We are all North Koreans now

As far as I know, I didn’t liberate a single North Korean during my four-year tour with the Army in South Korea, although I’ve argued their distant and forgotten cause ever since I came home. The crimes of Kim Jong Un were still distant just five weeks ago, when Professor Lee and I, writing in The New York Times, sounded a lonely warning about Kim’s efforts to censor his critics in the South with terror and violence, writing that “[c]aving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail.” To some, that probably seemed absolutist, even hyperbolic. It should seem more prophetic now.

One morning this week, I awoke to the realization that the rights I’m arguing for are my own—in my own home, and in my own neighborhood. Here, in America. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Today, in a very small way, we are all North Koreans. Most of us have spent the last several decades ignoring the men who oppress North Koreans. Now, in a small but incalculably important way, the same men have oppressed us. Here is the FBI’s statement about the Sony hack, and the terrorist threats that followed it:

As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions. While the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information, our conclusion is based, in part, on the following:

- Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.

- The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.

- Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.

We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there. Further, North Korea’s attack on SPE reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States. Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart. North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior. The FBI takes seriously any attempt—whether through cyber-enabled means, threats of violence, or otherwise—to undermine the economic and social prosperity of our citizens. [FBI Press Release]

The feds sound very confident about their conclusions:

Intelligence officials “know very specifically who the attackers are,” said one individual familiar with the investigation, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing. [Washington Post]

As with the Cheonan incident, it’s almost as if North Korea wants everyone to know it did it, while leaving just enough doubt to let its apologists do their work. That strategy worked well for them in South Korea, which never responded to the two deadly attacks on its territory in 2010. Why should Kim Jong Un believe that attacking us would lead to different results? That’s one reason why I’m so glad the President said something about the importance of protecting free speech:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” Obama said. “Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.

Obama said he wished Sony had “spoken to me first,” adding: “I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern where you get intimidated by these criminal attacks.’ ” [Washington Post]

Well, depending on who you believe, maybe they did. Still, that’s a welcome change, coming from the President who asked YouTube to take down “The Innocence of Muslims,” and whose Justice Department hustled Nakoula Nakoula off to jail to appease the whooping loonies who dominate the Middle East’s political culture today. But not to worry—the CEO of Sony Pictures says he’s “considering some sort of release on the Internet.”

I’ve never been much of a George Clooney fan, but he’s one of the few people in Hollywood with the spine to stand against North Korea’s terrorism:

“We’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have,” he told Deadline. “This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have.”

“What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. [CNN]

Our attention now turns toward what President Obama will do. Let’s hope it exceeds my low expectations, and Pyongyang’s:

Even in my myopic world view, these attacks raise far weightier questions than what our North Korea policy should be. The President’s response must be enough to restore U.S. deterrence of North Korea, and the confidence of our artists, media, journalists, and lowly bloggers that our government will protect them from the world’s petty despots:

“We will respond proportionally,” Obama said, “and we will respond at a place and time that we choose.”

U.S. officials have made clear for several years that they have a range of diplomatic, economic, legal and military options at their disposal in response to cyberattacks. Those steps might include indicting individuals believed to be behind the attack, asking like-minded states to join in condemning the intrusion, and if North Korea persists, undertaking a covert action to dismantle the computer systems used in the operation. [Washington Post]

I’ve already written here about what that response should include. One of those possible responses seems almost inevitable, now that Senator Bob Menendez has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s difficult to see how he could avoid doing that, given the destructive power of the attack, its chilling effect on free speech, and the extensive evidence that North Korea was already sponsoring terrorism even before this incident.

“The United States condemns North Korea for the cyber-attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment and the unacceptable threats against movie theaters and moviegoers,” he said in written statement.

“We encourage our allies and partners to stand with us as we defend the values of all of our people in the face of state-sponsored intimidation,” Kerry added.

Separately, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. and Chinese officials had met in Washington and Beijing to discuss the issue, adding that: “Both China and the United States agree that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.” [Yonhap]

As is customary among journalists, The New York Times and Reuters printed the standard-issue, off-the-record-senior-State-Department-official talking point that North Korea sanctions are maxed out, without bothering to read the sanctions. This talking point sometimes comes without any citation of authority whatsoever, and sometimes cites “experts” who appear not to have ever read a sanctions regulation. When I pointed out to these Bloomberg reporters that they’d cited a cybersecurity expert‘s analysis of a legal question–and that the analysis was wrong–I received a polite and interested reply, suggesting that the reporters genuinely intend to research the question. In the case of Reuters, in particular, the propagation of this false narrative is disappointing, because most of the Reuters reporters I follow check their facts painstakingly before publishing them.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup Kwaak did a better job:

On the financial front, the U.S. has wide latitude to target the North’s financial capabilities and its links to the global banking system, says Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and blogger who has advised the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on North Korea sanctions legislation.

Mr. Stanton says the U.S. can designate the North’s banking system as a money-laundering concern, add the country back to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and move toward blocking U.S. tourism to the North.

“Our North Korea sanctions are weaker than our Zimbabwe sanctions,” Mr. Stanton said in an interview. “All of the top officials in the government of Zimbabwe have their assets blocked, and none of the top officials in the government of North Korea do.” [….]

“The single biggest thing that we can do is to designate the country as a primary money-laundering concern,” Mr. Stanton says, which he says would block the regime from conducting dollar-denominated transactions through the U.S. financial system, as its institutions can now do.

“That would have a very big impact on North Korea—banks around the world are very reputation-conscious,” he says, and would shy away from conducting any transactions with institutions tied to Pyongyang.

