Stop saying N. Korean overseas laborers aren’t slaves. They are, and here’s proof.

You absolutely must watch this extraordinary work of investigative journalism by Vice, exposing the North Korean slave labor racket in Poland. There are English subtitles available.

What is so exceptional about this reporting is that its detailed and careful investigation makes it immediately actionable. With a little googling, it’s possible to identify the names, position titles, and e-mail addresses of the Polish and North Korean companies involved.

That’s enough for the Treasury Department to add all of them to the list of Specially Designated Nationals for violating Executive Order 13722, which prohibits “engag[ing] in, facilitat[ing], or [being] responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

The prime target of designation should be the Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation, Segori-dong, Pothonggang District, Pyongyang, and the DPR Korea Chamber of Commerce, P.O.Box 89, Jungsong-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, for supplying the laborers. As Vice notes, Rungrado was also implicated in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ most recent report for selling missile parts to Egypt. The Polish nationals and companies that knowingly employ this labor under such exploitative conditions — and who lie about it so blatantly — should also be designated, to make an example for other users of North Korean labor.

Although North Korean laborers in Europe (chiefly, Poland and Malta) are smaller in number than those in Asia and Africa, they also earn the regime more funds per capita than their counterparts in poorer countries. And do you suppose the working conditions for North Korean workers are better in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East? If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcing its new authorities, it should start by watching this report and taking careful notes.

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Update: On a related note:

North Korean workers are toiling for Chinese factories that make clothes for global labels like Ralph Lauren and Burberry, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.

One of their employers is Mei Dao Garment in Hebei Province, a source told the radio station.

Mei Dao first employed 54 North Korean workers via a North Korean trading company from January to July 2012. In April last year it also established another firm in Dandong, Miryong Garment, as a joint venture with another North Korean company.

Mei Dao now employs hundreds of North Koreans, according to the source.

Garment maker Phoenix Gold in Dandong also employs about 1,200 workers, and 800 of them are from North Korea, the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

That’s specific enough to investigate, either by an outside NGO, or by the retailers themselves.

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N. Korea sanctions update: I sense a great disturbance in the force, as if billions of dollars cried out in terror and were suddenly frozen.

[First, thank you for your patience with the light blogging recently. Most of my limited spare time has been consumed by a project that must take a higher priority than this site. That project has been perpetually at the verge of completion for weeks now, but should be done soon.]

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January was a watershed in sanctions law and policy. Until then, the U.S. and the U.N. had mostly pretended to have tough sanctions against North Korea. Until then, South Korea’s policy was to subsidize and sanction the same government at the same time. Since March, with Congress’s passage of H.R. 757, the closure of Kaesong, the U.N.’s approval of Security Council Resolution 2270, and President Obama’s signature of Executive Order 13722, it has been at least plausible to claim that on paper, there are tough sanctions against North Korea. Whether reality will conform to the law will depend on political will, and the political will of many U.N. member states will depend on whether they believe the U.S. has the political will to use its own secondary sanctions against them if they flout the U.N. sanctions.

Here, the signs continue to be mixed. Almost as soon as Congress moved forward with H.R. 757, and even before the Security Council approved UNSCR 2270, big Chinese banks began to freeze North Korean accounts and close down the branches of North Korean banks. North Korea’s mineral exports to China have, at the very least, dropped sharply, and the drop-off in trade across the Yalu River has emptied office buildings in Dandong. Companies are scrambling to cleanse their supply chains of gold from the Central Bank of the DPRK. Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about China’s hit-and-miss compliance with shipping sanctions, although the latest reports tell us that there are leaks, and that some designated North Korean ships are approaching Chinese ports with their transponders switched off.

This should be a topic of discussion between U.S. and Chinese diplomats.

Unfortunately, there is little publicly available evidence that the Obama Administration is making the same diplomatic effort to get countries to enforce the sanctions that the Bush Administration did between September 2005 and February 2007. It has now been two months since the U.S. government designated anyone under its North Korea sanctions programs, with the splashy launch of Executive Order 13722. Already, election season is consuming Washington’s attention. Political appointees who should be visiting Brussels, Shanghai, Windhoek, and Cairo to deliver veiled warnings act like they’re busy packing their files and job-hunting. If the administration wants to leave its successor more leverage than it had, it must show the world that it hasn’t lost its interest in implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270.

Fortunately, South Korea has done much to fill this void. Park Geun-hye, ably aided by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, has followed her closure of Kaesong, and her lobbying of the European Union to implement sanctions, by lobbying France, Germany, Mexico, India, and even Iran. At least some of this has been effective. Park’s visit to Mexico seems to have played some role in its decision to finally seize the Mu Du Bong, although that action was also held up by questions of legal authority that UNSCR 2087 had already answered clearly and explicitly. India, which had shown signs of cozying up to North Korea, is now promising to implement UNSCR 2270 faithfully. (The outreach to Iran was admirably bold of her, and probably for the consumption of American audiences, but it’s unlikely that Park can offer Iran a replacement for what it really wants from North Korea.) The things Park doesn’t do well are obvious enough, but Park has proven herself a very skillful diplomat. It’s fair to say that she and her Foreign Minister have put our State Department to shame.

Meanwhile, implementation of the most important element of the sanctions — the financial sanctions — is finally beginning in earnest. We have just hit UNSCR 2270’s 90-day deadline for banks worldwide to close the correspondent accounts of North Korean banks. The EU has published strong new regulations implementing the resolution (h/t), and has also just announced a new round of designations, freezing the assets of 18 individuals and one entity, “mostly high-ranking military officials involved in agencies responsible for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.” This will add pressure on the Obama Administration to follow. (Note to the EU: you’d send a clearer message if EU development funds weren’t being used at Polish shipyards that employ North Korean slave labor.)

Switzerland, which is not an EU member, has also just announced a new round of sanctions to implement 2270:

Measures in the financial sector include freezing assets and a ban on providing financial services. The group of people affected will now be widened. Any funds that are connected to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programmes have been affected, as have the finances of the country’s government or the Korean Workers’ Party.

The cabinet said that an exception has been made for the funds of diplomatic representations.

The sanctions mean that Swiss banks cannot open any branch or subsidiaries in North Korea, and existing banks and even accounts will have to be shut down by June 2. The same is also true in reverse – North Korean banks operating in Switzerland will have to leave.

An existing ban on exporting luxury goods will now include more products, and goods that would “increase the operational capabilities” of North Korea’s army are banned.

Any imports or exports will be checked at a customs point for the prohibited products, and exports to North Korea will require advanced authorisation from the State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (Seco). [SwissInfo]

This could be very important. For years, Switzerland had been one of North Korea’s most promiscuous suppliers of luxury goods, and was also rumored to be a haven for large regime slush funds — perhaps as much as $4 billion — under the control of former Ambassador to Switzerland and master money launderer Ri Chol. North Koreans in exile had called on the Swiss government to freeze those assets. Let’s hope that that’s what just happened.      

Even Russian banks are showing signs of compliance.

Radio Free Asia said in a report posted on its website that Russia’s central bank recently ordered other local banks and financial institutions to halt transactions with North Korea.

The central bank also said that transactions of bonds held by North Korean individuals, organizations and other groups subjected to United Nations’ sanctions should be banned immediately.

In addition, Russian financial institutions should close any accounts deemed to be linked to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the report said. [Yonhap]

Kudos to South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for exercising more global leadership than I’ve seen from a middle power in my memory. Even as the U.S. looks punch-drunk, the South Koreans are fighting above their weight.

“A perception has taken hold in the international community that sanctions and pressure of a different kind compared to the past should be applied to get the North to change and seek denuclearization,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a speech at a forum.

“In the last couple of days, Switzerland the European Union took their own sanction measures. Our government will keep leading the international community’s pressure on the North from all possible directions going forward,” he added. [Yonhap]

Although the Obama Administration isn’t showing much strength now, a key test will come in July, when under section 304 of the NKSPEA, the President will have to report back to Congress on which North Korean officials, to include Kim Jong-un himself, will be designated for human rights abuses. Already, the State Department is saying that it will “identify and sanction those responsible for human rights abuses in North Korea.” It also offered these welcome words.

“The reason that that provision is in the executive order is to make it possible for us first to develop the evidence and second to act on it. The principle of accountability is a feature of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 as well,” Russel said. “I think that the prospect of officials being held to account for systemic abuses of universal human rights is a serious one and that is one way in which we and the international community can keep faith with the North Korean people.”

Russel also said he believes that North Korean people, when they are eventually liberated, will “ask who stood by them” and the U.S. is firmly committed to be among the supporters for them.

On Monday, Amb. Robert King, special representative for North Korean human rights issues, made a similar remark.

“We’re looking at the issue of how we might identify individuals that meet our legislative requirements to apply sanctions against individuals and there are a whole range of issues that we’re looking at. People involved in abductions will be one that we are looking at,” he said. [Yonhap]

A designation triggers the freezing of assets, which will further increase the financial pressure on the regime. And if, as now seems likely, Hillary Clinton is elected this fall, her words (and those of her advisors) offer Kim Jong-un no encouragement that this pressure will ease anytime soon. That’s good, because it will likely take between one and two years before Pyongyang starts to show signs of serious financial distress. It will take careful attention and patience to build the pressure needed to change Pyongyang without war. The greater challenge will be to maintain the determination to keep that pressure in place until Pyongyang shows that it will meet the hard conditions set forth in section 402 of the NKSPEA. Until Pyongyang is prepared to accept that level of basic transparency, no deal it signs will be worth the paper it’s printed on.

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Update: The UK and Swiss governments have published guidance for their banks on their new sanctions regulations, here and here, respectively. Also, here’s more information about Russia’s sanctions implementation rules.

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New bipartisan bill raises pressure on State Dep’t to list N. Korea as a terror sponsor

As readers of this site know, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” That position is spurious. The evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism is overwhelming. It includes shipments of arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, multiple attempts to kidnap or assassinate human rights activists and dissidents in exile, and a terrorist threat against movie theaters across the United States. It was good enough for three federal district courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and multiple South Korean courts. The State Department’s refusal to yield to it looks obtuse and politically motivated.

Enter Ted Poe and Brad Sherman. Poe, a Texas Republican and a former judge, is the Republican Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. Poe cuts an imposing figure in the halls of the Rayburn Building, his tall frame lifted by his trademark monogrammed boots. (If the script writer for “My Cousin Vinny” didn’t base his judge character on Ted Poe, he should have.) Sherman, a hawkish Democrat from California, is the subcommittee’s Ranking Member and one of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s longest-serving members. He is best known for his razor wit, and at times, for his ruthless questioning of witnesses, although I’ve always found him very affable in person.

Last October, before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, Poe and Sherman held a hearing on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, where they questioned two State Department witnesses about why North Korea had not been put back on the list. The witnesses were poorly prepared to address the evidence. They struggled to explain away just one of the district court rulings finding the North Korean government responsible for a terrorist act. Their answers were canned and non-responsive. The hearing ended with a clear sense of, “This isn’t over.” It wasn’t.

Last Thursday, Poe introduced the North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act of 2016. Sherman co-sponsored. The well-researched bill of particulars lays out 23 acts and requires the State Department to tell Congress, for each act, (1) whether North Korea did it, and (2) whether it counts as the state sponsorship of terrorism. Given the strength of the evidence of North Korea’s involvement in those acts, it’s going to be difficult for State to avoid denying it. My worry is that State will obfuscate while applying the definitions, but Poe and Sherman were wise enough to set the deadline at 90 days from enactment of the legislation. If the bill passes — a nuclear test, for which we’re overdue, would likely have that result — that would put the President in the position of reporting back to Congress shortly before Election Day.

Full text of the bill below the jump, or here.

