Royce introduces bill to toughen sanctions on N. Korea; subcommittee holds hearing

The big news yesterday was that Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a sequel to the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, or NKSPEA. You can read the full text here, but briefly, the bill —

  1. Expands the mandatory and discretionary sanctions in NKSPEA 104 to match the sanctions added by UNSCR 2270 and UNSCR 2321. It also adds a few more, like authorizing Treasury to sanction anyone who imports food from North Korea — a gravely immoral thing when so many North Koreans are going hungry, and when the state obviously isn’t using its food export revenue to buy gbrain to feed them.
  2. Provides new authorities to ban North Korea from financial messaging networks. Of course, SWIFT is reportedly disconnecting all North Korean banks, but this provision now becomes important to prevent SWIFT’s less reputable competitors from taking that business on.
  3. Codifies the Treasury Department’s new regulatory ban on providing indirect correspondent account services to North Korean banks.
  4. Toughens the NKSPEA 203 provisions denying aid to states (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) that buy weapons from North Korea.
  5. Toughens the NKSPEA 205 provision allowing U.S. Customs to increase inspections of cargo coming from ports that aren’t meeting their UNSCR 2270 obligations to inspect North Korean cargo. It also creates a blacklist of non-compliant ports, including Dandong and Dalian. That could put pressure on those ports to either meet their inspection obligations or shun North Korean cargo altogether. Think of it as the customs equivalent of Banco Delta Asia. But I haven’t even told you the best part yet.
  6. Creates the authority for secondary shipping sanctions against North Korea by giving the Coast Guard the authority to ban ships, shippers, and flags that violate U.N. shipping sanctions from U.S. ports and waterways. That will make for some lively discussions with the Ways and Means and Transportation committee staffers. It also takes a page from the South Koreans and Japanese who’ve enacted similar measures. That would effectively bring the U.S. into a coalition with those nations to isolate North Korea from the global trade system. Given that this coalition would now include China’s three largest trading partners, that’s potentially quite a powerful measure. And as I’ve noted more than once, let there be no doubt that it was China that started the trade war over North Korea. This is how we stand by our allies and deter economic bullying.
  7. Increases sanctions against companies that employ North Korean slave labor, and threatens to raise the tier status of those governments under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
  8. Adds a new condition for the suspension of sanctions — that North Korea permit Korean-Americans to have unrestricted and unmonitored meetings with their North Korean relatives before they die.
  9. Offers rewards to defectors, and maybe other informants, who provide information leading to the arrest or conviction (in any country) of persons involved in North Korean WMD, cyberattacks, or money laundering.
  10. Piles on more pressure to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

And we still haven’t even seen the member amendments, which promise to be lovely. (On a related note, the Senate is also moving separate legislation to sanction the companies that have participated in China’s island-building in the South China Sea.) This promises to be an action-packed year for all you sanctions geeks out there. The dark circles under my eyes should be proof enough.

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The other big event yesterday was the first hearing run by the new Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, Ted Yoho of Florida. As of yesterday morning, I hadn’t really viewed Yoho as a thought leader on Asia policy, but after his performance yesterday, I’ve reassessed that view. Yoho ran a tight ship, kept the proceedings on time, and despite this being his debut, projected a sense of calm command of the proceedings. More importantly, both Yoho and new Ranking Member Brad Sherman came in extremely well-briefed on the issue, and in full command of the facts. There was undoubtedly some first-rate staff work behind that. They’ve clearly digested the Panel of Experts’ latest, something that I’m still in the process of doing. You should really watch the whole thing:

The panel members were Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School, and former State/Treasury official Anthony Ruggiero, who has added much-needed expertise to the debate about sanctions policy and administration. I thought all three were extremely effective in breaking through to the members, but then, I consider all three men to be good friends, so I won’t even pretend to be objective. I’ll just post a money quote from each of them. First, Klingner sets the stage for where we find ourselves today, and why Americans should care:

Professor Lee’s statement, frankly, is some of his best work. It’s a must-read, not just for its historical insight about the often-strained relationship between China and North Korea and what that doesn’t mean, and not just for its insight into North Korea’s political objectives, but for the beauty of its prose (which Chairman Yoho also praised).

Ruggiero then brings his practical experience and careful research to the often-underinformed discussion of sanctions as a policy tool. And if I had to pick one panelist whose testimony really seems to have broken through to the Committee members, it’s probably Ruggiero, who reformatted their c-drives about a lot of junk analysis about sanctions:

Thanks for that!

Ruggiero also had some choice words for SWIFT, which I’ll let you read on your own.