Some defectors from North Korea say Pyongyang has learned from the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, and now keeps much of its money outside the traditional banking system, which could limit the impact of such a move.

Mr. Stanton also notes that U.S. sanctions list just 63 North Korean ships, companies and individuals, far fewer than those for Myanmar or Cuba. He also says that U.S. Congress could start moving legislation that would impose similar restrictions blocking U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea and spending money. [Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage foundation was also battling against this myth:

Oh, and for the record:

A North Korean U.N. diplomat said Pyongyang had nothing to do with the cyber attack. “DPRK (North Korea) is not part of this,” the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. [Reuters]

I think I speak for all of humanity when I sincerely hope this isn’t all Barack Obama’s pretext to advance Joe Biden’s cryptic plot to dominate North Korea’s vast riches of coal, meth, and refugees.

One thing that seems far more likely today is that the House and Senate will make North Korea sanctions legislation a higher priority. Even before the FBI fingered North Korea for this attack, and before President Obama announced his outreach to Cuba, Senator Menendez introduced a sotto voce version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, S. 3012. That bill is too weak to be worth passing in its current form, but it’s structurally similar enough to what the House passed last year that it should be viewed as a serious opening bid and a welcome step toward a good compromise.

A friend on the Hill told me yesterday that in terms of seizing Congress’s attention, the events of this week are the equivalent of “two or three nuke tests.” A Chinese Security Council veto of U.N. human rights sanctions–sanctions that were just recommended by the full General Assembly–should be the equivalent of another. At an exceptionally formative moment, Congress’s attention has been focused on North Korea. The administration is distinguishing North Korea from Cuba, is almost certainly considering new sanctions, and has probably just scrapped its plans for Agreed Framework 3.0. If a bipartisan, centrist consensus concludes that the agony of North Koreans is no longer a problem we can treat as remote and irrelevant, and that it’s time to discard the failed solution of appeasement, we will have reached an inflection point in our North Korea policy.

One avenue of response I hope the President won’t overlook is that information warfare works both ways. Certainly, carefully targeted sanctions can play an important part in defunding and disrupting the regime’s capacity to censor and oppress its people. Symbolically and practically, however, no response–not even sanctions–would do more to alter North Korea than to wage a quiet, non-violent war against its information blockade. It is difficult to imagine that despite all of America’s innovative potential, it still lacks the means to bring free speech to the people of North Korea, and to help them find their own way to rid themselves of the accursed men who tread them–and us–down.

If N. Korea hacked Sony and threatened us, here’s how we should respond

The New York Times, quoting “[s]enior administration officials,” is reporting that “American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers.”

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie, “The Interview,” was released. [N.Y. Times]

The Times report doesn’t say whether the feds also think North Korea was behind the threats that caused Sony to pull The Interview from theaters, but North Korea certainly is profiting from the perception that it was responsible for them. Today, another studio made the cowardly decision to kill a Steve Carell film that would have been set in North Korea.

Nor would this be the first time North Korea has used terrorism to censor The Interview. It has already used its kidnappings of Japanese citizens to censor the film’s closing scene:

Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago.

The administration’s sudden urgency came after a new threat delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices warned that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.”

“Remember the 11th of September 2001,” it said. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.” [N.Y. Times]

That’s one example of how negotiations with North Korea can be worse than no negotiations with North Korea. Separately, the Times reports on Sony’s internal debates about censoring The Interview, in a simpering kowtow to North Korea’s threats.

Disturbed by North Korean threats at a time when his company was already struggling, Sony’s Japanese chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, broke with what Sony executives say was a 25-year tradition. He intervened in the decision making of his company’s usually autonomous Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

According to hacked emails published by other media and interviews with people briefed on the matter, he insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull. [….]

At one point in the tug of war over the script, Mr. Rogen weighed in with an angry email to Ms. Pascal. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote. “That is a very damning story.” [N.Y. Times]

I’m not sure what would leave me more speechless–a direct, brazen attack on our freedom of expression in our own country; the cowardice of Hollywood, Sony, Japan, and the theater chains; or the idea that the U.S. State Department agreed to review scenes from The Interview, thus putting a stamp of government censorship (or endorsement) on the film.

Or, maybe it’s the argument of an irredeemable imbecile named Justin Moyer, who defends North Korea’s reaction in a blog post at The Washington Post, without condemning its hacking, threats, violence, or use of its Japanese hostages. Moyer even writes, “If a future North Korean missile test, naval exercise, trip across the DMZ or future act of terror is blamed on ‘The Interview,’ Rogen can’t say he didn’t have fair warning.” Say what? I look forward to Moyer’s explanation of why Hitler had every right to be upset about “The Great Dictator,” or why Charlie Chaplin had “fair warning” about the Sudeten Crisis and Kristallnacht.

Whether the evidence ultimately proves North Korea responsible for this or not, petty despots everywhere have learned how to censor what the rest of us are allowed to read and see, and not only in America. I can’t help wondering whether Pyongyang, in turn, learned it from the Innocence of Muslims affair. These events have vast implications for our freedom of expression. Arguments about the film’s artistic merit have no place in this discussion. Parody, including tasteless parody, is at the core of how we express our views on matters of global public interest.

The breach is expected to cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars as the company rebuilds its computer network, conducts a forensic investigation of the attack and deals with the legal fallout, including potential lawsuits from employees. It could also have an effect on the film industry’s creative choices.

