So, what “appropriate measures” *did* the feds take against Dennis Rodman for violating N. Korea sanctions?

The newest U.N. Panel of Experts report* on North Korea sanctions enforcement contains this buried treasure:

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 7.21.09 AM

The first question this raises is what those appropriate measures were. The use of passive voice conceals whether the feds took any measures at all.

The second question is why there should be a “lack of information” from Rodman, when the Commerce and Treasury Departments have subpoena powers and an obligation to cooperate with U.N. authorities enforcing North Korea sanctions. The law applies to superpowers and celebrities, too.

There is video evidence of Rodman personally giving Kim Jong Un banned luxury gifts in violation of Commerce Department regulations and Executive Order 13551. I previously explained here why that’s a felony, and there’s no question that at least some of the goods presented are listed on Supplement 1 and were luxury goods.

Don’t get me wrong here. There are bigger fish in this sea than Dennis Rodman. I don’t believe this is the sort of thing that justifies prison time, but it does compel making an example of Rodman and his assortment of camp followers and opportunistic sociopaths, even if only through a modest civil penalty and a (publicly posted) cautionary letter. Ignorance (or willful ignorance) of the law may mitigate punishment, but it’s not a defense.

Having said that, this sort of thing does matter. Cutting off Kim Jong Un’s luxury goods is ultimately about North Korea’s chronic food crisis and the completely needless suffering of its people. The purpose of the ban is to force him to prioritize feeding the 80% of North Koreans who are barely getting through the lean season each year. Conduct like Rodman’s sends a message that the world doesn’t care about their suffering, and that it’s willing to give Kim Jong Un access to the fruits of the world’s fleshpots anyway.

Overall, the POE report paints a picture of a sanctions framework that is being ignored by most U.N. member states. There’s a display of concern when North Korea does something hideous that actually makes headlines, and then everyone goes right back to ignoring them. How are North Korea’s arms clients in Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia supposed to react if the U.S. doesn’t appear to be serious about enforcing them, either?

~   ~   ~

* This is from a draft leaked to me; the final still isn’t published.

UN POE Report: North Korean spies infiltrated UNESCO, World Food Program

I’ll just let you read what the POE’s draft report says for yourself:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.07 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.30 AMWell, that might explain a few things. For those who don’t know, the Reconnaissance General Bureau handles most of North Korea’s clandestine foreign intelligence work. It is sanctioned by the Treasury Department. It is suspected of being behind the Rangoon Bombing in 1983, KAL 858 bombing in 1987, a series of attempted and completed assassinations of activists and defectors, and the Sony hack and threats. RGB agents may have also crewed the vessel that sank the Cheonan.

I wonder if this can also be linked to the diversion of U.N. emergency aid to North Korea, or the U.N. Development Programme scandal from a few years ago. Or, this angry email I received from a WFP official in Rome a few months ago:

I’ve been reading you for some months, but am stopping now because this is not aimed at helping the people of North Korea. It’s all sadly about you.

This, children, is what’s known as “projection.” I’m not going to name the official, but by googling his name, I was able to identify his position and location. There’s little doubt that this person and Kim Su Gwang were well acquainted. It’s Oil-For-Food all over again.

Kudos to the POE for having the courage to tell us this. Now, let the Inspectors General get to work.

~   ~   ~

Update: Remember, this is a draft. The final still hasn’t been released yet.

I’m going to smack the next person who whines about how cold it is in Washington.

Dear Washington. You don’t know cold, and you don’t know snow.

Kim Jong Un seeks friends and funds abroad as he isolates his people.

In the three years that he has been in power, His Porcine Majesty has found plenty of time for Dennis Rodman, but none for meetings with foreign leaders. Suddenly, in the last two months, he has flirted with (1) a summit with South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye, (2) inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pyongyang, (3) and a visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May. His central bank even “committed itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (I’m sure Pyongyang will find some way to reconcile this with its arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas.)

If you believe that talks with North Korea are immediately capable of solving anything, or that they are an end in themselves, you may be pleased that Kim Jong Un has developed this urgent interest in diplomacy. What accounts for this belated quinceañera, assuming that any of these meetings comes to pass? Only Kim Jong Un knows, but I doubt it has anything to do with a yearning for more intelligent companionship. There’s almost certainly a financial motive, if not more than one.

One motive may be a growing threat of sanctions. Kim’s charm offensive began just after December 19th, when FBI and President Obama announced that North Korea had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened audiences for “The Interview.” Almost immediately, Congress called for stronger sanctions, and centrist figures in the foreign policy establishment, including Richard Haass and Winston Lord, began calling for regime change. President Obama himself suggested that the collapse of North Korea’s system was inevitable, although he didn’t declare an intent to catalyze that result.

On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13687, authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) authorizing secondary sanctions against the Chinese, and other entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating, but in its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Pyongyang’s charm offensives always seem to come just as the political will waxes to enforce sanctions against it. The charm offensives play on the individual interest of each interlocutor — Park Geun Hye’s domestic unpopularity, Shinzo Abe’s desire to bring abductees home, Putin’s search for ways to f**k with Obama — to disrupt any coordination among them. It works because we’re dumb enough to let it. And once sanctions enforcement wanes, so will Kim Jong Un’s interest in diplomacy.

One thing is clear enough: a credible threat of sanctions certainly hasn’t done any harm to prospects for diplomacy with North Korea. I could also say, with equal conviction, that they haven’t harmed John Hinckley’s odds of marrying Jodie Foster.

~   ~   ~

Another possible explanation is a series of reports suggesting that North Korea’s trade relations with China are declining. For one thing, fewer North Koreans are traveling there:

Overall figures for North Korean residents entering China annually totaled between 100,000-120,000 until 2010 before jumping to 150,000 in 2011. A steady period of continual increase in visitors followed until 2013, when the number of North Koreans traveling to China reached an all-time high of 200,000, roughly half of whom noted their reason for making the trip as “looking for work.” Aside from finding employment, 34,000 went to conduct business or attend a conference, and 1,500 went purely to travel. This represents a 60% and 50% respective reduction when compared to last year’s figures. Visits to friends and relatives dropped to 1,100–one-third of those making the trip for the same reason in 2013.

Male visitors [150,000] composed five times total amount of females [30,000] visiting China from North Korea. Most North Koreans [77,000] traveled by boat for the trip. [Daily NK]

North Korean agents who do travel to China are also having more difficulty doing business there. There’s no evidence this has anything to do with sanctions. It appears to be because of a combination of a sagging Chinese economy and the lingering effects of the Jang Song-Thaek purge. After that purge, I posted here that the regime had called home large numbers of its China-based money men, presumably men who were loyal to Jang or thought to be, and that the money men had stayed away in droves. Subsequently, I posted about another reported defection of a senior financier in Russia. That trend continues:

A source in a northeastern Chinese city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 30 percent of the North Korean businessmen have returned to China after being summoned.The summonses are also believed to be part of efforts by North Korea to redistribute the “rights of doing businesses with China,” a key source of earning hard currency, to its ruling elite, the source said.”The replacement of businessmen loyal to Jang Song-thaek has been gradually carried out and a lot of North Korean businessmen were summoned until late last year,” the source said. “Of those being summoned, only about 30 percent returned to China.”There are no official data on how many North Korean businessmen are working in the Chinese border cities.A second source in another Chinese border city with North Korea said that about 170 North Korean businessmen in the city were replaced over the past year.With Chinese investor confidence eroding over the North’s unpredictable behavior, the new North Korean businessmen come under further pressure in building business connections with their Chinese counterparts, the second source said. [Yonhap, via the Korea Herald]

Not only is the sagging Chinese economy hurting Bureau 39, but according to the report, “Chinese investor confidence” is also “eroding.” One reason may be the arbitrary behavior of North Korean officials, including their inclination toward unilateral price increases and demands for bribes and prostitutes. I can’t speak to the latter concern, but the former concern can’t have improved since Kim Jong Un had Jang shot for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is consistent with evidence of a sudden onset of distress in North Korea’s mining industry, although I can’t say whether poor investor relations are a cause of the problems or a consequence of them.

