s crimes against humanity. North Korea will be Samantha Power’s Rwanda, and hopefully, history will at least hold her, Obama, and Ban Ki Moon accountable for their failures.

But what else would a Security Council vote achieve? There has been much emphasis on pressing for a referral to the International Criminal Court, a body that’s unlikely to lay its jurisdictional hands on any North Korean official responsible for crimes against humanity. A more effective response would be the sort of cultural and economic boycott that ultimately forced change in South Africa, when paired with an effective grass-roots campaign. But then, we already know what North Korea’s vulnerability is, and Congress knows that it has a greater power to attack that vulnerability than the U.N. itself. After a short spasm of vitality, a divided U.N. has failed again. The President appears apathetic, and has abdicated his responsibility. Now, Congress must act.   

Why people call Christine Ahn “pro-North Korean”

Last night, CNN became the first news organization to do its due diligence on Christine Ahn, the organizer of the “Women Cross DMZ” march, and to call Gloria Steinem on this questionable association (Steinem stands by Ahn). CNN aired interviews with Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and Korea scholar and former CIA Analyst Sue Terry.

CNN’s report is a case study on how quickly a little scrutiny turns fame into infamy. CNN deserves praise for conducting that scrutiny; unfortunately, and probably due to time constraints, it didn’t offer (or give Scarlatoiu or Terry a chance to offer) much evidence to substantiate the charge that Ahn is “pro-North Korean.” It’s possible to believe that the charge is accurate, and also to believe that CNN’s failure to substantiate it was unfair. When you call a person something as odious as a “North Korean sympathizer,” that’s the duty you incur. Here, I feel compelled to prove the charge, using Ahn’s own words to prove it.

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Ahn has long led a group called the “Korea Solidarity Committee,” or KSC, which describes itself as “a group of progressive Korean American activists, students and artists” in the San Francisco Bay Area, who were inspired by “a desire to debunk the racist portrayals of North Korea, and present a more critical perspective on the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis.” I don’t know if Ahn calls herself a Communist or not, but she is on sisterly terms with Judith LeBlanc, a former Vice-Chair of the Communist Party, USA, a legacy Stalinist rump faction led for years by Gus Hall.

Ahn opposed human rights legislation for North Korea that funded broadcasting to North Korea, and that provided for aid and asylum for North Korean refugees, calling it an effort “by hawkish conservatives and Christian fundamentalists with the intention of bringing regime change in North Korea.” (As if that would be a bad thing.) To Ahn, “In order to debate about North Korean human rights . . . [w]e must go beyond political freedom to include economic and social rights; we must discuss human rights based on history and facts; and we must prepare not war or sanctions, but a peaceful and inclusive base to improve human rights.”

Ahn claims to be merely “pro-peace,” except that you’ll never catch her criticizing North Korea for breaking it. For example, to Ahn, the “root cause” of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, an attack that killed two ROK Marines and two civilians, was the illegitimacy of South Korea’s claim to the waters around it, the failure of South Korea to turn those waters into a neutral “peace zone,” and the failure of the United States to redraw the boundary unilaterally in the North’s favor, regardless of South Korea’s views on the matter.

On at least two separate occasions, Ahn has referred to North Korea’s “alleged” sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an attack that killed 44 South Korean sailors, despite the findings of an international investigation team that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the ship. This was almost certainly a nod to a conspiracy industry that grew up in left-wing South Korean circles that were in denial after the attack. If Ahn has ever acknowledged North Korea’s responsibility for the attack, I can’t find where she ever has.

It hardly gives one confidence in Ahn’s advocacy of a peace treaty with North Korea that Pyongyang can’t abide by an Armistice, or that Ahn won’t hold it accountable for the most flagrant violations of it.

Despite evidence that North Korea wasted resources that would have been enough — many times over — to feed the victims of North Korea’s Great Famine, Ahn doesn’t acknowledge Kim Jong Il’s responsibility for this completely preventable tragedy. Ahn has praised North Koreans for “rebuild[ing] their devastated nation according to the juche philosophy that promoted self-reliance and national independence,” which she credits for developing the North into “well organized and highly industrialized socialist economy, largely self-sufficient, with a disciplined and productive work force” — emphasis on disciplined! — until it could no longer withstand “the stranglehold of the United States.”

(I doubt that Christine Ahn has ever read a sanctions resolution, statute, regulation, or executive order, but if you want to understand how little those sanctions really do, here’s my detailed legal analysis of them.)