“I’ve got to believe that this will spook anybody from considering making the North Koreans bad guys in a film,” movie producer Bill Gerber said. “Unless you were dealing with something that was fact-based and very compelling, it might not be worth it.” [L.A. Times]

This time, will our President stand up for our freedom of expression unambiguously? That would require him to act swiftly and firmly against those found to be responsible. Unfortunately, the Times‘s reporters end an otherwise excellent report with the tired, cliche falsehood that the President has no options because “[t]he North is already under some of the heaviest economic sanctions ever applied.” Pish-posh. I don’t know how many times I have to say it–people who write about sanctions should read them first. People who’ve read the sanctions know they’re weak.

Here, then, is a brief list of things the President could do in response, assuming the evidence shows that North Korea was responsible.

1. Put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. One of George W. Bush’s great, unsung foreign policy failures was his failed nuclear deal with Kim Jong Il, under which he relaxed sanctions and removed North Korea from the list. North Korea’s de-listing marked the beginning of a period during which North Korea escalated its sponsorship of terrorism, including threats, assassinations, and arms shipments to terrorists.

2. Ask the Senate to follow the House’s example and pass the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, to remedy the weaknesses in our North Korea sanctions.

3. Sign an executive order blocking the assets of North Korean state entities responsible for censorship inside North Korea itself. That executive order could be modeled on one that already applies to Iran.

4. Sign a new executive order blocking the assets of entities found to have knowingly perpetrated, attempted, or supported hacking, cyber-attacks, or cyber-espionage against U.S. targets. That order could be modeled on existing executive orders that target the perpetrators and sponsors of terrorism and WMD proliferation.

5. Ask the Director of National Intelligence to compile a report on China’s support for North Korean hackers, release the unclassified portions to the public, and consider either a criminal prosecution or a civil forfeiture action to attach and seize the assets of any Chinese entities hosting, harboring, or supporting North Korea’s hackers.

Sony, of course, should release and promote The Interview in its original, uncut form. Theaters should show it. Newspapers should stop printing Sony’s hacked e-mails, except as they pertain to North Korea’s attempts to suppress the film. Artists should expose and criticize the cowardly decisions of studios to censor criticism of North Korea, and any other government. Courts should exclude Sony’s hacked e-mails as evidence in litigation. And individual citizens who love freedom of speech should give to Thor Halvorssen’s Human Rights Foundation, which plans to send copies of The Interview into North Korea by balloon.

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Update:

Congratulations to Kwon Eun Kyoung of Open Radio …

for winning the National Human Rights Commission’s Korea’s Human Rights Award.

Max Fisher’s criticism of the Sunshine Policy is spot-on

Washington Post alumnus Max Fisher, now writing at Vox, presents a graph and data showing how, despite all of its abhorrent behavior, North Korea’s trade (most of it with China and South Korea) has grown, and how that leads to more abhorrent behavior.

The way it’s supposed to work is that North Korea’s belligerence, aggression, and horrific human rights abuses lead the world to isolate it economically, imposing a punishing cost and deterring future misdeeds. What’s actually happening is that North Korea is being rewarded with more trade, which is still extremely small, but growing nonetheless, enriching and entrenching the ruling Kim Jong Un government, even as it expands its hostile nuclear and missile programs. [….]

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota.

The Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters. But the trade continued, as did the work at Kaesong. South Korean corporations, which have even more political power there than do American corporations in the US, have come to enjoy this trade as a source of revenue and cheap labor, and push to maintain it. That drop you see in 2013 is actually because North Korea shut down Kaesong for a time as a political provocation — it was the South Koreans, paradoxically, who wanted to reopen the facility that directly funds the North Korean weapons occasionally used to kill South Koreans. [Vox, Max Fisher]

Those South Korean corporate profiteers have since allied themselves with “progressive activists,” who vary from the anti-anti-North Korean to the pro-North Korean, to call on President Park to lift sanctions on the North. It must be the most unlikely alliance since 1939.

I’m not sure how Fisher’s analysis of the problem could have been better, unless he’d driven home the point that the Sunshiners justified their policy by predicting that this preferential trade would catalyze economic reform and liberalize North Korean society. Clearly, that hasn’t happened; in fact, I could make a strong case that the opposite is closer to the truth. In their desperation to catalyze reform, Sunshiners have perpetuated the status quo instead.

And then again, some rumors are true

In October, I posted about rumors that several senior North Korean officials had lost their jobs, including Ma Won-Chun, who showed up shortly thereafter. But another subject of the rumors, Gen. Ri Pyong-Chol, the Commanding Officer of North Korean People’s Air Force, has lost his job.

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Update: A reader wonders whether Ri has necessarily lost his job, or might have been promoted. Technically, I suppose it’s possible that both of those things could be true. The story of Choe Ryong-Hae, who also lost one of his job titles, shortly before being sent to South Korea in a position of obvious rank and influence, counsels us not to assume too much about where Ri landed.

Suki Kim responds to critics of her decision to go undercover

It’s ironic to read how the people at PUST–who’ve suppressed their religious, political, and moral beliefs to accommodate and assist the world’s most oppressive regime, and also, to suppress the truth about it–have challenged Suki Kim’s ethical decisions. But some of those criticisms might be more valid coming from other sources, so Kim addresses them on her web site. I can’t disagree with Kim’s justification that overt journalism has failed us.

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….]

I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST.

Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger.  Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible.  [Suki Kim]

All valid points, but it also occurs to me that had Ms. Kim been caught, I’d probably be railing against her now, which doesn’t seem completely fair somehow. While I think Ms. Kim has told us important things about North Korea—and especially important things about the ethical compromises that some foreigners have made with its regime—I still wouldn’t advise anyone to try anything like this again.

