Lefkowitz on Kaesong: ‘Material support for a rogue government, its nuclear ambitions, and its human rights atrocities.’

[Updates Below; and a big welcome to  everyone coming in from Gateway  Pundit.]  

Ambassador Jay Lefkowitz, the  U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea,  has an excellent new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (thanks to a reader!) that will provoke an absolute  Category 5 sh*tstorm  between the United States and South Korea, and for the best of reasons.  Without question, the State Department and the Administration have not always lived up the high ideals the Special Envoy has expressed, but this op-ed is a triumph that boldly answers last week’s questions in the Washington Post  about where Lefkowitz is keeping himself these days.  He begins:

There is a growing consensus in the international community that North Korea ‘s conduct is unacceptable. Nevertheless, several countries engage in practices that funnel cash to the regime in a manner that violates the spirit of a recent United Nations resolution and raises serious human rights concerns.

The   specific focus of Lefkowitz’s editorial is North Korea’s slave trade — its  use of  thousands of  lits workers to generate hard currency in countries including “Russia, [the] Czech Republic, Mongolia, Poland, Saudi Arabia*, Libya, and Angola.”  Few of these workers are  likely to ever  see their own paychecks, and the  best evidence is that they  receive  barely a sliver of the proceeds.   The description of the logging camps in Siberia,  to which North Koreans now willingly go to for a respite from the slow, dreary death at home,  is especially bleak. 

Lefkowitz then draws a connection between  the proceeds of this slave trade  and U.N. resolutions designed to curb North Korea’s WMD programs.   

These countries contract labor through historical — and even new — agreements with the regime of Kim Jong Il. Because the North Korean government takes a major portion of workers’ salaries, these arrangements provide material support for a rogue government, its nuclear ambitions, and its human rights atrocities.

The familiar sound  of those words comes from Section 805 of the USA PATRIOT Act, now codified at 18 U.S.C. 2339A, which criminalizes material support for terrorism (which includes kidnapping) and activities related to weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical, nuclear).  Those words are probably meant to sound both morally and  legally significant, and in fact, they could potentially lead to the seizure of assets under the  U.S. money laundering or forfeiture statutes,  if the government can establish jurisdiction — against  U.S. persons, or for acts committed on U.S. soil, or against U.S. victims.  Of course, the fact that the words are supposed to sound scary is no indication as to whether this Administration is really prepared to follow through.  Resolution 1718 also prohibits “support” for U.N.-designated entities involved in North Korea’s WMD programs, although the list of those entities does not yet exist.  It’s more likely that Lefkowitz chose hard-hitting words whose plain meaning was meant to send a  strong and clear  message to  recalcitrant governments.

The Security Council also voted unanimously to condemn North Korea ‘s ballistic missile program in July and its nuclear weapons testing in October. The October resolution calls on member states to freeze the financial assets of those aiding North Korea ‘s nuclear weapons program.

Surely such U.N. proclamations should make anyone think twice about engaging in activities that could aid Pyongyang.

Lefkowitz would have made a stronger  connection between forced labor and those WMD programs  if he’d  quoted the resolutions, for example, Paragraph  8d of Resolution 1718:  “[A]ll Member States shall … ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of such persons or entities.”  Thus, states  bear the burden  of accounting for where their  money is going, and to ensure the feckless green  eyeshades at the U.N. that it’s not for a prohibited purpose.   A feeble  “don’t ask, don’t tell” cop-out is not an honest defense against those requirements, but that’s exactly what South Korea’s has offered for its “funneling.”  I  accused South Korea of violating 1695 last September (before 1718), and Lefkowitz, who has been critical of Kaesong on strictly humanitarian grounds before,  now appears to join in this accusation, too:

Pyongyang’s take varies by location, but we know of no instance where North Korean laborers like these receive their wages directly. This is one of the concerns we have with the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea , where workers are supposed to earn a minimum of $57 per month. While there are some welcome indications that South Korea may be reassessing its commitment to this project, …

That’s news to me, and this article would suggest otherwise, but  read on:

… several South Korean companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to set up shop in Kaesong to use inexpensive local labor. Even advocates of the endeavor, who believe Kaesong will open and liberalize the North, concede that authorities take a portion of the wages paid by the South Korean companies. Indeed, a recent report indicates this take is 45% of a worker’s salary. Verified details are elusive, and neither the North or South Korean governments, nor any company, has been able to state definitively how much of his or her wage a Kaesong worker is allowed to keep.

If you can stomach reading the far-left  Hankyoreh Sinmun, you will see a lot of gauzy advertising promoting Korea’s own peculiar institution.   Lefkowitz sets up that argument this way:

Some argue that labor arrangements like those in Russia and Kaesong are positive developments. They see these activities as a way to open North Korean eyes to the outside world.

