The Great Engagement Debate: Stanton v. Delury at NCNK

On October 22nd, the National Committee for North Korea invited me and Professor John Delury of Yonsei University to a debate, in which we each offered three proposals for the next president on North Korea policy, all premised on a delusion of grandeur that Donald Trump really cares what either of us thinks.

The debate was held in a beautiful conference room on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building overlooking the Capitol. There was a great crowd — probably about 60 people. Stephen Noerper, the Senior Vice President of the Korea Society, moderated.

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Naturally, the debate became a debate about the Sunshine Policy, the Sunshine Lite Policy, and other Sunshine hybrids and mutations that have dominated U.S. and South Korean policy for most of the last 20 years. And while I could hardly agree less with Professor Delury on policy matters, I also found him to be an exceedingly likable and genial person. I’m glad to have met him, and honored to have debated him. My only regret is that there wasn’t video, but the transcript is here.

Many thanks to Keith Luse and NCNK for their kind invitation, and to Daniel Wertz for arranging this, and for his careful attention to the transcripts.

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In North Korea, too, Putin fishes in troubled waters

Last week, the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn North Korea for crimes against humanity by a vote of 112 to 19, with 50 abstentions. (HRNK intern Raymond Ha, the extraordinarily bright young man who checked every footnote in my report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, has a new post out analyzing the voting patterns on recent UN resolutions.)

Russia, of course, has voted against all recent attempts to hold North Korea accountable in the Security Council. And while Russia has never been enthusiastic about accountability for Pyongyang’s rulers, it has recently joined China in actively violating UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang’s behalf. In its intent, if not in volume, Russia is now as bad as China as a violator of UN sanctions against North Korea. Around the time of the Ukraine invasion, Russia went from passive non-enforcement of the sanctions to openly helping North Korea violate them

putin fishing

[Christmas gift ideas: a treadmill desk, Photoshop CC2015.]

For example, the entire Chong Chon Gang transaction (the Cuba arms shipment seized in Panama) was arranged by North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) from its Vladivostok office, at this apartment. OMM has since been designated by the UN, and its entire fleet has been designated by the Treasury Department. The UN Panel of Experts has opined that all member states are obliged to immediately seize any OMM property that comes within their jurisdictions. Instead, OMM vessels continue to dock in Russian ports, do their business, and leave on a regular basis.

In 2014, Russia also allowed North Korean officials to attend an arms fair in Russia, despite the fact that the U.N. imposed an arms embargo on North Korea in 2006, and has repeatedly reaffirmed it in the years since then. More alarmingly, Russia has reopened cooperation with North Korea’s General Bureau of Atomic Energy, which is designated by the U.N. Security Council, inviting its scientists to do research in Russian laboratories. 

On the financial front, Russia recently proposed opening a bilateral trade clearing house to process transactions in local currency, presumably rubles. This is a transparent sanctions dodge — an effort to avoid the dollar system, and Treasury’s capacity to regulate and block dollar-denominated transactions cleared through New York banks. I have real doubts about whether the North Koreans are really interested in rubles, and far greater doubts that the Russians want to be paid in North Korean won. Furthermore, at some level, this trading house will eventually want to cash out its proceeds through the dollar system. The next president should make it a priority to sanction this trading house into extinction.

Yesterday’s fireworks in Syria were a reminder that while all great powers have a hard time fighting insurgencies, none has historically had a harder time than Russia, with its long historical record of losing wars to smaller countries. For the last three years, Vladimir Putin has correctly sensed, and taken advantage of, the weakness in our government. In some cases (Georgia, Ukraine) Putin’s goals were clearly territorial or hegemonic. Putin may have hegemonic interests in North Korea, but Russia’s support for North Korea mostly looks like retaliation for U.S. sanctions over its invasion of the Ukraine.

Our conflicts with Putin may be beyond the point of reset, simply because of Putin’s predatory personality. Fortunately for the long-suffering Russian people, Russia is not North Korea, and although opposition there is certainly muzzled, it can and does exist. My sense is that Churchill was correct when he said that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it looks. From where I sit, Russia looks overextended. Although I suspect that Putin remains popular, he is probably past the peak of his popularity. As Russia’s economy continues to decline under the strains of low oil prices, mismanagement, and sanctions, will its people continue to support the expense and loss of these foreign adventures? In recent years, ours didn’t, and historically, neither have Russia’s.

Certainly secondary sanctions against Russian banks are one important tool for dissuading Russia from supporting Pyongyang. Another may be to raise our support for our friends (Ukraine, the remaining moderate rebels in Syria) and frenemies (Turkey) who have common grievances with the Russians. If the Ukrainian forces today were as well-led and well-armed as the Finns were in 1940, we would see renewed Russian interest in a peace deal that gives autonomy to russified areas of the Ukraine, while restoring the Ukraine’s nominal borders to the status quo ante. In time, raising the costs of those conflicts for Russia may result in us having a more reasonable Russian leadership to negotiate with.

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Jeffrey Fowle’s mission to N. Korea no dumber than the rest of them

In this age of click-bait listicles, The Atavist has published a rare example of real journalism, in which reporter Joshua Hunt traces the story of Jeffrey Fowle from its origins (in a dream!) to its anticlimax. Fowle, you will recall, is the Ohio municipal worker who went to North Korea, “certain that God had a plan for him,” left a Korean-language Bible next to a toilet in Chongjin, got himself arrested and detained for six months, and nearly lost both his job and his wife. Later, asked if it was all worth it, Fowle answers in the affirmative.

Fowle’s master plan was as follows: (1) smuggle one Korean-language Bible through customs at Sunan Airport, (2) lug it across North Korea, in his jacket pocket, under the watchful eyes of his minders; (3) leave it in some discreet place, to be found by some random person who is totally not a Ministry of Public Security Officer tracing his every step; (4) wait for said person to experience a miraculous conversion; (5) assume that said person will propagate the transformation of the world’s most controlled society into a clandestine house church; and (6) if caught, pretend he dropped his sole link to his spiritual life accidentally.

Through sheer luck, Fowle achieves steps 1 and 2, but things come badly unglued at step 3. To buy himself time, Fowle places the Bible under a wastebasket, rendering his whole cover story (see step 6) implausible. The reader is left with an impression of a man driven more by the best of intentions than by natural gifts of intellect or common sense.

At this point, Fowle quickly learns that North Korea has a unique gift for isolating the individual — in this case, a nearly friendless man who, thanks to a combination of flawed judgments and flawed relationships, soon finds that he has no friends at all. As we’ll soon see, Fowle’s relationship with Koryo Tours turns out especially badly for him. To anyone of at least average judgment, the ethical context foreshadows this.

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Admittedly, the idea that you can change a society — especially this one — by leaving a Bible next to a toilet for the janitorial staff sounds dumb enough. It might be the perfect story for coastal elites to titter at the Bible-thumping flyover loser.

To be sure, Fowle emerges from the story as a pathetic figure, but I can’t say that his master plan sounds any dumber than more secular messianic master plans that have gained widespread elite acceptance. Behind every flawed engagement theory lurks the premise that liberal white people (or liberal Koreans) radiate magical sunbeams of love that melt icy hearts. Their assumptions about the penetration of their ideas through the elaborate defenses of the State Security Department and the Ministry of Public Security are every bit as irrational as Fowle’s, and they’ve done far more then the likes of Fowle to perpetuate the very controls they claim to be subverting, through billions of dollars in aid and profitable trade.

We see these theories expressed in shallow or self-serving arguments that tourism is changing North Korea or improving the lives of its people, or that the Associated Press can teach KCNA propagandists to be objective journalists. Who is supposed to be changing who again?

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To me, the most laughable master plans are those of the messianic capitalists — many of whom come from the political left in their home countries — who think they have a lot to teach North Korean arms dealers and money launderers about profits, international banking, and the global economy.

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Predictably, and immediately after Fowle finishes “using the toilet,” the MPS minders have traced his every step and found his “lost” Bible, complete with a (legitimately) forgotten picture of his family. At this point, Koryo Tours’ Simon Cockerell becomes the first one to interrogate the tourists, and is the one who extracts the confession from Fowle that he dropped the Bible.

