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South Korean National Assemblyman Ha Tae-Kyung invites a particular potency of venom from both the hard left and the hard right. The hard left hates him because he used to be pro-Pyongyang and they still are. Ha was imprisoned under the old right-wing dictatorship for his activism and for (by his own admission) his former pro-Pyongyang sympathies. He later turned against Pyongyang and became an activist for human rights for the North Korean people, for which he has received threats to his life and his family. The hard right hates Ha because he was viewed as a Korean Rino for being insufficiently loyal to Park Geun-hye during her impeachment.
I also disagree with Ha about some things, including sanctions, but I respect him nonetheless. I met Ha when he came to Washington for a fellowship some years ago. We have not stayed in contact, but one night, as I drove him home from an event we both attended, he recounted the time he’d spent in prison. On his return to Korea, he went on to found Open Radio for North Korea and win a seat in the National Assembly.
Today, NK News reports that the hard-left lawyers’ guild Minbyun, the incubator of former President Roh Moon-hyun and current presidential front-runner Moon Jae-in, has “won” a libel suit against Ha Tae-Kyung for accusing it — accurately, as I will argue — of “defending North Korea.” The suit originates from the slashing of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert by a pro-North Korean fanatic in 2015, after which Ha said the assailant’s lawyer was a member of Minbyun and that Minbyun was “defending North Korea.”
Two points of order here: first, Minbyun denies that the lawyer was a member, and second, even knife-wielding Commie fanatics are entitled to the representation of counsel. But those statements were not the basis of the suit. The basis of the suit was that Ha referred to Minbyun’s members as “jongbuk,” a term used for pro-North Korean radicals.
Ha initially prevailed in the suit, but Minbyun appealed, and the higher court reversed and ordered Ha to pay them 5 million Korean won, or just over $4300. When I say that Minbyun “won” the case, I use scare quotes, because not even lawyers of Minbyun’s caliber can come cheap enough that a measly $4300 would cover the time and costs of the suit. Now, listen to the court’s reasoning.
“In South Korea, the term Jongbuk has the negative meaning of ‘following North Korea unquestioningly’ thus ‘denying constitutional ground order and the identity of the Republic of Korea (ROK),” the court ruled on Monday.
“(Lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung’s) statement was enough to give the impression that Minbyun leaned towards defending pro-North entities, deviating from its original purpose of providing legal support for the protection of human rights.” [NK News, J.H. Ahn]
This implies that under South Korean law, it’s defamation to make a political criticism solely because it’s inflammatory or hurts someone’s feelings. Really? Isn’t truth even a defense? Even parliamentary immunity (as in Europe) or “speech and debate” protections (as in the U.S.) cannot exist in South Korea if a lawmaker can be sued for a political criticism. But that turns out to be precisely the case.
A few minutes of research will quickly reveal the serious threat that South Korea’s libel laws pose to free speech and open debate. They have been used by corporations and politicians to silence both columnists and journalists. When Park Geun-hye tried to use them to silence reporters, Human Rights Watch criticized her and called for the criminal defamation law to be repealed. Worst of all, it is no defense that the “defamatory” statement is true. As long-time Korea-based lawyer Sean Hayes writes: “In South Korea, people may be held civilly liable and may be criminally punished even for a true statement.”
By now, the more clever readers among you are wondering about Minbyun’s own position on the criminal defamation law. Well, on the one hand, Minbyun’s Media Committee “supports the Act on the Press Arbitration and Damage Redemption, etc. which protects people from defamation of character.” On the other hand, Minbyun cried “freedom of speech” when the government used the defamation law against the MBC network after it published a scurrilous (and subsequently retracted) report that American beef causes mad cow disease, a report that instigated weeks of mass protests. Minbyun has written that the government should “consider” decriminalizing defamation — except in “the most serious of cases,” which may include “hate speech,” however Minbyun defines that. That is to say, South Korea’s “liberal human rights lawyers” are against the use of criminal defamation laws to censor political speech, except when they aren’t.
I’m guessing that, given what he’s been through, the $4300 means less to Ha Tae-Kyung than vindicating the truth. J.H. Ahn, the NK News reporter, does that cause no service when he airbrushes Minbyun’s involvement in a case that’s of special interest to me, the case of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South from Ningpo, China last year. Ahn describes Minbyun’s involvment in these cases as speaking “on behalf of the North Korean parents” of the 12. This is nonsense. In any defamation case — particularly one about political speech about controversial issues with public and global interest — that a statement is true, or offered in good faith, should always be a defense.
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Plenty has been written (including at this site) about the Korean right’s censorship of peaceful free expression, but most of the news media have a blind spot for censorship from Korea’s left, which I’ve also described here. Because truth is no defense to a defamation suit in Korea, both sides have repurposed the courts as their censors. South Korean society is poorer for this. Provable accusations with genuine public interest are held back. Rather than make charges they can defend, accusers plant them as anonymously sourced rumors in the newspapers or online. Instead of reading and judging the evidence, citizens drift toward whatever alternative truth suits their predispositions.
To review the truth of Ha Tae-Kyung’s charge about Minbyun, let’s begin one year ago, when 12 North Korean women and one man employed at a North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China defected to the South, apparently with the help of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. The incident was a major embarrassment to Pyongyang, which feared that it would set a precedent for more group defections (which it did). Twelve of the 13 were promptly appointed a lawyer, Park Young-sik, who was recommended by the respected Korean Bar Association (it isn’t clear why the 13th case wasn’t litigated). They appeared before a South Korean court to claim asylum, in keeping with their rights under the Refugee Convention. Also in keeping with their internationally recognized rights, those proceedings were absolutely confidential. The reason for that confidentiality is obvious — by asking for asylum, a refugee implicitly criticizes the state she fled and exposes those she left behind to retribution.
To mitigate its embarrassment, Pyongyang accused South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of kidnapping the 13. Using their families as hostages, it sent a thinly veiled message to the women, and to anyone else who might be watching: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.” (As if that message would be persuasive to an actual kidnap victim.) Any North Korean would understand the meaning of this.
North Korea publicly executed six officials in charge of supervision of its workers overseas in May following the defection of 13 workers at a North Korean-run restaurant in China a month earlier, a local Pyongyang watcher said Friday.
“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered six officials, including intelligence officials, to be executed publicly on May 5 due to their lack of control over overseas (North Korean) workers,” Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees’ Family Union, claimed, citing people familiar with the matter.
Eighty public officials and 100 people who have their family members working overseas were forced to watch the execution, he said.
In early April, a group of 12 women and one man fled from a North Korea-run restaurant in China’s eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to South Korea. In the following month, three female workers at a North Korean restaurant in the midwest city of Shanxi reportedly defected to the South.
“North Korea locked the families of the defectors up and forced them to take ideological education at a training facility in Myohyang Mountain, in the northern part of the communist country,” Choi said. [Yonhap]
Of course, the theory that the NIS had kidnapped the women was implausible on its face. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something as the NIS hustled the women past customs, or even after their arrival in South Korea, if there were any truth to it. How could the NIS ever allow the 12 to reenter South Korea’s open society — where they would be free to talk to bloggers, reporters, and even Minbyun — if any of them might reveal that the NIS had abducted them? (All 12 were released into South Korean society eight months ago. They have since entered a South Korean university. None have come forward to say they were abducted.)
Pyongyang could not advance its strategy in a South Korean court itself, so it lawyered up. Minbyun, with its long history of defending pro-North Korean radicals, was its natural choice. Pyongyang arranged, either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor (the details still aren’t clear) to grant Minbyun power of attorney to intervene in the proceedings as representatives of the families of the women back in Pyongyang. Minbyun then filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.”
At one point, the left-wing Hankyoreh Sinmun even reported — falsely — that the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul would send staff to Pyongyang to interview the family members of the 13 refugees to investigate the abduction claims, but the OHCHR later denied this.
Had Minbyun’s habeas petition been granted, everything the women said to Minbyun would surely have been relayed back to Minbyun’s clients in Pyongyang, and to the North Korean government itself (as the women surely knew). But the habeas petition was transparently cynical. After all, if Minbyun’s true purpose had been to ensure that the women had not been abducted, why not ask the court or a representative of U.N. High Commission for Refugees to question them in a closed proceeding, and to afford them the option of voluntary repatriation, before granting their asylum petitions?
Pyongyang’s obvious purposes were to sow enough public doubt to mitigate the damage to its propaganda narrative, to intimidate the women into re-defection, and to deter any other would-be defectors who might follow. To grant Minbyun’s habeas petition would have been tantamount to a South Korean withdrawal from the U.N. Refugee Convention, because no North Korean would ever seek asylum there again. As an official of the South Korean Unification Ministry observed,
“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Thus, by establishing a right to interrogate these 12 young women and forcing them to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun would effectively present them with a terrible choice: renounce their claims and be sent back to whatever fate awaits them in North Korea, or affirm their claims and further endanger their loved ones. That is why family members in the country of origin do not have a right to intervene in asylum proceedings. That is why any attempt to breach the confidentiality of asylum proceedings against the petitioner’s will is itself an abuse of the petitioners’ human rights, the legal process, and legal ethics.
The women opposed Minbyun’s petition and asked the court to deny it and let them stay in South Korea. They denied any interest in meeting with Minbyun and, citing a fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” asked it to butt out. Eventually, they also filed a complaint with local prosecutors. As their lawyer, Park Young-sik, asked, “What’s going to happen [to] a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?” Park cited his clients’ fear that “their families’ lives [would] be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” and their fear of media exposure in a country where North Korean agents have repeatedly attempted to assassinate refugees in recent years.
Those fears have a firm basis. In some cases, Pyongyang’s agents in the South have been arrested for collecting information about refugees. In other cases, they have contacted refugees and used threats against their families to coerce them into returning to North Korea and giving press conferences claiming that they were abducted. I have written in detail about the North sending assassins to murder politically active refugees in the South. “In this situation,” Park argued, “forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe [on] their human rights” — rights that are well recognized under international law.
When the judge denied Minbyun’s habeas petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced. The court refused, Minbyun appealed that decision, and an appellate court also refused to remove the judge.
[From the Ministry of Unification, via NK News]
Certainly in this case, Minbyun was “defending North Korea” with legally frivolous arguments, knowing that Pyongyang was using these terrified families as a cat’s paw. The motive for this is clear — the defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. It was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, rumors of yet another group defection from China, a group defection of construction workers in Russia, and the defection of multiple North Korean diplomats including Thae Yong-ho. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.
In its desperation to maintain the grip of terror over its people, Pyongyang’s last resort has long been to use their loved ones as hostages. What Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, human rights, or international law to terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks to have found them.
Perhaps the journalists who still refer to Minbyun as “liberal” and “human rights lawyers” have their own subjective definitions of those terms. From where I sit, you cease to be liberal when you use the law to bully and terrorize the defenseless and suppress free debate. You cease to stand for human rights when you make yourself an instrument of their violation. And in a just world, you would cease to be a lawyer when you use the courts to subvert the law and persecute the innocent.
In 2003, a left-wing human rights lawyer named Roh Moo-hyun fell, moist and unsteady, from the womb of a leftist lawyers’ group called Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) into the presidency of the Republic. But Roh’s government was no paragon of liberal democratic virtues. It threatened opposition newspapers with tax audits, and the union goons and radicals it subsidized intimidated their enemies with iron pipes and bamboo poles.
Time and again, Roh’s allies were exposed as North Korean agents of influence, or worse. For the sake of Kim Jong-il’s tender sensitivities, his government overlooked the greatest crimes against humanity in the long history of the Korean nation. There were the disgraceful U.N. abstentions when the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn human rights abuses in the North, and a callous die-in-place policy toward North Korean refugees. Those policies are consistent with Minbyun’s views, too, but you won’t read anything about them, or about human rights in North Korea, on Minbyun’s blog. That topic has been trotskied out of the approved history.
In 2012, Minbyun very nearly gave the Republic a second president in Moon Jae-in. Another Minbyun alumnus, Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, may run for the presidency in 2017. No organization is as identifiable with the elite of South Korea’s political left as Minbyun.
In light of Minbyun’s history of agnosticism about the atrocities in the North, its sudden interest in the welfare of 12 young North Korean women who risked their lives and their families to defect from a regime-run restaurant in China earlier this year seems uncharacteristic, even suspicious. (For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the proceedings of only 12 of the 13 are in contention.)
Minbyun has filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.” It is a question with no evidentiary basis but the North Korean government’s unsupported allegation that South Korea kidnapped them; it’s also what Anna Freud would have called “projection.” Under Korean law, “people housed in state-run facilities” can petition to the courts for their own protection. In this case, however, the refugees aren’t behind that petition. In fact, they’re begging the court to deny it.
What Minbyun demands is nothing less than the right to interrogate 12 terrified refugees whom it doesn’t represent, in open court, in a city where multiple North Korean spies have been arrested for collecting information about refugees, and even for attempting to assassinate the most politically active ones. Pyongyang has also used threats against refugees’ family members to coerce them into going back.
Of course, the notion that Seoul would send abduction squads to China to kidnap North Korean waitresses is so asinine that only the sort of people who still cling to Cheonan conspiracy theories would entertain it. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something, either at the time or now, if there were anything to it. As Choi Song-min, himself a North Korean refugee, asks in an opinion piece for the Daily NK, just what legitimate purpose could Minbyun’s interrogation possibly have? How long could such a secret be kept in South Korea’s open society after the 13 enter South Korean society to start their new lives? On what basis does it believe the North Korean government’s accusation and disbelieve the South Korean government’s denial? Has it thought through the consequences of forcing the refugees to go on the record publicly?
We’ll get to all of those questions.
The problems with Minbyun’s argument go beyond its illogic and the lack of credible evidence to support it. The claim is legally frivolous. Neither Minbyun, nor the family members of the 12, nor their ventriloquists in the Reconnaissance General Bureau have any standing to intervene in an asylum proceeding. Granting Minbyun’s petition would not only violate the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality, it would endanger lives. Not only would it endanger the lives of the 12 and their families, it would have a chilling effect on any other future asylum claims by North Koreans in South Korea.
The 12 already have a lawyer, Park Young-sik, from by the law firm of Bae, Kim, and Lee. Park was recommended by the Korean Bar Association, an organization that has long shown a deep concern for the human rights of North Koreans by compiling and publishing book-length scholarly reports on North Korea’s prison camps (I’ve cited them for these pages on North Korea’s prison camps). Park insists that his clients have all told him that they want to stay in South Korea, have no interest in meeting with Minbyun, and want Minbyun to go away and leave them alone. Park has made those representations to the court, and so far, the court has been satisfied with them.
So what business does Minbyun have in intervening? It claims to represent the families of the 13, back in North Korea, using a power of attorney obtained either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor. (The details are vague, although Minbyun certainly didn’t have much trouble finding someone in Pyongyang to authorize its intervention.)
And yes, Park was retained by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), which helped get the Ningpo 13 out of China, but which undoubtedly has a sordid history. Minbyun’s skepticism would be a virtue if it weren’t so selective.
While Minbyun chases Pyongyang’s unsupported abduction claims through the courts in Seoul, it shows its more credulous side to Pyongyang, which recently “allowed an Associated Press Television crew to interview some of the colleagues and parents of the waitresses.” Yet even the AP, which has hardly distinguished itself for questioning Pyongyang’s narratives — it has even used North Korean regime-supplied “journalists” to “interview” subjects — concedes that “it is common for authorities to coach interviewees beforehand to make sure they stay on message.” Even the AP acknowledges that Pyongyang, in making the parents available for an interview, appeared to be “trying to capitalize” on “concerns for family left behind.” Lest there be any doubt about Pyongyang’s game: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.”
Later, after the twelve young women exercised their legal right not to be hauled into court for committing no crime, citing the fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced
because he’s a Mexican because he denied their frivolous attempt to abuse the legal process to terrorize twelve brave, frightened young women.
All in the name of human rights, of course.
I should explain why I call Minbyun’s case “frivolous.” When countries ratify treaties, they give those treaties preemptive effect over national law. The relevant treaty here is the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention which, along with its 1967 protocol, provides certain legal protections to refugees. South Korea has ratified both documents, and international law has recognized that the absolute confidentiality of asylum applications is one of those legal protections. Here’s how our own government applies it, and here’s how the U.N. High Commission for Refugees explains it:
2.1 Confidentiality in UNHCR RSD Procedures
2.1.1 The Applicant’s Right to Confidentiality
• The confidentiality of UNHCR RSD procedures is essential to creating an environment of security and trust for asylum seekers who approach UNHCR. All UNHCR staff, including interpreters and security staff, as well as any implementing partners, counsellors or medical practitioners who provide services to asylum seekers and refugees under agreement with UNHCR, are under a duty to ensure the confidentiality of information received from or about asylum seekers and refugees, including the fact that an individual has registered or is in contact with UNHCR.
• UNHCR standards regarding the confidentiality of information about asylum seekers and refugees should be incorporated into RSD procedures in every UNHCR Office, and should be understood by all UNHCR staff and any other individuals who are responsible for implementing the RSD procedures. Specific recommendations for ensuring confidentiality in each stage of the RSD procedures are proposed in the relevant sections of this document.
• Applicants for RSD should be informed of their right to confidentiality in UNHCR procedures. Any limits on the right to confidentiality, including information sharing arrangements with host country authorities or resettlement countries where applicable, should be explained to the Applicant (see § 2.1.3 – Disclosure to Host Country Authorities). Applicants should also be advised that the UNHCR Offices may share information with UNHCR Headquarters or other UNHCR Offices.
• Applicants should be assured that UNHCR will not contact or share any information regarding the Applicant with the country of origin, unless expressly authorized to do so by the Applicant. [UNHCR]
Given that Minbyun claims to represent the family members in North Korea, presumably, it intends to tell those family members what its questioning reveals. Whatever Minbyun tells the family members, they’ll certainly tell their own interrogators in Pyongyang. What Minbyun knows, Pyongyang also knows, in clear violation of the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality. Surely Minbyun is well aware of this right, although I’ve yet to find a journalist who has reported it. Not a single reporter who covered this story — not the New York Times’s consistently biased Choe Sang-hun, not one of the three NK News reporters who covered it, and none of the conservative papers that defended the NIS’s position — has cited or referred to this inviolable right.
Minbyun points out that Pyongyang already knows who the 12 are, so what’s the harm? Park Young-sik answers that question with a question of his own: “What’s going to happen for a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?”
“They believe that their families’ lives will be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” Park said. “They don’t want to be exposed openly in the media and draw attention, and they don’t want to appear in court,” Park added. “In this situation, forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe their human rights.” [Chosun Ilbo]
The moment Minbyun gains the right to interrogate the 12, lives will be in danger. If they’re forced to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun will have succeeded in winning its “clients” a slow death in the gulag. If, knowing and fearing this, the 12 publicly renounce their asylum claims, they’ll be sent back to North Korea and a dark, uncertain fate. And if Minbyun establishes a precedent that it has a right to interrogate refugees every time Pyongyang trots out a terrified family member as a cat’s-paw plaintiff, no North Korean refugee would ever dare to enter South Korea again.
“The North’s claim is absurd in that it could dismantle the system of North Korean defectors’ entry into the South and their protection.” Unification Ministry spokesman Chung Joon-hui said, “The North Korean waitresses are undergoing the due course for legal protection, which is designed to support their settlement in South Korean society.”
“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]
The practical effect of this? South Korea would have effectively renounced the Refugee Convention, at least with respect to refugees from North Korea.
