Brit pleads guilty to smuggling North Korean meth into U.S.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has issued a press release announcing the guilty plea of Scott Stammers, for conspiring to smuggle 100 kilograms of 99% pure North Korean meth from the Philippines to New York. The press release implies, but does not directly state, that the North Korean government itself knowingly sold the meth to Chinese gangsters, who sold the drugs to Stammers.

As Tan Lim explained, his criminal organization was the only one currently able to obtain methamphetamine from North Korea: “Because before, there were eight [other criminal organizations]. But now only us, we have the NK [i.e., North Korea] product. . . . [I]t’s only us who can get from NK.” Tan Lim further explained that, because of recent international tensions, the North Korean government had destroyed some methamphetamine labs, leaving behind only the labs of Tan Lim’s organization: “And all the, the NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they [the North Korean government] are not selling it any more, they burned it. Then they transfer to another base.” In anticipation of these geo-political complications, Tan Lim noted that his organization had stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamine in the Philippines for storage. [USAO, SNDY]

The ultimate retailer was to be the Outlaw motorcycle gang. Stammers is now looking at a minimum sentence of 10 years and a potential life sentence. I previously posted on the arrests of Stammers and the other defendants here.

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Can Hollywood still make movies about North Korea? We’re about to find out.

Via Deadline Hollywood:

Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim and his CBS-based production company 3AD are partnering with Sriram Das’ Das Films (November Man) to develop Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea: Defiance And Hope In The World’s Most Repressive Country, as a feature film. Rosalind Ross (Matador) is attached to pen the adaptation, and the South Korean-born Daniel Dae Kim will star as Mike Kim (no relation).

The 2008 memoir chronicles a first-hand account of a high-risk mission to lead a group of refugees over the North Korean border through Southeast Asia using a modern-day Underground Railroad. Over the course of his four years in Asia, Mike Kim would end up aiding thousands of people of all ages find safe haven through his humanitarian missions. The project is timely given the recent border standoff and escalation in tensions between North and South Korea.

Yes, and by the time it’s released, it will be timely for some other reason. Maybe, let’s say, a nuke test. Or an artillery attack on a leaflet launch. Or a large, suspicious explosion somewhere in South Korea. Oh, here’s a good one — how about a cyberattack on 3AD studios and a threat against every movie theater that shows this movie?

Those damn disgruntled insiders — you never know when they’ll show up. No, seriously — I sure hope CBS and 3AD invest in some good cybersecurity, like now. Because, welcome to the age of global censorship, when in a small but very real sense, we’re all the subjects of Kim Jong-Un.

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Koreas agree to fight another day

They came, they talked, and they signed, but they solved nothing. Plus or minus one piece of paper, three severed legs, and an implicit promise of payment, we are where we were on the morning of August 4th, when Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon embarked on their fateful patrol.

As I predicted hours before the deal was announced, Pyongyang didn’t apologize, and Seoul will continue to pay. The loudspeakers will be switched off. There will not be an all-out war, and probably never would have been. The limited, incremental war will resume, only at a time and place more to Pyongyang’s advantage.

My guess is that most analysts who prefer not to label the Ikes and the Tinas will be pleased that “both sides” found a “face-saving” way to “de-escalate” a situation that one of the sides created with malice aforethought, and will now use for its financial and political benefit, but I can’t see how we’re any closer to lasting peace or security.

So, what was agreed? Six things, as printed by the North’s KCNA, and translated by Yonhap.

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

That reads like an implicit promise of a payoff to me, and to South Korea’s business lobby. It’s a sure bet Pyongyang will read it that way, too. If so, Park Geun-Hye will give the North direct or indirect aid, or lift sanctions imposed after North Korea’s attack in 2010, for which it still hasn’t apologized. That would amount to Seoul throwing money at Pyongyang for maiming two of its soldiers, and for promising not to maim many more of them.

Or, Park Geun-Hye may, on reflection, grasp that such transparent appeasement in the face of extortion creates a perverse incentive, and refuse to pay up without getting something more tangible in return. This is, after all, only an agreement to “hold talks.” If the talks end in an agreement, it would be as subject to reinterpretation as any other deal with North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un doesn’t get his payday, he may feel justified in making further threats and provocations. He might even feel compelled to make them. Either alternative makes further violence seem more, not less, likely.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

Before this agreement was signed, President Park had demanded “a clear apology and promises not to stage any provocations.” Although Park’s National Security Advisor doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, Park got neither one. Instead, she got a Shinzo Abe Special —  a vague non-apology that it was “regrettable that some South Korean soldiers were injured by a land mine explosion that occurred in the south.” Here, the original Korean and how we translate it matters:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.21.34 PM

[via The Oranckay]

Anyone could see that an apology wasn’t likely without much more pressure and patience, and if Park wasn’t willing to apply them, she shouldn’t have gone public with those demands. The difference between an apology and an expression of regret is much more than semantic. It’s the all-important difference between “we’re sorry we did a bad thing” and “a shame that bad thing happened to you.” The North Koreans aren’t sorry, and aren’t admitting anything. Instead, they’re saying that last week’s events “taught South Korea an important lesson not to cook up a story about provocations by the North.” “We didn’t do it” is as good as “we’ll do it again.”

An apology implies contrition and a change in the actor’s behavior; an expression of regret (Korean: yugam) accepts no fault or duty. If you think the difference doesn’t matter, you aren’t familiar with the bitter historical controversies between Japan (on one hand) and Korea and China (on the other). Read the coverage of that issue in the Korean and Chinese press, and you’d think that Japan had never apologized for the crimes it committed against the Korean and Chinese people. That isn’t the case, but the subsequent words and acts of Japanese leaders have called the sincerity of those apologies into question. Recently, Japanese leaders have offered vague statements of regret instead. Koreans know the difference, and they know that North Korea didn’t apologize.

Of course, any newspaper reader will tell you that North Korea doesn’t do sorry. The last time it even expressed regret, after all, was after Operation Paul Bunyan. Yet even then, Kim Il-Sung at least promised not to provoke first.

Some have suggested that Pyongyang’s expression of regret will cause His Porcine Majesty to lose face, and might even destabilize his regime. That seems fanciful to me. I doubt that Kim Jong-Un would have printed the whole agreement in KCNA if “face” concerned him. In a must-read analysis for the Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale writes:

[A]fter walking away from the latest negotiations with a deal that is likely to be portrayed as a victory domestically, Mr. Kim appears to have mastered the provocation playbook.

“He’s very skilled. In some ways, I think he is an even greater dictator than his dad,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. [WSJ]

Well, someone is, and that someone lives in Pyongyang, not Seoul.

Importantly for Pyongyang, “I regret that thing happened” is also compatible with denial.

In return, North Korea expressed regret—but didn’t apologize—over the explosion of land mines this month that severed the legs of two South Korean soldiers, an incident that prompted Seoul to respond by broadcasting the cross-border propaganda messages.

Investigations by South Korea and the United Nations military command found North Korea responsible for the mine attack. Under the deal, Pyongyang is able to continue to deny involvement. [WSJ]

After all, North Korea has privately expressed regret for the sinking of the Cheonan, but publicly, it still denies having anything to do with it, as do its apologists. Pyongyang’s sympathizers here were quick to seize on the fact that this was not an apology, because that gives them cover to continue to deny Pyongyang’s guilt. In America, this may be a fringe view, but it won’t be in South Korea. The empowerment of North Korea’s apologists is an important part of the political war between North and South.

In the end, the difference between apology and regret matters because of what it says about the prospects for peace. An admission and an apology — along with the acceptance of some consequence for one’s crime — is part of the justice victims deserve, and a necessary assurance that it won’t easily be repeated. Japan’s expressions of regret are, perhaps rightfully, rejected decades after the fact, yet North Korea’s “regret” is accepted uncritically. Ethno-nationalism plays a part in this, but so does South Korea’s relief at the relaxation of terror. That’s how blackmail works.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

I don’t want to make too much of this, because blaring K-pop and propaganda at a few hundred conscripts was never going to change the course of history. Nor do I want to make too little of this, because the North’s hyperbolic reaction suggests that it was very afraid of what the South had to say.

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman says in a slow, deliberate voice emanating from one of the banks of 48 speakers set up along the South Korean side of the military demarcation line. The messages can travel about 12 miles at night and about half that during the day, well into North Korean territory.

Another message notes that Kim Jong Un, who took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011, hasn’t yet traveled abroad or met a single foreign leader.

“President Park Geun-hye has .?.?. visited many countries since she became the president, including three visits to China,” one of the recorded messages says, referring to the South Korean president and her close relationship with Beijing, North Korea’s supposed patron. “However, Kim Jong Un hasn’t visited any other countries in the three-plus years since he became leader.”

At other times, the speakers play peppy southern K-pop songs like “Tell Me Your Wish” by Girls’ Generation. (“Tell me your wish, tell me your little dream, imagine your ideal type in your head, and look at me, I’m your genie, your dream, your genie.”) [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

There has been a rash of defections by North Korean soldiers recently, and their morale isn’t good, but it’s hard to know how messages like these affect morale and readiness, or whether they can help prevent war by persuading soldiers not to fight. The North calls “[p]sychological warfare . . . an open act of war against it.” This tactic clearly touched a nerve. It’s probably not the loudspeakers that North Korea fears, but the precedent. It fears that Seoul will use information operations as a deterrent through a more effective challenge to its control over information, such as radio broadcasting, or the expansion of independent cellular signals.

“For the North Koreans, the broadcasts are dangerous because this is about the survival of the regime,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator who has sat across the table from North Koreans on many occasions. [WaPo]

In his book, Dear Leader, Jang Jin-Sung describes his work inside the United Front Department, Pyongyang’s propaganda agency, with a well-staffed and well-equipped branch that runs a sophisticated propaganda operation inside South Korea, using every medium available to it. Jang, who defected to South Korea in 2004, probably knows more about the importance of propaganda to Pyongyang than anyone available to us.

