Invest in North Korea? Don’t let Jim Rogers talk you into prison.

For a few years now, I’ve heard that hedge fund investor, TV provocateur, and crackpot Jim Rogers has been urging his audiences to invest in North Korea. A few years ago, that advice might not have done much worse than condemn your soul to eternal damnation and bankrupt you, the way it bankrupted (or nearly bankrupted) Orascom Telecom and any number of other investors who preceded it.

Since at least March, however, Rogers’s advice has been malpractice on a whole new level. Following the passage of a new U.S. sanctions law, the Treasury Department explicitly banned new investment in North Korea. It has also done much to jeopardize existing ones by imposing sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s banking, transportation, and mining industries. Perhaps, then, it’s time for Mr. Rogers to find a new way to attract attention. After all, the bans on investment are punishable as violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, with 20 years in prison term and a $1 million fine.

“If we all bought North Korean currency, we’d all be rich someday,” Rogers said. [Business Insider]

No, Jim, you won’t be rich. You might get three square meals a day, courtesy of the taxpayers. Also, you might be warm. After North Korea redenominated its currency in 2009, North Koreans burned piles of the stuff. Even the North Korean government prefers the dollar to its own currency. North Korean market traders prefer dollars and Renminbi.

In short, Rogers is seeing the controversial country open up, which he says makes it a good bet.

Umm, no it isn’t.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Q&A explaining why:

“Well, North Korea today is where China was in 1981. Deng Xiaoping started opening up in ’78. Most of us, including me, either weren’t aware of it or if we were aware of it. We ignored it, didn’t pay any attention. North Korea is doing that now.

He added:

“There are 15 free trade zones there now. You can take bicycle tours of North Korea, if you want. You can take movie tours. I’m sure if [Kim Jong Un’s] father were alive, he’d hang him. If his grandfather were alive, he’d torture him and then hang him, you know, for some of the things he’s doing. I mean, you go to North Korea now, you see these astonishing restaurants with white tablecloths, cutlery, candles. I mean, this is North Korea we’re talking about. Chefs. It’s happening.”

No, Jim, it’s not happening. For the love of Zeus, don’t you even read the papers? It’s not even happening at that colossal new bridge to nowhere over the Yalu River.

Rogers noted that Chinese and Russian investors are pouring in to the country and said that he almost became an investor in a Chinese group that had a bank in North Korea.

No, investors are not pouring into North Korea. Even the existing ones now have to worry about having their assets frozen by the Chinese government under U.S. pressure.

He added that his lawyer told him he couldn’t invest.

So we eventually come to the fact that Rogers’s own lawyer told him of the investment ban. I’ve previously described North Korea as the Trump University of foreign investment, and you’d think that on so many levels — financial, moral, and legal — no responsible advisor would point an investor there. Maybe Rogers’s next question for his lawyer should be about the penalty for solicitation of a felony.

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Update: The only solicitation offense I see in title 18 is for soliciting a crime of violence. So I guess it’s Rogers’s viewers who bear all of the risk by taking his advice.

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In North Korea, no disaster is ever entirely natural

With all the news out of North Korea recently, I’ve been saving up links to news reports about the floods in the northeastern provinces until I had a moment to put some thoughts together. According to a U.N. aid coordinator’s assessment, the floods killed 138 people, damaged 30,000 houses, and made 69,000 people homeless. 

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[source]

North Korea claims that these are the worst floods since World War II, and some news reports have obligingly reprinted that claim. But OFK has a long memory, and in its vast archives, I found that after floods in 2007, the government claimed that hundreds of people were dead or missing and that 300,000 were homeless. Going by North Korean government statistics alone — something no responsible journalist should ever do without careful fact-checking and prominent disclaimers — these are not even the worst floods in North Korea this decade.

There are, of course, other reasons to be skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims. In 2007, the Korean Central News Agency gave the Associated Press a photograph of knee-deep flood waters in Pyongyang. AP later withdrew the photo when it was revealed to have been a rather obvious photoshop job, altered to make the waters look deeper than they really were. This incident, Pyongyang’s long history of manipulating aid assessments, and its infiltration of U.N. organizations with intelligence agents show that Pyongyang has a motive and a willingness to deceive the world, to get sympathy, money, rations for hungry border guards, or even insurance payouts. 

These incidents and many others demonstrate the importance of doing thorough assessments of humanitarian needs, and of rigorous monitoring of the distribution of aid to prevent Pyongyang from diverting and misusing it. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that U.N. needs assessments this time will do any better than U.N. nutrition surveys have. After all, the areas affected by the floods include at least one prison camp, Camp 12, at Cheongo-ri. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has already published satellite imagery of flood damage to the prison.

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[HRNK]

The U.N.’s map of the affected areas also includes Camp 25 in Chongjin, the former Camp 22 in Hoeryong, and Camp 16 in Hwasong. Not only would Pyongyang never allow foreign aid workers near those places to do assessments, I doubt U.N. agencies would even have the courage to ask to go there. But why are the humanitarian needs of prisoners, including political prisoners, less deserving than those of anyone else? Ordinarily, humanitarian agencies insist on the non-discriminatory distribution of aid and adhere to the principle of “no access, no aid.” But in another case of North Korean exceptionalism, the has U.N. allowed North Korea to make itself an exception to those principles.


Worse, the state’s botched response is exacerbating the problem. It is prioritizing security over recovery by jamming cell phones and making it difficult to communicate, an essential function during a disaster response. It has deployed large numbers of untrained soldiers and citizens to perform recovery work, but the workers have burdened already scarce supplies of food and shelter. Food prices in the affected area have doubled, and some soldiers have looted private homes. 

Then, more than a week after the floods, Kim Jong-un made the decision to carry out a nuclear test, which is the clearest possible statement of the priority he assigns to helping the survivors. In theory, a dictator’s decisions should not be held against his subjects, but Kim Jong-un certainly knew that in practice, the test would contribute to already severe donor fatigue just when his people would be in desperate need of international aid.

Kim Jong-un has made several public appearances to celebrate the nuclear test, but has not gone to the flood-affected areas to command response efforts or console survivors. There are reports of widespread anger by North Koreans, who can certainly see this, too. 


In this light, Seoul’s hesitation to throw money at Pyongyang is somewhat understandable. As I tend to repeat because it can’t be repeated enough, the North Korean people are poor, but their government isn’t. Kim Jong-un has more than enough cash on hand to buy food, tents, medicine, blue tarps, and building materials from just over the border in China, or to import them into the nearby ports of Chongjin and Rason. I see zero evidence that Pyongyang is doing that, but if you do, by all means, post a link in the comments. Yet some people have let themselves be conditioned into the belief that the needs of North Korea’s people are everyone’s responsibility but that of His Supreme Corpulency himself.

“We have to ask ourselves if now is the appropriate time – considering Pyongyang’s two-faced attitude – to make such movement (for aid).”

The Seoul government, the ruling Saenuri Party, and right-leaning media have largely avoided responding to voices urging Seoul’s involvement in alleviating the worst effects of North Korea’s flood, NK News previously reported.

This position has been heavily criticized by scholars and former policymakers,  particularly from the Sunshine era, including Dr. Kim Yeon-chul, who was one of the observers of the Six-Party Talks in 2005.

“A hungry child knows no politics,” wrote Kim on his website, quoting the former U.S. President Reagan’s speech from 1984. “Will we ever learn…to sympathize about the other human beings? ” he added. [NK News]

Or so says a former advisor to Roh Moo-hyun, whose government told North Korean refugees to f**k off and die in place, and whose supporters spent more than a decade blocking North Korea human rights legislation.

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In addition to its casualty toll, the U.N., probably citing North Korean government figures, claims that nearly 400 North Koreans are missing. Some of them are probably dead. Others may be alive but lost amid the chaos. Still others may have slipped across the border into China, taking advantage of the fact that the floods washed away border fences and border posts, drowned some border guards, and generally broke down command and control in the region. This appeal from Liberty in North Korea certainly suggests so. 

Friends, North Korea is recovering from severe flooding caused by Typhoon Lionrock. Buildings and homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been displaced. This has caused an increase in people fleeing across the border into China.