To the extent anyone entertains Pyongyang’s spurious claims, as Minbyun does, there is a safe and easy way to resolve them. South Korea could (and should) let a UNHCR representative interview the 12. The representative could submit an affidavit attesting to their decision in a closed proceeding. The court should then deny Minbyun’s motion, seal the record, and reiterate that courts will continue to honor the confidentiality of asylum proceedings. If Minbyun were sincere, that’s exactly what it would have asked the court to do. Of course, it would have no right to know who the refugees met with. The very fact that a refugee has contacted a UNHCR representative is confidential.
In fact, for all we know, that meeting has already happened.
[From the Ministry of Unification, via NK News]
The latest word is that the 12 have filed a complaint with local prosecutors that Minbyun is violating the National Security Law. That’s not the strategy I’d have chosen, because it plays right into Minbyun’s nostalgia of victimhood, but then, I’m not a terrified young refugee from North Korea, either. Just try to imagine the terror, heartache, and confusion these young women must be feeling right now. It does cause me to wonder whether South Korea has an attorney licensing authority to discipline lawyers who file unethical motions to abuse the process, and who are waging a cynical campaign of lawfare against 12 vulnerable and terrified young refugees. Minbyun’s lawyers probably shouldn’t be jailed, but they should be disbarred.
The best thing you can say about Minbyun is that it doesn’t give two shits who it gets killed or sent to a prison camp. But then, Minbyun never gave Shit One about the prison camps anyway. Its lawyers can’t be complete idiots, especially lawyers clever enough to create such a terrifying paradox. They must know exactly the danger they’re putting these people in. Everyone from government officials to editorial writers to refugees to Park Young-sik has explained it for them. But of course, if Minbyun is deliberately trying to terrorize refugees, no amount of explanation will discourage them. That’s clearly Pyongyang’s aim, and that’s who’s controlling Minbyun’s “clients.”
Viewing Minbyun’s motives this way has the advantage of making more sense than any other explanation. The defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. The defection of the Ningpo 13 was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, and most recently, rumors of yet another group defection from China. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.
In its desperation to make examples and prevent further outbreaks of dissent, Pyongyang fulminated, threatened, and transparently tried to use the refugees’ loved ones as hostages. What Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, abuse the legal process to pervert international law, and perhaps, terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks like Pyongyang has found its stooges. So give yourself a big fucking hand, Minbyun.
Just remember to wash them well afterward.
In the last several months, as Pyongyang has revealed its progress toward acquiring the capacity to destroy an American city, the North Korea commentariat has cleaved into two camps: those who believe we can live with a nuclear North Korea, and those who do not. Regular readers know that I’m in the latter camp. North Korea has proliferated nuclear, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons technology. It uses weapons of mass destruction to murder people in foreign airports and terrorize its critics. It threatens terrorist attacks against our movie theaters. It robs banks, sells dope, and counterfeits currency. Its leaders have no discernible regard for human life. They send kids to die in gulags, drown infants for being racially impure, and condemn millions to mass starvation. They need conflict to justify the immiseration of their subjects, and may even be biochemically addicted to conflict. Admittedly, this isn’t a comforting view.
North Korea is an inherently unhealthy obsession, which may explain why a certain type of North Korea-watcher could see Kim Jong-un shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still interpret it as cry for talks. But if Kim Jong-un had the slightest interest in opening, reform, or improving the welfare of the people, he would have seized multiple opportunities to do so, rather than making it a national priority to isolate and impoverish them. He knows he can’t survive forever as dictator of the poorer, browner, uglier Korea. No matter how ardently some may wish to coexist with the horror he inflicts on North Korea’s people out of our sight, all of the evidence says that Kim will not coexist with us. To believe we can live happily ever after with a nuclear North Korea is a self-delusion that risks condemning millions of Koreans to slavery, and the rest of us to insecurity and terror. I have no affection for Donald Trump, but H.R. McMaster has decades of evidence on his side when he says that North Korea is not a status quo power.
One aspect of this argument that has drawn more interest lately is the surprisingly controversial notion that Pyongyang’s nukes might be part of a rational, coherent, and plausible plan to achieve the thing it has said for decades that it intends to achieve — unification. As one who has advanced that argument, I’ve noticed a curious thing recently: people have come at me to poke holes in arguments I’ve never made. Some have tried to talk me out of the preposterous idea of North Korea sending an army of scrawny conscripts to occupy downtown Seoul. (They need not have wasted their time; I’ve made the same argument myself.) Or that Pyongyang wouldn’t “win” a war that destroys its prize and cash cow (ditto). Or that South Koreans would never let their government “surrender” to the North, which is as irrelevant as arguing about whether Americans “surrendered” to Putin in last year’s election. The Russians have developed more sophisticated ideas about achieving their interests than a “Red Dawn” sequel, and I also credit the North Koreans with having an equal or greater capacity for strategic thought. The laziest, most offensive, and most defamatory argument of all is that this must all be part of some scheme to peddle a war that I’ve consistently and vocally opposed, but this smear is de rigeur within certain quarters of the political left. One learns to tune it out, along with those who make such spurious claims.
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Andray Abrahamian now argues against what he calls the “dangerous” ideas that “North Korea wants to use nuclear weapons to reunify the Korean peninsula by force or coercion,” or that Pyongyang can’t be deterred “because it is fundamentally irrational.” These aren’t really my hypotheses, either, although elements of them strike close enough to things I’ve written to be recognizable as corruptions of them. So, before I commence with the fisking, let’s clarify just what my hypothesis is: the North’s rational strategy is to use its nuclear arsenal to achieve hegemony over South Korea and reunify Korea under its rule — just like it has said since 1948. But as circumstances change, so do strategies. Under my hypothesis, Pyongyang intends to avoid both a major war and any perception of drastic political change in South Korea that might arouse its enemies to obstruct its strategy while they still can. I’m not arguing that this strategy will necessarily work, but plenty of precedent suggests that Pyongyang has reason to think it can.
1. Its short-term goals are no different than Putin’s goals for the United States or any number of other countries — to exercise enough control over how South Koreans think to obscure embarrassing truths, embarrass or silence its critics, influence elections and policies, and give an appeasement-minded leader in Seoul the political space to accede to its demands. As I’ll explain, it has already done or tried to do all of these things.
2. Its medium-term goal is to wage a war of skirmishes to coerce concessions that lower South Korea’s defenses and leave it vulnerable to extortion. Pyongyang will use coercive diplomacy to suppress the readiness of Seoul’s forces, the capability of its defenses, the resiliency of its economy to limited attacks, and the strategic posture of its defenses. It will demand the cancellation of defensive exercises or an end to the deployment of missile defenses. Eventually, it will demand “peace” talks for the removal of U.S. forces. I’ll explain how it has already done or tried to do all of that, too.
3. Its long-term goal is to establish and control an inter-Korean coalition government. As I’ve already explained, South Korea has already agreed to this in principle, in the 2000 and 2007 Joint Statements signed by former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Yes, the two Koreas differ sharply on their interpretations of those statements, for now. Once Pyongyang achieves military, strategic, and information hegemony over Seoul, it will be in a position to dominate that coalition, regardless of the two states’ relative economies and populations.
Thus, Korean War II will not be a mechanized, cross-border invasion or a surrender ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Pueblo. To the extent that a new Joint Statement or peace treaty amounts to the same thing, I’m confident that few South Korean voters will recognize it as such — and I’m just as confident that the reaction of most journalists and academics will be glowing coverage and op-eds. We will not see footage of North Korean tanks crashing through the gates of the Blue House anytime in the foreseeable future. Korean War II is being waged at a lower intensity, for more limited objectives, and at a far higher level of political sophistication than most of us give it credit for. This new way of war simmered and boiled for years before most experts or policymakers in Washington or Seoul even noticed that it had begun. I know how paranoid this may seem, but remember that this is an argument about Pyongyang’s intentions. It must be probative of something that if you put “North Korea paranoid” into a Google search window, you get more than half a million results. Paranoid people tend to do things that justify paranoia in others.
Phase 1: Influence What They Read & How They Think
So, let the fisking commence.
Pyongyang’s leaders today are not stupid and know even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic.
I’m glad we agree that Pyongyang’s leaders aren’t stupid, even if we disagree about their objectives (but much more on that later). So if, as Mr. Abrahamian now argues, its objective is self-preservation — or if it’s opening and reform, as he previously argued — why have such smart men been stupid enough to throw away multiple offers of aid, engagement, investment, and security guarantees? Why do these intelligent men continue to attack South Korea and get caught committing embarrassing crimes that are far less profitable than, say, exporting electronics, or reaching an agreement that would allow Rason and Kaesong to reach their potential? Pyongyang’s choices make no sense under any benign interpretation of its intentions, or under any interpretation that leaves the status quo intact, with Korea divided indefinitely.
They know that South Korea’s GDP is at least 30 times larger than theirs.
GDP can be one useful predictor of outcomes in conventional wars; it’s almost useless as a predictor of who wins asymmetric or hybrid wars, which are won by the side whose political endurance is greatest. See, e.g., North Vietnam versus South Vietnam, Rhodesia versus ZANLA, the Soviet Union versus the Afghan mujahedeen, and dozens of wars of “liberation” of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the more prosperous societies are, the more they and their business interests have to lose, and the more willing they become to trade political freedom for temporary security. Here’s something else to ponder: who believes it’s sheer coincidence that as South Korea became the world’s most wired society, North Korea built one of the world’s most advanced cyber warfare capabilities?
They know Seoul’s military budget is bigger than the North’s entire GDP.
Hence the term “asymmetric” warfare. Russia’s economy and population are also smaller than ours, and to the best of my knowledge, Chris Hemsworth isn’t ambushing T-72s along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rest assured that nothing in my posts hypothesizes that skeletal, vinalon-clad conscripts from Ryanggang-do will soon be guarding shuttered “booking” clubs in Kangnam. My worst-case scenario terrifies me precisely because a street-level view of it would, in its first years, seem banal to anyone who has lived in Korea. There are enough riot police in South Korea to contain almost any protest; it’s just a question of who is giving them what orders. Otherwise, I envision an escalation of what we’ve seen since 2010 — a war of provocations and skirmishes, punctuated by negotiations in which the South makes strategic and political concessions in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises to stop scaring people. Again, two South Korean presidents have already agreed in principle to a coalition government, toward which South Korea’s current President still sees the 2018 Olympics as a first cautious step. I doubt we’ll have to play this argument out for long. If my hypothesis is right, watch for Pyongyang to make more aggressive demands to speed up the implementation of those Joint Statements by this time next year, maybe after the 2018 mid-term elections.
They know that “taking” the South and controlling its diverse political and civil society institutions is impossible. They’re not interested.
Not interested? I don’t know how anyone could seriously argue that North Korea isn’t “interested” in controlling South Korea’s society and institutions. Would Mr. Abrahamian have us believe that in all of his visits to North Korea, he wasn’t harangued about unification and the necessity of all Koreans submitting to the leadership of the all-wise suryong? Has he never read any of the bitter denunciations by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland of disobedient “south Koreans,” or heard of Pyongyang’s many violent threats against its critics in the South? It’s no secret that Pyongyang has been running influence operations in the South for decades. I’ve also tried to catalog the many cases in which its Fifth Columnists in the South — not liberals, but people who support Pyongyang’s ideology — have been exposed in the media.
Having practiced law with the Army in Korea, I don’t agree that all of Korea’s institutions are strong or perceived as such. My interactions with Korean witnesses taught me that they had low confidence in the courts. The broad powers of police and prosecutors, and loose rules of evidence, can lead to dubious judgments. Koreans, especially on the left, justifiably distrust a politicized National Intelligence Service that ought to be distinguishing free speech from nefarious foreign influence.
But didn’t Park Geun-hye’s impeachment prove how strong South Korea’s democratic institutions are? No, it proved that a lot of people who really didn’t like Park Geun-hye could come out onto the streets until the courts gave them what they wanted. The conclusion was already foregone by the time the courts threw out the tablet that started it all: “The tablet PC allegedly contains crucial evidence tying Choi and Park to rampant corruption, but the court accepted argument from Park’s lawyers that its provenance is dubious” — that is, it was “found by a reporter under circumstances that remain unclear.” Choi Soon-sil later said she hadn’t used it since 2012. Of course, she had obvious motives to lie, but I’m glad I live in a society where any accused, no matter how hated she is on the streets, can demand a forensic examination of the evidence against her. Because on the off-hand chance Choi was telling the truth — and not for nothing, our burdens of proof favor the accused — you have to wonder how that evidence found its way onto the tablet and the headlines. You don’t have to like Park to see that the evidence against her would have been laughed out of an American courtroom. You can believe she was probably guilty of something (corruption, mishandling classified information, poor judgment, just plain weirdness) and still see her downfall as exposing vulnerabilities in the NIS, the presidency, the media, the courts, and laws that allow the impeachment of presidents before a full investigation is even done.
They know the South’s population is double theirs and that South Koreans are politically engaged and extremely attached to their hard-earned democracy.
Whoever doubts that any South Korean leader would compromise South Koreans’ political engagement and hard-earned democracy must not recall that in 2014, Park Geun-hye agreed to do exactly that to secure a new round of so-called family “reunions.” Specifically, Park agreed to end the “slander” of North Korea, although as a South Korean researcher pointed out, “the no-slander clause could prove problematic, as the North believes the South Korean media should be bound by it, which of course it isn’t.” But a vigorous free press would never let that pass! Well, just read how gleefully Choe Sang-hun covered it. And sure enough, within weeks, Pyongyang said Park’s criticism of its nuclear program and human rights abuses — and also, the testimony of “human scum” defectors before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry — violated the no-slander deal. As the AFP reported, “The “no-slander” clause was always going to prove problematic, with North Korea insisting it should extend to the South Korean media as well as private groups and individuals.” To me, it was far more problematic that Pyongyang demanded — and at least in its view, briefly got — a veto over what South Korean media and civic groups could say about it. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s such a dangerous precedent. Yet not only was there no public outrage or media backlash, the few journalists who weren’t fast asleep did a golf clap.
As for South Koreans’ attachment to democracy, most people would probably agree with this statement in the abstract, but Koreans and Americans have very different ideas of what “democracy” means. Depending on how you ask the question, South Koreans’ support for freedom of speech is between ten and twenty percentage points lower than it is in the United States, and this is a society that already tolerates ham-handed government internet censorship, the fear of libel suits (even against journalists or sitting lawmakers) where truth is no defense, politically motivated censorship by both the political left and right, and standards of journalism I’ll charitably call “uneven.” Americans used to believe their own democratic institutions were unassailable until the 2016 election showed their vulnerability to skillful hybrid warfare.
Speaking of hybrid warfare, who else is old enough to remember the North Korean spy ring known as Ilshimhoe, which was run by a former USFK soldier and current “peace” activist named Michael Jang? Reconnaissance General Bureau agents ran the ring — it called itself a “Valentine Club” — from a safe house on the outskirts of Beijing. According to (admittedly, mostly right-leaning) Korean press reports, Ilshimhoe tried to influence the Seoul mayoral election in 2006, fed Pyongyang information about the six-party talks, and might have planted spies in the Blue House and various government offices. I know, you say — just gossip. Except that Jang and several others were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. Well, then — it must be another case of McCarthyist persecution! Except that the convictions occurred on Roh Moo-hyun’s watch, after the head of the NIS hinted that he’d come under political pressure to stop digging and resigned. Shortly thereafter, the investigation did stop, the cases were quickly brought to trial, and I doubt that more than two or three of you knew that this had even happened.
Phase 2: A War of Skirmishes Against Seoul’s Defenses
Throughout the war of skirmishes Pyongyang has waged since at least 2010, it has made (and sometimes won) significant political, strategic, and financial demands from Seoul. Most notable was the alleged and abortive surrender of South Korea’s de facto maritime boundary, the Northern Limit Line or NLL. Seoul unilaterally imposed the NLL after the Korean War Armistice, because the warring parties couldn’t agree on a maritime extension of the DMZ.
In 2007, in a last grasp at expanding on the 2000 Joint Statement, Roh Moo-hyun allegedly ceded the NLL, which protects some of South Korea’s most vital air and sea lanes (and some rich fishing waters) to a jointly controlled “peace zone.” I say “alleged” because Cho Myoung-gun, the Roh aide who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister, destroyed the text before Roh’s political opponents could take office and read it. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service leaked a transcript in 2013, and yes, the timing of that is curious. Disputes over the authenticity of the transcript are harder to credit. Just as in our legal system, when someone destroys evidence, it’s reasonable to assume he did it to hide something. In the end, polls said Koreans didn’t know what to believe, meaning South Korea entered the post-truth world at least four years before we did. (On that point, it’s worth listening to this discussion between Sam Harris and Anne Applebaum to understand that some disinformation strategies are designed to do nothing more than confuse people so much that they disengage. And if so, mission accomplished.)
Had Pyongyang secured this “peace zone,” the threat of its closure over, say, disputes about the apportionment of fishing rights or rights of innocent passage might have been enough to throw South Korea into a recession, crash its stock market, or spur capital flight — all without instigating a major war. The residents of the Yellow Sea Islands, like Baekryeong-do and Yeonpyeong-do, would have been hopelessly isolated and easy prey for abduction at sea. The result of the 2007 election prevented Seoul from carrying out the terms of this agreement (whatever it was) but in 2009, Pyongyang secretly approached South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and demanded a summit — the price for which would be $500 million in rice and fertilizer, and possibly some cash. In January 2010, after Lee refused to pay up, Pyongyang threatened to launch a “holy retaliatory war.” Two months later, North Korea sank the Cheonan. Eight months after that, it attacked Yeonpyeong-do, in the middle of the putative “peace zone.”
Similarly, in early 2015, Pyongyang proposed that Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un “meet each other and discuss ways toward peaceful reunification,” following Kim Jong-un’s speech calling for “fresh headway in the national reunification movement for this year.” We probably don’t know Pyongyang’s complete list of demands, but one was “freeze-for-freeze,” an idea calculated to degrade the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces. No summit occurred. Then, in August, North Korean soldiers planted mines that blew the legs off two South Korean noncommissioned officers. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the incident sprang up all over the internet, probably as part of a disinformation strategy I like to call “implausible deniability.” For a few weeks, the world was wracked by war fears until Park Geun-hye “de-escalated” them through talks that yielded an agreement that gained the North valuable concessions on paper (though we can be thankful that these amounted to almost nothing in practice). You should expect to see more like this in the coming years, unless sanctions work quickly enough to force Pyongyang into another charm offensive.
If influencing what South Koreans think is a political prerequisite to Pyongyang’s strategic gains, then getting the U.S. out of Korea is the strategic gain most necessary for hegemony over the South. Eventually, Abrahamian gets around to admitting that might be on Pyongyang’s agenda.
What North Korea might want at this point is to decouple the alliance between South Korea and the United States, hoping that Washington over-reacts to Pyongyang’s new capabilities. This over-reaction might take the form of acting too aggressive and causing Seoul to question – perhaps even take steps to terminate – the alliance. It might be by provoking some kind of military action that turns Northeast Asian public opinion against Washington and leaves America isolated in the region.
It might be getting a favorable peace deal that removes U.S. forces from Korea.
I’m not here to defend Donald Trump’s bombast, and I’m glad we’ve heard less of it lately. I’ve criticized it for scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies, and I’ve argued that it will alienate people inside North Korea we should be appealing to. Trump’s speech in Seoul may have done him some good, but most Koreans probably still don’t like him. For the time being, and in spite of their personal feelings for Trump, they still like their country’s alliance with the U.S.