The report cites Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) figures, according to which, “North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014,” from $6.54 to $6.39 billion, “marking the first decline since 2009.” These figures are sourced to Chinese government statistics, which is one reason to distrust them. For example, we read a lot of reporting last year that China had cut off North Korea’s crude oil supply, only to find that China had merely reclassified its trade as aid, or supplied Pyongyang with refined petroleum products (such as jet fuel) instead.

The report also claims that “North Korea’s exports of coal to China slipped 17.6 percent from a year ago to $1.13 billion, marking the first drop in 8 years.” I see more extrinsic evidence that that report is accurate.

And there are other signs of trouble: it would be a snub for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia before he visits China, and it was a snub for the leaders of China and South Korea to meet before the leaders of China and North Korea met. China didn’t send a representative to Kim Jong Il’s latest birthday party, either. This doesn’t yet mean that China has broken with North Korea. It certainly doesn’t mean that China wants to destabilize North Korea. It bears watching, however.

~   ~   ~

In other ways, Pyongyang is intensifying its isolationism. The ones that have attracted the most media attention are its bans on foreigners entering North Korea for a marathon and its creepy Arirang Festival. (By contrast, it recently granted permission for this “peace” march by a group of left-wing activists, led by Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem). The dubious pretext for Pyongyang’s isolationism is that it is a precautionary quarantine against Ebola. This has inconvenienced two groups of useful idiots — the North Korea tour companies and the slummers who use them. I don’t see the down side to that. In the long run, it will mean fewer hostages for Pyongyang, and less hard currency for its bank accounts.

Why would Pyongyang shut down this lucrative, low-risk traffic in people with more money than sense or soul? No one knows but Pyongyang. Maybe it really is terrified of Ebola, yet confident that Gloria Steinem isn’t a carrier. Then again, maybe it’s terrified of a contagion of another kind.

For years, the pro-“engagement” argument for tourism in North Korea has been that there is something transformational, even dangerously subversive, about it that minders, deceptions, and other controls can’t contain. (Somehow, I doubt that Koryo Tours and Young Pioneers make the same argument to their contacts in Pyongyang.) I’ve usually been dismissive of this argument, although I’d be genuinely interested in hearing any evidence that Pyongyang thinks it has anything to fear from this kind of tourism. Even if that argument had any merit, Pyongyang knows how to deal with foreign subversive influences. Maybe it just did.

~   ~   ~
Kim Jong Un has been isolating low-caste North Koreans since the very beginning of his reign. His regime continues to do that by terrorizing traders, cracking down on cell phones, and blocking the flight of desperate people:

“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”

The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody. [Daily NK]

Human Rights Watch has documented the border crackdown in a new report, which you can read here.

“North Korean authorities are using brutal punishments to shut the door on people fleeing the country, and cracking down on those who share information with the outside world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director. “Kim Jong-Un is trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there.”

The North Korean leadership has made clear the country must redouble its efforts to remain shut to the outside world.

“We must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory,” said Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, during a speech at the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Worker’s Party on February 25, 2014. “We also have to be active to block the imperialists’ plots for ideological and cultural invasion.” The “mosquito net” system Kim referred to was developed in the North to attract the inflow of foreign investment while blocking the infiltrations of foreign ideas, news, and culture. [….]

According to the escapees, the North Korean government has also been actively tracking down unauthorized phone calls from cell-phones operating on Chinese service provider networks being used by people in the North Korean border areas to call to China or South Korea. “The phones have no signal in the cities anymore and I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up,” said Kim. “I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two.” Park said she used to get calls from North Korea at all times of the day and talk for long periods, but now the number of calls she receives has shrunk by approximately 60 percent since 2012.

“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” said Robertson. “Talking on an overseas phone call, or watching a foreign television show should not be considered crimes, but the government is tightening control through repression and fear.”

More here and here. One backlash of this increased border control is a rise in cross-border violence, and more tension with China. North Korea’s border guards had come to rely on the bribes and extortion they taxed from this localized, illicit cross-border trade. With the loss of that income, the underpaid guards have turned to violent crime, and like all criminals, they go where the money is. China has since raised militias to patrol the border regions, and North Korea has purged an official of the Supreme Guard Command as punishment for the violence. There were also purges at the local level.

There is a very important point here, one that makes Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic outreach completely consistent with his isolationism: it costs money to pay border guards, buy cell phone trackers, and isolate the people you consider “wavering” or “hostile.” North Korea earns that money by extracting aid from foreign sources, and through its officially sanctioned trade relationships. Here is another way that sanctioning the regime can actually open North Korea to outside trade and influence.

~   ~   ~
These reports paint a picture of a regime that is struggling to maintain its financial links to the outside world, while severing the economic, social, and cultural links between its people and the outside world. If a less isolated, less hungry, less brutal, and less provocative North Korea is in our interests, then our obvious policy response is to undermine both aspects of that policy — to facilitate illicit cross-border flows of information, people, money, and goods, while cutting Pyongyang’s hard currency flows.

The first part of this strategy is the more difficult one. Some of it can be done through broadcasting, some requires creative technological thinking, and some will require clandestine operations.

The second part is about sanctions enforcement, which requires financial intelligence, legal tools, effective diplomacy, and political will.

The reports of defections by North Korean financiers suggest a potential windfall of financial intelligence. Each of these men, and each of their laptops, represents a potential Rosetta Stone. I certainly hope some of them have found safety in the care of U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents. I’ll also express my hope that The Guardian and Al-Jazeera will refrain from getting them — and their entire families — killed, by printing their names.

The Obama Administration will also have to find the political will to dissuade South Korea and Japan from subsidizing Pyongyang and loosening their own sanctions. It will have to find the political will to threaten secondary sanctions against the Chinese and Russian interests that prop Pyongyang up. Lacking this, the administration’s policy will continue to fail. My guesses are (respectively) that it won’t, it won’t, and so it will. North Korea’s hostage-taking, threats, and inducements will recoup more modest financial benefits for the regime. That’s about all Pyongyang needs to undermine the effect of U.N. sanctions, and to sustain its provocative and repressive ways.

Under NKSEA, transactions in N. Korean slave labor would be punishable by prison time

Yet again, a news story is reporting that North Korea is sending workers abroad to toil in conditions tantamount to slavery:

When the North Korean carpenter was offered a job in Kuwait in 1996, he leapt at the chance. He was promised $120 a month, an unimaginable wage for most workers in his famine-stricken country, where most people are not allowed to travel abroad.

But for Rim Il, the deal soured from the start: Under a moonlit night, the bus carrying him and a score of other fresh arrivals pulled into a desert camp cordoned off with barbed-wire fences. There, 1,800 workers, sent by North Korea to earn badly needed foreign currency, were living together under the watchful eyes of North Korean government supervisors, Mr. Rim said. They worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or, often, midnight, seven days a week, doing menial jobs at construction sites.