In the last few days, there have been an unprecedented number of requests for rescues from North Koreans who have just crossed the border, but we can’t keep up with this increased demand. This situation needs our immediate response. Our partners are on the ground and ready to go. You can help us, right now, provide critical assistance to individuals who have escaped in the midst of this disaster. [LiNK]

If these new refugees are counted as missing and presumed dead, so much the better for their families, who will be spared collective punishments and shake-downs by the security forces. Eventually, they might even receive remittances from China or South Korea to help get them through the long, cold winter to come.

For the regime, the loss of control of the northeastern border comes amid growing indiscipline among the border guard force, and just as it had begun to reassert control with inspections and restrictions on the soldiers’ movements.

As is so often the case, the North Korean people suffer, and their government does more to exacerbate their suffering than to ameliorate it. In other societies, botched disaster responses have political consequences. But in a place where there is no internet, no telephones, and no other means by which the people can share their grievances or organize to protest them, the regime will probably be able to isolate and suppress their anger. 

If you want to donate to help North Koreans without donating to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons fund, please give to LiNK, as generously as you can afford to.

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Please share: New State Dep’t grants for “access to information” in N. Korea

Sanctions legislation lends itself to lengthy legislative texts, but mandates to break the digital DMZ between the two Koreas don’t. So while most of the text of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act concerned itself with what North Korea-related conduct and entities should be sanctioned and what consequences they should face, that’s not an accurate reflection of Congress’s relative priorities. Those of us who wrote and negotiated the bill were equally concerned with direct engagement of the North Korean people. In some of the staff meetings we held in the Foreign Affairs Committee, I described section 301 as the most important provision in the entire bill. No one — Republicans or Democrats — argued with that.

SEC. 301. INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY.
Section 104 of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (22 U.S.C. 7814) is amended by adding at the end the following:

“(d) Information Technology Study.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2015, the President shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a classified report that sets forth a detailed plan for making unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.”.

Even more directly on point is a bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon (R, Ariz.), the Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee. Salmon’s bill, the DPRK Act, “authorize[s] further actions to promote freedom of information and democracy in North Korea.” According to Congress.gov, the bill has yet to clear committee, but it has solid support from full committee Chairman Ed Royce (R, Cal.), from Democrats Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) and Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), among others. The State Department, having gotten the message, has since announced a new grant program to implement section 301 and fulfill the purposes of the DPRK Act.

Fostering the Free Flow of Information into, out of, and within the DPRK (approximately $1,600,000, pending availability of funding, with potentially more than two (2) projects awarded)

DRL’s goal is for the people of North Korea to have increased access to independent information that provides a range of viewpoints and increases exposure to and understanding of environments where individuals are able to communicate information and express their opinions freely. Illustrative program activities include:

• Producing and transmitting radio broadcasts into North Korea;

• Producing content and/or acquiring existing content of interest to North Korean audiences;

• Exploring new mechanisms or expanding existing mechanisms for sharing or consuming information and content;

• Raising awareness of legal rights under existing DPRK domestic laws and its international human rights obligations;

• Raising awareness of international best-practices and norms; and,

• Promoting fundamental freedoms, including expression, movement, association, and peaceful assembly.

 

If you have the technical knowledge to make this a reality, or know a place online where people with those talents congregate, please share and repost this solicitation and help spread the word.

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Pyongyang’s peace trap: What is N. Korea’s asking price, and who will pay it?

In 1994, one might have been forgiven for believing that for the right price, an isolated, famine-stricken, and potentially unstable regime in Pyongyang might have agreed to trade a nascent nuclear weapons program for the financial foundations of a new stability. Much harder to accept, given subsequent experience, is how the Bush administration could have reached the same conclusion in 2007, when North Korea’s nuclear program was no longer nascent, and when (thanks to the Sunshine Policy’s unconditional aid, and Pyongyang’s resourceful use of hunger to enforce its control) the regime had survived the famine intact.

But perhaps, the Obama administration might have reckoned, the problem was that our focus was too wide, and we should start with a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. To no avail; in 2012, Kim Jong-un reneged on a freeze deal within six weeks by test-launching a “satellite.” So when Joel Wit — who claims some involvement in the negotiations of both the 1994 and 2007 agreements, and who has said that at least the first of these “worked very well”* — argues in the pages of the New York Times that the situation is grave and deteriorating quickly, I won’t argue with the latter assertion. Nor will I deny that our North Korea policy has failed, although I wonder why this suggests that we should default to what has failed before.

A successful strategy will have to include a new diplomatic initiative aimed at persuading the North to first stop expanding its arsenal and then to eventually reduce and dismantle its weapons. [Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]

I understand why we’d want to halt North Korea’s proliferation if we could do so for an acceptable price. We can only speculate what Pyongyang’s asking price is, but we’ll turn to that in a moment. Experience should teach us to be especially cautious of vague discussions with North Korea, with its aptitude for creative interpretation, its frequent assertion of fresh demands, and the inexorable advance of its goalposts.

To persuade the North Koreans to do this, Washington will have to address [Pyongyang’s] security concerns. In the short term, that may mean temporarily suspending or modifying some American-South Korean military exercises. In the longer term, it may mean replacing the armistice in place since the end of the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement.

This sets the table for a decade of creative interpretation, fresh demands, and inexorably advancing goalposts. What possible agreement might this yield that both Pyongyang and Seoul would accept? 

The more immediate obstacle could be Seoul, whose interests Wit doesn’t directly discuss. But surely any sensible South Korean president can predict how a nuclear North Korea would escalate its demands during a protracted peace treaty negotiation — and the more protracted the negotiation, the better for Pyongyang. Pyongyang would seek to sideline Seoul through bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, just as North Vietnam sidelined South Vietnam in 1973. With its leverage enhanced and growing, such a negotiation would become a process for the gradual, unilateral disarmament of the U.S.-ROK coalition, the lifting of sanctions, the de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, and a series of incremental surrenders of South Koreans’ freedom to protest Pyongyang’s brutality (thus giving that brutality greater license and a longer reach).

To be sure, Wit also advocates tightening sanctions and reassuring our allies of our protection, although this is difficult to reconcile with his proposals that we sacrifice the readiness of the forces defending Korea by canceling exercises. It’s possible, of course, that the government South Koreans elect in 2017 either won’t understand or won’t mind any of these implications. Not every potential candidate is sensible enough to predict how a “peace process” would proceed. One of them just might become South Korea’s own Nguyen Van Thieu.

Nor is it in Pyongyang’s interest to agree to a freeze right now, just as it’s at the brink of achieving the very goal it has pursued with methodical determination for decades. Whatever the terms of a deal would be, Wit isn’t quite convincing that Pyongyang is interested in them. At one point, he claims that “North Korean officials have even told me in private” that Washington could persuade them “to stop their bad behavior.” (Victor Cha, who also participated in these discussions, interprets the North Koreans’ view as little more than a repetition of “talking points.”) So is Pyongyang buying what Wit is selling?

Nevertheless, there are signs that North Korea is interested in dialogue. On July 6, the government issued a pronouncement ostensibly seeking denuclearization talks with the United States, specifically mentioning Kim Jong-un’s name in support of this initiative.

Later, however, Wit says that the North Koreans aren’t all that interested:

These initiatives will be met with skepticism not only in the United States — where many people believe that negotiating with North Korea is a waste of time — but also in Pyongyang. As a North Korean official, who believes a new administration will just tear up previous agreements, said to me earlier this year, “It’s easier for us to build nuclear weapons than to be involved with you for decades only to have agreements turn into useless scraps of paper.”

Here, Wit is almost certainly correct. Why, indeed, would Kim Jong-un freeze the nuclear program his father and grandfather pursued with such determination and at such cost for so many decades, given that it is his instrument for completing their legacy and asserting de facto negotiated hegemony over all of Korea?

Unless, of course, the asking price is right. This is what makes America the “indispensable” party.

One reason North Korea may be motivated to consider denuclearization is economic. Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has been committed to improving his country’s economy. He seems to believe that nuclear weapons would allow even more focus on that objective. Nevertheless, he has deliberately left room to ease off the nuclear track and explore a dialogue, perhaps reflecting an understanding that there are limits to what his country’s economy can achieve while it is isolated from the international community. Of course, no one is naïve enough to take these statements at face value. Talks between governments are the only way to know for sure.

