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South Korean censors fine lawmaker $4300 for telling the truth about Minbyun (updated)

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

[12 of the Ningpo 13, and 5 colleagues who stayed behind.]

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.

On the other hand, at least one unconfirmed report claims that Minbyun’s habeas petition caused a senior North Korean defector to choose to flee to a third country instead of South Korea.

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. 

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Minbyun’s frivolous lawfare terrorizes 12 young N. Korean refugees & endangers lives.

The western association of “left” with “liberal” does not hold up well in South Korea, whose political spectrum is dominated by warring factions of nationalists. These factions wield the law as an authoritarian sword against their rivals, and as a (sometimes flimsy) shield against their rivals’ authoritarian assaults. Historically, the worst authoritarianism was on the political right before the transition to democracy in 1987. The left still fuels its moral propulsion from the nostalgia of dissent dating back to this time, but the authoritarian imperative survives, throughout Korea’s political spectrum.

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.)

Ningpo 13

[12 of the Ningpo 13, and 5 colleagues who stayed behind.]

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.

ningpo 13

[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 hostagesWhat 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.

pilate

Just remember to wash them well afterward.

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Moon Jae-in lied, people died

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.

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Stop the war. Enforce sanctions.

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.

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Why human rights must be a part of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy

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.

4. It’s a source of surprising leverage over North Korea. I won’t say it’s exactly kryptonite to them, but they’re showing signs of being much more vulnerable to it than even I had suspected.

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.

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Eight reasons why reopening Kaesong could be a deal-breaker for the U.S.-Korea alliance

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 happenednone. 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:


If you can cite any evidence to the contrary, my comments are open. From where I sit, Kaesong was such an unmitigated failure that I find the support for it inexplicable, and — here is my main point — so do most other Americans. This isn’t to say the U.S. can’t find room for compromise with a Moon administration. I can see an accord emerge in which South Korea pursues harmless forms of engagement, such as visits by athletes and artists, or well-monitored humanitarian aid. But the U.S. position ought to be that no money must change hands, because financial pressure must necessarily play a central role in our efforts to disarm Kim Jong-un, and for years, South Korean subsidies to Pyongyang undermined that strategy. Kaesong could be a deal-breaker in the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Indeed, it may well deserve to be.

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South Korea does not trust Trump. America would not trust Moon Jae-in.

After Donald Trump’s election, many South Koreans experienced shock and abandonment issues about their alliance with America. It would not be necessary for our man in Seoul — whose face was recently slashed by an anti-American fanatic — to reassure Koreans about the strength of the alliance if most people felt certain about its strength. Trump’s post-election call with President Park seems to have calmed Koreans’ fears, after which they returned their energy to finding the most anarchic formula possible for holding a head of state to account. But if Korea’s fears of abandonment have calmed, it is this anarchic aspect of Korea’s political culture, combined with the nationalist streak that has arisen in our own country, that causes me to suspect that any sense of security is a false one. And now, it is Americans who may soon doubt the fidelity of their trans-Pacific ally. 

In South Korea, protests have just about ousted President Park Geun-hye, a sometimes-competent and possibly (but not extraordinarily) corrupt president, for taking her counsel from a cult leader. But if the principle thus vindicated is that presidents of the Republic may not seek counsel from cults, the crowds still have some unfinished business. They should now turn their attention to the next aspiring president who takes his counsel from a cult — a far more controlling and dangerous one. I refer, of course, to Moon Jae-in taking his counsel from North Korea.

Oh, what’s that you say? You forgot already?

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. 

The U.N. vote came about 40 days after Roh met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2007 in the second summit between leaders of the rival Koreas. In November, Song and other top officials were at odds over whether South Korea should vote in favor or against the U.N. resolution, which called for, among other things, improvement of the North’s human rights conditions.

Amid the dispute, then-intelligence chief Kim Man-bok floated the idea of asking North Korea’s opinion and Moon accepted it, according to the memoir. North Korea later told the South that it would closely keep an eye on Seoul’s vote, as it warned of dangerous situations, Song said in his memoir, citing his conversation with Baek Jong-chun, then-chief secretary on foreign and security policy for Roh.

