About Damn Time: Treasury sanctions 2 N. Korean companies, 18 ships over Chong Chon Gang

More than a year after Panamanian authorities uncovered a massive shipment of Cuban weapons on its way to North Korea, in clear violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, the U.N. and Treasury have finally done something about it. That something could contain the makings of one part of an effective sanctions strategy, but it will probably disappoint some powerful members of Congress in both parties.

As I noted yesterday, and after public criticism by former head U.N. sanctions expert Martin Uden that the U.N. had been slow response to the Chon Chong Gang incident, the U.N. Sanctions Committee finally got around to designating a single entity — Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the shipping agent for the arms deal. The U.N. failed to designate other involved entities, including Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping, conveniently co-located with the local North Korean embassy, or any of the Cuban entities involved in the deal.

I wrote yesterday morning that the U.N.’s decision would probably force Treasury to designate OMM, and that prediction was proven correct within hours of my posting. Treasury also designated Chongchongang Shipping Company, evidently a one-ship enterprise, but it declined to strike at Kim Jong Un’s Chinpo.*

At this hour, there’s still no word from Vladimir Putin about whether he intends to comply with U.N. sanctions, close down OMM, and force it to move to Conakry or Dar-es-Salaam.

The more interesting part of yesterday’s Treasury announcement yesterday was treated as an afterthought in reports from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and Yonhap — the designation of 18 North Korean merchant ships. A cursory examination of NK News’s North Korea shipping tracker, however, reveals that this is a significant percentage of North Korea’s merchant fleet.

Better yet, one of the ships designated was the OMM-linked M/V Mu Du Bong, which sits stranded in a Mexican port after returning from Cuba. The designation signals that the U.S. government may ask Mexican authorities to search the ship, as I urged in this post.

The authority for the designations was Executive Order 13551, which authorizes sanctions against —

(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

    (A) to have, directly or indirectly, imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea any arms or related materiel;

   (B) to have, directly or indirectly, provided training, advice, or other services or assistance, or engaged in financial transactions, related to the manufacture, maintenance, or use of any arms or related materiel to be imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea, or following their importation, exportation, or reexportation to, into, or from North Korea;

The designation of a ship makes it difficult for the vessel obtain insurance, repairs, fuel, and other bunkering services that it needs to operate. Similar sanctions have been reasonably effective against the Iranian tanker fleet. The inclusion of the vessels’ IMO numbers will make it difficult for North Korea to evade sanctions by constantly reflagging its ships, something it is notorious for.

The vast majority of North Korea’s shipping traffic is with China. It remains to be seen whether these ships will continue to ply their trade across the Yellow Sea. It will be worth watching that shipping tracker carefully in the coming weeks.

Expect North Korea to adapt by switching off the transponders on its ships. An interesting question I haven’t researched (but perhaps commenter David knows) is whether a U.S. Navy vessel encountering a Treasury-designated vessel on its way to, say, Bandar Abbas with its transponder and its lights switched off has a right to search it at sea.

In February, Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wrote a very interesting analysis of how sanctions against North Korean shipping companies could be an effective tool against smuggling and proliferation.

Treasury’s action raises the number of designated North Korean entities from 43 to 63, still far less than Zimbabwe or Belarus, whether you measure that in terms of raw numbers or the significance of the designations themselves. Yesterday’s designations closed that gap just a bit, and sent the message that at least North Korea isn’t absolutely immune from all its bad acts — just that genocide stuff.

If expanded, sanctions against North Korean ships could make it more difficult (but not impossible) to smuggle arms by relying on third-country vessels. And of course, there’s always Chinese airspace. If enforced aggressively, shipping sanctions could complement expanded financial sanctions to pressure North Korea and deny it one means to proliferate.

The Administration’s failure to designate any Cuban entities, however, will not please the eight members of Congress who recently signed a letter to our U.N. Ambassador, noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power, calling on her to push the Security Council to designate “Cuban officials and entities involved in arms smuggling to North Korea.” 