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No Pyongyang Spring this year, either

The reasons why North Korea is holding a party congress are still a matter of conjecture to those of us fortunate enough not to live there. The congress is almost certainly related to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power in some way. It will probably reinforce the personality cult. The regime’s organization charts and wiring diagrams may be rearranged. Pessimists suspect that there will be more bloody purges or another nuclear test. Optimists still hold hope that His Corpulency will validate their frustrated predictions of reform.

Certainly nothing in the regime’s behavior before or during the congress supports the optimistic view. The preparations for the congress were mostly marked by increased repression and surveillance, exhausting mass mobilizations for forced labor, confiscatory “loyalty” payments, and crackdowns on market trading.

Nor is there any sign of glasnost in how the regime has treated the foreign press. So far, it has paraded them through a circuit of model farms, a model kindergarten,

a “children’s palace,” where children are militarized and made to perform,

a model factory,

a munitions museum, 

where reporters were shown an example of “indigenous” weapons,

 

and even a model barbershop.

Some of the foreign reporters are naive enough to think this is how North Koreans actually live.

And, inevitably …

Some observers justify compromises with the truth.

Others ask the minders and props in this play hard questions. They don’t get answers, but at least they tell us so, which reveals something — about themselves, if not about North Korea, which refuses to change. 

So, when The Event itself began, the minders left the reporters standing on a street corner outside, reading foreign websites on their smartphones to learn what they could about events happening 500 meters away.

The odds seem unlikely that the 130 foreign journalists currently in Pyongyang to cover the congress will be allowed to report any useful information, other than the useful fact that Pyongyang is isn’t letting them report any useful information.

There are, however, a few useful dramatizations of things we already knew. For example, the money is still worthless.

And the regime, which still can’t feed its people, has finished building a new headquarters for the bank that prints the worthless money.

Pyongyang has long benefited from cultivating the hope that it would reform, which optimistic policymakers, naive academics, foreign profiteers, and Pyongyang’s small, noisy band of apologists have long cited as an argument against sanctions and other forms of pressure. If there were any truth to the reform theories, you’d think Pyongyang would want to amplify them for a global audience, if only as a tactic for strategic deception. So far, it seems to be making little pretense in that direction.

Then, there is the adage that personnel is policy. The officials who are ascendant among the top ranks Pyongyang today are not reformers but hard-liners. But at the mid-to-low levels, older party cadres are being excluded from the congress, in favor of younger (but less experienced, and often, less ideologically inclined) cadres who have proven their loyalty to Kim Jong-un through successful performance at his pet projects. This doesn’t foreshadow the adoption of reformist policies, but might further widen the gulf between Pyongyang and the provinces, and between the highest officials and the lower ranks of the ruling party.

The short, unhappy reign of His Porcine Majesty has been one running disappointment for wishful thinkers in northwest Washington, but that is much less important than the disappointment of the desperately poor from North Hamgyeong to South Hwanghae. 

“Discontent among the people has risen high because of the closed politics of three successive generations,” the RFA quoted a source in Jakang Province. “For North Koreans, reform and openness is no longer just a wish but a must.” [….]

“If all Kim does is repeat the same old revolutionary slogans without clear commitment to reform and open policy, it will be an irreversible disaster for Kim’s stable reign,” another source was quoted as saying. “Citizens are now waiting for the seventh party congress, and regard reform and openness the issues for survival that cannot be delayed any longer.” [Korea Times]

I genuinely wish Pyongyang would finally go through the agricultural reforms it has been promising since 2012, even if in practice, those “reforms” would amount to little more than sharecropping, an arrangement few of us would associate with economic justice. And for all the excitement this has caused among certain North Korea-watching academics, actual North Koreans are much more interested in abandoning the collectives entirely, clearing private plots, and illegally growing food to sell in the markets — a trend that is impossible to measure, but which probably averted a famine despite last year’s drought.

What North Koreans really need isn’t marginal experiments with the collective system or a new New Economic Policy, it’s fundamental land reform that gives land to the tillers. This would do nothing to solve the nuclear crisis or alleviate North Korea’s other humanitarian crises, but it would effect dramatic improvements in North Korea’s food situation. But the unfortunate conclusion I draw is that this regime prefers a hungry population. It’s more easily cowed. And as for political reform, who seriously speaks of that today?

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Please, Kurt Campbell, save Korea (and us) from the Trumpocalypse

For conservative North Korea watchers who are rightly depressed about the intellectual and moral death of the Republican Party, let me palliate your depression with a few observations. First, parties come and go. What matters is that democracy endures. Any casual observer of South Korean politics knows that democracies can outlive the dissolution of parties just fine. 

Second, what matters to Korea policy is coalitions, not parties. On the Hill, there isn’t much of a partisan divide on North Korea policy at all these days. Democrats and Republicans are in equally hawkish moods. Just look at how they voted. Republicans have never been less united, but on North Korea policy, Congress has never been more united behind stronger pressure to force Pyongyang to disarm or perish. 

Third, Victor Cha’s sober and plausible analysis of Hillary Clinton’s North Korea policy is nothing to be particularly depressed about. Finally, take heart from the words of a man who is likely to play an important role President Clinton’s North Korea policy.

In the opening speech of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’s 2016 Plenum, Campbell – who also works closely with presidential candidate Hilary Clinton – refuted the notion that North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.

“I would argue that in fact there are many countries that are more heavily sanctioned than North Korea. There are a number of steps we could take that would send a much clearer message about (their) activities to gain hard currency.”

The current chairman and CEO of the Asia Group added that implementing further sanctions would also likely involve going after institutions that conduct at least some of their operations in China.

Campbell pointed to the difficulties that many negotiators had experienced when dealing with North Korea over the last 20 years, but also said the door should never be closed on negotiating.

“I would be of the view of that the U.S, South Korea, Japan and Russia should leave the door open for talks. It’s in our best interests to solve these issues diplomatically.” [NK News]

I don’t disagree with any of that. Not even the last part.

Along with sanctions, the international community should step up efforts in other areas to pressure Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions, such as supporting its refugees, a former senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

During his remarks at a foreign policy forum in Seoul, Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for Asia, also expressed his support for a five-party dialogue format involving South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

“We have to step up our efforts in other areas. What we have done in the U.S. to support North Korean refugees could be substantially increased. I think our ability to send more information into North Korea could be dialed up substantially,” he said during a dinner session of the Asan Plenum 2016, an annual forum hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“I think more work can be done on preparing for uncertainty for friends surrounding North Korea, and I would be much clearer with Chinese interlocutors about what our expectations with respect to North Korea are going forward,” he added. [Yonhap]

Even Wendy Sherman, of Agreed Framework infamy, is now trying to sound hawkish, although I suspect that in Sherman’s case, this is election-year posturing. At a recent conference, Sherman called for the U.S. and its allies to plan for regime collapse in North Korea, something that Sherman would not have said publicly a few years ago, out of deference to the delicate sensitivities of His Porcine Majesty, and the others who share his Safe Space in Pyongyang. NK News’s Jiwon Song (previous link) misreads Sherman’s call as a call for a plan to cause the collapse of North Korea’s regime. Far be it for me to object to this notion, but Sherman is merely saying that we should plan for what may now be inevitable. Then, Song “balances” this imaginative interpretation by finding a South Korean expert who is even farther left than Sherman. This sort of “balance” belongs in the Hankyoreh or in an opinion piece, not in a news article.

I predict the greater problem will come when Pyongyang tempts us to lift sanctions for a quick deal. For all the hope one draws from Campbell’s comments, I fully expect the next administration, like this one, to continue to be hobbled by internal debates among those who want to apply pressure and let it work, and those who want to cut a deal as quickly as … as The New York Times editors would have them cut one. Here we are, just three months after the same editors endorsed H.R. 757, and now they’re saying this:

While sanctions are important and China, more than any other country, has the power to make North Korea feel their effects, sanctions alone are not enough to mitigate the threat. Backing an inexperienced and reckless leader like Mr. Kim into a corner is risky and might lead to even more dangerous responses, like aiming a weapon at South Korea or Japan, with potentially catastrophic results.

At some point, the United States, along with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, will have to find a way to revive negotiations aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. The Obama administration earlier this year had secret contacts with the North that foundered over a disagreement on whether to focus on denuclearization (America’s priority) or on replacing the current Korean War armistice with a formal peace treaty (North Korea’s priority). But the idea of talking with the North is politically unpopular in America, and this is an election year. [Editorial, New York Times]

The Times then quotes Bob Carlin, who has advocated do-nothing freeze deals at every turn, and who has an awful track record for reading peace overtures that aren’t there into cryptic North Korean statements.

Note well, NYT: Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) in 2010. It took three years, and another sanctions law to close the CISADA’s loopholes, until your newspaper reported that sanctions had created “a hard-currency shortage that is bringing the country’s economy to its knees.” It took two more years until (for better or for worse) John Kerry inked his grand bargain. The editors of the Times show no sign of having thought through what sanctions are supposed to achieve, or how they fit into a greater strategy. Nor, for that matter, have they bothered to read the conditions for lifting those sanctions at sections 401 and 402 of Public Law 114-122.

We are very far from backing Kim Jong-un into a corner. It takes more than three months to go from “sanctions never work” to “OMG sanctions are working WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” Sanctions are an essential part of a policy that’s designed to weaken the cohesion, control, and survivability of the North Korean regime, in a way that presents Pyongyang with a clear choice: disarm and reform, or perish. We’ll know that the conditions are right for a diplomatic solution when Pyongyang is ready to accept fundamental transparency in its dealings with the world. It will take more than inserting a few U.N. inspectors at Yongbyon for us to know that Pyongyang has made that decision. It will mean free and nationwide access by food aid monitors. It will mean Red Cross workers in North Korea’s prison camps. It will mean the de-escalation of conventional forces, including artillery and rockets, along the DMZ. It will take more than a few months to exert the pressure needed to achieve that.

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Who killed Pastor Han Chung-ryeol?

Since 1993, Pastor Han Chung-ryeol, an ethnic Korean citizen of China, had operated a church with 300 members at the foot of Mount Changbai, which the Koreans call Mount Paektu, on the Chinese side of the border. NK News reports that Pastor Han was last seen leaving his church at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon. He was found on the side of the Mountain at 8:00 that evening, “with knife and axe wounds in his neck.” Someone murdered Pastor Han, and not without reason, “[a]ctivists and local journalists suspect he was assassinated by North Korean agents.” Several media reports and this memorial, by his friend the Rev. Eric Foley, report that Han had helped North Korean refugees.

Changbai borders North Korea. And in 1993, North Korea was gripped by famine. North Koreans flooded across the border, looking for food, clothing, money, anything. It was rumored along the border in North Korea that if you went to a building with a cross on top, they would help you there.

In Changbai, there was one building with a cross on top. That was Pastor Han’s church.

Pastor Han never sought to start a North Korea ministry any more than he sought to start a church in Changbai. He simply responded faithfully to whatever God gave him to do. So as North Koreans knocked on the door of his church, he gave them food, and clothing, and Christ. When North Koreans began to knock on the doors of the homes of people all over Changbai, Pastor Han trained ordinary people how to help North Koreans also.

There was a time when it was possible for Korean Chinese people to visit North Korea to see their relatives. Pastor Han’s wife did. She even went to jail in North Korea for evangelizing North Koreans. But providentially in the same jail cell with her was a fellow prisoner, a kotjebi, or North Korean orphan, whom she and Pastor Han had once helped in China. The kotjebi was wearing layers and layers and layers of clothing, because every time the kotjebi needed to buy something, off would come a layer of clothing as payment. So the kotjebi provided Pastor Han’s wife with enough clothing to stay warm in the cold prison cell, as a way of saying thanks.