Roh — a liberal president who sought reconciliation with North Korea — eventually decided to abstain from the 2007 U.N. vote on North Korea’s human rights record, Song said. Many liberal South Koreans have shied away from the issue of North Korea’s human rights out of fear that it could strain inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

When Song’s memoir first hit the shelves and the headlines, Moon claimed that he couldn’t remember all the details of his meetings with the North Koreans. A few days later, however, his memory had recovered well enough for him to sue his political opponents for spreading what he called a false rumor (although he didn’t sue Song, the frenemy who started it all). Kim Man-bok, the former National Intelligence Service head and co-conspirator, even suggested that Song should be prosecuted for leaking confidential information. For his part, Song stands by the allegation and wonders what the big deal is.

Moon’s scandal soon became a major news story that threatened his presidential ambitions — that is, until the unexplained discovery of Choi Soon-sil’s tablet knocked it out of the headlines. Since then, Moon has risen to the top of a weak field for next year’s presidential election. Before that, the lagubrious former U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon polled highest (at 27 percent), compared to Moon (18 percent) and Ahn Cheol-soo (9 percent). Ban has not declared his candidacy, but friends say he has decided to run. A subsequent poll has Moon in the lead, at just under 21 percent. (Ordinarily, I’d have called Ban “center-left;” after all, he served Roh as his Foreign Minister before Song did, but today, the press thinks he might actually seek the conservative Saenuri Party’s nomination.) Of course, the polls will remain volatile for some time, and South Korea today has shifted back to the center since the Roh years, but it’s difficult to trust the persistence of that shift.

But if Korea has already forgotten about Moon Jae-in’s scandal, America shouldn’t. It should remind us that the Roh administration Moon served caused the deepest and most lasting damage to relations between the American and Korean peoples in the alliance’s 70-year history. Roh and his supporters denied it, of course, but they often trafficked in and exploited anti-American and pro-North Korean rhetoric. Americans who watched Korea from near and far in those years wondered if South Korea knew which side it was on. Since then, a generation of Americans who lived through that time has risen to prominence in making and implementing the policies that underpin the alliance. This is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of former privates, specialists, and staff sergeants to whom Donald Trump’s denigration of the alliance with South Korea consequently rang true. For them, those years were about “force protection” advisories, violent protests, being warned against going downtown alone, or hearing that their friends had been assaulted and spat on by the people they were supposed to be defending.

Before he served in Roh’s cabinet, Moon was a member of the left-wing lawyers’ group Minbyun, which calls itself a human rights group. When last seen on OFK, Minbyun was litigating a legally frivolous petition that would have forced 12 young North Korean women who defected from a regime restaurant in Ningpo, China, to say before the eyes of the world — and the minders who held their loved ones hostage in Pyongyang — whether they defected of their own free will or were (as only Pyongyang and its sycophants claim) abducted by South Korean spies. The petition flew in the face of internationally recognized refugee confidentiality rules, could have endangered the lives of the women or their families in North Korea, and may have deterred other North Korean officials from defecting to South Korea. It was itself a human rights violation and an ethical outrage. Very recently, Moon’s Minjoo Party was mostly preoccupied with stalling the implementation of South Korea’s new human rights law.

These are uncertain times on both sides of the Pacific. We still don’t know what Trump’s Korea policy will be. Maybe cooler heads will prevail here and the panic about his campaign rhetoric will prove to be overblown. But if the North Korea nuclear crisis soon escalates — and it will — Americans won’t have much patience with South Koreans who either seem unwilling to pick a side, or who seem willing to pick the other one. If Moon Jae-in campaigns on an anti-American or neutralist platform, or tries to break U.N. sanctions to subsidize a North Korea that will soon pose a direct threat to America, I can easily see Trump and his advisors deciding that Moon can’t be trusted with their most sensitive contingency plans, or even that the alliance itself does more to restrain us than protect us. Outwardly, George W. Bush put up with Roh Moo-hyun’s antics, but it’s a sure bet that Donald Trump would not put up with Moon Jae-in’s. 

