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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yonhap: U.S., ROK & Japan to impose coordinated sanctions independently of U.N.

With reaction to UNSCR 2321 ranging from the skeptical to the unfavorable, U.S. and South Korean diplomats have been practicing their skills at porcine cosmetology this week. But if the generals in Pyongyang are already quaffing Hennessey to celebrate the latest advance for the byungjin policy, that may be premature. The Security Council may not have the last word on North Korea’s September 9th nuke test after all:

South Korea, the United States and Japan are preparing to announce their own sanctions on North Korea at the same time in a joint action to maximize their impact to the communist country, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Thursday.

“Basically, (the three countries’ independent sanctions) will be announced concurrently or at a very similar time,” Yun told Yonhap News Agency, referring to the nations’ follow-up measures to the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2321. South Korea is set to unveil its own set of new sanctions on Friday. [Yonhap]

My two greatest concerns with 2321 are, first, that the surprisingly high coal export limits are a license to cheat that may actually raise the amount of coal Pyongyang can export, and second, that within the negotiations with China over the resolution was a sub rosa agreement by the U.S. to abstain from using the power of the dollar against Chinese banks and businesses that are propping up His Supreme Corpulency. This report doesn’t address the first concern, but it may palliate the second.

Obviously, how much the new bilateral sanctions would palliate my concern depends on what the sanctions are, and Yun didn’t say much about that, except that “[b]ilateral sanctions prepared by the U.S. side may be strong enough to hurt North Korea more than the recent UNSC resolution.” This article, however, gives some vague hints at the South Korean actions. Yun also didn’t say exactly when the new sanctions would be announced, because the different countries have different “internal procedures.”

I can certainly imagine what kind of sanction would have that sort of effect. So can the Obama administration, and so can the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, whose most vocal members and committee chairs are going to be pushing for just that for at least two more years. That the allies appear to be practicing Progressive Diplomacy is also excellent news.

I may not miss Park Geun-hye as much as I’d miss Yun Byung-se. I certainly hope he stays on in the banana republic that South Korea has recently become, but then, who am I? I’m writing this from Washington, D.C.

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N. Korea sanctions update: I sense a great disturbance in the force, as if billions of dollars cried out in terror and were suddenly frozen.

[First, thank you for your patience with the light blogging recently. Most of my limited spare time has been consumed by a project that must take a higher priority than this site. That project has been perpetually at the verge of completion for weeks now, but should be done soon.]

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January was a watershed in sanctions law and policy. Until then, the U.S. and the U.N. had mostly pretended to have tough sanctions against North Korea. Until then, South Korea’s policy was to subsidize and sanction the same government at the same time. Since March, with Congress’s passage of H.R. 757, the closure of Kaesong, the U.N.’s approval of Security Council Resolution 2270, and President Obama’s signature of Executive Order 13722, it has been at least plausible to claim that on paper, there are tough sanctions against North Korea. Whether reality will conform to the law will depend on political will, and the political will of many U.N. member states will depend on whether they believe the U.S. has the political will to use its own secondary sanctions against them if they flout the U.N. sanctions.

Here, the signs continue to be mixed. Almost as soon as Congress moved forward with H.R. 757, and even before the Security Council approved UNSCR 2270, big Chinese banks began to freeze North Korean accounts and close down the branches of North Korean banks. North Korea’s mineral exports to China have, at the very least, dropped sharply, and the drop-off in trade across the Yalu River has emptied office buildings in Dandong. Companies are scrambling to cleanse their supply chains of gold from the Central Bank of the DPRK. Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about China’s hit-and-miss compliance with shipping sanctions, although the latest reports tell us that there are leaks, and that some designated North Korean ships are approaching Chinese ports with their transponders switched off.

This should be a topic of discussion between U.S. and Chinese diplomats.

Unfortunately, there is little publicly available evidence that the Obama Administration is making the same diplomatic effort to get countries to enforce the sanctions that the Bush Administration did between September 2005 and February 2007. It has now been two months since the U.S. government designated anyone under its North Korea sanctions programs, with the splashy launch of Executive Order 13722. Already, election season is consuming Washington’s attention. Political appointees who should be visiting Brussels, Shanghai, Windhoek, and Cairo to deliver veiled warnings act like they’re busy packing their files and job-hunting. If the administration wants to leave its successor more leverage than it had, it must show the world that it hasn’t lost its interest in implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270.

Fortunately, South Korea has done much to fill this void. Park Geun-hye, ably aided by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, has followed her closure of Kaesong, and her lobbying of the European Union to implement sanctions, by lobbying France, Germany, Mexico, India, and even Iran. At least some of this has been effective. Park’s visit to Mexico seems to have played some role in its decision to finally seize the Mu Du Bong, although that action was also held up by questions of legal authority that UNSCR 2087 had already answered clearly and explicitly. India, which had shown signs of cozying up to North Korea, is now promising to implement UNSCR 2270 faithfully. (The outreach to Iran was admirably bold of her, and probably for the consumption of American audiences, but it’s unlikely that Park can offer Iran a replacement for what it really wants from North Korea.) The things Park doesn’t do well are obvious enough, but Park has proven herself a very skillful diplomat. It’s fair to say that she and her Foreign Minister have put our State Department to shame.

Meanwhile, implementation of the most important element of the sanctions — the financial sanctions — is finally beginning in earnest. We have just hit UNSCR 2270’s 90-day deadline for banks worldwide to close the correspondent accounts of North Korean banks. The EU has published strong new regulations implementing the resolution (h/t), and has also just announced a new round of designations, freezing the assets of 18 individuals and one entity, “mostly high-ranking military officials involved in agencies responsible for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.” This will add pressure on the Obama Administration to follow. (Note to the EU: you’d send a clearer message if EU development funds weren’t being used at Polish shipyards that employ North Korean slave labor.)

Switzerland, which is not an EU member, has also just announced a new round of sanctions to implement 2270:

Measures in the financial sector include freezing assets and a ban on providing financial services. The group of people affected will now be widened. Any funds that are connected to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programmes have been affected, as have the finances of the country’s government or the Korean Workers’ Party.

The cabinet said that an exception has been made for the funds of diplomatic representations.

The sanctions mean that Swiss banks cannot open any branch or subsidiaries in North Korea, and existing banks and even accounts will have to be shut down by June 2. The same is also true in reverse – North Korean banks operating in Switzerland will have to leave.

An existing ban on exporting luxury goods will now include more products, and goods that would “increase the operational capabilities” of North Korea’s army are banned.

Any imports or exports will be checked at a customs point for the prohibited products, and exports to North Korea will require advanced authorisation from the State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (Seco). [SwissInfo]

This could be very important. For years, Switzerland had been one of North Korea’s most promiscuous suppliers of luxury goods, and was also rumored to be a haven for large regime slush funds — perhaps as much as $4 billion — under the control of former Ambassador to Switzerland and master money launderer Ri Chol. North Koreans in exile had called on the Swiss government to freeze those assets. Let’s hope that that’s what just happened.      

Even Russian banks are showing signs of compliance.

Radio Free Asia said in a report posted on its website that Russia’s central bank recently ordered other local banks and financial institutions to halt transactions with North Korea.

The central bank also said that transactions of bonds held by North Korean individuals, organizations and other groups subjected to United Nations’ sanctions should be banned immediately.

In addition, Russian financial institutions should close any accounts deemed to be linked to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the report said. [Yonhap]

Kudos to South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for exercising more global leadership than I’ve seen from a middle power in my memory. Even as the U.S. looks punch-drunk, the South Koreans are fighting above their weight.

“A perception has taken hold in the international community that sanctions and pressure of a different kind compared to the past should be applied to get the North to change and seek denuclearization,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a speech at a forum.

“In the last couple of days, Switzerland the European Union took their own sanction measures. Our government will keep leading the international community’s pressure on the North from all possible directions going forward,” he added. [Yonhap]

Although the Obama Administration isn’t showing much strength now, a key test will come in July, when under section 304 of the NKSPEA, the President will have to report back to Congress on which North Korean officials, to include Kim Jong-un himself, will be designated for human rights abuses. Already, the State Department is saying that it will “identify and sanction those responsible for human rights abuses in North Korea.” It also offered these welcome words.

“The reason that that provision is in the executive order is to make it possible for us first to develop the evidence and second to act on it. The principle of accountability is a feature of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 as well,” Russel said. “I think that the prospect of officials being held to account for systemic abuses of universal human rights is a serious one and that is one way in which we and the international community can keep faith with the North Korean people.”

Russel also said he believes that North Korean people, when they are eventually liberated, will “ask who stood by them” and the U.S. is firmly committed to be among the supporters for them.

On Monday, Amb. Robert King, special representative for North Korean human rights issues, made a similar remark.