I’d greatly prefer it if the journalists who are there now (and yes, I mean the AP) made more of an effort to report the news from North Korea objectively, rejecting the regime’s financial entanglements and editorial constraints. Failing that, they would do better to fund, equip, train, and tap into existing guerrilla journalism.

I doubt, of course, that we really know the whole story about PUST, either–who its faculty are, what they’re really doing there, who they’re teaching what to, how much money the regime makes from them, and what skills those young elites are really learning. That’s why I’ll keep my mind open just a sliver until one day, when James Kim reveals just what they were really doing there all along.

NK Econ Watch on Camp 15

For several weeks, we’ve read reports that North Korea had razed Camp 15 to “prove” to foreign visitors that survivors’  accounts of the camp were false. Curtis has since examined imagery from October 20th, and declared himself “unsure of the recent status of the camp.”

Clearly, reports that said no trace of the camp still existed were incorrect. That story never made sense to me, for two reasons. First, North Korea understands that the whole world is watching it on Google Earth. Razing the entire camp couldn’t convince us of anything except that a sham was underway. Subtler changes, including gutting and renovating existing structures, would be a more effective strategy if maskirovka were its intention.

Like a lot of reports about North Korea, this one remains a mystery for the time being, and the full truth may have to wait for a new government of North Korea to let it be told.

Tokyo Shimbun: Another deadly collapse in Pyongyang

Oh, and wait till you hear where:

Last October, a collapse accident at a construction site for a new National Defense Commission Building, saw 80 people lose their lives, according to a Tokyo Shimbun report from today.

The paper, citing information obtained by a South Korean government official through a source in North Korea, reported the victims were mostly laborers and soldiers affiliated with the military.

It added that in order to prevent the accident scene from appearing in satellite imagery, military authorities were tasked with clearing the wreckage within 48 hours. [Daily NK]

Such a pity that this had to happen before the NDC members moved in and kill construction workers instead.

I even reserve some pity for poor Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, who must now tolerate another week of being scooped by upstart NK News and various guerrilla news sites, blog posts by Curtis with before-and-after imagery of the site, and my own insufferable taunts glibly suggesting that Talmadge drive to the site to debunk this unverified rumor with on-the-scene shoe-leather reporting.

Maybe the report is true and maybe it isn’t, but it’s certainly worth knowing if it is. A second fatal collapse in one year–especially at a site this critical to the regime–would be big and bad news for any leader who associated himself so closely with this crash (pun intended) construction program.

Can peer pressure do what South Korea’s conscience couldn’t?

Did the U.N. have to care about human rights in North Korea first for South Koreans to care, too? What is it about Michael Kirby that gives him the capacity to move the South Korean government that, say, Ban Ki Moon, Park Geun Hye, and Moon Jae In all lack? Assuming that anything can make a majority of South Koreans give a damn about North Koreans, what would that say about Korean society and its leaders?

South Korea’s unification minister appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to pass a bill on North Korea’s human rights abuse, citing the need for a legal basis for “systemic” efforts to address the problem.

The legislation, if adopted, would give a ray of hope to North Korean people, said Ryoo Kihl-jae, Seoul’s point man on Pyongyang.

“If the North Korea human rights bills are enacted through a compromise between the ruling and opposition parties, the government will draw up a basic plan to improve North Korea’s human rights conditions on the basis of that,” Ryoo said at a forum here on reunification.

The Park Geun-hye administration will also make concrete efforts in cooperation with civic groups in South Korea and the international community to deal with the matter, he added. [Yonhap]

Some day, I’d like to read a coherent and credible description of what the two competing bills actually do, something that Yonhap’s article doesn’t really offer. Here are the passages that really intrigued (and bothered) me:

It would help send a clear message not only to Pyongyang but also to the world that Seoul is not sitting idle over the suffering of people in the North, said Ryoo.

His call came as the National Assembly has launched formal discussions on a pair of long-pending bills — one proposed by the ruling Saenuri Party and another proposed by the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

The move was apparently prompted by a U.N. panel’s decision to put a fresh resolution against Pyongyang to a vote at the General Assembly. It calls for a referral of the North’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

It would be maddening to think that Koreans need foreign affirmation or peer pressure to act to assist their northern kindred, but President Park—never a strong human rights advocate before—is also climbing on the bandwagon:

President Park Geun-hye called on officials Tuesday to make aggressive efforts to help improve the lives of North Koreans as she made clear that North Korea’s human rights issue is a top priority in dealing with the communist country.

The issue of the North’s human rights had long been placed on the back burner in South Korea where many people, mostly liberals, have shied away from the issue out of fear that it could strain inter-Korean relations.

The issue was also pushed back on the priority list as South Korea mainly focused on diplomatic solutions with the United States and other regional powers to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

On Tuesday, Park made it clear that the North’s nuclear and human rights issues are “our core agenda in our policy toward North Korea.

“We should not be passive in these issues out of fear of North Korea’s backlash,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, a comment that marked a clear departure from her liberal predecessors who rarely spoke about the human rights issue as they sought reconciliation with North Korea. [….]

Park also called for efforts to ensure a bill meant to improve North Korea’s dismal human rights record wins parliamentary endorsement.