With the Trump administration about to conclude its policy review and clearly headed in the direction of a harder line that will emphasize sanctions without sparing Chinese violators, this advice will undoubtedly find audiences in the White House, the National Security Council, and the State and Treasury Departments. My guess is it’s going to be a tense dinner at Mar-a-Lago when — or if — Xi Jinping comes around. But as I’ve said before, our relations will China may have to get worse before they can get better.

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Ted Cruz introduces Senate bill to re-list N. Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism

Ted Cruz, who has emerged as a leading advocate for a harder line against North Korea, has introduced a Senate companion bill to Rep. Ted Poe’s bill, calling for North Korea’s re-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism. According to a press release from Senator Cruz’s office,* Cruz’s bill has six original co-sponsors: Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Compared to the House bill, the Senate bill has a shorter list of North Korean conduct justifying a re-listing, relying almost exclusively on conduct in which U.S. or South Korean courts found the North Korean government responsible for acts of international terrorism. The obvious exception is that the Cruz bill raises the murder of Kim Jong-nam with VX, a persistent nerve agent, in that crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, which would be the first state-sponsored terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

The bills also differ in their approaches. The Cruz bill (still no number, but here’s the text) simply asks the Secretary of State to make a determination whether North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism. The Poe bill (H.R. 479) forces the administration to go through a series of alleged North Korean acts, and then say whether (1) North Korea did it, and (2) whether it’s international terrorism.

Both bills, however, omit the case of the Rev. Kim Dong-shik, a lawful permanent resident of the United States with a family in Illinois, whom North Korean agents kidnapped from China in 2000, and starved or tortured to death (or both) a few months later. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that, despite the fact that there were no direct witnesses to Rev. Kim’s death inside North Korea, the evidence was still sufficient to support a judgment against the North Korean government (case number 13-7147), and remanded the case back to the District Court. The District Court then entered a $330 million judgment for Rev. Kim’s family (case number 09-648). In 2005, of Rev. Kim’s kidnappers, Ryu Young-Hwa, was caught and convicted by a South Korean court for his role in the kidnapping. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. Click here to see where Senator Obama signed a letter promising that he would not support removing North Korea from the list until North Korea accounted for Rev. Kim’s fate. Click here to see where presidential candidate Obama reneged on that promise.

Overall, however, both bills make a strong case in favor of a decision that ought to have been made years ago as a matter of the evidence, the law, and the policy reason behind the list — to discourage and deter states from sponsoring terrorism. Indeed, as I argued here, North Korea never convincingly renounced terrorism and never should have come off the list to begin with.

The bills aren’t identical, so there are two ways to reconcile them. If one of the bills passes its respective chamber, the other chamber can pass that bill and send it to the President (easier, and overwhelmingly more likely for a simple bill like this). If both chambers pass their respective bills, they could resolve the differences at a conference committee. The most likely alternative, however, is that the Secretary of State will put North Korea back on the list before either chamber passes its bill. When Congress this clearly wants the Secretary of State to take an action within his discretion that’s well justified by fact, law, and policy, the Secretary of State usually takes that action. John Kerry might not have wanted to do this as a matter of policy, but I doubt Rex Tillerson shares that view. Now that Tillerson is back from his visit to Seoul and Beijing, I’d guess that diplomatically speaking, the decks are clear for this.

While I’m on this topic, I have a few things to say about former State Department official Joseph DeThomas’s 38 North post, arguing against a re-listing. DeThomas starts by conceding that the VX attack on Kim Jong-un might have been an act of state-sponsored international terrorism, which goes a step beyond what another former State Department official said here:

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the US State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under the Obama administration, says the murder lies in a “gray zone.”

While the suspected use of the deadly VX nerve agent is within the legal parameters of designating the North as a terrorist state, Mr. Benjamin told Voices of America, assassination by itself cannot be interpreted as an act of terrorism. 

“So this is a very unusual case,” said Benjamin, now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. [Christian Science Monitor]

Well. If directing your diplomats and clandestine agents to murder a nonviolent political critic with a persistent nerve agent in an airport terminal crowded with mothers, fathers, babies, and children in a friendly country doesn’t qualify as international terrorism, your definition needs some adjustment.

DeThomas then muses whether North Korea’s sponsorship is “repeated,” a question he could have resolved easily with more careful research. He’s welcome to mine, in fact, but he did cite Bruce Klingner’s excellent summary, which is more than sufficient. But DeThomas’s argument really comes down to this:

However, strategically, there should be no rush to designate Pyongyang. In the larger regional context, the North Korean issue does not need any additional ignition points. Tensions are already running high on the North Korean missile front with its tests of ballistic missile strikes on Japan and with both US and Japanese sources floating stories about preemptive military options to deal with it, not to mention the somewhat more rapid deployment of THAAD than outside observers expected. [….]