“We’re looking at the issue of how we might identify individuals that meet our legislative requirements to apply sanctions against individuals and there are a whole range of issues that we’re looking at. People involved in abductions will be one that we are looking at,” he said. [Yonhap]

A designation triggers the freezing of assets, which will further increase the financial pressure on the regime. And if, as now seems likely, Hillary Clinton is elected this fall, her words (and those of her advisors) offer Kim Jong-un no encouragement that this pressure will ease anytime soon. That’s good, because it will likely take between one and two years before Pyongyang starts to show signs of serious financial distress. It will take careful attention and patience to build the pressure needed to change Pyongyang without war. The greater challenge will be to maintain the determination to keep that pressure in place until Pyongyang shows that it will meet the hard conditions set forth in section 402 of the NKSPEA. Until Pyongyang is prepared to accept that level of basic transparency, no deal it signs will be worth the paper it’s printed on.

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Update: The UK and Swiss governments have published guidance for their banks on their new sanctions regulations, here and here, respectively. Also, here’s more information about Russia’s sanctions implementation rules.

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Weirdly, corroboration emerges that Kim Won-hong was ousted for “human rights abuses”

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.

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North Korea should negotiate with the U.S.: No Rodong Sinmun op-ed, ever

This was supposed to be a big week for talk-to-North-Korea crowd, a constituency that’s well-represented in certain academic circles and op-ed pages … and pretty much nowhere else. Track 1.5 talks between current North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats were supposed to begin tomorrow — in Washington, no less. This aroused certain Nobel Peace Prize aspirants and their megaphones in the New York Times and the AP about the prospect that Donald Trump want to might cut a deal with North Korea.

Personally, I’m not privy to the discussions inside the White House. I don’t know if the President wants to cut a deal or not, what kind of deal he’d cut, or who he’d cut it with. I don’t know if the administration asked anyone to convey any messages or what those messages might have been. Officially, Track 1.5 and Track 2 talks aren’t official, but Yun Byung-se, Seoul’s indispensable man, saw that possibility as significant enough to ask Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to cut a freeze deal and stick to C.V.I.D.

By now, it has occurred to the wisest ones among you that our own arguments and negotiations about talks are an exercise in masturbatory diplomacy if the North Koreans aren’t even showing us any leg. After all, they’ve said over and over and over and over again that they aren’t going to denuclearize, period. Two weeks ago, the Rodong Sinmun specifically rejected Jeffrey Lewis’s bizarre proposal to offer North Korea help with its “satellite” program (which would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions currently in force) in exchange for a freeze on its missile programs. And in the week leading up to the scheduled talks, Pyongyang said this:

There is a heated argument among the political circles in the U.S. about whether the goal of denuclearizing north Korea” is possible or not. Minju Joson Tuesday observes in a commentary in this regard: It is nonsensical to argue about this matter and an attempt to realize the above-said scenario is as foolish as trying to turn back the clock of history.  [KCNA, Feb. 21, 2017]

And, lest anyone suspect that these were the words of a rogue North Korean editor, this:

The DPRK is a nuclear power possessed of even H-bomb which the world calls “absolute weaponry”. The increased nuclear threat to the DPRK will put the security of the U.S. mainland in a greater peril.

The Trump administration has to bear in mind that it may lead the U.S. to its final ruin should it follows in the footsteps of the Obama group which faced only denunciation and derision by the world people, being branded as a defeater for its pipe dream of leading the DPRK to “change” and “collapse” during its tenure of office.

Neither high-intensity nuclear threat and blackmail nor economic sanctions will work on the DPRK.

The U.S. has to face up to the reality and get awakened from pipe dream. The present U.S. administration has to make a bold decision of policy switchover, not trying to repeat its totally bankrupt anti-DPRK policy. [Rodong Sinmun, Feb. 21, 2017]

In the end, the White House decided that it might have sent the wrong message to grant the North Koreans visas and welcome them to Washington just two weeks after eight of their countrymen — including one of their diplomats! — committed an act of international terrorism with a weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal, in a peaceful and friendly country. After all, unless I’m overlooking something, this was the world’s first state-sponsored terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

Invariably, the usual suspects will use the denial of the visas to blame Trump for the fact that the talks didn’t happen. But given the inflexible position the North Koreans took going in, the better question is why we should have bothered at all. If North Korea’s nukes aren’t on the table, what conceivable benefit can we derive from negotiations? I suppose there’s value in sending certain messages to the North Koreans — putting them on notice that tougher sanctions are coming, and warning them of the consequences of attacking civilian targets. But there are other times and places to send those messages without committing the grave symbolic and diplomatic error of welcoming Pyongyang’s diplomats to Washington at such an inappropriate time.

But those are conversations, not negotiations, which is what the North Korea doves want, and which is also what the U.S. has tried to start again, and again, and again, even after North Korea reneged on the agreements it did make, again and again and again. Maybe, then, the North Korea doves should stop submitting all of those op-eds to The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Maybe they should start sending them to the editors of The Rodong Sinmun and KCNA and The Minju Choson instead. Let me know if you ever see one published.

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GOP heavyweights push for secondary boycott of North Korea

Six Republican senators — Ted Cruz (TX), Cory Gardner (CO), Thom Tillis (NC), Marco Rubio (FL), Pat Toomey (PA) and David Perdue (GA) — have signed a letter to newly confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin* calling for improved implementation and enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhnancement Act (NKSPEA).

As Kim Jung-un has exposed his willingness to increase ballistic missile testing with the ultimate goal of achieving nuclear breakout, the potential for this regime to attain a developed and capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) poses an imminent threat that cannot be ignored,” the senators wrote. “North Korea’s test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile this past weekend demonstrates advancement in fuel and launch technology, underscoring the necessity of faithfully executing the law to meet this growing threat. [Sen. Ted Cruz]

The letter (the full text is here, and it’s an absolute must-read) proposes ten actions that President Obama never got around to, that would substantially improve the effectiveness of sanctions: (1) designate North Korea’s remaining banks; (2) hire enough cops and lawyers to enforce the sanctions; (3) invoke more Patriot Act special measures to require record-keeping and reporting on North Korean beneficial owners; (4) talk to Rex Tillerson about re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism; (5) replace our weak and outdated North Korea sanctions regulations; (6) strictly enforce Know-Your-Customer and reporting rules on North Korean banking transactions; (7) investigate the banks involved in the Dandong Hongxiang and Chinpo Shipping cases; (8) enforce the law against any bank caught providing North Korean banks with direct or indirect correspondent account services; (9) work to cut North Korea out of SWIFT; and (10) show some willingness to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese sanctions violators.

That’s a good list — a very good list. I couldn’t have written it better myself (OK, maybe slightly, but only slightly).

The instigator and drafter of this letter is the man some now refer to as The New Ted Cruz. Although I’m not nearly as conservative as Cruz is on some issues, Cruz deserves commendation for stepping forward to lead on this issue, despite not even being a member of the Foreign Relations Committee or previously showing particular interest in foreign policy. (Tillis and Toomey aren’t Committee members, either; kudos** to them for signing on.) And while we’ve come to know Gardner and Rubio as leaders on North Korea policy, this episode also teaches us the importance of being willing to follow when someone else proposes good ideas. Rubio and Gardner in particular are highly respected in the Senate for their intellect and understanding of foreign affairs. It’s to their credit that they added their heft and gravitas to the letter by signing on. In doing so, they’re shaping the new administration’s policy at an early and malleable stage, when Trump probably needs all the good advice he can get.

Also deserving similar credit is Edwin Feulner, a (the?) founder of the Heritage Foundation and (so I’ve read in various press accounts) a man Donald Trump listens to. Yonhap also calls Feulner a leading candidate to be our next Ambassador to South Korea. Feulner sat down for an interview with Yonhap’s Chang Jae-soon and Shim In-sung, where he expressed similar views to those of the Gang of Six:

“I think anything that happens post January 20, 2017 is a test and is a challenge to President Trump and that President Trump takes anything that happens while he is the President of the U.S. he is going to take it very seriously,” Feulner said of the missile launch.

Increasing pressure on North Korea, including making China, through secondary sanctions, use more of its leverage over Pyongyang as the main provider of food and energy assistance, would be a key part of Trump’s policy on the North, Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will be expecting China to do a lot more. The notion of economic pressure on North Korea is one that Mr. Trump understands. Mr. Trump is not going to be reluctant to use his willingness to invoke secondary boycotts, for example, of organizations in North Korea or in China that are pass-through entities for exports from North Korea to cut off even more economic help,” Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will not hesitate to employ more significant measures,” he said. [Yonhap]

Also encouraging was Feulner’s call to bring more attention to North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and to appoint a “widely recognized, respected ambassador” for human rights issues, as mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act (which is up for reauthorization this year, and will be reauthorized).

The rumor of Feulner’s potential nomination as ambassador may be the most encouraging news I’ve heard about the Trump administration so far. Historically, Korea only got the attention it deserved in Washington when ambassadors have had strong political pull and close relationships with the President. And while it’s hard to think of someone with better judgment or public diplomacy talents than Mark Lippert, Feuler’s combination of close ties to Korea, political strength in Washington, good policy instincts, and understanding of the subject matter would make him an outstanding candidate for the job as the North Korea crisis reaches a critical phase.

