We now have at least one first-person account of what happened aboard that Air Koryo flight that filled with smoke and made an emergency landing at Shenyang earlier this week. I said in my original post that “I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant,” with deliberate understatement. In fact, many of the passengers aboard the half-empty flight thought they were about to die, and at least one began to rethink the purpose of his life (something we should all do more often, if under better circumstances).
I say “at least” one, because one account comes from a passenger who spoke to Chad O’Carroll of NK News, “requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking to media on the issue.”
But there is also a strikingly similar account by a person many North Korea watchers know well …
(Update: At a reader’s request, I’ve removed all references to the person’s name and the NGO he’s affiliated with. I’ll certainly honor the request, although the fact that it had to be made says everything you need to know about North Korea’s willingness to embrace openness and change).
I disagree with (witness’s) policy views, of course. I see the engagement theory as a conclusive failure that actually dilutes international pressure that could force North Korea to disarm and reform, and thus sets back progress toward those shared goals. I’ve also met (witness), like him very much personally, believe in the goodness of his intentions, and am very glad to hear that he’s safe. In (witness’s) account, there is also an unmistakable acknowledgment of the unaltered realities of North Korea.
In typical North Korean fashion, a senior airline staff comes into the cabin and began to repeat “no problem…no problem” to reassure passengers, especially a Russian who looked ready to punch the staff. Having worked in the country long enough, I know “no problem” means “big problem”. The smoke continues to fill the cabin. No information was forthcoming until I heard a flight attendant walking past mention “Shenyang.” I grabbed her and asked her if the flight was being diverted and she said “there is no problem, we are landing in Shenyang.” I thought “that’s not Beijing. We have a problem.” [Witness Account, since unpublished]
I can’t help wondering if (witness) really intends to go back to Pyongyang after posting this under his own name.
The plane starts dropping and the pressure builds in my ear. The friend is crying now. I realized this could be the end. I could die in North Korea, in a North Korean plane crash. There is a brief moment of clarity as I wondered why I do all this shit for North Koreans at (NGO), and the shit I put up with for my work. I was scared stiff when I realized I would be leaving loved ones behind. The North Korean at the front is still smiling and repeating “no problem…no problem.” I thought about punching him. The plane is shaking violently in the rapid descent.
Read the entire thing. And don’t just read it as a terrifying story. Read it as a microcosm of North Korea itself, and as a metaphor for the course its government has chosen for its 23 million passengers.
One parting shot: as of the time of this post, two days after the incident, the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau had not filed a report about the incident from Pyongyang. Instead, it has a dry dispatch from Beijing, quoting a Xinhua report, and containing this delectable sentence: “Calls to the airline’s office rang unanswered while the relevant department at the airport could not immediately be reached.” Compare this with Reuters‘s detailed report from Seoul.
Yet again, AP reports nothing exclusive that is newsworthy and nothing newsworthy that is exclusive. Yet again, having a bureau in Pyongyang appears to do more to impede than advance AP’s ability to report the news from North Korea.
An Air Koryo flight has had to make an emergency landing in Shenyang after the cabin filled with smoke.
The plane, belonging to the North’s national carrier, was flying to Beijing from Pyongyang when it made a forced landing because of the smoke, the airport said in a short statement on its microblog.
The aircraft made a safe emergency landing, and “nothing abnormal” was found in its condition, although an investigation was underway, it added.
Xinhua, which had initially reported a fire, cited a passenger as saying the smoke appeared about 30 minutes after takeoff, and flight crew told passengers not to panic as the plane landed.
“Later, oxygen masks dropped and several passengers began to have breathing difficulty because of the oxygen shortage in the cabin,” Xinhua said, adding that the plane landed 10 minutes later and no one on board was injured.
Fire trucks were dispatched and the aircraft was “smoking” when ground staff examined it, but no obvious fire was spotted, the passenger told the agency, which added that rain in Shenyang at the time of the landing may have averted a fire. [Reuters]
Thankfully, no one was hurt, although I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant. If there’s one thing worse than flying on a plane that’s had to make an emergency landing, it must be watching the mechanics scratch their heads for two hours and shrug their shoulders, and then boarding said plane again. But on the bright side, landing in Pyongyang might not seem quite so bad in those circumstances.
Although Air Koryo is often called the “world’s worst airline,” this label was obviously applied by people who (1) haven’t flown United or American lately, and (2) who suffer from severe astigmatism.
Even a staunch critic of the North Korean government has to commend Air Koryo’s heroic mechanics for keeping their ancient Tu-154s and Il-62s flying. Deutsche Welle breezily tosses out that “[i]nternational sanctions mean North Korea’s airliner fleet consists entirely of aging Soviet and Russian jets,” but then notes that this particular plane was a Tu-204-300. The Tu-204 first flew in 1989, but according to this site, Air Koryo acquired its aircraft from Russia in 2010. Even some of its older aircraft, such as its Il-62s, were purchased from Cuba in 2012. As recently as 2013, Air Koryo was able to purchase short-haul Antonovs from the Ukraine. In other words, sanctions haven’t prevented North Korea from purchasing newer planes, at least until very recently; Air Koryo’s budget has.
In 2015, the U.N. Panel of Experts cast its jaded eye on Air Koryo, and wrote this:
B. Air fleet
117. All civilian aircraft registered in the country continue to be owned and operated by the State-controlled airline, Air Koryo. The overall number in Air Koryo’s operational fleet has decreased since 2012. While there has been acquisition of some modern aircraft, the number of new acquisitions has been less significant than originally expected. Air Koryo has also acquired old aircraft, such as an Ilyushin Il-62 from Cuba in 2012, that have subsequently been cannibalized for spare parts.
118. In its 2014 final report, the Panel highlighted the military role of Air Koryo aircraft painted in military camouflage that undertook a fly-over in the “Victory Day” military parade on 27 July 2013. The absence of boundaries between Air Koryo and the Korean People’s Army air force was further highlighted in 2014 when an Ilyushin 76TD aircraft was filmed dropping Korean People’s Army paratroopers as part of a military exercise (see figure XXIII).
119. Analysis of the fleet shows that the Ilyushin featured in the video is not a new addition to the air force, but rather an existing asset of the State-controlled fleet bearing the livery of an Air Koryo-registered Ilyushin 76TD aircraft. The Panel considers the military use of this aircraft through participation in the military exercise further evidence that Air Koryo shares part of its assets with the Korean People’s Army.
120. Given the evidence of military use, the Panel considers that providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance relating to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s cargo aircraft could constitute a violation of the embargo on all arms and related materiel as defined by paragraph 10 of resolution 1874 (2009).
NK News has caught Air Koryo repaintingitsaircraft in civilian and military colors on multiple occasions. Despite these concerns, and despite reports that passengers regularly carry banned luxury goods and bulk cash into North Korea on Air Koryo flights, the airline has not been designated by the U.N. Security Council or the U.S. Treasury.
Still, U.N. sanctions may have affected Air Koryo in other ways. New U.N. sanctions ban the sale of dual-use equipment and aviation fuel to North Korea, except to fuel specific civilian passenger flights. Since the U.N. passed its latest sanctions, various reports hold that Air Koryo has suspended regular service to Bangkok and (temporarily) to Kuwait City. News reports say that Air Koryo’s regular flights are mostly limited to nearby cities in China and Russia, but it runs charter flights to Malaysia and other destinations. The Air Koryo website, perhaps aspirationally, lists a larger number of destinations with blank spaces where the itineraries should be. The European Union banned most its aircraft several years ago over safety concerns, except for the Tu-204s.
Despite the safety concerns, Air Koryo’s career has been relatively free of incidents, and passenger comments on the Air Koryo experience, while not uniformly negative, make for interesting (and sometimes amusing) reading. This site has some excellent photographs of Air Koryo’s aircraft.
In 2009, the Democrats came to the White House with high hopes that they could win North Korea’s trust and sign Agreed Framework III. Those hopes didn’t last. In May, North Korea nuked off for the second time. In 2010, it attacked the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. The quick collapse of the Leap Day Agreement in 2012 killed off any hopes of a deal for good. For most of this period, Hillary Clinton didn’t really know what to do but couldn’t admit that, so she invented “strategic patience,” a name that makes doing nothing sound like a policy.
“Strategic patience” rested on the assumption that North Korea, the world’s most sanctioned country, would eventually come to its senses. Mrs. Clinton ought to have consulted with better lawyers. The claim was nonsense, the sanctions were mostly thin air, and after the 2013 nuke test, even the State Department began backing away from “strategic patience.”
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress were quietly seizing the agenda. Ed Royce reached out to both Republicans and Democrats to gain their support for a more hawkish policy. The fourth nuke test in 2016 broke the dam that held Royce and allies back. Democrats fled en masse from “strategic patience” — or whatever had replaced it — and joined Republicans to pass new sanctions legislation, not only by a veto-proof majority but almost unanimously (only two out of 535 members of Congress, the Republican isolationists Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, voted against it). The legislation, in turn, influenced the U.N. resolution that followed, and thus, the policies of U.N. member states everywhere. A shift in the congressional consensus also shifted the global consensus.
President Obama’s foreign policy, which is broadly perceived as too passive, has become an election-year albatross to the Democrats. They could not afford to find themselves on the wrong side of this consensus on North Korea, Americans’ least-favorite country. The lopsided vote on the sanctions law may have exaggerated the magnitude of the shift in Democrats’ private sentiments, but it probably reflects the shift in the political mainstream.
What’s most remarkable about the 2016 Democrats is just how far they’ve shifted from the 2008 Democrats on North Korea policy. Andrei Lankov, no less, says he’s never seen such unanimity in Washington about the need for tougher sanctions, at least for now. (Andrei’s informal survey probably focused heavily on think tanks, whose scholars are often the last to emerge from their island hideouts.)
Democrats may not share the Republicans’ enthusiasm for a harder line, and there are still pockets of dissent among left-of-center academics who don’t have to run for office, but elected Democrats and aspiring policymakers have come around to the futility of engaging Kim Jong-un. Top officials in the Obama Administration, like Samantha Power and Tom Malinowski, have emerged as strong and effective critics of Pyongyang on human rights. For now, the clear consensus among Democrats supports tougher sanctions and more pressure on human rights.
Fortunately for Democrats, Donald Trump has given them cover to evolve by doing what he does best — saying stupid things, in this case, about Kim Jong-un. For weeks, I’ve collected hints that the Democrats will try to outflank Trump on the right, using his incoherent statements about talks with Kim Jong-un as a foil. They’re assembling a stable and centristpolicy team, or at least a team that pretends to be, although the pro-appeasement holdouts are still represented by Philip Yun of the Ploughshares Fund. The Democrats’ draft platform adds more evidence of this evolution.
North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet, run by a sadistic dictator. It has conducted several nuclear tests and is attempting to develop the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could directly threaten the United States. Yet Donald Trump praises North Korea’s dictator, threatens to abandon our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea, and encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. This approach is incoherent and rather than solving a global crisis, would create a new one. Democrats will protect America and our allies, press China to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs. [Draft Democratic Platform]
Gone are the days when calling North Korean dictators disparaging names was unstatesmanlike and unseemly. What’s missing from the draft is almost as significant — any discussion of engagement or diplomacy. A fair reading of what the Democrats say is that their preferred end game is still a diplomatic agreement, but under strict preconditions, with full disarmament as the goal, and obtained through financial and diplomatic coercion if necessary. They may harbor other ideas privately, but they aren’t talking about them in front of me.
North Korea makes two other appearances in the draft platform. In a paragraph on Russia, it says, “We will make it clear to Putin that we are prepared to cooperate with him when it is in our interest — as we did on reducing nuclear stockpiles, dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, sanctioning North Korea, and resupplying our troops in Afghanistan — but we will not hesitate to stand up to Russian aggression.” Putin, cooperating on North Korea sanctions? That seems a tad optimistic, but OK, fine.
Later, talking about the Asia-Pacific region generally:
From the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean, we will deepen our alliances in the region with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Democrats will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India—the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and an important Pacific power. We will work with our allies and partners to fortify regional institutions and norms as well as protect freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. We will push back against North Korean aggression and press China to play by the rules. We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and cyberattacks. And we will promote greater respect for human rights, including the rights of Tibetans. [Dems]
Party platforms are best known for being forgotten by presidents after Election Day, and that’s probably never been more true than this year, when both parties have deep divisions. Now, I don’t know if any of you are old enough to remember the 1990s, but back then, we had a president named “Clinton” who not only said he’d talk to a North Korean dictator, but totally did. This did not end well, although the people who negotiated the deal still deny this with a ferocity unknown to people who actually believe themselves. Those 1990s-era Clinton types are still — after all these years — beside themselves that a subsequent president you probably haven’t forgotten quite yet, Barack Obama, didn’t try harder to revive their magnum opus, the 1994 Agreed Framework. Helpfully, David Straub explains why:
In recent years, North Korea has stated repeatedly, both publicly and privately, that it is not willing to negotiate denuclearization except in the context of global denuclearization. In other words, not in our lifetimes. It has said only that it is willing to sit down with the United States to negotiate “mutual arms reduction.” That is code for the United States treating North Korea as a nuclear equal and negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. The same can be said of North Korea’s proposal for bilateral peace talks with the United States.
If the U.S. government entered negotiations with North Korea, the talks would be almost certain to fail immediately and spectacularly. Such an outcome would not only embarrass the United States in front of its friends and allies, it would also open up the president to withering criticism from the opposition at home for naiveté and fecklessness. More importantly, it would serve to underline in North Korean leaders’ minds that, if they only hang tough, eventually the United States will accept them as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
The Obama administration wants only to induce the North Korean leadership to understand that nuclear weapons cost more than they’re worth. As the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russel, said during a recent lecture here at Shorenstein APARC, “We are not out to bring North Korea’s leaders to their knees. We are trying to bring them to their senses.”
How much pressure and how long will it take? Probably a lot. But the clearer and the more consistent our message is, the sooner it will happen. To believe otherwise comes close to assuming that the North Korean regime and its leaders are somehow unique in human history. [David Straub, NK News]
Alternative explanation: President Obama had enough political capital for two unpopular deals, so he chose to spend that capital on Iran and Cuba instead. In attempting to cast the president’s policy as centrist, Straub aligns it between two extremities. He criticizes “the right” for pushing the president to push Pyongyang too far too fast, risking war and the straining of alliances, but he reserves his strongest criticism for “the left,” by which I can only assume he means the Bob Carlin-Joel Wit wing that can’t get itself unstuck from the 90s.
The left’s second proposal is that the United States focus on getting North Korea to agree to a freeze on its nuclear and missile programs, to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Now, a freeze itself would be good. But the United States tried this in the Leap Day Deal and it failed spectacularly. The problems today are how to achieve a real freeze and how to ensure that it does not imply acceptance of North Korea as a limited nuclear weapons state. For example, how much and what would the United States have to give the North Koreans for such a freeze? How could we verify that they are not continuing with nuclear and missile development after they receive “payment?” How could we be confident that they would not do as they did after the Leap Day Deal and break the agreement almost immediately? And, most importantly, at the time of making such a deal, what basis would we have to believe that this was a stepping stone on the way to complete denuclearization?