Park’s comments came days after she used her high-profile address to the U.N. General Assembly to try to galvanize international efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights record. [Yonhap]

For more analysis on the psychology of South Koreans’ ambivalence (or apathy) about the North, I’ll point you to a 2010 Brian Myers op-ed about Koreans’ non-reaction to the Cheonan incident. Although Myers’s observations fit with my own, the data show that after the incidents of 2010, public opinion in South Korea did turn significantly against Pyongyang. Two more recent surveys show that more than 90% of South Koreans don’t trust North Korea, and 70% think reunification is necessary, despite the fact that just one-third think it will benefit them personally. Tellingly, however, respondents picked ethnic identity as the most important reason for reunification.

On somewhat related topics, Stephen Denney analyzes the evolving politics of pro-North Korean activism here (see also my 2006 interview with Han Ki-Hong of the Daily NK; much more here), and The Interpreter talks about the continued anti-Americanism of South Korean films (which I discussed in this post).

Still, opinion is not the same thing as intensity. What I’ve never understood about public opinion in Korea is how it selects the issues it seizes on, clasps close to its heart, and even expects others to clasp close to theirs (for a superb article on this topic, see this article, in The Washington City Paper, by a young Korean-American writer). I can understand the contemporary relevance of the comfort women issue, but only if it’s ultimately about protecting the rights and dignity of women now, such as the North Korean refugee women in China. I can understand how Tokdo might raise real issues of preserving territorial integrity, but only as an issue secondary to reclaiming North Korea (and I certainly won’t hear anything about Tokdo from people who wanted, functionally, to give away Korean waters in the Yellow Sea).

What Koreans must understand is that if they’re going to persuade foreign audiences about the things they care the most deeply about, those issues won’t make sense to any foreign observer if North Korea isn’t among them.

The North Korea crazy train keeps on a-rolling

So the views of Arturo Pierre Martinez that interest me aren’t his views on Iraq, Ferguson, or even North Korea, but the views that explain him best, which were buried at the bottom of CNN’s report:

He also talked about unidentified flying objects, CIA involvement in the cocaine trade, “ultrasonic” devices that cause people to hear voices and experience bodily discomfort and how the Western news media unfairly portrayed North Korea. [CNN]

You can see a video clip here, if you care to. Martinez’s mother relates his sad history:

Martinez’s mother, Patricia Eugenia Martinez of El Paso, said their son was bipolar and earlier tried to enter North Korea by swimming across a river, only to be stopped and shipped back to the United States, where he was placed in a California psychiatric hospital.

“Then he got out,” she said. “He is very smart and he got the court to let him out and instead of coming home to us he bought a ticket and left for China. He took out a payday loan online and left for China.”

There’s nothing crazy about believing that American police, intelligence officers, or contractors who kill detainees or arrestees should face prosecution for it, that there should be strict limits on the power of government to harm even the world’s worst people to protect innocent life, or that we should be debating all of these things openly and vigorously. Which is why we are.

You don’t even have to be crazy to sympathize with North Korea, although, as one astute long-time reader wrote to me a few weeks ago, “I’ve sort of suspected for a while … that the pro-Pyongyang lobby is full of people who could really benefit from talking to someone.” Agreed.

What marks you as crazy is believing that Pyongyang is a suitable place to discuss those things. What is it about North Korea that attracts the irrational, the unstable, the dangerously naive, those who lack good judgment (see also, Item 4) … and whatever the hell you call this?

nba_g_wedding_dress_600

[Getty Images]

At this point, I wouldn’t blame the North Koreans for concluding that this entire country is one big free-range artisanal freak show. There are times when I wonder myself.

This is why no rational person would invest in Kaesong

North Korea has unilaterally raised those “wages” that South Korean companies pay the North Korean regime for labor at Kaesong—wages that the workers probably never see, and that for all the Unification Ministry knows, are used to buy iron maidens, centrifuge bearings, and 300-millimeter rocket fuses. The Unification Ministry isn’t happy, but only because wage hikes are bad for business:

“Our firm position is that it’s impossible to revise the wage system without consultations between the South and North,” the unification ministry official told reporters on background. The government will soon deliver the position to the North in writing, he added. He pointed out that wages are an important element of the complex’s competitiveness. [….]

The two sides have a 49-point agreement on the working conditions for them. The North abruptly informed the South of its plan to revise 13 of the stipulations last week. The measure includes the scrapping of a 5-percent cap on the annual increase rates in their minimum wages and hikes in overtime payment. [Yonhap]

Remember, these are the people our State Department expects to make and keep a nuclear freeze deal.

I can’t imagine why any sensible investor, lured by the promise of low wages and taxes, would plow his money into one of the world’s most politically risky places, knowing full well that those low wages can unexpectedly turn not-that-low, that the taxes can unexpectedly turn high, and that the products can’t legally be imported into the United States. Knowing all that, doesn’t choosing Kaesong over Thailand or the Philippines seem rather irrational?

South Korea’s censorship problem isn’t just about chromosomes

One of the most bipartisan political traditions in South Korea’s young democracy is the tendency of its presidents to use tax audits, prosecutions, libel suits, and state-subsidized street violence to censor their political opponents. This has always been wrong, but in America, our condemnation of it has always been selective.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung used tax audits to harass conservative newspapers. His successor, the leftist* Roh Moo Hyun, sued four right-wing newspapers for $400,000 each over what Roh called “comprehensive, persistent and massive defamation of my character that, not as president but as a human being, caused me psychological agony hard to express in words.” Roh tried to pass a media ownership law to shrink the right-wing press, used state funds to subsidize newspapers that supported him, and subsidized union goons and street thugs who intimidated and attacked his political opponents, and critics of North Korea’s human rights abuses. During rightist President Lee Myung’s term, the police arrested the members of a harmless left-wing fringe party.