Even if this year’s election is deservedly apocalyptic for the GOP, who supposes that Congress would appropriate funds to pay Kim Jong-un’s asking price? Does the President even have the power to unilaterally suspend or lift sanctions, given the specific conditions Congress set in sections 401 and 402 of the NKSPEA, and which the President agreed to when he signed the bill into law? Not unless Congress passes legislation like the Menendez bill that cleared away for the Iran deal. Who supposes the next Congress would pass that, assuming any American president proposed it?

More fundamentally, concluding a peace treaty in the foreseeable future isn’t in Pyongyang’s interest. It needs the threat of war to justify its existence. Its leaders, and elements of its population, may be biochemically addicted to instigating conflict. Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship, meaning that it will never recognize coexistence with societies that cling to the freedom to criticize and parody its deity, a man who is among the world’s easiest and most deserving targets for criticism and parody. Is there any limit to the fresh demands Pyongyang will add to those it achieves during a hypothetical “peace process?” Will Americans and South Koreans be willing to forfeit their freedom of speech and expression to buy a moment’s peace before the next threat?

Let’s end this post by burning down some straw men. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with talking to North Korean diplomats informally to gauge their positions. Should an acceptable, verifiable, enforceable diplomatic solution come into focus, that would be so good as to verge on the miraculous. Informal Track 2 talks between North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats, however, too often have become proxy wars between the policies of the past and the policies of the present.

Perhaps, two years from now, determined sanctions enforcement and subversive information operations can shift the relative bargaining positions of the parties enough that for once, Pyongyang will come to the table prepared to bargain in good faith. But when talks yield nothing more than vague expressions of possible interest in agreement on undefined terms, the proper response is to nod politely and calendar the next meeting, not to declare on the pages of The New York Times that peace —  however vague, elusive, or costly to our interests and values — may finally be at hand.

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* Since corrected. I’m not sure Wit has argued that the 2007 deal also “worked very well.”

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Congress to Obama: Enforce N. Korea sanctions against Chinese banks

Three weeks before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, I wrote, “The Obama administration isn’t following Kim Jong-un’s money. Congress should ask why.” Unfortunately, subsequent events soon affirmed that criticism; fortunately, Congress is asking, and it’s asking the right questions. The failure of the administration’s North Korea policy has even become an election-year liability for Hillary Clinton, forcing her to distance herself from the President and his policy (or more accurately, the lack of one).

The Obama administration’s single greatest North Korea policy failure in eight years has been its failure to apply the kind of secondary sanctions that proved so effective against North Korea a decade ago. Some of that blame lies with the bad advice the President has received from certain think tanks, which has made its way into the State Department and the National Security Staff. After every North Korean nuke test, attack, or other outrage, a nothing-we-can-do chorus of China-friendly scholars and State Department retirees steps up to misinform gullible, ill-informed reporters that we have no options but appeasement, because the Chinese government will never push North Korea to the brink of collapse.

Yet for years, a Panel of Experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council has published extensive evidence implicating Chinese banks, businesses, nationals, and state-owned companies for a pattern and practice of violations that can only be willful, as I’ve argued here and here (see the U.N. POE’s reports from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). We have a North Korea problem because China, which has recently emerged as an accomplished bully when it comes to our allies, denies that it has the means to influence Kim Jong-un. 

And in fact, we have pushed North Korea to the brink of collapse before, without the cooperation of the Chinese government, by threatening the Chinese banks that hold North Korea’s slush funds with fines, penalties, and even the denial of access to the dollar-based financial system. U.N. Panel of Experts reports prove that most of those funds are denominated in dollars and wired through the U.S. financial industry. No bank can afford to defy such a threat, and Kim Jong-un couldn’t last long without that cash. 

This year, Congress finally lost its patience with the Obama administration’s passivity and drift and passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which mandates sanctions against third-country (read: Chinese) enablers of North Korea’s proliferation, arms trafficking, and money laundering. The bipartisanship of the vote (418-2 in the House, 96-0 in the Senate) was a minor political miracle in a polarized Congress in an election year, regarding an issue that had itself polarized Washington in previous years. Congress’s clear mandate to the administration was that it must break the link between Kim Jong-un’s regime and the hard currency that sustains his regime and legitimizes his rule.

Even before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, Congress had begun to express its frustration at the Obama administration for failing to enforce the new law. It’s not that we don’t know who Kim Jong-un’s bankers are, either. In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that the Treasury Department had identified hundreds of millions of dollars in North Koreans slush funds in banks in Shanghai. In January, Bonnie Glaser testified as follows before the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee:

In 2013, US and South Korean authorities uncovered dozens of overseas bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars that were linked to top North Korean leaders, which they proposed including in UN sanctions lists, but Beijing refused. China has also strongly opposed levying sanctions on high-level North Korean officials such as the head of the North Korea’s agency responsible for conducting its nuclear tests. [link]

That same month, the New York Times reported, “The Treasury Department has identified similar institutions used by Mr. Kim’s son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un.” In February, the U.N. Panel of Experts implicated dozens of North Korean and third-country entities in China, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies will soon publish a report implicating a large Chinese conglomerate in violating U.N. sanctions against North Korea; that report will also cast suspicion on the Bank of Dandong for handling some of its transactions. 

There’s plenty more where that came from in The Panama Papers. No doubt, there’s plenty more stored away in the laptops, cell phones, and human intelligence being collected from the North Korean diplomats and slush fund managers who’ve defected in Southeast Asia, Russia, China, and Europe recently. Which is to say, it’s not for lack of intelligence or lack of means that the Obama administration refuses to shut down Kim Jong-un’s access to the financial system. It’s solely due to a lack of political will.

In the wake of the test, China’s latest failures to enforce U.N. sanctions — and the Obama administration’s failure to enforce the law against Chinese banks and companies — has drawn a sharp reaction from Congress.


The House Asia Subcommittee has already held one hearing since the latest test, in which four separate witnesses recommended that the Obama administration apply secondary sanctions. Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been sharply critical of the administration’s failure to enforce the law.

But much of the discussion in Washington focused on the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Passed by Congress and signed by Obama earlier this year, it gives the Obama administration, among other things, new authority to sanction any individual who “imports, exports, or re-exports luxury goods to or into North Korea” or “engages in money laundering, counterfeiting of goods or currency, bulk cash smuggling, or narcotics trafficking that supports the government of North Korea or its senior officials.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and led the push for more sanctions authority, said Obama’s policies are “falling short” by not imposing sanctions on Chinese companies and banks.

Royce referenced a leaked U.N. report that accused China of lax enforcement and “cites evidence that Pyongyang moved tens of millions of dollars through a Singaporean branch of China’s biggest bank to evade sanctions,” according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine.  [Politico]

Small correction to Politico — the U.N. report is publicly available.

The report found that North Korea “has been effective in evading sanctions and continues to use the international financial system, airlines and container shipping routes to trade in prohibited items.” [Politico]

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a top secret briefing on the administration’s enforcement efforts today, and a letter signed by 19 Republican senators is a strong indication that the staffers will ask the right questions in that briefing. Last week, Senator Cory Gardner (R, Colo.), the Senate’s leading advocate of a tougher North Korea policy, assembled the group of senators, who signed this letter to President Obama. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

On February 18, 2016, you signed into law the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-122), but your Administration’s implementation of this legislation has been disappointing. While we commend the designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” and the designation of top North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, as human rights violators, these actions only scratch the surface of the sanctions authorities provided to you under the new law.

First and foremost, you must begin to designate entities that are assisting the North Korean regime, especially those based in China — the country with which North Korea currently conducts an estimated 90% of its trade and that has historically served as Pyongyang’s largest military and diplomatic protector. 

As you know, Section 102 of P.L. 114-122 mandates, not simply authorizes, investigations against all entities, no matter where they are based, “upon receipt by the President of credible information indicating that such person has engaged” in illicit conduct outlined in the legislation.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial on August 18, 2016: “The promise of secondary sanctions is that they can force foreign banks, trading companies and ports to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business in dollars, which usually is an easy call…  But this only works if the U.S. exercises its power and blacklists offending institutions, as Congress required in February’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The Obama Administration hasn’t done so even once.”

As the Wall Street Journal further noted, for instance, the Administration has not acted on information from the United Nations Panel of Experts report in March 2016 that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.”  Moreover, there is ample evidence of increased North Korean efforts to evade sanctions with help from China-based entities.  According to the New York Times report on September 9, 2016, “To evade sanctions, the North’s state-run trading companies opened offices in China, hired more capable Chinese middlemen, and paid higher fees to employ more sophisticated brokers, according to Jim Walsh and John Park, scholars at MIT and Harvard.”