If we didn’t have such a basis, the deal would be regarded universally, including by our South Korean and Japanese allies, as indicating de facto American acquiescence in North Korea being a limited nuclear weapons state. Until questions such as these can be credibly answered, a freeze is more of an aspiration than a potential policy.[David Straub, NK News]
What’s striking about this year is the extent to which each party has abandoned its recent policy consensus. In the case of the Republicans, this was an intellectual collapse into anarchy, like the collapse of a “stable” Middle Eastern autocracy that the CIA never predicted. Republican foreign policy experts’ disgust with Trump is well known — an unprecedented number of them have shunned him or defected to the Democrats. One can only imagine the caliber of talent Trump would recruit if we’re foolish enough to elect him.
With the Democrats, we saw less shedding of people and more shedding of discredited policy. That speaks well of them, but in the end, policies are executed according to the instincts of the policymakers. In the end, I can’t quite make myself believe that the Democrats are prepared to disarm Kim Jong-un the Chicago Way.
A few minutes before I sat down to write this, the Republicans officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. So on one hand, I’d guess a GOP platform won’t mean much more to Trump than that tax plan you’ve already forgotten about. On the other hand, the GOP platform probably reflects the views of its rank-and-file and down-ballot candidates, and it looks like a thinly veiled call for overthrowing His Corpulency:
We are a Pacific nation with economic, military, and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim and treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. With them, we look toward the establishment of human rights for the people of North Korea. We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state and, for everyone’s safety against nuclear disaster, to hasten positive change on the Korean peninsula. The United States will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities. We also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime. [GOP Platform]
The platform also mentions North Korea further down, in a brief mention of potential electromagnetic pulse threats.
This year, of course, there are really two Republican parties — the one that still lives in the house and drives the minivan, and the one that took her stuff and moved into the trailer with Darryl, who drives a tow truck — so congressional Republicans have their own platform this year. It has numerous mentions of North Korea, calling it “bellicose,” a cybersecurity threat, and a nuclear threat to be countered in cooperation with our allies in Asia. It criticizes President Obama for extending an open hand to North Korea (among others) in 2009 and says that “strategic patience … emboldened the country’s rogue regime to test nuclear weapons and new missile systems that can reach our territory.”
In most places, it doesn’t sit long after landing. These are the two most substantial excerpts. The first, on alliances, looks like a direct rebuke of Trump.
In East Asia, our allies are desperate for a greater American role. Our top priority must be to counter the threat of a nuclear North Korea. And we must respond strategically to expansionist China’s rise, including checking its territorial ambitions. These challenges create opportunities to bring together Japan and South Korea while strengthening our ties with Taiwan and the Philippines. We cannot allow our alliances in East Asia and the Pacific to atrophy and must shore up our defense arrangements to deter China from tilting the global balance of power toward autocracy. [A Better Way]
The second is about human rights, and contains surprising praise of “the international community,” and implicitly, the U.N., for a Republican policy document.
The regime in North Korea likely has the worst human rights record in the world. Over 140,000 North Koreans are kept in forced labor camps where many are worked to death. Yet for years, the global community, including U.S. administrations, largely ignored this barbarity in a failed attempt to arrest North Korea’s nuclear development. With North Korea having flagrantly demonstrated its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, the international community is finally bringing deserved attention to these abhorrent human rights abuses. International condemnation of the regime’s human rights abuses is not only morally justified, but it also weakens the regime’s autocratic grip on power. [A Better Way]
With the South Koreans understandably nervous about the things Trump and his minions have been saying, adults from both sides of the political spectrum are making their disagreements with Trump clear. You expect criticism of a Republican candidate from Democrats and the liberal foreign policy establishment; you don’t expect a Republican Speaker of the House to openly disagree with his party’s (then-presumptive) nominee.
Already, congressional Republicans are trying to mitigate the damage to the confidence of our allies in the region — allies that might be asking themselves if China, voracious as it may be, is a more dependable protector. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) went to Seoul in June to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance and the Free Trade Agreement, regardless of who wins the presidential election. John McCain was in Seoul last week, too.
And of course, the South Koreans have no better friend in Washington than Ed Royce, who has been going directly to South Korean people to talk about human rights, financial sanctions, and the importance of the alliance. In recent months, Royce has met with South Korea’s Defense Minister, Vice Foreign Minister, and National Security Advisor; U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert; and the Commanding General of U.S. Forces, Korea. The South Koreans obviously value their relationship with Royce, who said, “I’ve never seen the [U.S.-South Korea] relationship as strong as it is today, and I think it’s going to get stronger … Republicans and Democrats in Congress are very committed to the alliance.”
The smoke from this year’s Republican dumpster fire tends to obscure the intelligence and statesmanship of some congressional Republicans, including members of the Class of 2014.
But then, as I’ve written before, Trump’s apparent soft-line policy toward Kim Jong-un is probably just as shallow and ephemeral as everything else under his hair. He doesn’t see policies; he sees flash cards with inkblots. His appeal is that he projects dominance to voters who harbor two mutually contradictory perceptions — that Barack Obama is weak, and that we have too many foreign entanglements. Trump craves the adoration of the mobs, and the mobs like the idea of “noninterventionism” in the abstract, right up until someone pisses them off. Then, they want a president who bombs stuff.
Which is interesting — and by “interesting,” I mean “terrifying” — because some of those observations are just as true of Kim Jong-un, only Kim’s stakes in maintaining his image are much higher. Kim must provoke the U.S. to maintain the adoration of his generals and survive, and Trump can’t stand anyone questioning his manhood by accusing him of backing down to Kim Jong-un.The personalities of these two men, both flawed and neurotic in their own ways, put them on a collision course. I’m more afraid that Trump will overreact and nuke Pyongyang than I am that he’ll cut a crappy deal that gives away Baekryeong-do and the Aleutian Islands, although (as I said before) those are both plausible possibilities, and aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not hard for me to imagine a Manafort-Han Pact as a prelude to war. Not hard at all.
The thing with Trump is, it’s often not really the things he says (though sometimes, it really is) but the man himself. A nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan would cost me no sleep, if I could believe that things would go only this far and no further. It would be profoundly clarifying for China if the consequence of its bellicosity was to surround itself with nuclear states. It might even be stabilizing for China to have an extra reason not to invade Senkaku or blockade Taiwan.
In principle, I also agree that wealthy allies that want our protection should pay a greater share of the costs. Foreign governments should read this smart analysis of Donald Trump’s criticism of our alliances, and our allies. It’s possible to despise Trump while agreeing that on this issue, he makes a point that resonates with a large (and perhaps, growing) percentage of American voters. If Americans continue to perceive allies as free riders, they will elect a president who promises to walk away from its security commitments entirely. That’s why Seoul’s hard bargains on USFK cost-sharing or the SOFA are ultimately self-defeating.
The good news for Seoul is that American popular support for the alliance is still strong. I’m not sure how much depth there is to that support, however. I certainly don’t see the alliance with South Korea as sacrosanct or permanent, but I don’t believe that presidential candidates should deconstruct alliances soundbite-by-soundbite. I still believe that the ground component of U.S. Forces Korea should be withdrawn, if gradually. Whether the air component stays should depend on whether South Korea acts like an ally that shares our interest in dealing with North Korea as a global proliferation threat. There are plenty of examples of strong alliances where the U.S. keeps its allies safe without keeping tens of thousands of Americans on their soil. Our alliance with Israel is my own mental model of what our alliance with South Korea should become; our alliance with Taiwan is a model of what it should never become.
Much has been said about the risk to the alliance from the U.S. presidential election, but as David Straub points out, the South Korean election is a big risk, too.
Frankly, I’m concerned that too many people in the “progressive” camp in South Korea continue to underestimate Pyongyang, that is, assume that its ultimate aim is security from a hostile world rather than achieving security by inducing the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance and eventually undermining and taking over the South. South Korea will have its next presidential election in December of next year. At least three major candidates are likely to run, increasing the odds that a progressive candidate could win and then try to implement an updated version of the sunshine policy. If that happens, we will suffer five lost years in which the leaders in Pyongyang will feel they have no reason to reconsider their current approach. [David Straub, NK News]
A Trump victory would contribute to that result by undermining South Koreans’ confidence in us, and South Korean weakness as an ally might be a good opportunity for a Trump administration to reduce the ground component of U.S.F.K.
Recently, however, South Korea has acted like an ally — and a rather effective one at that — and I don’t believe in kicking one’s allies in the teeth. The January nuke test, the consequent closure of Kaesong, and South Korea’s extraordinarily effective sanctions diplomacy have united the two governments to a degree I’ve never seen since I began writing this blog. Perversely, the short-term impact of Trump sharting out extortionate demands for the upkeep of U.S. Forces Korea may have caused the South Koreans to embrace their Republican friends more closely than ever.
But even if the alliance grows apart, let’s not kid ourselves by imagining that North Korea would cease to be a threat. North Korea thinks it has a right to censor our films, threaten our cities, and sell chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear reactors to the highest bidder. Those things will still be serious threats to our security whether we keep troops in South Korea or not, and there are advantages in having a good relationship with the legitimate Korean government when opposing the illegitimate one. Korea is another one of those problems, like Syria or Iraq, that a lot of simple thinkers would like to walk away from, based on the naive assumption that this is actually possible. Does the Republican Party, whatever it is now, still understand that?
~ ~ ~
Update: Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve heard about Trump, ever, is the possibility that if elected, he would not serve, other than as a figurehead of some kind. Sorry, but I don’t buy that clever marketing strategy.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a skeptic of “engagement” with Pyongyang from the very beginning, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrei Lankov. His Korea Times columns, his book, and his other writings on social, historical, and political matters have been so useful that I often cite them, despite his unrealizedpredictions or the silly things he occasionally writes. His view of engagement isn’t just the conventional approach of wheeling a catapult up the DMZ and flinging bundles of unmarked bills over the fence; Andrei also advocates more subversive and creative approaches that I also support. In a field with more than its share of pomposity, he’s humble, affable, and usually honest enough to admit when he’s wrong. He’s been to my house, and he’s still welcome. Our disagreements make for lively discussions. I hope that after what follows, he’ll still stop by. But on the specialized topic of sanctions, Andrei is in over his head.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei seems very confident that sanctions aren’t working and never will. But as anyone who follows this story carefully knows, (1) the sanctions are only now being implemented, (2) as he eventually admits, sanctions need more than a few days, weeks, or month to work, (3) the evidence he cites is cherry-picked or unreliable, (4) he overlooks some promising signs that the sanctions are working, and mostly (5) he doesn’t understand the sanctions or how they work.
RFA: What has been the impact of the increased international trade sanctions against North Korea?
Lankov: I believe that four indicators show that the sanctions so far have not produced any significant impact. These involve declining grain prices in North Korea; a steadiness in exchange rates; only a minor decrease in the electrical supply in Pyongyang; and zero change in major North Korean construction projects.
U.S. and U.N. sanctions passed in February and March, respectively, and their implementation deadlines are only now coming due. For example, the U.S. can’t implement its designation of North Korea as a primary money laundering concern and cut off North Korean banks’ correspondent relationships until August 2nd, because 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(5) requires formal rule-making and a notice-and-comment period. Nor is it realistic to believe that we’d have found and frozen Kim Jong-un’s hidden slush funds just two weeks after designating him. The European Union only added North Korea to its own anti-money laundering blacklist last week, and Switzerland only enacted implementing regulations in May.
The deadline for nations to file their compliance plans with the 1718 Committee was June 2nd, but many African and Middle Eastern have yet to comply. In some cases, diplomatic pressure was necessary to secure that compliance. Our diplomats have years of hard work ahead of them.
RFA: The South Koreans have been urging some African nations to cut their ties with North Korea. Uganda said that it wouldn’t renew contracts for North Koreans who are training their military and police. Is this a significant development?
Lankov: Africa isn’t a major source of income for North Korea. Many more North Korean workers are employed in Russia and China—more than 40,000 altogether. And thousands of North Korean workers are employed in the Middle East, in countries such as Kuwait, the U.A.E., and Qatar. North Korea sells weapons to Middle Eastern countries with no questions asked, and these are countries that don’t worry about the human rights side of all this.
There are signs that diplomatic and financial pressure are impacting North Korean operations in Kuwait, Qatar, and othercountries. For reasons I explained here, if we’re smart, we’ll turn to China and Russia last. Each of these income sources is small by our terms, but important for some factions in the North Korean regime. All of these income sources must come under pressure for sanctions to work.
To give you some frame of reference, it took three years for the last key piece of sanctions legislation to crush Iran’s economy. Treasury declared Burma to be a primary money laundering concern in 2004; Congress passed tough sanctions in the Burma JADE Act in 2008; and global diplomatic pressure continued to rise until the government released Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010.
Andrei also overlooks a growing body of evidence that sanctions are starting to have an impact. Bureau 39 agents can’t pay their debts, which may or may not mean that Chinese banks froze their accounts. The regime is squeezing its overseas workers and diplomats so hard that some of them are defecting or mutinying. That, in turn, is causing Pyongyang to withdraw some of them and clamp down harder on others. A global diplomatic and human rights campaign is causing other states to send those workers home or stop granting visas to their replacements.
RFA: The U.S. and South Korea as well as human rights groups have called on other nations to stop employing North Korean workers, because many of these workers labor under harsh conditions and most of their income goes to the Kim Jong Un regime. Has this been effective in curbing the regime’s income?
Lankov: I would say that two thirds to three quarters of the workers’ salaries go to the state. But the remaining amount still makes these by far the best jobs that ordinary North Koreans can get. It might make sense to stop North Korea from making money from the income of these workers. But let’s not pretend that we’re helping these suffering workers by doing so. People pay bribes to get these jobs.
Just to remind you what Andrei is defending here, North Korean workers in his homeland toil 20 hours a day, only to have their wages stolen by the state or by their managers, and loggers who run away are literally hamstrung by their managers. Anyone who pays a bribe to get that kind of work has been deceived about what he’s getting himself into.
RFA: China agreed to the U.N.-sponsored sanctions. But do you see signs that China is doing enough to implement them?
Lankov: It’s unclear whether China is deliberately avoiding the implementation of some sanctions, but the participation of China is absolutely vital. One problem, however, is that relations between the U.S. and China are worsening. The Chinese will see no reason to help sort out what they see as essentially an American problem.
Russia turned in its compliance plan just last week — six weeks late and evidently written on a vodka-stained bar napkin. The entire report is one page long, a curiously brief submission for a nation that hosted the Ocean Maritime Management office that arranged the Chong Chon Gang arms shipment, which has invited North Korean nuclear scientists into its laboratories, which still allows designated North Korean companies to operate on its soil, and which has set up a ruble clearinghouse with North Korea as an obvious sanctions dodge.
The U.S., South Korea, and their allies must keep the pressure on Chinese and Russian interests. China isn’t a monolith. Its banks, ports, and government ministries have different interests, and therefore, different responses to sanctions. The critical decision we must make for sanctions to work is to threaten the interests of its banks and businesses that enable Kim Jong-un, and that need access to our markets and our financial system. They must be forced to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business with the United States, or they’ll continue to choose both.