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Cockerell doesn’t admit that he immediately ratted Fowle out to the North Koreans, but any reader can infer as much. Depending on who was watching, Cockerell might have pulled Fowle aside and told him to shut his mouth, but he didn’t. Instead, he effectively became a willing interrogator — effectively, just another MPS minder. Cockerell and others in his industry often argue that their presence is changing North Korea, but the opposite seems closer to the truth.

Meanwhile, Fowle continued to dig himself into a deeper hole.
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I’ll let Robert J. Samuelson close this post.

Ever since World War II, our foreign policy has rested on an oft-silent presumption that shared prosperity is a powerful and benevolent force for social stability, peace and (often) democracy. All the emphasis on free trade and globalization is ultimately not a celebration of economic growth for its own sake. It’s a means to larger ends of social cohesion and political pluralism.

In this, we have mostly projected our own domestic experience onto the world at large. Americans’ obsession with material progress — which seems excessive and even vulgar to many — is largely what has enabled us to be a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial and multireligious society. Everyone can strive to get ahead. There’s a large common denominator. [….]

The second defect is more unnerving and dangerous. It is the true Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy: Significant blocs of humanity ignore or repudiate our faith in the power of shared prosperity. They put other values and goals first. Nationalism is one obvious alternative — Putin’s Russia being a good example. The case of China is more complicated. Although it is obsessed with economic growth, it’s also indulging a nationalistic urge to reassert itself on the global stage. [Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post]


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Scott Snyder: increase sanctions, including secondary sanctions, on Pyongyang

In a new paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, Snyder has called for increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, to persuade it that it must disarm or perish:

Since defecting from Six Party negotiations on denuclearization in 2008, North Korea has pursued nuclear development unchecked by international constraints. Barack Obama’s administration has demanded that Pyongyang make a strategic choice to denuclearize and tried to build a regional consensus opposing North Korea’s nuclear efforts, but it has been
unable to halt the country’s nuclear weapons development. Instead, North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile development is designed to force U.S. policymakers to make an undesirable choice: either acquiesce to the reality of a nuclear North Korea or mobilize international support for the destabilization of the North Korean regime.

To stop the North Korean nuclear threat, the United States should take three steps. First, Washington should increase pressure on Pyongyang so that the regime recognizes its existential choice between survival and nuclear status. Second, the United States should pursue five-party talks (Six Party framework members minus North Korea) to develop a viable pathway for North Korea to survive and benefit from denuclearization. Such a regionally supported consensus on a route to denuclearization would seek to induce a debate inside North Korea regarding the costs and benefits of its pursuit of nuclear status. And third, the United States should encourage China and Russia to withdraw political support for and increase pressure on North Korea until the regime commits to denuclearization. [Scott Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations]

Read the rest on your own; it’s only a few pages long (HT: Yonhap). Whatever my small quibbles with Scott Snyder’s writings on occasion, there’s no question that he’s one of the most respected Korea scholars in Washington, and any shift in Snyder’s thinking is likely to reflect or catalyze more shifting opinions within the conventional wisdom here. I find much more to agree with in this paper than Snyder’s previous take on sanctions policy.

The paper still raises some questions. The first of these is how we can “encourage” a recalcitrant China and Russia, when both countries have engaged in a pattern of willful non-enforcement. In China’s case, I recently described that pattern in great detail. I’ll present a similar case about Russia later this week. Would Snyder be willing to go as far as taking up Andrea Berger’s call for secondary sanctions? I’d say “yes,” based on this:

The Obama administration should apply increased political and economic pressure on North Korea to convince its leaders that a nuclear North Korea is a dead-end option. The United States should work with its allies to expand sanctions to target businesses and banks that refuse to cease cooperation with North Korea. At the same time, the United States and its allies should emphasize to Pyongyang that expanded sanctions will be relieved if North Korea takes meaningful, concrete steps toward denuclearization, such as resuming cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by allowing the return of international inspectors to the country. The United States should also remind North Korea that military provocations risk escalation that could lead to the country’s demise.

We know from past experience that whatever the objections of the Chinese government to secondary sanctions — and I was recently regaled over dinner with how furiously some of its representatives reacted to this paper, much to my amusement — historically, Chinese banks have been responsive to the threat of secondary sanctions. It’s reasonable to believe that Russian banks would respond to the same forms of “encouragement.”

Then, would Snyder focus our demands exclusively on the nuclear issue, excluding concerns about North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons, its cyber-warfare, its money laundering, its increasingly dangerous artillery rocket arsenal, and its crimes against humanity? It may be that our interests demand that Pyongyang commit to a more fundamental change of its world view than disarmament alone; after all, its expansion into uranium enrichment makes disarmament much harder to verify, especially without Pyongyang’s acceptance of much more transparency.

The human rights issue is of growing importance to policy debates in Europe and elsewhere. This also points to one flaw of the five-party formulation. The use of progressive diplomacy instead would allow us to enter talks with a coalition behind us, rather than by going straight to talks with governments that are disunited or (in the case of China and Russia) hostile to our interests.

Overall, however, Snyder’s paper is refreshingly realistic about Pyongyang’s intentions, and about the need for us to be more aggressive about curtailing them.



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China arrests 10 N. Korean refugees, including a family with a baby; protest tomorrow at Chinese embassy

A group of North Korean defectors who were being smuggled across the China-Vietnam border have been detained, and are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea.

A South Korean government official who spoke to News 1 on the condition of anonymity said 10 defectors in total were taken into custody in the Mong Cai region of northern Vietnam. All have been sent back to China, and 9 of the 10 are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea, South Korean outlet Newsis reported. [….]

The group includes a captain of the North Korean army, and a family of three that includes a 1-year-old child, the source said. It is likely the group was seeking asylum in South Korea through an embassy in Vietnam. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

If these people are sent back to North Korea, they’re in grave danger of being executed or sent to a political prison camp. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry has condemned China for sending these refugees back to North Korea, instead of allowing them to travel on to South Korea, which gives them asylum.

43. Despite the gross human rights violations awaiting repatriated persons, China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who cross the border illegally. China does so in pursuance of its view that these persons are economic (and illegal) migrants. However, many such nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be recognized as refugees fleeing persecution or refugees sur place. They are thereby entitled to international protection. In forcibly returning nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China also violates its obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law. In some cases, Chinese officials also appear to provide information on those apprehended to their counterparts in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. [UN COI]

The NGO No Chain has announced that it will hold a protest at the Chinese embassy tomorrow, Saturday, November 21st, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. The address is 3505 International Place NW, Washington DC 20008. Bring your own signs, placards, and banners. Details here.

Please share this post as widely as you can on social media.

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Of fools and their money: Martyn Williams on Orascom’s North Korea fiasco

Martyn Williams of the North Korea Tech blog has a must-read story at IT World about how Orascom’s investment in North Korea’s Koryolink mobile phone service “went horribly wrong.” That such a headline can be written is, by itself, a stunning reversal. During the early years of Kim Jong-Un’s reign, Koryolink was the poster child for more sanguine North Korea watchers, who believed that once a Swiss-educated reformer had taken the throne, a Pyongyang Spring must surely follow.

For the first few years, Koryolink really did look like a grand success, touting millions of customers, and ostensibly breaking down some of North Korea’s internal isolation. Optimistic observers assumed away, or perhaps beyond, a system architecture that facilitated state control, censorship, and eavesdropping, and the fact that cost alone put Koryolink out of reach of everyone but the elites. They held their tongues when Koryolink poured millions of dollars into white elephant projects like the Ryugyong Hotel while millions of North Koreans went hungry. They ignored the security forces’ use of Koryolink to shut down the very cross-border movement of people, information, and goods that has been the greatest driver of change by North Korea’s poor and underprivileged.

In the end, however, the fatal blow to Koryolink is more likely to be Pyongyang’s own greed than the moral, ethical, or legal, hazards of dealing with His Corpulency:

Orascom’s efforts to get its profits out of North Korea have been unsuccessful, partially because of international sanctions imposed on the country but mainly by the government’s refusal to let the money go.