[W]e must remember that the Supreme Leader Centred political system of the DPRK was constructed with lies, and its maintenance depends on it. The psychological dissonance brought on by confrontation with reality, in such a setup, is not to be underestimated.

That is also why the North Korean leadership is sensitive to and adamantly opposed to broadcasting and flows of information from the outside. The North Korean people today are no longer as they were under the reigns of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. While the Supreme Leader has grown younger, the people have become more mature. Today, the worth of the Supreme Leader’s divinity does not stack up to one dollar of foreign currency in the marketplaces.

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

Although South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasting is of a lesser intensity than in the past, the North Korean regime of the third generation is weaker than it was in the past, and the impact of the blow will be correspondingly greater. In fact, proclaiming an intention to declare war in response to cross-border broadcasting is tantamount to proclaiming how a Supreme Commander cannot trust even his frontline troops.

It is in the interest not only of North Koreans, but also of the South Korean people, to broadcast information across all of North Korea. For those nations whose quality of peacetime is what is great and cherished, piercing a border in this way – not with guns but with words of truth – is the most efficient way to bring parties to negotiations, and to achieve lasting security, co-prosperity and co-operation.

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Korean War II: It’s (probably) over for now, but it’s not over

They came, they talked, and they solved nothing, but after a tense weekend, at least Korea is not at war. As of this writing, it looks like representatives of the two Korean governments will continue to talk and solve nothing, except to calm South Korea’s foreign investors. The North will not admit that it laid the mines that forever maimed Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon, the South will eventually relent on blaring propaganda to a few hundred captive North Korean conscripts, and the North will continue to disseminate its propaganda inside South Korea in far more efficient ways. Eventually, Pyongyang will demobilize the army to help with the harvest. In a year, hardly anyone will remember this week.

Except, of course, for Kim Jung-Won and Ha Jae-Heon.

I’ve always been interested in the chronology of North Korea’s provocation cycles. As an analogue to recent events, the cycle that interests me most is the one leading up to the attack on the Cheonan in March 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that November. A review of the history preceding those attacks shows that although the first seven months of 2009 were filled with provocations, Pyongyang was relatively conciliatory for the rest of the year, and the early months of 2010 were a time of relative (and ultimately, deceptive) calm.

President Obama began 2009 with an inauguration speech that offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As if to reaffirm that peace is anathema to a regime founded on isolation and conflict, North Korea responded with a familiar cycle of provocations — a missile test (April), a nuclear test (May), a U.N. Security Council resolution (June) answered with another round of missile tests (July). Also during this period, the North Koreans announced that they had begun (April) and completed (November) reprocessing a batch of plutonium at Yongbyon — all in flagrant violation of George W. Bush’s deathbed accord of 2007, known here as Agreed Framework 2.0.

In August, North Korea released journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to Bill Clinton, released a South Korean businessman it had detained at Kaesong, and sent a high-level delegation to the funeral of Kim Dae-Jung (whose widow Kim Jong-Un very recently snubbed). In November, North Korea called on the U.S. to accept bilateral talks. These developments caused some journalists and analysts to declare a “charm offensive.”

(The other significant event of this period was the Great Confiscation of December 2009, which appears to have caused a degree of internal unrest in North Korea. I do not overlook this as another potential explanation for North Korea’s subsequent conduct. Over the last summer, there was also a spike in reports of internal dissent and resistance in the North.)

Then came January 2010, and North Korea’s New Year speech. Analysis of it followed the formula that “vagueness times mendacity divided by selection bias times preconception plus confirmation bias equals garbage with the predictive utility of an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope.” Accordingly, some analysts seized on an isolated reference to “good-neighborliness and friendship with other countries.” Given the events of 2009, Pyongyang must have known that this olive branch could only bear so much fruit, but for eleven more weeks, there was Peace in Our Time.

If you don’t see much of a pattern here, you’re not alone. What’s noticeable about the period leading up to March 26, 2010 is the relative absence of clashes between North and South Korean forces, and the rhetorical preponderance of conciliation over hostility, even as Pyongyang premeditated the murder of 46 young sailors. The most significant incident during this interlude was North Korea’s shelling of disputed, South Korean-controlled waters in January 2010. Then, North Korea backed away from direct confrontation when South Korean and U.S. forces were engaged and watchful. If that pattern holds today, Pyongyang will wait until Seoul lets its guard down and attack at an unexpected time, place, and manner. That is why this may be over for now, but it’s not over.

The attacks of 2010 were the most significant North Korean attacks since 1968. They also went mostly unanswered, and wrong-footed a U.S.-Korea alliance that found itself unable to deter them. Last week’s events marked the first North Korean artillery attack on the South Korean mainland for many years. One hopes that South Korea’s superficially forceful response will deter rational men in Pyongyang from greater outrages, but I doubt it. Even if the South Korean artillery had hit something or someone, that someone was expendable to Kim Jong-Un, and speakers blaring k-pop won’t deter much of anything, either. If North Korea’s political system really is addicted to confrontation, and if Pyongyang continues to gain confidence from the protection of a nuclear arsenal, the next provocations may set another grim precedent.

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Bullets Cross DMZ: Random Observations

By now, you’ve read the reports of what happened in the last few days, but here’s a quick recap. Last week, South Korea accused North Korea of planting mines near a South Korean border checkpoint, blowing the legs off two South Korean soldiers. Seoul’s response, which I found a bit asinine at the time, was to blare propaganda at a few hundred helpless North Korean conscripts. Yesterday, North Korea shelled the loudspeakers, South Korea fired back and evacuated some civilian villages near the shelling, and Kim Jong Un mobilized his military for war.

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First, can we please stop referring to shelling as artillery “exchanges?” It’s not a swap meet. (Update: The same goes for “trading artillery fire.” As if — North: I’ll give you two 76.2-millimeter rounds for one 155-millimeter round. South: Throw in a belt of 14.5-millimeter and you’ve got a deal.)

~   ~   ~

Having worked through the available evidence of Kim Jong Un’s psychology, I’m sincerely worried that he is willfully provoking what he expects (probably correctly) will be a limited war. A limited war is His Porcine Majesty’s easiest path to the legitimacy he is unlikely to attain through competent governance, religious piety, charisma, popular acclaim, or any other means. Even if he loses, he will be able (or thinks he will be able) to mischaracterize a defeat as a victory, and himself as the master strategist. At a time when Kim is purging the top ranks of his military, when even the security forces in the provinces are demoralized by the hatred and vengeance of those they torment, he needs a big enough event to unite the country against outside enemies. Is the limited artillery duel we’ve seen so far enough to achieve that? I doubt it.

My hope is that he wanted a reason to redeploy his forces to the front and disrupt whatever plans they might be forming. My fear is that we’re now in a pattern where the regime — possibly for psychological reasons, and possibly for more calculated ones — will engage in a long-term series of escalating provocations against the South. The South, in turn, has authorized disproportionate responses. The potential for miscalculation is obvious. Remember, in 2010, no one expected North Korea to do anything as rash as sinking a South Korean warship, or shelling a South Korean fishing village. Off-hand, I can’t recall a single occasion in recent decades when North Korea fired artillery with a bore larger than 14.5 millimeters against the South Korean mainland. Each provocation pushes the envelope just slightly. This may be the new normal.

~   ~   ~

I continue to feel that a military response to provocations at this level may make a few ajosshis feel good, but is useless as a deterrent. What deters Kim Jong Un is what weakens his grip on power. Clearly, it is ideas from South Korea that frighten him most. South Korea should threaten to expand broadcasting to North Korea if North Korean forces continue to attack the South. (Update: Related thoughts from The New York Times. Also, a valued reader writes: “Heck, they should expand broadcasting regardless.” Fair enough.)

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I’ve seen a number of predictions that Pyongyang will engage in additional provocations for the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. I’ve also read analysis that assumes that this will culminate in a nuclear or a missile test. So far, I haven’t seen satellite evidence suggesting that such a test is imminent, but there’s still time. The attacks of 2010 didn’t include any missile or nuclear tests, but were a distinct and closed cycle of their own. Pyongyang may have something very different in mind.

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Now that we’ve finally put to rest the nonsense that Kim Jong Un is an enlightened Swiss-educated reformer, let’s keep an account of all the scholars and reporters — John DeLury, Rudiger Frank, Alexandre Mansourov, and Jean Lee — who spent the better part of 2012 propagating this nonsense.

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A simple question: how many of those who noisily demand that South Korea sign a peace treaty with North Korea will at least have the decency to demand that North Korea stop its acts of war against the South? A week into Korean War II, there isn’t a peep of protest on Christine Ahn’s Twitter feed, but then, Ahn has always been a selective pacifist. The obvious question about a peace treaty is why anyone would expect North Korea to abide by one when it consistently violates an armistice. The real answer, of course, is that North Korea and its supporters abroad don’t really want peace; the regime is quite literally addicted to war. Without a continuous state of conflict, tension, and siege, there would be no justification for its existence, and no excuse for the unfavorable comparisons between its standard of living and South Korea’s. A peace treaty is merely incidental to their real goal, which is a peace treaty negotiation, and all the things North Korea would get in that negotiation — diplomatic recognition, security guarantees, the breaking of Seoul’s alliances, our agreement not to “slander” them (for their human rights atrocities, for example), and the lifting of sanctions, which would surrender the world’s remaining leverage and amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power.

~   ~   ~

South Korea has ordered the “partial” evacuation of Kaesong, shortly after after striking a deal to give North Korean slave laborers there a 5% wage hike. (In reality, the “wages” go straight into Kim Jong Un’s bank accounts.) That agreement came just days after the South accused North Korea of planting the mines that maimed two of its soldiers, and gave Pyongyang most of what it has unilaterally demanded. Yesterday’s evacuation was probably a precaution to protect the South Korean managers there. No doubt, South Korea fully intends to continue to profit from North Korea’s forced labor, and to bow to the demands of the appeasers and profiteers who exercise such an obvious influence on its policies. Although I had briefly harbored hopes that Park Geun-Hye would at least be principled toward North Korea, I’ve largely abandoned that hope by now. (For that matter, Park hasn’t demonstrated much competence as an executive, either.) Park has always been for Sunshine Lite, and still is. My error was to confuse consistency with principle. As long as South Korea continues to pay, indirectly, for the artillery and missiles aimed across its own borders, I can’t believe that its government is serious about defending its own land and people. And if Seoul isn’t serious about its defense, why I should be?

