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

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

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

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

Reason 1: Congress

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

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

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

Reason 2: Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason 3: Itinerary

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

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

Reason 4: Personality

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

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

The Coverage

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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Aidan Foster-Carter on Korean “reunions”

Here’s the formula. Pick a small country. Arbitrarily cut it in half. Have the two sides fight a horrible war. Wait many decades to let grief fester. Then bring families who got separated in the chaos of division and war together again. Only not really or properly, just for a lousy three days. Thrust cameras into their faces, to capture the tears and wails as they meet – and again when all too soon they part, never to be allowed any contact ever again. That’s it. Show over.

Does this showbiz analogy offend you, dear reader? With all respect, it is the reality – above all, the reality TV aspect – that is offensive. The spectacle we have witnessed this past week at Mount Kumgang, as often before – if also, in another sense, nowhere near often enough – is, let’s face it, grotesque. This is a travesty of what reunions of separated families should be.

If you call these “reunions,” at least have the honesty to admit that they’re all terminated by re-abductions. Read the rest here.

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Kirby denounces Pyongyang’s abductions as “barbarous,” “reunion” lotteries as “extremely cruel”

I wish I could claim authorship of the term “North Korean exceptionalism,” Marcus Noland’s description of the civilized world’s tendency to bow to North Korea’s obnoxious cruelty, to the point of excusing it from every obligation of law, treaty, or humanity. I understand the reasoning behind North Korean exceptionalism: North Korea is a special case. Its terrible history of war/occupation/poverty/whatever makes it a special challenge to draw it out of its shell. Therefore, we must take a gradualist approach that compromises our standards in the name of patient progress.

My criticism of the gradualists is that while they’ve failed to secure even gradual progress in North Korea, they’ve also endangered or diluted the standards themselves. North Korean exceptionalism to “no access, no food” has not only prolonged North Korea’s chronic food crisis, it threatens to teach aid workers (and other dictators) that they can break that life-saving rule elsewhere. North Korean exceptionalism to the rules of media ethics turns journalists into propagandists who publish deceptive and inaccurate stories and hide their own compromises from their readers. North Korean exceptionalism to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty dilutes the influence of the U.N., and of the member states that enforce sanctions, and almost certainly paved the way for Iran’s nuclear program. North Korean exceptionalism to rule that the sponsorship of terrorism invokes specific legal consequences has brought North Korean terrorism to the United States itself. As with all efforts to appease or “engage” Pyongyang, we are left asking ourselves who changed who.

Another example of North Korea exceptionalism is the so-called family “reunions” Pyongyang occasionally permits between those it has abducted and/or imprisoned, and their loved ones in South Korea. The reunions are carefully monitored by the North Korean regime, meaning that the experience becomes a brief, torturous emotional imprisonment for all involved, filled with carefully scripted lies, and terminated by the negotiated re-abduction of the hostages. To call such a sham a “reunion” may be the greatest lie of all. Lost amid all our celebration that Pyongyang has permitted another iteration of this torture is that the hostages have a universally guaranteed right to go free, to enjoy a true reunion with the people they love, and to live what remains of their lives with them:

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Justice Michael Kirby, the Chairman of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” now enters this controversy. (Readers will recall that Pyongyang responded to Justice Kirby’s report by calling him as “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”)

North Korea’s use of a lottery system to allow a fraction of the families separated by the Korean War to meet is “extremely cruel”, former High Court judge Michael Kirby says.

North and South Korea agreed earlier this month to hold a weekend reunion in October for separated families — only the second to be held in five years — with 100 people to be selected by each side to take part.

Mr Kirby, head of a UN commission that published a searing report on the rights situation in North Korea last year, noted that the country is believed to have taken some 120,000 South Koreans — most as the North Korean troops retreated.

With more than 60,000 people in South Korea hoping for reunification with family members — many who are now “of considerable age” — North Korea’s capricious agreement to sporadically allow small groups to meet is far from enough, he said.

“At the present rate of 100 being given that privilege, many, many will die before the numbers are accommodated,” Mr Kirby told reporters in Geneva.

“It is extremely cruel of the administration of (North Korea) and a breach of fundamental human rights to deny the opportunity for families to be reunited.

“It is really a barbarous practice.” [Australian Broadcasting Company]

Kirby also criticized Pyongyang’s arbitrary cancellation of previous “reunions,” and accused it of “exacerbating the suffering of the families longing for contact.”

“It is simply unacceptable that [knowledge about] their whereabouts, whether they are alive or dead, what happened to them, and having contact with them is left to a lottery,” Mr Kirby said.

“It’s hard to express the anguish of the people who live in hope of making contact with their relatives in North Korea.”


Kirby called on journalists and “the international community” to hold Pyongyang accountable for its crimes against humanity, including the abductions, calling it “particularly barbarous, and is something akin to international piracy.”

Many of the crimes committed in the country “shock the conscience of mankind,” he said.

“It is not open to the world community to turn away.”

Not all of the world has turned away, of course. Japan has been particularly strident in demanding the return of its abductees, who number in the dozens. By comparison, South Korea’s abductees number in the tens of thousands, if one includes those abducted during the Korean War, or held back in violation of the 1953 Armistice. Yet South Korea’s government has seldom demanded the return of its abducted citizens, adopting the gradualist approach and yielding to North Korean exceptionalism. Every few years, a bulb flickers on in Seoul as it occurs to someone that Pyongyang’s hostages have a right to go free.

President Park Geun-hye called Tuesday for a fundamental solution to the issue of families separated in South and North Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War.

The two Koreas have agreed to stage temporary reunions for 100 separated family members from each side on Oct. 20-26 at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on the North’s east coast.

The planned reunions are a part of a recent deal that defused military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

“South and North Korea should find a fundamental solution to the issue of separated families,” Park said in a Cabinet meeting, noting that family reunions held once or twice a year could never heal the pain of separated family members. [Yonhap]

And almost as quickly, that bulb flickers out again.

Instead, it is left to my very own congressman, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), to propose an amendment that recognizes something approaching the right of families to be reunited. It adds this condition for the one-year suspension of crippling financial sanctions against Pyongyang:

(8) made significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings, including for those individuals among the two million strong Korean-American community who maintain family ties with relatives in North Korea.

Connolly proposed this amendment to the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act in 2014. The Republican Chair and Democratic Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee both accepted it enthusiastically, and the Connolly Amendment lives on in the current version, H.R. 757. Let’s hope that Seoul picks up on Congressman Connolly’s cue. The likely alternative is that Pyongyang’s hostages are doomed to die as slaves in North Korea, far from those who love them.

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Lesson One: Pyongyang always reneges. Lesson Two: Repeat Lesson One.

If it’s now cliché to write that North Korea might have modeled its domestic policies on Orwell’s 1984, I would like to be the first to coin the cliché that it might have modeled its foreign policy on P.T. Barnum.* North Korea has an acute sense of its interlocutors’ weakness and desperation, and an extraordinary talent for exploiting these moments of desperation to break coalitions, weaken sanctions, and bring in aid by offering its opponents “openings,” concessions, and disarmament deals. None of these deals has resulted in more than brief delays in the progress of its weapons programs, and none has altered its brutal domestic policies at all. Marcus Noland also wrote about this divide-and-rule strategy recently.

Not for the first or last time, the United States re-learned this in 2007, when George W. Bush cut his own disarmament deal with Kim Jong Il in a moment of political desperation. Japan wasn’t a party to that deal, but Pyongyang used it to induce Bush to remove sanctions it had linked to the release of Japanese abductees. Consequently, the deal strained America’s relationship with its most important Asian ally, Japan. Yes, Bush’s deal required the North Koreans to talk to Japan — bilaterally — about settling “unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern.” The State Department wanted Tokyo to read this is as a reference to the abduction issue, but Pyongyang could just as well have read it as a reference to reparations. Japan has far less influence in Washington than South Korea, whose government was then led by arch-appeaser Roh Moo Hyun. There was little Tokyo could do to stop the deal.

This deal still haunts us today. In 2013, while Park Geun-Hye was refusing to budge on North Korea’s shut-down of Kaesong, Japan cut its own separate deal with the North Koreans to relax (and eventually, lift) bilateral sanctions in exchange for an accounting for Japanese abductees. The White House was none too pleased; after all, those sanctions are mandated by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a low-overhead regime like Pyongyang only needs to break one bar of its (economic) cage to slip out of it, and avoid the pressure that might otherwise disarm it.

But today, Japan has re-learned — for a while — the lesson that everyone who deals with North Korea eventually learns: North Korea always reneges. (If there is a second lesson, it’s that there are no exceptions to the first lesson. The third lesson is that no one ever learns lessons one or two for long.) Two years later, Tokyo has finally lost patience with Pyongyang. The 2013 deal is over.

Japan launched a major push at the United Nations on Tuesday, May 5, to rally support for efforts to finally resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea 4 decades ago.

Japan’s minister responsible for the abductions issue, Eriko Yamatani, said she is seeking “specific actions” from countries to turn up the pressure on North Korea and seek information on the fate of the abductees.

“It is not Japan alone that is suffering from this problem,” the minister told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

“It is an international problem and there has to be solidarity and collaboration within the international community so that we can finally resolve the abduction problem and the human rights problem in North Korea.” [AFP]

More on that conference at this link. The issue is important to the Japanese government, but it’s far from clear how much influence Japan really has.

“All Japanese citizens feel as though their own family members have been abducted,” said Yamatani, who was appointed as minister responsible for the issue last year.

“They are all in deep anger and feeling this sadness over the lack of progress.”