[N]uclear weapons are primarily about deterrence, not forcing one’s will on others…. Yet H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has led the charge to claim otherwise. Multiple times in the last several months he has made comments such as, “classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”
Just like we deterred the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyong-do, the Sony cyberattacks, the 2015 landmine incident, the Kim Jong-nam VX murder, nuclear and chemical proliferation to Syria, multiple threats against journalists, and half a dozen international assassination plots? What price did Kim Jong-un pay for any of those crimes?
Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, however. He may make imperfect decisions, but he wants to enjoy life and grow old.
Roll your mental odometer back to early 2010 and ask yourself two things. First, could you have imagined that North Korea would, with premeditation and malice aforethought, sink a South Korean warship and kill dozens of young sailors? Second, could you have imagined that North Korea would get away with that, with no form of retaliation, accountability, or even a serious U.S. effort to enforce sanctions? (You can ask yourself the same questions about the Yeonpyeong-do attack or the Sony cyberattack.) After the Cheonan attack, conspiracy theories circulated that sowed widespread doubt among South Koreans about Pyongyang’s responsibility. In the National Assembly election that followed weeks after the attack, the left-wing opposition actually won more seats, although it’s by no means clear that those conspiracy theories, North Korea policy, or the attack were major election issues (which is still disturbing). After the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do, the mayor of Incheon even suggested that by holding military exercises near the Northern Limit Line, the South sort-of had it coming. A rational actor analyzing those reactions would not only feel perfectly free to engage in further provocations at that level, but also to escalate them now that his nuclear arsenal deters us. Kim Jong-un has made some imperfect decisions (his eating habits, most obviously) but these attacks were, in retrospect, perfectly sound and rational calculations of his risks and rewards.
He wants his state to survive and to negotiate that survival with its southern competitor-state. And the United States has effectively deterred far more potent nuclear-armed enemies for decades.
The converse is also true: Pyongyang has deterred the U.S. for decades. One might even pause to ask why it needs a nuclear ICBM when its artillery was already enough to hold Seoul hostage. How does decoupling the alliance make any sense except as a prerequisite to a coerced negotiation for full implementation of the joint statements on Pyongyang’s terms? And how would that negotiation go with Moon Jae-in? If past history is any guide, a lot like the 2007 Joint Statement or Moon’s negotiation with China over THAAD — with no one really knowing exactly what Seoul gave away, but being fairly certain that it gave away too much. Suspicions about Moon have run high in Washington since he cut a deal with Xi Jinping not to deploy any more THAAD batteries. This should have been an alliance decision. It’s a significant gain for China, which also wants to decouple the U.S.-Korea alliance. Given who Moon Jae-in’s closest advisors are, Pyongyang has every reason to believe that it could get other significant gains from Moon at America’s expense. I can’t seem to harangue any journalists into reporting Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok’s past leadership of a radical pro-North Korean student group that tried to firebomb the U.S. embassy in Seoul, so I suppose it’s just as pointless to say that Moon has just appointed another ex-member of this same group to his cabinet.
[T]he idea that North Korea wants to reunify the peninsula by force is based largely on their propaganda. Indeed, their newspapers and educational materials do pine for unification. North Korean slogans do claim that “final victory” is nigh and that they must achieve “unification for future generations”. But North Korea’s propagandists claim a lot of things.
Mr. Abrahamian has certainly believed plenty of things Pyongyang has said, and I’ve believed a few myself, but they aren’t the same things. The difference is that the things I believe are better corroborated by Pyongyang’s behavior than the things he believes. I’ve already explained why Pyongyang’s war of skirmishes only makes logical sense as part of a malign strategy, and no logical sense as part of a strategy to gain aid, engagement, improved relations, diplomatic recognition, and the mere preservation of the status quo. That’s why I need better evidence than the insistence of someone who believed in Pyongyang’s siren song of glasnost and perestroika for so long to disregard the best evidence of its intentions — its words, with the essential corroboration of its behavior, and the testimony of at least one high-level defector.
Phase 3: One Country, Two Systems
South Koreans who supported the 2000 Joint Statement so enthusiastically must have understood that coalition would eventually require some compromises on their part, too. Even South Koreans who dislike politics and prefer not to think about North Korea at all (most of them, based on my anecdotal observations) must know that nothing matters more to Pyongyang than the enforcement of its personality cult. Surely they, or former members of Kim Dae-jung’s cabinet like Moon Chung-in, must have understood that such a compromise would necessarily involve ceding some autonomy to a coalition that would expect them to accept a less democratic government and some restrictions on criticism of North Korea — for the sake of peace, naturally.
I know it may all seem nutty to you and me, but it doesn’t seem nutty to Hankyoreh readers. A typical example: “As soon as possible, we have to build an economic community, ‘North-South confederation,’ in which the South and North’s economy, culture, and art are united.”
Six months into his presidency, Moon Jae-in’s awareness of his political constraints has limited his outreach to Pyongyang. This has clearly frustrated an impatient Kim Jong-un. Of course, some caution would be necessary on the part of any South Korean leader trying to implement or build on the joint statements. Of course, most South Koreans are warier of Pyongyang than they were ten years ago. Of course, Moon remembers how the revelations about the “peace zone” came back to embarrass those who had served in Roh’s cabinet. Of course, he remembers how his proposal as Roh’s Chief of Staff to solicit Pyongyang’s view before abstaining from a resolution condemning the North at the U.N. for crimes against humanity was a speed bump on his path to victory over a hapless, divided gaggle of opponents. Like any good politician, he wants to protect his public support and build a legislative majority. Without those things, he can’t do much of anything.
One sign to watch for would be if Pyongyang will again demand that a select-but-growing number of South Koreans — initially members of left-leaning unions, and maybe eventually, schoolchildren — visit the North to pay tribute to Kim Il-sung. It has already demanded that Seoul stop accepting North Korean refugees. If you’ve been paying attention, Pyongyang and the hard left have emphasized this as if Kim Jong-un’s survival depends on it. Of course, Moon Jae-in can’t go along with that openly, but if Roh Moo-hyun could find ways to do it quietly, so can Moon. Under Roh, South Korean consulates hung up on defectors who called. There have been periodic leaks of defectors’ personal information, which could make them easy prey for North Korean agents to coerce them into “re-defecting.” Is it any wonder why so many North Koreans have moved on to more welcoming countries?
As for Pyongyang’s final goal, you don’t have to take my word for that. Read it for yourself as a North Korean official explained it here, or at the end of this post, or as summarized here. Or, read this April harangue on the “three principles of unification,” with its particular emphasis on the importance of achieving national unity by silencing Pyongyang’s critics. As you read it, ask yourself if these are the words of people who don’t really mean what they say. Simply stated, Pyongyang wants to impose censorship to “eradicat[e] the distrust and antagonism between” North and South, remove U.S. forces, and get on with forming a confederation under its domination. The fact that I’m having this argument with well-informed people even now only raises my estimate of the plan’s chances of success, by reaffirming how continuity bias and wishful thinking can still blind intelligent people to what’s right in front of them.
This hypothesis explains a lot of Pyongyang’s conduct that other, more accepted theories don’t. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the plan is rational and plausible. If Pyongyang has identified the same cultural, political, institutional, and personal vulnerabilities I see in South Korea — particularly if viewed through the messianic groupthink that’s expected of the people who advise Kim Jong-un — it may have a plausible hope of success. Again, the provocations since 2010 don’t make sense if Pyongyang’s goal is what most academics have long misjudged it to be — opening, reform, and improved relations with the outside world. All of that conduct must seem mysterious and inexplicable to believers in a Pyongyang Spring that never came; it makes perfect sense to those who believe Pyongyang’s strategy is to use threats of tension and war, and the lure of improved “inter-Korean relations,” to silence its critics, manipulate opinions and elections, extract strategic concessions that would make South Korea economically and militarily vulnerable, and draw South Korea into a one-country/two-systems coalition that gives it all the benefits it wants (money, hegemony, prestige, the removal of a political rival) and none of the risks and costs it doesn’t (a major war, occupation, cultural pollution).
The Power of Wishful Thinking
Finally, let’s touch on the question of predictive judgment. In the footer bio of his article, Abrahamian describes himself as “a visiting fellow at the Jeju Peace Research Institute [who] used to help run a nonprofit that frequently took him to North Korea.” Presumably, this refers to Choson Exchange, whose website still lists him as an “Associate Director of Research,” and which for years ferried batches of North Koreans to Singapore to teach them economics, business, and law to stimulate their inevitable progression toward true capitalism, reform, and openness. Plainly, things haven’t worked out that way.
In 2011, a year after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, Abrahamian co-wrote of the special economic zone at Rason, “While it may be too early to say whether the region will succeed in drawing investment and reform, our recent trips to Rason lead us to believe that developments on the ground may eventually warrant a shift in foreign policy by governments around the globe.” Got that, governments around the globe? In 2013, a still-hopeful Abrahamian told a reporter for The Guardian that while the North Koreans were “avoiding saying reform or opening [up], … that’s what it amounts to – a crack at any rate.” In February of 2015, he still spoke of “palpable energy and excitement” among North Korean officials about special economic zones. This is more modest than “I have seen the future and it works,” but it’s still at great variance with the evidence of the regime’s resistance to openness, which was already clear enough to see from outer space.
In December of that year, Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who is by turns the most wonderful and the most exasperating reporter writing about North Korea today, wrote a sympathetic story on Choson Exchange — not one critical view was included — headlined, “North Korea wants to open up its economy, and a small program in free-market Singapore shows how.” The evidence for the falsity of the first clause of this headline is far too voluminous for one link, but if you know what a darling Choson Exchange has long been to journalists and professional scholars, you might not even bother sweeping against this tide.
I can’t have been the only one who wondered how the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Ministry of State Security, or Bureau 39 would let any North Korean not on their own payrolls go abroad to interact with foreigners. Could there be any exceptions? Yes, there was one “Mr. Kim, head of the technology and trade research department at the State Academy of Sciences,” which page 260 of this Library of Congress study (unlike the Post) informs us was the organization responsible for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Eventually, it’s admitted that “the presentations all revolved around state-related businesses,” presumably including the man peddling “a big, flashy ring that … channels sunshine and purifies the blood, stripping out the lipids that cause high cholesterol.” On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a sympathetic a story at all.
Another question I may be the only one asking — if this is North Korean capitalism, what is this improving on again? But then, I’ve never bought into the theory that capitalism inevitably leads to political reform or peace. The members of the Board of Directors of I.G. Farben received war crimes convictions, not Nobel Prizes. The Marxists have even granted North Korea a special exemption from Old Major’s dogma that capitalism inevitably drives nations to war. I’ve never accepted that North Korea is strictly socialist at all, rather than just economically totalitarian (just as it’s totalitarian in every other sense). To Fifield and Abrahamian’s credit, one eventually reads some mumbled concessions that Pyongyang still had “little to show for” its much-vaunted special economic zones, and that it faced “serious financial and reputational challenges” in attracting investors.
My point here is that the character and history of the regime ought to have made the failure of the engagement hypothesis predictable, and to some of us, it did. Being right then doesn’t necessarily make me right now, but it means I have a model of North Korea’s incentives and behavior with a stronger (and sometimes, eerily strong) predictive record going for it. I certainly wouldn’t take Mr. Abrahamian’s word over what the law would call admissions by a party to the case. The second point of which is that some journalists have an inexhaustible appetite for irrational optimism about North Korea. The opposite seems to be true of getting them to face up to the most rational pessimism.
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Again, I’m not arguing that Pyongyang’s plan will necessarily work. Maybe the current hesitation of the South Korean public and the toughness of the Trump administration will hold (strong sanctions enforcement has solid bipartisan support, for now). Maybe the real Moon Jae-in isn’t as extreme as everyone he’s surrounded himself with for the whole duration of his political life, or as naive as he often seems to be. A bad election result could cost him or Trump the political support they’d need to advance their policies. The greatest wild card may be that, whatever South Korea’s problems of political cohesion, the North is showing signs of a much worse one among the rural poor, and within some unknown segments of the elites. This might open the way for a genuinely productive implementation of the joint statements, unification, and a lasting peace; or, it might incentivize Kim Jong-un to act even more rashly to implement them his way while he still can. His strategy will take time that he might not have if his money runs out first, or if his Crocodiles or the people suddenly turn on him.
The answer to all of this isn’t war; it’s helping Koreans to see the truth and distinguish it from lies. As I’ve argued before, we are where the last three presidents left us; all we can do now is pursue the strategy that carries the lowest risk of catastrophe. That strategy begins with a clear-eyed understanding of Pyongyang’s strategy, taking it seriously, and devising a strategy to disrupt it. It means preparing the Korean and American people for what may come — mentally, economically, and materially. And as Abrahamian says, yes, we’ll need to solidify the alliance. Trump needs to stop tweeting and making threats, and Moon needs to stop going behind our backs and act like an ally. I’m pessimistic about our capacity to deter more attacks even if we identify new means of deterrence, including the expansion of economic warfare and subversive information operations that scare Kim Jong-un without risking a catastrophic miscalculation that a “limited” counterstrike might. In the medium term, we may develop and deploy better defenses against missiles and artillery, which means we need to buy time, too.
It also means South Korea needs to strengthen its institutions. It needs multi-party reforms to de-politicize the NIS into two professional organizations that can earn the public’s trust — one for foreign intelligence and one for domestic counterintelligence (it bears emphasis that a reform process must not be used to halt embarrassing investigations or to pack the NIS with any party’s loyalists). It means reforming Korea’s libel laws by making truth a defense. It means protecting journalists who criticize politicians, investigate government malfeasance, and help the public separate truth from smears and conspiracy theories. It means enforcing government records laws with strong legal penalties for destroying evidence or obstructing justice. It means reforming the National Security Law to stop prosecuting those who engage in nonviolent speech and instead focus on the aggressive-but-fair pursuit of incitements to violence and foreign influence, particularly among government officials and teachers. It means strengthening rules of evidence and empowering defense lawyers to challenge the evidence against their clients zealously. And like governments everywhere, Korea must be prepared to relax its obsessive secrecy when the public needs to know the truth to make sound decisions about matters of public interest. Like many societies, including ours, Korea needs to mature in how it adjudicates information and passes judgment. If it can’t, the next few years may end the greatest economic and cultural bloom in its long history.
Just before Air Force One took off for Tokyo, the New York Times printed a story by Choe Sang-hun, mourning for Moon Jae-in’s failure to revive the Sunshine Policy, wallowing in self-pitying nationalism, and pinning most of the blame for this on Donald Trump — not Moon, for failing to read the U.N. Security Council resolutions before promising initiatives that would violate them, not Korean voters who don’t trust Pyongyang and don’t want a revival of the Sunshine Policy. Choe assigned only a small share of the blame to the person most responsible for the failure of Moon’s outreach: Kim Jong-un.
Personal relationships seem to matter more to Donald Trump than to ordinary world leaders, and Trump and Moon don’t appear to have much use for one another. It’s true, of course, that Trump has made some wince-inducing gaffes on KORUS, and on making South Korea pay for THAAD (even if South Korea should pay for it). I’m on record as saying that his war threats scare our friends more than they scare our enemies. His boast today that Seoul will soon be buying armloads of American weapons plays perfectly to the Korean left’s conspiracy theories about the American presence and its deeper mercantilist motives. It also feeds the Korean left’s worldview — of which Choe’s mislabeled opinion piece is an exemplar — that all foreign entanglements are inherently exploitative, while all intra-national (as in, inter-Korean) interactions are inherently beneficent and pure. That view, of course, is much older than Donald Trump’s presidency, and it has sometimes put Korea on a path to some grave logical errors.
I could cite many examples of one side of this logical error — the determined refusal to believe in Pyongyang’s maleficence. There is the decision to host the Olympics in the middle of a nuclear crisis and invite North Korea to join. I don’t expect that to end well.
— Joshua Stanton (@freekorea_us) November 1, 2017
Before that, there was the long national embarrassment of the Sunshine Policy. Because this blog operates at all levels, you can read our argument about why its failure was predictable in Foreign Affairs, or you can watch the perfect six-minute metaphor.
But even as we assign Trump his fair share of the blame for his differences with Moon, let’s do what the foreign press has failed to do and assign Moon his fair share, too. Moon’s history, associations, and appointments suggest that his private thoughts were shaped in an anti-American, anti-anti-North Korean milieu. It speaks poorly of foreign journalists in Korea, for example, that hardly any of them wrote a word about the pro-North Korean, anti-American history of his Chief of Staff, Im Jong-seok, leaving it to bloggers to reveal that to our small audiences.
The man who is most responsible for blocking Moon’s “engagement” of Kim Jong-un is … Kim Jong-un. It isn’t just that his nuclear and missile tests have denied Moon political space to appease him. Kim has repeatedly rejected Moon’s overtures toward conditional or co-equal engagement and instead demanded what would be tantamount to South Korea’s surrender. I’m a compulsive linker because I believe that linking to sources disciplines one’s arguments. I’ve collected so many links documenting Pyongyang’s responses to Moon’s overtures that all I have time to do is dump them here:
6/25: CCNR Issues Open Questionnaire to S. Korean Authorities. This article, printed in Uriminzokkiri, and attributed to the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK — and yes, that includes South Korea — is probably the best summation of Pyongyang’s demands to Seoul. Note the historical significance of the date of its publication. I’ve appended the full text to the bottom of this post and urge you to read it. Click the link at the lower right-hand corner of this post that says, “Continue Reading.”
Not once in his article does Choe so much as allude to this chronology. Also, just for laughs, here are some links via Moon Jae-in cheerleader Nathan Park, who expected this to all work out just brilliantly, in recklessly blithe disregard of all the evidence that it wasn’t:
One could argue that Moon’s early ambitions and failures aren’t so different from those of his predecessors. As I said five years ago, Park Geun-hye, Lee Myung-bak, and Barack Obama all had grand plans to “engage” North Korea, but North Korea had other plans. Park, in particular, clung to what I called “Sunshine Lite” for years until the January 2016 nuclear test, when she finally said, “Enough!” Maybe Lee and Park believed in forms of engagement with North Korea that were more conditional and balanced than Moon’s vision. Maybe this failed experiment means more to Moon than it did to his predecessors, who eventually yielded to reason. What reason tells us now is that Kim Jong-un hasn’t the slightest interest in conditional engagement. Now that he thinks his nuclear hegemony has been secured, he demands nothing less than supplication.
Kim Jong-un expects Moon to unilaterally break U.N. sanctions, disarm unilaterally by halting training exercises and shutting down missile defense, unlawfully repatriate North Korean refugees to die in his gulag, and censor and “liquidate” his critics in the South. South Korean voters would not concur, and Moon knows it. He’s smart enough to see that his election was not a mandate for that. He might never have been elected but for his personal likeability, and for the fractiousness, incompetence, and unpalatability of his opponents. To shift his North Korea policy in a more permissive direction, he needs public and political support he does not have. South Korean voters feel worried about North Korea, bullied by China, anxious that the U.S. might start a war or abandon them, and uneasy about Moon’s capacity to manage it all.
Moon’s visit to Trump in Washington might have been a fiasco, but we saw little outward evidence of this at the time (their disagreement came out later — characteristically, in a tweet). Maybe Moon’s luck will hold again this week, but it won’t hold forever if he won’t pick a side. Moon Jae-in can’t please everyone, especially when “everyone” includes not only Kim Jong-un, but Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, and his own voters.
For those who have not read my previous posts about him, Thae was the number two diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London before he defected just over one year ago. Since his defection, Thae, who speaks excellent English, has shown his potential to be a powerful messenger to the world, and to the elites in Pyongyang, about the nature of the regime he once defended.