“We only took a Friday afternoon off twice a month but had to spend the time studying books or watching videos about the greatness of our leader back home,” Mr. Rim said at a recent news conference in Seoul, the South Korean capital. “We were never paid our wages, and when we asked our superiors about them, they said we should think of starving people back home and thank the leader for giving us this opportunity of eating three meals a day.” [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang Hun]

The workers’ rights issue is the more obvious one, and more on that in a moment. There are a few other problems here, too, including the familiar question of how Pyongyang is spending the money, and the fact that U.N. member states are supposed to be keeping an eye on that sort of thing. Do the math, and it’s quite possible that Pyongyang is pulling down $300 million a year this way, which would make it a significant source of income. Ahn Myeong Chol of NK Watch speculates that Pyongyang uses the money to buy luxury goods, which would violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. His guess is as good as mine, but only Kim Jong Un knows for certain. The other interesting detail is this one:

The Workers’ Party, the ruling party in North Korea, instructed a group in Kuwait to send home $500,000 a month, more than its members’ regular salaries combined, a North Korean supervisor who worked there from 2011 to last year told NK Watch.

When net income exceeds gross income, it’s time to be suspicious. One possibility is that North Korea is using “wages” as more than just a source of income. It may be commingling them with the proceeds of other illicit activities, such as arms sales. That’s commonly known as money laundering. Similar suspicions have been voiced about North Korea’s restaurants abroad.

~   ~   ~

I’ve previously written about the business ethics and legal issues surrounding North Korea’s labor practices abroad, including in Siberian logging camps, at future World Cup venues in Qatar, and in Malaysian mines.

They described a system where government minders monitored their movements and communications and required them to spy on one another. The minders often confiscated the workers’ passports.

“These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties,” the State Department said in a report published last year. “Workers’ salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various ‘voluntary’ contributions to government endeavors.”

In theory, the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States. A Customs regulation at 19 C.F.R. § 12.42 also allows private petitioners to oppose the landing of goods made with forced labor in U.S. ports; however, few North Korean goods should be imported into the United States now, due to economic reasons, and the licensing requirements applicable under Executive Order 13,570. More fundamentally, the U.S. and North Korea are neither natural nor historic trading partners, which means that this strategy would only be useful in rare circumstances.

In a thoughtful paper, Marcus Noland suggested that those doing business with North Korea apply a code of ethics akin to the Sullivan Principles, which were once applied by U.S. investors in apartheid-era South Africa. In theory, if investors were required to report their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, shareholders could pressure them to adopt more ethical business practices. If North Korea were to be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, the SEC’s Office of Global Security Risk would require the reporting of any such investments, and that requirement would apply to non-U.S. businesses that issue securities in the United States. Unfortunately, those who do business with North Korea are almost by definition unethical, unwilling to press ethical issues, or more concerned about competition from other unethical businesses than with business ethics.

This is where the NKSEA provides a more comprehensive answer, in the form of Section 104(a)(1)(F):

(1) CONDUCT DESCRIBED.—Except as provided in section 207, the President shall designate under this subsection any person the President determines to—

. . . .

(F) have knowingly engaged in or been responsible for serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, forced labor or trafficking in persons, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of a person;

Section 207 contains the humanitarian exceptions, for imports of food and medicine I wrote about here. And obviously, the U.S. has to have jurisdiction to impose these sanctions, such as the use of the U.S. financial system by one of the participants.

Note that this provision is mandatory. If the executive branch finds that a person or entity has “engaged in or been responsible for” human trafficking by the Government of North Korea, the Treasury Department is required to block the designated entity’s assets as they enter the U.S. financial system. Other potential sanctions include criminal penalties, including a $1 million fine, 20 years in prison, or a civil penalty of up to $250,000. The sanctioned person or entity may also be debarred from being awarded U.S. government contracts, or be denied a visa to enter the United States.

For those (such as banks) that facilitate such transactions, other discretionary sanctions may apply under Section 104(b)(1)(G), including the blocking of assets.

Some will argue, in response, that as bad as these working conditions are, they’re far worse in North Korea itself. But the fact that conditions in Qatar or Vladivostok are minimally better than in Hamhung does not make them acceptable. Is a living wage for the workers and their families too much to ask of a nominally socialist regime? Wasn’t the idea of economic engagement to loosen Pyongyang’s restrictive brutality and gently introduce it to the standards and norms the rest of the world lives by? Wasn’t part of the idea to improve the lives of the North Korean people, rather than to be just another way for its oligarchy to exploit its people and enrich itself? Or to undermine fair wages and living standards in the receiving nations?

As always, the question of engaging North Korea becomes a question of who changed whom.

After 20 years of “engagement,” there’s little evidence that any of North Korea’s partners have expected it to engage meaningfully enough to let its workers spend their own paychecks or work in safe conditions. At what point will the defenders of these arrangements expect to see meaningful change, or is this simply an open-ended hope? If the world doesn’t expect even this much of North Korea, where is the social value in engagement, and where is it realistically leading? How can it be anything but a worn-out justification for profiteering on slavery?

More food for hungry North Koreans is not “bad news” for sanctions proponents.

I don’t always agree with Scott Snyder’s views, but I’ve always enjoyed reading his work. In almost every case, I’ve found it to be well-researched and objective. In a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations, Snyder cautiously concludes that North’s cereal production is “stable and improving” — from 5.93 million tons last year to 5.94 million tons this year, a more generous characterization than the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report he cites, which calls North Korea’s food production “stagnant.” My own characterization would be “suspiciously constant.”

The UN FAO estimates that this year’s deficit will be 407,000 tons. That’s still low by historical North Korean standards, but hardly a sign that happy days are here again. The FAO also tells us that the impoverished government of North Korea only intends to import 300,000 tons, leaving an “uncovered deficit” of 107,000 tons. Here is Mercy Corps’s cue to tell us all how desperately North Korea needs food aid.

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[Above: An actual sanctions target, riding aboard another sanctions target.]

At least the World Food Program shouldn’t have to worry about any lack of transport to do monitoring and assessment visits. Maybe His Porcine Majesty can even give Christine Ahn a ride in it, the next time she’s in Pyongyang to complain about how U.S. sanctions are starving North Korean babies.

~   ~   ~

Snyder is honest enough to admit some weaknesses in his conclusion. For one, the UN FAO estimate he cites relies on Pyongyang’s own food production statistics, because this year (glasnost alert!), Pyongyang wouldn’t let the FAO do an on-the-ground food security assessment. But that’s no cause for alarm; after all, North Korea wouldn’t try to falsify information about its food supply or manipulate aid agencies, would it?

Snyder also admits that North Korea’s winter crops are falling well short of forecasts, a point that caused aid groups to warn of another food crisis recently:

“We’re concerned about seed scarcity and the low level rain and snowfall,” John Aylieff, deputy Asia director at the U.N.’s World Food Program, said from Pyongyang. “All of these things are raising concerns about the winter harvest this year.”

Winter crops — including wheat and barley — should be growing now, but after an exceptionally dry year in 2014, rainfall around the country has been markedly lower than usual so far this year, particularly in the “cereal bowl” provinces of Pyongan in the west and Hwanghae in the south.