Yamatani said she is still hopeful that North Korea will produce “a sincere report as soon as possible.”

Barring that, the United Nations should step in to hold Pyongyang to account and governments should consider imposing sanctions on North Korea, the minister said.

Washington’s envoy on North Korea, Robert King, told the gathering that sanctions had “limited impact” on the Pyongyang regime because it has “very few connections with other countries other than China.”

This is the nonsense I thoroughly debunked in this analysis of the sanctions, sanctions that King probably hasn’t read and certainly doesn’t understand. The most obvious response to it is that the administration could easily re-impose the sanctions the Bush Administration lifted in 2008, starting by re-designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could proceed to a campaign of financial diplomacy to pressure banks in China and Europe to block North Korea’s assets, something U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 would support. The administration says it can’t do those things, but the reality is that it doesn’t choose to do them, because those things would conflict with its own separate dealings with Pyongyang.

When history repeats itself this many times, tragedy and farce cease to be mutually exclusive. Pyongyang now sees that it faces two lame duck administrations in Washington and Seoul. Both share low poll numbers, external pressure from inveterate appeasers in their foreign policy establishments, and the absence of any coherent vision for solving the North Korean problem at its source. Seoul and Washington are now starting “exploratory” talks with Pyongyang, which sounds like a word that no high school girl should ever believe. That means that once again, Japanese abductees and their families will continue to be the victims of Pyongyang’s terrorism, and its clever game of divide-and-rule.

~   ~   ~

* Yes, I know the quote is apocryphal, at least as attributed to Barnum.

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Justice for Rev. Kim Dong Shik: Court orders N. Korea to pay $330M in damages

Asher Perlin, the lawyer who argued and won the case against North Korea at the Court of Appeals on behalf of Rev. Kim Dong Shik’s family, writes in to direct me to this news:

An Israeli NGO announced on Monday that a US federal court in Washington, DC has granted it a historic $330 million default award judgment against North Korea in a civil damages trial for wrongful death, torture and kidnapping.

The judgment, only announced Monday, but written on April 9, included $15 million dollars each to the son and brother of Reverend Dong Shik Kim, presumed dead, as well as $300 million in punitive damages. [Jerusalem Post]

In 2000, Rev. Kim was in China helping North Korean refugees who had escaped from their homeland. North Korean agents kidnapped Rev. Kim and dragged him across the border. He’s believed to have died of starvation at a North Korean military base near Pyongyang. In 2005, the South Koreans caught one of the kidnappers, charged him with Rev. Kim’s kidnapping, and convicted him of the crime.

In August 2013, a District Court found that the evidence was insufficient to prove that North Korea killed Rev. Kim after the North Koreans hustled him over the border (undoubtedly, under the noses of Chinese border guards) and dismissed the case. Kim’s family appealed, and last December, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court.

Shurat Hadin Director Nitzana Darshan-Leitner said, “The district court was holding us to a standard that no family, who had a loved one kidnapped and murdered by an outlaw regime like North Korea could ever satisfy.”

“Virtually no one has ever returned from the camps and been able to testify about the fate of individual Korean prisoners. This is an important human rights decision that will be utilized in all political abduction cases going forward. We are proud that an Israeli NGO was able to assist this family of a Korean priest living in the US … during this holiday season.” 

The NGO also said that the US should re-add North Korea to the US State Department’s watch list, from which North Korea was removed in 2008 during a period of warming of relations.

Perlin said the court “sent a message that repressive regimes cannot exploit their repression to gain advantage in US courts.”

He added that “the fact that all witnesses were either murdered, imprisoned or are in grave fear of retaliation by the DPRK regime should not immunize North Korea from liability.”  [Jerusalem Post]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. 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.

Rev. Kim’s kidnapping is just one example of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, along with multiple assassination attempts directed at defectors and dissidents, several shipments of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, threats against American moviegoers, and an attempt by North Korean hackers to cause malfunctions in the reactors of South Korean nuclear power plants.

The $330 million judgment now sits alongside $378 million awarded to the victims of the 1972 Lod Airport massacre (and their children), and $69 million to survivors of the U.S.S. Pueblo. That’s a total, so far, of $777 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but it’s not a grand total.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth found North Korea provided training, technical assistance, and rocket components to Hezbollah, and held that the North Korean government was liable for the attacks. A Special Master is deciding and apportioning the damages North Korea owes to each plaintiff.

Now, the hunt begins for North Korean assets to levy to satisfy the judgment, which may be the more challenging part of the Kim family’s pursuit of justice. I wish Mr. Perlin good hunting.

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Japan will demand answers from North Korea on promised abduction “reinvestigation”

So despite North Korea’s express agreement to provide Japan its “reinvestigation” report within a month, North Korea now says not so much. Anyone who doubted this outcome from the beginning (a) doesn’t know much about the history of North Korean diplomacy, or (b) lacks that kind of intelligence called “judgment.”

Japan will demand an explanation for the delay when officials from both sides meet in Shenyang, China, on Monday.

“What will result from the meeting? I’m not in a position to say… I can’t speak in detail about Japan’s expectations at this time,” Eriko Yamatani, Japan’s state minister in charge of the abduction issue, told reporters on Thursday.

“The way North Korea deals with this will affect not just the abductions… it is an important test of how serious it is about addressing its human rights abuses.” [The Guardian]

Which sounds like a veiled threat by Japan to support tougher action by the Security Council if North Korea doesn’t deliver. (I realize that the Japanese have always linked these issues, but they shouldn’t).

Abe must now decide if he’s going to spend the next two years being strung along, just like Glyn Davies, Chris Hill, Robert Gallucci, Roh Moo Hyun, Kim Dae Jung, and so many others before him.

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The Japan-North Korea deal will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1 ….

It could have been predicted from the moment of its revelation — and was — that Pyongyang would renege on its ransom deal with Tokyo. And so, as surely as the sun rises, Pyongyang has reinterpreted its “reinvestigation” of its abductions of Japanese so as to reveal approximately nothing, slowly. Tokyo says it will reject Pyongyang’s report:

Pyongyang said the report would include only information on missing persons who are not on Tokyo’s official list, which totals 17 Japanese. Instead, the North’s report will only cover cases of Japanese suspected of having been abducted by North Korea but not officially designated as such, of Japanese left behind in North Korea amid the chaos of the end of World War II, and of Japanese spouses of North Koreans who returned to their native country, the source said. [Japan Times]

I’ll go out on a limb here: North Korea’s “investigation” of these cases will clear North Korea of all responsibility.

Pyongyang has told Tokyo it is still investigating the fates of the 12 officially listed as having been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Japanese government replied that, as it places the highest value on that group, it will not accept the report unless it includes new information on their fates. The other five designated abductees were repatriated in 2002. [Japan Times]

Bloomberg adds that Pyongyang may stall the release of information about the 12 for another year, further angering their families. One of the 12 is Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped when she was just 13 years old. Yokota personifies the abduction issue in a way that resounds deeply with the Japanese people.


[At an event I attended at the Japanese Embassy last year, workers passed out copies of this Megumi Yokota manga, which was published and translated by the Japanese government.]

Pyongyang says that Yokota committed suicide in 1994 and sent “her” bones to Japan in 2005, but a DNA test proved that the bones weren’t hers. Japan was outraged by the revelation.

Tokyo believes the half-baked proposal by Pyongyang shows it aims to offer information in small increments, each time trying to elicit as many economic benefits as possible from Japan in exchange. During past negotiations, North Korea asked Japan to ease unilateral economic sanctions and sought humanitarian support, such as food, and Pyongyang may have made a similar request during the latest talks, the source said. [Japan Times]

In other words, the Japanese think the North Koreans are milking them. Pyongyang wants to maintain the relaxation of sanctions for as long as possible, and probably demand more, in exchange for revealing as little as possible and as slowly as possible, and setting no one free. If only they had first solicited the advice of someone who knows from bitter experience:

“I lived in North Korea long enough to know how things work,” Ueda said. “They want money from Japan — that’s why they’re negotiating — but if the government gives them the money upfront, they won’t get anyone back.” [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

One apparent problem with this deal is its vagueness, which allowed the two sides to walk away from the table with a deal, but also with two different understandings of what the deal was. This is the same problem that vexed American diplomats who negotiated, and then tried to enforce, the Leap Day Deal (Where does it say we can’t test missiles?), the 2005 joint statement (You have to build us a reactor first!), and 2007 agreed framework (Where does it say anything about uranium? Which we absolutely, positively aren’t enriching?). Pyongyang’s interlocutors keep their agreements vague so that they can clinch their deals. Most international agreements are vague, compared to, say, legislation, or the settlement agreements that lawyers write. Inevitably, Pyongyang exploits that vagueness.

Just as a diplomatic experiment, I wonder what would happen if Japan told North Korea that it had a week to come clean on just the 12, or face the reimposition and expansion of sanctions.

~   ~   ~

A greater obstacle to this deal is Pyongyang’s irredeemable lack of credibility. The Japan Times cites estimates by abductee advocates that North Korea is “highly likely” to have been behind 77 disappearances of Japanese citizens, and may have been involved up to 470 disappearances in all. If that sounds like a wild exaggeration, Japan’s National Police Agency “believes North Korea may have been involved in the disappearance of about 880 Japanese nationals.” Yet Pyongyang already seems ready to clear itself in some of these cases.