To transfer money out of North Korea, Orascom needs permission from the government and it hasn’t been granted, despite it being a partner in the joint venture.

The government hasn’t acted because it can’t afford to.

The profits are held in North Korean won, but the currency isn’t traded internationally and the government’s official rate is set artificially high, at 100 won to the U.S. dollar. At that rate, Orascon’s holding at the end of last year was worth $585 million.

But at the black market exchange rate, which is effectively the real value of the currency in North Korea, the cash is worth only $7.2 million. And therein lies the problem. The government can’t afford to pay the money at the official rate, and it can’t be seen to officially recognize the black market rate. [IT World, Martyn Williams]

After months of negotiations between Pyongyang and Orascom deadlocked, Pyongyang set up a rival carrier to compete with its now-captive partner. Eventually, it even forced Orascom into merger talks in which it would be the majority partner.

That led to a dramatic statement from Orascom when it reported its financial results Monday — “in the group management’s view, control over Koryolink’s activities was lost.”

What are we to take from all of this? First, that His Corupulency has not made the decision that Burma’s rulers have, to open and reform the society he rules, or to deal fairly with foreign investors. The careful observer will perceive a cooling in the ardor of even such pro-engagement stalwarts as Andray Abrahamian, who was, until last year, one of the most enthusiastic promoters of commerce with Pyongyang. Judging by his Twitter feed, Abrahamian appears to be spending more time in Rangoon than Pyongyang lately.

Second, despite all of this evidence, there will always be an endless parade of gullible foreign investors who will follow in the footsteps of Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-HunNigel Cowie, and Orascom, which I predicted back in 2008 would “eventually meet the same fate.” All of them have, to one extent or another, abandoned their investments in the Central Bank of the DPRK. The oil and gas company GeoExPro seems like a strong candidate to be next. Pyongyang, like the smarmy barkers of carnival midways, is counting on a small, yet endless, supply of suckers who are too greedy and ill-informed to know better.

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Treasury blocks assets of North Korea’s ambassador to Burma

Although I suppose it’s probably a complete coincidence that Treasury finally blocked the assets of four North Korean proliferators in Burma last Friday, I’d like to think it stung a bit when, a few weeks ago, at this conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I said this:

Here’s a link to Treasury’s announcement of the designation of four individual North Koreans, including Pyongyang’s Ambassador to Burma:

HWANG, Su Man (a.k.a. HWANG, Kyong Nam); DOB 06 Apr 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472220033 (Korea, North) (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Kwang Hyok, Burma; DOB 20 Apr 1970; nationality Korea, North; Passport 654210025 (Korea, North); Korean Mining Development Trading Corporation Representative in Burma (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Sok Chol, Burma; DOB 08 May 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472310082; North Korean Ambassador to Burma (individual) [DPRK2].

RI, Chong Chol (a.k.a. RI, Jong Chol); DOB 12 Apr 1970; Passport 199110092 (Korea, North) expires 17 Mar 2014; alt. Passport 472220503 (Korea, North) expires 06 Jun 2018; alt. Passport 654220197 (Korea, North) expires 07 May 2019 (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

The bracketed “DPRK2” means the designations were under the potentially sweeping but still barely used new Executive Order 13687, which allows Treasury to designate any North Korean government or ruling party official, entity, or enabler. This means Treasury doesn’t have to publish detailed reasons for its designations. According to GAO, this should make the process of designating North Korean entities much easier, although we’ve seen relatively little action from Treasury since the order was signed on January 2nd, shortly after President Obama blamed Pyongyang for the Sony hack and cyberterrorist threat.

Treasury’s announcement doesn’t give a specific reason for the designations, but does say that the targets are linked to the Korea Mining Development Corporation (KOMID), which has been designated for WMD proliferation since the George W. Bush administration. Treasury also designated a North Korean trading company in Egypt.


According to Yonhap, EKO is “a North Korean government entity located in Egypt,” and was designated “for helping KOMID market North Korean weapons systems to foreign countries.” You can find references to similarly named entities through a Google search.

“Today’s action is designed to counter North Korea’s attempts to circumvent U.S. and United Nations (UN) sanctions, as well as maintain the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on individuals and entities that are linked to the North Korean Government’s weapons of mass destruction procurement network,” the department said. [Yonhap]

Let’s start by accentuating the positive. The designation of a sitting ambassador represents a notable and long-overdue escalation in Treasury’s designations.

The Ambassador was reportedly paid by the sanctioned DPRK company and arranged meetings on their behalf.

“‘The designation of the DPRK Ambassador to Burma is unprecedented. It is a strong signal to the new Burmese government that the US has persistent concerns about the relationship between North Korea and the country’s military which it expects to be promptly addressed,” Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News.

“The January EO is much broader in scope and therefore involves a different standard of evidence: it is only necessary to demonstrate that a person is a North Korean official or has materially assisted the North Korean government. There is no doubt that the Ambassador meets these criteria,” Berger added. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

Ordinarily, the Vienna Convention protects the activities of diplomats as inviolable. North Korea’s abuse of these protections, however, is so widely acknowledged that even the U.N. Security Council’s latest North Korea sanctions resolution calls for the “targeting the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel,” expresses concern that Pyongyang “is abusing the privileges and immunities accorded under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations,” and calls on member states “to exercise enhanced vigilance over DPRK diplomatic personnel so as to prevent such individuals from contributing to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by” U.N. resolutions. By itself, however, the designation of four individuals and one trading company represents a small dent in a global network.

“North Korea’s continued violation of international law and its commitment to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat to the United States and to global peace and security,” Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin said in the statement.

“Today’s designations underscore our ongoing efforts to obstruct the flow of funds used to augment North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” he said. 


To get an idea of what a serious and sustained sanctions enforcement program would look like, you need look no further than Treasury’s own sanctions search tool, which reveals that there are no less than eleven sanctions programs dedicated exclusively to Iran, compared to two dedicated to North Korea. The number of designations is even more telling. Hold down your “control” key and click “561List” (signifying 31 C.F.R. Part 561), EO13622 (signifying the executive order of the same number), EO13645, FSE-IR, HRIT-IR, IFSR, IRAN, IRAN-HR (human rights), IRAN-TRA (under this statute), IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guards Council), and ISA. You should get 845 results. Because these programs still exclude designations under other sanctions programs, such as “NPWMD” (for WMD proliferation) and “SDGT” (for terrorism), it’s entirely possible that Treasury has designated more than 1,000 Iranian and Iranian-linked entities, compared to around 90 in North Korea’s case. 

An effective sanctions program will require years of sustained and determined effort, and the political will to designate North Korea’s banks, higher-level ministries, senior officials, and third-country enablers. Such an effort begins by requiring all transactions with the North Korean government to be licensed by OFAC, which is one way Treasury can begin to gather financial intelligence on where North Korea’s money is, and how it moves. As of now, however, there’s no such comprehensive requirement. The most optimistic way to view this is as a small but welcome start.

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Choe Ryong-Hae’s latest non-appearance fuels purge speculation.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale reports:

Speculation about a possible new high-level purge in North Korea grew on Thursday after a close aide to leader Kim Jong Un appeared to miss a gathering of the Pyongyang leadership.

Since taking the North Korean leadership at the end of 2011, Mr. Kim has executed around 70 officials as part of efforts to solidify his position, according to South Korean authorities who closely monitor their neighbor for signs of instability.

Speculation over the fate of Choe Ryong Hae, who has been an emissary for Mr. Kim to China, Russia and South Korea in recent years, began on Sunday when his name was omitted from the list of around 170 names in the organizing committee for the funeral of a senior military figure. A South Korean government spokesman called the omission unprecedented.

Yonhap offers this explanation for Choe’s whereabouts:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent his key confidant to the country’s top school for re-education, South Korea’s intelligence officials said Thursday, in an apparent lenient punishment that could set the stage for his political comeback in the coming months, if not years.

“Choe Ryong-hae is receiving education at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School,” an official said, referring to the top institution named after the country’s founder, Kim’s late grandfather.

