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269 results found.
Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
– Apocalypse Now
Earlier this month, when the purge or demotion of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong was first reported, I seized on one rather bizarre part of the justification for his ouster from that key post for “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.” North Korea has always angrily denied the existence of human rights abuses and called itself a paradise for its citizens. Such a concession would be extraordinary for a regime that prioritizes its own stability above everything and the rights of individuals beneath everything. It would imply that individuals have rights in a real way, as opposed to the theoretical rights guaranteed to them under North Korea’s farcical constitution. It would imply that the regime saw the perception that it denied individuals their rights as a threat to the stability it prizes over everything else, and perhaps, to its access to the global economy.
At the time, I said it would be important to watch for corroboration — first, that Kim Won-hong really had been ousted, and second, that human rights abuses really were part of the regime’s justification for that. As to the first, I’ll refer you to Michael Madden, who reviews the evidence to support the claim. As to the second, we now have a report from inside the MSS (formerly known as the SSD):
In the aftermath of the purge of Kim Won Hong, the former head of North Korea’s State Security Department, Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered the State Security Department to cease human rights abuses.
A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on February 8 that an emergency meeting was held at the Ryanggang Province branch of the State Security Department (SSD) for three days from January 25 to 27. During the meeting, the decision to dismiss Kim Wong Hong (sic) and execute five SSD cadres was announced, as well as orders to eliminate human rights abuses such as beatings and the torture of residents.
“Statements such as ‘You should not abuse your power to make money,’ and ‘These corrupt actions are turning the residents away from the Republic (North Korea)’ were also made during the meeting,” the source said. [Daily NK]
Of course, we are speaking here of North Korea’s Gestapo and SS — the agency that controls the borders, runs the prison camps, carries out the purges, and maintains the regime’s state of terror over the people. That’s why it’s appropriate to treat this report with as much skepticism as the North Korean people themselves are treating it.
However, residents have been responding coldly. The SSD has already established itself as “nothing but evil in the minds of residents,” she said, and no one expects that there will be any improvement in human rights.
“Residents are mostly pessimistic, saying, ‘I am not interested in whether Kim Won Hong was purged or SSD cadres were executed,’ or ‘The vampires sucking our blood and sweat remain,'” she noted.
“Some residents are also saying, ‘The [state-run publication] Rodong Sinmun has been claiming that there are no human rights violations, but now the regime admits that it has been abusing human rights after all.'” [Daily NK]
One interpretation is that this is really an anti-corruption drive to maintain the MSS’s discipline. The report also notes that some MSS agents are leaking news of the MSS’s abuses, which are damaging the regime’s standing. Another possibility is that because the regime knows these reports will leak out, the lectures are meant to disinform us. The North Korean official responsible may be seeking to mitigate his image, or to avoid sanctions or prosecution. And given Kim Won-hong’s seniority, there’s really only one official we could be talking about here. That, in turn, would infer that Kim Jong-un is hedging his own bets about his own future.
Finally, consider the possibility that North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un himself, really believe their own propaganda, and really do believe (in their own strange way) that they’ve created a paradise for the North Korean people. Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly led a sheltered existence. He does not travel alone or visit any site that has not been carefully prepared and polished. For obvious reasons, he cannot be inconspicuous among his rail-thin subjects. Of course, many of the purges, killings, and other atrocities the regime has carried out could not have happened without his personal approval. Psychopaths always find ways of justifying such crimes. It is almost as certain that most of the rapes, killings, and myriad violations of rights of low-ranking North Koreans were arbitrary acts by lower-ranking guards, soldiers, and officials acting with a sense of omnipotence and impunity. Kim Jong-un could easily believe that all of those crimes are a droit du seigneur.
It’s almost as if Kim Jong-un had some unique insight into the arguments that prosecutors could make against him.
More likely, however, is that Kim Jong-un sees negative foreign and domestic sentiments about his rule as a growing threat to his own survival. I’ll be the first to admit my astonishment at the regime’s apparent vulnerability to the power of words alone, but of course, those words also have important diplomatic, security, and financial consequences. There is ample evidence to suggest that North Koreans are frequently expressing (and occasionally, acting on) their discontent. There is also evidence that this discontent is affecting the regime’s hold over its elite, including the most trusted of the elites, whom it sends overseas to maintain friendly relations with foreign governments, maintain access to foreign markets, and earn hard currency. There is some evidence that Pyongyang may be feeling some of the financial effects, too.
Calls by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for Kim Jong-un to be summoned to a tribunal, and for North Korea’s U.N. privileges to be suspended, will be further reason for Kim Jong-un to worry. By persuading him that the world is closing in on him, and that his regime is fraying from within, we will gain more leverage to force him to negotiate for verifiable reforms. When Kim Jong-un is more afraid of not reforming than he is of reforming, those negotiations will have some prospect of eventual success.
Three weeks ago, as mandated by section 304 of the NKSPEA, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials, including Kim Won-hong, head of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The MSS operates Pyongyang’s horrific political prison camp system, and the basis for his designation was human rights abuses that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has called “crimes against humanity.” Clearly, Kim Won-hong bears a large share of the responsibility for those crimes. At the same time the Treasury Department announced Kim Won-hong’s designation and froze his dollars, the State Department issued a report on those designated.
Kim Won Hong is the Minister of State Security. In this capacity, he oversees the Ministry of State Security (MSS). He served on the National Defense Commission (NDC) and serves on its successor commission. In the July 6, 2016, report, the Department of State identified the MSS and the NDC as responsible for serious human rights abuses and censorship.  According to the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in DPRK report (COI), the MSS is implicated in “widespread gross human rights violations.” It administers the country’s network of political prison camps, where, according to defector testimony and satellite imagery, summary executions and torture are commonplace. The COI found that inhumane acts perpetrated in the DPRK’s political prison camps occur on a large scale and follow a regular pattern giving rise to the inference that they form part of an overarching State policy. Given the highly centralized and hierarchical nature of the North Korean government and Kim’s status as Minister of State Security, it appears that Kim plays a role directing the abuses perpetrated by the MSS and managing its day-to-day activities, including in the political prison camp system, where serious human rights abuses are reportedly systematized as a matter of State policy.
Kim Won Hong directs the operations of the interagency task force, which is responsible for censorship in North Korea, including confiscating digital devices and information from foreign sources. NGOs report that, in some instances, individuals caught carrying contraband movies into the country face harsh punishments meted out by this task force, which include sentencing to political prison camps and, in some instances, public execution. As the interagency Director of this task force, Kim Won Hong directly commands its operations. [U.S. Dep’t of State, Jan. 11, 2017]
Now, the New York Times, Reuters, and Yonhap are reporting that Kim Won-hong was purged in January, which must have been almost immediately after his designation. (Update: I should be clear that the reporting is not clear. Some versions have it that he was demoted, and the sources don’t know if he’s dead or alive.) A good friend, who knows more about North Korea’s power structure than anyone I know, has described Kim Won-hong as the most hated man in North Korea. You could compare his powers and functions to those of Heinrich Himmler (except that the lightly armed MSS lacks an equivalent to the heavily armed Waffen SS). Kim Won-hong was also a made member of the Korean Workers’ Party Politburo, Central Committee, and Central Military Committee. This was not a man who was on the outs. If he was in fact purged, the purge was not only unexpected but potentially very significant. I’ll get to why later in this post, after I develop a few historical precedents to give this story some context.
All analogies have flaws, and Himmler kept his position until Hitler’s last days in the bunker. In terms of survivability, the better analogy may be Ernst Röhm, the most fabulous of the Nazi leaders, who led the Sturmabteilung or SA until 1934. The SA’s street thugs spent most of the 1930s beating Jews, burning synagogues and banned books, and generally muscling aside and intimidating everyone who barred Hitler’s path to power. A year after the SA had secured his hold on power, Hitler told Himmler to purge Röhm and his associates.
An even better analogy than this may be Nikolai Yezhov, possibly the most terrible of a series of leaders of what we’ve come to know as the KGB. In 1936, when the KGB was called the NKVD, Stalin told Yezhov to purge his boss, Henryk Yagoda. Having done this, Yezhov sought to ingratiate himself with Stalin by launching what Western historians call “The Great Purge” or “The Great Terror,” and which Russians call “the Yezhovshchina.” The Great Purge killed between 600,000 and 3 million Soviets, most of them for made-up charges of “wrecking,” sabotage or espionage, but in reality for their political, social, ethnic, or family associations. Eventually, word got back to Stalin that the Great Purge was alienating the Soviet people and had hollowed out the bureaucracy (it also hollowed out the Soviet officer corps, making the army easy meat for Finnish snipers in 1940 and Nazi panzer divisions in 1941). Yezhov fell into disfavor and under suspicion and began drinking heavily. Eventually, Stalin had him arrested and shot, and replaced him with the serial rapist (and fellow Georgian) Lavrentiy Beria, who was equally brutal but more cunning.
That is to say, being the political enforcer for a totalitarian regime is a very dangerous job.
And now, the weirdest (and potentially, the most significant) part of the Kim Won-hong story: Reuters quotes South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee as citing “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses” as the reasons for his purge. (Update: The New York Times report is even more specific: “Mr. Jeong said General Kim was accused of corruption and held responsible for various human rights violations, including torture, committed at his agency.”)
North Korea is thought to be one of the world’s most corrupt states, and North Korea cited corruption as one of the reasons why it purged Jang Song-Thaek. Allegations of corruption are plausible, and could be either made-up or exaggerated, but would be the most ordinary justification for a purge of a senior leader. The same would apply to an alleged abuse of power (abusing certain kinds of power is probably written into your job description when you run the MSS).
But the purge of a top North Korean official for human rights abuses — if Pyongyang indeed cites this as a justification — would be unprecedented, extraordinary, and could have profound policy implications. Until now, Pyongyang has answered every accusation of human rights abuses, including the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, with shrill denials, homophobic slurs against the Commission’s Chairman, and claims to be an earthly paradise of human rights (feel free to laugh, weep, or both). Any acknowledgment by Pyongyang that one of its top officials was responsible for human rights abuses could be incalculably important. Pyongyang’s unparalleled state surveillance system certainly watches the popular mood carefully for signs of dissent. The last time we saw a widespread outbreak of dissent in North Korea was in 2009, after its disastrous currency confiscation, which it described as a “reform.” Then, Kim Jong-il identified a scapegoat, Pak Nam-ki, and shot him.
If you’re looking for a clear indication that the regime’s power structure is divided and disloyal, the recent defections of diplomats, money launderers, and children of the elites are evidence of that, but the purge of Kim Won-hong may or may not be. I’ve never disguised my hope for the end of this horrible regime — even knowing how much now-hidden chaos that will plaster on our TV screens, and the risk that it would involve us — but the precedents of Rohm and Yezhov certainly don’t suggest that that’s necessarily imminent. For Hitler and Stalin, Rohm and Yezhov were but two more stepping-skulls along their paths to war and genocide. Rather, their precedents suggest something almost indescribably bleak. Hitler and Stalin used Röhm and Yezhov to purge potential sources of dissent and then, with their usefulness outlived, duly disposed of them, too. That helped them consolidate their rule and clear the decks for their plans for war. If those precedents tell us anything about North Korea today, the purge of Kim Won-hong could mean that Kim Jong-un thinks (wrongly or not) that he has consolidated his rule, and is about to take his next step toward his more aggressive plans.
If, on the other hand, Kim Jong-un is reacting to reports that the purge has cost him the loyalty of the elites who are his levers of power, or that popular discontent over the regime’s widespread human rights abuses is spreading among the people, purging Kim Won-hong would mean that international criticism and sanctions over North Korea’s human rights abuses have damaged the stability of the regime. Other recent reports lend some support to this explanation; human rights criticism has unnerved North Korean diplomats and even contributed to Thae Yong-ho’s defection. Kim Won-hong’s recent Treasury Department designation could also have played a role, by injecting his name into the global discourse about North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Pyongyang is obsessed with its international image, perhaps because it depends on international investment and finance. It also knows that media reports from the outside increasingly find their way into North Korea itself. If any of these things are true, Kim Won-hong, the most hated man in North Korea, would be the perfect scapegoat to sacrifice to win them back.
It’s also just possible that with his accounts frozen, Kim Won-hong failed to make his kick-up payments to his boss, although I see no evidence whatsoever to suggest that (1) we found and froze any of his accounts, or (2) that any banks had reacted to his designation. Knowing which of these alternative explanations is more likely depends on (1) whether and (2) why Kim Jong-un purged Kim Won-hong. I’ll eagerly await any announcement from KCNA. It’s a story that bears very careful watching.
~ ~ ~
Update: This report suggests another theory: that after Thae Yong-ho’s defection, the ruling Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department ordered an “inspection” of the MSS. James Pearson of Reuters adds a missing link to this theory by revealing that Thae (by his own admission) was the designated MSS minder for everyone else at the London Embassy. As such, Thae claims he would file watered-down reports on his colleagues to appease the Mother Ship after giving them a heads-up and a secret handshake. The report suggests that Kim Won-hong took the fall for the lapses of his mole in London. The theory is plausible. It would also suggest a wider institutional failure of the snitching system that’s an important part of the regime’s internal control.
~ ~ ~
Update, 2/13/2017: More than a week after this report, we’ve seen nothing from KCNA on this story, and Yonhap reports that most North Koreans still hadn’t heard that Kim Won-hong had been dismissed from his post. Whether the report of Kim’s dismissal is true or false, the regime isn’t reporting it, which by itself casts doubt on the Yezhov theory (that Kim Won-hong was a scapegoat for admitted “human rights abuses”), at least until some other evidence emerges. And of course, it’s also possible that the report simply isn’t true at all and Kim Won-hong could show up on North Korean TV tomorrow.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that hackers employed by the government of North Korea have been implicated in yet another international bank fraud scheme using hacked SWIFT software. This time, the victim is a bank in Taiwan, and the take was $60 million, all of it laundered through accounts in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and the United States.