Park Geun Hye has continued this thuggish tradition by dissolving (admittedly fringe) political parties, decertifying (admittedly extreme) labor unions, and prosecuting people for (non-violently) praising North Korea—all actions I criticized as they happened.

On top of this, Yonhap now reports that the South Korean government is preventing a U.S. citizen, Shin Eun-Mi, from leaving the country (update: and issued her a summons) because of “an investigation into her alleged pro-North Korean remarks” on talk shows while in South Korea. Ironically, if the state had allowed Ms. Shin to fly back to her life of well-deserved obscurity, I’d neither know nor care who she was, and neither would you. Censorship only really works when totalitarians do it. Anywhere else, it’s not just bad policy, it’s the tool of imbeciles who can’t win arguments, and who almost always lose them without saying a word.

None of this is what just caused The Washington Post to declare a censorship crisis in South Korea, however. That happened because President Park filed libel suits against “media outlets that run reports it considers unfavorable.” Ironically, The Post now quotes the editors of left-wing Hankyoreh Shinmun, which suckled contentedly at Roh Moo Hyun’s nipples for the duration of his chokehold on the Chosun Ilbo and the Joongang Ilbo. Today, the editors of the Hanky call Park Geun Hye “shameless,” which is an interesting word choice for them.

President’s Park’s abuse of South Korea’s cumbrous libel laws is indefensible and stupid. It’s also incorrect to suggest that it’s a crisis. Crisis implies rapid deterioration. This is the extension of a long, bipartisan precedent. Worse, to suggest that this is only troubling because the person doing it inherited an X chromosome from Park Chung Hee misses the point widely:

This is sparking even more unflattering comparisons for the president. “Park Geun-hye is taking a page from her dictator father’s playbook,” said Peter Beck, a Korea expert at the New Paradigm Institute in Seoul. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

No, she isn’t. Park Chung Hee locked dissidents away for years and sometimes unjustly executed them. To compare such unequal wrongs smacks of false equivalence and dishonors the dissidents who fought for democracy during Park Chung Hee’s regime.

This isn’t the only serious error with Beck’s analogy. By ignoring the bipartisan tradition of “democratic” censorship in South Korea, Beck misses the issue of what reforms are needed to end these abuses and advance South Korea’s evolution toward open democracy. I know and like Peter Beck, and I hope he still likes me after he reads this post, but I don’t remember him taking note of any of the censorship of the left when it was happening. For that matter, the international media seldom noticed or remembered it, either. Nor has it shown much concern that the left’s goon squads are still turning out to censor freedom of expression today, while the left-wing opposition tries to do the same thing by legislative fiat.

As bad as all of that may be, none of it is the second coming of Park Chung Hee. It’s a different problem that requires different answers.

Park Geun Hye’s actions today are just part of a continuum in a political culture that doesn’t respect freedom of speech or protect it with content-neutral laws. South Korea’s transition to democracy did not end the tendency of its politicians, corporations, and government agencies to censor embarrassing speech; it merely changed their methods of censorship.

In the United States, we’ve long recognized the potential for libel suits to be abused to suppress public debate. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan, which raised the standard for a libel suit by a “public figure” to survive a motion to dismiss. Even then, the cost of legal fees to defend a suit can suppress free expression, which is why many states have anti-SLAPP acts that require losing plaintiffs to pay the legal fees of winning defendants. If Korea’s left and right are serious about ending the abuse of libel suits, they should amend their libel laws to provide similar protections. Failing that, Korean courts should impose them as a matter of constitutional law.

I suppose the United States hasn’t set the best example for the apolitical integrity of tax audits, but I’d offer three suggestions to limit the problem. First, a state that can’t tax protected activities fairly should exempt them from taxation entirely. Second, every democracy needs a robust equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, to allow citizens to obtain and publish government records. In the U.S. legal system, to the extent that those records show that an official violated an individual’s constitutional rights, the citizen can sue the official in his individual capacity and recover damages.

Finally, when political organizations use force or violence to suppress their opponents, governments shouldn’t subsidize them, they should sue them under anti-racketeering laws, and allow the victims of their violence to sue for conspiracy to violate their civil rights.

~   ~   ~

* This left-right stuff never worked for me as a descriptor of political polarity in the U.S. It also works rather badly for South Korea. “Radicals” and “reactionaries” is still too simplistic. I wish I could think of a better alternative.

LiNK has reached the halfway mark in its campaign to rescue 200 North Koreans


Please donate here.

I wonder how Air Koryo serves them their macadamia nuts (answer: very carefully)

Not only are the sons and daughters of North Korea’s highest-ranked elite wielding influence outside the sphere of leader Kim Jong Un  – they are also displaying it in public, a news outlet run by a high-profile defector said Tuesday.

The people mentioned in the report have access to external trade and foreign currency and many officials bring money to secure an audience with them. They appear untouchable by law, the report said, even though political factions can be gravely punished in North Korea. [….]

North Korea observers say children of the elite in Pyongyang often enjoy special rights and in the past fought among themselves to wrest control away from each other. Some say that the number of businesspeople is on the rise in recent years, thanks to a looser grip on the flow of money and information than under Mr. Kim’s father, who died in 2011. [Wall Street Journal, via New Focus, in Korean]

They sound like the sort of entitled arrivistes who would embrace the profitable aspects of engagement, yet who would also have every reason to ensure that engagement didn’t change the system that enriched them.