Gale notes that Choe “is the son of a former North Korean armed forces minister who fought alongside Mr. Kim’s grandfather against occupying Japanese forces in the 1930s.” Oddly enough, while reading Jang Jin-Sung’s “Dear Leader” last weekend, I read this passage, which explains Choe’s longevity under Kim Jong-Il:

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Old loyalties only go so far with the world’s only millennial hereditary despot. There is something awfully erratic, even impulsive, in the way Choe has fallen and risen during Kim Jong-Un’s reign. As noted before, one minute KCNA is announcing his “transfer” out of the National Defense Commission; the next thing, he’s showing up as a high-level emissary in Seoul, or even as a stand-in for His Corpulency in Beijing. I’ll let this quote from Gale’s article take us out.

Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website and an expert on top figures in the Pyongyang regime, said Mr. Choe’s apparent absence from the funeral was a strong suggestion that he had at least been sidelined.

“I don’t think we’ll be hearing from him for a long time,” he said.

I’ll bet Pyongyang’s legions of photo editors must be wishing they had some non-permanent ink right now.

If it were only Choe involved here, that would be one thing, but when a high-level official gets purged in North Korea, his family, his associates, and their families can suffer, too. This has the potential to affect a lot of people.

One day, we’ll know whether it’s an indicator of instability, too. I don’t think it profits Kim Jong-Un’s image of stable leadership to keep replacing the very men he sends abroad to negotiate with his adversaries and his frenemies.

My final point would be to note that the occasion for Choe’s vanishing was the funeral of Marshal Ri Ul Sol from cancer, itself an odd thing for a regime that’s now peddling miracle cures for cancer. Actual results may vary, I guess.

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House Subcommittee Chair calls for re-listing North Korea as a terror sponsor

poeLast month, I posted video of a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade, where Chairman Ted Poe of Texas and Ranking Member Brad Sherman of California grilled a hapless State Department official about North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, and why North Korea wasn’t listed. State’s performance at the hearing wasn’t just bad, but exceptionally so. Poe and Sherman were both visibly exasperated with State’s stonewalling, and seemed convinced that State was ignoring the law. Now, Poe has put his views in writing, listing the justifications for a re-listing at length:

Pyongyang has known links to the tyrannical regimes in Tehran and Damascus, and there have been several instances in the past decade in which North Korea’s two Middle Eastern clients transferred North Korean arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2009 alone, three North Korean arms shipments were seized by UAE, Israeli, and Thai authorities.

In all three cases, press reports indicated that the arms were bound for terrorist groups. In July 2014, Western security sources told media outlets that Hamas brokered an agreement to purchase communications equipment and artillery rockets from the Kim regime. Sure enough, North Korean anti-tank guided missiles surfaced in Gaza that same year.

But weapons sales are not the whole picture of North Korea’s ties to terrorist groups – there is growing evidence of Pyongyang’s advisory role to these violent organizations. Press reports in 2014 suggested that North Koreans advised Hezbollah in the construction of tunnels in Southern Lebanon in 2003-2004. Israeli military commanders believe that North Korea also provided logistical advice on Hamas’ tunnel network which it infamously used to attack Israeli civilian populations.

North Korea is also still a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. Its ongoing collaboration on ballistic missiles with Iran, the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism, is well known. According to reports the two countries are presently working on the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could allow North Korea to deliver a nuclear warhead far beyond its shores. [Fox News]

If I have one regret, it’s that Poe didn’t raise North Korea’s kidnapping and assassination plots against human rights activists and exiled dissidents in China and South Korea. But when the evidence for a state’s sponsorship of terrorism is extensive enough to fill a 100-page report, you can’t fault a man for not being able to squeeze it all into one op-ed.

Poe’s call adds to other prominent members of Congress of both parties who want North Korea re-listed, including Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Robert Menendez.

Meanwhile, we’re approaching the first anniversary of North Korea’s cyberterrorist threats that forced a stupid movie called “The Interview” out of theaters all over America. It was the first time in U.S. history that a foreign government successfully used terrorism against the American people, in their own country, to censor our freedom of expression. The Obama Administration’s response so far has been to sanction ten low-level arms dealers and three other entities that the Treasury Department had already sanctioned previously. A year later, I still wonder when our President will keep his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the most important freedom guaranteed to us under our Constitution.

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North Koreans need food & medicine, not Guus Hiddink’s “futsal” stadium

hiddinkSouth Koreans remember Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink as the man who led their team to a successful performance in the 2002 World Cup. But when the history of a united Korea is written, North Koreans are likely to remember him less fondly. Hiddink has just returned from Pyongyang, where he signed a deal to help Kim Jong-Un build yet another expensive leisure facility that falls low on the average North Korean’s hierarchy of needs — a new “futsal” stadium:

“It was a short but a good visit,” [Hiddink] told reporters at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul. “We talked about installing a Dream Field. I was eager to do one or more even in the North. We signed an agreement that as soon as possible — hopefully before the summer — we’ll have the first Dream Field in Pyongyang.”

The Dutchman said he was already looking forward to his next visit to North Korea, possibly next summer.

“I challenged them to start building what we agreed,” he added. “We will supply, as soon as possible, the necessary equipment and then they can start. If you want something, you can do it very fast.” [Yonhap]

In case you were about to ask:

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.32.26 AM

The U.N. World Food Program’s 2015 needs assessment gives us a better idea of that hierarchy, for those North Koreans who are excluded from its leisure class:

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.38.14 AM

These figures, which rely on regime-supplied statistics, may overstate or understate the problem to some degree, and the results of various U.N. surveys vary, depending on how one measures North Koreans’ misery. For example, this 2013 U.N. survey found that 84% of North Koreans have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. Earlier this year, the U.N. reminded us that many of North Korea’s children will feel the effects of malnutrition for the rest of their lives.

More than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the United Nations said Friday.

The report illustrates a major domestic challenge for North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

A team from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reporting from North Korea, found that 2.8 million North Koreans “are in need of regular food assistance amidst worrying levels of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity.” It said 4 percent of North Korean children are acutely malnourished. [AP]

While North Korea’s mass casualty famine probably ended around 2000, there were reports of famine on a much smaller scale in 2012, and harvests are believed to have fallen again this year. It’s almost certain that at least some North Koreans who lose their state rations or the support of their families continue to starve to death, out of sight and out of mind, even now.

There is also the complete breakdown of North Korea’s health care system, to the extent that people who can’t afford to bribe doctors into treating them have turned to opium and methamphetamine as alternative medicines.

Guus Hiddink’s futsal stadium would join a long list of new leisure facilities for Pyongyang’s elite, including a dolphin aquarium, a 3-D cinema, a water park, and a floating buffet — amenities that are beyond the imagination of most North Koreans. In 2013, Kim Jong-Un reportedly spent $300 million on a leisure and sports facilities, including a ski resort filled with equipment imported in violation of U.N. sanctions. That same year, His Corpulency spent $644 million on luxury items like flat-screen TVs, sauna equipment from Germany, Swiss watches, and expensive booze. Also that same year, the World Food Program asked foreign donors to contribute $200 million toward a two-year program to feed 2.4 million North Korean women, children, and infants — just a fraction of those in need.

Given that the U.N. Security Council banned the export of luxury goods with after the passage of Resolution 1718 in 2006, can this possibly be legal? Due to the uneven and dilatory implementation of the resolution, it’s almost impossible to be sure. The UN’s tragically incomplete (but non-exclusive) list, still not filled out nine years later, specifically mentions only jewelry, yachts, luxury cars, and racing cars. The EU list prohibits “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports,” and “[a]rticles and equipment for billiard, automatic bowling, casino games and games operated by coins or banknotes,” but would theoretically allow a European supplier to sell Kim Jong-Un a curling rink, jet skis, or bobsleds. The U.S. Commerce Department’s list of luxury goods is the broadest, and includes any “[r]ecreational sports equipment.” Theoretically, then, Treasury could block any dollar payments to facilitate Hiddink’s project. (The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act would cut this semantic Gordian Knot by adopting the U.S. Commerce Department list as its definition.)