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Update: Remember when I wrote that silencing Park Sang-Hak wouldn’t end North Korea’s threats? Or when Professor Lee and I wrote this, back in November of 2014?

Pyongyang’s latest victory through intimidation and coercion carries unnerving implications for South Korea’s policy toward North Korea. Caving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail. North Korea’s long litany of threats will not end simply because of the South’s one-time compliance on the leaflets. In the past, Pyongyang has attempted to assassinate activists, threatened to blow up the presidential mansion, and attack the South’s major media outlets.

It may be prudent to move the balloon launches away from populated areas, in the unlikely event that the North does in fact respond militarily, but yielding to such threats is self-defeating both on principle and as a matter of practical policy. Using the national police to gag South Korean activists undermines the government’s foreign policy and violates their right to free speech. [New York Times]

Well, South Korea continues to block leaflet launches — an act that made it less free, but certainly doesn’t seem to have made it any safer.

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Revenge attacks demoralize North Korea’s security forces

Yesterday, Yonhap reported the possible purge of Won Tong-Yon, head of the United Front Department,* which handles North Korea’s propaganda. The report remains unconfirmed, but it would be consistent with reports that Kim Jong Un has put his 25 year-old sister, Kim Yo-Jong — known for her “eccentricity to the point of weirdness” — in charge of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. If so, Miss Kim may have a reason to consolidate control over her own fiefdom.

Won was said to have been a relative soft-liner, and Jang Song-Thaek was at the cutting edge of North Korea’s economic engagement with China, although Defense Minister Kim Yong-Chol was arguably a hard-liner. To the extent the purges show any ideological pattern, they do not suggest a softening of Kim Jong-Un’s style of governance.

Washington’s best North Korea scholars don’t agree on what the purges mean. Some say His Porcine Majesty has consolidated power and has confidence that he can purge whoever displeases him. Others say it indicates a lack of complete control. To others, it may yet convince the top cadres that serving Kim Jong-Un is a greater risk than plotting his Untergang. Judging by our next report, there is also growing doubt within the North Korean security forces. The Daily NK reports that more “safety agents, who act as police officers … are leaving their posts” to find safer and more lucrative work in the markets.

This comes as more agents are facing retaliation from angry residents who have fallen victim to their abuse of power during crackdowns and surveillance, Daily NK has learned.

“A lot of safety agents feel unsettled about the future, having been at the forefront of wielding abusive power against the public. So we’re seeing people quit their jobs,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “They say they’re worried about retaliation from residents who have fallen victim and are unable to conduct crackdowns as they would. More agents are looking for other jobs so they can make money,” she said.

Compared to the previous leadership, surveillance and control over residents has become more severe, leading to growing discontent and anger from the public, according to the source. This has challenged bad behavior from safety agents and contributed to their ‘early retirements’, she explained. 

Over the past few years, the country has seen a spike in attacks that were carried out by people seeking revenge against safety agents, the source said. “Just in the city of Chongjin, a few years ago, the head of a district safety office was clobbered in the back of the head, leading to immediate death,” she explained.

Security agents are no exception. A few years ago in the cities of Kimchaek and Hoeryong, security agents were stabbed to death, throwing the areas into turmoil. “According to investigations, the incidents were all based on personal grudges and revenge for other family members,” said the source. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK cites several specific examples of revenge attacks by angry North Korean citizens, including the stabbing deaths of security agents in Kimchaek and Hoeryong several years ago, and the recent beating death of a customs agent in Rajin.

In July, the Daily NK reported that a large brawl broke out between merchants and security agents in a market in Musan, and that a female rice trader, pushed to desperation by the extortionate demands of a Ministry of People’s Security agent, jumped off a building in protest. In 2012, it reported the revenge killings of “one official from the provincial NSA, one from the prosecutor’s office and two from the People’s Safety Agency” in Chongjin, during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. In 2010, it reported a wave of revenge attacks against the security forces following the Great Confiscation. 

In recent years, some in the security forces have become thugs and shake-down artists, targeting the families of refugees for a share of the remittances they receive from South Korea, or blackmailing “economic criminals” with threats of terms in labor camps.

As I’ve argued before, there’s probably much more resistance against the regime than most of us realize. This resistance remains fragmented, and is unlikely to threaten the regime’s survival until it coalesces around a political organization and a unifying, galvanizing ideology (most likely, cells of Christian believers operating underground churches, unions, news services, and humanitarian NGOs, who advocate unification with the South). A movement of this kind cannot form until North Koreans develop the means to communicate with each other, with some degree of security.

Still, last week’s report is the first I’ve read that these attacks had affected morale and retention in the security forces.

“Some safety agents say they can’t do this any longer. More of them are worried that although they might be up on a high horse now that situation may change at any point in the future,” the source reported. This is why, although it may be late in the game, some are choosing ‘safer’ options and seeking employment at trade companies, which are also more lucrative as well, she added.

Another source in the same North Hamkyung Province reported of similar sentiments shared among central and provincial administrative Party officials. Following the execution of key officials such as Jang Song Thaek and other high-ranking cadre members, officials are less ambitious about climbing up the ranks and more content with the status quo, he said. Being in higher ranking posts not only exposes them more to the leadership but also to the public.

“Safety agents these days talk about how in the mid ‘80s, when China first announced it would open up to reforms, people took revenge against malicious cadre,” he said. “They talk of some even being beaten to death,” the source added.

In my essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I posited that by sanctioning the regime and enabling the rise of the market economy, we could help effect a shift in North Korea’s economic and political balance of power, which would lure security agents out of the power structure and into accommodation with forces that were not necessarily loyal to the regime. I posited that as the people organized and gained strength from numbers, money, and organization, more security officials would refrain from repressive acts out of fear of retaliation or prosecution. This report suggests that such a dynamic may already be emerging.

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* For an insider’s view of how the UFD operates, read Jang Jin-Sung’s Dear Leader.

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Pro-North Korean group denies that it’s under investigation for tax evasion

According to the UPI, which in turn cites reports from Yonhap and SBS, one of America’s most infamous and influential pro-North Korean groups is under investigation “for tax evasion and political activities that violate U.S. tax laws.”

The nonprofit Korean American National Coordinating Council in New York is under investigation according to local Korean American and diplomatic sources, but it was unclear which government agency was conducting the full-scale investigation, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The investigation also is the first reported case of a probe into a group that previously has expressed views sympathetic to the Pyongyang regime. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

That’s more than a mild understatement.

Investigators arrived on Thursday at the office of KANCC in the Interchurch Center building near Columbia University to begin their query, South Korean television network SBS reported.

A New York-based diplomat who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity said the organization was under investigation because of an alleged violation – and that U.S. investigators were probing other organizations that have expressed pro-Pyongyang sentiments.

The mere expression of pro-Pyongyang sentiment, without more, is protected by the First Amendment, and would not be a basis for a criminal investigation in the U.S., but is illegal in South Korea. I wonder if that means our “diplomatic sources” are South Koreans. Clearly, the report doesn’t tell the whole story, but then, KANCC’s president was unavailable for comment when the story broke. He was in North Korea for the big Liberation Day celebrations.Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.02.20 PM

[KANCC President Yoon Kil Sang in Pyongyang last week. Front row, fourth from left]

KANCC has since posted an angry denial of Yonhap’s story, calling it a malicious lie and a total fabrication, threatening a libel suit, and demanding an apology. KANCC denies having been searched or even contacted by the feds. It claims that it merely advocates for human rights, peaceful reunification, and meetings of separated families. As early as 2003, after KANCC arranged for Suki Kim to travel to North Korea, its then-President, Michael Hahm, took exception to her characterization of it as “US-based organization of pro–North Korea activists.” (Kim’s story is well worth reading.)

I don’t know if KANCC is really under investigation or what for, and they’re innocent of tax evasion or any other crime until proven guilty. What’s incontrovertible is that KANCC is, at the very least, strongly sympathetic to North Korea. Its contribution to the North Korea human rights discourse has been to publish claims that the whole issue is a fabrication and a “racket,” criticizing the establishment of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul, and arguing that the world’s greatest human rights violator is (of course) the United States. Its relations with Pyongyang are, to use the Rodong Sinmun‘s quaint term, “compatriotic.”

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The reports don’t specify why the feds might be interested in KANCC’s political activities, but this public database has posted some of its tax returns online.* On its 2013 return, which is marked “open to public inspection,” KANCC claimed tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and described its work this way:

TO EXERCISE AND PROTECT THE PRIVILEGES AND INTEREST OF THE RESIDENTS OF KOREAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY IN THE NEW YORK, NEW JERSEY, CONNECTICUT AND TRI -STATE AREA, TO FOSTER A HEALTHY INTEREST IN THE CIVIC AFFAIRS OF THE COMMUNITY

Section 501(c)(3) grants tax-exempt status to organizations “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition,” but limits their ability to engage in political campaigning, lobbying, or — here’s the kicker — “carrying on propaganda.” Now, words don’t always mean in law what they mean in daily usage, and you should not read anything in this post as a legal opinion. I’m not a tax lawyer, and you can parse or stretch a legal definition of “propaganda,” but as far as the daily use of the term goes, I know propaganda when I see it:
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Post after post praises Kim Il-Sung, sows anti-American conspiracy theories, or generally portrays North Korea as an earthly paradise. The content consists almost entirely of pro-Pyongyang tracts, republished propaganda from Uriminzokkiri and KCNA, and assorted maniacal batshite (“Kim Il Sung, Iron-willed Commander,” “Pyongyang Mass Rally Marks Day of Struggle against US Imperialism,” “Information Songun politics Beneficial to People,” and “Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Caliphate vs BRICS“). Also, don’t miss the letter, published on KANCC’s site, that compares the U.S. to Josef Mengele and Unit 731.