Given how pathologically North Korea has lied to Japan before, how can the victims’ families, or those who represent them in government, ever believe them? The North Koreans will probably never reveal the full extent of their kidnappings, but what if they did? They could admit to kidnapping another dozen more people, or a couple hundred more. It still wouldn’t matter, because mankind has never built a structure that can suspend so much disbelief. Only a fool would believe Pyongyang’s pinkie-swear that there were no others, even if it had nothing to do with most of those 880 disappearances. Pyongyang finds itself trapped by its own lies, incapable of convincing Japan that it’s telling the truth.

~   ~   ~

The collapse of this deal will certainly provoke another outraged reaction in Japan, and in due course, a hardening of Japan’s policies. You need only recall how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted to North Korea’s lies in 2004:

“If we give North Korea one more chance and it fails to respond by the deadlines, we need to strongly urge the government to immediately exercise economic sanctions on North Korea,” Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Sunday. [N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 2004]

In 2005, the Japanese government responded with new sanctions, and by taxing Chongryeon, North Korea’s front organization in Japan, to near-extinction. Last week, Abe called the abduction issue “the top priority of [his] administration,” adding, “My mission will not be over until the day all of the abduction victims have been returned to their families.” Having invested himself in this issue, Abe can’t easily forgive North Korean backsliding.

“I understand they may begin to have misgivings,” Abe said of the victims’ families in a speech on Sept. 19 in Tokyo. “It’s unfortunately true to say this is taking time and trouble.” [….]

“The abduction problem was the first issue he took up as a politician and it’s what made his name in national politics,” said Yoshiyuki Inoue, an upper house lawmaker for Your Party who served as secretary to Abe before and during his 2006-2007 administration. [Bloomberg]

Pyongyang’s interest in a deal proves that sanctions influenced Pyongyang’s decision-making. But unless sanctions are coordinated with other nations that have coercive power over Pyongyang, not one of those nations will get what it wants. America’s allies, which are incapable of working things out between themselves, need America’s help to coordinate sanctions policy. Under the best of circumstances, that’s like gathering a basket of ants. But an America that itself seems visionless can offer no plausible outcomes to induce its allies to cooperate. Until the White House articulates such a vision, Pyongyang will continue to blunt international pressure by making separate appeals to the individual interests of governments, and to the various profiteers, politicians, and hucksters who can influence them.

~   ~   ~

This post was edited after publication.

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How terrorism works: N. Korea uses Japanese hostages to censor “The Interview”

Last week, I wrote that the North Koreans who had unwittingly lavished free publicity on “The Interview” by threatening its makers still had a thing or two to learn from the mobs of angry Muslim extremists who extorted President Obama into asking YouTube to “consider” removing “The Innocence of Muslims.”

My judgment may have been premature. Film industry trade journals are now reporting that Sony Pictures Japan has demanded changes to the script of “The Interview” to minimize the offense against His Porcine Majesty. If true, the report suggests that North Korea has successfully used its kidnapping of Japanese civilians from their own country to demand — and get — the censorship of a mass-marketed film parodying its dictator:

The film, about a pair of TV journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean despot, has become a hot potato for the studio, which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp. (the country recently has taken steps to ease tensions with its enemy to the West after decades of icy relations). Sources say the studio is considering cutting a scene in which the face of Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park) is melted off graphically in slow motion. Although studio sources insist that Sony Japan isn’t exerting pressure, the move comes in the wake of provocative comments from Pyongyang that the film’s concept “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” (Directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are in fact Canadians.) An unofficial spokesperson for the rogue nation took issue with the satirical depiction of the assassination of a sitting world leader and on July 17 asked President Barack Obama to halt the film’s release.

It is unlikely that North Korea is just now catching wind of the film’s hot-button storyline given that THR first wrote about The Interview and its plot in March 2013 (Dan Sterling wrote the screenplay). What’s more likely irking Kim Jong Un — a noted film buff, like his father — is the use of the military hardware, which can be seen in the film’s first trailer released in June.

A source close to Sony’s decision-making says the move to alter the hardware was precipitated by “clearance issues,” particularly because it involves a living person, Kim Jong Un. [The Hollywood Reporter]

The website Firstshowing.net is denying that these changes are due to pressure from Sony Japan, but why else would Sony make this change other than because of North Korean objections?

Some of the changes reportedly come at the behest of Sony Japan, in the interest of improving and maintaining relations with its nearby neighbor. The face-melting scene is reportedly being judged for comic value, but who actually believes that it might be cut at this point for any reason other than keeping North Korea happy? [Slashfilm]

The next question is why Sony Pictures Japan even cares what Kim Jong Un thinks. The answer is almost certainly ransom. If not for a recent ransom deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, in which Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to “investigate” the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees, there would be no reason for anyone pay attention to North Korea’s bluster.

In the years preceding October 11, 2008, it had been the U.S. government’s view that North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens (including a 13 year-old girl) from their own country was terrorism, and that its continuing captivity of these hostages (not all of them Japanese) was one of several reasons to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In April of 2006, President Bush met with the mother of that girl, calling it “one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the President here in the Oval Office.”

But North Korea is an accomplished exceptionalist to the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and just two years after that meeting and Bush’s implied promise to the mother, Sakie Yokota, Kim Jong Il cajoled Bush into removing it from the list and lifting some powerful financial sanctions that may have brought his regime to the brink of extinction, and that might well have forced North Korea to let the abductees go.

Suddenly, and with a brazen mendacity not seen since Moscow in the 1930’s (except, of course, in Pyongyang), it became the official position of the U.S. Department of State that North Korea was “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” (The statement would become more difficult to defend with the passage of time, as North Korea was caught selling arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and launched a campaign of poison-needle assassinations of human rights activists and North Korean exiles.)

The unintended consequences of Bush’s reversal have continued right up to this year, and include a decision by an impatient Japanese government to unilaterally lift sanctions against North Korea as an initial ransom payment for the return of its people. The Obama Administration, which paid little mind to Japan’s pleas for U.S. support on the abduction issue, has reacted to this with justifiable alarm. Japan’s relaxation of sanctions not only rewards terrorism, it weakens a regional security alliance against Pyongyang, and relaxes the economic pressure that is its last slender hope to disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

Although Pyongyang has delivered little so far in admitting to the whereabouts of the missing Japanese, there have been rumors in the Japanese press that its demands were not all financial. It has demanded, for example, the return of the headquarters of Chongryeon, the North Korean front organization in Japan that had a hand in the kidnappings of Japanese, and which had been seized for non-payment of taxes. It is also rumored to have used its business relationships with Japanese media companies to suppress the views of critics of North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

So it always goes when governments and businesses are tempted into intercourse with Pyongyang. The patron is expected to pay exorbitantly for a brief and unsatisfying rut, and in the end, it is never Pyongyang that is seduced — or infected — by the exchange.

The fact that “The Interview” is likely of dubious artistic merit is beside the point. If North Korean censorship has arrived at a multiplex near you, that’s pernicious, and may be the best reason yet to boycott the film.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication.

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U.S. urges Japan to rejoin coalition against N. Korea

When Japan’s ransom deal with North Korea threatened to fracture the regional coalition pressuring Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs, I was critical of the Obama Administration for failing to use its influence to prevent Japan’s defection. As leaks to the Japanese press have since confirmed, however, someone in the White House subsequently arrived a similar conclusion. Soon thereafter, the administration began some desperate behind-the-scenes diplomacy to press Japan to get back on the team:

A senior White House official said the multilateral sanctions imposed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should not be sacrificed by Tokyo in exchange for greater cooperation by Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue involving Japanese nationals.

The message was delivered by Ben Rhodes, a senior National Security staffer, on July 3rd. Under Japan’s deal with North Korea, Japan agreed to “ease restrictions on travel” and “allow port calls by some North Korean registered ships and money transfers” to North Korea, in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to “investigate” its abductions of Japanese.

Rhodes raised the possibility that the Abe administration’s deal with North Korea could adversely affect cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea in trying to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities.

“I think it’s important, though, that they send a message that this is not going to ‘let North Korea off the hook’ for the nuclear issue,” he said. The deputy national security adviser said U.S. President Barack Obama is well aware of the Japanese position of wanting to resolve the abduction issue.

However, Rhodes indicated that Japan should not expand the range of sanctions it relaxes against North Korea, especially if they are related to measures based on U.N. Security Council resolutions that were issued in the wake of three underground nuclear tests by North Korea. “The overarching point is that the security threat posed to Japan and the region, and the world, for North Korea’s nuclear program and its missile program cannot be set aside if there is progress made on the abductee issue,” Rhodes said.

He said the three countries need to continue working together to apply pressure on North Korea regarding its nuclear program. “All of us in the six-party talks, and particularly the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, I think, want to be very forthcoming with one another about how we’re looking at the nuclear issue,” Rhodes said. [Asahi Shimbun]

Things have now gone so far that John Kerry has been forced to plead with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discourage him from visiting North Korea.

In his telephone talks with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on July 7, Kerry requested that Japan hold behind-the-scenes consultations with the United States in advance should Tokyo consider a visit to North Korea by Abe, according to the sources.

The top U.S. diplomat also expressed displeasure over Japan’s policy of gradually lifting its unilateral sanctions on North Korea depending on progress in the new round of investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s. [….]

Kerry, who spent most of his telephone talks with Kishida on the issue of sanctions on North Korea, asked Japan to be careful about additionally removing sanctions, according to the sources. [Mainichi Shimbun]

While it’s good news that the administration understands the critical importance of concerted pressure on North Korea, it may have waited too long to speak up. The abduction issue is an extremely emotional one for Japanese voters, and it probably eclipses North Korea’s nuclear threat in Japan’s national (and thus, political) consciousness. Japan can’t walk away from this deal now, but it can be prepared to walk away if (or rather, when) North Korea reneges.