Whether Power pushed for sanctions against North Korea’s Cuban vendors isn’t clear, but it’s clear the U.N. isn’t going to impose them. The Panel of Experts’ report on the Chong Chon Gang incident didn’t find the evidence against Cuban entities to be as strong as it was against North Korea, mainly because the Cubans didn’t cooperate with the POE, and because it wasn’t their ship that was caught in the act. But designating North Korea’s customers is important for the deterrent message it sends to suspected customers in places like Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, and Tanzania that were named previous U.N. POE reports as suspected North Korean arms clients. It’s a well-recognized principle in the law** that when a party hides evidence, fact-finders are entitled to make adverse inferences about just what party is hiding.

Most of the letter’s signatories are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. All but one, Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, are Republicans. Sires is also one of Congress’s strongest advocates of human rights in North Korea, and is said to be a close ally of New Jersey’s senior senator, Robert Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both Sires and Menendez are conservative Cuban-American Democrats.

(While I’m on the topic of Menendez, I have to ask whether the ultra-conservative bloggers who may have been taken in by a Cuban government smear operation against Menendez would really prefer to have Barbara Boxer as Chair of SFRC. Don’t get me wrong — Boxer has a great reputation on human rights, but on national security issues, she isn’t nearly as tough-minded as Menendez. For that matter, neither was Richard Lugar — not by a mile.)

The Chong Chon Gang incident was an opening for North Korea human rights activists to reach out to Cuban-Americans in both parties. The Cuban-American contingent in Congress is one of the most powerful on the Hill, and also includes rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, and firebrand Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. And if powerful constituencies matter, last week’s revelation that North Korea is selling rockets to Hamas won’t help Pyongyang’s position on Capitol Hill.

The letter is the latest sign that Congress is increasingly uncomfortable with the pace of the Obama Administration’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. In light of these new developments, these members of Congress should consider calling for additional EO 13551 designations of the Cuban entities involved in Chong Chon Gang.

I’ve pasted a list of Treasury’s new designations below the fold.

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* The Editor preemptively apologizes for this.

** The obvious exception is that in criminal cases, no adverse inference can be drawn from a suspect’s invocation of his right to remain silent. 

Read more

Open Sources, July 31, 2014

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NORTH KOREA FIRES four more of those 300-millimeter rockets, about which I’ll have more to say one day, if I ever finish a rather long post I’m working on. The point of that post will be that those rockets could be a game-changer because (1) South Korea has no practical defense against them, and (2) they can probably hit the U.S. installations at Osan and Camp Humphreys.

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On May 24th, 50 students from the prestigious “Pyongyang No.1 Middle School” died in an accident on the way to Songdowon on the East Sea coast of North Korea, Dong-A Ilbo reported on July 29th. The students were traveling through the mountainous Masik Pass in Gangwon Province when their bus overturned, killing all those aboard.

Please keep the families in your thoughts. The report cites a lack of seat belts as a cause, but school buses in this state don’t require the kids to wear seat belts, either. I think this is just a terrible, terrible accident that could have happened anywhere.

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WHY DID KIM JONG UN’S premier money launderer (now its Foreign Minister) make an unscheduled, one-week stopover in Switzerland? “Ri is a former ambassador to Switzerland, where he managed former leader Kim Jong-il’s slush fund and served as a guardian for Kim Jong-un.” I’m sure he just withdrew some petty cash for those underfunded food aid programs.

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DONOR FATIGUE: “Citing the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Washington-based Voice of America said North Korea received US$19.6 million of humanitarian aid in the January-June period, down 45 percent from the same period last year.” 

All I can say is, thank goodness “Kim Jong-un has stashed away some US$4-5 billion in bank accounts in other people’s names in Austria, China, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland,” because help must surely be on the way now, right?

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FRIDA GHITIS WRITES INSIGHTFULLY about the temptation to laugh at North Korea, and wonders when the laughter is appropriate:

Those are two sides of North Korea — deliberately frightening and inadvertently comical. Then there’s a third side — the part that makes us gasp in horror.

A yearlong investigation conducted by the United Nations found that North Korea is a country whose depth of brutality “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

According to the report, North Korea engages in murder, torture, slavery and mass starvation to terrorize the population into submission. Stories from refugees who have escaped from North Korea are a chilling reminder that the regime is not just a military threat, it is causing a terrible humanitarian crisis. [CNN.com]

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SEVERAL NKPA COMMANDERS HAVE BEEN SACKED over a shooting incident that killed an member of Kim Jong Un’s protective detail, according to Radio Free Asia.

