Pyongyang’s freeze gambit is a transparent pre-summit ploy.

I’m going to give the reports that North Korea’s Ambassador to India floated the idea of negotiations for a freeze deal all they attention they deserve. The proposal, such as it is, came during an English-language interview with a local journalist.

First, the proposal is an obvious ploy to divide the U.S. and South Korean governments just before Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington. (As I noted yesterday, that visit already looks to be a difficult one.) Even Moon Jae-In appears to see through this ploy, urging his people not to read too much into it. A secondary purpose is to manipulate the usual suspects in the left-of-center, Libertarian, and far-right commentariat* into writing a flurry of pro-appeasement op-eds.

Second, several of the phrases conveyed with the proposal have the potential to make it illusory, including, “we can negotiate in terms of,” “under the right circumstances,” and especially, “if our demands is [sic] met.”

[Such as?]

Third, if Pyongyang is willing to freeze or dismantle its nuclear or missile programs, why did its Foreign Ministry representatives so recently tell Bruce Klingner and Sue Terry (among others) that it isn’t? That Pyongyang did not convey its proposal directly to the Americans during recent Track 2 talks suggests that it didn’t want to answer obvious questions about “circumstances” and “demands,” and that the proposal is spurious.

Fourth, even if a freeze agreement can be reached before the U.S. gains a persistent source of leverage over Pyongyang, how long would it be before the North Koreans renege again? The sine qua non of successful diplomacy with Pyongyang (if that’s still possible at all) is leverage.

If nothing else, a ploy this transparent should advance our recognition of how Pyongyang sees diplomacy, and what it really thinks diplomacy is for. The U.S. and South Korean position should be that if Pyongyang is serious about meeting the obligations it has undertaken — and broken — again, and again, and again, it knows how to contact the U.S. and South Korean missions at the U.N. After all, it knew how to contact Nikki Haley when it decided to dump the soon-to-be-lifeless body of Otto Warmbier.

~   ~   ~

* Update: To give you an idea of what strange bedfellows North Korea makes, see this blog post at David Duke’s website, approvingly reprinting a Bruce Cumings op-ed in full. Yes, Professor Cumings knows. I emailed him to confirm it.

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Moon Chung-In’s visit was a fiasco. Moon Jae-In’s summit with Trump might be the next one.

Next week, South Korean President Moon Jae-In will arrive in Washington for his first meeting with President Trump. North Korea policy is certain to be at the top of their agenda. Months ago, I predicted that the combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump would be a uniquely volatile one, and all the indications so far are bearing this prediction out. Volumes of august and cerebral analysis may soon be nullified by 140 characters.

This is partially (but only partially) due to differences of policy and ideology. As I’ve noted more than once, Moon has spent his entire political career in the brain trust of South Korea’s hard left, among those who’ve shown more solidarity with North Korea than with America. Moon started with the left-wing lawyers’ guild Minbyun (which once resisted right-wing dictators in the courts, and which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for waging lawfare against North Korean refugees). He was legal advisor to the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, whose members were often exposed for propagating pro-North Korean views to their pupils. He managed Roh Moon-Hyun’s presidential campaign, which rode to power on a wave of sometimes-violent anti-Americanism, and served at the highest levels in the Roh administration, where Moon made the decision to solicit Pyongyang’s views before Seoul abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn the North’s crimes against humanity (and later lied about it).

Thus, President Moon entered office with a collection of ideas and advisors whose moment came in 2002 and went in 2008, when South Korea’s electorate regressed back to the mean. As Moon entered office, he knew very well that he had no mandate for a return to a policy of appeasing North Korea called Sunshine, a policy that was a demonstrable failure, that had undermined international sanctions, and that probably helped Pyongyang pay for its nuclear arsenal

That Trump and Moon are also temperamental opposites may be just as great a problem. Whatever one thinks of Moon Jae-In’s ideology, he is an extraordinarily smooth, personally likeable politician. Throughout his career, Moon had climbed the shoulders of men who expressed extreme views that he was careful not to express himself. Trump, by contrast, is an impulsive man without ideological convictions or caution, who expresses every extreme idea that enters his head, whether it be direct talks with Kim Jong-Un or urging China to assassinate him. 

Since I was a soldier in Korea years ago, I’ve felt that the interests of the allies were diverging. For years, rather than confront and try to check this divergence, the leaders of both countries concealed it with quiet diplomacy that left South Korean politicians free to engage in nationalist demagoguery, even at the sacrifice of the alliance’s popular support. But in this regard, the United States has just unexpectedly overmatched South Korea. That is why, unlike most Korea-watchers, I suspect that the U.S.-Korea alliance is one tweet away from a crisis that will harm the interests of both countries. Recent events bear out my pessimism:

U.S. President Donald Trump expressed fury over South Korea’s decision to delay the full deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system pending an environmental assessment, a senior official said Sunday. Trump showed the reaction when he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House on June 8, the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.

The revelations, if true, raise concern that the issue could affect the first summit meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Trump set for June 29-30 at the White House, though it is not clear if it would be on the agenda.

Earlier this month, South Korea suspended the deployment of an additional four THAAD launchers pending an environmental assessment, spurring doubts in the U.S. that the halt might be a precursor to the South ultimately rejecting the THAAD deployment altogether. But Seoul has promised the environmental study won’t lead to a reversal on the deployment itself. [Yonhap]

Moon’s position on THAAD shifted so much during his presidential campaign that it became all but impossible to pin it down in a debate. That’s certainly a function of public sentiment that still favors the deployment of THAAD, even (incredibly enough) after Trump’s ill-advised, pre-election demand that Seoul pay for it. And while I have little sympathy for Moon’s ideology, I have plenty of sympathy for his position. He now finds himself bullied by both China’s unilateral sanctions and Donald Trump’s extortionate demands that Seoul pay for THAAD, notwithstanding a prior agreement that the U.S. would pay, at least up front. That Moon finds himself in that position, however, owes much to his flawed reflex for trying to please everyone (which seldom pleases anyone). In doing so, Moon has created the perception in Beijing that he’s weak, soft, and an easy mark, and the perception in Washington that he’s a faithless ally. I can see the reason for both perceptions. (To make matters worse for Moon, even the North Koreans are unhappy with him, have refused Seoul’s offers of humanitarian aid, and want to sideline him in any talks with the U.S.)

By the time Moon took office, two THAAD launchers were in place and four others were set to be deployed. All of this had been agreed between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, yet in what looked like an effort to manufacture a controversy to manipulate public opinion — a preparation for a capitulation to Beijing — Moon denied knowing this. Any such miscommunication looks to have been wholly intra-Korean, between the Blue House and the Defense Ministry. This gambit having backfired, the Moon administration began an “environmental review” of the deployment that looked suspiciously pretextual. His administration later added that the review might take as long as a year. All of these missteps cost Moon friends in the White House.

“One official at the National Security Council told me that there is a general distrust toward the Korean government in the United States, that the new administration may be lying,” said a diplomatic insider in Washington D.C. under condition of anonymity, especially after Moon complained that Washington had deployed four missile launchers for the Thaad battery without informing his government. “The U.S. government has confirmed that the South Korean government was aware of the arrival of the four additional Thaad launchers all this time.”

Moon had ordered last month an investigation into how four extra Thaad launchers had been brought into the country without his knowledge. The Blue House said earlier this month that the Ministry of National Defense intentionally omitted the delivery of the launchers in its report to the National Security Office. [Joongang Ilbo]

Now, instead of being able to blame any fissures in the alliance on a mercurial American president, Moon has irritated Ed Royce (possibly the best friend South Korea ever had in Congress), provoked a public spat with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, and alienated key senators and representatives from both parties:

Meetings between President Moon and members of the U.S. Congress also fell through recently. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, had requested a meeting with Moon sometime between May 27 and 28, but the meeting was not scheduled after days of attempts.

“The date that McCain asked for did not work with Moon’s schedule initially, so we got back to him in a few days about holding a meeting on May 28, as he requested, but McCain in the end decided not to stop by Korea in his trip to Asia for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.” “The correct protocol would have been confirming first that Moon will meet with McCain before scheduling a date,” said a Foreign Ministry insider.

Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Cory Gardner from Colorado, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, also requested meetings with Moon in late May but they did not take place. [Joongang Ilbo]

“But don’t worry,” President Moon must have said to his cabinet at one point. “Moon Chung-In can explain everything.” It’s too bad we don’t have surveillance video of the cabinet meetings that must have followed in Seoul since then. It would make for an epic “Downfall” parody.

~   ~   ~

I can’t say who picked Moon Chung-In, a left-wing South Korean academic and President Moon’s Special Advisor for Diplomacy and Security Affairs, to be the one to explain President Moon’s putative North Korea policy to American audiences at such a determinative moment. If President Moon’s objective for Professor Moon’s visit was to gain some room to maneuver by reassuring Washington that he is not as extreme as some of us think he is, that he will be a reliable ally, and that he won’t act like a spoiler of “maximum pressure,” then his badly received speech at the Wilson Center in Washington last week was an unmitigated fiasco. The sample of opinions that follows will give you a sense of just how universally Professor Moon’s visit has been panned from left, right, and center. Let’s start with the center-left Korea Herald:

Such worries intensified after Moon’s special adviser Moon Chung-in said on his trip to Washington on Saturday that South Korea would consult with the US on whether to scale back the scope of annual joint military drills and US deployment of strategic assets in exchange for “suspension” of the North’s nuclear and missile activities. The Trump administration has maintained that the North’s “complete removal” of its nuclear arsenal is a prerequisite to any dialogue.

The envoy’s remarks sparked criticism that it would undermine the allies’ efforts to present a united front against the North, which has been facing international condemnation over its relentless ballistic missile tests and brutal treatment of a US prisoner.

“With the summit around the corner, the Moon Jae-in administration is pouring out a series of diplomatic remarks that could endanger the Korea-US alliance. If we begin talks unilaterally, what would happen to the international coalition (against the North?),” said Rep. Kim Young-woo of the opposition Bareun Party, who serves as chairman of the parliamentary defense committee.

“Talking about reduced combined exercise and the US deployment of strategic assets is nothing but succumbing to the North Korean pressure when the North has continued its provocations with nuclear and missile development.”

Washington also expressed skepticism about the envoy’s proposal. US State Department spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said that they view Moon Chung-in’s proposal as a personal view, not the official stance of the South Korean government, according to a report from VOA on Saturday. [Korea Herald]

The subhed to the center-right Joongang Ilbo’s coverage conceded that Professor Moon’s proposal went down “badly” in Washington. Even the far-left Hankroyeh, which frequently publishes Professor Moon’s views and expressed support for Professor Moon’s proposals, allowed that his speech “does not seem very cautious for such sensitive information to be coming from a special advisor just ten days before a South Korea-US summit.” There are already calls from the opposition for Professor Moon to resign. The speech was also widely panned by Americans, starting with the centrist Korea-watcher Gordon Flake:

 

On the right, where sentiment matters most right now in the U.S., Bruce Klingner told Yonhap that Moon’s comments would “exacerbate U.S. concerns about President Moon Jae-in’s potential policies on North Korea and the U.S. alliance,” and about a return to Roh Moo-Hyun-era appeasement policies. Klingner, one of the few academics the Trump administration listens to, called the speech “counterproductive” to President Moon’s objective of reassuring Washington on the eve of his summit with President Trump. Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council observed, “Some of the ideas floated by President Moon and his top advisers seem to be dusting off old ‘sunshine’ ideas that failed.”

