China breaks N. Korea sanctions it says won’t work because it’s afraid they’ll work

In yesterday’s post, I linked to reports suggesting that China’s failure to agree on the terms of a new U.N. sanctions resolution responding to North Korea’s latest nuclear test may be motivated by a desire to wait out the end of President Obama’s administration. This theory would only make sense if China figures it can get better terms from President Trump next year, but my post pointed to evidence of the opposite of this — that what we know so far about the key people advising Trump is that some want to increase sanctions against His Supreme Corpulency and his Chinese backers, and others would prefer to terminate his command with extreme prejudice. 

First, I’ll offer an important caveat: it can be treacherous trying to divine President Elect Trump’s policy views by listening to his advisors.

With that caveat, then, if the present pattern of selections and nominations continues, differences between the U.S. and China over North Korea may have to get worse under a Trump administration before they can get better. Men like John Bolton, Mitt Romney, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn probably believe that President Obama’s deferential approach to China, rather than improving relations, likely contributed to China’s (correct) calculation that it could get away with grabbing vast areas of the South China Sea, bullying its neighbors, undermining North Korea sanctions, and doing other things to escalate regional tensions. They may see more pressure on China as a prerequisite to defanging North Korea. They may dismiss China’s explanations of its North Korea policy as mendacious and double-dealing, which is only natural, given that China actually has at least six of them — all of them risible, mutually inconsistent, or both.

First, there is China’s official diplomatic position, expressed in its vote for no less than six resolutions at the Security Council. Implicit in these votes are two ideas — that China wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and that economic pressure is an important part of a policy for achieving that end.

Second, there is the reality of China’s material and financial support for the North Korean regime, often in violation of U.N. sanctions, including the sale of proliferation-sensitive technology (missile trucks, for example). China has spent the last decade violating the same sanctions it voted for because trade and engagement and all that. As I’ve pointed out more than once, those violations are much too extensive and long-standing to be anything less than willful state policy.

Third, there is the propaganda line advanced by China’s scholars and acolytes that sanctions — that is, the ones China has spent the last decade violating — never work. (Except, of course, when they do, but more on that in a moment.)

Fourth, when called on its years of flagrant violations, China says it’s afraid that sanctions will work so well they’ll destabilize the regime in Pyongyang. Here’s a typical example of something you’ve read at least a hundred times:

China fears that stricter measures against North Korea, such as cutting off provisions of oil and food, would lead to a humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees flocking across the border. The collapse of Kim’s government could also put soldiers from South Korea and its U.S. ally right on China’s border, a scenario Beijing’s leaders want to avoid. [Bloomberg]

A premise of that view is that China would rather have a nuclear-armed, genocidal North Korea along its border than a democratic one friendly to the United States, which it views with intense hostility. Usually, that premise goes unspoken, but not always.

“The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China is closer to North Korea than the United States.”

China sees living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse, Mr. Shi said. The Chinese leadership is confident that North Korea will not turn its weapons on China, and that China can control its neighbor by providing enough oil to keep its economy afloat.

The alternative is a strategic nightmare for Beijing: a collapsed North Korean regime, millions of refugees piling into China and a unified Korean Peninsula under an American defense treaty. [N.Y. Times]

A fifth argument is that Beijing has little real influence over Pyongyang, which is spurious nonsense: 

China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume (PDF). “China is currently North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. [Council on Foreign Relations]

That argument looks especially spurious this year, as China uses trade as a blunt instrument against South Korea over its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, and against the United States itself. China has made more threats against the U.S. and South Korea over missile defense this year than it has against North Korea in a decade over the missiles and nukes that gave rise to the threat itself.

Finally, China has a last line of defense: We are, too, enforcing sanctions!  If it comes under sufficient diplomatic pressure, for a few weeks or months, Beijing will encourage a few banks and companies to freeze a few accounts, arrest a few North Korean money launderers, or inspect some cargo entering or leaving North Korea. This compliance typically lasts for a few weeks or months until the trade returns to business as usual.

In 2013, and again this year, Chinese banks seemed (for a few weeks) to have frozen North Korean accounts right after a sanctions resolution passed. But by September, the Justice Department’s indictment and forfeiture action against Dandong Hongxiang proved that Chinese banks had gone right back to servicing His Porcine Majesty’s slush funds. At first blush, a new Washington Post report by Anna Fifield, indicating that Sino-North Korean trade dropped off suddenly in recent weeks, looks like the latest Chinese head-fake in response to pressure from the outgoing Obama administration.

[T]rading has become significantly harder in recent weeks, a dozen people involved in doing business with North Korea said in interviews, the result of a double-pronged attempt by Beijing to communicate its anger with the regime in Pyongyang. 

“Everything’s become tougher since September,” a Korean Chinese factory owner who employs North Korean workers here told The Washington Post. “This crackdown is because of the missile and nuclear tests, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to blow over.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This could be a head-fake, but it could also mean something entirely different and much more significant — Chinese companies may be showing their fear of U.S. secondary sanctions. Specifically, Fifield sees some evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action had an in-terrorem effect on other Chinese trading companies. Indeed, she speculates that this action had a greater impact than the passage of U.N. sanctions:

But an equal or even bigger influence is the surprise detention of a prominent Dandong business executive, a member of the Communist Party no less, who stands accused of helping North Korea dodge sanctions and obtain materials for its weapons program.

“When business people hear this kind of story, of course we feel very constrained and it makes us very cautious,” a South Korean businessman trading in this area said on condition of anonymity. The atmosphere is so tense that none of the businessmen interviewed were willing to be publicly identified, even as they insisted everything was aboveboard.

Business is down, but no one knows how long that will last. And even now there are plenty of ambiguous signs: The annual trade fair here was canceled- yet coal exports from North Korea are breaking records. China holds the lever, and its intentions can only be speculated upon. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This highlights a point that sanctions skeptics tend to miss or gloss over — that the goal of secondary sanctions isn’t so much to change the attitude of the Chinese government (probably a fool’s errand) but to threaten the divergent interests of the Chinese banks and business that are the instruments of Beijing’s sanctions-busting. Chinese banks and businesses are content to break sanctions if it’s profitable to do so, but not at the cost of their assets or their access to international markets, trade, or finance. 

Fifield treats these reports with justifiable skepticism, noting that the Chinese government’s interest in maintaining North Korea’s status quo (however horrific for North Koreans) probably hasn’t changed. Indeed, I see little clear evidence in Fifield’s report that this drop-off is the result of Chinese government action. What’s interesting and noteworthy is the timing of this change (in September). On September 9th, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, which brought more diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government to enforce sanctions. The Dandong Hongxiang actions were announced on September 26th. One could argue that either event was a greater influence than the other.

Fifield and Andrei Lankov, whom Fifield quotes, then proceed to say that years of sanctions have failed, even as Fifield sees evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action might have worked. But this is a false distinction. It misses the key point that U.S. authorities acted against Dandong Hongxiang for laundering money for Korea Kwangsong Bank, which was designated by both the U.N. and the U.S. for proliferation financing in violation of U.N. sanctions. This was an example of a Member State using its national laws to enforce U.N. sanctions, which is the only way U.N. sanctions can be enforced. Dandong Hongxiang is precisely what it looks like when someone bothers to enforce U.N. sanctions for once.

It’s difficult to believe that a single enforcement action — particularly one that failed to act against the Chinese banks behind Dandong Hongxiang’s violations — will be enough to put significant and lasting pressure on Pyongyang. Chinese businesses may be waiting to see how the new Trump administration responds. Or, we may be seeing the Chinese government’s latest head-fake. But for now, the report bears watching, and may eventually validate the effectiveness of secondary sanctions. 

Continue Reading

If China is gambling on Trump to blunt N. Korea sanctions, it could lose bigly*

By all outward appearances, President Obama never really had a coherent North Korea policy. While pursuing a deal that Pyongyang either didn’t want or wouldn’t keep, it reacted to each nuclear test by building on John Bolton’s work and nominally tightening the sanctions the U.N. initially imposed a decade ago, in Resolution 1718. The idea, apparently, was to deter Pyongyang by threatening its plans to develop Hamhung and Chongjin, something it no more intends to do than the Confederacy intended to institute a slave literacy campaign. Under President Obama, sanctions were always incremental, were never well-enforced, and never seemed to be part of any plausible broader strategy.

Still, if only to make a display of doing something after each test, the U.S. would expend much diplomatic energy on haggling with China (and Russia — let’s not forget Russia) over the terms of a new resolution. In due course, the Security Council would approve it, and for three or four months, everyone would pretend that this time was different before returning to business as usual.

As of today, 74 days have passed since September 9th, when North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, yet there is still no agreed draft resolution. For those keeping score, that’s the longest delay yet between a test and a resolution (the previous record of 56 days was set earlier this year, after the fourth nuclear test).

Three weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the P-5 were close to a deal on “[a] new sanctions package … that more effectively blocks the regime’s overseas funding sources,” and might narrow a “livelihood purposes” loophole that effectively nullified a ban on North Korea’s coal exports (see also). The U.S. side was also pushing China to agree to “crack down” on North Korea’s slave labor exports.

Meanwhile, Bureau 39 continues to rake in millions of dollars from higher coal prices, at the expense of military-controlled trading companies (but see this contrary report that coal prices are actually falling).

Reports today say that talks between the U.S. and China are in “their final stages,” but we’ve heard that before, and we still have no word that the two sides have agreed on a draft resolution. A few days ago, Obama had his last meeting with Xi Jinping. The meeting produced little more than a pro-forma agreement that the Korean Peninsula should be nuclear-free, a statement that increasingly becomes moot for North Korea as it gains relevance for South Korea. One of Obama’s priorities for that meeting was to push China to crack down on North Korea. If the result isn’t a significantly tougher resolution within a week, we can probably conclude that President Obama failed to achieve that goal.

That would lend credence to reports that China is stalling talks on a new resolution, perhaps until Obama leaves office. According to those reports, China is still smarting over the U.S. indictment of flagrant sanctions cheat Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development (while sparing the banks that facilitated the violations). It may be calculating that a President Trump will be more focused on economic issues and won’t want to start off by antagonizing China over a low-priority issue like North Korea. That would be a big gamble.

trump-casino

If so, China may be miscalculating. Although the President-Elect has yet to name several key members of his national security cabinet, what we know so far doesn’t suggest that he’s likely to adopt a soft line or make North Korea a back-burner issue. The most talked-about contenders for Secretary of State are Mitt Romney and … John Bolton (enough said?). James Mattis, who recently spoke to the President Elect about North Korea and other issues, didn’t earn the nickname “Mad Dog” by calling for agreed frameworks. (Update: My favorite Mattis quote: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”)

There is also direct evidence of what those close to President Elect Trump have said about North Korea policy. In a meeting with South Korea’s deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong, Michael Flynn, the selectee to be the next National Security Advisor, called the U.S.-South Korea alliance “vital” and said the new administration would make North Korea a priority. At the time, Flynn did not specify how, but Cho later said that Trump would adopt “stern measures,” and that his aides see “no momentum” for dialogue with North Korea. Flynn was previously quoted as saying, “We should not let the current North Korea regime … exist for a long time.” 

Despite Trump’s loose talk of talks with His Porcine Majesty, one Trump advisor, former congressman Pete Hoekstra, has already ruled them out for “the near future.” Heritage Foundation ex-President and Trump advisor Edward Fuelner has specifically said that the U.S. would impose a secondary boycott on Chinese firms that are propping up Pyongyang financially.

Even before Election Day, we knew that the next president could clash with China over North Korea. The result of the election doesn’t seem to have diminished the likelihood of that. I increasingly incline to the view that either the current President or the next one should signal to the Chinese that if they don’t agree to and enforce tough new sanctions, we’ll walk away from talks over a new resolution and act on our own. That strategy would use a combination of progressive diplomacy and the thinly veiled threat of Executive Order 13722 sanctions to get foreign governments to enforce UNSCR 2270. President Obama knows what he needs to do, but lacks the will. China would be ill-advised to assume the same of President Trump.

~   ~   ~

* Update: I couldn’t resist changing the title.

