I don’t usually do job postings here, but I’m going to make an exception for a good friend. During my time on the Hill working on H.R. 1771, which would later become law as H.R. 757, the Foreign Affairs Committee leadership assigned a young intern to work with me on the bill. This friend now seeks a paid position on a Hill staff or in a think tank in the fields of foreign affairs, defense policy, or national security. Having worked closely with this person for four months, I can’t overstate my regard for his skills and abilities. (Click “continue reading” >>)
Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”
Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.
Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.
This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.
In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.
Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rareroccasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)
These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.
The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition.
So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks.
I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.
North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.
“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”
For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]
Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homesand crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.
Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.
“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.
“Then they rob the passengers.”
When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.
Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.
This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]
Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.
As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)
My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.
What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.
It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness.
Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:
The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.
The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.
“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.
In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]
It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.
The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.
Since the collapse of North Korea’s nominally free public health system, contagious diseases have spread widely, but only a lucky few North Koreans have been able to find medicine and medical care. Most of its people get by on whatever health care they can afford and whatever drugs they can find. A lucky few use retired doctors or doctors who moonlight after regular working hours. Some pay steep bribes to get access to care and medicine in state hospitals and clinics. Some buy medicine from market vendors, which may or may not be fake. The least fortunate rely on unlicensed healers, soothe their pain with methamphetamine or opium, or simply go without.
As the Washington Post recently discovered, however, if you’re a foreigner with hard currency, it’s not at all hard to buy medicine in Pyongyang. In May, a Post reporter visited the North Korean capital, possibly for the recent Workers’ Party congress, and “bought a box of the North Korean-produced medicine to treat erectile dysfunction.” He then “sent it to a Pfizer lab in Massachusetts to be tested.”
Surprisingly, each dose of Neo-Viagra — brown granules in a vial that looks like traditional Korean medicine — turned out to contain 50 milligrams of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. The little blue genuine Viagra pills come in 50- and 100-milligram doses.
“Lab analysis of the product known as ‘Neo-Viagra’ . . . did detect the presence of sildenafil,” said Yasar Yaman, Asia-Pacific director for Pfizer’s global security team. “Sildenafil is the active ingredient in Viagra, however this is a different formulation to the sildenafil found in authentic Pfizer tablets.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This finding should not have been too “surprising,” given longstanding rumors that North Korea sells many counterfeit products, including Viagra, as Fifield notes later. This was my favorite line in the story, by the way:
Pfizer couldn’t say whether the medicine would actually work or was safe because it had not conducted any clinical trials, and the reporter was not successful in convincing any male acquaintances to try it.
Pfizer told the Post that it was “‘currently reviewing’ whether to take any action against the North Korean manufacturers for patent or copyright infringement.” Pfizer’s lawyers will find that it is possible to sue a foreign government that engages in “commercial activity;” but historically, the plaintiffs who’ve obtained large civil judgments against the North Korean government for its terrorist acts have found it difficult to find North Korean assets to attach. A more promising strategy may be to identify and sue the Chinese and Russian companies that are selling the North Korean viagra and try to attach their assets.
Websites based in China and Russia have been selling Kumdang; Neo-Viagra; Tetrodocain, which purports to treat an array of diseases including tuberculosis and HIV; and Chonghwal, which is said to do the same job as Viagra. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
There is, needless to say, no independent scientific evidence for the effectiveness of North Korea’s cure for HIV. There is evidence that other North Korean “medicine” is toxic or harmful. An investigation by Radio Free Asia found that North Korean doctors in Tanzania have prescribed “medications containing high percentages of lethal heavy metals to patients.” According to an anonymously sourced story published by Radio Free Asia, North Korea has at least two factories that make supplements to enhance the performance of athletes, and it reports that those drugs are in high demand among the elites in Pyongyang for “recreational” use. RFA did not test a sample, but South Korea’s Ministry for Food and Drug Safety did analyze samples of North Korean-made supplements for sale in Asian countries and found that some “exceeded the permitted levels of hazardous heavy metal substances,” including mercury, arsenic, and lead. Another, called Keum Dang No. 2, contained “[n]arcotic components.” Vietnamese authorities suspended sale of the supplements following the reports.
Much later in her story, Fifield alludes in passing to the greater harm done to the North Korean people.
Indeed, North Korea’s pharmaceutical factories have largely ground to a halt along with the rest of the industrial sector, and many pharmaceutical products are imported from China to be sold in the markets. Medicines for chronic outbreaks are donated by humanitarian organizations, such as the drugs to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that are imported from South Korea.
I don’t want to move off this point just yet. Instead, I want to turn to another story by the same reporter from last March. Its tone is much darker than the quirky tale of the fake-but-effective Viagra and the plucky little regime that defies the world to sell boner pills to middle-aged guys with more money and libido than sense.
The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.
After the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions this month as punishment for North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launch, South Korea this week imposed direct sanctions of its own. But unlike the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently passed by Congress, the South Korean measures do not make a general exception for humanitarian aid.
That has hamstrung the Eugene Bell Foundation, which treats people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea but cannot get the export licenses it needs to ship medicine from the South to its treatment facilities in the North.
“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield, March 9, 2016]
Let’s stipulate that when South Korea temporarily blocked that shipment of tuberculosis drugs, it made a misstep. U.N. sanctions emphasize that sanctions should be administered to avoid adverse impact on humanitarian aid programs. Blocking humanitarian aid shipments does nothing to help enforce sanctions, and only plays into the hands of dishonest or ill-informed criticisms that sanctions only hurt the North Korean people. The Post’s headline for that story played into that narrative perfectly. It read, “North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk as sanctions hamper medicine shipments.” (Emphasis mine.)
The best I can say for this headline — reporters don’t necessarily write their own headlines — is that it isn’t entirely false. As narrowly applied to South Korea’s unilateral sanctions, it was true at that time. It’s also true that U.N. and U.S. sanctions have had indirect effects on humanitarian aid, but only for reasons that the North Korean government itself could easily avoid. Because North Korea co-mingles its proliferation-related transactions with the transactions it uses for other, non-sanctioned purposes, aid groups report that banks have also hesitated to process transactions related to aid shipments, too. That’s unfortunate.
It’s also unfortunate that the aid groups that operate in North Korea under the watchful eyes of state minders — and who must keep the recent examples of Regina Feindt and Sandra Suh in mind — use those delays as excuses to blame sanctions for the hardships of the North Korean people. What makes that criticism dishonest — even unethical — is those same groups’ consistent refusal to hold the North Korean government responsible for the deliberate policies and priorities that impoverish the North Korean people to begin with. You will often hear NGOs criticize U.S. or U.N. sanctions for hampering shipments of TB drugs, but you will never hear these same NGOs call on Kim Jong-un to produce TB drugs instead of Viagra, supplements, methamphetamine (see also), or narcotics to sell for a profit.
The press also bears its share of blame for failing to raise legitimate questions about that narrative. One of those questions is why a regime that can afford yachts, jewelry, and luxury sedans can’t afford to import medicine. Another is why a regime that can make Viagra to raise cash can’t make TB drugs for its sick citizens. In that light, headlines that blame sanctions for denying the North Korean people medicine — medicine their own government has the means to make and provide, but has chosen not to — are misleading at best.
I’m not a pharmaceutical expert, so the assumption I’m making is that it’s no more difficult to make anti-TB drugs than it is to make Viagra. I invite readers to question that assumption. What’s clear is that Pyongyang has the means to produce advanced pharmaceuticals when it smells a cash profit. Unfortunately, the welfare of the North Korean people is a lower priority than whatever priorities Kim Jong-un has in mind for the revenue he earns by exporting his country’s health care workers and drugs for sale to foreign buyers.
The State Department, which refuses to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite all of the recent and well-documented cases of Pyongyang sending its agents to kidnap and kill refugees, emigres, and activists — and amid reports that it is sending more hit-men now — is calling on governments around the world to protect North Korean refugees. That’s good, I suppose.
“We urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories,” State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told Yonhap News Agency. “The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. She, however, declined comment on specifics of the North Korean diplomat’s defection.
“We continue to work with other countries and international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect North Korean refugees and find durable solutions for them,” Adams said. [Yonhap]
We’ve seen recently that more privileged North Koreans are escaping in greater numbers, and good for them. But along the border between China and North Korea — which since the 1990s has been the last resort of North Korea’s poorest and hungriest people — Chinese authorities have raised the payment of bounties to catch and return North Korean refugees to Kim Jong-un’s gulag.
“More defectors are being repatriated by [Chinese] public security agents after their journey across the Tumen River into Chinese territory,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “Recently, Chinese border patrol units and public security officials have been carrying out joint patrols, tighter inspections, and searches, drastically reducing the potential for successful defection.”
An increased incidence in reporting by local residents also plays a significant role, he added. Defectors are picked up by law enforcement in the border region before they manage to make it further afield after crossing the river, the source explained, citing a case from early August, when two women in their 30s crossed the Tumen River from Musan County and were picked up by Chinese public security forces on a tip from local residents. The women were immediately handed over to North Korean State Security Department officials.
This would be understandable if we were talking about armed North Korean soldiers, who have been crossing the border to do home-invasion robberies in Chinese border towns recently. Instead, China is rounding up desperately poor women who may be trying to escape starvation or earn enough money to feed their children.
Local Chinese authorities have for some time been relatively wont to let defector-related matters slide, according to the source. “But recently,” she added, “local governments are taking a harsher stance, perhaps because of pressure from the central government on account of perceived warmer ties with Pyongyang.”
According to multiple sources in China close to North Korean affairs, Chinese public announcements on “enhanced border security measures” are ubiquitous in border regions, promising up to 1,000 RMB for those who report illegal border crossings, residence, and employment of North Koreans. Those who personally capture and hand over North Koreans to the Chinese authorities stand to receive 2,000 RMB for their efforts.
They have also outlined stronger punishments for local residents who enter verbal agreements with North Koreans to help them cross the river or smuggle goods, threatening fines of up to 3,000 RMB for transgressors. Moreover, Chinese border guards have been ordered to shoot North Korean defectors caught illegally entering the country if they resist arrest. [Daily NK]
President Obama should raise these bounties in particular, and China’s refugee policy in general, when he meets with Xi Jinping this week. He should also ask Xi to let18-year-old mathematics student Ri Jong-yol leave the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong for a flight to Seoul. The same goes for the reported defection of a North Korean general (and possibly, several diplomats) in China.
In fact, the two men should have plenty to talk about. On several fronts, after promising to cooperate with efforts to disarm North Korea, China has turned back in the direction of enabling Kim Jong-un’s worst behavior.
If, as I expect, direct appeals to Xi’s tender mercies fail, other appropriate responses must include a sustained effort to find and block North Korean assets, starting with those held by small Chinese banks and shadow banks, and moving steadily upward in the financial ecosystem. In doing so, Treasury should prioritize identifying the assets of the North Korean security agencies that are stepping up their censorship and surveillance to seal North Korea’s borders, and to prevent so-called “chain defections.”
When China allowed the Ningpo 12 to escape to South Korea, some activists took an optimistic view that China was finally moderating its cruel policies toward North Korean refugees. It was never clear to me that this represented a change in Beijing’s policy, but it is clear that Beijing’s North Korea policy has recently taken a great step backward.