Although the winter harvest makes up only 5 percent of North Korea’s domestic food supply, it is a critical time because the crops see the country through the lean season known locally as the barley hump — the period between May and August before rice and corn crops are harvested.

“If there is a big gap, this could prolong the lean season and it could prove a ‘flash point’ for malnutrition,” Aylieff said.  [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Take this with a grain of salt, too. I’ve often suspected that some aid groups exaggerate conditions in North Korea, whether to influence policy debates here or to rake in more donations. You can’t even blame them for it. If they don’t know where the trends are heading, they almost have to raise the alarm prematurely to be able to respond to a catastrophe in time.

Snyder also cites Andrei Lankov’s recent writings, which, as I’ve argued here and here, don’t look very well sourced to me, and haven’t held up well against better-sourced evidence. As a friend said about Andrei today, he’s always interesting, and often brilliant, even when he’s wrong. It still looks like wishful thinking to me — evidence that’s mostly apocryphal, ephemeral, or parochial, or a misattribution of market trends unrelated to regime policies.

We’ll know better by November. Meanwhile, obsessing over North Korean agricultural policies is like watching the paint dry on the side of a burning house. Hardly anyone still argues that Pyongyang is interested in broad, serious, structural reforms to its agricultural, economic, or political systems. No one believes they’ll cede their nuclear weapons. I doubt that anyone really knows what the true food situation is, including in Pyongyang. How could it be otherwise in a country where those who do not hoard, starve?

This bring us to another problem. Even if North Korea is growing more food, that doesn’t mean the people are eating more of it. It’s no good to produce more food if regime officials simply seize what they consider to be “surplus” crops for export. And as Snyder concedes, “growing income inequality in North Korea has resulted in continuing malnutrition among some sectors of the population, especially in rural areas.”

Two other interesting points in Snyder’s post reinforce this suspicion: first, North Korea has cut way back on its commercial food imports since the famine years. Second, it raised them again to adjust for a decline in external food aid. In other words, Pyongyang seems to be using commercial imports to calibrate the domestic food supply to a level that, according to the best evidence we have, is a pretty marginal one for 84% of North Koreans. That’s why I call the North’s food supply statistics “suspiciously constant.” We’ll pick that point up again in a moment.

~   ~   ~

My main issue with Snyder’s post, however, is his conclusion:

North Korea’s apparent economic progress is bad news for those who expect increased sanctions to be decisive in driving North Korea to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons. So far, the effects of increased sanctions have been far from generating sufficient economic pressure to induce North Korea to make such a choice. Under current circumstances, there is nothing to stop North Korea from having its cake and its yellowcake, too.

Well, where does one begin with that? First, here again is the urban legend that our sanctions against North Korea have been strong, and thus properly tested as a tool of policy. For those who haven’t yet read it, I’ve refuted that argument here. It’s certainly true that sanctions have been enforced poorly by just about everyone — from the Chinese, to the South Koreans, to the Obama Administration, and most recently, the Russians. Private jets don’t import themselves, after all.

My real problem with Snyder’s argument, however, is its implication that sanctions would target North Korea’s food supply. I don’t know a single sanctions proponent who wants to target North Korea’s food supply or starve innocent people. Let’s have a look at the care H.R. 757, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, takes to avoid that, starting with Section 207(a)(2), which provides exemptions for imports of food and medicine:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.32.09 AM

There’s also a catch-all waiver provision at Section 207(b)(3) in the event a particular sanction has unintended humanitarian consequences:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.31.43 AM

We even wrote a provision at Section 207(d) that would allow the Treasury Department to license a responsible foreign bank to handle transactions to bring food and other humanitarian supplies into North Korea:

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Of course, some banks could adopt excessively cautious interpretations of the law. The answer to that problem is for the Treasury Department to publish guidance and general licenses to give the banks peace of mind that transactions in food and aid don’t violate the law — promptly. As in, Treasury should start drafting that guidance now.

I’ll take this a step further: those of us who advocate for Kim Jong Un’s Götterdämmerung, and for policies that are just as content to catalyze that outcome as to extract change diplomatically, want the North Korean people to have more food, not less. Not only would that be far better for the North Korean people, it might hasten the regime’s overthrow. I’ve long argued that the regime uses hunger as a tool of control: it seeks to keep its people too weak and too exhausted to think of anything but survival. Historically, starving people do not overthrow their oppressors. People who overthrow their oppressors have enough to survive, and to seethe against the ruling class. It is the envy of oligarchs, not famine, that causes revolutions. An ample food supply would not preempt North Korea’s class war, but it would do much to free those on the lower regions of the songbun ladder to contemplate the differences between existence and life.

In short, there would be no “bad news” for any sanctions proponent in a rise in North Korea’s food supply. Pending sanctions legislation takes extreme pain to avoid reducing it. It is wrong to suggest that so many proponents of targeted sanctions legislation — chief among them, longstanding human rights advocates — are so callous about human life and suffering as to intentionally attack the food supply of Kim Jong Un’s victims. It’s an offense that could easily have been avoided by taking the time to read and understand the sanctions before implying as much.

Once again, North Korea threatens free speech here in the United States

On December 19, 2014, in response to the FBI’s conclusion that North Korea was behind the threats against audiences for “The Interview,” President Obama said, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” After all, the President reasoned, “if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.”

Or, he might have added, a human rights conference put on by an N.G.O. in downtown Washington, D.C., where current and former U.S. diplomats were in attendance.

North Korea says it will respond “very strongly” to a conference in Washington on Tuesday about its widespread human rights abuses and says the United States ignored Pyongyang’s offer to attend and defend itself. Puzzled conference organizers said the event was open to the public.

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters Monday his country has asked the U.S. government to “immediately scrap the so-called conference” hosted by the nonprofit Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speakers include Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. [AP]

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.

You can debate what Jang meant and exactly what he was threatening, if you care to. I have no doubt that Jang’s masters chose exactly the words they did so that they could preserve a modicum of deniability, while allowing the rest of us to put his words into the context of North Korea’s recent actions and draw the obvious conclusions. What’s beyond dispute is that Pyongyang is trying to censor debate right here in Washington, D.C., by purporting to tell Americans what they can meet and talk about. Pyongyang now believes it can enforce its censorship writs on Rhode Island Avenue. It must be disabused of that notion.

If the President of the United States believes in defending our freedom to debate issues that are important to public policy, his first response will be to expel Ambassador Jang for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. His second response will be to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. His third response will be to get on with that “proportional” response he promised, after North Korean hackers threatened to attack American moviegoers. Those threats successfully suppressed two major films, and they have done incalculable harm to our freedom of expression. The President’s response ought to be premised on the determination that if North Korea forces us to choose between our freedom of expression and North Korea’s existence, then North Korea must cease to exist. A policy of imposing incremental inconvenience would no longer do.

Few Americans would describe President Obama as a particularly good president, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, although I’d still argue that with respect to North Korea, President Bush’s combination of empty tough talk and appeasement was even worse. Yet for some reason, fair or unfair, the North Koreans have made the calculation that Obama is a lightweight, and that he won’t offer a serious response to this sort of thing. That means we’re sure to hear more like this from them.

N. Korea Perestroika Watch: Woman sent to firing squad for “gambling and drug use”

Did you hear the one about how Amerikkka’s prisons are filled with small-time drug offenders? Well, the workers’ paradise has solved that problem:

In mid-November 2014 in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, a woman in her 50s considered part of the donju [new affluent middle class] was publicly executed for “gambling and drug use,” Daily NK has recently learned.