Even so, there has been a sharp decline in China-North Korea trade recently. Official statistics show declines in coal exports,overall exports, and North Korea’s trade with China. I’ll allow that we should treat these statistics skeptically. China’s economic decline and North Korea’s pathological ambivalence about trade could also account for this decline, although it’s noteworthy that bilateral trade actually rose in the first quarter of 2016 before falling sharply. Evidence of vacant office buildings, half-empty warehouses, and reports of disruptions to trade and banking relationships all suggest that there is some truth behind the official statistics. If these reports are accurate, Pyongyang’s financial situation will deteriorate in the coming months.
Yes, food prices in North Korea have remained mostly stable, and for the reasons I explained here, that’s good news. Sanctions do not target the food supply. So far, their targeting appears to be working as intended.
RFA: And if grain prices have decreased, isn’t this a sign that the sanctions were designed to spare ordinary North Koreans from suffering any more than they do already?
Lankov: The idea of selective sanctions—the idea that sanctions can spare the ordinary people—is a fantasy.
Evidence, please? Where, for example, is the evidence that the Banco Delta Asia sanctions caused suffering to ordinary North Koreans? The evidence of the pain they caused Kim Jong-il even a year after they were imposed, on the other hand, is difficult to deny. The argument is also contradictory — on one hand, Andrei argues that sanctions are failing because they aren’t starving the poor; on the other hand, he argues against sanctions because they will starve the poor.
Can we avoid all adverse impacts on ordinary North Koreans? Regrettably, probably not, and we should be ready to mitigate those impacts with food aid if necessary. But so far, I can cite more evidence that sanctions have improved North Korea’s food supply than Andrei can cite that they’ve strained it. Sanctions have prevented Kim Jong-un from exporting luxury food for cash; that food has been sold at a discount in the markets instead. Sanctions have also forced trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. Whatever adverse impacts sanctions may have, they’ll surely pale in comparison to the sanctionsKim Jong-un hasimposed on his own people by restricting market trade, cutting down private crops, confiscating and replanting private farms, and restricting cross-border trade.
As for that new construction, it’s largely supported by the use of forced labor. Its specific purpose, as RFA reports, is to persuade foreign observers that sanctions aren’t working.
RFA: When you mention electricity supply holding relatively steady, how can you measure this? Don’t electricity shortages vary from region to region in North Korea? And the North Koreans consider themselves technically at war. They’re big on camouflage, concealment, and deception.
Lankov: Studies at Stanford University have shown that under sanctions, the North Korean leadership can simply reallocate electricity from the countryside to the capital. Of course, they still face electrical shortages, as always. But the regime has to keep the elite citizens of the capital happy.
I’ve already fisked that study here. It did too poor a job of surveying the sanctions to establish a causal link to any condition inside North Korea. Nor did it account for any number of alternative explanations for its observations. In fact, a source I can’t name reports that since the sanctions were imposed, Pyongyang has had more hours of electricity than usual. For what it’s worth, my source speculates that that’s because Pyongyang is using coal it can’t export to generate electricity at home.
RFA: There’s a long history of sanctions not working in a number of cases, but they did work against South Africa.
Lankov: Sanctions against South Africa worked because it was a democracy. They had to take into account what their own people were thinking. Sanctions don’t work when a leader can ignore the views of the common people, which is the case with North Korea … Sanctions worked in Iran because while the system is twisted and lacking in many ways, they do have elections and some accountability. They do have to listen to public opinion. Sanctions do not seem to work well against an isolated country.
Wait, apartheid was democracy? This certainly would have shocked the non-white South Africans I knew there in 1990! I lived just west of Johannesburg for a few pivotal months in South African history, four years after the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, and just as F.W. DeKlerk began repealing the apartheid laws.
Legally speaking, by the way, North Korea and South Africa sanctions have as much in common as elderberries and Fruity Pebbles. The CAAA was a dog’s breakfast of symbolic gestures (banning Krugerrands) and protectionist goodies (banning sugar, iron, and steel imports) unworthy of the just cause it was meant to serve. It never invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, even in its paleozoic pre-9/11 form, never blocked South African government assets, never cut its banks’ access to the financial system, and politely warned P.W. Botha to move his government’s money from U.S. banks to, say, Switzerland within 45 days.
Four years after those sanctions took effect, my anecdotal impression of South Africa’s economy was that it was stagnant but functional. The impact of the sanctions was mostly psychological, but powerfully so. Sanctions didn’t wreck the South African economy, but they did persuade the white minority that the world was closing in. All oligarchies are sensitive to that perception, even if North Korea’s one percent has fewer ways to express that. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the world will soon begin to close in on Pyongyang, too.
If you pushed Andrei, I suspect he’d be honest enough admit that he’s not a sanctions expert, and that he’s really arguing his policy opinions. This isn’t to say that only experts can craft reasonable conclusions and arguments in specialized topics. I’m no expert on missile defense, so for this post, I consulted two people who are. I can’t say for certain how many of the relevant resolutions, statutes, or executive orders he’s read (I tried to ask him, but he’s traveling). Sanctions are a specialized field. Not every generic “North Korea expert” qualifies as a sanctions expert.
I raise this point, despite some hesitation, because most generic North Korea experts spent the last two decades repeating — and most journalists spent the last two decades printing — the myth that North Korea was the world’s most heavily sanctioned country. Legally, this was nonsense, and anyone who had bothered to research it could have questioned it, but it supported the inference that “tough” sanctions had failed. Maybe people repeated this because it supported their policy arguments. Or, maybe they’d heard so many people say it that they didn’t bother to check.
Now that this myth has been mostly debunked, sanctions are a hot topic again. Ironically, some of the same “experts” who got the sanctions story wrong for years are still being quoted as experts in the newspapers. I don’t mean to pick on Andrei here. Jenny Town is a lovely human being and, as far as I know, a fine arms control expert. Joel Wit is such an experienced diplomat that every time he talks North Korea into disarming, someone asks him to disarm it all over again.
Still, maybe it’s time for those reporters to expand their rolodexes to keep up with the times. William Newcomb, David Asher, Juan Zarate, George Lopez, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Peter Harrell, Martin Uden, Andrea Berger, and Joseph DeThomas all have expert-level knowledge of sanctions law or experience in sanctions administration at the national or international level. These aren’t all people I agree with, but they know more than the people who’ll read their opinions in the papers. That’s the least that any journalist should expect of an expert.
To work, sanctions will need good faith compliance by U.N. member states and time. Gaining international support and time, in turn, will require governments to put theirdiplomaticmuscle into the fight. As Ambassador Mark Lippert said recently, “sanctions aren’t just a short-term game.”
Yet some supporters of engagement policies, many of them people who never understood sanctions and still don’t, are ready to declare sanctions a failure at the starting line. The policy fiasco they backed wasted decades and billions of dollars, and I have yet to hear one of them cite a single significant, positive change engagement achieved. This is not to say that all would keep digging us deeper into that hole. Evans Revere, for example, now wants to make North Korea “stare into the abyss,” and I suppose he should be commended for yielding to the evidence. James Hoare confesses that “after 40 years,” he is “rather bored with it all.” The views of Chris Nelson and Daniel Pinkston have quite obviously shifted, too. As Andrei admits elsewhere, Washington’s consensus has shifted toward support for sanctions, at least for the time being.
But to the bitter-enders who want to go back to these failed appeasement policies now, and who measure success in terms of designer shoe sightings in Pyongyang, how many decades must pass, how many billions must we spend, and how many nukes will Pyongyang have before it opens a Jimmy Choo’s? How many North Koreans must die before we see the changes and reforms they’ve spent decades promising us? Engagers demanded endless patience with their Sisyphean fiasco, yet beat the drumof fierce urgency to pressure President Obama into Agreed Framework III. Now, they call on us to abandon sanctions before we’ve even begun to turn the screws. I’d like to borrow a cup of chutzpah from these people.
The U.N. Security Council was already meeting about how to respond to North Korea’s latest missile tests when Pyongyang drew the curtain on its next act of satellite theater at Punggye-ri. Even without the latest sanctions, His Corpulency would probably have carried out another nuke test within the next year, if only to help consolidate his rule, and because the U.S. and South Korea are holding presidential elections. (North Korean dictators prefer to nuke off as new administrations assemble their policies and policy-makers.)
With this year’s new rounds of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, that already high likelihood became a near certainty. We knew all along that the North Korea crisis would have to get much worse before it can get better, and we’re still one to three years of aggressive implementation away from concentrating the igneous temperature and metamorphic pressure needed to make Pyongyang reconsider its policies. We should expect an interesting year, and we should have a list of options ready for it, rather than let a crisis go to waste.
[You should definitely skip over that part around 1:44.]
Fortunately, the most important legal authorities are already in place. If we did nothing for the next year but fully enforce UNSCR 2270, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the Obama Administration’s two most recent executiveorders, we could still identify and destroy most of the financial network that sustains Kim Jong-un’s misrule. This isn’t to say that new sanctions couldn’t help close loopholes; it just means that the most important priority has shifted to enforcing the sanctions that are already in place. So with much of our Plan B now in place, the effort now shifts to enforcement and the closing of loopholes. Call it “Plan B-plus.”
For the U.N.
Designate, designate, designate: You know who still ferries banned luxury goods into North Korea? Air Koryo, that’s who.
This guy is checking in a serious TV – a 65″ Sony Bravia – on today’s Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang pic.twitter.com/KegglgjBUa
Who insures Pyongyang’s smuggling fleet? The Korea Shipowners’ Protection and Indemnity Association, which is probably a subsidiary of the infamous Korea National Insurance Corporation (which the EU has already designated, but we haven’t). Chinpo Shipping still isn’t designated despite having been convicted for its part in smuggling arms from Cuba to North Korea. All of the ships controlled by the (already designated) Reconnaissance General Bureau should be designated individually, by IMO number. The U.N. can also ban North Korea’s provision of crew services to foreign flagged ships.
The Central Bank of the DPRK sells gold — which is mined with forced labor, or in concentration camps — in violation of UNSCR 2270. Sam Pa and the 88 Queensway Group are already designated for violating Zimbabwe sanctions, and Pa is being prosecuted in China and has his bank accounts blocked, but a new North Korea designation for his dealings with Bureau 39 would send an important message by double-tapping a target the Chinese government is willing to sacrifice. Kumgang Economic Development Corporation, also known as KKG, is Pa and 88 Queensway’s North Korean business partner and, reportedly, a Bureau 39 front. They should be designated, too.
Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation and the DPRK Chamber of Commerce rent out North Korean slave laborers. If we have any evidence that they pass their revenues to Bureau 39 (already designated), those entities should be designated, too. Mansudae Overseas Projects Group partnered with U.N. designated KOMID at that weapons factory in Namibia; it should be added to the blacklist. So, for that matter, should the Mansudae Art Studio, for the revenue it sends to Pyongyang by charging highly inflated sums for monstrosities such as these.
[Also, for crimes against humanity.]
Expulsions of North Korean operatives. In the last three years, the U.N. Panel of Experts hasnameddozens of North Korean operatives working around the world who have yet to be designated. Designating them would force other countries to deport them. Similarly, Treasury’s designations of North Korean smugglers and money launderers are still years behind the excellent work of the U.N. Panel of Experts. There are dozens of names in those reports that ought to appear on the U.N.’s own blacklist, and on ours.
Ban Labor Exports. I have a Y chromosome, so admitting that I was wrong isn’t easy for me, but I’m ready to admit that my first impression of Samantha Power was wrong. Just a few years ago, in blog posts and speeches, I taunted Ambassador Power by saying, “Samantha Power, North Korea is your Rwanda.” But since then, Ambassador Power has won me over. She has emerged as a calm, tough, steady, and effective diplomat and critic of Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity. She has also become an intelligent advocate for better sanctions enforcement. Power may yet end her term with as strong a legacy as the much-maligned John Bolton, whose tough bargaining built the foundation for everything the Obama Administration has achieved since. Maybe Power still can’t persuade China and Russia to refer His Porcine Majesty to the International Criminal Court, but she might get them to support sanctions that shut down North Korean practices that have human rights implications, or that earn it enough cash to resist the pressure to reform and disarm. After all, isn’t this what the Security Council did when it banned luxury goods imports in UNSCR 1718? The message then was that North Korea should provide for its people. It was the closest the U.N. has ever come to an effective response to Pyongyang’s failure to protect them. In the same sense, China and Russia might be pressured into agreeing to ban North Korean labor exports, if only because labor exports almost certainly finance proliferation.
Ban Food Exports. There is no excuse for a country that relies on food aid to simultaneously export food for hard currency, while contributing a relative pittance to importing grain to feed its own malnourished children. North Korea’s apologists reflexively predicted that sanctions would only starve the poor, but there is more evidence that the very opposite of this is true. This year, we saw two interesting dynamics when China began to implement UNSCR 2270. First, luxury foods (seafood, pine mushrooms) that Pyongyang usually exported but now couldn’t suddenly became available in North Korean markets for the first time most North Koreans could remember. (Limits on North Korean coal exports had a similar effect; they lowered the market price of coal, and according to sources I can’t attribute here, are credited for a better electricity supply in Pyongyang than at any time in recent memory.) Second, state trading companies that needed to earn cash to make their “loyalty” payments but found it harder to trade in sanctioned goods began shifting toward importing food into North Korea instead. Both of these dynamics suggest that a ban on food exports from North Korea could draw more food into the markets that feed most of North Korea’s people and actually help ameliorate the food crisis, while denying Pyongyang a key source of hard currency. Given the long-standing failure of U.N. aid programs to solve North Korea’s food crisis, it’s time to turn our attention to those markets, rather than the state’s corrupt and discriminatory distribution system, as a better solution to hunger in North Korea.
Define “Livelihood Purposes.” The “livelihood” loophole is UNSCR 2270’s most obvious shortcoming. It’s a loophole in coal and iron export sanctions that you can drive a freighter through. The exception should not be terminated completely; sanctions need safety valves so that member states can react to unintended consequences. Instead, the U.N. should define “livelihood purposes” to exclude any sale of coal that provides hard currency to His Porcine Majesty.
The term “livelihood purposes” means the sale or export by the Government of North Korea of coal, iron, or iron ore in exchange for food, medicine, or other humanitarian supplies to be imported into North Korea under the auspices of the United Nations World Food Program, and subject to adequate safeguards to ensure the distribution of such food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies in accordance with the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people.
SWIFT. Really, how hard an ask should that really be at this point? North Korea is a prime suspect in the theft of $80 million from SWIFT member banks after hacking SWIFT’s software. If we were to ask the EU to support a new sanction disconnecting North Korean banks from SWIFT — and crucially, any other financial messaging services — would it really push back?
Oversight. Congress’s most important function now is to make sure the Executive Branch enforces the laws Congress has already passed. The “appropriate congressional committees” should reserve a SCIF for regular briefings from the Treasury, State, Commerce, and Homeland Security departments. The Executive Branch already has most of the authorities it needs to enforce sanctions effectively. I could, of course, draft many pages of text to force the Executive Branch to use those authorities (and just for shits and grins, I have).