The Blue House itself backpedaled furiously, distanced itself from Professor Moon, and seemed to fling him under every passing bus on the Jongro:

An official from South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul insisted the professor was voicing his own personal views, saying they had not been coordinated with the presidential office, let alone the president. The Cheong Wa Dae official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted the special adviser had met with a ranking official from the presidential National Security Office prior to his U.S. trip, but said the two had merely exchanged greetings.

Another Cheong Wa Dae official said the presidential office has since contacted the special adviser and sternly warned him of the danger of making such comments even if they were his personal views. “We sternly spoke of the fact that this may not be helpful to Korea-U.S. relations in the future,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. [Yonhap]

Moon Chung-In now finds himself blamed for the disastrous visit by his friends and foes alike, but that isn’t quite fair. The idea that Professor Moon was speaking only for himself strains credibility. Are we to believe that the Blue House did not vet his remarks? Or that it failed to consult the South Korean Embassy in Washington to solicit its views on how badly this proposal would go down here? Or that it had no role at all in selecting Professor Moon as spokesman for the views of his president at such a critical moment? If any of these things is true, this was extraordinarily incompetent.

Perhaps as an academic, Professor Moon is miscast as a diplomat. But who would have been a better choice? President Moon’s Chief of Staff, who served three years in prison for organizing Lim Soo-Kyung’s propaganda tour of Pyongyang, and who formerly led a radical, pro-North Korean student group that (shortly after his departure) tried to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul? Or his just-confirmed Foreign Minister, a self-professed human rights specialist who served in South Korea’s U.N. Mission and at the U.N. as Seoul abstained, year after year, on resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity? What about the man who recently withdrew as nominee to be Justice Minister under an ethical cloud, and who led the National Human Rights Commission during the Roh Moo-Hyun era as it resisted (with only partial success) withering criticism for its refusal to criticize Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people? Or President Moon’s new Unification Minister, who was indicted for destroying a transcript of a meeting in which Roh allegedly promised to cede South Korea’s maritime border with the North? It’s not apparent who could have represented the new president’s views better without becoming a lightning rod.

And of course, both the Blue House and American Korea-watchers were certainly aware of Professor Moon’s long history of anti-anti-North Korean sentiment and thinly veiled anti-American nationalism. See, for example, this recent op-ed Professor Moon recently published in the Joongang Ilbo, in which he called for immediate and unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang and hinted at reopening Kaesong. The op-ed proposed “the adjustment or temporary halt of the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises” as a precondition to a nuclear and missile test freeze, and “[p]arallel pursuit of denuclearization and establishment of a peace system … because again, it is important to show a flexible attitude.” Endlessly flexible. These, of course, are the same views that went over so badly in Washington last week. Let no one say that Professor Moon’s views were spontaneous or thoughtless utterances. This was the trial balloon for the trial balloon.

Maybe the Blue House should have toned Professor Moon’s remarks, except that my guess is that these were the toned-down remarks. Keep reading Professor Moon’s Joongang Ilbo op-ed and decide for yourself whether he was at least arguably calling the alliance with the U.S. a “colonial occupation,” making a thinly veiled appeal to nationalism, and threatening to call for anti-American protests (which have historically turned violent).

The 25 years of the North Korean nuclear threat has taught us the painful lesson of how important imagination and determination are. Until now, Korea has been easily decided by foreign powers. Last century’s colonial occupation, war and division were tragic products of foreign powers’ political contests. Considering the weight of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia, it may be reckless to block the influence of our neighbors. However, it won’t be easy to give priority to inter-Korean relations over Korea-U.S. or Korea-China relations, either.

The time has come for us to turn the power of the people and the miracle of the candlelight demonstrations into a driving force for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue is a complicated challenge, but we can overcome it when we become one. Korea needs to stand at the center of the Korean Peninsula and East Asian diplomacy. In order not to be limited as a dependent variable of foreign powers, and to not repeat the fate of the Balkans, Korea needs to take initiative in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. This is how Moon will succeed — or fail. [Joongang Ilbo]

As an American and a former USFK soldier myself, whenever I hear my country called a colonial occupier, my first reaction is to test that assertion by offering to withdraw our forces. Indeed, if South Koreans want us to leave, it would be our obligation to respect their will. For now, that isn’t the will of South Koreans, even if they see U.S. forces as a necessary evil. Yet Moon Chung-In carried this offensive and extreme viewpoint to Washington just as the mood toward North Korea was as furious as it has been at any time since North Korea’s last nuclear test, as Otto Warmbier returned from Pyongyang in a coma (and subsequently passed away). How much of this is really Moon Chung-In’s fault? The real blame for the catastrophe that followed lies with Moon Jae-In’s own failure to perceive that Moon Chung-In’s tone, and the substance of his proposals, were sure to alarm most members of Congress, the administration, and academia.

Of course, not all Americans were alarmed. There is a fringe of left-of-center American opinion that Moon Chung-In is close to, and it’s more than a fringe in academic circles. What Moon said in his Wilson Center speech isn’t far removed from what you can read in an unceasing stream of op-eds by American academics calling for freeze deals that neither the U.S. Congress nor North Korea seems particularly interested in. I don’t know how much exposure Professor Moon has to centrist or right-of-center views in America, but if he believed that his proposals were within our mainstream, it may be because he cocooned himself with too many simpaticos. Perhaps the approval of this group gave Professor Moon a false sense of affirmation. Either way, Moon Jae-In can’t blame anyone but himself for this disastrous tone-deafness.

Maybe next week, the two presidents will cobble together a show of unity, like two divorcing parents at their daughter’s wedding. Maybe Trump will end the summit by tweeting that Manchuria was historically part of Korea. Maybe Trump will behave so boorishly that Moon will be able to pin the consequences of his own extreme world view and ineptitude on Trump, and play the nationalist card that the deck hasn’t dealt him yet. Or, maybe both leaders will conclude the summit with a spat that will harm both of their own political reputations, and the long-term interests of both nations.

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How to hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s death

In North Korean prisons (at least, in those from which release is possible at all) when the guards conclude that a prisoner is about to die, they release her and send her away to die at home, so that disposing of her body will be someone else’s problem, and so that the warden can manipulate the camp’s rate of in-custody deaths downward. (Perhaps in some small way, even the wardens of North Korean prisons fear being held accountable, one day, for what they do.) The same is true when North Korean officers conclude that a soldier is about to die of starvation or tuberculosis — the army will send the soldier home to die.

So it was when North Korean diplomats at the U.N. reached out to their American counterparts to inform them that they had an American patient to dump. That the Warmbiers were able to see and touch their son one last time before he died was merely incidental to Pyongyang’s true purpose. It reminds us that Pyongyang has the means to talk to us when it decides that it’s in its interest to do so. Above all, Otto Warmbier’s death should remind us that governments that murder their own people will eventually murder ours. Pyongyang has made the hatred of Americans a national virtue. It indoctrinates its little children to hate and kill us. All that prevents it from murdering us on a greater scale is that it still lacks the means to do so.

An autopsy should now be done to determine the precise cause of Mr. Warmbier’s death, to rule out Pyongyang’s explanations of botulism or a drug reaction. Even if this explanation turns out to be plausible, however, it would not excuse holding Mr. Warmbier in Pyongyang in a coma for a year and denying him access to medical care that might have saved him. The coroner should look for evidence of what event put Warmbier into a coma to begin with, whether it was a beating, a suicide attempt, or some other cause. If prompt medical attention might have saved his life, a willful decision to deny him life-saving care would still be murder. And here, the chronology supplies circumstantial evidence of a political motive, and thus, a darker explanation:

  • Jan. 2: North Korea arrests Otto Warmbier.
  • Jan. 6: North Korea carries out a nuclear test, an event that took weeks of preparation. International condemnation follows; the U.S. calls the U.N. Security Council into emergency session.
  • Jan. 12: North Korea arrests a second U.S. citizen, Kim Dong-Chul, a humanitarian aid worker from Fairfax, Virginia.
  • Jan. 22: North Korea reveals Warmbier’s arrest publicly for the first time.
  • Feb. 5: The House introduces H.R. 757, a North Korea sanctions bill. It advances quickly through Committee to the House floor, where it passes by 418 to 2.
  • Feb. 10: The Senate passes H.R. 757 by a vote of 96 to 0.
  • Feb. 18: The President signs H.R. 757 into law.
  • Mar. 2: The U.N. Security Council approves new sanctions in Resolution 2270.
  • Mar. 15: President Obama signs Executive Order 17722, implementing the sanctions in H.R. 757.
  • Mar. 16: North Korea holds a show trial for Otto Warmbier and sentences him to 15 years’ hard labor.

In retrospect, then, Pyongyang’s “arrests” of both Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong-Chul appear to have been part of its coordinated plan to test a nuke, and to blunt a U.S. push to sanction it for doing so. It was at this point, shortly after Warmbier’s show trial, that something put him into a coma. This was when Pyongyang had the greatest motive to use Warmbier to punish the U.S. government. (North Korea’s dogma is one of collective rights and collective punishment. It does not recognize the individual as separate from the state. It would be consistent with Pyongyang’s dogma to punish one American to punish the U.S. government.) This was also when North Korea had a political disincentive against sending Warmbier home, lest it show the world a less defiant face or give up the leverage of holding one more American hostage. Shortly before Otto Warmbier passed away, the North Koreans doubled down and said that he got what he deserved.

President Trump reacted to Otto Warmbier’s passing appropriately:

Ambassador Haley said it best, however:

But it is with regard to Secretary of State Tillerson’s reaction where I might offer some help:

Presumably, they’re having a good laugh about this in Pyongyang, where crime always pays and there are never consequences. Pyongyang has been getting away with murder for 70 years; why should it be different this time when it still has three American hostages? Perhaps, at some point, the U.S. government will cease to allow Pyongyang to benefit from this tactic. It is not legally terrorism, because it is not carried out by clandestine agents or subnational groups, but it is a use of violence against innocent non-combatants with the apparent intent to influence the conduct of our government. Of course, Pyongyang has done many other things recently that do fit the legal definition of terrorism, so re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism would be both well-justified and appropriate. (If you still haven’t read my 100-page, peer-reviewed legal analysis of the evidence, then by all means, feel free to do so now.)

The question of a travel ban will invariably be raised again. Even without legislation, the President has the authority to restrict U.S. passports to prevent them from being used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to visit North Korea, but such a limited ban would be difficult to enforce in practice — it’s not as if the North Koreans would cooperate by turning paying hostages away just because the State Department wants them to. For reasons I’ve explained before, the President would need legislation to make a travel ban truly effective. The way to do this is to block the North Korean tourist industry’s access to the dollar system entirely. That would have the benefit of making the U.S. designation of Air Koryo more effective by closing a key legal loophole. (Air Koryo has been implicated repeatedly in the smuggling of WMD components and luxury goods, in violation of U.N. sanctions.)