Continue Reading

As Trump picks his cabinet, Congress flexes its foreign policy muscle

As we continue to watch Trump’s trial balloons float by on the selection of his national security cabinet, we still don’t know much about the foreign policy Donald Trump would have as President. On the other hand, most of Congress’s key players on foreign policy will still be around next year, and some of them have already begun to assert themselves. Committee chairs are (on one hand) pushing Trump to adopt more conventional foreign policy views, while (on the other) threatening to use their power to undermine any major policy shifts, specifically toward the Kremlin.

Some of the most powerful foreign-policy makers in the U.S. government are outside of President-elect Donald Trump’s control and are already signaling an early end to the honeymoon period over their fellow Republican’s security and diplomatic stances. [Foreign Policy, Molly O’Toole]

Ed Royce, the California Republican who conceived the North Korea sanctions bill that became law in February, and who stayed mostly quiet on Trump’s candidacy this year, will be back as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year. Hopefully, so will his Senate co-champion, Cory Gardner, at the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. (Gardner’s rising star status was cemented this week by his selection to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee.) After some of Trump’s statements last year cast doubt on the alliance, both Royce and Gardner visited South Korea to reassure its leaders. Paul Ryan has also been supportive of the alliance.

Bob Corker, the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains in the running for Secretary of State. Whether Corker is nominated or stays on as Chairman, he’d be a moderating influence. If Corker does leave the Senate, next in line, in terms of seniority, would be Idaho Senator James Risch, who called voting for Trump “distasteful,” but said he’d do it anyway. If congressional Republicans really want to put their stamp on foreign policy, however, they’ll pick the talented and highly intelligent Marco Rubio, who is fresh off a convincing reelection win. 

Also back at the Armed Services Committee is the newly reelected John McCain, who has joined with his close friend, Lindsey Graham, in making clear that any pivot to Moscow will face significant resistance in Congress.

“[Trump] wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it, but here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world, they need to be reined in,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday, adding that it would be up to Congress to let Russia “know the rules of the road pretty early,” even under a friendlier Trump administration.

“I think [Russia] should pay a price heavier than they’re paying now for what they’re doing in Syria and in eastern Europe,” Graham added. “I will consult with my colleagues what there is appetite for.”

Graham isn’t the only Trump critic who came out swinging on Tuesday on Russian involvement in global affairs. His close friend and colleague Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “the price of another ‘reset’ [with Russia] would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation.” [Washington Post, Karoun Demirjian]

What can Congress do, aside from mere words? The Post’s report says that lawmakers are preparing “a battery of legislative measures to hold the line against Russia, regardless of what the president-elect tries to do.” Such as? First, words do matter, and Graham is threatening to hold “a series of hearings about Russia’s misadventures throughout the world” and cyberattacks. Although Republicans balked at holding pre-election hearings into Russia’s meddling in the election, Republicans haven’t dropped the issue, either.

“We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our goals for the moment,” Graham said Tuesday. 

In the House, Royce also said he would be interested in investigating Russia’s connection to the hacking incidents. “I would hope that all federal agencies are investigating,” Royce said. “If we can get evidence, it’s very worthwhile to pursue any information we have.” [WaPo]

Second, Congress can do what it did to force a reluctant President Obama’s hand on North Korea: impose mandatory sanctions. This week, the House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, which could force the next administration to sanction Assad’s Russian backers, among others. If the name of the bill sounds familiar, that’s because “Caesar” is the code name for the subject of a chilling Ted talk by his former CIA handler, a man who would later become a House staffer and independent candidate: Evan McMullin. Ordinarily, the calendar would make it difficult for the Ceasar Act to pass this Congress, but even Corker says “there’s going to be much more opportunity for bipartisan passage” of bills pertaining to Russia, and that lawmakers “plan to be aggressive” before the year ends. If the bill doesn’t pass this year, expect to see the same text introduced again in January.

“Regardless of perspectives on Syria, there’s some unanimity of opinion in sending a message on this kind of conduct,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said prior to the vote. [WaPo]

Ditto North Korea, if you’ve been watching the recent oversight hearings in the House and Senate.

Finally, Graham is promising “a package that would help our Eastern European allies better deal with the threats they face from Russia” that includes broad defense aid “to make it harder for Russia to advance beyond where they are today.” If Trump’s rhetoric on cost-sharing helps defray the cost, that aid package may be more palatable in Congress. Ed Royce thinks Trump’s public skepticism about NATO was nothing more than a “very successful negotiating tactic” to persuade NATO allies “to pay their share of the burden” in funding the alliance. Corker claims to have seen an “evolution” in Trump’s views on Russia and NATO.

If Trump can persuade Japan and South Korea to contribute more funds without harming the integrity of the alliance, I’d say all ends well, except that I have no confidence that all ends well if the left wins South Korea’s next presidential election. Another outbreak of anti-Americanism could erode congressional support for the alliance below a critical level, especially if South Korean politicians are seen as feeding or playing into that. 

Historically, the President has enjoyed great deference in the conduct of foreign policy. This Congress is already hinting that it means to push the envelope in that historic power struggle. If Trump prefers to prioritize other matters, we may see an early compromise, especially if Trump appoints a more conventional and moderate cabinet. If not, we may see a period of intra-partisan conflict and gridlock between the executive and legislative branches. If Congress prevails, the result could be a historic expansion of Congress’s power over the conduct of foreign affairs.

Continue Reading

Trump & Korea Policy: We Now Enter the Bargaining Stage

If South Korea’s most sober and cool-headed people are checking the prices of houses in Fairfax this week, there are some good reasons for that. Our next president-elect’s Korea policy could not be more unsettled if he had written it on an Etch-a-Sketch, set the Etch-a-Sketch on the bed of the honeymoon suite in Trump Tower, and fed four quarters into the magic fingers.

In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump advocated a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facility before it’s too late. In this year’s campaign, he said the North is China’s problem to fix, though he also expressed a willingness to hold nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader while eating hamburgers. Trump has also called the North’s leader a “madman,” a “maniac” and a “total nut job,” but he’s also praised the young dictator, saying it is “amazing” for him to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]

On the U.S. side, then, it has never been so true that “personnel is policy.” The potential candidates for State, Defense, and Treasury are a Whitman Sampler — diverse and surprising, and in some cases, we’ll probably want to throw them away after the first bite. The New York Times lists the candidates for Secretary of State as John Bolton, Bob Corker, Newt Gingrich, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Stanley McChrystal. All of these men are well-qualified, experienced, and intelligent, and they’ve given much serious thought to foreign policy, although I’d have some misgivings about Gingrich’s temperament and judgment.

Also, Dana Rohrabacher’s name has been mentioned. So has Rudy Giuliani’s, although I can’t see what he really knows about foreign policy. 

Bolton’s nomination would throw the left and the isolationists into apoplexy. It’s tempting to say that this alone is a reason to nominate him (it isn’t). I’d be most reassured by the nomination of Bolton or Corker (who is blamed by some on the right for green-lighting President Obama’s Iran deal, but who played an essential role in passing the North Korea sanctions law this year).

Having met Bolton more than once, he’s a much more sophisticated thinker than his foes give him credit for. I was most surprised by his dry sense of humor — indicative of a capacity to digest contradictions and contraindicative of a one-dimensional ideologue. Bolton narrowly lost a tough confirmation fight to be U.N. Ambassador in 2005, due in part to his undiplomatically harsh characterization of North Korea. I’ve relished pointing out that at the time, one of the strongest critics of Bolton’s criticism of Kim Jong-il was John Kerry, who went on to say worse of Kim Jong-un, thus implicitly validating that Bolton was really right all along. On North Korea policy, I’ve defended Bolton’s record and pointed out that President Obama’s entire North Korea policy (such as it was) was a series of sand castles built on UNSCR 1718, which Bolton drafted and negotiated. 

For Treasury Secretary, candidates under discussion include Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the current Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Steve Mnuchin, a Wall Street banker who financed a string of successful Hollywood films and who holds conventionally conservative economic views, and Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor and darling of economic conservatives. For Defense, those under consideration include Michael Flynn (who has been accused of being too cozy with Putin), Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions. 

~   ~   ~

South Korea’s beleaguered President, Park Geun-hye is understandably terrified of this uncertainty and the risk that Trump’s election could endanger the country’s alliance with its long-standing security guarantor. For example, Victor Cha was quoted as suggesting that Trump might accelerate the transfer of operational control of alliance forces from the U.S. to South Korea. It’s a move first proposed by Donald Rumsfeld, but South Koreans have come to see it as a first step toward U.S. withdrawal. Nervous South Koreans have been trying to build bridges to Trump’s transition team, even as protesters have massed in the streets in an attempt to oust the first democratically elected South Korean President to have an effective North Korea policy since … ever.

Park must have been relieved when, in a ten-minute telephone conversation, Trump promised that America would continue to be a “steadfast and strong” ally, would stick by Seoul “all the way,” would “never waver,” and would be “with you 100 percent.” Reports of the conversation between Park and Trump suggested that Trump had backed away from some of his more isolationist rhetoric, and reassured jittery South Koreans. One subject Park probably brought up was sanctions against North Korea, maintaining the momentum toward cutting off Kim Jong-un’s hard currency, and confronting China’s long-standing and willful sanctions-busting. Here, Trump’s team has been saying the right things:

The United States should impose “secondary boycott” sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for doing business with North Korea, a senior member of the transition team of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was quoted as saying Tuesday.

Former Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, considered a key policy expert in the transition team, made the remark during a meeting with a bipartisan group of South Korean lawmakers, according to Rep. Na Kyung-won of the ruling Saenuri Party.

Feulner’s remark suggests the U.S. is expected to intensify pressure on China. That’s also in line with Trump’s stance on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. He has said that he would pressure Beijing to exercise more of its influence over Pyongyang because it is basically China’s problem to fix.

Feulner also strongly reaffirmed the alliance with South Korea, Na said.

“While stressing that there is no daylight in the alliance between the two countries, he said that there is no difference in the positions of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party or between the ruling party and the opposition party,” she said. [Yonhap]

Trump now denies that he ever suggested that South Korea and Japan should go nuclear. (I’m willing to give him a pass on that if it reassures people, but the idea of going nuclear doesn’t strike me as an insane view from the perspective of defense planners in Seoul, Tokyo, or Taipei. What strikes me as insane is the idea of letting Beijing and Pyongyang have a nuclear monopoly in Asia.) 

In any event, the reassurance won’t last.

First, North Korea immediately made it clear that it won’t denuclearize. This isn’t surprising, although even in his infamous “hamburger” gaffe, Trump still said of Kim, “[W]ho the hell wants him to have nukes?” That puts Trump and His Porcine Majesty on a collision course. 

Second, even assuming Trump nominates a competent foreign policy team, we’ll likely see some difficult negotiations next year over the next USFK cost sharing agreement. I had expressed the view that South Korea should pay a greater share of the cost of USFK long before Trump did. According to the World Bank, Israel spends 5.9 percent of its GDP on defense and the U.S. spends 3.5 percent. By contrast, South Korea spends 2.5 percent and Japan, just one percent. With the U.S. paying the cost of new THAAD batteries in South Korea, U.S. taxpayers will shoulder a higher cost. Given the insufficiency of THAAD as a defense against shorter-range missiles, South Korea may have to buy C-RAM and Iron Dome to protect Seoul and its surroundings. Clearly, South Korea and Japan will have to do more. It’s also true that the three countries are stronger together, and that by integrating their defense strategies, all three countries would spend less to protect themselves against a common threat. The U.S. can make a good deal for the taxpayers if South Korea and Japan pay something more than 50% of the cost, and something less than 100%.

The greater danger, however, lies in the convergence of North Korea’s nuclear hegemony and weak leadership in Seoul. Pyongyang is gradually losing control over the flow of information to its suffering people, and an impoverished North cannot coexist with a prosperous South. Kim Jong-un knows that this ideological competition is zero-sum, and that one system must eventually defeat the other. He cannot possibly believe that his starving conscript army could occupy South Korea today. Instead, since 2010, he has been fighting a war of skirmishes, instigating calculated provocations and sometimes winning important concessions on South Korea’s self-defense, its national policy, its sanctions-busting financial subsidies to Pyongyang, and even South Koreans’ freedom to criticize the North’s system of “government.”