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ATTENTION, DUTCH PEOPLE: STAY OFF THE BEACH AT NIGHT!Radio Free Asia (FRA) reported that North Korea is searching for a native Dutch speaker to teach children in North Korea. They believe that North Korea students educated in Dutch will be able to guide European tourists in the future.”

All of this is part of some new scheme to court foreign sympathizers and profiteers. And among a certain constituency, the supply of foreign sympathizers and profiteers is inexplicably limitless.

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RIMJIN-GANG IS OUT WITH A NEW REPORT on the booming illegal housing market in North Korea. I wonder how the collapse of that apartment building has affected the housing market in Pyongyang. Outside of Pyongyang, small single family homes — with room for a garden — are in the greatest demand.

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NK NEWS HAS A REPORT WITH SOME FASCINATING PHOTOGRAPHS about redneck radios built by North Koreans to listen to illegal broadcasts. Even the snaggletoothed, rheumy-eyed old Trotskyites at The Guardian agree that this is a must-see.

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DENNIS HALPIN REVIEWS THE STATE OF RELATIONS between North Korea and China, and points to signs of strain, but contrasts them with the interests that cause Beijing to prop up Pyongyang, and admirably resists the temptation of wishful thinking. For anyone who wants a primer on why China props North Korea up, this would be a good primer from a very learned source.

The Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, bases its own analysis of that question on sketchy facts — alleging that China has cut off North Korea’s fuel supply (no, it didn’t), and that China-North Korea trade has fallen off (also questionable; bilateral trade hit a record high in 2013).

Congress marks 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I, asks how that’s working out

The House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee commemorated the 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I by calling Ambassadors Glyn Davies and Bob King over for a hearing this afternoon, and it was a tough day for Team Foggy Bottom.

If you want to see how congressional oversight should work — if you want to see a well-informed, well-prepared legislator completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle 20 years of bad policy — then watch Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot’s opening statement. Chabot made great use of John Kerry’s description of North Korea as “quiet,” and his critique of State’s obtuse position on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism was devastating:

Chabot isn’t a mesmerizing speaker, but he’s an effective one, and in the ten years I’ve been watching these things, I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more effective opening statement. His questions of Ambassador King made it clear that the Administration has done nothing about the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and nothing King said suggested that that’s about to change.

Your comedy gold, however, came from Scott Perry of Pennsylvania questioning Ambassador Davies about what everyone but the State Department calls “strategic patience.” Skip to 1:06, where he begins by asking Glyn Davies about what, exactly, he’s accomplished.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Davies’s reaction to this was arrogant and snippy. Perry threw him off-balance, and off his diplomatic demeanor.

If you have time, watch the whole hearing, and strain your ears for any inkling that State has anything to show for its efforts, any confidence in its plans — indeed, any plan at all. Davies, in particular, sounds weary and resigned. They’ve all been running out the clock ever since the Groundhog Day Agreement failed.

Sherman (D-Cal.) was (as always) mercurial, and less hawkish than in the past; Bera (D-Cal.), who ordinarily comes across as very bright, didn’t seem confident in his knowledge of the subject, and Connolly (D-Va.) didn’t get anyeonghasseyeo quite right, but his questions were insightful and penetrating. He tried to get Davies to react to the House’s passage of H.R 1771, but Davies wouldn’t bite.

Members of both parties sounded unimpressed with State’s performance, both on nukes and human rights. The idea we’ve fought for years is that North Korea policy has to be a zero-sum competition between those objectives. But what if State can’t get anything done on either? What Congress saw today was a State Department that ran out of ideas 20 years ago, and that had no record to defend.

The hearing began just as Treasury announced its new round of Chong Chon Gang sanctions, something I at least partially foresaw in this morning’s post (and which I’ll say more about tomorrow). So if even I foresaw it, why couldn’t someone have at least let Davies announce them in his opening statement? Given the strong bi-partisan pressure for tougher sanctions, having that news to deliver might have helped Davies’s day go better.

Update: Yonhap’s take, here.