An even more effective ban would include secondary immigration sanctions, by denying recent visitors to North Korea visa-free entry into the United States (section 4, below the fold). That would render North Korea’s recent investments in a ski resort, a water park, and a new airport terminal largely worthless. Yes, journalists, I wrote in a special exemption just for you — you’re welcome.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d be all for passing H.R. 2732 now. I also recognize that Congress is politically hesitant about travel bans for various reasons. The problem is that Pyongyang’s hostage-taking is now endangering other Americans, and the citizens of other countries, by interfering with the execution of a more coherent North Korea policy. In the interests of making the perfect the enemy of the good, then, I offer a text below the fold, of a travel ban that’s conditioned on the President certifying that it’s safe for Americans to travel to North Korea, and that also maximizes the effect of a ban on tourist and commercial travel to North Korea by non-U.S. citizens that is paid for in U.S. dollars. By linking the ban to the release of U.S. hostages, it gives Pyongyang a powerful financial incentive to set them free.

Finally, it’s long past time for the Senate to take up Chairman Royce’s bill, the KIMS Act, to further toughen existing sanctions on Pyongyang. That bill passed the full House 419 to 1 weeks ago. The Senate has yet to introduce it.

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Breaking: DOJ files $1.9M forfeiture complaint against North Korean front company in China

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia issued a press release this afternoon announcing that it has filed a complaint under the civil forfeiture statute at 18 USC 981, to forfeit $1,902,976 from Mingzheng International Trading Limited of Shenyang, China. According to the complaint, Mingzheng conspired to evade sanctions and launder money through the United States on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea (FTB). Treasury designated the FTB under Executive Order 13382 in March 2013, for proliferation financing. Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a designation blocks the target out of the dollar system. Knowingly dealing with a designated person using the dollar system is a violation of the IEEPA. According to DOJ:

The action represents one of the largest seizures of North Korean funds by the Department of Justice.

“This complaint alleges that parties in China established and used a front company to surreptitiously move North Korean money through the United States and violated the sanctions imposed by our government on North Korea,” said U.S. Attorney Phillips. “Sanctions laws are critical to our national security and foreign policy interests, and this case demonstrates that we will seek significant remedies for those companies that violate them.”

[….]

According to the complaint, Mingzheng is owned by a Chinese national and is based in Shenyang, China. Mingzheng allegedly operated as a front company for a foreign-based branch of the North Korea-based Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). In March 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Foreign Trade Bank as a sanctioned entity pursuant to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations. The designation noted that the Foreign Trade Bank is a state-owned bank, and “acts as North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.” The designation further noted that North Korea uses the Foreign Trade Bank to facilitate millions of dollars in transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.

Under 18 USC 981, the feds can forfeit property that constitutes proceeds of, or that is “involved in,” a specified unlawful activity (as defined in 18 USC 1956(c)(7)), the money laundering statute. The specified unlawful activities alleged here are conspiracy and violations of the IEEPA.

An FBI investigation revealed that Mingzheng’s alleged activities mirror this money laundering paradigm. Specifically, Mingzheng acts a front company for a covert Chinese branch of the Foreign Trade Bank. This branch is operated by a Chinese national who has historically been tied to the Foreign Trade Bank.

According to the complaint, Mingzheng used its accounts at China Merchants Bank, Bank of Communications, and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank to launder money on behalf of the FTB. All three banks were also involved in the Dandong Hongxiang money laundering case. In that case, the Justice Department said at the time that the Chinese banks were not suspected of wrongdoing. This time, DOJ’s press release doesn’t say one way or the other; however, the transactions alleged here all predate the new Treasury regulation establishing heightened due diligence obligations for North Korea.

The government is seeking to forfeit $1,902,976 that was transacted in October and November of 2015 by Mingzheng, via wire transfers, using their Chinese bank accounts. These U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the United States, are alleged to violate U.S. law, because Mingzheng was surreptitiously making them on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions.

Interestingly, this complaint doesn’t have anything to do with the conduct unmasked in C4ADS’s latest report this week. Rather, this is more of a sequel to the Dandong Hongxiang case filed in the District of New Jersey last September, which arose from the first C4ADS report on North Korea. The new complaint makes the link:

48. The criminal complaint identified Luo Chuanxu as one of the Dandong Hongxiang co-conspirators. The complaint indicates that Luo is a Chinese National who established multiple front companies in Hong Kong, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands to facilitate payments on behalf of KKBC, a sanctioned North Korean bank. Luo handled these payments as an employee of Dandong Hongxiang, and was working to assist KKBC in violation of U.S. laws. The criminal complaint noted that Deep Wealth was owned or controlled by Dandong Hongxiang, at least as of June 10, 2015.

49. Additionally, Luo facilitated numerous payments to Mingzheng using Deep Wealth Ltd. (“Deep Wealth”), a Dandong Hongxiang front company established in Anguilla, in the months prior to the transactions related to the Defendant Funds.

50. Specifically, Luo received confirmation of two large payments to Mingzheng from Deep Wealth in 2015. On July 31, 2015, Luo received confirmation from China Merchants bank showing that Deep Wealth remitted $660,000 to Mingzheng’s account ending in 6150. On August 04, 2015, Luo received another confirmation from China Merchants Bank showing that Deep Wealth remitted $900,000 to the same Mingzheng account. These payments are consistent with the North Korean money laundering activities observed between sanctioned North Korean banks via related front companies.

The complaint is available on the federal public docket system (PACER), under United States v. $1,071,251.44 of Funds Associated with Mingzheng International Trading, Ltd., No. 17-cv-01166-KBJ. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t like to post pdfs, but you can pull it yourself if you have a PACER account. Civil forfeiture cases have odd case names because they’re in rem actions, which means the property is the defendant. In this case, the case name is based on the first of several listed bank accounts “associated with” Mingzheng. Claimants to the defendant property then have an opportunity to file claims for the defendant property (such as innocent ownership, or contesting the connection between the property and the specified unlawful activity).

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Meet the fresh-faced kids who want you to commit a felony for Kim Jong-un

I confess that I’ve always hated Facebook, but every now and then, I see something there that interests me. One such example is the Facebook page of a group called Delegations for Dialogue, which led me to this slickly produced website. As it turns out, Delegations is run by a cast of improbably young characters promoting investment in North Korea through a “fact-finding” trip to Rason this August.

Now, I suppose there are two kinds of people in this world by now — those who’ve concluded that throwing money into North Korea has only made it more repressive and dangerous, and those who are (for whatever reason) simply incapable of drawing that conclusion. The same goes for understanding the moral hazard of investing in (and thus perpetuating) a system whose crimes against humanity, according to a U.N. Commission, are “without parallel in the contemporary world.” The same goes for those who believe anyone but Pyongyang will ever get rich from foreign investment in North Korea. Just ask Jim Rogers, Naguib Sawaris, James Passin, or a long list of other fools who have parted with their money there.

Rather, anyone who would seriously consider investing in North Korea by now can only be responsive to legal risk. As I’ve said before, I’m a lawyer but not your lawyer, so take what follows as advice to hire a lawyer of your own if you’re giving serious thought to taking part in this trip. For one thing, I found nothing on Delegations’ site about compliance with either national or U.N. sanctions — not even the standard, we-never-violate-sanctions disclaimer one sometimes sees with such programs. It quickly becomes clear that Delegations either has no idea of the legal framework it’s getting itself and its clients into or doesn’t care.

From the very first sentence, for example, Delegations shows the limits of its legal knowledge of the sanctions regime against North Korea by calling the North “the world’s most sanctioned nation,” something that still isn’t remotely accurate, either de jure or de facto, despite the significant escalation of sanctions over the last year. And while it’s usually a harmless error for an investor to overestimate a sanctions regime, the same can’t be said for underestimating one.

On examining the program materials for the August trip, things go downhill fast. For example, Delegations promises participants a tour of a local bank, but several of the banks located in Rason (and, as near as I can figure, all of them) are joint ventures, which are prohibited under UNSCR 2270, paragraph 33. Delegations promises its clients a meeting with North Korean trade officials; yet UNSCR 2321, paragraph 32, bans all public and private support for trade with North Korea, except when specifically approved by a U.N. committee. Delegations even promises participants an opportunity to open a bank account in a North Korean bank, directly contrary to UNSCR 2321, paragraph 31, which required U.N. members states to close any bank accounts in North Korea 90 days after the resolution passed (more than 90 days ago).

Then, on the banner of Delegations’ website is an image of the Pyongyang International Trade Fair, where one of the companies making an appearance this year was Green Pine, an entity designated by both the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department for its involvement in proliferation.

Fine, you say, who’s going to enforce a U.N. resolution anyway? But given the extensive evidence that North Korea continues to depend on the U.S. dollar system for trade and finance (note well: Delegations allows participants to pay their fees in euro or dollars), any favorable response to Delegations risks running smack into a very significant legal obstacle, namely Executive Order 13772, section 3 of which prohibits new investment in North Korea:

   (a) The following are prohibited:

      (i) the exportation or reexportation, direct or indirect, from the United States, or by a United States person, wherever located, of any goods, services, or technology to North Korea;

Here, the term “services” is key, and courts have generally interpreted this to include financial services. It would likely be interpreted to include promotional and marketing services on behalf of North Korean state-controlled enterprises, too.

      (ii) new investment in North Korea by a United States person, wherever located; and

This is the provision that stumped Jim Rogers, Naguib Sawaris, et al.

      (iii) any approval, financing, facilitation, or guarantee by a United States person, wherever located, of a transaction by a foreign person where the transaction by that foreign person would be prohibited by this section if performed by a United States person or within the United States.

This covers the provision of correspondent services by U.S. financial institutions and their subsidiaries, effectively blocking transactions related to investment in North Korea out of the dollar system.

   (b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order or pursuant to the export control authorities implemented by the Department of Commerce, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order.

This incorporates Commerce Department licensing requirements, which cover almost any transfer of U.S.-origin goods, services, and technology to North Korea, except the most innocuous consumer goods and food items classified as “EAR 99.” For more information on what all of that means, consult a more expensive lawyer than me, because violations of this executive order are punishable under section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (20 years in prison, a $1 million fine, and a $250,000 civil penalty). And just in case you think the euro system is an easy escape valve from these prohibitions, not so much, given the new EU restrictions on financial services to North Korea, new anti-money laundering regulations, and new beneficial ownership disclosure rules.

To summarize: lawyer up, caveat emptor, or (better yet) find a safer place to put your money.   

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One American tragedy, millions of North Korean statistics

The idea that foreign tourists in North Korea could escape the evil they help, however minimally, to propagate, was never sustainable. Tourism in North Korea reduces the physical and mental slavery of totalitarianism to a circus performance and its subjects to zoo animals. It doesn’t only endanger the tourist, it plays some unquantifiable role in sustaining that horrid system, and in endangering the lives of people from Seoul to Seattle to Aleppo by giving cash to a regime obsessed with the capacity to terrorize and destroy life. To tour North Korea is a morally shallow act for which some just punishment is warranted. That just punishment is a week in a North Korean jail, one day as a global Twitter laughingstock, and a one-way ticket back to one’s angry family and laughing friends. It was not this. There was nothing just in this.

The specifics of Mr. Warmbier’s condition were not known. His family was told that he had contracted botulism and had been given a sleeping pill, causing him to slip into a coma, according to the people briefed on the situation, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter. But American officials suspect his condition is the result of his treatment at North Korean hands, given the record of the brutal treatment of past prisoners there.

[….]

A senior American official said the United States obtained intelligence reports in recent weeks indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss intelligence and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there had been earlier concerns that Mr. Warmbier had died as a result of the beatings.