That goes double for Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon,* a principal founder of a far-left group called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and also a potential presidential candidate. The PSPD opposed North Korea human rights legislation out of a desire to appease its rulers, and alternatively questioned and justified North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing 46 of its sailors in 2010. The PSPD raised controversy a few months after the tragedy, when it advanced its “truther” conspiracy theories in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, despite the findings of an international investigation that North Korea sank the ship. 

This leads me to conclude that Donald Trump is not the greatest threat to the U.S.-Korea alliance. Not even Moon Jae-in is the greatest threat to the U.S.-Korea alliance. The greatest threats to the alliance are the uniquely volatile combination of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, and the even more volatile combination of Donald Trump and Park Won-soon. 

America, for better or worse, has made its decision. Now, it’s Korea’s turn. The few people in Washington who know who Moon Jae-in is have as little confidence in him as Koreans have in Trump. As North Korea approaches nuclear breakout, South Koreans should not count on Washington having Moon Jae-in’s back. We will have to live with our choices; Korea will have to live with its own.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post called Park Won-soon the former Mayor of Seoul (he is still mayor).

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In Russia, job holds YOU down (if you’re a North Korean)

For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”

“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]

KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.

“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]

Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.

[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]

Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.

Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

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[Pictured: flood relief]

According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”

On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”

“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]

Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)

The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.

It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.

Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]

The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.

“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.” 

Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.

Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.

And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.

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What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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12 N. Korean restaurant workers resettled in S. Korea amid new N. Korean terror threats

Pyongyang has finally settled on a story to explain the defection of its number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho. Initially, Pyongyang’s principal puppet in Tokyo, Kim Myong-chol, had suggested that South Korean agents had coerced Thae into defecting. Now, Pyongyang is accusing Thae of embezzlement and child rape, and lashing out at Britain for aiding his escape.

thatstheticket

Until very recently, the British Foreign Office had hewed in a strongly pro-engagement direction. I wonder how this rupture will affect Britain’s policy under Theresa May.

Pyongyang’s story raises more questions than answers. It’s a transparent smear, of course, but for it to be true, either the North Korean authorities discovered all of Thae’s misconduct at the same time — immediately before he defected — or else it overlooked one or both of these crimes for some unspecified period of time beforehand. Among the details Pyongyang unwittingly exposed is that even Thae, ostensibly a trusted member of the elite, did not have custody of his own passport. Clearly, Pyongyang is terrified of Thae’s potential power as a counter-propagandist. That’s why it’s desperate to discredit him now.

Amid the Great Disturbance In The Force that is the North Korean diplomatic corps this week, let’s not forget the 12 brave young North Korean women who defied a dictator, risked their lives — and, it must be said, the safety of their families — and made a break for freedom.

Ningpo 13

Yonhap reports that the women have now left the care of the National Intelligence Service and “resettled” in undisclosed locations throughout South Korea.

The Ministry of Unification said that it is true that they have begun to resettle in South Korea, but it cannot reveal further details due to concerns over their safety. [….]

The rare massive defection has garnered attention over whether the sanctions have a major impact on pressuring North Korea, as Pyongyang-run restaurants in foreign countries have served as one of main sources of hard currency for the North.

But the case has also sparked a row in South Korea over whether they defected to Seoul of their own free will following North Korea’s repeated claims that the female workers were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency. [Yonhap]

They’ve escaped one set of hardships, but they’re about to confront another. They’ll need all the support they can find from their new society.

The resettlement of the women comes amid media speculation that North Korea could retaliate against South Korea for recent high-profile defections though terrorist attacks, maybe against South Koreans in third countries, and maybe by sending assassins to kill former Deputy Ambassador Tae Yong-ho. Without knowing more, the reports could be pure speculation, but that speculation has a solid backing in history. In the last several years alone, North Korea has repeatedly dispatched assassins to murder North Korean refugees in the South.

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

One group that can’t be pleased about the resettlement is the North Korean leadership. Another is South Korea’s far left, specifically the lawyers’ group Minbyun, which tried to abuse the legal process to expose and publicly interrogate the women, as part of what I personally believe was a plan to deter more defections. Minbyun’s failure is further cause for celebration, although it may have succeeded in deterring other defections.

