This guy rode a bicycle from North Korea to Mongolia while evading the Chinese police.

“One time I was sent back to North Korea through a broker so I couldn’t trust anybody any longer. So when I came out to China again I got a map and a compass and a bicycle, I just went”, he explained.

“I prepared a little mini tent, a change of clothes, a little of the money I earned,” park said, describing the items he took with him from the North. “I didn’t know how long it was going to take so I couldn’t bring food”. He said he also had a smartphone to help guide him, but struggled with navigation off major roads.

For Park, the early stages felt like an adventure – he was “young and free”. But as he got closer to Mongolia and felt the temperature drop he realised “it wasn’t going to be that much fun”. He says he got by charging his phone battery intermittently at service stations and eating noodles. Once at his destination, Park was able to travel to South Korea, arriving around a year ago ready to start a new life. [The Guardian]

The ride took 12 days.

Kurt Campbell: We need tougher sanctions on North Korea.

Kurt Campbell, President Obama’s former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs and now CEO of The Asia Group, continues to debunk the pair of academic urban legends that North Korea sanctions (a) are maxed out, and (b) therefore, not a promising policy alternative. At a forum in Seoul last week, Campbell called on his former boss to “further toughen financial sanctions against North Korea” if it continues to refuse to give up its nuclear program and continues its military provocations.

“If we face real serious provocations going forward with North Korea, we have to keep one option … The fact is that if we choose, we can make life much more difficult through financial sanctions on North Korea,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the first term of President Barack Obama, said in a forum in Seoul. [Yonhap]

Unlike most journalists and academics who parrot these urban legends, Campbell has actually had the benefit of an informed examination of the authorities.

“I thought North Korea was the most sanctioned country in the world, but I was (proven) wrong when I was involved in the previous U.S. efforts to lessen sanctions on Myanmar in the past,” he said. “Myanmar is sanctioned about 10 times (more than) North Korea.” 

It would be interesting to know whether Campbell is taking a jab at his successors, or whether (as I suspect) he’s really sending a message on their behalf. Campbell also offered this elegant critique of the Sunshine Policy and its many variations:

The U.S. has for the past 20 years tried to give North Korea a choice between engagement with the international community and isolation, he said.

“The North Korean answer has always been both as opposed to choice … and it’s not clear we would be able to try to accommodate this,” he said.

Then, Campbell made another provocative suggestion: perhaps Six Parties are too many for regional diplomacy with North Korea. The question Campbell didn’t answer is who should be kicked out. There are so many good candidates for expulsion that it’s hard to see who ought to remain. North Korea itself has consistently reneged on its commitments with the other parties; talks about North Korea have proceeded before when North Korea boycotted them, and could continue as a place for the other five parties to coordinate policy and improve sanctions enforcement.

That China has demonstrated a consistent pattern of double-dealing and sanctions-busting is beyond serious debate. Talks could continue without China, among parties that really are serious about disarming North Korea. Dealings with China would have to continue in other venues, of course, but won’t make progress until China sees that the other parties are serious about enforcing sanctions.

I’ve always thought Russia’s inclusion in the 6PT was a me-too afterthought. Including Russia mostly served to give China a partner in reluctance. Since Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, Russia has shifted toward propping Pyongyang up financially and flouting North Korea sanctions, notably by forgiving North Korea’s debt and hosting Ocean Maritime Management. Japan has also broken with its allies to go its own way, and so, for that matter, has the United States when it suited us.

Finally, there is South Korea, the country with the most direct security interest in disarming North Korea, and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. defense spending each year. It’s especially ironic that Seoul has never committed itself to offering North Korea the strategic choice Campbell is talking about. Its byungjin-friendly financial subsidy of North Korea has blunted the pressure that U.N. sanctions were intended to apply, signaling to North Korea that it can have both nukes and ski resorts.

Europe is not one of the six parties, but some Europeans have offered that it should be. Europe could be offered a place, but only if it commits to playing a more productive role than it has in the past. Until recently, Europe’s main interaction with North Korea had been to host Kim Jong Un’s offshore slush funds in its banks, to sell him the luxury goods that should have paid for food instead, to support byungjin-friendly (that is, largely unconditional, regime-focused) engagement with Pyongyang despite its manifest failure, and then to oppose the strong enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions on humanitarian grounds. Despite rising consciousness of North Korea’s crimes against humanity in Europe, its compliance with U.N. sanctions is still poor.

It’s not clear to me whether there should be fewer parties than six or more, or which nations should be represented in them. It is clear that the United States has failed to use the full extent of its financial, diplomatic, cultural, and military influence to unite around a strategy of effective pressure, and then to pursue it until North Korea is disarmed — completely, verifiably, and irreversibly. Ironically for a President and a Secretary of State who each had emphasized diplomacy in their respective campaigns for the presidency, neither has had diplomatic success in coordinating the North Korea policies of our allies and military dependents in Northeast Asia, to say nothing of our rivals.

~   ~   ~

* Byungjin is North Korea’s term for a doctrine under which it will both enrich itself economically and continue to improve its nuclear weapons capability.

H.R. 1771: A response to Stephan Haggard

Stephan Haggard has published the second of two comments on H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, at KEIA’s blog, following Bruce Klingner’s first post on the subject. Haggard and I have a history of genial disagreement about North Korea policy, but I find much more in this thoughtful and well-considered post to expand on than to argue with. Haggard has obviously read and understood the legislation before opining about it. (Marcus Noland, Haggard’s co-author at Witness to Transformation, has also commented on the legislation, at about 37 minutes into this audio.)