Still, cooler heads in Japan understand, first, that North Korea has an extremely poor track record for keeping its agreements, and second, that the nuclear issue holds all Japanese hostage in a very real sense.

It is crucial that a concerted international approach to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program and missiles be maintained, and that Japan share information with and gain the understanding of both the U.S. and South Korea toward a resolution on the abduction issue. The challenge has only just begun. [Editorial, Mainichi Shimbun]

I feel some sympathy for the Obama Administration, which inherited a bad situation from its predecessors. For years, the Clinton and Bush Administrations had included North Korea’s abductions of Japanese as a key reason for U.S. sanctions against North Korea — and particularly, of its listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Bush’s ill-advised 2007 deal with North Korea dropped those sanctions for a deal that North Korea began to break almost before the ink on its signature dried. This deal followed the most minimal of consultations with the Japanese government and nearly threw it into crisis. No wonder Japan feels no obligation to coordinate with the U.S. before cutting its own deal with Pyongyang.

But while the Bush Administration is responsible for setting up this prisoners’ dilemma, the Obama Administration had months of warning that Tokyo was interested in cutting a deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, despite overwhelming evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism and the lack of progress on the abduction issue, it squandered numerous opportunities to restore North Korea to the list, and to make Pyongyang’s failure to return Japanese abductees a specific reason for that action.

That small gesture toward the interests of an important ally would have cemented the coalition against Pyongyang and shown Tokyo that sticking with the coalition was the best way to achieve its interests and get its abducted citizens back. It’s still not too late to make that gesture, and last week’s news provides more opportunities for the administration to make it.

~   ~   ~

In another area, Japan shows signs of stepping back from a position that had disgusted its allies and delighted its enemies — its flirtations with denying its responsibility for the “comfort women” during World War II:

The Japanese government assured South Korea on Wednesday that it will uphold an official apology over frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II for which mainly Asian women were procured.

Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, made the assurance in a meeting with Lee Sang Deok, head of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said. [Kyodo News]

Japan’s re-litigation of this issue is one of the most spectacularly ill-advised things I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve been writing here. It secured nothing of value for Japan’s interests, did serious damage to Japan’s standing in Washington, as Korean-American constituents mobilized their representatives to protest it, and disrupted a budding alliance with South Korea that could prove crucial to a common defense against Chinese aggression in the Pacific. I hope this means that on this issue, too, cooler heads have won the day.

For more background on the comfort women issue, see this op-ed by Sung Yoon Lee and Zachary Przystup, and this one by Dennis Halpin.

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Continental drift: U.S. alliances erode despite “pivot” to Asia

Xi Jingping has departed from Seoul, where he couldn’t quite bring himself to agreeing to a joint statement with Park Geun Hye calling for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But the statement stopped short of directly urging North Korea to give up its nuclear program, only vaguely calling for all members of the six-party nuclear talks to resolve the issue through dialogue and abide by their 2005 denuclearization-for-aid deal. [Yonhap]

Some of the dire declarations I’ve seen that Xi’s visit successfully finlandized South Korea seem premature, but Xi did take one very big step in that direction when he coaxed South Korea into agreeing to set up a bank in Seoul to clear bilateral business transactions in Chinese yuan. China’s clear intention here is to undermine the global supremacy of the dollar, circumvent the power of U.S. financial sanctions, draw South Korea into China’s economic orbit, and perhaps even shield North Korea’s international transactions from the Treasury Department. More here and here.

How this new arrangement will mesh with the artificially depressed value of the yuan will be an interesting question, but China has already made similar arrangements France, the U.K., and Germany, so we can assume that (1) the problem isn’t insurmountable, and (2) the yuan is nowhere near replacing the dollar as a reserve currency in the short term. Given the extent of public corruption in China, uncertainties in China’s economy, and the broader non-convertibility of the yuan, the yuan isn’t going to be as safe a medium of exchange as the dollar anytime soon. In the longer term, however, the threat is significant. The power of the dollar may be as important to our national power as our Navy.

In the case of South Korea, there could also be shorter-term policy implications, if yuan-clearing banks begin clearing transactions for North Korea. The effect of this would be to enlist a new group of financial profiteers in Seoul to oppose financial sanctions against the North and spread China’s risk from financial sanctions to South Korea. If the U.S. wants to retain its last best non-violent option against North Korea, it will send a very clear signal to President Park and to South Korean banks opposing this idea.

One wonders if U.S. influence is so diminished that that signal would work. The presence of 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea ought to mean something. If South Korea isn’t really interested in disarming North Korea, one wonders why they remain there. There are moments when I think the U.S. has a greater interest in neutralizing North Korea as a proliferation threat than in having South Korea as an ally. That’s especially so when one considers the financial cost of that alliance to U.S. taxpayers.

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, North Korea’s ransom diplomacy with Japan is succeeding. It has given Japan a list of ten names of Japanese nationals, including abductees, who are still alive in North Korea. None of the abductees has met with a Japanese official or returned home, but the Japanese government has already made moves toward relaxing its sanctions against North Korea. The effect of this will be to blunt the economic pressure intended to disarm the North. The AP provides an excellent summary of Japan’s actions:

— North Korean nationals are now allowed to enter Japan, but will be screened case-by-case if a request is filed. A ban on individuals subject to the U.N sanctions remains.

— Officials of Chongryong (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), which serves as a de-facto North Korean embassy here, can obtain re-entry permits after traveling to North Korea.

— An advisory discouraging Japanese nationals from traveling to North Korea is no longer in place.


— North Korean-registered vessels are able to enter Japanese ports but only for humanitarian purposes.

— A ban on a North Korean passenger ferry, the Mangyongbong-92, that was the only regular direct connection to Japan, stays in place.

— Port calls are limited to pickups of food, medicine and clothing and other articles for personal use only, and shipment of large quantities is not permitted. North Korean crewmembers will not be permitted ashore without prior approval.


— Remittances to groups and companies based in North Korea do not have to be reported to the government if not exceeding 30 million yen ($300,000), the same as to other countries. Under the sanctions, reporting any remittance exceeding 3 million yen ($30,000) was compulsory.

— Those visiting North Korea can now carry cash up to 1 million yen ($10,000) without having to report it to the government, up from 100,000 yen ($1,000).


— Japan’s overall trade ban on North Korea remains in place.

— Freezing of assets on individuals and entities involved in missile programs, under U.N. Security Council resolutions, stay in place.

One potential source of dispute will be whether North Korea has given Japan a complete listing of surviving abductees. Some Japanese government publications I’ve read list dozens of potential abductees, and the Japanese public is unlikely to take Pyongyang’s “re-investigation” at its word. Another potential source of conflict is the pending tax sale of Chongryon’s headquarters in Japan. Finally, a nuke test could always upset things.

Japan’s sudden defection from the anti-North Korea alliance isn’t wholly the Obama Administration’s fault. The Bush Administration was the first to sideline Japan’s interest in getting its citizens back, but the Obama Administration squandered the last five years by failing to correct it and rebuild that alliance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also bears a large share of the blame, with his revisionist dis-apology for Japan’s World War II-era atrocities — something that has proven useful to Xi Jinping in his efforts to isolate Japan and break up the U.S.-led Pacific coalition. If you want to read more on the spurious historical merits of Japan’s revisionism, Dennis Halpin has been doing some excellent writing on the subject.

If you think things couldn’t have declined much more over the last year, don’t forget Russia’s surge of investment in North Korea.

Taken together, these developments mean that U.S. leverage over North Korea and China has faded significantly over the last six months. That isn’t a very impressive set of accomplishments for an administration that allowed the Middle East to fall to the most brutal gang of terrorists since the Khmer Rouge, while ostensibly making Asia the focus of its full diplomatic attention.

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“Happy Fourth of July!” – Kim Jong Un

It is already the 2nd of July in Korea, where Yonhap is reporting more missile launches off North Korea’s East Coast. This time, the missiles are said to be KN-09 cruise missiles,* a brand whose alleged proliferation to the North recently generated controversy between two bloggers, each of whom is not me.

The latest launch follows the weekend launch of two short-range (300-mile) SCUDs missiles into the Sea of Japan from the vicinity of Wonsan. (Here is KCNA’s commentary on Kim Jong Un’s on-the-spot guidance of the fireworks.) The launches follow the test of another short-range system last week, which North Korea says was a guided tactical missile.

Before the latest launch, Reuters reported that “North Korea has so far conducted test firing of its ballistic missiles and rockets 11 times this year, including four involving ballistic missiles,” and that fireworks are routine before and during joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The last joint exercises ended months ago, however, and the next one, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, won’t happen until August or September.

All of the launches are either flagrant or potential violations of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions. Each may represent a modest improvement in North Korea’s technical and operational capabilities, but the launches themselves aren’t really the story. The story is that hardly anyone even pretends to care anymore.

The launches also remind us that we’re still in the hostile phase of the vicious cycle President Park described in her address to Congress last year, a cycle that often climaxes with long-range missile and nuclear tests. For reasons that have never been clear to me, North Korea has always preceded nuke tests with long-range missile tests. This was the case in 2006 (missilenuke), 2009 (missilenuke), and 2013 (missilenuke). The exception to this pattern was the first test of the Unha-3 in April 2012, which broke up shortly after launch. And even then, there was only a ten-month gestation until the next nuke test.