What North Koreans always said about Pastor Han was that they could see his heart. That is far rarer in ministry than you might imagine, and it is especially rare in North Korea ministry. You can share food with North Korean people. You can share clothing. You can share the Gospel. You can give them lots of money and rice cookers. And you can throw big parties for them. But unless North Koreans can see your heart, unless the gospel is embodied in your life and not only your words or your business cards, they will never cross over the scary, shaky rope bridge over which we each of us must cross in order to move from the ideologies that enslave us, to enter the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Han must have known the risks he was taking. As early as 2000, North Korea kidnapped and murdered the Rev. Kim Dong-shik, a U.S. resident, for helping refugees. In 2009, the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau sent hit teams to murder human rights activists in both China and South Korea. He was a brave man, and a good man. He gave everything, perhaps including his life, to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

So far, there is no direct evidence that North Korea was responsible for killing Pastor Han, although the suspicions of North Korea’s involvement go beyond mere speculation.

Han is believed to have been murdered by three North Korean agents who were dispatched to the Chinese northeastern province of Jilin right before the incident, Choi Sung-yong, the head of the group of families for South Koreans abducted by North Korea, said, quoting what he heard from North Korean defectors.

“The agents are known to have returned to their country,” Choi said. “The priest has long supported North Korean defectors. North Korea seems to judge that his church is being used as a hideout for such North Koreans.” [Yonhap]

An axe murder would be a departure from the RGB’s preferred method in recent years, which is to sneak up behind its targets and inject them with poison, specifically, neostigmine bromide. But of course, North Korea has murdered people with axes, too, notably Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett.

NK News quotes a fellow activist, who says Pastor Han also supported underground churches inside North Korea.

“Since last year, U.S. organizations have started funding him to establish underground churches in North Korea,” Pastor Kim Hee-tae, president of the missionary organization North Korea Human Rights Mission, told NK News.

The church started dispatching deacons into North Korea last year, Kim said.

“Some of them were arrested by North Korean authorities and some were missing. The North Korean State Political Security Department is likely to have learned Han’s role,” Kim added.

A similar incident happened three years ago, in which South Korean citizen pastor Kim Chang-hwan was killed by a poison needle in Dandong, China.

“He was about to infiltrate to North Korea with a fake Chinese passport to build underground churches,” Kim said. [NK News, Ha Young-Choi]

Unlike Kim Dong-shik or Kim Chang-hwan, Han was a Chinese citizen without ties of nationality to the U.S. or South Korea. Washington and Seoul could take the view that they have no basis to demand that China investigate Han’s murder and share its findings, but the murder of a humanitarian is reason for people of conscience all over the world to be concerned. After all, the U.S. often speaks out when China abducts or unjustly imprisons Chinese dissidents, and neither Seoul nor Washington owes North Korea any special deference.

If North Korea ordered the murder of Pastor Han, it would fit the legal definition of “international terrorism” in the U.S. criminal code. This has important policy implications here in the United States. The United States has repeatedly cited governments’ use of clandestine agents to murder their exiled citizens in third countries to support the designation of the responsible governments as state sponsors of terrorism. In the past, North Korea has targeted a U.S. resident and South Korean citizens for similar terrorist attacks. Finally, the South Korean government considers North Koreans, including the refugees Pastor Han had assisted, to be citizens of the Republic of Korea. That’s why U.S. and South Korean governments should ask China to share any evidence that North Korea was responsible for the murder of Pastor Han Chung-ryeol.

It’s also why they probably won’t.

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

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Preparations for North Korea’s party congress spur anger, resistance, and dissent

Over the last year, this site has closely tracked growing signs that North Korea’s elites are discontented with Kim Jong-un’s leadership and fearful of being purged, and of falling morale and discipline in the North Korean military. More recently, we’ve seen extraordinary outbreaks of dissent among North Korea’s overseas workers, including the group defection of 13 restaurant workers and a reported mutiny by 100 workers in Kuwait.

Whether these incidents reflect popular sentiment inside North Korea itself is a harder question to answer. Some remarkable reports of dissent and resistance have emerged from North Korea recently, but Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on the borders means that the reports take longer to emerge, and they’re more difficult to verify. But for those who are watching for them, the signs are there.

[Radio Free Asia]

The confrontation is so reminiscent of one shown in the 2014 PBS Frontline documentary, “The Secret State of North Korea,”  that I had to compare the two clips to be sure they weren’t the same. Of course, there was nothing overtly political about this incident. Similarly, a reported bank robbery in the city of Chongjin may not have been politically motivated, either, but it would represent an extraordinary act of lawlessness for North Korea. It suggests that beyond the limits of Pyongyang, North Korea could become what John Lee recently described as “a failed state.”

Other incidents have been expressly political. Radio Free Asia reports that in the northeastern city of Chongjin, some brave soul stole the North Korean flag from the flagpole in front of city hall overnight. On the night of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

In late March, the authorities found anti-regime leaflets and graffiti in public places in Pyongsong, Hamhung, Chongjin, and even Pyongyang.

But the case that has received the most attention occurred at a train station in the town of Posong in Samsu county, Yanggang province, through which express trains to Pyongyang pass. [….]

“The authorities are trying to hunt down suspects whose handwriting matches that of the writing,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “The leaflet was reportedly plastered right below the portrait of [former leader] Kim Il Sung on a wall.” [….]

“The leaflet found last New Year’s Day said, ‘Kim Jong Un is a son of b**** in Chinese ink,” the source said. “There were so many people from across the country mobilized at Posong station on Jan. 1st for the New Year’s Day celebrations that the news may have spread nationwide.” [Radio Free Asia]

News of the incident “spread like wildfire” at a political rally whose purpose (ironically, if predictably) was to idolize His Porcine Majesty. The Daily NK also publishes a similar report of anti-regime graffiti at Hyesan, in Ryanggang Province, criticizing the party congress. The Daily NK claims to have corroboration from multiple sources for the report. 

The locations of these incidents are too far apart to be the work of one individual, and the consistency of the reports provides a degree of mutual corroboration. Although the possibility exists that this was the coordinated work of an organization, it’s more likely that these are uncoordinated and spontaneous outbreaks of dissent across North Korea. Not for the first time, apparently:

“Last October, people across the country defaced posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party to show their resentment against the burdens the government imposed upon them in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, RFA reported. [Radio Free Asia]

This party congress was supposed to be an occasion for deifying His Corpulency, reinforcing loyalty to the state, and consolidating power by shifting it to a younger generation of officials who are ostensibly loyal to Kim Jong-un. Instead, something closer to the opposite appears to have happened. The younger generation tends to be more loyal to its financial interests than to the old ideology. The people have been exhausted by mass mobilizationsharangued with dull lectures, and stultified by slogans they don’t believe anymore. They’re tired of being told that everything will be fine if they just work harder and trust in Kim Jong-un. The causes of their hardships are all too clear — confiscatory “loyaltypayments, restrictions on market activities, and crackdowns on smuggling from China and remittances from South Korea. Most of North Korea’s poor depend on one or more of these things for their survival.

“We haven’t been able to sell things properly because of the mandate forcing every resident to take part in mobilization and ‘uphold the Party with loyal beads of sweat to build a strong nation’ in relation to the 70 day battle,” a source from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 6. “These days, MPS [Ministry of People’s Security, or North Korea’s police force] agents are on patrol all the time to crack down on street vendors.” [Daily NK]

“[W]orkers at all state-run enterprises must now attend daily ‘loyalty meetings’ starting at 5a.m.,” which is apparently unprecedented, even for (this part of) North Korea.

“It’s really just all about the regime getting people to start working sooner,” the source asserted. “They’re using the ‘loyalty meetings’ as an excuse to get them to the factories earlier in the day. Although the ’70-day struggle’ is undoubtedly a big part of it, it is also plausible that the authorities are trying to distract everyone from the looming specter of sanctions, keeping them so busy that they don’t have time to think about it.”

While the exact rationale behind the early hour is open to question, the collective reaction it has elicited from workers is anything but. “At first you’ve got to go in [at that time] because there’s no avoiding it,” he said, conveying sentiments shared with him by factory workers.

“Show me someone who would maintain that level of devotion otherwise! Fear of punishment is the only thing keeping anyone in line–not bona fide loyalty [to the regime].” [Daily NK]

This may increase production temporarily, but soon enough, people become exhausted, and production will drop off again. Some of the work is simply make-work: “People … have been mobilized to work around the clock in construction and clean-up of the areas around twin statues and monuments to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in preparation for the Workers’ Party Congress.” Workers and students have been ordered to collect scrap iron, and some are meeting their quotas by stealing, or by looting and stripping factories. The factories, in turn, have hired ex-soldiers as private security guards, who brutally beat any looters they catch.

Those who can afford to buy their way out of the extra labor; those who can’t must work longer hours. Wage payments are unreliable, and “the people are coerced to deposit 1,000 won to banks every month during the period of the 70 days battle.” State banks reportedly charge 50% commissions for withdrawals, which means that “deposits” are effectively confiscations.

For a regime that talks so much about the loyalty of its people, Pyongyang is watching them as if it’s mortally terrified of them. It has required “all North Korean citizens near the North Korea-Chinese border to carry ID on them at all times,” and stopped citizens for random checks. It is reinvestigating the backgrounds of its citizens for signs of disloyalty and keeping a close watch on those who fall under suspicion. It is destroying homes near the border with China as a countermeasure against defections. It has restricted movement in and out of Pyongyang and stepped up surveillance in residential neighborhoods, hotels, and public places.

These mobilizations, confiscations, and restrictions are partially about money, of course, but they’re also about control. This regime knows that if it can’t keep its subjects happy, the next-best way to control them is to keep them tired and busy. North Korea’s government lacks the competence to provide such essential services as sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a fresh water system, public order, and baths; and it certainly can’t bring peace. Now, even its vaunted propaganda is failing. Its last remaining competency — the one on which its survival may depend — is ensuring that those who seethe at it are kept too tired, too busy, too afraid, and too isolated to communicate, combine, or organize against it.

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Claudia Rosett: Shipping sanctions against North Korea are leaking

Unlike my friend, Claudia Rosett, I’d call the new U.N. sanctions against North Korea a qualified success, despite the fact that implementation is still a work in progress. This post, and the other posts it links, summarize the effects of just one aspect of the sanctions — their restrictions on North Korean shipping, which have idled dozens of North Korean ships. Since then, NK News’s Leo Byrne has reported that no North Korean ships have called in the port of Dandong since late March. Other Chinese ports continue to admit North Korean ships, none of which have been designated by the U.N. 

Given the importance of the coal and mineral trade in the regime’s finances, it’s not surprising that the regime is squeezing its people to make up the difference, but it’s finding that even this has limits. There isn’t much to squeeze out of them, and the squeeze also costs the regime in the loyalty of its subjects, including citizens once deemed loyal enough to send abroad. Obviously, this is no time to relax our diplomatic pressure for strict enforcement. Despite these encouraging signs, the long history of sanctions-busting by China, and by North Korea’s arms clients, demands eternal vigilance, and sometimes, the threat of harsh consequences, or sanctions will leak and fail.

There are already some warning signs of how that could happen. For example, one ship that was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department, but not by the U.N., continues to make crossings between North Korea and China. Another example is the case of the M/V Jin Teng. Three days after the Security Council approved Resolution 2270, and designated 31 ships “owned or controlled by” designated North Korean arms smuggler Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the Philippines seized one of those ships, the Jin Teng. After the seizure, China successfully lobbied Security Council members to lift the designation of the Jin Teng, and even threatened to block the reauthorization of the Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the sanctions. This week, among other revelations, Claudia Rosett informs us that the Jin Teng has since been released, “sending the message that it’s hardly worth rushing to enforce U.N. sanctions.” That’s worrying.

There are other worrying signs, too. Rosett points to three ships, the Deniz, the Shaima and the Yekta, which fly the North Korean flag and have made regular voyages between North Korea and Iran.