In a blog post Tuesday, cybersecurity researchers at U.K. defense company BAE Systems PLC also implicated Lazarus in the Taiwanese theft, saying that tools used in the attack on the Far Eastern International Bank include those used by Lazarus in the past.
“The attack this month on Taiwanese Far Eastern International Bank has some of the hallmarks of the Lazarus group,” BAE researchers wrote.
The suspected ties to Lazarus suggest the group’s continued focus on financial cybercrimes. In addition to the Bangladesh Bank theft, the BAE researchers said the group has been targeting bitcoin and is behind attacks on banks in Mexico and Poland.
Security researchers suspect the group has links to North Korea. U.S. authorities have said that one hack also linked to Lazarus—the 2014 Sony Pictures hack—originated in North Korea. The country has denied being behind the attack.
The BAE researchers said they found further evidence of the group’s North Korea links, saying they observed infrastructure in North Korea controlling the malware used in a previous Lazarus-linked attack. Representatives at North Korea’s Beijing embassy and Hong Kong consulate weren’t immediately available for comment. [WSJ, Dan Strumpf]
Sri Lankan authorities have arrested two suspects, one of whom was trying to withdraw $520,000 (which is more than my ATM ordinarily allows me to take out before a trip to Home Depot for plywood and router bits).
That report closely follows this New York Times story on the recent history of North Korea’s cyber crimes, including the Bangladesh Bank fraud, where the North Koreans got away with $81 million, the 2013 Dark Seoul cyberattacks, the 2014 Sony cyberattack and cyberterrorist attack against the U.S. homeland (about which the United States of America did approximately diddly squat), and (consequently) this year’s the WannaCry ransomware attacks.
Earlier this year, I wrote about reports that high officials in U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had found evidence implicating North Korea in recent cyberattacks. Clearly, the FBI is investigating this course of criminal conduct, which is something I presume the FBI wouldn’t do without some prospect of a prosecution. We are speaking, after all, of conduct that is highly dangerous, ongoing, and undeterred. That gives the U.S. government a powerful incentive to charge those who conspired to commit these crimes.
Which brings us to this question: Is there any real doubt as to who the real person of interest is here? Of course, the feds would need at least some proof to get a grand jury to indict. The opacity of the royal court in Pyongyang presents some obvious challenges to this, but just over a decade ago, when prosecutors very nearly indicted His Porcine Majesty’s father for counterfeiting — before George W. Bush stopped them for political reasons — they concluded that those challenges were surmountable.
“The most difficult thing is connecting evidence of criminality to a state’s leader, because there is so much deniability built in. But there isn’t a whole lot of activity in North Korea that isn’t sanctioned by the leadership, and the evidence we had already built up was very good. These cases were very doable.” The criminal cases, says Asher, were based on information from undercover agents, informants, and a vast surveillance operation. [Vanity Fair, David Rose]
If you’ve read the links above or my posts on the Sony cyber attacks, it’s apparent that our signals intelligence is part of the case that implicates state-sponsored North Korean hackers. The Justice Department has cited the testimony of defectors in recent civil forfeiture cases against North Korean funds, and at least two defectors with inside knowledge of North Korean cyber operations have spoken publicly.
But even assuming there are no defectors who testify to His Porcine Majesty’s complicity, and that the government offers no signals intelligence implicating him (which it might not want to do to protect sources and methods) the feds could still do what the plaintiffs did in their lawsuits against North Korea for the state sponsorship of terrorism — they could call experts to testify about North Korea’s system of government, command systems, and the certainty that this conspiracy must have been approved at the very top.
Then, what would the feds most likely charge? Prosecutors’ opinions inevitably vary, but here are my best guesses. I’ve linked the relevant sections in the Criminal Code so that you can read the elements yourself.
Assuming the feds do indict, would His Porcine Majesty, a sitting head of state, be immune from prosecution in a U.S. court? I want to thank one of my Twitter followers, Shin Chang-hoon, for pointing me to this interesting discussion of that potential obstacle in the broader, global context. In the U.S. federal courts, however, there is at least one precedent for the feds successfully indicting, prosecuting, and convicting a sitting, de facto head of state. That would be Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, whom we arrested after the 1989 U.S. invasion of that country. Noriega argued his indictment on drug charges must be dismissed because he was immune from prosecution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected Noriega’s argument on the grounds that the U.S. had not recognized him as the lawful head of state, and because (and this is admittedly circular) by invading Panama, and by arresting and extraditing him, the U.S. showed that it did not intend to immunize him. You can read the court’s decision here.
Yes, the potential for such prosecutions to get out of hand is obvious, but it’s hard to believe that a federal court of appeals would immunize a head of state from prosecution for straight-up international bank fraud. The key distinction is whether the prosecuted conduct consists of the acts of a head of state or “for private or criminal acts.”
Having navigated past one problem, we encounter a more difficult one: the requirement to have a defendant present for the arraignment before a prosecution can go forward. (One of my least pleasant trials was a case where I defended a man who ran away after his arraignment and before trial. Much like Clint Eastwood did not do in 2012, only more effectively, I had to defend an empty chair. The chair got three years — a good result, given the charges and the evidence.)
So, does this bring us to an Emily Litella moment?
Not quite. Admittedly, my experience in federal civilian criminal litigation is limited, but as I read the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, you don’t need to have custody of a defendant to indict. The statute of limitations (typically, five years) stops running when the feds indict. Then, the indictment sits on a shelf until arraignment, which starts the ticking of the defendant’s speedy trial clock. But why do that? Again, past history is instructive.
The final stage, which David Asher says President Bush had been fully briefed about, would have been the unsealing of criminal indictments. “We could have gone after the foreign personal bank accounts of the leadership because we could prove they were kingpins,” Asher says. “We were going to indict the ultimate perpetrators of a global criminal network.” “The world wanted evidence that North Korea is a criminal state, not a lot of hoo-ha,” says Suzanne Hayden, a former senior prosecutor at the Department of Justice who ran its part of the Illicit Activities Initiative. “The criminal cases would have provided the evidence. It would have been in the indictments. As with any money-laundering investigation, we would have identified the players and traced them back, from Macao to those who were behind it in North Korea.” [Vanity Fair, David Rose]
A better reason might be to charge and prosecute the third-country nationals and businesses that provide the North Korean hackers with the havens and support they require.
The feds would also have the alternative of filing a civil forfeiture case under 18 U.S.C. 981, alleging all of the same counts in a civil, in rem suit against funds that belong to Kim Jong-un, on the theory that the funds are proceeds of that conduct, or are facilitating property (such as property co-mingled with the stolen funds to conceal their origin and ownership). The advantage of that strategy is that the feds would only have to prove the forfeitability of the property by a preponderance of the evidence, and the feds would win the suit by default unless Kim Jong-un enters an appearance in federal court and intervenes in the proceeding.
In 2005, President Bush decided not to go forward with the prosecution of Kim Jong-il because it was afraid that he’d walk out of six-party talks. But of course, North Korea did walk about of six-party talks in 2008, hasn’t returned since then, and is absolutely adamant in its refusal to negotiate either a freeze or denuclearization, that concern isn’t present.
Of all the dumb things smart people tend to write about North Korea, the dumbest of them all may be the idea that what North Korea needs most is for us to teach it how to do capitalism. Over the last week, I’ve read reports of how North Korea and its officials make money through drug trafficking, racetrack gambling, tourism, and ivory and rhino horn smuggling. It runs one of the world’s more sophisticated money laundering operations using front and shell companies in Hong Kong. The last thing Pyongyang needs us for is to teach it how to make money. To Pyongyang, capitalism is not a path to reform, but a path to the enslavement of all Koreans. What Pyongyang needs to learn is an object lesson in the rule of law — that at last, its crimes will have consequences, even if some of those consequences are symbolic. And for a system of government built on symbols and myths, symbolic consequences can be some of the most powerful ones.
Donald Trump hit Kim Jong-un with his first sanctions executive order today. (Update: Its official number is Executive Order 13810.) The new EO partially implements UNSCR 2371, UNSCR 2375, and the KIMS Act, which the President signed in August. As a strictly legal matter, this EO will not affect anyone’s interests immediately because Treasury didn’t announce any new designations. As a practical matter, however, we may already be seeing the effects of the clear seriousness of purpose that Trump has already shown. You can read the full text here and a White House fact sheet here.
The New Authorities: A Summary
The new provisions broaden the administration’s authority to designate (and thus, freeze any assets within U.S. jurisdiction of) entities that engage in the conduct described below:
Treasury previously authorized sectoral sanctions against anyone operating in North Korea’s the mining, energy, transportation, and financial services industries. The newly designated industries include those sanctioned under the new U.N. resolutions and the KIMS Act. Sanctions on the medical industry are a notable exception. This will draw gasps of horror from some, but remember, there’s still a humanitarian general license that exempts “medicine distribution” and “the provision of health services.” Section 7 of the EO exempts UN operations entirely. So why say “medical” at all? The feds may suspect Pyongyang of hiding behind “medical” uses to make biological weapons, but that’s only a guess.
Executive Order 13570 previously banned unlicensed imports and exports between the United States and North Korea. This provision, by contrast, bans any transactions through the U.S. financial system, or by U.S. persons, that facilitate imports to or exports from North Korea by anyone, to or from any country. In effect, if you trade with North Korea now, you have to use a non-dollar currency or get an OFAC license.
This effectively cuts the Gordian Knot around the spurious claims of China (or this one, by Tanzania) that the North Koreans they’re dealing with aren’t representatives of the North Korean government. Hopefully, Treasury will now start mining names out of the U.N. Panel of Experts reports and designating the members of Pyongyang’s overseas proliferation and money laundering networks, thus putting the banking industry on notice to freeze their accounts.
I’m glad Treasury exempted North Koreans (including refugees) who are legally in the United States. I would have preferred that Treasury had clarified that North Korean refugees in Europe and South Korea are also exempt. I realize that Treasury has no intention of enforcing sanctions against refugees in England or South Korea — and I hope the banks realize this, too. Some clarifying guidance from Treasury might be useful. Refugees in South Korea, in particular, often keep their family members alive by remitting money to them. As I’ve argued before, remittances might be a rare case of financial interaction with North Korea that actually does drive reform, by helping the poor start businesses and achieve financial independence from the state. Thankfully, a general license covers noncommercial, personal remittances.
Things start to get more interesting in Section 2, which provides for a secondary boycott on ships and aircraft. Under the EO, any ships or aircraft that have been in North Korea in the last 180 days can’t land in the United States. This both overlaps with and complements section 315 of the KIMS Act. It is also the same concept that Japan and South Korea had previously applied to North Korean ships, meaning that ships that visit North Korea will now incur a six-month ban from the waters of China’s three largest trading partners. Furthermore, any ship that has done a ship-to-ship transfer with a ship that has been in North Korea in the last 180 days also gets banned from U.S. ports for 180 days. Shipping trackers suggest that a fair number of these transfers are happening off the Chinese coast. A concern, however, is that the existing humanitarian general license may not cover shipments of commercial food imports (which we should want to encourage).
Section 3 contains some very tough secondary financial sanctions. Section 3(a) freezes any funds controlled by a “North Korean person,” or in which a North Korean person as an interest. This is very powerful — much like its ancestor, section 104(c) the NKSPEA, which blocks all property of the “Government of North Korea,” a term that the NKSPEA defines in roughly similar terms to this EO’s definition of “North Korean person.” The EO also extends the blocking to any person who finances, approves, facilitates, or guarantees a transaction that would be frozen under this paragraph.
Section 4 contains some additional penalties that are tailored to the financial industry. Any person who knowingly conducts or facilitates a transaction in property blocked under a North Korea-related executive order, or who knowingly conducts or facilitates a significant transaction in trade with North Korea, can lose access to the U.S. financial system. That potentially means no correspondent accounts, or the freezing of all of the bank’s assets in the United States. This amounts to a mini Patriot Act section 311 just for North Korea. And of course, banks that knowingly deal with Pyongyang could also face prosecution for money laundering, criminal or civil forfeitures, or the kind of civil penalties that were applied to BNP Paribas for violating Iran sanctions.
We sound like we really mean it this time.
The effects of previous, strong-on-paper EOs fell short of their potential because President Obama never showed the world that he was serious about enforcing them (or rather, until the very end of his administration, he showed the world that he wasn’t serious about enforcing them at all). Let no one accuse Donald Trump of indecision or paralysis.
“A new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea’s efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind,” Trump said at the start of a trilateral luncheon meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York….
Trump said China’s central bank had just told the country’s other banks to “immediately” stop doing business with North Korea, and thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for that “unexpected” decision.
“For much too long North Korea has been allowed to abuse the international financial system to facilitate funding for its nuclear weapons and missile programs,” he said. [Yonhap]
Take note, humanity: Donald Trump just said the right thing in the right tone, and it all appears to be true, right down to “unexpectedly.” Then, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this at the U.N., just to be sure the whole world heard him:
For far too long, North Korea has evaded sanctions and used the international financial system to facilitate funding for its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. No bank – in any country – should be used to facilitate Kim Jong-un’s destructive behavior.
This new Executive Order will authorize Treasury to impose a range of sanctions, such as suspending U.S. correspondent account access to any foreign bank that knowingly conducts or facilitates significant transactions tied to trade with North Korea or certain designated persons.… Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that, going forward, they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both….