Cougar Town, North Korea

Twenty years ago in North Korea’s outer provinces, heavy industry seized up. In short order, so did most of the beneficial functions of government, including the food distribution system. The state continued to do other things, of course, most of them mean or silly. In former industrial regions, it still enforced the primacy of men as breadwinners by forcing them to report each day to idled factories that couldn’t pay their wages. A consequence of this was that market-savvy wives supplanted their husbands as providers. And in the areas near North Korea’s northern border, there have been other consequences.

Because North Korea has no Third Amendment, local families are expected to house border guards in their homes. Often, the guards’ hostesses live (and even prosper) by dealing in wares smuggled from across the border. For the guards, that’s not a flaw; it’s a feature.

After being assigned to his border post, one of the first things that a soldier needs to do is find a host house. North Korean border guards may wield the authority to guard the border and crackdown on smugglers; but if they want to make money, they must have access to a host house that is located not too far from his checkpoint and whose owner specializes in smuggling.

“People who work as smugglers in border towns are generally from the younger generation. Bringing in smuggled goods and sending them to China is easier said than done. You have to be meticulous with sums and be quick and crafty, to avoid being caught in surveillance operations set up by State Security and People’s Security agents. It is not a job for older people,” said Ms. Yoon Seong-hee, who is from Hyesan in North Korea and settled in the South in May 2013. [New Focus International]

Because North Korea also has no Fourth Amendment, the state must have expected these young guards to police their host families. But some of these guards share feelings with their hostesses that they do not share with the state: loneliness, fear, greed, trust, and desire. That has incubated something extraordinary—symbiotic polyandry:

“Hosts, smugglers and border guards become like a family. Smugglers must connect with the locality’s border guards in order to send and receive goods over the border. They come to be in frequent contact, and become familiar with each other to the extent that border guards take naps in their smuggling host houses,” explained Ms. Yoon.

“Since these kinds of co-existence arrangements are prevalent, relationships between the border guards and women of their host houses sometimes lead to affairs. There have even been incidents of men launching official complaints to the relevant brigade or party cadres, but the tendency is to compromise on the matter quietly, for the sake of the children,” she continued.

“Border guards prefer married women for several reasons. When the women are more mature, they take better care of soldiers, in the manner they do with younger siblings. And the closer the relationship between the two, the more reliably the woman can be trusted to manage their money matters. Regardless of how much money border guards can make, if they meet a bad host, they can be easily defrauded,” said Ms. Yoon.

New Focus offers no estimate of the incidence of these alternative lifestyles, but reports that they can outlast the guards’ enlistments. The young men, once emancipated, become the kept men of their sugar mamas, and de facto family members. (Imagine the awkwardness of the conversations over dinner.) In a country without a G.I. Bill, these relationships can earn them enough cash to bribe their way into a university, or even party membership. For the women, their boy-toys bring give them affection, wealth, and even status:

According to Ms. Kim Hyun-kyung, a North Korean exile from Musan, “In the past, if there was an affair between an occupant of a host house and a border guard, people would point fingers and the woman could not go out with her head up high. However, things are very different now.”

“These days, a lot of soldiers posted to border guard units do not go back to their hometown upon being discharged. They may integrate into a family with married women whom they met during their border service, continue to make money through border exchanges, and secure entry to a local university with their earnings. This sort of thing would have been considered beyond the pale in the past. But nowadays, people may still criticize such people behind their back, but women who have younger men around in such a manner are actually considered to be capable and resourceful.”

“Before I fled, I knew several households in my own area where married women lived with border guards. Whatever the morality, those families make money, so they can live without causing much fuss. Even when scandalous rumours turn the town upside down initially, if they continue to live well, the criticisms soon disappear. But the older people say that the world is becoming more rotten and would still click their tongues in disapproval,” said Ms. Kim.

Someone could make a fine screenplay from this, if he could abstain from writing “turgid,” “supple,” or “quivered,” or allowing it to be produced in Japan. It has all the elements of a best-seller: sex (and it has been proven that this is the only element any book really needs), adultery, jealousy, love, crime, punishment, intrigue, “exotic” cultures (that word), and the subversion of the world’s most inscrutable (that word) society by history’s most irresistible forces. Not to mention, so much potential for violence.

Suki Kim will be on The Daily Show tonight

More on that here. In a separate interview, Ms. Kim says that “North Koreans are so oblivious of the outside world that even some children of elite families believe that Korean is spoken in the rest of the world.”

“They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that,” Kim said. “Some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.” [….]

She said the students, many of them majoring in computer science, did not know of the existence of the Internet.

Kim said she was shocked to see how isolated the North Korean people are from the outside world, how much their lives are controlled by authorities, and how strong a personality cult surrounded the ruling family of then leader Kim Jong-il.

“It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men, basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves. [Yonhap]

Which, frankly, I found surprising, given the amount and extent of subversive information, foreign DVDs, and samizdat literature said to be circulating there, even among the very same demographic:

A series of books considered “subversive” in North Korea have recently been circulating in black markets, with people renting them out at a fixed price, the Daily NK has learned. The books are only lent to those whose identities can be verified and the main clientele–university students–rent out the books for 3,000 KPW an hour, according to a local source. [….]

“The people who first established a black market for books used to be mainly writers, journalists, and teachers, but now, they’re university students,” the source explained. “Most books are translated and printed by students studying foreign languages.”

These students are largely the children of Party cadres, who use their parents’ influence to get traders to bring in foreign literature. After procuring the titles, students make copies of these translations to sell on the black market using copying facilities located in public institutions. [….]

“College students are used to the culture of watching over each other, so they enjoy detective stories to try to understand the social fabric of the North– where you can’t even trust your own friends,” she elaborated. “A lot of the ‘Japanese novels’ are crime stories investigating cases involving serial killers.”