Most of what the six senators and Feulner said also sounds consistent with what Rex Tillerson, Yun-Byung-se, and Fumio Kishida said after their first trilateral meeting this week, in Germany.

“The ministers condemned in the strongest terms North Korea’s February 12, 2017 ballistic missile test, noting North Korea’s flagrant disregard for multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that expressly prohibit its ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the three countries said in a joint statement.

“Secretary Tillerson reiterated that the United States remains steadfast in its defense commitments to its allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, including the commitment to provide extended deterrence, backed by the full range of its nuclear and conventional defense capabilities,” it said.

The sides pledged to collaborate to ensure that all countries fully carry out U.N. Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang and that violations of Security Council resolutions will be met with an “even stronger international response,” according to the statement.

The top diplomats urged Pyongyang to refrain from provocative actions and “abandon its proscribed nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner” and comply with all U.N. resolutions, the statement said.

“Only in this way can North Korea be accepted as a responsible member of the international community,” it said.

The sides also agreed to continue to draw international attention to the North’s “systemic, widespread, and gross violations” of human rights. [Yonhap]

That latter point is an important one, not only from an ethical or a legal perspective, but from a utilitarian one. Since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, Pyongyang has shown surprising vulnerability to criticism on human rights, to the point where that criticism may be affecting the cohesion of the elites and the stability of the regime itself. It will not be any single vulnerability that convinces the generals there that they have no future on the path set by Kim Jong-un, but a combination of vulnerabilities — financial, diplomatic, and political, both foreign and domestic — converging at once. It’s gratifying to see that the Americans (Update: well, some of them, anyway) who will have the most influence over the future of Korea understand what those vulnerabilities are.

~   ~   ~

* Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing is here. It’s about 5 hours long, in case you have a long weekend coming up and no life.

** Previously said “kudus.” Since corrected, although I wouldn’t mind “kudus” myself. As I can testify from personal experience, kudu is delicious.

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Why talk of human rights unnerves North Korean diplomats so much, and why that matters

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng has taken note of the rise in defections by members of the North Korean elite. Over the last year, this blog closely followed that trend, including the unprecedented group defections of workers in Malta, China, and Russia; soldiers guarding the Yalu River border; high-ranking intelligence officers; and even diplomats. Last week, a Chinese media report also claimed that “approximately 10 North Korean IT technicians and hackers went missing around 9 p.m. Wednesday in Changchun in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.” It is not just the rank and status of these defectors that matters so much, but also what group defections tell us about the potential for conspiratorial and collective action against the world’s most repressive state.

So far, Thae Yong-ho is the only North Korean diplomat to have come out publicly, but Thae now says there are others.

“A significant number of diplomats came to South Korea,” Thae Yong-ho told a conference hosted by the conservative Bareun Party which will be formally launched this month. “Even now, there are a number of (North Koreans) waiting to head to the South.”

“There will be an increase in the number of elite-class defectors seeking a better life,” he added. “I am the only high-ranking official whose identity has been revealed to the public. South Korean media do not know but North Korean diplomats are all aware of it.” [Yonhap]

That aligns with this NK News report, citing South Korean press reports (which, in turn, cite “unnamed local officials”) that at least seven North Korean diplomats posted in Bulgaria, Russia, and East Asia defected last year. If true, that would be remarkable; it could also be profoundly consequential. For obvious reasons, Thae can’t confirm who those other defectors are, but some tantalizing, still-unverified reports last year claimed that top-level Bureau 39 slush fund managers defected from China, Europe, and Russia. Again, if those reports are true, these men could expose the funding network that pays the soldiers, guards, civil servants, and security forces that sustain Kim Jong-un’s misrule. They could also cause nervous bankers across China, Russia, and Europe to flip and report suspicious North Korean transactions to the Treasury Department, for fear of being outed by defectors and penalized for sanctions violations or money laundering.

Thae hasn’t said as much about his own knowledge of regime finances, but he does say that North Korea’s insurance fraud scam continued until the EU’s recent blocking of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, despite its exposure years ago by Kim Kwang-jin. The greater impact of Thae’s defection, however, will be the damage it does to North Korea’s political cohesion. We will not know its full extent until his calls for revolution reach his homeland. Nor will we know its full effect on the new Trump administration until Thae speaks directly to American policymakers in his excellent English. 

~   ~   ~

What causes the disgruntlement of a scion of one of North Korea’s most privileged bloodlines and a trusted member of His Porcine Majesty’s foreign service? Thae Yong-ho’s path toward dissent and defection sounds like another case of Marxist criticism being particularly (and ironically) applicable to what I’ll call North Korean crisis theory; that is, his faith was undone by the system’s internal contradictions. He wanted a better life for himself and his children than the system could offer. He wanted Kim Jong-un to be a reformer. And for all the propaganda that North Koreans have nothing to envy, Thae knew better. He could not defend the system against the evidence of its inhumanity.

Thae also emphasized the importance of international pressure on North Korea’s human rights issue based on his experience as a former diplomat. According to him, North Korean diplomats can remain defiant and proud on the issue of nuclear development, but when it comes to the issue of human rights, they often lose their nerve.

“North Korean diplomats can talk proudly about nuclear development wherever they go, because although it seems that the world is united against North Korea, many countries are actually keeping their eye on how the North will develop itself as a nuclear power. Some countries are interested in following North Korea’s path to becoming a nuclear power themselves. Therefore, North Korean diplomats retain their dignity despite the criticisms of international society,” Thae explained.

“However, there is not a single country that approves of North Korea’s human rights violations. The most frequent question I received was, ‘Do you think North Korea is an egalitarian society?’ North Korea will inevitably be put on the defensive in a debate over the human rights issue,” Thae added.

Thae particularly emphasized the importance of taking Kim Jong Un to the ICC (International Criminal Court), adding that North Korean diplomats are doing everything in their power to prevent it.

“It is not easy for North Koreans to understand the concepts of the ICC or human rights. But they will be greatly interested if they hear that Kim Jong Un will be tried at the international court. It will be a direct sign that Kim Jong Un is a criminal and his regime has no future,” Thae added. [Daily NK]

Look at some of the videos of Thae defending the North Korean system, knowing now that he probably didn’t believe half of it. He did it better than Jang Il-hun did it at the Council on Foreign Relations a little more than two years ago. (In one particularly absurd moment, Jang cited North Korea’s new ski resort as evidence that human rights conditions had improved. Human Rights Watch, not surprisingly, has a different view). Having to defend the indefensible to foreign audiences eventually takes a toll.

Exposed to the outside world and information, North Korean diplomats often face a dilemma of knowing the fabrication of Pyongyang and having to still speak for the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and human rights records.

“North Korea’s elite class is living an opportunistic life and believes that they can continue to live like that (with the privileges they enjoy). During the day, they extol the virtues of Kim Jong-un, but at night they hide themselves under a blanket to watch (South Korean) dramas,” the 55-year-old career diplomat said.

“I, myself, had to cry hooray for Kim Jong-un … but I had a very difficult time defending the North Korean state during meetings with people in Britain in which most people denounced the North’s system and challenged my vindication of it,” according to him.

The North Korean government is well aware of such a dilemma and strains to keep outside news from its people, even from the country’s top echelons, he noted.

“Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it,” Thae said. “The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else.”

Diplomats also keep their mouth shut primarily out of desperation to protect themselves and their families who can fall victim to the regime’s merciless dealings with those who let out banned information.

“North Korean society is sustainable only on the condition that the inflow of outside information is shut out. The day such information makes inroads, North Korea would fall apart,” he said. [Yonhap]

Other North Korean diplomats are finding their hosts increasingly critical of Kim Jong-un by name. 

North Korean embassies are in a pinch as their attempts to defend Pyongyang’s human rights record overseas is backfiring and the international community is now criticizing their leader, Kim Jong-un, by name.

Fed up with North Korea human rights issues, European countries are making especially critical remarks of Kim Jong-un, according to a government source Wednesday.

As North Korea continues to defend its human rights situation, which is condemned by the United Nations, Kim Jong-un has subsequently been called “a kid who knows nothing” and worse.

Thus, Pyongyang, in the midst of harsh economic sanctions, faces further isolation.

“These remarks are coming in foreign ministers’ meeting, so high-level officials and North Korean embassies are all actively trying to respond to this,” the official continued. “While this hasn’t been reported in media, as such news is being spread in diplomatic circles, North Korean overseas embassies are actively working to respond to this.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto referred to the North Korean leader as a “lunatic communist dictator,” which prompted Pyongyang’s embassy in Austria to demand an explanation, VOA reported last week. But this backfired, and Hungary reportedly sent an official letter stating that the foreign minister’s words are his views and beliefs.

Szijjarto last month visited Seoul and met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Dec. 16. The Hungarian foreign minister was said to have recounted his childhood under the brutalities of a communist dictatorship. [Joongang Ilbo]

Fear also takes a toll on the diplomats. The regime, concerned that diplomatic isolation will deny it access to foreign markets, finance, and legitimacy, has ordered them to “contain the situation” and has threatened to punish those who fail to do so. 