We respectfully ask you to immediately provide written answers to the following questions:

1) Has the Administration received credible evidence that entities based in China are engaging in illicit activities outlined in P.L. 114-122?   If so, what is the status of these investigations?  Why have no Chinese-based entities been designated to date?

2) Do you believe that China is in full compliance of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and all preceding U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea?  Please provide a detailed account of China’s compliance or non-compliance and what actions, if any, have been pursued at the U.N. for China’s non-compliance. 

3) Why has the Administration not designated any entities for malicious cyber-enabled activities, as required by Section 209 of P.L. 114-122?

4) Does the Administration believe that the multilateral enforcement of UNSCR 2270 and its own enforcement of P.L. 114-122 has had a credible and measurable impact on North Korea’s regime ability to obtain luxury goods? 

5) Is North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo airline involved in any activities outlined in Section 104 of P.L. 114-122 and if so, has the Administration initiated an investigation for the designation of Air Koryo under the law?  If not, why not?

6) What actions has the Administration taken to discourage the North Korean forced labor camps and trafficking of North Korean workers?  Is the Administration pursuing any designations for entities that are assisting in “the operation and maintenance of political prison camps or forced labor camps, including outside of North Korea”, as required by Section 104(a)(8) of P.L. 114-122? If not, why not?

Mr. President, we must send a strong message to Beijing that our patience has run out and exert any and all effort with Beijing to use its critical leverage to stop Pyongyang.  As Secretary Ash Carter stated on September 9, following the latest nuclear test:  “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and not the direction things have been going.” [full text here; link added by me]

The Hill, which also covered the letter, lists the names of the signatories.

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.); John Boozman (Ark.); Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.); Tom Cotton (Ark.); Ted Cruz (Texas); Steve Daines (Mont.); Deb Fischer (Neb.); Johnny Isakson (Ga.); Jerry Moran (Kan.); David Perdue (Ga.); Jim Risch (Idaho); Jeff Sessions (Ala.); Pat Roberts (Kan.); Mike Rounds (S.D.); Marco Rubio (Fla.); Ben Sasse (Neb.); Richard Shelby (Ala.); Dan Sullivan (Ark.); and Roger Wicker (Miss.). [The Hill]

Separately, Senator Ted Cruz (R, Tex.) and Kelly Ayotte (R, N.H.) also called on the administration to hit Kim Jong-un’s Chinese enablers with secondary sanctions.   

Not to be outdone, Senate Democrats introduced a resolution condemning the test and calling for the U.N. to approve more sanctions against North Korea. Although the resolution highlights the passage of the NKSPEA in its findings, it stops short of criticizing President Obama for failing to enforce it. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, offered some veiled-but-cryptic criticism of the President’s policy:

In a further effort to distance herself from current policy, Clinton also called for a “rethinking” of America’s strategy toward North Korea during a news conference in New York. Sanctions are “not enough,” she said, proposing an “urgent effort” to pressure Beijing into cracking down on Pyongyang. [Politico]

Will the administration finally act? I suspect not. Instead, it is running out the clock. Instead, it is negotiating yet another resolution with China, which China will also fail to enforce. As long as those negotiations continue, the administration probably won’t want to provoke China with secondary sanctions. And to be sure, there are loopholes in the current resolutions that should be closed, new sanctions that should be imposed, and new designations that should be made.

But in the end, all of North Korea’s profits from exporting coal, gold, weapons, and slaves ultimately end up in banks, mostly in China. If we freeze the accounts where those earnings are deposited, and from where the proceeds are spent, it won’t matter how much earnings potential those revenue sources have in the next two years. We could nullify North Korea’s profits from any gaps in the sanctions, and effectively enforce the sanctions that already exist, by beginning an earnest effort to penalize Kim Jong-un’s accomplices in the banking industry. Which is why, when China balks at passing a tough new resolution, our diplomats should not be afraid to walk away and act in concert with their allies in Japan, South Korea, Europe, Canada, and Australia. It would be far better to enforce the sanctions we have now than to enforce nominally tougher sanctions poorly.

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Sanctions talk with Steph Haggard; House hearings on N. Korea nukes & sanctions

In lieu of a full-length screed today, I’ll direct you to —

  • a more refined list of my sanctions and policy recommendations in this post, by Stephan Haggard.
  • for the sanctions geeks, the latest Treasury/FINCEN advisory, in which North Korea seizes the top spot from Iran as a money laundering risk. If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that North Korean banks’ cutoff from the financial system — the single most important sanction yet imposed on North Korea — still hasn’t become final and taken effect. It will take some time for us to see and assess the effects of that. And if that’s not geeky enough for you, you may be interested in FINCEN’s new rules on beneficial ownership disclosure, which could impact North Korea indirectly.
  • video of today’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee, featuring Victor Cha, Bruce Klingner, Sue Mi Terry, and David Albright. The big takeaway was that Chairman Salmon will propose legislation to cut North Korea off from “financial messaging services,” which either means SWIFT or whatever less responsible actors are filling that void for North Korea these days.

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How to make shipping sanctions against North Korea work

By now, diplomats at the EU have begun wrangling over the shape of the next North Korea sanctions resolution (let’s hope they at least vote before North Korea’s next nuclear test). Meanwhile, efforts to enforce the last resolution have lost momentum. With regard to both banking and shipping sanctions, the Obama administration doesn’t appear to have done much to encourage other U.N. member states to comply.

I’ve said before that following the money matters most, but North Korea’s transportation sector is another important pressure point. North Korea has long used its merchant fleet for smuggling drugs and weapons, and it has evaded law and sanctions enforcement by relying on reflagging — the registration of its ships under flags of convenience. States known to reflag North Korean ships include Panama, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Mongolia, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Belize, and the Republic of Palau.

In March, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, paragraph 19 of which requires U.N. member states to de-register ships that are “owned, operated or crewed by” North Korea. The U.S. Treasury Department followed this by imposing sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry under Executive Order 13722. So by now, no one should be reflagging North Korea’s ships, right?

Wrong.

Shortly after the resolution passed, Yonhap reported that an unnamed U.N. member state had canceled the registrations of North Korean ships, but just four days after UNSCR 2270 passed, Tanzania reflagged the notorious, U.N.-designated North Korean smuggling ship Dawnlight (now sailing as the First Gleam). The Dawnlight was previously operated from Singapore, which has since pledged its full cooperation with enforcing UNSCR 2270. The ship is now operated by a Marshall Islands based shell company, Sinotug Shipping.

As Claudia Rosett pointed out, the North Korean-flagged ships that are making regular voyages between North Korea and Iran probably aren’t being inspected as required.

Two North Korean ships, designated by the Security Council as the Jin Teng and the Jin Tai, have switched registrations from Sierra Leone to Belize. Worse, UNSCR 2270 requires members states to confiscate designated ships on arrival, but the ships have since landed in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, China and Indonesia. In the case of the Philippines, the authorities initially seized the Jin Teng, but China lobbied the U.S. to have its designation removed. Both ships are now operated by a China-based entity called Blue Ocean Ship Management.

Cambodia, the top registrar of flags of convenience for North Korea’s shipping fleet — ironically, through the Busan-based Cosmos Group — claims to have suspended reflagging operations pending a nationalization of the reflagging procedure. The suspension was not specific to North Korea, and I’ve seen no reports that it has de-registered North Korean ships. That the South Korean government has no recourse to influence the conduct of a company based in Busan is perplexing. Seoul has lobbied other governments to enforce sanctions; maybe it ought to set a better example itself.

In August, a month after Park Geun-hye visited Mongolia, the Joongang Ilbo reported that “The Mongolian government cancelled contracts with 14 North Korean ships to operate under its flag of convenience.” NK News’s Leo Byrne suggested that the ships may have switched their registrations to Togo, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Kiribati, or particularly, Tanzania. Byrne specifically found that Tanzania had registered four new North Korean ships since the approval of USNCR 2270. The list of compliance reports required under UNSCR 2270 shows no report for Tanzania, although there is a lag time between submission and publication of the reports. Last week, Byrne reported that that Tanzanian-flagged, North Korean-crewed Jin Long had caught fire off the Chinese coast, and traced its management to a shell company in Hong Kong.