Last spring was a time of intense speculation that North Korea would carry out its fourth nuclear test, and that this test would take some novel form, such as the use of a uranium-based device. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet, and like all of you, the reasons for that intrigue me. Whoever organized a pool on the test date has likely refunded all of the wagers advanced by now, and unless Kim Jong Un is even more impulsive and reckless than I assume him to be, a test is unlikely until mid-July at the soonest, to put some respectful distance between a test and Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul (scheduled for July 3rd and 4th).

I’m not a mudang, so I will offer no prediction as to when and whether North Korea will test this year. Eventually, however, North Korea will nuke off again. A moment when foreign policy has emerged as one of the Obama Administration’s greatest political vulnerabilities seems as a good a time as any. And an election year always presents opportunities for extortion.

~   ~   ~

In an act of characteristic chutzpah, North Korea followed last weekend’s unannounced launch by “propos[ing] … that the two rival Koreas stop all military hostilities starting this week.” Yonhap called this “a rare conciliatory gesture toward South Korea ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul,” but noted that in exchange, South Korea would have to cancel Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Much to the disappointment of soldiers from Camp Red Cloud to Camp Carroll, South Korea’s Reunification Ministry said it wasn’t interested in that deal. The Foreign Ministry added that if North Korea tests a nuke, it will face the full wrath (or playful tickle) of U.N. sanctions South Korea has never really enforced.

And this time, dammit, they mean it.

The launches are a small complication for Japan, which has since begun another round of remittances-and-maybe-aid-for-hostages talks with North Korea in Beijing.

In Beijing, North Korea is expected to unveil details about a special panel to reinvestigate the abductions. Japanese newspapers have reported that Tokyo could announce the lifting of some of its own sanctions if the North’s investigation panel meets conditions set by Japan. [Yonhap]

Tokyo must have felt obligated to offer a pro forma protest last weekend’s test, but according to Yonhap, despite the protest, “the mood at the Beijing talks was not tense and the opening remarks were ended without angry arguments.” Tokyo may feel some obligation to protest again, but lately, its protests have sounded almost as insincere as its apologies.

“It was very regrettable that the North Korean side launched ballistic missiles on Sunday that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution,” Ihara said in his opening remarks at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Japan “lodges a stern protest and strongly demands that North Korea not fire ballistic missiles again in the future,” Ihara said.

However, Song insisted that North Korea does not recognize the U.N. resolutions, saying the Sunday launch “was smoothly conducted without minor effects on international shipping order and ecological environment in the region.” [Yonhap]

These incidents won’t derail the progress of those talks, although other things might. Japan knows North Korea tests missiles and violates U.N. resolutions. A certain willingness to overlook those concerns, and a certain willingness to alienate its allies by overlooking them, are both part of Tokyo’s calculations. And after all, what has President Obama ever done to bring Japan’s abducted citizens (or their remains) home?

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, each North Korean provocation, each declaration of its nuclear status, and each defiance of the Security Council should remind us that the Obama Administration refuses to direct the Treasury Department to expand sanctions against one of North Korea’s principal vulnerabilities — its weak links to the financial system. It isn’t just Japan, China, and South Korea that don’t take U.N. Security Council sanctions seriously; “their indispensable leader” doesn’t, either.

Bear in mind — this is the administration that promised us a more competent foreign policy that would contain crises by building strong alliances, international institutions, and precise weapons of non-lethal “smart”power. If it can’t get any of those things right, what else does it have to offer?

Even so, I hesitate to criticize the administration for not having a North Korea policy. What if it actually gets one? Weakened presidents tend to cut bad deals. Clinton did it in 1994, and W did it in 2007. Today, the Real Clear Politics average showed President Obama’s approval rating at negative 18.5% (that’s 55.5% against, 37% for), the highest net disapproval rating I’ve yet seen this President draw, ever. Those figures are two points below the President’s approval rating on the economy, and seven points below his overall approval rating.

As I said before, Americans hate foreign policy, and also, they hate the lack of one. [Update, 2 July: This morning, the President’s approval rating on foreign policy plunged even further, to -21% in the RCP average. Once again, Americans don’t like the concrete effects of policies they favor as abstractions.]

I hope the White House won’t confuse today’s political climate with that of 1994 or 2007. In 1994, we hadn’t yet watched North Korea renege on two denuclearization deals. In 2007, the national mood was tired and desperate, the media consensus favored another agreed framework, and no deal was beneath Bush’s standards.

Today, we’re seeing the beginnings of a backlash against the backlash against the Iraq War — a war the President campaigned on “ending,” and has since been forced to reenter. Thanks to his dithering in Syria, what started as a pro-democracy protest movement turned into a stage-three cancer of terrorism that metastasized into Lebanon and Iraq, and could spread to Jordan next. In Libya, anarchy was the consequence of refusing to expend diplomatic and financial capital on “nation-building.” Just as a premature retreat from a once-stabilized Iraq drew us back in, a premature retreat will draw us back into a not-yet-stable Afghanistan. Finally, the Bergdahl case shows that Americans expect their leaders to drive harder bargains than they often have.

And for the record, I think the President has probably chosen the best alternatives that remain in both Syria and Iraq, but only after squandering far better (or less-bad) options.

If the Administration thinks that a deal with North Korea now would “pause” another crisis it doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with, it should remember that any deal now would be made from a position of weakness. As such, it would validate criticism of the administration’s foreign policy as disengaged, reactive, and toothless. North Korea has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear weapons programs are non-negotiable, and has even amended its constitution to say so. What bargain, then, is there to be made? The deal would be an albatross around the President’s neck. Congress — including many Democrats — is rejecting appeasement and wants a harder line. So has the press, which wouldn’t give a North Korea deal the sympathetic coverage today that it gave Chris Hill’s in 2007.

Finally, as politically difficult as it would be to make a deal before November, it could be an even harder sell after November. A tough-minded Democrat like Bob Menendez would be a harder sell than a soft Republican like Dick Lugar. The days when the White House could count on the Lugar-Biden Axis and the Leach-Lantos Axis to pay for its fuel oil are over. Good luck getting the likes of Ed Royce or Bob Mendenez to go along with that.

Or, depending on how the next election goes, Bob Corker or Marco Rubio.

~   ~   ~

* A well-informed reader writes in to argue that (1) we really don’t know what the KN-09 is, (2) its range is too short to be covered by the UNSC prohibition against ballistic missiles, and (3) even if the KN-09 is (as Lewis suggests) a clone of the Russian Kh-35, it’s a stretch to call it a cruise missile. My response to each of these points is (1) true, (2) also true, but the UNSC prohibits the development of all WMD delivery systems, and Lewis (whose knowledge of the weapons systems, at least, I respect) says it has the potential to be nuclear capable. Of course, open sources don’t describe the Kh-35 as nuclear capable, either, and its payload is small. That means that the North Koreans are probably years away from putting a nuke on it, but not from putting a chem or bio warhead on it.

As for (3), I’ve seen variable definitions of “cruise missile.” If the KN-09 is like the Kh-35, it’s a short-range, air-breathing, turbofan-powered, radar-guided anti-ship missile, similar to the U.S Harpoon. That fits my layman’s definition, but decide for yourself. For that matter, I’ve heard plenty of people call the old Nazi V-1 a cruise missile (it was guided by gyroscopes and impellers, and powered by a fascinating thing called a pulse jet, which I’m absolutely, positively going to build when I reach the Christopher Lloyd phase of my life).

The gist of this is that we can’t really be certain that all of these launches were UNSC violations, although North Korea must wish they all did. And if you want to find a violation, remember that UNSC 2094 says North Korea “shall not conduct any further launches that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests or any other provocation,” which is admittedly a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography. But in recognition of those uncertainties, I changed “flagrant violations” to “flagrant or potential violations.” After all, we can all agree that the SCUD launches were violations, and that North Korea was flagrant in the launches themselves, and in its dismissal of the UNSC resolutions.

Thanks to this reader for his concern for the accuracy of this blog.

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Coalition against N. Korea crumbles due to U.S. incompetence, betrayal, and weakness

Last week, Japan and North Korea announced an agreement under which Pyongyang would “conduct a comprehensive survey” of the whereabouts of “Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and mission persons,” both dead and alive, and return them to Japan. In exchange, “Japan has announced that it is lifting sanctions against North Korea on travel, reporting remittances and humanitarian shipping.” Japan also agreed “to examine humanitarian aid to Pyongyang at an ‘appropriate time.’”

Xinhua also reports that Japan may send monitors to North Korea to verify North Korea’s “reinvestigation,” which as I imagine it, would consist of someone saying, “It’s OK boys, untie ‘em.” The latest word is that President Abe himself is talking about visiting Pyongyang, although he won’t, because no one wants to be the one who drags Kim Jong Un away from his Xbox for that.

As is with all “agreements” with North Korea, the two sides’ understandings of the agreement vary. According to KCNA (via Yonhap), Japan also “clarified its will to settle its inglorious past,” and “solve the pending issues and normalize the relations” with North Korea, apparently referring to diplomatic relations. As recently as May 31st, the Japanese and the North Koreans were still arguing about whether Chongryon’s headquarters was part of the deal. In early April, North Korea warned Japan not to bother with talks if Japan held a tax sale of the headquarters of Cheongryeon, its local affiliate and front organization. (Pyongyang later sent Chongryon a $2 million bailout, and asked Japan to rescind a court decision allowing the tax sale of its headquarters.) North Korea had demanded the resumption of ferry services and charter flights, neither of which was mentioned in the final deal. This history informs us that plenty could still go wrong.