We call on countries around the world to join us by cutting all trade and financial ties with North Korea in order to achieve a denuclearized Korean peninsula. [link]
Finally, in a conference call this afternoon, a senior National Security Council official and a senior Treasury Department official (whom we weren’t allowed to name) emphasized the administration’s seriousness. Some key points:
Signs of impact on North Korean trade
So, you ask, will the Chinese banks finally listen? I’ve cited the evidence that they already are. Fuel prices in North Korea have spiked, North Korean workers are flooding back over the border to China, and trading companies in China are effectively out of business and unhappy about the freezing of their bank accounts. The coal industry, which has taken some hard hits from the Treasury and Justice Departments lately, is also showing the strain. These things could be consequences of the banks telling their customers to de-risk North Korea. We may soon find out just who’s right here.
North Korea was built to endure pain. Sanctions don’t work. Good luck!
— John Delury (@JohnDelury) September 21, 2017
Today, Reuters reports that the Chinese government has directed its banks to stop dealing with North Koreans entirely, to include winding down loans with existing customers. If that’s true — and if it lasts — that will be fatal. The timing is curious. One of the “senior administration officials” said that President Trump had only notified President Xi about this EO today, yet the reports of the alleged Central Bank order — the bankers say they received it Monday — come a week after multiple press reports of Chinese banks closing North Korean-controlled accounts. Could Beijing be making a virtue of necessity by ordering banks to do what they’re already doing for their own sake? As I’ve said before, there isn’t just one “China.” Various ministries and industries have diverse and conflicting interests.
This week, President Trump acted strongly, decisively, publicly, and with a deliberate seriousness of purpose. Banks and governments around the world will disregard his words at their peril (meaning, very few of them will). His misbegotten threats against North Korea (as opposed to its regime) shouldn’t distract us from what he did right, if only because his predecessors could not do it right. His words and actions, and in tandem with other governments’ actions to cut their trade and diplomatic ties to North Korea, should be difficult for Pyongyang to withstand for long. We may soon conclude the sanctions-never-work portion of our narrative and enter the sanctions-are-starving-North-Korean-babies portion of our narrative fairly soon. In fact, it looks like we already have.
Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was killed in an attack at Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysian police confirmed on Tuesday, in an apparent assassination.
The 46-year-old was assaulted by a woman who covered his face with a cloth laced with liquid as he was waiting for a flight to Macau, said Fadzil Ahmat, a Malaysian police official. He was confirmed dead after being taken to hospital. [Financial Times]
The kindest way to remember Kim Jong-nam may be as a man who was never cut out to be a tyrant. This must have been obvious from the circumstances of his fall from primogeniture — he was caught entering Japan on a fake passport on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Maybe he never wanted the job, and maybe it was his downfall that caused him to reflect on the circumstances of his countrymen. He was neither a hero nor a martyr, although he later wrote a book criticizing the rule of his half-brother (whom he claimed he never met). Although there were rumors of a previous attempt to assassinate him by staging a car accident, Kim Jong-nam never really seemed interested enough in politics to call a dissident, either. He seemed interested in being happy. And any man who abstains from the opportunity to enslave others ought to be remembered fondly for that alone.
Friends who said they’d met Jong-nam and found him to be, against all odds, nice — which is to say he was affable, approachable, and spoke good English. His son, Kim Han-sol certainly seems like a nice kid. After doing an interview in which he criticized the regime’s human rights abuses, he went into hiding. My heart goes out to him, not just for the sadness he must feel at the loss of his father, but for the terror that he must feel for his own safety now. (Kim Jong-nam also had a daughter, who lives in Macau.)
~ ~ ~
The propagation of terror is surely one of the reasons why Kim Jong-un committed this act of fratricide. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, but as Mark Tokola asks, “Cui bono?” Someone in the U.S. government who probably knows things I don’t “strongly believes” Kim Jong-un did it. I can’t think of another logical explanation.
(Update: Malaysian police have arrested a North Korean man, Ri Jong-chol, a chemistry specialist, in connection with the murder. Incredibly, Ri kept a Facebook page that says he graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 2000, a school in Massachusetts in 2010, and had been studying in Kolkata, India. He liked Dave Mraz, Ha Ji-won, and was “interested in men,” unusual things for a North Korean who surely knew he was being monitored closely to admit openly. In other words, an engagement success story! Dagyum Ji of NK News reports that Malaysian police are also seeking four more North Korean suspects: Ri Ji Hyon, 33; Hong Sang Hac, 34; O Jong Gil, 55; Ri Jae Nam, 57, all of whom entered Malaysia in late January or early February, and who appear to have made a clean getaway to Pyongyang. Police are also seeking another North Korean, Ri Ji U, and two other unidentified men “believed to be North Koreans” for questioning.)
I don’t think there’s any question that it was murder, either, although the reports still can’t agree on exactly how Kim Jong-nam was done in. Surveillance video shows two women doing the deed and then fleeing in a taxi. (Update: Watch the video at this link.) In contrast to the Financial Times’s account, other reports say they sprayed poison on his face or that they jabbed him with one or more poison needles. Even the police weren’t sure yesterday afternoon. Both versions would be half-true if one chloroformed him and one jabbed him. (Update: from the grainy CCTV video, it looks like “LOL girl” reached around Kim Jong-nam from behind and put a cloth over his face.)
The news of the investigation is developing quickly, and there are many conflicting or unverified accounts of suspects being pursued, arrested, or dead. Malaysian authorities say they have arrested this woman, who was carrying a (possibly fake) Vietnamese name and passport.
— Hakim Rahman (@abdhakimrahman) February 15, 2017
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police have also arrested another woman from
Burma (Update: One woman with a Vietnamese passport, one Indonesian woman, her boyfriend, and this North Korean man, a chemist who attended high school in Massachusetts, Kim Il-Sung University, and a grad school in Kolkata, India). NK News says they may be pursuing up to five other suspects. The Joongang Ilbo suggests Kim Jong-nam may have been lured to Malaysia by a romantic relationship with one of the women. This may be one of the killers.
— LIM Yun Suk (@yunsukCNA) February 15, 2017
This report, which quotes an unnamed Japanese official, says she and her accomplice are both already dead. (Update: wrong; they’re both alive and under arrest. The best compilation of solid evidence of how the attack unfolded and who the attackers are is actually at this Facebook post. Although the women are apparently claiming that they thought they were only playing a prank on Kim Jong-nam, the video shows “LOL girl” striking quickly and Kim Jong-nam struggling. I don’t buy it.) In the past, RGB agents have been under orders to kill themselves before being taken alive, although not all of them have followed through with those orders in recent years.
Whatever the precise facts turn out to be, this was obviously an elaborate plot that unfolded over the space of months, if not years. Bloomberg quotes Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, as saying the murder didn’t have its impetus in recent events, but was simply the successful conclusion of a longstanding fatwa. Still, it’s difficult to believe that the plotters would have gone through with it without a final go-ahead from Pyongyang, from the very top.
~ ~ ~
In recent years, poison — specifically, needles spring-loaded with neostigmine bromide — have been the standard M.O. for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, or RGB. Starting on page 59 of my report on North Korea’s state sponsorship of terrorism, I describe five such assassinations and foiled attempts since 2008. If you accept that the evidence will likely show that the North Korean government did the hit on Kim Jong-nam, this was a clear-cut case of international terrorism.
There are at least three statutory definitions of terrorism, all of them inconsistent and imperfect for reasons I discussed in my report, starting on page 5. If one makes a lowest common denominator of these definitions and sifts through a few decades of State Department reports for interpretive precedent, it’s possible to write a legal definition of international terrorism that consists of five elements:
Of the first three elements there’s no doubt, and Kim Jong-nam was a noncombatant. If the killers are caught, they were probably agents of the RGB, which employs women as clandestine agents to hunt down refugees in China, and as assassins. The terrorist acts of state actors through their clandestine agents can be a basis for a SSOT listing; in fact, it was two bombings by the RGB that caused the U.S. to put North Korea on the list in 1988. The Secretary of State has the discretion to find that North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. He doesn’t need a federal appeals court to tell him that (although one has, and my report also cites several other district court decisions).
As to the regime’s apparent intent, its motives must have been political. Kim Jong-nam had criticized his brother’s regime and predicted that it wouldn’t last. As Dennis Halpin explained, he was the best alternative successor to the family bloodline if China needed a North Korean Pu Yi, a possibility Kim Jong-un couldn’t allow. The most important reason to kill Kim Jong-nam was to warn Thae Yong-ho and others like him, who have been defecting in greater numbers. Pyongyang sees that surge of defections as a threat to its survival. It must want to send a message to Thae Yong-ho and others that they aren’t safe anywhere, even if they’re under government protection (in Kim Jong-nam’s case, China’s).
In one sense, those theories explain the assassination of Kim Jong-nam logically, but in another sense, it all seems illogical. Kim Jong-un must have known that this act of fratricide would shock South Korean voters in an election year, at a time when opinions are still unstable. He must have known that the odds were already high that the Trump administration would put his government back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, triggering additional sanctions. He must have known that the evidence would lead back to him, further discrediting a naive and sympathetic commentariat that tried to sell us the image of Kim Jong-un as a Swiss-educated reformer, while encouraging more subsidies and investments to finance and sustain his rule. He certainly knew that assassinating someone under Chinese protection would irritate (but not alienate) his most important ally. But then, Pyongyang’s business model has long involved a curious combination of obsession with, and disregard for, world opinion.
Thus, if the reports are mostly accurate and the investigation validates a few reasonable inferences, this would be a clear-cut case of international terrorism, not that more evidence is needed to support a re-listing. Returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism is both legally justified and good policy. It’s not just out of regard for Kim Jong-nam’s defiantly passive life that we should do it, but to protect more heroic men and women like Park Sang-hak, Thae Yong-ho, Hyeonseo Lee, and potentially dozens more would-be defectors who must be wondering if America will stand by them if they take the risk of crossing the line.
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials under Executive Order 13687, and two ministries under Executive Order 13722 (the authority has legal implications, which I’ll touch on later in this post). Along with the designations, Treasury and State issued, respectively, a statement and a report explaining the designations.
“The North Korean regime not only engages in severe human rights abuses, but it also implements rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior,” said John E. Smith, Acting OFAC Director. “Today’s action exposes individuals supporting the North Korean regime and underscores the U.S. Government’s commitment to promoting accountability for serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.”
Today’s designations were issued pursuant to E.O. 13687, which targets, among others, officials of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea. As a result of today’s actions, any property or interest in property of those designated by OFAC within U.S. jurisdiction is frozen. Additionally, transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited. The identifications of two entities as blocked were issued pursuant to E.O. 13722, which, among others, blocks the property and interests in property of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, including those two entities. [Treasury Dep’t]
Special thanks to a good friend of OFK, who will remain nameless, for providing additional background for this post.
Now, the weird part. Note how the seven individuals designated are noted as “DPRK2,” meaning Executive Order 13687. That’s a status-based EO that allows for the designation of any agent of the North Korean government or Workers’ Party. Treasury and State offer extensive, conduct-based justifications for the designations. There are certainly good public advocacy reasons for doing that, but legally, it would have been enough to say they were ruling party officials.
On the other hand, Treasury designated North Korea’s State Planning Commission and Ministry of Labor as “DPRK3,” meaning EO 13722, which partially implements the NKSPEA and is conduct-based (in this case, for human rights violations). Yet Treasury’s statement explaining the designations under a conduct-based EO only says it’s because they’re “agencies, instrumentalities, or controlled entities of the Government of North Korea,” which happens to be language ripped straight from EO 13687. Admittedly, the statement also says that the ministries have roles in allocating labor to the mining sector, which is subject to sectoral sanctions under EO 13722.
Anthony “the Beard of Knowledge” Ruggiero also finds the choice of EOs odd, and wonders if this is an effort to avoid the conditions for suspending and lifting sanctions in the NKSPEA. Overall, however, the choices of targets are good ones (if belated). One important objective of sanctions should be to de-fund and break down the system of control, and shift North Korea’s internal balance of power. Here’s what it would look like in practice if that half of the strategy actually works. Here’s how the other half would work.
In yesterday’s post, I linked to reports suggesting that China’s failure to agree on the terms of a new U.N. sanctions resolution responding to North Korea’s latest nuclear test may be motivated by a desire to wait out the end of President Obama’s administration. This theory would only make sense if China figures it can get better terms from President Trump next year, but my post pointed to evidence of the opposite of this — that what we know so far about the key people advising Trump is that some want to increase sanctions against His Supreme Corpulency and his Chinese backers, and others would prefer to terminate his command with extreme prejudice.
First, I’ll offer an important caveat: it can be treacherous trying to divine President Elect Trump’s policy views by listening to his advisors.
With that caveat, then, if the present pattern of selections and nominations continues, differences between the U.S. and China over North Korea may have to get worse under a Trump administration before they can get better. Men like John Bolton, Mitt Romney, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn probably believe that President Obama’s deferential approach to China, rather than improving relations, likely contributed to China’s (correct) calculation that it could get away with grabbing vast areas of the South China Sea, bullying its neighbors, undermining North Korea sanctions, and doing other things to escalate regional tensions. They may see more pressure on China as a prerequisite to defanging North Korea. They may dismiss China’s explanations of its North Korea policy as mendacious and double-dealing, which is only natural, given that China actually has at least six of them — all of them risible, mutually inconsistent, or both.
First, there is China’s official diplomatic position, expressed in its vote for no less than six resolutions at the Security Council. Implicit in these votes are two ideas — that China wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and that economic pressure is an important part of a policy for achieving that end.
Second, there is the reality of China’s material and financial support for the North Korean regime, often in violation of U.N. sanctions, including the sale of proliferation-sensitive technology (missile trucks, for example). China has spent the last decade violating the same sanctions it voted for because trade and engagement and all that. As I’ve pointed out more than once, those violations are much too extensive and long-standing to be anything less than willful state policy.
Third, there is the propaganda line advanced by China’s scholars and acolytes that sanctions — that is, the ones China has spent the last decade violating — never work. (Except, of course, when they do, but more on that in a moment.)