Among our perhaps narrowing differences, Haggard clearly has more reservations than I do about the impact of sanctions on nominally “legitimate” North Korean commerce:

One concern, however, is whether the legislation has intentionally or unintentionally blurred the line between WMD-related and commercial trade. The justification for doing so is arguably legitimate. In such a highly centralized regime, it is difficult if not impossible to draw the line between illicit and commercial activities. Nonetheless, to date the international community has sought to draw such a line, and for several reasons. [KEIA Blog]

What follows will merely expand on what Haggard acknowledges — that Pyongyang itself has blurred that distinction. Somehow, Pyongyang has found the financial means to finance its WMD programs and its brutal security forces, and although its finances are opaque, ostensibly lawful commerce such as mining almost certainly plays a key role in paying for it. Under its byungjin policy, Pyongyang asserts the intention of having it both ways, enriching itself economically while still developing an effective nuclear arsenal. H.R. 1771 seeks to force Pyongyang to choose between those priorities, without harboring any illusions about which alternative Pyongyang will choose, at least initially. But we’ll return to sub-topic that later in this post.

H.R. 1771 isn’t the first recognition of North Korea’s co-mingling of legitimate and illicit funds. Two months before H.R. 1771 was introduced, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2094 (2013), which also recognized the risk that North Korea misuses both commerce and consular activities. The resolution responded by “targeting the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel, transfers of bulk cash, and the country’s banking relationships,” and by requiring “enhanced monitoring” of “assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to” Pyongyang’s weapons programs. This language builds on Resolution 1718 (2006), which required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available” to persons involved in breaking sanctions.

Then, In March of 2013, one month before H.R. 1771 was introduced, the Treasury Department sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK, a bank that was heavily involved in financing nominally legitimate trade, transactions with humanitarian NGOs, and also, according to the Treasury Department, “transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.”

Like H.R. 1771, Treasury’s action and the Security Council’s language acknowledge that North Korea, like all money launderers, hides its illicit transactions within otherwise lawful commerce. It also uses the proceeds of that commerce to finance more illicit activities. Its objective is to make the lawful and the unlawful as indistinguishable and inseparable as possible. Like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, Pyongyang also shields its financial lifelines by entangling them with humanitarian activities—activities that are only necessary because of Pyongyang’s deliberate misuse of money that should be spent on food, and which it could easily disentangle from its proliferation by allowing humanitarian NGOs to bank elsewhere.

In practice, the targeting of some of these North Korean entities will require a careful, case-by-case weighing of costs and benefits based on good financial intelligence. That is why Section 207 of H.R. 1771 provides generous exemption and waiver provisions to avoid doing further harm to North Korea’s food supply, beyond the harm already being done by Kim Jong Un’s crackdown on market activities and cross-border smuggling.

I share more of Haggard’s concern that China will intensify its efforts to help Pyongyang evade sanctions:

One of the perverse effects of the post-2003 sanctions efforts is that North Korea has become increasingly dependent on China; my estimates with Marc Noland suggest that China may account for as much as 70 percent of the DPRK’s total trade. This growing dependence has had the odd consequence of reducing the influence of sanctions as trade has shifted toward the weakest links in the sanctions chain. China probably provides fewer direct supports than is commonly thought, but it remains strongly committed to a strategy of deep economic engagement with the country. It is possible that firms and particularly banks conducting business with North Korea will reconsider, and that is a good thing. But we should not have exaggerated expectations; there are plenty of firms and financial institutions that will continue to ply this trade, and we are unlikely to get much sympathy from Beijing in tracking them down. To the contrary, the Chinese government has already signaled its concern about the use of secondary sanctions and has shown little inclination to use the economic leverage over North Korea that it quite obviously has. Will this legislation make cooperation with China on North Korea easier or harder?

There’s little question that China will try to frustrate the enforcement of H.R. 1771, just as it has tried to frustrate the enforcement of every other effort to sanction North Korea. What distinguished the brief Banco Delta Asia episode from every other such effort, and contributed to its widely acknowledged success, was the Chinese government’s relative powerlessness to blunt it. Recent experience suggests that this hasn’t changed, although China’s willingness to sacrifice its own interests for Kim Jong Un’s may have waned since the purge of Jang Song-Thaek.

China’s adoption of state capitalism has enriched it, through the creation of businesses and parastatals that are highly dependent on global trade and the international financial system. It’s not surprising that a mixed economy has also had a mixed response to sanctions. At the state level, China routinely overlooks U.N.-mandated sanctions. China’s banks, on the other hand, have been highly sensitive to any veiled threat by Treasury to sanction banks that do business with North Korean money launderers and proliferators. We first saw this in 2005, shortly before Banco Delta Asia, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Bank of China was under investigation for laundering North Korean funds. The report caused the Bank of China to spurn much of its North Korea business. Remarkably, even after Agreed Framework 2.0 in 2007, it still refused to help move $25 million in illegally derived funds back to Pyongyang, despite the express requests of the U.S. and Chinese governments.

As recently as May of 2013, two months after Treasury sanctioned the Foreign Trade bank and a little more than a week after the introduction of H.R. 1771, China’s four largest banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China  — all halted money transfers to North Korea. Other, smaller Chinese banks, like the Bank of Dandong, continued to move money for Pyongyang, and at the lowest reaches of the financial ecosystem, North Korean money launderers still operate in Guangdong with impunity, and more discreetly, in places like the British Virgin Islands. Enforcing sanctions is like mowing the lawn. If you don’t do it regularly, things grow back quickly, and it’s the weeds that will thrive the most. Unlike mowing the lawn, you can’t take a uniform approach to different enforcement targets.