While Pyongyang may richly deserve the designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, it would be no sin to follow a deliberative pace in the designation process. A little over a hundred years ago, a state sponsored international terrorist political assassination in a strange city far away lit a spark among major powers that were absorbed in other domestic and international concerns. They unwittingly followed the logic of their responses to the assassination into a global war totally disproportionate to the crime. That war led to the fall of three empires, the death of millions and the end of Europe’s golden age. In the current environment on the Korean peninsula, taking a few weeks or months to sort things through on a terrorist designation will play to the US long-term advantage. [Joseph DeThomas, 38 North]

In other words, let’s not call North Korea a sponsor of terrorism because we’re terrorized. One could make the same argument about the military exercises underway now — those certainly rile Pyongyang. So does the enforcement of U.N. sanctions. So does accepting North Korean refugees and defectors. So does enforcing U.N. sanctions. So does seizing its smuggling ships. So does missile defense. And most of all, so does talking about human rights in North Korea — another issue the State Department spent years trying to downplay or sideline. If all discussions about North Korea policy begin and end with “let’s not rile them,” and if every potential North Korean victim is Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the message Pyongyang will hear is, “Send Gavrilo.” It’s only one example of what Marcus Noland calls “North Korean exceptionalism,” the unique excusal of North Korea from the standards of civilized humanity. If Pyongyang isn’t willing to disarm and you’ve exempted it from consequences that rile it, then your policy is paralyzed at “strategic patience.”

Lest I be accused of taking the views of two former officials as speaking for a department they no longer represent, let’s add this atrocious performance by a State Department witness at a congressional hearing. And for years, the State Department’s argument against a re-listing was, simply stated, a lie: that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”

If the State Department now searches in angst for reasons why its influence (and budget) are diminishing in Washington, the opinions of DeThomas and Benjamin are as good an illustration as any. Based on conversations I’ve had with State Department people (in settings that weren’t appropriate for attribution) Foggy Bottom overwhelmingly opposes re-listing North Korea. State Department officials have told me to my face that North Korea doesn’t sponsor terrorism, despite the overwhelming evidence that it does (and there is no excuse for them not to know this). In some cases, they apply a conveniently narrow definition of “international terrorism” that’s at odds with past State Department precedent and with the legal definitions of the term. Or, they say that re-listing North Korea would be merely symbolic.

But if a re-listing would be merely symbolic, why do its opponents think North Korea would care so much? (DeThomas makes both arguments without reconciling the tension between them.)

The first answer is that a re-listing would be financially significant. It would require U.S. representatives to oppose benefits for North Korea from international financial institutions. It would trigger stronger financial sanctions and close an important loophole left by the Treasury Department’s failure to update and republish the outdated North Korean sanctions regulations a year after the passage of the NKSPEA. It would strip North Korea of its immunity from suit for its acts of terrorism. It would trigger SEC “material riskdisclosure requirements for companies that issue stocks and have investments in North Korea, which would trigger divestment by companies fearing shareholder protests.

A second and more significant answer is that North Korea is a state built on symbolism, and on propagating the idea that it holds the world in awe and terror. It tells its people that the world lives in awe and terror of their leaders to send the message that they should live in awe and terror of their leaders. It sends that message because it gives a terrorized, deprived, and shrunken people a reason to draw a sense of esteem, even greatness, from the state that oppresses them. North Korea is obsessed with the power of symbols because it is built on the power of symbols that maintain that awe and terror. That’s why Pyongyang denounced my report with such venom. That’s why it reacted so strongly to “The Interview.” That’s why KCNA is filled with tributes from Juche Study Societies in Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Northumberland. It cannot afford for its subjects to know that the world views its leader with contempt and ridicule.

Lastly, re-listing matters because North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Americans should not allow their government to lie to them. That principle may be the most important one at stake here.

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Trump admin leaning toward tougher sanctions & (maybe) “covert actions”

For weeks, we’ve heard that the Trump administration was expected to complete a top-to-bottom review of North Korea policy by the end of this month. Barely into the second week, Reuters is already giving us a peek at where the review is headed. Skim past the mandatory all-options-are-on-the-table disclaimer and “senior U.S. officials” say this:

They added a consensus was forming around relying for now on increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially by pressing China to do more to rein in North Korea – while deploying advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and possibly in Japan, as well. [Reuters]

Just as I predicted somewhere, the North Koreans did something provocative early in Trump’s presidency, and that strategy backfired bigly:

Among the other possibilities, one U.S. official said, was returning North Korea to the U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. That would be a response to the suspected use of nerve gas to kill Kim’s brother at a Malaysian airport last month. It would subject Pyongyang – already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations and individual states, so far to little effect – to additional financial sanctions that were removed when it was taken off the list in 2008.