According to Daily NK’s source in North Pyongan Province, the woman was “the wife of a North Korean trader in Dandong who was able to rapidly accumulate wealth by having Sinuiju’s wholesale market at her fingertips.”

He added, “Following an intense investigation after her initial arrest for gambling, this woman was found to have bribed officials with the Chosun Workers’ Party, the Ministry of People’s Safety, and most every law enforcement body in North Korea. Orders for her public execution were quickly handed down by the authorities as she was ‘practicing an unclean lifestyle by gambling and using drugs,’ running contrary to the accepted practices of a socialist society.” [Daily NK]

The report claims that the actual reason for her execution was that she was rich. (I guess that privilege is reserved for corrupt officials.)

So does that mean that a North Korean who makes it as far as the prison gate should consider herself lucky? If you’re asking yourself that, you must be new here. North Korea has another method for keeping its prison population down amid its own war on drugs: it maintains an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody . . . due to starvation, neglect, arduous forced labour, disease and execution.”

North Korea makes more homophobic slurs against Michael Kirby

Once again, North Korea is responding to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s exhaustively documented evidence of crimes against humanity … by making an issue of Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation:

The editorial also singled out the chair of the COI, Michael Kirby, and leveled homophobic abuse at the former judge, something it has done previously to discredit his work.

“As far as the former chairman of the ‘Inquiry Commission’ Kirby is concerned, he is an old sexual maniac who earned an ill-fame for his decades-long homosexuality,” the article read. [NK News]

The last time North Korea attacked Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation, it also denied the very existence of homosexuality in North Korea. An interesting new report, however, also via NK News, informs us that this is not the case, and that homosexuality is common in the isolated and otherwise sexless North Korean Army. According to the report, “senior officers have been known take charge of ‘pretty boy privates.’” That is to say, officers rape their soldiers, which can’t be good for morale or unit cohesion.

The story isn’t just an interesting one about North Korea and the mendacity of its media, but about the irrepressibility of human nature. Next time someone tells you there are no gay people in North Korea, answer them in the most fabulous way you can: “That’s not what I’ve heard, sister!”

Ten questions Gloria Steinem should ask the N. Koreans about women’s rights (but probably won’t dare to)

This week, I read that North Korea has granted permission for a group of women, including Gloria Steinem, and led by outspoken North Korean regime sympathizer Christine Ahn, to do a “peace march” across the DMZ. The group also intends to “hold international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul,” where Ahn will probably repeat one of her favorite falsehoods, that “crippling sanctions against the government make it difficult for ordinary people to access the basics needed for survival.” It’s a statement that could only have been written by a legal illiterate who has never read the actual sanctions, or by a hack who has spent at least a decade overlooking the real causes of hardship and starvation in North Korea.

Steinem, on the other hand, is known for her accomplishments fighting for the rights of women, so rather than rehash old arguments with Ahn, I’d prefer to focus on a point of potential agreement with Steinem — that the women of North Korea could really use the support of a fearless feminist. In that spirit, I decided to suggest a few questions that Steinem should ask her hosts in Pyongyang if she’s truly concerned about the status of women in North Korea:

1. Why do you impose idiotic, despotic, and harmful rules on women, like not allowing them to ride bicycles, or wear pants?

An acquaintance of mine, a North Korean refugee currently living in South Korea, told me how, in the early 2000s, she broke a bone. The incident happened one afternoon when she was on the way home. A few streets away from her house she encountered a patrol of regular police and militia, and she instantly knew she was in trouble because she had done something seriously improper. She had no choice but to run, and while trying to get away from her pursuers she broke a bone in her feet. But she still escaped the hand of law.

What was the crime she had committed? She was wearing trousers while walking the streets of a major North Korean city.

2. Was it really necessary for you to call the female President of South Korea a “whore,” a “political prostitute,” a “crazy bitch,” and a “comfort woman?

What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [….]

She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]

3. Is your government forcing women to work as prostitutes in China?

A group of female North Korean workers has been forcefully repatriated from China after it was learned that they had been asked to work as prostitutes on the sly by their overseer while officially hired at a food factory, according to a local source.

The women, believed to number about half a dozen, were among North Korean workers sent across the border to gain precious foreign exchange revenue and had been placed under strict living conditions, including being barred from traveling outside their lodging alone, a source from China’s Liaoning province bordering North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service.

However, the women, who worked at a food production factory in Liaoning’s Donggang city, had been leaving their compound at night to engage in illegal activities—including prostitution—at the behest of their handler, infuriating the local community, the source said. [….]

“As a result, some of the workers and their North Korean handler were deported by the Chinese public security personnel.”

4. Why are so many North Korean women trafficked in China, and what kind of society is so insufferable that it forces women to risk that fate?

My parents died of starvation and my two younger brothers were killed by robbers in North Korea. After I lost all my family members, I was left wandering in the countryside, all by myself. One day, I met a North Korean couple who looked little bit younger than me. In November 1999, they suggested I go to China with them. As soon as we arrived in Helong and went into the house where they took me, I was taken to Longjing and then to Yanji by the ethnic Koreans. From Yanji I was taken to Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang Province by train. When we arrived in Mudanjiang, the brother of my current father-in-law was waiting for us. I was then taken to Jidong in Heilongjiang where I live with an ethnic Korean man. I have been told that my current husband paid 10,000 yuan for me.

5. Why have so many North Korean women turned to prostitution to survive?

Current estimates by South Korean and U.S. analysts place the number of fulltime prostitutes throughout North Korea at around 25,000 in the state of 24.5 million people – a figure that Young agreed with. That would mean one full-time prostitute was working per 1,000 people.

The high estimate does not include the far larger number of women who supplement their meager income by occasional freelance participation in prostitution activities. [….]

The age range of women involved in prostitution in North Korea is broad, stretching from 17 to 45, according to Young. The large percentage of women engaging in the practice again reflects the widespread and growing destitution and hunger pervading North Korean society.

A North Korean defector said there are about 500 prostitutes in a city which has a population of 400,000, Young noted. “If [we] depend on the simple arithmetic calculation and put North Korean population as 20 million, we can assume that there should be about 25,000 prostitutes in North Korea.”

A few years ago, that estimate would have been widely rejected as too high. The history of poor harvests, food shortages and the desperate demand for short-term extra income has made its mark. The hard drug pandemic may well have put those numbers too low.

In any case, the boast North Korean spokesmen made until recent years that there was no prostitution in their country rings hollow.

6. If women have to prostitute themselves, can’t you at least give them access to decent birth control and health care? (see also)

“[T]he women have their own ways to deal with STDs,” she adds. “Opium is supposed to prevent STDs.”

“Opium is not considered illegal in North Korea,” she explains. “It is cheap and typically goes for 5,000 won per gram. There is also contraceptive medicine available, but because they are much more expensive than opium, prostitutes don’t consider using them.”

“Contraceptives may prevent pregnancy, but women believe opium prevents and even treats almost all forms of disease. People think of it as a cure-all drug.”

She describes how North Korean prostitutes regularly use opium to protect their bodies: “Lightly mix some water with the opium, and dab a cotton ball in the mixture. Before placing the cotton ball in the vagina, wrap string around it in a cross shape (+) so it can be pulled out more easily.”

7. Speaking of which, I have some questions about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” health care system ….