The diplomatic source here said, “They are ordered to take all measures and invest whatever resources needed to block such critical talk of Kim Jong-un from becoming public opinion. If they do not take care of this issue properly, it is said the diplomats of the respective embassies will be summoned home and punished.”

Pyongyang has especially been sensitive on the issue since Washington for the first time imposed sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses in July. [Joongang Ilbo]

As I said at the time, symbols are powerful things, especially to North Korea.

It is often said that North Koreans are more interested in foreign media that entertains than openly subverts (which is my excuse to plug Baek Jieun’s book, “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”). To be sure, this is true of most human beings anywhere. Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump has as many Twitter followers as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift. But once Thae Yong-ho became receptive to political criticism, openness became active interest, and active interest became a compulsion. 

But he also said that North Korean diplomats overseas are, nevertheless, eager to hear news on North Korea as reported by foreign media.

“I was checking reports by South Korean media on North Korea and Yonhap News agency’s section for ‘North Korea’ every day on my smartphone. I read every news story related to defectors who settled in South Korea. I shed tears reading their stories, and [somehow] garnered the courage to defect as a result of them,” Thae said.

“All North Korean officials and their family members overseas are checking South Korean news every day. By tomorrow, every North Korean diplomat abroad will be aware of what I have said right now.” [Daily NK]

Which is my excuse to (again) plug Commander Skip Vincenzo’s report on information strategies to sway the North Korean elites away from war, and toward peace and reunification.

It is always a minority that takes an active (rather than a passive) interest in political criticism. That tendency must be especially pronounced in a place where thoughtcrime means a quick and painful death for you, and a slow and painful death for the people you love. But this minority produces a nation’s civil servants, its generals, its corrupt officials, and eventually, its dissidents and rebels. When it arrives at such a political consciousness, this minority exerts a disproportionate influence.

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap; see also]

Thae is uniquely positioned to help other doublethinkers in Pyongyang — and in its embassies abroad — make the same journey he made. No wonder the regime is making him its Emmanuel Goldstein; its survival may depend on that. For Thae, the end of his journey from oligarch to dissident came when he gathered his sons and said, “I will cut off your slave chains as your father from this moment.” 

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Defections may not foretell N. Korea’s collapse (but they could help induce it)

The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”

“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.

Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”

In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleaguesOther analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:

Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.

Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.

“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.

Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.

“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.

[Everything is absolutely fine.]

Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.

But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host. 

Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.

The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.

Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.

A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.

The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]

The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]

Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defected in July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defected two years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.

Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.

If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)

So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-un provokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous. 

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U.S. joins diplomatic squeeze on North Korean labor exports

Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:

SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.

(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and

   (2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.

(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;

   (2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and

   (3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.

The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.

“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]

U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.

Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:

[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]

However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]

The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.

South Korea is also joining the campaign, following its promising reports from Africa and Cambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”

Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argument I’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.

Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.

Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 7.45.00 AM

[Wall Street Journal]

Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.

The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.

“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.

“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.

North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.

North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.

The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.

“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]

Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.

Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.

North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.

One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.

The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:

After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.  [WSJ]

Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:

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If Kim Jong-un can’t trust his own spies and assassins, who can he trust? (updates)

The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.” 

Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.

This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.

The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.” 

~   ~   ~

This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:

“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]

Really, Jean? Even lower standards of quality than this?

Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?

Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.

~   ~   ~

There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class. 

The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.

Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.

China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.

Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.

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In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.

Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.

Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.

[This is.]

Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers. 

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.

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Updates: 

  • This statement from Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se supports my theory: “This appears to be an example indicating that such incidents may continue if the North Korean regime continues to make the wrong choices, such as its development of nuclear weapons.” Yun warned that other group defections may follow if His Porcine Majesty continues with his current policies.
  • South Korean “sources” say that “[a]bout five to seven other North Koreans who used to work at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo are known to be hiding in other areas of China, biding their time before they make it to the South, according the sources.”
  • South Korea says it is putting some diplomats on the job of persuading other Asian countries to allow North Korean refugees safe passage. “There has been no trouble so far in our talks and cooperation with relevant nations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck. “We are in close talks with relevant nations to help defectors come to South Korea if they so wish under humanitarian principles.”
  • The Unification Ministry says that North-to-South defections rose 17.5% during the first quarter of 2016, over the same period last year. The report doesn’t parse whether this represents an increase in actual flights from North Korea, or just an increase in arrivals in South Korea, of people who may have been hiding in China for years. That matters, because of what it tells us about the continued effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown, and whether corruption is starting to reverse it.

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The rebirth of an alliance: The U.S., South Korea & Japan are finally getting North Korea policy right

As you and I both know, I spend a lot of keystrokes here kvetching about the lax enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, but I’ve also written that diplomacy is essential to making sanctions work. Now, for the first time I can recall, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are coordinating their policies as allies should. They’ve coordinated their defense responses to the North’s missile test, their calls for tougher U.N. sanctions, their strategies to strengthen sanctions enforcement, and their recruitment of new partners into this coalition. I can’t remember the last time I saw Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington all pull in the same direction. It’s a welcome change from the incoherence of the past.

Japan is our first case in point. After its 2013 nuclear test, Pyongyang foiled coordinated sanctions enforcement by promising to “re-investigate” its past abductions of Japanese citizens. In exchange, Tokyo relaxed sanctions, just as Seoul and Washington were trying to tighten them.

In due course, Pyongyang reneged, and now, Japan is taking a hard line again. Unilaterally, it has banned all but small humanitarian remittances to North Korea, banned port calls by North Korean ships, and imposed “a complete ban on North Korean nationals from entering into Japan.” (President Trump, Prime Minister Abe on line one.) Multilaterally, it is calling sanctions “one of the important tools … to bring a comprehensive solution” and citing the example of Iran as “clear proof that sanctions do work.” Japanese authorities have also arrested a high-ranking North Korean agent and comrade of Lee Seok-ki.

In Washington, the President is poised to sign (and hopefully, enforce) tough new sanctions legislation that passed Congress almost unanimously. Even the editors of the New York Times have belatedly endorsed it. 

While China temporizes, others are acting. Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved strict sanctions intended to limit the North’s ability to finance warheads and missiles. President Obama should sign the measure into law. It is aimed at weapons and traders of raw minerals, as well as money launderers and human rights abusers, and its effects are likely to be felt acutely by Chinese companies, which are most involved with the North. [Editorial, N.Y. Times]

Reuters reports that the President “is not expected to veto the bill, given its huge support in Congress.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said, “I think this is an area where we and Congress are in the same space and agree on the need for increased sanctions.”

The new legislation has drawn enthusiastic support from the South Korean government. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he “expected the secondary boycott clause in the new bill [to] have considerable impact down the line,” and called the bill’s swift passage a sign of U.S. “resolve to tackle this issue.” The South Korean Ambassador even came to Congress to congratulate Ed Royce, who led the congressional revolt against “strategic patience.” Royce, in turn, welcomed Seoul’s decision to shut down Kaesong.

North Korea had a different reaction.

“Unpardonable is the puppet group’s act of totally suspending the operation in the [Kaesong complex], finding fault with the DPRK’s H-bomb test and launch of a satellite,” the committee said in a statement. [….]

“The recent provocative measure is a declaration of an end to the last lifeline of North-South relations, a total denial of the June 15 [2000] North-South Joint Declaration and a dangerous declaration of war, driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war,” the committee said.

It lashed out at President Park Geun-hye, saying that “South Korea will experience what disastrous and painful consequences will be entailed by its action.” [Joongang Ilbo]

FrenchTaunt

[Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries.]

The decision will have financial costs for Seoul, including the confiscation of property, machinery, and land that it will end up paying for. It will also have to write off $2.5 billion in loans that Pyongyang was never going to repay anyway. Moodys may downgrade Seoul’s credit due to the political risk of increased tensions. (Apparently, Seoul’s previous lack of a coherent counterproliferation strategy was less of a risk.)

The decision will also have political costs for President Park. The Unifiction Minister’s inept walk-back of his claim that Pyongyang was using Kaesong funds for nukes will not help matters. Given the way the U.N. resolutions require payers to “ensure” that their money isn’t spent on WMDs and luxury goods, either way, Kaesong was inconsistent with those resolutions, but the unforced error makes Seoul look foolish.

Seoul was lucky in one regard, however — it escaped Kaesong without a hostage crisis. As I’ve argued, Kaesong had actually become a source of inter-Korean tensions. In the long term, its closure may reduce tensions by giving Seoul and Pyongyang one less thing to fight about.

But the most important consequence of shutting down Kaesong wasn’t its elimination as an irritant or the $120 million it funneled into Pyongyang’s accounts each year. It was the removal of Kaesong as a punchline from any call by Seoul for other countries to enforce “bone-numbing” sanctions.