Life will not be easy for these women. Concerns for their safety will prohibit them from becoming going on book tours or joining the cast of “Now on My Way to Meet You.”

They’ll be lonely, isolated from family, and wracked by guilt about the fate of their families. They’ll probably be isolated from their former colleagues, to protect each other from exposure in case the Reconnaissance General Bureau finds and turns one of them, perhaps by using family members as hostages. As long as the regime in Pyongyang survives, they will wonder if they can trust even their closest friends, yet their dialects and manners will be conspicuous in a country where neighbors often know a great deal about one another. Nor would I put it past far-left groups to try to stalk and out them. But for now, at least Minbyun will have the consolation of four new victims to bully — the family of Thae Yong-ho, who recently said this about the Ningpo 12:

I just can’t process that much irony. Look for Minbyun to file for an extradition request any day now.

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S. Korea’s quisling left goes all-out to bully N. Koreans out of defecting, and it just might work

We still have few details and no confirmation regarding the reported defection of that North Korean general in China, other than this Korea Times report that he absconded with $40 million, and that he “was in charge of Section 39 inside the Korean Workers’ Party.” (KBS had reported that he was in charge of regime slush funds in southeast Asia only.) The Korea Times report probably refers to what’s more commonly referred to as Bureau 39, Room 39, or Office 39, the North Korean government’s official money-laundering agency. It also claims that the general has two family members with him. (The KBS report said that he defected with three other officials.)

The South Korean government is confirming nothing, but denying nothing. Having watched the Korean press report anonymously sourced NIS leaks for more than a decade now, the inconsistencies aren’t surprising, but my gut tells me there’s a grain of truth to the reports. They would also fit with the broader trend I’m hearing on the street from knowledgeable people — that the North Korean elites have lost faith in Kim Jong-un, and are feeling their way to the exits. My gut also tells me that this time, China may be deferring to Pyongyang to pressure Seoul over THAAD.

I wish I could say that South Korea’s hard left, most prominently represented these days by the lawyers’ group Minbyun, had also lost its faith in Kim Jong-un. Sadly for South Korean history, Minbyun is no fringe group; it has already produced one South Korean president and one presidential candidate. Once, it defended human rights against right-wing South Korean dictators, but since then, it has lost its way. Today, Minbyun wages lawfare for North Korean dictators. It fraudulently represents itself as a human rights group while abusing the law to deny North Korean refugees their human rights. It has taken to doing this by bullying 12 young North Korean women who had the courage to flee the from a restaurant in China, where their government had effectively impressed them into forced labor.

[These are the people Minbyun is using the courts to terrorize.]

Minbyun has demanded the right to interrogate the women — publicly, before the eyes of the North Korean authorities who hold their loved ones as hostages — about their intentions to defect. This would be in flagrant violation of a refugee’s absolute right to confidentiality, a right the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has long affirmed. When the judge correctly dismissed Minbyun’s petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be removed from the case. Since then, an appellate court has refused to remove the judge.

The justification for Minbyun’s legally frivolous petition is North Korea’s factually absurd claim that the South Korean intelligence service kidnapped the women. Minbyun’s real goal is to terrorize would-be refugees, to deter a surge of defections that could bring down the regime in Pyongyang. In furtherance of this campaign, 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. Whether this was disinformation, or just another case of the Hankyoreh doing sloppy, poorly-sourced reporting without checking with the primary sources, I can’t say.

Even worse, Amnesty International briefly seemed to take Minbyun’s side when it reportedly “called on the South Korean government to disclose more information about the 13.” You’d think that a human rights organization would have a better grasp of the legal and practical reasons why the South Korean government should not disclose more information about them. You’d think it would grasp the obvious reality that the families in Pyongyang are under the control and manipulation of the state. It said that “the North Koreans have been unable to access lawyers,” which is also false — they’re being represented zealously, by a lawyer recommended by the Korean Bar Association. (If you’re an Amnesty donor, ask Amnesty to repudiate this misguided effort, or consider moving your donations elsewhere.)

Which brings us back to the story of the general, and three other North Koreans who allegedly defected with him. While the truth struggles to put its pants on, they’ve provided evidence that Minbyun’s lawfare influenced their plans.