Sensibly, “U.S. officials” have concluded that bombing them is too dangerous an option, and just as sensibly, they say that the idea could “gain traction” if Pyongyang approaches the capability of nuking the U.S. This also intrigued me very much.

Trump also could opt for escalating cyber attacks and other covert actions aimed at undermining the North Korean leadership, a U.S. government source said.

As I say, it takes many instruments to play a symphony, and “covert actions” would do rather nicely in complementing sanctions as a means to shift the internal balance of power in North Korea and convince the elites that they must change or be changed.

Yonhap aggregates reports from various sources, including Reuters, and also concludes, “For now, a consensus is forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.” 

Other recent reports lend credibility to that view.

The cancellation of the visas for the North Korean diplomats who were on their way to Track 1.5 talks in Washington certainly doesn’t suggest that Trump is desperate to deal now. I wouldn’t read that as a complete aversion to talks so much as a sound judgment that this isn’t the time, because (1) we have no leverage to bargain with, (2) North Korea had just carried out a missile test and history’s first state-sponsored act of WMD terrorism, and (3) North Korea’s pre-talks declarations that its nukes and missiles were off the table. Ergo, talk about what?

A series of statements by President Trump himself, and by his reported confidant Edward Feulner, suggest that he’s leaning toward a harder line. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have also called for a policy that tightens sanctions and expands information operations.

The administration looks like it’s laying the diplomatic foundation to pressure Pyongyang. Secretary of State Tillerson has already been pushing China to use “all available tools” and its “unique leverage” to pressure North Korea to disarm, and quickly rejected China’s freeze proposal. (Let’s pray Nikki Haley is wrong about Kim Jong-un being irrational, although it’s hard for me to explain the K.L. attack as rational.)

There are early signs of financial diplomacy, too. The new Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently met with his South Korean counterpart to talk about how to implement sanctions against North Korea. The two governments, along with Japan, are already coordinating ways to combine their economic and financial leverage against North Korea. I’d have to think that the administration would have opposed the SWIFT ban of three North Korean banks if its policy was headed in a different direction.

This week’s actions by the Justice, Treasury, and Commerce departments against Chinese IT firm ZTE for exporting Commerce-controlled technology to Iran and North Korea suggest that China has lost its immunity from consequences for breaking our laws. Although it would be overstating matters to say that China was completely off-limits during the Obama administration, for Trump to go this big this soon sends a strong signal when Trump and Xi are still sniffing each other out. If I can offer the Chinese banking industry some advice that could save them billions of dollars, it would be to invest in Anti-Money Laundering compliance and Know-Your-Customer programs.

All of this would be the best possible start for getting the fundamental policy direction right. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will put sufficient resources, competent staff, and political will on this problem. It’s a policy that will require steadiness and patience against an enemy that’s good at breaking our attention and our coalitions with both bribery and extortion. And building pressure is never as hard as knowing how to use that pressure to achieve realistic outcomes. 

A programming note: This was supposed to be the short post that lasted half a commute while I turned back to writing about the U.N. Panel of Experts report. See how well that plan worked? Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled programming, God willing. Please, Kim Jong-un, try not to do anything too stupid for two or three days so I can keep up, OK?

Update: So just around the time I posted this, the news of Park Geun-hye’s removal from office broke. I probably won’t post about that, because: (1) I’m not a Korean lawyer; (2) I haven’t read the decision; (3) consequently, I have no useful knowledge to contribute to your understanding of it; (4) I accepted this as the likely outcome months ago; (5) I want to use my limited time to write about other things where I have more value to add; and (6) my feelings on this topic are conflicted. If Park really did extort bribes — and I have to give the court the benefit of the doubt that she did — then she deserved to be removed from office. Belatedly, she ended up getting North Korea right, which makes it all the more disappointing that she dragged a sound policy down with her. The only thing I’m fairly certain of now is that the next South Korean president will have a worse North Korea policy than the last one, and if it’s Moon Jae-in, we may be headed for a crisis in the alliance. If Moon takes his North Korea policy where I think he wants to take it, the Trump administration may view that alliance as more of a liability — or a bargaining chip — than an asset. It’s never too early for buyer’s remorse.

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GOP heavyweights push for secondary boycott of North Korea

Six Republican senators — Ted Cruz (TX), Cory Gardner (CO), Thom Tillis (NC), Marco Rubio (FL), Pat Toomey (PA) and David Perdue (GA) — have signed a letter to newly confirmed Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin* calling for improved implementation and enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhnancement Act (NKSPEA).