China shuts down exhibition by North Korean satirist

IF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WONDERS why its own people find its modern cultural output stultifying, then maybe it shouldn’t stultify quite so much:

A North Korean defector known for his satirical paintings on North Korean society was forbidden from holding a rare exhibition in Beijing on Sunday, with Chinese police officials removing his artwork shortly before the exhibition began.

The painter from North Korea with the pseudonym Sun Mu, who fled the North in 1998 and resettled in South Korea in 2001, has been called a “faceless” artist as he does not allow himself to be photographed out of fears that his family left behind could suffer retribution. [Yonhap]

This man must be brave to go to a country that’s swarming with regime agents, assassins, and abduction squads. The good news story here is that North Koreans are emerging as a cultural force in their own right. That will eventually make them a serious cultural threat to the regime.

Former U.N. sanctions investigator calls U.N.’s slow response to Chong Chon Gang incident “regrettable”

If you care at all about North Korea sanctions, then NK News’s interview with Martin Uden, the former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts investigating the enforcement of sanction on North Korea, is an absolute must-read. I’ll give you a taste, and then you’ll have to read the rest on your own:

In particular, the seizure of a DPRK cargo vessel in Panama in 2013 – the Chong Chon Gang – highlighted that North Korea remains actively engaged in sanction-breaking behavior.

But even though the most recent Panel of Experts report published in March concluded that the vessel’s cargo of munitions – MiG fighter jets and Soviet-era radar systems – did constitute a breach of sanctions, the response from the UN Sanctions Committee was muted.

“The problem of course is the lack of action by the Sanctions Committee, and that I think is more regrettable. This [case] was a pretty much an in flagrante delicto violation of UN sanctions” Uden said. [Leo Byrne, NK News]

It’s reporting like this that makes me hope we’ll have NK News at least as long as we have North Korea.

Lo and behold, five days after that interview is published, the Sanctions Committee has finally designated Ocean Maritime Management, but not Chongchongang Shipping, Chinpo Shipping, Korea Central Marketing and Trading Corporation, Tonghae Shipping Agency, or any of the Cuban entities involved in the transactions.

Or, the bank that processed the transactions, whose identifying information was redacted out of the documents published in the POE Report. (Although it’s interesting that the sugar transaction, at least, was denominated in dollars.)

At this point, Treasury probably has no choice but to designate OMM, but of course, OMM could fold up and restart in Magadan, Trinidad, or the Seychelles next week.

Another OMM ship, the M/V Mu Du Bong, remains stranded in a Mexican port after running aground and damaging a nearby coral reef.

Where is John Bolton when we need him?

S. Korea: We’re trying to save those N. Korean refugees in Chinese custody

The ROK Foreign Ministry has made a public statement about the case of the 29 refugees arrested by China, whose case I first noted here last week. The statement is a good sign, because it means that Park Geun-Hye’s government is linking China’s treatment of North Korean refugees to the quality of South Korea’s relations with China:

The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday pledged to make all diplomatic efforts to prevent 29 North Korean defectors being deported from China back to their repressive home country.

On July 15-17, the defectors and six of their South Korean helpers were arrested in Qingdao and Kunming in China. [Chosun Ilbo]

Some of the North Koreans were arrested in Qingdao, and others were picked up along the Underground Railroad to Southeast Asia. The ChiComs have taken them to the infamous Tumen Detention Center, just across the border from North Korea. The next stop is either this, or this.

A staffer of an agency helping defectors said, “Chinese authorities may have wanted to move them quietly to the border and deport them before anyone notices, so this is making things awkward for Beijing.” [....]

A relative of one of the defectors said, “The Tumen detention center is stopping the families from speaking to them. If they’re deported to the North, they’ll definitely be sent to a concentration camp.”

The defectors, most of whom are of families, left Cheongjin and Musan, North Hamgyong Province or Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in June and July. They include a couple in their 60s and a one-year-old baby girl.

Unfortunately, that new consular agreement between China and South Korea hasn’t taken effect yet, so the South Korean government hasn’t even been given access to its own nationals.

But perhaps I’m making too much of that agreement. After all, China signed the Refugee Convention, and yet it treats that Convention like so much one-ply bathroom tissue. No piece of paper, no word of honor, and nothing resembling conscience will ever make China do what’s right. Only pressure can do that.

