U.N. report demands that N. Korean leaders be held accountable through prosecution, sanctions

marzukiU.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has issued another report on human rights in North Korea (or more accurately, the lack thereof). The bad news is that the situation hasn’t improved, and North Korea and China are still stonewalling:

Regrettably, the situation remains the same, despite the grave concerns reiterated by the international community in different forums. The Special Rapporteur also reflects on issues around accountability for those human rights violations, which should be addressed at an early stage, and on current efforts by the international community to address the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in general.

3. The Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight from the outset that in March and again in June 2015 he requested meetings with delegates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to follow up on the discussions that he had with them in October 2014 in New York. He regrets that his requests were declined. He firmly believes in the value of dialogue and hopes that the authorities will answer his future request positively.

The good news is that the report itself is strong — exceptionally so. In clear and strong language, it recounts the reports of North Korea’s recent waves of purges and executions, its failure to make progress on the return of abductees, its refusal let divided families reunite, and evidence that North Korea and China systematically abuse North Korean women, including by forcing them into sexual slavery.

41. The Special Rapporteur notes with great concern from the data provided by the Ministry of Unification on arrivals of defectors in the Republic of Korea that more than 70 per cent of the defectors are women. A striking estimate of 70-90 per cent of those women reportedly become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to, inter alia, forced marriage and sexual exploitation in China and in other Asian countries.14 They are particularly vulnerable to actions by smuggling gangs, whose influence has significantly increased recently owing to the clampdown by Chinese authorities on charities and evangelical groups from the Republic of Korea that used to facilitate their escape through China. 

42. Female overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent to China have also fallen victim to sexual exploitation. It was reported that, in June 2014, the Government of China deported a group of female workers in a food factory because they were forced into prostitution at night, upon instructions from an executive of the factory and with the complicity of the security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of their surveillance. The latter was also forcibly repatriated.

The report also denounced China’s inhumane repatriation of refugees, including children, to an uncertain fate in North Korea.

36. In that regard, the Special Rapporteur is strongly concerned by reports indicating that a group of 29 citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including a 1-year-old child, were detained by the Chinese authorities in Shandong and Yunnan provinces between 15 and 17 July 2014 and subsequently forcibly returned to their country of origin.12 Their whereabouts were unknown at the time of writing. In addition, in October 2014, the Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 individuals (10 adults and 1 child aged 7) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were seeking to enter Myanmar in the southern region of Yunnan province.13 Their whereabouts are also unknown.

37. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Committee against Torture included that case in its list of issues in relation to the fifth periodic report of China. It sought information about their fate upon return and enquired, inter alia, whether there were “post-return monitoring arrangements in place to ensure that those returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are protected from the danger of being subjected to torture” (CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 9). He hopes that the Government of China will clarify the matter during the fifty-sixth session of the Committee, in November 2015.

38. The Special Rapporteur regrets that his requests to meet representatives of the Permanent Missions of China in Geneva and New York in March and May 2015, respectively, were unsuccessful. He remains available to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government of China to find a sustainable solution to that pressing issue.

Some of the report’s best language, however, dealt with North Korea’s exports of forced labor for hard currency. Its choice of words in this context — “forced labor,” “slave labor,” “contemporary forms of slavery” — deserves to draw greater global attention and action. And it names names:

26. According to various studies, it is estimated that more than 50,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operate abroad. 8 The vast majority are currently employed in China and the Russian Federation. Other countries where workers operate reportedly include Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

27. The overseas workers are employed mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. Their conditions of work have been documented by civil society organizations that conducted interviews with former overseas workers.

They found that:

    (a) The workers do not know the details of their employment contract;

    (b) Tasks are assigned according to the worker’s State-assigned social class (songbun): the lower classes are reportedly assigned the most dangerous and tedious tasks. Workers with relatives in the country are preferred, to ensure that they will fully comply while abroad;

    (c) Workers earn on average between $120 and $150 per month, while employers in fact pay significantly higher amounts to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (employers deposit the salaries of the workers in accounts controlled by companies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);

    (d) Workers are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. In some instances, if they do not fulfil the monthly quota imposed, they reportedly do not get paid;

    (e) Health and safety measures are often inadequate. Safety accidents are reportedly not reported to local authorities but handled by security agents;

    (f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;

    (g) Freedom of movement of overseas workers is unduly restricted. Workers are under constant surveillance by security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of ensuring that they comply with the Government’s rules and regulations. Those agents confiscate the workers’ passports. The workers are also forbidden to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during their assignment;

    (h) Workers are threatened with repatriation if they do not perform well enough or commit infractions. Defectors apprehended are sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

28. It is alleged that the host authorities never monitor the working conditions of overseas workers.

29. It is worth noting that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is paying increased attention to the scrutiny by foreign media and organizations on its overseas workers. In April 2015, it issued instructions to overseas workers and supervisors to prevent anyone from reporting human rights abuses in the workplace. Workers and supervisors have reportedly been ordered to destroy any recording equipment, confiscate the memory cards and even assault the person documenting the abuses. Failure to do so would result in the worker or supervisor being punished, although it is not clear what type of punishment would be applied.

30. The Special Rapporteur notes (with satisfaction) the decision in May 2015 of a construction company in Qatar to dismiss 90 employees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (nearly half of the workforce employed) for alleged repeated violations of domestic labour legislation. According to the company, “supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly”.

10 One of the workers reportedly died as a result of such treatment. The company agreed to keep the remaining workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the condition that they no longer breach any rules. 

31. The Special Rapporteur takes all such reports very seriously. He intends to pay close and sustained attention to the issue in future, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul. To that end, he calls upon the Member States concerned to grant him, his successor and OHCHR staff access to verify all of the allegations.

32. The Special Rapporteur reminds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of its obligation under article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not to engage in forced labour. He stresses that companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour. They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.

In other places, the Special Rapporteur’s report shows why his office needs investigative support to keep up with the evidence. Paragraph 16, for example, cites unverified reports that Camp 15 was being dismantled, but we’ve since seen reliable reporting, backed by satellite imagery, that refutes this claim. The report also cites reports that nine North Korean children repatriated by the Laotian government might have been executed or sent to Camp 14, but fails to note that Pyongyang, no doubt mindful of the attention they’ve attracted, later showed (at least some of) the children on television. These are distracting errors, but now that the Seoul field office has started its work, we can expect to see the quality, length, and frequency of the Special Rapporteur’s reports improve.

It’s equally apparent that the Seoul field office, which is working under threats of violence by Pyongyang, needs the Special Rapporteur to offer it some protection from those threats. After all, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is both willing and able to carry out assassinations inside South Korea. Marzuki denounced those threats at length:

65. In relation to the third point, the Special Rapporteur notes with deep concern the series of threats issued by the authorities and media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Seoul office. On 23 June 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a statement accusing the “hostile forces” in the international community led by the United States of America of using the field presence to plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and “incite confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights”. On 30 March 2015, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement threatening an attack against the then forthcoming office and accusing the Republic of Korea and the United States of orchestrating a human rights plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The statement specifically said: “we will never sit back and watch as South Korea hosts the United Nations office on human rights of DPRK in Seoul. As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May 2015, the newspaper Minju Joson stated that “[the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never pardon but mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body”. 18

66. This is not the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has issued a threat. On 9 June 2014, a spokesperson for the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement protesting against the OHCHR field office in the Republic of Korea, threatening punishment and attacks at those involved in the plan, as well as staff in the office, referring to the plan as a scheme led by the United States and the Republic of Korea. 

67. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cease issuing such threats. He believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Government of a United Nations Member State to issue a statement that blatantly threatens punishment and attacks on a United Nations office and its staff members. He stresses that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has a responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations to protect the United Nations, its staff and its assets.

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.

Clearly, then, this Special Rapporteur will not let the world forget what the Commission of Inquiry told us about crimes against humanity in North Korea. He repeated his call to hold the responsible North Korean officials accountable:

49. The Special Rapporteur remains convinced that the accountability track must be pursued urgently, in parallel with sustained efforts to seek engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is an irreversible process that the authorities will have to face sooner or later.

50. In his view, issues around accountability should be addressed at an early stage and with long-term strategies in mind. A process of reflection and discussion on possible accountability mechanisms and processes should start as soon as possible. This should not be done, as in previous instances with other countries, at the last minute of a change process.

Both Pyongyang and Beijing have ignored the Special Rapporteur’s attempts to engage them, and to cooperate with an investigation of the allegations. Beijing still intends to block any attempt by the Security Council to hold Kim Jong-Un accountable. Yet the Special Rapporteur did not yield on the urgency and importance of accountability. In addition to repeating the Commission of Inquiry’s call for a referral to the International Criminal Court, it called for establishing an ad hoc tribunal, and a human rights contact group of member states. Which sounds a lot like what S. 2144, a bill introduced by three Republican U.S. Senators, also called for (see, e.g., sections 302 and 305). The report also called for financial accountability through targeted, bilateral sanctions. 

55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.

I don’t know what states other than the U.S. the Special Rapporteur might have had in mind. The logic is clear: if the Security Council won’t act, then it’s up to member states to use their national laws, and to mobilize world opinion, to force Pyongyang to change. And thankfully, that’s exactly where things seem to be headed. Indeed, one sees an almost unprecedented convergence here between a U.N. report and a Republican-led Congress. Meanwhile, President Obama sits passively, like the king of an ancient Asian vassal state, deferring to the emperor in the Forbidden City.

The U.N. has not shown itself to be an effective agent for action, but at least reports like these, and the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions compliance, show that the U.N. can still be an effective fact-finder. Eventually — though too late for far too many North Koreans — better facts will make better policies.

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Sens. Gardner, Rubio & Risch to introduce new North Korea sanctions bill (updated)

The new bill was revealed in this column by Josh Rogin, and includes a link to the full text. The bill, which still has no number, will be the Senate’s second version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, following the introduction by Senators Menendez and Graham of S. 1747 in July.

Both bills follow the lead of Ed Royce and Elliot Engel, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who introduced H.R. 757 in January. H.R. 757, in turn, is the successor to H.R. 1771, which Royce and Engel introduced back in April of 2013, and which passed the full House on a voice vote, with 145 co-sponsors, in July of 2014, but died when the last Congress ended. All three bills share the same title and most of the same content. Despite its all-Republican co-sponsorship, Gardner-Rubio-Risch takes a middle way between those versions, with some important differences and improvements. Collectively, the three bills suggest growing congressional momentum for the NKSEA, which would legislate the most important shift in our North Korea policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. Here’s Rogin:

Now that Iran sanctions are on the verge of being rolled back, Congressional attention is turning to increasing and tightening sanctions on North Korea, a country with a growing nuclear weapons program and that continues to threaten and provoke the international community.

Oct. 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Western governments are concerned that Kim Jong Un will mark the holiday by launching a rocket or satellite, or even detonating a nuclear bomb for the fourth time. There’s new activity at  North Korea’s nuclear test site, but nobody really knows what, if anything, the country is planning to do next. [Josh Rogin, Bloomberg]

This, children, is how you eventually attract the wrong kind of attention from Congress. Quoting Gardner:

“This bill actually puts teeth into a policy that has been lacking in action,” he said. “All we are doing right now is talking about what North Korea shouldn’t be doing and following it up with a few cherry-picked sanctions here and there. But that’s not stopping North Korea.”

