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North Korean soldier frags 2 officers, defects across DMZ

Reuters reports:

A North Korean soldier killed two of his officers before crossing the heavily mined border into South Korea on Saturday, South Korea’s defence ministry and media reports said.  [….]

Local media quoted a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying the North Korean soldier crossed the western section of the border at around noon.

The North Korean claimed that he shot dead his platoon and squad chiefs while on guard duty shortly before his border crossing, according to the reports.

The unnamed defector was being questioned by authorities.

They have officers in charge of squads?

It will be interesting to see what conditions drove him to that desperate act.  I would think that front-line soldiers would have the best food, amenities, discipline, and morale.  Obviously, there’s at least one exception to that.  Given the recent reports that the internal security forces are going hungry, I wonder if the same now is true in front-line army units, too.

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Border Guard Fragging Incident

I’m not sure how I missed this one, but the Daily NK reports that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea, where they’re enduring the sort of treatment I wouldn’t even want to imagine, if they’re still alive. (Hat tip.)

This isn’t the first example of defections we’ve seen at the North’s northern or southern borders, and I have to wonder how many more incidents like this we don’t hear about because they happen in North Korea’s interior, where the news can’t get out.

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What’s extraordinary (and what isn’t) about a North Korean soldier’s defection at Panmunjom

It has been an eventful day along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Korean authorities say that a 58-year-old Louisiana man was found on the wrong side of the Civilian Control Line, where he was doing something “for political purposes.” Details to follow, presumably.

The ROK Joint Chiefs have also confirmed that a North Korean soldier defected today through the Joint Security Area or JSA, the most visible and sensitive part of the DMZ. The soldier bolted from his guard post on the north side and sprinted for the Military Demarcation Line. On the way, his (former) comrades shot him in the shoulder and elbow.

I can’t help thinking that with better diplomacy, this could have been a simple one-for-one swap without the need for gunplay.

Fortunately, the wounded North Korean soldier made it over the MDL and fell 50 meters inside the South Korean side. (Imagine what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.) This may be one of the few people who can think back on the day he was shot twice as the luckiest of his life. Via Yonhap and Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal‘s Seoul Bureau Chief, here’s a diagram of how it all went down:

 

After what must have been the longest 25 minutes of his life, some very brave ROK soldiers crawled out under the observation of the North Koreans and dragged him back to safety. The ROKs then airlifted him to a hospital. Here’s hoping he recovers fully.

Here’s hoping, too, that his family back in North Korea will survive the experience.

Thankfully, those were the only shots fired in that incident. Still, the 25-minute delay suggests a too-lengthy decision cycle by the ROK Army command. The fact that the North Korean soldier fell on the happy side of the line should have resolved the question of retrieving him, although the ROK Army may have needed a few minutes to bring in some back-up firepower.

None of which diminishes the courage of the young South Korean soldiers who saved the wounded North Korean soldier. Imagine serving at the world’s most dangerous border, hearing gunshots, seeing a young North Korean soldier lying wounded and bleeding in a place exposed to enemy fire, and risking your own life to crawl out and drag him to safety. Those men deserve medals.

While hunting for a good image of the JSA, I also found this one from 1956, when Pyongyang clearly felt much more self-assured about the loyalty of its soldiers. A scene like this would be unthinkable today:

[source]

North Korea’s secrecy tempts us to extrapolate anecdotes into trends, and extrapolation can be a dangerous temptation, but there’s enough recent data to allow us to contextualize this anecdote. This blog carefully monitors evidence of defections, fratricides, fraggings, corruption, and other signs of indiscipline in the North Korean military. There has been ample evidence of military defections to document in recent years, at both low ranks and high (including a MiG pilot and at least two ranking officials in the security forces). That evidence was enough to cause me to ask, two years ago, whether the North Korean military was falling apart, and I’m not alone in asking that question. Two other North Korean soldiers defected through the DMZ in June of this year.

Defections from front-line North Korean units are especially significant. Those units aren’t the glorified construction brigades whose soldiers one sees hitching rides on the backs of trucks in tourists’ “rare glimpse” Flickr streams. Pyongyang posts its best-trained and most-disciplined units to the DMZ, and the soldiers at the JSA are the hand-picked elite of this elite. As Yonhap’s report notes, “The defection through the JSA marks a very rare case, given that North Korean soldiers stationed on the frontline are reportedly cherry-picked for their loyalty to the North Korean regime.” Defections across the heavily mined DMZ also involve much more risk than defections across the Yalu River. There may be no riskier place to defect than the JSA, for reasons this story illustrates well enough.

Defections at the JSA are extraordinary. I’ve searched my memory, my archives, and Google, and came up with no prior cases of North Korean soldiers defecting there in recent times. NHK claims that there were two previous defections at Panmunjom in 2007 and 1998, but my internet searches yield no other evidence of that. (If you can find any, kindly post a link or a partial text in the comments.) The closest thing I found was the case of a Soviet man who defected through the JSA in 1984, instigating a firefight that killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier.

The maximum effective range of an AK-47 is 460 meters, so it does not speak well of NKPA marksmanship that these soldiers failed in their fratricide attempts. I’m grateful that the brave South Korean soldiers who ran out and rescued the soldier weren’t shot at. Presumably, the soldiers at the JSA — on both sides — have strict rules of engagement. That affirms that Pyongyang is, deep down, just as concerned about one incident escalating into a full-scale war as we are. Pyongyang’s rhetoric about hair triggers and declarations of war notwithstanding, its military provocations are both calculated and calibrated to induce fear and shock in the U.S. and South Korean governments without instigating undue escalation.

Consider the implications of this: at a time of even-higher-than-usual military tensions, North Korea’s most disciplined soldiers had orders not to fire at South Korean soldiers — at least, not on the other side of the MDL — but did have orders to fire on their own comrades. This suggests that Pyongyang doubts the loyalty of its most loyal soldiers, with the possible exception of the Bodyguard Command.

Oh right, I almost forgot about the soldier who was training to become a member of the Bodyguard Command when he defected in July.

Both defections must surely represent rare intelligence windfalls. I wonder why these men fled. I wonder what their stories can tell us about the potential of a message of rice, peace, and freedom to influence the cohesion, loyalty, and war-readiness of the comrades they left behind. I wonder how many lives that knowledge could save.

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Update: A newer report tells us, first, that the defecting soldier is in very grave condition and may not survive, and second, that he drove to the DMZ in a car.

A North Korean soldier who defected to South Korea via the truce village of Panmunjom earlier this week drove a car to the area, the authorities said Tuesday.

“(He) then exited the vehicle and continued fleeing south” across the military demarcation line (MDL) after being shot by North Korean troops, according to the United Nations Command (UNC).

The individual, presumed to be a North Korean soldier, “initially took cover near a building on the southern side of the JSA,” the UNC said, using the abbreviation for the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Four North Korean soldiers chased him, firing shots with their pistols and AK-47 rifles, an official at the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, citing CCTV footage of the scene.

He was hit by five rounds while running away from the North in the area inside the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ), he added.

It’s also unclear whether the North’s troops actually crossed the MDL, even for seconds, during the hunt. [Yonhap]

I’ll make a high-confidence assumption that it’s very rare for junior enlisted North Korean soldiers to own or drive cars — even to know how to drive a car. Unless this soldier stole the car, he must have been the son of someone of very high rank. That also raises the question of what unit the soldier belonged to, if just barely. Presumably, to drive to the DMZ on the North Korean side would require one to pass multiple checkpoints that would spot an AWOL soldier. The North Korean units charged with guarding the JSA wouldn’t have let an AWOL soldier from another unit into the area. On balance, then, the soldier probably was assigned to the units at the JSA, but there’s obviously more to the story.

Here’s hoping he recovers. If you believe that God intervenes in earthy events, this is your chance to make your petition on behalf of someone who will never thank you.

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Update: It looks like the “car” was a military vehicle, which would explain how he got it.

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Update: There are more current, detailed reports on the soldier’s defection and condition in the Wall Street Journal, Joongang Ilbo, and Stars and Stripes. It sounds like this young man’s life is hanging by a thread, and I have an awful sense of dread that he won’t make it.

He may die, but so will the system that tried to kill him, as it killed so many others. Something has changed in the last two years. For all the suffering Kim Jong-il caused, the elites mostly trusted him, and they rarely defected when he was alive. In the last two years, it has become common to hear reports of overseas workers, members of elite military units, officials in the security forces, money launderers, and even diplomats defecting. And from this incident, it should be clear that fear is the only thing preventing others from doing the same.

So while the overall number of defections has declined sharply under Kim Jong-un — mostly because of the resources he has diverted to fencing his own people in — the political rank of those who have defected has risen sharply, too. We used to see a debate that maybe Kim Jong-un’s purges meant that he’d consolidated control, and then again, maybe they meant that he hadn’t. But by now, it’s clear that he hasn’t won them over. If you listen to Thae Yong-ho, the purges have terrified and alienated the elites, just as I’d predicted. That’s all the more significant when you consider that Kim Jong-un’s main priorities have been first, to restore the isolation of his people; second, to make a lot of missiles and nukes; and third, to win the Pyongyang elites over by showering them with leisure facilities, luxury goods, and new housing.

Of course, you also could say that purges had sown discontent among the elites in the U.S.S.R. in 1938, but Stalin had two things going for him that Kim Jong-un does not. For one, he was Stalin, and for another, in a few short years, Hitler would give the Soviet people a reason to unite around him. Pray that history doesn’t repeat. On the other hand, as I write, Robert Mugabe is being overthrown by his own army. Some things seem impossible until they aren’t.

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Why Trump’s itinerary in Japan hints at re-listing N. Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson missed a statutory deadline to decide whether to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT). Asked about this, State said it told members of Congress that Tillerson “expects to conclude his review and announce a decision within the month.” The Washington Times claims that “[t]here were rumors this week in the back hallways of the State Department that the administration was weighing a state sponsor designation.” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hinted at the outcome when he said, “A regime who (sic) murders someone in a public airport using nerve agent — that’s clearly an act of terrorism.” It helps to watch his expressions and listen to his intonations as he answers.

If this isn’t quite conclusive, the President’s itinerary and personality also offer strong indications. As I write this, the President has just arrived in Japan to begin his grand tour of Asia. This blog shies from making predictions, but I’ll offer this one: before President Trump leaves Japan, he will leave little room for doubt that Pyongyang will go back on the SSOT list, and soon. I could be wrong, but if I am, it will mean that a man that even his harshest detractors call a master showman, political opportunist, and crowd pleaser isn’t really those things after all.

[Update: It looks like I was wrong. What a shame to waste such an opportunity.]

Reason 1: Congress

I can see why the administration would risk annoying Congress by missing its deadline if it’s only waiting a few days to notify foreign governments of its decision to re-list Pyongyang. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and author of the bill that set the deadline, wasn’t happy that the administration missed it, but Congress will probably forgive the slight if the administration practices some good diplomacy and then promptly re-lists Pyongyang.

Congress will not forgive the administration if it misses the deadline and only then says that it will not put Pyongyang back on the list. Ted Poe, who chairs the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, fired off a stream of tweets on the day of the deadline calling for Pyongyang’s re-listing. He called on Congress to pass his bill, H.R. 479, which is pending in both Houses of Congress, and which would force the State Department to review its decision again 90 days after its passage. If Congress times it right, that deadline could come several months before State’s next annual report on terrorism is due in June.

If Poe’s bill doesn’t do the trick, I could suggest an escalatory strategy: Congress could force the State Department to report, item by item, on a long list of crimes for which Pyongyang is the prime suspect, whether it believes Pyongyang committed each of those crimes, and whether each crime was an act of international terrorism. Poe could also call State Department officials back to testify before his subcommittee. This could go on forever, but it shouldn’t. The evidence is too overwhelming to deny forever.

Reason 2: Diplomacy

It’s well known that Trump gets along famously with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. What isn’t as well known is that Abe has a deep personal history with the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. If you know this history, you’ll also know why Trump’s visit foreshadows his decision on re-listing North Korea as an SSOT.

In 2002, after years of rumors and suspicion, Pyongyang admitted that it had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens from their home country to use as language instructors for its spies. It is also suspected in dozens of other disappearances that it has not owned up to. The abduction issue resonates powerfully with the Japanese people. Pyongyang’s failure to come clean on other suspected abductions, most notably that of Megumi Yokota, turned public opinion strongly against it. In time, it forced the government to sever most trade relations and dismantle Chongryeon, Pyongyang’s fifth column in Japan.

Japan also leaned on its American ally to pressure North Korea to return the abductees. Before 2008, the State Department said that the abductions were acts of terrorism* and that North Korea had to return the abductees to get off the SSOT list. But in 2008, in a grasp for a nuclear deal with Kim Jong-il, George W. Bush flip-flopped and took Pyongyang off the list without securing either an admission from Kim about the remaining abductees or a clear commitment to return them. Bush’s decision, for which we can thank Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill, shook the Japanese government, drew strong criticism from Abe, and damaged America’s image as Japan’s loyal ally. Bush even felt compelled to call two of Abe’s successors, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, to promise that the U.S. would “never forget the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea.”

Bush’s decision was a diplomatic face-plant. It betrayed one of our closest allies to appease our most mendacious enemy. It gained us nothing and cost us valuable time and the leverage of the sanctions we lifted. For what it’s worth, even Hill now thinks Pyongyang should go back on the list. He also offers this “expert” opinion: “I don’t know the legal justification for putting them back on.” I doubt he knew better in 2008.