That is why H.R. 1771 was designed to be scaleable, allowing harder sanctions for smaller banks that the financial system wouldn’t miss, and more subtle sanctions for larger banks that have historically been highly sensitive to reputational risks. Securing compliance at all levels of the financial ecosystem will require a great deal of hard work by financial investigators and lawyers, and a new demonstration of Treasury’s determination to deter such conduct, both in China and in other countries.

Post-BDA, and since the ascent of Kim Jong-un in particular, North Korea has also sought to diversify its trade, investment and financial links. The KPA and its associates have developed relationships with financial entities that are not concerned with access to the U.S. market, both in China and outside it; Russia will be particularly interesting to watch in this regard but there is also the open field of the Middle East. Throughout, the legislation recognizes that the administration will need to conduct a vigorous diplomacy to close the loopholes created by the fact that some firms and financial institutions will not be deterred by secondary sanctions.

Without question, North Korea’s response to Banco Delta Asia has been to decentralize its hard currency operations overseas. Recently, North Korean senior defectors have provide some direct evidence of this to bolster the suspicions of the U.N. Panel of Experts. One obstacle to untangling this is the laxity of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, which do not require the licensing of most financial transactions like investments, loans, and other transfers. (See 31 C.F.R. 510.201, which bans proliferation-related transactions, imports from North Korea, and little else, and compare that to the corresponding breadth of the Iran and Cuba sanctions regulations). This deprives Treasury of valuable financial intelligence that could help it enforce a sanctions program more effectively, if the President ever directed it to do so.

Even so, it’s probable that North Korea still remains dependent on a relatively small number of key overseas financiers, abetted by a few unethical banks that are still willing to violate the intent of U.N. Security Council sanctions (by “relatively” small, I’m comparing my best guess to the hundreds of persons and entities designated by Treasury for financing Iran or various terrorist organizations; just 62 North Korean entities are designated today).

Of course, there’s nothing new about rogue regimes, terrorists, and drug lords hiding their money. With determined enforcement, it took Treasury three years to bring Iran’s relatively large, diverse, and interconnected economy to the brink of collapse, and about five to force Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi. Bankrupting a terrorist organization with a low overhead was far more difficult, but within ten years, even Osama Bin Laden died bankrupt and isolated, cloistered with his wives and his extensive library of pornographic videos. There’s more overhead required to run a country with a population of 23 million and a million-man mechanized army, even if one runs it into the ground. This can’t be done with briefcases full of cash. Given Pyongyang’s relatively fragile links to the global economy — its chief exports are coal, meth, and refugees — one could realistically believe that sanctions would create significant leverage as quickly as they did in the case of Iran.

Without question, this will be harder today than it would have been if pursued with determination in 2007. But to suggest that the absence of a single weak link like Banco Delta Asia means that there are no others is to ignore the vulnerability of Pyongyang’s own banking system. One alternative would be to simply shut that system down entirely and force Pyongyang to work through responsible foreign banks, as Section 207(d) of H.R. 1771 contemplates. As Haggard says, correctly:

The outside world has a strong interest in encouraging reform and opening of the North Korean economy, to shift its strategic orientation away from the byungjin line of trying to pursue economic development and nuclear weapons simultaneously. If this legislation were to have the effect of encouraging deeper economic integration, it would be through an initial phase of even greater isolation, autarchy and external controls.

I agree with this, but I believe we’ve gotten the sequence wrong. Reform won’t be possible until North Korea accepts transparency and broad interaction with the outside world, and those prerequisites clearly don’t exist yet. The consequence of shutting down the North Korean banking system would be to force North Korea to rely on foreign banks. Responsible foreign banks that apply stringent transparency and compliance requirements on North Korea’s business transactions could extract some degree of financial transparency from Pyongyang — I’m suggesting something like receivership — that would force it to spend its money more wisely and humanely. Naturally, Pyongyang would never accept this until it was cornered directly over the trap door to Hell.

Another question is whether the sanctions will have the broader strategic effect of moving the North Koreans toward serious negotiation of its nuclear program. I am extremely dubious. Proponents of such sanctions point to BDA as a success in gradually bringing North Korea back to the table after its nuclear test in October 2006. But this assessment confuses a tactical move with the failure of the broader get-tough policy of the first Bush administration, which probably contributed to North Korea’s determination to go nuclear in 2006 in the first place. The incremental progress made during 2007-8 rested on the lifting of the BDA sanctions and extending offers of assistance as well.

This may be my only point of sharp disagreement with Haggard. The history suggests that Pyongyang began a determined pursuit of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s, continued that pursuit despite nuclear disarmament agreements with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and after Barack Obama asked Kim Jong Il to unclench his fist in 2009. Since then, North Korea has tested two more nukes and broken another disarmament deal. The revelation of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program is strong evidence of the continuity of North Korea’s intent. It also suggests that what happened in 2007 and 2008 was not progress at all, but the premature relaxation of pressure before North Korea’s disarmament was verified.

The point is a general one. The paradoxical feature of sanctions is that they rarely have the direct effect of forcing the target country to capitulate. The HR 1771 sanctions will have effect only when coupled with strong statements of a willingness to engage if North Korea showed signs of interest in doing so. The legislation provides plenty of sticks; the administration will have to continue to articulate the prospective carrots in a way that is credible. Strong sanctions legislation makes that difficult to do if the legislation places a series of binding constraints on the president’s discretion. Why negotiate with the U.S. if there is no return from doing so?

