North Korean assassins arrested in Beijing as Tillerson’s terror sponsor decision looms

If you haven’t read my last post on this week’s deadline for the Secretary of State to decide whether North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism, you may want to start there. This post will be a combination of breaking news and supplement to that post. This morning, Bloomberg News, citing a report in the Joongang Ilbo, is reporting that yet again, North Korean agents have been caught while on their way to assassinate a dissident in exile. This time, the target was Kim Han-sol, the son of Kim Jong-nam, whom the North Korean government also assassinated.

Chinese police arrested several North Koreans dispatched to Beijing on suspicion of plotting to murder Mr Kim Jong Un’s 22-year-old nephew, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported.

Two of seven North Korean agents were arrested over the alleged plot to kill Mr Kim Han Sol, whose father Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in Malaysia earlier this year, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified person familiar with North Korean issues.

Some agents are being interrogated in special facilities on the outskirts of Beijing, the paper said, without elaborating on whether the other five were arrested. China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. [Bloomberg, crediting the Straits Times]

Let’s review the elements of “international terrorism:” To qualify, the conduct must be —

1. an act of, an attempt at, or a threat of violence,

2. that is unlawful where it was or would have been committed,

3. involves the citizens or territory of more than one country,

4. is carried out by clandestine agents or subnational groups, and

5. is done with the apparent intent* to influence the conduct of a government or a civilian population.

Subject to confirmation of the original report, that would be check, check, check, check, and check. I recently wrote about Kim Han-sol’s rescue from the apparent fear of assassination by Pyongyang’s hit squads by Cheollima Civil Defense, which looks to be the first indigenous North Korean resistance organization, though it appears to operate only outside North Korea using non-violent methods, and does not yet appear to pose a serious threat to the regime’s internal control.

For a list of recent North Korean state-sponsored attempts to assassinate human rights activists and dissidents in exile, I’ll refer you to my report for HRNK. (You don’t have to read all 100 pages. The table of contents will direct you to the appropriate section.) This week, when Thae Yong-ho testifies — under extraordinarily tight security — before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I hope the members will ask him about this latest report. I hope they’ll ask him how reports like this make him feel about his own safety and the safety of his family. I hope they’ll ask him just what message he thinks Kim Jong-un is trying to send by dispatching these terrorists, how he intends to respond, and whether he will remain silent. What message do you suppose Secretary Tillerson will send to Thae and other North Korean dissidents in exile if he, like his predecessors, refuses to call North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism?

So, to summarize, Secretary Tillerson should re-list North Korea because —

1. North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism, and the American people have an interest in having a government that tells them the truth.

2. To begin restoring the State Department’s badly damaged credibility in Congress, which suffers every time State refuses to re-list Pyongyang. In last week’s post, I cited a number of op-eds and a letter from several members of the House of Representatives calling for Pyongyang’s re-listing. I neglected to link to this letter, signed by 12 U.S. senators of both parties.

3. To send a message of support to dissidents in exile like Kim Han-sol, Thae Yong-ho, Park Sang-hak, Lee Hyeon-seo, and others.

4. To send a message to Pyongyang that we are not afraid to attach, and are determined to attach, consequences to its crimes.

5. To further tighten existing sanctions. In addition to the potential civil liability and securities law consequences I wrote about last week, there’s another important point I forgot to mention. Re-designating Pyongyang would close a loophole in our sanctions by unlocking the stricter sanctions regulations in 31 C.F.R. Part 596. That regulation unambiguously requires an OFAC license for any dollar transactions or transactions by U.S. persons with a government that’s listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Why does that matter? Because the existing North Korea Sanctions Regulation (NKSR) at 31 C.F.R. 510, in my view, does not do that. It hasn’t been updated since 2011 — two statutes and three executive orders ago. Instead, the NKSR prohibits “[a]ll transactions prohibited pursuant to Executive Order 13466,” 13551 (which potentially applies to anyone involved in Pyongyang’s arms trafficking, proliferation, and money laundering, but in reality only applies to a few people who’ve been designated under this EO), 13570 (which requires a license for most imports from and exports to North Korea).

But to see how vague, circular, and Kafkaesque this regulation really is, you have to see what 13466 covers: any property that was already blocked until 2008, when President Bush took North Korea off the terror list and canceled Trading With the Enemy Act sanctions. That appears to include only property that was blocked in 2008. Maybe Treasury would disagree. Then again, maybe if it tried to sanction or prosecute anyone for violating the NKSR — and with a single exception, it never has — a competent defense attorney would argue that the regulation is ambiguous on its face, and that under the rule of lenity, the court should construe any ambiguity in favor of the accused. The courts will not give Chevron deference to an agency’s interpretation of a regulation for purposes of imposing a criminal punishment. Part 510 is so vague in its wording, circular in its reasoning, and outdated in its incorporation of authorities that not even I could tell you what it really means, and reporters and government officials routinely ask me what these laws and regulations mean. Why wouldn’t a banker or trading company official in Dandong be able to make the same argument?