Ahn decries “the assumption that the famine in North Korea was a result of Chief of State Kim Jong Il’s mismanagement of the country,” and assails “attributing the cause of North Korea’s famine to an ‘evil dictator.’” Ahn blames the famine on a combination of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., “droughts and floods that . . . destroyed much of the harvest,” and “economic sanctions led by the U.S. and its refusal to end the 50-year Korean War.” Ahn never acknowledges that throughout much of the famine, the U.S. was the largest donor to food aid programs in North Korea, or that North Korean authorities diverted much of the aid and manipulated aid workers into distributing it on the basis of political caste, rather than humanitarian need. As for the droughts and floods, those have struck North Korea for 25 consecutive years now, hardly ever crossing the DMZ and never causing a famine in South Korea. For some reason.

Whether there is still famine in North Korea on a smaller scale or not, many people there are still malnourished, and the World Food Program is still appealing for aid. In a 2010 op-ed, Ahn again blamed American sanctions, which at the time were narrowly targeted at North Korean entities linked to proliferation, for restricting Pyongyang’s “ability to purchase the materials it needs to meet the basic food, healthcare, sanitation and educational needs of its people.” Yet according to the economist Marcus Noland, North Korea’s food gap “could be closed for something on the order of $8 million to $19 million — less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of the military budget.”

Meanwhile, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s (known) annual spending on luxury goods has skyrocketed to over $600 million a year. Ahn calls the Obama administration’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea’s weapons and luxury goods imports “problematic,” claiming that some of North Korea’s ships were either falsely accused of smuggling, or were carrying dual-use cargo (ahem).

To Christine Ahn, “North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the symptom, not the root cause of the conflict” between it and the U.S., South Korea, and the U.N. Security Council. She criticizes the view “that denuclearization must be managed before security guarantees can be addressed.” In a 2013 article for Foreign Policy in Focus, Ahn saw just two reasons for tensions with North Korea — not North Korea’s nuclear test a month before, or the missile test that preceded it, but President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, and the joint exercises that U.S. and South Korean forces have carried out for years. On one hand, Ahn defends North Korea’s military buildup; on the other hand, she wants to “starve the empire” by defunding the Pentagon.

Read, follow the links, and decide for yourself, but you can’t be a selective pacifist. There is a difference between being pro-peace and simply being on the other side. It’s not McCarthyism if you back your charge with evidence, and no one is suggesting that Ahn’s speech should be censored or that her march should be stopped. Its motives should simply be understood for what they are.

Welthungerhilfe should tell us why N. Korea expelled its country director

North Korea has expelled Regina Feindt, the Country Director for the German humanitarian NGO Welthungerhilfe, which has operated in North Korea since 1997, “[w]ithout warning or saying why.” Reuters describes Welthungerhilfe as “one of the few foreign aid groups to operate in the isolated country.” Welthungerhilfe is not simply accepting this result quietly:

Feindt’s colleague Karl Fall, who had worked in the country for 12 years, left of his own volition the next month, it said.

“Welthungerhilfe does not see anything in Mrs Feindt’s behaviour that would have justified an expulsion,” it said in the statement.

It said Feindt left North Korea on Feb 26 and that Fall left on March 19. Feindt and Fall were not available to comment, Welthungerhilfe said.

The abrupt departures came as a surprise to members of the small foreign community in Pyongyang, according to a regular visitor to the North Korean capital who wished to remain anonymous, citing the sensitive nature of working there. [Reuters, James Pearson]

So what led to Feindt’s expulsion? Welthungerhilfe wouldn’t comment and claims not to know, and a separate report from Der Spiegel is similarly silent. That seems rather unlikely. Welthungerhilfe must know, but is probably afraid of saying for fear that the North Koreans will retaliate by expelling its remaining workers.

Indeed, despite the departures of Feindt and Fall, Welthungerhilfe “still has a skeleton presence in North Korea,” working on projects “to improve water and sewage systems in cities were unaffected.” Those projects are said to be unaffected so far, but Welthungerhilfe was also involved in a crop-substitution program to teach North Koreans to grow potatoes. Welthungerhilfe says it is “in discussions with the North Korean authorities to secure a basis for continuing our development work” there, which suggests that the NGO’s future activities are in jeopardy.

There are some indications on Welthungerhilfe’s own web site that it had clashed with Pyongyang over monitoring. At this page, for example, Welthungerhilfe says, “In April there were no visits and travel to Welthungerhilfe project regions because of conflicts and provocations,” but it does not elaborate further on what those conflicts and provocations are. In the apparent pursuit of equivalence, it also blames both “sanctions” and “controls” — apparently sanctions imposed by foreign countries and controls imposed by the regime — for affecting “the time schedule and organisation of the project work.”

That Welthungerhilfe was insufficiently compliant for Pyongyang is saying something. The NGOs that still remain in North Korea today tend to be the most compliant ones. (The less compliant ones left over complaints about diversion and manipulation years ago.) For example, Welthungerhilfe blames North Korea’s food crisis — the longest ever experienced by an industrialized society — as “due to the cold winters, dry soils, drought periods alternating with heavy rainfall,” but not on North Korea’s restrictions on private agriculture, imports, and markets, or on the fact that instead of importing more food, North Korea squanders many times what it receives in food aid on weapons and luxury goods.