North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”

8. Same question about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” education system.

[D]efectors testify with one voice to the fact that in modern North Korea, free education is an oxymoron. Instead, they say that even elementary school students must pay money for firewood, the repairing of school facilities and to make donations to the People’s Army or construction units.

The bribes needed to enter university are substantial, too. To gain entrance to a university in Pyongyang can cost up to $1,000, and for a provincial university between $300 and $500.

Kim Yong Cheol, a 22-year old who joined Hyesan College of Education in 2007 but defected to Seoul in 2009, explained to The Daily NK, “If they offer some money to the relevant university and the Education Department then they can possibly get into the university; students who do not have a good school record want to enter that university even though it requires bribery.”

Cho Hyun Mee, a 26-year old studying at Seoul National University said, “When I joined a university in Chongjin, the city Education Department demanded a computer, so I sold a television set to collect money and bought them a laptop.” Thanks to the laptop, Cho was shown the type and range of the entrance examination.

9. Would it kill you to let North Korean women wear their hair the way they choose?

Sure, you say, a list of 18 state-approved hairstyles certainly seems generous and libertine, but on closer examination, it’s actually more like 18 pictures of three hairstyles — three hideous, man-shriveling hairstyles — one of which (6, 10) is a mullet, and the rest of which appear to have been inspired by the 80s metal band Queensrÿche.

10. Why wouldn’t you let Ban Yon-Mee be a doctor?

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”

Sure, feel free to tone the questions down if you must, as long as you ask them. Being asked hard questions might convince the little gray men in Pyongyang that these things matter to us, and that they should matter to the regime, too. By not asking them, you might lead them — and us — to believe that you’re willing to overlook the rights of North Korean women and be Pyongyang’s tool, for no better reason than to attract media attention to yourself.

~   ~   ~

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention those racist forced abortions and infanticides, which must be the most extreme anti-choice position of all:

When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.

Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves” (see “Witness,” below), the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide: anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.

The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.

So I guess that’s eleven….

 

Dear journos: If you’re going to cover Christine Ahn’s “peace” march, do some due diligence

A few outlets have picked up on the event itself, but only one has taken note of Ahn’s role in organizing the event, and not one so far has written anything about Ahn’s extensive history as a vocal North Korean sympathizer. In fact, Ahn is a die-hard opponent of North Korea human rights legislation whose writings make frequent use of words like “imperialism,” “struggle,” and “solidarity;” who actually believes that North Korea’s famine was caused by a combination of U.S. sanctions and 21 consecutive years of droughts and floods that miraculously never crossed the DMZ; and who praises the North Korean health care system that later left her weeping in an unlit Pyongyang hospital room over the child she recklessly endangered (fourth item).

So if you’re going to remark on the fact that North Korea is allowing this event to proceed at all, consider the possibility that Ahn and the little gray men in Pyongyang share some common purposes.

Personally, I suspect that Ahn’s real purpose is to get herself arrested and deported like Shin Eun-Mi was. If you’re reading this in the Blue House, just don’t. That’s what she wants.

Not that the Blue House is taking any advice from me, but if it was, that advice would be to let Christine Ahn and her fellow travelers have their day, and pay as little attention to them as possible. But if you must, tell the whole story about what they represent, and ask them where they stand on holding Kim Jong Un accountable before the world for his crimes against humanity.

S. Korean Human Rights Commission: Government can’t ban leaflets

“The privately organized spread of propaganda leaflets is a form of free speech protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the sources quoted the final statement as saying. “Restricting these scatterings is like listening to the North’s demands at the expense of South Koreans’ human rights.” [Yonhap]

Yes! I’d started to wonder whether anyone in South Korea grasped this. I think we can now say that the HRC has rehabilitated itself from the days under Roh Moo Hyun when it became a laughingstock because of its refusal to consider human rights in North Korea, while taking up Iraq. Well, no longer.

But then, there are people right here in America who would ban “slander” of North Korea, or who don’t think Americans should be able to make films like “The Interview” in deference to the sensitivities of foreign despots. For some, the temptation to appease overcomes greater principles. For others, who set out to engage and transform North Korea, it is they who change to match their surroundings.

I also hope that the leafleters will take some reasonable precautions, and launch from unpopulated areas, or at night.

Introducing H.R. 757: The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015

Ed Royce and Elliot Engel, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have introduced the new, improved, post-Sony version of H.R. 1771.

President Obama can’t explain what his N. Korea executive order does

The bottom North Korea story of the day is that Pyongyang, which denies having anything to do with the Sony cyberattacks, has just threatened us with cyberattacks.

The North’s military will ratchet up its “retaliatory action of justice” by use of every possible means, including the nation’s “smaller, precision and diversified” nuclear striking means and cyber warfare capabilities, it added. [Yonhap]

(I’m taking Yonhap’s word for this, because KCNA isn’t working for me today.)

The top North Korea story of the day is that you can forget about those carefully downplayed Groundhog Day hopes for Agreed Framework 3.0:

“Now that the gangster-like U.S. imperialists’ military strategy towards the DPRK is inching close to the stage of igniting a war of aggression, the just counteraction of the army and people of the DPRK will be focused on inflicting the bitterest disasters upon the United States of America,” it said in a English-language statement. [….]

“It is the decision of the army and people of the DPRK to have no longer need or willingness to sit at negotiating table with the U.S. since the latter seeks to stamp out the ideology of the former and ‘bring down’ its social system,” the commission said.

No intervention can interrupt death when it’s inevitable.

I suppose this is North Korea’s reaction to Barack Obama’s observation that North Korea’s political system is doomed. Which is odd, because I haven’t seen anyone blame President Obama for riling the North Koreans, the way so many others once did following relatively milder statements by John Bolton.

No one who matters will criticize the President for being a diplomatic wrecking ball today, which is good, because that would be the wrong reason to criticize him. (If the media react differently today, maybe it’s because they’ve belatedly grasped the nature of the North Korean regime.)

A better reason to criticize him is that we have just watched a conversation between two low-information voters, neither of whom has any notion of how to respond to Pyongyang, and one of whom has been the President of the United States for six years. To his credit, the interviewer at least grasps the nature of his subject matter. He spots the contradiction in the idea of sanctioning the “most sanctioned” regime. It’s the President who isn’t capable of explaining this.

The President, by contrast, doesn’t even betray an understanding of the need or purpose for the executive order he just signed. Instead, he seems to dismiss it as a futile and superfluous gesture. The President is an intelligent man — probably smarter than most of his contemporaries — but nothing in his response suggests he read further than the sticky red tab that said “sign here.” He reveals no sense of how it fits into a broader North Korea policy. Either (a) no one who understood it briefed him, (b) the briefing didn’t stick, or (c) he is concealing the significance of the executive order so that no one will expect him to enforce it. An even more terrifying alternative is that (d) his words don’t describe that policy, because his words are the policy. He is a passive onlooker, watching the clock run out, content to let events drift toward a conclusion he calls “inevitable,” without regard for all the evil that will be inflicted, compounded, and proliferated in the intervening years. How sad.

It just wouldn’t be Groundhog Day without a N. Korea talks story

I was starting to worry that this day would pass and allow that metaphor to go unused:

The countries’ nuclear envoys have been discussing the idea of “talks about talks,” according to multiple people with knowledge of the conversations. But they have not been able to agree on the logistics — in no small part because of North Korea’s continuing Ebola quarantine.