Fourth, when called on its years of flagrant violations, China says it’s afraid that sanctions will work so well they’ll destabilize the regime in Pyongyang. Here’s a typical example of something you’ve read at least a hundred times:
China fears that stricter measures against North Korea, such as cutting off provisions of oil and food, would lead to a humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees flocking across the border. The collapse of Kim’s government could also put soldiers from South Korea and its U.S. ally right on China’s border, a scenario Beijing’s leaders want to avoid. [Bloomberg]
A premise of that view is that China would rather have a nuclear-armed, genocidal North Korea along its border than a democratic one friendly to the United States, which it views with intense hostility. Usually, that premise goes unspoken, but not always.
“The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China is closer to North Korea than the United States.”
China sees living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse, Mr. Shi said. The Chinese leadership is confident that North Korea will not turn its weapons on China, and that China can control its neighbor by providing enough oil to keep its economy afloat.
The alternative is a strategic nightmare for Beijing: a collapsed North Korean regime, millions of refugees piling into China and a unified Korean Peninsula under an American defense treaty. [N.Y. Times]
A fifth argument is that Beijing has little real influence over Pyongyang, which is spurious nonsense:
China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume (PDF). “China is currently North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. [Council on Foreign Relations]
That argument looks especially spurious this year, as China uses trade as a blunt instrument against South Korea over its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, and against the United States itself. China has made more threats against the U.S. and South Korea over missile defense this year than it has against North Korea in a decade over the missiles and nukes that gave rise to the threat itself.
Finally, China has a last line of defense: We are, too, enforcing sanctions! If it comes under sufficient diplomatic pressure, for a few weeks or months, Beijing will encourage a few banks and companies to freeze a few accounts, arrest a few North Korean money launderers, or inspect some cargo entering or leaving North Korea. This compliance typically lasts for a few weeks or months until the trade returns to business as usual.
In 2013, and again this year, Chinese banks seemed (for a few weeks) to have frozen North Korean accounts right after a sanctions resolution passed. But by September, the Justice Department’s indictment and forfeiture action against Dandong Hongxiang proved that Chinese banks had gone right back to servicing His Porcine Majesty’s slush funds. At first blush, a new Washington Post report by Anna Fifield, indicating that Sino-North Korean trade dropped off suddenly in recent weeks, looks like the latest Chinese head-fake in response to pressure from the outgoing Obama administration.
[T]rading has become significantly harder in recent weeks, a dozen people involved in doing business with North Korea said in interviews, the result of a double-pronged attempt by Beijing to communicate its anger with the regime in Pyongyang.
“Everything’s become tougher since September,” a Korean Chinese factory owner who employs North Korean workers here told The Washington Post. “This crackdown is because of the missile and nuclear tests, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to blow over.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This could be a head-fake, but it could also mean something entirely different and much more significant — Chinese companies may be showing their fear of U.S. secondary sanctions. Specifically, Fifield sees some evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action had an in-terrorem effect on other Chinese trading companies. Indeed, she speculates that this action had a greater impact than the passage of U.N. sanctions:
But an equal or even bigger influence is the surprise detention of a prominent Dandong business executive, a member of the Communist Party no less, who stands accused of helping North Korea dodge sanctions and obtain materials for its weapons program.
“When business people hear this kind of story, of course we feel very constrained and it makes us very cautious,” a South Korean businessman trading in this area said on condition of anonymity. The atmosphere is so tense that none of the businessmen interviewed were willing to be publicly identified, even as they insisted everything was aboveboard.
Business is down, but no one knows how long that will last. And even now there are plenty of ambiguous signs: The annual trade fair here was canceled- yet coal exports from North Korea are breaking records. China holds the lever, and its intentions can only be speculated upon. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This highlights a point that sanctions skeptics tend to miss or gloss over — that the goal of secondary sanctions isn’t so much to change the attitude of the Chinese government (probably a fool’s errand) but to threaten the divergent interests of the Chinese banks and business that are the instruments of Beijing’s sanctions-busting. Chinese banks and businesses are content to break sanctions if it’s profitable to do so, but not at the cost of their assets or their access to international markets, trade, or finance.
Fifield treats these reports with justifiable skepticism, noting that the Chinese government’s interest in maintaining North Korea’s status quo (however horrific for North Koreans) probably hasn’t changed. Indeed, I see little clear evidence in Fifield’s report that this drop-off is the result of Chinese government action. What’s interesting and noteworthy is the timing of this change (in September). On September 9th, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, which brought more diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government to enforce sanctions. The Dandong Hongxiang actions were announced on September 26th. One could argue that either event was a greater influence than the other.
Fifield and Andrei Lankov, whom Fifield quotes, then proceed to say that years of sanctions have failed, even as Fifield sees evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action might have worked. But this is a false distinction. It misses the key point that U.S. authorities acted against Dandong Hongxiang for laundering money for Korea Kwangsong Bank, which was designated by both the U.N. and the U.S. for proliferation financing in violation of U.N. sanctions. This was an example of a Member State using its national laws to enforce U.N. sanctions, which is the only way U.N. sanctions can be enforced. Dandong Hongxiang is precisely what it looks like when someone bothers to enforce U.N. sanctions for once.
It’s difficult to believe that a single enforcement action — particularly one that failed to act against the Chinese banks behind Dandong Hongxiang’s violations — will be enough to put significant and lasting pressure on Pyongyang. Chinese businesses may be waiting to see how the new Trump administration responds. Or, we may be seeing the Chinese government’s latest head-fake. But for now, the report bears watching, and may eventually validate the effectiveness of secondary sanctions.
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.
The bad news from North Korea’s nuclear test is that its yield exceeded those of its 2006, 2009, and 2013 tests. The good news is that while the blast wasn’t thermonuclear, it was still hot enough to burn away plenty of policy fog. In Congress, sanctions legislation has sailed through the House, and seems to have good prospects in the Senate. Opinions are shifting among Korea scholars here, too. This morning, I had a chance to finish reading last week’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. It’s telling, and quite gratifying, to see that two of those witnesses, Bruce Klingner (a good friend) and Victor Cha (whom I can’t say I know personally) cited this humble
brag blog in their written testimony.
It seems the mainstream has caught up with me.
There is also encouraging diplomatic clarity. Just before the test, South Korea and Japan came to an admittedly imperfect but timely agreement on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, almost as if both governments knew what was to come. The agreement came far too late to undo the harm to those poor women, but may have come just in time to give the last survivors a measure of compensation, and just some of their stolen dignity back. It may also help to protect future generations of Koreans through cooperation with Japan toward shared interests in disarming Kim Jong-un.
If the agreement holds, perhaps the controversial statue of that young sex slave should be moved to the doorstep of the Chinese Embassy, given all that China’s policies are doing to keep North Korean women in sexual slavery today. After all, there is still time to prevent some of those women from being enslaved and raped by Chinese men.
~ ~ ~
Today, in no small part because of that agreement, South Korea, U.S., and Japan appear to be coordinating their policy responses, like the natural allies they should be. All three governments are pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions, but there is still little public information on the specifics. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will visit Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing this week, to talk about a draft U.N. Security Council resolution and sanctions enforcement. Oh, and John Kerry will also visit China later this month.
As a long-time reader would say: “Tremble, Commies.”
South Korea, cognizant of the fact that its own security is the most at risk from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, is asking Japan to impose tougher sanctions. Japan unilaterally relaxed its sanctions in 2014, after North Korea made a successful divide-and-rule ploy, promising to “investigate” its own past abductions of Japanese. Naturally, that deal has yielded no actual progress on the return of any abductees or their remains.
Seoul is also asking Beijing to support tougher sanctions. Although China says it’s willing to sign on for some sort of resolution on paper, it’s also trying “to water down the U.N.-led sanctions on the North in a familiar pattern following its nuclear and long-range missile tests” and to minimize the sanctions’ impact. China is also stalling, perhaps hoping that other events and priorities will intervene and weaken the U.S. and South Korean position.
In return, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is hinting at the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, apparently as a way to pressure Beijing.
For the time being, Park has also stopped feeding the South Korean people implausible feel-good Sunshine Lite twaddle about dialogue, Trustpolitik, and reunification. Instead, she’s calling for the “strongest yet sanctions” on Pyongyang and trying to awaken them to the danger posed by nuclear-armed eliminationists with no regard for human life:
On Wednesday, a week after the North’s nuclear test, Park described the South as facing “emergency situations” both in security and the economy.
She voiced concern that Pyongyang’s provocation, allegedly hydrogen-based, may lead to a “fundamental change” in the regional security landscape. Many are anxious about the possibility of an arms race in Northeast Asia, with Japan widely viewed as capable of producing nuclear bombs.
Park said her government will make every diplomatic effort to make the North’s regime feel “bone-numbing” pain through the United Nations.
But it also puts South Korea in an awkward position, because Japan, China, and the U.S. can’t help staring at the very thing South Korea doesn’t want them to notice.
~ ~ ~
The elephant, of course, is the Kaesong Industrial Park, a complex just north of the DMZ where regime-picked North Korean workers labor in South Korean-run maquiladoras for “wages” that are either low or non-existent, at least after Kim Jong-un skims his cut off the top. According to some sources, Kaesong provided Pyongyang $90 million in cash annually, even before its most recent unilateral hikes in “wages” and land-use taxes.
Since the January 6th nuclear test, calls to close Kaesong have been growing. The most surprising proponent of this is the usually pro-engagement Daniel Pinkston, who has the eccentric habit of referring to North Korea as “Songun Korea,” complete with diacritical marks (which this blog does not like to display, sadly). I enjoy reading Dan’s views, if only because I never quite know if they’ll cause me to applaud or cock my head like a dog hearing a new sound. When he wrote this comment on one of my tweets that auto-posted to Facebook, I’ll admit to having had both reactions:
KIC was a good experiment, but it operates like it’s the International Space Station. No backward or forward linkages to local enterprises that could be established as part of an opening and liberalization process. We now see that the regime is not interested in becoming integrated with the international economy. They only want cash payments as rents to the KWP. I congratulate and admire Kim Dae-jung for getting KIC started and trying. I supported it at the time. But we tested that hypothesis and the results are in. I think it should be closed down. And better to do it before there is a crisis and the ROK citizens in KIC become hostages. [Daniel Pinkston, Jan. 7, 2016]
That is to say, Kaesong failed to achieve the purpose that justified its establishment — to draw North Korea out of its isolation and into compliance with international norms and standards. As I said last May, Kaesong promised us peace and reform. It delivered conflict, tension, and exploitation.
It also surprised me when Victor Cha, a long-time advocate of “hawk engagement,” wrote this in his testimony last week.
Kaesong Industrial Complex: Another useful asymmetric pressure point is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. A legacy of the sunshine policy, this project now provides $90 million in annual wages (around $245.7 million from December 2004 to July 2012) of hard currency to North Korean authorities with little wages actually going to the factory workers. The South Korean government will be opposed to shutting this down, as even conservative governments in South Korea have grown attached to the project as symbolic of the future potential of a united Korea, but difficult times call for difficult measures. [Victor Cha, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Asia Subcommittee, Jan. 13, 2016]
See also the testimony of Bruce Klingner, who also called for Kaesong’s closure.
South Korea must surely perceive the awkwardness of its position here. No wonder its statements about Kaesong have been so confusing. On January 8th, two days after the test, the Unifiction Ministry said, “At this stage, we don’t think it is appropriate to talk about withdrawal or closure of the complex.” On the 11th, it said it would further limit access to Kaesong, allowing only “businessmen directly involved in the operation of factories” (but no contractors) to stay overnight, reducing the number of South Koreans staying at Kaesong from 800 to 650. South Korea left open the possibility of further restrictions, depending on “relevant circumstances.” The next day, the Unifiction Ministry reverted to its previous talking points, saying, “At this stage, it is too early to talk about a possible closure of the factory zone,” and, “We are not considering shutting down the complex for now.” But then, on the 13th, Park Geun-hye “said the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex will depend on the North’s move down the road.”
So, is all that perfectly clear? No?
I’ve written before that until the three allied nations get their act together on sanctions enforcement, North Korea will continue to divide them and nullify the effect of sanctions. North Korea uses abductees to weaken Japan’s sanctions, uses hostages and denuclearization deals to weaken U.S. sanctions, uses hegemonic aspirations and anti-American mischief-making to weaken Russia’s and China’s sanctions, uses the lure of engagement to weaken Europe’s sanctions, and uses ethno-nationalism to weaken South Korea’s sanctions. Without much better cooperation among these governments, a low-overhead regime like North Korea’s can resist reform and disarmament indefinitely. For South Korea’s calls for tougher sanctions to be credible, it must make some sacrifices of its own. After all, its own interests are the most affected by North Korea’s nukes.
I’m under no illusions about the political challenge this presents for Park. She knows that pan-Korean nationalism remains popular among many of her voters. So does the idea of economic cooperation with Pyongyang, for all its failure to produce any positive results for South Korea’s security. But the fact remains — Park can’t credibly ask Japan, China, the U.N. and the U.S. to help it impose “bone-numbing” sanctions while it continues to pour a massive subsidy into Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts through Kaesong. Other governments would rightly view that as Korean Exceptionalism and a sign that Seoul isn’t serious. Years ago, after all, Treasury Undersecretary (and now CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen had expressed his concerns about how Pyongyang is using that cash.
Maybe Park is fiddling with access to Kaesong and dropping hints about closing it because she can see the awkwardness of her position, and knows she has to feign some toughness for foreign consumption. Maybe these are trial balloons to test the reaction on the streets of left-leaning Kwangju. Maybe she wants to goad the North Koreans into shutting Kaesong down themselves, as they did in 2013, thus saving her the political cost of doing so herself. Maybe she’s signaling to foreign investors that both Korean governments are putting political burdens on Kaesong, in the hope that the whole sordid project will wither during her successor’s tenure.