Abe has been at the center of the abduction issue since 2002, when he was former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s chief negotiator and both men flew to Pyongyang, met with Kim Jong-il, and secured the return of five of the abductees. In 2007, during a previous term as Prime Minister, Abe strongly opposed rescinding Pyongyang’s SSOT designation until it released all of the abductees. Abe raised the abduction issue in 2012 when he was again elected Prime Minister. He got nowhere with the Obama administration, so in 2014, he tried his luck with Kim Jong-un, to the detriment of Japan’s fragile alliance with the U.S. and South Korea, but without result. This year, Abe asked Trump to meet with the abductees’ families.

“When I asked … he accepted on the spot,” Abe said this week. “He promised he would do his best to rescue the Japanese abduction victims.”

Trump mentioned Megumi during his speech to the UN general assembly. “We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies,” he said.

Megumi’s mother welcomed the reference to her daughter. “I was really surprised, but it was great, and I’m thankful to [Trump] for bringing up the issue and putting it into words in front of representatives from around the world,” she said, according to Kyodo news agency. “Every word on the issue is a chance.” [The Guardian]

I’ve long thought that pundits make too much of personal relationships between world leaders who must base their policy decisions on cold calculations of national interests, but emotions and relationships seem to matter more to Trump than they do to ordinary world leaders. Trump and Abe have clearly hit it off, the abduction issue is clearly and understandably a big deal for Abe, and Abe is now in a strong position to ask Trump for favors (unlike Moon Jae-in, who isn’t).

Trump does not strike me as one who would leave Japan quietly without giving his friend the political boost of re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, or at least indicating an imminent intent to do so. If he’s the master of publicity that even his harshest detractors say he is, he’ll announce it at a press conference with Abe and the victims’ families. Then, he’ll watch with satisfaction as Abe’s approval rating soars, and as Abe uses that political capital to build up Japan’s defenses.


If this opportunity hasn’t occurred to Trump, it has occurred to his advisors and his hosts. McMaster says that when Trump meets with the families, he will “bring a message of sympathy [and] empathy” and ask the world, “Do you want a regime like this to have nuclear weapons?” Former Abduction Minister Eriko Yamatani — yes, Japan created a cabinet ministry for this — raised it with Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council’s top Asia policy staffer, when they spoke recently. The administration has reportedly said it will consider the abductions when it decides on North Korea’s SSOT re-designation.

Another report, sourced to “an administration official,” says that the declaration would come after Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. How foolish it would be, and how unlike Trump, to squander this opportunity to mobilize public opinion in Japan and globally. At the very least, I’d expect Trump to foreshadow his decision in a press availability or a tweet shortly before or after meeting with the families. Then, Trump can let Rex Tillerson make the formal designation later, under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act.

Reason 3: Itinerary

No single case has personified the abduction tragedy for Japan like that of Megumi Yokota. North Korean agents kidnapped Megumi from the shores of her home village when she was just 13. The Japanese government says she scratched at the hold of the ship during her passage into slavery while weeping for her mother. Some reports say that the decades of loneliness and suffering in North Korea drove her to madness and suicide. To add to this outrage, in 2004, Pyongyang sent back what it claimed were Megumi’s ashes. These turned out to be the ashes of a completely different expendable human being. The callous cruelty of it all almost defies description.

In 2006, George W. Bush met with Megumi’s mother, Sakie Yokota. This week, Mrs. Yokota will also be among the family members who will meet with President Trump. The abductees’ families haven’t forgotten their sense of betrayal by President Bush. Just last month, Megumi’s brother called for North Korea’s re-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism. Perhaps Donald Trump scheduled a meeting with Sakie Yokota to offer her an anguished explanation of regret for the State Department’s pedantic, nuanced, but sadly unassailable legal reasoning that it was wrong before 2007 and, no, sorry, the kidnapping of your little girl on the way home from badminton practice wasn’t terrorism at all. No, I didn’t think that, either. And if not, why would Trump meet with Mrs. Yokota at all?

Reason 4: Personality

I’ve never met Donald Trump, but my impression of him is that he doesn’t have a dramatis personae, he is a dramatis personae. What he loves most — what he feeds his ego on — is the adoration of crowds, which he buys with the currency of crowd-pleasing declarations, some of them taxpayer-funded. The Japan Times, citing Pottinger, reports that Trump is familiar with Megumi’s case and instructed him “to study North Korea’s human rights violations.” That’s a lot of material for one of the busiest men in Washington to cover. Trump could employ a (ahem) full-time Special Envoy to cover that brief.

No sentient human being can know what happened to Megumi Yokota and fail to be outraged, but in Trump’s case, we have good reason to predict how outrage will influence his decision. Early in Trump’s presidency, we learned that he experiences bouts of righteous, impulsive, paternal outrage. This may have goaded him into bombing Syria. We saw this tendency again in his outrage at the death of Otto Warmbier. Trump’s critics can make a case that he’s a terrible person, but this quirk of Trump’s personality makes it harder for them to make a convincing case that he’s an entirely terrible person.

The Coverage

The news coverage of Pyongyang’s potential SSOT re-listing isn’t as terrible than it was, say, three years ago. These days, one seldom sees “experts” claim that North Korea hasn’t sponsored any acts of terrorism, which is progress, given that several federal court decisions (among others) have found that evidence to be sufficient. Both The Guardian and Fox News accurately review the history of Pyongyang’s listing and rescission. Fox’s report appears to have drawn heavily on well-researched letters from members of Congress calling for Pyongyang’s re-listing.

This doesn’t mean that the coverage has been good. Most of it fails to even summarize the overwhelming and credible evidence implicating Pyongyang in multiple international assassination attempts, terrorist threats, arms sales to terrorist groups or cyber-terrorist threats. The Voice of America is nearly alone in doing so, but Claudia Rosett offers the most detailed recitation. AP writes that “[s]anctions from a terror designation are unlikely to inflict significant, additional economic punishment,” which is not a true statement. Nor is it quite accurate to say that re-listing would be “largely symbolic,” although Congress has moved this falsehood closer to the truth over the last two years by re-imposing some (but not all) of the SSOT sanctions through legislation.

It is true that other recent actions by Congress, the Treasury Department, and the Justice Department will have far greater effects on Pyongyang’s finances than an SSOT re-listing. That includes another sanctions bill that I expect Congress to pass this year, and which will contain the toughest secondary financial sanctions we’ve seen yet. It is also true that Pyongyang’s re-listing, which seems increasingly likely to occur next week, will have powerful symbolic consequences, including by reinforcing a message to every bank, government, and tin-pot tyrant on this planet that this time, at last, we mean it.

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* Whether the abductions themselves were acts of terrorism is debatable, notwithstanding State’s pre-2007 position. North Korea’s original intent in abducting Japanese citizens was to use them as language instructors, which doesn’t meet the element that the act must be done with the intent to influence the conduct of a government or a civilian population. I could make a stronger argument, however, that the continued detention of the abductees — or their remains — became terrorism when, at least as early as 2002, Pyongyang tried to trade them for the normalization of relations with Japan, and most likely, a generous aid package. In 2014, Pyongyang again tried to use them (or their remains) as hostages to extract aid and the relaxation of bilateral sanctions.

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For Beijing, a sharper choice on N. Korea: accord and prosperity, or discord and chaos

Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Zhu Feng sketched out a vision of the thinking in Beijing from the perspective of a person more reasonable than Xi Jinping has been, so far. Zhu’s piece suggests the outlines of an agreement with Beijing to defang Kim Jong-Un and manage North Korea’s transition to peace. Alas, Zhu Feng is not in charge in Beijing, and Xi Jinping is. Suspend your paranoia that this essay is only an artifice to persuade us that Beijing will be reasonable, if only we stay our hands on secondary sanctions another year or two (years we no longer have). The piece is well worth reading in its entirety, if only for what it tells us about the thoughts of those in Beijing whose influence we should seek to weaken or strengthen, and whose fears we should seek to exploit. 

In this regard, Trump needs to understand the complexity of China’s thinking on North Korean policy. Getting China to take more responsibility on North Korea requires both a gentle and a hard push. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea—but Beijing has heard this before. Despite the rhetorical flourish, to the experienced Chinese diplomat, the Trump administration’s policy sounds quite a lot like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama: a desire to achieve denuclearization but an unwillingness for this to come at the cost of war on the peninsula. Chinese President Xi Jinping is similarly bound by the strategic logic of China’s long-standing approach to its petulant neighbor—avoiding the dangers and uncertainty of war and instability by looking past the present consequences of North Korea’s actions. Xi’s view of North Korea is still dominated by the fear of a reunified Korea under Seoul, which may want U.S. forces to remain in the country. This is a legitimate concern, but it is possible, given Trump’s isolationist stance, that he might consider not stationing U.S. troops above the 38th parallel or deploying offensive capabilities to a unified Korea. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can envision how an agreement with Beijing might work: China would enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions — no more and no less. It would import no more than $400 million worth of coal, and it would not buy coal or anything else from any entities designated by the U.N., that were associated with Pyongyang’s weapons programs, or that were reasonably suspected of contributing to those programs. It would freeze the assets of North Korea’s proliferators and their front companies and put their agents on the first Air Koryo flight home. It would also freeze any accounts of North Korean nationals or trading companies until it ensured, in accordance with UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), that those funds could not be used for WMD programs or other prohibited purposes. For good measure, it would also expel any North Korean workers. It would keep those measures in place until Pyongyang was fully disarmed. That, in turn, would almost certainly require the removal of Kim Jong-Un, but coordinated economic strangulation of the regime — which should carefully avoid impeding the trade in food — would likely cause the elites to lose confidence in him. By many accounts, that confidence is already shaky.

In return, the U.S. would agree not to station forces inside the borders of what is now North Korea (something that we should not do under any circumstances anyway). We might even discuss a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, which would no longer be needed in Korea. We would agree to suspend sanctions, year by year, provided Pyongyang was making progress toward the conditions described in our laws, toward a more humane and open society whose disarmament we could actually believe in. This state would be neither a militarized totalitarian cult nor a Jeffersonian democracy, but a state that was evolving from totalitarianism to one that was merely authoritarian, along the lines of what we see in Burma today. Great change takes time. North Korea and its people would need time to evolve into a self-governable society, ready to take its place in the world.

Once North Korea was disarmed and the artillery was removed from the bunkers along the DMZ, Korea could be reunified in all but name. Korean families would be reunited, a new pan-Korean culture would be reborn, and commerce would flow freely across the nature reserve formerly known as the DMZ. An agreement with Beijing and Seoul might preserve a fig leaf of separation for an agreeable transitional period, excluding any foreign forces and ensuring friendly relations with all of Korea’s neighbors, friends, and trading partners, to assuage Beijing’s security and economic concerns. South Korea would assume responsibility for controlling the China-North Korea border and caring for the poor and dispossessed North Koreans who might otherwise cross it. The consequent economic revitalization, including access to refurbished North Korean seaports, would be a boon to China’s northeastern rust belt. The political status of North Korea after this transitional period — say, ten years — would be for the people of both Koreas to decide. Enough of foreign powers drawing lines through a nation that ought to be able to decide its own fate. A unified Korea would be no threat to China.

Of course, if Beijing does not cooperate, things might have to take a darker turn.

The real difference that Beijing and Washington must overcome, however, is China’s fear of chaos in North Korea spilling over its own borders. Such instability could spell an unmanageable situation involving all sorts of crises: civil war, famine, and mass displacement, not to mention the danger of fissile material and biological weapons falling into even more unstable hands. Of course, some Chinese hardliners take this view even further, suggesting that it would be foolish for China to take the North Korean burden off the back of its greatest competitor. They argue that, considering that the United States is in many ways a thorn in the flesh to Chinese interests in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, it would be against China’s national interests to release the United States from this problem.

Today, many within China believe that Beijing must reevaluate its relationship with both Koreas, which essentially means abandoning Pyongyang. It is both the strategic and the moral choice. Choosing South Korea, a democracy with a strong economy, will place China on the right side of history. China’s lack of clear direction on this issue is beginning to negatively affect its reputation, with Beijing seen by the international community as reluctant to cooperate or behave responsibly. These are not traits that behoove a rising power. [Zhu Feng, Foreign Affairs]

I can also envision how things would have to work if China does not cooperate. The alternative would be China’s greatest fear — chaos. It would have to be. Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. Even assuming that, under extreme duress, Pyongyang eventually said otherwise, it will never be possible for a prudent person to believe in the denuclearization of a society as closed as North Korea’s, or to trust the words of a regime as mendacious as Pyongyang’s.

Because of all the years wasted by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, we may, for a while, be stuck with the option of trying to deter a nuclear North Korea. This option is only slightly less terrible than war, and anyone who has watched how Pyongyang has behaved in recent years knows that this isn’t sustainable. We are always laying down red lines we think Pyongyang wouldn’t dare cross. Our calculations are invariably miscalculations, and Pyongyang crosses our red lines like so many cracks in a sidewalk. Can we deter a regime that built a reactor in Syria, used VX in the middle of the crowded Kuala Lumpur Airport terminal, or uses cyber attacks to terrorize us, smother own freedom of expression, and rob banks? Can we deter a regime that has carried out multiple armed attacks, cyber attacks, and assassination attempts in South Korea since 2010, killing at least 50 people? Can we deter a regime that sells chemical weapons technology to Assad and MANPADS to terrorists? How do you deter Pyongyang once it thinks it can nuke Seoul, Tokyo and New York? Will Pyongyang become more restrained when it thinks we think it can, or might?