Tourist Travel. But again, that isn’t to say that new legislation wouldn’t help. With North Korea effectively using two Americans as hostages, it’s long past time to ban transactions incident to tourist travel to, from, and within North Korea. Ideally, this could be done by U.N. resolution, but let’s not pretend that that’s likely this year. Doing so bilaterally would require an act of Congress, which means that it’s not going to happen until after Election Day, at the very soonest. (Sometimes, the mills grind slowly. It took three years for the NKSPEA to become law, but it still happened.) Although such a ban would be far from airtight, it would inflict significant financial pain, and it would reduce Pyongyang’s supply of American hostages. It also has the potential to affect not just travel by Americans, but any dollar-denominated travel transactions, including those by third-country nationals. Pyongyang increasingly relies on those transactions to remain solvent as sanctions take effect.
For the Executive Branch
Progressive diplomacy. When it comes to North Korea, I’m not widely known for commending the work of diplomats, but this year, I think we’ve gotten the sequence mostly right. We started with our friends. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan began 2016 by papering over their historical differences and forming an effective diplomatic alliance. Seoul and Washington have had the discipline and the foresight to reject Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule appeals for talks. Maybe it has finally occurred to them that the longer they stick together and build pressure against Pyongyang, the stronger their bargaining power will be, and the greater the odds that their diplomacy will actually succeed for once.
Seoul also invited European nations into that alliance and turned wavering states into friends. It has done an admirable job of unplugging the HAL 9000. Each chip unplugged allows Seoul to focus its attention on a diminishing list of enablers that reflag Pyongyang’s ships, buy its missiles, rent its slaves, and launder its money. The U.S. may have played some role in assisting that campaign, but if it has, it hasn’t publicized it. Similarly, the EU and Japan have been cooperative, but haven’t led on sanctions enforcement as they led on human rights at the U.N. We have yet to see the Obama Administration undertake anything that compares to the Bush Administration’s campaign of financial diplomacy, which quickly disconnected so many of North Korea’s financial links to the Outer Earth. Maybe that’s about to change. If the U.S., South Korea, Europe, and Japan join forces to pare North Korea’s enablers down to a few stubborn bitter-enders, those bitter-enders will feel increasingly isolated, North Korea’s money men will be increasingly exposed, and secondary sanctions against the worst of them will meet less international blowback.
But this act could be much more than symbolic. According to open-source reports, Kim Jong-un keeps billions of dollars in slush funds abroad; estimates vary from as low as $1 billion in Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg to as high as $6 billion overall. Top North Korean official Ri Su-yong allegedly managed some of them in Switzerland, and also served in The Netherlands and Liechtenstein, where Pyongyang allegedly kept some of its money. Ri still has close family ties to Bureau 39. Switzerland has recently committed to cooperating with sanctions against North Korea and enacted new regulations to implement the sanctions. The Treasury Department may have also identified hundreds of millions of dollars in North Korean accounts in Shanghai, including the names of the account holders. The 2014 defection of Yun Tae-hyong of Korea Daesong Bank may have provided the South Korean NIS another windfall of financial intelligence.
New EUregulationsblacklisting North Korea for money laundering require the disclosure of accounts’ beneficial owners will illuminate more slush funds. Although a top Treasury Department (now the CIA’s Deputy Director) stated in 2013 that Treasury was “actively looking for” “very large amounts” of North Korean money, Treasury offered a disappointing lack of commitment to pursuing those slush funds when it announced its recent designations of Kim Jong-un and his top henchmen. The designation of Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s security forces can be more than symbolic. Nothing the U.S. can do would do more to open up North Korean society to the Outer Earth than to starve the security forces of the funds they need to fence the borders, pay border guards, and buy cell phone trackers. Nothing would damage regime cohesion and Kim Jong-un’s image more than working with foreign governments to identify and freeze the proceeds of Kim Jong-un’s kleptocracy, a specific sanctions authority Congress gave the Treasury Department in section 104(b) of the NKSPEA.
Secondary shipping sanctions. With worryingsigns that Chinese ports’ compliance with UNSCR 2270 is slipping, it’s time for the U.S. to take a closer look at Section 205 of the NKSPEA, which provides for secondary shipping sanctions on non-compliant ports. U.S. Customs and Border protection could start by publishing a watch-list of the ports that are allowing North Korean ships to dock, and that aren’t inspecting all North Korean cargo. Cargo coming from those ports, in turn, will face additional delays as they face increased inspections in U.S. ports. My watch list would include Bayuquan, Dandong, Dalian, Longkou, Nantong, Penglai, Rizhao, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Yingkou, and the Beijing Capital International Airport in China; Abadan, Bandar-e-Abbas, and Khorramshahr, in Iran; Nakhodka, Vanino, and Vladivostok, in Russia; and Latakia and Tartous, in Syria. The administration should also harness the Proliferation Security Initiative to target non-compliant ports for closer inspection globally. That’s an important protection against whatever the North Koreans might be tempted to slip into a shipping container coming to one of our ports. The U.S. and South Korea should also redouble their efforts to end the prohibited reflagging of North Korean ships.
Investments. Although Executive Order 13722 bans new investments in North Korea, it doesn’t necessarily ban the existing ones. One step toward squeezing investment out of North Korea would be for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require any company — including foreign companies — that issues securities in the U.S. to disclose its investments in North Korea. That would expose those investors to boycotts, shareholder protests, and possible sanctions. Another, which I’ll explain in greater detail in an upcoming post, would be to require the disclosure of beneficial ownership in investments in North Korea, or in which any North Korean person has an interest. Here, the EU’s tighter rules on beneficial ownership disclosure, just announced this week, are a good example for us to emulate.
Fortunately, most of the necessary legal authorities are in place. If we did nothing for the next year but fully enforce UNSCR 2270, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the Obama Administration’s two most recent executive orders, the U.S. could cripple North Korea’s palace economy in two to three years. The distraction and potential disruption of the upcoming U.S. and South Korean elections are the greatest threat to this strategy now.
This week, the eyes of the world are on arbitrators’ rejection of China’s made-up claims to the South China Sea. Further north, however, Pyongyang’s lease of fishing rights to Beijing threatens to instigate violent brawls between North Korean and Chinese fishermen.
Earlier this year, China stopped accepting imports of North Korean seafood. The reasons for this still aren’t clear, but one possibility arises from a report that much of North Korea’s fishing fleet is controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is designated under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270. That designation requires China to prohibit all transactions with any person or entity “owned or controlled” by the RGB. (China continues to allow RGB agents to operate on its territory, catching defectors and keeping overseas workers in line, so its enforcement of this provision isn’t wholly rigorous.)
For a while, this meant that North Koreans found previously scarce seafood dumped in the markets at a steep discount. Later, however, Pyongyang began keeping its smaller fishing boats in port. This was a jarring change from the recent stories of North Korean “ghost ships” washing up on the Japanese coast with dead bodies aboard.
As with so much of what goes on in North Korea, we can only speculate about why this happened. It’s possible that the fishermen had attempted to defect, but because there were no women or children among the dead, it seems more likely that the regime had set unreasonable quotas for the fishermen, who then sailed beyond the range of their fuel supply (historically limited as an anti-defection precaution) in a vain attempt to meet those quotas.
Radio Free Asia reported that the subsequent decision to keep the boats in port was another precaution against defections. Maybe, but maybe Pyongyang simply saw no reason to send the boats out if it couldn’t earn hard currency by doing so. Feeding hungry North Koreans is an insufficient motive, apparently.
Clearly, the last few years have been desperately difficult ones for North Korean fishermen. In their latest turn of misfortune, their government leased the rights to fish off North Korea’s coasts to Chinese fishermen. The big winners appear to be the Chinese. The larger ships of Pyongyang’s state-controlled fleet still operate, while small North Korean fishing boats have lost the most.
On the heels of a new bilateral fishing rights deal, state-run companies in the North are bringing in scores of cutting-edge fishing vessels from China, undermining the livelihoods of ordinary fisherman in the North.
“A fleet of new fishing vessels have emerged in the East Sea waters off of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province,” a source from the province told Daily NK on July 6. These Chinese ships, outfitted with small refrigerating facilities, state-of-the-art fish-finding equipment, and high-performance GPS and radar systems, are under three-year contracts, which stipulate the entirely of any catch be handed directly over to China in exchange for cash– save the costs of the ship lease.
Such an agreement seemingly bears out claims by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service via a parliamentary committee on June 30 that North Korea sold its fishing rights to China this year to the tune of 30 million USD. [Daily NK]
See also The Joongang Ilbo. In other words, Pyongyang found another way to get Beijing’s money, and Beijing found another way to get Pyongyang’s fish, that Beijing thinks it can defend from U.N. scrutiny. But this has put North Korea’s fishermen in desperate straits. Most of their catch as been sold to China, denying them their livelihoods, yet they’re still expected to meet their steep “loyalty” payment quotas to the state.
The pact has spurred frenetic fishing expeditions by North Korean state companies to amass the highest possible amount of funds. China, on the other hand, “is simply sitting back and collecting on this deal,” the source said.
Therefore, the livelihoods of people living in adjacent fishing villages are on the line, which is of “entirely no concern to the [North Korean] leadership,” the source asserted, adding that while many see the season’s squid catch as their “year’s harvest,” but with their backs against the wall to pay loyalty funds, “state companies couldn’t care less about their troubles.”
These hulking vessels are north of 100 tons, highly mobile, and their operators unsatisfied to confine their expeditions to the deep sea, instead pillaging the shallow, coastal waters as well. Bottom trawling, an environmentally destructive fishing method that drags vast nets across the seabed, is also common.
The fishermen may not dare to challenge the North Korean security forces, but they’re ready to brawl with the Chinese fishermen.
Coupled with the fact that China supplies them with diesel and other fishing instruments, these smaller boats “don’t stand a chance,” the source noted, and “with little in the way of recourse, many [fisherman] are staging armed dissent.”
“Denouncing the vessels as ‘pirate ships,’ people hurl stones at them as soon as they spot them. The anger is so intense, in fact, that many of the [North Korean] fishermen stand guard at the ports armed with clubs to prevent them from docking,” he concluded.
In 2014, Pyongyang also leased China the rights to fish in its waters (including waters that both North and South Korea claimed). That same year, however, the North Korean coast guard seized a Chinese fishing boat, roughed up the members of its crew, and confined it on starvation rations until the captain signed a confession. With North Korea, the fact that you have a deal never quite guarantees peace.
But aren’t the North Koreans too docile and submissive to engage in violent protests against invited guests of the regime? Not really. North Koreans argue with their own country’s police over economic issues (as opposed to explicitly political ones) more than we tend to assume. Brian Myers has described the North Korean tendency toward childlike, spontaneous rage and offers evidence that the state encourages it (within limits, obviously). In this case, the anger of the fishermen derives from a combination of material desperation and xenophobia — both sentiments we can reasonably believe to be stronger in North Korea than in South Korea.
There are several ways this could end badly for Pyongyang — with violent clashes between North Korean and Chinese fishermen, with violent clashes between North Korean fishermen and North Korean police, or in the long term, by giving China a basis to make expansionist claims to a right to fish in Korean waters.
Over the last year, I’ve become convinced that if technology can break the electronic barriers between North Korea and the Outer Earth, it would be possible to keep the broken promises of the Sunshine Policy by bypassing Pyongyang and engaging directly with the North Korean people. Governments, churches, and NGOs could harness markets, smuggling networks, and private agriculture to help North Koreans feed the hungry, heal the sick, share information and ideas, begin to rebuild their broken civil society, and eventually, negotiate with the state for what is rightly theirs.
A new civil society independent of the state, and increasingly at odds with the state’s political objectives, would co-opt, corrupt, and supplant the state’s control over the population, particularly if the state is demoralized, corrupt, weakened by sanctions, and unable to pay its security forces. If it all seems impossible, consider two cases in which that trend is well advanced in North Korean society now — financial services and health care.
~ ~ ~
Reuters writes that a guerrilla banking system has sprung up inside North Korea. For the most part, Reuters describes a system in which merchants who profit from state-sanctioned trade lend money to state-owned enterprises, mostly for the state’s benefit. This amounts to crony capitalism; it’s the least interesting of the three types of financial services that emerged in North Korea over the last decade.
The second type of service is loan sharking by the well-connected against the structurally impoverished. In some cases, the desperately poor agree to pay usurious interest rates to borrow food. You can imagine how some of these stories end. A month ago, for example, the Daily NK reported that a well-liked young woman stabbed a loan shark to death for pressuring her to make payments she couldn’t afford, and “will probably be executed via other means as soon as the court proceedings come to a close, perhaps with an instrument such as a rubber baton.”
The third, and least exploitative system is the one North Korean refugees currently use to send remittances to their families back home, although that system is risky for the smugglers and the recipients, who become vulnerable to extortion by the police. It’s also expensive — the refugees pay steep commissions from their hard-earned pay to send these pittances home.
The situation that has developed clearly fills a need in the marketplace, but ethically, it’s obviously far from ideal. If the technology existed to set up secure online banking through messenger apps, it would be possible to send remittances and humanitarian aid from South to North Korea with a minimum of risk and cost, and to extend microcredit to the poor in more regulated and ethical ways.
~ ~ ~
But the report that fascinates me the most is one I read over the weekend — Eun Jeong Soh’s paper, “The Emergence of an Informal Health-Care Sector in North Korea,” published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and based on extensive interviews with refugees, including health care workers, from North Korea. One of the more ambitious things I’ve advocated is supplementing, and largely replacing, North Korea’s broken public health system with a guerrilla health care system for those who can’t afford the bribes and fees that are a de facto cost of North Korea’s “free” health care. Soh’s paper suggests the extent to which something like that has already begun to happen spontaneously. Like most of North Koreans’ adaptations to the failure of the state, this new system was illegal, which meant that it necessarily relied on informal networks and a high degree of mutual trust.
At first, many of these home healers were quacks and unqualified traditional healers. Over time, more retired and off-duty doctors began moonlighting for trusted patients. The services they provide have improved in quality as the state hospitals increasingly do little more than use their equipment to diagnose ailments. Today, those who can afford it prefer to use private doctors, who refer patients to back-alley pharmacists to supply medicines. So well developed are the markets’ smuggling networks today that the quality and authenticity of the medicines sold by back-alley pharmacists is now as great a concern as their availability.
Up to this point, Soh’s paper mostly adds richness of detail, anecdote, evidence, and analysis to trends North Korea watchers already knew of, or might have reasonably extrapolated to the state of affairs she describes.
But the state still hovers over all of this. How do informal networks grow despite a state that wants to stamp them out, isolate citizens from each other, and maintain its monopoly over essential services? One way is for private doctors to form protective relationships with the security forces — “she provides him with free medical assistance and he protects her from any official repercussions that her activities might incur.” But Soh’s subjects also report that the state also holds back, fearing that if it cracks down, there will be discontent and unrest. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.