Publicly, the U.S. supported Seoul’s decision, but privately, it may have done more than that. The Joongang Ilbo reports that the U.S. was “adamant” in demanding that Seoul close Kaesong. Even the Russians and Chinese answered South Korean pleas to enforce sanctions by saying, in effect, “You first.”

Park Geun-hye, who has conditionally supported engagement with Pyongyang for her entire political career, now says, “The only way to stop North Korea’s misjudgement is to make [it] realize that it cannot survive unless it abandons its nuclear program.”

So how will she get that point across? Several ways, starting with persuading other countries to “focus on drying up the financial resources of the Kim Jong-un regime.”

Seoul has already begun to build international support for the new strategy. Last week, Foreign Minister Yun was in Munich, where he met with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. There, the two agreed that both “the U.N. Security Council and the European Union should impose strong and effective sanctions on North Korea.” Mogherini said that “the EU will join the international community’s efforts to put pressure on North Korea,” reportedly by restricting cash transfers to Pyongyang. Europe has long provided Pyongyang with banking services and luxury goods, so this could be an extremely important shift.

In Munich, Yun also met with diplomats from the U.S., China, Russia, and Britain, and warned North Korea “that any further provocation” would lead to it “being completely cut off from the rest of the international community.” Separately, the Foreign Ministry also asked Australia to support “multidimensional, multilayered” sanctions on the North.

The Donga-Ilbo also reports that Seoul is “moving to expand overseas its efforts to cut off the funding” for Pyongyang’s WMD programs by trying to shut down Pyongyang’s global slave-rental racket, “by asking each country not to use North Korean laborers.” Initially, Seoul will focus its efforts on Southeast Asia, but also plans to make similar pleas to China and Russia. Seoul estimates that slave labor rakes in $300 million a year for Pyongyang, more than double what Pyongyang earned from Kaesong, but less than half of His Corpulency’s annual luxury goods budget.

The allies are also helping ASEAN member nations buy “high-tech scanning equipment” to help “search North Korean ships on the high seas.” South Korea is also considering a secondary shipping boycott against ships that have visited North Korean ports. (Seoul banned North Korean ships from its ports after the sinking of the Cheonan, in 2010.)

Views within South Korea’s foreign policy establishment have also shifted. This summary of an interview of a panel of South Korean scholars will give you the flavor of it.

Moderator: To summarize, we must rid ourselves of the perceived influence that China has wielded over South Korea since the third nuclear test. Inter-Korean relations are something that we must solve without waiting for China. ‘Trustpolitik’ is over, and we must be ready to add independent sanctions, disband the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and deploy the THAAD missile defense system if we are to have adequate means of self-defense. [Asan Institute]

There’s too much there to do justice in this post; read the whole thing for yourself. What’s clear, at least for the time being, is that we’ve entered the post-Sunshine era of Korean history. 

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests weren’t the only reasons to conclude that the Sunshine Policy had little prospect of reforming or disarming North Korea, or reducing tensions. The recent promotion of Kim Yong-chol, mastermind of the Cheonan and Yeonpyong attacks, was a slap in South Korea’s face, and a clear signal that Kim Jong-un wasn’t interested in improving inter-Korean relations. As they say, personnel is policy. But whether public opinion in South Korea has shifted as strongly remains to be seen, and no policy change can last long without political support.

~   ~   ~

The backdrop to the rise of this new alliance is the U.N. Security Council’s failure to act against Pyongyang, more than a month after its fourth nuclear test. Despite the personal pleas of Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama, China refuses to enforce the very sanctions it previously voted for at the U.N. Security Council.

Meanwhile, a leaked draft of the latest U.N. Panel of Experts report concludes that U.N. sanctions have “failed to prevent Pyongyang from scaling up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” and raises “serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.” The report blames member state governments, “particularly in Africa, for failing to fully implement the measures,” but everyone knows who is principally to blame here.

By covering for Kim Jong-un’s obnoxiousness at the U.N., China is causing the allies to look past the U.N. and toward ad hoc coalitions to disarm Pyongyang. Other coalitions that could play useful roles include the Proliferation Security Initiative , the Global Financial Action Task Force, and an Asian military alliance.

Of course, any expectation that U.N. sanctions could work without robust member state enforcement is fantasy. So is any expectation of robust member state enforcement unless developed states help less-developed ones to build better enforcement capacity, or alternatively, threaten them with secondary sanctions. Once the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have recruited the EU, Canada, Australia, and other law-abiding states into an effective coalition against Pyongyang, we’ll be in a stronger position to do both.

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The biggest loser from North Korea’s nuke test? China. (updated)

When I was in high school, my favorite TV show was “Miami Vice.” Until it jumped the shark in Season Three, I’d count the minutes until each episode began. One of its best episodes was called “Golden Triangle,” in which the show developed the main characters’ boss, Lieutenant Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos in his breakout role. Olmos played Castillo deep and dark. To me, at that age, Castillo personified cool.

In this episode, Castillo revealed his past as a DEA agent in Thailand, where he’d gone native, learned to speak Thai, met and lost his life’s great love (played by the delectable Joan Chen), and then barely survived a deadly ambush at the hands of his nemesis, a Nationalist Chinese general turned Golden Triangle drug lord named Lao Li.

Lao Li’s character was played by the late, great Keye Luke, an actor who deserved vastly more memorable roles than were available to Asian-Americans for most of his long life. Luke played this role brilliantly, with an impeccably icy sagacity. (Watch the whole episode below if you doubt me). In his career, Luke was probably most famous for playing Master Po in “Kung Fu,” but I’d have remembered him for the talent he showed in this one “Miami Vice” cameo if he’d never done anything else.

This being a blog about North Korea, you may be wondering whether I will be making a topical point. We’re coming to that; trust me. In this episode, Castillo learns that his old nemesis, General Lao Li, has decided to move his smuggling operation to Miami by posing as a respected retiring businessman, putting down strong roots in the community, and gaining the favor and patronage of the political establishment. (Yes, Joan Chen is there, too.) To do this, he gives strict orders that his subordinates behave like paragons of legality, maintain low profiles, and avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement — and especially of Lieutenant Castillo — at all costs.

Lao Li soon learns that his grandsons have defied him and are driving around in a Lamborghini. Most unforgivably, they have been selling heroin. Castillo is watching, and his men arrest the grandsons. This is a risk, and a defiance of his authority, that Lao Li cannot accept. In terms of its plot, acting, and production values, this episode could have been a movie, but the scene that illustrates my topical point starts at 41 minutes.

[If only one of the grandsons had been fat. Really fat.]

That Lao Li’s character happens to be Chinese is as incidental to the analogy as the fact that Castillo’s character doesn’t. Xi Jinping may not inhabit a higher moral plane than the fictional Lao Li, but he almost certainly inhabits a lower intellectual one. Xi may have a predator’s instinct for weakness, but he’s also a cumbrous, boorish nationalist who has managed to turn most of his democratic Asian neighbors against him. His legacy may yet be an Asian analogue to NATO that contains several newly-minted nuclear powers in an arms race with his ally (and him), along with a lot more port calls by the U.S. Navy.

Xi may not see this, but anyone can see that he has been humiliated by the perception that he cannot control his lawless dependent. That perception may be nothing more than a disguise for a more duplicitous agenda, but the perception itself is costly. Xi has greater schemes in mind, but his (metaphorical) grandson threatens to upset his plans by causing his neighbors to mobilize their defenses. His paternal benevolence should end here. It won’t. And that means Kim Jong-un will continue to be costly for Xi Jinping.

History will probably record that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test did more damage to the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy than it did to the the geology under Punggye-ri. In doing so, it also obliterated China’s credibility here. One of the more devastating criticisms of the administration’s policy came from The Washington Post‘s David Nakamura, who effectively accused the administration of outsourcing its policy to China. No wonder the State Department is feeling burned by China:  

In a striking public rebuke of China, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Beijing on Thursday that its effort to rein in North Korea had been a failure and that something had to change in its handling of the isolated country it has supported for the past six decades.

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, and we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that,” Mr. Kerry said a day after North Korea’s latest nuclear test, after a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. “Today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it clear: That has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.” [N.Y. Times, David Sanger and Choe Sang-hun]

If China’s quiet duplicity surprised the Secretary, it was because no one was giving him read-outs of the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring those sanctions. Those reports added to a considerable body of evidence that China was willfully violating the sanctions for years. In the short term, this is a big setback for the Obama Administration, but in the longer term, we can hope that a tougher, more engaged, and more realistic North Korea policy will be to the administration’s advantage as it winds down its affairs and transitions to the next one.

For China, the consequences may be more adverse and enduring. It stands to lose influence regionally because of North Korea’s actions. Its adversaries have taken steps to resolve the differences that divided them, and are now effectively allied against it. South Koreans even speak openly of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. As well I would, too, if I were South Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese.