Of course, the bill is a long way from becoming a law, but support for sanctions against rogue regimes is usually high in Congress, Gardner argued. Even if the bill is enacted, it gives the president national security waivers that could be used to avoid imposing sanctions. In that case, however,  the administration would have to explain its inaction.

Following the cyberhack of Sony last year, the Obama administration did use executive orders to sanction 10 North Korean officials and three state-run organizations, including the country’s intelligence service.  The White House indicated that there would be other non-public responses. North Korea was already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.

And Rogin was doing so well, right up until that last sentence. If you’re an OFK regular, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re not, no, North Korea is not one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. The Treasury Department’s financial sanctions against North Korea — the ones that really matter, even more than U.N. sanctions — are not remotely comparable to our sanctions against Iran or Syria, and they’re arguably weaker than our sanctions against Belarus or Zimbabwe.

Gardner also wants to legislate sanctions on any person, organization, or government that has “materially contributed” to North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile, WMD or weapons programs, even in an advisory capacity. That could implicate Iran, but Gardner says that shouldn’t affect the Iran nuclear deal, which lifts many sanctions on Tehran.

Royce, with his good policy instincts and his determination to win and maintain bipartisan support in his committee, rightfully deserves the credit for sparking and leading this rebellion in Congress, and for proposing a credible alternative to years of soft-line policies and non-policies that have failed, conclusively.

For now, both H.R. 757 and the new Senate bill are the most likely to pass their respective chambers, although we still haven’t heard from Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who will have the final word on what goes to the Senate floor. Because the House and Senate bills are different, the bills that pass would then be referred to a conference committee for the resolution of their differences, before both chambers pass an agreed text and send it to the President’s desk.

What’s good about the new bill:

  • It makes the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea report directly to the Secretary of State. This is a good step forward for advancing the stature of the position, which had recently been swallowed up by the East Asia Bureau’s agenda. There are, however, always ways to get around provisions like this. Regardless of the bill’s mandate, State can still dictate who gives the Special Envoy her assignments of work, where she sits, or who writes her performance evaluation.
  • Section 302, “Strategy to Promote North Korean Human Rights,” is an important and an excellent addition. It requires the President to make the promotion of human rights in the North a greater diplomatic priority, and to build alliances, coalitions, and public support for a stronger approach to the problem.
  • The bill retains the all-important element of personal accountability for Kim Jong-Un and his key minions, requiring that they be individually designated, and that their personal assets be blocked, specifically for their human rights abuses. Which is apparently something that U.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman welcomes, in light of the paralysis in the U.N. Security Council:

55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.

  • Section 305 is the new bill’s single best contribution. It calls on the State Department to work diplomatically to end other countries’ repatriation of North Korean refugees, and their use of North Korean slave labor (see the same U.N. report for more information about this practice).

What could be better:

  • Unlike the House bill, the findings lack any reference to North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, probably as a palliative to State Department objections. (For new readers, I’ve compiled and published the evidence of North Korea’s repeated sponsorship of terrorism here. That evidence was good enough for three federal district courts, one federal appellate court, and at least one South Korean court. Why not State?)
  • All three bills (Correction: the new bill and H.R. 757) lack some of the more creative funding provisions to use forfeited North Korean property to pay for humanitarian programs, or authorizing the use of blocked North Korean assets to fund carefully monitored food aid programs. (I almost forgot: Menendez-Graham kept them.) There’s a perfectly good argument that those provisions are best dealt with in authorization and appropriations acts instead of a sanctions bill, but let’s remember that the one goal that both sunshiners and hard-liners espouse is the transformation of North Korean society. Empowering North Koreans who share that goal is an important part of a broader policy.
  • The new bill lacks H.R. 757’s detailed transaction licensing provisions. With the removal of mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government (see Section 104(c) of H.R. 757) the careful regulation of dollar transactions with Pyongyang becomes particularly important. This should be a high priority for resolution at the conference committee.
  • I’d like to put in a word for the Connolly Amendment, proposed Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.). It adds “significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings” as a condition for suspending the sanctions. I hope that will survive in the final bill that emerges from the conference.
  • The rationale for the new exception in Section 106 for the importation of goods is difficult to understand. I see no appetite in either Congress or the executive branch for importing more goods from North Korea; in fact, it was none other than Barack Obama who signed Executive Order 13570 in 2011, severely restricting those imports, and many in Congress seethe with bitter hostility toward Kaesong.
  • Arguably, the enhanced inspection authorities in Section 205 should also apply to persons designated under Section 104(b), such as for arms trafficking, and not just 104(a).
  • Section 207’s call for travel advisories will do nothing to dissuade gullible people from visiting North Korea. A stronger approach would have been to authorize Treasury to ban transactions incident to travel while Americans were arbitrarily detained there.
  • I wish the lifting provision in Section 402 said “U.S. persons” instead of “U.S. citizens,” so that it would cover the Rev. Kim Dong Shik.

Unlike the House’s H.R. 757, both Senate bills remove the mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government. Unlike Menendez-Graham, the new Gardner-Rubio-Risch bill puts the key word “shall” back into Section 104(a), which is only logical; the whole logical structure of the bill is based on tiered, conduct-based sanctions. Having two distinct sets of discretionary sanctions with different penalties never made much sense; it just replaced “shall” with “may” to please the State Department. The new Senate bill steers a compromise position that I believe is a sound approach. If the next President enforces Gardner-Rubio-Risch as written, and also takes advantage of the new authority of Executive Order 13687 when necessary, there will be sufficient authority to strand the regime’s offshore billions, while avoiding unintended consequences on North Korea’s poor.

This isn’t a perfect bill, but it’s a very strong one. It’s the work of some of our brightest senators, including freshman rising star Cory Gardner, and Marco Rubio. (At the risk of speaking out of school, I’ll tell you that Rubio personally read every word of a previous version of the bill, clearly understood it, and made many intelligent edits and comments to it. Many members of Congress would simply have relied on their staffs.) Where the new bill is less strong than the House version, it makes smart compromises and leaves room to strengthen the sanctions after future provocations. A combination of all three pending bills, taking the best elements of each, would be an important step forward to slowing Pyongyang’s proliferation, and toward shifting North Korea’s balance of power away from the men with the guns and the food, toward those without.

~   ~   ~

Update: The bill is introduced, and has a number: S. 2144. More reporting via Yonhap, The Hill (see also), the Sunshine State News, and the Denver Post. I wasn’t able to attend yesterday’s hearing, but you can see video of it here. (Some sources are calling the bill the “North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act,” but that’s not the title that shows on the text I have.)

On a related note, the U.N. Security Council is also exploring what sanctions on North Korea it will strengthen if His Corpulency goes ahead with a missile test, which it apparently isn’t going to do on October 10th, but as Bruce Klingner notes, it eventually will do. The U.N.S.C. members’ current focus seems to be on expanding the luxury good sanctions, and the U.N.’s laughable list of prohibited exports certainly leaves much room for improvement. While I certainly endorse that approach, I also think they should be looking at blocking North Korean air and maritime shippers, including Air Koryo, whose history of dual use has attracted the attention of the U.N. Panel of Experts. In theory, if North Korea had to depend on foreign shippers for its trade, it would have a harder time, say, hiding missiles under sacks of cement, or MiGs under sacks of sugar.

Latest word, however, is that the launch pads are empty. Who knows, of course, what Pyongyang’s intentions ever were, but I wonder if the warnings dissuaded Pyongyang from going through with it, at least for now.

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How one wafer-thin mint could reform North Korea

I’ll put it this way: if you were Kim Jong Un’s doctor, would you tell him to cut back on the $300-a-bottle champagne, Kobe beef, and shark’s fin soup? If you were his cook, would you want to tell him he can’t have his midnight snack? Would you want to be the one to notice that he’s gained some weight? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gained around 30 kg over the last five years and now weighs apparently close to 130 kg. A government official said Friday, “By analyzing Kim Jong-un’s body shape and gait, we estimated he weighed less than 100 kg when he first appeared in public in September of 2010 but then rapidly put on weight.”

He said the clearest signs are his belly and double chin. “When he’s standing while holding his hands behind his back, you can see his abdomen protruding, and his chin folds when he is spotted giving orders.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Some observers express concern — as if this were a bad thing — that if Kim’s health deteriorates noticeably, it could set off a power struggle and destabilize his rule. And by “deteriorate noticeably,” I suppose I have in mind something like this:

[Go on, Your Majesty. It’s only wafer thin.]

The Chosun quotes one source who speculates that His Porcine Majesty has been overeating and drinking heavily due to stress, following his purge of Jang Song-Thaek in December 2013. Another suggests that Kim gained weight deliberately — for image reasons — because nothing projects noblesse oblige to one’s famished subjects like that portrait of your triple chin that hangs in every classroom in your kingdom, so that the stunted, stick-armed little waifs can stare up at it in mute gratitude that they’ve been shielded from their own life-long struggles with obesity.

The North Korean government has made a request to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for food aid, an official with that UN agency stated.

A decrease in early season crops prompted North Korea in July to make the request, the Voice of America quoted Cristina Coslet, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System officer in charge of Far East Asia as saying in a Sept. 15 report.

“We are currently exploring the possibility to get additional funds to provide agriculture input for the restoration of agriculture production system,” Coslet stated.

Drought has also negatively impacted North Korea’s crop harvests in 2015, reports indicated.

Grains demand in North Korea for the current season (October-November) is likely to be about 5.49 million tonnes, of which 421,000 tonnes is to be an import, Ukrainian consulting agency UkrAgroConsult stated in a Sept. 15 report that cited FAO figures.

The country plans to import only 300,000 tonnes of grain, however, leaving a deficit of 121,000 tonnes, the UkrAgroConsult report warned.

Reports also noted that the current food distribution situation within North Korea has become “dangerous,” having fallen to 250 gramms per day, which less than half the FAO-recommended minimum. [NK News]

I see that Marcus also agrees that Kim has never looked more corpulent.

I am not among the North Korea watchers who is anxious about this, not that it would matter if I was. From a young North Korean’s perspective, the best hope for a life worth living is that His Corpulency is a 285-pound chain smoker whose idea of a snack is a wheel of Emmental cheese. From my perspective, the world might well become a safer place with one less high school dropout with an affinity for bondage porn and torturing small animals, and a small nuclear arsenal.

Forget the Sunshine Policy. Forget six-party talks, engagement strategies, and exchange programs. Forget the overanalyzed New Year speeches, and those agricultural reforms that never quite materialize. The real agents of North Korean reform will be cigarettes, vodka, samgyeopsal, and heavy cream sauces.

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Arsenal of Terror, 2d Edition: N. Korea accused of hacking into Seoul subway control center

North Korea is suspected of hacking into a Seoul subway operator last year for at least five months, a ruling party lawmaker said Monday citing a report submitted by the country’s intelligence agency.

After hacking into two operating servers of Seoul Metro, which runs Subway Lines 1 through 4, the hackers allegedly broke into more than 210 employee computers and infected 58 with malicious codes, Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party said, quoting a report by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). [Yonhap]

Mr. Ha, a former left-wing activist and political prisoner under the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship, is now a Saenuri Party lawmaker and activist for human rights in North Korea. Ha speaks excellent English and is well known to most of the foreign press and activists here in the United States. I’ve known him for a decade, and I’ve never known him to say anything that wasn’t true.