What measures would help enforce the sanctions? One is old-fashioned diplomacy. I’ve seen almost no reporting at all that our diplomats have lobbied U.N. member states to comply with UNSCR 2270. Contrast this with 2006, when Treasury Department officials went on a world tour, warning bankers and finance ministers to steer clear of North Korean funds.

A second alternative would be to follow the EU’s lead and freeze the assets of North Korean insurers. No insurance usually means no registration and no landing.

A third option would be for the next UNSC resolution to simply deny landing rights to vessels owned, operated, crewed, or flagged by North Korea. If North Korea didn’t have a shipping industry at all, it would have to rely on third-country shippers, who would be more averse to the risk of sanctions violations.

If all else fails, the Obama administration must be willing to use EO 13722, or section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, to impose secondary sanctions on ship registries that don’t comply with UNSCR 2270.

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Clinton’s North Korea epiphany: We have always been at (cold) war with China

So desperate are we to avoid a Cold War (or worse) in the Pacific that throughout the Obama years, we’ve pretended that China hasn’t been waging one unilaterally the whole time. Meanwhile, China has seized the South China Sea, bullied our allies with spurious territorial claims, whipped up anti-American rhetoric to persecute human rights activists, and effectively quit enforcing sanctions against North Korea despite signing on for a nominally tough new resolution in March.

Evidence, you ask? Start with this new Australian report showing that China isn’t enforcing the U.N.’s new cargo inspection requirements at all. China still hasn’t stopped buying minerals like gold and titanium, which is isn’t supposed to buy in any quantity. Coal and iron imports, which are supposed to be limited to “livelihood” purposes, fell sharply in the first quarter of this year, only to rise again in the second. Chinese online vendors have even been selling North Korean coal. China continues to sell kerosene (read: jet fuel) in violation of a U.N. ban. Sanctioned North Korean ships have been seen leaving port. One, the Victory 2, has made regular calls in Chinese ports. Others have been seen hovering just off the Chinese coast. A China-based company, Blue Ship Management, continues to operate two sanctioned North Korean ships. More than 800 agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, which was designated in UNSCR 2270, continue to operate on Chinese soil, mostly hunting for defectors and policing overseas workers. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

These are the wages of our weakness toward North Korea and China. The new realization that North Korea could be just two years away from having a second-strike capability to hit our West Coast with nuclear weapons has raised the danger of nuclear war to their highest level since 1962, as I predicted it would a year ago. Unfortunately, the President has been poorly served by his National Security Staff and State Department, which have counseled him to hold back on holding China accountable for enabling the steady rise of this threat. China’s friends in Washington, and others who should know better but don’t, are fond of saying there’s nothing we can do about this. But we know what scares and moves China — secondary sanctions. Congress gave the President the authority (and a mandate) to impose them because China’s violations of sanctions against North Korea are nothing new. They have been so longstanding and so flagrant as to eliminate any other possibility but a deliberate, willful policy.

Even before the last nuclear test, there was a growing sense that President Obama had failed to hold North Korea’s Chinese enablers to account for those violations, despite having so recently signed a new legal mandate to do so. Even before that test, President Obama had said he would seek to toughen sanctions in response to North Korean missile test, and revealed his irritation with China after its rude treatment of him, and after getting an earful of its unreasonable objections to THAAD:

“China continues to object to the THAAD deployment in the Republic of Korea, one of our treaty allies. And what I’ve said to President Xi directly is that we cannot have a situation where we’re unable to defend either ourselves or our treaty allies against increasingly provocative behavior and escalating capabilities by the North Koreans,” Obama said at a news conference in Laos after the East Asia Summit.

“And I indicated to him that if the THAAD bothered him, particularly since it has no purpose other than defensive and does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China, that they need to work with us more effectively to change Pyongyang’s behavior,” he said, according to a White House transcript. [Yonhap]

And even before that test, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had called on the President to enforce the North Korea sanctions law he has signed just seven months ago, including by imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese entities. Similar reactions came from Paul Ryan and Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

China has to understand that we will sanction those banks again, those Chinese banks that are transferring the hard currency…We need to use these powers that now the administration has under the bill that I authored – that’s been signed into law by the President – to tell China, ‘No, there will be secondary sanctions on any economic activity you are engaged in with North Korea.’ Because our goal right now is to shut [North Korea’s] economy down so they cannot continue to expand this nuclear weapons program.” [CNN]

HFAC’s Asia Subcommittee has already scheduled a hearing for Wednesday afternoon. Even before the hearing was announced, I predicted that it would be contentious — this is an election-year embarrassment the administration and Hillary Clinton don’t need. Now, freshly humiliated by North Korea’s latest nuclear test, the administration is suggesting that it’s finally ready to seek new U.N. sanctions, possibly to close existing loopholes (probably the “livelihood” exception to the coal and iron ore import ban) and ban fuel exports to North Korea. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. and South Korea may also push to ban North Korean labor exports, which will hurt North Korea’s ability to launder money by giving it less “legitimate” income for co-mingling and hiding illicit income. More importantly, the administration is saying that it’s finally ready to follow the law and enforce the sanctions that already exist.

“We will be working very closely in the Security Council and beyond to come up with the strongest possible measure against North Korea’s latest actions,” said U.S. envoy Sung Kim on Sunday.

“In addition to action in the Security Council, both the U.S. and Japan, together with the Republic of Korea, will be looking at unilateral measures, as well as bilateral measures, as well as possible trilateral cooperation,” he said, referring to South Korea by its official name. [Reuters]

So much for the idea that this time is different — that China had finally lost patience with North Korea. In an epiphany that I thought would never come to Washington, Hillary Clinton (of all people) has articulated why — China has been using North Korea as a “useful card” to divide U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific (left unsaid: while China seizes the South China Sea and surrounds Taiwan).

“Up until relatively recently, I think (China was) under the impression that they could control their neighbor and they didn’t want to crack down because they saw it as a useful card to play,” Clinton said.

“If (North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) gets a little crazy, maybe the South Koreans will move toward (China) a little bit; he gets a little crazier, maybe they can make some deals with the Japanese about things they want. It was a strategic calculation,” she said. [Yonhap]

Separately, Clinton called the North Korean nuclear and missile programs “a direct threat to the United States” that we “cannot and will never accept,” which is welcome news at a time when some people are seriously suggesting that we can and must.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, also said that she supports President Barack Obama’s calls for strengthening the existing sanctions and impose additional measures.

“At the same time, we must strengthen defense cooperation with our allies in the region; South Korea and Japan are critical to our missile defense system, which will protect us against a North Korean missile,” she said.

“China plays a critical role, too, and must meaningfully increase pressure on North Korea — and we must make sure they do,” she said.  [Yonhap]

Clinton is right, of course, as is her rival in this election.

“North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the fourth since Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, is yet one more example of Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic failures as secretary of state,” Trump communications aide Jason Miller said in a statement.

“Clinton promised to work to end North Korea’s nuclear program as secretary of state, yet the program has only grown in strength and sophistication,” he said. [Yonhap]

Park Geun-hye has called on China to enforce sanctions as it had agreed, a brave thing considering that China has increasingly tried to bully South Korea with its considerable economic leverage. No doubt, Park knows what’s at stake. There is already speculation about a sixth nuclear test. If the U.S. and South Korea uncover and freeze the money that keeps Kim Jong-un in power, victory and reunification could be within sight. A slow defeat of extortion and enslavement is in sight, too. If these are our choices, better a banking crisis in China than a war in Korea.

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I don’t blame Obama for N. Korea’s nuke test. I blame him for not enforcing the law.

It’s grim vindication this morning to see my prediction from two months ago now validated. This bomb appears to have had a higher yield than those that preceded it, and may show progress toward miniaturization. I’d already posted my recommendations for how to respond to this test, back in July. For the U.N. Security Council, the response should include new rounds of designations and the closing of sanctions loopholes. I hope Samantha Power will also push for bans on North Korea’s exports of food and labor.

For the administration, the answer is simpler — it should enforce the law the President signed in February. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has now added his voice to Senator Bob Corker’s prescient call for just that.

“The North Korean regime’s continued belligerence demands a strong and swift response.  The United States cannot accept a nuclear North Korea that threatens America and our foreign partners with mass destruction.  That’s why, earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together to help impose unprecedented new sanctions on the Kim regime.  Sadly, however, it is clear the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts are falling short.