How cynical, brutal, and flagrantly unlawful it would be if China were, in fact, punishing North Korean men, women, and children — who are guilty of no crime but wanting to live — over its objections to South Korean missile defense.
Pyongyang has finally settled on a story to explain the defection of its number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho. Initially, Pyongyang’s principal puppet in Tokyo, Kim Myong-chol, had suggested that South Korean agents had coerced Thae into defecting. Now, Pyongyang is accusing Thae of embezzlement and child rape, and lashing out at Britain for aiding his escape.
Until very recently, the British Foreign Office had hewed in a strongly pro-engagement direction. I wonder how this rupture will affect Britain’s policy under Theresa May.
Pyongyang’s story raises more questions than answers. It’s a transparent smear, of course, but for it to be true, either the North Korean authorities discovered all of Thae’s misconduct at the same time — immediately before he defected — or else it overlooked one or both of these crimes for some unspecified period of time beforehand. Among the details Pyongyang unwittingly exposed is that even Thae, ostensibly a trusted member of the elite, did not have custody of his own passport. Clearly, Pyongyang is terrified of Thae’s potential power as a counter-propagandist. That’s why it’s desperate to discredit him now.
Yonhap reports that the women have now left the care of the National Intelligence Service and “resettled” in undisclosed locations throughout South Korea.
The Ministry of Unification said that it is true that they have begun to resettle in South Korea, but it cannot reveal further details due to concerns over their safety. [….]
The rare massive defection has garnered attention over whether the sanctions have a major impact on pressuring North Korea, as Pyongyang-run restaurants in foreign countries have served as one of main sources of hard currency for the North.
But the case has also sparked a row in South Korea over whether they defected to Seoul of their own free will following North Korea’s repeated claims that the female workers were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency. [Yonhap]
They’ve escaped one set of hardships, but they’re about to confront another. They’ll need all the support they can find from their new society.
The resettlement of the women comes amid media speculation that North Korea could retaliate against South Korea for recent high-profile defections though terrorist attacks, maybe against South Koreans in third countries, and maybe by sending assassins to kill former Deputy Ambassador Tae Yong-ho. Without knowing more, the reports could be pure speculation, but that speculation has a solid backing in history. In the last several years alone, North Korea has repeatedly dispatched assassins to murder North Korean refugees in the South.
One group that can’t be pleased about the resettlement is the North Korean leadership. Another is South Korea’s far left, specifically the lawyers’ group Minbyun, which tried to abuse the legal process to expose and publicly interrogate the women, as part of what I personally believe was a plan to deter more defections. Minbyun’s failure is further cause for celebration, although it may have succeeded in deterring other defections.
Life will not be easy for these women. Concerns for their safety will prohibit them from becoming going on book tours or joining the cast of “Now on My Way to Meet You.”
They’ll be lonely, isolated from family, and wracked by guilt about the fate of their families. They’ll probably be isolated from their former colleagues, to protect each other from exposure in case the Reconnaissance General Bureau finds and turns one of them, perhaps by using family members as hostages. As long as the regime in Pyongyang survives, they will wonder if they can trust even their closest friends, yet their dialects and manners will be conspicuous in a country where neighbors often know a great deal about one another. Nor would I put it past far-left groups to try to stalk and out them. But for now, at least Minbyun will have the consolation of four new victims to bully — the family of Thae Yong-ho, who recently said this about the Ningpo 12:
I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.
A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.
Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.
The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.
The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]
For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.
According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]
As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.
It’s always rewarding to know that someone is reading my screeds:
The promise of secondary sanctions is that they can force foreign banks, trading companies and ports to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business in dollars, which usually is an easy call. That’s what happened a decade ago when the U.S. blacklisted Macao-based Banco Delta Asia and spurred a cascade of other Chinese banks to drop their North Korean clients lest they lose access to the U.S. financial system.
But this only works if the U.S. exercises its power and blacklists offending institutions, as Congress required in February’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The Obama Administration hasn’t done so even once.
As sanctions expert Joshua Stanton has noted on his One Free Korea blog, this isn’t for lack of targets. U.S. and South Korean intelligence have long tracked Pyongyang’s overseas slush funds, an effort surely boosted by high-level defections from Kim’s court. [Wall Street Journal, Review & Outlook]
A U.N. report in February named dozens of Chinese firms as fronts or partners of blacklisted North Korean entities. It also detailed how the Bank of China allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.
This is going to help put some steel behind Congress’s oversight of the administration’s enforcement of North Korea sanctions at a very important time — just as China concludes that it can get away with business and usual, and just as everyone’s attention is distracted by our ridiculous dumpster fire election. Better yet, it puts political pressure on President Obama just as he leaves for his final meeting with Xi Jinping.
On balance, I suppose Kim Jong-un probably prefers to see his foreign emissaries expelled than boardingKAL flights to Seoul. Still, since we last took inventory of Pyongyang’s distressed diplomatic corps in March, several more North Korean diplomats have been kicked out and sent home, and His Corpulency is apparently displeased.
In 2014, I wrote about North Koreans who were bootlegging alcohol in Muslim countries, quite possibly the only illicit North Korean activity that also provides a useful service to humanity. At the time, I didn’t see strong evidence that any of the perpetrators were diplomats, but a series of arrests has delivered that evidence. Several North Korean diplomats have since been arrested for smuggling alcohol, using their status as a cover.
In April, a North Korean diplomat posted in the Pakistani city of Karachi was apprehended while trying to bring 855 boxes of duty-free liquor, nearly double the amount allowed, into the country. A source in Pakistan Tuesday identified the diplomat as Kang Song Gun, a commercial counselor at North Korea’s consulate in Karachi. [VOA]
In May 2015, another North Korean diplomat, Koh Hak Chol, a third secretary at the consulate, was apprehended by customs officials while carrying liquor that exceeded quotas, the source said. Pakistani officials questioned Koh for several hours but released him without charge. The Pakistani source said both Kang and Koh are still with the diplomatic mission.
Another source in Pakistan said some North Korean diplomats who were arrested for illegal liquor selling continued the illicit activity after their release. Trading alcohol in a black market is an important money-making source for many North Korean diplomats although the sale of alcohol is strictly banned in the Muslim country, according to the source. [….]
In April 2015, a North Korean diplomat and his wife were caught selling liquor inside the upscale Defense Housing Authority (DHA) development in Karachi. In 2013, Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported Pakistani officials had investigated complaints that North Korean diplomats were selling alcohol at the complex. [VOA]
An unnamed Pakistani source tells VOA that “[t]here have been at least 10 confirmed cases of illegal liquor trade involving North Korean diplomats in Pakistan since 2009.” So there is ample evidence that North Korean diplomats are involved. Unfortunately — or fortunately, if you’re a thirsty Pakistani — the Pakistani government still isn’t expelling them.
In April, North Korea suddenly recalled its ambassador to Germany, Ri Si-hong, who had been in his post since 2011. The reasons for Ri’s recall weren’t clear, although the Korean press offered several lines of speculation. The Chosun Ilboreported that Ri’s recall followed Germany’s deportation of two other North Korean diplomats for “illegally raising cash for the regime,” and cited Radio Free Asia’s speculation that Ri was recalled “because he was being blamed” for the arrests. Yonhap (also citing RFA) offered the alternative theory that Ri had failed “to meet expectations,” which may mean he isn’t kicking up enough loyalty payments. The Donga Ilboclaimed that he was being held “accountable for Berlin’s condemnation of the North’s nuclear test in January” and for Germany’s subsequent support for UNSCR 2270. It also reports that North Korean diplomats had previously quarreled with their German hosts after the embassy rented out part of its building, in violation of the Vienna Convention.
Whatever the reason for Ri’s recall, in July, we learned that Germany had refused to credential Ri’s designated successor. Yet again, we could only speculate as to why, and yet again, the Korean press was equal to the challenge. Some said he was a spy in involved in “dubious business activities” (North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department). Yonhap also implied that the nominee had been “involved in unlawful activities in the past.”
At last word, Ri was back to Berlin to resume his duties — presumably, with his family under the watchful eyes of the Ministry of Peoples’ Security back in Pyongyang. If the German authorities ultimately determine that Ri was involved in illicit activities, it may be required to expel him, too.
In July, Vietnam banned a total of 28 U.N.-designated North Koreans and deported at least two of them. According to UPI, one of the men, Choe Sung-il, was a representative of U.N.-designated Tanchon Commercial Bank, who was in charge of North Korea’s arms sales in Asia. He was deported in April. Also deported this year was Kim Jung-jong.
According to NK News, however, Vietnam later denied that either of the men was associated with Tanchon, and even asked the U.N. 1718 Committee to update its designations accordingly. Valiantly attempting to deconflict these reports, Hamish MacDonald writes:
However, despite the requested amendments, it appears that Vietnam is not necessarily refuting that the two individuals were representatives of Tanchon Commercial Bank (TCB), but rather take issue with them being identified as representatives specifically “in Vietnam”, considering that it says that TCB did not have a physical branch within the country.
In the report’s conclusion, the Vietnamese authorities suggested that the listing of the two North Koreans be altered to simply “Tanchon Commercial Bank Representatives”, with no mention of Vietnam itself.
Another likely factor in the request is that the two individuals in question are no longer residing in Vietnam. According to Vietnamese authorities, Kim left the country in January – prior to the adoption of Resolution 2270 – while Choe departed Vietnam in April.
“Vietnam is clearly requesting a change to the designation explanations for Choe Song Il and Kim Jung Jong. It does not wish to be publicly associated with sanctions breaches and has given evidence that the individuals have left the country, which it claims should be sufficient for the ‘Vietnam’ portion of the designation text to be stricken,” Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News on Thursday.
“Its assertion that the individuals cannot be connected to Tanchon because there is no evidence that Tanchon had representation in the country, may in fact be the product of clever North Korean sanctions evasion,” Berger added. [NK News, Hamish MacDonald]
According to the U.N. Panel of Experts’ 2016 report, Vietnam had previously been one of Pyongyang’s customers, which might explain why Hanoi has a motive to dissemble. Furthermore, Tanchon had been designated long before this year. Vietnam may be concerned that the U.N. designation list implicates it retroactively.
Some of the 26 other North Koreans appear to be senior officials without ostensible links to ’Nam, who may have been added to pad its list. I say let bygones be bygones (this is Vietnam we’re talking about, after all). Now, our interests are converging again. It can’t hurt our efforts to secure Vietnam’s compliance that Vietnamese opinion has turned sharply against China over the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh expelled a North Korean diplomat for smuggling cigarettes and unspecified electronic goods in a shipping container.Reuters identified the diplomat as Han Son-ik, the First Secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Dhaka.
Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque confirmed the order had been made to the North Koreans, but declined to give a timetable for his departure. Local media said he had been ordered by leave by Monday.
“We have asked North Korea to take him back for violating diplomatic norms,” Haque, Bangladesh’s top foreign bureaucrat, told AFP, declining to give details. A senior customs official told AFP the North Korean used his diplomatic immunity earlier this month to import the goods which were suspected destined for the blackmarket.