His testimony comes at a time when Kim Jong-un appears to have slowed a stream of high-level defections that had threatened to start a preference cascade and expose the regime’s entire overseas financial network. In recent months — perhaps coincidentally, since approximately the time Moon Jae-in took power in South Korea and appointed a former pro-North Korean, anti-American activist as his Chief of Staff — we’ve read about fewer high-profile defections and heard less from Thae himself. Whether that surge of defections has halted or merely gone unreported isn’t clear.
It also comes at a time when the U.S. government is also downplaying the importance of human rights in North Korea, sending messages that North Korean refugees are unwelcome, and merging the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights into a full-time part-time job instead of using it as a global pulpit for a more humane, tough-love policy.
The slowing of those defections also coincides with a campaign by the hard-left lawyers of Minbyun — a campaign largely ignored by the foreign press — to intimidate and expose refugees in the South. Pyongyang has also induced at least one high-profile defector into returning to Pyongyang and publicly renouncing the South, using means I can more easily guess based on past events than prove in this specific case. To gullible reporters, this campaign to publicize “re-defections” is evidence that North Koreans can’t adjust to life in a modern society. To more inquisitive journalists, and to the North Koreans themselves, the message will be the same one that Pyongyang’s assassins have delivered to refugees and Christian missionaries in China, to dissidents in South Korea, and at the airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur: “You can’t escape from us.” Perhaps Thae can better elucidate the reasons for this than I can.
Thae will testify at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building, on November 1st at 10:00 a.m. Because the government of North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism, security will be tight. The hearing will also be webcast live on the Committee’s website.
What sort of place could be so horrible that a family of five would choose to die together rather than be sent there? The answer, of course, is this place, or this one, or this one, or this. Here is the story of a family that made that choice.
A North Korean family of five, including a former senior official of the Workers Party, committed suicide last week after they were caught by Chinese police and faced deportation to the North. They were heading to South Korea.
Activist Kim Hee-tae told the Chosun Ilbo on Sunday, “Fifteen defectors who were on their way to South Korea were caught by police in the Chinese province of Yunnan a week ago.”
“They killed themselves by taking poison after they were taken to Shenyang, Liaoning Province three days ago and faced deportation to the North,” he added. They were a 50-something senior official of a regional agency of the Workers Party, his wife, son and two daughters.
“Right after they were caught in Yunnan, they tried to bribe their way out through a local fixer, but once they were taken to Shenyang they probably lost hope and killed themselves,” Kim speculated. [Chosun Ilbo]
The story was also reported by Radio Free Asia. Otherwise, the U.S. and foreign press almost completely ignored the story. Did they fail to even investigate it, or did they run into a stone wall in trying to find the truth in China? I wonder if we will ever even know their names. Try to imagine the moment of that terrible choice. Imagine the words they spoke to one another as they prepared for that possibility. Imagine their thoughts as they all realized that they would have to go through with it. Imagine their last words to each other. Imagine what dreams, aspirations, and potential the children might have had to live lives that we, in our ingratitude, refer to as “normal.” They are not alone in making that choice.
China’s long-standing policy of forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees only complicates the dangers and difficulties faced by refugees. China does not consider North Koreans refugees but illegal economic migrants to be sent back to their home country, under a border protocol agreed upon in 1986.
“Many of the refugees carry razor blades to slit their wrists or arsenic with which to commit suicide in case they are forcibly repatriated,” Peters said. [S. China Morning Post]
Now, imagine the cruelty of governments that inflict this on people for no greater crime than aspiring to eat, to survive, to live a life that is better than slavery. Imagine the cruelty of a government — of China’s government — which sends them back to a fate this family judged to be far worse than the death it chose instead.
Even in China, where the government has increased its repatriations of refugees to North Korea, and even pays bounties for their arrests — repatriations that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as complicity with crimes against humanity — there are signs that public anger at North Korea’s belligerence is growing.
In South Korea, there are also growing doubts about the government’s commitment to the protection of North Korean refugees. The president himself is a former member of a hard-left lawyers’ group that is trying to violate refugees’ right to confidentiality. One South Korean official was recently charged with selling refugees’ personal information — information that could be used to identify and intimidate North Korean refugees by threatening their families inside North Korea, and to force them to “re-defect.” Hundreds of North Korean refugees who had made it to South Korea are unaccounted for. Most are believed to be in foreign countries, but which countries?
Our news media hardly paid any attention to the tragedy of the Yunnan Five, but Pyongyang certainly did. It launched a massive security crackdown to cover their story up, to punish those who failed to prevent their escape, and to track down anyone who might have helped them escape. In North Korea, any lapse in brutality begets greater acts of brutality, and everyone is a hostage to the obedience of everyone else. Truth is the greatest enemy of the state, because even the most repressive states know that the truth will eventually destroy them.
In the last year, the number of defectors from the military and the elites has risen. The defectors now include even diplomats, senior officials from the internal security forces, and workers posted overseas. If only for utilitarian reasons, we should look on refugees as potential allies. Consider, for example, the Justice Department documents that have cited the testimonies of refugees in forfeiture suits against regime funds. If the humanity of North Korean refugees isn’t reason enough reason to support their cause, the fact that they can help us bankrupt Kim Jong-un and break his hold on power should be. But for now, the regime is winning its war against its people. Although more members of the elites are escaping, the overall number of North Koreans who successfully escape continues to fall because of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown.
That is why Pyongyang is so desperate to intimidate Seoul into returning refugees, or to intimidate the refugees themselves into “re-defecting,” so that it can put them on display as examples to other North Koreans, and as propaganda props to deceive gullible journalists (and thereby, us). Koreans — don’t turn away from your brothers and sisters. Americans — don’t let our government forget these people. Doing so is short-sighted. It is against our interests. It is against our values. It is not who we are. Please share this post, and join us this Friday.
As we begin rehashing the time-worn policy arguments about responding to a nuclear North Korea, it’s useful to inform those arguments with further evidence of just how Pyongyang is leveraging its nuclear hegemony, by escalating its control over speech in South Korea. Last week, a few of us noticed that KCNA published a “death sentence” against four journalists (two reviewers and two newspaper presidents) over a review of “North Korea Confidential” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor, asserting further that “the penalties will be enforced at an arbitrary point in time at an arbitrary point, without any additional procedure.”
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.
I’ve posted the full text of KCNA’s threat below the fold (click “continue reading.”) The threat drew a mild condemnation from Seoul. What, do you suppose, are the odds that KCNA made this threat without the personal approval of His Porcine Majesty? No doubt, Pyongyang found the cover of the Korean edition to be provocative:
I don’t know if the reviewers would have even seen this cover. Pearson, an affable person who has done some excellent investigative journalism about North Korea’s money laundering in Malaysia and Singapore, also sent me a review copy when the book came out in English. My copy doesn’t have that cover. Other authors who’ve sent me review copies have done so by .pdf, and none of those texts showed a cover image. But then, the North Korean judicial system isn’t known for its evidentiary rigor or protections of due process.
Why else might Pyongyang target “North Korea Confidential?” It’s certainly a useful snapshot of how provincial North Korea in 2015 differed from the circa-1985 impression that most foreigners have of its society, culture, and economy, although a regular (or obsessive) Korea-watcher won’t read much there that she hasn’t read somewhere else. The book is hardly an indictment of North Korea’s political system. Pearson and Tudor don’t ignore the existence of the political prison camps or other human rights abuses, but those things aren’t the main focus of their book. They mainly focus on economic and cultural changes in North Korea since the Great Famine, and on evidence supporting the implication (of which I’m skeptical) that these things will necessarily drive political change. In their conclusion, they are “doubtful about the possibility of regime collapse” and skeptical of the proposition that “sanctions could push the DPRK to the breaking point.” They ultimately conclude that “the most likely scenario for North Korea in the short and medium term is the gradual opening of the country under the current regime.”
Of course, things don’t seem to be working out that way. Indeed, Kim Jong-Un’s greatest domestic achievement may be his success in sealing North Korea’s borders and implementing a moderately effective digital censorship regimen, perhaps with the technical assistance of well-meaning engagers here.
None of which is really my point. My point is that compared to any number of other North Korea books one can read in Korean, “North Korea Confidental” is mild stuff. It’s not half as inflammatory, subversive, or acerbic as most of what you might read at this blog, or at B.R. Myers’s Sthele Press. Having mostly finished this post last week, I decided to hold it for a few days while I emailed some other authors to ask whether their works are published in Korean. Professor B.R. Myers informs me that “The Cleanest Race” is; so is Kang Chol-hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang;” Yeonmi Park’s, “In Order to Live;” and most of Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s books. All of these books are more ideologically dangerous to Pyongyang than “North Korea Confidential.” Why not them?
The key to explaining this, I think, is that the authors themselves were not the targets of this threat; the Korean journalists who reviewed the book’s Korean edition were. And here, we find the makings of a pattern and an escalation, because a reader brings to my attention that KCNA has also published this threat against centrist and right-of-center Korean media — sorry, make that “Puppet Reptile Writers.” Apologies for the long quote, but this is worth reading and archiving in full:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — Yonhap News, Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Maeil Kyongje, Munhwa Ilbo and other vicious conservative media of south Korea professing to represent the south Korean media are speaking ill of the Korean People’s Army’s resolute warning for mounting enveloping fire on Guam and the will of the Korean people to wage death-defying resistance against the U.S. and are unhesitatingly trumpeting about such rhetoric as “enhanced war atmosphere” and “creation of tensions for maintaining social system”.
A spokesman for the Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea in a statement Friday says this clearly proves that the puppet conservative media are made up of hack writers, servants of bellicose forces at home and abroad and group of traitors with whom we can not live together.
The Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea sternly declares as follows reflecting the towering grudge and hostility of the mediapersons of the DPRK against the puppet conservative media going reckless to hurt the dignity of the DPRK while pointing an accusing finger at the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK:
We will sharpen the just writing brushes to defend our leader, our party and our social system and win a final victory in the confrontation with the U.S.
No matter how loudly the hostile forces may cry out, they can never check the advance of the DPRK dashing toward the bright future of humankind along the straight road of independence, Songun and socialism.
We will track down the puppet conservative reptile writers fostering discord within the nation under the auspices and at the instigation of the anti-reunification forces at home and abroad, and throw overboard all of them.
The puppet ultra-right conservative hack writers without elementary conscience as writers have to be completely stamped out. This is the unanimous will of the mediapersons of the DPRK, and this will be put into practice.
Our grime and merciless pen will sight the bases which commit hideous crimes against the DPRK by spreading misinformation about it, and beat them to pieces.
The puppet conservative media escalating confrontation with the DPRK while dare challenge the annihilating spirit of the army and people of the DPRK will never be able to evade the shower of retaliatory blows. -0- [link]
Let’s call all of this precisely what it is: terrorism. See also Pyongyang’s extraterritorial censorship of “The Interview” in the United States, Europe, and Asia. See also (in no particular order) its series of attempts between 2008 and 2014 to murder North Korean dissidents in exile, its 2012 threat to shell the offices of conservative South Korean newspapers, its 2014 threats against defector-activists who launch leaflet balloons over the DMZ, its approval of the 2015 slashing attack on the U.S. Ambassador, its 2016 threat to murder the President of South Korea, its 2017 threat to murder the ex-President of South Korea and just about anyone who angers it, and its 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur.
I offer that evidence for the benefit of anyone who is tempted to believe the palliative that we can just “learn to live with” a nuclear North Korea, to view our own acknowledgement of Pyongyang’s nuclear status as the end of this crisis, or to find reassurance in the belief that Pyongyang, having achieved nuclear hegemony at such cost, will rest contentedly within its own borders. On the contrary, from now until the end of Kim Jong-Un’s life, every book review, editorial, film, conference, and U.N. vote will be cast as a choice between the offending thoughts, on one hand, and assassination or war on the other. How much of your freedom of thought will you give up for the sake of “peace?” The problem with that question is that no one ever asks it just once.
I have written before about how the generals in Pyongyang believe they can gradually subjugate South Korea into submission and remote control by confederation, rather than attempt to occupy a country with twice its population and many times its wealth. I have written about how Pyongyang’s attempts to censor opinion in South Korea and elsewhere, including the United States and Europe, are at the vanguard of those plans, because Pyongyang knows that to control people, you must first control their thoughts. Pyongyang’s thought control takes many forms, from death threats, to hacking the email of scholars here, to threatening the organizers of conferences. So does the thought control of its simpaticos in South Korea, who use the courts to intimidate refugees, use South Korea’s oppressive libel laws to suppress parliamentary and political speech, send thugs from state-subsidized labor unions to attack their critics, and (as Roh Moo-hyun did) use selective and ideologically motivate tax audits against unfriendly newspapers. And these are just the things we know about.
It may be a complete coincidence that at this moment, Moon Jae-in and the hard-left labor unions are now using threats of criminal prosecution to assert ideological control over Yonhap and other state-owned media. Then again, it may not be a complete coincidence. Whatever this is, it is not “liberal.”
North Korea and the anti-anti-North Korean left in South Korea have many instruments for controlling the thoughts of South Koreans. Recently, I argued how various forms of censorship have gravely damaged South Korea’s liberal democracy and the quality of its political debate. Meanwhile, the fawning coverage that foreign and Korean journalists have given Moon Jae-in is enough to make Kim Jong-un envious of his treatment by KCNA. These are the journalists who are supposed to be the guardians of a free press. But at the critical moment, they are almost as derelict as (though less corrupt than) the Associated Press was when it made its Faustian bargain with the North Korean government. You won’t hear a critical word from the AP about the fact that its business partner just published a threat to murder four fellow journalists. Remember that the next time anyone from the AP makes a self-serving soapbox argument about its important role as a guardian of your freedom (which is exactly what the AP and journalists should be).
As for most foreign and Korean journalists, they’re so personally and ideologically enamored of Moon Jae-in, and so invested in the narrative of Pyongyang as David besieged by Goliath, that they’ve blinded themselves to this partial eclipse of South Korea’s freedoms. Pray that Kim Jong-Un’s Moonshadow Policy is no more successful than Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was. You can try to reassure yourself that this is South Korea’s problem, but recent history suggests that while the path of totality will eventually cover all of Korea, the path of the partial eclipse will be global. And so far, Pyongyang’s campaign seems to be working. By the way, when was the last time you saw a movie about North Korea? I’ll bet it wasn’t made after 2014.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]
Last year, I wrote a post, which I fear is already becoming prescient, about how North Korea could plausibly win the Korean War. In condensed form, the strategy involves Pyongyang leveraging its nuclear, cyber, and chemical weapons supremacy and the South’s political divisions to provoke a series of crises, force Seoul into “peace” talks, and extort it, crisis-by-crisis and negotiation-by-negotiation, into unilateral disarmament, de facto editorial control over its media, the silencing of Pyongyang’s critics, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and effective domination through a one-country, two-systems confederation. Given the strength of the nationalist faction now vying for control of U.S. foreign policy and the calls from other quarters for peace at any price, all of this could be a fait accompli before most Koreans even knew what had happened, especially if most journalists and editorial writers celebrated a de facto capitulation (as they certainly would) as the end of tensions and a new beginning for peace.
If it all sounds alarmist or even paranoid, consider that humans are accomplished at rationalizing their fears away, especially when the other surroundings of life still seem just as “normal” as they did the day, month, or year before. Although a sympathetic foreign press corps hardly noticed, former President Roh Moo-Hyun (whose Chief of Staff is the current President) had already gone far down the road of subsidizing friendly media and suppressing hostile media. There is also a published road map for this paranoid delusion of mine. The June 15, 2000 Inter-Korean Declaration called for, among other things, a confederation as a predecessor to “to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.” (Update: which sounds much like how B.R. Myers translates the word “juche.”)
Pyongyang already has plenty of ways to enforce its censorship in the South now, including libel suits in which the truth is no defense, attacks by state-subsidized hard-left goon squads, the occasional assassination or threat of assassination, military provocations, and preemptive censorship by South Korean authorities who would (as Park Geun-Hye did) ban “slander” of the North Korean political system to avoid provoking it. To these instruments, Pyongyang recently added nuclear blackmail.
“President Moon has expressed concerns regarding propaganda leaflets to North Korea as a matter that could prompt accidental clashes,” the official at the presidential office told Yonhap News Agency over the phone. “(The president) ordered aides to find ways for clashes to not occur,” the official added.
The remarks were reportedly made during a meeting with senior aides last month after Pyongyang announced it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, in an apparent effort to minimize the risks of an inter-Korean conflict amid heightened tensions.
“The president explained past situations in which the North fired anti-aircraft guns towards balloons from the South carrying leaflets and then our military fired return shots,” the official explained, adding that Moon expressed a “considerable amount of concern” towards accidental conflicts.
For years, North Korean defectors in the South and conservative activists have flown the leaflets to the North via balloons to help encourage North Koreans to rise up against the Pyongyang regime. South Korea has said there are no legal grounds to prevent the activists from sending the leaflets, citing freedom of expression. [Yonhap]
This is how free people are tempted to trade liberty for security: Kim Jong-Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit one’s freedom. And if Kim Jong-Un will not disarm peacefully, and if we cannot live with a nuclear North Korea, and if we can neither talk nor bomb nor wait our way out of this crisis, then only spreading the truth to North Korea will set us free from the fear of war.
If Moon moves forward with this, he’ll probably do what authoritarians usually do when they want to censor inconvenient speech — disguise it as the enforcement of some politically neutral regulation, such as against littering, or as some kind of safety regulation. In the U.S., and probably in other legal systems, our courts are alert to this tactic and do not allow state regulations to burden “fundamental” constitutional rights unless they show that the regulation is narrowly tailored to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” And as Professor Lee and I conceded in an op-ed in the New York Times three years ago, moving the launch sites away from populated areas may meet that test and would certainly be prudent. But to ban the launches entirely would be yielding to a particularly flagrant and implicitly violent use of the “heckler’s veto.” It would, in effect, sacrifice a right to nonviolent free speech, which some states recognize as customary international law, in the face of a state’s threats of politically motivated violence against noncombatants (read: terrorism). One need not even ask if Moon would at least demand a reciprocal cessation of North Korea’s leafleting in South Korea.
[A friend of mine found this one on the way home from morning PT formation.]
It is not difficult to see how a series of accommodations like this one could evolve into a dual political system like that in Hong Kong, supervised by a Control Commission of strident North Koreans and pliable South Koreans, steadily rolling back the limits of what speech is permitted, what speech is subsidized, and what speech is verboten. Once Seoul is disarmed (in both a political and a martial sense), events would progress quickly. Of course, the last thing Pyongyang wants right now is to send its impoverished soldiers to occupy a prosperous (or recently prosperous) South. But with sanctions lifted at “peace talks,” the Commission would quickly implement “balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation,” a South-to-North subsidy of the Pyongyang elites and the North’s “wavering” classes, and the relative impoverishment of the South, to achieve material parity across the DMZ. The two systems would be on a path to become One Slave Korea.
One reason why South Korea is relatively defenseless against this threat is that both the “left” and the “right” censor each other, at the expense of debate, discourse, and the pursuit of objective truth. I’ve tried to be just as strident in criticizing the right when it censored a professor for expressing pro-North Korean views, when soldiers shot and killed a man for trying to swim to North Korea, and when Park Geun-Hye’s government both justifiably prosecuted Lee Seok-Ki and unjustifiably dissolved his entire political party. Politicians on both sides have used libel suits to censor and even jail their political critics — Park Geun-Hye did it, Moon Jae-In did it, and both were illiberal and undemocratic when they did it.