Unfortunately, South Korea’s security won’t wait that long. Her successor may not share her own clarity about the security risk that her country faces. The choice Park faces now is to continue with what has failed, or to return to what has worked.
~ ~ ~
Having said all this, I doubt Park will have the political courage to shut Kaesong down outright. In that case, she has other alternatives at her disposal that would work almost as well, at less political cost. Rather than closing Kaesong down herself, she need only hold Kaesong to the same international norms and standards that the Sunshine Policy promised to spread into North Korea, but hasn’t.
First, she could set a timeline for Kaesong to comply with International Labor Organization standards, to protect the rights of the workers there. The most important of these rights is the right of each worker to keep her wages. In tandem with this, South Korea should look toward Marcus Noland’s suggestion that all joint ventures with North Korea, including Kaesong, adopt baseline standards for worker protection.
Second, Park should announce the phase-out of subsidies to Kaesong. If Kaesong can’t turn a profit without state subsidies a decade after its establishment, it isn’t really introducing capitalism to the North, it’s just nuclear welfare by another name. Cutting subsidies will also discourage Pyongyang from any more unilateral wage and tax raises.
Finally, South Korea must abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, paragraphs 11 and 15, which require it to ensure that North Korea isn’t using the proceeds of Kaesong for purposes prohibited by the resolutions. How can South Korea possibly expect to know this? One way would be for Pyongyang to accede, at long last, to a degree of financial transparency about where Kaesong’s proceeds go, and how much the workers are allowed to earn and spend. Not likely, you say. And you’re probably right.
Alternatively, South Korea could comply with UNSCR 2094 by announcing that henceforth, Seoul will only pay Pyongyang for Kaesong rents and labor in kind — in food, fertilizer, seed, medicine, humanitarian supplies, and humanitarian services, all of which would be distributed by the World Food Program. After all, if the U.N. is correct that the vast majority of North Koreans barely get enough to eat and have dismal medical care, does Kim Jong-un really have a sovereign right to spend that money on luxury goods and ski resorts instead? Humanitarian aid has its own diversion risks, but those risks are far fewer than those that come with paying Pyongyang in dollars, no questions asked.
Perhaps Pyongyang will respond by shutting Kaesong down entirely. But then, if Pyongyang has that reaction after all these years of gentle inducements, who can really argue that Kaesong was likely to serve its intended purposes anyway?
~ ~ ~
* A previous version said “Director.” Thanks to a reader for the correction.
With the possible exceptions of Mosul and Raqqa, there may be no worse place on earth to be a woman today than inside North Korea’s prison camps. There, according to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, “the conditions of subjugation of inmates, coupled with the general climate of impunity, creates an environment, in which rape perpetrated by guards and prisoners in privileged positions is common.” The Commission found that “[w]ithout exception, pregnant victims are subject to abortion or their child is killed at birth.” High percentages of female prisoners die of starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution.
One former prisoner, a woman named Kim Hye-sook, told the Commission of Inquiry that “the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them.” Another witness “reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls.” A former guard told of “how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” and that “[a]fter the official raped the women, the victims were killed.” One former guard recalled that after the commander of his unit raped a woman, who subsequently gave birth, “[t]he mother and her child were taken to the detention and punishment block, where the baby was thrown in the feeding bowl for the dogs.” (U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Full Report, para. 766) Another former guard at Camp 16 told Amnesty International that “several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials,” and concluded “that they had been executed secretly.”
Especially beautiful women suffered the most. It has been known that Kim Byeong-Ha, who was the Bowibu director and set up political prison camps in 1972, selected pretty women and slept with them in an inspection visit to the camps. Then those women were transferred to the director of the 3rd Bureau (Pretrial Examination Bureau) of the Bowibu and used as an experiment subject and killed. [….]
There is a “Cadre Guest House” at No. 14 Political Prison Camp. It is a special building where ministers or deputy ministers from Pyeongyang stay. When senior officials come from Pyeongyang, pretty maidens aged 21 to 25 are selected among female inmates, bathed and then sent to them. After the officials make a sexual plaything of those females, they charge the women with fleeing and kill them to keep secrets. [Korean Bar Association, 2008 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, page 165]
To this evidence, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea adds a new report on the expansion of Camp 12, Chongo-ri (opens in pdf), to include a special women’s section.
According to HRNK:
Sometime after 2008, however, a women’s section was added to Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, reflecting the huge increase of refouled (forcibly repatriated) North Korean women from China. Five additional former prisoners from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri interviewed in Seoul in March 2015 update this enlargement of the Jongo-ri prison. This reflects North Korea’s ongoing policy to wrongfully imprisoned persons for reasons not permitted under contemporary international law. Many of the North Koreans who are deprived of their liberty and subjected to forced labor and inhumane conditions suffer this punishment for having taken actions that are explicitly provided for and protected in international law, including conventions that North Korea has acceded to.
It would be fair to call Chongo-ri a “death camp.”
The first edition of Hidden Gulag (2003) cited the testimony of a former prisoner on the deplorable conditions and high rates of death in detention at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Between December 1998 and July 1999, “Out of twenty-three prisoners who entered on the same day… only two survived. The rest died within eight months of arrival, from hard labor and sub-subsistence food rations–small mixtures of corn and beans, with rice added only on holidays.” A former prisoner interviewed for that report believes that eight hundred prisoners died while he was there; so many, according to what another prisoner told him, that the guards had to burn the corpses.
This former prisoner reported that he weighed 50 kilograms (kg) (110 pounds (lb)) prior to his arrest and only 30 kg (66 lb) upon his release from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. This was fifteen years ago during North Korea’s “great famine.” Reportedly, not all that much has changed in this regard at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Tudor and Pearson, publishing in 2015, wrote that “it is common for men serving time there to lose 30 kilograms [66 lb] in body weight. Many end up starving to death.”[*] One of the former women prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this present report in March 2015, Ms. Kim Min-ji, reported that during her time in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 from 2009 to 2011, nearly all people lost weight and many died of malnutrition and related diseases.
Images of Chongo-ri were first published at this site in 2009.
In January 2014, two OFK readers first brought the expansion of the camp to my attention, and I published this image of the expanded camp.
The new women’s section was added sometime between 2009 and 2013. HRNK’s report contains the first accounts of the women who were held there:
Another former female prisoner at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015, Ms. Choi Min-gyang, went from 57 kg (125 lb) to 27 kg (60 lb) during her time at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri (mid-2008 to September 2010). She was put in the ho-yak-ban (severely sick) unit and lost consciousness. Her condition was so severe that prison officials called her family to come get her rather than deal with her death. It took her a year to regain her health, after which she fled to China and on to South Korea.
Another woman prisoner interviewed for the present report stated that she weighed 79 kg (174 lb) while in China, but her weight during pre-trial detention in North Korea dropped to 34 kg (74 lb). She arrived at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Jongo-ri in 2010 already so weak that the prison authorities initially did not want to accept her. Nonetheless, even though she was clearly weak and sick, she was assigned to the logging work unit and fed only rotten corn. She never regained her weight until she was released in 2012.
Two male former prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015 indicate that, for men, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 has operated almost the same for several decades.
The vast majority of the women who live and die at Chongo-ri have been “convicted” in five-minute sham trials of nothing that any other country recognizes as a crime — fleeing across the border to escape starvation and earn a living. The women prisoners of Chongo-ri aren’t even defectors; if they were, they’d end up in far worse places. Many of the women at Chongo-ri were forced to make wigs, presumably for export, to earn hard currency for the regime. Let us not forget the men of Chongo-ri, who worked in an unsafe mine, or a furniture factory, where deadly accidents were common.
What is most maddening about all of this is that it isn’t the cause celebre of Hollywood stars, famous activists, or the big names of the Human Rights Industry, because in terms of numbers and depravity, it deserves to be. That’s why it adds just a drop of hope to a sea of despair when all 20 female U.S. Senators, Republicans and Democrats, take a moment to remember North Korea’s female political prisoners in this resolution.
(16) serving as a composite for prisoners of concern worldwide, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, including men, women, and children, who are detained in the brutal political prison camps of North Korea where starvation, forced labor, executions, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, and torture are commonplace and whose offenses, according to defectors, include—
(A) burning old currency or criticizing the currency revaluation of the Government;
(B) sitting on newspapers bearing the picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il;
(C) mentioning the limited formal education of Kim Il Sung; and (D) defacing photographs of the Kims;
It merits mention that the resolution was in support of the Samantha Power-led #Freethe20 campaign. No, words and hashtags will not free any prisoners. The hard truth is that few of the women in Chongo-ri or the other camps today will ever get out alive. But words can build a consensus toward policies that can free the next generation of prisoners.
And what of the world’s most famous women’s rights activist, Gloria Steinem? A woman who is rightly remembered both for her activism for the rights of women, and for human rights globally? Today, she has cast her lot with the notorious North Korean sympathizer Christine Ahn and Code Pink, opposing the very pressure that can force Pyongyang to end its atrocities against North Korean women. Instead, a woman who was once arrested for blocking the street in front of the South African Embassy, and who supported the sanctions and isolation that forced the end of apartheid, when asked about sanctions to force change in North Korea, answers: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.”
~ ~ ~
The book cited is “North Korea Confidential,” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor. It’s one of several books I’m reading, as scarce time permits. So far, I’ve found it well researched and interesting.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable.
Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post(*) is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.” I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.
Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:
Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]
Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.
The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.
Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]
I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.
(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)
Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:
North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“
It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]
Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.
The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.
An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”
Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]
According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.
“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.
Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“
Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.
As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.
When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]
It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.
~ ~ ~
North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.
The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repression, brutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and a disregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.
If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.
If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.
Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.
This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference. [Glenn Reynolds]
What we can’t know is when the trickle of defections might also become a preference cascade. Whether these events are followed by some tense days of tanks on street corners and Korean Central Television playing martial music depends on whether the elites believe they and their families are safer with Kim in power, or without him.
~ ~ ~
* But I was curious enough to Google them.
– Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told Yonhap that “[f]or the time being, North Korean officials are likely to continue to flee … or seek asylum,” and that this would weaken Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Chang has previously advocated “curbing” leaflet balloon launches to appease Pyongyang, while opining that Seoul “could not” lift bilateral sanctions.
– Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap that “intermittent” defections were part of “the process of solidifying the Kim Jong-un regime and securing the regime’s stability.” In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, Kim wrote an op-ed for the Asahi Shimbun arguing that Washington should have responded to the test with (sit down for this) direct talks with Pyongyang.
– When interviewed by Yonhap, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies “dismissed the view” that the defections were indications of instability. Yang also told NK News that “[d]uring the previous mood of reconciliation,” as he calls it, “information could be checked,” presumably by asking the North Korean government. Yang questions the reports as the products of anonymous sources, and speculates that they “might have been spread by brokers in the border areas.”
– Jung Sang-don, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), hypothesized to Yonhap that Kim Jong-un’s “governing style could bring about an instability” in the North and cause it to “make provocations in a bid to tide over its internal problems.” I found no other published information about Jung’s views.
~ ~ ~
Update: And the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Agitprop goes to … this video, via Kent Boydston at Witness to Transformation:
~ ~ ~
(*) Update: Serious doubts have since emerged about the accuracy of this report.
This week, I read that North Korea has granted permission for a group of women, including Gloria Steinem, and led by outspoken North Korean regime sympathizer Christine Ahn, to do a “peace march” across the DMZ. The group also intends to “hold international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul,” where Ahn will probably repeat one of her favorite falsehoods, that “crippling sanctions against the government make it difficult for ordinary people to access the basics needed for survival.” It’s a statement that could only have been written by a legal illiterate who has never read the actual sanctions, or by a hack who has spent at least a decade overlooking the real causes of hardship and starvation in North Korea.
Steinem, on the other hand, is known for her accomplishments fighting for the rights of women, so rather than rehash old arguments with Ahn, I’d prefer to focus on a point of potential agreement with Steinem — that the women of North Korea could really use the support of a fearless feminist. In that spirit, I decided to suggest a few questions that Steinem should ask her hosts in Pyongyang if she’s truly concerned about the status of women in North Korea:
An acquaintance of mine, a North Korean refugee currently living in South Korea, told me how, in the early 2000s, she broke a bone. The incident happened one afternoon when she was on the way home. A few streets away from her house she encountered a patrol of regular police and militia, and she instantly knew she was in trouble because she had done something seriously improper. She had no choice but to run, and while trying to get away from her pursuers she broke a bone in her feet. But she still escaped the hand of law.
What was the crime she had committed? She was wearing trousers while walking the streets of a major North Korean city.
What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [….]
She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]
A group of female North Korean workers has been forcefully repatriated from China after it was learned that they had been asked to work as prostitutes on the sly by their overseer while officially hired at a food factory, according to a local source.
The women, believed to number about half a dozen, were among North Korean workers sent across the border to gain precious foreign exchange revenue and had been placed under strict living conditions, including being barred from traveling outside their lodging alone, a source from China’s Liaoning province bordering North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service.
However, the women, who worked at a food production factory in Liaoning’s Donggang city, had been leaving their compound at night to engage in illegal activities—including prostitution—at the behest of their handler, infuriating the local community, the source said. [….]
“As a result, some of the workers and their North Korean handler were deported by the Chinese public security personnel.”
My parents died of starvation and my two younger brothers were killed by robbers in North Korea. After I lost all my family members, I was left wandering in the countryside, all by myself. One day, I met a North Korean couple who looked little bit younger than me. In November 1999, they suggested I go to China with them. As soon as we arrived in Helong and went into the house where they took me, I was taken to Longjing and then to Yanji by the ethnic Koreans. From Yanji I was taken to Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang Province by train. When we arrived in Mudanjiang, the brother of my current father-in-law was waiting for us. I was then taken to Jidong in Heilongjiang where I live with an ethnic Korean man. I have been told that my current husband paid 10,000 yuan for me.