Then, there’s the traditional pattern of North Korea preceding nuclear tests with missile tests. In April, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalated, Japan threatened to shoot down the next North Korean missile that approaches its territory. In May, North Korea said, “Japan should keep in mind that it could be the first hit by a fiery lightning in case of conflict,” the newspaper said, referring to a military strike.

For what it’s worth, North Korea is promising to keep its end of the bargain, although I can’t think of a single international agreement North Korea did keep with anyone other then the U.S.S.R. or China. The other conclusion we can draw from this history is that Japan’s defection from the administration’s coalition shouldn’t have surprised anyone. President Obama had plenty of chances to stop it. Worse, his predecessor planted the seeds that undermined that coalition’s foundation.

~   ~   ~

In April, President Obama visited Seoul during a frenzy of speculation that North Korea was either preparing, or ready for, a fourth nuclear test. To deter this, the President said that North Korea’s threats would gain it “nothing except further isolation” from an oxymoron USA Today referred to as “the global community.” “Global” means global, but as the President elaborated, it especially means our treaty allies: “We can’t waver in our intention. We have to make sure that, in strong concert with our allies, that we are continuing to press North Korea to change its approach.”

The President also said, “It is important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite.” (But of course, Congress has already found them. It would take one phone call from the National Security Staff to Harry Reid’s staff to put the President’s finger on the trigger.) Publicly, South Korea sent the same message:

“If North Korea carries out a nuclear test, (it) will certainly have to pay severe costs,” the foreign minister said, urging the communist North to make the right choice. “The North Korean leadership must choose between isolation from the international community, including China, that have resolutely opposed further nuclear tests and the path toward greater cooperation (with them).” [Yonhap]

The President must search for new ways because the old ones haven’t worked. They haven’t worked because when it comes to North Korea policy, everyone is an exceptionalist. Behind the joint statements, Japan’s deal is only the most dramatic example of how our North Korea coalition is falling apart.

In the case of China and Russia, the disunity is understandable. China and Russia are — and see themselves as — our enemies. It’s harder to understand how an administration that stresses and flouts its diplomatic management of alliances can’t coordinate a consistent, coherent policy with its own treaty allies and military dependents. Even the administration concedes that as the first among equals, it is supposed to lead:

I can tell you when we . . . went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it. 

Ambassador Susan Rice, June 1, 2014

In early April, there were signs that a coalition was congealing. The Joongang Ilbo reported that “[r]epresentatives from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo reached a consensus on taking measures against North Korea if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear weapons test,” and quoted South Korea’s envoy to the six-party talks threatening to make North Korea “pay a price” for nuking off. But to the extent there was ever unity among North Korea’s five interlocutors, the Japan deal destroyed it. The coalition has collapsed, and it was never that strong to start with.

China is the most obvious exceptionalist of the five. It ignores U.N. sanctions and subsidizes North Korea, mostly to f*ck with us, and also to keep half of Korea as a buffer state and a source of cheap coal and comfort women, while whining disingenuously about how powerless it is do anything about it. As the economist Nicholas Eberstadt says in a new analysis, “[T]he North Korean economy has never before been so totally dependent on the largesse of a single trade patron as it appears to be today.” No one believes a word China says, but no one does anything about it, either.

Russia is an exceptionalist because of Crimea. Old Bolsheviks bang their shoes on podiums; psychopaths do things more quietly — things like importing more North Korean slave laborers, sending their Deputy Prime Ministers to visit Pyongyang, opening new rail lines between Khasan and Rason, signing new economic cooperation agreements with Pyongyang, and writing off almost $10 billion in old North Korean debt (Professor Haggard has more on Russia’s “pivot,” here.) Russia does these things to harm our interests, and to use that as leverage against us. So noted. How many Ukrainians does it take to grease a T-90 with a TOW missile? It’s not an ethnic joke, it’s a question. We have leverage, too.

Even South Korea — the principal beneficiary of deterring North Korea, but also the principal beneficiary of a Pentagon-subsidized status quo — recently had the chutzpah to argue that U.N. sanctions don’t apply to its politically popular “inter-Korean projects,” which are effectively no-strings-attached subsidies into the opaque void of Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Cash earnings from an inter-Korean tour project would not be subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, amid growing expectations for its resumption. [….]

Questions have risen whether North Korea’s earnings from a joint inter-Korean tourism project in the North’s eastern mountain region would violate the resolution banning the transfer of bundles of cash to the wayward country.

“In the ministry’s understanding, (bulk cash banning) is aimed at curbing attempts to transfer illicit funds through hand-carrying with the purpose of circumventing bank trading,” the ministry said in a written response to independent lawmaker Park Joo-sun’s questionnaire regarding the Kumgang tour program and the U.N. sanctions.

Also asked whether the bulk cash restriction applies to commercial transactions over the banking system, the ministry said, “Given the purpose of bulk cash banning in the UNSC resolutions, normal dealings through the banking system are not relevant in our understanding.”

The U.N. has not detected any violations of bulk cash banning so far, while the Kumgang tour program has not been discussed as a possible violation, according to the ministry’s response to the lawmaker.”  [Yonhap]

That’s a green answer to a blue question. The fact that Kaesong and Kumgang don’t violate Paragraph 14’s prohibitions on bulk cash transactions doesn’t make them kosher under Paragraphs 11 or 15, which require financial transparency in transactions involving the financial system, including money transfers, correspondent accounts, the opening of new branches, and trade credits. And if there was any transparency, don’t you suppose the Unification Ministry would have answered my questions by now? Sweet Jesus — did they even read the resolution, or are they just lying? Because South Korea sat on the Security Council when that resolution passed. Seoul is hardly in any position to criticize Tokyo or Beijing about North Korea policy. It’s the worst hypocrite of all.

~   ~   ~

As for us, I’d say a Japanese diplomat pegged us in 2007, after the second failed Agreed Framework, when he observed that “[t]he United States always jumps to hasty decisions as a presidential election approaches.” In North Korea, the American exceptionalism means that American Presidents seldom let U.N. resolutions get between them and a convenient opportunity to buy North Korea out of the headlines. Despite everything that the last two decades should have taught us, self-described North Korea “experts” still insist that the answer to our nuclear impasse with North Korea is to soften our precondition that North Korea agree to disarm, and appease it with “engagement” initiatives that inevitably provide it regime-sustaining cash. These people still have enough influence within the Obama Administration to have it adopt their failed ideas, or at least float them as trial balloons. Only North Korea’s disinterest in denuclearizing at all has stalled the idea. Kim Jong Il would have taken our money and run like a thief; Kim Jong Un doesn’t even bother to.

Which brings us back to Japan, which has made itself an exceptionalist for more understandable reasons — a desire to bring home its citizens, kidnapped by North Korea decades ago. What makes that especially understandable is that Japan is driven to this desperation because of an exceptionalist grasp by President Bush that, despite his personal assurance to the contrary, betrayed Japan and its abductees. After personally meeting with abductee Megumi Yokota’s mother in the Oval Office, Bush reversed a long-term U.S. policy of listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism for its abductions of Japanese, refusing to lift that designation until the abductees came home. The decision shook the Japanese government and infuriated its people. Here’s a flashback to that event in 2007, and to how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted at the time:

Japanese politicians like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained this week that the United States should not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until there is a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Doing so would harm relations between Tokyo and Washington, Abe warned.

On Wednesday, Bush talked to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda by telephone and assured him that he had not forgotten about the abductees. And in a nod to Japan in his comments Thursday, Bush said the United States would “never forget” the abductions of Japanese citizens.

On Thursday, Fukuda, a moderate, rejected criticism inside Japan that Tokyo now had little leverage over Pyongyang because of its removal from the terrorism list. He said working with the United States “will be really necessary to realize the denuclearization and, at the same time, pave the way for solving the abduction issue, which is a major task for our country.”

North Korea recently agreed to reinvestigate the abductions, while Japan said it would lift some minor sanctions against the North. But so far, Tokyo has refused to contribute energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation nuclear agreement, and Japanese participation is expected to become crucial as considerably more assistance has been promised to the North.

Both Bush and Rice addressed the strong sentiment in Japan that the Bush administration had abandoned Tokyo, its most important ally in Asia, for the sake of reaching an imperfect agreement with the North.

“We’re continuing to expect the North Koreans to take this issue seriously because it is a major issue for Japan and it’s a major issue for the United States,” Rice said of the abductions issue. [N.Y. Times]

With malice aforethought, we threw one of our closest allies under the bus to appease our most implacable and mendacious enemies. That’s not deference to our allies, it’s deference to our enemies and a betrayal of our allies. It isn’t smart diplomacy, either; you can see how well it worked out for us. None of that is President Obama’s fault, of course, but it is his fault that the same State Department geniuses are still running our North Korea policy today instead of stamping passports in Bamako. We’re still paying the price for their incompetence today.

~   ~   ~

It’s difficult to calculate the value of this financial windfall without knowing just how soon North Korea will renege, and just how much reneging prepared Japan is to tolerate. It could be substantial, and loosening restrictions on remittances could be an early payoff. Japan and North Korea are natural trading partners, and as The Hankyoreh notes, “Trade between North Korea and Japan was as high as 46 billion yen (US$452 million) in 2002 before plummeting to 14.1 billion yen (US$138.7 million) in 2006, then drying up more or less completely.” Not bad for a country with a GDP of about $40 billion (privately, economists scoff at that figure). Thus, North Korea rakes in a big payday just as it threatens to conduct a new nuclear test, and just as President Obama is trying to prevent that by threatening to starve North Korea of cash.