But when “libel” amounts to “you hurt my feelings,” the practice of competent journalism risks professional and financial ruin, and it is safer to wage politics by planting rumors on Naver and MissyUSA comment threads than by making and defending charges against your political opponents openly. Thus, most of the news that’s fit to print is unverified, unverifiable, or simply fake. No wonder foreign journalists complain about standards of Korean journalism (though they seldom identify the causes of this). No wonder political discourse is dominated by rumor and innuendo. No wonder the courts are effectively rubber stamps for trial-by-protest, where crowd counts mean more than rules of evidence or forensic analysis. A society that is unable and unwilling to adjudicate truth is defenseless against the manipulations of its enemies. And when the prevailing view in Korean society is, as Nat Hentoff summarized it, “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” why does Pyongyang’s censorship sit on a lower plane than anyone else’s?
~ ~ ~
I concede that what I’m presenting as plausible seems facially fantastic and conspiratorial. Moon certainly doesn’t seem to fit the part of a Manchurian Candidate; he doesn’t radiate the angry delusions of grandeur of a Jeremy Corbyn and displays none of the boisterous, power-drunk inanity our own president does at times. His very niceness clashes with what his record suggests, and with the evidence of what some of his closest advisors certainly are. Admittedly, Moon is still in his “honeymoon” phase, but press coverage of him gives KCNA’s adulation of Kim Jong-Un a run for its money. Even so, Moon knows that his voters are wary of the North. As Moon supporter Duyeon Kim argues, he is waiting for the right moment to reveal and implement his actual North Korea policy, which is both probably true and profoundly terrifying. Certainly few of the academics and journalists who cover Korea want to believe that what I’m suggesting here is plausible. Nor do I suggest that any of the small limits Moon would put on free speech necessarily means that Korea is careening to the bottom of the slippery slope. All I am saying is that if my worst fears come true, it would all look a lot like this in the beginning.
Here at OFK, we collect small bits of North Korea trivia, such as the fact that President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and the related fact that the State Department’s official position is that North Korea has not sponsored acts of terrorism since 1987.
In other news, the official North Korean “news ” agency, KCNA, has just published a call by the North Korean government for the extradition of former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and the former head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service to Pyongyang, where it has been decided, in absentia, that they are to receive “capital punishment” over an alleged plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.
1. We declare at home and abroad that we will impose death penalty on traitor Park Geun Hye and ex-Director of the puppet Intelligence Service Ri Pyong Ho and their groups, criminals of hideous state-sponsored terrorism who hatched and pressed for the heinous plot to hurt the supreme leadership of the DPRK.
Further on, I’ll examine how North Korea defines terrorism, but it may be helpful to begin with a more rigorous and predictable definition. For an act to be terrorism under U.S. law, it must —
Although this definition is based on American law and precedent, most civilized nations define the term in similar ways. (Good luck finding an internationally agreed definition of terrorism, for reasons that should be obvious.) Also, that Ms. Park has been found guilty and sentenced to death in absentia without so much as prior notice of a trial might raise a procedural concern or two for the extradition hearing.
Just as I predicted, as Pyongyang perfects its nuclear capability, it is growing more aggressive and more extraterritorial with its threats (in this case, through the use of journo-terrorism).
IS men, to say nothing of Park Geun Hye and Ri Pyong Ho group, can never make any appeal even though they meet miserable dog’s death any time, at any place and by whatever methods from this moment.
The south Korean authorities should hand Park Geun Hye and Ri Pyong Ho group, organizers of the hideous international terrorist crimes, over to the DPRK without delay under international convention and laws and regulations.
The south Korean authorities have to judge themselves what adverse effect their act of shunning this crucial demand related to the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK will have on the future north-south relations.
But KCNA does not stop here. It also threatens to “ferret out” Park and Ri “wherever they might be on the earth” and “mercillessly cut their dirty bodies to pieces.”
The supreme leadership of the DPRK is a symbol of the dignity and might of the DPRK and it represents the life and destiny of the army and people of the DPRK.
It is the resolute will of our army and people regarding it as their life to safeguard the headquarters of the revolution to ferret out those keen on hurting the security of the DPRK supreme leadership wherever they might be on the earth and mercilessly cut their dirty bodies to pieces.
Clearly stipulated in the DPRK Criminal Code is that all those who organized, took part or pursued state-sponsored terrorism targeting the supreme leadership of the DPRK are subject to criminal prosecution irrespective of nationality and that no statute of limitations is applicable to such crime.
Just to be clear, then, Pyongyang is threatening to send its agents to South Korea to murder and dismember the former president of the Republic of Korea. And as you know by now, because you’ve stopped to read the links with which I’ve laboriously braced this argument, North Korea has sent assassins to commit murders in the South before. They’ve been caught and pled guilty in South Korean courts.
We officially declare that if the U.S. and the south Korean puppet forces again attempt at state-sponsored terrorism against the supreme leadership of the DPRK, we will track down those who organized, took part in and pursued the plot and carry out the summary execution of them without advance notice under wartime law.
But at least Pyongyang is only threatening those who take part in or plot “attempt[s] at hideous state-sponsored terrorism targeting the supreme leadership of the DPRK.” Except that on further research, we soon learn that North Korea has defined “terrorism” and “state-sponsored terrorism” to include everything from parody to criticism to legislation to the enforcement of UN sanctions. My search of news reports, the S.T.A.L.I.N. archive, and the excellent KCNA Watch Twitter feed yielded the following examples:
My guess, however, is that the specific pretext for Pyongyang’s latest threat is its claim from May 13th, that the CIA and the NIS “hatched a plot to commit a state-sponsored terrorism targeting the supreme leadership of the DPRK by use of bio-chemical substance.” Now, to state the obvious, I am … skeptical of this claim. I could cite many examples of Pyongyang lying flagrantly, but the most obvious one is its claim that the NIS kidnapped the Ningpo 13 (because that claim was tested in court and rejected, or so we can safely assume despite the confidentiality of the proceedings, because the women were granted asylum). The alleged modus operandi also sounds suspiciously like Pyongyang’s own assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, news of which spread rapidly inside North Korea and shocked even North Koreans. Now, with the rising reaction to the death of Otto Warmbier, Pyongyang might be projecting to change the subject.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that Pyongyang’s allegation is true. If so, a plot to slime His Porcine Majesty with some toxin might qualify as terrorism under certain circumstances. The North Korean allegation suggests a violent act that could only be perpetrated by clandestine agents, so assume we meet those elements. If the alleged attack was meant to disrupt a military command structure during hostilities it would not meet the intent element, but let’s assume that this was to be a political murder by stealth. This might qualify, except that Kim Jong-Un isn’t a noncombatant; he’s the commander of North Korea’s military junta. So the merits of the “terrorism” claim would depend on whether this alleged plot was to be carried out for strictly political purposes or to disrupt military command and control as part of an armed conflict. (Suspend your disbelief that North Koreans would be terrorized, as opposed to ebullient, as the demise of His Porcine Majesty.) Of course, as peace treaty advocates point out unceasingly, North Korea is technically still at war with both the United States and South Korea. As they tend not to point out so unceasingly, Pyongyang itself as repeatedly repudiated the 1953 Armistice.
For the same reason, it wouldn’t be terrorism (but would be an act of war) if Pyongyang assassinated Moon Jae-In for the purpose of disrupting South Korea’s military command structure in the course of armed hostilities. It would certainly be terrorism if Pyongyang made good on its threat to assassinate Park Geun-Hye, who is now a private citizen, in her own home. Furthermore, it is also terrorism to threaten to assassinate Ms. Park, and it’s most likely terrorism when Pyongyang says this:
Whether such crime is committed within the territory of the DPRK or outside it, we will mercilessly carry out the punishment in the name of our people in field by our style merciless punishment measure.
We make it clear once again that those who dare challenge the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK should never hope of staying alive under the sky.
We do not hide that should the U.S. and the south Korean authorities defy this warning and challenge our resolute measure, they will be made to pay a dear price in an irresistible physical way.
Those dare challenging the sun of the sky can never evade divine punishment.
Pyongyang appears to be claiming the right to kill any person in any place of its choosing, for conduct that it defines broadly enough to cover anyone from a stoner filmmaker to the Secretary of Defense to a human rights activist to the Chairman of a Committee of Congress. What it all sounds like more than anything else is a pretext for the next unconscionable, murderous outrage Pyongyang is already premeditating, and that it will subsequently get away because it always gets away with everything. As Professor Lee and I predicted before and after the Sony cyberterrorist threat, our failure to respond to North Korea’s attacks on our freedom of speech would draw more and bolder attacks on our freedom of speech. That prediction is coming true. To a small but growing degree, we are all living under the shadow of Kim Jong-Un’s censorship. In that small, yet profoundly disturbing way, we are all North Koreans now.
And so, I am left to ask this: if North Korea holds our political system in contempt and means to disrupt it, why don’t we show more determination and creativity in disrupting North Korea’s own political system? With North Korea’s refusal to negotiate or coexist peacefully, and the madness of war, our options for averting nuclear war in Korea increasingly narrow down to empowering the North Korean people to end Kim Jong-Un’s misrule. What else is even remotely plausible now? And whatever the cost, if Kim Jong-Un must die so that freedom of speech can live, I know what choice I’d make.
Next week, South Korean President Moon Jae-In will arrive in Washington for his first meeting with President Trump. North Korea policy is certain to be at the top of their agenda. Months ago, I predicted that the combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump would be a uniquely volatile one, and all the indications so far are bearing this prediction out. Volumes of august and cerebral analysis may soon be nullified by 140 characters.
This is partially (but only partially) due to differences of policy and ideology. As I’ve noted more than once, Moon has spent his entire political career in the brain trust of South Korea’s hard left, among those who’ve shown more solidarity with North Korea than with America. Moon started with the left-wing lawyers’ guild Minbyun (which once resisted right-wing dictators in the courts, and which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for waging lawfare against North Korean refugees). He was legal advisor to the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, whose members were often exposed for propagating pro-North Korean views to their pupils. He managed Roh Moon-Hyun’s presidential campaign, which rode to power on a wave of sometimes-violent anti-Americanism, and served at the highest levels in the Roh administration, where Moon made the decision to solicit Pyongyang’s views before Seoul abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn the North’s crimes against humanity (and later lied about it).
Thus, President Moon entered office with a collection of ideas and advisors whose moment came in 2002 and went in 2008, when South Korea’s electorate regressed back to the mean. As Moon entered office, he knew very well that he had no mandate for a return to a policy of appeasing North Korea called Sunshine, a policy that was a demonstrable failure, that had undermined international sanctions, and that probably helped Pyongyang pay for its nuclear arsenal.
That Trump and Moon are also temperamental opposites may be just as great a problem. Whatever one thinks of Moon Jae-In’s ideology, he is an extraordinarily smooth, personally likeable politician. Throughout his career, Moon had climbed the shoulders of men who expressed extreme views that he was careful not to express himself. Trump, by contrast, is an impulsive man without ideological convictions or caution, who expresses every extreme idea that enters his head, whether it be direct talks with Kim Jong-Un or urging China to assassinate him.
Since I was a soldier in Korea years ago, I’ve felt that the interests of the allies were diverging. For years, rather than confront and try to check this divergence, the leaders of both countries concealed it with quiet diplomacy that left South Korean politicians free to engage in nationalist demagoguery, even at the sacrifice of the alliance’s popular support. But in this regard, the United States has just unexpectedly overmatched South Korea. That is why, unlike most Korea-watchers, I suspect that the U.S.-Korea alliance is one tweet away from a crisis that will harm the interests of both countries. Recent events bear out my pessimism:
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed fury over South Korea’s decision to delay the full deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system pending an environmental assessment, a senior official said Sunday. Trump showed the reaction when he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House on June 8, the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
The revelations, if true, raise concern that the issue could affect the first summit meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Trump set for June 29-30 at the White House, though it is not clear if it would be on the agenda.
Earlier this month, South Korea suspended the deployment of an additional four THAAD launchers pending an environmental assessment, spurring doubts in the U.S. that the halt might be a precursor to the South ultimately rejecting the THAAD deployment altogether. But Seoul has promised the environmental study won’t lead to a reversal on the deployment itself. [Yonhap]
Moon’s position on THAAD shifted so much during his presidential campaign that it became all but impossible to pin it down in a debate. That’s certainly a function of public sentiment that still favors the deployment of THAAD, even (incredibly enough) after Trump’s ill-advised, pre-election demand that Seoul pay for it. And while I have little sympathy for Moon’s ideology, I have plenty of sympathy for his position. He now finds himself bullied by both China’s unilateral sanctions and Donald Trump’s extortionate demands that Seoul pay for THAAD, notwithstanding a prior agreement that the U.S. would pay, at least up front. That Moon finds himself in that position, however, owes much to his flawed reflex for trying to please everyone (which seldom pleases anyone). In doing so, Moon has created the perception in Beijing that he’s weak, soft, and an easy mark, and the perception in Washington that he’s a faithless ally. I can see the reason for both perceptions. (To make matters worse for Moon, even the North Koreans are unhappy with him, have refused Seoul’s offers of humanitarian aid, and want to sideline him in any talks with the U.S.)
By the time Moon took office, two THAAD launchers were in place and four others were set to be deployed. All of this had been agreed between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, yet in what looked like an effort to manufacture a controversy to manipulate public opinion — a preparation for a capitulation to Beijing — Moon denied knowing this. Any such miscommunication looks to have been wholly intra-Korean, between the Blue House and the Defense Ministry. This gambit having backfired, the Moon administration began an “environmental review” of the deployment that looked suspiciously pretextual. His administration later added that the review might take as long as a year. All of these missteps cost Moon friends in the White House.
“One official at the National Security Council told me that there is a general distrust toward the Korean government in the United States, that the new administration may be lying,” said a diplomatic insider in Washington D.C. under condition of anonymity, especially after Moon complained that Washington had deployed four missile launchers for the Thaad battery without informing his government. “The U.S. government has confirmed that the South Korean government was aware of the arrival of the four additional Thaad launchers all this time.”
Moon had ordered last month an investigation into how four extra Thaad launchers had been brought into the country without his knowledge. The Blue House said earlier this month that the Ministry of National Defense intentionally omitted the delivery of the launchers in its report to the National Security Office. [Joongang Ilbo]
Now, instead of being able to blame any fissures in the alliance on a mercurial American president, Moon has irritated Ed Royce (possibly the best friend South Korea ever had in Congress), provoked a public spat with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, and alienated key senators and representatives from both parties:
Meetings between President Moon and members of the U.S. Congress also fell through recently. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, had requested a meeting with Moon sometime between May 27 and 28, but the meeting was not scheduled after days of attempts.
“The date that McCain asked for did not work with Moon’s schedule initially, so we got back to him in a few days about holding a meeting on May 28, as he requested, but McCain in the end decided not to stop by Korea in his trip to Asia for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.” “The correct protocol would have been confirming first that Moon will meet with McCain before scheduling a date,” said a Foreign Ministry insider.
Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Cory Gardner from Colorado, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, also requested meetings with Moon in late May but they did not take place. [Joongang Ilbo]
“But don’t worry,” President Moon must have said to his cabinet at one point. “Moon Chung-In can explain everything.” It’s too bad we don’t have surveillance video of the cabinet meetings that must have followed in Seoul since then. It would make for an epic “Downfall” parody.
~ ~ ~
I can’t say who picked Moon Chung-In, a left-wing South Korean academic and President Moon’s Special Advisor for Diplomacy and Security Affairs, to be the one to explain President Moon’s putative North Korea policy to American audiences at such a determinative moment. If President Moon’s objective for Professor Moon’s visit was to gain some room to maneuver by reassuring Washington that he is not as extreme as some of us think he is, that he will be a reliable ally, and that he won’t act like a spoiler of “maximum pressure,” then his badly received speech at the Wilson Center in Washington last week was an unmitigated fiasco. The sample of opinions that follows will give you a sense of just how universally Professor Moon’s visit has been panned from left, right, and center. Let’s start with the center-left Korea Herald:
Such worries intensified after Moon’s special adviser Moon Chung-in said on his trip to Washington on Saturday that South Korea would consult with the US on whether to scale back the scope of annual joint military drills and US deployment of strategic assets in exchange for “suspension” of the North’s nuclear and missile activities. The Trump administration has maintained that the North’s “complete removal” of its nuclear arsenal is a prerequisite to any dialogue.
The envoy’s remarks sparked criticism that it would undermine the allies’ efforts to present a united front against the North, which has been facing international condemnation over its relentless ballistic missile tests and brutal treatment of a US prisoner.
“With the summit around the corner, the Moon Jae-in administration is pouring out a series of diplomatic remarks that could endanger the Korea-US alliance. If we begin talks unilaterally, what would happen to the international coalition (against the North?),” said Rep. Kim Young-woo of the opposition Bareun Party, who serves as chairman of the parliamentary defense committee.
“Talking about reduced combined exercise and the US deployment of strategic assets is nothing but succumbing to the North Korean pressure when the North has continued its provocations with nuclear and missile development.”
Washington also expressed skepticism about the envoy’s proposal. US State Department spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said that they view Moon Chung-in’s proposal as a personal view, not the official stance of the South Korean government, according to a report from VOA on Saturday. [Korea Herald]
The subhed to the center-right Joongang Ilbo’s coverage conceded that Professor Moon’s proposal went down “badly” in Washington. Even the far-left Hankroyeh, which frequently publishes Professor Moon’s views and expressed support for Professor Moon’s proposals, allowed that his speech “does not seem very cautious for such sensitive information to be coming from a special advisor just ten days before a South Korea-US summit.” There are already calls from the opposition for Professor Moon to resign. The speech was also widely panned by Americans, starting with the centrist Korea-watcher Gordon Flake:
Alarmed to see this happening again….Chungin’s bombast honed in academia is ill suited to diplomacy. https://t.co/vgLzPNCNuQ
— L. Gordon Flake (@lgflake) June 17, 2017
On the right, where sentiment matters most right now in the U.S., Bruce Klingner told Yonhap that Moon’s comments would “exacerbate U.S. concerns about President Moon Jae-in’s potential policies on North Korea and the U.S. alliance,” and about a return to Roh Moo-Hyun-era appeasement policies. Klingner, one of the few academics the Trump administration listens to, called the speech “counterproductive” to President Moon’s objective of reassuring Washington on the eve of his summit with President Trump. Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council observed, “Some of the ideas floated by President Moon and his top advisers seem to be dusting off old ‘sunshine’ ideas that failed.”
The Blue House itself backpedaled furiously, distanced itself from Professor Moon, and seemed to fling him under every passing bus on the Jongro:
An official from South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul insisted the professor was voicing his own personal views, saying they had not been coordinated with the presidential office, let alone the president. The Cheong Wa Dae official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted the special adviser had met with a ranking official from the presidential National Security Office prior to his U.S. trip, but said the two had merely exchanged greetings.
Another Cheong Wa Dae official said the presidential office has since contacted the special adviser and sternly warned him of the danger of making such comments even if they were his personal views. “We sternly spoke of the fact that this may not be helpful to Korea-U.S. relations in the future,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. [Yonhap]
Moon Chung-In now finds himself blamed for the disastrous visit by his friends and foes alike, but that isn’t quite fair. The idea that Professor Moon was speaking only for himself strains credibility. Are we to believe that the Blue House did not vet his remarks? Or that it failed to consult the South Korean Embassy in Washington to solicit its views on how badly this proposal would go down here? Or that it had no role at all in selecting Professor Moon as spokesman for the views of his president at such a critical moment? If any of these things is true, this was extraordinarily incompetent.