Yonhap interviews Ed Royce, on H.R. 1771

The day after the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act passed the House, Royce gave an interview to Yonhap:

“We have tried every approach to engage North Korea and the only time that we’ve ever really had their attention was when we’ve used some leverage on the regime itself,” Royce said in the interview in his office shortly after the bill’s passage on Monday, referring to the BDA sanctions. [....]

Royce said that chances of the bill passing through the Senate are “very good.”

“There’s a lot of bipartisan support for this legislation,” he said. “I know the feelings of many of the senators I’ve talked with. The senators feel as we feel that this is a step that we need to take.”

But the chairman stressed the bill won’t affect humanitarian aid to the North.

“What we are looking at doing is — instead of cutting off the aid to the regime itself — cutting off the institutions that the regime uses, not only to consolidate its power over the people of North Korea and violate their rights but also the institutions they use to build up, continue to build up their nuclear weapons program and their ICBM program,” he said. [Yonhap]

I’m interviewed further down in the piece.

Untrained eyes fail to perceive John Kerry’s North Korea “progress”

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BRUCE KLINGNER OF THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION asks, “You call this progress, Secretary Kerry?”

Kerry cites his meetings with China regarding North Korea, yet Beijing continues to resist U.S. entreaties to increase pressure on Pyongyang by more fully implementing UN resolution sanctions.

In the meantime, Pyongyang continues to refine and augment its nuclear arsenal while Washington remains reluctant to impose the same unilateral US sanctions that it has already imposed on Iran, Burma, and Syria. Nor has the Obama administration yet addressed the UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea’s human rights violations which reached a level to be considered “crimes against humanity.” Obama’s Strategic Patience policy does indeed require patience, since there is no strategy. [The Daily Signal]

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AS IF TO PROVE KLINGNER’S POINT, China’s Foreign Minister calls on the U.S. to lower its preconditions for a return to six-party talks, which doesn’t suggest that Kerry’s talks with China have yielded progress, at least for our side:

“The United States is demanding North Korea show its willingness to give up its nuclear (weapons program), while maintaining a high threshold,” Zhang was quoted as telling the lawmakers, according to the South Korean delegate.

Zhang also criticized the U.S. policy of trying to “achieve its target even before the talks resume,” the delegate said on condition of anonymity.

The vice foreign minister reiterated China’s stated goal of “resuming the six-party talks at an early date.”

The opposite is true. It’s North Korea that’s trying to get the U.S. to accede, if tacitly, to its nuclear status before talks begin. North Korea has repeatedly declared that it’s a nuclear state, and has refused repeatedly to give up its nuclear arsenal. So what’s the point of disarmament talks if the parties don’t even agree that they’re about disarmament?

Without that acknowledgement, the talks would be a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, even as North Korea demands more aid, cash, and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze or some equally ectoplasmic ephemera. And while I’m glad that at least officially, Kerry is sticking to that precondition, I continue to hear from well-informed people that his position is much less clear behind the scenes. When Glyn Davies talks about “reversible steps,” it further reinforces what I’m hearing.

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NORTH KOREAN VICE-MARSHAL Hwang Pyong-So wants to be sure John Kerry hears him:

“If the US imperialists threaten our sovereignty and survival… our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon — the sources of all evil,” Hwang said in his speech broadcast Monday on state television.

He forgot to mention Foggy Bottom, but it’s not as if Foggy Bottom ever struck fear into the heart of any psychopathic despot.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and Secretary of State of John Kerry is hard of hearing. Discuss among yourselves.

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NORTH KOREA DENIES selling arms to Hamas, as reported here, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center calls on the Obama Administration to “take all necessary steps” to block the sale. It also denounces some vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric from pro-North Korean Web sites based in China the United States.

For those keeping track, this year, Kim Jong Un’s sycophants have called President Obama “a wicked black monkey,” President Park Geun-Hye “a whore,” and Justice Michael Kirby “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career in homosexuality.”

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OH, GOOD: The Yongbyon reactor has been shut down over problems with its cooling system. In some sense, you could call that progress, but I wouldn’t give John Kerry any credit for it.