The experiences of 2007 and 2008 explain those binding constraints. If H.R. 1771 represents a vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy, sections 401 and 402 represent a vote of no confidence in the State Department, after its premature relaxation of sanctions against North Korea, Burma, and Iran. The United States has gotten good at using sanctions to gain diplomatic leverage. It has had a much poorer record of using that leverage to achieve its interests.

It’s fair to notice that Barack Obama wasn’t President in 2008. Is it also fair to constrain him over the actions of Bush’s State Department? I think it is, because the number of holdovers from one administration to another belies the essential continuity of both policies. Another long-standing sore point in Congress is its perception that the State Department has failed to enforce the North Korea Human Rights Act as intended. To a great extent, then, these sections not only express Congress’s distrust of North Korea, but its concerns that the State Department has abused its discretion and requires more limits. In future budgets, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this reflected in more fiscal limitations on how the State Department spends its appropriations.

Haggard is pessimistic that Kim Jong Un will ever give up his nuclear weapons voluntarily, and it’s a pessimism I share. It’s entire possible that only a coup or some kind of crisis will make effective diplomacy possible, but it will certainly require extraordinary leverage — leverage we don’t have today.

The longer North Korea refuses to disarm, the more assets and income streams Treasury will identify, block, and cut off. The loss of access to his offshore wealth will leave Kim Jong Un unable to sustain his own lifestyle, advance his WMD programs, pay his ruling elite, or feed his military and internal security forces. His mechanized military will degrade for lack of spare parts, fuel, and ammunition. The capabilities, discipline, and cohesion of his military and internal security forces will degrade until they are unable to suppress internal dissent. One beneficial effect of this would be to degrade the regime’s capacity to suppress markets, track cell phones, seal the borders, and block remittances and information from abroad. It’s possible that sanctioning the “palace” economy will help the gray-market people’s economy to flourish again.

In due course, these developments will also begin to destabilize the core of the regime. That may cause China to reassess its North Korea policy, enforce U.N. sanctions, and pressure Kim Jong Un to disarm diplomatically. Failing this, it may seek to euthanize the Kim Dynasty to preserve its greater interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Alternatively, the regime’s financial isolation and political destabilization could cause other senior officials to prevail on Kim Jong Un to change his policies, or to remove him from power in favor of more rational leadership. The question today — so many years after our last good options evaporated — is which crisis we’d rather deal with. One is a North Korea with an effective nuclear arsenal, the willingness to proliferate it to others, a proven disregard for human life, and a dangerously impulsive leader. The other will require us to confront the tension attendant to fracking the Kim Dynasty into something we can deal with. Haggard and I will probably never give the same answers to that question, but he makes honest, objective, and compelling arguments about things policymakers must pay careful attention to as they implement a tougher new policy. In the end, however, one does not derive a clear sense of what strategy Haggard believes would be more likely to achieve our interests, which may explain his conscientious ambivalence about this legislation.

~   ~   ~

Update: A reminder that the views I express here, including my inferences about the views of others, are mine alone.

U.N.’s Seoul field office to collect evidence of human rights violations in North Korea.

South Korea will soon begin working-level talks with the United Nations to discuss the specifics of establishing a U.N. field office in Seoul on North Korean human rights, officials said Wednesday. [….]

The U.N. has later proposed setting up the field office in South Korea to collect evidence and testimonies on the North Korean regime’s human rights violations, which the South Korean government has accepted. [….]

North Korea has also warned it will launch “merciless punishment” on those involved in the plan as well as staff workers at the envisioned office. [Yonhap]

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.”

Would it be slander if I called Rep. Sim Jae-kwon a fascist masquerading as a liberal?

A South Korean opposition lawmaker filed a resolution Thursday calling for the implementation of past inter-Korean agreements to stop slander between the two sides.

The resolution, submitted by Rep. Sim Jae-kwon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), calls on the two Koreas to recognize that mutual recognition and respect are the basis for trust-building. It also urges the two sides to honor such agreements as the joint statement of July 1972, which bans cross-border slander. [Yonhap]

Sim went further than this, and called on the South Korean police to take what he darkly called “appropriate action” against the Fighters for a Free North Korea, in the name of “inter-Korean relations” — in other words, censorship to appease Pyongyang.

But once you agree to impose Pyongyang’s definition of slander on a free society to appease it, there’s no end to the reach of Pyongyang’s censorship, because inter-Korean relations will always be subject to however Pyongyang reinterprets “slander.” And when the likes of Sim were in power, the state’s censorship, or content-selective subsidies, extended to the newspapers, theater, movies, political demonstrations, and even the intimidation of refugees from the North to keep silent. That is no more liberal than Kim Jong Un is a Marxist.

Sim’s call is also a warning that North Korea’s sympathizers in the South will blame Park Sang-Hak and those who join him if the North attacks them in some way. I do wish Park would try to be a bit more unpredictable in his cat-and-mouse game with those who might be tracking his operations. That might even make their activities more interesting for journalists. And if there is an attack, it would inevitably focus media speculation on someone inside South Korea who revealed Park’s location to the North Koreans.

Japan will demand answers from North Korea on promised abduction “reinvestigation”

So despite North Korea’s express agreement to provide Japan its “reinvestigation” report within a month, North Korea now says not so much. Anyone who doubted this outcome from the beginning (a) doesn’t know much about the history of North Korean diplomacy, or (b) lacks that kind of intelligence called “judgment.”