Current estimates by South Korean and U.S. analysts place the number of fulltime prostitutes throughout North Korea at around 25,000 in the state of 24.5 million people – a figure that Young agreed with. That would mean one full-time prostitute was working per 1,000 people.
The high estimate does not include the far larger number of women who supplement their meager income by occasional freelance participation in prostitution activities. [….]
The age range of women involved in prostitution in North Korea is broad, stretching from 17 to 45, according to Young. The large percentage of women engaging in the practice again reflects the widespread and growing destitution and hunger pervading North Korean society.
A North Korean defector said there are about 500 prostitutes in a city which has a population of 400,000, Young noted. “If [we] depend on the simple arithmetic calculation and put North Korean population as 20 million, we can assume that there should be about 25,000 prostitutes in North Korea.”
A few years ago, that estimate would have been widely rejected as too high. The history of poor harvests, food shortages and the desperate demand for short-term extra income has made its mark. The hard drug pandemic may well have put those numbers too low.
In any case, the boast North Korean spokesmen made until recent years that there was no prostitution in their country rings hollow.
“[T]he women have their own ways to deal with STDs,” she adds. “Opium is supposed to prevent STDs.”
“Opium is not considered illegal in North Korea,” she explains. “It is cheap and typically goes for 5,000 won per gram. There is also contraceptive medicine available, but because they are much more expensive than opium, prostitutes don’t consider using them.”
“Contraceptives may prevent pregnancy, but women believe opium prevents and even treats almost all forms of disease. People think of it as a cure-all drug.”
She describes how North Korean prostitutes regularly use opium to protect their bodies: “Lightly mix some water with the opium, and dab a cotton ball in the mixture. Before placing the cotton ball in the vagina, wrap string around it in a cross shape (+) so it can be pulled out more easily.”
North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”
[D]efectors testify with one voice to the fact that in modern North Korea, free education is an oxymoron. Instead, they say that even elementary school students must pay money for firewood, the repairing of school facilities and to make donations to the People’s Army or construction units.
The bribes needed to enter university are substantial, too. To gain entrance to a university in Pyongyang can cost up to $1,000, and for a provincial university between $300 and $500.
Kim Yong Cheol, a 22-year old who joined Hyesan College of Education in 2007 but defected to Seoul in 2009, explained to The Daily NK, “If they offer some money to the relevant university and the Education Department then they can possibly get into the university; students who do not have a good school record want to enter that university even though it requires bribery.”
Cho Hyun Mee, a 26-year old studying at Seoul National University said, “When I joined a university in Chongjin, the city Education Department demanded a computer, so I sold a television set to collect money and bought them a laptop.” Thanks to the laptop, Cho was shown the type and range of the entrance examination.
Sure, you say, a list of 18 state-approved hairstyles certainly seems generous and libertine, but on closer examination, it’s actually more like 18 pictures of three hairstyles — three hideous, man-shriveling hairstyles — one of which (6, 10) is a mullet, and the rest of which appear to have been inspired by the 80s metal band Queensrÿche.
“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”
Sure, feel free to tone the questions down if you must, as long as you ask them. Being asked hard questions might convince the little gray men in Pyongyang that these things matter to us, and that they should matter to the regime, too. By not asking them, you might lead them — and us — to believe that you’re willing to overlook the rights of North Korean women and be Pyongyang’s tool, for no better reason than to attract media attention to yourself.
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Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention those racist forced abortions and infanticides, which must be the most extreme anti-choice position of all:
When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.
Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves” (see “Witness,” below), the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide: anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
So I guess that’s eleven….
More than a year after Panamanian authorities uncovered a massive shipment of Cuban weapons on its way to North Korea, in clear violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, the U.N. and Treasury have finally done something about it. That something could contain the makings of one part of an effective sanctions strategy, but it will still probably disappoint some powerful members of Congress in both parties.
As I noted yesterday, and after public criticism by former head U.N. sanctions expert Martin Uden that the U.N. had been slow to respond to the Chon Chong Gang incident, the U.N. Sanctions Committee finally got around to designating a single entity — Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the shipping agent for the arms deal. The U.N. failed to designate other involved entities, including Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping, conveniently co-located with the local North Korean embassy, or any of the Cuban entities involved in the deal.
I wrote yesterday morning that the U.N.’s decision would probably force Treasury to designate OMM, and that prediction was proven correct within hours of my posting. Treasury also designated Chongchongang Shipping Company, evidently a one-ship enterprise, but it declined to strike at Kim Jong Un’s Chinpo.*
At this hour, there’s still no word from Vladimir Putin about whether he intends to comply with U.N. sanctions, close down OMM, and force it to move to Conakry or Dar-es-Salaam under a new name.
The more interesting part of yesterday’s Treasury announcement was treated as an afterthought in reports from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and Yonhap — the designation of 18 North Korean merchant ships. A cursory examination of NK News’s North Korea shipping tracker, however, reveals that this is a significant percentage of North Korea’s merchant fleet.
Better yet, one of the ships designated was the OMM-linked M/V Mu Du Bong, which sits stranded in a Mexican port after returning from Cuba. The designation signals that the U.S. government may ask Mexican authorities to search the ship, as I urged in this post.
The authority for the designations was Executive Order 13551, which authorizes sanctions against —
(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:
(A) to have, directly or indirectly, imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea any arms or related materiel;
(B) to have, directly or indirectly, provided training, advice, or other services or assistance, or engaged in financial transactions, related to the manufacture, maintenance, or use of any arms or related materiel to be imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea, or following their importation, exportation, or reexportation to, into, or from North Korea;
The designation of a ship makes it difficult for the vessel obtain insurance, repairs, fuel, and other bunkering services that it needs to operate. Similar sanctions have been reasonably effective against the Iranian tanker fleet. The inclusion of the vessels’ IMO numbers will make it difficult for North Korea to evade sanctions by constantly reflagging its ships, something it is notorious for.
The vast majority of North Korea’s shipping traffic is with China. It remains to be seen whether these ships will continue to ply their trade across the Yellow Sea. It will be worth watching that shipping tracker carefully in the coming weeks.
Expect North Korea to adapt by switching off the transponders on its ships. An interesting question I haven’t researched (but perhaps commenter David knows) is whether a U.S. Navy vessel encountering a Treasury-designated vessel on its way to, say, Bandar Abbas with its transponder and its lights switched off has a right to search it at sea.
In February, Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wrote a very interesting analysis of how sanctions against North Korean shipping companies could be an effective tool against smuggling and proliferation.
Treasury’s action raises the number of designated North Korean entities from 43 to 63, still far less than Zimbabwe or Belarus, whether you measure that in terms of raw numbers or the significance of the designations themselves. Yesterday’s designations closed that gap just a bit, and sent the message that at least North Korea isn’t absolutely immune from all its bad acts — just that genocide stuff.
If expanded, sanctions against North Korean ships could make it more difficult (but not impossible) to smuggle arms by relying on third-country vessels. And of course, there’s always Chinese airspace. If enforced aggressively, shipping sanctions could complement expanded financial sanctions to pressure North Korea and deny it one means to proliferate.
The Administration’s failure to designate any Cuban entities, however, will not please the eight members of Congress who recently signed a letter to our U.N. Ambassador, noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power, calling on her to push the Security Council to designate “Cuban officials and entities involved in arms smuggling to North Korea.”
Whether Power pushed for sanctions against North Korea’s Cuban vendors isn’t clear, but it’s clear the U.N. isn’t going to impose them. The Panel of Experts’ report on the Chong Chon Gang incident didn’t find the evidence against Cuban entities to be as strong as it was against North Korea, mainly because the Cubans didn’t cooperate with the POE, and because it wasn’t their ship that was caught in the act. It’s a well-recognized principle in the law** that when a party hides evidence, fact-finders are entitled to make adverse inferences about just what party is hiding. And designating North Korea’s co-conspirators sends an important message to governments like those in Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, and Tanzania, which were named in previous U.N. POE reports as suspected North Korean arms clients.
Most of the letter’s signatories are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. All but one, Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, are Republicans. Sires is also one of Congress’s strongest advocates of human rights in North Korea, and is said to be a close ally of New Jersey’s senior senator, Robert Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both Sires and Menendez are conservative Cuban-American Democrats.
(While I’m on the topic of Menendez, I have to ask whether the ultra-conservative bloggers who may have been taken in by a Cuban government smear operation against Menendez would really prefer to have Barbara Boxer as Chair of SFRC. Don’t get me wrong — Boxer has a great reputation on human rights, but on national security issues, she isn’t nearly as tough-minded as Menendez. For that matter, neither was Richard Lugar — not by a mile.)
The Chong Chon Gang incident was an opening for North Korea human rights activists to reach out to Cuban-Americans in both parties. The Cuban-American contingent in Congress is one of the most powerful on the Hill, and also includes rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, and firebrand Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. And if powerful constituencies matter, last week’s revelation that North Korea is selling rockets to Hamas won’t help Pyongyang’s position on Capitol Hill.
The letter is the latest sign that Congress is increasingly uncomfortable with the pace of the Obama Administration’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. In light of these new developments, these members of Congress should consider calling for additional EO 13551 designations of the Cuban entities involved in Chong Chon Gang.
I’ve pasted a list of Treasury’s new designations below the fold.
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* The Editor preemptively apologizes for this.
** The obvious exception is that in criminal cases, no adverse inference can be drawn from a suspect’s invocation of his right to remain silent.
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Update, 1 Aug 2014: It’s starting to look good for my prediction that the Cuban-American reaction would be fierce. Capitol Hill Cubans has a furious reaction to Cuba’s omission from the list of designated entities.
The main headlines that will come of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ new report on the enforcement of North Korea sanctions will mostly cover the Chong Chon Gang incident — the large amount of weapons seized, the brazenness of its deception, and the complexity of its corporate and financial links to entities operating from Russia, Singapore, and China. There has been relatively little attention paid to the newly revealed evidence that North Korea has helped Syria and Iran arm terrorists. In this post, I’ll discuss some other important conclusions we can draw about the enforcement of UNSCR 2094 a year after its adoption.
1. North Korea is still making a lot of money selling weapons.
In case you doubted it, the latest POE report finds that North Korea “remains … actively engaged in trade in arms and related materiel in violation of” U.N. Security Council resolutions, and concludes, “[T]here is no question that it is one of the country’s most profitable revenue sources.” How profitable? The POE doesn’t pretend to know and “doubts that all existing illicit cooperation has been identified,” but something is paying for all that
rice and baby formula ski lift equipment. There has been a construction boom in Pyongyang recently, and those who know how Kim Jong Un is paying for it aren’t saying.
Clearly, North Korea is doing a brisk trade in weapons, mostly with Africa and the Middle East. Paragraphs 90 to 115 of the report recount a long series of reports of North Korean arms smuggling — everything from the fuzes in rockets fired at Israel to specialized alloys to submarine parts to gas masks — that the POE is either still investigating, or found out about after the fact and by happenstance. It’s obvious that the sanctions are leaky, and the U.N. POE admits it.
That’s why I can only shake my head when the Foreign Minister of Korea says that the POE report shows that “relatively successful in restricting the country’s ability to raise funds.” The statement could only mean two things: either he didn’t read the report, or South Korea isn’t serious about enforcing these sanctions at all. I mean, just have a look:
Obviously, I can’t say what this construction costs, but it’s safe to assume it’s enough to feed a lot of hungry North Koreans. The POE doesn’t know how North Korea can afford to build two high-rise bank towers in Pyongyang, either, but judging by its inference about the arms trade, it’s fair to say that plenty of the money that’s paying for these buildings is illegally derived and laundered. This is not a picture of effective enforcement.
The report calls for no new sanctions, but once you read it, it’s apparent why: states aren’t even enforcing the sanctions that exist now. It says that member states already have adequate enforcement tools at their disposal — a point I’d quibble with — although it’s obvious that not all member states are using those tools.
2. China is violating North Korea sanctions — flagrantly.
China, naturally, is caught in flagrante delicto. The POE recounts the story of a trade show in China last year, when a concerned citizen spotted a booth festooned with a banner bearing the name of Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, a subsidiary of a firm designated by the U.N. for proliferation activities, and an entity named on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals.
When the POE pointed that out, hilarity ensued:
149. In its reply to the Panel’s inquiry, Chinese authorities reported that Ryonha’s name was not on the list of exhibitors provided by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nor did it appear on any booth before the fair’s opening. Upon discovering its presence, China requested Ryonha to withdraw from the fair and ensured that the relevant persons left its territory (according to Panel information there were at least seven Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals working on behalf or at the direction of Ryonha during the fair).
150. The Panel also discovered that, even though designated, Ryonha remained listed as a “recommended company and member” on the website of the China- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Trade Network.103 In reply to an enquiry from the Panel, China responded that Ryonha had been removed from the listing.
At the end of the day, the POE wasn’t even able to confirm that the ChiComs had frozen Ryonha’s assets and seized the machinery on exhibit, as required under UNSCR 2094. Another North Korean firm, Leader International, still appears on Hong Kong’s official business registry more than a year after its U.N. designation.
Embarrassments like this will not cause China to actually enforce the sanctions it supported in the Security Council. Nothing less than sanctions against the Chinese entities that knowingly fail to enforce sanctions will do that. And because China would block those additional sanctions at the U.N., it’s up to the Treasury Department, which can bar those companies from the global financial system, to put some teeth into the sanctions now.
3. Other nations, including nations in Europe, aren’t taking sanctions seriously enough.
China isn’t the only member state that has failed to enforce North Korea sanctions effectively. Taiwan, in particular, has emerged as North Korea’s main new source of precision machine tools and related technology since it lost its access to the Japanese market. Plenty of states haven’t met their requirements to file compliance reports with the POE. Others aren’t reporting violations they find out about.