Perhaps as an academic, Professor Moon is miscast as a diplomat. But who would have been a better choice? President Moon’s Chief of Staff, who served three years in prison for organizing Lim Soo-Kyung’s propaganda tour of Pyongyang, and who formerly led a radical, pro-North Korean student group that (shortly after his departure) tried to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul? Or his just-confirmed Foreign Minister, a self-professed human rights specialist who served in South Korea’s U.N. Mission and at the U.N. as Seoul abstained, year after year, on resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity? What about the man who recently withdrew as nominee to be Justice Minister under an ethical cloud, and who led the National Human Rights Commission during the Roh Moo-Hyun era as it resisted (with only partial success) withering criticism for its refusal to criticize Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people? Or President Moon’s new Unification Minister, who was indicted for destroying a transcript of a meeting in which Roh allegedly promised to cede South Korea’s maritime border with the North? It’s not apparent who could have represented the new president’s views better without becoming a lightning rod.
And of course, both the Blue House and American Korea-watchers were certainly aware of Professor Moon’s long history of anti-anti-North Korean sentiment and thinly veiled anti-American nationalism. See, for example, this recent op-ed Professor Moon recently published in the Joongang Ilbo, in which he called for immediate and unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang and hinted at reopening Kaesong. The op-ed proposed “the adjustment or temporary halt of the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises” as a precondition to a nuclear and missile test freeze, and “[p]arallel pursuit of denuclearization and establishment of a peace system … because again, it is important to show a flexible attitude.” Endlessly flexible. These, of course, are the same views that went over so badly in Washington last week. Let no one say that Professor Moon’s views were spontaneous or thoughtless utterances. This was the trial balloon for the trial balloon.
Maybe the Blue House should have toned Professor Moon’s remarks, except that my guess is that these were the toned-down remarks. Keep reading Professor Moon’s Joongang Ilbo op-ed and decide for yourself whether he was at least arguably calling the alliance with the U.S. a “colonial occupation,” making a thinly veiled appeal to nationalism, and threatening to call for anti-American protests (which have historically turned violent).
The 25 years of the North Korean nuclear threat has taught us the painful lesson of how important imagination and determination are. Until now, Korea has been easily decided by foreign powers. Last century’s colonial occupation, war and division were tragic products of foreign powers’ political contests. Considering the weight of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia, it may be reckless to block the influence of our neighbors. However, it won’t be easy to give priority to inter-Korean relations over Korea-U.S. or Korea-China relations, either.
The time has come for us to turn the power of the people and the miracle of the candlelight demonstrations into a driving force for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue is a complicated challenge, but we can overcome it when we become one. Korea needs to stand at the center of the Korean Peninsula and East Asian diplomacy. In order not to be limited as a dependent variable of foreign powers, and to not repeat the fate of the Balkans, Korea needs to take initiative in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. This is how Moon will succeed — or fail. [Joongang Ilbo]
As an American and a former USFK soldier myself, whenever I hear my country called a colonial occupier, my first reaction is to test that assertion by offering to withdraw our forces. Indeed, if South Koreans want us to leave, it would be our obligation to respect their will. For now, that isn’t the will of South Koreans, even if they see U.S. forces as a necessary evil. Yet Moon Chung-In carried this offensive and extreme viewpoint to Washington just as the mood toward North Korea was as furious as it has been at any time since North Korea’s last nuclear test, as Otto Warmbier returned from Pyongyang in a coma (and subsequently passed away). How much of this is really Moon Chung-In’s fault? The real blame for the catastrophe that followed lies with Moon Jae-In’s own failure to perceive that Moon Chung-In’s tone, and the substance of his proposals, were sure to alarm most members of Congress, the administration, and academia.
Of course, not all Americans were alarmed. There is a fringe of left-of-center American opinion that Moon Chung-In is close to, and it’s more than a fringe in academic circles. What Moon said in his Wilson Center speech isn’t far removed from what you can read in an unceasing stream of op-eds by American academics calling for freeze deals that neither the U.S. Congress nor North Korea seems particularly interested in. I don’t know how much exposure Professor Moon has to centrist or right-of-center views in America, but if he believed that his proposals were within our mainstream, it may be because he cocooned himself with too many simpaticos. Perhaps the approval of this group gave Professor Moon a false sense of affirmation. Either way, Moon Jae-In can’t blame anyone but himself for this disastrous tone-deafness.
Maybe next week, the two presidents will cobble together a show of unity, like two divorcing parents at their daughter’s wedding. Maybe Trump will end the summit by tweeting that Manchuria was historically part of Korea. Maybe Trump will behave so boorishly that Moon will be able to pin the consequences of his own extreme world view and ineptitude on Trump, and play the nationalist card that the deck hasn’t dealt him yet. Or, maybe both leaders will conclude the summit with a spat that will harm both of their own political reputations, and the long-term interests of both nations.
In recent years, growing numbers of North Korean boats have drifted into the waters of neighboring countries. Most of these incidents probably weren’t attempts to defect, but cases of North Korean fishermen coming under rising pressure to stray further out to sea, to bring home bigger catches (which are often exported for hard currency, including to the U.S. and South Korea) and who are given only a marginal amount of fuel to make the journey home. Dozens of these North Koreans have arrived in Japan, though little remained of them by then but desiccated corpses and bleached bones.
Those who arrive in South Korea, thankfully, usually arrive alive, at least until the ROK authorities question them as to whether they wish to return to the North, and repatriate those who (it says) do. I’ve often privately wondered just how much various South Korean governments have, for political reasons, put their thumbs on the scales in questioning these North Koreans and judging their intentions. It worried me that the Moon Jae-In administration, with its origins in a viewpoint that has been, at best, ambivalent about protecting North Korean refugees and human rights, would repatriate North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution, in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention. Now, we have a least one case in which the Moon Jae-In administration seems inclined to offer asylum to two of four North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters along its east coast.
South Korea’s navy and coastguard rescued four people from two vessels on Friday and Saturday, and the four were then questioned by South Korean authorities, who offered to send them home, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
The two who told authorities they wanted to defect to South Korea were a man in his 50s and his son in his 20s, an official from the ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said by telephone.
“We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors,” the official said.
The official, who declined to be identified, said he did not know if the two had originally planned to defect or decided to only after being rescued. The Yonhap news agency said the father appeared to have planned to defect.
The other two would be sent home, as they had requested, the ministry official said. [Reuters]
On refugee policy, Moon Jae-In now faces a test. Will he bow to Pyongyang and his own most extreme supporters, and roll up the welcome mat for North Korean refugees, or will he follow international human rights law and the values we hope South Korea still shares with us? Pyongyang is making its expectations clear:
A vigorous struggle for the repatriation of detained Kim Ryon Hui and other twelve DPRK women citizens was launched in south Korea with the people of different strata involved, amid the growing demand for the liquidation of evils done by the Park Geun Hye group of traitors for confrontation with the fellow countrymen. [….]
If the south Korean authorities are truly interested in the issues of “human rights”, “humanitarianism” and “separated families”, they should pay attention to the strong demand of the families of those abductees and settle the issue of their repatriation at an early date before anything else.
It is preposterous to discuss on the “humanitarianism” and reunion of divided families and relatives, in disregard of such hideous unethical crimes as imposing bitter pains and misfortune on the compatriots by artificially making new “divided families”.
Any humanitarian cooperation between the north and the south, including reunion of divided families and relatives, can never be expected before the unconditional repatriation of the detained women citizens of the DPRK.
We will watch the attitude of the south Korean authorities and strive for the repatriation of the detained women citizens to the last. [KCNA]
See also. The pro-Pyongyang extremists at KANCC (profiled here) and Minjok Tongshin (profiled here) are also calling for sending the women back to North Korea, for what it’s worth — probably not much, except as a barometer of pro-Pyongyang opinion in South Korea, where both websites would be illegal. The pro-Pyongyang crowd continues to repeat the transparent lie that the Ningpo 12 were kidnapped, though this assertion has been tested and rejected by a South Korean court, which granted asylum to all 12 of the women. All have since been given their freedom in South Korean society, and most have been admitted into universities. You’d think that if they had been abducted, one of them would have said so by now, although Pyongyang’s agents have previously contacted North Korean refugees in the South and coerced them into “re-defecting” and making propaganda statements before audiences of gullible journalists.
If you think this is just a fringe view in South Korea, think again. More than once, I’ve highlighted the disgraceful and unethical efforts by the hard-left “human rights” lawyers’ group Minbyun to breach the women’s internationally recognized right to confidentiality in asylum proceedings, an effort that could only have been calculated to intimidate the women into re-defecting. Given Moon’s own long history with Minbyun, no one should have taken the rejection of Pyongyang’s demand, no matter how outrageous, for granted. Moon Jae-In’s Chief of Staff, for example, has a history of anti-American and pro-North Korean activism so extensive and troubling that he couldn’t pass a U.S. government background investigation, much less be granted a security clearance here. We should be thankful that Moon was at least pragmatic enough to reject Pyongyang’s demand on its face:
The Unification Ministry in South Korea has rejected Pyongyang’s demand to return a group of North Korean restaurant employees who defected from China last year.
A ministry official told reporters on Thursday that the families divided by the Korean War are a separate and different issue from North Korean defectors.
He added that the North’s move to link the return of the restaurant employees with cross-border family reunions is incomprehensible, stressing that the issue of family reunions cannot be resolved if more time passes. [KBS]
It’s still too early to let out a sigh of relief. As Moon must surely know, sending these women back to North Korea would have caused global outrage, starting with a white-hot apoplexy in large segments of the U.S. Congress. Such a decision would reveal that the alliance itself lacks the foundation of a unity of legal, moral, political, or humanitarian interests. It would militate for sending a clear message to South Korean voters that even if the lives of North Koreans mean nothing to them, such a disunity of interests will raise calls (probably including my own) for U.S. disengagement from South Korea, if only to achieve an overdue restructuring of U.S. Forces, Korea and to damage Moon’s domestic political support. Given the fact that Moon has already managed to piss off both Dick Durbin and Ed Royce over his shifting position on THAAD, he probably concluded that the last thing his voters want to see right now is a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance in the middle of a nuclear crisis that even Moon recognizes as existential for South Korea’s survival.
There will be other tests of South Korea’s commitment to its fellow Koreans who had the misfortune to be born north of the DMZ, of course. Moon may not be as helpful as Park Geun-Hye was in helping the next group of expatriated North Koreans who try to defect. He may also find more subtle ways of making refugees unwelcome, such as by breaching their confidentiality. Rather than returning the Ningpo 12 outright, someone within Moon’s administration could leak the locations of the Ningpo 12 to North Korean agents working in South Korea, and then allow one or more of them to “re-defect” through some lapse in security. There would, of course, be another sham news conference. (Will Ripley, take note.) The only real question is how complicit Moon Jae-In’s government is prepared to be in this sham. Evidence of complicity would arguably obligate the United States to accept North Korean refugees who, reasonably enough, would then feel unsafe in South Korea. That would also lead to frictions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Decision points like this remind us why the Trump administration’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is an important oversight in its North Korea policy. Eventually, the administration will have to realize that the North Korean people themselves could be our most important allies in any effort to disarm, reform, and change North Korea. We will have little influence with these potential allies if they look to us as protectors and allies and we let them down. Pyongyang’s reaction to this particular decision point also reminds us that Seoul’s decision to receive North Korean refugees has the potential to be historically determinative by setting off a preference cascade among key constituencies inside North Korea, maybe even including the military. One could say that a welcoming, prosperous, and free South Korea presents Pyongyang with the most “maximum” pressure of all.
Is South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, forming a cabinet or a politburo? As I’ve written here, there has long been good reason to be worried. Moon has a long association with Minbyun, the hard-left lawyers’ group that is acting as Pyongyang’s law firm in South Korea by using the courts to wage lawfare against refugees, in violation of their human rights. He was chairman of the campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, the “anti-American” and “a little crazy” president who rode to power on the shoulders of a violent mob that attacked, spat on, and threw firebombs at American soldiers. As Roh’s Chief of Staff, Moon decided to seek Pyongyang’s input before abstaining from a U.N. resolution denouncing severe human rights abuses against its people, and then lied about it.
The most alarming development of all may be Moon’s choice of Im Jeong-seok as his Chief of Staff. Im was jailed for three-and-a-half years for
accompanying organizing the illegal 1989 visit to Pyongyang that made Lim Soo-kyung a North Korean propaganda star. (Lim is now a lawmaker in Moon’s party. I previously discussed her drunken 2012 tirade against North Korean defectors and human rights activists. A previous version of this post, since corrected, said that Im had gone to Pyongyang with Lim.)
Via Benjamin Young, we also learn that Im was “involved with a Juche Study Group during the 1980s.” After I retweeted this, Oranckay, who was a student in South Korea at the time and thus almost necessarily a close observer of left-wing political groups, responded that Im had also headed a radical student group called Chondaehyop. Researching this group further, Chondaehyop turns out to have adhered to the pro-North Korean “national liberation” ideology, and had a violent history:
Chondaehyop was involved in a series of arson and vandalism attacks against Hyundai showrooms in 1989 during a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. On June 12, 1990, 300 members of Chondaehyop staged a firebombing attack on the Kwangju American Cultural Center, which damaged a police station and injured four officers. Then, on October 18th, eleven members of Chondaehyop were arrested for attempting to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and planting IEDs on the roof of the Consular Annex (all of the IEDs failed to explode).
After Chondaehyop was banned, it reemerged under the name Hanchongryon, under which name it was active in leading violent anti-American demonstrations during my tour in Korea. Even during the democratically elected Kim Young-sam administration, the prosecution accused Hanchongryon of being under the control of North Korea’s United Front Department, the agency responsible for overseeing the manipulation of public opinion in South Korea.
To be fair, Oranckay did not observe Chondaehyop engaging in violence at the time Im led it, but not much time could have separated Im’s leadership from its occurrence.
Then, there is the worrisome fact that Moon Jae-in gave one of his first post-inauguration interviews to Tim Shorrock, a pro-North Korean hack (he calls himself a “journalist”) with a long career of denialism of Pyongyang’s crimes going back to the 1983 Rangoon bombing, and its crimes against humanity.
More recently, Mr. Shorrock has been spreading unsubstantiated anti-American agitprop, which I can’t ask him to substantiate because he blocked me on Twitter months ago.
Shorrock is also really, really angry at Bernie Sanders for being too critical of North Korea.
Now, when you call someone a Marxist, you’re apt to be called a McCarthyist, so instead, I’ll just link to, say, this post where Mr. Shorrock wrote, “I’m a Marxist.” Or, I’ll announce that I have in my hand a list of Mr. Shorrock’s tweets, to give you a better idea of his political views. Draw your own conclusions. (Sorry for the image quality. As mentioned, Mr. Shorrock blocked me several months ago, but a couple of readers sent me screenshots from his feed. I didn’t know then they’d come in handy later.)
And here’s Shorrock defending Roh Kil-nam (who I discussed here).
I believe the specific reason why Mr. Shorrock blocked me, incidentally, was that I repeatedly tried to get him to state whether he still demanded that the South Korean government release Lee Seok-ki, a hard-left ex-lawmaker who was recorded plotting violent attacks against critical infrastructure in South Korea in support of a North Korean invasion, even after Mr. Lee was convicted of treason and sent to prison and his conviction was affirmed by an appeals court.
In conclusion, a bigger dirigible bag of combustible gas has not been seen in America since May 6, 1937, over Lakehurst, New Jersey. And like Mr. Shorrock, this predecessor was a propaganda banner for a fascist state that sent children to die in concentration camps — only Shorrock is either too blind or too stupid to distinguish between Marxism and hereditary rule by an organized crime family that has created a society of permanent classes, propagates vile racism, enforces racial purity with infanticide, anointed its ruling family as gods, and created arguably the world’s greatest gap between rich and poor. That President Moon granted an interview to Mr. Shorrock should alarm us for the same reason it alarmed us when Donald Trump gave an interview to Alex Jones.
As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Personnel is policy. You judge a man by the company he keeps. Pick your own expression. The clear message Mr. Moon is sending to Pyongyang is, “I’ve chosen sides, but for now, there are some understandable political constraints.” You might choose to assume that Moon and Im have moderated with age. You might cite any number of Moon’s statements during the campaign to take comfort from the moderate views he expresses now. Most politicians, after all, are highly sensitive to what views they can express without losing votes.
But this collection of circumstantial evidence of Moon’s origins and associations suggests the more alarming — and equally plausible — explanation that Moon and those closest to him cannot be trusted with the most sensitive U.S. intelligence about our contingency plans, and that their unreconstructed views are merely latent for the time being. It’s time to be very worried about Moon Jae-in.
~ ~ ~
Update: Veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin’s detailed Asia Times story about Im Jeong-seok is an absolute must-read:
There seems to be little surprise in Seoul about the appointment of Im, who’s now 51. After all, Moon is a former militant anti-government activist. Later, he was a close supporter of two earlier presidents’ decade-long pursuit of the “Sunshine” policy of making nice to the North in the hope the two could negotiate their differences.
Moon has since his election sought to downplay his differences with US policy toward North Korea. So the suggestion that Im’s appointment sounds like an appalling development is left to just a few observers.
Read the rest on your own. Those zany right-wing conspiracy theories about a quiet coup in South Korea suddenly aren’t sounding all that zany at all. “Appalling” is right.
I’ll have to keep this post short because of time constraints, but my interest in South Korea’s election is mostly related to how Seoul’s policies toward North Korea will shift. I’ll refer you to this post and this one on why it’s likely to change less than John Delury might like, this piece in NK News where I offer some thoughts, and this excellent post by Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston. Much will depend on how hard President Trump pushes back. Maybe Moon will completely win Trump over in their first call, but I’m more inclined to believe that it will turn into a difficult cost-sharing negotiation (which Moon can use to his political advantage).
If Trump is skillful in his handling of Moon, however, he can exploit Moon’s political and legal weaknesses to prevent him from catapulting money over the DMZ. For one thing, Trump has U.N. sanctions on his side. For another, North Korea policy wasn’t the main reason people voted for Moon, and compared to past South Korean presidents, Moon’s win was hardly commanding. If you eliminate candidates who received less than 1 percent of the vote, in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung won 40.3 percent in a three-way race; in 2002, Roh Moo Hyun, won 48.9 percent in a three-way race; in 2007, Lee Myung Bak won 48.7 percent in a five-way race; in 2012, Park Geun-hye won 51.5 percent in a two-way race; and this year, Moon won 41.1 percent in a five-way race.
It’s worth asking why Moon actually performed worse in terms of percentage of the vote this year despite his name recognition, the advantage of an anti-Park backlash, and a fractious (and frankly, pathetic) field of opponents on the right. Because it was a five-way race, of course! But why was this a five-way race at all? The right had as weak a field as Moon himself could have conjured, and Moon has run against Ahn Cheol-soo before and made quick work of him. In 2012, Ahn’s support collapsed and his supporters coalesced behind Moon. This time, Moon couldn’t close that deal. Surely Moon would have preferred that outcome, and surely he still does, given that he only controls 120 (not 119) seats in the National Assembly now. He will need 151 votes to legislate his policies on THAAD, Kaesong, other elements of his agenda. Give him the Justice Party’s 6 votes. He still needs most of the People’s Party votes to pass legislation, and even then, don’t forget that Moon’s own party was able to delay passage of a North Korea human rights law for more than a decade. Can he get those votes? Probably so on less controversial issues, and hopefully so on needed reforms to make South Korea a fairer, safer society with a better quality of life, and a better work-life balance.