Computers used by those who work at the control center and power supplier were affected, raising safety concerns that the subway lines could have been exposed to potential terror threats. [Yonhap]

The authorities say the computers hacked “were only for office use, which is unrelated to the direct operation of the trains,” and that after the hack was detected, they reformatted all of the affected computers and “reinforced” their cybersecurity. That’s reassuring, I suppose, except that I can’t imagine that Pyongyang’s master plan stopped at changing all of the email fonts to Wingdings.

Nor is this the first time North Korea has targeted the Seoul subway system. In May of 2010, South Korean authorities arrested a 36 year-old woman named Kim Soon-Nyeo, who had entered the South posing as a refugee, and had begun romantic relationships with several well-placed South Korean men, including a 52 year-old executive of the Seoul subway.

The spy collected “confidential” information about the subway system from Oh, information about local universities from the student, and a list of names of high-ranking police and public officials from the travel agents.

Oh maintained extramarital relations with the spy since his first encounter with her in China in May 2006, and transferred nearly 300 million won ($252,000) to “help” her cosmetics business. In June 2007, he became aware that she was a North Korean spy, but continued the relationship.

“What Oh handed over to the spy included contact information of emergency situation responses and other not-so-important internal data,” Kim Jung-hwan, a Seoul Metro spokesman, told The Korea Times, dismissing concerns that it could be used in possible acts of terrorism here by the North. Kim retired from his post in 2008. [Korea Times, May 23, 2010]

Foreigners will again note how selective South Koreans are in panicking about, ahem, certain perceived safety risks, provided they don’t involve North Korea. Meanwhile, here in Washington, we can only rue that the Seoul subway is still safer and more reliable than ours, despite having been hacked by North Korea.

The NIS analyzed the hacking records from March 2014 to August 2014, but the date of the first attack and who carried it out are still unclear. [Yonhap]

Three months after the hack on the subway system, Sony Pictures was hacked, and the hackers also threatened terrorist attacks against movie theaters across the country. President Obama, and the Directors of the FBI and the NSA, all attributed that cyberattack and threat to North Korean hackers, who are believed to operate more-or-less openly from Shenyang, China. Four months later, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company announced that it had been hacked. That hack was also later attributed to North Korean hackers, also most likely operating out of Shenyang.

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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The U.N. will just go on talking about Kim Jong-Un’s crimes against humanity, and that’s still better than nothing

Since July, when the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights opened its new field office in Seoul, the office has hired a six-person staff and gotten to work. Last week, The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale spoke to the office’s Representative, Ms. Signe Poulsen of Denmark, who clarified that the field office will carry on the work of the UNHCHR’s Commission of Inquiry, investigate new reports of human rights abuses, and keep those reports in the public eye.

“We’re looking to bring more depth to the report. Seoul is the best place to be for that,” Signe Poulsen, representative for the office, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. Ms. Poulsen arrived in South Korea in August and will coordinate information gathering from North Korean refugees, activist groups, academics and other North Korea-related parties. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Poulsen explained to Yonhap, the official news service of a government that represents South Korea’s largely apathetic people, why the rest of the world cares about this.

“Many of these violations are so systematic and so widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity,” Poulsen said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “That’s a high threshold. That’s not business as normal. That’s really very serious.” [….]

“The scale of violations against people living in North Korea is so large that it concerns all of us,” she said. [….]

Poulsen said that public executions have continued for a long time as a “pattern” of the North’s serious rights violation.

The office will mainly collect relevant information from North Korean defectors, experts and civic groups. It will later report its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council. [Yonhap]

Poulsen, apparently a person with a predisposition for optimism, also told Gale that Pyongyang’s “strong response” to the opening of the office a sign that “it is taking the issue very seriously.” I suppose that depends on what one means by “seriously.” If she means that the office’s opening has clearly touched a nerve, there’s little doubt about that. But instead of offering a serious and substantive response, Pyongyang has adopted a diplomatic strategy of denial, disruptions, racial slurs, homophobic slurs, threats against both witnesses and the U.N. office itself, and Halloween candy. To be specific:

“Anyone who challenges our dignity and social system and agrees to go ahead with the establishment of the office will be ruthlessly punished,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement. [….]

South Korean president Park Geun-hye and others from international human rights organizations would “pay the price”, the statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency, said.

The planned office was a “hideous politically-motivated provocation”, and an “anti-North Korean plot-breeding organization,” led by South Korea and the United States, it added.

North Korea “categorically and totally” rejected the accusations set out in the report, saying they were based on material faked by hostile forces backed by the United States, the European Union and Japan. [Reuters, James Pearson, June 9, 2014]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.

The Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), a state body handling inter-Korean affairs, said late Monday that the office was an “unforgivable provocation” and would become a “first-strike target.” [….]

As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the target for our merciless punishment,” the CPRK said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency. [AFP, March 30, 2015]

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.

PoulsenMs. Poulsen, whose photograph does not evoke my stereotype of a neocon conquistadora, nonetheless answers the threats bravely:

Poulsen said she is not afraid of the North’s threat, saying that there are many field workers and rights advocates who are putting their lives at risk every day. [….]

Poulsen said that she will ramp up efforts to gather information on the North’s rights abuses in a “comprehensive and accurate” manner despite limitations, as she cannot visit the North for her assignments.

“My expectation and my strong hope is that I will be able to fulfill the mandate to the satisfaction of all U.N. member states,” she said. [Yonhap]

Of course, the field office will not satisfy all of the member states, but if it can eventually produce reports as detailed as this new report from the Korea Institute for National Unification (hat tip and thanks to a reader) it will succeed at fulfilling its mandate and keeping the issue in the public eye. Whatever you may think of the U.N. as an institution, reports that carry its imprimatur carry more global credibility. The U.N. almost always fails as an agent of international action, but the U.N. Panel of Experts and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry have shown us that it can be an effective fact finder, and facts change policies.

For the foreseeable future, then, the dying will continue, and the U.N. isn’t about to do anything concrete about that. China has blocked any move toward accountability in the Security Council, although the issue remains on the Security Council’s permanent agenda. Poulson also notes that the General Assembly will take up the issue again this month. That means that for now, all the field office can really do is to “keep the issue of North Korean human rights on the U.N. agenda.”*

Beyond that, as Christine Chung writes at HRNK insider, there is little agreement about what to do next. Japan says it wants its people back, but suggests that it might normalize relations after that. The EU calls on Pyongyang to close the gulag, but threatens no consequences if it doesn’t. France called for an ICC referral, which China and Russia have blocked, and the U.S. won’t push for. China wants a peace treaty, which would amount to de facto recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear status and crimes against humanity. The usual rogues’ gallery of Pyongyang’s allies criticizes the critics. Other well-meaning observers, including Michael Kirby himself, call for more of the “dialogue” and exchanges that have never gotten us anywhere, and never will, unless they’re backed by tougher policies that persuade Pyongyang that it must change or perish.

Of the incoherence of South Korea’s policy, little more needs to be said, although one can at least hope that the U.N. office will begin to change minds and awaken some level of consciousness — the prerequisite to a more coherent policy. That may be the best we can hope for from the U.N. for the foreseeable future, but if it’s enough to shift public opinion, and enable a coalition of member states to form a consensus for more effective action, it might, in a few years’ time, be just enough.

~   ~   ~

* Quote is from Gale’s report, paraphrasing Poulsen’s words.

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@GloriaSteinem @ChristineAhn & @WomenCrossDMZ: When will you call on Kim Jong-Un end the rape & murder of women prisoners?

The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea’s new report on forced labor is rightfully attracting media attention for calling out 18 countries — Algeria, Angola, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates — for using North Korean slave labor. (In fairness, they might have included South Korea on the list, too.)

What reporters should not overlook, however, is the section of the report on slave labor in North Korea’s prison camp system. Within that section is a long list of witness accounts of rampant sexual violence they saw or experienced there.

“The guards called girls into a room and ordered them to take off their clothes. There were girls who were fifteen or sixteen years old and they started to cry. The guards would put on rubber gloves and push their hands inside their vaginas to check if they had money. The girls were still virgins and had not even started their menstrual cycles. They would bleed and cry. The guards kept doing this even though they didn’t find any money… …In the National Security Agency prison, the room was small and had a toilet to the side. The door had a hole through which the guards would send food. There were nine girls in the room. At 22:00, when we were ordered to go to sleep, a guard that stayed outside our room on patrol would call out for this nineteen year old girl to stand up and come close to the door where the hole was. He would tell her to come closer and then he would molest her and touch her breasts. I saw that when I was in the Sinuiju National Security Agency prison” [Kim XX, 40, Saebyul County]

“Sexual assaults are somewhat hidden, but if you find women whose workload has been lessened, that is probably because they have some kind of sexual relationships with the officers” [Suh XX, 43, North Hamgyeong Province]

“From China, when we were being repatriated back to North Korea, the guards from the Ministry of National Security stripped women naked to conduct examinations. They checked their vaginas to make sure there was no money hidden. If there were attractive women or girls, they were quietly taken away by the guards and sexually abused. These girls were unable to speak about what happened, because if they did they would be beaten further” [Park XX, 45, North Hamgyeong Province]

“Younger and more attractive girls are often sexually abused. The guards take them out to the hall [of the detention facility] and sexually molest them. Other guards who are passing by just pretend not to see anything. They do not report what they see to their superiors” [Kim XX, 49, Pyongyang]

This testimony is in addition to, and consistent with, what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the Korean Bar Association have already reported about the rape and murder of women prisoners in North Korea. At some point, evidence of a course of criminal conduct becomes so cumulative that it overwhelms reasonable doubt. It also strongly suggests that at a certain level, the state condones or tolerates this. I cannot, for the life of me, see how anyone can go to Pyongyang, take part in staged propaganda theater, remain silent about the worst abuses of women imaginable, and dare call herself a women’s rights activist.

As members of the U.N. Security Council consider what new sanctions to impose on Pyongyang if it tests a missile, they should consider clarifying that the financial due diligence measures in UNSCR 2094 apply to these arrangements, which have become an important source of income for Pyongyang. The Security Council should prohibit any use of North Korean labor — including labor within North Korea — that fails to comply with International Labor Organization standards, authorize the ILO to report to the Panel of Experts on any suspected violations, and designate any North Korean entities known to be involved in this slave trade. To assuage Chinese objections, this need not be any more explicitly about human rights than the luxury goods ban in UNSCR 1718 was.

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Kim Jong-Un’s party yachts aren’t just a joke. They’re a crime.

Starting at Paragraph 493 of its landmark report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry extensively documented Pyongyang’s denial of the right of its citizens to food, both during and since the Great Famine killed at least hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly millions, in the 1990s. Although there have been reports of microfamines in North Korea as recently as 2012, for the most part, the story of North Korea’s food crisis for the last decade and a half has been one of gross inequality and widespread hunger, but not mass casualty famine. A small elite lives in luxury in Pyongyang, between 70 and 84 percent of the people barely scrape by, and most people who still starve to death do so out of sight and out of mind.