Or, as  stated in the original German:  “arbeit macht frei.”  (I really should send a copy of this to the Dutch Ambassador to Seoul, who recently went to Kaesong to  parrot this UniFiction.  Lately, the Soft Reich has run a strong trade surplus in sanctimony, but in  little else.)

To date, however, those benefits seem more theoretical than real. Rather, it is more likely that the hard currency these countries are sending to North Korea will end up funding the regime’s nuclear aspirations instead of improving living conditions for the people of North Korea.

The North Korean workers in Kaesong probably do live and eat slightly better than the wretches  eking out  hardscrabble lives in North Hamgyeong Province, living on the scavenging of copper wires, and occasionally, each other.  Even after the regime takes its cut,  an inflated official exchange rate probably takes a severe bite when the South Korean won are converted to the currency North Koreans actually use in their own economy.  What the workers really get ends up being practically unknowable, but it’s  probably a bare survival wage.  Rather than being exposed to fresh, free, new ideas, the Kaesong workers  live under an extreme regimen of control and propaganda that’s eerie even by North Korean standards.  It’s the South Koreans who are being exposed to the North‘s ideology there, not the other way around.

Even more unfortunate was Seoul’s clumsy effort to prove that Kaesong workers were … receiving food!   The witness, who had contracted to bring food into the area for the workers’ alleged consumption, didn’t really prove much, but he did turn  out to have a history of business relationships with North Korea’s mining industry, a notorious front for proliferation.



When  Lefkowitz ties the regime’s income from the slavery of its  subjects  to its WMD programs, he  swims from the margins of U.S. policy into its mainstream, which has mostly washed  human rights concerns aside until now.  Lefkowitz is now making a direct connection between North Korea’s human rights abuses and the enforcement of U.N. resolutions aimed directly at its WMD programs.  Some —  and they will mostly be people who’ve had little to say about human rights in North Korea —  will act as if Lefkowitz has deflowered something that was once  pristine and penetrated it  with the impure seed of national power and interest. 

I’d like to believe the opposite:  that human rights  are finding a place within a practical pursuit of our interests.  Fastidiously walling  human rights advocacy off from national interests and power delegates it to the august judgment of the U.N. and the  Human Rights Industry, which have  distorted its empirically measurable priorities, eviscerated it of any practical significance, paralyzed it within a bureucratic scaffolding, and defined its cannibalized values according to standards that policymakers cannot  possibly meet.  That is a world in which the response to crises like those in Darfur and North Korea will never get past good-feeling but mostly ineffectual hand-wringing, and  the worst thing that could happen to a man like Slobo Milosevic is a peaceful death  in his sleep in his cell at the Hague.  (I admit that I like my hangings to be more subdued than Saddam’s was, but that’s low on  my priority list of true outrages in this world; maybe someone will do better when Kim Jong Il’s turn comes, but I tend to  doubt it.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, and perfect is in short supply.)

Fortunately, there’s a general consensus for the opposite approach, at least in theory.  Section 101 of the North Korean Human Rights Act, enacted unanimously by the Congress, calls on the Administration to make human rights an issue in its talks with North  Korea.   The connection Lefkowitz makes is also consistent  with the Jackson-Vanik philosophy of tying economic benefits to tangible progress on human rights, and that approach continues to have strong supporters in both parties.  My own view is  that transparency —  or more accurately, North Korea’s resistance against it —  is the common root of every problem the world has with North Korea, including these two.  If North Korea won’t open its books, why should we think it will ever open its reactors and underground laboratories, or let us speak freely with those who work there?

Critics will now  claim that Lefkowitz is joining in the Bush  strategy to strangle the North Korean economy, and if that is true, it is good news.  It’s not as if that economy is filling the bellies of the North Korean people, and it’s no strike against the Administration if its policy becomes more unitary, consistent, and forceful in pressuring a vile regime out of doing plenty of awful things that risk or take life en masse. 


*   Saudi Arabia  has been selected as a  member of the new, “reformed” U.N. Human Rights Council.

Update:   So far, it’s looking very Category One, because there has been no official South Korean reaction.  This uncharacteristic silence is playing it a lot smarter than the tantrums they threw at Lefkowitz the last two times  he criticized South Korea’s enabling of the North’s human rights abuses.  I don’t know if they simply discount Lefkowitz, have  learned that their tantrums are alienating U.S. policymakers, or realize that the less they say, the better. 

Also, thanks to Aurelius (trackback below) for this Human Rights Watch link on Kaesong.  Credit where it’s due, I guess, but compared to all of the noise HRW makes about Gitmo — or at least compared to the noise that gets reported — it’s a token peep.


  1. Your blog on “Lefkowitz on Kaesong…” was insightful and stimulating. You have a real sensitivity for the harsh life of the disenfranchised people of North Korea that are forced into labor camps elsewhere. Given that, I don’t quite understand the conflicting passage about how you “like my hangings to be more subdued . . . ” Perhaps its your uniquely dry sense of humor that’s coming out.