On the specific issue of resuming Sunshine, however, I see little evidence of a mandate. Of course, past vote totals are hardly predictive of the impact of past presidents on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea — one could argue that there is almost an inverse relationship. What does seem to be predictive of South Korea’s policy is the mood of the times, and the best data I have suggests that that mood has shifted strongly toward the center since 2002. Each nuke or missile test will weaken Moon’s hand in capitalizing Pyongyang. How Trump deals with Moon, what Kim Jong-un does next, and the results of South Korea’s next by-elections will give us a better sense of whether the voters want Moon to have a mandate or checks on his power. (Who knows when those will be?)
The immediate impact of Moon’s election is that the herculean efforts of Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to secure other nations’ compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea will end. Over to you, Secretary Tillerson. The question that weighs on me more is whether Moon will listen to the counsel of his most extreme advisors, who might endanger the rights of North Korean refugees in South Korea.
Like Roh Moo-hyun, the President he served, Moon Jae-in’s ideological origins are found within the leftist lawyers’ group Minbyun (which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for intimidating North Korean refugees in the South). As lawyers defending left-wing radicals and pro-democracy activists alike against the right-wing dictatorship, Moon and Roh became close friends and law partners in Pusan. Moon went on to become the legal advisor to the Pusan branch of the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, a radicalized union that would draw controversy for the politicized, anti-American, and often pro-North Korean bias of its members’ instruction. In one case, it was caught using textbooks that borrowed heavily from North Korean texts.
[As political photo ops go, this combines all the appeal of Dukakis-in-a-tank and a Village People USO show.]
But the story of the rise of Moon Jae-in, the man who might be South Korea’s next President, really began with the election of 2002, when Moon managed Roh’s campaign. In many ways, the rise was a remarkable one. Neither man had any national political experience, and what experience they had was hardly predictive of success. (Roh’s only previous run for elected office had ended in defeat.) Roh initially ran on a platform of improving relations with North Korea and cleaning up corruption — an ironic position for a man who would later leap to his death as a bribery scandal closed in on him.
But it was not Roh’s promises of clean government that energized his base; instead, Roh and Moon found victory in tragedy. In June of 2002, the U.S. Army held an exercise near the town of Yangju. It should never have been held in such a heavily populated area. The drivers of the armored vehicles that participated contended with narrow roads, poor visibility, and faulty communications equipment. A series of poor-in-retrospect judgments by young soldiers, none of them criminal, ended horribly, with two 14-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, crushed under the tracks of a bridge-laying vehicle.
As anyone living in South Korea could see by then — I was nearing the end of my twice-extended, four-year tour with the Army there — anti-Americanism was already rising, and the presence of so many phalanxes of riot police in downtown Seoul made me wonder if this was what Berlin felt like in the late ‘20s. In that politically charged context, false rumors quickly outran the truth. Some newspapers reported that the soldiers had run over the girls intentionally. Former U.S. diplomat and fluent Korean speaker David Straub recalled some Korean media reported that the soldiers stood and laughed over the girls’ crushed bodies. In reality, the soldiers were devastated and traumatized. (I’ve met and spoken with several of the soldiers who were at the scene. One is a close friend and reader.)
It’s difficult to know how many Koreans really believed such spurious rumors, but there was no serious question that this tragedy was an accident. Most Americans viewed that as mitigating, but I’ve since come to realize that this exacerbated the controversy because of the very different ways in which Americans and Koreans respond to accidents — Americans’ first impulses are to regulate and sue; Koreans, whose legal system does not distinguish between torts and crimes, seek to blame and punish. That goes far to explain why everything the Americans said and did only seemed to make matters worse.
“Almost every Korean I speak to says that the verdict should reflect the feelings of the people. We go to great lengths to separate feelings from the law. It is a different concept,” the official said. He also complained that many apologies had been offered, from senior military brass to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. “In this case, the Koreans just haven’t been listening,” the official said. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Amid the rising outrage, Korean prosecutors asked the Army to waive the provision of the Status of Forces agreement that gave it jurisdiction over on-duty incidents and the Army. The Army, no doubt fearing that the proceeding would be unfair, declined. That part of the decision was the correct one. As a South Korean law professor told a reporter, the two soldiers “almost certainly would have been convicted in a South Korean court.”
Instead, because it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the Army charged the soldiers with negligent homicide at a court-martial. In effect, the Army had heard Koreans’ calls for punishment and mistranslated them as calls for justice. Had I stayed in Korea for another year, it might have fallen to me to defend one of the soldiers in court. Instead, that job fell to others. Of course, any competent Judge Advocate could have predicted that no panel would convict, and any competent diplomat should have predicted how certain elements of Korean society would react to the inevitable acquittal. To compound the error, the case went to trial a month before Korea’s presidential election.
~ ~ ~
For Roh and Moon Jae-in, these events were a political godsend. Even the accounts of journalists sympathetic to Roh’s North Korea policy leave little doubt that Roh’s campaign “orchestrated [and] politically cashed in on an anti-establishment movement” that included “bold anti-American rhetoric.” Mike Chinoy wrote that “Roh’s final campaign rallies were marked by renewed pledges to maintain the Sunshine Policy and increasingly sharp anti-American rhetoric, including warnings that a Roh administration would not necessarily side with the United States in the event the crisis led to armed conflict.” Demonstrators chanted Roh’s name and sang that America was “a vulgar country.”
Roh seemed to be their man. He had been criticizing Bush’s tough approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, preaching reconciliation and dialogue. He promised a policy more independent of American influence, and changes in the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops stationed here. While insisting he wasn’t anti-American, he said he wouldn’t “kowtow” to America. [….]
During the campaign, Roh seemed less accommodating toward Washington, speaking of the need for the Korean president to play a “leading role” in the nuclear crisis rather than “unilaterally obeying U.S. policy without criticism.”
“Exerting pressure on North Korea could be very dangerous,” he said then. “Now it’s time for South Korea to take the lead. We should no longer be a passive player manipulated by others. We and the United States have different interests on this issue. The United States’ goal is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but for us, it can be a matter of life or death.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]
The Korea-based reporter Bobby McGill recounted how anti-Americanism even became a cultural fad.
The anger was palpable. While reporting on events for the the San Francisco Chronicle, I cited a Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Koreans in their 20s said they disliked Americans. Sixty-seven percent in their 30s, along with half of those in their 40s, told Gallup they either “did not like” or “hated” the United States.
Few living on the peninsula at that time were immune to the movement. Businesses around the country banned Americans (and by association, Westerners) from entering, US flags were laid on the ground at university campuses allowing students to walk on them en route to class, and graphic banners of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were erected at rallies, as the American military came under increasingly heated scrutiny for what was ubiquitously viewed as an unfair and unjustified handling of their deaths. [Busan Haps]
The occasion for McGill’s recollection was Americans’ discovery that ten years before his ten minutes of fame, Psy had rapped, “Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives — Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture, Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers — Kill them all slowly and painfully.” A popular girl band’s video featured “cowboy-booted Americans being beaten up, fed to dogs, and tossed off buildings.” One protest anthem was called “F**king USA.”
The extent of the anti-American sentiments stirred by the case was evident over the weekend at the entrance to a restaurant in downtown Seoul, which posted signs saying, “Not Welcome. The Americans.” Other establishments near university campuses were reported to be similarly barring Americans.
“I thought about putting up a sign reading, ‘Yankee, Go Home,’ but that seemed too harsh,” said Lee Chang Yong, 41, who had put up the “Not Welcome” sign. Lee said he appreciates the presence of U.S. troops in defending South Korea but believes that they behave arrogantly without respect for Korean culture. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Even before the accident, there had been acts of anti-American violence. In July 2000, a Korean man had stabbed and killed Major David Berry, a doctor and father of five, on a street I’d walked countless times. In February 2002, protesters ransacked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, stole $10,000, and posted video of the incident on the website of a radical group calling itself “Voice of the People.” A poll later showed that nearly half of South Koreans approved.
Soldiers were warned against wearing our uniforms off-post or traveling alone (as a defense attorney representing clients in remote posts, this was an order I could only disregard). By the time my tour in South Korea ended in July of 2002, and just a month after the fatal accident, I had watched anti-American sentiment build for four years (though my affection for Korea, and for one Korean in particular, was still enough that I extended my tour twice anyway). But it is also true that the rhetoric became more violent in the months after the accident and before the election, held on December 19, 2002, and that actual violence was the inevitable result of this rhetoric.
~ ~ ~
On September 16th came the kidnapping of Private John Murphy in an incident that was clearly premeditated and instigated by So Kyung-won, “a former legislator who was jailed” for ten years “after going to North Korea without permission.” After his release, So became co-chairman of “a committee focusing on the accident involving the girls.” Murphy and two other soldiers were riding on the Seoul subway when a group of protesters accosted them. So tried to hand Murphy a leaflet, which Murphy refused to accept. The soldiers got off at the next stop, but as they tried to leave, they were ”pulled, punched, kicked and spat upon by demonstrators.” So and his comrades held Murphy until he made a videotaped apology and confession. (Like Moon Jae-in, So had been a leader in the KTEU. He would earn repeated praise in Pyongyang for his role in the kidnapping and other anti-American agitprop.)
On September 27th, ten Koreans threw Molotov cocktails into Camp Red Cloud, near Uijongbu. More firebombings would follow after Sergeants Nino and Walker were acquitted on November 20 and 22. Three days later, 20 people calling themselves “Korean Students Seeking Punishment for the Murderous American Soldiers” gathered outside Camp Gray in Seoul and threw ten Molotov cocktails into the post. The next day, 50 protesters broke into Camp Casey, near Dongducheon, north of Seoul. Two days after that, more Molotov cocktails were thrown into Camp Page, near Chuncheon. That same month, a U.S. Army colonel and his wife went to Kyunghee University to talk to a group of students when a group of radicals surrounded and damaged their car, forcing them to flee. Thankfully, no one was injured in these incidents.
Protests, some of them violent, surged on through December. Four protesters cut the wire fence around a post near Incheon. Outside, 500 activists protested and fought with riot police. On the evening of December 15th, three men attacked, tried to stab, and injured Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea who had been the Army’s voice throughout that difficult year. There can be little question that the attack was premeditated. On the morning of December 20th, a day after the election, a passing motorist shot an American soldier with a pellet gun outside a U.S. Army post in Seoul. Later that morning, two U.S. soldiers at Seoul Station were assaulted, grabbed by their throats, and spat on while four South Korean soldiers stood by.
~ ~ ~
Certainly, nothing Roh or Moon said directly encouraged violence against Americans, but they didn’t discourage it, either. (The historical record from that election season is curiously devoid of any comments by Moon Jae-in, or even any coverage of him or his views.) Still, it seems unlikely that Roh could have won without this energy behind him; even with it, he only eked out a narrow win by just two percentage points.
North Korea “welcome[d] Roh’s victory as a defeat for Washington’s harder line” and said that the result “showed that ‘forces instilling anti-North confrontation … cannot escape a crushing defeat.’” It is fair to say that Roh and Moon were no more responsible for all of this than Donald Trump and Steven Bannon are responsible for the rhetoric of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, or for the reaction of their most extreme supporters, but in both cases, the candidates never appealed for an end to the violence or the rhetoric that made it inevitable. Instead, Roh asked, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”
With the election safely behind him, Roh conceded that it had all gone too far.
“I made various remarks on the campaign trail, but I was just roughly touching upon issues without giving full consideration to the diplomatic and security situations,” he said. “I will consult with people in the government and will make more responsible remarks in the future.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]
But this still wasn’t a call for an end to the violence, and the violence was not over. More would follow in the coming years, including violent protests at Camp Humphreys in 2006 that injured 117 policemen and 93 protesters. The violence slowly tapered off as the Sunshine Policy failed to keep its unrealistic promises, as Roh turned out to be another compromised politician, and as North Korea repaid the South’s generosity by sinking one of its warships and shelling a fishing village, killing 50 of its citizens.
Opinions shifted away from the pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiment that dominated in 2002. Today, there is no groundswell to cozy up to Kim Jong-un or kick the Yankees out. Instead, there is the weariness with the industry of politics (see, e.g., America circa 2015) and a combination of anxiety, frustration, and indecision about North Korea (see, e.g., Washington, D.C., circa 2009 to 2015). The spirit of 2002 returned again in 2015, when a pro-North Korean extremist slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert. With delectable irony, Moon warned that “if this incident is politically used … such a move will rather hurt the Seoul-Washington ties.”
~ ~ ~
That is how, in a few short years, Moon Jae-in rose from radical obscurity as a lawyer and ideologue to becoming the closest confidant of a president whom former Defense Secretary Robert Gates later described as “anti-American” and “probably a little crazy.” (In his memoirs, Gates wrote that Roh had called the U.S. and Japan the two greatest threats to security in Asia.) After Moon defended Roh in the latter’s 2004 impeachment, Roh made Moon a job as Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs, putting him in charge of communications with the National Assembly and South Korea’s political parties. He later became Roh’s Chief of Staff, the position he held when he asked Pyongyang for its instructions as to how Seoul’s man in New York should vote on a U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses (and subsequently lied about it).
If Moon Jae-in’s history and recent statements are predictive of his world view, the U.S.-Korea alliance is headed for what we might call “a critical stage.” For example, Moon was widely quoted as promising that if elected, he would visit Pyongyang before he visits Washington, though he now claims that statement was taken out of context. Moon still says he plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a move that would violate U.N. sanctions and directly undermine the Trump administration’s emerging policy of economic pressure on Pyongyang. Moon has opposed, and repeatedly waffled on, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system that protects not only South Korean cities, but U.S. forces and their families. Whereas Moon calls Kim Jong-un a ”partner for dialogue,” he sells himself as the leader of a Korea that can “say no the U.S.” You can get the full flavor of Moon’s putative North Korea policy here.
I’m already on record as predicting that these policies bear a high risk of going down very badly with the current U.S. President, who campaigned on demanding that Korea pay more for the cost of U.S. forces in Korea (a demand I would readily support) and whose recent policy review will emphasize economic pressure on Kim Jong-un. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner, and I recently argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs, one cannot make a coherent policy of subsidizing and sanctioning the same target at the same time. If you wire $7 billion to the man pointing the nukes at you, you forfeit the argument that sanctions haven’t worked. And potentially, you forfeit much more than that.
Moon now says that if elected, he would “pursue [the] realization of the dream that President Roh Moo-hyun was unable to see completed.” Mr. Moon may well realize the dream of another Korean leader, whether he knows it or not.
We now revisit the curious case of a leader inside South Korea’s Blue House who sought and followed the counsel of a cult leader with no official position in the South Korean government and (let us hope!) no security clearance, regarding a highly sensitive question of government policy. By which I refer, of course, to Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-il (who else were you thinking of?). To refresh your memory:
Just before the Park Geun-hye scandal buried every other news story in Korea, Song Min-soon, who was Foreign Minister for the late left-wing ex-President Roh Moo-Hyun, revealed in his memoirs that in 2007, before a U.N. General Assembly vote condemning North Korea’s atrocities against its own people, Roh’s then-Chief of Staff, Moon Jae-in, agreed to ask the perpetrators of the greatest crimes against the Korean people in their long history how Seoul’s U.N. Ambassador should cast his vote. [Me, four months ago]
At first, Moon said he couldn’t remember what happened. Then, his memory recovered and he denied Song’s allegation. Then, he sued some of the conservative opponents who attacked him for it (but not Song himself). I’d begun to think that South Koreans had forgotten all about this until last week, when Moon and the other candidates for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election debated.
Two conservative candidates set an aggressive tone from the outset, accusing him of kowtowing to North Korea and flip-flopping on missile defense.
Yoo Seong-min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party revisited the allegation that the former presidential chief of staff consulted Pyongyang before the government abstained in a vote on U.N. resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations in 2007, an accusation that Moon denied again.
Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party denounced Moon for lying, citing a former foreign minister’s memoirs that first sparked the controversy. Moon countered that Hong was amplifying an unverified claim. [Yonhap]
Enter Song Min-soon, who calmly rises from his counsel table with a piece of paper in his hand. He approaches the clerk of the court, asks the judge to mark Prosecution Exhibit A for identification, and enters it into the record.
The document included what appears to be the North’s opposition to a move in the South to vote for the U.N. resolution, saying that it cannot be “justified under any circumstances” and runs counter to what the then leaders of the two Koreas agreed after holding a summit.
It went on to say that the South is urged to take a “responsible” stance on the resolution issue if it wants to advance its relations with the North, adding that it will “closely” watch how the South acts. At bottom was a handwritten memo that hinted that the document was delivered from the then spy agency chief to the then national security adviser.
The disclosure is expected to create a political controversy in South Korea ahead of the presidential election as it took issue with Moon who has denied it.
The former foreign minister said in the interview that Moon has made himself a liar by strongly denying what he claimed in the memoir and that he had no choice but to make public the document to prove himself right. [Yonhap]
For a moment, I imagined that I could hear the souls of the disappeared men, women, and children of Camp 22 weeping.
This underlines again how South Korea’s libel laws, under which truth is no defense, are harming South Korea’s public discourse. In this case, a “liberal” politician and former “human rights lawyer” tried to use the courts to censor an allegation by his political opponents that Moon sacrificed the human rights of 23 million Koreans for political expediency. That allegation has immense public interest to the voters and to Korean history itself. And as it turns out, the allegation is true.
Even before Song showed Moon Jae-in to be a liar, Moon had been weakened by his flip-flopping and evasive answers on THAAD deployment, and by his statement that the Defense Ministry’s plans would not describe North Korea as the South’s “main enemy” in its defense plans. It can’t help that Pyongyang has made its support for Moon Jae-in as clear as it could without formally endorsing him.
As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng informs us, national security has risen to the top of the list of issues that concern South Korean voters, and the attention to that issue hasn’t been good for Moon, whose support can’t break through a ceiling of 40 percent (less than he earned in his narrow loss in the 2012 election). It’s clear from the views of the candidates that the range of South Korea’s mainstream has shifted significantly (and perhaps, dramatically) since the days when Moon Jae-in ran Roh Moo-hyun’s campaign, and was his closest confidant in the Blue House.
How badly this hurts Moon remains to be seen. Even if Moon wins, he will not enter office with a mandate to pursue some of the more extreme policies he has advanced, such as snubbing the U.S. by visiting Pyongyang before he visits Washington,* canceling THAAD, or violating U.N. sanctions to reopen Kaesong. Almost as importantly, it marks the first time in recent South Korean history that human rights in the North has, however incidentally, become a significant issue in an election.
~ ~ ~
* Moon now says this statement was taken out of context.
If Kim Jong-un’s strategy is what I think it is, it involves provoking a series of escalating security crises, with a plan to “de-escalate” each one through talks, or ideally, though an extended-yet-inconclusive “peace treaty” negotiation, in exchange for a series of pre-planned concessions that would amount to a slow-motion surrender of South Korea. I say “escalating” because Pyongyang’s provocations have escalated in recent years, and because it’s a sure bet they’ll escalate even more after Pyongyang has an effective nuclear arsenal. From that moment, it could be as little as five years before Pyongyang’s strategy achieves sufficient hegemony to exercise significant control over South Korea’s politics, media, textbooks, defense policies, and economic resources, and to effectively intimidate any noisy defectors and activists into silence.
Along the way, however, the risks are great that either a miscalculation, or a U.S. or ROK refusal to slouch passively toward surrender, would end in the most devastating war since 1945. In this post, I will argue that if North Korea cannot be disarmed without war, war is inevitable, but also that premature talk of war impedes our chances of disarming Pyongyang peacefully.