Since March 2015, the Deniz has made at least 10 calls at Iran, including at least four this year, shuttling among Turkey, Kuwait and Iran’s Bushehr port and Kharg and Sarooj terminals. According to Equasis, the Deniz’s registered owner since February 2015 is H. Khedri—or Hadri Khedri, according to the IMO’s shipping-company database—with an address for Siri Maritime Services in Tehran. The Yekta and the Shaima have been making runs between Dubai and the Iranian port of Abadan, which the Yekta visited as recently as April 5.  [Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

The ships are not designated by the U.N., although several facts here certainly call for further investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts. Rosett points to the long history of WMD cooperation between Iran and North Korea, and any WMD-related commerce would clearly be forbidden by U.N. resolutions going back to 2006. To this, I would add the long history of North Korea supplying arms to Iran, for the use of its terrorist clients, which is also prohibited. The names of the ships aren’t Korean and don’t even sound Persian. If you forced me to guess, I’d say they’re Turkish.

This raises several potential violations of UNSCR 2270:

– The odds seem rather low that we can trust Iran to inspect the North Korean cargo as required by paragraph 18. This points to one loophole the Security Council should close after North Korea’s next nuclear test — to authorize the boarding and search on the high seas of vessels owned or controlled by North Korea when a member state at a vessel’s origin or destination has repeatedly failed to carry out its obligations under the resolutions.

– Rosett notes that “[t]he Deniz was reflagged from Japan, the Shaima and Yekta from Mongolia.” The reflagging (registration) of North Korean ships is banned by paragraph 19. Paragraph 19 also prohibits providing crew services to North Korean vessels.

– Paragraph 20 prohibits foreign ships from flying the North Korean flag, and also requires member states to prohibit the leasing and insurance of vessels flagged by North Korea.

The Panel, and Mongolian and Japanese authorities, should investigate, regulate, and prosecute as appropriate. And that is not all.

Among the North Korea-linked ships still on the U.N. blacklist, some are making fresh maneuvers that appear aimed at camouflaging their identities. The North Korean vessel the Dawnlight, which the U.S. has designated since last year, was flagged to Mongolia. In January it was renamed the Firstgleam and acquired by Sinotug Shipping Limited, a company set up just this past September in the Marshall Islands.

The U.N., having apparently missed the update, blacklisted this ship on March 2 under its old name of Dawnlight. A day later, despite a provision calling for member states to deflag North Korean ships, the Firstgleam was reflagged to Tanzania, according to Lloyds. As of this week, the ship, which the U.N. and U.S.-sanctions lists still refer to as the Mongolia-flagged Dawnlight, was signaling a position close to Japan. [Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

Anna Fifield reported extensively on the Dawnlight here, for The Washington Post, and I’ve also written about it in this post. If investigated, Sinotug may turn out to be another North Korean shell company, but to be clear, I don’t have evidence to conclude that, only that it merits investigation. Tanzania’s reflagging of the Dawnlight is just the latest case of non-compliance by African governments that either don’t know or don’t care that they’re in violation.* The job of our diplomats is to help them know and make them care.

Another continuing problem with China’s implementation continues to be the loophole allowing coal and iron ore imports for “livelihood” purposes. Not one person I know really understands what this ambiguous term means, or what its limits are. If Congress takes up another round of sanctions legislation in response to a nuclear test, it should seek to define “livelihood” more narrowly, perhaps as in-kind exports of food, to be distributed as aid. Coal exports continue to cross the Yellow Sea from North Korea to China. It’s a different story at the land borders, where coal export traffic across the Yalu River has slowed greatly or stopped, while the trade in consumer goods and food continues to flow freely (which, as I keep trying to remind people, is both important and good).

Despite the valuable service Claudia has done for us in this op-ed, I part ways with her when she writes: “It’s highly questionable whether sanctions, however watertight, can stop North Korea’s deeply entrenched nuclear program.” That depends on just exactly how one envisions stopping it. Will sanctions convince Kim Jong-un that it’s in his interest do disarm in good faith? I don’t know anyone who thinks so, although I think it’s important to leave room for that possibility. It may well be that there will be no diplomatic solution as long as His Corpulency weighs down a throne. As I’ve said repeatedly, sanctions are one part of a strategy to convince someone in Pyongyang — most plausibly, the generals surrounding His Porcine Majesty — that the system must change or perish.

Despite these implementation problems, more evidence suggests that shipping sanctions are working than not. Xi Jinping is feeling intense international pressure to seem to be enforcing the sanctions. Six weeks after the passage of UNSCR 2270 seems a bit premature for us to throw up our hands and give up on a promising strategy. What’s needed instead is targeted and tough diplomacy, backed by the threat of tougher national sanctions for those who won’t comply voluntarily.

~   ~   ~

* Corrected after posting, because the reflagging did, in fact, happen one day after the adoption of UNSCR 2270.

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Report: 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait protest unpaid wages

Because North Korea is so uniquely opaque and repressive, it’s often difficult to gauge the level of dissent against, or popular support for, its regime. That repression follows North Koreans when they’re sent abroad to earn money for the regime, usually through the implied threat to punish the workers’ loved ones back in North Korea if they step out of line. 

The recent and unprecedented mass defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, is an example of this. In a transparent attempt to extort the 13, North Korea offered to arrange a meeting between them and their relatives. You’d have to be obtuse to doubt just what message the Pyongyang intended to send; if you aren’t, it should be chillingly obvious. It’s the same message that Pyongyang sent to refugee Pak Jong-suk, with the Associated Press as a willing accomplice in its extortion, before its agents found her in Pyongyang and told her that her son and his family would be banished to starve in the countryside unless she returned.

Never in my adult life have I been quite convinced of the existence of God, but if you are, pray for the families who are at the mercy of this highly enriched isotope of evil. For now, let’s stipulate that whether God exists or not, there’s ample evidence that evil does.

History also tells us that evil governments eventually die. And if this extraordinary new report from the Chosun Ilbo is true, Kim Jong-un’s EKG just skipped another beat. It claims that 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait recently “rose up against the state security agents who keep constant watch on them” over unpaid back wages, after being told to fork over yet more “loyalty” payments for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

The workers reportedly shouted out at the foreman and demanded their back pay instead, and some tried to assault him. According to sources, the state security agents at the site were able to stop the workers from lynching the foreman, but North Korea’s Ambassador to Kuwait So Chang-sik was apparently furious at the North Korea construction firm for not being able to contain them.

Kim Young-hwan at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said, “It is unprecedented in North Korea to protest in front of state security agents.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Well, not quite. Mass incidents in North Korea are rare, but not unprecedented; I’ve compiled a long history of them here. There was a spate of them in 2009 after Pyongyang redenominated the currency and effectively confiscated the savings of millions of its poorest people. Recently, there have even been scattered reports of mass defections, fraggings, and strikes in the North Korean military.

The protest took place after state security agents visited Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE in February and March to weed out potential defectors among workers there. They investigated the movements and mobile phone records of workers.

“The protest occurred a week after the investigations ended,” a source said. “Pyongyang’s pressure has mounted to the degree where workers sent overseas are losing their tempers.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Four days before this, according to the report, two other North Korean workers ran away from their barracks in Qatar, and sought refuge in a local police station because “they could no longer endure Pyongyang’s extortion after working in the scorching heat for more than two years but earning nothing.”

A construction company in Qatar recently laid off around 20 North Korean laborers, and the two escapees were among them. They are in custody but are at risk of being sent back to North Korea because they are unemployed.  [Chosun Ilbo]

If there’s any truth to this, U.S. and South Korean diplomats should intervene at once with the Kuwaiti and Qatari authorities to prevent these workers from being repatriated. But is it true? On the “maybe not” side of the ledger, it’s one report from the Chosun Ilbo citing “sources.” On the “maybe” side, it could be worse — it could be The Hankyoreh. And if, as is customary with the Chosun Ilbo, the sources are in the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the NIS gets a few things right, too.

There are also some tantalizing clues that give credence to the report. Recall that in March, two North Koreans were arrested at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka while carrying $150,000 in undeclared cash from Oman to China. The cash consisted of “wages” stolen from workers “at construction sites in Oman.” The Sri Lankan government later confiscated the cash. From there, presumably, the two couriers would have smuggled the cash back to Pyongyang, perhaps by train, wrapped in tin foil and stuffed into pillowcases, because “transfers of U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan were completely blocked by banking systems,” and customs in Dandong isn’t letting bulk cash through the border.

Which is excellent news in its own right — it means enough of the banks in China are complying with sanctions to damage the regime’s internal cohesion.

I’m guessing Yonhap has no way of knowing whether the North Korean workers were based on Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, or the UAE. Either way, if the overseers of North Korean laborers in the Gulf states are one enterprise, the loss of $150,000 and the effect of sanctions could have put them under metamorphic pressure to recoup the lost “loyalty” payments by working their charges even harder.

From any number of recent stories we’ve seen, the regime has imposed steep quotas on trading companies, and isn’t accepting excuses from those who fail to meet them. The 13 restaurant workers who defected cited frustration and fear over rising demands by Pyongyang for “loyalty” payments they couldn’t keep up as a reason for their defection. According to the Daily NK, women fisheries workers in Dandong, China are being forced to work 13-hour days, even when they’re sick, for a diminishing pittance.

“After receiving strong demands from the North, a Chinese fisheries company [name redacted to protect the source] in Dandong, which employs about 200 North Korean workers, wired six months’ worth of their wages to Pyongyang,” a source with knowledge of North Korean affairs in China said, asserting that the move was to help the regime secure more money for the upcoming Party Congress.

The Chinese firm usually sends most of the 500 USD allotted for each worker’s wages to Pyongyang, and the remaining 150 USD is handed over to the North Korean manager to distribute to the employees. However, recently, even the smaller proportion of those wages is not being reliably received. “Because of that I’m hearing more of the female workers say they would prefer to return to the North than stay in China,” the source said.

These female employees not only have long working hours but normally only get two days off per month and are rarely allowed to take leave, even if they are ill.

[….]

The prepaid wages have now added more strain on the workers. Having already been paid for full working hours, the North Korean manager is forcing employees to work even if they are sick. “Some have fallen so ill that they have asked to be sent back home, but they’ve been turned down with no room for consideration,” the source lamented. [Daily NK]

Just keep this in mind when the AP reports that as horrible as conditions for these overseas workers are, they’re better than in North Korea. Conditions from place to place certainly vary, but across the board, they appear to have gotten much worse this year. Eventually, even selected, loyal North Korean workers have a breaking point. That’s an indirect effect of sanctions. The situation stands to get worse soon, following the Treasury Department’s inclusion of North Korean labor exports in Executive Order 13722, and the recent visit to Seoul by the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, signaling a new enforcement effort.

South Korea and the United States are working together to determine the extent to which North Korea uses its workers abroad to raise money for its weapons of mass destruction programs, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Tuesday.

[….]

“It’s very clear that North Korea uses a great deal of its resources for nuclear weapons, for missiles, for military equipment,” he said at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “And to say that this dollar from this worker is going to a bomb, you don’t have that kind of ability to account. It’s a process that’s happening and yes, we need to see what we can do to prevent it from happening.”

[….]

“At this point, we’re beginning a process, and one of the things we’re doing is looking for additional information, trying to make sure we know what’s happening and where the workers are, what companies they are working for,” King said. “We don’t have a lot of information at this point. We’re talking with the South Korean government and sharing information with them. We’ll continue to consult with them.”

Some of the information they need is which companies are hiring the workers, what goods they’re producing and whether these products are being sold in the U.S.  [Yonhap]

Other North Koreans abroad are also being called home. The Telegraph cites a Radio Free Asia report that Pyongyang is calling its students back from China, “apparently out of concern that more of its citizens are planning to defect.” North Korea’s ambassador to Germany is the latest diplomat to be called back to Pyongyang, possibly because he’s being held accountable or Germany’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test.

The signs here suggest that Pyongyang’s overseas ventures may be entering a death spiral: sanctions result in assets being blocked or confiscated, or depress earnings, and make it hard to repatriate “loyalty payments.” In its rising financial desperation, the regime pushes the Bureau 39 bosses to earn more. The Bureau 39 bosses push the workers harder until they break. Then, out of fear of defections, and as I predicted, the regime starts calling home the people it needs to earn cash. That only increases the burdens on those who remain. If the people the regime judges to be among the most loyal aren’t, you really have to wonder about the emotional state of those still locked up inside North Korea.