What I did not find on KANCC’s web site is much evidence of its “civic affairs” work.

Interestingly enough, KANCC’s web site also caught the attention of the New York Times back in 2003, for its many “selections from the writings of the Great Leader, as Kim Il Sung is known, and his son, Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” KANCC’s then-President, Rev. Michael Hahm, told the Times he was “not happy with the site,” and that it was “run independently out of the group’s Washington office,” which did not return the reporter’s calls. And yet the web site doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 12 years.

UPI’s report claims the feds are also looking into KANCC’s contacts with North Korean officials, including a visit to the North Korean U.N. mission “on the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death in 2012 to deliver condolences,” and a possible attempt to contact members of Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong’s entourage during a visit to the U.S. last year.

These things, by themselves, would not necessarily violate U.S. law, either, although there are legal restrictions on contacts with foreign officials, which the Justice Department helpfully summarizes here. One of these is the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires “publicity agents” and “information-service employees” acting “subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official” to register with the Justice Department. I can’t say one way or another whether KANCC is acting under Pyongyang’s direction or control; perhaps it’s just independently sycophantic. According to DOJ records, however, it isn’t FARA registered.

On the other hand, there’s no question that KANCC officials have met with senior North Korean officials. KANCC’s 2013 tax return lists one Yoon Kil-Sang as the President of KANCC. For your reference and identification, here are two photos of Yoon from KANCC’s web site. The Korean Central News Agency lists a “Yun Kil Sang” as a frequent visitor to Pyongyang leading delegations of “Koreans in the U.S.”** The most recent such report is dated last Friday.

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In the KCNA photo below, Yoon is on the left, and Kim Yong Nam, President of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, is on the right. Pyongyang doesn’t usually give this kind of photo op to ordinary tourists or community activists.

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[Peace activism!]

Also, here’s Yoon (second from right) at the Liberation Day rally in Pyongyang.

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Here’s video grab of Yoon at a big North Korean rally at the DMZ (see this link for the Boston Globe‘s report on that rally).

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Unless my eyes deceive me, that’s also him in the center of the image below, wearing sunglasses and a black windbreaker, at a propaganda rally at Mt. Paektu, Kim Jong-Il’s mythical birthplace.

Yoon

[Let’s carry out Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il’s reunification philosophy!]

This KCNA report from January quotes Yoon praising His Porcine Majesty:

Kim Jong Un’s Personality Praised by Overseas Koreans Pyongyang, January 16 (KCNA) — Overseas Koreans are praising the personality of the dear respected Kim Jong Un as a great man. [….]

Overseas Koreans said in general that they felt “kind-heartedness” and “high-spiritedness” from Vice-Chairman Kim Jong Un when they were received by him after paying their respects to the bier of Kim Jong Il, chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission, displayed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the article noted, saying:

Yun Kil Sang, chairman of the Federation of Koreans in the U.S., said: His image gave other persons something comfortable. It gave a dignified yet gentle impression. When I looked at his face, I could feel that his hand shaking was based on warm sincerity, not casual manner.

KANCC’s officers were also behind this “open letter” to President Obama, calling on him to lift sanctions against North Korea, normalize relations with it, and (sit down for this) sign a peace treaty with it. The letter is dated December 2014, the same month President Obama accused North Korea of being behind the Sony hack and terrorist threat. The letter is signed by Moon J. Pak, as “Senior Vice President” of KANCC, and was posted on KANCC’s web site. It was also published by the rabidly pro-North Korean blog Minjok Tongshin, whose publisher, Roh Kil-Nam, is the recipient of the coveted (by some) Kim Il-Sung Prize, has a degree from Kim Il Sung University, and had visited the Workers’ Paradise a whopping 62 times as of last October.

According to this site, Pak’s open letter was also published as a full-page color ad in the New York Times last March. An ad like that could easily have cost $200,000. That’s about triple what KANCC reported to the IRS in total revenue in 2013 ($71,650, including $15,050 in “program service revenue, including government fees and contracts”) and $70,178 in expenses, leaving about $1,500 net. KANCC’s balance sheets and past tax returns report between $50,000 and $80,000 in gross income and almost no net. A group calling itself “Korean-Americans for Peace for the U.S.A. & North Korea & South Korea” lists 66 individual donors who supported the ad. The first three names are KANCC officers Yoon, Moon J. Pak (the author), and Michael Hahm. The letter also references a Korean-Americans for Change PAC, which reported total receipts of $7,650 to the Federal Election Committee in 2008. Did these individual donors really scrape together 200 grand for this ad? Hey, anything’s possible. KANCC reported no foreign donations on its 2013 return, and I have no evidence to the contrary, but I’ll never underestimate its influence again.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that KANCC violated its tax-exempt status or any other law. If there’s any substance behind UPI’s report, the legal process will decide that. Furthermore, most Americans would agree that the IRS shouldn’t target nonprofits for tax enforcement because it disapproves of their political views, although any law that grants tax exemption to the likes of KANCC is overdue for an amendment. My point is simply to document what KANCC stands for, and to illustrate why one should be wary of accepting self-serving claims of innocent peace activism at face value. The First Amendment protects your right to lick the feet of murderous totalitarians all you like, but it isn’t an exemption from the scrutiny and criticism of your fellow citizens for the repellent and — to use an archaic term I inexplicably cling to — unpatriotic views you express while doing so.

~   ~   ~

* The tax return is filed under the name “Korean American National Council Inc.,” but lists the same employer ID, and exactly the same income and expenses, as this balance sheet for the Korean American National Coordinating Council. Both list Kil Sang Yoon as President or “in care of name.” The tax return for the Korean National Council, Inc., gives an address of “475 Riverside Drive, Room/Suite 1369,” New York. The balance sheet gives an address of “475 Riverside Dr Ste 1368,” New York.

** There is an actual organization called the “Federation of Korean Associations, U.S.A.” It most certainly is not pro-North Korean.

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Is that a cabana you’re designing, or are you just happy to see me?

Curtis Melvin has made an unsettling discovery on Google Earth, at one of (probably) Kim Jong-Un’s palaces. Oh, my….

Ryongsong-phallus

Hey, that looks just like ….

As HRNK points out, this story has a less amusing side for the North Koreans who go hungry while His Porcine Majesty spends their lunch money on giant phalluses, and other “improvements” to his palaces.

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Kim Jong-Un, deterrence, and the psychological evidence

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.55 PM“Dear Leader, you are a great and beloved strange human being who is extremely odd and should fulfill the destiny of your ancestors,” said the cacophonous group of voices reverberating in Kim’s head. “You are the shining sun. You are a lunatic who is going to end the world. You should destroy South Korea. You look ridiculous right now. They must bow to the might of your nuclear arsenal. I love you, my son. You are an insane man whose death would benefit the entire world.” — The Onion, March 13, 2013

On Twitter lately, I’ve been having some fun at the expense of those who, at least until the 2013 nuclear test and the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, had advanced the “Swiss-educated reformer” theory of Kim Jong-Un’s governance. The thin reed supporting this theory was the emergence of a sybaritic lifestyle for a few well-connected merchants and officials; its greater folly was its assumption that the abandonment of socialist principle, the embrace of inequality, or significant economic reform (if ever realized) necessarily implied that political reform, or the easing of tensions, would follow.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. In the last year alone, Kim has carried out a series of brutal purges, continued a crackdown on cross-border flows of people and information, hacked nuclear power plants in South Korea, and made terrorist threats against the U.S. mainland. In the last week, we learned that his army planted anti-personnel mines outside a South Korean border post, that he has expanded his uranium enrichment program, and that he has executed yet another of his top officials.

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[Yonhap]

Yesterday, I wrote about the coming Korea missile crisis, and the fact that as Kim Jong-Un gains a more effective nuclear arsenal, our options to deter or defend against such provocations will narrow. This analysis presumed that Kim Jong-Un thinks rationally, because historically, when confronted with existential threats to their power, Kim’s father and grandfather chose to defer conflict and deal rather than fight. Nine years ago, we engaged in similar speculation about the psychology of Kim Jong-Il, whom the former CIA psychologist Jerrold Post called a “malignant narcissist” exhibiting “extreme grandiosity and self-absorption,” a lack of “capacity to empathize with others,” and a heightened risk of “major political/military miscalculation.” The Madman Theory served Kim II well.

From a coldly rational perspective, Kim Jong-Un must also believe that time is on his side, and that the longer he delays a confrontation with us, the more likely he is to prevail in one. But does the available evidence suggest that he is rational, and by whose definition? Certainly, North Korea’s recent behavior did not always seem rational. Not since 1968 has Pyongyang seemed so unafraid to attack South Korea and the United States directly. In 2010, whoever was in charge after Kim Jong-Il’s stroke attacked South Korea twice, killing 50 of its citizens. Those were dangerous acts of war that warranted a military response, but their scale seemed calculated to provoke something less than full-scale war. Kim may well calculate that a limited war would kill a few hundred people of no consequence to himself, but would not dethrone him. Such an outcome could be His Porcine Majesty’s best opportunity to claim credit for a bold victory — and the martial credentials he so desperately wants. Kim may see the prospect of a limited war as more inducement than deterrent.

From this perspective, Kim Jong-Un’s violent provocations are rational, because any action that contributes to his hold on power is rational to him. As the psychologist Ian H. Robertson, Ph.D., puts it, “The principle (sic) motivation for Kim will be to carry on the family business.” So far, Pyongyang has a flawless record for calculating the risk that its provocations would draw a serious, regime-destabilizing response (history suggests that “never” is a perfectly safe answer). Similarly, Kim’s purges of his own ruling class, which appear to be alienating it, might be irrational acts of violent impulse, or a rational response to real internal threats to his hold on power.