A second person who was involved in early discussions with North Koreans about American prisoners said Mr. Warmbier’s family at one point told friends they believed the North had killed their son. [N.Y. Times]

Let anyone forget, this was Otto Warmbier at his show trial. As lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur.

Yes, initial reports are often wrong. Rumors of dark and unknowable things from inside the world’s most opaque regime should be treated with skepticism. Mr. Warmbier is at a hospital now, where the doctors will examine him for evidence of torture. In due course, we’ll have medical evidence of what really happened, and whether Mr. Warmbier will ever walk or speak again. But clearly, the people who had him in their custody did something to him to reduce him to the comatose state in which he has lingered for a year. And whatever happened to Mr. Warmbier happened to him at a time when he was held without legitimate justification. Even allowing for differences of culture and government, there is no system of justice in which vandalizing a poster (if Mr. Warmbier did that) warrants two months in jail, much less a year and a half, much less a 15-year sentence to hard labor.

The editors of the Washington Post write that “the harm done to an innocent student is the result of North Korea’s odious practice of seizing Americans to use as political pawns.” It’s beyond serious question that Mr. Warmbier was held as a hostage, and by extension, this suggests that the charges against three other Americans in North Korean custody are also fabricated and their punishments arbitrary. 

The Post calls Mr. Warmbier’s treatment “outrageous behavior even by the standards of one of the world’s most vicious and isolated regimes,” says that “it should not go unpunished,” and calls for more sanctions, including secondary sanctions. I obviously agree with the latter statements, but not the former (we’ll turn to it later).

As to the punishment, one appropriate option would be to return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, despite the fact that Mr. Warmbier’s torture does not meet the legal definition (it was done by a state, not by clandestine agents or subnational groups). There are plenty of other reasons, including the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, that would make a re-designation of North Korea well-grounded in evidence and law.

And yes, Congress should enact a travel ban. Depending on how it’s drafted, an added feature of a travel ban could be to wreck Moon Jae-In’s addlebrained, sanctions-busting plans to reopen Kumgang or share the Olympics with North Korea. And yes, the Warmbier family’s lawsuit against the reckless and unethical Young Pioneer Tours, which continues to say that travel to North Korea is safe, and which has boasted that the arrests of tourists are good for business, should be an extinction-level event. 

I disagree with the Post, however, when it says that Mr. Warmbier’s treatment was “outrageous behavior” by North Korean standards. On the contrary, by North Korean standards it was entirely ordinary. The reason why tourism to North Korea is immoral is the very fact for North Koreans, brutality is an everyday fear, whether they’re market traders being extorted and beaten by corrupt MSS officers, women refugees who are beaten after being repatriated by China, women in “Kangan” Province who are raped by soldiers with impunity, or the child prisoners in places like Camp 16, where death rates may be as high as 20 percent each year.

Is Mr. Warmbier’s fate more inhumane than the slow, agonizing death of my friend Jinhae Jo’s baby brother, who starved to death in her arms so that Kim Il-Sung could have a new mausoleum and his son could have nuclear weapons? According to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, that slow, agonizing process repeated itself perhaps two million times for North Koreans, out of our sight. For every person who starved to death from Pyongyang’s priorities, countless others were traumatized by the loss of them.

What Mr. Warmbier experienced is not even the worst treatment North Korea has meted out to foreigners in recent years. Contrast it to the kidnapping and slow starvation of U.S. resident Kim Dong-shik from China to North Korea, where he died far from his wife and children. Or Megumi Yokota, kidnapped from the shores of her home country and held in North Korea until she finally gave in to despair and committed suicide. Or the brave dissidents and human rights activists like Patrick Kim, stabbed by North Korean agents with poisoned needles.

It is as if the greater the scale of the horrors, the less they affect us. The more we ascribe them to differences of policy, nation, and culture. The more arguments we summon to dull their moral relevance. One death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic from a dying star in a distant galaxy. As we look on one tragedy, let’s remember the statistics, too.

[Statistics, buried in the hills near Hamhung, North Korea]

That will better inform us how to respond to all of these tragedies. North Korea’s is a system dedicated to the proposition that all men must submit to evil. The sooner we grasp that all of these statistics are tragedies, the sooner we will draw the appropriate conclusions about how to respond to them.

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C4ADS: Pyongyang’s networks in China are “centralized, limited, and vulnerable” to sanctions 

Because I’ve already given too many minutes of my life to the moveable farce named Dennis Rodman, I’m devoting today’s post to something more consequential: the Center for Advanced Defense Studies’s new report exposing more North Korean financial networks in China, and dispelling the misinformation that North Korea is isolated from the financial system and thus sanctions-proof. (Full disclosure: I advised C4ADS on the drafting of the report, without compensation of course.) Money quote:

The continuing misperceptions of North Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom” or “the most sanctioned country in the world,” are fueling the narrative behind the narrowing of non-military options on the Korean peninsula. In truth, the North Korean regime, far from being isolated, is globally active throsugh its overseas networks. The impact of these misperceptions is considerable, most notably in the false belief that sanctions cannot succeed on a “closed” country like North Korea. 

Following on last September’s exposé on Dandong Hongxiang, C4ADS sifted through public databases, shipping registries, and business records to widen its focus and try to find the extent of North Korea’s financial network in China. From this, C4ADS found, contrary to a lot of widely disseminated misinformation, that North Korea’s network is centralized, limited, and vulnerable to detection and sanctions:

Centralized. For example, C4ADS dug further into the role of Dandong Hongxiang and found it to be highly centralized around key nodes. It also exposed two more networks that were similarly centralized. In one case, C4ADS started with the seizure of the M/V Jie Shun at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal with a record haul of North Korean weapons (mostly PG-7 anti-tank rockets) aboard, which I figure were probably bound for Syria. Starting from the findings of the UN Panel of Experts (see paragraphs 61 through 71), C4ADS worked backward through shipping registries and corporate records and identified the holder of the Jie Shun’s compliance document as a Chinese national named Fan Mintian. Fan runs a company called V-Star Ships.

Fan and V-Star have been operating openly in China, helping North Korea evade shipping sanctions for at least four years. V-Ships did (much? all?) of its business through the dollar system, clearing its payments through the United States. Sadly, C4ADS doesn’t identify the author of the “please do not send us any instructions” email, which sounds like the kind of thing the FBI and the Justice Department may find worthy of further investigation, to say the least.

In another case, Wells Fargo was the correspondent bank, and its compliance officers were alert and on the job, and refused to process V-Star’s transactions. People may praise bankers even less than they praise lawyers, but here’s to Wells Fargo, for taking its compliance obligations seriously and refusing to launder money for North Korea.

Yet another major Chinese network, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Inc. (DZMM) may be an even more important node for Pyongyang than Dandong Hongxiang. DZMM buys coal from North Korea. 

Three North Korean companies are currently designated by the Treasury Department: Daewon Industries (a part of Pyongyang’s military-industrial complex, designated in December), Kangbong Trading Company (same), and Paeksol Trading Corporation (controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, designated in March). If DZMM willfully engaged in dollar transactions with any of those companies after their respective designations — and I stress that I don’t see proof of all of these elements from C4ADS’s report alone — that could constitute any of several federal felonies: violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering under 18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(2), or conspiracy to commit either of the aforementioned under 18 U.S.C. 371. Even if you don’t arrest a single suspect, the Justice Department can bankrupt those networks by blocking their funds as they move through the financial system and forfeiting them.

Limited. C4ADS found that just 5,233 companies are involved in bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with the top ten companies controlling about 30 percent of it. If 5,233 sounds like a lot, last year, there were 67,163 Chinese companies exporting to South Korea. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few state-controlled companies is consistent with Pyongyang’s centralized and controlling ways of running everything else. Even then, further research revealed that many of these companies were interconnected:

That means knocking over a few major networks could collapse much of the system that sustains His Porcine Majesty’s rule. C4ADS’s report even lays those connections out in charts.

And yet again, as with Ma Xiaohong, the person running a North Korean trade network turns out to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Arguably, our third attribute should be “inculpatory,” but it isn’t.

Vulnerable. Regular readers of the U.N. Panel’s reports will find North Korea’s methods of concealing its network aren’t qualitatively different than those used by terrorists, narco-traffickers, or other rogue regimes to launder money and evade sanctions; hence, the limiting reagents in U.S. sanctions enforcement are primarily political will and resources (cops, intelligence analysts, and lawyers). Contrary to widely-held assumptions, the networks are detectable.

The report goes on to note that because of “these networks’ reliance on the licit systems of finance, trade, and transportation … they leave behind a digital trail within public records, and other data sources, and are acutely vulnerable to targeted sanctions.” They also leave money trails. C4ADS’s conclusions reinforce what the U.N. Panel of Experts and the Justice Department have already established — that North Korea’s networks continue to launder their money through the dollar system. That’s a critical vulnerability that no U.S. president has yet had the political will to exploit. 

The last time C4ADS published a report, Treasury designations, an indictment, and a civil forfeiture complaint soon followed. Which doesn’t sound imminent this time, judging by this Wall Street Journal report covering the C4ADS report. It suggests that the Trump administration is still in the bargaining stage with Beijing, asking it to curtail the activities of Chinese companies, run by party members, that are knowingly violating U.N. sanctions. 

The Trump administration has asked Beijing to take action against nearly 10 Chinese companies and individuals to curb their trading with North Korea, according to senior U.S. officials, as part of a strategy to decapitate the key networks that support Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program.

Although there is no firm deadline, the U.S. has indicated the Treasury Department could impose unilateral sanctions on some of these entities before the end of the summer if Beijing doesn’t act, the U.S. officials said. [WSJ, Jay Solomon]

While you’re at it, don’t miss Solomon’s other recent report on another North Korean network in China, which I didn’t have time to blog about when it came out.

So as with the Obama administration, we’re back to asking Bejing to enforce sanctions it has spent the last ten years willfully violating. That similarity must owe a great deal to the fact that Trump can’t get key appointees in place to execute a policy that resembles his tough talk. For all the talk of sabotage by the “deep state,” the effect of slow appointments is that the administration ends up abdicating a lot of policy decisions to holdovers and similarly disposed career civil servants. In any event, let no one say that sanctions against North Korea can’t work, if we ever muster the will to use them.

~   ~   ~

Update: At the Washington Post, Anna Fifield adds:

Targeting just a few pivotal Chinese companies could severely disrupt North Korea’s ability to circumvent international sanctions and buy illicit goods — and could even cause its entire overseas network to collapse, according to a report out Tuesday.

[….]

The new report, by Washington-based research group C4ADS, lays out multiple ways for Beijing to cut off North Korea’s trading routes to the outside world, if it wanted to. It also found a Chinese citizen who was conducting large amounts of trade with North Korea while serving as president of a company in the United States — a status that would allow him to open bank accounts and send or receive shipments.

“By being centralized, limited and ultimately vulnerable North Korean overseas networks are, by their nature, ripe for disruption,” C4ADS researchers wrote in the report, titled “Risky Business.”

[….]

There is still plenty more to be done, C4ADS writes. “Although to date economic coercion has been ineffective in persuading North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, this does not mean it cannot work,” the researchers say. 

On the contrary, targeting key companies could cripple multiple networks across multiple countries simultaneously, they write, because so many of these firms are intertwined.

[….]