“The diplomat declared that his cargo contained food and soft drinks. But when we opened the cargo, we found 1.6 million stalks of expensive cigarettes and electronics,” Moinul Khan, head of intelligence at Bangladesh customs, told AFP. “At market prices these products are valued at 35 million taka (US$430,000). We suspect that he brought the products to sell to local smuggling gangs,” he said. [Channel News Asia]
KBS reports that the containers came in from Malaysia, which has close commercial ties to North Korea, and which should now conduct its own investigation into the smuggling operation — first, to determine whether any of the electronics were proliferation-sensitive items or luxury goods headed for Pyongyang; second, to determine whether U.N.-designated persons were involved in the shipments; and third, to determine whether the revenues from the transactions violated any of the financial due diligence provisions of UNSCR 2270 or 2094.
If that seems brazen, KBS also reports that Bangladeshi authorities are “conducting a probe into two other containers held under the North Korean embassy’s name that are suspected of carrying undeclared vehicles including Rolls-Royces and BMWs.” That’s a potential violation of UNSCR 1718’s luxury goods ban, depending on where those vehicles ended up.
I’ve long hoped that the Panel of Experts would focus more attention on North Korea’s Malaysian connections, in the hope that Malaysia would decide that it would rather do without this kind of attention. Hopefully, we’ll learn more about that investigation in the next POE report.
The position of First Secretary in Dhaka has experienced significant turnover recently. Last year, Bangladesh expelled Han’s predecessor, Son Young-nam, for smuggling $1.4 million worth of gold. UNSCR 2270 requires member states to “prohibit the procurement of” gold by North Koreans.
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Expulsions of North Korean diplomats appear to be on the rise. In some cases, that’s because UNSCR 2270 has emphasized member states’ duty to expel diplomats involved in certain prohibited activities. In other cases, diplomats appear to be engaged in the same old garden-variety smuggling North Korean diplomats are infamous for, only they’re making more stupid mistakes than they used to. Based on other reports I’ve read, North Korean diplomats are under pressure to maintain agency operations, pay their own salaries, and make steep loyalty payments to the Mother Ship. They appear to be making those stupid mistakes out of financial desperation.
It won’t improve morale that following Thae Yong-ho’s defection, Pyongyang is sending more security agents abroad to watch its diplomats more closely than ever, and has ordered the execution — with antiaircraft guns! — of those who fail to prevent defections. Or so says a “source, who declined to be identified.” That source also claims that His Corpulency “has ordered the families of North Korean diplomats and overseas workers back to the country following Thae’s defection,” as I’d have expected. I’m no longer alone in describing the death spiral of rising pressure on a shrinking pool of North Korean expatriates to support the regime, which ultimately breaks their morale, spurs more defections, and causes Pyongyang to call yet more expats home.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
But why the financial desperation? I’ve explained my doubts that the U.S. has made full use of its power to freeze North Korean slush funds, and I stand by those doubts. Could it be that South Korea’s cutoff of Kaesong, and its diplomatic push to cut Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency, have been more effective than I’d realized? Or might banks be blocking North Korean accounts already, in anticipation of Treasury’s final rule cutting North Korean banks’ correspondent relationships, or in fear of the enhanced due diligence requirements that will apply to North Korean customers? I suppose time will tell.
Update: Uzbekistan embassy closes
Yonhap reports that North Korea has closed its embassy in Tashkent for “restructuring.” That leaves no North Korean embassies in the ‘stans, and only one former Soviet state with a North Korean embassy — Russia. Really? Evidently so. I guess that foils my plans for getting my first visit from Turkmenistan.
When the news broke yesterday that North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong-ho, had defected, many reporters who knew him were astonished. Subject to the confirmation of reports that a North Korean general and several diplomats defected in China recently, Thae would be the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected from the North, and the second-highest official, after Hwang Jang-yop‘s defection in 1997.
This is a new low in a bad year for Kim Jong-un. Defections are not only rising in number — up 15 percent from last year, but still well below pre-Kim Jong-un levels — the songbun levels of the defectors themselves are also rising. It isn’t just the lowly, downtrodden, and expendable who are fleeing now. Defections and protests are breaking out among the elite classes, vetted workers, and senior officials. Defections and small-scale mutinies within the military aren’t new, but those also seem to be rising.
Asked if this means “that North Korea is on the verge of collapse,” Christopher Green says, “Absolutely not.” But the only thing we can say “absolutely” is that no one outside Pyongyang can be absolutely certain of anything, and especially not now. The Pyongyang elite is the world’s most insular group of people. No one — with the possible exception of Thae and a few of his former confederates — should pretend to know, and not even they can predict it. All I can say is that trends that can’t continue won’t.
Thae was not just any North Korean diplomat, but an unusually high-profile one in an important post (Pyongyang’s current Foreign Minister is a former Ambassador to the U.K.). One of Thae’s duties was to monitor (and perhaps, to intimidate, or to turn) the growing population of North Korean refugees in Britain, something North Korea sometimes does by threatening their loved ones. Thae, unlike most of them, was fortunate enough to have the option of getting his own wife and two sons out, and the NIS’s help in carrying out a “scrupulous plan” for doing that. As of this morning, NK News reported that the family had arrived in South Korea.
Another of Thae’s duties was to protest against unflattering portrayals of his country and its leader, including (to the amusement of many) a satirical appropriation of His Porcine Majesty’s image by a hair salon. Thae could also have voiced North Korea’s objections to a proposed British television series in 2014. Other duties included serving as the “sole point-person for visa issues at the embassy” and taking Kim Jong-chol to a Clapton concert.
Thae seems articulate by North Koreandiplomatic standards — yes, that is an oxymoron — although I also perceive some soft bigotry of low expectations in some of these judgments (to be clear, I don’t mean Pearson here). Still, is it any wonder why a guy like that wouldn’t want to go back to North Korea? Of course, certain bookstores in Jeremy Corbin’s England must seem at least a little bit like North Korea at times. Even I sympathize with Thae’s position as Pyongyang’s agent of influence when he must humor this klatsch of insufferable, Chomsky-thumping pseudo-intellectual poseurs.
How could Thae so convincingly project such belief in a system he secretly wanted to flee? The answer is “practice.” Natan Sharanksy’s “The Case for Democracy” is, without much doubt, a book of ideas with more merit for some societies than others, and much first-person wisdom about the psychology of those who live in totalitarian societies. One of the concepts Sharansky explains to his readers is “doublethink” — how a life lived under totalitarianism teaches people to compartmentalize the things they believe from the things they must believe.
It must also be the case that one who lives in a totalitarian society can simultaneously harbor views that seem mutually contradictory to us. North Koreans might feel nationalist pride in nuclear and missile tests while wishing that the state would spend its money on feeding their hungry children instead. They might despise both their government and its enemies. They might loathe America and secretly long to visit or live there. They might take pride in their purity while craving the impure. They might hate Kim Jong-un and revere his grandfather (if reservedly). When your job is to persuade a skeptical world of the things you must believe, self-delusion becomes essential to your livelihood, and to survival itself.
Which is to say that on a certain level, Thae may have believed much of what he said in defense of the regime he served with one part of his mind, while knowing in another, compartmentalized part of it that he was lying to everyone in the room — himself most of all — when he defended North Korea’s record on human rights.
That, or he was just a really good liar.
What caused Thae to flee, and what do his reasons tell us about broader political trends, or vulnerabilities? Our only direct evidence is what the South Korean government said about Thae’s reasons.
“About the motive of defection, it is known that Councillor Thae revealed he got sick and tired of the Kim Jong Un regime and yearned for a liberal and democratic regime, concerned about the future of his children,” MoU spokesperson Jeong added.
The spokesperson added that the defection illustrated the “North’s core layer considers there is no hope for the Kim Jong Un regime anymore… the perception that the North Korean regime already reached breaking point has been spreading and internal unity among the ruling class has been weakened. [NK News]
If you suspect that this is spin, it certainly sounds like it, although that guess makes as much sense as any other. A Yonhap “News Focus” piece goes further, arguing that Thae’s defection comes “amid increasing talk in South Korea about signs of a possible exodus by privileged North Koreans who are feeling the squeeze of international sanctions.” I’d like to believe this, but the piece offers little evidence that sanctions played a role in Thae’s defection.
Yonhap’s report then cites a researcher at the Sejong Institute, who speculates that “[i]n the face of new U.S. sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violations, which specifically targeted leader Kim Jong-un, Thae must have felt ever more inner conflict in his position to promote North Korea.” I’d love to believe that theory, too, but I still don’t see any direct evidence to support it.
The same Sejong researcher also speculates thatThae“may have been exposed to frequent criticism from Western countries … and that might have spawned psychological conflicts.” Similarly, the Joongang Ilbo’s first anonymously sourcedreportclaims thatThae“had been under growing pressure from Pyongyang to combat the diplomatic heat from the international community over North Korean violations of human rights.”
Or, maybe he got in trouble for recommending visas for the BBC correspondent who wasdetained and expelledfor saying unflattering things about the regime in Pyongyang. Or, maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of facing those insufferable bookstore Chomskyites again. Or, maybe Pyongyang wanted to move him before his kids finished school.
Here’s another possible explanation.
Thae’s defection will be an embarrassment to Pyongyang, but Kim Jong-un can surely survive the embarrassment of Thae Yong-ho’s alienation if he can survive the embarrassment of Dennis Rodman’s friendship. Thae’s laptop, cell phone, and bank records could help identify bank accounts, shell companies, and other illicit revenue schemes the London embassy uses to finance its operations. Given his role in Pyongyang’s influence operations, he may be able to identify spies and unregistered agents of influence in Europe, South Korea, or even the U.S. His very defection will cause the regime to redouble restrictions on, and monitoring of, its overseas personnel, and call home those it deems less than fully trustworthy. These precautions will feed the death spiral that undermines the loyalty of the remaining overseas personnel, who must work even harder to meet their earnings quotas.
The greatest potential that Thae may bring to Seoul, however, will be his perspective and talent for persuasion. Here is a man who can lie intelligently and convincingly. Just imagine how persuasive he’d be if he really believed himself. You can already see where I’m going with this, right?
The report cited a North Korean woman from South Pyeongan Province currently in China as saying that television signals transmitted from South Korea can be picked up in areas near Pyongyang such as Pyongsong and Sunchon.
She said that people who are watching South Korean television are mostly the elite class and they are strictly keeping it a secret.
Another source on North Korean affairs noted that South Korean TV programs can be viewed in Pyongyang as well as the Hwanghae and Hamgyeong provinces and coastal cities.
The source said that signals are particularly well received on flat lands and along coastlines, adding that images are more clear on cloudy days. [KBS]
Thae has undoubtedly done some terrible things to gain and keep his position. I doubt he had much choice. But if he wants to redeem himself as a transformational figure in Korean history, he has the potential that the wooden, doctrinaire, and charismatically challenged Hwang Jong-yop never had. I imagine that would work something like this.
[Kinda works for the last New Hampshire primaries, too.]
It has long been my view that governments place too much value on secrecy and too little value on public diplomacy and persuasion. Imagine the profound subversive impact on audiences in Pyongyang to see Thae speak the truth about why he defected. I can think of no better messenger to tell Pyongyang’s elites why they must reform and disarm or perish.