It also stands to lose credibility globally. As William Newcomb, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, told the AP, “China uses the sanctions committee’s consensus rule ‘to renege on what it agreed to do in the Security Council as well as to block proposed designations.’” Now, the U.S. and China are fighting about both the substance and enforcement of U.N. sanctions. More voices in the U.S. are calling for secondary sanctions that hit Chinese targets. Some South Koreans are also blaming China:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went ahead with the fourth nuclear test because it will not cause China to abandon the North, said Kim Hwan-suk, a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy.

“North Korea used brinkmanship because it knows that China won’t abandon it, given its strategic value,” Kim said. “North Korea does not expect China to fully support sanctions against the North by the U.N. Security Council.” [Yonhap]

The strongest words came from South Korea’s Foreign Minister:

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Sunday called on China to prove its “firm” opposition to the North’s claimed hydrogen bomb test after the North’s largest ally denied responsibility in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Chinese government must clearly follow through with its promise made to the international community when it votes for the United Nations Security Council resolution,” Yun said on “Sunday Diagnosis,” a KBS current affairs program, on Sunday morning.

“That’s important to stabilizing the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the international community. It would prove that China hasn’t made empty promises.” [Yonhap]

China, for its part, is pushing back and blaming the U.S. for Kim Jong-un’s decision to test a nuke, thereby revealing much about its fundamental hostility to U.S. interests and utter disregard for the welfare of North Koreans:

In a commentary, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said, “The U.S.’s combative approach has in effect deepened Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity and prompted the country to go further in challenging non-proliferation restrictions.”

“The Western media and some politicians have piled blame on China for failing to halt the DPRK’s nuclear program,” the Xinhua commentary said, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name.

“But any hasty conclusion to identify China as the crux of the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula is as absurd as it is irresponsible,” it said.

Another state-run newspaper published by China’s ruling Communist Party also blamed what it calls a “hostile policy” by South Korea, the United States and Japan towards North Korea for the North’s fourth nuclear test.

In an editorial, the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to defend North Korea’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying there will be “no hope” for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions unless South Korea, the U.S. and Japan change their policy toward the North.

“There is no hope to put an end to the North Korean nuclear conundrum if the U.S., South Korea and Japan do not change their policies toward Pyongyang,” the editorial reads. “Solely depending on Beijing’s pressure to force the North to give up its nuclear plan is an illusion.”

Lu Chao, a research fellow of Korean studies at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times newspaper on Saturday that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons because of a “hostile policy” by the U.S. against the North. [Yonhap]

This sort of rhetoric will not play well in Washington, and will not advance China’s interests. Instead, it will inflame opinions on Capitol Hill and among American voters. In an election year, it will set off a contest among candidates to promise the most anti-Chinese policies. A few of those promises might even be kept. So why does China say such silly things? For the same reason Donald Trump says silly things — because of his emotions, and to exploit the emotions of other mediocre minds.

Historically, China has been an empire that either absorbed or dominated its neighbors. States that remained independent were required to send ambassadors to the Forbidden City to kowtow and give tribute. Chinese political culture is a hierarchical and status-conscious one in which you’re either above or below. Those above condescend and exploit. Those below fawn and obey. With this realization, I suddenly understood the appeal of Maoism. In comparison, Korean society seems positively egalitarian. I certainly know who I’d rather drink with, or have on my side in a street fight, but then, I’m an assimilated wasicu

Because of status-based and institutional arrogance, and because China’s leaders aren’t held accountable by a critical press or free elections, they overestimate their own competence and don’t weed out incompetent or corrupt officials. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true in dictatorships. Job security is more closely related to getting along with others, and showing the right deference to superiors. That drives China to make “safe” decisions by continuing with what has worked before, or seemed to. If what worked before stops working, the new plan may come too late, and may be the work of not-very-competent people. See, e.g., the recent performance of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

The leaders of China are rational, but they’re also operating with limited information, because of both groupthink and censorship. So when Chinese elites say that sanctions won’t work or human rights problems in North Korea aren’t really that bad, they probably believe that, mostly. That’s both because they don’t know, and also because they don’t care that much. To Chinese elites, Koreans are a “down” people, and that goes double for North Koreans. They may be extremely adept at weighing of costs against benefits, but groupthink and institutional resistance are high obstacles to a careful reconsidation of the bubble that’s building beyond China’s northeastern border.

In the case of North Korea, we may yet persuade China to shift course. There might yet be a chance for a face-saving soft landing that avoids regional war and protracted chaos, and protects China’s basic security interests, ours, and those of our allies. For now, that still seems unlikely. That’s unfortunate, because the interests of China, the United States, and a united Korea could be reconciled by skillful diplomacy. I’m not sure if Beijing really agrees, but a nuclear North Korea is bad for China — very bad. To get to that realization, however, China will have to feel enough of a cost to shift its incentives. That means that U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they get better.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE: Now, the South Korean semi-official news agency, Yonhap, reports that Chinese are complaining that their government needs to take a harder line.

In one opinion poll of some 42,500 people by the state-run Global Times, 81 percent say the North’s nuclear test poses a threat to China’s security.

In another poll of 4,900 people by the same paper, 82 percent responded that they support new sanctions by the U.N. Security Council against North Korea.

Some Internet users posted comments about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the newspaper’s website, likening him to an “extremely crazy guy.”

Other users say China must cut its aid of oil and food to North Korea.

China is North Korea’s top trading partner and supplies almost all of the isolated ally’s energy needs, but many analysts believe that China’s Communist Party leadership won’t exert enough leverage on North Korea because a sudden collapse of the North’s regime could threaten China’s own security interests. [Yonhap]

That’s the first thing resembling an opinion poll I’ve seen measuring Chinese sentiments about North Korea policy. The 82 percent support for new U.N. sanctions is stunning, and at striking variance with elite opinion in China. Yonhap also reports “growing public resentment” of North Korea, and that “some social media users criticizing their government for not taking a tougher response to the North’s test.” Imagine how they’ll feel if sanctions start to have collateral effects on China’s fragile economy. What this means is that Xi Jinping’s North Korea policy is probably causing harm to his domestic support, in addition to the harm it’s doing to his international credibility.

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North Korea’s not-so-great dictator: Kim Jong-un’s impulsive ineptitude

South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, believes that Pyongyang is increasingly isolated. He believes that this is causing it “more distress this year than any other time,” and that Kim Jong-un will redouble his efforts to break that isolation this year.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Yun’s statement. First, South Korea, having nominally signed on to a policy of pressuring Pyongyang to disarm without actually complying with that policy itself, must want to world to think that it’s sufficient for everyone else to isolate Pyongyang (which won’t work when everyone else is also an exceptionalist). Second, Pyongyang has never needed full access to the global economy to sustain itself. Its survival model only requires engagement with a few compliant or gullible partners who can supply it with just enough hard currency to keep its elite afloat without opening North Korea to significant foreign intrusion. 

On the other hand, there are signs that for various reasons, all self-inflicted, Pyongyang’s appeal to this limited pool of compliant and gullible partners is becoming increasingly selective.

First, Pyongyang has mismanaged relations with its most important foreign investor. The ongoing Koryolink fiasco has generated a stream of bad press and complicated its efforts to recruit foreign investors. I had not realized the full extent of Orascom’s exposure here:

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ, Alastair Gale]

Pyongyang is also under rising diplomatic pressure over its horrific human rights abuses, which have resulted in a stream of humiliating U.N. General Assembly votes and (admittedly non-binding) Security Council meetings. These will also make North Korea toxic to more potential investors until it undertakes real reforms.

Pyongyang knows this, but doesn’t seem to know how to confront it. It recently described “the current U.S. administration’s policy” as “the most hostile and ferocious in the history” of the two countries’ relations. It pushed back hard, if ineffectively, at the U.N., and recently sent envoys to Europe “to lobby against international pressure … over its human rights record.”

The Dec. 9-11 visit to London was part of a European trip that also took Kim Son-gyong, director-general for European affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland.

While in London, Kim held meetings with Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as well as officials at the foreign ministry, according to an official at the South Korean Embassy. [….]

During the visit to London, Kim contended that the country is making efforts to improve its human rights record while reaffirming Pyongyang’s existing position that last year’s landmark U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the North’s human rights situation contained unilateral claims from North Korean defectors. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang has also injured its most important international relationship through the Moranbang Band debacle. Aidan Foster-Carter, in an insightful analysis of this episode, says this was to have been the first foreign performance of Kim Jong-un’s house band and “a big deal.” Foster-Carter runs down a list of theories for the performance’s cancellation, and concludes that the most plausible is that Beijing downgraded the seniority of its official representation in response to Pyongyang’s ill-timed claim that it has a hydrogen bomb:

Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.

What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.

Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.

His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.) [Aidan Foster-Carter, NK News]

The views of Don Kirk and Steph Haggard are also worth reading, and introduce other plausible theories. Another is that the performance was to have been accompanied by a video of a missile launch, and that the Chinese objected to this.

the-great-dictator-1940-wallpapers-9

Whatever cascade of events led to this outcome, only Kim Jong-un could have made the decision to cancel this performance. It looks impulsive and inept. It’s also consistent with how His Porcine Majesty has exercised his royal prerogatives for most of his life.