Japan will demand an explanation for the delay when officials from both sides meet in Shenyang, China, on Monday.

“What will result from the meeting? I’m not in a position to say… I can’t speak in detail about Japan’s expectations at this time,” Eriko Yamatani, Japan’s state minister in charge of the abduction issue, told reporters on Thursday.

“The way North Korea deals with this will affect not just the abductions… it is an important test of how serious it is about addressing its human rights abuses.” [The Guardian]

Which sounds like a veiled threat by Japan to support tougher action by the Security Council if North Korea doesn’t deliver. (I realize that the Japanese have always linked these issues, but they shouldn’t).

Abe must now decide if he’s going to spend the next two years being strung along, just like Glyn Davies, Chris Hill, Robert Gallucci, Roh Moo Hyun, Kim Dae Jung, and so many others before him.

Blessed are the cheesemakers: His Porcine Majesty Kim Jong Un has eaten himself sick, possibly on Swiss cheese.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is “not feeling well,” a state-run television station reported this week, in a rare revelation about his health.

In a documentary broadcast on Thursday, the North’s Central TV showed Mr. Kim, who has not been seen in public in recent weeks, walking with a limp while visiting a factory in Nampo, a provincial town southwest of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last month. A narrator intoned about the tireless work of Mr. Kim, “our marshal, who lights the path of leadership for the people like a flame, although he was not feeling well.” [N.Y. Times]

When North Korean state TV says the leader of the country isn’t feeling well, it means he really isn’t feeling well. Wait till you hear why:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to be suffering from gout due to his poor management of his health as well as family traits, a source familiar with North Korea affairs said Friday. [....]

“Kim Jong-un is suffering from gout, which is why he is limping on both legs,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I understand that he is suffering from gout along with hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Kim’s health is believed to have deteriorated due to his habit of frequent drinking and overeating. [Yonhap]

Several days ago, some news sources had reported that His Porcine Majesty’s affinity for Emmental cheese from Switzerland was the cause of his personal Untergang, and sure enough, Leo Byrne has unearthed trade statistics that might corroborate that rumor.*

So let me see if I understand this — 84% of North Koreans are on the brink of starvation, and their dictator may be too obese to walk.

17950Concerned readers may send their care packages of Emmental, Gruyere, Spanish Manchego, and Venezuelan Beaver Cheese to: Permanent Mission of the DPRK to the United Nations, 820 Second Avenue, 13th Floor, New York, NY 10017.

You know, it’s quite an amazing coincidence that Kim Jong Un’s illness coincides so closely in time with Choe Ryong-Hae’s removal from his position. Almost unbelievably coincidental.

~   ~   ~

* I suppose I should repeat my skepticism that anyone who knows what Kim Jong Un is actually eating is unlikely to tell that to anyone who would talk to the foreign press. I’ve always been particularly skeptical about palace gossip.

Kim Jong Un is sick, another purge may have begun, and …. Oh, look! AP has an exclusive report from Pyongyang on ladies’ footwear!

Jesus wept. The U.N. is debating North Korea’s crimes against humanity, state TV admits that Kim Jong Un is “not feeling well,” his Number Two, Chae Ryong Hae, was just removed from his post, and the Comcast of Journalism brings us this exclusive report from Derek Zoolander:

While rubber boots and utilitarian flats remain the norm elsewhere in North Korea, high heels in a wide array of colors and styles are commonplace in Pyongyang. They range from basic black to glittery sequined styles that are almost over-the-top exuberant.

Handbags and other accessories are everywhere. Women’s clothes have become tighter. Shirts, trousers and dresses are often form-fitting. Women’s hairstyles have become more similar to styles seen overseas. Makeup has changed, too.

Overall, the look is less 1980s Soviet Union and more contemporary East Asian. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Mr. Talmadge, here is a random citizen! You will interview this random citizen now!

“Nowadays, it’s clear that clothes have become very bright,” said Kim Su Jong, a Pyongyang resident. “In the past, the colors were a little dark,” she said. “Now everyone likes bright colors.”

What an awful disappointment from Eric Talmadge, who wasn’t allowed to cover a disaster that happened ten minutes away from his bureau, but who had at least tried to be serious and objective about what little he was allowed to see. Until now.

For the love of Zeus, man — reach down under your nose and find something newsworthy to report, or have enough self-respect to come home.

U.N. should fund its aid programs from Kim Jong Un’s Swiss accounts.

The Wall Street Journal updates us on the dire financial state of the U.N. World Food Program’s operations in North Korea.

The United Nations aid program for malnourished North Koreans may close after raising only a fraction of the money it needs to operate in the country, a senior U.N. official said in a call for donations.

“We may need to scale down or think about closing altogether,” Dierk Stegen, the Pyongyang-based North Korea head for the U.N. World Food Program, said in an interview.

The agency, which has operated in North Korea since 1995, could shut early next year if there is no indication it will be able to raise needed funds by the end of October, he said. One complication is that North Korea’s humanitarian crisis has been overshadowed by the conflict in Syria and Ebola outbreak, he said. [Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng]

Whatever your views on aid policy and what the U.N. should do, the situation is profoundly tragic for the North Korean people, who are starving because of their government’s deliberate policy choices. If this regime were overthrown tomorrow, the direct effects of this would still last for a generation:

“For many of the children of North Korea, it’s already too late,” said John Aylieff, the WFP’s deputy regional director for Asia. “They’ve been dealt a life sentence of impaired mental functioning and impaired physical development.”