Those who invited this crisis by counseling us to indulge Pyongyang now insist that Pyongyang’s only purpose for acquiring nuclear weapons is to protect itself. But having watched Pyongyang wage the war of skirmishes it resumed in 2010 with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks, I cannot agree that Pyongyang’s objective is merely regime survival. Pyongyang knows that it cannot survive forever as the poorer Korea. Rather, its strategy is to coerce Seoul into a political framework that allows it to exercise and expand its political and economic control over all of Korea. Its master plan does not involve an occupation of the South for the foreseeable future; instead, it contemplates using South Korea’s own government to enforce its writ.
If this belief makes me an outlier, so be it. Just bear in mind that what you and I believe is possible matters less than what Kim Jong-un believes is possible. I also believe that Pyongyang is closer to achieving these objectives than most Americans or South Koreans suspect. Americans underestimate how many South Koreans would willingly sacrifice freedom for the sake of “peace,” or “inter-Korean relations.” Freedom, after all, is as difficult a thing to appreciate as peace unless you’ve lived without it. But if you think that sacrifice would prevent war, keep reading.
One waypoint toward Pyongyang’s objective is sanctions relief from Seoul. This is not just for the primary economic benefits of, say, reopening Kaesong. Any laxity by Seoul in enforcing U.N. sanctions would have far greater secondary benefits for Pyongyang. It would have domino effects in the capitals of North Korea’s arms clients and enablers throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, would create more diplomatic distance between Washington and Seoul, and would break up the global sanctions enforcement coalition-building strategy that had finally taken shape. It would also put Seoul in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s emerging policy, which will emphasize economic pressure. The economic benefits of unearned sanctions relief would help Pyongyang validate its “byungjin” policy by enriching its elites, by showing off its selective prosperity to its sympathizers abroad, and by underwriting its political control over its own “wavering” and “hostile” classes.
Another waypoint is to undermine political support for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington in both capitals. Pyongyang seeks to strain that alliance by raising war fears, and by getting exercises canceled and key weapons systems (read: THAAD, Patriots) withdrawn. It wants to show South Koreans and Americans that this alliance is more risk than it’s worth. If the point comes when the alliance does more to constrain U.S. options and advance them, that time may come sooner than most of us expect.
The war scare that swept through Twitter last week advanced Pyongyang toward that objective. The Pentagon quickly debunked it, and for now, the White House’s strategy is moving toward a well-thought-through list of North Korean industries and targets for sanctions. I could not have said it better than the headline over Grant Newsham’s recent piece for the Asia Times: “Before attacking North Korea, please try everything else.” The subhead to his piece was, “Try sanctions, real sanctions.” (Do read the entire piece.) War talk is not only premature and unnecessary, it’s apt to help bring Pyongyang closer to realizing its political objectives by scaring South Koreans into wanting the U.S. gone.
Maybe some of this war talk is simple disinformation or bad journalism. My fear is that the White House thinks raising the fear of war will put Pyongyang and Beijing off their game and raise our leverage. It needs to understand that a war panic could cost us the confidence of people in Japan and South Korea whose support we’ll need to prevent war. This crisis is scary enough at it is. Turning well-grounded concerns into panic serves no one’s interests but Kim Jong-un’s.
But it is also true that the anti-sanctions / talk-to-North-Korea crowd is, however unintentionally, also contributing to the risk of war. To their credit, most of them are at least honest enough to admit that they no longer believe a negotiated nuclear disarmament of North Korea is possible. They should also be honest enough to admit that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status will lead to a catastrophic war, not peace. A nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us, with South Korea, or with human civilization itself. As Anthony Ruggiero and I recently noted:
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un last month sent assassins to Malaysia to murder his half-brother in a crowded airport terminal with a chemical weapon. Pyongyang has sent assassins abroad to kidnap and kill human rights activists and dissidents, proliferated ballistic missiles, and sold weapons — including man-portable surface-to-air missiles — to terrorists and their sponsors. It attacked South Korea twice in 2010: sinking a warship and shelling a fishing village, which killed 50 of its citizens. The hermit kingdom is a state sponsor of terrorism, even in the absence of a formal designation: it has helped Syria use chemical weapons against its own people, and attacked our freedom of expression with terrorist threats against movie theaters across the United States.
Nor can the U.S. invest its hopes in talks alone. Pyongyang insists that it will neither freeze nor dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. U.S. envoys have met with their North Korean counterparts during almost every year in the last decade, yet failed to induce Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks. In 2012, President Obama finally secured Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Two weeks later, Pyongyang reneged.
I might add that in 2007, North Korea secretly built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. There is no compromise, no half-surrender, no piece of paper that will secure peace and prevent war without Pyongyang’s disarmament and without fundamental humanitarian reforms. As long as Pyongyang possesses weapons of mass destruction, and as long as its model of survival is based on terror and secrecy, it will still pose an existential threat to the United States, to Americans’ freedom of speech, and to the security of the entire world. As the Sony cyber terrorist threat, the Bangladesh Bank theft, and the horrors in Syria have shown us, North Korea isn’t just a Korean problem, it is, as President Trump said recently, “a humanity problem.” If you really think the solution to this is as simple as “talk to them,” at least review the record on just how many times President Obama and his predecessors tried to do exactly that.
That’s why, in the medium term, the U.S. may well decide that it must strike first to prevent a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the American people. The more Washington trusts Seoul, the more value it sees in maintaining an alliance with Seoul to help disarm Pyongyang peacefully, and the less likely war is. The less Washington trusts Seoul, the less certain it is whose side Seoul is on, and the less certain it is that a warning to Seoul wouldn’t also be a tip-off to Pyongyang, the less likely President Trump is to warn Seoul of a preemptive strike. You don’t have to tell me the risks of this. There are people in South Korea I love. Not that it should matter; the people on both sides of the DMZ who would suffer are human beings. We should want all of them to have a chance not only to survive, but also to live.
[Korean refugees flee south, 1950. This photo, by Max Desfor, won a Pulitzer Prize.]
There are times when I suspect that it requires a Ph.D. to harbor the madness that we can ever have peace with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea. Thankfully, the first 2,000 names in the telephone directory have a firmer grasp on reality than this. Only 35 percent of them support preemptive strikes, but just 11 percent of them support the idea of accepting that North Korea will keep building nukes. Overwhelming majorities want us to enforce sanctions (80 percent) and continue our diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program (81 percent). They hold uniformly dim views of North Korea (78 percent “unfavorable” and 61 percent “very unfavorable”). Majorities are “very concerned” about North Korea having nuclear weapons (65 percent) but would still support the use of force if an Asian ally got into a “serious conflict” with North Korea (64 percent).
Each week that passes diminishes our chances to prevent another war in Korea. There is no more time to be wasted on the palliative policies of engagement and talks that have produced no positive results, and which have done so much to bring us to the present crisis by paying Pyongyang to nuke up. For now, there is no chance that talks will achieve our key aim of disarming Pyongyang, but it would be a grave error to rule out talks entirely, because the time will come when diplomacy will be essential to preventing war. If sanctions and political subversion bring Pyongyang to the point where it fears (and Beijing also fears) that its regime will collapse — and to achieve the necessary pressure to disarm Pyongyang, they must — then we must leave Pyongyang a diplomatic escape that, while distasteful to it (and in some regards, to us) is still preferable to war. But for now, our choice increasingly comes down to making sanctions work or accepting that war is inevitable.
Yesterday, the State Department hailed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses and recommending that member states help identify perpetrators for possible prosecution. The U.N.’s progress has been agonizingly slow, and I won’t argue against those who say that the HRC’s membership standards are Exhibit A in the case for reforming it. Still, for an administration that has not emphasized human rights, that’s an encouraging sign.
By now, it’s fairly clear that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy review will not recommend that we chase Kim Jong-un for talks he doesn’t want, to plead for a freeze or disarmament he won’t give, or (in the unlikely event he does agree, when under pressure) long keep. That is for the best. There may yet be a time for talks with North Korea, but that time will be after progressive diplomacy aligns the rest of the world behind denying the regime the choice to survive as a nuclear state, and after pressure begins to threaten the regime’s survival.
By now, it’s also fairly clear that to build that pressure, the Trump administration won’t spare the Chinese banks whose money laundering has been essential to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, despite the discontent that this consolidation has sown among the elites. That is also good.
What I have been watching for, and what I have not yet seen much of, is evidence that the policy will include another essential ingredient: pressure on Pyongyang over its denial of human rights to its people (and on Beijing, for its support for that denial). Yesterday, I took the afternoon off to attend this event at the American Enterprise Institute, commemorating the third anniversary of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, where Justice Michael Kirby attended and spoke (starting at 2:43:00 of this video). My panel started at 3:50:00 and focused on the links between security issues (which often crowd out and sideline other issues) and human rights. Watch all of the presentations — they’re all excellent. In fact, when I have the time to watch it, I’m sure I’ll say the same of all of the day’s speeches and panels. At 4:29:00, I make my case that one cannot build or sustain an international or domestic consensus on North Korea policy without making human rights a central issue in that policy. Here’s why:
1. Congress will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. Human rights is the issue that unites liberals and conservatives in Congress more than any other. Neither will stand for its exclusion, and neither will stop talking about it.
2. The world will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. In recent years, we’ve seen Europe, Japan, and even such far-flung nations as Botswana mobilize around human rights as a central issue in their own approaches to North Korea.
3. North Korea’s denial of human rights explains why we should care about its missiles, VX, and nukes. I lose no sleep over the fact that France, Israel, or India have nukes. No other nuclear state — not even China — shows nearly the reckless disregard for human life that North Korea does. North Korea can’t be trusted with small arms, much less nukes. We know that because of how North Korea treats its people.
5. It will be a source of leverage over South Korea. It will be a way to pressure Moon Jae-in if he tries to reopen Kaesong or make similar arrangements that violate and undermine U.N. sanctions by using the slave labor of fellow Koreans. It will be a way to pin the shame of history on him if he again advocates abstaining from U.N. resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity, or permitting the sort of outrageous and unethical harassment of North Korean refugees that Minbyun used against the Ningpo 13. So let South Korea engage in cultural and sports exchanges if it thinks this will lower tensions or improve relations, as long as money does not change hands, and as long as South Korea does not legitimize the crimes that the world should instead unite to demand that it end.
6. Human rights is a test of whether diplomacy is even possible. Given North Korea’s negotiating history, we’d be fools to trust it as it is. Why should we trust it when it tells flagrant lies about the most basic conditions of life within its borders or denies that its political prison camps even exist? Or when it hides vast areas of its territory from the world, including a prison camp, Camp 16, that’s directly adjacent to its nuclear test site? Or when every scientist, soldier, or resident who tells the truth to a weapons inspector fears being sent to one of those camps? Engagement advocates insist that North Korea wants diplomatic and trade relations with us. But in the end, we will never have — and should never have — a normal relationship with a county that commits crimes against humanity. Engagement advocates laugh when I suggest that North Korea should allow food aid workers to freely monitor how their aid is distributed, or let Red Cross workers set up clinic or feeding stations in prison camps (like we’d expect any other government to do). What does that tell you about the prospects for an enduring disarmament or a peace treaty?
Finally, if the Trump administration eventually accepts that the defense of human rights is a source of American strength — not just against North Korea, but against Iran, China, and (yes) Russia — it will realize that it cannot adopt policies that render its own advocacy of human rights a punchline. That does not mean that it must yield to every naive or extreme demand that we open our borders to all comers, but it does mean that some of the more practical minds in the new administration will have stronger arguments against candidate Trump’s less practical and more extreme ideas about fighting terrorism that would deny us moral authority ourselves. That, too, would be to the betterment of the world.
More and more, I am hearing that Moon Jae-in, the left-wing front-runner in the South Korean presidential election, is talking about reopening and expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It’s apparent that Mr. Moon and his supporters haven’t thought through the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of that. Perhaps this post will help concentrate some minds by telling Koreans, in frank terms, what most people in Washington really think about that idea.
1. Kaesong violates U.N. sanctions.
I heard somewhere that Moon Jae-in calls himself a lawyer (a human rights lawyer, no less). Perhaps Mr. Moon should devote a moment of his legal acumen to reading the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions resolutions on North Korea. Earlier this year, the South Korean government acknowledged that North Korea probably used Kaesong funds to pay for nukes. How is that anything but a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, paragraph (d), which requires states to ensure that money they pay Pyongyang isn’t used for nukes? Resolution 2321, paragraph 32, bans public and private support for trade with North Korea, “including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade.” Does Moon really think anyone will invest in Kaesong without those subsidies, which the U.N. has since prohibited? Yes, there is a provision for a U.N. committee to approve that support. Expect the U.S. to block that approval, for the reasons that follow.
2. Kaesong paves the road to war.
How can South Korea ask other countries to follow the U.N. sanctions it would be violating if it reopens Kaesong? Reopening Kaesong would also deprive the U.S. of credibility to demand that China, or African or Middle Eastern states, follow the resolutions when our own ally is also violating them. Abandon sanctions and you’ve abandoned our last hope of disarming Kim Jong-un without war. The choice the U.S. would then face comes down to a preemptive strike, or abandoning Korea to its fate. If North Korea poses a direct threat to the United States, don’t assume President Trump would consider those to be mutually exclusive options.
3. Does Kim Jong-un take payment in ChocoPies?
North Korea is now designated as a Primary Money Laundering Concern, and North Korean banks can’t access the international financial system. Many of its banks are also directly blocked from the financial system, and more will be before this year is over. What is Moon Jae-in planning to pay the North Koreans with — ChocoPies? Because paying in dollars — Kim Jong-un wants dollars — is going to be very difficult. For Moon Jae-in to subsidize the same target we’re sanctioning will put the U.S. and South Korea at cross purposes.
4. Kaesong could lead to a catastrophic breakdown in the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Worse yet, reopening Kaesong would mean that while U.S. taxpayers would be subsidizing South Korea’s defense, South Korea would be subsidizing North Korea and its nukes. How long before that shows up in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed? American taxpayers won’t stand for that, nor should they. Why should we effectively subsidize both sides of this conflict, all while bearing a rising risk that U.S. involvement on South Korea’s behalf is feeding a direct North Korean threat to the U.S. homeland? Americans are willing to bear a certain amount of cost to defend allies, but not neutrals, frenemies, or enemies. If Kaesong reopens, expect to see more calls for U.S. disengagement from Korea. Koreans shouldn’t count on President Trump to be the cooler head who prevails over that sentiment.
Worse, reopening Kaesong would effectively mean that U.S. troops and their families would be hostages to the interests of both Koreas, limiting U.S. options for neutralizing a North Korean threat to the United States. In Washington today, one increasingly hears talk of preemptive strikes to prevent Pyongyang from gaining the ability to nuke Seattle. If President Trump decides to pursue that option (see my previous comment on “cooler heads”) the U.S. would have every incentive to disengage from South Korea first, to limit U.S. casualties in the event of retaliation. That could take the form of a breakdown in cost-sharing talks, unilateral “restructuring” of the alliance, or an unscheduled NEO exercise.
5. Kaesong incentivizes proliferation.
The other day, I tweeted a story about how Israel is asking President Trump to prioritize North Korea’s disarmament, because of the message it would send around the world if North Korea becomes a de facto recognized nuclear state. What Moon Jae-in and his supporters must understand is that North Korea’s nukes are not just a Korean problem or a regional problem — they’re a global problem. North Korea’s suspicious links to Iran, its construction of the Al-Kibar reactor in Syria, and its willingness to sell any weapon to any buyer are far greater threats than its missiles will ever be. Kaesong’s backers promised us, of course, that Kaesong would soothe North Korea and encourage it to disarm. How’d that work out?
Given the belligerence of Pyongyang’s recent behavior, in what sense has Kim Jong-un earned a reward that would help him win back the fraying loyalty of his elites? In what sense can we say that Kaesong would be more successful in improving North Korea’s behavior that it was between 2006 and 2016? What kind of message would it send to Pyongyang (or Tehran) that Kim Jong-un reaps a huge financial windfall by testing nukes and missiles? Pouring cash into Pyongyang through Kaesong doesn’t just undermine the financial pressure of sanctions, and consequently, a central part of our North Korea policy, it undermines the sanctions-based diplomatic strategy that’s been essential to preventing proliferation in Iran and everywhere else. That’s why Koreans shouldn’t expect the U.S. to be the only state to raise concerns about Kaesong.
6. Kaesong is slavery.
Has Seoul ever given us a credible answer to the question of how much of their so-called wages the workers actually receive? Or what rights they have to strike, quit, or demand safer working conditions? In other words, why should we see Kaesong as anything other than the mildest form of slavery North Korea has to offer? Has South Korea even demanded labor reforms or financial transparency in its dealing with the North Koreans? Doesn’t that really tell you everything you need to know about the discredited idea that engagement would lead to reform, disarmament, and peace? Kaesong has been Pyongyang’s tool to influence Seoul, not the other way around. As with all engagement with North Korea, it really raises the same old question: “Who changed who?”
7. Kaesong could kill the Free Trade Agreement.
People in both the U.S. and South Korea have already forgotten how hard it was to get congressional approval for the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries, or the fact that Kaesong was one of its most controversial points of contention. Annex 22-C, which covers “outward processing zones,” is widely understood as a reference to Kaesong, and a desire by South Korea to export Kaesong products to the U.S. Not only is that a non-starter, it’s a poison pill that could kill the entire FTA. If Kaesong reopens, expect to hear more questions about Kaesong-made components and parts in products exported to the U.S. through the FTA. Directly or indirectly importing goods or services from North Korea is already a felony under this executive order. On top of that, there’s a section in the Tariff Act that prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States.
Donald Trump’s criticism of the FTA last year reminded us that it remains controversial here, and exposed that the FTA has ferocious critics in both parties. When I worked with the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, I met with several hundred of the staffers from both parties who tell their bosses how to vote on legislation. That experience gave me a very good idea of how Congress feels about Kaesong, and there’s no other way to say this — Congress absolutely hates Kaesong. That sentiment includes staffers for individual members and powerful committees. I can count several occasions when staffers harangued me about their hatred of Kaesong with as much intensity as . . . as I’m haranguing you right now. As you can probably guess, not one of them ever got an argument back from me. (Update: The staffer I remember best immediately asked me whether H.R. 1771 flat-out banned Kaesong products. When I said it didn’t, her immediate reaction was to tell her boss to withhold his co-sponsorship.)
That sentiment will only rise now that blue-collar, rust-belt voters have emerged as the decisive constituency in elections. Orange Republicans and Green Democrats will both have protectionist incentives to renegotiate or cancel the FTA. Red Republicans will hate the idea of indirectly subsidizing North Korea. Blue Democrats will cave to FTA opponents like Hillary Clinton caved to Trans-Pacific Partnership opponents (because they want to win Michigan, silly). Liberals will be inflamed by the idea that Americans are buying products made (in part) by slaves. I’m generally pro-free trade, and am for the TPP, yet I have some sympathy with all of those arguments. If Kaesong reopens, I’d want to see the FTA renegotiated or canceled entirely. Is reopening Kaesong worth risking the whole FTA?
8. Kaesong didn’t work.
Now, weigh the benefits of Kaesong against those costs. The idea behind Kaesong, of course, was that it was supposed to integrate the two states’ economies and interests, which would lead to reforms, the easing of tensions, the opening of North Korea’s society, and eventually, disarmament. None of those things happened — none. I would argue that Kaesong was actually a source of tension, because of North Korea’s constant arbitrary demands, leading to the 2013 and 2016 closures, costing investors millions in uninsured losses, and guaranteeing that no sane investor would ever go in. In fact, I think I may have found the perfect metaphor for Kaesong: