Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

Park Geun-hye, the cautious triangulatrix who belatedly became South Korea’s most subversive (to North Korea) president for two decades, is all but gone, and almost everyone in South Korea is applauding. None, however, have applauded with as much enthusiasm as those on South Korea’s far left, who fill a spectrum between anti-anti-North Korean and violently pro-North KoreanThe left now senses that it has an advantage headed into next year’s presidential campaign and hopes to end Seoul’s campaign of diplomatic and financial isolation of its renegade provinces in the North, and its encouragement of embarrassing and damaging defections by senior regime officials like Thae Yong-ho. But if the left hoped that the end of Park’s presidency would also mean the end of that campaign, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is dashing those hopes. These examples, which I’ve collected over the last three months, show Yun carrying right on where Park left off.

  • 9/27: In Seoul, Park asks the President of the Netherlands “to play an ‘active role’ in pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions and provocations through sanctions and diplomacy.”
  • 9/29: North Korea opens a new embassy in Belarus, but without an accredited ambassador.
  • 9/30: South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister visits Germany, in part “to discuss strategies for global coordination against North Korea’s nuclear program.”
  • 10/4: Yonhap reports that Seoul has asked the Bulgarian government to curtail North Korea’s abuse of the Vienna Convention, “generating hard currency through illicit real-estate dealings.” (UNSCR 2321 has since emphasized that diplomatic missions may not be used for commercial purposes.)
  • 10/6: Yun suggests that U.N. member states should downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (The State Department has also called on states to “downgrade or sever” diplomatic relations with the North.)
  • 10/12: Costa Rica’s President visits President Park in Seoul and promises to issue a decree implementing UNSCR 2270.
  • 11/1: Under international pressure, Indonesia cancels a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong
  • 11/2: Sudan’s Foreign Minister visits Seoul, meets with Yun, and says it has cut all military ties with North Korea.
  • 12/1: Yun says South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. will announce their own national sanctions, foreshadowing the latest round of Treasury Department designations.
  • 12/3: Immediately after the approval of UNSCR 2321 by the Security Council, Yun urges China to implement the new resolution faithfully. He also urged the incoming Trump administration  to “take over and implement the strong sanctions.”
  • 12/6: Yun says he’s scheduled to hold high-level talks with his counterparts from the U.S., China, and Russia on implementation of the sanctions, and adds, “The unprecedentedly powerful UNSC resolution, combined with individual sanctions by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, will corner North Korea into a situation that it cannot circumvent.”
  • 12/16: Visiting Yun in Seoul, Hungary’s Foreign Minister promises to support sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea is not only vowing to continue its campaign, it is now starting to claim that it’s putting the North under severe financial and diplomatic strain. You can find the most detailed case for that claim here. It’s worth reading in full, but take it with a grain of salt.

On the optimistic side of the ledger, there is an alleged internal North Korean document exhorting diplomats to strengthen ties to “non-aligned” states, traditionally some of its best trading partners and arms clients. This interview (in Korean) with Thae Yong-ho adds recent direct evidence that sanctions have caused financial problems for the North Korean embassy in the U.K. Thae’s description of life as a North Korean diplomat adds further evidence to my observation that North Koreans overseas who can’t kick up enough tribute to their bosses — perhaps because of sanctions — worry about being punished or purged. That may make them attractive targets for recruitment to provide even more financial information, or to defect.

One could also read Pyongyang’s campaign to improve its foreign trade structure as an effort to get around trade sanctions it didn’t need to evade before. Its raising of taxes on its people may be an effort to make up for lost foreign revenue, although that connection isn’t entirely clear, nor would it be a departure from past practice. Either way, Pyongyang pays a morale penalty for those levies.

Not everything has gone South Korea’s way, however. North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, some of which have long-standing commercial and ideological ties to Pyongyang, have been stubborn targets. For example, despite Uganda’s claim that it would end its military training contracts with North Korea — UNSCR 2270 requires member states to do so immediately — it turns out that Uganda is merely choosing not to renew those contracts.

This blog has also followed Namibia’s illogical and self-serving justifications for its arrangements with North Korea.Despite claims by the Namibian government that it would end its cooperation with sanctioned North Korean entities, that relationship apparently continues. The Treasury Department’s recent designation of its principal North Korean partner, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, a front for KOMID, may make that cooperation more difficult for Namibia and the many other African countries where Mansudae operates. It will send a message to Windhoek that it must enforce the U.N. resolutions, confiscate the factory, and send the KOMID and Mansudae representatives home. For example, the South African insurance company Old Mutual insured some of Mansudae’s work in Namibia. It may hesitate to continue providing that service now. We’ll need to do more of this to give Yun the support he needs.

Then there is the case of Angola, which after a meeting with South Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, said that it supports South Korea’s position on the sanctions, but hasn’t exactly enforced them to the letter since then. The fact that Seoul is dangling an agreement “to boost ties in trade, investment and development” may help. More on Yun’s extensive travels to make UNSCR 2270 stick, here and here, via Marcus Noland.

Reports that Poland and Oman had stopped employing North Korean slave labor may also have been premature. Even Thailand has allowed a new North Korean restaurant to open.

While I understand the importance of showing South Korean audiences that sanctions can work, the stories I linked in this post, and my posts here, here, and here, show a more mixed picture than Seoul’s optimistic assessments. The reality is more a case of two steps forward, one step back, with South Korea making significant gains, but not fast enough, and without enough fire support from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments to put steel on the harder targets.

The question that increasingly preoccupies me is whether it’s already too late. And given the rising talk of preemptive strikes — if only to buy time — will South Koreans be willing to accept the risks those strikes would entail? Stated differently, did Barack Obama and the chaos that rules the streets of Seoul squander our last chance to disarm North Korea peacefully?