Notably, not a single Member State reported a violation of the luxury goods ban, despite the many violations that occurred at the Masik Pass Ski Resort. Even the U.K. failed to report North Korea’s attempt to purchase a yacht from a British manufacturer.
In most of these cases, the non-enforcement isn’t coming from the highest levels of the government, as with China. It’s a simple problem of member states failing to make enforcement a priority, or failing to reign in the profiteers in their jurisdictions. That’s a problem that could be dealt with through competent bilateral diplomacy in most cases, though sanctions and criminal prosecution should be options for deserving violations.
There is an another, more fundamental problem — what, exactly, are member states supposed to report? U.N. definitions of controlled items are often too narrow. For example, ski lift equipment doesn’t fit the U.N. definition of a “luxury good.” (Update: It does fit the U.S. and EU definitions.)
The same problem recurs with North Korea’s acquisition of missile parts. When the South Korean Navy recovered the remains of the last Unha-3 from the bottom of the Yellow Sea, it found that the rocket contained numerous foreign components, including some of U.S. origin, that were not on the U.N. list of controlled items. A shipment intercepted by “a Member State” contained parts described as being for “freezing carriers”and “fish-factory mother ships,” all of which were “spare parts or other items related to Scud ballistic missile systems.” Yet those items also did not meet “the criteria defined by the lists of prohibited items, material, equipment, goods and technology related to nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.”
This calls for the POE itself to proffer an expanded list of controlled dual-use items, something that was (but for a few especially sensitive items) lacking in the POE’s report. (Update: If it wanted to, the U.N. could borrow or cross-reference the U.S. Munitions List.)
4. Existing financial sanctions on North Korea only show the tip of a big, dirty iceberg.
The best news in this report is that it appears to be the work of people who are intelligent, inquisitive, and serious about their work. They’ve begun investigating how North Korea launders the money it makes from its illicit activities:
166. During its mandate, the Panel commissioned an in-depth study to learn more about how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea makes use of foreign-based firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of its assets, financial and trade dealings. It sought a comprehensive view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s commercial footprint abroad to learn how entities and individuals that have figured in its investigations relate to this broader network and to one another. The Panel believes that an examination of those linkages would assist its efforts to detect and advise the Committee and Member States about others who might play controlling and supportive roles in evading trade and financial measures adopted in the resolutions.
167. [….] The study provided the Panel with a rich database of leads for further investigation. Starting with less than 500 loosely connected or unconnected individuals and entities that had come to the Panel’s attention during its investigations, the study found connections to an additional 700 individuals, more than 1,600 companies and nearly 2,500 corporate identifiers.
168. The results of the study show that the operations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abroad no longer fit the description of “two persons and a fax machine”. Instead, it found a relatively mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem. Patterns that emerge from examination of the connections between identified individuals and entities show six large, discrete networks, all of which share links.
Other North Korean banks come under suspicion because of the POE report. A table at Annex XXXIV gives a list of banks known to be affiliated with North Korea, including those designated by the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. But among those not designated —
Curiously absent from the list is Sili Bank, which is based in Shenyang, China, and which briefly aroused international curiosity when it began offering e-mail services to and from North Korea, but which has no functioning English web site today. At one time, Sili Bank was the only game in town for anyone, including North Korean companies, to obtain international e-mail service.
Ocean Maritime Management, which the Washington Post describes as “a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government,” used a Sili Bank e-mail address to send a protest letter to the Panamanian authorities when they boarded the Chong Chon Gang and found a cargo of MiGs, MiG engines, missiles, and other weapons hidden under a layer of sugar. OMM, which arranged the shipment from its Vladivostok office, denied knowing of any cargo other than the sugar, which it describes as “essential for our people’s living” and “a cargo of humanitarian nature.”
5. Air Koryo is effectively an arm of the North Korean Air Force, and is involved in suspicious financial dealings.
North Korea’s General Administration of Civil Aviation, which is controlled by the North Korean Air Force and in turn controls Air Koryo, also lists a Sili Bank e-mail address. Air Koryo falls under the POE’s suspicion for a series of “dubious” debts owed to it by “recently formed shell companies” related to gold trading.
The Panel is suspicious that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be using or considering the use of precious metal sales on credit terms to create “accounts payable”. Such sources for funds would not necessarily show as being under its control and even could be swapped with other firms to further distance its connection and thereby better evade sanctions and enhanced due diligence by banks.
Because of its military links, the POE says that “providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s aircraft” could be a violation. It will be interesting to see whether future POE reports confirm whether Sili Bank (a) still exists and (b) is knowingly facilitating illicit activities.
6. North Korea’s overseas monument business may be a money laundering scheme, too.
Finally, North Korea’s work building memorials and statues overseas has drawn its share of snark from bloggers and reporters, but the POE gives us cause to suspect that those operations could be used as fronts for money laundering, too:
Available media reports, particularly about projects in several African countries, note that project values appear inflated. Participation in overseas construction also takes place through joint ventures where a foreign partner could hold funds on behalf of or for the benefit of designated entities and prohibited programmes.
For example, if the Syrians wanted to pay for North Korean technical assistance with a missile program or a reactor while avoiding detection, they could commission the construction of a grandiose memorial at an inflated price. All perfectly legal, right?
If so, the POE should be wondering whether North Korea has recently made illicit deals with Zimbabwe and Namibia. Ironically, Zimbabwe once paid North Koreans to train their troops, who proceeded to kill tens of thousands of civilians in areas backing the Zimbabwean African Peoples’ Union, led by Joshua Nkomo. Today, Zimbabwe is paying North Korea to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo, and Zimbabwean dissidents have taken note.
A Christian blogger in Namibia also protests his government’s hiring of North Korea to build political monuments in Windhoek, when North Korea is rumored to be shooting people for having contact with Christian missionaries. (By contrast, nearby Botswana severed diplomatic relations with North Korea when the U.N. COI report came out.)
Kim Jong Un’s reign must be a dark time for North Korea’s apologists on the far left. Those who elevate equality above all other values (or say they do) must be hard pressed to find solidarity with a regime that has imposed the world’s most obscene case of economic and social injustice. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was no paragon of socialist equality. Since his dynastic succession, Kim Jong Un has added the arch-heresies of gaudy consumerism and an adoration of the coarsest elements of pop culture.
Even Bruce Cumings — Bruce Cumings — recently called Kim Jong Un “a modern Caligula,” and for once, I can’t argue with him. Off-hand, I can’t think of a richer target for “critical studies” than this one:
Even so, U.C. Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Christine Hong, writing at something called “Critical Asian Studies,” lobs a verbose, meandering screed at advocates for the human rights of Kim Jong Un’s subjects, a growing number of whom are themselves North Korean, and whom Hong quite casually calls “typically ‘beneficiaries of past injustice'” and “future violence.”
“Typically,” she says, apparently unconcerned that such sweeping bigotry and assignment of original sin would draw any challenge. Or, more plausibly, notice.
This is horrid stuff, on many levels. Its hackneyed language reads as if it was taped together out of ribbons from Chomsky’s shredder bin. As “scholarship,” it offers no useful data or citations of factual evidence about North Korea. Its citations of “authority” are, with few exceptions, pre-owned arguments and epithets borrowed from the co-habitants of Hong’s own echo chamber. Its most distinctive qualities are the yawning sloppiness of its arguments, and a sentence structure that combines the verbal economy of a filibuster with the literary coherence of a cattle auction. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so many words yield so little light or joy.
Hong first attacks the definition of human rights itself (“a hegemonic interpretive lens”), in a transparent effort to strip this term of any useful meaning. If I understand her correctly, she’s complaining that “the privileged ideological frame” that disapproves of the mass imprisonment and murder of political prisoners — and their kids — has influenced more people than “other epistemic forms” that perpetrate it. But if “human rights” means anything, no advocate for that concept could abide how North Korea treats its people today.
Next, Hong tries to pound the words of human rights advocates into a Jell-O mold of Don Rumsfeld’s head, arguing that human rights advocacy must be a subterfuge for invading North Korea — a straw man argument against something no one of consequence supports. In her strained effort to make all human rights advocates sound like a caricature of … well, me, Hong omits any mention of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry or the powerful words of its avowedly liberal, openly gay Chair.
Hong mendaciously accuses the U.S. of “withholding” humanitarian aid; in fact, Pyongyang has impeded the delivery of aid by the U.S. and U.N., and diverted aid to its loyalists and military. Rather than allow monitoring and other safeguards against diversion, Pyongyang forced the World Food Program to slash its feeding program from 6.5 million recipients to just 1.9 million (later increased to 2.4 million), rejected 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid, and expelled U.S. aid workers. It agreed to, then quickly reneged on, a moratorium on missile launches for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. When it received more food aid, it bought less food from abroad and spent the difference on other “priorities.” Some NGOs, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, withdrew rather than help Pyongyang use food as a tool of control.
Then, Hong plods onward to a factually selective, ham-handed evasion of the Kim Dynasty’s responsibility for everything from the Korean War (“a civil and revolutionary war, a people’s war” frustrated by a “counterrevolutionary” U.N. intervention), its atrocities against own people, and the squalid life it imposes on them.
Hong blames this squalor on “the violence of sanctions” that “predictably stifle the economic growth of North Korea, in effect declaring it off-limits to potential investors and restricting the country’s access to capital, as well as exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.” Having found a scapegoat at a safe distance from Pyongyang, Hong calls the sanctions “formidable,” which is curious, because they are not formidable, and also because she fails to cite any of the authorities on which U.S. or U.N. sanctions rest, or explain what any of those authorities do. This, evidently, is what passes for scholarship in some quarters.
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Christine Hong really has no idea what U.S. or U.N. sanctions do (that’s the more charitable of the two alternatives that come to mind). Had Hong bothered to read the object of her criticism, she would know that those sanctions are not, as she would have her readers to imagine, a broad-based attack on North Korea’s economy, but a set of limited sanctions focused on North Korea’s trafficking in WMD components and technology, weapons, contraband like drugs and counterfeit currency, and luxury goods — and poorly enforced at that, as we’ll soon see. Hong doesn’t offer any analysis of what legitimate industry would, but for sanctions, lift North Korea’s economy with Chollima speed.
(To be fair, Hong would have her readers imagine that our North Korea sanctions are almost as tough and comprehensive as I wish they really were. Of course, I favor broad exceptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, I’d make the transparent delivery of humanitarian aid a specific objective of a sanctions program, and I’d forfeit Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten wealth to pay for it.)
~ ~ ~
Hong takes great care not to mention that a principal target of sanctions is Kim Jong Un’s appetite for luxury goods. After all, how in the world could she defend that? Still, I’d love to know, and each non-sequitur Hong offered only made me wonder how she would justify, say, a decision by the leader of a half-starved nation to spend millions of dollars on a ski resort.
Yonhap, quoting the South Korean National Intelligence Service, reports that Kim Jong Un spent $300 million building “leisure and sports facilities, including the ski resort,” at a time when 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat. That expenditure is three times the amount that the World Food Program asked donor nations to contribute to feed hungy North Koreans last summer.
There’s nothing new about this pattern. I’ve already elaborated on some of the luxuries Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un bought that cost more than the amount needed to feed every hungry North Korean. I’ve explained why each of the MiG-29s in these satellite images killed as many North Koreans by starvation as one B-29 killed at Nagasaki. Lest any future prosecutor have difficulty proving his charges against the one responsible, KCNA helpfully offers that the ski resort was “built on the personal initiative of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and under his wise leadership.” (The unlinkable KCNA article is preserved below the jump.)
The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea’s luxury goods imports in 2006, long after the famine ended, mostly humanitarian reasons. Historically, North Korean dictators have preferred European brands. Since at least 2007, EU regulations have prohibited persons and businesses under the jurisdiction of its member states from directly or indirectly selling or transferring “luxury items,” a term defined to specifically include “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports.”
Last summer, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea ski lift equipment worth almost exactly as much as Switzerland’s annual humanitarian aid allocation for North Korea, North Korea called the refusal “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.” Today, as if for the express purpose of taunting the world, KCNA borrows the operative word of the U.N. sanctions in describing Masik Pass as a place “for the people to enable them enjoy luxury and comfort under socialism.”
Masik Pass has done the world two great services. First, it has helped make an even bigger fool of Christine Hong, and second, it has illustrated how poorly the world is enforcing those sanctions. After the Rodong Sinmun published these photos, a Swedish manufacturer expressed surprise at seeing his company’s snow cannons there. Immediate suspicions fell upon a Chinese reseller. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, NK News’s Chad O’Carroll notes that plenty of other equipment at Masik Pass appears to have been imported in violation of U.N. sanctions, and even identifies the manufacturers, prices, and countries of origin:
A “Ski-Doo” Snowmobile manufactured by Canadian owned Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles was visible in pictures circulated by AFP, while at least seven snow blowers produced by Sweden’s Areco and at two snow ploughs produced by Italy’s Prinoth were visible in pictures released Thursday. A further snow plough produced by Germany’s Pisten Bully was also visible.
Johan Erling, the chief executive of Areco said that he had “no idea” how at least seven Areco snow cannons had turned up in North Korea, pointing out they could have been supplied through any number of intermediaries, formal or informal.
Mr Erling said that the seven snow blowers pictured by KCNA, known as the Areco Supersnow, cost anything between £13,900 to £22,400 each.
How North Korea could have acquired so many without his company’s knowledge was beyond him, Mr Erling said. Areco sells around 40 units per year to its Chinese reseller and the units pictured in North Korea are no more than 1.5 years old, he added.
The Italian produced snow ploughs visible in the picture published by KCNA are the Prinoth BR350 (yellow) and Prinoth Bison X (silver).
A previously owned BR350, first produced in 2006, is currently selling on a Canadian website for £48,400 while the Bison X, first produced in 2008, has a higher market value.
The red plough is a Pisten Bully unit, made in Germany. Units like the one pictured can be found online from £70,000.