The obscenity of a nominally socialist state, which monopolizes most of the nation’s resources, squandering the meals of starving kids on luxuries for a tiny elite is the reason why the U.N. adopted the luxury goods ban. I’ll take that argument a step further: it’s a crime against humanity — specifically, what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” By knowingly helping Kim Jong-Un to misallocate resources that belong to the North Korean people, and which should be used to fulfill their rights to food and medical care, Hiddink makes himself an accessory to this crime, and places himself before the judgment of history, and perhaps, one day, of the law itself.

If the UN can’t define “luxury goods,” if the EU can’t interpret the UN resolution’s plain language to address the evil it was meant to remedy, and if the U.S. won’t enforce its own regulations, then the good people of Europe and the Netherlands must condemn and ostracize Hiddink for his appalling ethical misadventure.

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This isn’t the first purge rumor about Choe Ryong-Hae

Choe Ryong-Hae’s omission from Marshal Ri Ul-Sol’s funeral committee has South Korean experts and officials speculating that Choe, thought by some to be North Korea’s third-ranking official, may have become the latest of many North Korean officials to be purged by Kim Jong-Un:

Even if unwell, Choe would normally be on the list and experts said the omission of someone of his stature could not be put down to oversight.

“It’s almost impossible that this happened unless Choe … was removed from key positions,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.

“I suspect that Choe might have been involved in serious trouble such as a major corruption scandal or defamation,” Cheong said.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea affairs, also noted the omission in a regular press briefing on Monday.

“We certainly view it as unusual given past precedent,” said ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee.

Choe was also absent when Kim paid tribute at Ri’s wake Sunday along with several senior military cadres, according to footage from North Korean state TV.

Choe was seen as Kim Jong-Un’s most trusted envoy, and was chosen to take a personal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

And he visited Beijing again very recently, in September, as North Korea’s representative at China’s giant WWII victory anniversary parade. [AFP]

At the outset, it’s worth asking whether Choe was ever ranked as highly as is often assumed. On this point, Jang Jin-Sung takes the view that he wasn’t, and I take Jang’s views on such matters seriously.

Even by North Korean standards, Choe’s status has been difficult to follow. In September 2014, North Korean state media announced that Choe has been “recalled … from the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post.” Sounds ominous, right? A month later, Choe and Hwang Pyong-So were dispatched to Seoul for high-level talks, which seemed to confirm Choe’s high status and level of trust within the regime.

Don’t pity Choe, who has undoubtedly climbed over plenty of skulls to reach his position. Save your pity for poor Ken Gause, who had just released a book on North Korean kremlinology, and who may well have enough material for a second edition by December.

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China helps N. Korea nuke up & break sanctions, then says sanctions don’t work.

Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration’s point man on North Korea policy told Congress that sanctions are hurting Pyongyang. I must confess to some skepticism.

KJU ski

[Ski lift made in China.]

kju airport Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 9.04.40 PM

Instead, the evidence suggests that North Korea’s rich are getting richer, and its poor are staying poor. Materially speaking, the capital’s elites have never had it better, and openly buy imported consumer goods with dollars. Marcus Noland also sees evidence that, whatever the official statistics tell us, Pyongyang’s palace economy appears to have grown in recent years. Outside Pyongyang, however, 70 to 84 percent of the people are barely scraping by.

If our diplomacy is at an impasse and our sanctions aren’t working, then by what measure can the administration say that its North Korea policy is working? When President Park visited Washington last month, she and President Obama warned Kim Jong-Un that if he “carries out a launch using ballistic missile technology or a nuclear test,” he will “face consequences, including further significant measures by the U.N. Security Council.” But for all the talk that China is unhappy with Kim Jong-Un, China’s willingness to violate U.N. sanctions — violations that are too numerous to be anything less than state policy — continues to be the most important reason why sanctions aren’t working.

As I’ve argued recently, U.N. sanctions against North Korea will continue to fail until the U.N. and its member states do what they have not yet done — act promptly to designate the third-country enablers that help Pyongyang break them. Earlier this week, I posted a detailed case study about one of Pyongyang’s most important enablers, Chinese ex-spy and businessman Sam Pa, his 88 Queensway Group, and his North Korean joint venture, known as KKG, a partnership with Bureau 39, Pyongyang’s official money laundering agency. Pa first entered North Korea in 2006, just in time to prop up Kim Jong-Il as the Banco Delta Asia action was starving his regime of the hard currency on which its survival depends.

Unfortunately, KKG is just one of many examples of China helping North Korea to evade sanctions over the course of decades. Not only that, Chinese technology transfers played a major role in helping North Korea build its long-range ballistic missiles to begin with.

The National Security Agency (NSA) suspected in late 1998 that the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) was working with North Korea on its space program (closely related to missiles) to develop satellites, but that cooperation was not confirmed to be linked to the Taepo Dong-1 MRBM program, the Washington Times reported (February 23, 1999). An NSA report dated March 8, 1999, suggested that China sold specialty steel for use in North Korea’s missile program, reported the Washington Times (April 15, 1999). In June 1999, U.S. intelligence reportedly found that PRC entities transferred accelerometers, gyroscopes, and precision grinding machinery to North Korea, according to the Washington Times (July 20, 1999). Another official report dated October 20, 1999, said that China’s Changda Corporation sought to buy Russian gyroscopes that were more of the same that China supplied to the North Korean missile program earlier that year, reported the Washington Times (November 19, 1999). In December 1999, the
NSA discovered an alleged PRC deal to supply unspecified PRC-made missile-related items to North Korea through a Hong Kong company, said the Washington Times (January 1, 2000).

The DCI first publicly confirmed PRC supplies to North Korea, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in July 1999. [….] The DNI’s Section 721 Report of May 2007 told Congress that PRC “entities” continued in 2005 to assist North Korea’s ballistic missile program. [Congressional Research Service, Jan. 5, 2015]

China also gave North Korea’s nuclear weapons program substantial help, both directly and through Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network:

The New York Times and Washington Post reported on October 18, 2002, that U.S. officials believed Pakistan provided equipment, including gas centrifuges, for the North Korean uranium enrichment program, in return for North Korea’s supply of Nodong MRBMs to Pakistan by 1998. The Washington Post added on November 13, 2002, that the Bush Administration had knowledge that Pakistan continued to provide nuclear technology to North Korea through the summer of 2002. Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center wrote in National Review Online (November 19, 2002) that “one might call on Pakistan, Russia, and China to detail what nuclear technology and hardware they allowed North Korea to import.”

The New York Times reported on January 4, 2004, about a history of nuclear technology proliferating from Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan and disclosed that he had transferred designs for uranium-enrichment centrifuges to China first. DCI George Tenet confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 24, that North Korea pursued a “production-scale uranium enrichment program based on technology provided by A.Q. Khan.” Particularly troubling was the reported intelligence finding in early 2004 that Khan sold Libya a nuclear bomb design that he received from China in the early 1980s (in return for giving China centrifuge technology), a design that China already tested in 1966 and developed as a compact nuclear bomb for delivery on a missile.47 That finding raised an additional question of whether Khan also sold that bomb design to others, including Iran and North Korea.

Moreover, PRC firms could have been involved directly or indirectly in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs or weapons proliferation to other countries. In June 1999, authorities in India inspected the North Korean freighter Kuwolsan and found an assembly line for Scud ballistic missiles intended for Libya, including many parts and machines from China or Japan, according to the Washington Post (August 14, 2003). The Washington Times reported on December 9 and 17, 2002, that a PRC company in the northeastern coastal city of Dalian sold to North Korea 20 tons of tributyl phosphate (TBP), a dual-use chemical that U.S. intelligence reportedly believed would be used in the North Korean nuclear weapons program. [CRS, Jan. 5, 2015]

It bears repeating that just days before North Korea’s first nuclear test, influential Chinese academic, frequent Pyongyang visitor, and maleficent asshole Shen Dingli publicly flashed a green light. Shen has since called North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons “a sovereign right to which the D.P.R.K. is entitled.” China’s is not a society that values academic freedom, particularly in the field of its foreign relations. If Shen wasn’t speaking for Beijing, you could forgive Pyongyang (and Washington, and for that matter, me) for believing he was.

nuclear related shipment, 2012, shipped through Dalian

[Nuclear-related shipment, shipped through Dalian, China, 2012]

According to former State Department official David Asher, China has “long served as a safe harbor for North Korean proliferation and illicit trading networks and a transport hub for these networks via its airports and airspace, harbors and sea space.”