Elements of the works resonate with most who enjoy reading them, “Looking at the rocky relationship between individuals and power, and having to live through complicated times with wisdom and hidden solutions feels so real,” the source said, citing opinions of many students. “It’s like it shows how you have to struggle to survive in a capitalist society, so it’s interesting,” others have said. [Daily NK]

The actual truth of what North Koreans know must vary dramatically between individuals. Not all people are equally curious or inquisitive. In many cases, as Ms. Kim suggests, the students probably know much more than they’ll admit.

Asked about the prospects for North Koreans to overthrow their government, Ms. Kim gets it exactly right, at least as I see it:

“I don’t know how they’re going to rise up. They can’t even get to the next town without a permission. They don’t have the Internet. They have no way of going there, transportation system. There’s just nothing that connects people,” she said. “So I think it is up to us in the rest of the world to do something where the system is not going to be maintained the same way.”

Update: To contribute to gulag survivor/journalist Kang Cheol Hwan’s campaign to do that, see Dan Bielefeld’s post here.

Of course, a better North Korea policy means more than sanctions

Professor Haggard is skeptical that a “sanctions only approach” toward North Korea could work, which compels me to expand on why I agree, and on what a better approach would look like.

It should go without saying that no act of Congress can ever be more than part of a complete foreign policy, something that, by constitutional design, only the executive branch can wield. Certainly the imposition and enforcement of tough sanctions are at the heart of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, H.R. 1771, because tough sanctions enforcement is a necessary (and presently, a missing) element of a better policy, and because sanctions are also an area where Congress can express its will. H.R. 1771 sets strict conditions for relaxing sanctions to avoid repeating President Bush’s errors of 2007, but those conditions (see sections 401 and 402) clearly contemplate using sanctions as leverage for better, more effective diplomacy and engagement — assuming that’s still possible.

In an acknowledgement that a better policy has more dimensions than sanctions alone, H.R. 1771 also calls for more efforts to fund the free flow of information into North Korea (section 301), and the publication of reports on North Korea’s crimes against humanity (section 302). These, too, are areas where our government has lagged. There is much speculative debate about whether engagement with the regime is realistic at all; certainly, there is little evidence that it has transformed this regime materially, or that its effects are remotely comparable to the transformational effects of markets and smuggling. Nevertheless, H.R. 1771 tests the regime’s trustworthiness and readiness for good-faith negotiations by demanding the cessation of its counterfeiting and the release of its abductees, by demanding the free and fair delivery of food aid, and by demanding material improvements in the conditions in its prison camps.

The regime’s stonewalling on all of these outrages — despite decades of engagement and appeasement — illustrates the flaw of strategies based on obedient supplications and obsequious tribute. Outsiders have focused most of their efforts to “engage” North Korea on an oligarchy whose physical survival depends on the enforcement of the status quo, while overlooking the common people who sincerely seek change that might give them a chance at lives worth living. Wouldn’t a smarter engagement strategy emphasize them instead?

In addition to sanctioning, defunding, and degrading the security forces that are closing North Korea’s borders and suppressing change, a smarter engagement strategy would increase our support for things that really might change North Korea in very real and tangible ways — broadcasting, an independent cellular network, the smuggling of food and information, remittances, quasi-legal private agriculture, clandestine cross-border banking, and whatever else would catalyze the growth of markets that provide food, goods, and information to those who are hungriest for them. Eventually, engaging the North Korean people would create the conditions for the rise of independent trade networks, unions, churches, and political organizations. Certainly, this will require more creativity than the conventional approaches that have failed so consistently. By now, you realize that this isn’t an argument against engagement. It’s an argument that we’ve been engaging the wrong people.

At the same time, every member of the Security Council has agreed, in principle, that sanctions against the regime are a necessary element of a policy designed to alter its behavior (or failing that, its very nature). That does not mean that a better North Korea policy can be based on sanctions alone. An orchestra can no more play a symphony with brass alone than it can play one without it. A better policy will require our government to devote more intelligence, investigative, law enforcement, and (yes) diplomatic resources to this problem. As with engagement, there is no argument against diplomacy to be found here, only an argument that our diplomacy is out of sequence. The initial focus of our diplomacy should be on building unity and cohesion among allies in enforcing sanctions consistently, and as the U.N. has agreed (see section 202). Unanimity among allies can strengthen our capacity to force China and Russia to enforce those sanctions, too. Only then, when sanctions enforcement is broad and consistent, can diplomacy with North Korea have any hope of success. That means that North Korea’s should be the last government we approach, not the first. Diplomacy with a target like North Korea, in particular, requires enough leverage to persuade it to give up things it would rather keep.

As for whether a deal with North Korea is still possible, I personally espouse what I’ll call strategic ambivalence. Either sanctions — in concert with these other elements of a smarter policy — can coerce policy changes in Pyongyang, or they can hasten the destabilization of the regime. The choice lies with Kim Jong Un (and to a lesser extent, with Xi Jinping and Putin) as to which direction the policy will have to follow. As long as the countries that have agreed to sanction Pyongyang subsidize it instead, and until Pyongyang fears that collapse is a real and imminent danger, Pyongyang will be able to choose the status quo, and therefore, it will.

Someone else notices Margaret Chan’s incompetence

If I were a more competent Twitter user, I would have tweeted this article without tweeting a title that called the U.N. “more dangerous than Ebola.” The article itself is interesting and adds to the case for Chan’s dismissal, but the headline is needlessly hyperbolic.