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The North Korean Army’s rape epidemic

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.12.22 AMA few days ago, the Korea Times carried a profile of Lee So-yeon, a native of Hoeryong in North Korea’s far northeast, who defected to the South in 2008, did menial jobs for a few years, later earned her bachelor’s degree in social welfare from Gukje Cyber University based in Suwon, and then founded an NGO called the North Korea Women’s Union.

Founded in 2011, the group hosts talks at schools and other groups, and provides job training and psychological counseling to defectors as well. What makes Lee, a defector, stand out is that she comes forth to speak about the ordeals of women defectors from North Korea.

“Whether it’s in the restaurant business, in the radio industry or something else, I believe North Korean defectors groups all are working for unification, for the democratization of North Korea and for change in North Korea,” Lee said in a recent interview at her office in Dangsan-dong, western Seoul. [Korea Times]

By Lee’s reckoning, she endured far less than other women refugees whose accounts she’s heard: “[W]hen I hear the stories of other female defectors, I think they are the stuff for movies.” After all, Lee was only caught and sent back for one attempted defection, and only spent one year in a North Korean prison for it. The interview briefly mentions that Lee previously served in the North Korean army’s signal corps, but doesn’t mention what she endured during her service. But elsewhere, Lee talked about what army life is like for female soldiers in North Korea, and what she said was horrifying.

“Out of 120 soldiers in my unit, there were only 20 men, but they were all high-ranking officers. I was in the 1st squad, but a couple of squad leaders in the 2nd squad raped every single one of the low-ranking female soldiers,” Lee testified.

[….]

One defector, Kim Eun-mi, who worked as a railway attendant, said in the conference, “women crew members often fell victim to sexual assault and rape, which was common in trains carrying soldiers, especially in the evening when lights were turned off.”

Kim also mentioned that she worked under a squalid condition where female crew had to “reuse sanitary pads that were already solidified (with blood).”

Choi Su-hyang, a former nurse in the North Korean Army, left the country for the South in 2014. She pointed out that 30 to 40 percent of the North‘s military personnel are women, who are often raped and assaulted by superior officers.

Adding to the sexual assault, she added, most military soldiers, both males and females, suffer from malnutrition, and are at high risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. [Korea Herald]

A New York Times blog also took notice of the accounts, but could have found many other consistent ones. New Focus International has previously reported that North Korean soldiers commonly stalk and rape civilian women, often impregnating them or infecting them with sexually-transmitted diseases contracted from prostitutes. Women aren’t the only victims, either. Male soldiers also suffer frequent abuse, including sexual abuse, by their superiors.

To maintain such a large army in proportion to its population, the North Korean military has long terms of enlistment, often as long as ten years. Soldiers aren’t allowed to marry or have girlfriends, so rape and prostitution become outlets for their desires. The state and the command don’t punish rape or abuse — sexual or otherwise — thus creating an environment of impunity.

“Those who got pregnant were sent to a hospital in the city of Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, the only hospital in the vicinity of the military base,” Lee said, according to the report. “Medical personnel in the hospital who found out about the incident divulged the fact after two years.”

Rape targeting female soldiers is frequent at North Korean military bases and those responsible are rarely punished, she said. Victims are often dishonorably discharged from the military.

“Authorities, aware of time and money invested in nurturing high-ranking male officers, are reluctant to punish them, although they are responsible for the crime,” Lee said. [Korea Times]

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry found evidence of frequent rapes and murders of female inmates in its prison camps, and that violence against women both in public and in the home was commonplace.

I’ve prosecuted and defended multiple sexual assault cases in the U.S. Army (nearly all of them soldier-on-soldier, with an occasional civilian wife as the accuser), and it must be the case that sexual assault is a serious problem that every army has to confront. That’s just a demographic inevitability. What implicates a command as responsible for the problem is whether it investigates and prosecutes credible allegations, whether it maintains a fair process to try the accused, and whether it punishes the guilty. What’s clear is that the North Korean government appears to be doing none of those things. What’s less clear is why some self-described feminists in this country give the North Korean government a free pass for that.

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Pyongyang’s sanctions are the ones that hurt the North Korean people the most.

Last month, I wrote about one slightly surprising consequence of sanctions against North Korea — sanctions have prevented Kim Jong-un from selling off and exporting resources needed by the North Korean people, which has flooded North Korean markets with cheap coal and seafood.

Now, we’re starting to see something like the converse of this, in which restrictions on what North Korea’s donju and purchasing agents can import is forcing them to find other ways to kick up steep “loyalty payments” to their overlords in Pyongyang. What’s a donju to do? Find something to send back to North Korea that isn’t covered by sanctions — like apples. The result has been to flood North Korean markets with cheap apples during North Korea’s lean season — called the “barley hump” — when winter food stocks have run out and home-grown crops haven’t been harvested yet.

For this reason, many trading companies have increased their import of daily goods and food products, neither of which are subject to the harsh round of unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea in early March in response to its fourth nuclear test and rocket launch. In particular, fruit such as apples are not included on the list of sanctioned items, so these trading companies can reliably earn foreign currency by buying and selling them. [Daily NK]

Making more food available during the lean season could also have a secondary and beneficial effect, by reducing the incidence of “pre-harvesting” of North Korean crops, which reduces the aggregate food supply.

“Right now the market is so flooded with Chinese apples that vendors are even selling one apiece to customers who don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “It seems like imported fruits are going to dominate the markets until North Korea’s first fruits of the year become available around July.” [Daily NK]

Radio Free Asia even publishes this image of apple boxes stacked up at the customs checkpoint at Dandong.

apples

[via AFP]

It also informs us that there might be more than apples in some of those boxes. 

“It has become impossible to send so-called ‘apple rice’ to North Korea now,” said a trader in Dandong, a border town in northeastern China, in a reference to rice that China sends to North Korea packed in apple boxes rather than regular rice sacks.

But in this instance the source used “apple rice” to describe goods shipped between China and North Korea that are falsely identified on their outer packaging to conceal their true contents, such as materials used to manufacture narcotics in North Korea.

The fact that Chinese traders are no longer able to send “apple rice” to North Korea means that Chinese customs authorities are performing more thorough inspections at the border, the source said.

If such goods are discovered during the inspections, the traders will be fined, and all their freight will be confiscated, he said.

“The trading companies whose ‘apple rice’ is found through random inspections will be in big trouble and have to pay a large fine,” said the source, adding that the customs inspections process has become stricter for goods entering China from North Korea. [RFA]

Why do traders hide rice in apple boxes? Beats me, but it’s not because of sanctions; maybe China has a rule against exporting rice. Either way, increased cargo inspections at the land borders compared to last month are good news, because Pyongyang has taken advantage of lax inspections to smuggle bulk cash and other contraband across the border. They’re also bad news, because smuggling brings food and information into North Korea.

Overall, however, it’s good news that the trade in food and consumer trade continues, because it means that sanctions’ impact on the North Korean people is being minimized, even if it can’t be eliminated completely. The critics who were (and still are) eager to complain that sanctions would starve poor North Koreans won’t find much evidence to support support their arguments. Despite this being the lean season, food prices have remained stable since sanctions were imposed. Motor fuel prices have risen in Pyongyang, although the reasons for this aren’t clear. U.N. sanctions ban the export of jet fuel to North Korea, but they don’t impose an oil embargo. It may be that North Koreans are hoarding, and it may be that the regime itself is, perhaps for political parades or military needs. Fuel prices do have the potential to affect food prices indirectly, so this bears close watching.

The only report I’ve seen of food shortages caused by sanctions is this report, unconfirmed by any others, that a member of the state security forces had begged a defector for money because he’d stopped receiving wages. That’s hardly a tear-jerking tale of woe, if true. Reports that China had cut flour exports to North Korea were likely a measure to alleviate flour shortages in China, and had no evident impact on food prices in North Korea.

But this is not to deny that sanctions have had some adverse impact on workers in state industries targeted by sanctions:

Signs of anxiety have been observed in certain areas near iron and steel mills as well as coal mines following strong international sanctions implemented against North Korea. These come as mine workers seek to secure their finances by moving to smaller and more affordable housing in anticipation of a prolonged period of stalled wages and tighter budgets at home.

“I haven’t seen any panic buying in response to the sanctions, but an increasing number of people living in coal mining areas like Hyesan and Musan are trying to sell their homes,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “In one particular neighborhood, there was news that ten households are making efforts to sell their homes.” [Daily NK]

That’s unfortunate, but not that different from what we might see in other countries, including this one, where industries take sudden downturns. Indeed, China had already slowed its imports of North Korean coal a year and a half ago, and the effect of sanctions has been to impose an “abrupt halt on what had already been intermittent” wage payments. There are no reports of malnutrition or starvation among the miners, just reports that they’re retrenching their finances, cutting back on consumer purchases, and hoarding foreign currency. There is also the question of causation. There’s little question that sanctions have indeed hit the North Korean coal and steel industries hard, but it’s also possible that sectoral sanctions on the North Korean coal industry have only accelerated a decline in an industry that had already begun, and was likely to deepen for unrelated structural reasons. Recent reports tell us that China is cutting its own miners’ working hours because of a coal glut, which is probably a function of China’s own economic slowdown.

On the other side of this, critics who don’t understand what sanctions do or are intended to do, like CNN’s Will Ripley, see all evidence of cross-border trade as proof that sanctions aren’t working. But sanctions do not impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, for the very reason that the drafters of sanctions want food and other necessities to keep flowing into North Korea. If hunger in North Korea was a deterrent to Kim Jong-un, he wouldn’t be doing so much to enforce it.

The case of the Chinese apples suggests one way in which sanctions can be targeted and enforced to increase North Korea’s aggregate food supply, by shifting state resources back into the markets. Banning North Korea’s food exports might be another way. But those who depend on state industries and wages will invariably continue to lose their paychecks, and will become increasingly dependent on the markets.

The issue of the sanctions’ impact on the people bears close watching over the next year, as nations continue to implement them. On one hand, I think Sokeel Park is right that the (quasi-legal) privatization of agriculture and the food supply means that another famine in North Korea is unlikely. On the other hand, it’s unrealistic to believe that sanctions won’t affect the wrong people at all, in part because the regime will do everything in can to transfer their effects, and already is. This report did a particularly good job of covering this moral dilemma in an honest and balanced way.

But there is no question that times are much harder for North Koreans today than they were a year ago, and it’s not because of sanctions imposed by the U.N. or the U.S., but because of sanctions imposed by the North Korean government on its own people. Specifically, the North Korean government — with substantial help from China — continues to crack down on cross-border trade, smuggling, communications, and remittances, which are essential to the livelihoods of millions of poor North Koreans. It is cracking down on market trading and mobilizing people for exhausting make-work forced labor, denying them the time and the energy to pursue their livelihoods. Those are stories that bear careful watching, too, and which some sanctions critics consistently choose to overlook.

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Dear President Park: Make Reunification Your Legacy

Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations. 

Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.

Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.

As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?

With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.

In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.

Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.

Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supported her when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.

South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.

Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.

Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.

One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.

In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.

More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.

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Dozens of North Korean ships stranded by U.N. sanctions

Since this year’s nuclear test and the rounds of U.S. and U.N. sanctions that followed, I’ve tracked the implementation and enforcement of shipping sanctions closely on this site. For ease of reference, here’s a brief chronology of what I’ve observed since March 2, 2016, when the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, which —

  • required the inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea;
  • banned the reflagging of North Korean ships;
  • banned exports of coal and iron ore (except for “livelihood” purposes);
  • banned exports of gold, vanadium, and rare earths; 
  • designated a list of ships owned or controlled by Ocean Maritime Management; and
  • designated North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, which also operates a small fleet (though the ships themselves are not designated).