Surveying the current state of North Korea’s chronic hunger problem, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland find that although this year’s drought did not plunge North Korea back into famine as some predicted, harvests are sharply down. They conclude that “the food situation may be trending back to the North Korean normal of low-level shortages,” and that “chronic, low-level shortages and unequal distribution generating nutritional deficits among the vulnerable, even as Pyongyang thrives.” Currently, a two-year, $200 million U.N. food aid program targeting 2.4 million vulnerable women and children is nearing its end. Two weeks ago, Pyongyang asked the U.N. for more food aid, but the donors are staying away in droves. The crisis in Syria explains this in part. This may be another partial explanation:

North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un toured a recently completed luxury river cruiser in Pyongyang and named it “Mujigae” (rainbow), state media said on Monday.

The multi-floor vessel, spotted under construction by NK News in September last year, contains restaurants, bars, a coffee shop, roof deck and even sushi-conveyor belt-style dining area, pictures published in Monday’s Rodong Sinmun showed.

Kim Jong Un “appreciated the installation of a peculiar round lift and the construction of round stairs, adding that the revolving restaurant on the third floor looks spectacular and it is fantastic to command a bird’s-eye view of Pyongyang from it,” the KCNA said about his visit.

The vessel, which KCNA said could serve up to 1,230 guests in facilities distributed over four stories, was ordered by Kim Jong Un to start service before October 10.

October 10 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) and is expected to be a major celebration. [NK News]

Pyongyang also posted this video of His Porcine Majesty touring the new floating restaurant.

And of course, this isn’t his only party yacht. Dennis Rodman offered this remembrance a few years ago:

“It’s like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there,” Rodman said. “He likes people to be happy around him.

“He’s got 50 to 60 around him all the time – just normal people, drinking cocktails and laughing the whole time.

“If you drink a bottle of tequila, it’s the best tequila,” he added. “Everything you want, he has the best.”

Kim’s 200-foot yacht is a “cross between a ferry and a Disney boat,” Rodman said. [The Telegraph]

In 2010, the Italian manufacturer Azimut-Benetti reported to the authorities a suspicious attempt to purchase two yachts, which turned out to have been on North Korea’s behalf, and almost certainly for the use of Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un. Undeterred, Kim Jong-Un successfully purchased two yachts from the British manufacturer Princess, at a reported cost of $7 million each. Earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with sanctions on North Korea, which prohibit it from importing luxury items, reported on the purchase as a possible violation of the luxury goods ban (pages 42-43). The panel’s report stated that it could not advance its investigation due to a lack of cooperation from Princess Yachts (and presumably, the U.K. government).

It is typical of online accounts to treat Kim Jong-Un’s extravagances like a big joke, occasionally tinged with racism. On a certain level, satire is an effective way to criticize absurd and inhumane policies — if it goes beyond pointing and tittering. Most of those accounts refer, if obliquely, to the stunting and stultifying poverty and hunger of millions beyond the sight of the lens. Almost none of them also call this what it is — a crime.

Human rights law is agnostic about what kind of economic system a state must adopt, but regardless of the kind of system it chooses, every state has an obligation to give its people basic nutritional security. The Commission of Inquiry cited North Korea’s failures of both omission and commission. By the 1990s, it had become clear to North Korea’s leaders that their food production and distribution system couldn’t provide for the people, yet it has failed to reform the system, institute land reform, or broadly open the economy to trade and investment. It has willfully obstructed the delivery of aid and confiscated food supplies and aid from those who needed it most. In other cases, it has tolerated the theft of food supplies by hungry soldiers. It has punished those to tried to flee to neighboring provinces, or across international borders, to find food. It has inhibited the people from adopting effective coping strategies, such as private agriculture and trade in the markets.

Its most obscene offense against the right of food, however, may be what the Commission calls the “non-utilization of maximum available resources” — that is, squandering the nation’s wealth on luxuries and weapons instead of the food necessary to save millions from a prolonged and agonizing death:

637. Article 2 (1) of the ICESCR states that “each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures” (emphasis added).

638. The concept of “progressive realization” describes a central aspect of states’ obligations in connection with economic, social and cultural rights under international human rights treaties. At its core is the obligation to take appropriate measures towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of a state’s available resources. The reference to “available resources” reflects a recognition that the realization of these rights can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time. Equally, it means that a state’s compliance with its obligation to take appropriate measures is assessed in light of the resources, financial and otherwise, available to it.  However, the concept of progressive realization must not be misinterpreted as discharging the state from any obligations until they have sufficient resources. On the contrary, the treaties impose an immediate obligation to take appropriate steps towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights. A lack of resources cannot justify inaction or indefinite postponement of measures to implement these rights. Irrespective of the resources available to it, a state should, as a matter of priority, seek to ensure that everyone has access to, at the very least, a minimum level of rights, and target programmes to protect the poor, the marginalized and the disadvantaged. A state cannot plead resource constraints to justify its failure to ensure minimum essential levels of socio-economic well being, including freedom from hunger, unless it can demonstrate that it has used all the resources at its disposal to give priority to essential economic and social needs.

639. Based on the body of testimony and submissions received, the Commission finds that the allocation of resources by the DPRK has grossly failed to prioritize the objective of freeing people from hunger and chronic malnutrition, in particular in times of mass starvation. The state has neither prioritized the purchase of the food necessary for the survival of many in the DPRK, nor investment in agriculture, infrastructure and other ways of improving the availability and accessibility of food in the country. FAO and WFP note that the continuous inability to achieve the official Government target of 573 grams of cereal equivalent per person per day in any given year points not only to issues of food availability, but also to broader supply chain constraints such as storage, transport and commodity tracking. 

640. Testimony and other information received by the Commission show that the DPRK continues to allocate disproportional amounts of resources on its military, on the personality cult of the Supreme Leader, related glorification events and the purchase of luxury goods for the elites.

Professor Lee and I wrote about Pyongyang’s willful refusal to feed its people and its criminal responsibility for the Great Famine here, in The New York Times. So when Pyongyang’s diplomatsand its apologists here — blame sanctions for hindering North Korea’s development, or claim that they are a cause of hunger in North Korea, understand this for the lie that it is. The U.N.’s sanctions resolutions have broad exclusions for food and humanitarian supplies, and require sanctions to be administered so as to avoid adverse humanitarian impact. As recently as 2015, the U.N. Panel of Experts had “found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid.” Current U.S. sanctions are narrowly targeted at approximately 80 North Korean entities involved in arms trafficking and weapons of mass destruction development. To the extent that they’ve had any ancillary effect on humanitarian operations, that’s only because Pyongyang requires aid agencies to use the same banks it uses for its prohibited arms trade. The apparent intent is to use its hungry as human shields for its weapons programs.

Even so, Pyongyang is free to import all the food — and for that matter, flat-screen TVs and jewelry, and missile carriers — it wishes to, from China. It simply chooses not to:

North Korean food imports from China continued to decrease in July, with figures remaining below their 2014 equivalents, according to the most recent trade figures from Chinese customs.

Imports of nearly all foods, as classified by trade groupings, appeared lower in July 2015 than in the same period last year.


The news comes despite a long period of drought in North Korea that likely damaged harvest yields. The long running water shortage caused concern among the DPRK’s neighbors and numerous international aid agencies.

Russia, Iran and the World Food Program all upped their donations to North Korea to help mitigate the drought’s effects. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

I’ve argued that North Korea should not need food aid at all, and that it has more than enough resources to feed its people, but simply hasn’t chosen to do so. In 2013, for example, Chinese customs data showed that North Korea spent $644 million on luxury imports, including “high-end cars, TVs, computers, liquor and watches,” enough money to fund the World Food Program’s operations in North Korea for six years. This probably does not include the $300 million His Porcine Majesty spent on “leisure and sports facilities, including [a] ski resort.” In 2012 alone, it spent $1.3 billion on its ballistic missile program. As the Commission of Inquiry noted, it would cost Pyongyang next to nothing, in relative terms, to close that food gap.

644. Expert analysis presented to the Commission shows that a marginal redistribution of state military expenditure towards the purchase of food could have saved the population from starvation and malnutrition. According to economist Marcus Noland, based on the last FAO/WFP Crop assessment, the DPRK has an uncovered grain deficit of 40,000 metric tons. According to the International Monetary Fund, in September 2013, the price of rice was approximately USD 470 per metric ton and the price of corn was around USD 207 per ton.  Basing his analysis on United Nations data, Mr Noland estimates that the size of the DPRK economy was $12.4 billion in 2011.  He states that the reallocation of resources required to close the grain gap is therefore less than 0.02 per cent of national income. If the estimation that 25 per cent of national income is being used for the military is correct, then the grain shortfall could be addressed by cutting the military budget by less than 1 per cent. 

645. Marcus Noland further estimates that even at the height of mass starvation, the amount of resources needed to close the food gap was only in the order of USD 100 million to USD 200 million. This represented the value of about 5 to 20 per cent of revenue from exported goods and services or 1 to 2 per cent of contemporaneous national income. At the Washington Public Hearing, he stated,

“[W]hile the amount of grain needed to close the gap [during the 1990s famine] was much larger, the price of grain in the 1990s was much lower than it is now. So at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close that gap were only on the order of a hundred to two hundred million dollars depending on how you analysed data. Even during the famine period, the North Korean government had resources at its disposal if it had chosen to use them, to maintain imports and avoid that calamity.”

This is just one of a whole range of deliberate policy choices that have — for decades — diverted resources away from importing food, inhibited the private growing of and trading in food, and hobbled foreign aid workers, most recently by expelling two of them. The grim conclusion seems inescapable that Pyongyang is willfully enforcing hunger. Kim Jong-Un’s yachts may be the most garish example of this, but they’re an indication of a much broader and more ruthless policy that won’t change until either the world or the North Korean people focus intense political pressure on the regime’s starvation of its people.

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A guerrilla health care system for North Korea’s poor

Gullible leftists and U.N. nincompoops who take North Korea’s claims of socialist equality at face value love to bleat about the wonders of its free universal health care, but those bleats have little basis in reality. A 2010 study by Amnesty International found that Pyongyang provides less for the care of its non-elite citizens per capita than almost any other nation on earth:

The North Korean government has failed to adequately address the country’s ongoing food shortages since the 1990s. This failure has led to the current critical situation in which the population faces severe health problems associated with malnutrition. Compounding these problems, North Korea’s government has failed to provide adequate resources for its health care system, which as a result is wholly unable to cope with the growing number of illnesses and diseases of a population weakened by hunger.
According to the WHO, North Korea spent less than US $1 per person in 2006. [….]
In fact, North Korea had one of the lowest recorded per capita total expenditure on health in 2006 of any country in the world.105 The state’s paltry expenditure on health, in spite of the urgent need for medical training, access to medicines and public health education, violates North Korea’s obligation to provide for the basic health of its population. [Amnesty International]

Outside Pyongyang, clinics lack basic medicines and supplies, and care is available only to those who pay for it with cigarettes, alcohol, or cash. Doctors often receive little or no pay, so they demand payment from their impoverished patients instead. According to one refugee interviewed by Amnesty:

“People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment. If you don’t have money, you die. People without money just have to hope that they don’t get sick or can get better on their own. Doctors will not treat patients without compensation, especially for surgery. Nothing is free anymore.” [Amnesty]

Sick people who can’t get medicine are forced to rely on traditional medicine, or use methamphetamine or heroin as substitutes. Women, including those whose circumstances have forced them into prostitution, take heroin in the false hope that it’s a contraceptive. Communicable diseases (1234) spread widely. Tuberculosis is rife; even in the army, it goes untreated until the soldier is sent home to die. Medicines donated by aid agencies show up for sale in markets. While Pyongyang exports doctors to Africa and the Middle East, inside North Korea, the demand for medical services so exceeds the supply that some sick people seek out unqualified healers instead. The actual doctors who remain have gone into business for profit, and not unreasonably; after all, doctors need to eat, too:

“More recently, there have been doctors who diagnose patients and others who fill in prescriptions. The medicine is then sold to patients, so trade in this field is growing.”