Eventually, Pyongyang will go too far and we will be at war. Deterrence will fail. That’s why the Trump administration is right to turn down the idea of a freeze — not that Pyongyang is interested in one anyway. Pyongyang can’t be allowed to have nukes, or even nuclear technology to sell to others. But no one believes it is possible to take these things away from Pyongyang without a fundamental change in the regime’s character.

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The cold, hard truth that too few of us are willing to confront is this — there is no peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis as long as Kim Jong-Un remains in power. The syllogism is a simple one: if Kim Jong-Un won’t disarm, and if we can’t live with Kim Jong-Un (or he won’t live with us) if he doesn’t disarm, then Kim Jong-Un must go. The question then becomes a matter of finding the least-risky option to achieve that result.

Once we conclude that Pyongyang won’t disarm under pressure, what it means for sanctions to “work” shifts. Then, the focus of sanctions also shifts, from creating economic pressure on Pyongyang to supporting political subversion of the regime by targeting its immune system — the border guards, the army, Ministry of State Security, the State Security Department, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In a country whose political and economic models are fragile and possibly unsustainable, change can take many forms. Certainly, it should not take the form of invasion or decapitation unless that’s our only protection against a grave and imminent threat to ourselves and our allies. It could mean sudden collapse if the elites turn on Kim Jong-Un, but our influence over such an event would be indirect at best. Don’t get me wrong — we should do everything within our power to prepare the Pyongyang elites for it, if only to make the right people in Pyongyang and Beijing nervous, and most urgently, to discourage North Korean troops from killing their brother and sister Koreans in the event we can’t prevent war.

The change we can do the most to catalyze, however, is a slow-motion revolution in the countryside. Our strategy should be to use sanctions and information warfare to degrade the regime’s capacity to repress, even as we use economic engagement and information warfare help an informed, enriched, and empowered people rise. This would not be regime change, exactly, but regime decline and regime replacement by dozens of local shadow governments. As the security forces lost their foreign sources of income due to sanctions, their members would desert, turn to corruption, or allow themselves to be coopted by the rising merchants and shadow warlords. Officers patrolling the markets could not shake the people down without fear of resistance or reprisal. Inside the jangmadang, they would become prisoners of the people. Inside their stations, they would be besieged, isolated, and ineffective. As the state’s power melted away and flowed back down the songbun scale, information operations would tell the elites that Kim Jong-Un’s days are numbered, that they should not support him, and that they should disobey any orders to kill their brothers and sisters. Implicit in the slow degradation of a totalitarian state is the historical inevitability that it can decline only so much before it can’t contain an explosion. That is, it must change or perish. Political change tends to happen like bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. Who is to say when regime decline might become the people’s revolution that Thae Yong-Ho has predicted? Beijing and Pyongyang should certainly worry about this.

For poor North Koreans, this would mean freedom of trade, freedom from fear, and freedom from the confiscation of their land and their crops. It might also mean chaos along China’s border. China would have to deploy troops to seal that border. Dandong, Dalian, and other cities involved in cross-border trade would face the concentrated effects of secondary sanctions, and even a loss of access to trade with America, that might plunge them into recession and unemployment. If the propaganda circulating in the jangmadang harnessed North Korea’s nationalism in an intensely anti-Chinese direction, it could make North Korea an unsafe place for Chinese investments for years to come. Even after reunification, Chinese goods would face steep fees for the use of North Korean ports. China would be offered no guarantees about the future disposition of U.S. forces (though we’d be smart to leave the pacification of North Korea to the Koreans). Chinese investments — particularly those found to violate U.N. sanctions — might be confiscated, or written off as odious debts. Refugees would flood across the Tumen, and Seoul and Washington would be powerless to stop that flood. To prevent Pyongyang from proliferating, we might have to impose a naval blockade, and an economic air blockade.

All of this is a much more chaotic alternative than an agreement to enforce the sanctions Beijing already voted for at the U.N. Security Council, but for us, it’s far better than the collapse of global nonproliferation or a coerced capitulation of South Korea. If Beijing is blithe about (or applauds, or encourages) our greatest security fears, then our response should be to identify and exploit its greatest fears in return.

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China finally pays a (symbolic) price for its North Korean slave trade

This blog has long posited that a nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us and that war with it would be inevitable; that preventing another Korean War will require a focusing an assortment of financial, diplomatic, and political pressures on Pyongyang; and that to deter China’s government and industry from undermining that pressure will require us to pressure China itself. This will carry costs for both economies, and to the relationship between the two governments. Relations with China will have to get worse before they can get better. That is unfortunate, but it is a far better outcome than nuclear war, the collapse of global nonproliferation, or effective North Korean hegemony over South Korea.

Since the Mar-a-Lago summit in April, I’ve worried that President Trump’s tough talk about secondary sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s Chinese enablers was a bluff. It’s still too early to say that it wasn’t, but the news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dropped China from Tier 2 to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — specifically for its use of North Korean slave labor — is a welcome sign that the administration has begun (and hopefully, just begun) to escalate its pressure on Beijing.

“China was downgraded to the Tier 3 status in this year’s report in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking, including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China,” Tillerson said during a ceremony to release the report.

Tillerson said that forced labor is a key source of illicit revenues for the North.

“An estimated 52,000-80,000 North Korean citizens are working overseas as forced laborers primarily in Russia and China, many of them working 20 hours a day. Their pay does not come to them directly. It goes to the government of Korea, which confiscates most of that, obviously,” Tillerson said.

The North regime receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from forced labor, he said.

“Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced-labor arrangement to send those people home. Responsible nations also must take further action,” he said. [Yonhap]

Tillerson’s decision reflects rising anger within the administration that Beijing is (sit down for this) still not fully implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

So what does this action mean for China’s economy and trade, in practical terms? For now, not much. Beijing probably doesn’t care if the U.S. denies it foreign assistance or votes against World Bank loans for it. Any of the TVPA’s sanctions can be waived, and often are. But as Erik Voeten writes in the Washington Post, governments really do care about their tier rankings for reasons of national honor and reputation. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school by saying that during my time at the Foreign Affairs Committee, the competing appeals of diplomats and NGOs to raise or lower a government’s tier status in the next TVPA report consumed an inordinate amount of staff time. The Chinese government, being hypersensitive about its own reputation, will care very much about this.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the government was resolute in its resolve to fight human trafficking and the results were plain to see. “China resolutely opposes the U.S. side making thoughtless remarks in accordance with its own domestic law about other countries’ work in fighting human trafficking,” he told a daily news briefing. [Reuters]

Beijing is furious, naturally. I expect it to make some ostentatious displays of non-cooperation to punish Washington. It would be especially tragic if China decides to take its anger out on North Korean refugees. Hopefully, the State Department has already gamed out its responses to potential Chinese escalations. Our message to Beijing must be that we’re also prepared to escalate. China, which needs another decade of high growth rates to pay its coming crop of pensions, cannot afford this. Both sides would suffer in an economic war between the U.S. and China, but China’s export-dependent, labor-intensive economy and fragile banking sector would suffer more. That may give us more leverage to press China to expel its North Korean laborers or the U.N.-designated North Korean proliferation and money laundering networks that have operated openly on its soil for years.

The Chinese companies using the North Korean labor will care much less — at first — but they are facing far greater financial consequences, especially if the KIMS Act passes the Senate. (I sense a particularly strong appetite in both chambers of Congress and both parties for secondary sanctions against North Korean forced labor.) Under section 201 of that legislation, the products of those companies may face exclusion from U.S. markets, and their dollar assets may be frozen. (Needless to say, prospective Kaesong recidivists will not find this news reassuring.)

Dropping China to Tier III will have little immediate legal or economic effect. It still isn’t the “maximum pressure” President Trump promised us. It is an escalation and a warning. It is symbolic, but powerfully so. Ultimately, Beijing may care about being listed as Tier III for human trafficking for the same reason that Pyongyang cares about being listed as a state sponsor of terrorism — because to governments obsessed with their images, symbols can be powerful things. One hopes that this will cause more Chinese citizens to see that North Korea is a ball-and-chain on their country’s acceptance into the family of civilized nations and continued economic growth. One hopes that more of them will say that it’s time to take a hacksaw to the chain.

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North Korean man stabs, nearly kills Ministry of State Security officer

The Daily NK is reporting another case of a North Korean citizen attacking and nearly killing an officer of the dreaded Ministry of State Security (MSS), the agency that runs most of North Korea’s political prison camps, possibly over official corruption.

It has been reported that an [sic] Ministry of State Security agent working as a surveillance patrol officer at the No. 10 guard post in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, was stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant while on duty. The Ministry of State Security immediately dispatched a team of investigators to the region, but has yet to identify suspects.

The incident occurred on May 9 and the victim remains in a critical condition. Due to timely aid from his colleagues, he managed to survive and is currently in hospital.

“The Ministry of State Security (MSS) dispatched agents to Hoeryong to track down the suspect immediately after the incident. There are mobile inspection posts set up across Hoeryong to investigate residents who move in and out of the city. The incident is being treated very seriously because it occurred in the border region and it was an MSS official who was attacked,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

The North Korean authorities have classified the case as a serious anti-state crime, rather than a mere attempted murder or retaliative action. [Daily NK]

Word of the incident spread quickly among the local population, so the regime immediately blamed it on South Korea (Moon Jae-in, take note). Locals, however, “believe that the case is in retaliation to the corrupt authorities.” Although the Daily NK does not report the specific reason for the attack, it writes that “[s]ome believe that the suspect could have attacked the inspector out of anger as MSS agents frequently demand bribes for leniency on trade or smuggling,” and that local sentiment includes both a degree of sympathy for the officer and a sense that “the agent must have done something to warrant the attack.” Whatever the truth of the matter, these perceptions are also an important reality in a place with the truth is so scarce.

[Hoeryong, on the Chinese border]

The Daily NK also links to another report from Pyongsong in March of a “man in his 40s angered by the human rights violations he was subjected to some weeks ago during an investigation” attacking another MSS officer. In that case, the MSS officer was badly injured and hospitalized in Pyongyang, while the suspect got away. Local sentiment reported after that incident was more hostile to the state, according to one resident interviewed by the Daily NK: “Pyongsong residents are siding squarely with the victim and assuming that the abuse must have been severe for an innocent man to attack an officer. Everyone is hoping he escapes.” 

Because the only real solution to any of the world’s differences with Pyongyang must come from within North Korea itself, this blog has been diligent about documenting acts of anti-state resistance in North Korea. A quick pre-commute search of the OFK archives reveals evidence of other attacks by North Koreans against the security forces in 2015 (here, here, and here) in 2012 (here) and in 2010 (here).

Although these reports tell us something about the popular mood in North Korea and contradict the narrative of North Koreans as loyal, obedient automatons, they do not provide enough data for me to say that resistance in North Korea is above a level I’d call “ordinary.” I can recall two real surges of popular resistance in North Korea — in 2005 (in response to market crackdowns and corruption) and in 2009 (following what I call “The Great Confiscation,” an unannounced currency redenomination that wiped out the savings of millions of desperately poor people).

With the exception of fragging incidents and defections in the military, which are usually reactions to abuse by officers and NCOs, most incidents of resistance by North Koreans are from a combination of economic motivations and rage against official corruption. In other words, their motives are material, and may even resemble expressions of Marxian class warfare. That trend has continued right up to the present year. Mass mobilizations have also angered many North Koreans at the state.

So why don’t these attacks spur a broader public reaction, like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which is generally credited as the incident that triggered the Arab Spring? Fear (obviously) and cultural factors are partial explanations, but so are North Koreans’ sense of isolation and helplessness. By the time word of such incidents enters the markets, the authorities have already had time to mobilize and crack down, and the immediacy of the rage has dissipated. Word may never spread from town to town. This is why I’ve long thought that more isolated incidents of resistance could become mass incidents if North Koreans had an anonymous way to text each other.

These reports also help us put recent reports about the strains on the MSS into context. Earlier this year, shortly after MSS head Kim Won-hong was designated by the Treasury Department for human rights abuses, Pyongyang reportedly removed him from his post. At the time, there was widespread speculation about yet another purge. Kim Won-hong has since reappeared, although the exact nature of his status in the regime is unclear. Credible reports suggest, however, that the regime has lectured MSS officers about the importance of refraining from corruption, something it would only have done out of fear for the stability of state control. And for at least a while, MSS officers seemed chastened enough to shake citizens down for bribes somewhat more politely. The state is feeling the limits of its power. It does not really fear our aircraft carriers or our bombers. What His Porcine Majesty sees in his fevered dreams, perhaps after too much cognac, is a crowd of his own people demanding justice for his crimes against them.