As I’ve repeatedly noted, China has a long and well-documented history of violating North Korea sanctions right after voting for them, which is why any evidence of China’s compliance with the new U.N. sanctions ought to be read skeptically. Still, since March, the signs of China’s implementation of shipping sanctions has been mixed, but mostly good. A short chronology of my posts:

This month’s reports reinforce the trend we’ve observed in those past reports — that for the most part, foreign ports are shunning the designated North Korean ships, including in China.

None of the 27 North Korean ships that are on a UN Security Council blacklist have been able to dock at foreign ports, the Voice of America reported Wednesday. They are either stuck in North Korean ports or marooned on the high seas. A diplomatic source said, “The UNSC sanctions are now biting, and North Korean ships are port-bound or stuck at sea.”

As of March 3, when the UNSC adopted the fresh sanctions, 15 of the North Korean ships on the blacklist were moored at foreign ports or traveling the open seas, according to VOA’s analysis of data from the private website Marine Traffic showing the real-time vessel positions. Four days later seven were still in foreign ports, and last month they had dwindled to two. The others returned to North Korea this month after they were denied entry to ports in China, Hong Kong, and Russia. [Chosun Ilbo, April 7, 2016]

Well … plus or minus. A rather confusing UPI report, citing the Voice of America, finds that all 27 of the North Korean ships designated under UNSCR 2270 are stranded at what UPI calls “various ports,” but also says that a number of ships continue to move between other North Korean ports, or have vanished from online tracking databases.

NK News’s Leo Byrne also finds that China and other countries have generally barred the designated ships from their ports, but with one exception — the M/V Victory 2, which continues to shuttle between Nampo and Lizhao. The U.S. Treasury Department designated the Victory 2 under Executive Order 13722 last month, but the U.N. did not designate it in UNSCR 2270. The Treasury designation links the Victory 2 to Korean Buyon Shipping Company Limited, presumably a shell company used by Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean shipping company previously designated by the U.N. and the U.S. for arms smuggling.

So what does it mean to be designated by the U.S., but not by the U.N.? As an initial, practical matter, being on the U.S. SDN list means as much or as little as the Treasury Department decides it does. If Treasury doesn’t actually enforce the blocking of the ship or the shell companies behind it, it might scare some banks, and it might mean nothing. If Treasury does enforce it, it could mean that the dollar accounts of the shell companies are blocked, and dollar payments to provide fuel, insurance, registration, and bunkering services for the ship are blocked.

If China and North Korea are circumventing dollar sanctions, the new U.S. sanctions law and Executive Order 13722 would allow Treasury to block the dollar assets of the Chinese middlemen who are knowingly facilitating those non-dollar payments.

If the de facto de-listing follows the pattern of the Jin Teng and other de-listed vessels, China may have argued that the Victory 2 is not, in fact, owned or controlled by Ocean Maritime Management. What this means depends on whether the U.S. and China are dealing with each other forthrightly to enforce the sanctions, or whether China is simply testing the administration’s attention span.

This is all interesting enough, but the most interesting report may be the one that informs us that in early April, the Palau-flagged M/V Lucky Star-8 entered the Japanese port of Rumoi, on the northern island of Hokkaido, where the authorities promptly arrested the vessel’s Chinese captain.

It seems the captain failed to mention that between January 29th and February 1st, he’d stopped over in an unnamed North Korean port, and under new Japanese laws, ships that recently visited North Korea are barred from Japanese ports. Japanese customs found out about the North Korean port call during a cargo inspection, although the ship was carrying no cargo. The ship the left port without its captain.

This is a secondary shipping sanction, like the ones Congress passed in section 205 of the NKSPEA, only targeting third-country ships rather than third-country ports. This could have tremendous impact over time. North Korea’s maritime exports are almost exclusively used to generate revenue for the state and its priorities. It may not be a bad idea for Congress to consider when North Korea launches that missile, subject to an exemption for port calls solely for the delivery of food or humanitarian aid to North Korea. The effect could be that North Korea’s only maritime commerce would be from a few non-designated ships that go between North Korean ports and Chinese ports, and pretty much nowhere else.

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Angola may be defying U.N. sanctions against North Korea

A report last month by the U.N. Panel of Experts found that Namibia has been involved in joint projects with KOMID, a designated North Korean entity, to build an arms factory in the African nation. The finding drew a defiant response from the Namibian government, but as a defense to a sanctions violation, it was a blue answer to a red question. In response, I wrote this post — which attracted much attention in Windhoek — rebutting Namibia’s argument and explaining the potential legal consequences the Namibian Defense Ministry would face if its defiance continues. I also tweeted links to reports that Namibia may also have sold uranium to North Korea.

This week, it’s Namibia’s neighbor to the north, Angola, that’s sharing unwanted headlines with North Korea. First, Radio Free Asia reports that “[a]round 10 North Korean workers dispatched to Angola have died of yellow fever” during an outbreak that has killed 178 people. 

It said some 1,000 North Korean workers are in Angola, including construction workers and medical staff, the report said, referring to the workforce North Korea dispatches overseas to earn money.

The recent deaths of the North Koreans calls into question the quality of North Korea’s yellow fever vaccine and the veracity of North Korea’s claims to have inoculated its workers sent to the African country, according to the report.

Those who became sick have asked to be repatriated, but the North Korean government has opted to not comply out of fear that they could cause the disease to spread at home, the media company said. [Yonhap]

Second, the Angolan government may also be defying UNSCR 2270’s ban on security cooperation with North Korea. Like Namibia, Angola was named in the most recent report of the Panel of Experts. The panel found that Angola bought “items for military patrol boats” from a (subsequently) U.N.-designated North Korean trading company, Green Pine, with the help of our old friend, Josef “Boaty McBoatface” Schwartz.

Then, last week, the official Angolan news agency Angop published this cryptic report, defending the country’s unspecified sharing of “experiences in public security” with North Korea. Meaning?

On the occasion, the board of the Angolan Ministry of the Interior thanked the contribution of the people and government of North Korea have made to Angola, since the early period of the African country’s struggle for national liberation.

The friendship and co-operation relations between the governments of Angola and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are based on a politico-diplomatic framework, as well as on the General Agreement signed in May, 1977, a time that Angola’s first president, Dr António Agostinho Neto made an official visit to North Korea.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was among the first states to recognize the independence of Angola (11 Nov, 1975), which the Asian country officially acknowledged on 16 November 1975, a date that marked the start of official relations between the two states, immediately followed by the opening of the Asian country’s diplomatic mission in Luanda (Angola’s capital). [Angop]

The Angolan government may be under the illusion that this kind of argument helps its situation. In fact, it only attracts more attention from troublemakers like me by highlighting the Angolan government’s spurious reading of the sanctions. Like Bill Newcomb, I’ll reserve final judgment about whether Luanda’s security dealings with Pyongyang violate UNSCR 2270 until I know exactly what those dealings are. Still, it’s hard to imagine any form of security cooperation with Pyongyang that wouldn’t violate it.

For the Angolan government to answer that it enjoyed comradely relations with the North Koreans is irrelevant. The sanctions don’t require Luanda to sever diplomatic relations with Pyongyang; they do require it to cease its military cooperation, arms trafficking, commerce in dual-use items, and dealings with designated entities. A reader could reasonably infer that Angop’s report was a response to the panel’s revelations about Angola’s purchases from Green Pine. And why would Angola still feel the need to defend its dealings with North Korea if they’re all in the past? At the very least, it merits further investigation by the Panel of Experts. (This isn’t the full extent of Angola’s questionable commerce with North Korea, which would violate UNSCR 2270 if proven, but I’ll keep the rest to myself.)

Of course, one lesson we’ve learned over the last ten years is that U.N. sanctions don’t enforce themselves. The world’s less responsible actors will continue to engage in opportunistic (and prohibited) trade with North Korea until they confront the risk of consequences. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department presented banks around the world with that choice by designating Banco Delta Asia, and by sending Treasury officials around the world to clarify those consequences for banks that didn’t immediately get the message.

It’s time for a similar approach to North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, whose patronage is probably a significant source of income for Pyongyang, and continues to fuel conflict in Africa. The radical idea I’m calling for here is for our State Department to practice some diplomacy. If State is serious about enforcing sanctions against North Korea, it should promptly arrange a tour of Africa, to warn the appropriate ministries in Luanda, Harare, Kampala, Windhoek, Asmara, Addis Ababa, and Cairo that in addition to the unenforceable U.N. sanctions, the NKSPEA attaches serious mandatory sanctions to military cooperation with North Korea — including the blocking and forfeiture of assets, loss of aid, and visa bans.

Not only could such an approach enhance the credibility of the U.N. and cut off a key source of income for Pyongyang, it could also yield valuable information about North Korea’s arms trafficking, either from newly cooperative African governments, or from North Korean arms dealers who come under pressure from sanctions and are consequently induced to defect.

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If Kim Jong-un can’t trust his own spies and assassins, who can he trust? (updates)

The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.” 

Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.

This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.

The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.” 

~   ~   ~

This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:

“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]

Really, Jean? Even lower standards of quality than this?

Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?

Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.

~   ~   ~

There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class. 

The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.

Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.

China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.

Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.

~   ~   ~

In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.

Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.

Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.

[This is.]

Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers. 

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

Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.

~   ~   ~

Updates: 

  • This statement from Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se supports my theory: “This appears to be an example indicating that such incidents may continue if the North Korean regime continues to make the wrong choices, such as its development of nuclear weapons.” Yun warned that other group defections may follow if His Porcine Majesty continues with his current policies.
  • South Korean “sources” say that “[a]bout five to seven other North Koreans who used to work at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo are known to be hiding in other areas of China, biding their time before they make it to the South, according the sources.”
  • South Korea says it is putting some diplomats on the job of persuading other Asian countries to allow North Korean refugees safe passage. “There has been no trouble so far in our talks and cooperation with relevant nations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck. “We are in close talks with relevant nations to help defectors come to South Korea if they so wish under humanitarian principles.”
  • The Unification Ministry says that North-to-South defections rose 17.5% during the first quarter of 2016, over the same period last year. The report doesn’t parse whether this represents an increase in actual flights from North Korea, or just an increase in arrivals in South Korea, of people who may have been hiding in China for years. That matters, because of what it tells us about the continued effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown, and whether corruption is starting to reverse it.

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Why an unprecedented mass defection could be a sign of instability in North Korea

Yonhap is reporting this morning that 13 North Koreans —12 women and a male manager working at one of its overseas restaurants in an unidentified country — have defected and arrived safely in South Korea. The impetus for this unprecedented mass defection? Sanctions — which never work, so we’ve been told.

“As the international community has slapped sanctions on the North, North Korean restaurants in foreign countries are known to be feeling the pinch,” Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, told a press briefing. “North Koreans in overseas restaurants are believed to be under heavy pressure to send money to their country.” [….]

The spokesman said that the latest defection indicates that the tougher U.N. sanctions have begun to generate impacts on curbing the North. [Yonhap]

Feel free to insert your own “women cross DMZ” snark in the comments. There was another factor at work here, too: “[T]he North Koreans recently decided to defect to Seoul because they realized the reality of South Korea by watching South Korean TV dramas and movies and were disillusioned with the North’s ideological campaigns.” 

So … a combination of information operations to undermine the regime ideologically and sanctions to undermine its capacity to control its subjects unraveled Kim Jong-un’s control, and with astonishing speed.

I wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

I wrote about the financial difficulties North Korean restaurants have faced recently in this post, but I still find this report astonishing and deeply significant on several levels. Mass defections from North Korea are still relatively rare. The few we do hear about tend to involve fishing boats that “drift” south, sometimes while inexplicably carrying women and children. Even then, the regime’s psychological hold is so strong that some of those aboard go back.