In describing this informal hoarding system, she conveyed the sense of injustice she feels about what the system has become, even though, in times of personal need, she had herself acquired drugs directly from the hospital.
How is such shared moral outrage expressed and communicated to the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the regulations? Dissatisfaction can be expressed verbally as a way of confronting local officials directly. Interviewees argued that in order to survive in North Korea, one often has to take a firm line and defend one’s position logically in order to persuade officials of the merits of one’s case. While this might seem surprising given the state’s tight control over its citizens, the expression of complaints to local officials is facilitated by preexisting relationships between officials and complainants formed through family networks, neighborhood relations, friendships, a shared history as classmates, and so forth. Social relations in small regional cities in North Korea are close, shaped by cultural traditions, socialism, and communalism, and reinforced by the coping and survival strategies developed to weather times of hardship.
However, given the nature of a regime that does not accommodate dissent, the expression of dissatisfaction generally takes non-verbal forms. One term that cropped up frequently was “disaffection” (panbal). In the narratives recorded in this study, panbal refers to feelings as well as expressions of disaffection against the authorities (normally local officials charged with regulating anti-socialist activities), as well as with life in general. Although the authorities are well aware of such disaffection in the populace, Ms Hahn expressed her opinion that in reality the government lacked the power to impose its own regulations: “If the authorities regulate even those activities, there would be too much disruption” (Interview, S. Hahn, October 26, 2013). According to a former police officer, “a police officer will be unpopular if he takes unnecessary enforcement action” (Interview, M. Park, November 18, 2013). If complaints against local officials accumulate, they will damage their reputation with residents. In E. P. Thompson’s words, referring to the 18th-century English crowd, “the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people” (Thompson 1971, 88).
From the point of view of local officials, the existence of these informal coping networks and strategies are to be applauded, as alternative ways of providing health care may have the effect of allaying complaints by residents. Local officials also have private incentives to turn a blind eye to such informal activities. Normally, these private practices operate with the help of local police who accept bribes from practitioners. More importantly, police officers also draw on the services and expertise of informal health-care workers for their own families’ survival and wellbeing. As a result, local officials and residents have come to share similar views on these extra-judicial activities. Thus the convergence of preferences among providers, consumers, and regulators has contributed to the emergence of an active and evolving informal health-care sector in North Korea.
So it was that North Koreans who harbored no explicit political motives learned to resist and conspire against the state, and to defeat the prisoners’ dilemma it imposed on them.
~ ~ ~
North Korean parents are catching “private education fever” as more and more of them are risking arrest as they venture outside the secretive state’s educational system in the hope that a private tutor will help their children get into a top university.
“The goal of these parents is to send their children overseas or to the best colleges in Pyongyang,” a North Korean who recently visited China told RFA’s Korea Service. “There have been slogans going around saying: ‘Let’s send them overseas!’ or ‘Let’s send them to Pyongyang!’”
In North Korea, where the state tightly controls education, hiring a private tutor is illegal, but more and more parents are taking the risk and paying the price
“Subjects like mathematics, physics or any other of the core studies cost 100 [Chinese] yuan (U.S. $15.00) per month in Pyongyang, whereas subjects that need specialized skills like computer programming cost between 200-500 yuan (U.S. $30-$75) per month,” said the source, who talked to RFA on condition of anonymity.
The fever doesn’t end with academics as so-called “extreme” North Korean parents, who want to raise “civilized” children, pay more so their kids can learn to play at least one instrument and take part in athletics, explained the source.
“Children of the privileged class in Pyongyang spend about 1000 yuan (U.S. $150) monthly for private education expenses,” the source said. [RFA]
To do this, the parents have to pay bribes to get their kids excused from regular school or labor mobilizations. The tutors are also at risk of arrest, so many are well-connected people who are relatively untouchable.
Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.
The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:
SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.
(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.
(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—
(1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and
(2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.
(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—
(1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;
(2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and
(3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.
The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.
“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]
U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.
Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:
[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]
However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]
The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.
South Korea is also joining the campaign, following itspromising reportsfrom Africa andCambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”
Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argumentI’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.
Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.
Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.
If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:
Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.
The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.
“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.
“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.
North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.
North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.
The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.
“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]
Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.
Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.
North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.
One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]
In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.
The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:
After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.[WSJ]
Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:
In Wednesday’s post, I wrote about Beyond Parallel’s imagery analysis pointing to a decline in cross-border trade between China and North Korea, along with the limitations of that analysis and its great potential if expanded and focused. But I also alluded to a broader policy concern about the error of equating trade volume with sanctions enforcement: that while China’s under-enforcement of sanctions has historically been the greatest impediment to our North Korea policy, sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. Recently, I’ve heard influential people — including recovering engagers, preaching with the zeal of converts — advocating what sounded like a total trade embargo. (To be clear, Beyond Parallel’s study did not advocate this.) This would be inhumane, misguided, and politically unsustainable. It would play right into the regime’s hands by validating its disinformation and strengthening the arguments of its apologists.
The greatest long-term danger to an effective multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy is a loss of political will by one or more key nations. Pyongyang’s overhead is lower than that of most states because it doesn’t provide for its people, so breaking even one key nation out of a multilateral coalition can allow Pyongyang to get by for a year or two while it cultivates its next divide-and-conquer ploy. In South Korea and Europe in particular, public support for strong enforcement is vulnerable to charges — almost always made of lies, half-truths, ignorance, and appeals to emotion — that sanctions harm only the ordinary people. (And in the case of, say, old-fashioned trade sanctions against Iraq, the charge was mostly true. Many people who still don’t understand financial sanctions and who don’t know they don’t understand are still stuck in this paradigm.)
To maintain political support for such a multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy long enough for that strategy to work, policymakers must answer those charges, because people who are either sympathetic to the regime or myopically focused on aiding a tiny minority of its people are certain to lodge it, and shallow thinkers in the press are certain to echo it.
Thus, policymakers need more than just a sanctions strategy. They need to understand how sanctions complement other tools within a broader policy, and how all of those tools combine to achieve a plausible outcome. And to sustain any of it, they need an information strategy for answering these predictable arguments.
First, they must keep pointing out exactly how many North Koreans Kim Jong-un could feed with what he has instead chosen to spend on nukes, missiles, weapons, yachts, palaces, ski resorts, armored limousines, flat screen TVs, and … I could go on.
Second, they must emphasize their principled insistence that sanctions must only be targeted against the income sources the regime uses to buy all of these things instead of food. They must avoid unforced errors like this one at all costs. They should move quickly to identify and correct adverse and unwanted impacts from sanctions. Both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. sanctions law have provisions and general licenses for that purpose.
Third, they should point to what Pyongyang itself is doing, for the sake of its own internal control, to inhibit private agriculture, domestic market trading, and cross-border consumer-level trade. Those activities probably keep most North Koreans alive today. What almost no one is saying — and more people should be saying — is that Pyongyang’s sanctions against its own people are causing far more harm than international sanctions against Pyongyang itself. The latest example of that is this report that His Supreme Corpulency has ordered the planting of trees on private farm plots that probably grow a substantial portion of North Koreans’ food supply.
After Kim’s declaration, the government started to enforce laws against slash-and-burn farming all over North Korea. However, this is a matter of life and death for ordinary people. Consequently, last year, as long as trees were not cut down, in return for bribe, agriculture officials looked away if a person was cultivating short crops. Since then, the writer of this article confirmed that many farmers have given up slash-and-cut agriculture, though tree replantation is yet to take hold. [….]
“They wouldn’t allow us to go near our fields in the mountains. If we planted something, they’d pull it out of the ground. I recently planted potatoes, and they pulled them out. It was growing well…….” [Rimjin-gang]
Fourth, leaders should say more about how quickly and easily Pyongyang could end its quarter-century-long, man-made food crisis with a few bold policy decisions. For one thing, it could stop exporting so much of its food production for cash. This practice has even yielded some evidence that sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s food supply, by barring the exports of mushrooms, seafood, and other delicacies for cash, and forcing trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. (My suggestion for the next round of U.N. sanctions? A ban on food exports.) North Korea could solve its short-term hunger problem in 30 days by halting food exports, and by choosing to import more food and less swag. Sanctions would do nothing to interfere with any of that. It could end its long-term hunger problem in less than a year with land reform that redistributes land to the tillers, and by ending the confiscation of private farms.
Finally, they should quietly pressure U.N. aid agencies to reassess well-meaning but flawed aid policies that haven’t addressed North Korea’s food crisis and may be prolonging it. Aid will never help more than a tiny percentage of North Korea’s population as long as the regime continues to inhibit aid workers’ access to the hungry. What North Korea needs is fundamental land reform and a change in its government’s priorities.
A strategy for enforcing sanctions, then, must be both coordinated and calibrated to hurt the right people and not the wrong ones. China’s role is obviously critical here. No one should want China to impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, because a blanket trade embargo will affect commerce that fills the markets and sustains the majority of North Koreans, and this will erode the political and diplomatic unity of a sanctions enforcement coalition. In the long-term, starving the North Korean people will discredit the use of sanctions to starve the regime.
On the contrary, it would be far better to open the taps on street-level jangmadang trade and hinder only the trade that exclusively funds the regime. Over time, the effect of this would be to deny the military and security forces a steady income and force them to turn to corruption to survive. This would catalyze more smuggling and more defections. It would mean more copies of “Descendants of the Sun” on sale in the markets. The good news is that the early signs suggest that since sanctions have taken effect, corruption has increased among the internal security forces and railroad police, and that the flow of refugees into South Korea has increased, although there still isn’t enough evidence to identify a pattern in these reports or assign a cause to them.
Still, these reports suggest how cutting the regime’s funds and blocking its accounts would preferentially impact the elites and break down their cohesion to the regime, starting with its financially critical overseas workers and trade agents, and progressing to those who maintain the system of internal security. It would force the regime to launch ever more mass mobilizations and confiscatory demands for “loyalty” payments that sap Kim Jong-un’s domestic political support among the poor.
Collectively and gradually, these trends would accelerate an ongoing shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power downward in North Korea’s songbun system, from generals to donju, from border guards to smugglers, from party members to non-members, from soldiers to sotoji farmers, from police to market traders, in every village, factory, and neighborhood. Only when Pyongyang realizes this will it realize that time is not on its side. And only when Pyongyang realizes that time is against it will diplomacy stand any chance of lasting success. If it doesn’t, and consequently drowns in the tide of history, that would be far from the worst possible outcome.
About a week later than my prediction in this post and a full decade after it should have done so, the Treasury Department has finally designated His Porcine Majesty, ten of his worst henchmen, and nine government agencies for human rights abuses.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture,” said Adam J. Szubin, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.“The actions taken today by the Administration under an Act of Congress highlight the U.S. Government’s condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.”[….]
OFAC designated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries, with significant restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture.Kim Jong Un leads the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security.These ministries, along with the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau and the Ministry of State Security Prisons Bureau, are also being designated today pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. [Treasury Department]
The targets include the State Security Department (kuk-ga anjeon bowi-bu), the North Korean equivalent of the Totenkopfverbände that runs the concentration camp system; the Ministry of People’s Security (inmin boan-bu), the Gestapo equivalent that investigates political crimes; and two sub-bureaus of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, for kidnapping North Korean refugees from China and for sending hit squads to assassinate exiles in South Korea. The full list is here, and below the fold.
Separately, the State Department issued a report on the reasons for the designations. With yesterday’s action, 161 North Korean entities are designated, equal to the number of designated Zimbabwean entities. Contrary to another rumor I heard but did not publish, there were no waivers of any of the sanctions.
Legally, the targets’ assets are now blocked in the financial system, the practical meaning of which I’ll address below. Because the designations were triggered by the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, strict performance-based conditions apply to their suspension or termination. The designations came several weeks after the passage of a deadline in section 304 of the NKSPEA to report to Congress on the individual responsibility of North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un, for human rights abuses in North Korea, and to designate any responsible officials under section 104(a).
Although the report and designations were effectively mandated by an act of Congress, senior administration officials stressed in a background-only conference call yesterday that this report was actually years in the making. Well, maybe. The first rumors the administration circulated publicly about this action came in 2015, a year after the House of Representatives passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act on a voice vote. So while I take the administration at its word — in part, because it’s useful to accept even reluctant new friends into the circle of consensus — it’s also true that whenever the administration began working on this report — which comes to four whole pages of Times New Roman 12-point type — it must have known that the legislative writing was on the wall.
At the same time, the State Department report provides more detail about the people responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korean than any other report has before. A great deal of intelligence work obviously went into it. Among the details we learn is that Kim Jong-un was born in January of 1984, which means he wasn’t even 30 the first time he sat on his double-wide throne. The State Department also appears to have used the discussion of the Reconnaissance General Bureau in “Arsenal of Terror” as a source for two of the designations. That discussion, in turn, cites Joseph Bermudez, to whom I express my gratitude again here.
So, what does all of this mean, practically?
Direct Financial Impact. Many reporters, who denigrate the potential impact of these sanctions, make two arguments, one false and one true. It is almost certainly false that Kim Jong-un has no assets “in” the United States. Again, that assumption flows from an ignorance of how international banking works, as I explained it here. As the U.N. Panel of Experts reports have demonstrated again and again, North Korean regime funds continue to flow through our banking system via correspondent accounts, where those funds can be frozen or forfeited (see 18 U.S.C. 981(k)). The real trick is identifying which funds are North Korean. One of our best sources of information is the banking industry, but banks won’t report North Korean wire transfers to their American correspondents as long as they continue to get away with concealing those funds, as the Bank of China did recently.
It is true that there is no single golden vault in Geneva with Kim Jong-un’s name engraved on the door, whose combination can be changed overnight. But the same was true of Bin Laden, Qaddafi, Assad, Milosevic, Mugabe, Lukashenko, and countless drug lords. The work of tracing and identifying assets down to the aliases, fictitious names, front companies, shell companies, and bagmen who hold those accounts is what the Treasury Department does, and does well. It will take years of hard work, and it will require a strong signal to the banking industry about their Know-Your-Customer obligations. One shortcoming here is Treasury’s failure to invoke Special Measure Two in its otherwise commendable Patriot 311 designation of North Korea. That special measure would require banks to gather information about North Korean beneficial owners of accounts. As the Panama Papersshowed us, that’s key information regulators need to embark on a serious assets hunt. I’ll be posting a detailed public comment to that effect, in response to Treasury’s 311 Notice of Rulemaking, before the August 2nd deadline.
What I did not see in the transcript of the senior administration officials’ background discussion with reporters was any commitment to devoting the necessary investigative resources to the pursuit of those assets. That will be an important oversight function for congressional staff in the coming years.
World Opinion. First, these actions could — I repeat, could — help further galvanize both domestic and world opinion against Kim Jong-un’s regime, which will itself have a range of secondary effects.
Wavering states that now supply Pyongyang with much of its income will face more pressure to distance themselves from it. Governments will face greater domestic political pressure to comply with existing U.N. sanctions, especially if that domestic pressure is combined with sweeteners brought by visiting South Korean diplomats. They will face greater pressure to vote for resolutions condemning North Korea at the U.N. Here are there, governments may begin to follow Botswana’s lead and cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang entirely. China, which opposes the new sanctions, will see North Korea as a greater diplomatic liability than ever. South Korea, which welcomed the new sanctions — and certainly would not have even a year ago — could make use of it in its skillful and increasingly effective diplomacy to isolate North Korea from the overseas funding that sustains the regime in Pyongyang.
The consensus among liberals in both Europe and America will shift. That consensus once generally favored engagement; it will now shift toward sanctions and accountability, as evidenced by Congressional Democrats’ support for much tougher sanctions. The description of Kim Jong-un as “a sadistic dictator” in a draft of the Democratic Party platform suggests that a Clinton presidency would be at least marginally tougher than Obama’s.
This will have financial effects in the near term. Governments and companies will be more reluctant to use North Korean slave labor, a subject that also made headlinesyesterday with the launch of the second part of the Leiden Asia Center’s report, “Slaves to the System.” Corporations will hesitate to invest in North Korea and risk boycotts by customers, or protests by shareholders.
After two wasted years since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, I now sense that the world is closing in on Kim Jong-un, and that time is not on his side. The critical question is when that sense will take hold in Pyongyang.
Opinion Inside North Korea. I have heard the word “symbolic” used to describe this act; I’d raise that to “powerfully symbolic,” with regard to a regime that devotes arguably more attention than any other on earth to the cultivation of symbol and myth. Word of this action will spread through the jangmadang, where it will erode some of the regime’s key narratives. The regime, of course, tells the people how much Kim Jong-un cares for them. This act specifies precisely how his men torture, rape, and murder them. Few North Koreans can be ignorant of those crimes, but some must cling to the idea of “if only Kim Jong-un knew.” But this will also contradict the more subtle and powerful “Barrel of a Gun” narrative that America is weak, cowed, and in awe of North Korea, and that any North Korean who feels aggrieved is isolated and forgotten by the world. This action may open more minds to the true cause of their suffering, and to the hope of liberation. It could shake the smug confidence of officials in Pyongyang. In that sense, Congress’s latest move to direct the clandestine distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Commission of Inquiry Report, and their own nation’s constitution is a powerfully subversive one.
Could word of this action cause some North Korean officials to modify their behavior? The answer is as complicated and variable as the psychologies of the men — they are almost always men — who compose such evil systems. Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves as final acts of defiance. Himmler killed himself as a final act of cowardice, but only after negotiating the release of thousands of Jews to try to mitigate his own guilt. Kaltenbrunner, a key executor of the Holocaust, took the stand at Nuremberg and matter-of-factly inculpated everyone, including himself. Streicher was brought to trial, sullen and defiant until he was hanged. Goering put on an agile pro se defense, then took cyanide the night before he was to hang. Speer expressed remorse, if not quite convincingly. And in July 1944, as it became clear that the war was lost, a collection of mid-level officers very nearly killed Hitler and overthrew the whole Nazi government. We’ll probably see similar variations in the behavior of North Korean officials one day. And we should be prepared to extend clemency to those who are willing to bring this nightmare to an end with a minimum of bloodshed.
Ten years ago, the idea that a North Korean prison camp kommandant would have heard that his name was on a blacklist would have been unthinkable. Today, that that same kommandant will find out is almost inevitable, particularly if his children call from Shanghai to tell him that the bank account is frozen. Those named in yesterday’s action will now feel that their backs are against the wall, but given what these men have done, they were bitter-enders anyway. As with Himmler in the closing days of World War Two, some will still feel pressure to mitigate their brutality for the sake of their own skins. Whether each man feels that the regime is likely to survive will be important to how each man acts. Men who feel untouchable will go on with their dirty work, and those who feel the hot breath of the hangman will begin to think about accountability.
By tomorrow, expect an epic rant from KCNA. Expect the regime to respond with provocations. Those provocations will be a testimony to the symbolic power and subversive potential of what happened yesterday. The crisis in North Korea will have to get worse before it gets better. It will only get better when the regime feels metamorphic, existential pressure to change. Yesterday’s action was a step toward building that pressure.
This week, there has been much talk and excitement about a new study, by the new blog Beyond Parallel, analyzing satellite imagery of six select sites along the Chinese-North Korean border, and finding evidence of a recent decline in bilateral trade. From this, the study concludes that China may be (as Josh Rogin paraphrases it for The Washington Post) “Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.” Here are the study’s two main findings:
First, the satellite images indicate a substantive reduction of economic activity on the Sino-North Korean border measured by the fewer trucks, trains, and boats in the February 2016 image compared to a similar timeframe in 2015. [….] In the aftermath of North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test, this observed downturn in activity was comprehensive across customs areas, railway, and road traffic.
Second, the images also suggest that independent Chinese actions were taken to reduce trade in this region after the nuclear test and prior to China’s signing on to UN Security Council Resolution 2270. These findings run contrary to some estimates that Sino-North Korean trade (particularly Chinese exports) increased in the first quarter of 2016, and might confirm large anomalies in trade data as reported by China’s customs statistics, KOTRA (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency), and other organizations.
The study is interesting and data-driven, and every North Korea-watcher should celebrate the launch of any new information source that promises this kind and quality of analysis. What’s more, by analyzing the volume of traffic at multiple sites over several months, the study is less vulnerable to the regime’s manipulations than the satellite theater that is almost the only good reason to read 38north (the contributions of J.R. Mailey and Andrea Berger being two other notable exceptions).
It’s especially tempting to feel triumphal about Victor Cha’s conclusions that China has taken “unilateral measures to drastically curtail trade interaction along their border,” and that China is “squeezing [North Korea] more than we were led to expect.” Still, the evidence and my objectivity restrain me to say, “Not so fast.”
First, there is also substantial evidence that China is still violating key provisions of the sanctions to prop North Korea up. North Korea’s most important export by reported volume is coal, followed by other minerals, and as NK News’s invaluable Leo Byrne has noted, the trade in sanctioned minerals continues. To some extent, North Korea has shifted its coal exports to other avenues, including Alibaba.com. At the land border, trucks loaded with titanium are still crossing into China. Worse, North Korean ships that have been specifically designated by the U.N. are still operating, and in some cases, are coming very close to Chinese ports they aren’t even supposed to approach. Then, their transponders go dark. This suggests that those ships are either landing in Chinese ports or off-loading their cargo onto smaller vessels without landing. Both alternatives violate UNSCR 2270.
Second, the kinds of commerce that benefit the regime most (as opposed to market trade that benefits the North Korean people) aren’t easy to measure with satellites. North Korea’s other lucrative exports include gold, weapons and weapons and technology, and labor. Its most essential imports include bulk cash, wire transfers, gold (again), and luxury goods that come in on Air Koryo. It probably also earns significant revenue through tourism. These are not things that can be measured by counting railcars.
Third, the study focuses on overland trade but tells us little about maritime trade. If the authors of the study want to improve the utility of this project — and I emphasize that it’s potentially a very valuable one — it should also examine maritime traffic to and from the key North Korean ports of Nampo and Sinuiju. Maritime trade is more likely to be under the control of, and to the immediate benefit of, the regime. It should specifically look for trade in bulk cargo like coal, imports and exports of fuel, and the movement of designated ships (it’s possible to match IMO numbers from transponders with satellite images).
Fourth, there may be other explanations for Beyond Parallel’s observations. I’ve long felt that Korea-watchers were far too trusting of officially reported statistics on China’s trade with North Korea, and the case of China’s fuel exports to North Korea illustrates just how easily China can manipulate those statistics. But to the extent we believe those stats, they do show a significantdeclinein North Korea’s exports over the last six months. The problem with attributing this to sanctions is that this decline extends a trend that we began to observe earlier, particularly in the mining industry. In fact, at Benjamin Katzleff Silberstein has pointed out on several occasions, this decline in trade volume has a closer correlation to the decline China’s economy than it has to sanctions. An interesting question is whether China’s own internal market controls, including its restrictions to prevent capital flight, may be playing a role, but that question is beyond the depth of my knowledge of economics (anyone? Bueller?).
Other potential causes of a decline in bilateral trade include regime-driven trade and travel restrictions leading up to the party congress in May, and problems with North Korea’s infrastructure, such as the partial collapse and subsequent repair of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge last October. (The effects of this may or may not have ended before Beyond Parallel’s study began.) That would also help explain why the study found that trade began to decline before U.N. sanctions were increased in March.
Finally, we should not hope for China to enforce sanctions in unilateral ways that depart from the strict letter of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, whether by under-enforcing or over-enforcing sanctions. The main reason sanctions haven’t worked thus far has been — and continues to be — China’s under-enforcement of sanctions. That is why Congress decided that secondary sanctions were necessary to force China to comply, by dividing the interests of China’s fundamentally hostile government from those of its more pliable banks and industries, which need access to American markets. But what we don’t always realize is that sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. This veers off onto a long tangent, so I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post.
The western association of “left” with “liberal” does not hold up well in South Korea, whose political spectrum is dominated by warring factions of nationalists. These factions wield the law as an authoritarian sword against their rivals, and as a (sometimes flimsy) shield against their rivals’ authoritarian assaults. Historically, the worst authoritarianism was on the political right before the transition to democracy in 1987. The left still fuels its moral propulsion from the nostalgia of dissent dating back to this time, but the authoritarian imperative survives, throughout Korea’s political spectrum.
In 2003, a left-wing human rights lawyer named Roh Moo-hyun fell, moist and unsteady, from the womb of a leftist lawyers’ group called Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) into the presidency of the Republic. But Roh’s government was no paragon of liberal democratic virtues. It threatened opposition newspapers with tax audits, and the union goons and radicals it subsidized intimidated their enemies with iron pipes and bamboo poles.
Time and again, Roh’s allies wereexposed as North Korean agents of influence, or worse. For the sake of Kim Jong-il’s tender sensitivities, his government overlooked the greatest crimes against humanity in the long history of the Korean nation. There were the disgraceful U.N. abstentions when the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn human rights abuses in the North, and a callous die-in-place policy toward North Korean refugees. Those policies are consistent with Minbyun’s views, too, but you won’t read anything about them, or about human rights in North Korea, on Minbyun’s blog. That topic has been trotskied out of the approved history.
In 2012, Minbyun very nearly gave the Republic a second president in Moon Jae-in. Another Minbyun alumnus, Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, may run for the presidency in 2017. No organization is as identifiable with the elite of South Korea’s political left as Minbyun.
In light of Minbyun’s history of agnosticism about the atrocities in the North, its sudden interest in the welfare of 12 young North Korean women who risked their lives and their families to defect from a regime-run restaurant in China earlier this year seems uncharacteristic, even suspicious. (For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the proceedings of only 12 of the 13 are in contention.)
Minbyun has filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.” It is a question with no evidentiary basis but the North Korean government’s unsupported allegation that South Korea kidnapped them; it’s also what Anna Freudwould have called “projection.” Under Korean law, “people housed in state-run facilities” can petition to the courts for their own protection. In this case, however, the refugees aren’t behind that petition. In fact, they’re begging the court to deny it.
What Minbyun demands is nothing less than the right to interrogate 12 terrified refugees whom it doesn’t represent, in open court, in a city where multiple North Korean spies have been arrested for collecting information about refugees, and even for attempting to assassinate the most politically active ones. Pyongyang has also used threats against refugees’ family members to coerce them into going back.
Of course, the notion that Seoul would send abduction squads to China to kidnap North Korean waitresses is so asinine that only the sort of people who still cling to Cheonan conspiracy theories would entertain it. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something, either at the time or now, if there were anything to it. As Choi Song-min, himself a North Korean refugee, asks in an opinion piece for the Daily NK, just what legitimate purpose could Minbyun’s interrogation possibly have? How long could such a secret be kept in South Korea’s open society after the 13 enter South Korean society to start their new lives? On what basis does it believe the North Korean government’s accusation and disbelieve the South Korean government’s denial? Has it thought through the consequences of forcing the refugees to go on the record publicly?
We’ll get to all of those questions.
The problems with Minbyun’s argument go beyond its illogic and the lack of credible evidence to support it. The claim is legally frivolous. Neither Minbyun, nor the family members of the 12, nor their ventriloquists in the Reconnaissance General Bureau have any standing to intervene in an asylum proceeding. Granting Minbyun’s petition would not only violate the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality, it would endanger lives. Not only would it endanger the lives of the 12 and their families, it would have a chilling effect on any other future asylum claims by North Koreans in South Korea.
The 12 already have a lawyer, Park Young-sik, from by the law firm of Bae, Kim, and Lee. Park was recommended by the Korean Bar Association, an organization that has long shown a deep concern for the human rights of North Koreans by compiling and publishing book-length scholarly reports on North Korea’s prison camps (I’ve cited them for these pages on North Korea’s prison camps). Parkinsiststhat his clients have all told him that they want to stay in South Korea, have no interest in meeting with Minbyun, and want Minbyun to go away and leave them alone. Park has made those representations to the court, and so far, the court has been satisfied with them.
So what business does Minbyun have in intervening? It claims to represent the families of the 13, back in North Korea, using a power of attorney obtained either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor. (The details are vague, although Minbyun certainly didn’t have much trouble finding someone in Pyongyang to authorize its intervention.)
And yes, Park was retained by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), which helped get the Ningpo 13 out of China, but which undoubtedly has a sordid history. Minbyun’s skepticism would be a virtue if it weren’t so selective.
While Minbyun chases Pyongyang’s unsupported abduction claims through the courts in Seoul, it shows its more credulous side to Pyongyang, which recently “allowed an Associated Press Television crew to interview some of the colleagues and parents of the waitresses.” Yet even the AP, which has hardly distinguished itself for questioning Pyongyang’s narratives — it has even used North Korean regime-supplied “journalists” to “interview” subjects — concedes that “it is common for authorities to coach interviewees beforehand to make sure they stay on message.” Even the AP acknowledges that Pyongyang, in making the parents available for an interview, appeared to be “trying to capitalize” on “concerns for family left behind.” Lest there be any doubt about Pyongyang’s game: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.”
Later, after the twelve young women exercised their legal right not to be hauled into court for committing no crime, citing the fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced because he’s a Mexican because he denied their frivolous attempt to abuse the legal process to terrorize twelve brave, frightened young women.
All in the name of human rights, of course.
I should explain why I call Minbyun’s case “frivolous.” When countries ratify treaties, they give those treaties preemptive effect over national law. The relevant treaty here is the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention which, along with its 1967 protocol, provides certain legal protections to refugees. South Korea has ratified both documents, and international law has recognized that the absolute confidentiality of asylum applications is one of those legal protections. Here’s how our own government applies it, and here’s how the U.N. High Commission for Refugees explains it:
2.1 Confidentiality in UNHCR RSD Procedures
2.1.1 The Applicant’s Right to Confidentiality
• The confidentiality of UNHCR RSD procedures is essential to creating an environment of security and trust for asylum seekers who approach UNHCR. All UNHCR staff, including interpreters and security staff, as well as any implementing partners, counsellors or medical practitioners who provide services to asylum seekers and refugees under agreement with UNHCR, are under a duty to ensure the confidentiality of information received from or about asylum seekers and refugees, including the fact that an individual has registered or is in contact with UNHCR.