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N. Korea, dissent & desertions: as internal control tightens, border control degrades

I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but ReutersThe Washington Post, and Sokeel Park helpfully summarize its bleak findings: Kim Jong-un is not a Swiss-educated reformer, is not bringing Glasnost to North Korea, has turned Koryolink into a tool for hunting down dissent and dissenters, and is slowly winning the war to restore thought control. (Still unanswered is whether Syracuse University’s “engagement” program that taught Pyongyang how to do digital watermarking also helped it perfect its digital censorship.) North Koreans believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas under His Porcine Majesty’s rule. The only small bright spot is that DVDs and USBs with forbidden content continue to circulate. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to re-indoctrinate generations of disillusioned North Koreans, but highly possible for the state to isolate and repress them.

Still, it’s a profound testament to the power of hope that people would risk a slow death in a prison camp for a rare glimpse at a life worth living, and unfortunate that our own efforts to leverage that power are still in their infancy. South Korea, which knows the power of hallyu, is mulling ways to help spread information into North Korea, but again finds its efforts hobbled by the left-wing, anti-anti-North Korean politicians. One simple and powerful first step would be to extend the range of existing South Korean cell networks. A seemingly unrelated report suggests a second strategy, by highlighting the greatest vulnerability in Kim Jong-un’s control over his own population — low morale and indiscipline among the border guard force. Yes, it happened again:

The North Korean soldiers deserted their posts along the border area with China and illegally entered Changbai County in the country’s northeastern province of Jilin on Tuesday, according to the source.

“Chinese authorities notified residents to be on alert and immediately report their location if they are observed,” the source added. [Yonhap]

Although the Yonhap report doesn’t specifically say that the soldiers deserted, the fact that Chinese police are still looking for them strongly suggests that. Incidents like his have risen sharply since 2014. I’ve compiled reports about other defections, fraggings, desertions, and cross-border crimes by border guards here, and reports of similar disciplinary breakdowns within the North Korean military as a whole here (there’s plenty to read at those links if you’re interested in researching that topic further). This isn’t even the first such incident this year. In January, a border guard shot and killed seven of his comrades. Yonhap mentions just a few of those incidents in its report.

In July 2016, five runaway North Korean soldiers broke into residents’ houses in the county and committed robbery. Chinese police arrested two although two policemen suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

In December 2014, a North Korean army deserter killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery attempt in the Chinese border city of Helong, while an year earlier, a North Korean defector in his 20s killed an elderly Chinese couple in the Chinese border city of Yanji and stole 20,000 yuan (US$2,900). The North Korean defector was caught by Chinese authorities after fleeing to Beijing.

“Since the 2000s, worsening food shortages seems to be pushing North Korean soldiers into deserting their posts,” another source said. “North Korea seems to be suffering from more food shortages since massive flooding hit the country’s northeastern region in late August.” [Yonhap]

The immediate cause of all of these incidents is the fact that the soldiers aren’t being fed or paid properly. Look further behind that, and you find that the soldiers and non-commissioned officers had come to rely on bribes from smugglers to supplement their pay. Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on refugee flows, cell phones, and smuggling has forced the soldiers to rely on a commissary system that’s corrupt, inefficient, and incapable of providing for them.

So how, exactly, does this suggest a strategy? Because North Korea’s domestic economy is so barren, the Ministry of State Security and Reconnaissance General Bureau fund themselves with foreign trading companies and businesses. The same is almost certainly true of other internal security forces, including the border guard force. Targeting those funding sources with sanctions, money laundering prosecutions, forfeitures, and asset freezes would further strain the commissary system, morale, and discipline, and deny those forces the funds to buy materials, parts, and equipment like cell phone trackers. That, in turn, would widen the cracks in Pyongyang’s control over the borders and help smugglers get more DVDs, USBs, radios, cell phones, and human beings across the border.

As I’ve often argued, samizdat will not seriously threaten Kim Jong-un’s control over North Korea until North Koreans have some means of organizing with each other digitally. As I’ve also argued, those means are probably no more than a few years away if we leverage the experiments of Google, Facebook, or other innovative technologies. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually complementary. It isn’t a question of sanctions or information operations or diplomacy. It takes more than a tuba to perform a symphony. It’s all of those instruments playing at once, as long as they play the same music.

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RFA: North Korean border guard under arrest after killing seven comrades

This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.

A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.

After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA.  [….]

“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]

In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.

I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.

In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”

Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)

In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched a manhunt for two border guards who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.

There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.

~   ~   ~

It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.

The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.

Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.

Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.

Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.

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For North Korean banks, 2016 has been like that Corleone baptism montage

Years from today, North Korean bankers will remember 2016 as their annus horribilis. In February, a month after the North’s fourth nuclear test, Congress passed, and the President signed, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Section 201 of the new law all but compelled the Treasury Department to designate North Korea a Primary Money Laundering Concern under section 311 of the Patriot Act. Section 311 allows for a menu of special measures to protect the financial system against offenders, but in March, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, requiring member states to cut their correspondent relations with North Korean banks. That set the stage for Treasury to invoke the fifth and toughest of those measures, denying North Korean banks direct and indirect correspondent account services and isolating them from the international financial system. By then, the Financial Action Task Force had also called on banks and finance ministries around the world to apply “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering.

As of January 2016, just eight North Korean banks’ assets had been blocked by the Treasury Department, including the Foreign Trade Bank and Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, or KKBC. Over the course of 2016, eight more North Korean banks would be blocked, six of them last Friday alone: North East Asia Bank, Koryo Credit Development Bank, Rason International Commercial Bank, Kumgang Bank, and Koryo Bank. That’s as close as financial regulation gets to this:

For banks that were already designated and had been slipping their payments through the net, events have also taken a darker turn. For years, Korea Kwangsong Bank accessed the financial system illegally through a Chinese conglomerate, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development. They would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling (and also, brilliant) kids at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, who used a shoestring budget and open-source intelligence to expose their international money-laundering operation. Shortly after C4ADS released its report, Treasury froze DHID’s assets, and the Justice Department indicted DHID and filed a complaint to forfeit its accounts in a dozen Chinese banks. 

If the Chinese banking industry is North Korea’s financial Abbottabad, the SEALs have begun to break down the doors of its safe haven. Treasury has not yet cavity searched the (metaphorical) harem by fining the Chinese bankers who’ve flunked their know-your-customer obligations, but by now, those bankers have surely seen the video of Senators Menendez, Rubio, and Gardner calling for their heads.

Is that all? No, that is still not all. Last week, it was a matter of intense speculation when NK News noticed that the CEO of Egyptian conglomerate Orascom Telecom, Naguib Sawaris, had landed in Pyongyang on his private jet. Sawaris had made himself scarce in Pyongyang since last year, when North Korea effectively confiscated Orascom’s profits from a cell phone network joint venture called Koryolink and caused Orascom share prices to plunge like Thanksgiving turkeys from a helicopter. It wasn’t long before we learned the reason for Sawaris’s visit — later that week, Orascom announced that Orabank, its joint banking venture with the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank, would shut down. Scratch seven banks in two weeks (but it’s still only Wednesday).

Orascom shares fell more than five percent the day it announced the failure of Orabank. It blamed sanctions, but its North Korea joint ventures were already write-offs due to Pyongyang’s own confiscatory restrictions before sanctions were strengthened in 2016. The exact cause of Orabank’s death wasn’t the 2013 designation of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank for proliferation financing. The impending termination of Orabank’s correspondent relationships probably played a role, but I suspect that the investigative reporter George Turner inflicted the fatal wound when he exposed the links between Orabank and the FTB (more meddling kids). Even without the 311 action, knowledge of Orabank’s links to the FTB put Orascom’s corporate officers at risk of prosecution.

This week, Sawaris announced his resignation as CEO. No kidding. If I were an Orascom shareholder, I’d have wanted him defenestrated. Sawaris is one of those larger-than-life corporate caudillos who tend to be susceptible to hubris and delusions of omnipotence. He should have known better. North Korea has a long and near-perfect record of bankrupting its investors and ruining their reputations. As they say, fools and their money are soon parted. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Adam Johnson, probably put it best when he said, “[E]veryone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”

North Korea may soon enter uncharted territory. Within a few months, it may be the only industrialized state in modern history to have no banking industry to speak of. That will have the immediate benefit of forcing it to rely on third-country banks, which will have more dollar exposure and more incentive to avoid handling transactions for illicit cargo and designated entities. As of today, however, a few North Korean banks still live on. In 2014, the U.N. Panel of Experts published a table with a partial list of them. I copied that table and shaded the columns gray for banks that are designated by Treasury, and a trendy shade of tan for banks that appear to be defunct.

For comparison, here is a list of North Korean banks that have been designated by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (it looks longer than it really is because many of these names are aliases and alternative spellings).

Not all of the banks designated by Treasury are on the U.N. list. If some of them are really the same banks using different names, there should be more gray on the first chart. Still, some of the 13 undesignated survivors are significant, including the DPRK Central Bank and the Korea Commerce Bank. Hana Banking Corporation may become especially important to Kim Jong-un’s sanctions survival strategy, as it deals in Renminbi. I’d expect to see a ruble bank arise in the near future, too, but as the Justice Department recently revealed, the North Koreans have already tried that strategy and found its limits. Other banks on the list appear to be small, fly-by-night operations. They may have less global exposure and be more likely to survive a loss of their interbank access; after all, even Banco Delta Asia still survives (in much-diminished form) by dealing in Renminbi and Macanese patacas. Will a few small, non-dollar banks and couriers carrying briefcases full of cash be sufficient to sustain the government of a nation of 23 million people? Not for long, but that will depend on how aggressive we are, and how much time they have.

You will soon read much haughty analysis from aspiring Nobel Peace Prize laureates that sanctions against North Korea will not be airtight. That is true. No sanctions regime has ever been airtight, and no sanctions regime ever needed to be. The effectiveness of sanctions isn’t measured in absolute terms; it’s measured in relative terms. Sanctions work when they force despots to make difficult choices, catalyze corruption and indiscipline, instigate inter-factional knife fights over dwindling resources, and convince the tyrants that they’re losing control. How many brigades can they afford to feed? Will they have to cut back on pay and rations, and will that mean more border guards frag their officers, or carry their guns over the border and rob Chinese villagers? How many diplomats and slush fund managers will defect when they realize they can’t make their kick-up payments, and how many more bank accounts will they finger when they do? Can Bureau 39 buy enough big-screen TVs for the boys in both the SSD and the MPS, and how will the ones who get stuck with crappy Samjiyon tablets feel about that? Will keeping all the goon squads happy only come at the cost of fixing flood-damaged bridges and railways? Will the consequence of not fixing them be that the affected regions drift out of Pyongyang’s orbit? How long will Xi Jinping have their back if secondary sanctions start to cause pain in China’s precarious banking sector, or in its rust belt? Will Xi’s paternal benevolence end if Kim starts a regional arms race, or causes a breakdown in relations with the United States? 

Those are the difficult choices that sanctions can drive, and in the not-too-distant future, those choices will become matters of regime survival. I hasten to add that sanctions aren’t the only strategy that can threaten the regime’s stability. We don’t just have to pick one; in fact, they can complement each other well. Pyongyang’s goal will be to relieve itself of those difficult choices without making the two most difficult decisions of all: first, the decision to disarm completely, verifiably, and irreversibly; and second, the decision to accept enough transparency that anyone possessed of common sense would believe that it really made the first decision. Our discipline must be to multiply and intensify those difficulties until Kim Jong-un — or more likely, someone more reasonable who deposes him — makes those two most difficult decisions.

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It’s time to help Donald Trump be a good president

Stop laughing, already; it isn’t funny anymore. It’s no secret that I opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy from the beginning to the end. My misgivings about his character, temperament, and qualifications remain. My precocious son, reading this over my shoulder, just asked me how much fallout shelters cost. But the election is over now, and we need to make an important distinction: how a patriotic citizen responds to a candidate, and how he responds to a president-elect.

If a citizen believes a candidate to be unfit for office — and also, that he’s even more unfit for office than the other candidates who are also unfit for office — then his patriotic duty is to oppose and vote against that candidate.

But the voters have now spoken in a free and fair election. Now, the citizen’s duty is to help the President be a good president, and to wield power wisely, justly, and effectively. That might mean opposing the President when he makes bad decisions. It also means helping the President to make the right ones, and to carry them out effectively. It doesn’t mean abandoning principle, or accepting words or actions the citizen believes to be unlawful, unconstitutional, or un-American. That is why we speak of a “loyal opposition.” That’s what makes democracy hard — too hard for some people. Too hard for the people who are protesting the fact that a majority of electors in a democracy are about to pick a candidate the protestors didn’t like.*

I have some news for those people — this year, most of us picked candidates we didn’t like. More than in any recent election in U.S. history, this election was about who we liked the least. That partially explains the low turnout. Some of my closest friends are good and decent people who didn’t so much vote for Trump as against Clinton. They aren’t bigots or alt-righters. Some believed Trump’s promise to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, but for the most part, they just really disliked and distrusted her. I can see why. Those of us who remember the Bill Clinton years remember that there was always another Clinton scandal. Recent events have regurgitated all of those bad memories in front of us. That may also explain why so many people who notionally preferred Clinton over Trump still didn’t show up to vote for her.

To protest against Trump’s election isn’t unfair, but it is undemocratic. When Trump cast doubt on his acceptance of the election result in the last debate, pundits questioned his patriotism and raised concerns that his supporters would resort to violence. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, who is unpatriotic now? No matter how great a threat you may think Trump is to the republic, he won fairly under the rules established by the Constitution. These people are really protesting the outcome of a peaceful, free, constitutional election. By refusing to accept the result and reacting (in some cases) with violence, the protestors have become the undemocratic mobs they accused Trump and his supporters of being. And if Trump is really the authoritarian they fear he is, the left’s violence would be his best possible justification to fulfill their darkest fears.