The source said the four didn’t choose to defect to South Korea partly because of a petition by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society filed last month for habeas corpus relief of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in China who defected to Seoul in April. [KBS Radio]

I suppose it’s possible that the lawyers at Minbyun aren’t willful servants of puppet masters in Pyongyang; they could just be exceptionally and selectively gullible. What’s clear is that they’re abusing the legal process to make a patently frivolous case that flies in the face of the absolute right of confidentiality that all refugees are guaranteed under the 1951 U.N. convention. There is also fresh evidence that lives are at stake here.

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]

Meanwhile, in the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, an 18-year-old North Korean student who defected from a mathematics tournament waits for the word that will determine whether he lives in freedom or dies in terror.

Obviously, there would be no reason for North Korea to shoot six people in front of 180 other people if the South Korean NIS really had kidnapped the 13 restaurant workers. Only an imbecile or a shill could believe Pyongyang’s claim, but South Korea is a society afflicted by a vocal minority of people who, though often technologically advanced, highly educated, and academically intelligent, are also logically retarded. In other cases, there is a simpler explanation for these people.

Some obvious cautions apply to this report, of course. I can easily believe that Pyongyang would murder hostages, or even plant false stories that it’s murdering hostages in the hope of coercing would-be defectors, but this is, after all, an anonymously sourced story from inside the world’s most secretive regime. The principle stands that the public interrogations of refugees from a place like North Korea can endanger lives. The principle also stands that Minbyun doesn’t care.

As I said before, the proper answer to Minbyun’s demands is for the South Korean government to give representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees access to all 13 workers — the 12 who are the subject of Minbyun’s petition, and the one who isn’t. The 13 could then express their actual intentions to the UNHCR. Those expressions, and the very fact of the UNHCR interview, must remain absolutely confidential. In fact, if that interview had already taken place, we wouldn’t know, and shouldn’t know.

In any other civilized country, lawyers who abuse the process to terrorize the innocent and vulnerable would be disbarred, but not in South Korea. The many reasons I look forward to the North Korean revolution include my anticipation of reading the names of all the South Korean — and American? — agents in the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s personnel files. Also, its hit list.

But in the end, will Minyun’s efforts be enough? Not if the recent surge in defections represents the beginnings of a preference cascade against the regime. Not if Pyongyang is losing control of the borders Kim Jong-un has struggled so much to seal. The Unification Ministry is reporting that after declining each year since Kim Jong-un came to power, the number of defectors reaching South Korea rose more than 15% in the first half of this year. The regime is stepping up searches, including strip searches, of people leaving the country, apparently in an effort to catch those who might be carrying out their life’s savings in gold. Human smuggling is also on the rise again. Border guards, armed and unarmed, are crossing the border, or robbing North Korean civilians, out of apparent desperation, embittering the civilian population. In the end, however, China can do much to contain these outbreaks, as it has for years.

Meanwhile, Seoul has figured out that one effective response to fake abduction claims is to assert real ones. It has begun to raise demands that the U.N. investigate North Korea’s abduction of its own citizens, and those demands have gained traction at Turtle Bay. The U.N. may not be taking Pyongyang’s abduction claims seriously, but it is calling on North Korea to provide information about 14 South Koreans believed to be held captive in North Korea, including crew members from a South Korean plane that was hijacked to Pyongyang 47 years ago by a North Korean spy named Cho Chang-hee. One South Korean politician claims that North Korea is holding 500 South Koreans, but that figure excludes tens of thousands of others kidnapped during the Korean War, and prisoners of war held back in violation of the 1953 Korean War Armistice.

It’s about time. Governments that value the lives and liberties of their citizens should consistently demand the return of those who are kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned. The only regrettable aspect of Seoul’s demands is that it’s only now making them publicly, giving them the taint of tit-for-tat. But then, one could hardly expect Seoul to have made those demands while it labored under the illusion that appeasing North Korea would ever bring peace.

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

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

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

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

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

Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.

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

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

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

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

fat lady sings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

201106-07NK_pyeongyang_gu_0-1

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

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

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