The decline in foreign aid coincides with ration reductions by the regime, and more ominously, crackdowns on private food smuggling, growing, market distribution and finance, which have become the most important source of food to most North Koreans.

The Wall Street Journal article embeds a video in which I’m interviewed. It also a features graphic showing that Switzerland is now by far the largest donor to the WFP, at $6.7 million a year (think of it as a customer loyalty rebate). The next-highest donor, Russia, gives just $3 million a year. Although China is listed as contributing $1 million, it’s probable that other bilateral donations from China and South Korea are not counted in that graphic.

Of course, as I pointed out the other day, the Swiss may well have enough North Korean money laying around in their banks to fund the WFP’s operations for years. This isn’t just idle snark. After his death, assets of the Qaddafi family were confiscated from foreign accounts and returned to the new Libyan government. There is even a U.N. convention on point, as noted by an attorney from the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section in a recent paper:

The UN Convention against Corruption (“UNCAC”), signed in Merida, Mexico, in December 2003, provides an entirely different, and mandatory, scheme for the recovery and return of corruption proceeds. In further discussing the G8 and global initiative against grand corruption, this paper will cover these provisions in greater detail in a subsequent section. The UNCAC took effect in 2005, and has been ratified by over 137 States Parties.

Section 104(b)(1)(F) of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act authorizes the blocking — but not the confiscation — of funds derived from kleptocracy. Other provisions require the blocking of property of persons who knowingly contribute to money laundering, weapons trafficking, proliferation, censorship, and human rights abuses.

Blocked property remains the legal property of its owner, but can’t be moved or spent. Confiscated property is transferred from one owner to another by a government with the power to control it. For now, practically speaking, it’s a distinction without a difference, because food won’t reach the North Korean people unless the regime allows it to. There is plenty of precedent for blocking the assets of sitting dictators; the Treasury regulations are filled with examples of this. Until now, the confiscation of a kleptrocrat’s assets generally had to wait for the kleptrocrat to be overthrown, killed, or both.

Either way, how unfortunate it would be for the world to sit idle while action could still force real reforms and save lives. If and when the U.N. Security Council takes up the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report, it should consider authorizing either the blocking or confiscation of North Korean slush funds, which would then draw interest until North Korea allows them to be spent on food, medicine, and other humanitarian uses.

Another purge? Choe Ryong-Hae transferred to a new post (and perhaps soon to be tied to one).

Here’s the relevant text from KCNA’s unlinkable article, “2nd Session of 13th Supreme People’s Assembly of DPRK Held,” dated September 25, 2014. It’s rather terse:

It recalled Deputy Choe Ryong Hae from the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post and Deputy Jang Jong Nam from the post of member of the NDC of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post.

It elected Deputy Hwang Pyong So to fill the vacancy as vice-chairman of the NDC of the DPRK and Deputies Hyon Yong Chol and Ri Pyong Chol to fill the vacancy as members of the NDC of the DPRK at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong Un. [KCNA]

Since Jang’s purge and execution last year, Choe (bio here) had been seen as the second-most powerful man in North Korea. Choe’s removal lacks the zip and pizzazz of Jang’s long and vitriolic denunciation. I suppose that will be worth watching for in the coming days.

Hat tip to Yonhap, but the source I’m really going to have to start reading more regularly is New Focus International, which kinda called this one, at least in the sense that a power struggle was coming and Hwang Pyong-So would be a part of it. Based on my reading of New Focus’s analysis, Hwang’s rise is very, very, very bad news for King Won-Hong, his wife, his children, his extended family, his employees and their extended families, and his parking valet. And his entire extended family, of course.

Jang Jong-Nam is a relatively new arrival on the reviewing stand. In May 2013, he replaced Kim Kyok-Sik, who is widely suspected of directing the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. Whether Kim Kyok-Sik is really on the outs is a matter of debate, according to the people I listen to (sorry, no link for that). At the time of Jang’s promotion, the AP quoted “outside analysts” who said Jang Jong-Nam’s elevation was “an attempt to install a younger figure meant to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on the powerful military.” Not that Jang was a particularly moderate fellow, judging by his words.

~   ~   ~

Update: James Pearson of Reuters also notes the absence of Kim Jong Un, “who is considerably overweight,” from the session. As the proverb goes, blessed are the cheesemakers. Similar thoughts at Front Page.

Dear Korea: Enough with this mishugge Nazi dreck already.

You know, I really thought we’d agreed that we weren’t going to see more of this sort of thing, but I guess we didn’t understand each other. And to be fair, the imbeciles who make these ads have a mirror image in America. But really, Korea, I have to ask — don’t you ever stop to consider that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were allies and kindred spirits?

Seoul to Pyongyang: Let’s talk about human rights.

“Not only in high-level talks but also in any occasions of inter-Korean dialogue in the future, (Seoul) expects to have comprehensive discussion on all sorts of humanitarian issues including human rights,” unification ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said in a briefing.

“If high-level talks are held (between Seoul and Pyongyang), I think it is desirable that they discuss all the issues they want to discuss including this (human rights) issue,” Lim said. [Yonhap]

I’m not terribly impressed with Park Geun-Hye’s attention to human rights in North Korea overall, but this does represent progress when compared to the Roh Moo Hyun / Chung Dong-Young Die-in-Place Policy.