What’s extraordinary about this mass defection is that these restaurant workers are hand-picked, core-class loyalists. Here’s a short list of the levels of significance here:

1. Sanctions are undoing the regime’s financial bindings;

2. The regime is incapable of duct-taping those bindings together with resources from other state organs, possibly because those organs are functioning as semi-independent and competing feifdoms;

3. If the financial bindings come undone, loyalty and ideology aren’t enough to hold people;

4. At least some members of the core class — indeed, some of its most visible members — are disgruntled;

5. Disgruntled members of the core class are willing to share and conspire about their disgruntlement with each other, including the guy whose job it was to “manage” them, and act on it;

6. The South Korean government is willing to help North Koreans act on their disgruntlement; and

7. The South Korean government is willing to talk about all of this publicly, and thus inflict severe wounds to the regime’s morale, and possibly encourage other defections.

I can’t think of any other example of a mass defection by members of North Korea’s elite class. This is unprecedented. One likely consequence of it is that the regime itself will begin to call its restaurant workers home, and possibly shut down its other restaurants. As I’ve noted, the restaurants are probably more important as a cover for money laundering than for the income they generate. That means that the closure of the restaurants will put additional pressure on the regime’s foreign income streams.

~   ~   ~

This report comes just as I’d finished smelting down weeks of reporting on the question we’re all asking ourselves right now — could sanctions also destabilize North Korea itself? The people with the best information — the North Korean security forces — seem to think so. Various reports have emerged to suggest that sanctions are contributing to a decline in morale at all levels of North Korean society. Some cadres are revealing a loss of confidence in Kim Jong-un’s leadership, and in his capacity to survive. 

“Party cadres these days do not feel a true sense of loyalty towards the regime, but have rather been forced to demonstrate it for a long period of time. Cadres have been saying among themselves that the recent string of events is yet another example of Kim Jong Un putting his own gains ahead of the fate of the nation.” [Daily NK]

The closure of Kaesong hurt the morale of cadres who knew of its importance in the regime’s finances, and the workers who found it a better place to work than any of the alternatives, despite the ethical problems it raised from our perspective.

For poor North Koreans, food prices are still mostly stable. The state gives them next to nothing, and another word for “nothing left to lose” is “freedom.”

A resident in Samsu County, Ryanggang Province, who is aware of the fresh sanctions levied against North Korea, also weighed in, noting, “It’s not as if this is our first or second round of international sanctions, so from a citizen’s perspective none of this is really a surprise, but the cadres appear to be smoldering. This is because support from South Korea and the UN never trickled down to us; the high-ranking cadres sucked it all up for themselves.”

As word of looming sanctions churns in North Korea’s rumor mill, the public’s belief in the regime’s propaganda is wavering. Domestic media outlets and official rhetoric are devoid of any mention of the sanctions, instead attempting to craft a narrative of international support for the endeavors. But for the public, past is prelude, and they therefore fully expect ramifications. [Daily NK]

People are questioning the propaganda that’s being fed to them. Many of them appear to have a vague sense that Kim Jong-un provoked the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea to imposing and enforcing sanctions.

“The TV [Korean Central Television, or KCTV] and the Rodong Sinmun [Party-run publication] say it was a satellite, but people have already heard about KIC shutting down and they automatically connect the dots that the launch served another purpose. The other thing is that in the footage surrounding the event, the scientists commended for their efforts were seated right next to soldiers. So some people are saying it seems as though whatever happened might have had some connection to the military.”

For some, like one North Korean resident currently in China on a personal travel visa, these seeds of doubt grow into full blown certainty with the right exposure. “When I came to China, I felt as  though we have really been living in the dark. The propaganda that says Kim Jong Un is guiding us so that the people can live well is nothing more than him trying to build up his ‘achievements,’” she told Daily NK.

“If the public at large were to see and understand this, it would blow things wide open. People would doubtless point their finger at Kim Jong Un’s inept governance and its direct connection to their suffering.” [Daily NK]

The regime (with help from China) has also clamped down on the borders, as I discussed here. That may have a greater impact on the food supply in the markets than sanctions. Although the development of private agriculture and markets makes another North Korean famine unlikely, if the people suffer economic hardships, they could blame the regime.

That the average North Korean will be hit by these economic shifts is inexorable. With people relying solely on China to secure essential goods, a cutback on trade will challenge the supply of these daily goods. [….]

Another North Korea watcher explained, “These days, the subject of admiration and respect in the North is not the top leader but the money people secure from the markets to sustain their livelihoods.” Given this, once the sanctions start to influence the daily lives of North Koreans, it could turn people’s sentiments against Kim Jong Un and potentially lead to groups of unrest in society, the expert added.

“This is why we should work to let these people know that the international sanctions come from Kim Jong Un’s ambitions for nuclear and missile development in order to drive a wedge between the leadership and the general public,” the expert concluded. [Daily NK]

For North Korea’s poor and middle-class people, sanctions are only an indirect source of hardship, so far. The regime is squeezing them, both to extract cash from them, and to keep them busy and tired.

Complaints are rising as the people can’t receive wages or rations even if they go to work places. Several inside reporters informed that the people are coerced to deposit 1,000 won to banks every month during the period of the 70 days battle. [Rimjin-gang]

It’s pushing gold miners to increase production, extracting more “loyalty” payments from overseas party cadres and merchants, and mobilizing them for make-work projects before the party congress and Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Shockingly enough, the effect of waking people up at dawn to perform “loyalty” labor and make “loyalty” payments hasn’t been as good for loyalty as some may have hoped.

“It may just be some individuals, but there are residents who have been vocal about how mobilization is driving them crazy,” a source in South Hamgyong Province said. “Some even get into altercations with their inminban leaders, angry at the fact that people are constantly being mobilized and asked for money.” [Daily NK]

There is only so far the regime can go with these tactics before they instigate unrest, like what we saw after the 2009 currency redenomination, effectively a mass confiscation of savings. The people don’t have much to give, and what they have, they hoard.

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, His Corpulency’s Secret Service is working overtime to head off political instability, just as Pyongyang prepares for a May party congress where Kim Jong-un will seek to “bolster his legitimacy” by promising his subjects prosperity.

Sources who are familiar with the internal situation of North Korea say that the North’s intelligence agency has beefed up its surveillance, notably on families of defectors, and dispatched more agents to the pubic areas such as markets, train stations and Mansude, where the statues of founder Kim Il-sung and the late Kim Jong-il stand in central Pyongyang.

“Ahead of the 7th Party congress, the North’s State Security Department held a convention recently, promising to gift Kim Jong-un ‘silent borders,’” a source said in a phone interview with Yonhap News Agency, adding that the State Security Department “is strengthening control over residents, blaming them for internal information leaks to South Korean media.”

It is reportedly said that the North’s intelligence agency is cracking down on people who are trying to cross the border to China, as well as people who are talking with South Koreans by phone.

According to a civic activist group, No Chain for North Korea, Pyongyang has recently set up barbed-wired fences along the Chinese border, which were originally being used at Hoeryong concentration camp, officially known as Camp No. 22, in North Hamgyong. [Joongang Ilbo]

The regime has told the State Security Department and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to get ready for war, presumably against its own population. In the provinces, the officers are on alert, working late nights, “inspecting their weapons storage,” and employing their inminban neighborhood-rat system.

In Pyongyang, senior officials are now required to check in and report their whereabouts every hour, and to turn in daily logs of what they did, who they met, and what they talked about. I’ve previously aggregated evidence of discontent among the higher castes, and it’s clear that Kim Jong-un is worried enough that they’ll move against him that he’s taking stringent precautions against that. The purge of Ri Yon-gil in February must surely have contributed to unease among the elites.

For what it’s worth, there is also an unconfirmed rumor that the security forces arrested “[a]t least two suspects who attempted to assassinate” His Porcine Majesty, near the border with China.

As the regime watches the elites, it’s also expecting the elites to keep the wavering classes in line by serving as role models and parroting the state’s anti-American propaganda. The MPS also has the waverers under close watch “to nip in the bud any rumblings of political unrest engendered by members of society more likely to speak out about the pressure squeezing North Korea.” Those under close watch also include “those with family members originally from South Korea prior to the war” and “the Hwagyo [overseas Chinese community].” It’s also worried that sanctions could cause a backlash among the well-connected merchants called donju, who have substantial influence over North Korea’s economy, and whose loyalty the regime is eager to hold.

So, that’s pretty much everyone, then. Which means the surveillance system may have reached its saturation point. Even MPS officers are grumbling about the long hours they’re working: “Do we really need to watch these people every single day?” “Who would do something when things are as tense as they are right now?”

~   ~   ~

The best North Korea experts agree that Kim Jong-un needs a steady stream of hard currency now more than ever to maintain and consolidate power. Let’s start with Ken Gause, probably the single most respected student of North Korean Kremlinology. Even before this year’s nuclear test and the resulting sanctions, Gause thought the royal economy was losing money and was spending at twice the rate Kim Jong-il had to buy the support of the elites. He concluded that Kim Jong-un “doesn’t have the resources to be able to consolidate his power and buy relationships.” Gause also noted Kim Jong-un’s failure to surround himself with trusted regents and advisors since the purge of Jang Song-thaek in late 2013. This leaves Kim Jong-un exposed to power struggles around him, which would marginalize him “within the next two to five years.”

Although the recent construction boomlet in Pyongyang and the widening gap between rich and poor caused me to suspect that the regime’s finances had improved, other reports support Gause’s view that the North Korean economy declined last year, due to falling coal and iron ore prices and declining demand in a slowing China. Trade accounted for around half of its official economy and the regime’s income. About 70 percent of its manufactured goods and half of the agricultural products trade in its markets came from China. Thus, the North Korean economy entered 2016 in a more vulnerable state that Kim Jong-un may have realized. Consequently, “additional pressure” on the North’s trade relations could throw its economy into “a serious crisis,” and “an economic crisis could lead to a political one.”

Seoul National University Professor Kim Byung-yeon also believes that the “[g]ood times have gone for North Korea” because of economic mismanagement and a lack of willingness to institute meaningful reforms. He also notes that “[c]ontrary to common assumptions … the North Korean economy is highly open, with trade making up half of GDP, close to the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations. If it is correct that “North Korea’s exports of mineral resources … account for 40 percent of its total export earnings,” the sudden loss of this revenue will hurt His Corpulency’s status as an economic breadwinner.

Experts cited by The Daily NK also noted that mineral exports had been a particularly important source of “loyalty funds” for Bureau 39, and that disrupting that funding “may lead to a disruption in unity among cadres of all affiliations” as they’re forced to compete for diminishing resources. 

A study by the Industry-Academy Cooperation Foundation, which is affiliated with the Seoul National University of Education, speculates that without continued economic growth, the military could also become disgruntled and feud with the ruling Workers’ Party over limited resources. Kim Jong-un has recently enhanced the status of the party and purged a number of senior military leaders.

The Director of the Korea Institute for National Unification, Choi Jin-wook, was the most unequivocal: “Collapse is coming.” Choi believes “economic weaknesses” compounded by “worsening isolation from the international community will destabilize” the regime. Its choices are to maintain its isolation or “accept institutional changes that reform and open up the country,” but seems incapable of making that choice. Consequently, “the Kim Jong Un regime’s days are numbered.”

To keep the money flowing, the regime is smuggling gold and cash, which will keep it alive for a while, at least until the press and various governments push China to ramp up its border inspections. But the implementation of U.S. and U.N. sanctions has only begun, and deadlines are approaching for implementation of the new U.S. sanctions law. That means that whatever pressure the regime is feeling now will only increase over the next year. No wonder the regime is railing about sanctions. No wonder it has begun to mix its threats with calls for dialogue and negotiations. Kim Jong-un’s survival may depend on breaking the collective political will of the states that are strangling his regime.

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Does our State Department want denuclearization or an exit strategy?

I’ve long wished that I could attend more ICAS events, but they tend to coincide with busy times in my work schedule. That was also the case when Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel spoke to ICAS earlier this week. The State Department has since published this transcript. A reader (thank you) forwarded it, and asked for my views. 