“Most notably, the administration has yet to impose sanctions on any of the many Chinese companies and banks that, according to a recent U.N. report, continue to support the North Korean regime.  This must change.  We’ve seen before that China will only comply with sanctions if Chinese banks face real consequences for doing business in North Korea.

“The United States and our foreign partners should also act quickly to sanction North Korea’s state-owned airline.  Air Koryo continues to flagrantly violate the ban on luxury goods and has been implicated in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts.  At the same time, the administration must also work with European governments to better block luxury items – including cars, watches, and liquor – from reaching North Korea’s repressive ruling elite.

“Aggressive sanctions enforcement, along with a renewed focus on stopping the North Korean regime’s export of slave labor, is key to cutting off the cash needed to sustain Kim Jong Un’s power, and his illicit weapons programs.  Today’s detonation wasn’t just about testing nuclear technology.  It was also about testing America’s resolve.  Now is the time for this administration to act.” [link]

Yes, there are more sanctions we can add that would confront Pyongyang with a clear choice between disarmament and extinction. Banning North Korea from SWIFT seems especially likely to be effective, and overdue. For the safety of our citizens alone, we’re long overdue for a tourist travel ban. And because the evidence is overwhelming that North Korea sponsors terrorism, the State Department should at least stop lying to the American people and denying that.

I don’t blame President Obama for the fact that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath.  I blame President Obama for not recognizing that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath, and for not recognizing the implications of that. Above all, I blame President Obama for not enforcing the law he signed in February, after the fourth nuke. Wasting eight critical years without agreeing on or implementing a North Korea policy may not stand out as one of this administration’s greatest foreign policy failures yet, but that’s only because it sits alongside his failure to support the Green Revolution in Iran, his non-response to the Syrian genocide, the fall of Anbar, the rise of ISIS, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destroy the European Union and its liberal social order.

No wonder Obama, sensing the weakness of his position, is now calling for “serious consequences” for North Korea. He holds the power to impose them now, but it sounds like he’s about to send Samantha Power back to the Security Council to bicker with the Chinese over the next resolution, too. He can enhance her bargaining power by sanctioning the Bank of China for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money, and by having someone in the Treasury Department leak a report that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation for the same. If we’re serious about avoiding war in Korea, we must be willing to shake the foundations of the Chinese banking system.

Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, gets it, however belatedly, and seems to realize exactly what’s at stake here. Her shrewd diplomatic and psychological warfare against Pyongyang has probably done far more damage to Kim Jong-un than anything Obama has done yet. She should now move beyond loudspeakers and open a second front in the information war for the hearts and minds of the North Korean people. As her opening act, as soon as the atmospheric conditions are favorable for good TV reception in Pyongyang, she should put Thae Yong-ho on the air to deliver a revolutionary manifesto to the Pyongyang elites. She should build a row of cell phone, AM radio, and TV towers on the mountaintops all along the DMZ. Then, she ought to get behind a guerrilla engagement strategy to undermine the regime’s control over the countryside.

For now, the calls in Seoul for nuclear armament and preemptive strikes are probably just talk, but they’ll continue to grow. The economic and security frameworks of the whole region are in greater danger than most of us realize.

As I said all along, the U.S. and South Korean election years almost guaranteed that this test would happen. I’ve also said that in the short term, sanctions would aggravate His Corpulency and force him to react. Anyone who knows anything at all about sanctions knows that they would take at least year or two to show significant impact, and that’s assuming they’re enforced. Unfortunately, they haven’t been — despite the fact that a string of high-profile defections has probably yielded more fresh financial intelligence about where Kim Jong-un’s money is than we’ve had in years. It’s long past time we used it.

~   ~   ~

Update: To be clear here, I have no knowledge that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation or isn’t, but the BoD has been mentioned in previous reports as a holder of North Korean funds, and I expect to see more reporting in the coming weeks buttressing the case that they should be investigated.

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Dear AFP: May we see your agreements with the North Korean government?

This blog often criticizes the way the media cover North Korea; in fact, it sometimes even criticizes the way the media cover the media who cover North Korea. In the case of Agence France-Presse’s newly opened bureau in Pyongyang, most other media are treating AFP’s low-key opening ceremony as a non-event. It probably is a non-event — except for what it may mean for the decline in journalistic ethics, the corruption of our media, and their transformation into global propaganda megaphones for totalitarians. It’s hard to believe this event would attract so little publicity if AFP and other journalists now assessed that the Associated Press’s Pyongyang Bureau had been a smashing success. In retrospect, AP’s self-congratulatory publicity probably backfired, because it drove our curiosity about its reporting, most of which turned out to be terrible

Unless this is the first time you’ve read this blog, you already know that I’ve said many unkind things about the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang, and about its conduct surrounding the establishment of its bureau. Its reporting was mostly a better translation of KCNA propaganda without the guilty giggles of words like “brigandish” and “rigamaroles” that not even my spell-checker knows. What AP didn’t print might have been worse than what it printed — a major hotel fire, an apartment building collapse, the near-crash of an airliner, and a string of still-unexplained famine and purge rumors within a short drive (and in some cases, a short walk) of its bureau. It might have been worse, except for when the AP wrote things that hurt people. That its North Korean “reporters” were government propagandists, probable spies, and occasional interrogators of arrested foreigners was only one of several glaring conflicts of interest.

The AP’s propagation of totalitarian imagery for the world’s most evil government (not counting ISIS) was another. Here is the test AP had to fail to get the keys to its new bureau: 

exhibitbanner1

[The AP hates it when governments use photography as propaganda, but only sometimes.]

Another clear sign of AP Pyongyang’s failure is that most of those who staked their reputations on it have since retired or moved on, including President Tom Curley, Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, Bureau Chief Jean Lee, and photographer David Guttenfelder. John Daniszewski, AP’s former Vice President for International News, has a new role “in charge of addressing the many questions on ethics and standards involved in daily news coverage in the U.S. and around the world, as well as working on special reporting projects.”

Today, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, doesn’t even live in Pyongyang. According to The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi, who interviewed Talmadge (and also, me) last year, Talmadge “travels to Pyongyang each month from Tokyo, where he lives with his family, and stays in North Korea about 10 days each month, or however long the state ministry feels like letting him stay.” Today, AP Pyongyang hardly exists in anything but name. It is not so much a news bureau as a storage locker.

Perhaps AFP, like Kyodo (which has quietly kept a bureau in Pyongyang for years) figures it’s better off without that kind of publicity. Or, AFP’s own expectations may not be very high. After all, its Pyongyang bureau is opening more than two years after AFP announced that it would. It’s difficult for me to believe that this much of a delay was not filled with some fairly intense discussions and negotiations.

One event that might have contributed to that delay was the U.S. Treasury Department’s designation in March of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which controls the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the AP’s North Korean business partner. In a statement, AFP concedes that its bureau also opened pursuant to an agreement with KCNA. At the time of the designation, I argued that it would likely prohibit AP from making dollar payments to KCNA (and in North Korea, no one rides for free). Not only would the designation ban dollar payments, absent a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, it might also apply to non-dollar payments by AP to KCNA because AP is a “U.S. person.” AFP may or may not qualify as a U.S. person — I’ll let AFP ask its lawyers that — and perhaps it thinks it has found a way to avoid financial sanctions by paying KCNA in Euro. But the reason for Treasury’s designation — that the Propaganda and Agitation Department enforces North Korea’s censorship — certainly adds to AP and AFP’s reputational and ethical burdens.

In the end, AP Pyongyang was really a gamble on North Korean glasnost, which — as silly as this seems in retrospect — was cause for a short, happy false dawn among certain North Korea watchers in 2012. How long ago that seems now. The outcome of that gamble was a news bureau that reported nothing newsworthy that was exclusive, nothing exclusive that was newsworthy, and not even big news that happened a few blocks from its bureau. The AP presented itself as an agent of change in Pyongyang; instead, it was the AP itself that was changed, and not for the better. It came to Pyongyang to report stories, but ended up becoming the story. What never changed was Pyongyang’s attitude toward journalism as we thought we knew it. So if, in the end, AFP finds that it can report more news about Pyongyang from Seoul and Washington than it can from Pyongyang itself, my expectations will be fully realized. Only now, whatever value AP derives from its bureau will have to be divided with one more competitor.