As Kim Jung-un has exposed his willingness to increase ballistic missile testing with the ultimate goal of achieving nuclear breakout, the potential for this regime to attain a developed and capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) poses an imminent threat that cannot be ignored,” the senators wrote. “North Korea’s test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile this past weekend demonstrates advancement in fuel and launch technology, underscoring the necessity of faithfully executing the law to meet this growing threat. [Sen. Ted Cruz]

The letter (the full text is here, and it’s an absolute must-read) proposes ten actions that President Obama never got around to, that would substantially improve the effectiveness of sanctions: (1) designate North Korea’s remaining banks; (2) hire enough cops and lawyers to enforce the sanctions; (3) invoke more Patriot Act special measures to require record-keeping and reporting on North Korean beneficial owners; (4) talk to Rex Tillerson about re-designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism; (5) replace our weak and outdated North Korea sanctions regulations; (6) strictly enforce Know-Your-Customer and reporting rules on North Korean banking transactions; (7) investigate the banks involved in the Dandong Hongxiang and Chinpo Shipping cases; (8) enforce the law against any bank caught providing North Korean banks with direct or indirect correspondent account services; (9) work to cut North Korea out of SWIFT; and (10) show some willingness to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese sanctions violators.

That’s a good list — a very good list. I couldn’t have written it better myself (OK, maybe slightly, but only slightly).

The instigator and drafter of this letter is the man some now refer to as The New Ted Cruz. Although I’m not nearly as conservative as Cruz is on some issues, Cruz deserves commendation for stepping forward to lead on this issue, despite not even being a member of the Foreign Relations Committee or previously showing particular interest in foreign policy. (Tillis and Toomey aren’t Committee members, either; kudos** to them for signing on.) And while we’ve come to know Gardner and Rubio as leaders on North Korea policy, this episode also teaches us the importance of being willing to follow when someone else proposes good ideas. Rubio and Gardner in particular are highly respected in the Senate for their intellect and understanding of foreign affairs. It’s to their credit that they added their heft and gravitas to the letter by signing on. In doing so, they’re shaping the new administration’s policy at an early and malleable stage, when Trump probably needs all the good advice he can get.

Also deserving similar credit is Edwin Feulner, a (the?) founder of the Heritage Foundation and (so I’ve read in various press accounts) a man Donald Trump listens to. Yonhap also calls Feulner a leading candidate to be our next Ambassador to South Korea. Feulner sat down for an interview with Yonhap’s Chang Jae-soon and Shim In-sung, where he expressed similar views to those of the Gang of Six:

“I think anything that happens post January 20, 2017 is a test and is a challenge to President Trump and that President Trump takes anything that happens while he is the President of the U.S. he is going to take it very seriously,” Feulner said of the missile launch.

Increasing pressure on North Korea, including making China, through secondary sanctions, use more of its leverage over Pyongyang as the main provider of food and energy assistance, would be a key part of Trump’s policy on the North, Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will be expecting China to do a lot more. The notion of economic pressure on North Korea is one that Mr. Trump understands. Mr. Trump is not going to be reluctant to use his willingness to invoke secondary boycotts, for example, of organizations in North Korea or in China that are pass-through entities for exports from North Korea to cut off even more economic help,” Feulner said.

“Mr. Trump … will not hesitate to employ more significant measures,” he said. [Yonhap]

Also encouraging was Feulner’s call to bring more attention to North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and to appoint a “widely recognized, respected ambassador” for human rights issues, as mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act (which is up for reauthorization this year, and will be reauthorized).

The rumor of Feulner’s potential nomination as ambassador may be the most encouraging news I’ve heard about the Trump administration so far. Historically, Korea only got the attention it deserved in Washington when ambassadors have had strong political pull and close relationships with the President. And while it’s hard to think of someone with better judgment or public diplomacy talents than Mark Lippert, Feuler’s combination of close ties to Korea, political strength in Washington, good policy instincts, and understanding of the subject matter would make him an outstanding candidate for the job as the North Korea crisis reaches a critical phase.

Most of what the six senators and Feulner said also sounds consistent with what Rex Tillerson, Yun-Byung-se, and Fumio Kishida said after their first trilateral meeting this week, in Germany.

“The ministers condemned in the strongest terms North Korea’s February 12, 2017 ballistic missile test, noting North Korea’s flagrant disregard for multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that expressly prohibit its ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the three countries said in a joint statement.

“Secretary Tillerson reiterated that the United States remains steadfast in its defense commitments to its allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, including the commitment to provide extended deterrence, backed by the full range of its nuclear and conventional defense capabilities,” it said.

The sides pledged to collaborate to ensure that all countries fully carry out U.N. Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang and that violations of Security Council resolutions will be met with an “even stronger international response,” according to the statement.

The top diplomats urged Pyongyang to refrain from provocative actions and “abandon its proscribed nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner” and comply with all U.N. resolutions, the statement said.

“Only in this way can North Korea be accepted as a responsible member of the international community,” it said.