If our government is serious about “maximum pressure,” some clarity would be useful.

The State Department worries about how Pyongyang would react to a re-listing. There will be tantrums, paroxysms, and provocations, of course. That’s de rigeur for Pyongyang, but provocations are inevitable, for one excuse or another, regardless of what Tillerson decides. What Tillerson can better control is whether he will also face a tantrum from Congress. Regardless of which convenient excuse it may seize on, Pyongyang engages in provocations to achieve political and diplomatic aims, and tests weapons to advance technical capabilities. Our objective should be to demonstrate to Pyongyang that attacks on our interests carry real consequences. An SSOT re-listing will carry both financial and symbolic consequences.

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* Previously said “attempt.” Since corrected.

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A reader’s question causes me to clarify a few points. First, Treasury’s FAQs say that financial transactions through the U.S. with North Korea require a license. Second, EO 13570, which is appended to the NKSR en toto, bans the export of “services” to North Korea, and the case law supports the position that clearing dollar transactions through the U.S. is an export of services. EO 13722, which is not appended to the most recent version of the NKSR published by the Government Printing Office online, also contains similar language.

But that’s far from intuitive or unambiguous enough for many of the persons who might consider dealing with North Korea. Even a brief review of what financial flows the Justice Department and the U.N. Panel of Experts have exposed in recent months shows that we haven’t made this nearly clear enough to the financial industry. Perceptions can become realities. EO 13810 made it much clearer, of course, but why not make the text of the regulation itself clear? Heck, we have four sets of sanctions regulations for Iran. You’d think having one set of clear sanctions regulations for North Korea isn’t too much to ask. The relative attraction of Part 596 is that at least it’s clear to everyone. Sorry for the wonky tangent.

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Update, Nov. 4: The original Joongang Ilbo report is now available in English. It cites an unnamed source. The South Korean National Intelligence service officially says that it has no knowledge of the plot. Separately, it told KBS that Kim Jong-nam is safe in a third country and questioned the veracity of the Joongang Ilbo’s report on the basis that Kim Han-sol isn’t in China. The NIS may have sound reasons to doubt this anonymous report. It may also be under political pressure from Moon Jae-in’s cabinet to avoid implicating Pyongyang in its latest attempted act of terrorism. But the fact that Kim Han-sol isn’t in China — assuming that’s true — is probative of nothing. Regardless of where Han-sol is living, one naturally would expect the North Korean agents to transit through China. After all, most flights out of Pyongyang transit through there, many of its agents reside there, and so does most of its cash.

4 Comments

  1. Maybe China can do what Malaysia could not: put DPRK assassins in a pickle where escape is not possible.
    Ri Jong-Chol,47 was the suspected chemist in Malaysia who was released. Lets say that determined Chinese investigators might have better methods of getting at the truth from the alleged North Korean assassins dispatched against nephew Kim Han-Sol.
    China was responsible for the safety of Kim Jong-Nam when he was in China. Does China want DPRK assassinations in Chinese terrotory.
    We know the DPRK government will be using every sceme they can to not get caught, and get the alleged assassins back safely. Ri Jong Choi used the ‘I am going to sue’ threat. Time will tell.




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  2. It is quite shocking that the DPRK is pursuing these assassinations in such a blatant and intrepid fashion. Surely they could achieve their aims without the international political fallout via more discreet means of offing the dissidents?




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  3. Justin, I think it’s pretty clear now that KJU WANTS the world to think of him as a person with no boundaries.




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  4. Fears of a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style disaster. Pung gye-ri nuclear test sight in NE DPRK on Oct 10th. Tom Michaels, the Sun.uk reports from ROK Yonhap News. A DPRK official says “the collapse happened during the construction of an underground tunnel with 200 dead”. South China Morning Post quotes Chinese scientists registering the 6.3 earthquake, to within a margin of error of 100 meteres at Mount Mantap, DPRK. Numerous landslides are reported by DPRK watcher websight 38North.
    If China can not control gangster assassinations by Hooligan DPRK regime, in Chiinese territory. How are their censors going to contain news of nuclear leakage from DPRK? Word travels faster than their censors. China must hold DPRK to task for their lawlessness and self-centeredness.
    —-ROK-South Korea–DPRK-North Korea–




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