Sending a consistent message to North Korea and China is very important at this moment, and it hardly serves that purpose to try to be Jimmy Carter and John Bolton in a single speech. Russel’s message begins with a lengthy defense of Jimmy Carter, Chris Hill, and the failed Agreed Frameworks of the past, and strongly suggests that our goal now is a freeze deal and another agreed framework — in other words, a return to business as usual. He eventually gets around to threatening stronger sanctions enforcement, but says that sanctions are designed “to bring [North Korea’s] leaders to their senses” but “not to destroy North Korea.”

As one of the designers, I’d respectfully ask Assistant Secretary Russel to speak for himself. But the greater problem with Assistant Secretary Russel’s statement is that it reveals a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of our problem. North Korea’s leaders haven’t taken leave of their senses; they’re deliberately and methodically pursuing nuclear weapons to extort their way to hegemony, and with obvious success. As long as we mirror-image their interests in terms of our own logic, we will continue to misapprehend them. If Kim Jong-un is as invested in his nuclear weapons programs as most observers think he is, and if we’re unwilling to use sanctions to undermine and destroy his misrule, then the message we’re sending to Pyongyang and Beijing is that they should cut a freeze deal, get the sanctions relaxed, wait a few months for the administration to leave town, and renege on the next president’s watch.

The irony is that diplomacy stands little chance of success unless we openly consider other alternatives — alternatives that frighten Pyongyang and Beijing more than the idea of a negotiated denuclearization.

In my youth back in South Dakota, on the way to the used car lot one day, I learned an expression that’s as wise as it is ungrammatical: if you want a deal real bad, a real bad deal is what you’re going to get. Next year, we will have another president. Let’s not throw away her leverage just yet.

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The Panama papers, Pyongyang, and Nigel Cowie

Here at OFK, we keep a running list of gullible foreigners who’ve tried to get rich in North Korea, justified their support for its regime as ways to reform and open it to global commerce, and instead met the same fate as Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, Roh Jeong-ho, and Orascom’s Naguib Sawaris, who I predicted back in 2008 would “eventually meet the same fate.” Regulators should require securities issuers to disclose their investments in North Korea as a material risk. This isn’t just because of the risks associated with sanctions; it’s because North Korea is flypaper for con artists — the Trump University of foreign investment — a place where hucksters’ claims are as hard to verify as disarmament agreements.

Already, the Panama Papers scandal, following a massive leak of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, is offering fresh evidence of this. In a fascinating report for 38 North, J.R. Mailey tells the story of British businessman Kevin Leech, whom he accuses of “deals with Pyongyang” that “raise serious questions about potential violations of economic sanctions on a global scale,” and of a failed North Korean mining investment promotion that turned out to have no operational mines behind it at all. (Last month, the Treasury Department imposed sectoral sanctions on the North Korean mining industry.)

This week, the neocon hegemons at The Guardian also accused British banker Nigel Cowie of “set[ting] up a secret offshore finance company allegedly used by the Pyongyang regime to help sell arms and expand its nuclear weapons programme.” (See also this report from The Independent.Cowie, the subject of previous OFK posts here, here, here, and here, is a former HSBC banker who moved to North Korea in 1995 and set up its first foreign bank. The bank was known as Peregrine Daesong Development Bank until 2000, when it was renamed Daedong Credit Bank. Later, Cowie registered an offshoot finance company, DCB Finance Limited, in the British Virgin Islands, where the laws allow a high degree of anonymity.

Initially operating out of a ramshackle Pyongyang hotel with a staff of three, Cowie led a consortium that in 2006 bought a 70% stake in the bank. [….]

Giving his address as Pyongyang’s International House of Culture, he registered DCB Finance Limited, an offshoot of the bank, in the BVI in summer 2006, with a senior North Korean official, Kim Chol-sam. The Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca incorporated the company, despite North Korea being an obvious high-risk destination. [The Guardian]

Cowie first achieved global infamy in 2005, after Treasury hit Banco Delta Asia with a 311 designation, resulting in the blocking of around $10 million worth of Cowie’s funds. Cowie portrayed himself as the victim of heavy-handed feds for what he repeatedly referred to as “legitimate” business. In media interviews, he called himself an agent of (wait for it) North Korea’s opening and reform, and argued that allowing Daedong Credit Bank to continue its operations was therefore in the U.S. interest.

From Pyongyang he gave several interviews to visiting foreign journalists, extolling North Korea as an under-appreciated investment opportunity. He told the Wall Street Journal he was part of an “effort to try to get the country going again”. Asked if he might prefer to work out of New York or Hong Kong rather than under an oppressive Stalinist dictatorship, he told the paper: “This is a lot more fun.”  [The Guardian]

As a critic of the Treasury Department and a defender and enabler of Kim Jong-il, Cowie became an unlikely cause celebre among members of the pro-Pyongyang crowd who suspended their usual disbelief in capitalism for the greater cause of defending Kim Jong-il. For example, long-standing North Korea apologist Gregory Elich sympathetically quoted Cowie (and conspiracy nut Klaus Bender) in a 2006 piece for the extreme-left rag Counterpunch, questioning Treasury’s allegations of North Korean counterfeiting. Pro-Beijing shill Peter Lee called Cowie the victim of “serial harassment of a legitimate enterprise — moreover one that was in the vanguard of North Korean economic reform and opening to the outside.” (Jang Song-thaek could not be reached for comment on the current state of North Korea’s reforms.)

~   ~   ~

Then, in 2007, Cowie sold his stake in Daedong Credit Bank to one Colin McAskill, who just four years before had been sentenced to six months in jail by an Australian court over a series of failed investment schemes. McAskill, former U.S. foreign service officer Lynn Turk, and others were officers in The Chosun Fund, which helped North Korea sell gold to survive the cash drought that followed the BDA designation. McAskill and his new partners in Daedong Credit Bank planned to persuade Treasury to lift its designation of BDA. 

(By then, it was publicly known that at least some of North Korea’s gold was mined in political prison camps. This year, the U.N. Security Council finally restricted North Korea’s gold sales out of concern that they could “contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs.”)

McAskill had also partnered with Geoffrey Taylor, a fixer of shell companies, in an Australian solar energy concern whose public listing was canceled by regulators in New Zealand after it went insolvent. In 2009, Taylor’s son incorporated SP Trading, the company that leased the Il-76 that was intercepted at Bangkok in 2009, while carrying 30 tons of weapons, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles, from Pyongyang to Iran, allegedly for the use of Tehran’s terrorist clients. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the incorporation of SP Trading “appeared to have no other purpose” than to lease the aircraft. After the seizure, there were rumors of indictments, but none came. 

~   ~   ~

Although Cowie ostensibly cut his ties to Daedong Credit Bank in 2007, his involvement with DCB Finance continued for several more years. And despite all of the publicity he had so recently attracted, it took the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca until 2010 to figure that Cowie and DCB Finance were linked to North Korea.

It was only in 2010 that Mossack Fonseca realised it had been dealing with North Korean entities, and resigned as agent. The discovery came after the law firm got a letter from the British Virgin Islands’ Financial Investigation Agency asking for details of Cowie’s company. The next year, Cowie sold his share in the bank to a Chinese consortium.

The Panama Papers include acrimonious emails between Mossack Fonseca’s BVI office and its head office in Panama. In 2013, a member of the firm’s compliance department admitted Cowie’s North Korean address “should have been a red flag”. She wrote: “It is not the ideal situation and it is not gratifying issuing a letter highlighting the inefficiencies of Mossack Fonseca BVI.” [The Guardian]

Cowie says DCB Finance “was used for legitimate business and that he was unaware of any unlawful transactions.” In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department found otherwise.

Daedong Credit Bank has engaged in the same type of activity that was at issue in the FTB designation, most notably providing financial services to the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), Pyongyang’s premier arms dealer as well as KOMID’s main financial arm, the Tanchon Commercial Bank (TCB), both of which have been previously designated by the U.S. for the central role they play supporting North Korea’s illicit nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.  KOMID and TCB were also designated by the United Nations.  UNSCR 2094 requires the imposition of targeted financial sanctions on entities that work for or on behalf of, or at the direction of, UN-designated North Korean entities.  Since at least 2007, Daedong Credit Bank (DCB) has facilitated hundreds of financial transactions worth millions of dollars on behalf of KOMID and TCB.  In some cases, DCB has knowingly facilitated transactions by using deceptive financial practices.

Since at least 2006, Daedong Credit Bank has used its front company, DCB Finance Limited, to carry out international financial transactions as a means to avoid scrutiny by financial institutions avoiding business with North Korea.  DCB Finance Limited is registered in the British Virgin Islands and also operates out of China.

Kim Chol Sam is a representative for Daedong Credit Bank who has also been involved in managing transactions on behalf of DCB Finance Limited.  As a Dalian, China-based representative of DCB, it is suspected Kim Chol Sam has facilitated transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and likely managed millions of dollars in North-Korean related accounts. [OFAC Press Release, June 27, 2013]

Treasury’s language suggested that even after 2007, DCB Finance and Daedong Credit Bank continued to work in concert with Tancheon Commercial Bank, which was designated by the U.N. and the Treasury Department in 2009 for arms dealing and links to North Korea’s missile programs.

Cowie responded that he had left banking in 2011 to focus on other business commitments. In a letter, his lawyer said: “My client was a shareholder in DCB Finance Ltd, a company set up to enable DCB to continue to operate after correspondent banks had closed its accounts. The name was specifically chosen in order to reflect the historical connection with DCB. DCB Finance Ltd was used for legitimate business. My client was, and still is to this day, unaware of any transactions being made with any sanctioned organisation or for any sanctioned purpose, during his tenure.” [The Guardian]

Cowie is saying, in other words, that he didn’t really know who his own company was dealing with, which sounds (to steal a line from a friend) like something Alfred E. Neuman used to say. After all, as the American Bar Association reminds us, Know Your Customer and due diligence obligations have been “a basic tenet of [anti-money laundering] risk management for a very long time.” Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been publishing guidance on those obligations, including in the specific context of North Korea, for at least a decadeFor years, the Financial Action Task Force warned bankers and regulators around the world to take “countermeasures” against North Korea’s money laundering risks. Certainly if Cowie continued to deal with Tanchon or Kim Chol-sam after 2009, he was on notice.

Cowie’s definition of “legitimate” couldn’t have comported with how most newspaper readers defined the term. Unfortunately, at the height of Cowie’s fame, few newspaper writers did much digging into his claims. Neither, apparently, did Mossack Fonseca. If Mossack Fonseca was slow on the uptake, so was The Guardian and most of the press. The news for DCB and Cowie is damning for sure, but the real bombshell here is three years old, and it’s Treasury that dropped it. Even this blog was on hiatus at the time (I was busy with other things).

So, assuming that DCB Finance facilitated North Korea’s arms-dealing, was it illegal? Actually, maybe not, depending on the timing. Although the BDA action of 2005 and Treasury’s warnings to other banks had a major effect on North Korean finance, they weren’t technically “sanctions,” but the enforcement of money laundering laws that apply to everyone. During the period between 1995 and 2010, when Cowie says he left the banking business, Treasury’s North Korea-specific sanctions regulations and designations were particularly weak. The Trading With the Enemy Act sanctions in effect against North Korea until 2008 only prohibited arms sales to North Korea. North Korea was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, which meant that any dollar-denominated transaction with its government required a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, but it’s not clear that the transactions DCB Finance allegedly handled were denominated in dollars. Executive Order 13551 first banned transactions incident to North Korean arms dealing in 2010. Presumably, if Treasury was interested in prosecuting DCB Bank, DCB Finance, or Cowie, it would have done so by now.

So, what did we learn from all of this? First, when people doing business with North Korea protest that their business is legitimate, take those claims with a very large grain of salt. Second, engagement never changes Pyongyang, but it often changes the people who engage with it, and very seldom for the better.

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