The sides also agreed to continue to draw international attention to the North’s “systemic, widespread, and gross violations” of human rights. [Yonhap]

That latter point is an important one, not only from an ethical or a legal perspective, but from a utilitarian one. Since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, Pyongyang has shown surprising vulnerability to criticism on human rights, to the point where that criticism may be affecting the cohesion of the elites and the stability of the regime itself. It will not be any single vulnerability that convinces the generals there that they have no future on the path set by Kim Jong-un, but a combination of vulnerabilities — financial, diplomatic, and political, both foreign and domestic — converging at once. It’s gratifying to see that the Americans (Update: well, some of them, anyway) who will have the most influence over the future of Korea understand what those vulnerabilities are.

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* Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing is here. It’s about 5 hours long, in case you have a long weekend coming up and no life.

** Previously said “kudus.” Since corrected, although I wouldn’t mind “kudus” myself. As I can testify from personal experience, kudu is delicious.

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Yesterday’s Senate hearing on North Korea policy

Yesterday’s hearing before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee on North Korea policy was a one-panel affair, with no administration witnesses and two experts — Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. The full hearing is on video here.

In his testimony, Snyder called for (of course) strengthening the alliances with South Korea and Japan, tougher secondary sanctions on North Korea’s Chinese enablers, and “that we erode Kim Jong Un’s internal support base by making the argument that North Korean elites can have a better future outside the regime than in it and by increasing the incentives and pathways for them to exit North Korea.”

Eberstadt drove home the point that “engagement” with Pyongyang had been a conclusive failure, defining that strategy broadly to include not only cultural and economic engagement, but also the diplomatic anachronism of trying to buy North Korea into freezing or dismantling its nuclear programs.

First: North Korea is embarked on a steady, methodical, and relentless journey, whose intended endpoint is a credible capacity to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons.

Second: America’s policy for nuclear nonproliferation in North Korea is a prolonged, and thoroughly bipartisan, failure.

Third: Our North Korea policy is a failure because our public and our leaders do not understand our adversary and his intentions.

Fourth: We cannot hope to cope successfully with the North Korean threat until we do.

Fifth: Any successful effort to make the North Korean threat smaller will require not just better understanding of this adversary, but also a coherent and sustained strategy of threat reduction informed by such an understanding. [Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI]

Rather than make you wait until my evening commute for a point-by-point summary, I’ll just refer you to Anthony Ruggiero, who live-tweeted the whole thing (just keep scrolling; also, follow him). Ruggiero, of course, was sitting behind the bench no so long ago as a staffer for Senator Rubio and has insider experience from his days in the State and Treasury departments. NK News also reported on the hearing here.

Nothing that Eberstadt, Snyder, or most of the senators said shocked me. Senator Corker, on the other hand, expressed skepticism about “piddling” secondary sanctions and seems to be teetering between accepting North Korea as a nuclear state and preemptive war (or strikes, which could mean war). The flaws in the latter option are self-evident. As to the former, we’re talking about accepting as a nuclear state a regime that thinks it can use cyberterrorism to decide what movies Americans can watch, and that built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS.

Corker’s questions did show interest in subversive information operations and exploiting “pockets” of instability, but he doesn’t seem to grasp the key point that information operations and sanctions aren’t mutually exclusive strategies. In fact, sanctions can complement an information strategy. Freezing the accounts and trading companies that fund the border guards and security forces, for example, can help break down the regime’s capacity to censor information and seal North Korea’s borders. On the bright side, Corker’s questions make Rex Tillerson look great (Corker was widely reported to be on Trump’s short list for Secretary of State). The question now is what team the new administration puts in place, and what policies it will pursue. Here’s hoping that the Asia Subcommittee, which has performed admirably under Senator Gardner’s leadership, will enlighten us on that in the coming months.

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Rex Tillerson on North Korea

I’ve been letting confirmation hearings play in the background at the office this week, and I was able to catch enough of Rex Tillerson’s hearing to listen up at key moments. You can watch the whole thing here if you have time; it’s likely that North Korea also came up during other moments that I didn’t catch. Of course, I was keen to hear Tillerson’s views about North Korea. I was also keen to hear (indirectly) the views of the transition team members who had prepared him for his hearing. In his written testimony, Tillerson strongly criticized China for being unhelpful on North Korea.

And we must hold those who are not our friends accountable to the agreements they make. Our failure to do this over recent decades has diminished our standing and encouraged bad actors around the world to break their word. We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran. We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end. [….]

We should also acknowledge the realities about China. China’s island building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms. China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm. It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea. China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.

But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership. [Written Testimony]

Tillerson made similar verbal statements early on in the hearing.

More press reports on those comments here and here.