I was relieved that Trump’s victory speech was conciliatory. His conduct during his visit to President Obama at the White House was civil and gracious. This, too, was a step in the right direction. 

I have my doubts that the clown mask is off and that a new, more presidential Trump is here to stay, but at least he’s making some effort. I suspect we’ll have to define the term “presidential” down for a few years. For now, his antics still feel novel and refreshing to some people, but they’ll get old fast.

Save the protests for when Trump makes unwise and unjust decisions. And if you consider yourself to be a smart person who thinks Trump is out of his depth, then offer him your wisest counsel. He might just need it. For the next four years, he’s the only president we’re going to have, and for most of us, this is the only country we’ll ever have.

Right now, Trump may feel invincible, but the men and women around him — Gingrich, Giuliani, Christie, Conaway, and Corker — aren’t stupid, whatever else you might say about them. They know that Trump’s supporters expect him to deliver an assortment of goals that are (variously) difficult, unobtainable, mutually contradictory, or absurd. In due course, they will make Trump understand what he can’t do at all, and what he can’t do alone.

For example, it is absurd to believe that Trump can reverse or stop the dislocating effects of automation. He can’t make manufacturing labor intensive again. He can’t save the Teamsters’ Union from self-driving trucks. He can’t make our wages competitive with wages in Indonesia. He can raise tariffs, but if he does, he can’t stop the consequent inflation and recession that will cost him reelection.

It is not absurd to believe that Trump could claw back some lost blue-collar jobs and raise wages by enforcing our immigration laws. All around Washington, I see men working in good paying jobs in the building trades, or driving trucks, who look and speak like recent immigrants from Central America. I made the same observation about the meat packing industry when I lived in Nebraska. I have no way of knowing how many of these workers came here legally, of course. Perhaps restoring our faith in our enforcement of the law would dispel the assumptions many of Trump’s voters (and many of us) probably make. Or, perhaps it would create more job openings and raise wages for workers here, albeit at a terrible cost to Central Americans.

via GIPHY

Building The Wall would be expensive, but the idea is not absurd. Long segments of the border are already walled. An interstate highway system is just a network of walls laid flat. If we can build highways and pipelines, surely building a few hundred miles of border wall is also possible. It’s not immoral or racist to argue that we have a sovereign right to protect our borders and choose who we allow to immigrate into our country. Many more people would like to live here than we have room for. It’s our right to choose those who will make the greatest contribution to our society and find the greatest happiness among us. Fewer poor, uneducated, illegal immigrants from Guatemala might allow us to admit more affluent, educated, legal immigrants from Hong Kong as its democracy fades away. Perhaps the best thing we can do for Guatemalans is to help Guatemala develop and improve the quality of its government.

Making Mexico pay for The Wall? Now that’s absurd, although the President could defray the cost by creating a special construction fund from the money forfeited from cross-border drug smuggling and money laundering. He could even tax remittances, although this would be highly regressive. 

Much is said about Trump’s alleged isolationism, but this probably gives him too much credit. “Bombing the shit out of” ISIS and stealing Iraq’s oil don’t sound like isolationist ideas to me. Trump doesn’t see doctrines; he sees inkblots. Speaking as someone who used to live here …

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and whose origins are in a very Trump-friendly demographic, I suspect that much of Trump’s appeal is that he projects strength and dominance to voters who tire of Obama’s dainty intellectualism and weakness, even as a species that abhors a vacuum descends into anarchy and madness. When Trump’s supporters say we have too many foreign entanglements and wars, they really mean we have too many foreign entanglements that don’t pay and wars we don’t win. They’re tired of losing. So, for that matter, am I. Trump craves the adoration of the mobs, and the mobs like the idea of “noninterventionism” in the abstract, right up until someone pisses them off. Then, they want a president who bombs stuff and wins wars. (This, of course, is more easily said than done.)

The point I’ll close with, then, is that Trump has made big promises, some of which he can’t keep, and some of which he can’t keep without a lot of help. He can’t pay for The Wall and more ICE officers without congressional appropriations. He can’t renegotiate trade deals without competent diplomats. He can’t nominate cabinet secretaries, officials, or judges without the advice and consent of the Senate. He won’t know which fights to pick without smart and competent advisors, and he won’t win the ones he does pick without the support of the military. The military will follow lawful orders, but that’s all the support he can count on without asking nicely.

Senate Republicans have a two-vote margin — plus Mike Pence — but the next Congress will include ten Republican senators who opposed Trump’s candidacy and several others (Cruz, Rubio, Paul) who have been critical enough of him in the past that Trump knows he can’t count on them if he overreaches. If he nominates Jeff Sessions or Bob Corker for a cabinet position, he takes the risk (a small one) of losing another seat. In the House, Republicans will have a 21-seat margin, but 24 of the returning GOP representatives openly opposed his candidacy, and many other Republicans only silently acquiesced to it. 

Trump must know that if he fails to deliver what his crowds want, his party will fracture, he will effectively lose his fragile congressional majorities, his agenda will falter, his poll numbers will collapse, his supporters will lose interest in him by the next mid-terms, and he might even get primaried. He overshadowed a divided field to win the primary, and drew an exceptionally weak opponent in the general. He may be the luckiest candidate in American political history, and he probably knows it. It’s in his interest that he be a good president, and — speaking as a Trump skeptic — it’s in our interest that, however long the odds against it, that he be a good president, too.

Those who withheld their support from candidate Trump were acting patriotically. But as long as President Trump acts in accordance with the law and the Constitution, the most patriotic decision we can make now is to help him govern and protect our country.

~   ~   ~

* Corrected, in view of Clinton’s popular vote majority.

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North Korea Sanctions & Policy Enhancement Act FAQ

What does the NKSPEA do?

The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, or NKSPEA, was signed into law by President Obama in February 2016, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. The NKSPEA uses targeted financial and economic sanctions to isolate Kim Jong Un and his top officials from the assets they maintain in foreign banks, and from the hard currency that sustains their rule. These assets are derived in part from illicit activities and proliferation, and are used to advance Pyongyang’s weapons programs, to pay for the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elites, and to repress the people of North Korea. It also raises the pressure on Kim Jong-un to end the crimes against humanity he inflicts on its own people.

Why are more sanctions needed now?

North Korea may be approaching the point of nuclear “breakout,” when it could build—and sell—effective nuclear weapons that could be carried by ballistic missiles. Tough financial sanctions are the only strategy that has ever slowed North Korea’s nuclear program, and that has the greatest potential to stop it without the use of force or violence. If North Korea achieves nuclear breakout, it could help Iran, Syria, or even terrorist groups achieve nuclear breakout, too. That would mean the defeat of the entire global counter-proliferation system.

Can sanctions really work?

Yes, if they are the right kind of sanctions, are targeted correctly, and are enforced aggressively. Financial sanctions were devastating to North Korea when applied for a brief period between late 2005 and early 2007. Financial sanctions that were imposed on Iran in 2010 and strengthened in 2012 brought its economy to the brink of collapse in 2013, and forced it to return to disarmament talks.

North Korea’s links to the financial system are more fragile than those of Iran, which makes it uniquely vulnerable to financial sanctions. Our financial sanctions authorities are relatively new tools, pioneered after the September 11, 2001 attacks. They are far more powerful than the traditional trade sanctions used in the 1980s and 1990s, which often took many years to work, and often worked poorly. Most of the sanctions in effect against North Korea prior to the NKSPEA’s passage were trade sanctions, or very limited financial sanctions against (mostly low-level) North Korean individuals or companies.

How can the Treasury Department reach North Korean assets?

The vast majority of international transactions are denominated in dollars, and nearly all dollar-denominated transactions are cleared through U.S.-based banks regulated by the Treasury Department. Because North Korea’s own currency is worthless, and because the Chinese Renminbi is not a convertible currency, North Korea continues to use the U.S. dollar. Legitimate and counterfeit dollars both circulate widely inside North Korea. North Korea hides its dollar transactions in the financial system behind false names, shell companies, and other deceptive practices. Determined financial investigators have defeated similar tactics by other rogue states, terrorists, and drug-trafficking organizations. One NGO working with unclassified information recently uncovered sanctions violations by North Korea and its Chinese enablers that led to a Justice Department indictment for money laundering and sanctions violations.

North Korea’s reliance on the dollar allows U.S. sanctions to reach North Korean assets in two ways. First, if North Korea transfers or spends dollars, Treasury can block them as they pass through dollar-clearing banks (mostly in New York or New Jersey). Second, banks that clear North Korea’s non-dollar transactions or convert its dollars to bulk cash, and businesses that facilitate barter transactions, still need access to dollar-clearing banks for the majority of their non-North Korea business. The NKSPEA threatens the access of those banks and businesses to the dollar system. Few banks or businesses would be willing to take that risk to help North Korea evade Treasury sanctions.

What conduct and assets does the NKSPEA sanction?

Section 104(a) describes prohibited conduct, including proliferation, arms trafficking, money laundering, censorship, luxury goods purchases, cyber attacks, and human rights abuses. The President is required to investigate credible reports of prohibited conduct and, if the President determines that a person or entity knowingly facilitated prohibited conduct, to block that person or entity’s assets. The Justice Department may also prosecute persons involved in prohibited conduct, or forfeit assets involved in the prohibited conduct.

Section 104(b) gives the President new discretionary sanctions authorities to block assets involved in violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and in the kleptocracy that sustains Kim Jong Un’s luxurious lifestyle while most North Koreans live in extreme poverty and hunger. Section 104(b) gives the President the authority to trace and block the personal assets of Kim Jong Un and his key minions. According to open source reports, their assets number in the billions of dollars and are mostly held in accounts in Europe and China. In addition to the blocking of assets, sections 104(a) and 104(b) also authorize additional discretionary sanctions, described in the next section.

Section 104(c) blocks all assets of the government of North Korea and its officials that pass through the dollar-based financial system. All of the mandatory sanctions in section 104 are subject to humanitarian and other exemption and waiver provisions.

What other discretionary sanctions apply?

The President may also bar persons or entities designated under section 104 from receiving government contracts or U.S. visas. Designated banks could face additional financial sanctions, including enhanced transaction reporting requirements, the loss of their licenses to deal in foreign exchange or inter-bank transfers of credit, or even the loss of their access to the financial system. These powerful new sanctions will help enforce the due diligence and enhanced monitoring requirements of U.N. sanctions resolutions.

Section 205 also authorizes shipping sanctions against ports that fail to inspect North Korean cargo, as required by Resolution 2094. Cargo from these ports will face enhanced inspection requirements when landed in U.S. ports. The fear that shippers would switch to other, more secure ports would force port directors to take their inspection obligations seriously, or to avoid the risk of handling North Korean cargo entirely.

Does the NKSPEA conflict with or duplicate U.N. sanctions?

No, it puts teeth into them. Since 2006, the Security Council has repeatedly sanctioned North Korea’s proliferation, arms trafficking, and imports of luxury goods, most recently through Resolution 2270. In practice, however, some member states, such as China, have failed to enforce U.N. sanctions without the threat of U.S. national sanctions.

The NKSPEA also sanctions additional conduct on which the U.N. Security Council has failed to act, including North Korea’s crimes against humanity, money laundering, corruption, kleptocracy, and counterfeiting of U.S. currency and intellectual property.

How does the NKSPEA address North Korea’s crimes against humanity?

Section 303 required the President to investigate and act on the report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found crimes against humanity in North Korea and—as the Commission recommends—imposes targeted sanctions against North Korean leaders found responsible for those crimes.

Section 303(b) required the President to make specific findings with respect to the individual responsibility of Kim Jong Un and other top North Korean officials for crimes against humanity. Persons designated for committing or facilitating crimes against humanity and censorship will be subject to NKSPEA’s toughest sanctions, including the blocking of their personal assets. In 2016, consistent with the requirements of this subsection, the Treasury Department personally designated Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses, but has not yet begun to pursue and freeze Kim Jong-un’s personal assets abroad.

Why are luxury goods sanctioned?

The U.N. Security Council first sanctioned North Korea’s purchases of luxury goods in Resolution 1718, in 2006, as a response to widespread hunger in North Korea requiring appeals for international food aid, while North Korea’s leaders lived in palaces, ate imported delicacies, and rode in expensive imported limousines.

Although a 2014 U.N. survey recently found that 84 percent of North Korean households have borderline or poor food consumption, at around the same time, Kim Jong Un spent $300 million a water park, a fitness center, a dolphin aquarium, a 3-D cinema, and a ski resort stocked with equipment imported from Europe and Canada, in violation of U.N. sanctions. Also during that period, the U.N. World Food Program appealed for $200 million for a two-year food aid program for North Korea that it later called “critically underfunded.”

Will these sanctions affect humanitarian aid?

Inevitably, some banks will incorrectly over-interpret sanctions in ways that affect humanitarian aid work. That is an unfortunate consequence of the North Korean government misusing the financial system to proliferate weapons of mass destruction while disregarding the welfare of the North Korean people. It is important to remember, however, that most North Koreans survive “off the grid,” on food that is smuggled into the country, pilfered from government stockpiles, or grown on private plots. That food is then sold in markets that the state barely tolerates. Today, few North Koreans survive on foreign aid or government rations. That makes the food sources that most North Koreans rely on relatively resilient.