It’s not hard to see how this war of skirmishes will escalate when Kim Jong-un gains an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula, or how a future leftist South Korean government might yield to a slow-motion surrender, as part of an extended “peace process,” to the celebration of much of the world press and a few academic dullards who will not even understand what they’re witnessing. Indeed, the greatest Korea policy challenge that most Americans do not fully grasp is how deeply anti-American and anti-anti-North Korean — and in many cases, how pro-North Korean — the South Korean left really is. Today, it looks overwhelmingly likely that the left will end up winning next year’s South Korean presidential election. It’s difficult to see how the next Secretary of State will align with the next South Korean president on defense or North Korea policy. 

What all of this means is that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is about to face its greatest threat since the election of Jimmy Carter, only now, the potential consequences are vastly more terrible for Korea, and for us all: One Slave Korea, the end of nuclear nonproliferation, an increasingly direct North Korean threat to the U.S., and a vast range of geopolitical, humanitarian, and economic effects, all of them bad.

But on the bright side, I hear there are some great bargains in Loudon County. See it before the last leaves fall.

Continue Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

via GIPHY

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

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

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

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-11-49-54-pm

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

Continue Reading

The Senate does North Korea oversight right; also, sell your Bank of China stock now

It took a few weeks for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee to put a hearing together after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, but when that hearing finally happened on Wednesday, I actually found myself feeling sorry for the State Department witnesses, Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary Of State at the Bureau Of East Asian And Pacific Affairs, and Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. A few years ago, they might have gotten away with showing up unprepared, with index cards filled with stock phrases. For example, after Chris Hill’s confirmation hearing, I wrote, “The degree to which the ‘august’ senators on the Committee have paid no attention to the conduct of policies they are charged with overseeing is depressing and stupefying, and yet it all somehow still makes for dreadfully dull viewing.” Thankfully, this Senate — or rather, this part of it — is a very different and much better body.

Under the leadership of Cory Gardner, at least one part of the Senate is doing policy oversight right. You can watch the whole thing here, and although it’s two hours long, it will hold the interest of anyone interested enough in North Korea policy to read this site. Do what I did and watch it in increments as time permits. 

The main headline from the hearing is that the State Department officials said that they are investigating more Chinese companies for sanctions violations, but it’s clear from the questions that the senators will not be placated by the sacrifice of mere goats anymore. Their mood is of equal parts alarm and fury — both in front of and behind the scenes, and among both Republicans and Democrats — that Chinese banks are breaking our laws, and that this administration is letting them get away with it. As they did before the hearing, they want the administration to sanction the Chinese banks that launder Kim Jong-un’s money.

By now, everyone should have expected Republicans like Gardner and Rubio to question State about that. State should have known by now that both men would be well-prepared and unsparing in their criticism. The intellects of both men, and good behind-the-scenes work by the staff — including arms control experts and one with extensive sanctions administration experience at the Treasury Department — ensured that they would quickly sift away talking points and cut directly to the issues. Gardner mentioned at one point that the senators were given a common set of briefing materials. It showed in both the insightfulness and focus of the questions, and in the bipartisan unity of their questions’ thrust. I’ve never worked in the Senate, so I wouldn’t know if that’s standard procedure there, but past hearings I’ve watched didn’t run this well. Gardner himself was in complete command of both the material and the room, and gave every appearance of being a man with limitless potential. Indeed, all of the senators were well-prepared. All, regardless of their party or tribal affiliations, asked good or excellent questions. 

In the end, however, no one can hurt you more than the people who love you. At 58:17, Senator Menendez began questioning Fried by arguing for secondary sanctions against Chinese banks. He then embarked on a well-prepared, determined, and lawyerly cross-examination of Fried about this. Pressured by Menendez’s questioning and clearly unsure of his material, Fried told Menendez that Dandong Hongxiang was a bank (not true). I don’t think Fried was lying, but he didn’t have command of the facts, and when he got out of his depth, he swam into a rip current. Menendez pinned Fried down on his answer. Then, when his time expired, he went back and pulled Treasury’s announcement, probably talked to his staff, and confirmed that this wasn’t true. At 1:35:30, Menendez returned, rearmed. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like to have a bad day in the United States Senate.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Mr. Fried, I pride myself on my preparation for these hearings, so I went back to your office after your answer, and I looked at OFAC’s statement of Monday. You said in response to my question we’d sanctioned a bank on Monday. Well, I read from OFAC’s statement that they imposed sanctions on Dan-ong Yonhwang (sic) Industrial Development Company and four individuals. Now, is that company a bank? 

A/S FRIED: Sir, it is a financial — it is not a bank — it is the financial company that worked with a sanctioned North Korean bank.

SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, that’s different than saying you’d sanctioned a bank.

A/S FRIED: Yes, sir.

SEN. MENENDEZ: You did not sanction a bank on Monday.

A/S FRIED: Uh, we sanctioned a fi — a Chinese, uh, financial corporation.

SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, well, that’s different than a bank. Let me ask you this. How many banks — banks — has the administration sanctioned as it relates to North Korea?

A/S FRIED: Uh, a nu — do you mean banks in general or Chinese banks?

SEN. MENENDEZ: Chinese — let’s talk about Chinese banks.

A/S FRIED: A number — no Chinese banks.

SEN. MENENDEZ: No Chinese banks.

A/S FRIED: Not in China. We have umm —

SEN. MENENDEZ: That’s my point. That’s the point I was trying to drive at earlier. You have sanctioned no Chinese banks at the end of the day, and they are probably the major financial institutions for North Korea. What this company, as I understand, did was make purchases of sugar and fertilizer on behalf of a designated Korean bank. It’s a trading company, not a financial company. So, when I take testimony as a member of this Committee, I need to make sure that testimony is accurate, because I make decisions based upon it. And I must say that the information you gave me is not accurate. It was not a bank. This was a trading company. And finally, I got the answer that I wanted to hear, which is what I knew, that you’ve sanctioned no Chinese banks that relates (sic) to North Korea. And it is our hesitancy to do so that that takes away one of the major instruments possible to change Chinese thinking. I’m all for persuasion if you can achieve it. But when you can’t, and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program in a way that becomes more menacing — and its miniaturization and its missile technology — I don’t know at what point we are going to continue to think we can stop them when in fact they’re pretty well on their way. And we allow them to continue to do so. And we don’t use some of the most significant tools that we have. So I’m disappointed that you didn’t give me the right information.

I hold no ill will toward Mr. Fried, but I literally cheered as Menendez calmly bored right to the truth of the matter. Yet on another level, watching this was deeply depressing. Menendez, for all his troubles — and I hope he’ll soon put those behind him — clearly showed us how valuable he is to his state and his country. If the Democrats retake the Senate, I hope he’ll be Committee Chairman again. Markey — watch for him to emerge as a liberal advocate for human rights in North Korea — wisely counseled restraint on South Korea’s military threats. Rubio, who had personally read and commented intelligently on an earlier version of the NKSPEA, had also read and understood C4ADS’s report and its implications. Any one of these senators would have been a better choice as President than the choices before us now. What I can’t help asking myself today is how we elect such good senators, yet such awful presidents.

In the years after the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, those who had worked hard to pass that law watched the State Department slow-walk it to a full stop, with Congress seemingly powerless to make it follow the law. That may have been to State’s short-term advantage, but its long-term cost was to plant in many of us a deep distrust of the State Department. We learned that passing a law is only the first step — that laws need robust enforcement mechanisms and a permanent, bipartisan constituency to make sure the executive enforces them. Hence, section 103 briefings, the first installment of which came due just as Kim Jong-un tested his fifth nuke. This Subcommittee is taking full advantage of those oversight provisions. Pray that continues to be the case in the next congress. 

I’ll give The Wall Street Journal the final word, if only to make the point that this issue isn’t going away, and that the next POTUS will come under withering pressure to do what this one has not done — enforce our laws. 

An invaluable report published last week by South Korea’s Asan Institute and the U.S.-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies found that Hongxiang Industrial and its parent company conducted some $532 million in North Korea business from 2011 to 2015. To put that into perspective, South Korean officials have estimated that the North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon cost less than $700 million to construct. [….]

In addition to neutralizing Hongxiang, these sanctions are aimed at persuading other Chinese companies to cut off Pyongyang lest they suffer the same fate, as when the U.S. sanctioned Macau-based Banco Delta Asia for about a year starting in 2005. This is the best hope for squeezing Kim hard enough that he might halt his nuclear drive. But China opposes such measures because it fears that squeezing too hard might cause the collapse of its client state.

Chinese trading firms and especially banks are likelier to cut off Pyongyang if the U.S. follows up promptly with further sanctions. One good sign is that the State Department’s Daniel Fried suggested Wednesday to Congress that more penalties are coming for Chinese firms.

Less promising is that in unsealing its indictment Monday the Justice Department said “there are no allegations of wrongdoing” against the banks involved in Hongxiang’s sanctions-busting. So despite imposing billions of dollars in penalties on a range of European banks for violating sanctions on Iran and others in recent years, the Obama Administration is signaling that Chinese banks aiding North Korea are untouchable.

In an open letter this month to President Obama, 19 Senators led by Colorado’s Cory Gardner quoted our Aug. 19 editorial (“North Korea’s Sanctions Luck”) on the evidence, compiled by United Nations experts, that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.” That’s one of many examples. [WSJ]

If the House and Senate staff believe the administration has held back on specific targets, such as the Bank of China or any of the 12 banks named in the DHID forfeiture complaint, their next step should be to send the President a section 102(a) letter, which triggers a mandatory investigation, and possible designation.

Continue Reading

Congress to Obama: Enforce N. Korea sanctions against Chinese banks

Three weeks before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, I wrote, “The Obama administration isn’t following Kim Jong-un’s money. Congress should ask why.” Unfortunately, subsequent events soon affirmed that criticism; fortunately, Congress is asking, and it’s asking the right questions. The failure of the administration’s North Korea policy has even become an election-year liability for Hillary Clinton, forcing her to distance herself from the President and his policy (or more accurately, the lack of one).

The Obama administration’s single greatest North Korea policy failure in eight years has been its failure to apply the kind of secondary sanctions that proved so effective against North Korea a decade ago. Some of that blame lies with the bad advice the President has received from certain think tanks, which has made its way into the State Department and the National Security Staff. After every North Korean nuke test, attack, or other outrage, a nothing-we-can-do chorus of China-friendly scholars and State Department retirees steps up to misinform gullible, ill-informed reporters that we have no options but appeasement, because the Chinese government will never push North Korea to the brink of collapse.

Yet for years, a Panel of Experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council has published extensive evidence implicating Chinese banks, businesses, nationals, and state-owned companies for a pattern and practice of violations that can only be willful, as I’ve argued here and here (see the U.N. POE’s reports from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). We have a North Korea problem because China, which has recently emerged as an accomplished bully when it comes to our allies, denies that it has the means to influence Kim Jong-un. 

And in fact, we have pushed North Korea to the brink of collapse before, without the cooperation of the Chinese government, by threatening the Chinese banks that hold North Korea’s slush funds with fines, penalties, and even the denial of access to the dollar-based financial system. U.N. Panel of Experts reports prove that most of those funds are denominated in dollars and wired through the U.S. financial industry. No bank can afford to defy such a threat, and Kim Jong-un couldn’t last long without that cash. 

This year, Congress finally lost its patience with the Obama administration’s passivity and drift and passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which mandates sanctions against third-country (read: Chinese) enablers of North Korea’s proliferation, arms trafficking, and money laundering. The bipartisanship of the vote (418-2 in the House, 96-0 in the Senate) was a minor political miracle in a polarized Congress in an election year, regarding an issue that had itself polarized Washington in previous years. Congress’s clear mandate to the administration was that it must break the link between Kim Jong-un’s regime and the hard currency that sustains his regime and legitimizes his rule.