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado got his turn to ask questions at 2:31:50 (sorry, no embed link). Gardner used his time efficiently, methodically pinning Tillerson down on a series of policy points: full enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, exerting more pressure on China and North Korea, the use of secondary sanctions against China, and working closely with Japan and South Korea. Gardner returned at 6:21 to raise the issue of human rights and yesterday’s designation of Kim Yo-jong, announced just minutes before, though Tillerson himself didn’t expand on that. (I’ll discuss those designations in a future post, hopefully tonight.)

Tillerson’s hearing added more pixels to our image of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, and the policy that is taking form is a conventionally conservative one. Compare Tillerson’s comments with those of Michael Flynn during a recent visit to Seoul, where Flynn also re-committed to the alliance and to stepping up the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Tillerson is clearly smart and well-schooled in foreign affairs. When appropriate, he was willing to disagree with some of the bombastic statements of the President-Elect as a candidate. He seemed steady, independent, and well-qualified. We could do much worse. Time will tell whether he’ll be confirmed and how he performs.

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Trump’s tweets show the right instincts on North Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech turned out to more interesting than I’d predicted. No, he isn’t going on Atkins; he’s threatening to fire an ICBM that can hit the United States with a nuke. One wonders how the usual suspects at 38 North will spin this speech into predictions of glasnost and perestroika, but for now, consistent with another prediction I made, Kim Jong-un’s transition-year provocations are molding the President-Elect’s policy at a critical moment, and not to Kim Jong-un’s advantage:

For the last several months, Korea watchers have speculated which Donald Trump we’d see making our North Korea policy. Would it be the deal-maker who, in one breath, suggested he’d withdraw our troops from South Korea, sit down with a mass-murderer over hamburgers, and cut a deal? Or would it be the one who, in the next breath, called His Porcine Majesty “a maniac” and suggested that China should kill him? The two tweets Trump posted last night have given us the clearest vision of his North Korea policy since Election day. 

Whatever you may think about trade policy, Trump is unquestionably right about North Korea. China has done much less than nothing to help us in North Korea; it has actively undermined sanctions against it. Its companies sell North Korea the trucks that haul its missiles, its ports let WMD components and weapons pass through on their way to the Middle East and Africa, and its banks are laundering the money that ships North Korean weapons and enriches North Korean proliferators. If the Chinese government hasn’t been willing to help until now, it isn’t going to help unless it faces a much higher cost for its conduct. In fact, it probably won’t be swayed to help at all, but China’s banks and trading companies can be. In the short term, they should be our first targets.

In the long term, our strategy should be to put the North Korean government into something like financial receivership. We should identify and freeze every North Korean account, releasing only as many dollars as necessary for North Korea to import food, medicine, fertilizer, and humanitarian necessities. That strategy must be pursued unblinkingly — subject only to temporary and partial waivers — either until North Korea’s disarmament is verified and it makes fundamental humanitarian reforms, or until the regime no longer exists. We cannot afford to repeat the errors of 1994 and 2007 by throwing away our leverage before North Korea is disarmed, one way or another.

Lest anyone accuse me of proposing a “sanctions-only” policy — and I have never proposed one — our next targets should be the North Korean elites in Pyongyang. We must persuade them that they have no future with Kim Jong-un — that their salvation from purges and a bleak future for their children lies in reunification. How, exactly? Well, read this strategy paper.

We must also reach out to North Korea’s poor, beyond the limits of Pyongyang. We should advocate for their human rights at the United Nations, bilaterally, publicly, and at every opportunity — and we should tell them we doing so. We should help them build the clandestine banks, churches, schools, unions, factories, farms, clinics, newspapers, relief agencies, and police forces — a clandestine civil society that could also become the political foundation of both a national resistance movement and a reunified Korea.

Finally, if North Korea goes through with launching that missile, Trump should tell the military to shoot it down.

Before Donald Trump even ran for President, my wife and I had an involved conversation about what makes presidents effective. We concluded that Reagan was effective, whereas Obama and Carter, despite being much more intelligent men, were not. Why? Because an effective president doesn’t necessarily have to master the details of policy. All an effective president really needs are good instincts about policy, good judgment about appointees, the decisiveness to pick policies and stick with them, and the judgment to know when he’s about to cripple himself with a bad ethical or policy decision. To my liberal friends, and to my friends who are reluctant conservatives, hold that last thought. In fact, hold all of them until we see what the new cabinet and policies look like.

For now, in two tweets, Donald Trump has shown better instincts about the nature of our problem in North Korea, and how to address it, than Barack Obama (undoubtedly a fine man and a highly intelligent one) displayed in eight years in office. When Trump decides to make policy of the instincts he displayed in his tweets, the first man he should turn to is Senator Cory Gardner.