Regulators can mitigate the unintended consequences of sanctions through careful targeting, licenses, and exemptions. Section 207 of the NKSPEA contains broad exemptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, and provides for waivers for humanitarian reasons, or when a waiver is important to the national security or economic interests of the United States. The Treasury Department has also published general licenses permitting humanitarian aid.

Is there anything left to sanction in North Korea?

Yes. President Bush lifted our toughest North Korea sanctions in 2007 and 2008, in exchange for Kim Jong Il’s false promises to disarm. When North Korea reneged on those promises, President Obama did not reimpose the sanctions.

Before the NKSPEA, our North Korea sanctions were among the weakest in force against any sanctioned government. They lacked the broad-based financial sanctions that applied to such targets as Iran and Burma. Iran and Burma were designated as primary money laundering concerns under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, a designation that restricts their access to the global financial system. North Korea, the world’s most notorious counterfeiter and money launderer, was not designated until May of 2016. Before the NKSPEA, there were no sanctions against specific North Korean officials who in counterfeit U.S. currency and engage in other illicit activities (as with the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal organizations). The Treasury Department had designated hundreds of Iranian, Cuban, and terrorist-related entities, but less than 100 North Korean entities.

Two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found the government of North Korea responsible for crimes against humanity, there were no sanctions against North Korean officials involved in repression or human rights violations (as with Sudan, Iran, and Belarus), or those who enforce its system of censorship (as with Iran). The NKSPEA changed that.

Before the NKSPEA, the administration was tracing and blocking assets stolen by former Ukrainian official officials, but not of the North Korean officials who amassed billions of dollars in offshore accounts while most North Koreans went hungry, and while the U.N. asked for contributions for food aid for North Korea. President Obama signed two executive orders, Executive Order 13,660 and Executive Order 13,661, blocking the property of Russian officials responsible for aggression against the Ukraine, but none against the North Korean officials responsible for the 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

North Korea, which was recently caught in the act of arming Hamas and Hezbollah, and which has assassinated (or attempted to assassinate) defectors and human rights activists in China and South Korea, is not listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The NKSPEA does not impose a full trade embargo or travel ban on North Korea, but it is worth noting that import sanctions were relaxed in 2008 and were not reimposed until 2011. With some exceptions, including items on the Commerce Control List and certain luxury items, it is legal to export to North Korea after obtaining a license from the Treasury Department. U.S. law bans tourist travel to Cuba, but not North Korea.

Will this bill set back efforts to “engage” North Korea economically?

It could set back engagement programs if those programs provide revenue to Pyongyang without ensuring that that revenue does not fund North Korea’s prohibited activities. Such programs, however, are already inconsistent with Resolution 2094‘s financial transparency requirements (see paragraphs 10-15).

Twenty years of “engagement” programs have failed to induce the North Korean regime to reform, disarm, relax its control of the economy, or ease its repression of the North Korean people. They sustain Pyongyang with billions of dollars in hard currency, although we have little idea how Pyongyang spends that money. Everyone agrees that reforming North Korea is an admirable goal, but North Korea will not decide to reform or disarm until it has no other choice. Until North Korea makes those key decisions, engagement sustains the status quo and gives it the option of avoiding reform and disarmament.

North Korea would never attack us. Why should its nuclear weapons concern us?

North Korea wants nuclear weapons to intimidate and assert political hegemony over South Korea, and is working on long-range missiles and submarines that would allow it to strike the United States and deter it from assisting South Korea.

North Korea’s direct nuclear threat is not our only concern. North Korea has sold arms—including man-portable surface-to-air missiles—to terrorists. It built Syria a nuclear reactor, and has since assisted Syria with its chemical weapons and missile programs, even while Syria was using those programs against its own people. It may also be assisting Iran with its nuclear program.

Can the NKSPEA overcome China’s support for North Korea?

Yes, enough to accomplish the purposes of this legislation. For years, the Chinese government has looked the other way at violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Its interests are in stabilizing the regime in Pyongyang, regardless of how it threatens the peace of other nations or oppresses its own people. The Chinese banks and businesses that deal directly with the North Korean regime, fund it, finance it, and sustain it, have different interests. They seek to protect their assets, their access to the financial system, and their access to markets in countries other than North Korea — including the United States. History has shown that when the interests of the Chinese government diverge with the interests of Chinese banks and businesses, banks and businesses put their own interests first, to North Korea’s detriment.

We saw evidence for this on two occasions, in 2005 and in 2013, when Treasury sanctioned North Korean targets. In 2005, when Treasury sanctioned Banco Delta Asia in Macau, the Bank of China and other banks around the world shunned North Korean accounts and depositors. The deterrent power of Treasury’s sanctions was so persistent that in 2007, the Bank of China refused to handle $25 million in illegally derived North Korean funds, despite requests from both the U.S. and Chinese governments.

More recently, in 2013, the Treasury Department designated the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea for its involvement in WMD proliferation. Two months later, and ten days after the introduction of the first version of the NKSPEA in Congress, the Bank of China closed the Foreign Trade Bank’s accounts. Five days later, the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China all halted money transfers to North Korea.

Unfortunately, this effect was short-lived, and the regime in Pyongyang is again flush with cash. (In the first quarter of 2015, North Korea imported $17.66 million in digital televisions from China, and two North Korean banks are building skyscrapers in Pyongyang to house their new headquarters.) The financial industry is highly sensitive to Treasury’s determination—or lack thereof—to enforce sanctions against a target. If it does not perceive that Treasury’s enforcement will be aggressive and persistent, it quickly resumes its business relationships with North Korean clients.

No sanctions program will ever be 100 percent effective, but 100 percent effectiveness is not necessary. It is not necessary to block every dollar; it is only necessary to block enough of them to prevent the regime from sustaining a critical mass of its ruling elite, military, and security forces. Pyongyang cannot sustain itself on bulk cash and barter alone.

Why is this bill so long?

North Korea is a multi-faceted problem, involving multiple crises for the U.S. and its allies—proliferation, military deterrence, law enforcement, and crimes against humanity. For years, nations pursued divergent interests and divided strategies against each of these crises. North Korea has successfully frustrated our responses by dividing humanitarian and law enforcement interests against diplomatic interests, by dividing our allies from China and Russia, and by dividing our allies from us and from each other. This allowed Pyongyang to access foreign hard currency and offset the economic pressure of sanctions.

The NKSPEA unites these interests under one tough and comprehensive strategy that leverages our financial and diplomatic power against Pyongyang’s financial vulnerability.

Will this bill set back diplomatic efforts?

No. In fact, sanctions forced North Korea back to the bargaining table in 2007, and forced Iran back to the bargaining table last year. Today, our diplomacy to disarm North Korea is stalled. North Korea insists that it will never give up its nuclear programs, has declared itself a nuclear state in its constitution, and has boycotted six-party talks since 2008.

For five years, the administration followed a policy of “strategic patience,” imposing gradual half-measures while waiting for North Korea to be ready to return to talks. Instead, North Korea has evaded this gradual pressure with China’s help.

The NKSPEA rejects the pursuit of short-term, reversible gains. It applies comprehensive financial pressure that recognizes the interests of our allies, exploits the vulnerabilities of our adversaries, and can give the administration the leverage to disarm North Korea completely, verifiably, and irreversibly.

Will this bill make North Korea lash out?

Possibly, but North Korea lashes out with or without sanctions to achieve aims that aren’t always clear to us. For example, there is no clear reason why North Korea sank a South Korean warship or shelled South Korean territory in 2010. North Korea has consistently calibrated its provocations to avoid provoking a war that it would be unlikely to survive. In the short term, if sanctions cause enough pain, North Korea may lash out. But the more its nuclear capabilities grow, the more serious its provocations will become. Our best chance to avoid war is to break this cycle of provocation and stop the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.

Why are the suspension and waiver provisions so detailed?

Too often, our diplomats have traded the lifting of sanctions for short-term freezes or empty promises, only to see North Korea renege later. North Korea must be forced to make the fundamental decision to accept enough transparency to allow for the verification of its disarmament. This may seem difficult to imagine now, but it also seemed difficult to imagine with respect to Burma until recently.

Allowing the open distribution and monitoring of food aid, and progress toward improving conditions in North Korea’s prison camps, could be key tests of North Korea’s willingness to accept transparency. So would progress toward releasing abductees, the cessation of currency counterfeiting, and accepting basic financial transparency. Several of these provisions recognize the interests of our allies in the region, which helps us to coordinate a consistent and unified policy toward North Korea.

What if North Korea isn’t willing to disarm?

The longer North Korea refuses to disarm, the more assets and income streams Treasury will identify, block, and cut off. The more allies will be persuaded to cut their financial ties with North Korea, identify its assets, and freeze them. The more officials will defect and provide information about North Korean slush funds. The loss of access to his offshore wealth will leave Kim Jong Un unable to sustain his own lifestyle, advance his WMD programs, pay his ruling elite, or feed his military and internal security forces. His mechanized military will degrade for lack of spare parts, fuel, and ammunition. The capabilities, discipline, and cohesion of his military and internal security forces will degrade until they are unable to suppress internal dissent.

In due course, these developments will begin to destabilize the regime. That may cause China to reassess its North Korea policy, enforce U.N. sanctions, and pressure Kim Jong Un to disarm diplomatically. Failing this, it may conspire with factions within the North Korean government to euthanize the Kim Dynasty to preserve its greater interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula. This, in turn, could pave the way for a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear and humanitarian crises, and an orderly long-term road map to the reunification of Korea. Alternatively, the regime’s financial isolation and political destabilization could cause other senior officials to prevail on Kim Jong Un to change his policies, or to remove him from power in favor of more rational leadership. It could also provoke regional mutinies or uprisings against the state.

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To prevent war, talk to North Korea’s soldiers about rice, peace & freedom (updated: it happened again)

When the U.S. Army wants to breach a minefield, it deploys a Mine-Clearing Line Charge to blast a path through it with 1,750 pounds of C-4. The procedure looks like this:

Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”

Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.

deserter

[2015: North Korean deserter in Chinese custody after his arrest]

Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.

This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.

deserters

In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.

Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rarer occasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)

These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.

The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition. 

wanted

[2015: a Chinese wanted poster for a North Korean army deserter]

So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks. 

I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.

North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.

“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”

For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]

Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homes and crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.

Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.

“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.

“Then they rob the passengers.”

When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.

Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.

This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]

Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.

mig 21 crash

[2010: The wreckage of a North Korean MiG-21 in China. The pilot, who was killed, may have attempted to defect.]

As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)

My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.

What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.

It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness. 

A century ago, the call of “brot und frieden” ended World War One. Pray that this century, a message of “rice, peace, and freedom” can prevent Korean War Two.

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Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:

The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.

The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.

“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.

In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]

It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.

The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.

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The Obama administration isn’t following Kim Jong-un’s money. Congress should ask why.

In February and March, respectively, the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Security Council responded to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test with sanctions that were, in theory, an order of magnitude stronger than any sanctions imposed on North Korea until then. Sanctions, of course, are only as good as their enforcement, and in enforcing sanctions against North Korea, the most important rule has always been “follow the money.” Money — along with the contradictions of its political system — has always been one of Pyongyang’s main vulnerabilities. Much of that money sits in banks in China, Europe, and Russia. A sudden cutoff of those funds could shake the increasingly fragile cohesion and discipline of the security forces. It could also shake the wavering confidence of North Korean elites in Kim Jong-un’s capacity to preserve their status, position, and survival. After an inevitable period of backlash, tension, and provocations, an insolvent dictatorship in Pyongyang would confront an existential choice to reform and disarm or perish.

Of course, confronting Kim Jong-un with that choice depends on getting Kim Jong-un’s bankers in China, Russia, and European states to comply with the new U.N. sanctions. Because China and Russia have voted for and subsequently violated U.N. sanctions resolutions for years, Congress concluded that a credible threat of secondary sanctions was necessary to make them enforce the resolutions. Section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act requires the administration to block the slush funds that facilitate Kim Jong-un’s proliferation, arms trafficking, luxury goods imports, and human rights abuses, wherever those funds are found. The purpose of the law is to force the administration to cut off the funds that maintain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and to send a clear message to Chinese and Russian banks that the days of business as usual are over. Either they can do business with Pyongyang or New York, but not both.

Congress made those sanctions mandatory — barring the invocation of a presidential waiver in section 208(c), which must be reported to Congress — because had it lost patience with China, and because it had lost confidence in the Obama administration’s will to enforce U.S. law or U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The Obama administration has too a long history of letting Kim Jong-un off the hook for his most egregious conduct to be trusted. It did functionally nothing to sanction Pyongyang after its second and third nuclear tests, multiple missile tests, and two attacks against South Korea. It failed to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite multiple attempts to assassinate dissidents and human rights activists, multiple arms shipments to Iranian-backed terrorists, and the Sony cyber terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland. It did nothing to the Chinese and China-based entities that hosted and enabled the North Korean hackers. Yet for years, despite the extensive evidence of China’s bad faith, the White House effectively outsourced its North Korea policy to China. 