This trend was corroborated by two additional sources in North Pyongan Province.

The most crucial element in medical treatment is an accurate diagnosis, which is why so many people in the past had died from cirrhosis and ascites. However, recently those numbers have been falling thanks to a greater wealth of medical experts offering services through the back door, according to the source. [Daily NK]

Some of these providers are retired doctors from state hospitals. Others are unlicensed healers.

“The free medical system has been lost on people, leaving them without any treatment unless they pay up bribes at state hospitals. Struggling to even receive a proper diagnosis, people have been seeking out these doctors,” the source said. This has led to the build-up of a much more structured, systematic, and specialized market for health care.

Some Korean medicine doctors who have earned great reputations see patients lining up in front of their doors from the crack of dawn. They charge around 10 USD for a diagnosis, and the cost for prescriptions varies widely depending on the medicine required for treatment, according to the source. [Daily NK]

The regime periodically cracks down on this trade, but now that even high officials have begun relying on free market medical care, they can’t completely suppress it, either.

This evidence not only refutes the unserious narrative of North Korea as a model for public health services, it also raises more serious questions of whether foreign aid programs that channel their funds, supplies, and medicines through the state work. The beneficial impact of these programs is probably greater than zero, but they certainly haven’t been a broad solution North Korea’s public health crisis. It suggests that donors need a better use for their scarce aid resources than pouring them into the black hole of Pyongyang.

As is the case with North Korea’s food crisis, the market-based solutions that North Koreans have found are both a symptom of the problem and a potential solution to it. One wonders: if the regime allocates medical services based on the patient’s political caste, and if this has, de facto, further reallocated services based on one’s economic class, why can’t NGOs find ways to pay North Korean doctors to treat the patients whose need is greatest — starting with North Korea’s orphaned children? We know that it’s possible (though it has become more difficult) to send money to specific North Korean recipients. If so, a trusted intermediary, such as the stay-behind relative of a refugee in the South, can be taught to screen patients, and to pay doctors to see and treat the patients whose need is greatest.

This certainly isn’t a long-term solution. Paying doctors to treat some poor patients will put additional demand on a limited supply of providers, and drive up the cost that other poor North Koreans pay for them. Because the regime is only willing to provide so many doctors, it would also draw more unqualified healers into the medical services market. That’s why it will eventually be necessary to increase the supply of medical providers. How can that be done in a closed system like North Korea’s? One solution may be telemedicine, which American doctors are already using to diagnose and treat patients in distant, far-flung, underserved communities now, and which NGOs are also exploring as a way to provide medical services in other poor countries.

In the case of North Korea, the extra doctors might be volunteer physicians in South Korea, the United States, or Europe. It is already possible (though, again, increasingly difficult) for North Koreans to call across their country’s northern border by piggybacking on Chinese cell networks. There is no good reason why South Korean cell networks couldn’t also expand into North Korea, and open a second front in the war against Pyongyang’s information blockade. If the network existed, the markets would soon provide the phones that could utilize that network. In the same way that North Korea’s guerrilla financial system can send money to recipients inside North Korea, the market could develop the capacity to send medicines, even prescriptions, to those in need of them.

There are, of course, technological challenges: telemedicine requires the doctor to be able to speak with the patient, and often, to see high-resolution imagery of the patient to observe symptoms. In the short term, full-service telemedicine is probably asking too much. Pyongyang is cracking down hard on North Koreans who make calls over the Chinese network, and one assumes that it would crack down even harder on those who used a South Korean network. But whatever the limitations on the imagery and video those phones could take and upload, it would be a vast improvement over what North Koreans have now: nothing.

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Twenty women Senators do what @GloriaSteinem and @WomenCrossDMZ won’t: Stand up for women in N. Korea’s gulag

With the possible exceptions of Mosul and Raqqa, there may be no worse place on earth to be a woman today than inside North Korea’s prison camps. There, according to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, “the conditions of subjugation of inmates, coupled with the general climate of impunity, creates an environment, in which rape perpetrated by guards and prisoners in privileged positions is common.” The Commission found that “[w]ithout exception, pregnant victims are subject to abortion or their child is killed at birth.” High percentages of female prisoners die of starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution.

One former prisoner, a woman named Kim Hye-sook, told the Commission of Inquiry that “the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them.” Another witness “reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls.” A former guard told of “how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” and that “[a]fter the official raped the women, the victims were killed.” One former guard recalled that after the commander of his unit raped a woman, who subsequently gave birth, “[t]he mother and her child were taken to the detention and punishment block, where the baby was thrown in the feeding bowl for the dogs.” (U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Full Report, para. 766) Another former guard at Camp 16 told Amnesty International that “several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials,” and concluded “that they had been executed secretly.” 

Especially beautiful women suffered the most. It has been known that Kim Byeong-Ha, who was the Bowibu director and set up political prison camps in 1972, selected pretty women and slept with them in an inspection visit to the camps. Then those women were transferred to the director of the 3rd Bureau (Pretrial Examination Bureau) of the Bowibu and used as an experiment subject and killed. [….]

There is a “Cadre Guest House” at No. 14 Political Prison Camp. It is a special building where ministers or deputy ministers from Pyeongyang stay. When senior officials come from Pyeongyang, pretty maidens aged 21 to 25 are selected among female inmates, bathed and then sent to them. After the officials make a sexual plaything of those females, they charge the women with fleeing and kill them to keep secrets. [Korean Bar Association, 2008 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, page 165]

To this evidence, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea adds a new report on the expansion of Camp 12, Chongo-ri (opens in pdf), to include a special women’s section.


According to HRNK:

Sometime after 2008, however, a women’s section was added to Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, reflecting the huge increase of refouled (forcibly repatriated) North Korean women from China. Five additional former prisoners from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri interviewed in Seoul in March 2015 update this enlargement of the Jongo-ri prison. This reflects North Korea’s ongoing policy to wrongfully imprisoned persons for reasons not permitted under contemporary international law. Many of the North Koreans who are deprived of their liberty and subjected to forced labor and inhumane conditions suffer this punishment for having taken actions that are explicitly provided for and protected in international law, including conventions that North Korea has acceded to.

It would be fair to call Chongo-ri a “death camp.”

The first edition of Hidden Gulag (2003) cited the testimony of a former prisoner on the deplorable conditions and high rates of death in detention at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Between December 1998 and July 1999, “Out of twenty-three prisoners who entered on the same day… only two survived. The rest died within eight months of arrival, from hard labor and sub-subsistence food rations–small mixtures of corn and beans, with rice added only on holidays.” A former prisoner interviewed for that report believes that eight hundred prisoners died while he was there; so many, according to what another prisoner told him, that the guards had to burn the corpses.

This former prisoner reported that he weighed 50 kilograms (kg) (110 pounds (lb)) prior to his arrest and only 30 kg (66 lb) upon his release from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. This was fifteen years ago during North Korea’s “great famine.” Reportedly, not all that much has changed in this regard at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Tudor and Pearson, publishing in 2015, wrote that “it is common for men serving time there to lose 30 kilograms [66 lb] in body weight. Many end up starving to death.”[*] One of the former women prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this present report in March 2015, Ms. Kim Min-ji, reported that during her time in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 from 2009 to 2011, nearly all people lost weight and many died of malnutrition and related diseases.

Images of Chongo-ri were first published at this site in 2009.


In January 2014, two OFK readers first brought the expansion of the camp to my attention, and I published this image of the expanded camp.

The new women’s section was added sometime between 2009 and 2013. HRNK’s report contains the first accounts of the women who were held there:

Another former female prisoner at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015, Ms. Choi Min-gyang, went from 57 kg (125 lb) to 27 kg (60 lb) during her time at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri (mid-2008 to September 2010). She was put in the ho-yak-ban (severely sick) unit and lost consciousness. Her condition was so severe that prison officials called her family to come get her rather than deal with her death. It took her a year to regain her health, after which she fled to China and on to South Korea.

Another woman prisoner interviewed for the present report stated that she weighed 79 kg (174 lb) while in China, but her weight during pre-trial detention in North Korea dropped to 34 kg (74 lb). She arrived at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Jongo-ri in 2010 already so weak that the prison authorities initially did not want to accept her. Nonetheless, even though she was clearly weak and sick, she was assigned to the logging work unit and fed only rotten corn. She never regained her weight until she was released in 2012.

Two male former prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015 indicate that, for men, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 has operated almost the same for several decades.

The vast majority of the women who live and die at Chongo-ri have been “convicted” in five-minute sham trials of nothing that any other country recognizes as a crime — fleeing across the border to escape starvation and earn a living. The women prisoners of Chongo-ri aren’t even defectors; if they were, they’d end up in far worse places. Many of the women at Chongo-ri were forced to make wigs, presumably for export, to earn hard currency for the regime. Let us not forget the men of Chongo-ri, who worked in an unsafe mine, or a furniture factory, where deadly accidents were common.

What is most maddening about all of this is that it isn’t the cause celebre of Hollywood stars, famous activists, or the big names of the Human Rights Industry, because in terms of numbers and depravity, it deserves to be. That’s why it adds just a drop of hope to a sea of despair when all 20 female U.S. Senators, Republicans and Democrats, take a moment to remember North Korea’s female political prisoners in this resolution.

(16) serving as a composite for prisoners of concern worldwide, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, including men, women, and children, who are detained in the brutal political prison camps of North Korea where starvation, forced labor, executions, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, and torture are commonplace and whose offenses, according to defectors, include—

(A) burning old currency or criticizing the currency revaluation of the Government;

(B) sitting on newspapers bearing the picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il;

(C) mentioning the limited formal education of Kim Il Sung; and (D) defacing photographs of the Kims;

It merits mention that the resolution was in support of the Samantha Power-led #Freethe20 campaign. No, words and hashtags will not free any prisoners. The hard truth is that few of the women in Chongo-ri or the other camps today will ever get out alive. But words can build a consensus toward policies that can free the next generation of prisoners.

And what of the world’s most famous women’s rights activist, Gloria Steinem? A woman who is rightly remembered both for her activism for the rights of women, and for human rights globally? Today, she has cast her lot with the notorious North Korean sympathizer Christine Ahn and Code Pink, opposing the very pressure that can force Pyongyang to end its atrocities against North Korean women. Instead, a woman who was once arrested for blocking the street in front of the South African Embassy, and who supported the sanctions and isolation that forced the end of apartheid, when asked about sanctions to force change in North Korea, answers: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.”