Even before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, Congress had begun to express its frustration at the Obama administration for failing to enforce the new law. It’s not that we don’t know who Kim Jong-un’s bankers are, either. In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that the Treasury Department had identified hundreds of millions of dollars in North Koreans slush funds in banks in Shanghai. In January, Bonnie Glaser testified as follows before the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee:

In 2013, US and South Korean authorities uncovered dozens of overseas bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars that were linked to top North Korean leaders, which they proposed including in UN sanctions lists, but Beijing refused. China has also strongly opposed levying sanctions on high-level North Korean officials such as the head of the North Korea’s agency responsible for conducting its nuclear tests. [link]

That same month, the New York Times reported, “The Treasury Department has identified similar institutions used by Mr. Kim’s son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un.” In February, the U.N. Panel of Experts implicated dozens of North Korean and third-country entities in China, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies will soon publish a report implicating a large Chinese conglomerate in violating U.N. sanctions against North Korea; that report will also cast suspicion on the Bank of Dandong for handling some of its transactions. 

There’s plenty more where that came from in The Panama Papers. No doubt, there’s plenty more stored away in the laptops, cell phones, and human intelligence being collected from the North Korean diplomats and slush fund managers who’ve defected in Southeast Asia, Russia, China, and Europe recently. Which is to say, it’s not for lack of intelligence or lack of means that the Obama administration refuses to shut down Kim Jong-un’s access to the financial system. It’s solely due to a lack of political will.

In the wake of the test, China’s latest failures to enforce U.N. sanctions — and the Obama administration’s failure to enforce the law against Chinese banks and companies — has drawn a sharp reaction from Congress.

The House Asia Subcommittee has already held one hearing since the latest test, in which four separate witnesses recommended that the Obama administration apply secondary sanctions. Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been sharply critical of the administration’s failure to enforce the law.

But much of the discussion in Washington focused on the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Passed by Congress and signed by Obama earlier this year, it gives the Obama administration, among other things, new authority to sanction any individual who “imports, exports, or re-exports luxury goods to or into North Korea” or “engages in money laundering, counterfeiting of goods or currency, bulk cash smuggling, or narcotics trafficking that supports the government of North Korea or its senior officials.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and led the push for more sanctions authority, said Obama’s policies are “falling short” by not imposing sanctions on Chinese companies and banks.

Royce referenced a leaked U.N. report that accused China of lax enforcement and “cites evidence that Pyongyang moved tens of millions of dollars through a Singaporean branch of China’s biggest bank to evade sanctions,” according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine.  [Politico]

Small correction to Politico — the U.N. report is publicly available.

The report found that North Korea “has been effective in evading sanctions and continues to use the international financial system, airlines and container shipping routes to trade in prohibited items.” [Politico]

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a top secret briefing on the administration’s enforcement efforts today, and a letter signed by 19 Republican senators is a strong indication that the staffers will ask the right questions in that briefing. Last week, Senator Cory Gardner (R, Colo.), the Senate’s leading advocate of a tougher North Korea policy, assembled the group of senators, who signed this letter to President Obama. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

On February 18, 2016, you signed into law the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-122), but your Administration’s implementation of this legislation has been disappointing. While we commend the designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” and the designation of top North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, as human rights violators, these actions only scratch the surface of the sanctions authorities provided to you under the new law.

First and foremost, you must begin to designate entities that are assisting the North Korean regime, especially those based in China — the country with which North Korea currently conducts an estimated 90% of its trade and that has historically served as Pyongyang’s largest military and diplomatic protector. 

As you know, Section 102 of P.L. 114-122 mandates, not simply authorizes, investigations against all entities, no matter where they are based, “upon receipt by the President of credible information indicating that such person has engaged” in illicit conduct outlined in the legislation.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial on August 18, 2016: “The promise of secondary sanctions is that they can force foreign banks, trading companies and ports to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business in dollars, which usually is an easy call…  But this only works if the U.S. exercises its power and blacklists offending institutions, as Congress required in February’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The Obama Administration hasn’t done so even once.”

As the Wall Street Journal further noted, for instance, the Administration has not acted on information from the United Nations Panel of Experts report in March 2016 that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.”  Moreover, there is ample evidence of increased North Korean efforts to evade sanctions with help from China-based entities.  According to the New York Times report on September 9, 2016, “To evade sanctions, the North’s state-run trading companies opened offices in China, hired more capable Chinese middlemen, and paid higher fees to employ more sophisticated brokers, according to Jim Walsh and John Park, scholars at MIT and Harvard.”

We respectfully ask you to immediately provide written answers to the following questions:

1) Has the Administration received credible evidence that entities based in China are engaging in illicit activities outlined in P.L. 114-122?   If so, what is the status of these investigations?  Why have no Chinese-based entities been designated to date?

2) Do you believe that China is in full compliance of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and all preceding U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea?  Please provide a detailed account of China’s compliance or non-compliance and what actions, if any, have been pursued at the U.N. for China’s non-compliance. 

3) Why has the Administration not designated any entities for malicious cyber-enabled activities, as required by Section 209 of P.L. 114-122?

4) Does the Administration believe that the multilateral enforcement of UNSCR 2270 and its own enforcement of P.L. 114-122 has had a credible and measurable impact on North Korea’s regime ability to obtain luxury goods? 

5) Is North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo airline involved in any activities outlined in Section 104 of P.L. 114-122 and if so, has the Administration initiated an investigation for the designation of Air Koryo under the law?  If not, why not?

6) What actions has the Administration taken to discourage the North Korean forced labor camps and trafficking of North Korean workers?  Is the Administration pursuing any designations for entities that are assisting in “the operation and maintenance of political prison camps or forced labor camps, including outside of North Korea”, as required by Section 104(a)(8) of P.L. 114-122? If not, why not?

Mr. President, we must send a strong message to Beijing that our patience has run out and exert any and all effort with Beijing to use its critical leverage to stop Pyongyang.  As Secretary Ash Carter stated on September 9, following the latest nuclear test:  “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and not the direction things have been going.” [full text here; link added by me]

The Hill, which also covered the letter, lists the names of the signatories.

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.); John Boozman (Ark.); Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.); Tom Cotton (Ark.); Ted Cruz (Texas); Steve Daines (Mont.); Deb Fischer (Neb.); Johnny Isakson (Ga.); Jerry Moran (Kan.); David Perdue (Ga.); Jim Risch (Idaho); Jeff Sessions (Ala.); Pat Roberts (Kan.); Mike Rounds (S.D.); Marco Rubio (Fla.); Ben Sasse (Neb.); Richard Shelby (Ala.); Dan Sullivan (Ark.); and Roger Wicker (Miss.). [The Hill]

Separately, Senator Ted Cruz (R, Tex.) and Kelly Ayotte (R, N.H.) also called on the administration to hit Kim Jong-un’s Chinese enablers with secondary sanctions.   

Not to be outdone, Senate Democrats introduced a resolution condemning the test and calling for the U.N. to approve more sanctions against North Korea. Although the resolution highlights the passage of the NKSPEA in its findings, it stops short of criticizing President Obama for failing to enforce it. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, offered some veiled-but-cryptic criticism of the President’s policy:

In a further effort to distance herself from current policy, Clinton also called for a “rethinking” of America’s strategy toward North Korea during a news conference in New York. Sanctions are “not enough,” she said, proposing an “urgent effort” to pressure Beijing into cracking down on Pyongyang. [Politico]

Will the administration finally act? I suspect not. Instead, it is running out the clock. Instead, it is negotiating yet another resolution with China, which China will also fail to enforce. As long as those negotiations continue, the administration probably won’t want to provoke China with secondary sanctions. And to be sure, there are loopholes in the current resolutions that should be closed, new sanctions that should be imposed, and new designations that should be made.

But in the end, all of North Korea’s profits from exporting coal, gold, weapons, and slaves ultimately end up in banks, mostly in China. If we freeze the accounts where those earnings are deposited, and from where the proceeds are spent, it won’t matter how much earnings potential those revenue sources have in the next two years. We could nullify North Korea’s profits from any gaps in the sanctions, and effectively enforce the sanctions that already exist, by beginning an earnest effort to penalize Kim Jong-un’s accomplices in the banking industry. Which is why, when China balks at passing a tough new resolution, our diplomats should not be afraid to walk away and act in concert with their allies in Japan, South Korea, Europe, Canada, and Australia. It would be far better to enforce the sanctions we have now than to enforce nominally tougher sanctions poorly.

Continue Reading

Senate Foreign Relations Chair to President Obama: Enforce N. Korea sanctions law

Senator Bob Corker’s office issued this statement today:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released the following statement today after reports that North Korea fired three medium-range missiles as the Group of 20 economic summit was underway in China.

“It is highly discouraging that China does little as North Korea continues to test and develop its missile and nuclear programs,” said Corker. “China wants the international respect due a country of its size, yet it refuses to responsibly address a growing threat to stability in its own region and has failed to fully implement United Nations Security Resolution sanctions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to drag its feet, with lackluster implementation of the new sanctions authority Congress provided earlier this year under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.”

On February 10, the Senate unanimously passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 following a day of legislative floor action led by Corker. To date, no Chinese entities or individuals have been sanctioned under the new authorities provided by Congress. Click here for more information on the bill, which was developed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [Sen. Bob Corker]

Well, partially. Let’s not forget to give Ed Royce his due credit for writing and passing the first version on the House side, but it’s also true that without the SFRC staff and Senator Gardner in particular, this bill would still be stuck in the House. Brokering the February compromise in the Senate must have been very difficult work indeed, given the complex Senate rules.

Clearly, the Senate committee staff have also noted the concerns I noted here. Now, the failure to designate Chinese entities by itself might be excusable — temporarily — if the administration simply doesn’t know where Kim Jong-un’s money is. That has become a hard defense to accept at face value, for reasons I explained in the previous link, and here. It would also be excusable if quiet diplomacy could immobilize the funds without needless unpleasantness, but although there are some hints that North Korean diplomats and overseas workers are under some financial duress, pretty clearly, most of those funds are not yet immobilized.

I continue to predict that the section 103 briefing is going to be tense and difficult for the administration. The odds of some very contentious election-year hearings increase with each new provocation from Pyongyang, and particularly if President Obama returns from Beijing empty-handed.

Continue Reading

The Democrats on North Korea

In 2009, the Democrats came to the White House with high hopes that they could win North Korea’s trust and sign Agreed Framework III. Those hopes didn’t last. In May, North Korea nuked off for the second time. In 2010, it attacked the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. The quick collapse of the Leap Day Agreement in 2012 killed off any hopes of a deal for good. For most of this period, Hillary Clinton didn’t really know what to do but couldn’t admit that, so she invented “strategic patience,” a name that makes doing nothing sound like a policy.

“Strategic patience” rested on the assumption that North Korea, the world’s most sanctioned country, would eventually come to its senses. Mrs. Clinton ought to have consulted with better lawyers. The claim was nonsense, the sanctions were mostly thin air, and after the 2013 nuke test, even the State Department began backing away from “strategic patience.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress were quietly seizing the agenda. Ed Royce reached out to both Republicans and Democrats to gain their support for a more hawkish policy. The fourth nuke test in 2016 broke the dam that held Royce and allies back. Democrats fled en masse from “strategic patience” — or whatever had replaced it — and joined Republicans to pass new sanctions legislation, not only by a veto-proof majority but almost unanimously (only two out of 535 members of Congress, the Republican isolationists Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, voted against it). The legislation, in turn, influenced the U.N. resolution that followed, and thus, the policies of U.N. member states everywhere. A shift in the congressional consensus also shifted the global consensus.

President Obama’s foreign policy, which is broadly perceived as too passive, has become an election-year albatross to the Democrats. They could not afford to find themselves on the wrong side of this consensus on North Korea, Americans’ least-favorite country. The lopsided vote on the sanctions law may have exaggerated the magnitude of the shift in Democrats’ private sentiments, but it probably reflects the shift in the political mainstream.

What’s most remarkable about the 2016 Democrats is just how far they’ve shifted from the 2008 Democrats on North Korea policy. Andrei Lankov, no less, says he’s never seen such unanimity in Washington about the need for tougher sanctions, at least for now. (Andrei’s informal survey probably focused heavily on think tanks, whose scholars are often the last to emerge from their island hideouts.)

Democrats may not share the Republicans’ enthusiasm for a harder line, and there are still pockets of dissent among left-of-center academics who don’t have to run for office, but elected Democrats and aspiring policymakers have come around to the futility of engaging Kim Jong-un. Top officials in the Obama Administration, like Samantha Power and Tom Malinowski, have emerged as strong and effective critics of Pyongyang on human rights. For now, the clear consensus among Democrats supports tougher sanctions and more pressure on human rights.