So what do psychologists say about Kim Jong-Un’s mental state, notwithstanding the difficulty of assessing a subject without examining him in person? Let’s begin with the CIA’s assessment, as conveyed by former CIA official and diplomat Joseph DiTrani.

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Former Assistant Secretary of State (and OFK favorite) Kurt Campbell reports similar conclusions.

“We went to great pains to interview almost everyone – classmates, others – to try to get a sense of what his character was like,” Campbell said. “The general recounting of those experiences led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur.” [Washington Post, Max Fisher]

So that’s one thing The Daily Mail seems to have gotten right.

Robertson believes that Kim “is behaving rationally,” but that his survival depends on “maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world, and empowering his impoverished people with images of military power.” The bad news is that Kim can’t be appeased. The good news is that this implies an interest in stability. What follows is much less reassuring.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly feels god-like because of the drug-like effects — the chemical messenger dopamine is a key player — that power has on his brain. Power is an aphrodisiac which casts a spell of charisma around the holder and bewitches those he has power over, and if that be millions of people, so be it.

A former North Korean soldier interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight last night said that he and everyone else he knew completely believed the world view of the country’s leadership. This held that North Korea was poor because of the unfair persecution by South Korea, USA and Japan, and that it was in constant threat of being destroyed by these enemies, which is why it had to have its nuclear weapons.

And that is the second difference between Kim Jong-Un and other world gang leaders — his power is supercharged by nuclear weaponry. This not only affects his brain but also empowers millions of his soldiers and citizens whose otherwise drab and miserable lives are given this drug-like fix which is re-ignited every time they hear the national anthem played on television to images of ballistic missiles blasting off to destroy their enemies.

Animals low in a pecking order –— powerless, in other words — are more likely to take and become addicted to cocaine if offered it than are those at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Cocaine acts on the brain in the same way as power does and to the powerless, impoverished North Koreans, these repeated images of mushroom clouds and military aggression are — almost literally — equivalent to repeated intoxicatingly-rewarding cocaine fixes which bind them emotionally to their leader and make everything else seem unimportant in comparison.

So, while Kim Jong-Un was a sane adolescent, power is such a strong drug that it will have changed him fundamentally. Excessive, unconstrained power makes people feel over-confident, blind to risk, inclined to treat other people as objects, tunnel-visioned, narcissistic and protected from anxiety. These are all real effects, as biologically driven as those caused by any powerful drug. [Psychology Today]

Although I doubt that the world view Robertson attributes to North Koreans holds true of most of those living outside Pyongyang, it’s probably an accurate reflection of those Kim interacts with daily, and on whose loyalty his control depends. Robertson thinks this dopamine addiction may distort Kim’s judgment, just as it caused Hitler to misjudge the risks that eventually destroyed Germany. (It’s also reminiscent of the reactor of irrational groupthink that encased Emperor Hirohito in the 1930s.)

Robertson sees Pyongyang’s provocations as “a rational strategy,” but only for feeding the dopamine addiction of its loyal subjects. Viewed this way, extorting concessions and aid from us is not as important an end as the extortion itself. Our concessions are merely the post-coital validation of the dopamine high. (There is evidence in North Korean propaganda to support this theory.) As with any addiction, as the addict’s tolerance rises, he needs a higher dose to get his fix.

But the most worrying symptom of power in the current crisis is its god effects. Gods are invulnerable. Gods are not constrained by the laws of nature. Gods are immortal.

We should be worried.

Separately, Robertson offers the slightly less alarming assessment that Kim “is unlikely to be as ruthless as a guerrilla fighter, like his grandfather,” because of his privileged upbringing, but that his propensity for violence “depends on how far he feels he must go to consolidate his position.” Somehow, Robertson defines this behavior as “rational.”

And as much as I’d prefer not to believe this, I have to concede that it makes sense. Kim’s behavior so far validates it; so do more historical examples than I can count. If that’s so, each year that passes will give Kim Jong-Un more bombs, longer range, and the power to harm more people. Meanwhile, our ability to deter him will diminish. There will be no appeasing him, because only risk, conflict, and provocation can satiate his addiction.

Of course, the same was probably also true of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to varying degrees, too. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, at critical moments, they were rational enough to defer confrontation for another day. Perhaps Kim can still be conditioned to learn that dopamine-seeking behavior will draw consequences that weaken, not strengthen, his hold on power. The risks of this are obvious; none of the options are good. Our options today are worse than they were ten years ago, much worse than they were twenty years ago, and much better than they’ll be five years from now. Confronting Kim now seems less risky than alternatives we know won’t work, and which seem to be leading us toward a historic catastrophe.

That’s almost as grim an assessment as that of B.R. Myers, who has written that war is likely inevitable. It warns us that nothing is so urgent as terminating Kim’s cycle of thrill-seeking — even if that means terminating Kim Jong-Un’s misrule — before he gains the means to destroy South Korea and Japan, to threaten us directly, and to share his weapons with other madmen. As Kim’s addiction advances, anything will be enough to set him off — a satirical film, that piece in The Onion I tweeted the other daya conference in downtown Washington D.C.a shower of harmless leaflets, or a symbolic vote in the U.N. General Assembly. Even submitting to Pyongyang’s censors could not prevent war if Kim Jong-Un is simply driven toward conflict. This may be our last chance to break that cycle, and to prevent the next Korean War. That is probably true whether Kim Jong-Un is rational or not.

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Mr. President, You’re no Jack Kennedy: The Coming Korean Missile Crisis

In October 1962, the United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union over Khrushchev’s deployment of nuclear capable missiles to Cuba. The Cuban crisis has been in my thoughts recently because of how it compares to the Korean nuclear crisis as it is today, and how it will be in January 2017. While most attention is on Iran, the consensus is quietly shifting to the view that North Korea is at the verge of nuclear breakout. Furthermore, President Obama seems fully prepared to leave office without a serious response to this. That means that, barring some miraculous intervention, the North Korean missile crisis will soon look much more like 1962 than 1994.

The urgent question for us is whether we can afford to simply tolerate this.

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[Missile silo, Hwadae County, via Google Earth, July 2015]

Let’s review some of those similarities and differences. Like the Cuba crisis, the short-range missiles of a former Soviet client state are one potential means to deliver a nuclear weapon, although the former client state’s Il-28 bombers are a secondary means. Like the Cuba crisis, a perception currently exists — fairly or unfairly — that the American President is “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations … too intelligent and too weak.” (Yet the Kennedy Library is probably correct in its implicit assessment that history approves of Kennedy’s conduct during the crisis.)

Unlike the North Korean missile crisis, there was no hotline between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1962. Unlike the North Korean crisis, the United States had recently directly threatened Cuba’s regime by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion. The opposite is true of North Korea, which recently carried out a series of deadly attacks against our South Korean allies.

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[West Sea long-range missile site, Cholsan County, via Google Earth, March 2015]

Unlike the North Korean crisis, a nuclear superpower was directly involved and on the opposite side in the Cuban crisis. Unlike the North Korea crisis, in 1962, the United States was within range of an opposing party’s nuclear weapons (so were the cities of Western Europe). There is still substantial debate about how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, or whether it can fit any of them on its medium or short-range missiles, but some experts believe it can already nuke Seoul or Tokyo. In 1962, there was no such thing as missile defense; today, a relatively small North Korean arsenal faces an imperfect missile defense system, although North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons have probably represented a greater threat since at least the 1980s, and probably still do.

The critical difference, however, is that in 2017, we will know much less about how rational our adversary is.

For Pyongyang, the consequence of a less-than-fully-successful attack is the execution of OPLAN 5027 and ends in the destruction of His Porcine Majesty and his stockpiles of fine wines and Emmental cheese. Thus, as matters stand today, a rational North Korean leader would not launch a first nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. But as North Korea expands its arsenal, our ability to deter a first strike, or to defend South Korea and Japan against one, will continue to decline. For now, North Korea’s short and medium-range missile are the greater threat. As far as we know, North Korean missiles can’t reach the United States — yet — although its container ships and cargo planes can.

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[Short-range missile site, Yontan County, via Google Earth, September 2014]

If one views Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea as driven by rational judgments — I’ll also review the evidence for the other alternative, later this week — his most rational choice is to delay a wider confrontation while he builds his arsenal. Once he possesses an effective nuclear arsenal, he will have the freedom of action to engage in a series of escalating provocations that gradually achieve his objectives — the lifting of sanctions, de facto recognition as a nuclear state, economic and political independence from China, the removal of U.S. forces from the region, and the finlandization of South Korea. Time is on his side. The longer he delays this confrontation, the more likely he will prevail.

That is how Kim’s predecessors have calculated matters historically. Although the U.S. and South Korea legitimately worried that their North Korean counterparts were dangerous, unpredictable, or even irrational, both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il deferred conflict when they believed their positions to be inferior.

Kim would also have a motive to portray himself as irrational, to gain a negotiating advantage over his adversaries. American presidents have done this, too.

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace. – Richard Nixon, to H.R. Haldeman

Yet when Kim Il-Sung believed he faced a real danger of a U.S.-South Korean attack, he met with Jimmy Carter, and the eventual result was Agreed Framework 1. When Kim Jong-Il believed that financial sanctions would deprive him of the means to feed and pay the people who kept him in power, he acceded to Agreed Framework 2. In both cases, at each critical moment, the North Korean leaders at that time calculated that their best available option was a deal. In both cases, North Korean leaders subsequently calculated that they could get away with cheating on the deal, thus progressing toward a nuclear status without the consequences of that.