~   ~   ~

The book cited is “North Korea Confidential,” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor. It’s one of several books I’m reading, as scarce time permits. So far, I’ve found it well researched and interesting.

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Sale of cell phone detectors to N. Korea adds to Germany’s debt to history

If there is any justice in our universe, there is a special septic tank in hell reserved for the people who profit by selling these things to Pyongyang:

According to local sources, North Korean authorities have recently begun carrying small, German manufactured radar detectors when patrolling near the Chinese border for the purpose of monitoring international phone calls made on Chinese-made cell phones.

These intensified measures follow a proliferation of stationary detectors installed in North Hamgyong Province in conjunction with enhanced wiretapping technology, as previously reported by Daily NK. [Daily NK]

What I wouldn’t give to know the name of the manufacturer and exporter. The Treasury Department has the authority — and the responsibility — to sanction them to extinction under Executive Order 13687.


[Berlin, 1941: Gestapo officers demonstrate “a mobile radio detector to pick up resistance signals” to a visiting Spanish delegation]

Every government whose desire to open North Korea to the world matches its self-serving rhetoric ought to be investigating this case actively, including Germany, including South Korea, and including our own State Department.

On September 14th, Daily NK staff spoke with a source in Yanggang Province who confirmed that recently, personnel from a number of different security organs including the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the State Security Department, have formed a ‘gruppa,’ or public order teams established for specific tasks, specifically for the purpose of cracking down on overseas phone calls. This unit patrols day and night using the small radar detectors to pick up on cell phone signals calling overseas.

An additional source in Yanggang Province confirmed these developments.

In the past,  the majority of sensors used for enforcement were carried in bags but the new radar detectors from Germany are small enough to be carried in a pocket, the source said, noting, “Before this, citizens who were wary of being caught would simply avoid any security officers toting bags. With the new devices, many people will see officers without bags and assume it is safe to make an overseas phone call–then they get caught.”

Knowing the human species’s gift for self-justification as I do, I’m sure that if you confronted the German government with evidence that one of its companies was helping Kim Jong-Un to seal the borders and oppress his population, at least one official would justify this trade by using the word “engagement.”

“Members of the task force, whether they are from the SSD or the MPS, are blindly rounding up citizens and searching the stored contents of their phones. If they find any South Korean songs, videos, or other materials the authorities deem ‘sensitive,’ the offender is arrested right then and there,” he said.

Despite the increase in and intensity of crackdowns, the appetite for South Korean dramas and films remains large and ever expanding, especially among university students. Because many students sell this type of media for a living, it is difficult to stamp out the problem at its roots.

But then, how different is the engagement that sells Kim Jong-Un cell phone detectors from the engagement that gives Kim Jong-Un the cash to pay for them?

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Kirby denounces Pyongyang’s abductions as “barbarous,” “reunion” lotteries as “extremely cruel”

I wish I could claim authorship of the term “North Korean exceptionalism,” Marcus Noland’s description of the civilized world’s tendency to bow to North Korea’s obnoxious cruelty, to the point of excusing it from every obligation of law, treaty, or humanity. I understand the reasoning behind North Korean exceptionalism: North Korea is a special case. Its terrible history of war/occupation/poverty/whatever makes it a special challenge to draw it out of its shell. Therefore, we must take a gradualist approach that compromises our standards in the name of patient progress.

My criticism of the gradualists is that while they’ve failed to secure even gradual progress in North Korea, they’ve also endangered or diluted the standards themselves. North Korean exceptionalism to “no access, no food” has not only prolonged North Korea’s chronic food crisis, it threatens to teach aid workers (and other dictators) that they can break that life-saving rule elsewhere. North Korean exceptionalism to the rules of media ethics turns journalists into propagandists who publish deceptive and inaccurate stories and hide their own compromises from their readers. North Korean exceptionalism to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty dilutes the influence of the U.N., and of the member states that enforce sanctions, and almost certainly paved the way for Iran’s nuclear program. North Korean exceptionalism to rule that the sponsorship of terrorism invokes specific legal consequences has brought North Korean terrorism to the United States itself. As with all efforts to appease or “engage” Pyongyang, we are left asking ourselves who changed who.

Another example of North Korea exceptionalism is the so-called family “reunions” Pyongyang occasionally permits between those it has abducted and/or imprisoned, and their loved ones in South Korea. The reunions are carefully monitored by the North Korean regime, meaning that the experience becomes a brief, torturous emotional imprisonment for all involved, filled with carefully scripted lies, and terminated by the negotiated re-abduction of the hostages. To call such a sham a “reunion” may be the greatest lie of all. Lost amid all our celebration that Pyongyang has permitted another iteration of this torture is that the hostages have a universally guaranteed right to go free, to enjoy a true reunion with the people they love, and to live what remains of their lives with them:

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Justice Michael Kirby, the Chairman of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” now enters this controversy. (Readers will recall that Pyongyang responded to Justice Kirby’s report by calling him as “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”)

North Korea’s use of a lottery system to allow a fraction of the families separated by the Korean War to meet is “extremely cruel”, former High Court judge Michael Kirby says.

North and South Korea agreed earlier this month to hold a weekend reunion in October for separated families — only the second to be held in five years — with 100 people to be selected by each side to take part.

Mr Kirby, head of a UN commission that published a searing report on the rights situation in North Korea last year, noted that the country is believed to have taken some 120,000 South Koreans — most as the North Korean troops retreated.

With more than 60,000 people in South Korea hoping for reunification with family members — many who are now “of considerable age” — North Korea’s capricious agreement to sporadically allow small groups to meet is far from enough, he said.

“At the present rate of 100 being given that privilege, many, many will die before the numbers are accommodated,” Mr Kirby told reporters in Geneva.

“It is extremely cruel of the administration of (North Korea) and a breach of fundamental human rights to deny the opportunity for families to be reunited.

“It is really a barbarous practice.” [Australian Broadcasting Company]

Kirby also criticized Pyongyang’s arbitrary cancellation of previous “reunions,” and accused it of “exacerbating the suffering of the families longing for contact.”

“It is simply unacceptable that [knowledge about] their whereabouts, whether they are alive or dead, what happened to them, and having contact with them is left to a lottery,” Mr Kirby said.

“It’s hard to express the anguish of the people who live in hope of making contact with their relatives in North Korea.”


Kirby called on journalists and “the international community” to hold Pyongyang accountable for its crimes against humanity, including the abductions, calling it “particularly barbarous, and is something akin to international piracy.”

Many of the crimes committed in the country “shock the conscience of mankind,” he said.

“It is not open to the world community to turn away.”

Not all of the world has turned away, of course. Japan has been particularly strident in demanding the return of its abductees, who number in the dozens. By comparison, South Korea’s abductees number in the tens of thousands, if one includes those abducted during the Korean War, or held back in violation of the 1953 Armistice. Yet South Korea’s government has seldom demanded the return of its abducted citizens, adopting the gradualist approach and yielding to North Korean exceptionalism. Every few years, a bulb flickers on in Seoul as it occurs to someone that Pyongyang’s hostages have a right to go free.

President Park Geun-hye called Tuesday for a fundamental solution to the issue of families separated in South and North Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War.

The two Koreas have agreed to stage temporary reunions for 100 separated family members from each side on Oct. 20-26 at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on the North’s east coast.

The planned reunions are a part of a recent deal that defused military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“South and North Korea should find a fundamental solution to the issue of separated families,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, noting that family reunions held once or twice a year could never heal the pain of separated family members. [Yonhap]

And almost as quickly, that bulb flickers out again.

Instead, it is left to my very own congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), to propose an amendment that recognizes something approaching the right of families to be reunited. It adds this condition for the one-year suspension of crippling financial sanctions against Pyongyang:

(8) made significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings, including for those individuals among the two million strong Korean-American community who maintain family ties with relatives in North Korea.

Connolly proposed this amendment to the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act in 2014. The Republican Chair and Democratic Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee both accepted it enthusiastically, and the Connolly Amendment lives on in the current version, H.R. 757. Let’s hope that Seoul picks up on Congressman Connolly’s cue. The likely alternative is that Pyongyang’s hostages are doomed to die as slaves in North Korea, far from those who love them.

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Arsenal of Terror, 2d Ed.: China arrests N. Korean kidnap squad

To count as terrorism, an act must be (1) violent, (2) unlawful in the place where it’s committed, (3) carried out by clandestine agents or subnational groups, and (4) with the intent to coerce a government or a civilian population. To be international terrorism, an act of terrorism must also (5) involve the citizens or territory of more than one country. If this report is confirmed, it would appear to meet the definition:

Several North Korean agents were caught by Chinese police in March after attempting to kidnap a South Korean missionary at the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, according to a media report.

“Five to eight agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) were detained in Jilin Province for trying to abduct a South Korean pastor,” the Donga Ilbo reported, citing a source familiar with the incident.

The newspaper said the North’s State Security Department (SSD) and the RGB are “competing” to abduct South Koreans helping North Korean refugees in China to show their allegiance to their young leader Kim Jong-un.

“Their rivalry has become stronger since last year and the latest kidnapping case seems to have been directed by RGB director Gen. Kim Yong-chol,” it said. [Korea Times]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. 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.

Yet, as I wrote in “Arsenal of Terror,” the State Department has repeatedly cited attempts to kidnap or assassinate dissidents and activists, when carried out by the intelligence organizations of other governments, as the state sponsorship of terrorism:

In 1994, the U.S. State Department’s reporting on Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism cited the assassination of a dissident in Turkey, the wounding of a dissident by a letter bomb, the killing of three dissidents in Iraq, the assassination of two other dissidents in Copenhagen and Bucharest, and France’s conviction of three Iranians (including a nephew of the Ayatollah Khomeini) for the 1991 murder of a former Prime Minister and his assistant.

The U.S. State Department’s 1994 report also cited Iraq’s assassination of a dissident in Beirut, for which Lebanon implicated the Iraqi government, arrested two Iraqi diplomats, and severed diplomatic relations with Iraq. It also cited Libya’s suspected involvement in the disappearance of a dissident and human rights activist in Egypt. The U.S. State Department’s 1997 report alleged that the Libyan government executed the activist in early 1994.

The U.S. State Department’s 1995 report accused Iran of escalating “its assassination campaign against dissidents living abroad,” voicing suspicions that Iran was involved in the murders of seven dissidents in Iraq, France, and Denmark. The following year, the U.S. State Department accused Iran of “at least eight dissident assassinations outside Iran,” including the assassination in Paris of a former government official “by an Iranian resident of Germany with alleged ties to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).” Its 1996 report noted that German authorities had issued an arrest warrant for Iran’s Intelligence Minister for ordering the 1992 assassinations of four Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. According to the U.S. State Department’s 1997 “Country Reports,” the German court found that “the Government of Iran had followed a deliberate policy of liquidating the regime’s opponents who lived outside Iran,” and that the assassinations “had been approved at the most senior levels of the Iranian Government,” including by “the Minister of Intelligence and Security, the Foreign Minister, the President, and the Supreme Leader.” The U.S. State Department’s 1998 and 1999 reports made similar allegations.