• UNHCR standards regarding the confidentiality of information about asylum seekers and refugees should be incorporated into RSD procedures in every UNHCR Office, and should be understood by all UNHCR staff and any other individuals who are responsible for implementing the RSD procedures. Specific recommendations for ensuring confidentiality in each stage of the RSD procedures are proposed in the relevant sections of this document.
• Applicants for RSD should be informed of their right to confidentiality in UNHCR procedures. Any limits on the right to confidentiality, including information sharing arrangements with host country authorities or resettlement countries where applicable, should be explained to the Applicant (see § 2.1.3 – Disclosure to Host Country Authorities). Applicants should also be advised that the UNHCR Offices may share information with UNHCR Headquarters or other UNHCR Offices.
• Applicants should be assured that UNHCR will not contact or share any information regarding the Applicant with the country of origin, unless expressly authorized to do so by the Applicant. [UNHCR]
Given that Minbyun claims to represent the family members in North Korea, presumably, it intends to tell those family members what its questioning reveals. Whatever Minbyun tells the family members, they’ll certainly tell their own interrogators in Pyongyang. What Minbyun knows, Pyongyang also knows, in clear violation of the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality. Surely Minbyun is well aware of this right, although I’ve yet to find a journalist who has reported it. Not a single reporter who covered this story — not the New York Times’s consistently biased Choe Sang-hun, not one of the three NK News reporters who covered it, and none of the conservative papers that defended the NIS’s position — has cited or referred to this inviolable right.
Minbyun points out that Pyongyang already knows who the 12 are, so what’s the harm? Park Young-sik answers that question with a question of his own: “What’s going to happen for a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?”
“They believe that their families’ lives will be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” Park said. “They don’t want to be exposed openly in the media and draw attention, and they don’t want to appear in court,” Park added. “In this situation, forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe their human rights.” [Chosun Ilbo]
The moment Minbyun gains the right to interrogate the 12, lives will be in danger. If they’re forced to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun will have succeeded in winning its “clients” a slow death in the gulag. If, knowing and fearing this, the 12 publicly renounce their asylum claims, they’ll be sent back to North Korea and a dark, uncertain fate. And if Minbyun establishes a precedent that it has a right to interrogate refugees every time Pyongyang trots out a terrified family member as a cat’s-paw plaintiff, no North Korean refugee would ever dare to enter South Korea again.
“The North’s claim is absurd in that it could dismantle the system of North Korean defectors’ entry into the South and their protection.” Unification Ministry spokesman Chung Joon-hui said, “The North Korean waitresses are undergoing the due course for legal protection, which is designed to support their settlement in South Korean society.”
“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]
The practical effect of this? South Korea would have effectively renounced the Refugee Convention, at least with respect to refugees from North Korea.
To the extent anyone entertains Pyongyang’s spurious claims, as Minbyun does, there is a safe and easy way to resolve them. South Korea could (and should) let a UNHCR representative interview the 12. The representative could submit an affidavit attesting to their decision in a closed proceeding. The court should then deny Minbyun’s motion, seal the record, and reiterate that courts will continue to honor the confidentiality of asylum proceedings. If Minbyun were sincere, that’s exactly what it would have asked the court to do. Of course, it would have no right to know who the refugees met with. The very fact that a refugee has contacted a UNHCR representative is confidential.
In fact, for all we know, that meeting has already happened.
The latest word is that the 12 have filed a complaint with local prosecutors that Minbyun is violating the National Security Law. That’s not the strategy I’d have chosen, because it plays right into Minbyun’s nostalgia of victimhood, but then, I’m not a terrified young refugee from North Korea, either. Just try to imagine the terror, heartache, and confusion these young women must be feeling right now. It does cause me to wonder whether South Korea has an attorney licensing authority to discipline lawyers who file unethical motions to abuse the process, and who are waging a cynical campaign of lawfare against 12 vulnerable and terrified young refugees. Minbyun’s lawyers probably shouldn’t be jailed, but they should be disbarred.
The best thing you can say about Minbyun is that it doesn’t give two shits who it gets killed or sent to a prison camp. But then, Minbyun never gave Shit One about the prison camps anyway. Its lawyers can’t be complete idiots, especially lawyers clever enough to create such a terrifying paradox. They must know exactly the danger they’re putting these people in. Everyone from government officials to editorial writers to refugees to Park Young-sik has explained it for them. But of course, if Minbyun is deliberately trying to terrorize refugees, no amount of explanation will discourage them. That’s clearly Pyongyang’s aim, and that’s who’s controlling Minbyun’s “clients.”
Viewing Minbyun’s motives this way has the advantage of making more sense than any other explanation. The defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. The defection of the Ningpo 13 was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, and most recently, rumors of yet another group defection from China. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.
In its desperation to make examples and prevent further outbreaks of dissent, Pyongyang fulminated, threatened, and transparently tried to use the refugees’ loved ones as hostages. What Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, abuse the legal process to pervert international law, and perhaps, terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks like Pyongyang has found its stooges. So give yourself a big fucking hand, Minbyun.
Earlier this week, when a senior Namibian official who had defended her government’s military cooperation with North Korea showed up in Pyongyang, I conceded that she could be there to terminate that cooperation, but didn’t assess that possibility as very likely. But yesterday, the Namibian government announced it was ending its joint projects with North Korea, including a North Korean-run arms factory, to comply with new U.N. sanctions:
“The Government of the Republic of Namibia, in fulfilling her international obligations to abide by UN Security resolutions, has decided to terminate the services of KOMID and MOP in Namibia, for as long as the UN Security Council sanctions against the DPRK are in place,” the statement read. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]
Presumably, this is the work of good diplomacy by someone, although I couldn’t tell you who. Africa had become an important arms market for North Korea in recent years — and continues to be —but with the Namibian announcement, it’s clear that diplomatic efforts to get African countries to terminate their military relations with North Korea are gaining traction. Seoul has publicized its efforts — including outreach to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania — but Washington hasn’t publicized its own, perhaps for perfectly sound reasons, and perhaps because they’re non-existent.
One point that comes through clearly is that the threat of secondary sanctions is a part of why countries that ignored U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years are enforcing them now. Just look what I found in my visitors’ log after I first posted about the sanctions against Namibia that would be mandatory under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act:
[Now that I have your undivided attention ….]
In retrospect, the Namibian official’s visit to Pyongyang was probably meant to express regret at the termination of mil-mil cooperation with North Korea, and to express Namibia’s desire to maintain good relations anyway. That is, Namibia complied with U.N. sanctions reluctantly, but it still complied. Sometimes, the diplomat’s velvet glove works better with a regulator’s iron fist. So, to the anonymous diplomat who (I assume) presented that stark choice to the Namibian government, you may redeem a copy of this post for the beverage of your choice.
This isn’t the full extent of the public reporting on Seoul’s diplomatic offensive against Pyongyang’s arms dealers. Its diplomats have recently lobbied the governments of the EU, France, Bulgaria, and Russia. This week’s visit by a large, high-level delegation of South Korean diplomats to Laos and Cambodia could be even more critical.
“During the talks with senior officials, (Hwang) plans to request cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issues, including efforts to push for the implementation of a United Nations Security Council resolution,” according to the ministry statement. [Yonhap]
The diplomats will come bearing gifts.
“Hwang will meet with Cambodia and Laos’s senior defense officials and discuss bilateral defense cooperation,” the ministry said in a press release.
Hwang is the highest ranking South Korean defense ministry official ever to visit the two countries. The delegation comprises working-level officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of National Defense.
During his visit, Hwang will also make a courtesy call to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“In the talks with senior officials, Hwang plans to request cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, including efforts to push for the implementation of UNSC resolutions,” the ministry said.
Hwang will also meet with senior defense officials in Laos to discuss a wide range of issues, including cooperation in demining, according to the ministry. [Korea Times]
Both countries, with their lax and corrupt regulatory environments, have become key links in North Korea’s access to global shipping and finance. The strange North Korean happenings in Cambodia include the recent deaths of two North Korean doctors, the arrests of 15 North Koreans in Phnom Penh for running an illegal gambling website, the hosting of North Korean restaurants that are suspected havens for money laundering, and many reports of North Korean ships flying the Cambodian flag, a practice that was recently banned by UNSCR 2270. If Cambodia doesn’t fall into line with U.N. sanctions, the U.S. should impose sanctions against its shipping registries, and then perhaps some of its banks, under section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Laos, with its record of repatriating North Korean refugees, should lose its tier status under the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act.
Previously, President Obama had urged Vietnam, a long-time North Korean arms client, to implement new U.N. sanctions, which will impact its exports to U.S. markets.
The news is not entirely good. For example, almost five months after the U.N. Panel of Experts named dozens of North Korean operatives, front companies, and third-country enablers, the Treasury Department hasn’t designated a single North Korean target since March 15th. I’m frustrated by the fact that, contrary to rumors I’d heard, there are still no human rights designations of North Korean officials, weeks after a statutory deadline to name names under section 304 and apply designations under section 104(a)(5).
All that is deeply disappointing and may soon draw unwanted attention from Congress, but at least we can say that the results of our progressive diplomacy are promising. As our Ambassador in Seoul, Mark Lippert, has said, sanctions enforcement is a long diplomatic game. Fortunately, North Korea’s friends tend to be poor countries, tied to Pyongyang by little more than fading Cold War memories and convenience. With continued effort and patience, those ties can be undone, and we’ll continue to see good results.
~ ~ ~
Afterthought: Perhaps I’ve been too quick to assume that the Namibian government’s actions will follow its words. I suppose the wiser course is to keep watching for signs that the Namibian government is really doing this. Nor should we let it off the hook for doing everything that UNSCR 2270 requires — expel KOMID’s representatives, freeze its property, and dispose of it.
There may be no story on earth where the answer to a question is so dependent on who you ask as North Korea. Take the case of this NK News story from February, by an anonymous correspondent who went to Vladivostok, wandered into a local North Korean cafe, and found some North Korean construction workers who were — surprisingly enough! — willing to speak “freely” to a foreign journalist. Ready for your first clue?
He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.
But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.
“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work. [NK News]
Here comes your next clue.
“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”
The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.
The correspondent’s harsh questioning elicits that the men live in a comfortable dormitory, have the run of the city, are fed and treated well, and spend their weekends relaxing in cafes and shopping for cozy boots. The resulting story, however, does not mention the obvious possibility that the men are minders for the North Korean security forces.
North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.
Although the observation of a Russian journalist that the North Korean workers “make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka” suggests that the state does not quite provide for all of the workers’ needs, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago, either. Still, a review of the record reveals some niggling contradictions, such as the North Korean worker in Vladivostok who had set himself on fire just a month before. Or the very need for a new treaty between the two countries, to ensure the prompt repatriation of North Koreans who try to flee from their splendor.
But before you conclude that Russia is the workers’ paradise for North Koreans — well, for most of them, anyway — read what a Daily NK correspondent found in the logging camps near Khabarovsk more recently.
According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by a North Korean laborer in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.
Another laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK that, “Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. It’s impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him.”
He continued, “The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.” [Daily NK]
The Daily NK isn’t the only source to find horrific conditions in the Siberian camps.
Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions.
“Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.
Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets.
“It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”
Lee Yong-ho also saw frozen bodies stored. It was cheaper to them home in groups. [AP]
So, how can we reconcile these jarringly different accounts? For one thing, NK News‘s story relied heavily on the account of at least one “supervisor” who fed the correspondent a narrative and found his mark willing to swallow it without much further investigation. NK News‘s story doesn’t specify how widely its author ranged to question that narrative, or what efforts he made (like, say, those of Vice’s correspondent in Poland) to speak to workers surreptitiously. There’s no indication that he pulled pay or employment records, or did any of the commendable leg-work Vice’s reporter did that exposed the lies of the North Koreans’ Polish employers. Indeed, several years ago, Vice’s Shane Smith visited logging camps in Siberia and, though he found none of the horrors the Daily NK did, also found some extraordinary efforts at secrecy and control designed to keep prying eyes away. In other words, the greater the depth of the reporting, the more credible it is. The same obviously applies to the Daily NK, which has just begun publishing a series of articles on overseas workers.
Second, and whatever our concerns about the depth of the reporting, conditions for construction workers in Vladivostok might just be very different than conditions for loggers in Khabarovsk. After all, abuses in the middle of a city would be less likely to escape notice and exposure than abuses out in the taiga. This brings us to a second problem with NK News‘s report: the implication that its findings are representative of conditions for North Korean workers in Russia overall. I don’t want to overstate this; after all, the report does distingish the accessibility of its North Korean subjects in Vladivostok from those in China. But in the end, it pursues a narrative popular among “engagers” and other anti-anti-North Korean types — that overseas work is better than work inside North Korea, and ergo, not slavery. The latter doesn’t quite follow from the former, of course, but as they did in the American South, conditions for North Korean slaves undoubtedly vary. It’s never a safe thing to build a narrative on a single interview. In the end, the report’s greatest flaw may be its failure to take note of the many other reports finding conditions for North Koreans in Russia to be subhuman.
The lesson here? Several come to mind. First — as the AP’s humiliation in Pyongyang has repeatedly reinforced — never accept a North Korean minder’s narrative at face value. Second, question everything you’re told by hunting for documentary evidence to confirm or refute it. Third, make an effort to show us the bigger picture. And finally, semantics matter. As Lee Yong-ho says, North Koreans are so conditioned by their experiences at home that they probably don’t think of themselves as slaves. Asking a North Korean — especially a North Korean minder, whose living conditions may be just fine, and also grossly atypical — isn’t very useful for our conclusions about the implications of these arrangements under international law. If you’re going to argue that someone is or isn’t a “slave,” at least take the trouble the Leiden Asia Center did and try to define the term meaningfully. In the end, what makes a slave a slave is whether he has the choice to sell his labor freely.
When the Secret Service first found high-quality counterfeit dollars circulating in the Middle East over three decades ago, North Korea wasn’t the prime suspect; Iran was. The counterfeits were so good that experts could only tell them from the originals by the superior quality of their printing, so the Secret Service named them “supernotes.” The Secret Service’s suspicions shifted to North Korea in 2000, after Cambodian authorities arrested Yoshimi Tanaka, a Japanese Red Army hijacker who had taken refuge in North Korea and was traveling in a North Korean diplomatic vehicle, on counterfeiting charges. Those suspicions eventually converged on Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party. Bureau 39’s job is to launder money. It earns money overseas, both legally and illegally, commingles it all together to make the dirty money untraceable, and launders the proceedsthroughslushfundsthatthe regime uses to buy just about everything starving kids can’t eat. North Korean diplomats also help launder supernotes.
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Since 2000, North Korea’s involvement in currency counterfeiting has been well documented. In 2004, the Justice Department indicted Sean Garland, the leader of a breakaway Marxist faction of the IRA, for buying supernotes from North Korean embassies and reselling them for a profit (an Irish court later refused to extradite Garland to the U.S. to stand trial). In 2005, the passing of supernotes was the principal basis for designating Banco Delta Asia as a primary money laundering concern and blocking it out of the financial system. In 2006, the Federal Reserve estimated that “approximately $22 million in supernotes has been passed to the public […] and approximately $50 million in supernotes has been seized by the U.S. Secret Service.” In 2008, a Las Vegas jury convicted Chen Chiang Liu of passing supernotes through casinos.