When Kim Jong-Un concludes that he has an effective nuclear arsenal, this calculus will shift. Thus, there is no more urgent task for us than preventing Kim from building an effective nuclear arsenal before his deterrent overmatches our own. If we fail, the strategic interests of the United States will also shift, and may favor at least a partial disengagement from the region, with U.S. ground forces and as many civilians as possible leaving South Korea and Japan, and the forces that remain (mostly air and naval forces, and missile defense units) moving into more hardened facilities. That assumes, of course, that South Korea does not accede to North Korean demands to withdraw them.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

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[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.

 

 

Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

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[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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NYC insurer agrees to $271K penalty for insuring North Korean ships

This afternoon, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets control announced that as part of a settlement, Navigators Insurance Company has agreed to pay OFAC a civil penalty of $271,000 for 48 sanctions violations involving Iran, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea. Navigators is a New York-based provider of maritime insurance. It also had a branch in London, which evidently decided to cut costs by skimping on lawyers. Here’s how that worked out for them.

Between May 8, 2008 and April 1, 2011, Navigators and its London, U.K. branch (“Navigators U.K.”) issued global protection and indemnity (“P&I”) insurance policies that provided coverage to North Korean-flagged vessels and covered incidents that occurred in or involved Iran, Sudan, or Cuba—some of which led to the payment of claims. Navigators did not have a formal OFAC compliance program in place at the time it engaged in these apparent violations, and personnel within Navigators U.K. misinterpreted the applicability of OFAC sanctions regulations.

Between May 8, 2008 and February 18, 2011, Navigators provided insurance coverage to North Korean-flagged vessels under 24 P&I insurance policies and collected $1,142,237 in premium payments in relation to these policies. In addition, between February 23, 2009 and October 11, 2010, Navigators paid seven claims totaling $12,236 in relation to these policies. The base penalty amount for this set of apparent violations was $577,237. [OFAC]

In considering the amount of the penalty, Treasury considered that Navigators knew that these policy-holders were sanctioned, was “a commercially sophisticated financial institution,” and “did not have a formal OFAC compliance program in place at the time” of the violations. It also considered that Navigators self-disclosed the violation, and that once Treasury came knocking, Navigators cooperated and took remedial action.

The point being: if you do business with North Korea, good lawyers are a wise investment.

One of the few things our North Korea sanctions still do, specifically Section 2 of Executive Order 13466, is to prohibit U.S. persons from “owning, leasing, operating, or insuring any vessel flagged by North Korea.” That executive order was a place-holder for what remained in place as President Bush lifted most of our sanctions against Pyongyang, and removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in exchange for Kim Jong Il’s promise to disarm.

Seven years and two nuclear tests later, we’ve just seen the third action in one busy month to sanction North Korean shipping, following the EU’s designation of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and the U.S. designation of Chinpo Shipping. This is enough data to show a pattern — Treasury is concentrating on North Korean shipping, and the EU might be, although it’s probably too early to say how broad, persistent, coordinated, or effective this effort will be, or how quickly the administration would back off for any deal Pyongyang offers.

With Pyongyang hinting that it will test some sort of nasty device this fall, feel free to insert your own “shot across the bow” pun in the comments.

The focus on shipping is curious in light of how little Treasury has done to North Korea’s banks recently, with the exception of the 2013 blocking of the Foreign Trade Bank. Surely Treasury doesn’t think shipping sanctions are a way to hurt Pyongyang without antagonizing Beijing. No, I didn’t think they’d think that:

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 8.52.26 PM

[As of 8:51 p.m. on August 6, 2015]

One important sign to watch for is whether senior U.S. officials will go on tour to enlist other governments to support a new enforcement effort. The action against Banco Delta Asia wasn’t effective just because we sanctioned a single dirty bank, but because Stuart Levey and Danny Glaser met with bankers and finance ministers across Asia and Europe and politely warned them about the risks of doing business with Pyongyang. Today, we tend to overlook the role of financial diplomacy in the success of the BDA effort. Like good diplomats, Levey and Glaser wore their velvet gloves when they shook hands. But anyone could feel that the iron fist within was BDA.

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Famine, food policy, and the lost lessons of history

A drought, exacerbated by disastrous agricultural policies, causes widespread famine. A divided Congress, unsure about feeding an enemy, reluctantly agrees to send aid. A paranoid, totalitarian government obstructs the delivery of the aid, infiltrates and spies on aid organizations, and diverts food from starving children to a loyal elite. Desperate victims resort to cannibalism.

Back in America, politics continues to intrude — the hard right wants to starve a Marxist-Leninist government into submission, while the hard left sympathizes with the regime and accuses aid workers of blaming it unfairly to undermine it. It’s not North Korea in the 1990s, or today. It’s Russia in 1921, and the hero of this tragedy is Herbert Hoover, who headed a humanitarian relief agency before his presidency.

The analogy holds up brilliantly until, at the 30 minute mark, Hoover’s deputy confronted undeniable evidence of diversion and obstructionism. He sent Hoover a cable, knowing that the Cheka would intercept and read it, recommending that no more aid be delivered unless the obstructionism ended immediately. The Soviets, knowing what Hoover was made of, backed down. The aid flowed again, and Russia’s famine ended — for a while, at least — when the next harvest came in.

There is no guarantee that Kim Jong-Il would have responded to a similar challenge the way Lenin did, although we’ve seen recently that North Korea is sensitive to public criticism of its treatment of its people. But the question is a counterfactual; no one of Herbert Hoover’s stature and character came to help the people of North Korea, although Andrew Natsios might have been that man had the U.N. not been in overall control. The fact that the U.N. does not produce men like Herbert Hoover and Andrew Natsios, and that the U.S. government only seldom does, goes far to explain why North Korea is still in a food crisis today.

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Switzerland sells luxury watches to Kim Jong-Un, despite U.N. sanctions and food shortages

Throughout North Korea’s Great Famine, as millions of North Koreans either starved to death or watched their loved ones die, suppliers across Europe willingly sold Kim Jong-Il millions of dollars’ worth of luxury cars, yachts, cognac, and Swiss watches. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council recognized the obscenity of this practice by adopting Resolution 1718, which first banned the export of luxury goods to North Korea.

Among European nations, probably none has done more than Switzerland to enable the democidal kleptocracy of North Korea’s rulers. It served both as Kim Jong-il’s banker, and as a willing supplier of luxuries. According to Vanity Fair, Bureau 39 managed “multi-billion-dollar personal bank accounts in Switzerland and other private banking havens around the world” for Kim. Kim’s former Ambassador to Switzerland, Ri Su-Yong, is also said to have played a key role in the regime’s Swiss finances before his promotion to Foreign Minister. North Korean refugees have called on Switzerland to freeze those accounts.

In 2013, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry claimed that its exports to North Korea had fallen to just $76,000 per year. But as NK News’s Leo Byrne reports, Kim Jong-Un is on another Swiss watch-buying spree, even as 70 percent of North Koreans are “food insecure,” and as the World Food Program asks foreign donors for $111 million to feed North Korean infants, children, and pregnant women.

North Korean imports of Swiss watches rebounded to their highest levels in years in the first six months of 2015, according to official figures from the ITC Trade Map.

Swiss exports of the luxury items dropped to zero for the whole of 2014, however have since rebounded to nearly $80,000 since the start of the year. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

That is to say, North Korea spent as much on Swiss watches in the first half of 2015 as it spent in all of 2013. Byrne notes that the jump in exports “coincides with the opening of Pyongyang’s new airport terminal, where watches from Switzerland appear to be on sale.” KCNA recently published these photos of Kim Jong-Un — upgraded by me, and you’re welcome — touring one of the duty-free shops where watches were on sale.

watches4 watches3 watches2 watches1

Those photos, as lovely a juxtaposition as they are, did not show the watches in sufficient detail to reveal their cost or their origins. That question is now resolved.

“Air Koryo watches (for man) – Swiss made – price: (US$220) – they said it is a joint venture product with Swiss company – Sells in new Terminal 2 Pyongyang international airport,” Flickr user Jaka Parker writes under a recently taken picture of one of the watches.

Not the most expensive watch that’s been spotted in North Korea, but you can buy a lot of corn for that. Here’s the photo:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 8.50.04 AM

Byrne’s report did not specify that North Korea imported the watches directly from Switzerland, but his report relies on International Trade Centre (ITC) data published by each exporting country, which implies a direct transfer

Although the Security Council resolution makes no distinction between luxury goods imported for domestic consumption and those imported for resale, the Pyongyang duty-free shop may well be a front for allowing the regime to claim that it is only importing the watches for resale, while gifting its elite with most of the inventory.

The U.N.’s ridiculously short list of luxury items does not list watches, but does list “jewelry of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal.” Switzerland is not an EU member, but it is surrounded by EU states, and the EU list is instructive. It lists “[l]uxury clocks and watches and their parts.” Thus, with the sole exception of its refusal to sell Kim Jong-Un a ski lift, Switzerland continues to be an outlier among European nations for its failure to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and for its irresponsible and unethical trade with North Korea.

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In North Korea, prostitution used to be a survival strategy. Now, it’s just another racket.

The Great Famine of the 1990s changed North Korean society so profoundly that we are still trying to understand the breadth and depth of that change. During and after the famine, millions of North Koreans grasped at any survival strategy necessary to feed themselves. Those who did not change, and whom the state did not feed, died. For thousands of North Korean women, prostitution was the survival strategy of last resort to feed themselves, and often, their children.

In Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, the sex trade was invisible to the outside world. That began to change when Chinese traffickers and johns forced thousands of female famine refugees into the sex trade. By the end of the great famine, prostitution had become stealthily ubiquitous inside North Korea. It also became more organized and more predatory, with state officials playing a growing role its patronage and protection.

In Hamheung in 2008, a number of high-ranking party officials were accused of patronizing a tea house that also sold sex, and for protecting it against police interference. In Hyesan in 2009, the manager of a state-run inn frequently patronized by central party officials was arrested for pimping women and girls, some in their mid-teens. North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform” drove more women into the sex trade. By 2010, prostitution in Chongjin had been organized by “couple managers” who matched customers, often soldiers, with sex workers, often female university students, and sometimes women who had become dependent on drugs. Last year, the manager of a North Korean factory in China was accused of pimping out female factory workers.