[I]n the past decade there have been way too many incidents of Chinese companies actively fronting for North Korea in the procurement of key technologies for the DPRK’s nuclear program. Some of these incidents suggest lax enforcement of export controls, poor border controls, and a head-in-the-sand attitude of senior authorities. Others suggest active collusion and/or deliberately weak enforcement of international laws and agreements against WMD and missile proliferation. There is a great body of information about this and the Chinese are well aware of our grave concerns. [David Asher at the Heritage Foundation, Sept. 14, 2006]

The evidence that has emerged, both before and since 2006, overwhelmingly supports Asher’s charge. China’s failures to enforce U.N. sanctions constitute a long-standing pattern and practice of non-enforcement. In 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained to the Chinese government about its failure to inspect and intercept a shipment of missile parts aboard a North Korean flight to Tehran as it refueled in Beijing.

pyongyang-tehran (1)

[Flight path from Pyongyang to Tehran]

In 2008, China failed to inspect two containers of rocket fuses that were shipped from North Korea to Iran, via the Chinese port of Dalian (page 31). Most of the photographs that follow are from the U.N. Panel of Experts charged with investigating compliance with the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions resolutions.

Shipped through Dalian, 2008, destination Iran

[Shipped through Dalian, China, 2008. Destination, Iran]

In 2009, at least two North Korean arms shipments to Iran, believed to be for the eventual use of Hamas or Hezbollah, passed through Chinese ports or airspace.

pyongyang-bangkok (1)

[Flight path from Pyongyang to Bangkok]

Transited Chinese airspace, 2009, destination Iran

[Shipment from N. Korea to Iran, via Bangkok, 2009. Passed through Chinese airspace.]

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.01.14 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.01.28 PM

[Via the U.N. Panel of Experts]

A North Korean shipment of chemical reagents and protective suits bound for Syria may have passed through China in 2009.

chemical protective suits, shipped through Dalian, 2009, destination Syria shipped through Dalian, 2009, destination Syria

[Shipped through Dalian, China, 2009. Destination, Syria.]

In 2010, France seized a shipment of arms-related materiel en route from North Korea to Syria. The consigner was a shipper based in Dandong, China (page 37).

arms-related shipment, shipped by N Korean front company in Dandong, 2010, destination Syria

[Arms-related shipment, shipped by North Korean front company in Dandong, China, 2010. Destination, Syria]

In 2011, China blocked a report by a U.N. panel of experts that implicated it in North Korean arms transfers to Iran. In 2012, a Chinese state-owned firm, Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co., sold North Korea chassis for missile transporter-erector-launchers (pages 80-84, or the CRS report linked above, at 19, or the reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts).

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.00.57 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 7.58.46 PM

[The web site of state-owned Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Company, announcing the sale to “a client in a certain country.”]

In 2013, a South Korean newspaper was able to track down a North Korean money launderer operating in Guangdong, from this apartment complex.
Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.31.54 PM

While the Treasury Department had (at least temporarily) scared off the bigger Chinese banks from North Korean business that year, the Bank of Dandong and North Korean banks operating from China took up the slack. In 2014, the U.N. Panel of Experts reported that a U.N.-sanctioned firm linked to North Korea’s WMD programs was operating openly at a Chinese trade show (page 53). As recently as November 2014, the same company still operated in China and Russia.

Spotted at a trade fair in Dandong, 2013

[Spotted at a trade fair in Dandong, China, 2013]

The U.N. Panel of Experts has named multiple Chinese firms that have facilitated shipments of luxury goods to North Korea (page 41). North Korea is still using the dollar system to conduct its business, although some of that business has moved to a lower level in the financial ecosystem, through intermediaries like the banks in Dandong and Shanghai, 88 Queensway, and the money launderers in Guangdong.

In 2008, the Chinese government also set up “a system which will allow companies and people from North Korea to open bank accounts in China to settle business transactions in yuan,” to avoid the dollar system and Treasury regulations entirely. In 2013, when Treasury sanctions again started to cause pain in Pyongyang, 40 senior North Korean officials gathered in a restaurant in Shenyang to discuss strategies to evade them. Such a meeting could not have taken place without the knowledge and approval of Chinese authorities.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 8.02.57 PM

[Wire transfer for arms sale to Congo, arranged from Beijing]

And of course, let’s not forget that the North Koreans who hacked Sony pictures, and who carried out a successful cyberterrorist threat against movie theaters across America, operated out of the Chilbosan Hotel in downtown Shenyang, China. chilbosan-175304_copy1

[The Chilbosan Hotel, home of North Korea’s Unit 121]

Draw your own conclusions from this evidence, but here’s mine: the Chinese government has provided extensive, active, and long-term support to North Korea’s WMD programs and sanctions violations. This support has come from Chinese government agencies and state-owned firms that work with some of China’s most sensitive (and presumably, most closely watched) defense technologies. In numerous other cases, Chinese law enforcement officials looked the other way when North Korean proliferators smuggled weapons through its ports or its airspace. And we’re talking here about the world’s second-most policed society, where the government can have Jing-Jing and Cha-Cha at a teenager’s doorstep within minutes of her posting “Tibet” or “6.4” on her weibo.

All of which sets the table for a fisking of the five Chinese academics from state schools or government institutions whom NK News interviewed for this article. I’m glad NK News did the interview. It’s important for us to have a clear-eyed view of how China sees North Korea, even if that clear-eyed view reveals that China is, despite much wishful thinking to the contrary, fundamentally hostile to our interests, and either ignorant of the facts or willfully blind to them. These insights may not be comforting, but they’re consistent with a long history of China’s behavior:

Sanctions can’t hurt North Korea at all. I was in North Korea last year. It doesn’t look like North Korea’s economy was hurt by the sanctions in any way. The idea to impose sanctions to change North Korea’s behavior is wrong.

Either he’s saying that his overlords, who voted for six U.N. Security Council resolutions (the most recent of them two years ago) were “wrong,” or he’s accurately reflecting the groupthink in Beijing, thus revealing how fundamentally disingenuous China really is, and how different its U.N. votes are from the actual policies it pursues.

Again, as I said earlier, we have exhausted most of the options to try and shape North Korea’s behavior.

I’ve already addressed that falsehood in detail, but it’s especially concerning to hear the Chinese assert the same falsehoods as our own President, both with the shared intention of disinforming American policymakers that they’re powerless to address the problem.

As long as Washington doesn’t give up its interests in Northeast Asia, especially maintaining its military forces, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons.

As long as China doesn’t give up its claims to Taiwan, there’s nothing we can do to keep Taiwan from buying our gas centrifuges, “satellite launch” vehicle gyroscopes, and trucks for transporting curiously long, eight-foot-thick tree trunks.

Is it possible for China to stand on the same side with the U.S.? No. To me, the gap in Western society and Eastern society seemed to grow wider after the September 3 military parade.

Translation: you may not think we’re in a Cold War with China, but China thinks it’s in a Cold War with us.

The sanctions are meaningless. International society believes cutting off the supply of luxury goods to the elites is punishment. The problem is North Korea’s economy has remained relatively independent from the rest of the world. During the Cold War era, its economy was associated with Eastern European nations. After the Cold War, its economy has mainly interacted with China, which means North Korea’s economy has little linkage with international society and the sanctions can barely hurt the country.

Except when we “finally found a way to hurt” Kim Jong-Il, because we cut the links between him and his bank accounts … in China. Including in the Bank of China itself.

Western opinions have successfully shaped North Korea as an evil power.