Although the supernote story invariably drew the usual assortment of conspiracy kooks, hack journalists, and North Korean sympathizers out of the woodwork, better quality investigative journalism makes a strong case against Pyongyang. In a 2006 report for the New York Times, Stephen Mihm explained how North Korean buyers went to the same Swiss suppliers who sold our own Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or BEP, its intaglio printing presses and optically variable ink. (The North Koreans’ interest ought to have raised immediate suspicions with the Swiss; after all, why would North Korea, whose own currency is non-convertible and worthless, need top-of-the-line presses and ink designed to foil counterfeiters?)
David Rose followed Mihm’s reporting with a detailed 2009 story for Vanity Fair, explaining how the feds linked the counterfeits to North Korea, how North Korea smuggles supernotes into the United States, and how Condoleezza Rice’s State Department suppressed a Justice Department indictment of Kim Jong-il for the counterfeiting operation. The International Consortium for Investigative Journalists has also reported on the smuggling of supernotes into the United States. Other reports have pinned control of the supernote operation on General O Kuk-ryol.
North Korean counterfeiting costs Americans money. The BEP redesigned the $50 note in 2003 and redesigned the $100 note twice since 1996, in part to stay ahead of the supernote’s criminal craftsmanship. In a 2009 report, the Federal Reserve said that it “budgeted an average $610 million for printing, shipping, counterfeit deterrence and other currency-related costs,” and that a currency redesign would also cost “up to $390 million for nonrecurring equipment upgrades for manufacturers of cash-accepting devices.” The current design of the $100 note is from 2013. (The BEP’s website doesn’t mention a botched 2010 redesign.) All of these costs are passed on to American taxpayers and consumers.
In recent years, reports of supernote arrests waned, although the problem never went away entirely. In 2012, South Korean authorities arrested a woman for “attempting to infiltrate South Korea by pretending to be a defector, and … circulating some $570,000 worth of supernotes in Beijing and Shenyang from 2001 to 2007.” This was still old news, but in 2013, the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence confirmed that North Korea continued “to try to pass a supernote into the international financial system,” although it was “less of an issue than it was a few years ago” and had “calmed down to some extent.” As recently as March of this year, Vice News figured that the supernotes had vanished. It quoted Michael Madden as saying, “I don’t think they’re currently involved in counterfeiting anymore.” According to Kathy Moon, supernotes are “not something people are seeing.”
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Perhaps they spoke too soon. This week, Yonhap reported that authorities in Hong Kong recently found supernotes on a businessman arriving from Pyongyang. Last week, The Joongang Ilboreported that “a North Korean agent was arrested in the border city of Dandong in Liaoning Province, northeastern China,” for his involvement in “distributing counterfeit U.S. dollars.” The story quotes an unnamed source as saying that the agent “brought $5 million in cash into China from North Korea” to buy “household goods and home appliances” as gifts for North Korean elites for Kim Il-sung’s birthday (April 15th) and the Workers’ Party’s congress (May 7th). The paper notes that because of new sanctions, “Pyongyang is being blocked from financial transactions giving it access to U.S. cash.”
“The $5 million was exchanged at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China for some 30 million yuan [$4.6 million] and then deposited,” the source said. “But a number of the notes were found to be counterfeit $100 bills when they were run through the banknote counter by a bank employee, so Chinese authorities ordered the relevant account be frozen and arrested the North Korean agent.” [Joongang Ilbo]
In February, I posted about reports that the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s largest bank, had “suspended cash deposit and transfer services for accounts owned by North Koreans.” Either that report wasn’t true, the bank quietly unfroze some of those accounts, or China’s largest bank isn’t taking its Know-Your-Customer obligations very seriously and needs to fire its compliance officer. (On June 2nd, Treasury dramatically raised the risk to banks that service North Korean clients by designating North Korea as a primary money laundering concern, and banning all direct and indirect correspondent account services for North Korean banks.)
Picking up with our story, Chinese authorities then went to the North Korean’s home in Dandong, where they confiscated 30 million yuan and an unspecified quantity of gold bars. The agent’s use of counterfeit dollars, yuan, and gold provides further evidence that they are having serious cash flow problems. Last week, I posted about a Daily NK report that North Korean agents were defaulting on their debts to Chinese creditors, and an NK News report that some North Korean purchasers had inexplicably stopped buying goods from their Chinese suppliers in March. According to the Daily NK, those experiencing cash flow problems include Bureau 39 agents.
Intriguingly, the Daily NK also reported that a North Korean agent couldn’t raise the cash to buy flat-screen TVs from China to dole out as highly coveted swag for the elites (in violation of U.N. sanctions, which prohibit North Korea from importing “luxury goods”). I speculated then that the North Korean agents’ accounts may have been frozen by their Chinese bankers. These reports support that speculation and offer one possible explanation.
“North Korea’s economy is entering a state of paralysis because of a shortage of dollars, and there is a high likelihood that it is systematically counterfeiting notes and in the process of wide-scale distribution,” the source added.
“Starting from March, a large amount of supernotes were found in border regions between China and North Korea and China’s three northeastern provinces [Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang], and many have pointed to North Korea as the source of production and circulation,” Park Byung-kwang, a senior researcher with the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy, said.
A follow-up report from The Joongang Ilbo — which has historically done some outstanding reporting on North Korean money laundering — identified the North Korean agent arrested in Dandong as an officer in an agency “responsible for major espionage missions against Seoul.” That’s a good description of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, which is also responsible for acts of international terrorism, including abductions, assassinations, and a 2014 cyberterrorist attack against the United States. Consistent with the Daily NK‘s report last week, the agent “was going to pay that businessman for trade goods but could not do so apparently because of his arrest.”
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So why, after allowing Bureau 39 and RGB agents to operate on their territory for years, would the Chinese suddenly crack down? For one thing, counterfeiting harms the interests of China’s banking industry, which hasn’t seemed so steady recently.
Here’s an even better reason: a defector organization, North Korea Intellectuals’ Solidarity, says that North Korea is distributing “massive quantities” of “counterfeit Chinese currency under the supervision of Kim Jong Un.” Or so says “a source based in North Korea.” The Korea Times also reports that Chinese authorities are on alert for counterfeit renminbi after multiple Chinese press reports that counterfeits “have recently been circulated in several Chinese cities, including Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province.” Local press speculation has pointed fingers at North Korea. The state-run Global Times, known for its nationalism and anti-Americanism, has also reported that counterfeit renminbi found in Dalian “were identified as North Korean.”
The yuan has circulated widely in North Korea since a disastrous 2009 currency reform — really, a mass confiscation — backfired and obliterated the market value of the North Korean won. Printing fake yuan would be an easy way for the North Korean government to cheat the donju — the well-connected traders who obtain most of Pyongyang’s needs from Chinese vendors, and the Chinese vendors themselves. Bureau 39 agents who are under intense pressure to fund Kim Jong-un’s priorities may be tempted to use supernotes and superyuan to meet their quotas.
NKIS’s allegations are somewhat consistent with previous reports. Its source in North Korea says that the superyuan are printed in Pyongson. Stephen Mihm’s 2006 report for the New York Times identified Pyongsong as the city where supernotes were printed. On the other hand, NKIS also claims that North Korea started printing yuan in 2013, which contradicts a 2007 report by the journalists Hideko Takayama and Bradley Martin that North Korea was printing counterfeit renminbi nearly a decade ago. What seems more likely is that North Korea printed small amounts of yuan before 2007 and stopped when the story broke, given the obvious danger Kim Jong-il would have seen to his relationship with his principal backer.
Today, with China’s banks having finally been forced to choose between their North Korean clients and their access to the U.S. financial system — and having largely opted for the latter — Kim Jong-un may feel less compunction about sticking it to China.
We can add these reports to the evidence that North Korean agents are under significant financial pressure, although I can’t say whether the chicken or the egg came first.* Did the North Koreans turn back to counterfeiting just because it’s their nature, thus causing their accounts to be frozen, or did sanctions and the freezing of their accounts cause the North Koreans to turn to counterfeiting out of financial desperation? Whatever the reason, dumping funny money into the Chinese economy will further strain Sino-North Korean relations, and will add fuel to arguments to expel the North Korean trading companies and agents who pass the counterfeit bills. This time, North Korea’s criminal activities are an even greater threat to China than they are to us.
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* Of course, the egg came first, silly. Dinosaurs laid eggs millions of years before the first chicken did, after all.
The Treasury Department has sanctioned the presidents of Belarus and Zimbabwe and their cabinets for undermining democratic processes or institutions and has frozen their assets in the international financial system. It has sanctioned top officials of the Russian government for Russia’s aggression against its neighbor, the Ukraine.
It has sanctioned the president of Syria for human rights violations, censorship, and corruption, among other reasons. It sanctioned Iranian officials for censorship and human rights abuses. It has even sanctioned officials in tiny Burundi for human rights abuses.
As of the time of this post, there are still no human rights sanctions against a single North Korean official. As bad as things may be in any of the aforementioned places, are they worse anywhere than in North Korea?
The Chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that investigated human rights abuses in North Korea has said that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and described the abuses there as “strikingly similar” to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.
The Commission’s detailed 372-page report found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
The lesson for every despot on earth is that nuclear weapons will immunize you from the consequences of your crimes against humanity.
Seeking to rectify this outrage, this year, Congress passed a law that gave the President 120 days to submit a report on human rights abuses in North Korea, along with a list of those responsible. The provision requires the President to make specific findings with respect to Kim Jong-un’s individual responsibility. Those found responsible must then be designated under section 104(a) of the law, which freezes their assets and threatens secondary sanctions against those who transact with them. The 120 days ran out on June 11th.
Even before the law passed, the administration could see the overwhelming bipartisan support for human rights sanctions and began hinting at imposing them. It still didn’t act, but after the law passed, it begandropping increasingly stronghints that it would finally impose human rights sanctions on top North Korean officials. North Korea’s latest missile launch now gives the White House new impetus to increase pressure on Pyongyang, as if that impetus was lacking after the U.N. Commission released its report.
According to rumors circulating in the press and in human rights circles, the President will finally sanction “about ten” top officials of the North Korean government today. [Update: Now we know that Monday wasn’t the day. Watch this space.] The rumor I heard last week is that His Porcine Majesty Kim Jong-un, the morbidly obese despot who rules over millions of malnourished and stuntedchildren, will be among them.
That could be the first step in blocking the billions of dollars he maintains in slush funds in China, Switzerland, and elsewhere. It will be the first concrete action our government — or any other government — will have taken in the more than two years since the Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Kirby released its report.
The Obama administration will now speak with gravity and sagacity about the horrors in North Korea and its seriousness about addressing them. It will make a virtue of necessity and claim the mantle of moral leadership in holding North Korea’s rulers accountable for their crimes against humanity. I’d be content to let them carry it for their remaining months in office … if they really do lead. But this is not a moment for relief that our government may finally act, at least a decade after it should have. It is a moment to mourn for the victims, both living and dead, and for the forfeited moral leadership of a nation that acted so late, and only after Congress forced the President to act.
In March, this blog reported on the revelation by the U.N. Panel of Experts that the African nation of Namibia, a desert country in the southwest corner of the continent, had hired North Koreans, including representatives of U.N.-designated KOMID, to build an arms factory near Windhoek. At the time, Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah came to her government’s defense, admitting that her government was the site of a North Korean-run arms factory, but denying that the arrangement violated U.N. sanctions.
Today, NK News reports that Ms. N-N arrived in Pyongyang last Friday for a state visit, where she posed for photographs with Kim Yong-nam.
[via NK News]
Now, I can’t say whether the purpose of the visit itself is inappropriate unless I know what those present will discuss. After all, not all diplomatic interactions with North Korea are prohibited. I suppose the purpose of the visit could be to “sever ties and wrap things up,” as Daniel Pinkston suggests, but the level of the interactions and the coincident publicity don’t give me much confidence in that theory.
As noted above, Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah is well aware of the North Korean arms factory in her country, but has denied that it violates U.N. sanctions. The U.N. Panel of Experts has correctly concluded that it’s a violation.
106. The construction of any munitions factory or related military facilities is considered to be services or assistance relating to the provision, manufacture or maintenance of arms and related materiel and therefore prohibited under the resolutions.
Here are the relevant provisions of UNSCR 2270:
“6. Decides that the measures in paragraph 8 (a) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall also apply to all arms and related materiel, including small arms and light weapons and their related materiel, as well as to financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel;
“9. Recalls that paragraph 9 of resolution 1874 (2009) requires States to prohibit the procurement from the DPRK of technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of arms and related materiel, and clarifies that this paragraph prohibits States from engaging in the hosting of trainers, advisors, or other officials for the purpose of military-, paramilitary- or police-related training;
Investigative journalist John Grobler later did an outstanding report on the factory for NK News, revealing the extent of the factory’s operations. Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah has argued, however, that because the arms factory deal predates U.N. sanctions it’s permitted. Nonsense. UNSCR 2270 even has a force majeure clause in paragraph 47, clarifying that no claim shall lie for the termination of preexisting contracts that violate the sanctions. The resolutions clearly have retroactive effect.
The 2016 POE report found that the North Korean company running the arms factory is KOMID, which is designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department — either “in cooperation with, or using the alias of, Mansudae Overseas Project Group companies.” The Namibian government is obligated to expel all KOMID representatives and freeze all KOMID property immediately:
13. Decides that if a Member State determines that a DPRK diplomat, governmental representative, or other DPRK national acting in a governmental capacity, is working on behalf or at the direction of a designated individual or entity, or of an individual or entities assisting in the evasion of sanctions or violating the provisions of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, then the Member State shall expel the individual from its territory for the purpose of repatriation to the DPRK consistent with applicable national and international law. . . .
“32. Decides that the asset freeze imposed by paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply to all the funds, other financial assets and economic resources outside of the DPRK that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by entities of the Government of the DPRK or the Worker’s Party of Korea, or by individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or by entities owned or controlled by them, that the State determines are associated with the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, decides further that all States except the DPRK shall ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any individuals or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of such individuals or entities, or individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or entities owned or controlled by them, and decides that these measures shall not apply with respect to funds, other financial assets and economic resources that are required to carry out activities of the DPRK’s missions to the United Nations and its specialized agencies and related organizations or other diplomatic and consular missions of the DPRK, and to any funds, other financial assets and economic resources that the Committee determines in advance on a case-by-case basis are required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, denuclearization or any other purpose consistent with the objectives of this resolution.
Either Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah hasn’t read the resolutions or has chosen to defy them. If strong diplomatic appeals still haven’t secured commitments to bring that violation to an end, the State and Treasury Departments should act swiftly to sanction the North Korean and Namibian entities involved under section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Anything less would signal to North Korea’s arms clients elsewhere in Africa that the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions are mere suggestions. This time, an example must be made.