There is one way that AFP could distinguish itself from its bigger competitor immediately. It could release its agreements with KCNA for its readers to see and judge for themselves whether it has burdened itself with conflicts of interest, or submitted to Pyongyang’s censors and propagandists. For that matter, it should also tell us whether it has a license from OFAC, so that we can judge whether it is breaking the law or facilitating censorship. After all, if AFP is taking a bold gamble on glasnost in North Korea, couldn’t it begin by setting its own example of glasnost with its readers?

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Senate Foreign Relations Chair to President Obama: Enforce N. Korea sanctions law

Senator Bob Corker’s office issued this statement today:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released the following statement today after reports that North Korea fired three medium-range missiles as the Group of 20 economic summit was underway in China.

“It is highly discouraging that China does little as North Korea continues to test and develop its missile and nuclear programs,” said Corker. “China wants the international respect due a country of its size, yet it refuses to responsibly address a growing threat to stability in its own region and has failed to fully implement United Nations Security Resolution sanctions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to drag its feet, with lackluster implementation of the new sanctions authority Congress provided earlier this year under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.”

On February 10, the Senate unanimously passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 following a day of legislative floor action led by Corker. To date, no Chinese entities or individuals have been sanctioned under the new authorities provided by Congress. Click here for more information on the bill, which was developed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [Sen. Bob Corker]

Well, partially. Let’s not forget to give Ed Royce his due credit for writing and passing the first version on the House side, but it’s also true that without the SFRC staff and Senator Gardner in particular, this bill would still be stuck in the House. Brokering the February compromise in the Senate must have been very difficult work indeed, given the complex Senate rules.

Clearly, the Senate committee staff have also noted the concerns I noted here. Now, the failure to designate Chinese entities by itself might be excusable — temporarily — if the administration simply doesn’t know where Kim Jong-un’s money is. That has become a hard defense to accept at face value, for reasons I explained in the previous link, and here. It would also be excusable if quiet diplomacy could immobilize the funds without needless unpleasantness, but although there are some hints that North Korean diplomats and overseas workers are under some financial duress, pretty clearly, most of those funds are not yet immobilized.

I continue to predict that the section 103 briefing is going to be tense and difficult for the administration. The odds of some very contentious election-year hearings increase with each new provocation from Pyongyang, and particularly if President Obama returns from Beijing empty-handed.

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U.N. & Obama vacillate as our last chance to stop Kim Jong-un runs out

Have you ever heard the late Christopher Hitchens speak about his visit to North Korea, and how he promised himself that he would not use the “1984” cliche? “Eventually,” Hitchens said, “They make you do it.” I believe it was sometime around 2007 that I made the same promise to myself about the Hans Blix scene in “Team America” when speaking of the U.N.’s response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen behavior. It has become another cliche, but they also make you do it.

This week, Samantha Power went to the Security Council and said this:

The DPRK’s missile tests help it to threaten the territory of even more countries in the region, whether through its land-based missiles or now via its recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Once the DPRK has the capability to do so, we know what they intend to do with these missile systems, because they have told us. They are explicit: they intend to arm the systems with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un said this himself yesterday, according to the DPRK’s official news agency. [….]

The Security Council must remain unequivocal and united in condemnation of these tests, and we must take action to enforce the words we put on paper – to enforce our resolutions.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, words words words or something. At least the White House made a feint at meeting the test posed by Power’s last clause when it refused to rule out more sanctions, but there aren’t any signs that it means to impose any, either. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, spokesman Josh Earnest (whose name is an oxymoron) said that the U.S. and China have worked “cooperatively in a coordinated fashion” to “steadily ratchet up” the pressure on North Korea. Unless Earnest really means that we’re cooperating with Beijing because we’ve capitulated to it, this is just more bullshit.

Despite the evidentiary and analytical challenges of calculating North Korea’s trade with China, the best evidence we have suggests that China continues to exploit the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports to prop up Kim Jong-un’s rule. Despite the importance of drawing distinctions between trade that feeds the North Korean people and trade that props up the regime, bilateral trade hasn’t fallen much overall, and the small decline may owe more to China’s sagging economy than to its enforcement of sanctions. To make up for the drop in the coal trade and falling prices, China is sending more tourists to North Korea and accepting more slave labor from North Korea, including those formerly employed at Kaesong. Beijing is also engaging in public displays of affection with Pyongyang to show how much more worried it is about South Korean missile defense than it is about North Korean missiles.

China’s recent purchase of North Korean fishing rights was unconscionable and inhumane. It took away a source of food that should fill the markets that feed North Korea’s poor, and replaced it with another source of unrestricted cash for the ruling class in Pyongyang. By doing so, it arguably violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To state what should be obvious, Kim Jong-un is politically invested in his weapons programs and won’t change his behavior unless the world can unite to coerce that change. Evans Revere, a recovering engager whom I probably wouldn’t have cited approvingly a few years ago, is almost certainly correct when he says, “The only way to get North Korea’s attention is to put at risk the one thing that North Korea values more highly than its nuclear weapons. That’s the future existence of the regime.” Revere now concedes that positive incentives haven’t worked on Pyongyang, and with North Korea “rapidly improving its ability to deliver nuclear and other weapons toward specific targets accurately,” we can’t rule out the possibility that it “might seek to use nuclear weapons to blackmail one or more of its neighbors.” Well, yes.

Japan and South Korea are both calling for more sanctions to prevent this outcome, but it’s fairly clear that the Obama administration isn’t pushing for any, and is mostly concerned with avoiding any sort of crisis before it slinks out of town, after having wasted eight critical years. South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers will visit Washington in October to make their case for “specific measures” again. Seoul thinks this may be its last chance to prevent North Korea from reaching nuclear breakout and subjecting it to the slow strangulation of nuclear blackmail, and I suspect that they’re probably right about that. Hopefully, when President Obama met with President Park instead of the President of the Philippines, she made that case forcefully. Nothing less than South Korea’s survival as a democracy depends on it.

With our time quickly running out, the idea of settling for a piece of paper from the U.N. is madness. Although the U.N. statement hints at “significant measures,” a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying that “many council members supported the idea of further measures,” but “fell short of a consensus.” So presumably, China continues to be unhelpful and obstructionist, the Obama administration continues to be weak and indecisive, and no further resolutions will be forthcoming until Pyongyang does something else, like another nuke test. And perhaps, not even then.

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As for what sanctions we should impose now, I posted my own wish list in July. It includes:

(1) the designation of North Korean entities, such as Air Koryo, the DPRK Central Bank, and North Korea’s state insurance companies, all of which are facilitating sanctions violations;

(2) the closing of loopholes left over from UNSCR 2270, including the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports; and

(3) new measures, including a ban on labor and food exports by North Korea, and a requirement to disclose beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals to the Panel of Experts.

In the case of Air Koryo, there’s no question that it flagrantly violates the luxury goods ban; journalists have tweeted photographs of huge flat screen TVs being loaded aboard its flights. The U.N. Panel of Experts has implicated Air Koryo in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts, and notes that the dual civilian and military use of some of its aircraft could itself constitute a violation of the arms embargo. The Panel of Experts has also noted that Air Koryo holds a number of suspicious debts to recently formed shell companies, implying that Air Koryo is involved in money laundering or sanctions evasion. According to South Korean press reports, Air Koryo is also used to ferry bulk cash to evade U.N. sanctions. 

As for concerns that Air Koryo also engages in legitimate civilian business, I would respond that if Air Koryo were to be designated, third-country airlines would take over its routes, because Pyongyang needs to have air commerce of some kind. The same can be said of North Korea’s financial, shipping, and insurance industries. Pyongyang has repeatedly used all of these state-owned industries for sanctions evasion and proliferation. If those industries were sanctioned and shut down, then third-country airlines, insurers, ships, and banks — which would presumably have more incentives to follow the law — would take up the slack. That would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to violate U.N. sanctions.

Above all, however, U.N. member states must be willing to use their national laws to impose secondary sanctions on entities — especially Chinese entities — that knowingly help Pyongyang violate U.N. sanctions. This is now a requirement under U.S. law, and I remain concerned that the Obama administration isn’t following it. Without secondary sanctions — and most critically, the strict enforcement of secondary financial sanctions against North Korea’s bank accounts in China and elsewhere — North Korea will find ways around the sanctions, because plenty of Chinese companies will be willing to help it find those ways. Are we serious about global nonproliferation, the security of the world’s most economically vital region, and the protection of the democratic system of our treaty ally in South Korea? I’m searching in vain for any evidence that we are.