Yeah, where did we ever get that idea? From the former Attorney General of Indonesia, who might (in turn) have gotten it from any of 30,000 North Koreans who inexplicably risked death, rape, torture, and the gulag to flee their homeland. 

So, how exactly can you ban North Korean from importing luxury goods?

By adopting a reasonable definition of “luxury goods,” as the U.S. and the EU have done, but which China still hasn’t done nine years after it voted to approve UNSCR 1718. By instructing the Chinese Customs officials who are counting the flat screen TVs and the jewelry, and presumably collecting duties on them, to keep them off the flights to Pyongyang, and off the trucks to Sinuiju.

The fifth Chinese “expert,” a young Ph.D candidate, actually comes dangerously close to the truth when he says this:

According to China’s official response, it is not breaking UN sanctions on luxury goods when it comes to the items exported from China.

I think China usually holds a vague approach to sanctions on North Korea. On the one hand, China does not want to provoke North Korea on this issue. On the other hand, North Korea’s main trading partner is China. So sanctions would cause harm to Chinese businessmen.

As we know, exporting luxury goods is a high-profit business. So the businessmen have a high incentive to conduct it. So I think it is difficult for China to officially forbid this behavior when confronting pressure from this interest group.

With the possible exception of our Ph.D candidate, all of the Chinese “experts” insist that their government has enforced the U.N. sanctions. I suppose if you live in a society where slavish groupthink is either compulsory or essential to one’s career advancement, and where inconvenient evidence is censored for your protection, you might actually believe this. It has also occurred to me that most of them don’t.

Whether the Chinese actually believe this or are willfully disinforming us, our survey says that four out of five Chinese experts are dealing in falsehoods. Why does China play these games? Lots of reasons, I suppose, not all of them mutually exclusive. The fact that well-connected Chinese companies are making a lot of money from their North Korea trade would be reason enough. After all, that seems to be why South Korea continues to subsidize trade with North Korea, contrary to its national interests. Other, more malign motives may also play a part — a desire to distract U.S. power in the region, to gain bargaining leverage over the U.S. on the Taiwan issue, an institutional hostility to the U.S. and its interests, and as part of a grander ambition to finlandize both Koreas (which is easier done by keeping them divided).

It’s all speculative, of course. What’s beyond denying is that China isn’t interested in solving this problem; China is the problem. And until China’s support for North Korea draws consequences in its relations with the U.S. and its allies, it will continue to be.

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Tourists put $43M in Kim Jong-Un’s pockets last year

Despite a string of high-profile arrests of foreign tourists recently, Darwin’s light continues to draw slummers — and record hauls of their money — into Pyongyang:

North Korea earned tens of millions of dollars from foreign tourists in 2014, around half of the hard currency it won from the lucrative inter-Korean industrial park, a researcher said Sunday.

North Korea’s income from foreign tourists is estimated at US$30.6 million to $43.6 million last year, considering about 95,000 Chinese tourists and 5,000 tourists from Western countries visited the country, Yoon In-ju of the Korea Maritime Institute said in a paper.

North Korea’s annual income from the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North’s border town of Kaesong, accommodating 124 South Korean firms that employ more than 50,000 North Korean workers, reached $86 million in 2014. [Yonhap]

For years, the peddlers of North Korea tours have fended off moral and ethical questions about their funding of a brutal, repressive regime by saying that their contribution to Pyongyang’s finances was negligible.

Trips aren’t cheap either – four nights can cost around £1,000 excluding flights – and it is a profitable enterprise for all involved. But those working in the industry argue that the money trickling through to the government is small – and if they were to cease operations tomorrow the impact on the regime would be negligible. [The Guardian]

Few journalists ever asked the tour companies to show us their books, but now we know that tourism is, in fact, a non-negligible source of income for the regime. It’s time to take a fresh look at whether the tour companies’ payments to Pyongyang violate U.N. Security Council sanctions, which prohibit the payment of funds that “could be used” for North Korea’s WMD programs or luxury goods purchases.

“11.  Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation; [….]


“14.  Expresses concern that transfers to the DPRK of bulk cash may be used to evade the measures imposed in resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), and this resolution, and clarifies that all States shall apply the measures set forth in paragraph 11 of this resolution to the transfers of cash, including through cash couriers, transiting to and from the DPRK so as to ensure such transfers of bulk cash do not contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution; [U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094]

Whether the tour companies are violating U.N. sanctions, and the domestic laws of the countries from which they operate, depends on the answers to questions that regulators and reporters aren’t asking: How do these tour companies pay Pyongyang? What currencies do they use? Most importantly, where does the money go, and what is it used for? Governments have ethical, moral, and legal obligations to ask those questions, and to demand clear answers backed by credible evidence. It’s past time for U.S., U.K., and EU authorities to audit the tour companies, and to block payments by any third-country tour companies that refuse to show that they’re complying with U.N. sanctions.

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Seoul & Pyongyang join forces to fund N. Korea’s rich, starve its poor

Our endlessly unrequited vigil for North Korean reform continues:

Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.

Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.

North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.

Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.

“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”

The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said. [Reuters, Bill Tarrant]

More about Lee here. This is exactly the kind of behavior a rational person should expect from North Korea. What’s inexplicable is that South Korea — which sends cash to Kim Jong-Un through Kaesong — also prevents North Korean refugees from remitting money back to their relatives.

Sending money across the border – or private communications of any kind with the North – is also illegal in South Korea.

The money from defectors goes into North Korea’s increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.

Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.

That is to say, Seoul continues to push direct economic engagement with Pyongyang years after the failure of that policy became objectively undeniable, and despite legitimate concerns about how Pyongyang is using that money, yet shuts down forms of economic engagement that could be feeding the hungry, catalyzing the growth of a market economy, subverting the state’s propaganda, and loosening the dependence of the people on the regime.

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Sam Pa, 88 Queensway, KKG & Bureau 39: A case study in how China helps N. Korea evade sanctions

Last week, I highlighted Andrea Berger’s excellent post at 38 North, calling for the U.N. Security Council to sanction North Korea’s third-party enablers. Berger named some of those enablers, but I’d like to name another one of the most important ones — the Hong Kong-based 88 Queensway Group, headed by one Sam Pa, also known by his birth name “Xu Jinghua” or any of “at least eight aliases,” each with its own matching passport. According to multiple news reports, Pa has extensive connections to Chinese politicians, and with its intelligence services.

The mystery over his origins may be related to his former career as a spook. “All his life he’s worked in Chinese intelligence,” one source told the Financial Times. [The Independent]

An FT investigation last year found that Mr Pa and his fellow founders of the Queensway Group have connections to powerful interests in Beijing, including Chinese intelligence and state-owned companies. [Financial Times]

On the web, you’ll find a lot written about Mr. Pa, mostly about his notorious business dealings in Africa. Most of that reporting focuses on what could be described, conservatively, as conflicts of interest. The Economist writes that Pa’s deals “appear to grant the Queensway syndicate remarkably profitable terms,” “would be depriving some of the world’s poorest people of desperately needed wealth,” and “may also have indirectly helped sustain violent conflicts.” These include close partnerships with the governments of Zimbabwe and Angola in their diamond mines, and with Angola’s oil ministry, via an entity called China Sonangol, that was “deemed so corrupt in 2003 that Citibank closed all its accounts.”

The routine need to bribe officials is not a deal-breaker for Queensway either. Chinese investigators found that Queensway’s leaders had bribed high-level officials in Nigeria and several other countries. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

Queensway’s deals often traded Africa’s resources for promises to build infrastructure — promises on which Queensway ultimately failed to deliver. The exchange of Africa’s commodities for services has the additional advantage of avoiding the dollar system, and with good reason: the Justice Department and the SEC have opined that making a payment through a U.S.-based correspondent account gives them jurisdiction to prosecute non-U.S. companies under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Even if the feds never make an arrest, they can still forfeit assets “involved in” any predicate offense for a money laundering transaction.