The C4ADS researchers said focusing on these kinds of logistical “chokepoints” could cut off North Korea’s centralized, global system of illicit finance. 

For example, the Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co., which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last year — sending a sudden chill through the border city that acts as North Korea’s main commercial gateway to the outside world — is one of 18 companies that make up the Liaoning Hongxiang Group. This suggests the potential for an indirect effect if one company is stopped from helping North Korea, perhaps disrupting numerous other linked companies.

“Based on what we’re seeing in the data in terms of the reach and scope of these networks and the limited nature of the system that they live in, and the contamination with illicit activity, there is inherent value to enforcement actions,” said David Thompson, a senior analyst at C4ADS.  [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

See also this Washington Post editorial, citing the C4ADS report.

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Moon Jae-In passes an early test on North Korean refugee policy, but for how long?

In recent years, growing numbers of North Korean boats have drifted into the waters of neighboring countries. Most of these incidents probably weren’t attempts to defect, but cases of North Korean fishermen coming under rising pressure to stray further out to sea, to bring home bigger catches (which are often exported for hard currency, including to the U.S. and South Korea) and who are given only a marginal amount of fuel to make the journey home. Dozens of these North Koreans have arrived in Japan, though little remained of them by then but desiccated corpses and bleached bones.

Those who arrive in South Korea, thankfully, usually arrive alive, at least until the ROK authorities question them as to whether they wish to return to the North, and repatriate those who (it says) do. I’ve often privately wondered just how much various South Korean governments have, for political reasons, put their thumbs on the scales in questioning these North Koreans and judging their intentions. It worried me that the Moon Jae-In administration, with its origins in a viewpoint that has been, at best, ambivalent about protecting North Korean refugees and human rights, would repatriate North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution, in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention. Now, we have a least one case in which the Moon Jae-In administration seems inclined to offer asylum to two of four North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters along its east coast.

South Korea’s navy and coastguard rescued four people from two vessels on Friday and Saturday, and the four were then questioned by South Korean authorities, who offered to send them home, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The two who told authorities they wanted to defect to South Korea were a man in his 50s and his son in his 20s, an official from the ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said by telephone.

“We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors,” the official said.

The official, who declined to be identified, said he did not know if the two had originally planned to defect or decided to only after being rescued. The Yonhap news agency said the father appeared to have planned to defect.

The other two would be sent home, as they had requested, the ministry official said. [Reuters]

On refugee policy, Moon Jae-In now faces a test. Will he bow to Pyongyang and his own most extreme supporters, and roll up the welcome mat for North Korean refugees, or will he follow international human rights law and the values we hope South Korea still shares with us? Pyongyang is making its expectations clear:

A vigorous struggle for the repatriation of detained Kim Ryon Hui and other twelve DPRK women citizens was launched in south Korea with the people of different strata involved, amid the growing demand for the liquidation of evils done by the Park Geun Hye group of traitors for confrontation with the fellow countrymen. [….]

If the south Korean authorities are truly interested in the issues of “human rights”, “humanitarianism” and “separated families”, they should pay attention to the strong demand of the families of those abductees and settle the issue of their repatriation at an early date before anything else.

It is preposterous to discuss on the “humanitarianism” and reunion of divided families and relatives, in disregard of such hideous unethical crimes as imposing bitter pains and misfortune on the compatriots by artificially making new “divided families”.

Any humanitarian cooperation between the north and the south, including reunion of divided families and relatives, can never be expected before the unconditional repatriation of the detained women citizens of the DPRK.

We will watch the attitude of the south Korean authorities and strive for the repatriation of the detained women citizens to the last. [KCNA]

See also. The pro-Pyongyang extremists at KANCC (profiled here) and Minjok Tongshin (profiled here) are also calling for sending the women back to North Korea, for what it’s worth — probably not much, except as a barometer of pro-Pyongyang opinion in South Korea, where both websites would be illegal. The pro-Pyongyang crowd continues to repeat the transparent lie that the Ningpo 12 were kidnapped, though this assertion has been tested and rejected by a South Korean court, which granted asylum to all 12 of the women. All have since been given their freedom in South Korean society, and most have been admitted into universities. You’d think that if they had been abducted, one of them would have said so by now, although Pyongyang’s agents have previously contacted North Korean refugees in the South and coerced them into “re-defecting” and making propaganda statements before audiences of gullible journalists.

If you think this is just a fringe view in South Korea, think again. More than once, I’ve highlighted the disgraceful and unethical efforts by the hard-left “human rights” lawyers’ group Minbyun to breach the women’s internationally recognized right to confidentiality in asylum proceedings, an effort that could only have been calculated to intimidate the women into re-defecting. Given Moon’s own long history with Minbyun, no one should have taken the rejection of Pyongyang’s demand, no matter how outrageous, for granted. Moon Jae-In’s Chief of Staff, for example, has a history of anti-American and pro-North Korean activism so extensive and troubling that he couldn’t pass a U.S. government background investigation, much less be granted a security clearance here. We should be thankful that Moon was at least pragmatic enough to reject Pyongyang’s demand on its face:

The Unification Ministry in South Korea has rejected Pyongyang’s demand to return a group of North Korean restaurant employees who defected from China last year.

A ministry official told reporters on Thursday that the families divided by the Korean War are a separate and different issue from North Korean defectors.

He added that the North’s move to link the return of the restaurant employees with cross-border family reunions is incomprehensible, stressing that the issue of family reunions cannot be resolved if more time passes. [KBS]

It’s still too early to let out a sigh of relief. As Moon must surely know, sending these women back to North Korea would have caused global outrage, starting with a white-hot apoplexy in large segments of the U.S. Congress. Such a decision would reveal that the alliance itself lacks the foundation of a unity of legal, moral, political, or humanitarian interests. It would militate for sending a clear message to South Korean voters that even if the lives of North Koreans mean nothing to them, such a disunity of interests will raise calls (probably including my own) for U.S. disengagement from South Korea, if only to achieve an overdue restructuring of U.S. Forces, Korea and to damage Moon’s domestic political support. Given the fact that Moon has already managed to piss off both Dick Durbin and Ed Royce over his shifting position on THAAD, he probably concluded that the last thing his voters want to see right now is a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance in the middle of a nuclear crisis that even Moon recognizes as existential for South Korea’s survival.

There will be other tests of South Korea’s commitment to its fellow Koreans who had the misfortune to be born north of the DMZ, of course. Moon may not be as helpful as Park Geun-Hye was in helping the next group of expatriated North Koreans who try to defect. He may also find more subtle ways of making refugees unwelcome, such as by breaching their confidentiality. Rather than returning the Ningpo 12 outright, someone within Moon’s administration could leak the locations of the Ningpo 12 to North Korean agents working in South Korea, and then allow one or more of them to “re-defect” through some lapse in security. There would, of course, be another sham news conference. (Will Ripley, take note.) The only real question is how complicit Moon Jae-In’s government is prepared to be in this sham. Evidence of complicity would arguably obligate the United States to accept North Korean refugees who, reasonably enough, would then feel unsafe in South Korea. That would also lead to frictions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Decision points like this remind us why the Trump administration’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is an important oversight in its North Korea policy. Eventually, the administration will have to realize that the North Korean people themselves could be our most important allies in any effort to disarm, reform, and change North Korea. We will have little influence with these potential allies if they look to us as protectors and allies and we let them down. Pyongyang’s reaction to this particular decision point also reminds us that Seoul’s decision to receive North Korean refugees has the potential to be historically determinative by setting off a preference cascade among key constituencies inside North Korea, maybe even including the military. One could say that a welcoming, prosperous, and free South Korea presents Pyongyang with the most “maximum” pressure of all.

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China is cheating on the North Korea coal import ban (again) (with updates)

Via the indispensable Leo Byrne:

Two North Korea-linked ships have arrived at two separate coal terminals in Shanghai since Sunday, while one other was departing the area after having left a third facility at a similar time.

Satellite imagery shows that each of the terminals is equipped to handle coal. The UN currently restricts member states from importing North Korean coal, while Beijing has said numerous times that it has suspended all imports for the remainder of 2017.

“Imagery indicates these sites are primarily used for coal unloading. Some of the larger port areas are multi-use, but the specific berths that the ships were tracked to appear to primarily handle bulk coal,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst, told NK Pro. [NK Pro]

As Byrne notes, this isn’t the first time in recent months China has been caught breaking its promise to stop importing North Korean coal this year. In addition to this, in 2016, China imported twice as much coal as permitted under a U.N. import cap. Much of North Korea’s coal trade is controlled by the North Korean military, or its external spy/terrorist/hacker agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

China’s failure to identify the North Korean links to the ships is, at a bare minimum, negligent. For example, one of the ships, the Pu Hung 1, is controlled by Rungrado General Trading Corporation, which deals in various goods and services including slave labor, which had been mentioned in U.N. Panel of Expert reports for proliferation, and which the Treasury Department designated in December.

Byrne links two other ships to one Hiroshi Kasatsugu. You can read about Mr. Kasatsugu’s links to Mirae Shipping, a front for U.N.- and U.S.-designated Ocean Maritime Management Company, in paragraphs 143 through 148 of the 2015 report of the U.N. Panel of Experts.

One of the ships that recently arrived in a Chinese coal terminal, and which is linked to Mr. Kasatsugu, was later sold to a front for none other than Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, or DHID. DHID is under indictment in a U.S. federal court in New Jersey for money laundering, conspiracy, and sanctions violations on behalf of North Korea.

China is obligated to expel representatives of U.N.-designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management, which the U.N. designated in 2014, yet Mr. Kasatsugu apparently continues to operate there. Not that this should surprise us, given how many members of North Korea’s proliferation network operate openly in China.

Brian Moore said it best:

I’ve come to the conclusion that official Chinese trade statistics are to certain journalists and economists what pro wrestling is to certain 10-year-old boys. So for this round, it’s NK News 1, Yonhap -1.

Mark your calendars for July 15th, everyone.

~   ~   ~

Updates:

It’s an oversight on my part that this post didn’t also work in Byrne’s reporting on other Chinese businesses helping North Korea register ships associated with its smuggling fleet. UNSCR 2321, paragraph 24 requires U.N. members states to “de-register any vessel that is owned, controlled, or operated by the DPRK.”

Expect to hear much more about this topic soon, from another source.

China is also increasing imports of North Korean iron ore. Under paragraph 26(c) of UNSCR 2321, the U.N. banned imports of North Korean iron ore except for “livelihood” purposes unrelated to its WMD programs — whatever that means in Chinese.

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North Korean man stabs, nearly kills Ministry of State Security officer

The Daily NK is reporting another case of a North Korean citizen attacking and nearly killing an officer of the dreaded Ministry of State Security (MSS), the agency that runs most of North Korea’s political prison camps, possibly over official corruption.

It has been reported that an [sic] Ministry of State Security agent working as a surveillance patrol officer at the No. 10 guard post in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, was stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant while on duty. The Ministry of State Security immediately dispatched a team of investigators to the region, but has yet to identify suspects.

The incident occurred on May 9 and the victim remains in a critical condition. Due to timely aid from his colleagues, he managed to survive and is currently in hospital.