The South Koreans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, sound angry and bitter about Japan cutting a deal:

A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday: “It was just a relationship between two isolated leaders, Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom have no friends in Northeast Asia.” The deal threatens to break the united front that Japan, South Korea and the United States have maintained in dealing with Pyongyang. [Joongang Ilbo]

Diplomats often let such things go unsaid, but not today. This has caused a real rift among nations that have common interests and ought to act like allies:

Following reports of a fresh deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, South Korean officials warned of a possible negative impact on the troubled denuclearization process.

“We understand the importance of the abduction issue in Japan’s diplomacy, but now is an important time for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia to cooperate for the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability,” a senior South Korean diplomat here said on background. [Yonhap]

Japan defended the agreement.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, says the move does not mean Japan is out of step with the United States and South Korea on the issue. “It’s impossible – this agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”  

In fact, the relaxation of rules against remittances has the immediate potential to violate UNSCR 2094, depending on what restrictions and reporting requirements Japan puts on them. Lifting the travel ban certainly raises the risk of bulk cash smuggling from Japan to North Korea. If Japan’s “aid” to North Korea takes the form of cash, it also has the potential to violate U.N. sanctions, although it’s not clear what nature, amount, or form the aid would take. The greater point is one that even some Japanese can see — that North Korea’s game is to disrupt or offset any international coalition that could focus deterrent economic pressure. It’s succeeding because no one is leading that coalition.

Among the most significant is the possible easing of a ban on cash remittances from the thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are loyal to the regime. That could provide the North with much-needed hard currency for its weapons programs, and could undermine international efforts to bring the regime to heel, said academic and activist Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University.

“Kim Jong-Un’s regime has won a major compromise,” he told AFP. “It has secured a way for money to flow to North Korea. “Kim has issued an order to Chongryong (its de facto embassy in Japan) to press Korean business people to invest, which will mean cash flowing to North Korea.“They badly want this money to maintain the regime and to fund the nuclear program.” [Japan Today]

In the short term, Pyongyang has managed to split the allied coalition and disrupt its strategy for deterrence — a strategy that won’t work if various nations continue to put their individual interests ahead of the collective interest in disarming North Korea. Today, Pyongyang is doing a better job of using those individual interests to divide its neighbors than anyone else is doing of coordinating a collective response to deter it. The only nation with the financial, diplomatic, and military clout to coordinate an international response is the United States.

The Obama Administration doesn’t quite seem to be paying attention. The potential exists for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate effective pressure on North Korea. Even China seems irritated at Kim Jong Un, and the fragile condition of its economy increases U.S. financial leverage over the Chinese banks that hold most of Kim Jong Un’s offshore deposits. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had in years to roll back Pyongyang’s destructive ambitions. Instead, the North Koreans are taking advantage of this leadership vacuum, appealing to the individual interests of China, South Korea, and Japan, and dividing the nations whose cooperation could put devastating economic pressure on Pyongyang.

North Korea will break its word, of course, at a time of its choosing. The result will be a more dangerous world for Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

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China, State Dep’t stonewall family of missing American David Sneddon

Outside Magazine’s detailed story on the unexplained 2004 disappearance of American hiker David Sneddon in China — and suspicions that he was abducted by North Korean agents — has generated much interest among more conservative North Korea watchers here. The story is the fullest accounting of the Sneddon case that I’ve read thus far, but not by much. Melanie Kirkpatrick previously wrote about Sneddon’s disappearance here. (See also.)


[via Outside Magazine]

The theory is that North Korean agents in China, on the hunt for refugees along the underground railroad to Southeast Asia, alerted to Sneddon’s exceptional fluency in Mandarin and Korean, and abducted him because they suspected him of helping refugees or because he would be useful as a language trainer for their spies.

I don’t claim to know what happened to Sneddon or whether it had anything to do with North Korea, but it’s clear that the Chinese government is hiding something. It intimidated witnesses, removed key documentary evidence, and generally stonewalled the family. I’m agnostic as to whether the Chinese are hiding something because they have something to hide, or because that’s just how they roll.

We should expect better from our own government. Unfortunately, the State Department has shunted the Sneddon family into a bureaucratic circle of hell that reads like an unpublished Kafka script. When Sneddon’s parents tried to find out what the State Department knew about their son’s disappearance, State stonewalled them and hid behind an obtuse interpretation of the Privacy Act — refusing to release the documents until David consented to the release of the documents, or was proven dead. (Had it wished to do so, State could have released documents years earlier, under the “health and safety” Privacy Act exception at 5 U.S.C. 552a(b)(8).)

Naturally, this has only intensified the curiosity and speculation of interested observers, journalists, and Utah’s congressional delegation about what China knows, what State has (or hasn’t) done to investigate Sneddon’s disappearance, and whether State should have raised the issue with the Chinese government at a higher level.

State’s history of stonewalling Congress and sidelining similar issues does nothing to allay our suspicions. David Sneddon disappeared just as Chris Hill was at the peak of his influence, and as the Bush Administration grasped in desperation for a deal with China and North Korea. This isn’t to say that Hill personally knew a thing about the case. I don’t even know if the East Asia Bureau or the Korea Desk connected Sneddon to the North Koreans. My guess is that they would have viewed the evidence for that connection as tenuous and circumstantial — and would have wanted to — and maybe that’s what the totality of the evidence will eventually reveal.

On the other hand, these were the same officials who were willing to suppress the news that North Korea built a nuclear reactor in Syria, to prevent a congressional backlash against Agreed Framework 2.0. The last thing they wanted was to push China (much less North Korea) for answers about a missing American, just as they were trying to push the Japanese abduction issue off the table.

Whatever happened to David Sneddon, our government owes his family forthright, honest, and respectful treatment. It hasn’t given them that yet.

Someone asked me yesterday what people who care about David and his family should do. My answer is that they should write to the Utah congressional delegation and ask it to (1) write to the Secretary of State demanding answers, and (2) ask the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to send their own letters, demanding that State release its documents on David’s case under the Privacy Act exception at 5 U.S.C. 552a(b)(9) (authorizing release to congressional committees).

That might not allow the Sneddon family to see the redacted and withheld documents, but it would allow the committee staff to examine them (in a classified setting, if necessary), to get a full and unredacted explanation of what State really knows, and to force State to pursue any leads that it should have, and that it still can pursue.

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Darusman Disappoints (Me, Mostly)

Maruzki Darusman gave a press conference this morning to convey the results of his six-day trip to South Korea. The contents of my report on the event were published by Daily NK  at the time, and are also republished below;

Maruzki Darusman, the UN’s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights issues, believes there has been no improvement since he took on the role in 2010, and has once again urged Pyongyang to take action to remedy its multitude of human rights failings.

Darusman, who gave a press conference at a Seoul hotel this morning, wrapping up a six-day visit to South Korea, noted that the only area in which any progress at all has been made with North Korea in the recent past is in terms of “cooperation with other UN entities, for instance the World Food Programme.

Conversely, he slammed North Korea’s human rights record yet again, commenting, “The DPRK is perhaps the only country in the world today that does not recognize that non-cooperation with the human rights mechanism is not an option.

Darusman’s criticisms of North Korea, derived from the fact-finding trip, include the prevalence of human rights abuses in the testimony of new defectors at Hanawon, the resettlement center for defectors south of Seoul, a 17% year-on-year increase in defector numbers reaching Seoul, the current separated family reunions freeze and the ongoing stonewalling by North Korea of calls for the repatriation of more than 500 South Korean abductees still thought to be being held in the country.

He also agreed to look into the case of Shin Suk Ja, saying, “The case of Oh Gil Nam is an emblematic case that illustrates the seriousness and magnitude of the problem and reminds us of the need to resolve the issue of abductions urgently.” It is the internment of Dr. Oh’s wife Shin and their two children in a North Korean political prison camp which forms the inspiration for the ongoing “˜Save the Daughter of Tongyeong!’ movement in South Korea.

However, disappointingly for the supporters of the movement, Darusman did so by saying that he plans to collect information on the case before “engaging the UN human rights mechanism, including the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances in Geneva,” rather than lending his voice to calls for Shin and her daughters to be released.

“I will continue to be in touch with this matter on occasions” so as to “bring it forward to its resolution, hopefully in the near future,” he added.

Darusman also initially refused to cite China directly for its role in repatriating defectors to face torture and imprisonment inside North Korea, instead noting simply that many defectors are “forcibly refouled or returned by the neighboring countries. However he did, responding to a later question, note that “China would certainly be one of those countries.

But I don’t think the original content really represents the nuance of the event. Although my headline was soft around the edges for reasons of unity with Daily NK’s Korean page, I personally believe the core of the story actually lies in the last two paragraphs.

For me, it is wholly indicative of the failure of the UN as it pertains to North Korea that the organization’s own special rapporteur on North Korean human rights would be able to talk about the repatriation of defectors for five full minutes  without  mentioning China, and then not even  mention  the abductions issue in his recommendations despite having met Oh Gil Nam during the trip. Any headline on this press conference that you have read will have led with the contents of the post-press conference Q&A, and as such we should remember; if the press had not pushed Darusman on these two points, there would have been no mention of China  at all  and almost none of Shin Suk Ja.

I was not a huge fan of Darusman’s predecessor Vitit Muntarbhorn, but that may have been simply because acting as the UN special rapporteur for this issue is such a thankless task in so many ways. However, to his immense credit, Muntarbhorn seemed clued up on the problems which he was required to address  from the beginning. Darusman does not. He seemed uncomfortable to be responding to a question about Oh Gil Nam, at one point even seeking clarification of the question, and didn’t even appear all that sure how many children Oh and Shin Suk Ja actually have. He then tried quite hard to avoid namechecking China.