Welthungerhilfe was among the NGOs that criticized the Treasury Department for blocking North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank from the financial system for handling transactions related to proliferation. North Korea required foreign NGOs to use the FTB, and consequently, at least for a time, the blocking had collateral consequences for those NGOs.

If disputes about monitoring, transparency, and distribution led to the departures of Feindt and Fall, that’s a matter of great public interest to donors and governments everywhere. For the reasons I’ve explained here, Welthungerhilfe should tell us what those reasons were.

With Sony in mind, Obama signs new cyberwar E.O., but will he enforce it?

On Wednesday, the President signed a new executive order authorizing sanctions against anyone the State and Treasury Departments decide has engaged in conduct we’d colloquially call cyberespionage, cyberwarfare, or cyberterrorism. The new categories of sanctionable conduct include —

(A) harming, or otherwise significantly compromising the provision of services by, a computer or network of computers that support one or more entities in a critical infrastructure sector;

(B) significantly compromising the provision of services by one or more entities in a critical infrastructure sector;

(C) causing a significant disruption to the availability of a computer or network of computers; or

(D) causing a significant misappropriation of funds or economic resources, trade secrets, personal identifiers, or financial information for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain. [link]

The E.O. also targets the theft of trade secrets and intellectual property, and in a novel provision, also authorizes the blocking of property of those who profit from those crimes. Deep breath now:

(A) to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, the receipt or use for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain, or by a commercial entity, outside the United States of trade secrets misappropriated through cyber-enabled means, knowing they have been misappropriated, where the misappropriation of such trade secrets is reasonably likely to result in, or has materially contributed to, a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States; [link]

The order also contains standard (but crucial) clauses authorizing sanctions for assisting, sponsoring, facilitating, or attempting to commit those crimes. In a significant omission, it does not authorize sanctions against those who threaten to commit them.

For the most part, however, the new E.O. follows a well-worn path. It essentially does to certain cybercriminals and their enablers what Executive Order 13,224 does to terrorists and their enablers, or what Executive Order 13,382 does to proliferators and their enablers. The main substantive differences are the targeting of those who profit from the crimes, and a provision for the exclusion of aliens who are designated under the new order (something that Section 206 of the NKSEA would also do to enablers of North Korea’s illicit, prohibited, or sanctionable activities, including cyberwarfare).

In an accompanying Q&A and blog post, the White House names China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as being responsible for the conduct the E.O. is meant to target. And yet the Obama Administration hasn’t designated anyone under this new executive order yet.

The program’s effectiveness will depend on its implementation, said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. On North Korea, for instance, he said that the administration “has pursued a policy of timid incrementalism — of talking a tough game, but not following through on its rhetoric.” [Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima]

And crucially, the Sony hackers operated more-or-less openly from Chinese soil, to no less an extent than the Taliban allowed Al Qaeda to operate from Afghan soil. What the law enforcement people will tell you is that to shut down that kind of behavior, you have to show the hosts and sponsors that you’re willing (even eager) to go after them, too.

But James A. Lewis, a cyberpolicy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new program is promising — especially as a tool to combat one of the nation’s top cyberthreats: economic espionage by China.

“You have to create a process to change the behavior of people who do cyber-economic espionage,” he said. “Some of that is to create a way to say it’s not penalty free. This is an effective penalty. So it moves them in the right direction.” [WaPo]

Both Klingner and Lewis are correct, but the early signs aren’t encouraging. The new E.O. does fill key gaps in our authorities against cyberespionage and the theft of intellectual property, and those things are doing great damage to our economy and our national security. But the absence of designations suggests that like E.O. 13,687, this may turn out to be another empty threat, at least until we have a president who’s tough-minded enough to protect our interests and our most fundamental freedoms from foreign threats.

In the case of Sony, for example, the Administration already had sufficient tools to sanction those responsible. The threats against “The Interview” moviegoers were clearly terrorism, and the administration could just as well have designated those responsible under Executive Order 13,224, or even charged them criminally under Chapter 113B of Title 18. So why didn’t it? Probably because that would have undermined the State Department’s flat-earth dogma that North Korea hasn’t sponsored an act of terrorism since 1987. North Korea’s December 2014 attacks against South Korean nuclear power plants, which were reportedly meant to cause a reactor malfunction, could also have been designated under E.O. 13,224, and if the evidence was strong enough, should have been.

It may be that the administration is as worried about Congress as it is about the North Koreans, and is trying to stay ahead of it and protect its own role. For example, the new Congress recently passed discretionary sanctions authorities against cyberespionage in Section 1637 of the Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015. Section 104(a) of the NKSEA will also provide for mandatory sanctions against North Korean hackers, and Section 104(b) will provide for discretionary sanctions against their enablers.