More recently, the Obama administration has taken a back seat to South Korea, whose diplomats have conducted a skillful and effective campaign to terminate North Korea’s lucrative arms dealing and labor exports, and to shore up international support for sanctions enforcement. Meanwhile, the Obama administration failed to undertake a serious campaign of financial diplomacy against Pyongyang. 

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The administration has denied knowing where North Korea’s slush funds are, but those denials become harder to believe as the open-source evidence accumulates. For years, open sources have reported that U.S. and South Korean authorities had pursued and identified large amounts of those funds. A recent spate of high-level defections — yet another was revealed just today — has likely added to the U.S. government’s knowledge of those funding streams. Good journalism has done much to expose North Korea’s China-based money laundering. In the coming days, an extraordinary and little-known organization, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, will release a meticulously researched report, based entirely on open-source information, that will provide a ground-breaking expose of the North Korean overseas procurement networks. Any guesses which country they operate from?

But perhaps “ground-breaking” is too optimistic. Six months after the latest report from the U.N. Panel of Experts, the administration still hasn’t sanctioned any of the dozens of third-country enablers of North Korean proliferation, smuggling, or money laundering named in that report. The Panel’s report added dozens of names to the long list of Chinese and China-based trading companies, middlemen, and assorted death-merchants to the list of those who’ve spent the last two decades helping Pyongyang buy, sell, and trade the instruments of proliferation and extortion. You won’t find any of them listed among this year’s designations by the Treasury Department.

The administration still hasn’t blocked Chinpo Shipping, which was convicted by a court in Singapore of facilitating North Korean weapons smuggling. It has taken no action against the Bank of China, whose local staff knowingly deceived their U.S. correspondents — and may have broken U.S. money laundering laws — by directing Chinpo to conceal any North Korean links to the shipment. It has not sanctioned Chinese ex-spy Sam Pa or his 88 Queensway Group for their dealings with Bureau 39 (sanctioned by both Treasury and the U.N.) although it did sanction Pa for violating Zimbabwe sanctions. The same goes for the North Korean mining companies and their foreign investors I found among the Panama Papers. Under Executive Order 13722, those companies and their enablers should be subject to sectoral sanctions. No action has been taken against any of them, either.

If the administration — despite the vast personnel, legal, and intelligence resources at its disposal — doesn’t have all of this information, that could only be because it isn’t trying to gather it. What seems much more likely is that the administration has decided not to act on it — on any of it. The fact that the Obama administration won’t act on the information it has makes it harder to believe its denials that it knows where Kim Jong-un’s money is. I have no way of knowing what Treasury knows on the classified or law enforcement sensitive level, of course, but Congress does. We’ll get to that at the end of this post.

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Is the administration simply afraid of the diplomatic consequences of secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian interests? Clearly not. Just two weeks ago, the Treasury Department designated and blocked a network of traders and trading companies that were helping the Syrian government’s arms procurement and proliferation. One of those traders was a Chinese national and two were Russian; one of the companies is located in Shenyang and one in Moscow. And of course, the Obama administration has directly sanctioned some of Putin’s top officials and financiers over Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

The administration can’t credibly claim that China deserves a pass because of its good behavior, either. Recently, China has turned sharply toward authoritarianism, anti-Americanism, and imperial hegemony over neighboring states and waters. It just blocked a toothless U.N. censure of North Korea over missile launches that flagrantly violated a decade-long series of Security Council resolutions by inserting poison-pill language objecting to South Korea’s improvement of its missile defenses. 

Yet instead of accepting responsibility for selling North Korea missile technology and road-mobile missile carriers, among other items, China’s Global Times blames the U.S. for the North Korean threat. Instead of sanctioning Pyongyang, Beijing is threatening Seoul with trade sanctions for having the temerity to want to defend itself from North Korea missiles. It has made a show of cozying up to North Korea and expressing its “significant differences” with the United States.It has even taken to bullying South Korea’s beloved K-pop artists. Korean conservatives are making an issue of this, as they should. Even the far-left, anti-American Hankyoreh Sinmun calls China’s threats “petty.” Scott Snyder is probably right that in the end, this will hurt China’s own economic interests. That is to say nothing of the nationalist backlash it will inspire among Koreans. But the broader point is that China isn’t taking the gravity of this threat to U.S., South Korean, and Japanese security seriously. That’s all the more reason why China must share in the cost of the threat it has done so much to incubate. 

I disagree with John Park and James Walsh on the role of sanctions as often as not, but they are right that for sanctions to slow North Korea’s proliferation, the administration must be willing to pursue and sanction North Korea’s procurement networks in China. They are also correct that weakly enforced sanctions, like half-doses of antibiotics, only serve to strengthen the disease’s resistance to the cure. It should go without saying that in attacking North Korea’s procurement networks, it may be necessary to sanction their Chinese enablers, too. But to go beyond merely delaying Kim Jong-un’s progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal, we must do much more — we must instill the fear of God in Chinese banks that hold (at least) hundreds of millions of dollars in North Korean slush funds, and that allow Kim Jong-un and his cronies to use those funds to maintain his hold over his military and security forces.

In the weeks and months following the imposition of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, I’ve seen and seized on hopeful signs that Chinese banks were freezing North Korean accounts, and that North Korean operatives have been unable to pay their debts. No doubt the administration knows things that I don’t, but these isolated reports still do not suggest that Pyongyang is in the early stages of a liquidity crisis that will confront it with the choice to reform and disarm or perish. Rather, absent more evidence that Treasury is serious about finding and blocking North Korean slush funds, those initial hopeful signs will fade away. It will be business as usual all over again, just as it was not long after Chinese banks briefly froze North Korean funds in 2013.

The fact that Pyongyang continues to sell coal and iron ore to China — in volumes that are increasingnot decreasing — suggests that Pyongyang still has access to bank accounts where it can deposit its coal and iron ore revenues. North Korea’s unsanctioned mineral exports are also rising. Because the mineral trade is under regime control, the fact that it is not directly sanctioned does not absolve China from the duty to ensure that revenue from this trade isn’t used to support Pyongyang’s WMD programs. The rise in this trade reinforces the likelihood that China’s banking industry is open for North Korean business. One South Korean expert opines that it also reflects a rising consensus among Chinese trading companies that China has lost interest in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang.

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Yes, the administration has taken the long-overdue step of blocking North Korean banks’ access to the financial system. Treasury’s regulation is still not final, and it still remains to be seen what effects U.S. and EU money-laundering blacklisting will have. On one level, the recent surge of defections suggests that the regime is under some financial duress, for some reason. Yes, the administration has designated Kim Jong-un by name for his human rights abuses, while signaling that this action is an entirely symbolic one. Those actions were commendable, so I commended them. But they were meant to be symbolic and much more. The administration must do more than name Kim Jong-un; it must find and freeze the billions of dollars he is not using to provide for his people. Whatever we are doing right, we can do it better.

Fortunately, Congress learned a lesson from the North Korean Human Rights Act: administrations don’t always want to enforce the law, so Congress must make them. When it passed the new sanctions law, Congress included numerous reporting requirements, including a requirement that the administration report to Congress 180 days after the enactment of the legislation on exactly what it has done to enforce the new sanctions. I wonder if the administration forgot about this. Congress hasn’t forgotten it. The time has come for Congress to ask for that briefing. I can think of some very detailed and specific questions the staff should ask about what the administration has done to follow the money. If the administration doesn’t have satisfactory answers, Congress should hold oversight hearings.

We are still in the early phases of implementing these new sanctions authorities. There is still time for sanctions to work, but we are also at the stage where China traditionally stops pretending to enforce sanctions and returns to business as usual. In Washington, the distractions of an election year present a high risk that the administration may prefer a quiet exit to stopping North Korea’s march to nuclear breakout. An administration that wasted eight years while the North Korean threat continued to build has not earned one last “era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays.” We are entering an era of consequences. The President must enforce the law. Congress must use its oversight authority to ensure that he does.

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Update: Similar thoughts here, from the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner. And I should note that this Time report from Dandong offers some contradictory (and more encouraging) evidence:

Sipping fruit tea in a Dandong café, Wang, the alias of a Pyongyang-born Chinese trader who speaks to TIME on condition of anonymity, describes how his business importing North Korean coal and minerals and exporting building materials has been eviscerated by the sanctions. “North Korean traders don’t have cash anymore,” he says. “I have to limit the amount of goods I sell to them on credit as the risk of default is so high.”

The report also says that refugees in South Korea have had an easier time sending money to their relatives back in North Korea. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as Chinese banks enforce sanctions against the regime’s agents.

 

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Latest N. Korea defections: 6 soldiers, 3 workers, a top student, a general & slush fund manager

It has been three months since 12 young women and a man defected from that North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China, and since 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait staged a mass protest against their minders. I’d begun to wonder if the regime had cauterized the wounded cohesion of the very people it needs most desperately to pay its bills and seal its borders, but the drops of fresh blood on the floor tell another story. Let’s begin with the most painful — and potentially, lethal — loss.

Anchor: A general who was in charge of managing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas slush funds is said to be in China after escaping from his country, and is seeking political asylum with two other North Koreans in a country other than South Korea. A source said that the three were separated from a diplomat from Pyongyang, who is seeking his own defection to another country. [….]

Report: It has been made known that a general escaped from North Korea and is seeking political asylum in a country other than South Korea. A source in China, who works in collaboration with Seoul government officials, on Thursday revealed the recent defection of the general, a diplomat and two others.  The source said that the North Korean military officer was in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. [KBS Radio]

The general was on a business trip in China meeting with three other North Koreans when he and two others parted ways with the third, a diplomat, and slipped away and sought asylum in “a country other than South Korea.” The diplomat is reportedly still in China, making his own plans to defect. Why not South Korea? In a word, “Minbyun,” but that topic deserves its own post.

Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.

KBS notes that this is the first known defection of a North Korean general. Indeed, by my reckoning, it would be the highest-ranking defection from North Korea since Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1997. KBS had no further information about the two North Koreans who defected with the general, or about the position held by the diplomat.

The source said that the four North Koreans decided to leave their country due to their dissatisfaction with the Kim Jong-un regime and pessimistic views about the future of the country. [KBS Radio]

So. One of the men who knows the most about Kim Jong-un’s finances — and presumably, its sanctions evasion strategy — secretly despised His Porcine Majesty and is convinced that his regime has no future. As we speak, the CIA or another friendly intelligence agency may be debriefing him, filling Excel spreadsheets and databases with bank names and account numbers, copying all the numbers in his cell phone, and imaging his laptop. All of that information will be cross-checked against the intelligence windfalls we presumably collected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau colonel who defected last year; from Yun Tae-hyong of Daesong Bank, who defected in Russia in 2014; and from North Korean diplomat Kim Chol-song, who was last seen earlier this month at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg with his family, as they boarded a flight to Minsk and points west.

When asked why they don’t block all of His Supreme Corpulency’s slush funds, Treasury officials have answered that since the great training exercise for North Korean money launderers known as Banco Delta Asia (thank you, Chris Hill) the North Koreans have diversified and hidden their funds, and there are no equally vulnerable “nodes” that can be blocked anymore. These defections may well remove that excuse, and because of new compliance rules imposed by Treasury and the EU, banks may hesitate to move those North Korean funds again. If properly exploited, that intelligence would send His Corpulency schussing down a steep slope to bankruptcy.

fat lady sings

[As all the peace studies grad students know, sanctions never work.]

And in other North Korea defection news, three North Korean workers in Malta reportedly defected to South Korea last summer.

In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016. “We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here,” a unification ministry official said asking not to be named. [Yonhap]

God forbid Minbyun’s “human rights” lawyers should demand the right to interrogate them in open court, too. 

Also defecting this week was one of North Korea’s top math students, who slipped away from his minders in Hong Kong and into the local South Korean consulate.

An article from the Ming Pao newspaper claimed the defector is 18, and was participating in a recent International Mathematics Olympiad held in Hong Kong from July 6 – 16.

“We can’t verify that. Please understand the South Korean government can’t release information regarding defectors for their own safety and possible diplomatic disputes that might occur with the concerned party,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said during a Thursday briefing.

According to the report the student is still inside the South Korean compound, and is heavily guarded with armed anti-terrorist units from Hong Kong’s police forces. [NK News, JH Ahn]

Interestingly enough, the North Korean team placed sixth out of over 100 teams from around the world. Despite that impressive performance, KCNA hasn’t said a word about the team’s performance this year — for some reason — although it reported last year’s results the very next day. I’ve often said that one of the saddest things about the grand tragedy of North Korea is the loss of so much human potential there.

Also joining the flight from the Workers’ Paradise are five armed North Korean soldiers who had abandoned their posts for the more lucrative business of robbing Chinese civilians, when they got into a lips-versus-teeth gunfight with Chinese police, seriously wounding several of them. The Chinese captured two of the soldiers, but three others are still at large.

The source who lives near the Sino-China (sic) border region told Yonhap News Agency that the two were part of a group of five who illegally crossed the border near the North Korean city of Hyesan last Saturday and robbed people living in two rural villages at gunpoint.

They were holed up at a house in the Changbai Korean Autonomous County when Chinese border guard and police tried to apprehend them early Thursday. In the ensuing gun fight the culprits were arrested, although three others got away.

The Chinese national police then said that several Chinese security forces were injured in the process with two detectives receiving serious wounds requiring them to be evacuated to a hospital in Changchun.