In February and March, respectively, the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Security Council responded to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test with sanctions that were, in theory, an order of magnitude stronger than any sanctions imposed on North Korea until then. Sanctions, of course, are only as good as their enforcement, and in enforcing sanctions against North Korea, the most important rule has always been “follow the money.” Money — along with the contradictions of its political system — hasalwaysbeen one of Pyongyang’s main vulnerabilities. Much of that money sits in banks in China, Europe, and Russia. A sudden cutoff of those funds could shake the increasingly fragile cohesion and discipline of the security forces. It could also shake the waveringconfidence of North Korean elites in Kim Jong-un’s capacity to preserve their status, position, and survival. After an inevitable period of backlash, tension, and provocations, an insolvent dictatorship in Pyongyang would confront an existential choice to reform and disarm or perish.
Of course, confronting Kim Jong-un with that choice depends on getting Kim Jong-un’s bankers in China, Russia, and European states to comply with the new U.N. sanctions. Because China and Russia have voted for and subsequently violated U.N. sanctions resolutions for years, Congress concluded that a credible threat of secondary sanctions was necessary to make them enforce the resolutions. Section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act requires the administration to block the slush funds that facilitate Kim Jong-un’s proliferation, arms trafficking, luxury goods imports, and human rights abuses, wherever those funds are found. The purpose of the law is to force the administration to cut off the funds that maintain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and to send a clear message to Chinese and Russian banks that the days of business as usual are over. Either they can do business with Pyongyang or New York, but not both.
Congress made those sanctions mandatory — barring the invocation of a presidential waiver in section 208(c), which must be reported to Congress — because had it lost patience with China, and because it had lost confidence in the Obama administration’s will to enforce U.S. law or U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The Obama administration has too a long history of letting Kim Jong-un off the hook for his most egregious conduct to be trusted. It did functionally nothing to sanction Pyongyang after its second and third nuclear tests, multiple missile tests, and two attacks against South Korea. It failed to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite multiple attempts to assassinate dissidents and human rights activists, multiple arms shipments to Iranian-backed terrorists, and the Sony cyber terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland. It did nothing to the Chinese and China-based entities that hosted and enabled the North Korean hackers. Yet for years, despite the extensive evidence of China’s bad faith, the White House effectively outsourced its North Korea policy to China.
The administration has denied knowing where North Korea’s slush funds are, but those denials become harder to believe as the open-source evidence accumulates. For years, open sources have reported that U.S. and South Korean authorities had pursued and identified large amounts of those funds. A recent spate of high-level defections — yet another was revealed just today — has likely added to the U.S. government’s knowledge of those funding streams. Good journalism has done much to expose North Korea’s China-based money laundering. In the coming days, an extraordinary and little-known organization, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, will release a meticulously researched report, based entirely on open-source information, that will provide a ground-breaking expose of the North Korean overseas procurement networks. Any guesses which country they operate from?
But perhaps “ground-breaking” is too optimistic. Six months afterthe latest reportfrom the U.N. Panel of Experts, the administration still hasn’t sanctioned any of the dozens of third-country enablers of North Korean proliferation, smuggling, or money laundering named in that report. The Panel’s report added dozens of names to the long list of Chinese and China-based trading companies, middlemen, and assorted death-merchants to the list of those who’ve spent the last two decades helping Pyongyang buy, sell, and trade the instruments of proliferation and extortion. You won’t find any of them listed among this year’s designations by the Treasury Department.
The administration still hasn’t blocked Chinpo Shipping, which wasconvictedby a court in Singapore of facilitating North Korean weapons smuggling. It has taken no action against the Bank of China, whose local staff knowingly deceivedtheir U.S. correspondents — and may have brokenU.S. money laundering laws— by directing Chinpo to conceal any North Korean links to the shipment. It has not sanctioned Chinese ex-spy Sam Pa or his 88 Queensway Group fortheir dealings with Bureau 39(sanctioned by both Treasury and the U.N.) although it did sanction Pafor violating Zimbabwe sanctions. The same goes for the North Korean mining companies and their foreign investorsI found among the Panama Papers. UnderExecutive Order 13722, those companies and their enablers should be subject to sectoral sanctions. No action has been taken against any of them, either.
If the administration — despite the vast personnel, legal, and intelligence resources at its disposal — doesn’t have all of this information, that could only be because it isn’t trying to gather it. What seems much more likely is that the administration has decided not to act on it — on any of it. The fact that the Obama administration won’t act on the information it has makes it harder to believe its denials that it knows where Kim Jong-un’s money is. I have no way of knowing what Treasury knows on the classified or law enforcement sensitive level, of course, but Congress does. We’ll get to that at the end of this post.
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Is the administration simply afraid of the diplomatic consequences of secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian interests? Clearly not. Just two weeks ago, the Treasury Department designated and blocked a network of traders and trading companies that were helping the Syrian government’s arms procurement and proliferation. One of those traders was a Chinese national and two were Russian; one of the companies is located in Shenyang and one in Moscow. And of course, the Obama administration has directly sanctioned some of Putin’s top officials and financiers over Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
The administration can’t credibly claim that China deserves a pass because of its good behavior, either. Recently, China has turned sharply toward authoritarianism, anti-Americanism, and imperial hegemony over neighboring states and waters. It just blocked a toothless U.N. censure of North Korea over missile launches that flagrantly violated a decade-long series of Security Council resolutions by inserting poison-pill language objecting to South Korea’s improvement of its missile defenses.
Yet instead of accepting responsibility for selling North Korea missile technology and road-mobile missile carriers, among other items, China’s Global Timesblames the U.S. for the North Korean threat. Instead of sanctioning Pyongyang, Beijing is threatening Seoul with trade sanctionsfor having the temerity to want to defend itself from North Korea missiles. It has made a show of cozying up to North Korea and expressing its “significant differences” with the United States.It has even taken to bullying South Korea’s beloved K-pop artists. Korean conservatives are making an issue of this, as they should. Even the far-left, anti-American Hankyoreh Sinmuncalls China’s threats “petty.” Scott Snyder is probably right that in the end, this will hurt China’s own economic interests. That is to say nothing of the nationalist backlash it will inspire among Koreans. But the broader point is that China isn’t taking the gravity of this threat to U.S., South Korean, and Japanese security seriously. That’s all the more reason why China must share in the cost of the threat it has done so much to incubate.
I disagree with John Park and James Walsh on the role of sanctions as often as not, but they are right that for sanctions to slow North Korea’s proliferation, the administration must be willing to pursue and sanction North Korea’s procurement networks in China. They are also correct that weakly enforced sanctions, like half-doses of antibiotics, only serve to strengthen the disease’s resistance to the cure. It should go without saying that in attacking North Korea’s procurement networks, it may be necessary to sanction their Chinese enablers, too. But to go beyond merely delaying Kim Jong-un’s progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal, we must do much more — we must instill the fear of God in Chinese banks that hold (at least) hundreds of millions of dollars in North Korean slush funds, and that allow Kim Jong-un and his cronies to use those funds to maintain his hold over his military and security forces.
In the weeks and months following the imposition of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, I’ve seen and seized on hopeful signs that Chinese banks were freezing North Korean accounts, and that North Korean operatives have been unable to pay their debts. No doubt the administration knows things that I don’t, but these isolated reports still do not suggest that Pyongyang is in the early stages of a liquidity crisis that will confront it with the choice to reform and disarm or perish. Rather, absent more evidence that Treasury is serious about finding and blocking North Korean slush funds, those initial hopeful signs will fade away. It will be business as usual all over again, just as it was not long after Chinese banks brieflyfroze North Korean funds in 2013.
The fact that Pyongyang continues to sell coal and iron ore to China — in volumes that are increasing, not decreasing — suggests that Pyongyang still has access to bank accounts where it can deposit its coal and iron ore revenues. North Korea’s unsanctioned mineral exports are also rising. Because the mineral trade is under regime control, the fact that it is not directly sanctioned does not absolve China from the duty to ensure that revenue from this trade isn’t used to support Pyongyang’s WMD programs. The rise in this trade reinforces the likelihood that China’s banking industry is open for North Korean business. One South Korean expert opines that it also reflects a rising consensus among Chinese trading companies that China has lost interest in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang.
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Yes, the administration has taken the long-overdue step of blocking North Korean banks’ access to the financial system. Treasury’s regulation is still not final, and it still remains to be seen what effects U.S. and EU money-laundering blacklisting will have. On one level, the recent surge of defections suggests that the regime is under some financial duress, for some reason. Yes, the administration has designated Kim Jong-un by name for his human rights abuses, while signaling that this action is an entirely symbolic one. Those actions were commendable, so I commended them. But they were meant to be symbolic and much more. The administration must do more than name Kim Jong-un; it must find and freeze the billions of dollars he is not using to provide for his people. Whatever we are doing right, we can do it better.
Fortunately, Congress learned a lesson from the North Korean Human Rights Act: administrations don’t always want to enforce the law, so Congress must make them. When it passed the new sanctions law, Congress included numerous reporting requirements, including a requirement that the administration report to Congress 180 days after the enactment of the legislation on exactly what it has done to enforce the new sanctions. I wonder if the administration forgot about this. Congress hasn’t forgotten it. The time has come for Congress to ask for that briefing. I can think of some very detailed and specific questions the staff should ask about what the administration has done to follow the money. If the administration doesn’t have satisfactory answers, Congress should hold oversight hearings.
We are still in the early phases of implementing these new sanctions authorities. There is still time for sanctions to work, but we are also at the stage where China traditionally stops pretending to enforce sanctions and returns to business as usual. In Washington, the distractions of an election year present a high risk that the administration may prefer a quiet exit to stopping North Korea’s march to nuclear breakout. An administration that wasted eight years while the North Korean threat continued to build has not earned one last “era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays.” We are entering an era of consequences. The President must enforce the law. Congress must use its oversight authority to ensure that he does.
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Update:Similar thoughts here, from the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner. And I should note that this Time report from Dandong offers some contradictory (and more encouraging) evidence:
Sipping fruit tea in a Dandong café, Wang, the alias of a Pyongyang-born Chinese trader who speaks to TIME on condition of anonymity, describes how his business importing North Korean coal and minerals and exporting building materials has been eviscerated by the sanctions. “North Korean traders don’t have cash anymore,” he says. “I have to limit the amount of goods I sell to them on credit as the risk of default is so high.”
The report also says that refugees in South Korea have had an easier time sending money to their relatives back in North Korea. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as Chinese banks enforce sanctions against the regime’s agents.
Just over a week ago in the Arizona Desert, Facebook’s solar powered Aquila drone lifted off for the first time and stayed aloft for more than 90 minutes. Facebook posted video of the launch here and told of its great ambitions for Aquila.
“When complete, Aquila will be able to circle a region up to 60 miles in diameter, beaming connectivity down from an altitude of more than 60,000 feet using laser communications and millimeter wave systems. Aquila is designed to be hyper efficient, so it can fly for up to three months at a time. The aircraft has the wingspan of an airliner, but at cruising speed it will consume only 5,000 watts — the same amount as three hair dryers, or a high-end microwave.” [Facebook press release]
That Mark Zuckerberg was personally present for the launch says everything about Facebook’s plans to build a fleet of drones that will “use lasers to beam down internet access to remote areas without online capacity.”