Fine, you may say, but this was still a materially inconsequential event, involving a band that’s “no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.” Indeed, I agree that most “cultural diplomacy” is overrated, especially in the relations between unaccountable dictatorships. I also agree with Andrei Lankov that Machiavellian interests will prevail in Beijing, which isn’t going to cut Pyongyang off over this. But this incident must have the Chinese wondering whether Kim Jong-un is a steady and reliable ruler and partner. It will likely shift Beijing’s calculus of what costs are acceptable to attain the benefits of stabilizing Kim’s rule.

There are also the more interesting reports that five days later, North Korea ordered “a considerable number of trade-affiliated employees sojourning in China to report to Pyongyang.” If that’s true, it’s a very big deal.

Our source expressed concern over the drastic measure, wondering if the issue of the Moranbong Band’s canceled tour might be exploding into a bigger issue. “When you call back scores of workers from abroad, that’s a pretty big deal,” she pointed out.

Naturally, she added, speculation about the order’s motives has quickly reached a fever pitch. Some posit that Kim Jong Un could be experiencing “mood swings” so close to the 4th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, perhaps causing him to lose his temper over the Moranbong Band dispute and call back the workers in China.

Some cadres briefly put forth the possibility that maybe the callback was somehow related to mourning-related events for Kim Jong Il, held at foreign embassies and the like over the past three years, but admitted that “that doesn’t really seem to fit.”

Although, the reason will surface in a matter of days, “they can’t help but be nervous,” the source said, adding, “After all, workers abroad are never called upon to return without good reason.”

Families of the workers who have been recalled are reassuring each other, noting, “While it’s bad news if only a few workers are recalled, all of them being told to return simultaneously means that they are probably just going to attend a large meeting or some kind of educational session,” the source explained. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims corroboration from two separate sources, although I’ve yet to see this reported by other media. If this is true, I wonder how it will affect relations between Pyongyang and its Chinese business partners, some of whom must still have fresh memories of the Jang Song-thaek purge.

If Kim Jong-un has arguably mismanaged his foreign relations, it’s also true that he can survive several years without recruiting new foreign investors or donors, and months without Chinese support. The relationships he can’t afford to mismanage are those with the top minions whose support he needs every day. But Kim’s management of these relationships also looks increasingly unsteady, as the elites show signs of alienation and discontent. As Kim Jong Un prepares for his own Ides of May, Stephen Harrison, a professor of Latin literature at Oxford, compares his recent purges of his senior advisors to those of Tiberius (fate uncertain), Nero (overthrown), and Caligula (assassinated). 

If there’s any pattern to all of this, it’s one of tactically uncompromising decisions that are beneficial to the regime in the short term, but are strategically self-defeating. This suggests that the flaws in Pyongyang’s strategic judgment go all the way to the top.

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Kerry to North Korea: “[C]lose those camps … shut this evil system down.”

It’s no secret to readers of this site that I’ve never been an admirer of John Kerry. His tenure has been a rolling catastrophe for our national security, in a way that even a rank amateur could have predicted years ago. It’s often difficult to see that he has a North Korea policy at all.

Not so long ago, I criticized Kerry for showing no sign of pressing for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea. But yesterday, Kerry went to “a ministerial meeting he hosted in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly,” where he said some important and commendable things:

“We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” Kerry said.

Kerry stressed that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the problem has lifted the veil on the issue, referring to a report released in February that North Korean leaders are responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” violations of human rights. [….]

“No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction because in 400 pages of excruciating details and testimonies from over 80 witnesses, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report of the DPRK (North Korea) has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” he said.  [….]

“If we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? If we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?” Kerry said. “So we say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down,” he said. [Yonhap]

The Voice of America has video of Kerry’s remarks, in which he mentions several of the camps by name.

[Good report, but please do some research before saying how heavily
sanctioned North Korea is. It isn’t.]

At the meeting, Kerry joined South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently replaced Navi Pillay. In the video, Kerry can be seen seated next to Shin Dong-hyuk.

Of course, to suggest that rhetoric is the measure of policy is like saying that a man’s jawline is the measure of his virility. Substantively, George W. Bush’s North Korea policy was like Rock Hudson at the Playboy Club, and Kerry’s mandibles may be the only fearsome thing about him, but the words they loosed yesterday were both welcome and overdue. Time will tell whether these words translate into effective action, but words like these are certainly a prerequisite to effective action. And of course, no effective action will issue from the General Assembly, a body that has no binding authority on anyone. But still ….

A strongly worded resolution calling for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take responsibility for his regime’s crimes against humanity is anticipated to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly next month.

“The European Union and Japan have completed a draft resolution that endorses the February report of the Commission of Inquiry [into North Korean human rights] and will soon circulate it among UN member states,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.  [….]

“Australia, the home country of Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the COI, was also very active, and there is a high likelihood that the resolution will be adopted through the momentum on the issue in the UN General Assembly,” said one foreign affairs official.

Another diplomatic source said, “Because human rights problems are a universal issue to mankind, it will be a burden on China or Russia to stick up for Pyongyang against other member states.”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Does any of this really matter, then? Pyongyang seems to think so. The New York Times has already noticed a striking shift in the tone of North Korea’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings. At first, it flatly denied them and called its Chair “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” Now, its U.N. Ambassador is feigning some openness to considering some of the criticisms — up to a point — and says his government has “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.”

North Korea’s declaration falls far short of a commitment to follow through with any action, but the contrast with its blanket refusal to even consider similar recommendations in the past could be seen as a willingness to engage on some issues.

“There obviously has been some decision that this is the way the rest of the world relates, and the decision seems to be that North Korea should do it as well,” said Robert R. King, the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. [NYT]

Although King concedes the need to “be careful about assuming this means a great deal in terms of what they do,” a shift in tone this significant must reveal something, even if its sincerity is dubious and its execution, inartful. Last week, for example, North Korea released a self-audit of its own human rights conditions that carried all the credibility of an O.J. Simpson progress report on his search for the real killer. It recited from a fictional work called the “Constitution” of “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” which is an oxymoron. Pyongyang’s report was widely ridiculed in the press.

The North’s ambassador, So Se-pyong, speaking before the Human Rights Council, signaled that the North’s leadership was now willing to consider suggestions about, among other things, freedom of thought, “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” for humanitarian agencies and freedom for them to monitor distribution of their aid. The prevention of human rights violations and punishment for violators were also on the list.

But Mr. So said the North had rejected some recommendations that were “based on distorted information provided by hostile forces which aimed to dismantle the country’s social system,” including calls for unfettered access to detainees for the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosure of the extent and methods of capital punishment, and the end of restrictions on movement and expression.  [NYT]

If you happen to be a North Korean, all of this will look like vaporous twaddle. Nothing the General Assembly says will make North Korea a less brutal place in the foreseeable future, and I’d still reckon that a quarter of the people in these camps will be dead within a year. North Korea still denies that the camps even exist, and its verbose human rights self-audit never mentions them. In all probability, North Korea will be back to its old bombastic self within a week.

Even so, it would also be wrong to conclude that none of this means anything. King cites declining foreign aid contributions and speculates, “I think the North Koreans are feeling some pressure.” But concerns over human rights alone wouldn’t justify denying aid. North Korea’s lack of transparency in distributing the aid might, as would its massive and deliberate waste of funds on missiles, ski resorts, German limousines, and Swiss watches. To be sure, the COI report’s findings also support those concerns, but aid programs for the North were already underfunded when the COI published its report. It’s more likely that donors simply don’t think Pyongyang is serious about feeding its people, and are diverting their limited aid budgets to places that are.

I think King is closer to the mark when he also says that “‘growing concerns about human rights conditions in North Korea make it much more difficult to raise money from foreign governments’ and private sources.” (Emphasis is mine, and note that the emphasized words were added by the Times reporter.) It’s not clear if King is referring to private aid groups or private investors, but investors are the far greater source of cash. All investment decisions weigh risks against benefits, and to many investors, the image risks of being associated with North Korea can’t be justified by the limited returns to be gained in its uncertain business climate. The growing threat of intensified sanctions will add to that uncertainty.

That’s why, for the first time, Pyongyang sees human rights as a problem it can’t just ignore. Its crimes against humanity now threaten to become a significant financial liability. Like the COI report itself, a tough resolution from the General Assembly will give investors pause.

Those signs of engagement dispel what was once a common assumption that the North’s leadership was immune to foreign criticism on issues of human rights, said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “However sincere or insincere it may be, it’s a reflection it does care what the international community thinks and the international community does have leverage to push for change in North Korea,” Ms. Singh said. [NYT]

That is all the more reason to intensify that criticism, but it’s also important to understand what Pyongyang’s game is, too. Pressure is of no consequence unless it extracts fundamental change, and change will only be credible if it’s transparent. Pyongyang is a good enough illusionist to fool the Associated Press — remember how well it worked in this case? — and plenty of its readers. Let’s not forget that in 1944, even the Nazis felt the need to answer damaging charges about their concentration camps. This is Theriesenstadt, which served as Auschwitz’s waiting room. In 1944, the Nazis staged this film to dispel rumors about the “resettlement” of Jews, and portray it as humane:

[Within a month, nearly all of these people died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.]