Fortunately for Democrats, Donald Trump has given them cover to evolve by doing what he does best — saying stupid things, in this case, about Kim Jong-un. For weeks, I’ve collected hints that the Democrats will try to outflank Trump on the right, using his incoherent statements about talks with Kim Jong-un as a foil. They’re assembling a stable and centrist policy team, or at least a team that pretends to be, although the pro-appeasement holdouts are still represented by Philip Yun of the Ploughshares Fund. The Democrats’ draft platform adds more evidence of this evolution.

North Korea

North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet, run by a sadistic dictator. It has conducted several nuclear tests and is attempting to develop the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that could directly threaten the United States. Yet Donald Trump praises North Korea’s dictator, threatens to abandon our treaty allies, Japan and South Korea, and encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. This approach is incoherent and rather than solving a global crisis, would create a new one. Democrats will protect America and our allies, press China to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs. [Draft Democratic Platform]

Gone are the days when calling North Korean dictators disparaging names was unstatesmanlike and unseemly. What’s missing from the draft is almost as significant — any discussion of engagement or diplomacy. A fair reading of what the Democrats say is that their preferred end game is still a diplomatic agreement, but under strict preconditions, with full disarmament as the goal, and obtained through financial and diplomatic coercion if necessary. They may harbor other ideas privately, but they aren’t talking about them in front of me.

North Korea makes two other appearances in the draft platform. In a paragraph on Russia, it says, “We will make it clear to Putin that we are prepared to cooperate with him when it is in our interest — as we did on reducing nuclear stockpiles, dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, sanctioning North Korea, and resupplying our troops in Afghanistan — but we will not hesitate to stand up to Russian aggression.” Putin, cooperating on North Korea sanctions? That seems a tad optimistic, but OK, fine.

Later, talking about the Asia-Pacific region generally: 

From the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean, we will deepen our alliances in the region with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Democrats will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India—the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and an important Pacific power. We will work with our allies and partners to fortify regional institutions and norms as well as protect freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. We will push back against North Korean aggression and press China to play by the rules. We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and cyberattacks. And we will promote greater respect for human rights, including the rights of Tibetans. [Dems]

Party platforms are best known for being forgotten by presidents after Election Day, and that’s probably never been more true than this year, when both parties have deep divisions. Now, I don’t know if any of you are old enough to remember the 1990s, but back then, we had a president named “Clinton” who not only said he’d talk to a North Korean dictator, but totally did. This did not end well, although the people who negotiated the deal still deny this with a ferocity unknown to people who actually believe themselves. Those 1990s-era Clinton types are still — after all these years — beside themselves that a subsequent president you probably haven’t forgotten quite yet, Barack Obama, didn’t try harder to revive their magnum opus, the 1994 Agreed Framework. Helpfully, David Straub explains why:

In recent years, North Korea has stated repeatedly, both publicly and privately, that it is not willing to negotiate denuclearization except in the context of global denuclearization. In other words, not in our lifetimes. It has said only that it is willing to sit down with the United States to negotiate “mutual arms reduction.” That is code for the United States treating North Korea as a nuclear equal and negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. The same can be said of North Korea’s proposal for bilateral peace talks with the United States.

If the U.S. government entered negotiations with North Korea, the talks would be almost certain to fail immediately and spectacularly. Such an outcome would not only embarrass the United States in front of its friends and allies, it would also open up the president to withering criticism from the opposition at home for naiveté and fecklessness. More importantly, it would serve to underline in North Korean leaders’ minds that, if they only hang tough, eventually the United States will accept them as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.

The Obama administration wants only to induce the North Korean leadership to understand that nuclear weapons cost more than they’re worth. As the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russel, said during a recent lecture here at Shorenstein APARC, “We are not out to bring North Korea’s leaders to their knees. We are trying to bring them to their senses.”

How much pressure and how long will it take? Probably a lot. But the clearer and the more consistent our message is, the sooner it will happen. To believe otherwise comes close to assuming that the North Korean regime and its leaders are somehow unique in human history. [David Straub, NK News]

Alternative explanation: President Obama had enough political capital for two unpopular deals, so he chose to spend that capital on Iran and Cuba instead. In attempting to cast the president’s policy as centrist, Straub aligns it between two extremities. He criticizes “the right” for pushing the president to push Pyongyang too far too fast, risking war and the straining of alliances, but he reserves his strongest criticism for “the left,” by which I can only assume he means the Bob Carlin-Joel Wit wing that can’t get itself unstuck from the 90s.

The left’s second proposal is that the United States focus on getting North Korea to agree to a freeze on its nuclear and missile programs, to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Now, a freeze itself would be good. But the United States tried this in the Leap Day Deal and it failed spectacularly. The problems today are how to achieve a real freeze and how to ensure that it does not imply acceptance of North Korea as a limited nuclear weapons state. For example, how much and what would the United States have to give the North Koreans for such a freeze? How could we verify that they are not continuing with nuclear and missile development after they receive “payment?” How could we be confident that they would not do as they did after the Leap Day Deal and break the agreement almost immediately? And, most importantly, at the time of making such a deal, what basis would we have to believe that this was a stepping stone on the way to complete denuclearization?

If we didn’t have such a basis, the deal would be regarded universally, including by our South Korean and Japanese allies, as indicating de facto American acquiescence in North Korea being a limited nuclear weapons state. Until questions such as these can be credibly answered, a freeze is more of an aspiration than a potential policy.  [David Straub, NK News]

What’s striking about this year is the extent to which each party has abandoned its recent policy consensus. In the case of the Republicans, this was an intellectual collapse into anarchy, like the collapse of a “stable” Middle Eastern autocracy that the CIA never predicted. Republican foreign policy expertsdisgust with Trump is well known — an unprecedented number of them have shunned him or defected to the Democrats. One can only imagine the caliber of talent Trump would recruit if we’re foolish enough to elect him. 

With the Democrats, we saw less shedding of people and more shedding of discredited policy. That speaks well of them, but in the end, policies are executed according to the instincts of the policymakers. In the end, I can’t quite make myself believe that the Democrats are prepared to disarm Kim Jong-un the Chicago Way

Continue Reading

The Republicans on North Korea

A few minutes before I sat down to write this, the Republicans officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. So on one hand, I’d guess a GOP platform won’t mean much more to Trump than that tax plan you’ve already forgotten about. On the other hand, the GOP platform probably reflects the views of its rank-and-file and down-ballot candidates, and it looks like a thinly veiled call for overthrowing His Corpulency:

We are a Pacific nation with economic, military, and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim and treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. With them, we look toward the establishment of human rights for the people of North Korea. We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state and, for everyone’s safety against nuclear disaster, to hasten positive change on the Korean peninsula. The United States will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities. We also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime. [GOP Platform]

The platform also mentions North Korea further down, in a brief mention of potential electromagnetic pulse threats.

This year, of course, there are really two Republican parties — the one that still lives in the house and drives the minivan, and the one that took her stuff and moved into the trailer with Darryl, who drives a tow truck — so congressional Republicans have their own platform this year. It has numerous mentions of North Korea, calling it “bellicose,” a cybersecurity threat, and a nuclear threat to be countered in cooperation with our allies in Asia. It criticizes President Obama for extending an open hand to North Korea (among others) in 2009 and says that “strategic patience … emboldened the country’s rogue regime to test nuclear weapons and new missile systems that can reach our territory.”

In most places, it doesn’t sit long after landing. These are the two most substantial excerpts. The first, on alliances, looks like a direct rebuke of Trump.

In East Asia, our allies are desperate for a greater American role. Our top priority must be to counter the threat of a nuclear North Korea. And we must respond strategically to expansionist China’s rise, including checking its territorial ambitions. These challenges create opportunities to bring together Japan and South Korea while strengthening our ties with Taiwan and the Philippines. We cannot allow our alliances in East Asia and the Pacific to atrophy and must shore up our defense arrangements to deter China from tilting the global balance of power toward autocracy. [A Better Way]

The second is about human rights, and contains surprising praise of “the international community,” and implicitly, the U.N., for a Republican policy document.

The regime in North Korea likely has the worst human rights record in the world. Over 140,000 North Koreans are kept in forced labor camps where many are worked to death. Yet for years, the global community, including U.S. administrations, largely ignored this barbarity in a failed attempt to arrest North Korea’s nuclear development. With North Korea having flagrantly demonstrated its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, the international community is finally bringing deserved attention to these abhorrent human rights abuses. International condemnation of the regime’s human rights abuses is not only morally justified, but it also weakens the regime’s autocratic grip on power. [A Better Way]

With the South Koreans understandably nervous about the things Trump and his minions have been saying, adults from both sides of the political spectrum are making their disagreements with Trump clear. You expect criticism of a Republican candidate from Democrats and the liberal foreign policy establishment; you don’t expect a Republican Speaker of the House to openly disagree with his party’s (then-presumptive) nominee.

Already, congressional Republicans are trying to mitigate the damage to the confidence of our allies in the region — allies that might be asking themselves if China, voracious as it may be, is a more dependable protector. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) went to Seoul in June to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance and the Free Trade Agreement, regardless of who wins the presidential election. John McCain was in Seoul last week, too.

And of course, the South Koreans have no better friend in Washington than Ed Royce, who has been going directly to South Korean people to talk about human rights, financial sanctions, and the importance of the alliance. In recent months, Royce has met with South Korea’s Defense Minister, Vice Foreign Minister, and National Security Advisor; U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert; and the Commanding General of U.S. Forces, Korea. The South Koreans obviously value their relationship with Royce, who said, “I’ve never seen the [U.S.-South Korea] relationship as strong as it is today, and I think it’s going to get stronger … Republicans and Democrats in Congress are very committed to the alliance.”

The smoke from this year’s Republican dumpster fire tends to obscure the intelligence and statesmanship of some congressional Republicans, including members of the Class of 2014.

But then, as I’ve written before, Trump’s apparent soft-line policy toward Kim Jong-un is probably just as shallow and ephemeral as everything else under his hair. He doesn’t see policies; he sees flash cards with inkblots. His appeal is that he projects dominance to voters who harbor two mutually contradictory perceptions — that Barack Obama is weak, and that we have too many foreign entanglements. Trump craves the adoration of the mobs, and the mobs like the idea of “noninterventionism” in the abstract, right up until someone pisses them off. Then, they want a president who bombs stuff.

Which is interesting — and by “interesting,” I mean “terrifying” — because some of those observations are just as true of Kim Jong-un, only Kim’s stakes in maintaining his image are much higher. Kim must provoke the U.S. to maintain the adoration of his generals and survive, and Trump can’t stand anyone questioning his manhood by accusing him of backing down to Kim Jong-un. The personalities of these two men, both flawed and neurotic in their own ways, put them on a collision course. I’m more afraid that Trump will overreact and nuke Pyongyang than I am that he’ll cut a crappy deal that gives away Baekryeong-do and the Aleutian Islands, although (as I said before) those are both plausible possibilities, and aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not hard for me to imagine a Manafort-Han Pact as a prelude to war. Not hard at all.

The thing with Trump is, it’s often not really the things he says (though sometimes, it really is) but the man himself. A nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan would cost me no sleep, if I could believe that things would go only this far and no further. It would be profoundly clarifying for China if the consequence of its bellicosity was to surround itself with nuclear states. It might even be stabilizing for China to have an extra reason not to invade Senkaku or blockade Taiwan.

In principle, I also agree that wealthy allies that want our protection should pay a greater share of the costs. Foreign governments should read this smart analysis of Donald Trump’s criticism of our alliances, and our allies. It’s possible to despise Trump while agreeing that on this issue, he makes a point that resonates with a large (and perhaps, growing) percentage of American voters. If Americans continue to perceive allies as free riders, they will elect a president who promises to walk away from its security commitments entirely. That’s why Seoul’s hard bargains on USFK cost-sharing or the SOFA are ultimately self-defeating.