H.R. 1771 passes House of Representatives on a voice vote

Chairman Royce (R, Cal.) and Congressman Gerry Connolly (D, Va.) both spoke strongly in favor. No member was opposed, and no member asked for a vote. The “ayes” had it just after 3 p.m.

If there’s any aspect of this that’s bittersweet, it’s that a lot of people who worked hard for this outcome could not be there to see it because the vote was scheduled on such short notice.

Here is the version that passed the House today.

Now, on to the Senate.

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Update: Jean Arthur explains congressional procedure to Jimmy Stewart in the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

I love that clip.

Roberta Cohen in the WaPo, on preventing a massacre in N. Korea’s gulag

Writing in The Washington Post, Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, writes about how to prevent the execution of “standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.”

It was Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who gave the kill-all order. His son Kim Jong-il reaffirmed it. Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, testified before the U.N. commission that, in the event of upheaval, the guards are “to wipe out” all inmates so as “to eliminate any evidence.” He said that drills have even been held “on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.” Guards in other camps, as well as former prison officials, have confirmed this account.

Cohen then makes several recommendations to address this danger, starting with imposing accountability on those responsible now. First, she calls for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report to be brought before the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would impose targeted sanctions, in line with the COI Chair’s recommendation.

The law firm Hogan Lovells recently issued a report concluding that the COI’s findings could amount to genocide. I made a similar (but less refined) argument nine years ago.

Unfortunately, we’ve only seen the first signs that our U.N. Ambassador and noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power is interested in leading (or joining) a push for any such resolution. And without U.S. leadership, who will lead? Ban Ki-Moon?

The voice of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be heard, too. Because Ban is Korean, he is often excused from taking the lead on human rights issues in North Korea, but when crimes against humanity are found and atrocities warned, he should be expected to use every tool at his disposal.

I’ll go a step further. Korean history should remember Ban Ki-Moon as a bystander in the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the history of the Korean people – one whose toll, once counted, will almost certainly (even greatly) exceed even the terrible human cost of Japan’s occupation.

Cohen also calls on the Congress to pass, and for the President to sign, H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. The House is expected to vote on the bill this afternoon.

Cohen’s next call is an appeal to “humanitarian and military forces” to consider the urgency of saving the camps’ prisoners in their contingency planning. It’s one of those important questions that always seems too unlikely and hypothetical to plan for until it actually happens. By the time the hypothetical is a reality, of course, it’s too late to plan. Here is how she puts it:

Bringing the prisoners to safety must be part and parcel of any strategy developed to respond to a collapse in North Korea. While protecting civilians and securing nuclear weapons will appropriately be uppermost concerns in a time of chaos, it is in the camps that the most acute cases of hunger, disease and ill-treatment will be found. It is essential that humanitarian organizations and military forces focus now on how to rescue survivors.

Of course, the U.S. and South Korea do have a set of operational plans for a collapse in North Korea, called OPLAN 5029. The plans are classified, so for all we know, Combined Forces Command has already formulated detailed plans of the very sort Cohen recommends.

Who would come to the rescue? In a private e-mail, which she gave me permission to quote, Cohen said that her intent is to encourage U.S. diplomats to talk to their Chinese counterparts about planning for a sudden collapse with the minimum possible loss of life, meaning that Cohen is thinking of a benevolent entry by Chinese forces, who are much closer to the camps geographically than anyone else. Cohen knows that for now, the odds are against this, and she points me to this piece at 38 North, arguing that China will never cooperate.

Cohen isn’t alone in suggesting that China should have a role in stabilizing a post-collapse North Korea; Bruce Bennett of RAND also suggested as much based on the simple mathematics of stabilization operations. South Korea has been cutting back its active duty military, and doesn’t have sufficient reserves to occupy and stabilize North Korea today (though it seems entirely possible that South Korea could assemble that reserve force if it had the political will to do so). One potential complication of inviting* a Chinese intervention, however, aside from China’s general lack of a benevolent incentive, is the possibility that once in, it won’t get out again so easily.

[* Cohen writes in to clarify that she isn't "inviting" anything, but is acknowledging what might well be inevitable. It's a fair point, and I didn't mean to imply that the invitation would have been Cohen's, so I'm happy to clarify that.]