Even Chinese government newspapers are talking about North Korea’s camps now.

Adam Cathcart forwards this link, which contains some rather familiar-looking imagery.

I wonder how many Chinese people know how important a part their own government plays in filling those camps.

N. Korea seizes another Chinese fishing boat.

For once, I’m mostly in sympathy with North Korea’s position. Chinese fisherman are notorious for invading the territorial waters of their neighbors, the Chinese government may well have grander plans to invade them, and the North Korean people certainly need those fish more than the Chinese do. (Leave aside the question of whether the fish would otherwise be eaten by hungry North Koreans or exported by the regime for hard currency.)

The North Koreans have impounded the ship, pending payment of a $40,000 fine, and sent the six crew members home — after they beat a confession out of the captain at gunpoint:

The captain also claimed that his ship did not enter North Korean waters at the time of the seizure and the North Korean coast guard dragged them into the North’s waters by force.

After arriving in the North’s waters, North Korean coast guard officers took photographs of them as “evidence” and ordered Yao to sign a document admitting the violation.

“I said no. And they hit me and pointed a gun at me. Then I signed,” Yao was quoted as saying in the online report. [Yonhap]

As a former defense attorney, I have to say this is one of the unlikelier stories I’ve ever heard. The North Koreans accuse the Chinese vessel of illegal fishing, and I believe them. The Chinese captain accuses the North Koreans of torture, and I believe that, too. As Kissinger once said, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”

The last time this happened, it wasn’t a very good experience for the Chinese fisherman, either — they spent two weeks in a North Korean jail. Still no comment from noted Chinese fish authority and asshole Shen Dingli.

North Korea’s food rations fall to three-year low.

Apparently, 2014 will be the 21st consecutive year in which a drought or a flood will have devastated crops and caused food shortages in only the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Simply uncanny how that keeps happening like that.

North Korea’s food distribution to ordinary citizens tumbled to a three-year low in August, hit by a drought in the spring, a U.S. report said Wednesday.

The North’s daily food ration per capita reached 250 grams last month, far lower than a target of 573g, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) said, citing a report from the World Food Programme.

The daily amount marks the smallest food provision since those posted in 2011, the report said, adding that the July figure was about the same size. [Yonhap]

How this affects individual North Koreans will vary widely. First, I’d be astonished if anecdotes about one region — or political class — were equally applicable to rations in other regions and classes. Second, most North Koreans have become so dependent on the markets, and so used to being excluded from the rationing system, that many of them will be able to find other ways to cope. It’s North Korea’s most vulnerable people — likely those in state institutions like hospitals and orphanages — who will be most affected by this.

Report: Hollywood is interested in those MiGs Panama seized from a North Korean ship …

for a “Top Gun” sequel, no less, according to The Miami Herald (in Spanish). In case you’re wondering whether Panama can legally do that, yes it can. See Paragraph 14. HT: Oliver Hotham.

Kerry to North Korea: “[C]lose those camps … shut this evil system down.”

It’s no secret to readers of this site that I’ve never been an admirer of John Kerry. His tenure has been a rolling catastrophe for our national security, in a way that even a rank amateur could have predicted years ago. It’s often difficult to see that he has a North Korea policy at all.

Not so long ago, I criticized Kerry for showing no sign of pressing for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea. But yesterday, Kerry went to “a ministerial meeting he hosted in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly,” where he said some important and commendable things:

“We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” Kerry said.

Kerry stressed that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the problem has lifted the veil on the issue, referring to a report released in February that North Korean leaders are responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” violations of human rights. [….]

“No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction because in 400 pages of excruciating details and testimonies from over 80 witnesses, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report of the DPRK (North Korea) has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” he said.  [….]

“If we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? If we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?” Kerry said. “So we say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down,” he said. [Yonhap]

The Voice of America has video of Kerry’s remarks, in which he mentions several of the camps by name.

[Good report, but please do some research before saying how heavily
sanctioned North Korea is. It isn't.]

At the meeting, Kerry joined South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently replaced Navi Pillay. In the video, Kerry can be seen seated next to Shin Dong-hyuk.

Of course, to suggest that rhetoric is the measure of policy is like saying that a man’s jawline is the measure of his virility. Substantively, George W. Bush’s North Korea policy was like Rock Hudson at the Playboy Club, and Kerry’s mandibles may be the only fearsome thing about him, but the words they loosed yesterday were both welcome and overdue. Time will tell whether these words translate into effective action, but words like these are certainly a prerequisite to effective action. And of course, no effective action will issue from the General Assembly, a body that has no binding authority on anyone. But still ….

A strongly worded resolution calling for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take responsibility for his regime’s crimes against humanity is anticipated to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly next month.

“The European Union and Japan have completed a draft resolution that endorses the February report of the Commission of Inquiry [into North Korean human rights] and will soon circulate it among UN member states,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.  [….]

“Australia, the home country of Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the COI, was also very active, and there is a high likelihood that the resolution will be adopted through the momentum on the issue in the UN General Assembly,” said one foreign affairs official.

Another diplomatic source said, “Because human rights problems are a universal issue to mankind, it will be a burden on China or Russia to stick up for Pyongyang against other member states.”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Does any of this really matter, then? Pyongyang seems to think so. The New York Times has already noticed a striking shift in the tone of North Korea’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings. At first, it flatly denied them and called its Chair “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” Now, its U.N. Ambassador is feigning some openness to considering some of the criticisms — up to a point — and says his government has “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.”