The aircraft will use free-space laser communication as a mechanism to communicate between aircraft in the fleet, and e-band technology to beam connectivity from the airplane to receivers on the ground. In essence, the plan is to create a drone system that acts as floating wifi routers to bridge the internet gaps on the ground, from the air. To do this, Aquila’s team designed and lab-tested a laser that can deliver data at 10 Gbps–approximately ten times faster the previous versions–to a target the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away. [Real Clear Life]
According to Facebook, this fleet of drones “will provide the internet to 4 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa and other remote regions that do not have access currently.”
The plane is one of a handful of new Facebook initiatives to provide Internet access to places and people who don’t have it. Just this week, the company’s Connectivity Lab published a paper describing a light-based communication technique for sending information without wires, and last year the company announced it is working on delivering Internet by satellite. [NPR]
Among these is Facebook’s Internet.org, a partnership with an international group of technology companies. Google has also made steadyprogress in its own deployment of Project Loon, which will use a fleet of balloons navigating through atmospheric currents. In an article published last year, the MIT Technology review estimated that Project Loon would be available in one or two years. (Note to South Korea’s NIS: balloons tethered to mountaintops south of the DMZ would conceivably be just as effective at reaching North Koreans as balloons floating through the stratosphere.)
Unfortunately, none of the articles covering the Aquila story tells us when Facebook expects to deploy its drones, or precisely where. Personally, I can’t think of a better place to deploy them than North Korea, the world’s most isolated, brutal, and militarized society.
What is apparent is that the days of North Korea’s information blockade are numbered. If Google and Facebook continue their current rate of progress, it’s reasonable to predict that information will flow more-or-less freely between North Korea and the rest of the world. Although breaking this blockade will most likely employ a variety of strategies to overwhelm the regime’s capacity to monitor, detect, censor, and jam signals, in the near future, radio broadcasts may be the least of Pyongyang’s concerns.
Years ago, North Korean society probably reached saturation point for knowing that there is more freedom and prosperity beyond the borders of their country. Simply watching South Korean DVDs and listening to American broadcasts will dispose many North Koreans to living in a society more like South Korea’s, but it will not elucidate all that their own government has done to deny them rice, peace, and freedom. It won’t break the fear, hopelessness, and isolation that prevents them from fighting for those things.
If we have more subversive, transformational, and even revolutionary goals, then our communications strategy must help North Koreans communicate and organize with one another — initially in ways that are not expressly political — until the state’s security forces become prisoners of the people.
The last refuge of those who defended North Korea’s use of overseas slave labor is that at least it was better than slave labor inside North Korea. It was always a con, of course — the North Korean regime promised its workers big money if they went overseas to toil in Siberian forests, Polish shipyards, Qatari construction sites, or Chinese garment factories. That the officials earned steep bribes with this con gave them a motive to lie and exaggerate. The reality was back-breaking, unsafe work for long hours and little pay (after the minders and Kim Jong-un took their cuts). Some of the workers slipped away and defected, despite the risk to their families back in North Korea. Recently, some have begun to flee in groups, or mutiny en masse. And back in Pyongyang, hardly anyone wants to work abroad anymore.
“Until just a few years ago, most workers sent overseas were from Pyongyang, but those numbers have been on a downward trend recently,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China recently told Daily NK. “People have learned that if you go abroad to work you’ll toil like a slave. This is why the number of applicants is dropping.”
However, residents from provincial areas are stepping in to fill in the gap. “The standard of living in other provinces is just so much worse compared to Pyongyang. Notwithstanding the appalling conditions awaiting them, they choose to go work abroad anyway,” he explained. [Daily NK]
How bad could things possibly be in North Korea’s provinces to make conditions like these seem relatively good? Defenders of the regime bristle at the description of North Korea as one vast, open-air prison. No doubt, many North Koreans have managed to find better lives than this.
[A]s marketization gains a stronger foothold, more people are finding more ways to make money within North Korea’s borders, provided they have access to goods to hawk at the marketplace. This has greatly improved the standard of living for a large chunk of the population, which–taken together with abounding rumors of abject conditions and strict surveillance at worksites abroad for diminishing returns–challenges previously held beliefs about jobs abroad as a gateway to a better life.
But if the regime can still find people in Hamheung who prefer to risk death in Siberia for low-to-nonexistent wages at home, either the workers in the provinces are still being conned, or they’re laboring at the verge of starvation.
Languishing in positions at moribund factories with patchy, meager remuneration, overseas work offers many the promise of a steady stream of foreign currency and, by extension, a new life upon their return to North Korea. These overseas jobs are so coveted, in fact, provision of hefty bribes is a prerequisite requirement for applicants.
Finally, residents of Pyongyang have realized that overseas work makes their families targets for state surveillance.
Moreover, following the group defection of twelve North Korean restaurants workers and their manager from a restaurant in China, these shifting perceptions are more palpable, said a source in Pyongyang.
“Since Kim Jong Un’s accession to power, there has been great emphasis placed on fearpolitik and guilt by association. In that political climate, who would want to send their children overseas?” she pointed out.
Parents once saw working overseas as an opportunity to advance their children’s careers. Now, however, “more worry they’d become nothing more than helpless targets for exacting surveillance.”
Pyongyang residents probably have more information about actual working conditions abroad than people in the provinces. As North Koreans return to Pyongyang, they tell their wives why they brought so little pay home. The wives tell their friends, who tell their own husbands. The word gets around in a small city with a relatively higher concentration of ex-expats faster than it does in the provinces.
This shift also applies to perceptions about laborers dispatched to Russia, where a local source familiar with North Korean affairs told Daily NK that Pyongyang workers now account for only about 40% of the North Korean workforce, markedly down from the majority stake they held before.
“There are all kinds of people–everyone from those struggling to make ends meet to others who were having marital conflicts back home,” this source continued. “They say they knew they would have to work like slaves, but that they didn’t know how bad it would be.”
Until recently, the regime’s overseas labor operations’ main constraint was diplomatic and humanitarian pressure that has forced several countries to end or curtail their use of North Korean labor. Now, rising domestic opposition is also putting pressure on the labor racket. Given that this opposition comes from residents of Pyongyang, a constituency Kim Jong-un can’t afford to alienate, the regime will have to turn elsewhere for laborers. But this presents other dangers to the state. To a resident of Hamheung or Hwanghae, the gap between his own standard of living at home and that of his new host country will be far more dramatic, and his ties of loyalty to the state may also be weaker.
Like its neighbor, Namibia, Angola aligned with the Soviet block during the Cold War. The Angolan government and the Namibian rebel movement, the South West Africa Peoples’ Organization or SWAPO, received military assistance from Cuba, which had up to 60,000 soldiers near Angola’s border with Namibia during a vicious set of guerrilla wars in the 1990s. The Soviet Union is gone, but historic alliances can be persistent things, especially when those alliances also come with financial ties. This has certainly been the case with North Korea’s tiesto Namibia, which has been reluctant to shut down a North Korea arms factory on its territory, despite the fact that that factory is a clear violation of UNSCR 2270.
In April, I cited the 2016 Panel of Experts report and raised suspicions that Angola’s military cooperation was a violation of UNSCR 2270. Since then, Andrea Berger has done us all the service of pointing out where U.N. member states’ compliance reports are published online. Not surprisingly, Angola’s report raises more questions than answers. First, Angola admits that it is hosting two North Korean nationals, Kim Hyok-chan and Kim Kwang-hoon, who are under investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the sanctions.
However, it must be noted that Kim Hyok Chan, a DPRK citizen born on 6 September 1970, carrier of diplomatic passport No. PD563410191, is on the list of individuals under investigation by the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009) and designated for targeted sanctions such as a travel ban and asset freeze. This individual holds multiple-entry visa No. 60000/MRX/16, valid until 2 February 2017, from the Angola Ministry of External Relations. The individual is a diplomat of the DPRK and entered the national territory on 14 February 2016 from Addis Ababa. [….]
Kim Kwanghoon, a DPRK citizen born on 9 June 1981 and carrier of passport No. M66430933, has an ordinary visa with the number 100866086/16, valid until 6 May 2016, and left the country on 5 May 2016, bound for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The individual works for the Ofek Company. [Angola compliance report]
Neither man appears on the U.N.’s consolidated sanctions list, and neither is mentioned by name in the POE’s 2016 or 2015 reports. If there’s a list of persons under investigation published by the U.N., I’m not aware of it. Nor would it seem wise to publish a list of persons under investigation. I wonder if the Angolans just said more than they should have (oops). Then, Angola then takes the position that it’s under no obligation to expel either man.
Concerning the expelling of diplomats or representatives of the government of the DPRK or nationals of other countries suspected of helping to circumvent the sanctions regime, it was not necessary to expel any DPRK diplomat from the country, as they did not represent a threat to national security and were not outright affected by any of the provisions of resolution 2270 (2016). [Angola compliance report]
So, move along! Nothing to see here! Not quite. The resolutions have several provisions that require the expulsion of North Korean or third-country nationals. Not all of them necessarily require an individual by-name designation. Here’s a paragraph from UNSCR 2270:
“13.Decides that if a Member State determines that a DPRK diplomat, governmental representative, or other DPRK national acting in a governmental capacity, is working on behalf or at the direction of a designated individual or entity, or of an individual or entities assisting in the evasion of sanctions or violating the provisions of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, then the Member State shall expel the individual from its territory for the purpose of repatriation to the DPRK consistent with applicable national and international law …. [UNSCR 2270]
So, if the Angolan government knows that Kim Hyok-chan or Kim Kwang-hoon is working on behalf of a designated entity, such as Green Pine (U.N. designated since 2012), Saeingpil (a U.N. designated alias of Green Pine), or KOMID (U.N. designated), the Angolans have to expel them, whether the individual people are designated by name or not. The apparent intent of the resolutions’ drafters was to allow either designation of entities (and by implication, their employees) or alternatively, the designation of individual bad actors whose affiliations aren’t clear or aren’t proven.
But is there any evidence that either man is working for a designated entity? In the case of Kim Kwang-hoon and his employer, Ofek, I found no additional information online. Ofek isn’t designated. Kim Hyok-chan, however, is another story. Let’s start with the 2016 Panel of Experts report.
108.The Panel investigated two incidents involving Green Pine (see S/2012/287): two deliveries in July 2011 of items for military patrol boats to Angola and an air shipment in February 2011 of submarine parts inspected in Taipei (see annex 1 and S/2015/131, paras. 81-83). The consignments were shipped from Vienna by an Austrian national, Josef Schwartz, through his company, Schwartz Motorbootservice & Handel GmbH. He had traded with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on multiple occasions in the past, including violations and attempted violations of the luxury goods ban. The Panel confirmed that he had assisted Green Pine in evading the arms embargo. [UN POE report, 2016]
That finding apparently has its origins in this interesting report on Saeingpil in the Washington Free Beacon, which alleges that Kim Hyok-chan works for Saeingpil.
The assistance includes marine engines and replacement parts for North Korean patrol boats sold to the Angolan military within the past six years.
Additionally, North Korean military trainers are providing arms and security support to Angolan presidential guards, according to recently obtained information on the transfers.