“We want to test if they have an interest in resuming negotiations,” a senior U.S. administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think we’ve made it very clear that we would like to see them take some steps first.”

Those steps would include suspending work at their nuclear facilities and pledging not to conduct any further nuclear tests, he said. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

So, just over a month after the most devastating and successful foreign attack on free expression in U.S. history, and just two weeks after the Obama Administration responded to that by sanctioning ten low-level arms dealers, Bill Murray is hitting the snooze button again. Nothing could possibly speak with greater eloquence about how much this administration values our freedom of expression, except maybe for thisNorth Korea’s moves to restart Yongbyon may also have factored into the administration’s decision to go back to chasing the Kims like Hinckley chased Jodi Foster. 

Last month, a group of former American officials including Stephen Bosworth and Joseph DeTrani, both of whom have a long history of dealing with North Korea, met in Singapore with Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator.

The meeting was designed to check “the lay of the land,” according to one person familiar with the talks. Multiple Americans with knowledge of the various discussions spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Singapore meeting resulted in the suggestion that Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, meet with a North Korean counterpart. He was in Asia last week for meetings with Japanese, South Korean and Chinese officials, and is understood to have raised the prospect of holding a meeting with North Koreans in Beijing.

North Korea offered to send Ri to Beijing or suggested that Sung Kim meet with Kim Kye Gwan and Kang Sok Ju, both more senior in the foreign ministry than Ri, in Pyongyang.

American officials thought that Kim and Kang’s ranks were better matched with Sung Kim’s position, but did not like the “optics” of the American envoy traveling to Pyongyang because it would have made the North Koreans look as though they were in the stronger position, according to the people close to the discussions.

The administration denies making any new proposals in the Singapore talks, although I don’t personally believe that.

For now, at least, it doesn’t look like Pyongyang is buying what we’re selling. Former U.S. negotiator David Straub accuses the North Koreans of “want[ing] to give the impression that it’s the Americans who are being unreasonable right now.” The North Koreans, commenting on Sung Kim’s reported refusal to visit Pyongyang, accuse the administration of “working hard to shift the blame onto the (North), misleading public opinion by creating impression that dialogue and contacts are not realized due to the latter’s insincere attitude.”

And of course, as the Post points out, the two governments have been talking to each other, in one way or another, for years. So far—praise be to Zeus—they just don’t agree on much. Which is good, because when you choose to negotiate from weakness, you’re sure to get an awful deal. To borrow an old expression, we’ve already established what kind of diplomats we have. Now, we’re just negotiating the price.

Why I’m concerned about the overuse of financial sanctions

As much as I’ve advocated the use of financial sanctions as a potentially effective tool against North Korea, and as much as financial sanctions against Russia appear to have played a significant role in crashing the ruble, it worries me that if we use this tool too much against the wrong targets, we risk blunting the power of our financial weapon.

I think North Korea is a good target for financial sanctions because it is (a) dependent on the financial system, (b) misusing the system in ways that raise traditional law enforcement and money laundering risks, (c) not an important trading partner to anyone, and (d) subject to theoretically strict financial safeguards under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

That is to say, this weapon is for the worst of the worst–rogue states with weak links to the financial system, where there is (or could be) broad international agreement that financial sanctions are an appropriate countermeasure. (In the case of Russia and the Ukraine, better training and weapons for the Ukrainians might have been a better response. Russia’s history of losing wars to smaller neighbors is older than the Winter War against Finland and more recent than Afghanistan).

In this post, Walter Russell Mead worries that financial sanctions might have been the wrong tool against Russia, and that it might cause more states to agree that they need an alternative reserve currency. It’s a concern I share. In the case of Russia, for the first time ever, we’ve blocked out a large, interconnected economy without basing that action on concerns about money laundering, terrorist financing, or proliferation.

Meth prices inching up in North Korea

Rimjin-gang updates us on the meth trade in North Hamgyeong, in the extreme northeast of North Korea:

I would say that the buying and selling of these substances are far more active than ever before. The price for these products is increasing. A year ago it was 100 Chinese RMB (around 16 US dollars) for 1 gram. Since the beginning of this year it has increased to 100 RMB for 0.8 gram. A small sack of product, made for only 1 to 2 uses, is sold at 30,000 NK won (around 4 US dollars). [Rimjin-gang]

I wonder if this is tied to a shortage of precursor chemicals as a result of the border crackdown. Otherwise, I’d have suspected that the loss of access to Chinese markets would have driven the price down, not up.

The source also reports that “many” cops and soldiers use meth, too:

Partner: Yes. There are many. Sometimes they go and buy eoleum by themselves. If they don’t have money with them, they’ve been known to pawn something like a bicycle. Since those who carry out the crackdowns are involved in eoleum trafficking and some of them are also users, the authorities are not able to enforce controls.

Odd. I used to prosecute guys for using meth in the American Army, and I know how quickly this stuff can spread through a unit and wreck its efficiency. For the first few months, it actually makes people better at their jobs. Later, it causes them to miss formation, sleep on the job, and finally, it turns them psychotic.

It has occurred to me that a soldier with a meth problem and no more pay to spend would trade just about anything–including an RPG-7–for an eight ball.

Look for a Part 2 to Rimjin-gang’s report in the coming days.

Does the State Department think there’s a six-month statute of limitations for terror sponsorship? (Updated)

If the Congressional Research Service had its own store at the mall, you’d often find me there at 3 a.m., sleeping in my lawn chair the night before the next release, possibly in some sort of costume. The researchers are smart and genial people, and most of their work has been terrific. There also appears to be some mutuality of readership between us, because as it turns out, the latest CRS report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism cites no less than three of my works in six of its footnotes (just call me the Congressional Research Service research service). Large portions of the CRS report read like a response to my various briefs supporting North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT). Again, it’s always a good thing to have your ideas read and considered, so I hope what follows won’t seem ungracious, but CRS’s latest left me feeling the way I felt after I watched “Phantom Menace.”

That’s because CRS appears to have followed the State Department into a serious legal error that affects the quality of the analysis that resulted. The problem only becomes evident in the conclusion of the report, where CRS argues that most of the events I’ve cited (inter alia) here and here that would support North Korea’s SSOT re-listing would “fall outside the six-month window that the State Department uses to determine governments’ placement on the lists.” That is to say, State thinks there’s a six-month statute of limitations for purposes of an SSOT listing.

Now, as we speak, I’m putting the final touches on a very extensive report on SSOT listing–its statutory history, authorities, key definitions, purposes, and conduct justifying an SSOT listing. Look for it in fine bookstores everywhere (no, not really). I re-checked the key authorities, and there is no such window. Wanna check them yourself? Look at Section 6 of the Export Administration Act (EAA), Section 140 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989, Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act, and Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act. You won’t find that window, but you will find another possible source of the State Department’s confusion: Section 6(j)(4) of the Export Administration Act. But this is a provision for rescission–in English, removal from the SSOT list–not for listing in the first instance. (There are similar rescission provisions in the EAA and the FAA).