What about a rescue by U.S. and ROK forces? The most optimistic view I can offer here is that if there is a general mutiny of North Korean forces, and if we were confident that the operation would be unopposed, it might be possible to reach the camps with aircraft operating from ships offshore. The idea would be to provide protection and deliver essential humanitarian supplies until larger forces can arrive to evacuate the prisoners and rescuers.

(Nor should we overlook the immense public interest value in showing the world images of the camps and the state of the prisoners. There are still people who deny the Holocaust, after all. Noam Chomsky minimized and dismissed, and arguably denied, reports of the Cambodian genocide, and if you deny this denial – as Chomsky now does — then read what Chomsky himself wrote about the subject as it was being revealed to the world.)

The hardest part of such an operation would not be getting in, but getting the rescuers and prisoners out safely. That would require an open road to a port or a large airfield. ROK forces may well lack the equipment, the logistical sophistication, and the will to carry out that kind of operation alone. A small force in such a remote area would find itself dangerously exposed. There are more factual contingencies in this topic than one could possibly discuss within the Post‘s word limits, but the logistical and military obstacles would be severe, to say the least.

Camps Overview with boundaries

One wonders how likely it is that such a collapse would precede a massacre of prisoners. One of the most overlooked means the regime uses to control its people is mutual internal isolation. Simply sending a message from one city to another can be difficult, and sending an unmonitored message would be a near impossibility. In the event of unrest, Pyongyang would certainly flip the “kill switch” for Koryolink, cutting off North Korea’s only legal cell phone network.

In addition, the North Korean Army (NKPA) answers to a completely different command than the Ministry of Public Safety forces that control the camps. Because the camps are widely dispersed, the NKPA units controlling the roads and ports near different camps would fall under different corps commands. That means a separate contingency plan would be needed for each camp.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 11.38.11 AM

[via Global Security. Note that this map includes the VI Corps, which was reportedly abolished after a 1996 mutiny, but you get the general idea.]

Sadly, there may be no militarily practical way to prevent a massacre without the cooperation of at least some of the North Korean forces in control of the area near any given camp. At best, we may only be able to prevent massacres in some of the camps.

Which brings us to the paramount importance of information operations, which should be designed to cause the MPS to disobey kill orders, or to hesitate as long as possible before deciding to obey them. What should our message to the guards and wardens in the camps be? As Cohen says, “Guards might think twice about carrying out an order to commit a massacre if they know they would be held accountable.” They must know that if they carry out orders to massacre prisoners, they will be tried and held accountable.

But there must be a positive incentive, too; after all, the guards must already suspect that they’ll face trial for what they’ve already done if the regime falls. As difficult as this may be to accept, we must be willing to consider offering guards who protect the lives of prisoners at least a partial amnesty for their crimes against the prisoners up to that point in time. (An offer of a full amnesty creates a perverse incentive to mistreat prisoners now, before the act that qualifies the guard for amnesty.)

In the end, as with so many problems in North Korea, this may be a problem with no external military solution. The liberation of North Korea must inevitably depend on the liberated themselves. Planners should always be prepared to seize opportunities that present themselves, of course, but sometimes, one must make one’s own opportunities. The most plausible opportunity to save the prisoners of North Korea’s gulag may be to encourage and support North Koreans — most likely, among the security forces — who would rebel against central authority, and to incentivize acts of mercy to North Korea’s most vulnerable people.

This all sounds impossible now – even wildly hypothetical – but it’s certainly not fanciful; thus, the existence of OPLAN 5029. The idea of a popular uprising in Syria or Libya sounded equally impossible at the beginning of 2011. And unless people speak of impossible things — even when these impossible things are also inevitable — they will be unready when those things come to pass.

North Korea’s camps have long been one of the main tools employed by the Kim regime to hold on to power. One day, their dismantling will give rise to a new Korea in which monuments will be erected not to the Kim family but to its victims, which have been abandoned by the international community for too long.

To this day, we are still debating why we did not bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz, or why we did not arm the Poles and Jews who rose against the Nazis in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944. That’s why the discussion Roberta Cohen has started this week is such an important one.