Deals with Zimbabwe would be especially risky. Most of its top officials’ assets are blocked for “subverting or undermining democratic practices and institutions.” One of the Zimbabwean officials with whom Sam Pa has met, Happyton Bonyongwe, heads its dreaded Central Intelligence Organization, its internal security branch. In 2008, the Treasury Department blocked Bonyongwe’s assets for “political repression.” In 2011, opposition members of the Zimbabwean government cut funding for the CIO, but soon, according to The Economist, the CIO was “suddenly flush with cash,” and had “doubled the salaries of agents” and “acquired hundreds of new off-road vehicles and trained thousands of militiamen” who could then help “intimidate voters during next year’s elections.” The Economist adds, “Several sources who have looked at the deal concluded that the money came from Mr Pa.” According to Mailey, Pa financed the CIO, which paid Pa in diamonds, which Pa then smuggled out of Zimbabwe.

Pa and Queensway have also had extensive dealings with North Korea. According to the Financial Times, that relationship started in 2006, right after Treasury’s action against Banco Delta Asia, when most banks wouldn’t touch North Korean customers.

Shortly after establishing contact, Queensway representatives began making frequent trips to North Korea. During these visits, China Sonangol lined up a series of projects in North Korea, including the construction of a gigantic riverfront commercial district called “KKG Avenue” in Pyongyang. Sam Pa also procured 300 Nissan Xterra SUVs for Kim Jong Il’s regime, some of which had “KKG” inscribed on their exterior. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

In October 2006, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to” persons providing support for North Korea’s WMD programs.

According to The Financial Times, however, Queensway’s North Korean partner was none other than the notorious Bureau 39 of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, via a front company called Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation. Both Daesong and Bureau 39 are designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for “engaging in illicit economic activities,” including drug dealing and currency counterfeiting; managing regime slush funds; money laundering; and luxury goods imports, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As Treasury noted when it designated Bureau 39 five years ago, “deceptive financial practices” play an important role in North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation, and arms trafficking.

In March 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, the Security Council passed Resolution 2094, which tightened the financial due diligence requirements applicable to North Korea, prohibiting the provision “of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute” to Pyongyang’s WMD programs or other prohibited activities. Still, Queensway continued to send a stream of mysterious payments to North Korea.

A document request attached to a June 2013 Hong Kong court decision lists US$11,143,463 (HK$86,505,484) in payments from July 2008 to November 2009 described as “Budget for North Part” or “Kumgang Budget.” The records also describe almost US$2 million in “consulting fees” paid in relation to KKG during 2008 and 2009. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

In April 2013, Pa flew to Pyongyang on a charter jet. Mailey quotes a Korean-language report from the Naeil Sinmum that around this time, Pa “visited North Korea up to five times … to discuss the development of an oil field in Seohan Bay.”

Mr Pa struck a deal with Daesong for an eclectic range of North Korean projects, the Asian official says, ranging from power plants to mining to fisheries. Money started to flow — although it is unclear how much flowed directly into North Korea. A ledger published in a 2013 Hong Kong high court ruling in a dispute between some of Mr Pa’s business associates refers to Queensway Group payments including “Pyongyang city bus system”, “Korea airport”, “Korea: 5,000 tons of soyabean oil” and “exhibition sponsored by the Korean consul”. There are no further details. But the list of payments also contains references to KKG. [Financial Times]

In November of 2013, shortly after the end of the Kaesong Industrial Park’s six-month shutdown, Queensway broke ground on a new Kaesong Hi-Tech Industrial Park, which adds concerns about technology transfers to other concerns previously expressed by the Treasury Department: “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” Even a South Korean official has suggested that the new high-tech annex to Kaesong “could be a violation of UN Security Council sanctions on the regime.”

As recently as last year, KKG began running a new fleet of taxis in Pyongyang, collecting all of the fares in yuan, euros, or dollars. A taxi business working on a cash basis might have a utility beyond the income it earns. As with Pyongyang’s chain of overseas restaurants, it’s a “perfect vehicle” for commingling “legitimate” cash earnings with more questionable payments, to conceal the true origin of the funds.

In the end, however, it wasn’t Sam Pa’s dealings with Pyongyang’s most notorious money launderers that cost him. Instead, in April of 2014, the Treasury Department designated Mr. Pa under its Zimbabwe sanctions program, for “illicit diamond deals” that helped the CIO evade sanctions. (On the SDN list, Pa appears under his birth name, Xu Jinghua, and several other aliases.) Then, last week, the Chinese authorities arrested Pa at a Beijing hotel, in connection with a corruption investigation into the state-owned oil company Sinopec and a former Sinopec official, who also happens to be the governor of Fujian Province.

Why did Pa fall afoul of Beijing after a life spent as a loyal and well-connected spy and arms trafficker? One possibility is that Pa was attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention, and that his arrest was a demonstration for foreign consumption. Another theory is that “[s]ome in Beijing had long been vexed by the insistence from some African rulers that Chinese groups use Mr Pa as a middleman.” Whatever Mr. Pa’s personal fortunes, to this day, 88 Queensway and KKG are still not designated by the Treasury Department.

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Video: N. Korea human rights conference at SAIS, with keynote by Hon. Michael Kirby

On Tuesday, I took a day off from the day job to attend an outstanding conference, organized by the International Bar Association, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rather than describe it, I’ll just give you a little weekend viewing and post the whole thing.

The first video starts with introductions by Jae Ku of SAIS, and speeches by Sen. Cory Gardner, Amb. Ahn Ho-Young, and Amb. Lee Jong-Hoon. After this, there were five panels:

9:45am-11:15am Panel I: Human Rights in North Korea Today

  • Moderator: Greg Scarlatoiu: Exec. Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); 
  • Robert Herman: VP for Regional Programs, Freedom House
  • Amb. Lee Jung-Hoon: Ambassador for Human Rights, Republic of Korea
  • Amb. Robert King: Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, State Department
  • John Sifton: Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

11:30am-1:00pm Panel II: Sanctions

  • Moderator: Sung-Yoon Lee: Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
  • Frank Jannuzi: President & CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
  • Bruce Klingner: Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, Asian Studies Center
  • William Newcomb: Former Member, UN Security Council Panel of Experts on DPRK Sanctions
  • Joshua Stanton: One Free Korea

1:00pm-2:00pm LUNCHEON AND KEYNOTE SPEECH: Hon. Michael D. Kirby, Chair, U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of North Korea.

Special thanks to Shaquille for taking this photo:


2:00pm-3:30pm Panel III: Accountability for Human Rights Violations

  • Moderator: Roberta Cohen: Non Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
  • Param-Preet Singh: Senior Counsel, Human Rights Watch, International Justice Program
  • Morse Tan: Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University College of Law
  • David Tolbert: President, International Center for Transitional Justice

3:45pm-5:15pm Panel IV: Indigenous and Cross-Border Activities Aimed at Advancing Human Rights in North Korea

  • Moderator: Suzanne Scholte: President, Defense Forum Foundation
  • Jieun Baek: Fellow, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
  • Scott Busby: Deputy Asst. Secretary, State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Kang Cheol-Hwan: President, North Korea Strategy Center
  • John Fox: Founder, I-Media
  • Kim Seong Min: Founder, Free North Korea Radio

The unsung heroine of the conference was a young woman named Sosseh, who works for the International Bar Association. Sosseh handled the organization, scheduling, and logistics of all of the events, and made it all run like clockwork.

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Aidan Foster-Carter on Korean “reunions”

Here’s the formula. Pick a small country. Arbitrarily cut it in half. Have the two sides fight a horrible war. Wait many decades to let grief fester. Then bring families who got separated in the chaos of division and war together again. Only not really or properly, just for a lousy three days. Thrust cameras into their faces, to capture the tears and wails as they meet – and again when all too soon they part, never to be allowed any contact ever again. That’s it. Show over.

Does this showbiz analogy offend you, dear reader? With all respect, it is the reality – above all, the reality TV aspect – that is offensive. The spectacle we have witnessed this past week at Mount Kumgang, as often before – if also, in another sense, nowhere near often enough – is, let’s face it, grotesque. This is a travesty of what reunions of separated families should be.

If you call these “reunions,” at least have the honesty to admit that they’re all terminated by re-abductions. Read the rest here.

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