There are other reasons to question that there’s any six-month window, not the least of which is the illogic of writing annual reports that would have to overlook the first half of the year. Not only does text of the EAA provide no support for this view, its use of the term “repeatedly” implies the opposite conclusion. Many of State’s prior SSOT justifications have cited conduct occurring years before a listing (if you doubt me, read them). North Korea wasn’t listed after the 1987 KAL bombing and then de-listed the very next year, after a six-month statute of limitations ran out. Its abductions of Japanese citizens and its harboring of Japanese Red Army hijackers were both cited as reasons for North Korea’s listing years after they occurred. (Arguably, these could be called continuing offenses; they still are.) When the State Department added Sudan to the SSOT list in 1993, it found “no conclusive evidence linking the Government of Sudan to any specific terrorist incident during the year.” And as the State Department itself once said:

The United States is committed to holding terrorists and those who harbor them accountable for past attacks, regardless of when the acts occurred. The US Government has a long memory and will not simply expunge a terrorist’s record because time has passed. The states that choose to harbor terrorists are like accomplices who provide shelter for criminals. They will be held accountable for their “guests’” actions. International terrorists should know, before they contemplate a crime, that they cannot hunker down in safehaven for a period of time and be absolved of their crimes.

Perhaps because of this erroneous interpretation, CRS largely overlooks some of North Korea’s most egregious recent acts of terrorism–its assassination plots against Hwang Jang Yop and Pak Sang-Hak, the assassination of Kim Chang-Hwan in China, the attempt to assassinate another activist in China the following day, the attempted kidnapping of a North Korean student in Paris last year, and the attempted murder of a North Korean refugee in Denmark last year. One could argue that direct, retail terrorism isn’t the “sponsorship” of terrorism, but if that’s so, it’s an obtuse evasion of Congress’s intent. And if it’s so, why has the State Department repeatedly cited Iran’s attempts to assassinate Iranian dissidents abroad to support Iran’s SSOT listing? Or the assassination of Rafiq Hariri to support Syria’s SSOT listing? Or the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, the KAL 858 bombing (the original basis for North Korea’s SSOT listing), or the abductions of Japanese citizens?

CRS’s report thereby concludes “that 2009 and 2013 seizures of North Korean shipments of chemical protection equipment to Syria were the only DPRK actions since 2008 that both (1) were recognized by official U.S. or U.N. bodies, and (2) could conceivably have met the statutory criteria for redesignation.” Now, maybe this is the lawyer in me talking–but I was under the misunderstanding that the final judgment of a U.S. District Court, or the opinion of a federal Court of Appeals, counted as “recognition” by an “official body.” (See here, here, and here.) Also, it seems unfair to count only the orders of U.S. federal courts, while overlooking the multiple convictions of North Korean agents by South Korean courts (here, here, here, and here; this and this may be relevant, too). I’m not going to argue that the South Korean legal system is a paragon of due process, but if its convictions are good enough to merit recognition by our federal courts, they’re good enough for our State Department.

Perhaps consequently, the CRS report also misses the main point of my citation of the 2009 weapons seizures in Bangkok, aboard the M/V ANL Australia, and aboard the M/V Francop—not that North Korea was shipping those weapons to Iran and Syria, but that it was shipping weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah (and maybe the Quds Force for good measure) through Iran and Syria. Begin with the U.N. Panel of Experts reports documenting those seizures and cargoes in exhaustive detail, but that’s only the first step. Then, compare those reports to the contemporary press reports informing us that those weapons (including MANPADS) were destined for terrorist end-users.

Finally, CRS argues that “a decision to redesignate the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism could have a significant impact on diplomacy with North Korea,” to which I ask, “What diplomacy?” Weirdly enough, CRS also cites Kim Jong Un’s byungjin policy—the North Korean policy that declares its dual pursuit of both nukes and economic development—and equates it with reform:

The Kim regime has been promoting a two-track policy (the so-called byungjin line) of nuclear development and economic development, with the latter goal partially dependent upon influxes of foreign investment.…  The DPRK could be particularly sensitive to a redesignation, which could be perceived as a threat to the potential economic gains the North Korean government expects from its byungjin policy. Therefore, those who wish to encourage North Korea’s economic reforms, in the belief that they eventually would lead to changes in the government and/or the government’s behavior, may oppose redesignating the DPRK. In contrast, those who wish to increase economic pressure on North Korea by undercutting the byungjin line may favor redesignating the DPRK.

The latter group includes both the Obama and Park administrations, which hold that byungjin is a non-starter, “a pipe dream.” Officially, our policy is that North Korea can’t have it both ways. That makes the disruption of byungjin a net positive for an SSOT listing. (This also re-raises the question of whether a capitalist, fascist North Korea is less dangerous than a socialist one. It has never been clear to me why that would be the case.)

CRS also argues that “China may be inclined to use redesignation as a pretext for opposing U.S. and South Korean efforts to increase pressure on North Korea through other means.” Like they need one. I’ve given a long series of examples of China violating UNSC sanctions here. I’m not sure why an SSOT listing would give China any needed justification to do what it has done for years.

Finally, CRS punts on the most important question of all—by what standard can we avoid calling this terrorism?

Warning

We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.

Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.

The world will be full of fear.

Remember the 11th of September 2001.

We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.

(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

All the world will denounce the SONY.

More to come…

It’s important to make a distinction between the Guardians of Peace’s hacking of Sony Pictures from its threats against American moviegoers. The hacking itself doesn’t clearly fit within the various legal definitions of terrorism, and there’s no precedent for State citing hacking as a basis for an SSOT listing. For reasons I won’t argue today, that’s probably a good policy. Threats against American moviegoers, on the other hand, would clearly fit both the legal definitions of terrorism and the plain meaning of the term.

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As for the impact of an SSOT listing, I’m not going to argue that the sanctions triggered by a listing would be among the strongest financial and legal tools at our disposal. Sanctions under 31 C.F.R. Part 596 would have less impact than designation as a Primary Money Laundering Concern, a sustained campaign of financial diplomacy to isolate Kim Jong Un’s access to his offshore hard currency, or a serious and sustained campaign of information operations. Still, an SSOT listing would close an important loophole in our weak sanctions against North Korea. To understand the significance of that point, however, you have to understand how weak our sanctions are to begin with. And none of this means that these policy choices would be mutually exclusive.

Maybe the most important reason for an SSOT listing is that it would reflect the truth. The State Department’s dogmatic insistence that North Korea hasn’t sponsored an act of terrorism since 1987 is–there is no other word for this–a lie, one that smacks of unaccountability and bureaucratic arrogance. Regardless of the diplomatic or legal effects of a SSOT designation, it is never acceptable for our government to lie to us. Our own federal courts have found that North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism. South Korean courts have repeatedly convicted North Korean agents of international kidnappings, assassinations, and assassination attempts. A U.N. Panel of Experts has offered voluminous evidence of North Korea’s arms exports intercepted en route to Iran–arms that intelligence sources tell reporters were bound for Hamas and Hezbollah. And although the legal basis to call a cyberattack “terrorism” is questionable, threats against American filmmakers and moviegoers clearly fit the legal and commonly understood definitions of terrorism. Telling the truth always matters. So does holding people accountable for the evil that they do.

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Update: 2 Feb 2014: CRS has corrected its report to remove any references to a “six-month window.” I’ll add that when I raised the legal question with CRS, they were very classy about reexamining the law and correcting the mistake. The error was not the State Department’s, as it turns out; it was just CRS’s misreading of the Export Administration Act. Hey, I make mistakes, too! The final CRS report, however, still fails to address most of the substance that I’ve argued could be a basis for an SSOT listing. Without the “six-month window” issue, the report now leaves those omissions largely unexplained. I hope CRS will go back and examine those issues in more detail another day, in the near future.