“The Ministry of State Security (MSS) dispatched agents to Hoeryong to track down the suspect immediately after the incident. There are mobile inspection posts set up across Hoeryong to investigate residents who move in and out of the city. The incident is being treated very seriously because it occurred in the border region and it was an MSS official who was attacked,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

The North Korean authorities have classified the case as a serious anti-state crime, rather than a mere attempted murder or retaliative action. [Daily NK]

Word of the incident spread quickly among the local population, so the regime immediately blamed it on South Korea (Moon Jae-in, take note). Locals, however, “believe that the case is in retaliation to the corrupt authorities.” Although the Daily NK does not report the specific reason for the attack, it writes that “[s]ome believe that the suspect could have attacked the inspector out of anger as MSS agents frequently demand bribes for leniency on trade or smuggling,” and that local sentiment includes both a degree of sympathy for the officer and a sense that “the agent must have done something to warrant the attack.” Whatever the truth of the matter, these perceptions are also an important reality in a place with the truth is so scarce.

[Hoeryong, on the Chinese border]

The Daily NK also links to another report from Pyongsong in March of a “man in his 40s angered by the human rights violations he was subjected to some weeks ago during an investigation” attacking another MSS officer. In that case, the MSS officer was badly injured and hospitalized in Pyongyang, while the suspect got away. Local sentiment reported after that incident was more hostile to the state, according to one resident interviewed by the Daily NK: “Pyongsong residents are siding squarely with the victim and assuming that the abuse must have been severe for an innocent man to attack an officer. Everyone is hoping he escapes.” 

Because the only real solution to any of the world’s differences with Pyongyang must come from within North Korea itself, this blog has been diligent about documenting acts of anti-state resistance in North Korea. A quick pre-commute search of the OFK archives reveals evidence of other attacks by North Koreans against the security forces in 2015 (here, here, and here) in 2012 (here) and in 2010 (here).

Although these reports tell us something about the popular mood in North Korea and contradict the narrative of North Koreans as loyal, obedient automatons, they do not provide enough data for me to say that resistance in North Korea is above a level I’d call “ordinary.” I can recall two real surges of popular resistance in North Korea — in 2005 (in response to market crackdowns and corruption) and in 2009 (following what I call “The Great Confiscation,” an unannounced currency redenomination that wiped out the savings of millions of desperately poor people).

With the exception of fragging incidents and defections in the military, which are usually reactions to abuse by officers and NCOs, most incidents of resistance by North Koreans are from a combination of economic motivations and rage against official corruption. In other words, their motives are material, and may even resemble expressions of Marxian class warfare. That trend has continued right up to the present year. Mass mobilizations have also angered many North Koreans at the state.

So why don’t these attacks spur a broader public reaction, like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which is generally credited as the incident that triggered the Arab Spring? Fear (obviously) and cultural factors are partial explanations, but so are North Koreans’ sense of isolation and helplessness. By the time word of such incidents enters the markets, the authorities have already had time to mobilize and crack down, and the immediacy of the rage has dissipated. Word may never spread from town to town. This is why I’ve long thought that more isolated incidents of resistance could become mass incidents if North Koreans had an anonymous way to text each other.

These reports also help us put recent reports about the strains on the MSS into context. Earlier this year, shortly after MSS head Kim Won-hong was designated by the Treasury Department for human rights abuses, Pyongyang reportedly removed him from his post. At the time, there was widespread speculation about yet another purge. Kim Won-hong has since reappeared, although the exact nature of his status in the regime is unclear. Credible reports suggest, however, that the regime has lectured MSS officers about the importance of refraining from corruption, something it would only have done out of fear for the stability of state control. And for at least a while, MSS officers seemed chastened enough to shake citizens down for bribes somewhat more politely. The state is feeling the limits of its power. It does not really fear our aircraft carriers or our bombers. What His Porcine Majesty sees in his fevered dreams, perhaps after too much cognac, is a crowd of his own people demanding justice for his crimes against them.

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Trump & North Korea: In search of maximum pressure (Pt. 1)

Last week’s North Korea designations from the Treasury Department were the second round since Inauguration Day, and like the first round, they omitted the essential element for sanctions against North Korea to be effective: secondary sanctions to deter Chinese | banks and companies from enabling North Korean proliferation and money laundering, as they’ve been | doing for so long, and so flagrantly. On this point, I need not repeat Anthony Ruggiero’s arguments, so I’ll just refer you to his post.

In other words, this still isn’t the “maximum pressure” the Trump administration promised us, and continues to promise us. Rather than designate the dozens of North Korean front companies and agents identified in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ recent reports, OFAC continues to designate North Korea’s support network in China incrementally. The only Chinese connections in this round were the designation of Korea Zinc Industrial Group, which has offices in Dalian, and the designation of (U.N.-designated) Koryo Credit Development Bank official Ri Song-hyok, who “has reportedly established several front companies in order to procure items and conduct financial transactions on behalf of North Korea.” (Under UNSCR 2321, paragraph 33, China and other states were supposed to have expelled all representatives of North Korean financial institutions last year. The fact that Ri is still doing business in Beijing speaks volumes.)

How does one explain this not-even-remotely-maximum pressure? One obvious possibility is that Xi Jinping snookered Trump into quietly withdrawing his support for secondary sanctions against North Korea’s Chinese enablers. If so, “maximum pressure” will certainly fail. A second possibility is that this Japanese report that President Trump gave Xi Jinping 100 days to tame His Porcine Majesty is accurate, in which case the 100-day grace period will expire in mid-July. In any event, the evidence that China is holding up its end of the bargain is hardly conclusive, and whatever China is doing isn’t enough to moderate Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. For all of the recent rhetorical differences between Pyongyang and Beijing, Pyongyang seems to be as skeptical as I am that China will exert serious, regime-threatening pressure on it.

There are still some straws an optimist can grasp. The designation of the entire North Korean military (specifically, the State Affairs Commission, the Korean People’s Army, and the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces) may seem symbolic at first glance, but it could be a step in the direction of designating the many military-affiliated trading companies that fund it. If OFAC proceeds to do so, it will fill various banks’ anti-money laundering compliance databases with the names, addresses, and passport numbers of North Korean agents, which will trigger heightened due diligence obligations under 31 CFR 1010.659, which could pave the way for subpoenas, civil penalties, and deferred prosecution agreements against non-compliant large banks, and the potential loss of correspondent relationships by non-compliant smaller banks. Going after the security forces that suppress dissent and the trading companies that collect the revenue that sustains them would be a sound targeting strategy if the administration pursues it aggressively. Again, whether the Trump administration has the political will to do this remains to be seen.

Another hopeful sign is that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be sparing Russia with regard to secondary sanctions.

OFAC designated Moscow-based Ardis-Bearings LLC and its director, Igor Aleksandrovich Michurin, pursuant to E.O. 13382 for their support to Tangun.  Ardis-Bearings LLC is a company that provides supplies to Tangun, and Michurin is a frequent business partner of Tangun officials in Moscow. [….]

OFAC designated the Independent Petroleum Company (IPC) pursuant to E.O. 13722.  IPC is a Russian company that has signed a contract to provide oil to North Korea and reportedly has shipped over $1 million worth of petroleum products to North Korea.  IPC also may have been involved in circumventing North Korean sanctions.  OFAC also designated one of IPC’s subsidiaries, AO NNK-Primornefteproduct. [OFAC Press Release]

Leo Byrne has more information on the designation of IPC here.

Both rounds of designations by the new administration show a continued focus on the use of Executive Order 13722’s sectoral sanctions to strike at critical elements of Pyongyang’s economic support, including coal and energy. The designation of the Korea Computer Center is interesting is that it was not for hacking (see section 104(a)(7)), but for raising revenue for the military by selling software (see section 104(a)(8)). Also, Treasury finally got around to designating Kim Su-Kwang, the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau agent who infiltrated the World Food Program’s offices in Rome.

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The other sanctions news last week was the Security Council’s approval of Resolution 2356, which contains no new substantive provisions, only designations. On one hand, designations are certainly better than a “presidential statement,” and it’s some consolation that the U.N. is now pursuing North Korean officials who are responsible for censorship (the Propaganda and Agitation Department) and terrorism (the Reconnaissance General Bureau), suggesting an approach more holistic than one that treats Pyongyang’s proliferation as an isolated problem. The designation of Kangbong Trading Company, a military-affiliated coal-merchant designated by the Treasury Department in December, is worth watching. We’ll see if it means China will actually comply with the coal cap. I’m not holding my breath for that, but China’s agreement to a U.N. designation should hush China’s objections if the administration later decides to indict the purchasers of Kangbong’s coal later, for money laundering, conspiracy, and violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

On the other hand, this is a Chapter VII resolution in name only. There are no new restrictive measures, such as a ban on labor exports, or Pyongyang’s unconscionable export of food for cash while its people starve. The number, quality, and geography of the designations does not suggest a collective U.N. seriousness about uprooting North Korea’s proliferation network in China, Malaysia, Singapore, or Africa. The failure to designate Air Koryo, a key smuggling tool of the regime, is disappointing, and the failure to designate entities exposed in the most recent Panel of Experts report — notably Glocom and its affiliates — is simply egregious. While Resolution 2356 is certainly better than nothing, it’s also much less than what’s needed to enforce sanctions and make them work. As such, it’s a depressing sign of weakness from the Trump administration and disunity from the Security Council.

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What the Chinpo Decision doesn’t mean for the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions

Since the High Court of Singapore reversed part of the conviction of Chinpo Shipping for its role in financing the 2013 Chong Chon Gang arms shipment just over two weeks ago, and despite the crush of other (still unfinished) commitments that have eaten up my blogging time, I’ve wanted to set a few minutes aside to post some thoughts on the decision. (If you haven’t already looked up “chinpo” at Urban Dictionary, you really shouldn’t.)

Let’s start with what the decision wasn’t: a persuasive precedent for a narrow reading of U.N. sanctions:

May 2017: judicial reasoning in the Chinpo Shipping case found that the correct interpretation of UN sanctions against the DPRK is narrower than is often supposed, suggesting that even if current UN sanctions were to be implemented fully by all countries, a lot of trade with the DPRK could still continue lawfully; [Tristan Webb, NK Pro]

Contra Webb’s long-winded and thinly veiled celebration of the decision as a defeat for Donald Trump, “maximum pressure,” and U.N. sanctions, this decision turns out to have been much less than that. Rather, it was a flawed decision interpreting a badly written regulation that was two resolutions out of date at the time, and would be four resolutions out of date now had Singapore not already replaced it with a newer and tougher regulation that would likely have avoided the High Court’s embarrassing decision entirely. This decision is unlikely to be precedent in Singapore, much less in other countries.

The decision should, however, embarrass the 1718 Committee into carrying out its responsibility to “circulate a comprehensive compilation” of the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions (see paragraph 44), and spur the U.S. to lead a global effort to draft model sanctions legislation through the UNSCR 1540 process, the Proliferation Security Initiative, or the Financial Action Task Force.

This is my conclusion after having taken the extreme step of actually reading the decision, which I had to do for someone else on Saturday morning anyway, as one of those commitments I mentioned. (Special thanks here to Andrea Berger for posting it and helping me find it. Read her post, too.) Although I’m not a Singaporean lawyer, the laws of Singapore and the United States both descend from the English legal tradition, and to an American lawyer, the concepts will seem familiar.

