How Congress forced the State Department to confront Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity

Last Friday’s post was not the first time I’ve criticized the Trump administration for the inadequacy of its recognition that America shares common interests with the North Korean people in a less murderous North Korean government. I’ve also criticized the inadequacy of the administration’s public diplomacy advocating for those common interests. Long-time readers know I also criticized the last president and the president before that one. But shortly after I published Friday’s post, as if on cue, the State Department issued a new report detailing Pyongyang’s censorship and other abuses of the people. I couldn’t have been more pleased to be refuted. State’s report even drives home the essential point that Pyongyang’s pursuit of the means to terrorize us is inseparable from its acts to terrorize its own people. Someone gets it.

This report continues to shine a spotlight on the serious human rights abuses committed by the Government of North Korea, including those involving extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, as well as rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence inside the country. Many of the country’s human rights abuses underwrite the regime’s weapons program, including forced labor in the form of mass mobilizations, re-education through labor camps, and overseas labor contracts. Thousands of North Koreans are sent abroad every year to work in slave-like conditions, earning revenue for the regime. [U.S. State Dep’t]

The report then names and shames individual top officials of the Military Security Command, the Ministry of the Peoples’ Security (MPS), the Ministry of Labor, and a construction company that employs forced labor.

And the report did, indeed, “shine a light” on those abuses. The Wall Street Journal covered the slave labor designations here. The Washington Post covered them here, and published a video report with an exclusive interview of North Korean slave laborers in Mongolia, showing the squalid quarters they’re packed into — living, eating, and shitting together like livestock.

Treasury then follows State’s bill of particulars by adding those officials to its list of specially designated nationals, which freezes any dollar-denominated assets they’ve hidden abroad.

OFAC identified the Military Security Command, also known as the Military Security Bureau or the Korean People’s Army Security Bureau, pursuant to E.O. 13722 as an agency, instrumentality, or controlled entity of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. OFAC also designated Jo Kyong-Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command, and Sin Yong Il, the Deputy Director of the Military Security Command, pursuant to E.O. 13687 for being officials of the Government of North Korea. According to the Department of State, the Military Security Command monitors military personnel for anti-regime activity and investigates political crimes in the military, and it has been described by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry as “the military’s own secret police.” [U.S. Treasury Dep’t]

This represents a strategically smart attack on the military’s immune system against rising — and increasingly violent — dissent among the enlisted ranks. If the MSC can’t pay its cadres, those cadres will have no choice but to neglect their duties and turn to bribery or smuggling to get by, internal discipline will continue to weaken, and Pyongyang will see that time is not on its side.

An even more welcome designation, coming just as the President prepares to leave for Beijing, was this one:

OFAC designated Ri Thae Chol, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) First Vice Minister of the Ministry of People’s Security, Ku Sung Sop, Consul General in Shenyang, China, and Kim Min Chol, a diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in Vietnam, pursuant to E.O. 13687 for being officials of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. Ku Sung Sop and Kim Min Chol are also associated with the Ministry of State Security and, according to the State Department, have participated in the forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers. On July 6, 2016, OFAC designated the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security 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. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t]

No previous administration has ever sanctioned anyone for involvement in the inhumane and illegal repatriation of North Koreans from China to Kim Jong-un’s gulag. The administration deserves particular commendation for doing this, especially now.

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Shortly after the announcement of these designations, Isaac Stone Fish criticized them as disingenuous efforts to attack Pyongyang’s proliferation by back-handed means. Isaac may be struggling, as many others are, to separate his judgment of a polarizing president’s policies from his judgment of the President himself. But in this case, the policy decisions were right, and they had overwhelming bipartisan support from the Congress that mandated them.

The same was true in July 2016, when the Obama administration, almost certainly with the knowledge of the President himself, designated Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses. Administration officials told me at the time that this decision was imminent regardless of Congress’s actions, but it did not happen until the coming of a statutory deadline in a law Congress passed by a veto-proof, nearly unanimous vote. Politically, President Obama had little choice but to sign the law. Title III and section 104(a) of that law, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, required the President to investigate North Korean officials responsible for human rights abuses, designate them, and impose a series of serious sanctions on them. Now it is the Trump administration that must comply.

That’s why we shouldn’t view the new human rights sanctions against North Korea through a partisan lens. I write as one with first-hand knowledge of exactly what motivated the Republican and Democratic staffers who drafted the legislation that mandated those sanctions. Their motives did not arise from partisan conflict, but from humanitarian compassion and institutional conflict. Congress writes forcing mechanisms into sanctions laws because it has lost confidence in the State Department to do what our elected representatives want it to do — to attach financial, diplomatic, and political consequences to Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity.

Chairman Ed Royce, whose views are shaped by his father’s presence at the liberation of Dachau, and who probably has more influence on North Korea policy than anyone in Washington today, has long spoken with sincere passion about human rights in North Korea. So have his many Korean-American constituents. Ranking Member Elliot Engel is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. Engel must be conscious of the fact that his immigrant ancestors left behind communities that were later exterminated during the Holocaust. I know I’ve had similar thoughts about the communities my own ancestors left behind in Belarus and Hungary. Those thoughts have helped to motivate me to write here for more than a decade.

Royce was also one of the strongest critics of George W. Bush’s 2007 agreement to lift sanctions against Pyongyang, while sidelining human rights and effectively nullifying the North Korean Human Rights of 2004. In the short term, State protected its prerogative to do nothing with great skill and guile. But in the long term, the price State paid was a loss of confidence that still endures in the form of forcing mechanisms that divest it of that discretion. We learned some bitter lessons from the North Korean Human Rights Act. One of them was to write basic human rights conditions for the lifting of sanctions into the statute itself.

In 2004, it was easier legally, politically, and diplomatically to sideline human rights. Today, Congress is far less likely to overlook it, the U.N. continues to talk about it, and NGOs and journalists — with the obvious exception of the New York Times — are paying more attention to it. Pyongyang may protest at the mention of human rights as though it fears for its very survival, and some in the State Department may view Pyongyang’s objections as obstructions to their myopic goals, but this is not an issue that will go gently away.

1 Comment

  1. I’m curious about State’s motives in trying to ignore human rights abuses in North Korea. – Is it because they are determined to keep China happy by keeping North Korea going for as long as possible?




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