The reports do not suggest that the state has consciously chosen to tolerate or profit from the sex trade as a matter of policy. The security forces periodically crack down on the sex trade, but inevitably, when corrupt authorities attempt to police a profitable trade, the authorities begin to see that trade as just another way to supplement their pay. More fundamentally, in a society where officials are the law, where enforcement is arbitrary, and where the state profits from trade at least indirectly, it can be hard to tell the difference between corruption and state policy. Today, the Daily NK reports that prostitution is increasingly run by well-connected businessmen and protected by the officials they’re connected with:

The sex industry in North Korea is becoming more systematic in large cities, as the number of pimps who lure in young workers is on the rise, and Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] officials who are tasked with cracking down on sex work are looking the other way, leaving the door open for prostitution around the clock, Daily NK has learned.

This is the first report I’ve seen of organized prostitution in the capital.

“In Pyongyang and other major cities, more professional prostitution rings that use young women to make money are surfacing,” a source in South Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “People who run these operations bribe everyone from MPS agents to night patrol members under the same unit so they can do business.”

As is the case in South Korea, prostitution in North Korea tends to congregate in neighborhoods near train stations.

“In areas like Hamheung, Chongjin, and other large cities, if you go to train stations and areas around the marketplace, you’ll easily see older women approaching men and asking if they’d like ‘temporary lodging,'” he said. “They usually go up to well-dressed officials who seem to be on business trips or military officials, telling them they have full amenities (code for room and board and women of all ages).”

Although the price differs by region, mostly for women in their early teens and 20s, it costs roughly 40,000 to 50,000 KPW [5-6 USD], while for those in their 30s, it’s about 20,000 to 30,000 KPW [2.5-3.7 USD] The women who direct customers to the facility typically get a 30 percent cut, while the homeowner and sex worker split up the remaining sum. The latter two will for the most part make at least 10,000 KPW [1.2 USD] per case, according to the source.

“These days since sex businesses receive protection from crackdown agents, the industry has been growing, leading to squabbles over customers,” the source said. “With more operations up and running, there are even allotted schedules. During the day, all businesses run together, while at night, the hours are divided into early and late operations.

Yet again, the reports suggest that regime officials both patronize and protect the sex trade:

Party cadres and officials in the judicial system are frequent clients of sex services, and many venture out to places like Pyongyang’s Munsuwon and high-end public bathhouses such as ‘Eundeokwon’ with prostitutes, said the source. In the North, there are baths designated specifically for married couples and can only be used after national IDs are verified.

Some officials also use the sex trade to entrap and extort johns.

Also profiting from the business are safety officials, who not only receive bribes for turning a blind eye, they sometimes use pretty women to draw customers into the ‘temporary lodging’ facility and catch them in the act, he asserted. Then, they blackmail the clients for large sums of money or in some cases, call up for regular bribes. If customers do not comply, the officials report them and use it as an opportunity to add more ‘points’ and get a leg up at work.

North Korean society’s acceptance of prostitution will probably remain until long after unification; after all, prostitution still carries on more-or-less openly in South Korea, under terms that can also be very exploitative. Different societies take different views on whether the sex trade, at least between consenting and unmarried adults, is inherently evil, but the conditions in which North Korean women must sell their bodies is unquestionably evil. Their working conditions are horrible — for the obvious reasons, of course, but also for the general lack of health care available to those who became pregnant, or contract STDs. Some turn to addictive drugs, in the false hope that they can protect them from contracting disease.

The role of state officials in organizing and profiting from the sex trade is repellant, but still not as repellant as the state’s role in creating the conditions that force women into prostitution to begin with. Women who ought to be doctors should not be sex workers. Of North Korea’s many tragedies, there may be none greater than all the human potential destroyed by its unjust and unequal political system.

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The rise of North Korea’s dissident culture

Totalitarian states have always understood the power of culture. Historically, they have required culture to serve the state. Also historically, once they lost control of culture, they also eventually lost control of everything else. In the 1930s, during the worst excesses of Stalinism, intellectuals, whether Soviet or western, seldom denounced the system. A decade or two later, however, one could already hear Soviet composers expressing disillusion, alienation, and loss — without words, of course — in the dark, mourning, and menacing notes of Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony and Shostakovich’s 11th.

By the 1970s, some of the Soviet Union’s leading cultural figures went into exile, including the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, and poets Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Galich. From their exile, they advocated for political change in their homeland. Some of them lived to see it. Others dissented as they could from within, such as the writer and playwright Vaclav Havel. Documentaries have been made about Shostakovich’s struggles against the censors; that the authorities had made him a global celebrity during World War II may have saved his life.

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Sun Mu’s parody art: Let us endure hardship with a smile!”

In North Korea, too, culture was made to serve the state, but today, culture is also challenging the state. For years, news reports have described the widespread proliferation of banned South Korean popular culture inside North Korea, even inside the barracks of the Korean Peoples’ Army. The state no longer trusts its own cultural works, either. This year, the state saw a terrifying reflection of itself in the feudal landlords of its revolutionary music and banned it. At most, however, this work represents an indirect challenge to the state.

That is changing, too. The paintings in this post are the works of “Sun Mu” (not his real name), a former propaganda artist in North Korea.

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Among North Koreans in exile, a culture of dissent is forming among artists, poets, and writers. They are challenging the state directly, and on explicitly political terms.

Probably the leading such intellectual is Jang Jin-Sung, a former court poet in North Korea, now an author, activist, and founder of a dissident news site. Jang has become one of the most important political thinkers among North Korean dissidents in exile. Here is his poem, “The Executioner.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.36.32 AMWherever people are gathered

there are gunshots to be heard.

Today, as the crowd looks on
a man is executed.

‘’You are not to feel any sympathy!
Even when he’s dead, we must kill him again!’’

The loudspeakers’ words are interrupted.
Bang! Bang!
The rest of the message is delivered.

Why is it that today
the crowd is silent?

His crime: to steal a bag of rice.
His sentence: ninety bullets in his heart.

His occupation: farmer.

Separately, the L.A. Times profiles North Korean refugee and author Lee Kay-yeon, who began to question the North Korean system because of the famine, and its failure to provide medical care for her sick mother. Unlike Jang, Lee was not a writer in North Korea.

In South Korea, she has found refuge in poetry. In May, she released her second collection under the title “Waiting for Mom.” The collection is now available only in Korean, but Lee says she is working on finding a publisher for an English version.

After arriving in Seoul at age 24, having never written anything except school assignments, Lee began to spend her evenings in the new and unfamiliar city jotting down her thoughts and experiences. When she showed her journals to friends, they said her writing sounded like poetry.

Like that of many Korean poets, Lee’s work is heavy on metaphors related to the natural world. Flowers are a strong motif, symbolizing untarnished beauty, as well as cycles of life and death. Rice, Korea’s staple food item, represents the difference between survival and starvation, warmth and cold, comfort and destitution.

Her verses contain sparse, vivid language about themes such as the division of families between South and North and longing for faraway loved ones. One poem of hers, titled “Birthday,” has one verse that reads, “Today is mom’s birthday … a morning breeze blows through my open door, but mom is nowhere to be seen.” [L.A. Times]

Any poetry is exceedingly difficult to translate without losing its rhymes, rhythms, allegories, and literary nuances. This strikes me as extraordinarily challenging in the case of Korean poetry. Still, the works of North Korean writers are gaining greater international recognition.

In 2012, a group of defector writers formed North Korean Writers in Exile and gained official recognition from PEN International, a body that promotes literature around the world, with many prominent writers as members.

Some defector-writers are making waves in the mainstream. In November, novelist Kim Jung-ae became the first defector to win the Korean Novelists Assn.’s best new writer award. Also last year, Jang Jin-sung, who was a poet laureate under former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, released a widely read memoir, “Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea,” about his close encounters with North Korea’s leadership and perilous escape to China.

The new wave of recognition comes a decade after one defector, Kang Chol-hwan, found a broad readership with his memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” The book led to Kang’s garnering an invitation to the White House in 2005 to meet President George W. Bush.

The thought of an artist challenging North Korea’s system from within is still unthinkable, of course, but this does not mean that dissident art cannot have an impact on North Korean society. In the Soviet Union, banned works were reproduced by hand and passed around as samizdat. If South Korean culture can slip past North Korean censors and find an audience, the same will eventually be possible for the works of dissident North Korean artists, writers, and poets in exile.

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Obama Administration plans N. Korea human rights push at U.N., but is it too late?

Had you asked me two months ago how a deal between the Obama Administration and Iran would affect North Korea policy, I’d have answered that it would preoccupy Congress through September, and that after that, things would pick right up where they left off.

How wrong I was. The Iran deal continues to dim the odds of another Agreed Framework with North Korea by drawing so many unflattering comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework as to destroy its legacy. Republicans hold up the 1994 deal as a paragon of diplomatic malpractice and say the Iran deal is 1994 all over again. John Kerry, cognizant that the results of the Agreed Framework speak for themselves, is trying to uncouple this analogy by conceding its failure, and insisting that the State Department has learned its lesson. (Support for the Iran deal is dropping anyway.) One can only hope Democrats will remember to throw George W. Bush’s equally disastrous Agreed Framework of 2007 in the face of a future Republican president who tries to repeat it. This history doesn’t give us much confidence in State’s capacity to learn from its errors, but it would take some chutzpah for Kerry to grasp for Agreed Framework 3 anytime soon.