Lost amid the commentary is that fact that the latter part of the High Court’s decision affirmed Chinpo’s conviction and fine for breaking the Money Changing and Remittance Business Act, by remitting more than $40 million for various North Korean entities through its Bank of China account without a license. As the High Court made clear, those remittances went well beyond the volume of Chinpo’s nominal shipping business, and Chinpo was really acting as a shadow bank. (That the Bank of China’s lawyers aren’t combing through terabytes of information right now, in response to Treasury Department subpoenas about flagrant Know-Your-Customer violations and possible money laundering, may be the greatest crime of all.)

The High Court reversed the portion of Chinpo’s conviction for violating the Singapore’s circa-2010 regulation implementing the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions, because the prosecution failed to prove that Chinpo had reason to know that its remittances directly benefited North Korea’s nuclear program. That part of the result is both absurd and partially understandable. It’s absurd because the U.N. sanctions themselves required no such standards of proof in 2013, when they occurred. The Chinpo wire transfers financed the smuggling of weapons, in violation of an arms embargo in effect against North Korea under resolutions 1718 (paragraph 8) and 1874 (paragraphs 9 and 10). Now, here is what the Singaporean prosecutors had to work with in 2013 — a poorly drafted, ridiculously outdated, and incomplete rule:

12.  No person in Singapore and no citizen of Singapore outside Singapore shall —

(a) provide any financial services; or

(b) transfer financial assets or resources, or other assets or resources,

that may reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Yes, that’s it. Not only does the regulation fail completely to prohibit financing of North Korea’s arms trade, it fails to incorporate the UNSCR 1718 arms embargo at all. There’s just no excuse for an advanced nation to have failed in this way, given that the embargo has been in effect since 2006. Which is why the decision was also partially understandable; after all, the court couldn’t very well allow Chinpo to be convicted for something the law didn’t yet prohibit. This is not to excuse the High Court’s ridiculously narrow reading of the regulation, and (given the nature of North Korea) the insurmountable evidentiary burdens the court applied to what was meant to be a due diligence obligation. 

So what we have here is a flawed decision based on a poorly drafted, outdated, and now-superseded regulation by a government that likely didn’t want to interfere too much with Singapore’s lucrative commercial ties to North Korea or offend Chinese interests. No doubt, after the Panel of Experts traced the Chong Chon Gang money trail back to Singapore, some Grand Poobah in the Singapore government told the prosecutors to charge Chinpo with something. That poorly drafted regulation is all the prosecutors really had. (Another serious, if more forgivable, error is that by the time of the Chong Chon Gang seizure, UNSCR 2087 and UNSCR 2094, with its much more stringent financial provisions — see paragraphs 10-16 — had been in effect for five months, but Singapore still hadn’t updated its regulation.)

Still, if this sort of thing can happen in a modern, advanced, rule-bound place like Singapore, why should we expect better results from Indonesia, Tanzania, or Angola?  The U.N. Security Council has now passed seven lengthy, often impenetrably worded, and overlapping resolutions strung together with confusing cross-references. It’s time to help the states with the lowest capacity to enforce those resolutions understand, translate, codify, enact, and enforce them. Model legislation is an essential first step, and only the U.S. can really lead that effort.

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H.R. 2732 would ban the North Korea tourist racket from the dollar system

Yesterday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D, Cal.) and Joe Wilson (R, S.C.) introduced a bill that would ban transactions incident to travel to, from, and within North Korea. The text isn’t posted on Congress.gov yet, but Schiff and Wilson have issued identical press releases describing what the bill would do:

Today, Congressmen Adam Schiff (CA-28) and Joe Wilson (SC-02) introduced the bipartisan North Korea Travel Control Act, which would require the Treasury Department to issue regulations requiring a license for transactions related to travel to, from, and within North Korea by American citizens. It also provides that no licenses may be issued for tourist travel.

“Tourist travel to North Korea does nothing but provide funds to a tyrannical regime—that will in turn be used to develop weapons to threaten the United States and our allies, as I saw firsthand on a rare visit to Pyongyang,” Rep. Wilson said. “Worse, the regime has routinely imprisoned innocent foreign civilians and used them as bargaining chips to gain credibility with the West. We should not enable them any longer—which is why it is critical to carefully regulate travel to North Korea.”  

“In recent years, there has been an increase in tourist travel to the DPRK by citizens of Western countries, including the United States,” Rep. Schiff said. “With increased tensions in North Korea, the danger that Americans will be detained for political reasons is greater than ever. Given North Korea’s continuing destabilizing behavior and their demonstrated willingness to use American visitors as bargaining chips to extract high level meetings or concessions, it is appropriate for the United States to take steps to control travel to a nation that poses a real and present danger to American interests.”

In the past, North Korea has shown a willingness to use American prisoners to seek diplomatic concessions, including securing visits from former U.S. Presidents and cabinet officials. At least seventeen Americans have been detained in the past ten years, despite the State Department strongly warning U.S. citizens against traveling to the DPRK. Currently, at least four Americans remain imprisoned. In addition to security concerns, Western visitors bring with them much needed foreign currency, especially valued in a country facing extensive international sanctions for its illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

It’s hard to offer too many thoughts on a bill whose text I haven’t seen, but conceptually, I agree with all of this. It’s past time to give the President authority to ban (or ban outright) tourist travel to North Korea, the proceeds of which are used for God-only-knows what (although I’m pretty sure it isn’t baby formula). If President Trump’s policy really is going to be “maximum pressure” — and I’ve seen precious few signs of that pressure so far — then this will deny His Porcine Majesty one more source of hard currency. Among other things, it will make the designation of Air Koryo far more effective than it could otherwise be, and will put sharper teeth into Executive Order 13722’s sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry.

As I previously explained here, the President can’t sanction travel-related sanctions without special legislation like this, because of the carve-out in section 203(b)(4) of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Keep in mind that this ban will not only affect travel by Americans, but any travel-related transactions denominated in dollars, regardless of the nationality of the traveler or the tour company. Much of the news coverage of this bill I’ve seen, which includes the self-interested comments of tour operators, misses that point.

As you know, I have mixed feelings about those who go slumming to North Korea and do stupid things there (starting with the decision to go there at all). I’m all for letting individuals (including stupid ones) make their own decisions, up to the point when their decisions begin to harm other people. My feelings aren’t at all mixed about the unethical tour companies that lie to their customers, tell them that North Korea is a perfectly safe place to visit, and remain willfully blind to the oppression and war that their dollars are really paying for. I wish them a speedy journey to bankruptcy court.

This may be the only sanctions bill for which the State Department might say a silent prayer of thanks. Each hostage taken frustrates our diplomats, sets back efforts to carry out a more coherent policy, and ultimately raises the danger to the rest of us who are smart enough to stay out of North Korea. No, a travel ban won’t stop every imbecile from going to North Korea, but it will reduce the supply. Whoever still believes that underwriting Kim Jong-un’s regime with dollars is plausibly leading to a kinder, gentler North Korea is stuck on that belief for emotional reasons, far beyond the reach of the overwhelming evidence that it is doing precisely the opposite of this. By financing North Korea’s horrific status quo, tourism does the North Korea people more harm than good. By undermining the financial pressure on Pyongyang, tourism helps Kim Jong-un resist pressure to disarm, to change, and to make North Korea a decent place for its people to live.

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Update: It now occurs to me that if this bill passes, you can forget about reopening Kumgang, at least as a dollar operation.

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Sung-Yoon Lee: Why do we appease N. Korea?

Professor Lee recounts the long history of North Korea committing outrages against peace, international order, and every standard of human civilization, and of American presidents of both parties doing approximately nothing about it.

Pyongyang’s countless provocations since the Korean War have never set off a meaningful punitive response. Even in egregious cases like assassination attempts against South Korean leaders or the shooting down of an American reconnaissance plane in international airspace in 1969, the United States and its allies have answered with restraint.

Since the early 1990s, American presidents have treated the growing threat of the North Korean nuclear program as a priority — but one to be dealt with later. North Korea’s deep poverty and the apparent clownish nature of its leaders have sustained the illusion that its nuclear program could be bought out, the regime itself could be waited out, and that its largely concealed crimes against humanity could be tuned out.
While the United States has vacillated between expedient deals, halfhearted sanctions, pleas to China for greater intervention and doing nothing, the North has methodically advanced its nuclear arsenal and missile capacity.

[….]

Through each of Pyongyang’s tests, American policy makers have harbored the hope that Beijing would come around and put real pressure on the regimes of Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong-il. But all Beijing has done is demonstrate a disingenuous pattern of diplomatic ambidexterity. China has made token gestures like signing on to United Nations Security Council resolutions while failing to enforce them fully, and at times even increasing trade with Pyongyang.

Although most North Koreans are cut off from the global economy, the regime elite remains beholden to international finance for moving proceeds from weapons trafficking. Pyongyang’s international currency of choice is the United States dollar.
North Korea is the only state known to counterfeit dollars as a matter of state policy. And the United States has largely declined to go after the Kim regime’s money trail because of concerns that doing so would push Pyongyang to escalate its provocations. The United States has also mostly shied away from imposing sanctions on the regime’s Chinese partners. [NYT, Sung-Yoon Lee]

Read the whole thing. For all its tough talk, the Trump administration shows little sign of implementing the tough policy it has articulated. It’s increasingly conspicuous to close observers that this administration has imposed no sanctions or taken any perceptible action to execute its “maximum pressure” since Xi Jinping came to Mar-a-Lago and confirmed his intention to turn Korea into its next semi-autonomous ethnic reservation. Trump is now in danger of falling into the same pattern as his predecessors, at a time when we can no longer afford to wait for some other president to solve this problem. By then, an extortionate, mass-murdering crime syndicate will have the means to nuke Seattle, its hegemony over a consensually finlandized South Korea will be functionally irreversible, and no sensible leader would ever trust America as an ally and security guarantor again.

In conclusion, terrorize your neighbors and your critics. Make sure you only let in the most pliable, controllable, and corruptible journalists. Hide your atrocities well — if there’s no video, no one really gives a shit anyway.

[Also, most people still don’t give a shit when there is video.]

Bolster the credentials of the most gullible academics and washed-up, has-been bureaucrats by giving them special, preferential access while denying it to those with the principle and basic common sense call you out. Proliferate with abandon and sell your work to the highest bidder. Keep your proles and peasants hungry. If your model of statecraft doesn’t include providing for them, and if you keep them too famished, isolated, exhausted, and cowed to start downloading plans for DIY Sten guns and shaped charges that might make the local SSD boys hesitate before hauling their families off to the gulag, it’s a winning strategy. After all, we’ve established that international institutions are either apathetic, impotent, or both, and that no democratically elected leader would sacrifice a portion of his domestic political support — such as it is — to challenge that business model.

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We should be very worried about Moon Jae-in (updated)

Is South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, forming a cabinet or a politburo? As I’ve written here, there has long been good reason to be worried. Moon has a long association with Minbyun, the hard-left lawyers’ group that is acting as Pyongyang’s law firm in South Korea by using the courts to wage lawfare against refugees, in violation of their human rights. He was chairman of the campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, the “anti-American” and “a little crazy” president who rode to power on the shoulders of a violent mob that attacked, spat on, and threw firebombs at American soldiers. As Roh’s Chief of Staff, Moon decided to seek Pyongyang’s input before abstaining from a U.N. resolution denouncing severe human rights abuses against its people, and then lied about it.