In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. State Department accused the Iraqi Intelligence Service of collecting intelligence on, and attempting to intimidate, dissident groups abroad. Its 2002 report accused Iraqi Intelligence of assassinating another dissident in Lebanon. [Arsenal of Terror, pages 18-19, footnotes omitted]

You could call it progress that the Chinese arrested them, perhaps because this time, the targets would have been South Korean. Ordinarily, North Korean kidnap squads operate more-or-less freely on Chinese soil, at least when they target North Korean refugees.

One sees no signs of progress in our own State Department. As I noted on pages 59 through 65, North Korea has repeatedly kidnapped and assassinated third-country activists and dissidents in both China and South Korea, including the Rev. Kim Dong-Shik, a U.S. permanent resident. Yet for some reason, the State Department appears to have granted North Korea transactional immunity for its acts of terrorism. This impunity may explain why North Korea’s terrorist threats have now reached the United States itself.

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Shoot it down.

As some of you may be aware, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and 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.” Legally and factually, this has long been a difficult view to defend. Although this week’s threat from Pyongyang to nuke the United States (see coverage in The Washington Post and The New York Times) would not meet the strict legal definition of terrorism, because the existing definition requires the use or threat of violence by clandestine or non-state actors, this nuance will probably be lost on the average congressman or primary voter who applies a common-sense definition of what “terrorism” means. There’s little question that Pyongyang is engaging in nuclear blackmail.

Pyongyang is also claiming to have improved its nuclear facilities and capabilities. According to the regrettably acronymed Institute for Science and International Security, Kim Jong-Un is building a new facility at Yongbyon to separate different isotopes, including tritium, from spent nuclear fuel, to make even more powerful nuclear weapons.

Satellite imagery of the new building being constructed shows signatures that are “consistent with an isotope separation facility, including tritium separation,” the institute said, adding that the assessment is also shared by a government expert who has long experience in assessing activities at the Yongbyon site. [….]

“Whether North Korea can make nuclear weapons using tritium is unknown although we believe that it remains a technical problem North Korea still needs to solve. Solving this problem would likely require more underground nuclear tests,” it said. [Yonhap]

South Korea says that if North Korea does launch, it will take the case to the U.N. Security Council, ask for more sanctions, and turn the loudspeakers back on. The State Department is warning Pyongyang that its “threatening behavior and provocations,” such as “a nuclear or missile test,” would be a “mistake” that “would represent a setback in its hopes to grow its economy and to end its isolation.” John Kerry is warning Pyongyang of “severe consequences,” and is also saying that “North Korea will not be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state — even if it takes more than sanctions to convince them.” Kerry did not specify what “more than sanctions” means, but the U.S. Navy is sending Aegis destroyers to the region, which are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with Standard-3 surface-to-air missiles. And China, while nominally calling on North Korea to comply with Security Council resolutions, is doing what it usually does: sending crude.

North Korea’s long-range missile tests have often been tied to nuclear tests. In 2006, 2009, and 2013, a missile test preceded a nuclear test by approximately three months. It looks like we may be headed into our fourth such cycle. Even so, an international nuclear crisis is no reason to lose one’s sense of humor, even if you’re a reporter for South Korea’s official news service. This line made me laugh harder than anything in The Interview did:

The North’s threat is likely to dampen South and North Korea’s hard-won conciliatory mood on the peninsula following their landmark deal on easing military tension in late August. [Yonhap]

A close second was the reaction of Christopher “Captain Obvious” Hill, a/k/a Kim Jong Hill, who comes to a Yonhap reporter bearing a stone tablet, inscribed with the revelation that our problem is North Korea’s disinclination to denuclearize. Hill was interviewed at what ought to be a legacy-defining moment, the tenth anniversary of the September 2005 Joint Statement he negotiated, and which North Korea reneged on the following day.

I suppose international outrage is useful, if someone backs it up with something more ferrous. Historically, however, that “if” has been wanting. For example, this Administration has tended to talk out of both sides of its mouth, threatening Pyongyang with more sanctions at one moment, and at the next, repeating the twaddle that North Korea is already “the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.” I’ve already written at length about the relative weakness of U.S. national sanctions, but in the last week, I’ve also looked at the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions for opportunities for improvement. As always, Iran sanctions (in this case, UNSCR 1929) are a useful model. As to the specifics, however, I’ll be saving those for something I’d prefer to publish for a wider audience.

But if, as the Joint Chiefs are now saying, North Korea is approaching the capability to hit the United States by putting a nuke on a KN-08, we’re entering a new paradigm. I’m now at the point where I believe the President should revive (in modified form) a 2006 proposal by Ashton Carter, our current Defense Secretary, and Secretary William Perry, a former Defense Secretary — to destroy the missile. To be clear, I reject (as I did then) the idea of destroying the missile on the launch pad, which would require a strike on North Korean soil. Instead, I’m talking about intercepting the missile in flight.

It’s beyond serious debate that North Korea’s missile test would be a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It would also be a direct threat to the security of the United States. Intercepting it over the water would threaten no one, and carries no significant risk of harming any civilian population. It would be a strictly defensive act, meant to reassure Americans — and their Asian allies — that the U.S. military will defend them from extortion. It would refute the groundless misconception by 96% of the world’s adult population that the Obama Administration is a collection of milquetoasts and masochists whose red lines are drawn in colored chalk, and whose threats are really safewords. It would embarrass China, which has willfully enabled North Korea’s progress toward a nuclear arsenal, and willfully violated the same U.N. Security Council resolutions it voted for. In doing so, the U.S. might coax Beijing into rethinking the value of enforcing sanctions. And finally, at a time when Kim Jong-Un may feel withering domestic pressure to produce a victory of intimidation over the hated American enemy, it would be an unprecedented domestic humiliation that would weaken his standing among his population, and within the ruling junta known as the Organization and Guidance Department. If an interception retards His Porcine Majesty’s unsteady consolidation of power, it might buy the U.S. more time to prevent him from taking firm control of an outlaw kingdom with no regard for human life and an effective nuclear arsenal.

Five years ago, I might not have been at this point. But now that we’ve clearly entered a cycle that has, on three prior occasions, led us to a nuclear test, it’s time to demonstrate some seriousness about breaking that cycle.

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In Foreign Affairs: “North Korea’s Next Dare”

Professor Lee and I have a new piece published in Foreign Affairs, a sequel to his piece, “Pyongyang’s Playbook.” In this today’s contribution, we identify a long-standing historical pattern that few others have noticed — that some of Pyongyang’s most violent attacks against South Korea coincide with its charm offensives, suggesting that talks on civil exchanges and “reunions” are (at best) ineffectual in securing long-term improvements in relations, and (at worst) maskirovka to give Pyongyang plausible deniability. To break the cycle of provocation and payment, the U.S. and South Korea must find and apply more effective, non-military strategies of deterrence, including the more comprehensive and sustained application of sanctions and information operations.

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Madman Theory aside, Kim Jong-Un isn’t mad. He’s just evil.

In August, as the most recent skirmish in Korean War II began, I published two posts about the risk that Kim Jong Un would respond to stronger U.S. and South Korean policies with all-out war. Because that risk depends on whether Kim is rational, I used those posts to discuss the implications of answering this question in the affirmative and the negative. 

In the first post, I argued that if Kim Jong-Un is rational, then his provocations since 2011 would appear to have been calibrated to avoid all-out war, but that they would escalate as he approaches a true nuclear capability. His provocations may have been part of a rational (if inhuman) strategy calculated to win concessions, overawe his subjects and neighbors, and gradually finlandize and neutralize South Korea. I also noted that Kim’s father had largely achieved this condition by 2007, but that in the past, stronger policy responses had caused both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to make temporary concessions, and to withdraw to fight another day rather than risk a war that would destroy them. Nonetheless, each emperor in this squalid little dynasty has amplified his leverage with the Madman Theory, cultivating perceptions that he was irrational, even eager for war.

In the second post, I reviewed the available evidence that Kim Jong-Un really is a madman. Most of the analysis judged him to be impulsive, unpredictable, and dangerous, but none found him to be irrational. The most alarming analysis, by an Irish psychologist, suggested that Kim’s key loyalists are addicted to the dopamine released by tension and conflict — that is to say, they are quite literally addicted to the infliction of terror. Viewed this way, Pyongyang’s provocations are rationally calculated to satiate this addiction, but this cycle of craving and satiation will eventually escalate, warp their judgment, self-reinforce, and cause them to take unreasonable risks.

Whichever alternative one accepts — that the provocations are part of a rationally conceived plan or a response to a biochemical craving — they are likely to deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities improve. Under either alternative, it is urgent that we find some way to either deter or preempt further provocations before Kim Jong-Un is effectively nuclear capable, when they will escalate to levels that would challenge our powers of restraint. As further evidence that these cycles are escalating, the ROK Army claims that Pyongyang has “intensified its provocations.” And, as you’ve almost certainly read by now, North Korea announced today that it intends to launch a long-range missile at “a time of its choosing” — probably around October 10th, the 70th anniversary of its founding conspiracy to commit phobocracy — and in flagrant violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

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Before the August skirmish, we had yet to see Kim Jong-Un embark on one of these cycles of cross-border escalation and confrontation. The events of August have since provided us with new data suggesting that, psychologically speaking, His Porcine Majesty is just a fleshier cut from the same carcass as his father and grandfather. In August, he (or whoever planned it) chose his provocation strategy coldly yet rationally, carefully avoiding all-out war. Our first evidence for this is the meticulous analysis of John Grisafi for NK News, who informs us that North Korean forces calibrated their use of force down to the millimeter:

Most early reports described the first round fired by the North as possibly being a small rocket. But later multiple sources consistently described it as a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun (AAMG), citing the South Korean military. This would likely be either a ZPU-2 or ZPU-4. The ZPU series AAMG is a large-caliber machine gun originally designed as anti-aircraft artillery, though also commonly used for ground warfare as well.

The second volley of three rounds was fired from a 76.2 mm gun, likely a ZIS-3 or a North Korean-produced derivative thereof. This is a direct fire gun, meaning it is fired at a target for which the gunners have direct line-of-sight. It is primarily used as an anti-tank weapon.[*] This weapon is relatively small compared to most modern artillery. Even most standard infantry mortars are larger (North Korea’s primary infantry mortar has a caliber of 82 mm while South Korea and the United States use an 81 mm mortar). [NK News]

Grisafi also notes that South Korea did not return fire for nearly an hour, despite the fact that its counter-battery fire control system should have been capable of responding much sooner. This suggests that, notwithstanding South Korea’s announced shoot-first, ask-later policy, the ROK forces intentionally gave the North Korean gunners enough time to “shoot-and-scoot,” avoiding casualties on the North Korean side. Grisafi concludes:

Though the North may occasionally engage in military provocation and the South is willing to respond in kind, neither side wants an open conflict. The fact that this incident initially resulted in only controlled return fire by the South and no further military action by either side demonstrates the ability and desire of both sides to limit escalation. Both sides appear to have intentionally fired at such times and/or locations to provoke the opposing side but not actually inflict casualties. Avoiding escalation of an incident into open conflict requires strict discipline, strong command and control, and clear rules of engagement in the military forces on both sides. [NK News]

Grisafi’s entire piece is well worth reading. If his analysis is correct, might we eventually expect to see evidence of those “clear rules of engagement”? Yes. The Daily NK now cites “a military source in Kangwon Province,” who says that North Korean troops “received orders … to absolutely make sure no one got drawn into provocations from the South.”