Similar military support to Uganda and Tanzania was ruled to violate U.N. sanctions by a United Nations panel of experts on North Korea.
According to the sources with access to details of the Angolan military transfers, a North Korean company, Saengpil Associated Co., currently is in the process of shipping engines and replacement parts for some of the 18 patrol boats that were built for the Angolans since 2011.
Saengpil is part of North Korea’s Green Pine Associated Corp., which has been sanctioned in the past by the United Nations. Both entities are part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean covert action and intelligence organization.
The Saengpil representative behind the military transfers was identified as Kim Hyok-chan who has been working in Angola since 2008 and has been the lead official in charge of the arms deals between the two countries. Kim also is a second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Luanda, the Angolan capital.
North Korean agreements for the patrol boats date to August 2009, when Angolan technicians were trained on repair and maintenance. Construction of the patrol boats, described as PB 100s, began in March 2011. Renewal of the accord for repair and maintenance was concluded in January 2013. [Washington Free Beacon]
Nowhere does the Angolan report say whether its government investigated whether Kim is or is not tied to Saeingpil. You have to wonder if it ever occurred to the Angolans to, you know, ask him, or maybe review his immigration or banking records. If Kim works for one of those designated entities, Angola is required to expel him, regardless of whether he’s designated by name. Its non-response on that issue suggests that it’s playing fast-and-loose with the resolutions.
The report goes on:
Concerning Green Pine Pi’l Trading Corporation, also known as Saeng Pi’l Associated Company, and Beijing New Technology Trading Company, Limited, inquiries made did not uncover any new information, and the information provided in previous notes still prevails. [Angola compliance report]
My only reaction to this is, what the hell does that even mean? If Green Pine or Saeingpil has an office in Angola, the Angolan government is required to close it, end of story. Here’s the relevant provision from UNSCR 2270:
“15.Underscores that, as a consequence of implementing the obligations imposed in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013), all Member States shall close the representative offices of designated entities and prohibit such entities, as well as individuals or entities acting for or on their behalf, directly or indirectly, from participating in joint ventures or any other business arrangements, and underscores that if a representative of such an office is a DPRK national, then States are required to expel the individual from their territories for the purpose of repatriation to the DPRK consistent with applicable national and international law, pursuant to and consistent with paragraph 10 of resolution 2094 (2013); [UNSCR 2270]
Next, Angola — which was so recently busted for making arms deals with Green Pine, and which hosts 1,000 North Korean workers, claims that it’s unaware of any North Korean bank accounts that it has to freeze.
Concerning the freezing of any funds, financial assets and economic resources of the DPRK that are deposited in foreign banks, as well as funds managed by entities linked to the Government or the North Korean Worker’s Party in Angola, the relevant institutions, including the ministries of Defence and the Interior and the National Bank of Angola, are surveying the situation regarding bank accounts and migratory status of citizens from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as well as of DPRK collaborators working in the country. [Angola compliance report]
Most recently, Angola was in the news for hosting North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, who “defended Pyongyang’s dual pursuit of nuclear and economic development during talks with his Angolan counterpart.” This doesn’t inspire great confidence.
Finally, I expect to see some more interesting reporting about Angola’s links to North Korea in the coming weeks, but I’ll let someone else tell you that story.
With a government in control, it is impossible to reach those who are powerless without paying the powerful, and paying the President and the government will make them less interested in listening to their people. Instead of having to raise money through taxation and deliver services in return, they can instead use their people to extract money from donors. They can enrich themselves by keeping their population poor; such aid is an instrument of inequality. – Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton
In February 2015, the United Nations Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the U.N.’s sanctions against North Korea released a report that should have made headlines around the world. Buried near the end of that lengthy report was a finding that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, had placed two agents inside U.N. agencies — one in UNESCO, and one within the World Food Program’s Rome office. The RGB is the agency responsible for North Korea’s foreign intelligence and terrorism, and it has since been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council (Annex II, Item 11). But instead of attracting global outrage and audits, the report passed almost completely unmentioned by the international media. I’ve yet to see a single media report suggesting that the WFP or the U.N. conducted an audit to identify any other spies in its organizations, or that they took any remedial action to expel those who were identified.
If journalists overlooked this story out of sympathy for the WFP’s good intentions, that is understandable. But if they’d instead tried to serve the greater humanitarian good of the people of North Korea, they’d have given that story a thorough enough airing to stimulate a review of the U.N.’s humanitarian policies toward North Korea. Those policies have failed, are adrift, and increasingly work at cross purposed with the Security Council’s goal of addressing Pyongyang’s proliferation threat. After 20 years of humanitarian aid, North Korea is still in a chronic food crisis. That is unprecedented for an industrialized, literate society in a temperate zone — especially one that has more than enough cash to feed every last hungry North Korean. The time has come to question the reasons for this.
Why would North Korean spies make the WFP a priority target for foreign intelligence operations? Sadly, because aid agencies and NGOs have become effective shields for the North Korean regime against criticism, sanctions, and pressure to reform. Specifically, because stories like this one are inestimable propaganda gifts to Pyongyang in its race to reach nuclear breakout before sanctions can stop it:
A United Nations agency almost halved its budget for medical assistance and childcare projects in North Korea, a U.S. based media outlet reported Saturday.
According to the Voice of America (VOA), the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has earmarked a total of US$71 million for such projects during the 2017-2021 period, sharply cut from the $120 million set up for the 2011-2015 period.
The sharp reduction in the budget for North Korea-related humanitarian projects came as a result of international sanctions against the communist state.
Also, a food shortage, coupled with natural disasters, were cited as key reasons for the budget cut, the report said. [Yonhap]
It’s hard to overstate the value that headlines like these hold for North Korean regime propaganda if they give ammunition to its apologists and persuade U.N. member states to relax their enforcement of international sanctions. Under Kim Jong-un’s byungjin policy, the regime is pursuing both nuclear weapons development and economic development at the same time. Sanctions are intended to disrupt nuclear development and force Kim Jong-un to choose nukes or economic development. Thus, the aid agencies’ complaints play directly into his hands by weakening member states’ will to enforce sanctions.
~ ~ ~
My first problem with UNICEF’s claims is that they almost certainly aren’t true. My second and greater problem is that the aid agencies, by mischaracterizing the actual causes of hunger, and by shielding Kim Jong-un from criticism over the very policies that cause hunger, may be doing the North Korean people more long-term harm than short-term good.
Second, North Koreans primarily rely on markets, not the rationing system or the U.N. aid that operates within that system. A new Reuters report reaffirms that markets have continued to provide for most North Koreans’ nutritional needs, and food prices have remained stable since sanctions were increased this year. Whatever the prices may be in the markets, the regime’s market policies only tell part of the story, because markets mean nothing if there’s no food to buy in them. There is evidence that the regime disrupted markets before the recent party congress. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, it has cracked down on cross-border smuggling and private agriculture, which are both essential parts of the gray market economy that feeds most North Koreans. Rather than carrying out promised agricultural reforms, it continues a broadly confiscatory agricultural policy by seizing most of what farmers grow.
Third, as Reuters affirms, and as I’ve tracked carefully since the U.N. increased sanctions in March, the evidence does not support UNICEF’s alarmist claims that hunger has increased recently. The Daily NK reports only slight rises in commodity prices, consistent with yearly trends. See also this post from Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. (Another report from UPI, that hunger is again widespread in South Hwanghae, also the origin of faminereports in 2012 and 2013, is an outlier. In any case, the report attributes hunger there to the use of agricultural “reforms” to justify crop seizures by the military). Yes, North Korea continues to have a long-term hunger problem that affects a majority of its people, but recently, food prices are relatively stable.
In fact, I can cite some evidence that sanctions have increased the availability of energy and food inside North Korea. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, they have caused North Korean traders to shift from sanctioned trade to the trade in food, which is not sanctioned. Other reports suggest that a private pork production industry has quietly flourished in North Korea; unfortunately, much of the pork is exported to China. Sanctions have also disrupted Pyongyang’s exports of coal and luxury foods, such as seafood, which it sells to China to raise hard currency. Yet even when the aid agencies cry out for donations, the government in Pyongyang cuts back on its food imports. Is it any wonder that, no matter what the weather does, North Korea always seems to be having a food crisis? We give Pyongyang far too little credit for the control it exercises over North Korea’s food supply.
Fourth, the trade in food is not sanctioned. Both UNSCR 2270 and the U.S. sanctions law signed by President Obama in February are replete with exemptions to avoid impacting North Korea’s food supply. Perhaps some of that trade should be sanctioned — after all, why is a regime that accepts food aid exporting food for cash that it isn’t using to feed its population?
Fifth, although aid agencies claim that financial sanctions have affected aid agencies’ ability to send funds into North Korea by scaring away banks, the agencies have made this claim for years, and it’s also a problem of Pyongyang’s own making. That’s only a problem because Pyongyang makes aid agencies use the same banks — such as the Foreign Trade Bank, which “North Korea uses … to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network” — to handle proliferation- and aid-related transactions. Congress offered a solution to this problem in section 208(d) of its new sanctions law, allowing a responsible foreign bank to be licensed to handle humanitarian transactions. In response to inquiries from the U.N., I’ve even pointed that provision out, along with the general licenses exempting humanitarian transactions, and urged the U.N. to work with Treasury to implement those exemptions.
My owb fear is closer to the opposite: I’m not convinced that banks in China and Russia have frozen the North Korean accounts that should be frozen. Despite some isolated reports suggesting that some accounts have been blocked, and that some regime agents are short of cash, there is no evidence yet to suggest that Pyongyang is experiencing a general liquidity crisis it should be feeling by now. Such a crisis might have secondary effects on food imports — if there are any — that we should be ready to mitigate with aid. But why do aid agencies need to engage in financial transactions with Pyongyang at all? For one thing, because Pyongyang forces U.N. aid agencies to use the same banks it uses for proliferation financing. For another, because Pyongyang charges U.N. agencies hard currency to pay for labor, storage, fuel, and transportation, almost certainly at inflated prices. In other words, a government that routinely mobilizes the military to build dams, ski resorts, and apartment complexes is unwilling to store, guard, and ship food for the North Korean people without being paid to do so in cash.
You won’t hear U.N. aid agencies calling for these things, or for the reforms North Korea really needs, because aid agencies are intimidated into selective silence by the fear of being expelled from North Korea, just like it recently expelled the country directors of Welthungerhilfe and Wheat Mission Ministries. That’s why it blames weather and sanctions for hunger that is caused by — and this is really beyond question after 20 years — the policies of the North Korean government itself, despite knowing full well where the blame should lie.
Want to end hunger in North Korea? It could be done in a few months with a few simple policy changes in Pyongyang. Tell Kim Jong-un to reallocate a measly 1% of his military budget to feed his people. Tell him to stop seizing private farm plots and the crops people grow on the. Tell him to ease his restrictions on cross-border trade, including by people who can’t afford to grease border guards and customs officials. Tell him to stop exporting food for cash instead of using it to feed the people Tell him to carry out the agricultural reforms it promised four years ago and never delivered. Better yet, tell it to carry out meaningful land reform — to give the land back to the people who till it, and let them sell what they grow. Tell him to stop using food as a weapon to keep the low-songbun classes under control. Tell him to stop using his own hungry people as human shields against sanctions.