The good news for Seoul is that American popular support for the alliance is still strong. I’m not sure how much depth there is to that support, however. I certainly don’t see the alliance with South Korea as sacrosanct or permanent, but I don’t believe that presidential candidates should deconstruct alliances soundbite-by-soundbite. I still believe that the ground component of U.S. Forces Korea should be withdrawn, if gradually. Whether the air component stays should depend on whether South Korea acts like an ally that shares our interest in dealing with North Korea as a global proliferation threat. There are plenty of examples of strong alliances where the U.S. keeps its allies safe without keeping tens of thousands of Americans on their soil. Our alliance with Israel is my own mental model of what our alliance with South Korea should become; our alliance with Taiwan is a model of what it should never become.

Much has been said about the risk to the alliance from the U.S. presidential election, but as David Straub points out, the South Korean election is a big risk, too.

Frankly, I’m concerned that too many people in the “progressive” camp in South Korea continue to underestimate Pyongyang, that is, assume that its ultimate aim is security from a hostile world rather than achieving security by inducing the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance and eventually undermining and taking over the South. South Korea will have its next presidential election in December of next year. At least three major candidates are likely to run, increasing the odds that a progressive candidate could win and then try to implement an updated version of the sunshine policy. If that happens, we will suffer five lost years in which the leaders in Pyongyang will feel they have no reason to reconsider their current approach.  [David Straub, NK News]

A Trump victory would contribute to that result by undermining South Koreans’ confidence in us, and South Korean weakness as an ally might be a good opportunity for a Trump administration to reduce the ground component of U.S.F.K.

Recently, however, South Korea has acted like an ally — and a rather effective one at that — and I don’t believe in kicking one’s allies in the teeth. The January nuke test, the consequent closure of Kaesong, and South Korea’s extraordinarily effective sanctions diplomacy have united the two governments to a degree I’ve never seen since I began writing this blog. Perversely, the short-term impact of Trump sharting out extortionate demands for the upkeep of U.S. Forces Korea may have caused the South Koreans to embrace their Republican friends more closely than ever.

But even if the alliance grows apart, let’s not kid ourselves by imagining that North Korea would cease to be a threat. North Korea thinks it has a right to censor our films, threaten our cities, and sell chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear reactors to the highest bidder. Those things will still be serious threats to our security whether we keep troops in South Korea or not, and there are advantages in having a good relationship with the legitimate Korean government when opposing the illegitimate one. Korea is another one of those problems, like Syria or Iraq, that a lot of simple thinkers would like to walk away from, based on the naive assumption that this is actually possible. Does the Republican Party, whatever it is now, still understand that?

~   ~   ~

Update: Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve heard about Trump, ever, is the possibility that if elected, he would not serve, other than as a figurehead of some kind. Sorry, but I don’t buy that clever marketing strategy.

Continue Reading

House Committee marks up bill calling for N. Korea’s re-listing as a terror sponsor

Last month, when it was introduced, I wrote about H.R. 5208, the House bill that would require the Secretary of State to acknowledge some of the extensive evidence — including final U.S. federal court judgments — of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, and to go on the record as to whether North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee took the next step on H.R. 5208, approving it in a committee markup. You can watch the whole markup on video:

At 35 minutes in, Rep. Ted Poe (R, Tex.), the bill’s author, speaks powerfully for the bill’s passage. Chairman Royce (R, Cal.), Ranking Member Engel (D, N.Y.), and subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) also spoke in favor of the bill.

The bill that emerged from that markup, as an amendment in the nature of a substitute, is tighter than the original.* The committee staff’s challenge was that there is so much evidence of North Korea’s arms sales to terrorists, terrifying cyberattacks on civilian targets, and plots to kill or kidnap dissidents and activists abroad, that the bill could easily have been 20 pages long. As a rule, a bill’s speed through Congress is inversely proportional to its length. 

After some technical corrections, the bill will go to the Speaker’s office for placement on the congressional calendar. This being an election year, the odds against that would seem rather long, although I’m not quite as pessimistic as the Associated Press’s correspondent. If His Porcine Majesty acts up again, Congress might just reach for the first heavy object to throw at him, and this bill is now within easy reach. Given the bipartisan support for H.R. 5208 in yesterday’s markup, and the reversed polarity of Hillary Clinton espousing much tougher rhetoric on North Korea than His Orange Majesty, this one doesn’t seem so likely to cleave along partisan lines.  

Frankly, I’m pleasantly surprised that the markup went (1) forward and (2) smoothly despite this being an election year, with all the complications that brings (a truncated congressional calendar and the inevitable partisan divisions). Yet the full Committee’s Ranking Member, Elliot Engel, and the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Brad Sherman, both spoke in favor of the bill. Engel also called Bush’s 2007 Agreed Framework II “a bad deal.” So even if H.R. 5208 doesn’t pass this Congress, much like H.R. 1771, we’re likely to see it again in the next Congress as bipartisan support for it builds.

~   ~   ~

Another bill that was marked up yesterday also deserves attention — H.R. 5484, the State Sponsors of Terrorism Review Enhancement Act. The bill makes some necessary procedural reforms to the SSOT rescission (de-listing) process by (1) increasing Congress’s time to review a rescission from 45 to 90 days, and (2) requiring the President to certify that the state hasn’t supported terrorism for two years (currently, that period is a ridiculously short six months). You can read more about how the SSOT rescission process works at page 29 of my report

An additional provision, providing for a congressional resolution of disapproval of a SSOT rescission, could run into constitutional problems. I caught this issue immediately, and later saw that at the 38-minute mark in the markup, so did Rep. Alan Grayson (D, Fla.)). Chairman Royce correctly noted that there are similar provisions in existing laws, although Grayson responded that those provisions haven’t yet been challenged in court.

Grayson is something of an enigma. He has earned a well-deserved reputation for his bombastic rhetoric and personal conduct. Even Harry Reid loathes him openly. But Grayson has also earned my grudging respect for his intellectual rigor. He reads every word of every bill sent to him, and sometimes, he catches serious legal defects in them. (If Grayson would raise those issues privately instead of in full committee hearings, he might be more effective.) Also, despite Grayson’s own abrasive personality, his staffers are some of the nicest people on the Hill.

Despite the problem with one of its provisions, H.R. 5484 makes necessary reforms. Back in 2008, I wrote about my frustration with the ridiculously short congressional review process for SSOT rescission, when the Bush administration and the State Department cynically announced North Korea’s rescission from the terror list just before the summer recess in a presidential election year, which effectively nullified the 45-day review.

The biggest surprise about this bill is its author — Republican Ted Yoho of Florida. Yoho has a reputation as an isolationist and is a made member of the Ron Paul-inspired Republican Liberty Caucus. He was one of the few GOP members of the Foreign Affairs Committee who wasn’t among the 147 co-sponsors of H.R. 1771, the predecessor to H.R. 757. Two Liberty Caucus members, Tom Massie (R, Ky.) and Justin Amash (R, Mich.), were the only votes against H.R. 757. Clearly, then, not even all Liberty Caucus members agree with Doug Bandow‘s policy objections to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

H.R. 5484 stands almost no chance of passing in the current Congress. Ranking Member Elliot Engel didn’t oppose it, but he expressed discomfort that it could tie the administration’s hands in the future, and noted that the administration was opposed to it. Even so, the pressure for reforms to the terror listing process will continue to build as long as Congress thinks the State Department is abusing its discretion.

~   ~   ~

* The legislative counsel will make a technical correction of the repeated language about one of the attempted hits on Hwang Jang-yop.

Continue Reading

Barack Obama disappointed Kim Jong-il. Donald Trump will disappoint Kim Jong-un.

We will see a better relationship between the U.S. and the Korean Peninsula with Obama, who sternly criticizes Bush and who would meet the leader of Chosun without pre-conditions, than with the “Bush clone” and scarecrow of the neocons McCain.

                             – from the pro-Pyongyang Chosun Sinbo, June 9, 2008 (original Korean here)

Like most of you, I slept uneasily on the night after the New Hampshire primary results came in. When sleep finally did come, dreamed I was tending an empty bar in Aspen during the off-season, as Wolf Blitzer droned in the background about the Democratic front-runner’s historic negative likability ratings. I contemplated closing the bar early when two vaguely familiar-looking men staggered in, sharing the swaggering, manic laugh of newly divorced junk bond traders on a weekend bender in Cartagena.

“Garcon, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red!”

In my dream, I brought a bottle and two glasses of ice. Squinting through the dim light, I realized that my patrons were none other than James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal. They were engrossed in somber, brooding discussions of their least-favorite subject (their hapless candidate) and more raucous discussions of their favorite subject (Republicans). Over Wolf’s sonorous rambling, I heard the unmistakable sound of a wager offered — that a plurality of GOP primary voters was so blinded by its rage at Barack Obama that it would vote for his nearest temperamental opposite, no matter how comically stupid, racist, and neurotic he might be to the majority of the U.S. electorate. To this plurality of a minority, it wouldn’t matter how substantively ignorant he was, or how glaringly unfit he was to control the FBI, the NSA, the FCC, judicial appointments, and the nuclear codes.

“There are two sides to every Bell Curve.”

“In fact, I know just the guy. So do you. Think about it.”

They shared a knowing look, peals of loud laughter, and (if I’m not mistaken) a line of coke. “Hell, even she couldn’t lose to him!” Hands were shaken. Unspeakable services were promised to the winner. I shuddered as I thought that here were the sort of men who kept few promises, except for promises like these. 

And then, I awoke. I’d fallen asleep with the TV on and awakened from one nightmare into another.

Much overanalysis of Donald Trump this year has described him as a new species of political savant, but there’s nothing new about his species. Vast swaths of Africa, Latin America, and the ‘stans are governed by men just like him. I incline to the view that Trump’s success, so far, is mostly a function of the civic nihilism of our news media and the idiocy of the ovine masses who bleat at his trough. He is to politics what Lord Arthur Scoresby is to tactics. Until now, he has been lucky enough to be the firmest stool in the fecal smorgasbord that is this year’s ballot. If, five months from now, the polls in my state dictate that it is my solemn duty to vote for Mrs. Clinton to preserve our republican form of government, I’ll close my eyes and think of America, and of how much garden-variety, devil-I-know incompetence and mendacity it has already survived, without interruption, since January of 1993.

ratched

[Good morning, Ma’am. I’ve come to check myself in and entrust myself to your care.]

By now, you may be wondering if I’m coming to a point about North Korea. You may already have forgotten that two weeks and several Donald Trump outrages ago, Trump casually sharted out that he’d be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. He has since reaffirmed that he’d “negotiate” with Kim. This drew immediate and heavy criticism from conservatives with views as diverse as Mark Levin, Gordon Chang, Michael Green and Adam Kinzinger. Even the pro-Trump Breitbart didn’t quite seem to know how to react.

How shocked we should really be depends on some unknowns. Of course Trump would negotiate with Kim Jong-un. So did Hillary Clinton, through her diplomats. So did Barack Obama. George W. Bush and (of course) Bill Clinton talked to Kim Jong-il. And at the right time, so would I. That right time is at least two years in the future, after sanctions, subversion, and information operations force Kim (or, more likely, a junta of generals) to breach North Korea’s isolation and accept fundamental transparency, disarmament, and reform as the price of survival. (The sanctions, however, would stay firmly in place until he performed. The conditions for suspending and lifting them are now written into statute.)

From there, however, the questions proliferate. Does Trump’s offer mean he won’t ask China to assassinate Kim Jong-un (as if), or that he’d defer that part of the discussion for later? Does he still think Kim Jong-un is a “madman” who is “sick enough to use” a nuke? Would he still conspire with China to “close down” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or ask China to make Kim “disappear”? Would these be direct talks or would he use, you know, diplomats for that? Would Trump go to Pyongyang? (He later said he wouldn’t, thus preempting the question of whether he’d stay.) Does he have any sense of what he’d hope to achieve through talks, how his objectives would fit into a coherent policy, or how that would advance our national interests? And most importantly:

Personally, I wouldn’t waste too much time on these questions. Any serious effort to derive a coherent policy from Trump’s election-year statements is to confuse aromatherapy with flatulence. Nothing Trump says is coherent. Everything he says is meant to please the half of the mob that’s content to overlook the completely contradictory thing he said ten minutes before to please the other half of the mob. He’s a dark cloud that pisses and throws thunder wherever the wind blows him. By the end of July, he’ll be threatening to bomb Pyongyang. If a promise to talk to Kim Jong-il was meaningless when the guarded, thoughtful, and feckless Barack Obama made it, surely one of Trump’s witless ejaculations means even less.