When Pyongyang can’t ignore problems — usually because it’s under some kind of external financial pressure — it does things like agreeing to “reinvestigate” its abductions of foreign citizens, or agreeing to give up its nuclear programs. It knows well enough that for plenty of us, simply agreeing to talk or (at worst) signing a piece of paper is enough to take the pressure off.

This is where we’ll need to be smarter than the Danish Red Cross, the Associated Press, and our diplomats. Pyongyang knows that there will also be calls for divestment, the blocking of its offshore slush funds, and other forms of financial pressure. There will be calls to tighten the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, and perhaps to pass new ones. Blunting that pressure is Pyongyang’s obvious objective. And those who question that that pressure could work need look no further than the signs that Pyongyang is worried about it.

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Open Sources, March 3, 2014

 ~  1  ~

CHOE PURGED, TOO? Several readers have pointed me to this Korea Herald story, which cites Free North Korea Radio, reporting that Choe Ryong-Hoe has now been purged (see also). We’ll probably have a better idea in a few days (weeks at most) whether that’s true, but North Korea Leadership Watch reports that Choe has made fewer public appearances recently, so the report seems plausible enough. If it is true, Choe was supposed to be Kim Jong Un’s most important adult supervisor after Jang Song Thaek’s execution. It would also be another sign of instability within the top ranks of the regime.

Another reason to celebrate, if this report is true, would be the attention and recognition it would mean for Free North Korea Radio, which is in desperate need of your donations to stay on the air. You can make a tax-deductible donation here, through the Defense Forum Foundation.

~  2  ~

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN:  So, if I could ask John Short two brief questions, they would be: (1) Did anything at all good come of your visit, and (2) was it worth it? Please, people, for the love of God, unless you’re a North Korean with a mission worth dying for, the guile and ability to blend in, and a cyanide capsule, stay out of North Korea.

~  3  ~

THE OLD FALSE HOPE was that Jang Song-Taek was reforming North Korea’s economy. Judging by this paper at 38 North — which is actually a very interesting read — the new false hope is that Jang’s execution will clear the way to reform, but Jang was never a reformer anyway.

I certainly never believed that Jang was a reformer. Anything is possible, I suppose, but there’s zero evidence at this point that Kim Jong Un has any intention of liberalizing North Korea’s economy, or improving the living standards of anyone in North Korea except for himself and a few cronies.

~  4  ~

GETTING CHINA TO ENFORCE NORTH KOREA SANCTIONS” is the title of this recent paper at the Yonsei Journal of International Studies. I wish I’d seen it earlier, but it’s well worth reading for its frank discussion of China’s non-enforcement of sanctions, its plausible explanations of the mechanics of the problem, and its detailed discussions of several potential levers to change that. The one they don’t discuss is giving Taiwan and Japan Trident submarines fully loaded with hydrogen-bomb-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, but that may be a discussion for another day.

~  5  ~

THE NEW YORK TIMES editorializes on the COI report, but ends up saying nothing except that the thugs running North Korea ought to be brought to justice some day, possibly after Ban Ki-Moon surreptitiously sprinkles pixie dust out the bottom of his trouser-leg during a visit to Pyongyang, thereby rendering that plan somehow plausible.

~  6  ~

HMMMM:

South Korea launched a consultative body [last] Tuesday with 21 foreign diplomatic missions here to boost coordination in dealing with North Korea, Seoul’s foreign ministry said. The Peninsula Club comprised of 21 foreign diplomatic missions stationed here but in charge of both Koreas was officially launched in the day when they hold their first gathering. The represented countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Guatemala, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the European Union, the Netherlands, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Diverse inter-Korean issues as well as the North Korean situation would be on the table, according to the ministry.”There have been a consensus on the need for the discussions about the shaky future of the Korean Peninsula,” Seoul’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se was quoted by the ministry as saying in his congratulatory remarks. “It is important to exchange hands-on experiences and opinions on the North Korean situation with the member countries here, while maintaining close cooperative relations as best partners for the achievement of national reunification.” [Yonhap]

With Park Geun-Hye, I always get the sense that she’s smart, conniving, methodical, and decisive about pursuing goals that only she and six other people really understand.

~  7  ~

SOUNDS LIKE “SLANDER” TO ME: Of course, you could say that when North Korea merely expresses “disappointment” at the “present regime” in South Korea, that’s a relative improvement over past rhetoric. On the other hand, calling for the “punishment of masterminds of illegal interference” in South Korea’s election is epic irony, and referring to South Korea’s “government” with scare quotes is an obvious challenge to its legitimacy.

Is there any question how North Korea would react if South Korea questioned the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s rule based on the fundamental unfairness of its elections or the lack of freedom of thought in North Korea? This is the basic structural flaw of all diplomacy with North Korea: the agreed terms are never binding on North Korea.

~  8  ~

THERE ARE SOME INTERESTING ARTICLES in this journal, posted by Sino-NK and edited by Christopher Green. The ones about meth, yuanization, and Hyesan were particularly worth reading.

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Royce goes to Seoul, calls for cutting off Kim Jong Un’s cash

So Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was in Seoul last week, and sat down for an interview with Yonhap to talk North Korea:

“It seems that the strategy that slows down North Korea the most is not allowing them access to the hard currency which they use in order to create their offensive nuclear weapons capabilities,” said Royce in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul. 

Royce is now in Seoul along with a delegation from his foreign affairs committee. He met with President Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se earlier in the day. 

“We have tried various strategies and at this point, one of the problems is that if we give any additional support to the regime of North Korea, for example, we were to give them inducement in the form of currency, they would use that hard currency to further expand their nuclear weapons capabilities,” the lawmaker said. [….]

Royce also said the new United Nations report on the North Korean regime’s brutal human rights violations may help add pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program and may possibly make North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stand trial on crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court (ICC). [….]

“Perhaps there will be new opportunities (following the publication of the U.N. report) to have fresh pressure brought from governments such as Beijing on North Korea in order to try to slow its development of nuclear capabilities,” the U.S. politician said.

“I think it will galvanize international public opinion with respect to the conditions inside North Korea and hopefully can push to put North Korea on a different track.”

When the final report is submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 17, the international community could take actions to refer the North Korean leadership to the ICC, he said, adding, “I know there’s much discussion of that at the U.N.”

If you’re one of those who wonders why people worry so much about North Korea’s nukes when other countries also have nukes, read the COI report. It isn’t the proliferation of nuclear weapons that scares me. It’s the proliferation of nuclear weapons to people who don’t value human life and who have no compunction about killing large numbers of people that scares me.

And lest we think that South Korea has completely recovered from the Sunshine fad, its interviewer hasn’t quite shaken it off.

“An issue for the Obama Administration and Congress is to what extent they will support – or, not oppose – Park’s possible inter-Korean initiatives,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) said in a report posted on its Web site Thursday.

For instance, it pointed out, the Park government has indicated a desire to someday internationalize and expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a historic joint venture between the two Koreas located just north of their land border.

“These moves could clash with legislative efforts in Congress to expand U.S. sanctions against North Korea, such as H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act,” it added. [Yonhap]

As much as it cramps my fingers to write this, I actually believe there are ways that South Korea could make Kaesong into something most Americans would accept. As it is, Kaesong “wages” are not only paid directly to the regime itself, but they’re paid at a ludicrous, confiscatory exchange rate. Then, there are also various “taxes” the regime charges the tenant companies, which requires the South Korean government to subsidize those companies to keep them afloat. In effect, it’s a scam to launder money from the South Korean government to the North Korean government, with slave labor as the medium of exchange.

The other problem with these arrangements is that they’re increasingly at odds with U.N. Security Council resolutions that require transparency in financial dealings with North Korea. That’s particularly true of UNSCR 2094, which passed with a “yes” vote from South Korea, as a non-permanent UNSC member. Need I remind everyone that those resolutions were passed, in large part, to protect South Korea’s own security? If you doubt me here, read Paragraph 11 and tell me how you square a big, fat, no-questions-asked cash pipe with that. Korea isn’t in a very good position to complain that China is violating UNSC sanctions when it’s arguably guilty itself. 

As it was advertised, Kaesong was going to be an engine of reform. But if we don’t know there all that money goes — and we don’t — then it could be used, for all we know, for nukes, yachts, and ski resorts. But Kaesong could become palatable to Americans if Park Geun Hye extracts enough financial transparency from the North Koreans, and ensures that those workers really are getting the $70-or-so a month, and to ensure that the money isn’t being used to build centrifuges. If that happens, Kaesong might diminish as a potential irritant in U.S.-ROK relations. It might even become an engine of change — this time, of North Korea.

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