It was not an encouraging scene.

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Committee for Human Rights in N. Korea to Release Report on Abductions

I’ll simply post the press release and let it speak for itself:

Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

1725 Eye (I) Street, NW “¢ Suite 300 “¢ Washington, DC 20006 “¢ (202) 349-3830 www.hrnk.org


****For Immediate Release****

On Thursday, the Washington-based bipartisan Committee for Human Rights in North Korea will release an extraordinary report, “TAKEN! North Korea’s Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries.

The report, three years in the making, is based on numerous sources never before published in English, detailing how people of at least twelve nationalities have been abducted from fourteen countries around the world. It features satellite imagery of where many of these abductees have lived (and may still live) and where they have been forced to work for the North Korean regime.

This report, unlike others that presume little is known about the abductions, sets out the massive amount of information that can be compiled by comparing testimony from former abductees, former operatives of the North Korean regime, and former agents who collaborated with the regime.

In light of these details, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea explains how the abductions were carried out, how the victims were treated in North Korea, how the regime used the abductees to carry out its espionage objectives, and how the regime organized itself bureaucratically to implement Kim Jong-il’s directives to abduct foreign nationals and exploit their knowledge and abilities.

As with all Committee reports, this report provides policy recommendations on how to implement an international strategy to raise the issue of abductions with North Korea both bilaterally and multilaterally, and pursue legal recourse.

The report is the result of extensive coordination with organizations that focus on North Korean abductions in Tokyo and Seoul, as well as US, Japanese, and South Korean officials. Family members of the abductees will participate in Thursday’s release of the HRNK report.

The presentation of this report will be held Thursday May 12 at 9:30 am at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street, NW, 13th floor, “First Amendment Room.


Chuck Downs, Executive Director, Committee on Human Rights in North Korea

Telephone 202-349-3832, email Executive.Director@hrnk.org

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North Korea Celebrates Exclusion from Terrorism List by Abducting South Korean Fisherman

So North Korea has now seized a South Korean fishing boat in the Sea of Japan:

Four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen were questioned for an alleged violation of the North’s exclusive economic zone, South Korea’s coast guard said in a statement. It said the fishing boat was being taken toward the North Korea’s eastern port of Songjin. A South Korean fisherman told South Korea via a satellite phone that his boat was being towed by a North Korean patrol, according to the coast guard.

The coast guard said it was not clear where exactly the 41-ton fishing boat was operating when it was seized. The boat departed South Korea’s southeastern port of Pohang on Aug. 1 and was scheduled to return home on September 10. South Korea called on the North to quickly return the fishing boat and its crew.

The boat was seized off of Cape Musudan, a sensitive area that includes a missile launch site, a nuclear testing site, and one very large political prison camp. North Korea sometimes claims that the waters far off that coast are part of an exclusive economic zone, one that isn’t recognized under international law.

If you appreciate irony as much as I do, you’ve probably noticed that the seizure comes just a day after the State Department released its new list of state sponsors of terrorism with one conspicuous omission. Feel free to stop me if you don’t know the background here, but for those who haven’t, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 to reward it for giving up its nuclear weapons. As of last week, President Obama saw no particular reason to disturb that decision.

Interestingly enough, other people are starting to raise some of the same questions I’ve been asking about North Korea’s shipment of arms to Iranian-backed terrorists and attempts to murder Hwang Jang Yop, as in, aren’t those classic examples of the sponsorship of terrorism? Yonhap quotes the State Department’s non-response to allegations that the North Korean arms shipment seized in Bangkok last year was headed for Hezbollah or Hamas:

Daniel Benjamin, coordinator of the State Department’s Office for Counterterrorism, told reporters that the department has been “looking into” those allegations.

“The secretary and others in the administration have been clear that if we find that Korea is, indeed, sponsoring terrorism, obviously we will revisit the issue of the listing as a state sponsor,” he said. “But Korea was de-listed in accordance with U.S. law in 2008 and it was at that time certified that North Korea had not supported any terrorism in the previous six months.”

And how about the attempt to assassinate Hwang?

“We’ve seen those reports. We are looking into them,” said Benjamin. “The Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] and others in the administration have been clear that if we find that [North] Korea is indeed sponsoring terrorism, obviously, we will revisit the issue of the listing as a state sponsor.

Benjamin said deciding which country will be put on the list is a laborious process that takes some time, adding that “I’m fully aware of that issue and we are looking at it quite carefully.

And we still haven’t even broached the topic of North Korea’s possible sale of surface-to-air missiles to Al Qaeda for use in Afghanistan.

In one hat tip to the truth, State’s list notes that North Korea is still harboring four Japanese Red Army hijackers. The JRA, with the support of North Korea, carried out the deadly 1970 terrorist attack that killed 26 people — 17 of them Americans — and which was the subject of a recent $378 million judgment against North Korea. North Korea was amenable to suit in a U.S. federal district court because the 1970 attack was one basis for its original listing as a sponsor of terrorism, putting it within the 2001 terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

I just can’t figure this administration out. On one hand, it seems to be putting together a tough and potentially devastating sanctions policy, and is signaling its determination to keep those sanctions in place until it curtails North Korea’s illicit activity and forces it to change its belligerent behavior. To my ongoing astonishment, the Obama Administration’s overall North Korea policy is far, far tougher than President Bush’s, which was largely a bipolar fluctuation between tough words and weak actions.

And yet this administration’s refusal to reverse one of President Bush’s key errors and re-add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism defies the evidence, misstates the law, and sends a signal of weakness that doesn’t really seem to accurately reflect the top policymakers’ intentions. Without knowing the substance of the internal debates inside the administration beyond the fact that there are debates, I can only explain this as the product of a compromise between opposing camps. I can understand that sending a nuanced set of mixed signals can be useful sometimes for signaling our willingness to talk, but when we twist law and fact and abandon core principles, the nuance is going to get lost in translation. But then, if North Korea’s own diplomacy is nuanced, that’s been lost in translation, too.

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Ten Years Later, South Korea Questions Suspected North Korean Agent in U.S. Resident’s Kidnapping

kim-dong-shik.jpgThe Reverend Kim Dong Shik, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, was kidnapped from China by North Korean agents 10 years ago today. Rev. Kim was there helping North Korean refugees. Somehow, the North Koreans managed to carry Rev. Kim back across the Chinese-North Korean border without any interference from our friends the ChiComs, despite the fact that Rev. Kim was wheelchair-bound (do wheelchairs even exist in North Korea?).

Years later, rumors emerged to the effect that Kim was tortured to death and buried on a North Korean military base. Kim’s American widow and children have just two modest requests — to know what happened to Rev. Kim, and for the return of his body so that they can hold a funeral and visit his grave.

At first, American politicians seemed sympathetic to the Kim family. In January 2005, the entire Illinois congressional delegation (Mrs. Kim lives in the Chicago suburbs) signed a letter to the North Korean government stating that it would oppose removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism until it accounted for Rev. Kim. The letter compared Rev. Kim to Harriet Tubman. One of the signatories was then-Senator Barack Obama. By then, a suspected North Korean agent, Ryu Young-Hwa, was pending trial in South Korea, accused of having been one of Rev. Kim’s captors. Ryu was convicted in April 2005 and is still serving a prison sentence.

The North Koreans never did account for Reverend Kim’s fate, but in June 2008, President Bush announced that he was removing North Korea from the list anyway. Then-candidate Obama flip-flopped and announced his conditional support for the removal. Bush’s North Korea negotiator, Christopher Hill, had brokered the deal to remove North Korea from the list. The Washington Post later asked Hill about a letter sent to him from Rev. Kim’s widow, Esther, asking for Hill’s help to bring Rev. Kim’s remains home. Hill denied having received the letter, but a reader later provided me photographs of Hill receiving it directly from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Almost everyone has now forgotten about Rev. Kim Dong Shik, although the story of his final weeks on this earth continues to unravel. This week, we learn that South Korea is questioning another suspect in his kidnapping:

Do Hee-yun, head of the Seoul-based Citizen’s Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, told the JoongAng Ilbo that a former North Korean spy who “played a principal role” in the kidnapping of Reverend Kim is being interrogated by South Korean authorities. According to Do, the ex-agent, named Kim, wasn’t staying at the official North Korean refugee shelter Hanawon, but instead was at another facility for investigation. The ongoing investigation should shed some new light on Reverend Kim’s abduction.

On Jan. 16, 2000, he was kidnapped in Yanji, China, and was forced into North Korea. Kim had helped about 13 North Korean refugees in China to move to South Korea in November 1999.

Pyongyang ignored Seoul’s demand for Kim’s repatriation. The pastor reportedly refused to cooperate with the North Korean investigators who wanted to record Kim’s entry as a voluntary one. South Korean intelligence said Kim weighed just 35 kilograms (77.2 pounds) at the time of his death in February 2001, due to torture and malnutrition. But little has been known so far of the North Korean government’s involvement in the kidnapping, and of specific details of how Kim ended up in Pyongyang.

Another defector reported Kim, the agent, to South Korean authorities. Other defectors also apparently identified “Kim” as a North Korean agent.

“Based on Jeon’s testimony, the former agent grabbed Reverend Kim by the arm and pushed him into a taxi,” Do said. “Before handing him over to North Korea, the ex-spy took away his cell phone and $1,000 in cash. These are some specific details.

Human rights groups held memorial rallies for Rev. Kim today in Seoul. If you have any pictures or descriptions, please e-mail them or leave a comment.

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