Neither Prinorth, Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles or Pisten Bully could be reached for comment about the transfer of equipment to North Korea.
Bjørn-Erik Skjærvik, a Norwegian snowmobile reseller, said the unit pictured by AFP is the Skidoo GT550, produced in either 2011, 2012 or 2013. The GT series retail between £4500 to £7260 each.
Observers had already questioned just how many of “the people” will really enjoy Masik Pass. The fact that North Korea had to photoshop an image to manufacture a crowd of skiers suggests an answer.
In the top image, the man in the green-and-black jacket appears in triplicate, and the building in the foreground, if compared to the Rodong Sinmun slideshow and other images, appears to have been cropped and inserted, but turned 90 degrees in the process (study the eaves of the roof).
Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, conspicuous consumption puts North Korea’s left-leaning apologists on ground they can’t defend, and that increasing numbers of them won’t even try to defend. Once, John Feffer offered an apologia for Kim Jong Il’s policy choice to sacrifice millions of people for North Korea’s “defense” against imperialist hegemons. Hong won’t offer a defense against Kim Jong Un’s obscene squandering on waterparks, amusement parks, 3D cinemas, and ski resorts. Instead, she chooses the obtuse alternative of ignoring their existence. But pretending that there is no elephant in the room is not an argument; it is a tacit admission that the argument is too ridiculous for even the regime’s most tendentious apologists to offer.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York released an indictment of five men for conspiring to smuggle North Korean methamphetamine to New York. The meth was of exceptionally high quality — between 96% and 99% pure, depending on the source — and in large amounts. An initial “dry run” transaction consisted of 30 kilograms, later seized by Thai and Filipino authorities. The next shipment would have weighed in at 100 kilograms, for which the dealers offered to pay $6 million, which is enough to buy a lot of baby formula (just kidding!).
The suspects were nationals of Britain, the Philippines, and, naturally, China. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the five suspects were all arrested in Thailand in September, and have since been extradited to the United States. That means that at least some of them are likely to reveal more about the plot in exchange for leniency in charging or sentencing.
Separately, a former U.S. Army soldier, Joseph Hunter, has been charged with leading the international drug trafficking ring that conspired to smuggle the dope, and for conspiring to whack a DEA agent. Once the drugs arrived in New York, they were to have been retailed through a biker gang, the Outlaw Motorcycle Club. We may learn more about this in the future; according to ABC News, “The investigation is ongoing and is expected to yield additional arrests in the coming weeks.”
North Korea has already reacted to the report in its customary fashion, claiming that it’s all a smear campaign. Still, the evidence there is to support the North Korean government’s involvement isn’t clear. Either the North’s control over its own infrastructure has eroded more than we realize, or the regime has gotten good at structuring drug deals to make them plausibly deniable. In recent years, we’ve seen less evidence of state-sponsored drug trafficking by North Korea, and more evidence that North Koreans whom the state taught to cook meth years ago have turned pro. North Korea itself is now flooded with meth. The other night, a young defector told me that smoking or snorting “bingdu” has become as common a social custom in the North as a toast over dinner (which must be at least a slight exaggeration).
There are a few pieces of evidence that suggest, but do not prove, that the government of North Korea itself manufactured and exported this meth.
The first, of course, is its prior history of state-sponsored drug dealing, although, as mentioned, the evidence for this has trailed off in recent years.
The second is the volume of the drug. The sales listed in the indictment totaled 130 kilograms, and the indictment says that one of the suppliers, “Reyes,” has stockpiled a ton of meth in “Country 2,” identified here as the Philippines. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could manufacture that volume of an illegal substance without the cooperation, at the very least, of the government. The same can be said of the drug’s purity.
For about a year, I prosecuted meth cases in what was then America’s meth capital, San Bernardino County, California. For a while, I even had my own informal network of informants. I made friends with the cops in Barstow, who told me all about how meth is made, and showed me their albums of photos of meth labs hidden behind fake walls and inside semi trailers parked in the desert. Cooking meth requires the maker to obtain large amounts of precursor chemicals, which would be especially hard to obtain in commercial amounts in North Korea. The odors associated with even small-scale meth production are overpowering and easily detectable. Cops often find meth labs just by the smell (“like a dirty cat box,” as the cops described it). Then, there’s the risk and danger of working with toxic and explosive chemicals. In other words, it would have been very difficult to manufacture large volumes of high-quality meth in North Korea without the cooperation of the government, although I can’t say it would have been impossible.
As a prosecutor, I became convinced that meth is as addictive and dangerous as cocaine. It makes the user manic, paranoid, violent, and prone to extremely dangerous behavior. Two soldiers I prosecuted for meth stole their roommates’ cars and crashed them at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour. The physical effects of the drug, and of the other toxic chemicals it often contains, soon become visible on the faces of meth users.
The indictment, which you can download here, offers a few other clues, none of them conclusive. It repeatedly says that the meth was “from North Korea” or “North Korean,” but does not say anything about the affiliation of the original supplier or the method of delivery. (You may suspect political motives, and there may be some, but smart prosecutors never allege unnecessary facts in their indictments. The more they allege, the more they have to prove.) This is the most intriguing clue:
Let’s assume, for now, that Ye Tiong Tan Lim isn’t just making this all up. If I’m reading this right, the regime destroyed its more visible production facilities and moved its operations into less visible ones, to fool our satellite imagery analysts. The statement implies that the regime was the wholesaler, but the statement doesn’t rule out the possibility that private dope dealers or rogue officials were the manufacturers.
The language implies that North Korea was up to some sort of provocation, probably a missile or nuke test, and that this was creating unwanted attention. But why would that be a problem for a hidden meth lab? Surely U.S. satellites would not be watching meth labs in North Korea. What occurred to me later, however, was that they might be watching North Korean shipping traffic in harbors like Nampo, Hungnam, or Chongjin, which carry plenty of things that have national security interest.
Another compelling clue may be the fact that one of the co-conspirators had stockpiled a ton of the meth in the Philippines, from where it would have been sent to Thailand, and then shipped to the United States by boat. There are no direct flights between North Korea and the Philippines. One possibility is that North Korean drug gangs smuggled the meth to China, and that Chinese gangsters then shipped it to the Philippines. Without a trans-shipment point in between, the drugs would have had to go to from North Korea to the Philippines by ship. The officers and crews of North Korean ships are carefully selected for their loyalty. Note, for example, that the captain of the MiG-smuggling ship intercepted in Panama tried to kill himself when his ship was boarded. It’s unlikely that rogue smugglers in North Korea could have arranged for the use of a ship. In the Pong Su case, North Korean drug smugglers used a freighter to drop their high-quality heroin along a remote stretch of Australian coastline, where it was moved to shore in small, inflatable boats. The use of a drop ship would be consistent with North Korea’s past M.O.
After all this point-by-point speculation, the involvement of the North Korean government won’t remain a mystery to those with access to the financial forensics. The payments for the drugs would have left a trail that will end up in a bank account somewhere. Once the feds know how the money moved — which seems likely, given the extradition of the five suspects — they’ll be able to figure out whether the persons receiving payment for the drugs were connected to the regime. Such conclusions aren’t often revealed to members of the public in detail, but a careful examination of witness testimonies before Congress should give clues to what administration insiders believe.
And who knows where else that part of the investigation could lead. After all, Banco Delta Asia began as a crackdown on the laundering of counterfeit currency.
And unless you already believe that DJ was a closet commie, Korea Betrayed might change the way you think, too.
Kirk, whose research of his subject is extensive, describes in detail how in his early life, DJ flirted with a number of leftist political organizations and unions, some of which were also linked to North Korea, but none of those associations necessarily linked DJ to the North Koreans. After all, North Korean troops almost shot DJ in 1950, and only the Incheon landings saved DJ from the firing squad.
Later on, however, Kirk tells of DJ’s friendship, in much later years, with a man who was almost certainly a North Korean spy:
His old friend Jung Tae Muk had gone to North Korea on a North Korean vessel in 1965, five years after his release from jail for pro-Communist activities, had undergone some training and returned to promote the election of Yun [Po Sun] as well as DJ. Jung met DJ in Mokpo and offered election advice but spurned DJ’s request to assist in his campaign. [Page 29]
I’d like to know more about just what “promotion” Jung was willing to offer, but what “assistance” he wasn’t. But this is far from the most damning thing Kirk writes about Kim Dae Jung. In the next chapter, I found an astonishing passage that discusses the founding of DJ’s overseas political organization, Hanmintong, after his effective exile to Japan in 1972, citing a 2002 report in the conservative and anti-DJ Monthly Chosun:
Returning to Japan, he opened the Hanmintong office there with the financial and moral support of the pro-North residents’ federation…. Pro-Pyongyang elements joined Hanmintong with strong support from pro-North residents in Japan. Their priority, driven by Pyongyang, was socialist revolution. Through the pro-North federation DJ and members of the group received regular infusions of funds covering hotel, living, and trevaling expense, including those incurred in the United States. Those who provided DJ with the money “were all spies from North Korea,” the Monthly Chosun wrote of the investigation.
Wondering whether Kirk was indeed referring to North Korea’s notorious Japanese front organization Chongryon, a/k/a Chosen Soren, I e-mailed Kirk for confirmation, which he provided. Kirk goes on:
Kim Dae Jung claimed to have been receiving donations from relatives and in-laws, including members of his wife’s extended family, business people, and one anonymous donor who contacted him through a mutual friend, and he said he had a complete accounting of how the money was spent. Kim Dae Jung’s pro-North contacts had assured him at the opening of the Hanmintong in Tokyo’s sumptuous Keio Plaza Hotel on July 13, 1973, that “many wealthy people” would “be willing to support” the group.
The Hanmintong organizers were referred to as “Viet Cong factions,” although it’s not clear whether this was in jest, whether this was how they referred to themselves, or how others referred to them. These events immediately preceded the South Korean government’s kidnapping and attempted murder of DJ, thus elevating him from the fringe to a living martyr. And whatever you may say about DJ and his associations — knowing even this — DJ continued his political activities in the face of more persecution.
The association with Chosen Soren, however, ought to be a legacy-killer. The most charitable characterization of Chosen Soren is that it is a cross between an organized crime syndicate and cult. Chongryon used to funnel millions of dollars in remittances, drug money, and pachinko revenues to North Korea each year. It encouraged thousands of ethnic Koreans to emigrate to North Korea, where they were effectively robbed of their assets and put under exceptionally close surveillance by the regime. Japan tolerated this for years, but Chosen Soren’s suspected involvement in the kidnappings of Japanese citizens to train North Korean spies finally provoked the Japanese government to bring down the hammer and strip Chosen Soren of its tax-exempt status. But even all of this disregards Chosen Soren’s role in the financing the slavery of millions more, slavery that Kim Dae Jung conspicuously failed to denounce and did much to perpetuate with South Korean taxpayer funds, some of them transferred illegally.
Say what you will about DJ — the man repaid his debts.
Chosen Soren today is a pale shadow of what it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it played a major role in boosting Kim Dae Jung to the presidency of South Korea. But the idea that DJ allowed himself to accumulate a political and financial debt to such a repellent organization is a scandal — not just because DJ could be elected President in spite of this, but because those associations were mentioned in almost none of the reporting of Kim Dae Jung or his legacy.
I should note that I’m not even halfway through Kirk’s book yet, mostly because of competing demands on my time. By the way, if you live in the Washington, DC area, Kirk will appear at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to discuss his book on January 5th, at 2:00.
The Daily Mail has republished photos, released yesterday by KCNA, showing Kim Jong Il visiting what’s described elsewhere as the Kim Jong Suk Sanitarium. The report doesn’t specify what city it’s in, but Kim Jong Suk is Kim Jong Il’s mother and a native of Hoeryong in North Hamgyeong Province. Many of the sites in Hoeryong are named after her.
You’d think that a country that’s trying to show the vigor of its geriatric oligarch wouldn’t dress him in funereal black. Don’t those North Koreans know that black is a slimming color?
Is that a metal rod propping you up, or are you just happy to see me?
The Daily Mail’s use of the loaded word “companion” to describe the woman with Kim Jong Il is probably baseless. Most likely, she’s just local talent — a hostess or tour guide selected to lead Kim around during his break from posing at a multitude of factories, fisheries, and other backdrops. Historically, Kim’s wives, mistresses, and pleasure squads have been kept away from cameras. Kim Jong Il probably lusts for many things nowadays — a legacy, regional hegemony, total control over his borders, culling what’s left of his “hostile” class, missiles that can reach Arkansas — but he looks very much like a man who has passed his sexual life expectancy.
Here’s hoping he’ll pass the physical one with all due haste, but none of KNCA’s pictures suggest that that’s imminent. By my eyes, he looks no better or worse than in previous photos. A caveat: these pictures were released yesterday, but KNCA didn’t say when they were taken, and North Korea has a history of giving misleading information about the dates photographs were taken. Comparing these to previous pictures of Kim Jong Il and noting that the North Koreans at least managed to get the background foliage right this time, I’d say they were taken recently, at least since last June. Last year, he was probably in much worse shape and significantly heavier. The current rumor, of course, is that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.
One thing that these photos do seem to prove is that Kim Jong Il has been traveling widely in his kingdom. He’s rumored to have acquired a fear of flying after he was injured in a 1976 helicopter crash. He might have visited all of these places in his personal 16-car train, but given the horrible condition of the country’s railroads, a train probably couldn’t have moved very quickly. It’s more likely that Kim Jong Il took some long road trips, and just for context, it’s probably about a 400 drive from Pyongyang to Chongjin. Granted, Kim Jong Il doesn’t have to worry about traffic congestion or speed traps, but the condition of the highways is spotty, and 400 miles is the better part of a day’s drive anywhere.
Interestingly, many of the points on this itinerary are coastal cities, which may explain why North Korea was interested in buying Italian luxury yachts.