The most alarming development of all may be Moon’s choice of Im Jeong-seok as his Chief of Staff. Im was jailed for three-and-a-half years for accompanying organizing the illegal 1989 visit to Pyongyang that made Lim Soo-kyung a North Korean propaganda star. (Lim is now a lawmaker in Moon’s party. I previously discussed her drunken 2012 tirade against North Korean defectors and human rights activists. A previous version of this post, since corrected, said that Im had gone to Pyongyang with Lim.)

Via Benjamin Young, we also learn that Im was “involved with a Juche Study Group during the 1980s.” After I retweeted this, Oranckay, who was a student in South Korea at the time and thus almost necessarily a close observer of left-wing political groups, responded that Im had also headed a radical student group called Chondaehyop. Researching this group further, Chondaehyop turns out to have adhered to the pro-North Korean “national liberation” ideology, and had a violent history:

[link]

Chondaehyop was involved in a series of arson and vandalism attacks against Hyundai showrooms in 1989 during a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. On June 12, 1990, 300 members of Chondaehyop staged a firebombing attack on the Kwangju American Cultural Center, which damaged a police station and injured four officers. Then, on October 18th, eleven members of Chondaehyop were arrested for attempting to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and planting IEDs on the roof of the Consular Annex (all of the IEDs failed to explode).

After Chondaehyop was banned, it reemerged under the name Hanchongryon, under which name it was active in leading violent anti-American demonstrations during my tour in Korea. Even during the democratically elected Kim Young-sam administration, the prosecution accused Hanchongryon of being under the control of North Korea’s United Front Department, the agency responsible for overseeing the manipulation of public opinion in South Korea.

To be fair, Oranckay did not observe Chondaehyop engaging in violence at the time Im led it, but not much time could have separated Im’s leadership from its occurrence.

Then, there is the worrisome fact that Moon Jae-in gave one of his first post-inauguration interviews to Tim Shorrock, a pro-North Korean hack (he calls himself a “journalist”) with a long career of denialism of Pyongyang’s crimes going back to the 1983 Rangoon bombing, and its crimes against humanity.

More recently, Mr. Shorrock has been spreading unsubstantiated anti-American agitprop, which I can’t ask him to substantiate because he blocked me on Twitter months ago.

Shorrock is also really, really angry at Bernie Sanders for being too critical of North Korea.

Now, when you call someone a Marxist, you’re apt to be called a McCarthyist, so instead, I’ll just link to, say, this post where Mr. Shorrock wrote, “I’m a Marxist.” Or, I’ll announce that I have in my hand a list of Mr. Shorrock’s tweets, to give you a better idea of his political views. Draw your own conclusions. (Sorry for the image quality. As mentioned, Mr. Shorrock blocked me several months ago, but a couple of readers sent me screenshots from his feed. I didn’t know then they’d come in handy later.)

And here’s Shorrock defending Roh Kil-nam (who I discussed here).

I believe the specific reason why Mr. Shorrock blocked me, incidentally, was that I repeatedly tried to get him to state whether he still demanded that the South Korean government release Lee Seok-ki, a hard-left ex-lawmaker who was recorded plotting violent attacks against critical infrastructure in South Korea in support of a North Korean invasion, even after Mr. Lee was convicted of treason and sent to prison and his conviction was affirmed by an appeals court.

In conclusion, a bigger dirigible bag of combustible gas has not been seen in America since May 6, 1937, over Lakehurst, New Jersey. And like Mr. Shorrock, this predecessor was a propaganda banner for a fascist state that sent children to die in concentration camps — only Shorrock is either too blind or too stupid to distinguish between Marxism and hereditary rule by an organized crime family that has created a society of permanent classes, propagates vile racism, enforces racial purity with infanticide, anointed its ruling family as gods, and created arguably the world’s greatest gap between rich and poor. That President Moon granted an interview to Mr. Shorrock should alarm us for the same reason it alarmed us when Donald Trump gave an interview to Alex Jones.

As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Personnel is policy. You judge a man by the company he keeps. Pick your own expression. The clear message Mr. Moon is sending to Pyongyang is, “I’ve chosen sides, but for now, there are some understandable political constraints.” You might choose to assume that Moon and Im have moderated with age. You might cite any number of Moon’s statements during the campaign to take comfort from the moderate views he expresses now. Most politicians, after all, are highly sensitive to what views they can express without losing votes.

But this collection of circumstantial evidence of Moon’s origins and associations suggests the more alarming — and equally plausible — explanation that Moon and those closest to him cannot be trusted with the most sensitive U.S. intelligence about our contingency plans, and that their unreconstructed views are merely latent for the time being. It’s time to be very worried about Moon Jae-in.

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Update: Veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin’s detailed Asia Times story about Im Jeong-seok is an absolute must-read:

There seems to be little surprise in Seoul about the appointment of Im, who’s now 51. After all, Moon is a former militant anti-government activist. Later, he was a close supporter of two earlier presidents’ decade-long pursuit of the “Sunshine” policy of making nice to the North in the hope the two could negotiate their differences.

Moon has since his election sought to downplay his differences with US policy toward North Korea. So the suggestion that Im’s appointment sounds like an appalling development is left to just a few observers.

Read the rest on your own. Those zany right-wing conspiracy theories about a quiet coup in South Korea suddenly aren’t sounding all that zany at all. “Appalling” is right.

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North Korea policy in the South Korean election: what (little) the data tell us

What exit polling data I do have come to us from the Asan Institute. And while Asan’s analysis contains much interesting information that political types would call “internals,” it doesn’t tell us all that much about voters’ attitudes about North Korea policy. The first thing it tells us is that North Korea didn’t really weigh much on the minds of voters at all, compared to economic issues.

I wonder whether you’d see more concern among Americans about the North Korean threat if you took a poll here. South Koreans have become practiced and skilled at ignoring the North Korea problem over the years.

Our only “rare glimpse” of voter opinion on security issues comes in this surprising finding that almost by 60-40, the voters still want THAAD. That’s a surprising result given Donald Trump’s ham-handed demands that South Korea pay for it on the eve of the election. Frankly, I’d have expected something closer to the opposite result. That suggests that any plans Moon has to pass legislation in the National Assembly reversing the deployment of the system (which is now operational) could run into trouble.

Another glimpse comes from recent data, which I discussed here, showing that Xi Jinping’s unilateral sanctions against South Korea have caused a rise in anti-China sentiment, while pro-U.S. sentiment is high, and pro-North Korea sentiment isn’t. The political environment in South Korea is nothing like 2002, although I suppose that most South Koreans would probably favor some form of engagement and oppose confrontational policies in the abstract. I’m sure the administration’s war talk makes them nervous (me too).

To delve deeper into South Koreans’ views, I had to go back to 2015, because the 2016 version of this poll wouldn’t download. That poll was taken after Park’s handling the 2015 land mine incident, but before Park closed Kaesong (at least permanently). At first glance, this graph suggests that the softer line wins plurality support. But if one assumes that voters perceived Park’s policy as hard-line, and if you combine the status quo and pro-hard-line figures, you see that at that time, a majority of South Koreans who had an opinion wanted a North Korea policy that was as tough or tougher than Park’s.

Indeed, as I’ve noted before, Park’s North Korea policy was about the only thing voters liked about her. I’d say that goes for me, too (always has) although unlike most South Koreans, I don’t have to work Saturdays, stay out late drinking with my boss, or watch him promote his incompetent college classmates ahead of me. Not surprisingly, then, I differ from most South Koreans on which issue that concerns me.

The data mostly support what I said yesterday: despite voters’ fatigue with the political right, and their desire to punish it for Park Geun-hye’s sins, they are uneasy about the security situation and wary of a lowering their guard. Moon hedged carefully on THAAD, and he’s begun to hedge on Kaesong, too. He’s a smart enough politician to continue to hedge if he senses that he can’t push harder for policies he really prefers without losing political support. What Moon and those around him probably do prefer is where things take an alarming turn, but I’ll have to leave that topic for another day.

If any readers have newer or better polling data to add to this mix, kindly drop a link in the comments. (Note: Comments are moderated, so it might take a few hours until I have a chance to approve them. Please be patient. Comments here have been of very good quality lately; thanks for submitting them.)

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No, Moon Jae-In’s election probably doesn’t mean Sunshine 2.0

I’ll have to keep this post short because of time constraints, but my interest in South Korea’s election is mostly related to how Seoul’s policies toward North Korea will shift. I’ll refer you to this post and this one on why it’s likely to change less than John Delury might like, this piece in NK News where I offer some thoughts, and this excellent post by Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston. Much will depend on how hard President Trump pushes back. Maybe Moon will completely win Trump over in their first call, but I’m more inclined to believe that it will turn into a difficult cost-sharing negotiation (which Moon can use to his political advantage).

If Trump is skillful in his handling of Moon, however, he can exploit Moon’s political and legal weaknesses to prevent him from catapulting money over the DMZ. For one thing, Trump has U.N. sanctions on his side. For another, North Korea policy wasn’t the main reason people voted for Moon, and compared to past South Korean presidents, Moon’s win was hardly commanding. If you eliminate candidates who received less than 1 percent of the vote, in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung won 40.3 percent in a three-way race; in 2002, Roh Moo Hyun, won 48.9 percent in a three-way race; in 2007, Lee Myung Bak won 48.7 percent in a five-way race; in 2012, Park Geun-hye won 51.5 percent in a two-way race; and this year, Moon won 41.1 percent in a five-way race.

It’s worth asking why Moon actually performed worse in terms of percentage of the vote this year despite his name recognition, the advantage of an anti-Park backlash, and a fractious (and frankly, pathetic) field of opponents on the right. Because it was a five-way race, of course! But why was this a five-way race at all? The right had as weak a field as Moon himself could have conjured, and Moon has run against Ahn Cheol-soo before and made quick work of him. In 2012, Ahn’s support collapsed and his supporters coalesced behind Moon. This time, Moon couldn’t close that deal. Surely Moon would have preferred that outcome, and surely he still does, given that he only controls 120 (not 119) seats in the National Assembly now. He will need 151 votes to legislate his policies on THAAD, Kaesong, other elements of his agenda. Give him the Justice Party’s 6 votes. He still needs most of the People’s Party votes to pass legislation, and even then, don’t forget that Moon’s own party was able to delay passage of a North Korea human rights law for more than a decade. Can he get those votes? Probably so on less controversial issues, and hopefully so on needed reforms to make South Korea a fairer, safer society with a better quality of life, and a better work-life balance.

On the specific issue of resuming Sunshine, however, I see little evidence of a mandate. Of course, past vote totals are hardly predictive of the impact of past presidents on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea — one could argue that there is almost an inverse relationship. What does seem to be predictive of South Korea’s policy is the mood of the times, and the best data I have suggests that that mood has shifted strongly toward the center since 2002. Each nuke or missile test will weaken Moon’s hand in capitalizing Pyongyang. How Trump deals with Moon, what Kim Jong-un does next, and the results of South Korea’s next by-elections will give us a better sense of whether the voters want Moon to have a mandate or checks on his power. (Who knows when those will be?)

The immediate impact of Moon’s election is that the herculean efforts of Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to secure other nations’ compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea will end. Over to you, Secretary Tillerson. The question that weighs on me more is whether Moon will listen to the counsel of his most extreme advisors, who might endanger the rights of North Korean refugees in South Korea.

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