North Korea’s declaration falls far short of a commitment to follow through with any action, but the contrast with its blanket refusal to even consider similar recommendations in the past could be seen as a willingness to engage on some issues.

“There obviously has been some decision that this is the way the rest of the world relates, and the decision seems to be that North Korea should do it as well,” said Robert R. King, the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. [NYT]

Although King concedes the need to “be careful about assuming this means a great deal in terms of what they do,” a shift in tone this significant must reveal something, even if its sincerity is dubious and its execution, inartful. Last week, for example, North Korea released a self-audit of its own human rights conditions that carried all the credibility of an O.J. Simpson progress report on his search for the real killer. It recited from a fictional work called the “Constitution” of “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” which is an oxymoron. Pyongyang’s report was widely ridiculed in the press.

The North’s ambassador, So Se-pyong, speaking before the Human Rights Council, signaled that the North’s leadership was now willing to consider suggestions about, among other things, freedom of thought, “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” for humanitarian agencies and freedom for them to monitor distribution of their aid. The prevention of human rights violations and punishment for violators were also on the list.

But Mr. So said the North had rejected some recommendations that were “based on distorted information provided by hostile forces which aimed to dismantle the country’s social system,” including calls for unfettered access to detainees for the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosure of the extent and methods of capital punishment, and the end of restrictions on movement and expression.  [NYT]

If you happen to be a North Korean, all of this will look like vaporous twaddle. Nothing the General Assembly says will make North Korea a less brutal place in the foreseeable future, and I’d still reckon that a quarter of the people in these camps will be dead within a year. North Korea still denies that the camps even exist, and its verbose human rights self-audit never mentions them. In all probability, North Korea will be back to its old bombastic self within a week.

Even so, it would also be wrong to conclude that none of this means anything. King cites declining foreign aid contributions and speculates, “I think the North Koreans are feeling some pressure.” But concerns over human rights alone wouldn’t justify denying aid. North Korea’s lack of transparency in distributing the aid might, as would its massive and deliberate waste of funds on missiles, ski resorts, German limousines, and Swiss watches. To be sure, the COI report’s findings also support those concerns, but aid programs for the North were already underfunded when the COI published its report. It’s more likely that donors simply don’t think Pyongyang is serious about feeding its people, and are diverting their limited aid budgets to places that are.

I think King is closer to the mark when he also says that “‘growing concerns about human rights conditions in North Korea make it much more difficult to raise money from foreign governments’ and private sources.” (Emphasis is mine, and note that the emphasized words were added by the Times reporter.) It’s not clear if King is referring to private aid groups or private investors, but investors are the far greater source of cash. All investment decisions weigh risks against benefits, and to many investors, the image risks of being associated with North Korea can’t be justified by the limited returns to be gained in its uncertain business climate. The growing threat of intensified sanctions will add to that uncertainty.

That’s why, for the first time, Pyongyang sees human rights as a problem it can’t just ignore. Its crimes against humanity now threaten to become a significant financial liability. Like the COI report itself, a tough resolution from the General Assembly will give investors pause.

Those signs of engagement dispel what was once a common assumption that the North’s leadership was immune to foreign criticism on issues of human rights, said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “However sincere or insincere it may be, it’s a reflection it does care what the international community thinks and the international community does have leverage to push for change in North Korea,” Ms. Singh said. [NYT]

That is all the more reason to intensify that criticism, but it’s also important to understand what Pyongyang’s game is, too. Pressure is of no consequence unless it extracts fundamental change, and change will only be credible if it’s transparent. Pyongyang is a good enough illusionist to fool the Associated Press — remember how well it worked in this case? — and plenty of its readers. Let’s not forget that in 1944, even the Nazis felt the need to answer damaging charges about their concentration camps. This is Theriesenstadt, which served as Auschwitz’s waiting room. In 1944, the Nazis staged this film to dispel rumors about the “resettlement” of Jews, and portray it as humane:

[Within a month, nearly all of these people died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.]

When Pyongyang can’t ignore problems — usually because it’s under some kind of external financial pressure — it does things like agreeing to “reinvestigate” its abductions of foreign citizens, or agreeing to give up its nuclear programs. It knows well enough that for plenty of us, simply agreeing to talk or (at worst) signing a piece of paper is enough to take the pressure off.

This is where we’ll need to be smarter than the Danish Red Cross, the Associated Press, and our diplomats. Pyongyang knows that there will also be calls for divestment, the blocking of its offshore slush funds, and other forms of financial pressure. There will be calls to tighten the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, and perhaps to pass new ones. Blunting that pressure is Pyongyang’s obvious objective. And those who question that that pressure could work need look no further than the signs that Pyongyang is worried about it.

South Korean media reach deeper into North Korean society.

“The notion of what makes you a chon-nom (“country bumpkin”) in North Korea has really changed,” says Lee Han-byul, a refugee from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, who left the country in 2010.

“In the past, the term was used to mock young people living in the provinces,” she says. “But now it’s less so much where you live, but more about how familiar you are with culture outside the country that makes you a chon-nom.”

Han-byul suggests that South Korean dramas are so embedded in the consciousness of ordinary people that “while there are those who may never have had the chance to watch one, you will be hard pressed to find those who have watched one once and don’t watch another.”

She also adds that, “I’ve heard from younger people that those who haven’t seen a South Korean drama have trouble fitting in with trend-sensitive peers.” [New Focus]

Even “ the influence of South Korean tones and voices on language” can be heard in North Korean speech today, including in rural areas that were once isolated from such influences.