But would Trump at least try to negotiate? Probably, and it is worrying that Trump seems as easy to manipulate as he is to enrage. In fact, I can almost imagine that first Trump-Kim negotiation going a little like this:

[From there, things would only go downhill.]

The caliber of mind that enrolls in the Trump University School of Foreign Relations doesn’t survive in a place like Pyongyang. North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland initially dismissed Trump’s offer “a gesture for campaign purposes,” “propaganda,” and “nonsense,” while wisely allowing that “[i]t is up to the decision of my supreme leader.” Since then, however, the China-based, North Korean controlled “news” site DPRK Today has warmed to Trump, or pretended to. But if the West has nothing to teach North Korea about profiteering, then surely Donald Trump has nothing to teach North Korea about how to run a confidence game.

North Korea has backed presumptive U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump, with a propaganda website praising him as “a prescient presidential candidate” who can liberate Americans living under daily fear of nuclear attack by the North.

A column carried on Tuesday by DPRK Today, one of the reclusive and dynastic state’s mouthpieces, described Trump as a “wise politician” and the right choice for U.S. voters in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. [Reuters, Jack Kim]

Just when I thought Trump couldn’t do worse than the endorsements of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, he has. But although news sites are crowing that North Korea has endorsed or offered its support to Trump, or that its state media has endorsed or “backedhim, it would be more precise to say that a pro-North Korean website based in China, which obeys Pyongyang’s writ and probably expresses its views, has praised him and criticized his opponent, and also, Trump seems to be totally fine with that. And that is bad enough.

DPRK Today called Trump a “wise” politician, saying that if the United States withdraws its troops from the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas will seek peace and reconciliation. [….]

“There are not a few positive aspects about what Trump said,” the propaganda website said. “If the U.S. does not interfere in affairs on the peninsula, the two Koreas will reconcile and cooperate.” [….]

“The candidate whom Americans should select is not (Democratic candidate) Hillary Clinton who seeks to apply the Iran-model to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, but Trump who hopes for direct talks with us,” the North’s outlet said. [Yonhap]

In these dreary times, you take your joy where you find it. The most delightful absurdity in this year of depressing absurdities has been watching Hillary Clinton — the wife of the man who presided over Agreed Framework I — tag Donald Trump as Kim Jong-un’s candidate and “unfit for office.”

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday accused her Republican rival Donald Trump of “praising” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying it is one of a series of statements that show the real-estate tycoon is not qualified to be president. Clinton made the remark in an interview with CNN, calling the North’s leader “a despotic dictator.”

“Whether it’s attacking Great Britain, praising the leader of North Korea, a despotic dictator who has nuclear weapons, whether it is saying, ‘Pull out of NATO,’ let other countries have nuclear weapons, the kinds of positions he is stating and the consequences of those positions, and even the consequences of his statements, are not just offensive to people, they are potentially dangerous,” Clinton said.

[….]

She did not elaborate on Trump’s praise of the North’s Kim. But she was believed to be referring to remarks Trump made in January. Even though Trump at the time described Kim a “total nut job” and a “madman playing around with the nukes,” he also said it was “amazing” for the young leader to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]

It consoles me some to think that when Clinton wins the presidency this fall, she’ll have done so by positioning herself as tough on Kim Jong-un. I’d love to believe that she would be, and hey, it’s just possible. It isn’t her partisan affiliation that makes me skeptical. Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly to support tough new sanctions against North Korea. A realignment of Democrats to stronger views will be important if Trump’s nomination puts Democrats in control of the White House, the Senate, and maybe even the House.

But while tough rhetoric will complicate Clinton’s path to Agreed Framework III, it won’t bar it, either. Only Congress can do that. As tempted as I am by the Clinton Accommodation Syndrome that has understandably afflicted some Trump rejectionists, let’s be realistic enough to temper our hopes with an examination of the historical record. Mrs. Clinton, as I’ve pointed out before, has an impeccable record for making “safe,” consensus-backed, and catastrophically terrible decisions. The axiom that politicians will always disappoint you surely goes double when the politician is a Clinton. 

But if there is no God (or if there is, and He hates us) and Trump does win, no one is likely to be more disappointed than Kim Jong-un and the electorally insignificant number of alt-right fans they both have in common. Why? First, the percentage of Americans who are masochistic enough to meet Kim Jong-un’s demands is too insignificant to be useful to Trump. As with David Duke, every vote Kim Jong-un delivers costs Trump five or six others. Second, that small percentage is split between perhaps three percent of Americans on the far right, and another ten percent on the far left, who would are no more likely to vote for Trump than I am. Americans consistently rate North Korea as among their least-liked countries. Last year, it rated 8 percent favorable, below Russia, China, and Iran. And by my reckoning, if you asked that 8 percent why, an absolute majority would say it’s because they like their Hyundais.

Most importantly, talks with Kim Jong-un won’t get Trump the only thing he cares about — the adoration of the mobs. Trump’s mob appeal is all about his projection of dominance. His supporters are angry, weak, insecure men who feel cheated by life. They roar when Trump calls other people “losers,” because they’re so overjoyed that for once, the speaker isn’t talking about them. The obsession (see “cuck”) some of them have with the idea that their economic and genetic betters are secretly seeding the wombs of their wives — or their imagined wives — surely has some basis in their darkest inadequacies. Trump makes them feel strong and respected. Attaching themselves to him makes them feel like winners. 

And that’s what makes North Korea such bad politics for Trump. Any deal Kim Jong-un would give him would make him look like the one thing his supporters won’t tolerate: a loser. Weak. Kim Jong-un may want Trump to lift sanctions, but he will still want nukes, and he still needs conflict with America to justify his misrule. Without America as his enemy, Kim Jong-un is just the guy who inherited the browner, shittier Korea you can’t see from space at night. He still won’t coexist with an America that feels at all free to produce films, TV shows, op-eds, laws, scholarly reports, or conferences that offend him. And as much as isolationism polls well here in the abstract, Americans are quick to demand action — and often, overreaction — when they feel provoked. That’s especially true of Americans for whom the politics of simple, neat, and wrong have the most appeal.

Kim Jong-un can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his inadequate and insecure subjects for the same reason that Trump can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his supporters. In that sense, each is a political mirror image of the other. That sets them on a collision course. 

So in the end, Pyongyang’s hopes for a Trump presidency will end at least as badly as the hopes it once expressed for an Obama presidency. In the end, not even Obama, the most restrained American President since Jimmy Carter, could resist the political pressure to hold North Korea accountable for its outrages. Support for his North Korea non-policy finally collapsed after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, with stunning swiftness and bipartisan unanimity. If elected, Trump would inherit a Congress where he’s an embarrassment to his own party and anathema to the other, which means that he’d have nothing to offer or bargain with. Independently of Congress, Trump’s murine instincts or impulses would drive him toward conflict with a pathologically belligerent North Korea. Does anyone think this is Kim Jong-un’s last nuclear or missile test? Or that Trump would then ignore the same angry mobs who’d hoisted him onto their shoulders?

That’s why a Trump-Kim axis couldn’t last. That’s why I’m less worried that Trump would give the store away to North Korea than I am that he’d invade it. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 10.33.55 PM

[Not that these possibilities are mutually exclusive.]

Donald Trump’s North Korea policy is the least of my worries about him. If we elect Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, we’ve got much bigger problems than North Korea.

~   ~   ~

Update: But I’ll give Clinton’s people credit for this much — they’re saying the right things.

Sharply increasing pressure on North Korea would be the only way to get the communist regime to authentic negotiations over its nuclear program, a top adviser to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying.

Jake Sullivan, head of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy team, made the remark during an Asia Society discussion in New York earlier this week, stressing that North Korea will be a top priority for the next president and Clinton will deal with the problem in a similar way she dealt with Iran’s nuclear program.

“This is a paramount security challenge of the United States. It will have to be right at the top of the agenda for the next president to deal with,” Sullivan was quoted as saying by the Bloomberg View. “It’s hard for me to underscore how important it is that we place urgency behind this.”

Sullivan, considered the No. 1 candidate for national security adviser under a Clinton presidency, also said that the only way to get North Korea to negotiate in good faith about its nuclear program will be to drastically increase pressure on the already heavily sanctioned regime, according to the report.

That’s what happened with Iran, he said.

“Those negotiations were set up by a comprehensive, highly tailored, highly resourced effort that involved basically every significant economy in the world getting together and putting real pressure on that regime in a concentrated, sustained way,” Sullivan said. [Yonhap]

Which means that my disappointment will be that much deeper when they sign Agreed Framework III.

Continue Reading

Senate Foreign Relations Committee agrees on, passes North Korea sanctions bill

Last week’s big news was that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the last real legislative obstacle to a North Korea sanctions law, reached a compromise and unanimously approved a tough new version. Both Republicans and Democrats gave supportive statements before and after the vote:

“We have a bill that, in many respects, is stronger than the House bill,” said the Senate committee’s top Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland. “What we do is put pressure on not just the government, but on those who want to do business with North Korea — if they do in these areas, there will be sanctions imposed.”

The House bill requires the president to investigate and sanction persons and entities contributing to North Korean weapons of mass destruction, money laundering, censorship or human rights abuses.

The Senate bill adds provisions targeting North Korea’s sale of minerals and precious metals, a major source of hard currency. Corker said the legislation also places a greater emphasis on Pyongyang’s human rights record.

“I think we’ve enhanced it [the House bill] significantly,” Corker said. “It takes into account other issues that we have with North Korea, not just the nuclear testing, but also some human rights issues.”

Cardin stressed that the sanctions legislation would not affect international aid to Pyongyang.

The bill “is not aimed at all at humanitarian needs,” he said. “The North Korean people are in desperate need. We regret that the country doesn’t spend its resources on its people.” [VOA]

You can read Corker and Cardin’s official joint statement on the legislation here.

I’ll agree that the Senate bill is not only stronger than the House version but also stronger than what I’d expected. Under the compromise bill, the sanctions in sections 104(a) (for conduct such as proliferation and human rights abuses) and 104(c) (blocking all North Korean government assets) are now mandatory. Under the Menendez bill, 104(a) was discretionary and 104(c) didn’t exist as such. Under the Gardner bill, 104(a) was mandatory and 104(c) was discretionary. 

Marcus Noland should be pleased that section 302 of the new bill requires the administration to implement a diplomatic strategy to combat North Korea’s use of overseas slave labor, and that section 304 may well trigger mandatory sanctions against its use.

The Foreign Relations Committee has posted its amendment-in-the-nature-of-a-substitute on its website, although you have to put it together with some helpful amendments, proposed by Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, to get the full text. According to Senator Cory Gardner, the Colorado Republican who led the charge for this legislation, the full Senate will probably vote on it in the next two weeks.

Because the House and Senate bills are not identical, the House will have to act next to put the legislation on the President’s desk. It will probably vote on the Senate bill, rather than taking it before a Conference Committee. I’ve been told by a source I trust that President Obama has signaled that he won’t veto the bill. 

Here ends the good news. I promise you that all the other news is dreary, but I’ll save that for tomorrow’s post.

Continue Reading

Senate sanctions bills pick up new co-sponsors

It may be of no more than symbolic value at this point, with intense behind-the-scenes discussions ongoing over a bipartisan compromise bill, but symbols do matter, and a few more senators have lined up behind different versions of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act in the Senate.

One of the Senate bills, S. 2144, has picked up Republicans David Perdue and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John Cornyn of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Mike Rounds of my home state, South Dakota. Kirk’s co-sponsorship is interesting, in that he has a background in naval intelligence and is a recovering North Korea engager.

Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida, and James Risch of Idaho were original co-sponsors of S. 2144, which makes a total of 15.

Meanwhile, the Menendez-Graham bill, S. 1747, has picked up two more Democratic co-sponsors, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Absent some unanticipated delay, the Foreign Relations Committee is expected to mark up a bill on Thursday. Interestingly, the schedule shows that they’ll be considering a 2015 version of the House bill, “with an amendment.”