I’ve yet to hear a single U.N. official say these things. Worse, I’ve yet to see a single journalist call the U.N. out for not saying them. Until they tell the truth about why North Koreans are really going hungry, U.N. aid programs will continue to fail to solve North Korea’s long-term food crisis. The wider the gap between U.N. aid policy and North Korea’s reality, the more donors will dismiss aid agency officials as well-meaning but useful idiots who are prolonging, rather than addressing, North Korea’s hunger problem. The important interests in assisting the North Korean people don’t have to conflict with the important interest in preventing Kim Jong-un from reaching nuclear breakout. The longer U.N. organs work at cross purposes, the more people will read “United Nations” as an oxymoron.
The incident occurred at the end of July in the Kanggu District of Hyesan City, where the sergeant major’s unit – the 25th Border Security Brigade – was stationed, a source from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on August 7.
“In a brutal attack, the sergeant major strangled the company commander’s mother, and then drowned his daughter by stuffing her in a water tank,” he said. [….]
The sergeant major was attempting to murder the company commander, but when he arrived at his house, he wasn’t there, the source explained. “And so, in the end, the innocent family members became the targets of the sergeant major’s rage,” he lamented. [Daily NK]
Whatever your views about the North Korean regime, this is a horrific, indefensible crime. Other North Korean army defectors have reported mistreatment by their officers and NCOs, but there’s no evidence of that in this report. Instead, the motive for this murder was corruption — the North Korean army has no pension system, so the NCO was pilfering and selling the unit’s food and clothing to save enough money to live on after his impending discharge. The unit’s commander denounced the NCO for this at a criticism session in front of the soldiers who were the victims of this crime. The NCO went to the commander’s home to murder him to avenge this humiliation. The commander wasn’t home, but his mother and daughter were.
In mordern (sic) North Korea, sergeant majors and company commanders affiliated with border security forces usually have a very close relationship, coordinating with one another to earn cash by facilitating smuggling operations via China or dealing with the brokers that assist with defections [accepting cash to look the other way as the defectors flee].
However, conflicts began to arise soon after Kim Jong Un rose to power and began blocking off defection and smuggling routes with increased surveillance and control. As the financial prospects of the border security forces began to wither away, growing distrust moved in to fill the vacuum. Likewise, the psychological pressures of this fearpolitik drove officers to more frequently report on one another’s ‘corrupt behaviors’ in an attempt to shield themselves from the worst of it.
Unlike most North Koreans, soldiers do not receive enough pay to access the markets to supplement their state rations. The usual method for this is smuggling.
But where Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on smuggling has been effective, it has forced underpaid soldiers, NCOs, and officers to find new ways to supplement their inadequate incomes, including by stealing from each other. Separately, Yonhap (citing the Daily NK) reports that soldiers receive just 70 grams of food per meal, not enough to sustain them. This has strained the cohesion among units’ leaders.
For many, the precipitous deterioration of a once amicable relationship is seen as a symptom of collisions and arguments at the top. Some suggest that the sergeant major was actually being punished for not sharing a large enough portion of the profits with the commander.
We also see the results in the skeletal condition of many of those soldiers, and now, in their desperate and violent attacks on each other, on Chinese civilians across the border, and on the local civilian population.
Not surprisingly, word of the incident circulated fast, accompanied by deprecating remarks about the military’s lack of discipline. “A lot of people mockingly point out that army members are supposed to be the guardians of the homeland, but instead, they have become a money earning operation that will do anything and everything to earn a buck,” said an separate source in Ryanggang Province.
This source concluded by describing the larger context. “Desertion rates are up. The rogue soldiers are causing social problems by becoming involved in robberies and homicides. As a result, public criticism is rising. When soldiers begin attacking innocent civilians, it’s clear that there is a problem.”
An anonymous source told the media outlet a large number of residents in Chongjin are reporting damage caused by soldiers belonging to the 45th division located in the city. Locals argued that marauding soldiers are breaking into homes, farms and factories to steal anything of worth. The North Korean soldiers are often called “bandits,” according to the source.
Some other soldiers also steal food and vegetables from farmhouses as a means to supplement their meager food rations, according to the source. He said there have even been cases of soldiers robbing people on the roads and in vehicles. [Yonhap]
The Daily NK’s report isn’t corroborated by independent sources, but multiple reports suggest that border control has declined significantly since Kim Jong-un took power. We appear to be in the advanced stages of Phase Two in the cycle I described here. The rapid deterioration of morale and discipline along the border will soon force the regime to rotate new units in to maintain control. The alternative would be an accelerating collapse of discipline, the reversal of Kim Jong-un’s successes at sealing the border, and an increased flow of goods, information, and people across the borders. It is another reminder of why Kim Jong-un’s ability to control his borders and his military ultimately comes down to money.
~ ~ ~
Update: Then again, maybe there isn’t another unit that Kim Jong-un can rotate in. Word is apparently spreading among the ranks that malnutrition and undernourishment are rife throughout the military because Hwang Pyong-so isn’t controlling corruption and pilferage.
A North Korean resident in Jagang Province told RFA that he was shocked by the news that his son, who entered the army in March, was suffering from malnutrition.
He said the rations given to ordinary soldiers are so poor that most are in a serious state of undernourishment.
The North Korean informant said that since his son went to the army, he ate only boiled corn with a soup of salted wild greens.
Another military source in Ryanggang Province said in the units he knew, the military food supply is not so bad as to cause malnutrition, but added that troops are starving due to deep-rooted corruption and greed for private profits by officers.
More often than not, army commanders embezzle food and even kitchen oil from the military, forcing soldiers into extreme undernourishment, the source said.
According to the military source, the food situation these days has become worse under the current director of the general political bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Hwang Pyong-so, who is said to be incompetent in the everyday aspects of military affairs, especially at food rationing.
In comparison, Hwang’s predecessor, Choe Ryong-hae, provided more supplies such as seafood, nutritional pills and hardtack, but these supplementary foods were stopped after Choe stepped down.
Since the inauguration of Hwang, who has been lax on dealing with corruption, soldiers have begun to complain about him, the media outlet claimed. [Yonhap]
That would explain the recent uptick in reports of disciplinary incidents and hunger.
We still have few details and no confirmation regarding the reported defection of that North Korean general in China, other than this Korea Times report that he absconded with $40 million, and that he “was in charge of Section 39 inside the Korean Workers’ Party.” (KBS had reported that he was in charge of regime slush funds in southeast Asia only.) The Korea Times report probably refers to what’s more commonly referred to as Bureau 39, Room 39, or Office 39, the North Korean government’s official money-laundering agency. It also claims that the general has two family members with him. (The KBS report said that he defected with three other officials.)
The South Korean government is confirming nothing, but denying nothing. Having watched the Korean press report anonymously sourced NIS leaks for more than a decade now, the inconsistencies aren’t surprising, but my gut tells me there’s a grain of truth to the reports. They would also fit with the broader trend I’m hearing on the street from knowledgeable people — that the North Korean elites have lost faith in Kim Jong-un, and are feeling their way to the exits. My gut also tells me that this time, China may be deferring to Pyongyang to pressure Seoul over THAAD.
I wish I could say that South Korea’s hard left, most prominently represented these days by the lawyers’ group Minbyun, had also lost its faith in Kim Jong-un. Sadly for South Korean history, Minbyun is no fringe group; it has already produced one South Korean president and one presidential candidate. Once, it defended human rights against right-wing South Korean dictators, but since then, it has lost its way. Today, Minbyun wages lawfare for North Korean dictators. It fraudulently represents itself as a human rights group while abusing the law to deny North Korean refugees their human rights. It has taken to doing this by bullying 12 young North Korean women who had the courage to flee the from a restaurant in China, where their government had effectively impressed them into forced labor.
[These are the people Minbyun is using the courts to terrorize.]
Minbyun has demanded the right to interrogate the women — publicly, before the eyes of the North Korean authorities who hold their loved ones as hostages — about their intentions to defect. This would be in flagrant violation of a refugee’s absolute right to confidentiality, a right the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has long affirmed. When the judge correctly dismissed Minbyun’s petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be removed from the case. Since then, an appellate court has refused to remove the judge.
The justification for Minbyun’s legally frivolous petition is North Korea’s factually absurd claim that the South Korean intelligence service kidnapped the women. Minbyun’s real goal is to terrorize would-be refugees, to deter a surge of defections that could bring down the regime in Pyongyang. In furtherance of this campaign, the left-wing Hankyoreh Sinmun even reported — falsely — that the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul would send staff to Pyongyang to interview the family members of the 13 refugees to investigate the abduction claims, but the OHCHR later denied this. Whether this was disinformation, or just another case of the Hankyoreh doing sloppy, poorly-sourced reporting without checking with the primary sources, I can’t say.
Even worse, Amnesty International briefly seemed to take Minbyun’s side when it reportedly “called on the South Korean government to disclose more information about the 13.” You’d think that a human rights organization would have a better grasp of the legal and practical reasons why the South Korean government should not disclose more information about them. You’d think it would grasp the obvious reality that the families in Pyongyang are under the control and manipulation of the state. It said that “the North Koreans have been unable to access lawyers,” which is also false — they’re being represented zealously, by a lawyer recommended by the Korean Bar Association. (If you’re an Amnesty donor, ask Amnesty to repudiate this misguided effort, or consider moving your donations elsewhere.)
Which brings us back to the story of the general, and three other North Koreans who allegedly defected with him. While the truth struggles to put its pants on, they’ve provided evidence that Minbyun’s lawfare influenced their plans.
The source said the four didn’t choose to defect to South Korea partly because of a petition by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society filed last month for habeas corpus relief of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in China who defected to Seoul in April. [KBS Radio]
I suppose it’s possible that the lawyers at Minbyun aren’t willful servants of puppet masters in Pyongyang; they could just be exceptionally and selectively gullible. What’s clear is that they’re abusing the legal process to make a patently frivolous case that flies in the face of the absolute right of confidentiality that all refugees are guaranteed under the 1951 U.N. convention. There is also fresh evidence that lives are at stake here.
North Korea publicly executed six officials in charge of supervision of its workers overseas in May following the defection of 13 workers at a North Korean-run restaurant in China a month earlier, a local Pyongyang watcher said Friday.
“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered six officials, including intelligence officials, to be executed publicly on May 5 due to their lack of control over overseas (North Korean) workers,” Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees’ Family Union, claimed, citing people familiar with the matter.
Eighty public officials and 100 people who have their family members working overseas were forced to watch the execution, he said.
In early April, a group of 12 women and one man fled from a North Korea-run restaurant in China’s eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to South Korea. In the following month, three female workers at a North Korean restaurant in the midwest city of Shanxi reportedly defected to the South.
“North Korea locked the families of the defectors up and forced them to take ideological education at a training facility in Myohyang Mountain, in the northern part of the communist country,” Choi said. [Yonhap]
Meanwhile, in the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, an 18-year-old North Korean student who defected from a mathematics tournament waits for the word that will determine whether he lives in freedom or dies in terror.