~   ~   ~

Update: Stop the presses. Maybe President Park was persuasive after all.

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N. Korea calls for murder of S. Korean President, State Dep’t still doesn’t think it sponsors terrorism

“When he eventually came to power, there was no book which deserved more careful study from the rulers, political and military, of the Allied powers. All was there….” – Winston Churchill, on Mein Kampf

History, which is diplomacy in the past tense, is littered with examples of despots who made their intentions clear, but whom journalists and diplomats in free nations have blindly refused to take at their word. So it was that in the late 1930s, the journalist and future U.S. Senator Alan Cranston published an unauthorized and unsanitized edition of “Mein Kampf,” leaving in the anti-Semitism and war threats that Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry had excised for its foreign readers. Hitler sued Cranston in a Connecticut court for a copyright infringement. The court enjoined the publication of Cranston’s translation and denied the American people a warning from history in the future tense. In our time, when North Korea’s hatred and war threats are accessible to any citizen with an Internet connection, we have no such excuse for our own denial of Pyongyang’s intentions.

~   ~   ~

On October 11, 2008, just over a year after Pyongyang was revealed to have built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria that is now controlled by ISIS, President Bush struck it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The rescission was a reward for Kim Jong-il’s commitment to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantlement of its nuclear program. For which we are still waiting.

Since 2008, North Korea has sent hit teams to assassinate North Korean exiles and human rights activists. On several occasions, it was caught shipping arms to Iran for the use of its terrorist clients, including Hezbollah, and possibly the Quds Force and Hamas. Last month, Arab media published evidence that Pyongyang sold anti-aircraft missiles to the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. In 2014, Pyongyang’s cyber army, which operates from the Chilbosan Hotel in downtown Shenyang, presumably with the full knowledge and assent of the Chinese government, threatened terrorist attacks against American movie theaters that blocked the release of a crappy movie called “The Interview,” and hacked into South Korean nuclear power plants. 

Despite all of this, the Obama Administration’s official view — to this very day — is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”

In recent years, Pyongyang has also used its state media as an instrument of terrorist threats, an endemic genre I sometimes call “journo-terrorism. In most cases, the threats have come from the Korean Central News Agency, an organ of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, whose assets have been blocked by the Treasury Department since March for its role in censoring freedom of information and freedom of the press. In 2012, KCNA threatened South Korean media which published criticism of its government with artillery attacks. It also published a series of banners with lurid calls for the murder of then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 7.08.45 AM

Since 2012, KCNA has also been a partner in journalism with the Associated Press, pursuant to a memorandum of agreement the AP refuses to release, despite multiple calls by other journalists to do so.

After a run of vehemently racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs that never quite ended, KCNA is back to making death threats against South Korea’s presidents. Today, its target is Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president. KCNA is unlinkable and very nearly unreadable, but I did so you don’t have to. I’ve pasted excerpts of the key language below the fold, along with some tweets by The Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng.

For good measure, I’ve also added some of its more sexist language (just in case Gloria Steinem is reading), war threats (in case the “peace treaty” crowd is reading), and reaffirmations that it will never give up its nukes (in case the 38north crowd is reading). Click “continue reading” below and judge for yourself.

As you read this language, remember that words like these can have real consequences. In 2006, years before Park’s election to the presidency, a deranged assailant angered over a criminal investigation slashed her throat and came within less than an inch of inflicting a fatal wound. Last year, a pro-North Korean activist slashed the throat of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert with a razor, an act that a KCNA commentary subsequently applauded as “a just punishment.”

In that context, there’s little question what Pyongyang expects the more extreme elements of its substantial cadre of sympathizers in South Korea to do. The question now is whether the U.S. government will overlook Pyongyang’s threats and calls to murder the democratically elected head of an allied state that it is bound by treaty to defend from North Korean attacks.

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What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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N. Korea’s biggest a**hole shoots Vice-Premier, sends second-biggest a**hole to weed the fields

Here at OFK, stories about kremlinology are usually page two material. Too often, we’ll read reports that some official or minor celebrity has been executed, only to read a year later that the target has risen like Lazarus from the KCNA crypt. As a general rule, the closer a story about North Korea is to the center of the power structure, the less I tend to believe it. Which is why I didn’t even tweet the report yesterday that His Porcine Majesty executed the former agriculture minister and a senior education ministry official with an antiaircraft gun. 

Still, I’m marginally more likely to believe reports from the semi-official news agency Yonhap about this particular type of story, where it’s marginally less likely than most sources to run with stories that turn out to be false. 

So, with those caveats dispensed with, Yonhap quotes an anonymous “Seoul official” as saying that His Porcine Majesty sent Vice-Premier Kim Yong-jin to the firing squad last month for being an “anti-party and anti-revolutionary element,” which, in reality, could mean about anything, but probably means he did something very bad. Kim Yong-jin does not make an appearance in the OFK archives, which may mean nothing more than the fact that he never attracted my attention.

But one person who makes many appearances in the OFK archives is Kim Yong-chol, who according to the same Yonhap story, was sent “to a rural farm for one month of reeducation starting in mid-July” for abuse of power and showing a “’heavy-handed’ attitude.”  Far be it for me to defend an a**hole like Kim Yong-chol, but isn’t that written into the job description?

Since January, Yong-chol’s job has been to head the United Front Department. Immediately before that, however, he headed the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s external spy agency. As such, Kim Yong-chol was responsible for the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyong Island attacks, the 2014 Sony cyberterrorist attack, the 2015 land mine attack, and a whole series of assassination attempts against South Korean human rights activists and North Korean dissidents in exile.

You can read all about it in my report, “Arsenal of Terror,” which is not available in bookstores.

Kim Yong-chol’s d**k moves also come in the more petty variety. A year and a half ago, when DNI Director James Clapper visited Pyongyang on a hostage-fetching mission, Yong-chol invited Clapper to dinner, only to present him with a bill for his meal. For reasons I’m sure are unrelated to this, Kim Yong-chol was designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control for a second time right about that time (he was first designated in 2010). Not reported is whether Clapper actually paid the bill, or whether the Treasury Department is investigating.

For more rumors about the latest purges in Pyongyang, The Joongang Ilbo has you covered.

All of which leaves me with two questions. First, do you suppose when a pezzonovante like Kim Yong-chol is weeding peas in the hot July sun, he’s thinking about how deeply sorry and humbled he is, and how much he loves and respects his morbidly obese thirtysomething boss who earned his chops in front of a Playstation? Neither do I.

Second, if Andrei Lankov is right, and the fear of purges is the main reason (or more probably, one important reason) why so many North Korean diplomats are rushing for the exits, will this push more diplomats, officials, bankers, and money launderers to reconsider their return travel plans?

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Defections may not foretell N. Korea’s collapse (but they could help induce it)

The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”

“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.

Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”

In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleaguesOther analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:

Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.

Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.

“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.

Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.

“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.

[Everything is absolutely fine.]

Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.

But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host. 

Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.

The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.

Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.

A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.

The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]

The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]

Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defected in July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defected two years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.

Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.

If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)

So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-un provokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous. 

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To prevent war, talk to North Korea’s soldiers about rice, peace & freedom (updated: it happened again)

When the U.S. Army wants to breach a minefield, it deploys a Mine-Clearing Line Charge to blast a path through it with 1,750 pounds of C-4. The procedure looks like this:

Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”

Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.

deserter

[2015: North Korean deserter in Chinese custody after his arrest]

Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.

This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.

deserters

In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.

Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rarer occasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)

These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.

The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition. 

wanted

[2015: a Chinese wanted poster for a North Korean army deserter]

So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks. 

I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.

North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.

“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”

For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]

Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homes and crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.

Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.

“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.

“Then they rob the passengers.”

When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.

Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.

This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]

Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.

mig 21 crash

[2010: The wreckage of a North Korean MiG-21 in China. The pilot, who was killed, may have attempted to defect.]

As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)

My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.

What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.

It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness. 

A century ago, the call of “brot und frieden” ended World War One. Pray that this century, a message of “rice, peace, and freedom” can prevent Korean War Two.

~   ~   ~

Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:

The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.

The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.

“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.

In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]

It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.

The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.

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