“Unlike the strong countermeasures we usually hear about, threatening to turn the South into a sea of fire if they even so much as touch a blade of grass in our territory, the orders were to make sure not to get involved, so the soldiers were puzzled,” the source explained. The orders were handed down from the KPA General Staff to each military corps from the commander in chief Kim Jong Un, he added.

Specifically, ranking officials were told to ensure no actions were taken based on emotions and to manage troops well to avoid any conflict stemming from accidental fire. Not only that, high-ranking officers under the KPA General Staff were dispatched to units along the border area to confirm the orders were being implemented. [….]

“The order drafted in the name of the KPA General Staff did cause some anxiety among soldiers and their families, but it also led to some officers making sarcastic comments about being scared off without even giving it a fight,” she concluded. [Daily NK]

The gap between the rules of engagement and the rhetoric confused the soldiers.

“The whole notion of all-out war was to boost soldiers’ morale, but the border areas would have seen huge losses if that really happened, since we would have been attacked with state-of-the-art weaponry from the U.S.” he asserted. “The commander in chief (Kim Jong Un) is well aware of America’s power, so that’s why he probably gave out those orders through the General Staff.”

Added the source, the incident has led to confusion among soldiers, since they know that it’s the North that first provokes the South, yet they are told not to get drawn into provocations. Most soldiers are aware that provocations along the border area originate from the North.

The Daily NK also claims to have corroboration from “another source in North Hwanghae Province” who reported that “[n]aval troops based in Haeju in South Hwanghae also received the ‘restrain from engaging’ order.”

Another significant fact is that so many of Pyongyang’s submarines were ready to deploy, something I doubt they’re ordinarily ready to do. The North Koreans also flew at least one drone over the DMZ, probably to check on the extent of South Korean deployments in the area, to help them better assess and adjust the risk of escalation.

The picture this paints is of a regime that planned and calculated the initial provocation (planting the mines), planned for a range of potential South Korean responses (loudspeakers, artillery), monitored its adversary’s response (drones), and also planned for a credible threat of escalation (submarines), to force South Korea to bargain away concessions (sanctions, which any Peace Studies grad student can tell you never work, but which are always inexplicably at the front of Pyongyang’s list of demands). The agreement both sides made to “de-escalate” this calculated crisis has already devolved into an agreement to walk away, keep talking sh*t about each other, and fight another day. It solved approximately nothing, except to soothe South Korean investors, and let North Korea demobilize the troops it needed to bring in a meager harvest.

True, Pyongyang did not pay a price for its outrages, but at least it hasn’t turned profit from them yet. Psychologically, the tensions were no more than a temporary relief for North Korea’s hungry and demoralized troops, and may have disillusioned anyone needing a dopamine palliative. Park Geun-Hye has successfully spun the incident as an example of her facing down the North Koreans. She achieved a significant political boost, and used the incident for her own domestic propaganda, bracing the foundations of patriotism in a society that could form a division with of all its draft dodgers abroad (and should). Talks about civil exchanges and family “reunions” continue, but since the North has denied making an apology, the South has said that it will not lift bilateral trade sanctions imposed in 2010, after Pyongyang torpedoed the ROKS Cheonan.

Best of all, Seoul discovered the deterrent value of information operations, and had already threatened to turn the loudspeakers back on if the North tests a missile. Imagine what a strong deterrent it would have if it built cell towers along the DMZ.

It sickens me a little to see anyone talk of a “winner” in this crisis. I doubt the answer matters much to Kim Jung-Won or Ha Jae-Heon, whose fate was to become objects of the malignant indifference that Kim Jong-Un inflicts on millions of North Koreans, and of the more apathetic kind that most South Koreans hold for his victims. The question that matters now is whether Kim Jong-Un still believes that crime pays, and how many victims his next crime will take. The developing evidence now suggests that he did not achieve his financial and political objectives, but wasn’t strongly deterred, either. It also suggests that if anyone has gained a short-term political advantage, it is Park Geun-Hye. Unfortunately, this also means that Kim Jong-Un will now feel intense domestic pressure to secure a victory to legitimize his rule. That virtually ensures that we’ll see another provocation in the short term, and we’ll probably also see a significant escalation from Pyongyang within the next year. That is the inevitable cost of breaking such a long established cycle of provocation and payment.

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* A small quibble here. It was used as an anti-tank weapon against German panzers in 1941. Today, a 76.2-millimeter gun might destroy an armored personnel carrier or other lightly armored vehicle, but it would be useless against a modern main battle tank. I suppose most of the North’s 76.2-millimeter artillery shoots high explosive rounds today.

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60 Minutes on the Sony Cyberattack: There is no defense, only deterrence

CBS has published video of a Sixty Minutes segment on North Korea’s 2014 cyberattack on Sony, hosted by correspondent Steve Kroft.

The conspiracy theories of a few pro-Pyongyang gasbags and assorted cranks notwithstanding, the President, the Directors of the FBI and the NSA, and our country’s best technical experts agree that Pyongyang did it. I’m certainly no technical expert myself, but I don’t have to look back from the moon to believe that the Earth is round. After all, it’s not as if President Obama needed to frame Kim Jong-Un for the Sony cyberattack and threats to have an excuse to do approximately nothing about them. Another point that should not be lost is that the attack was carried out with the material support of the Chinese government, whose dictator will soon be welcomed to the White House.

Kroft says the attack qualified as the use of force against the United States. According to cybersecurity expert James Lewis, “The significance is that a foreign power has reached out and touched an American target. The fact that the North Korean government felt that it could do something in the United States and get away with it — that’s what’s significant.” I agree that that’s very significant, but I’d argue that an even more significant implication arises from the threats that followed the cyberattack: that a foreign power carried out an act of terrorism against the U.S. civilian population — unlike The New York Times, I apply the term according to its legal definition —  to censor free expression. In 2014, Kim Jong-Un extended the long arm of his censorship to our society, a society that treasures free expression as its most important constitutional right. Successfully. And got away with it.

That is a problem, because a failure of deterrence would leave us essentially naked to the next attack. The report points out the sheer impracticality of defending any network, when even a relatively unsophisticated piece of malware, like the one used for the Sony cyberattack, can be so successful.

That leaves us with deterrence. Kroft quotes Lewis, who correctly says that our only real deterrent against this sort of attack is “going after the leadership, going after the revenue streams coming to the leadership.” Kroft then incorrectly says that that’s what the Obama Administration has done. In fact, the Obama Administration promised a proportional response, but delivered a sub-proportional one that former CIA Director Michael Hayden accurately described as “symbolic at best” — blocking the assets of ten low-level arms dealers, and three entities whose assets had already been blocked for years. Almost a year after the Sony attack and threat, the Obama Administration has done little of consequence to deter the next one. And although the U.S. intelligence community is saying that there have been no more North Korean attacks on the United States since then, North Korea is believed to have hacked into South Korean nuclear power plants around the same time as the Sony cyberattack, and was implicated as recently as this week for planting malware in a South Korean word processor used by military officers.

For anyone who’s paying attention, the Sony threats ought to have changed everything. There is a school of thought, after all, that says we should just ignore North Korea and let it go nuclear, which is pretty much what the Obama Administration has spent the last seven years doing. Sony exposed the fallacy of this strategy. No matter how stubbornly our government refuses to be interested in North Korea, North Korea will always be interested in us. It needs conflict with us to justify the very existence of a system that can’t provide for its people, and it shields that system behind isolation and repression. To Pyongyang, the very existence of free thought and free expression that might break through that isolation is a mortal threat to its survival. As long as Americans feel free to make movies about North Korea, to criticize North Korea, or to refuse North Korea’s extortionate demands, North Korea will be interested in us. The closer North Korea comes to credibly threatening the United States with an effective nuclear arsenal, the fewer options we will have to deter its attacks.

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Update: The South Korean President’s special security advisor in charge of cyber-defense also wonders about the sufficiency of her government’s deterrence.

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Pyongyang’s elites wait for Phase Five, and wait ….

Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:

Phase One: resource depletion;

Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;

Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;

Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;

Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;

Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and

Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.

In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.

Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.

In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:

He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]

It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:

“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”

At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.

He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.

But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]


“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.

“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”

Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.

CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:

In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]

Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.

But not all North Korean defectors necessarily concede this, including the North Korean diaspora’s foremost public intellectual:

People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]

After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.

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In its losing battle against N. Korean proliferation, State Dep’t whacks 2 more moles

Yonhap reports that the State Department has sanctioned two North Korean trading companies under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, a narrow counterproliferation statute entombed in the notes following the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, at the end of Title 50.

The firms are Polestar Trading Company, Ltd., a North Korean entity in China, and RyonHap-2, a trading firm in the North, were among a total of 22 entities sanctioned by the State Department under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the department said in a Federal Register notice.

Affiliated with the North’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences, Pyongyang’s main weapons development agency, RyonHap-2 is believed to be involved in weapons exports and parts procurements. [Yonhap]

According to the State Department’s Federal Register notice, the designation means that the sanctioned entities are ineligible for U.S. government contracts, foreign assistance, or military sales (that’ll show ’em!). Oh, and if you were planning on asking the Commerce Department for a license to export anything controlled under the Export Administration Act to Polestar or RyonHap-2, tough luck — for two years, anyway.

Yes, that’s right. As little as these particular sanctions do, the State Department imposed them for just two years, the minimum amount of time allowable under the law.

Here’s the part of Yonhap’s report that made me do a facepalm, however:

But the U.S. Treasury Department maintains more comprehensive sanctions on counties like North Korea and Iran. About 70 North Korean individuals agencies, entities, and vessels are on the department’s Specially Designated Nationals’ list. [Yonhap]

The second sentence is true, but misleading. The first is false. I’ll take them in inverse order. North Korea sanctions are not comprehensive and are not remotely comparable to those in place against Iran. I emailed the reporter, and asked what expert opinion or authority formed the basis of this statement; I received no response. I submit that a journalist who undertakes to write legal conclusions into her reporting undertakes an obligation to find an authoritative source or a legal expert to support her conclusion. (A foreign policy expert doesn’t count, unless he has performed or reviewed a legal analysis.) It is journalistic malpractice to publish a legal conclusion that lacks a foundation in legal authority.

Finally, a small point of order on the relationship between the INKSNA and the blocking of assets by Treasury: an INKSNA designation doesn’t necessarily add the sanctioned entity to the Treasury Department’s SDN list, which would tell banks around the world to block the entity’s property and assets. It’s certainly possible (and one hopes, inevitable) that Treasury will designate Polestar and RyonHap-2 under any of three executive orders (13382, 13551, or 13687) in the coming days, but according to Treasury’s SDN search tool, and its list of recent changes to the SDN List, that hasn’t happened yet. As it stands, then, the Yonhap report also leaves the reader with the impression that Polestar and RyonHap-2 are blocked in the financial system, which isn’t true.

To call these half-measures would be a gross exaggeration. Our losing game of whack-a-mole against Kim Jong-Un goes on.

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