Obviously, there would be no reason for North Korea to shoot six people in front of 180 other people if the South Korean NIS really had kidnapped the 13 restaurant workers. Only an imbecile or a shill could believe Pyongyang’s claim, but South Korea is a society afflicted by a vocal minority of people who, though often technologically advanced, highly educated, and academically intelligent, are also logically retarded. In other cases, there is a simpler explanation for these people.
Some obvious cautions apply to this report, of course. I can easily believe that Pyongyang would murder hostages, or even plant false stories that it’s murdering hostages in the hope of coercing would-be defectors, but this is, after all, an anonymously sourced story from inside the world’s most secretive regime. The principle stands that the public interrogations of refugees from a place like North Korea can endanger lives. The principle also stands that Minbyun doesn’t care.
As I said before, the proper answer to Minbyun’s demands is for the South Korean government to give representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees access to all 13 workers — the 12 who are the subject of Minbyun’s petition, and the one who isn’t. The 13 could then express their actual intentions to the UNHCR. Those expressions, and the very fact of the UNHCR interview, must remain absolutely confidential. In fact, if that interview had already taken place, we wouldn’t know, and shouldn’t know.
In any other civilized country, lawyers who abuse the process to terrorize the innocent and vulnerable would be disbarred, but not in South Korea. The many reasons I look forward to the North Korean revolution include my anticipation of reading the names of all the South Korean — and American? — agents in the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s personnel files. Also, its hit list.
But in the end, will Minyun’s efforts be enough? Not if the recent surge in defections represents the beginnings of a preference cascade against the regime. Not if Pyongyang is losing control of the borders Kim Jong-un has struggled so much to seal. The Unification Ministry is reporting that after declining each year since Kim Jong-un came to power, the number of defectors reaching South Korea rose more than 15% in the first half of this year. The regime is stepping up searches, including strip searches, of people leaving the country, apparently in an effort to catch those who might be carrying out their life’s savings in gold. Human smuggling is also on the rise again. Border guards, armed and unarmed, are crossing the border, or robbing North Korean civilians, out of apparent desperation, embittering the civilian population. In the end, however, China can do much to contain these outbreaks, as it has for years.
Meanwhile, Seoul has figured out that one effective response to fake abduction claims is to assert real ones. It has begun to raise demands that the U.N. investigate North Korea’s abduction of its own citizens, and those demands have gained traction at Turtle Bay. The U.N. may not be taking Pyongyang’s abduction claims seriously, but it is calling on North Korea to provide information about 14 South Koreans believed to be held captive in North Korea, including crew members from a South Korean plane that was hijacked to Pyongyang 47 years ago by a North Korean spy named Cho Chang-hee. One South Korean politician claims that North Korea is holding 500 South Koreans, but that figure excludes tens of thousands of others kidnapped during the Korean War, and prisoners of war held back in violation of the 1953 Korean War Armistice.
It’s about time. Governments that value the lives and liberties of their citizens should consistently demand the return of those who are kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned. The only regrettable aspect of Seoul’s demands is that it’s only now making them publicly, giving them the taint of tit-for-tat. But then, one could hardly expect Seoul to have made those demands while it labored under the illusion that appeasing North Korea would ever bring peace.
In my policy discussions about North Korea, two of the smartest sanctions skeptics I’ve debated are professors John Park and James Walsh. Not only are they both genuinely nice people, their skepticism points to flaws and gaps in the sanctions regime, and that skepticism ultimately serves to improve the quality of the sanctions and their enforcement. They’ve been particularly persuasive about the importance of pursuing “North Korea Inc.,” Pyongyang’s extensive and shadowy network of agents and trading companies in China, who facilitate not only its legal trade, but also act as money launderers and purchasing agents for its WMD programs and luxury goods demands. Such is the nature of money laundering; it uses legal trade to conceal illegal trade.
One answer to Park and Walsh’s criticisms is to add one additional special measure, found at 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), to the special measures Treasury previously announced on June 1st. This measure would require financial institutions to collect information on the beneficial ownership of property by North Korean persons, or of property in North Korea. That would mirror the European Union’s recent blacklisting of North Korea for money laundering, which triggers increased beneficial ownership reporting rules.
Happily, I’m joined in this view by the most accomplished North Korea sanctions expert I know, William J. Newcomb, who previously served with the CIA, Treasury, State Department, and the U.N. Panel of Experts (here’s a link to an address Bill gave to the Korea Society). Today, Bill and I posted a public comment on Treasury’s proposed special measures against North Korean money laundering. You can read the full text of the comment below the fold, annotated with hyperlinks. It should also be available on the federal regulations portal shortly.
To read the full comment, click the “continue reading” button below.
As of January, two EU nations — Poland and Malta — were its principal consumers of North Korean labor. As the Leiden Asia Center has shown us, those North Korean workers labor under harsh and unsafe conditions, the North Korean government steals most of their wages, and the state’s per capita wage theft is far more profitable in Europe, where prevailing wages are higher, than it is in Africa or Asia where most North Korean laborers work. That’s why the recent decisions of Poland and — as of last week, Malta — to stop granting and renewing visas for North Korean workers will cause significant pain to the regime in Pyongyang.
Malta’s decision not to renew the visas of 20 North Korean workers follows “a push by South Korea and human rights groups that raised concerns about the conditions faced by the North Korean workers.” Two Maltese firms employed these workers — the construction firm Rite Mix, and the Chinese-run textile maker Leisure Clothing.
An official of Rite Mix said that about 15 North Koreans had worked for the company, but all of them left en masse around late May. A Leisure Clothing official also said that the company is no longer hiring North Korean workers. Malta is considered to have the closest relations with North Korea among EU members.
A source said that there have been continued media reports in Malta that North Korean workers have been suffering from long working hours and other abuses while getting only one third of their wages, with the rest sent to their government. [Yonhap]
Admittedly, 20 isn’t a very large number. Presumably, it excludes the three North Korean workers who defected from their jobs in Malta to South Korea last year. There is also more bad publicity for the Russian companies that employ North Korean labor, and that sometimes advertise their use of it openly, in the form of the Daily NK’s latest report in its series.
Before going to Russia, the provincial Party cadres informed me that when forestry production normalized, I could expect to receive an average of US $300 per month. With that in mind, I calculated that I could make $10,000 over the course of my contract (the standard three year term). When I considered the costs of food and lodging, I thought I could take home at least $5,000. I realized after six months that the reality would be totally different from this inflated expectation.
The money that was put in my hand at the end of the month was closer to $70-$80.And that was what we received in the winter. Winter production lasted from October until May. We worked extremely hard during that time. However, 40% of our wages went to the State Forestry Administration, 20% to the affiliated state-run enterprise, and 15% went to the production unit’soperational funding. The remaining 25% went to the laborers.
During the summer, we went to the lumber worksites to set up the facilities and equipment, including tools and vehicles. Our wages were cut in half during this period. [Daily NK]
The workers were misled about more than just their wages. After all, who would pay a bribe for the “privilege” of being crippled for life, or dying broke and far from home?
Sometimes logs fall on the laborers. The logs sometimes crushed laborer’s legs. The authorities do not provide any compensation or health services. Instead, they send injured workers home empty handed. In a single moment, these poor laborers are transformed into handicapped people and immediately get sent away.
Some workers fall from high heights resulting in concussions. Others are too immersed in their work to avoid a falling tree. People have died upon impact from such injuries. There was also an incident when dozens of workers died together. They made temporary lodging because they were deep in the forest. They got caught in a forest fire while they were sleeping.
One laborer went into town to buy some food supplies when he was confronted with a drunken local. The local was wielding a deadly weapon, and he ended up killing the laborer. That made the workers quite upset, especially because the North Korean authorities did not demand a just response from the Russian government. Even now, when I think about that, I get angry. The authorities were so obsequous (sic) and inhumane. I get the most upset when I recall how my colleagues frozen, dead bodies were loaded up on a train. [Daily NK]
Recently, I fisked an NK News article that found two North Korean construction workers in Vladivostok (they were rather obviously minders) and, based on their statements, reached the implausible conclusion that North Korea’s overseas “slaves” are actually quite happy. Similarly, in his recent interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei Lankov argued that, while the conditions for the workers might not be ideal, they must be better than working conditions inside North Korea if the workers paid bribes to get those jobs. Leave aside whether working conditions inside North Korea are a useful comparator for anything. What’s clear is that the workers are paying those bribes because they’ve been lied to, baited with false promises of high wages they seldom see.
Of course, nothing speaks louder than the actions of the workers themselves. Growing numbers of them are rebelling against their minders or fleeing from them. As for those who remain behind, there’s ample evidence that whether they’re working in restaurants or canneries in China, construction sites in Qatar or Kuwait, or the Siberian taiga, they labor in miserable conditions for wages that are invariably a fraction of what corrupt state officials promise them. Conditions at Leisure Clothing in Malta don’t sound as bad as those in Siberia, but they do sound worse than running a stall in a jangmadang in Chongjin, where one at least has some freedom of movement, and to set one’s own working conditions. The fact that the state lies to them to steal their labor doesn’t mean they aren’t slaves. It means they are.
Malta’s decision, however, is drawing criticism from a surprising source — the Polish human rights activist Johanna Hosaniak, who has been advocating the rights of North Koreans longer than I have, and as a full-time job. Hosaniak’s view is that expelling North Korean workers is a lost opportunity to draw North Korea’s labor arrangements into compliance with EU and international norms, and to expose North Koreans to more developed and liberal societies. Marcus Noland has advocated something similar, proposing a code of ethics for foreign investors in North Korea, similar to the Sullivan Principles that investors in South Africa previously agreed on, at least before anti-Apartheid activists concluded that only complete divestment would force that system to change.
Despite my respect for Hosaniak’s views generally, I don’t find this particular argument persuasive. First, given North Korea’s resistance to transparency in financial and all other matters, there’s no reason to think that it would agree to more open and fair labor arrangements. Arguably, it might rather send the workers to China than accept more transparency. Second, it seems impossible to verify that the workers would receive most of their own pay, or that they or their families wouldn’t face punishment for organizing or demanding safe working conditions. Third, as with all engagement projects, North Korean minders go to great lengths to limit interpersonal contact with foreigners, and presumably only posts workers abroad when it calculates that it can keep them isolated. Fourth, the image that North Korean workers see of “liberal” societies abroad is of societies that are content to exploit them and that have little if any moral or material superiority over their own. It evokes the old Soviet joke about the difference between capitalism and communism: under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it’s exactly the opposite!
There is also the darker aspect of engagement that has been a consistent theme of its moral comprises — the fact that in our interactions with North Korea, we are uniquely prone to compromising our own ethical and legal standards, rather than expecting Pyongyang to compromise its standards. Some day, we are forever told, Pyongyang will begin to change gradually, although this never quite seems to happen. Meanwhile, we are left asking, “Who changed who?”
If Pyongyang continues to resist even marginal, incremental, and gradual change, that’s because it can afford to. It is the nature of totalitarian systems to remain totalitarian and unaccountable, to resist change, and to protect the status quo. What should be clear today from the failure of Sunshine is that Pyongyang must be denied the choice to resist change. If the system will not change at the margins, then the entire system must change, either because it is forced to accept transparency, or because it ceases to exist entirely.That fundamental choice can only be forced if the very survival of the entire system is threatened. That happens to be the same conclusion that anti-Apartheid activists reached three decades ago.