Continue Reading

In The Weekly Standard: Ed Royce’s Bipartisan Coup Against a Bipartisan Failure

If President Obama ends up signing a North Korea sanctions bill in the next 30 days — and at this point, I don’t know what interest he has in vetoing one — it will effect the biggest change in our North Korea policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. That, in turn, will have been due to years of principled dissent and patient, bi-partisan coalition building by Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A certain, too-prevalent type of Republican who sees all Democrats as enemies could learn a few things about winning policy arguments from a man who defied his own party for conservative principle, and yet had the strategic sense to see Democrats, including some very liberal ones, as allies to be won over.

Read the rest of the story here.

Continue Reading

Sen. Gardner calls on Congress to pass North Korea sanctions bill

Amid all of the slaughter and chaos sweeping over us, Senator Cory Gardner doesn’t want us to forget which government built a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, and that may soon be able to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

It is time to ratchet up the pressure. That is why I’ve introduced the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. This bill would require the president to impose sanctions on people who have contributed to North Korea’s nuclear program, enabled its human rights abuses, and engaged in money laundering, counterfeiting or drug trafficking that benefits the regime.

North Korea skirts financial sanctions by setting up shell companies in countries like China. This bill would add pressure by asking the Treasury Department to designate North Korea “a country of primary money laundering concern” under the Patriot Act.

Similarly, North Korea evades U.N. embargoes on arms trafficking. This bill would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to seize any ships the regime uses for smuggling if they enter U.S. waters. It also asks the president to identify foreign ports that are not doing enough to prevent smuggling.[Sen. Cory Gardner, Wall Street Journal]

Senator Gardner’s bill, S. 2144, shares most of its content with H.R. 757, a bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R., Cal.) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D., N.Y.). In several ways, S. 2144 improves on its elder sibling. Hopefully, as the bills work their way through their respective committees and chambers, they will converge in a form that combines their best elements. That needs to happen soon, because we’re already near the end of the first session of this Congress. Time is finite, and unfortunately, it seems the only person who can get the whole Congress’s attention is Kim Jong-Un.

Events may soon favor Sen. Gardner’s call, because Kim Jong-Un also doesn’t want us to forget about Kim Jong-Un. The day after the Wall Street Journal published Sen. Gardner’s op-ed, 38 North published images showing that North Korea is digging a new tunnel at its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Perhaps, then, tomorrow’s crisis might crowd into a few of the news cycles that have been preoccupied, lately, with the slaughter of the week. If that’s what it takes to get us toward a policy that recognizes the North Korea that is, rather than the North Korea we would prefer to believe in, so much the better.

Historically, North Korea’s nuclear tests have come every three or four years, so we’re about due. If what His Porcine Majesty most needs now is to whip up xenophobic hostility to distract his ruling class from their fears of him, and if he thinks he’s reached the limits of what Park Geun-Hye will tolerate, maybe a nuclear test is just what he needs in the short term. But if his survival depends on ready access to hard currency in his Chinese and Swiss bank accounts, in the long term, this might mean the end of him.

Continue Reading

Congress wants answers on N. Korea and terrorism. The State Dep’t doesn’t have any.

As you may have heard somewhere, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Since I collected and published that overwhelming evidence last year, I was looking forward to the day when the State Department would be called to Congress to confront it. Today was that day, and it did not go well for the State Department.

It’s only Thursday, but I don’t think it’s too early to nominate Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations, for “worst week in Washington.” At today’s hearing, before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, an increasingly exasperated Rep. Ted Poe (R, Tex.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) tried to get straight answers out of Johnson about the rationale behind State’s position, its reaction to the evidence — including this federal court decision — and an explanation of how State applies the law.

I’m sure Ms. Johnson is a nice person, but I’ve been watching these hearings for about a decade now, and I’ve never seen an agency witness so ill-prepared to answer member questions. Watch it all if you can bear it. Or just watch Poe’s questions at 30 to 34 minutes in. Or Sherman’s at 46 to 50 minutes in, until he just gives up.

Perhaps it wasn’t Ms. Johnson’s fault that things went this way. She seemed to have no authority to dignify the members’ questions with straight answers, falling back on stock statements that State would have to “review the intelligence.” But then, she didn’t seem to understand either the designation or rescission processes, either. She was unfamiliar with the court decisions finding North Korea liable for acts of terrorism, so she wasn’t prepared to discuss them. She didn’t understand the consequences of an SSOT listing, including the transaction licensing requirements that would apply under 31 C.F.R. Part 596, the probability that securities issuers would have to disclose their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, or the loss of loans from international financial institutions.

It got so ugly that Sung Kim, State’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, even stepped in to save her a couple of times. The hearing ended with frustrated members having more questions than answers. Rep. Sherman wanted State to send a written explanation of how it applies Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act. Both Sherman and Poe openly contemplated whether the statute needs to be amended for clarification (it does). There will be another (classified) hearing, and without the cameras present, it could be even uglier.

The key outcome of today’s hearing, however, is that the evidence forced State to retreat from its refusal to designate Pyongyang:

The United States continues to review intelligence to determine whether to put North Korea back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, Washington’s top envoy on the communist nation said Thursday.

Amb. Sung Kim, special representative for North Korea policy, made the remark in a written statement submitted for a terrorism subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as he outlined U.S. policy on the communist nation.

“We also continually review the available intelligence to determine whether North Korea is subject to additional measures. Naturally, this includes reviewing available information to determine whether the facts indicate the DPRK should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Kim said. [Yonhap]

This was the second time Kim has been called before Congress this week. On Tuesday, Special Coordinator for North Korea Policy was at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making the case that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy:

“Holding North Korea responsible for its own choices does not mean just waiting and hoping the regime will one day come to its senses,” Kim said. “We are committed to using the full range of tools — deterrence, diplomacy, and pressure — to make clear that North Korea will not achieve security or prosperity while it pursues nuclear weapons, abuses its own people, and flouts its longstanding obligations and commitments.”

The envoy also said that the North’s bad behavior has earned no benefits from the U.S.

“Instead, we have tightened sanctions and consistently underscored to the DPRK that the path to a brighter future for North Korea begins with authentic and credible negotiations that produce concrete denuclearization steps,” Kim said. [Yonhap]

For a detailed legal analysis of why that’s complete twaddle, see this. For those interested, here’s a link to the video of the full Senate committee hearing. (House hearings make better television.)

Kim said the U.S. has also sustained pressure on the North to “increase the costs” of its destructive policy choices. He cited an executive order that Obama issued in January to impose fresh sanctions on Pyongyang in the wake of the regime’s hacking of Sony Pictures.

Yes, and so far, the Obama Administration has used that sweeping new Executive Order to sanction a grand total of 13 entities — ten low-level arms dealers (no doubt, ten other low-level arms dealers have since taken their places) and three entities that had been sanctioned years ago.

He stressed that sanctions enforcement has improved over the past two to three years, causing some pain in the North.

 

[Can you believe it? This was the biggest yacht he could afford!]

He added that revenues from North Korea’s illicit activities overseas have gone down as a result.

“Our financial sanctions are always more effective when supported by our partners, and so we’ve also focused on strengthening multilateral sanctions against North Korea,” he said. “We will continue to press for robust implementation of U.N. sanctions and enhanced vigilance against the DPRK’s proliferation activities worldwide.” [Yonhap]

But not to worry, says South Korea’s U.N. Ambassador. Doing approximately nothing should work just fine. Eventually.

U.N. sanctions and human rights resolutions will eventually cause pain to North Korea, even though such effects are slow in coming, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said Tuesday.

“The way I see it, sanctions work, but they work only in an accumulated form. So, you continue sanctions year after year and eventually it takes a toll,” Amb. Oh Joon said during a security seminar, pointing out doubts about the efficacy of sanctions on the North. [Yonhap]

Or so says the representative of a government that’s piping real dollars into the DPRK Central Bank’s vault through the Kaesong Industrial Park, for God-knows-what budget priorities. I don’t see how you make a coherent policy by sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. You can do one or the other, but not both. That isn’t a policy; it’s a diagnosis.

To further fuel your skepticism, recall last July’s Wall Street Journal report that the Obama Administration was “working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world.” Which hasn’t happened.

It’s not just that they seem congenitally incapable of making decisions. It’s the sinking feeling that they just don’t know what they’re doing.

Continue Reading

House, Senate will both hold hearings on North Korea policy this week* (updated)

If you ask senior Obama Administration officials about the policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea today, they will bristle and recast it as something else, but this wasn’t the case in 2010, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained her policy in a visit to Seoul:

“What we’re focused on is changing North Korean behavior,” one senior U.S. official said. “We are not focused on getting back to the table.” “We recognize that diplomacy, some form of diplomacy with North Korea, is inevitable at some point,” another official said. “We’re really not there.” [Glenn Kessler, Washington Post]

That visit followed North Korea’s second nuclear test by a year, and North Korea’s attack on the ROKS Cheonan by a month. It clearly wasn’t working then, and it certainly isn’t working now. Expect “strategic patience” to come under attack in both houses of Congress this week.

Wednesday’s event, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee,** is entitled, “Assessing the North Korea Threat and U.S. Policy: Strategic Patience or Effective Deterrence.” Senator Cory Gardner, the Subcommittee Chair, will preside. If this speech and this resolution are any indication, the junior senator from Colorado will have some difficult questions for the Panel One witnesses, including Ambassador Sung Kim and Ambassador Robert King.

[Update: the hearing notice now says that the hearing has been postponed. I’ll update this post when the hearing is rescheduled.]

Panel Two witnesses will include Ambassador Mark Minton, President of the Korea Society, and Jay Lefkowitz, King’s predecessor as former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. I confess that King’s message discipline has made me miss Lefkowitz, who was willing to stray from the party line to prevent his portfolio from being steamrolled by the State Department bureaucracy.

The hearing follows the introduction of a sanctions bill by Senator Bob Menendez (D, NJ) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R, SC), even before we’ve heard from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full committee, Senators Bob Corker (R, TN) and Ben Cardin (D, MD). For the Senate, it will be the first major hearing on North Korea policy since March 2013, shortly after North Korea’s third nuclear test.

On Tuesday afternoon,* two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the subcommittees dealing with Asia policy and nonproliferation, will hold their own hearing, “The Iran-North Korea Strategic Alliance,” a topic I addressed to a limited extent in “Arsenal of Terror.” The hearing announcement does not include any witnesses from the administration, but will include (among others) investigative journalist Claudia Rosett and Larry Niksch, formerly with the Congressional Research Service.

~   ~   ~

In retrospect, it was North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 that collapsed congressional support for “strategic patience.” Congress never showed much enthusiasm for it, but until 2013, its skepticism was mostly expressed by Republicans. Even the comically short-lived Leap Day Agreement failed to raise much organized opposition in 2012. Still, it was obvious to anyone who paid attention that the administration was paralyzed and out of ideas. Even prominent former administration officials admitted as much.

Congress’s 2013 revolt, led by the new Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, was bipartisan, organized, and expressed in the form of comprehensive sanctions legislation.*** Royce was joined by Ranking Member Elliot Engel, many other prominent Democrats, 147 co-sponsors in all, and eventually, the full House.

This year, the Senate has joined the House in questioning the State Department’s lack of a credible response to North Korea’s continued proliferation, to the Commission of Inquiry report, and to the Sony cyberattack and threats — in short, its apparent lack of any coherent North Korea policy whatsoever. Contrary to the concern I’d expressed last week, the controversy over Iran will not monopolize Congress’s energy for the foreseeable future after all.

This week’s hearings will likely cement congressional frustration with the administration’s policy (or lack of one). Only time will tell if that frustration, in turn, will be enough to frustrate any grasp at Agreed Framework 3.0, but it certainly won’t make it any easier.

~   ~   ~

* If you’re reading this on Wednesday, please don’t go to the Rayburn Building this afternoon to see this hearing. It was actually held on Tuesday — sorry! I’ll link the video when it’s published on line.

**  I clarified the original post to indicate that this is a subcommittee hearing, not a full committee hearing.

*** Full disclosure.

 

Continue Reading
1 2 3 12