A second unexpected consequence of the Iran deal is the provocation of an unforced (and potentially decisive) error by the Pyongyang regime — a series of public declarations that it doesn’t want a denuclearization deal. The North Koreans may be accomplished and compulsive liars, but they aren’t always sophisticated ones. Smarter tyrants would have milked this administration for more aid and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze deal, and cheated their way to Inauguration Day. Kim Jong-Un probably doesn’t feel the need to do that, as The Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale explains, because he isn’t feeling much pressure to. My special commendation to Mr. Gale for getting this part right:

Some observers say that the lack of leverage is because sanctions on North Korea are far weaker than those imposed on Iran. Chun Young-woo, a former South Korean negotiator at the six-nation talks process that for several years tried to coax North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions, says there’s plenty of room to tighten the screws, such as further “secondary sanctions” on companies that do business with the country.

“If we are going to try diplomacy again it’s necessary to change North Korea’s strategic calculus with biting sanctions,” he says.

U.S. officials say that they are working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world. North Korea sanctions enforcement bills have also been submitted to the U.S. House and Senate. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Let’s return to that topic later in this post. First, however, let’s turn to Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who has published an important story for purposes of the next 18 months. Fifield reports that six years and two nuclear tests after President Obama’s inauguration, the administration has finally had an epiphany — that Kim Jong-Un isn’t interested in negotiating his nuclear disarmament after all. (South Korea may have reached the same epiphany.) This epiphany has caused the administration to consider a new strategy.

The Obama administration is instead focusing on human rights to further isolate North Korea, encouraged by the outbursts this approach has elicited from Kim’s stubbornly recalcitrant regime — apparently because the accusations cast aspersions at the leader and his legitimacy. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Fifield then quotes Andrei Lankov, who characterizes human rights advocacy as “the next political infatuation.” It’s the sort of statement that causes me to wonder, as do more than a few of my friends, what has come over Andrei lately. It’s a statement that offends those of us whose infatuations are anything but transitory, and who’ve done years of hard work to keep this issue in the public’s eye.

This [pressure] is likely to increase as a U.N. committee reports back in October on a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations and seeking to refer its leaders to the International Criminal Court. It comes after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry released a landmark report last year, detailing abuses including torture and imprisonment in labor camps for political crimes, forced abortions and infanticide.

The administration intends to push for a Security Council resolution to “keep the issue alive” and “continue the drumbeat of criticism” despite its expectation that China will veto it.

“I think this focus on human rights is beginning to get their attention,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the department. “We’ve been able to push on [the Commission of Inquiry report], and we are continuing to keep these efforts going.”

Unfortunately, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles our diplomats will face this year. The current membership of the Security Council includes Angola, a customer of North Korea’s banned arms exports; Malaysia, which has commercial ties to North Korea and uses its slave labor; Nigeria, which recently signed an economic cooperation agreement with the North; and Venezuela (enough said). Worse, most of these problem states will be members of the Security Council through 2016. Beyond this, there is the awkwardness of pushing for an ICC referral when the U.S. hasn’t signed the Rome Statute itself. These aren’t reasons not to continue to press North Korea at the U.N., but they are substantial enough obstacles to give us pause about the strategy. Had we pressed for a Security Council vote last year, when the membership of the Security Council was more favorable, we would have at least isolated and shamed China and Russia. Today, it’s hardly assured that we’d win an absolute majority of the votes.

On the other hand, Pyongyang does seem genuinely worried about how the Commission of Inquiry’s findings affect its legitimacy.

“That’s what caused them some real concern. For the North Koreans, legitimacy is a big deal. It’s a question about the leader and his dignity,” Kirby said.

Fifield’s report points out that Pyongyang “has been engaging energetically” in the face of criticism of its human rights record, which is a gentle way of putting it. After one meeting, a North Korean diplomat was overheard calling a diplomat from Botswana (which cut its ties to Pyongyang over the COI report) a “black bastard.” At the Council on Foreign Relations, Pyongyang’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il-Hun engaged in a bizarre dialogue with the unctuous Don Gregg, in which Jang denied the COI’s findings and boasted that the regime’s construction of water parks and ski resorts proves how much Kim Jong-Un has done for human rights. And there was this episode:

At a human rights panel in April hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, North Korean diplomats mounted a noisy demonstration that led to their microphones being cut off. They were escorted from the hall by security officers.

As Fifield’s report notes, correctly, Pyongyang used to simply ignore criticism of its abuses. Now, it can’t. Hardly a day passes in which the Korean Central News Agency doesn’t publish a denunciation of the U.S. or South Korean “human rights racket.” It may or may not be true that Pyongyang has ordered the assassinations of the North Korean refugees who denounced the regime’s abuses, but Pyongyang is clearly shaken. This causes Bill Newcomb — formerly with the CIA, State, Treasury, and the U.N. Panel of Experts — to recall the last time the U.S. had a strategy that seized Pyongyang’s undivided attention:

Pyongyang’s reactions to the human rights push have been similar to its visceral reaction to American financial sanctions in 2005, said William Newcomb, a former Treasury official who served on a special U.N. panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.

By sanctioning Banco Delta Asia, a small bank based in Macau that handled North Korean money, the United States effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the international financial system. That brought Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table.

“I perceive their response as being similar to how they reacted once they realized what had been done to them via BDA — and that took a while to sink in,” Newcomb said. “Even then, they really didn’t understand how BDA could be leveraged to have lasting negative consequences on their access to the international finance system.

Those who oppose sanctions for policy reasons often deny that financial pressure worked against Pyongyang. Professor John Park, for example, argues that sanctions have only made Pyongyang more resilient, which is like advocating the use of aromatherapy to treat TB because some strains of TB have become drug-resistant. Of course, some strains of TB have become drug-resistant — either because doctors administer low doses of antibiotics, or because patients don’t finish the doses doctors give them, which allows mycobacterium tuberculosis the opportunity to survive, adapt, and replicate in resistant forms. In the same manner, our current weak sanctions against Pyongyang have allowed it to adapt and resist.

It is time for stronger medicine. History has shown us that when sanctions are concerted and strong, North Korea’s isolation becomes its greatest vulnerability. The regime (unlike its downtrodden subjects) remains dependent on hard currency and imported luxuries. According to those who were inside the Bush Administration at the time, and those who covered the BDA story, the pressure was extremely effective. Newcomb sees comparisons between Pyongyang’s stunned reaction to the actions against BDA and denunciation of its crimes against humanity.

Now, imagine the effect on Pyongyang if financial sanctions were our mechanism for sanctioning its crimes against humanity. There is ample precedent for this. The Treasury Department has blocked the assets of Sudanese officials for human rights violations in Darfur. It has blocked the assets of senior Iranian officials for “perpetrating human rights abuses” and Iranian companies for “activities that limit the freedom of expression or assembly.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Belarus for “undermining democratic processes or institutions.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Zimbabwe (search “mugabe”) and their third-country enablers and cronies for “undermining Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions or facilitating public corruption.” Following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, it blocked the assets of more than a dozen men simply because they are “officials of the Russian government.” Until recently, it had sanctioned members of Burma’s ruling junta for human rights violations and for “military trade with North Korea,” meaning that the administration had sanctioned senior Burmese officials for (among other reasons) buying arms from North Korea, but no senior North Korean officials for selling them to Burma.

To this day, the U.S. government has not made a serious or sustained effort to block the billions in misspent assets of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, or any senior North Korean official — not one. The legal authority to do this, Executive Order 13687, is already in place. It would allow President Obama to sanction every member of the National Defense Committee and the Organization and Guidance Department at the stroke of a pen.

There is no question that sanctions are most effective when we invest diplomatic resources in getting other countries to enforce them. If the U.N. is temporarily hostile and congenitally paralyzed, there is fresh evidence that Europe may be willing to work with us to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang. Viewed in this light, might our limited diplomatic resources be better spent on a campaign of progressive diplomacy that begins with our friends in Europe and Japan, then South Korea, and other wavering states? The combined economic power of these states alone might be sufficient to pressure North Korea to either change or collapse. They could also combine their economic power to force China and Russia, whose economies are both reeling today, to enforce the sanctions they’ve already voted for in the Security Council.

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These songs of freedom

If Kim Jong-Un’s twenty-something year-old little sister really has taken control of the manufacture of North Korea’s production of propaganda and mythology, she has begun her work with a powerful tacit admission: the state her brother leads has much in common with the feudal oligarchs past generations of North Koreans sang about overthrowing.

In an attempt to root out elements that can lead to potential political instabilities in the country, North Korea is stepping up music censorship and scrapping all cassette tapes and CDs that contain state-banned songs even if homegrown. Kim Jong Un is believed to have issued such orders out of concern that certain songs could instill people with criticism or resistance against the leadership, Daily NK has learned.

“Recently, the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department has drawn up a list of ‘songs of no origin’ and ‘banned songs’ and is circulating it throughout homes,” a source based in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “Included on the list are songs from the North’s own movie ‘Im Kkeok Jeong (leader of a peasant rebellion in the 16C).”

These songs, she explained, have titles like “Take action blood brothers” “To get revenge” and the list also includes the song “Nation of no tears” from a made-for-TV movie “Echoes of Halla.” Some of these tunes were already banned a few years ago, like “Take action blood brothers”, but this is the first time the state has actively taken forceful measures to wipe out any means of immediate access to them. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims to have multiple sources for the story from different regions. It reports that people are angry that the state is coming into their homes and stealing their tunes, and that merchants are angry that the state is confiscating and burning their merchandise.

It’s true, of course, that music can be a powerful galvanizing force for resistance movements. More than two hundred years after the Irish rebellion of 1798, people are still signing “The Rising of the Moon” in bars from Dublin to San Francisco. Here is another promising avenue for those who would flood North Korea with subversive content.

When I lived in Korea, not quite as long ago as it seems, the P.A. system on the saemaul express trains would play this jaunty old tune by Patty Kim every time the trains crossed the old, battle-scarred Han River bridges into Seoul, as they arrived from the southern cities of Taegu and Busan. Some North Koreans find the newer K-pop to be as vacuous and irritating as I do, but there is something agelessly hopeful about Kim’s song, in spite of its seventies ethos. I’ve always thought it would make a good anthem for those on both sides of the DMZ who yearn to be a nation once again.

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