“Chinese authorities are chasing the three runaways and telling people to be extra careful,” the source said.

He said Chinese authorities confirmed the robbers were armed with guns and had ammunition, and were North Korean military deserters. The provincial government and security forces imposed a curfew at night to protect citizens. [Yonhap]

This incident appears to be unrelated to another defection by a border guard, reported by the Daily NK last week, in a different sector of the border.

“The border patrol soldier, based in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, escaped across the Tumen River on Wednesday (July 20) at approximately 4 p.m.,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on July 22.

“The soldier is an unarmed male believed to be around 20 years old. He was spotted in Kaishantun, China–a town across the Tumen River from Onsong County, North Korea. China’s border patrol units were dispatched to the area after receiving a tip from a resident, but the soldier slipped away and his whereabouts are unknown.” [Daily NK]

If you’re wondering why a North Korean soldier would be desperate enough to do something so suicidal, read Rimjin-gang’s new report on the history of the North Korean military’s hunger problem, complete with clandestine photos of skeletal young soldiers begging passersby for food, or on their way to hospitals.

201106-07NK_pyeongyang_gu_0-1

These reports are only the latest in a series of desertions, fraggings, and mutinies in the North Korean military that suggest that its discipline has come unglued, and is held together by nothing more than fear and food. Like the Ningpo and Kuwait incidents, group defections and mutinies tell us that disgruntled North Koreans are angry and desperate enough to share their views of the state and conspire against it.

In normal times, none of these things would be “in other news.” The times do not seem normal for North Korea anymore. What I’d give anything to know is whether these events mean that the regime can’t pay its bills and feed its soldiers anymore, and why. It wouldn’t be the first evidence of that kind we’ve seen in recent weeks. Surely this is the time when broadcasts to North Korea must send its soldiers the urgent message not to kill civilians, or each other. On this decision rests the future of all Koreans.

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North Koreans find leaks in Kim Jong-un’s information blockade

Until 2011, the erosion of North Korea’s border control and the infiltration of foreign ideas may have been the only hopeful trends in a country where just about all of the news is bad. When Kim Jong-un came to power, however, he launched an allout effort to seal North Korea’s leaky border with China. Most of the evidence tells us that that effort has had considerable success. It cut the flow of refugees from North to South Korea in half, and (with the help of cell phone locators, reportedly imported from Germany) made it extremely risky to make cross-border phone calls. Those calls were one of North Koreans’ few fragile links to the outside world.

Yet despite Kim Jong-un’s best efforts, the border isn’t completely sealed. After years of decline, the number of refugees arriving in the South is inching up again. North Koreans were still able to find out about the recent group defection of 13 restaurant workers from China — news that the state must have been very eager to suppress — using illegal cell phones.

NK News reports that some younger North Koreans are now sharing “multimedia files, with content often influenced distinctly from Japanese and South Korean culture,” over their government-controlled Koryolink phones. This is, of course, a risky proposition over a monitored network, but in time, marginally subversive content has the potential to overwhelm the state’s capacity to monitor and censor it. Here, I find myself agreeing with Andrei Lankov:

“The horizontal connections” provided by the growing cellphone network should be welcomed, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher told NK News on Monday.

“The massive arrival of cellphones provide North Koreans with many opportunities to interact

with their peers, often living far away.

“It is new, since for generations North Korean society has been compartmentalized, with people having little communications outside their work unit and neighbourhood,” he added.

The greater danger to the regime, however, is that North Koreans have apparently found a way to evade both the regime’s cell phone detectors and the monitored state-run networks, by using hard-to-trace messenger apps like on their Chinese cell phones. 

North Korean users of foreign messenger applications such as Kakao Talk, Line, and WeChat will be arrested on the spot on suspicion of espionage, according to a new order handed down from the authorities. Sources inside the country interpret the move as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive reaction to the capability of Chinese cellphones to facilitate the import and export of information into the isolated country.

As recently reported by Daily NK, the North Korean authorities have ramped up efforts to label Chinese cellphone users as traitors and pursuing strict punishments against them. To this end, North Korean authorities doubled down on the use of signal detectors to trace illicit international calls and zero in on the location of foreign phone users.

However, the messenger apps allow users to circumvent detection by this equipment, prompting the regime to respond with new threats specifically targeting users of these communication applications. [Daily NK]

I’m not a technology expert, but I’d guess that’s because text messages transmit only a small amount of data in an instant — too little time for detection equipment to zero in on the location. The regime has responded by ordering the immediate arrest and harsh punishment of anyone caught using a messenger app.

“Offenders who are apprehended will be processed according to the discretion of the arresting agency– i.e. the State Security Department or the Ministry of People’s Security. Those taken in will be charged with espionage associating with the enemy and dispatched to a political prison camp.”  [….]

“These days, Line and Kakao Talk are explicitly mentioned in lectures [routinely delivered to residents by the authorities]. That’s how serious the crackdown has become,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.

The regime has been worried about Kakao Talk since 2014, which is also when I first read reports of its use to evade regime censorship. Jieun Baek has written about its evolution into a guerrilla banking system for North Koreans. By late 2015, North Korean refugees in the South were already using it to send messages and money to their families back home and set up clandestine hawaladars inside North Korea. Kakao Talk has also won a license from the South Korean authorities to operate as an online bank.

The obvious limitation of these apps is that Chinese cell phones have limited range — just a few miles inside North Korea. But if the signal range problem can be solved, messenger apps could give North Koreans the ability to spread news and make payments from city to city and province to province. I can foresee a dynamic under which these apps could play a significant role in shifting North Korea’s internal balance of power. Apps like these could help North Korea’s poor become richer and better fed, even as a heavily sanctioned regime’s security forces increasingly turn to corruption to feed their own families.

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Report: 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait protest unpaid wages

Because North Korea is so uniquely opaque and repressive, it’s often difficult to gauge the level of dissent against, or popular support for, its regime. That repression follows North Koreans when they’re sent abroad to earn money for the regime, usually through the implied threat to punish the workers’ loved ones back in North Korea if they step out of line. 

The recent and unprecedented mass defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, is an example of this. In a transparent attempt to extort the 13, North Korea offered to arrange a meeting between them and their relatives. You’d have to be obtuse to doubt just what message the Pyongyang intended to send; if you aren’t, it should be chillingly obvious. It’s the same message that Pyongyang sent to refugee Pak Jong-suk, with the Associated Press as a willing accomplice in its extortion, before its agents found her in Pyongyang and told her that her son and his family would be banished to starve in the countryside unless she returned.

Never in my adult life have I been quite convinced of the existence of God, but if you are, pray for the families who are at the mercy of this highly enriched isotope of evil. For now, let’s stipulate that whether God exists or not, there’s ample evidence that evil does.

History also tells us that evil governments eventually die. And if this extraordinary new report from the Chosun Ilbo is true, Kim Jong-un’s EKG just skipped another beat. It claims that 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait recently “rose up against the state security agents who keep constant watch on them” over unpaid back wages, after being told to fork over yet more “loyalty” payments for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

The workers reportedly shouted out at the foreman and demanded their back pay instead, and some tried to assault him. According to sources, the state security agents at the site were able to stop the workers from lynching the foreman, but North Korea’s Ambassador to Kuwait So Chang-sik was apparently furious at the North Korea construction firm for not being able to contain them.

Kim Young-hwan at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said, “It is unprecedented in North Korea to protest in front of state security agents.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Well, not quite. Mass incidents in North Korea are rare, but not unprecedented; I’ve compiled a long history of them here. There was a spate of them in 2009 after Pyongyang redenominated the currency and effectively confiscated the savings of millions of its poorest people. Recently, there have even been scattered reports of mass defections, fraggings, and strikes in the North Korean military.

The protest took place after state security agents visited Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE in February and March to weed out potential defectors among workers there. They investigated the movements and mobile phone records of workers.

“The protest occurred a week after the investigations ended,” a source said. “Pyongyang’s pressure has mounted to the degree where workers sent overseas are losing their tempers.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Four days before this, according to the report, two other North Korean workers ran away from their barracks in Qatar, and sought refuge in a local police station because “they could no longer endure Pyongyang’s extortion after working in the scorching heat for more than two years but earning nothing.”

A construction company in Qatar recently laid off around 20 North Korean laborers, and the two escapees were among them. They are in custody but are at risk of being sent back to North Korea because they are unemployed.  [Chosun Ilbo]

If there’s any truth to this, U.S. and South Korean diplomats should intervene at once with the Kuwaiti and Qatari authorities to prevent these workers from being repatriated. But is it true? On the “maybe not” side of the ledger, it’s one report from the Chosun Ilbo citing “sources.” On the “maybe” side, it could be worse — it could be The Hankyoreh. And if, as is customary with the Chosun Ilbo, the sources are in the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the NIS gets a few things right, too.

There are also some tantalizing clues that give credence to the report. Recall that in March, two North Koreans were arrested at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka while carrying $150,000 in undeclared cash from Oman to China. The cash consisted of “wages” stolen from workers “at construction sites in Oman.” The Sri Lankan government later confiscated the cash. From there, presumably, the two couriers would have smuggled the cash back to Pyongyang, perhaps by train, wrapped in tin foil and stuffed into pillowcases, because “transfers of U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan were completely blocked by banking systems,” and customs in Dandong isn’t letting bulk cash through the border.

Which is excellent news in its own right — it means enough of the banks in China are complying with sanctions to damage the regime’s internal cohesion.

I’m guessing Yonhap has no way of knowing whether the North Korean workers were based on Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, or the UAE. Either way, if the overseers of North Korean laborers in the Gulf states are one enterprise, the loss of $150,000 and the effect of sanctions could have put them under metamorphic pressure to recoup the lost “loyalty” payments by working their charges even harder.

From any number of recent stories we’ve seen, the regime has imposed steep quotas on trading companies, and isn’t accepting excuses from those who fail to meet them. The 13 restaurant workers who defected cited frustration and fear over rising demands by Pyongyang for “loyalty” payments they couldn’t keep up as a reason for their defection. According to the Daily NK, women fisheries workers in Dandong, China are being forced to work 13-hour days, even when they’re sick, for a diminishing pittance.

“After receiving strong demands from the North, a Chinese fisheries company [name redacted to protect the source] in Dandong, which employs about 200 North Korean workers, wired six months’ worth of their wages to Pyongyang,” a source with knowledge of North Korean affairs in China said, asserting that the move was to help the regime secure more money for the upcoming Party Congress.

The Chinese firm usually sends most of the 500 USD allotted for each worker’s wages to Pyongyang, and the remaining 150 USD is handed over to the North Korean manager to distribute to the employees. However, recently, even the smaller proportion of those wages is not being reliably received. “Because of that I’m hearing more of the female workers say they would prefer to return to the North than stay in China,” the source said.

These female employees not only have long working hours but normally only get two days off per month and are rarely allowed to take leave, even if they are ill.

[….]

The prepaid wages have now added more strain on the workers. Having already been paid for full working hours, the North Korean manager is forcing employees to work even if they are sick. “Some have fallen so ill that they have asked to be sent back home, but they’ve been turned down with no room for consideration,” the source lamented. [Daily NK]

Just keep this in mind when the AP reports that as horrible as conditions for these overseas workers are, they’re better than in North Korea. Conditions from place to place certainly vary, but across the board, they appear to have gotten much worse this year. Eventually, even selected, loyal North Korean workers have a breaking point. That’s an indirect effect of sanctions. The situation stands to get worse soon, following the Treasury Department’s inclusion of North Korean labor exports in Executive Order 13722, and the recent visit to Seoul by the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, signaling a new enforcement effort.

South Korea and the United States are working together to determine the extent to which North Korea uses its workers abroad to raise money for its weapons of mass destruction programs, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Tuesday.

[….]

“It’s very clear that North Korea uses a great deal of its resources for nuclear weapons, for missiles, for military equipment,” he said at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “And to say that this dollar from this worker is going to a bomb, you don’t have that kind of ability to account. It’s a process that’s happening and yes, we need to see what we can do to prevent it from happening.”

[….]

“At this point, we’re beginning a process, and one of the things we’re doing is looking for additional information, trying to make sure we know what’s happening and where the workers are, what companies they are working for,” King said. “We don’t have a lot of information at this point. We’re talking with the South Korean government and sharing information with them. We’ll continue to consult with them.”

Some of the information they need is which companies are hiring the workers, what goods they’re producing and whether these products are being sold in the U.S.  [Yonhap]

Other North Koreans abroad are also being called home. The Telegraph cites a Radio Free Asia report that Pyongyang is calling its students back from China, “apparently out of concern that more of its citizens are planning to defect.” North Korea’s ambassador to Germany is the latest diplomat to be called back to Pyongyang, possibly because he’s being held accountable or Germany’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test.

The signs here suggest that Pyongyang’s overseas ventures may be entering a death spiral: sanctions result in assets being blocked or confiscated, or depress earnings, and make it hard to repatriate “loyalty payments.” In its rising financial desperation, the regime pushes the Bureau 39 bosses to earn more. The Bureau 39 bosses push the workers harder until they break. Then, out of fear of defections, and as I predicted, the regime starts calling home the people it needs to earn cash. That only increases the burdens on those who remain. If the people the regime judges to be among the most loyal aren’t, you really have to wonder about the emotional state of those still locked up inside North Korea.

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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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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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