While the Obama administration has implemented portions of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, I encourage the Trump administration to continue with the full implementation and more importantly, the enforcement of the sanctions outlined in the legislation.

In particular, I urge the new administration to utilize the so-called “secondary sanctions,” which target outside entities, or companies, that help Pyongyang engage in illicit behavior. Many of these companies are based in the People’s Republic of China, and the US must not be afraid to anger Beijing by going after them. While the Obama administration has sanctioned and indicted four Chinese nationals and one Chinese-based company for its business tied to North Korea’s weapons program, there are many more that the Treasury Department can — and should — target with financial sanctions. [CNN]

Whether you voted for Trump or not, you should be rooting for him to get North Korea right. So much depends on that. We only get one president at a time. For the next four years, this is the president we are going to have. At this point, if Trump has any designs on making a North Korea deal, the indications are pointing more toward the parody I wrote nearly a year ago than “just another walk in Central Park.”

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Trump is right: China isn’t helping us disarm N. Korea

The Chinese government and the anti-anti-Beijing commentariat in the U.S. are apoplectic over Donald Trump again — this time, because Trump questioned the sacrosanct one-China policy and China’s cooperation in disarming North Korea:

Trump’s latest foray into East Asian affairs came when he was asked by “Fox News Sunday” about the planning for the Dec. 2 call. He said he learned about the call “an hour or two” before it took place but said he understood the stakes.

“I fully understand the One China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he said.

“I mean, look,” he continued, “we’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.”

“I don’t want China dictating to me,” he said. [Washington Post, Emily Rauhala]

A point of order at the outset: the U.S. has never formally accepted China’s creed that there is no China but China and that Xi Jinping is its prophet, although China hands have exercised their proxy to submit to it on our behalf.

The criticism of Trump’s statement that’s hardest for me to take seriously concerns North Korea. For example, the White House has said that U.S. acceptance of “one China” is the price of Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea, to which I ask, “What cooperation?” Although it’s a mild overstatement that China isn’t helping us “at all,” Trump also understates the problem. For years, China’s North Korea policy has been a long and (mostly) unchecked series of flagrant violations of U.N. sanctions to prop up the regime in Pyongyang and negate the pressure the members of the Security Council had agreed to exert on it. If it can be said that China “cooperated” with those sanctions by voting for them in the Security Council, those votes were also Beijing’s inducements to prolong negotiations over each resolution’s provisions and water them down before inevitably violating them.

Similarly, concerns that China could ignore North Korea sanctions if Trump plays the “Taiwan card” ring hollow. Beijing isn’t going to enforce North Korea sanctions voluntarily, but we might achieve that effect if its banks and trading companies are penalized for their dealings with Pyongyang. That will undoubtedly do short-term harm to U.S.-China relations, but given the escalating nuclear crisis in Korea, that cost may be worth paying.

Some China hands have taken their alarmism to ridiculous extremes. James Fallows has even pointed to a threat to sever diplomatic relations by that modern-day Mencius, Shen Dingli — the same Shen Dingli who green-lighted North Korea’s first nuclear test and compared the four South Koreans killed in the Yeonpyeong bombardment to fish (Shen also predicted that Trump would be easy to handle). Fallows calls Shen “the opposite of a hothead,” but if that’s so, I’d hate to see what the hotheads are writing. I incline to the view that Shen is a hothead, a nationalist, and bluffing. For China to sever relations would be bad for both countries, but it would be much worse for China, which has a shaky, export-oriented economy and a rapidly aging population.

Both Trump and Shen are impulsive nationalists who appeal to constituencies of hot-heads, but they rise from different environments. In the U.S., most academics and politicians discourage confronting China’s nationalism and expansionism; China’s establishment indoctrinates its subjects with anti-American nationalism. Trump voters reflexively reject “the establishment.” In China, the establishment is known as “the Chinese Communist Party,” no one votes for it, and no one is free to reject it. The CCP plucks hotheads like Shen Dingli from obscurity and lifts them to high office and global prominence where they act as quasi-official mouthpieces for state policy. Shen is no moderate by our standards, but he isn’t an outlier by China’s:

A Monday editorial in the Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper known for its strident nationalism, suggested Trump ought to read some books on U.S.-China ties. It also warned that if the United States abandoned the One China policy, Beijing would have no reason to “put peace above using force to take back Taiwan.” [WaPo]

As far as I know, Xi Jinping doesn’t tweet, but the Global Times doesn’t print editorials unless Xi Jinping’s censors approve them. It may be less staid and authoritative than the People’s Daily, but the Global Times is probably a better reflection of Xi’s nationalist views. Its threat of war validates that our deference to China has not bought more than an illusory and temporary peace. But keeping our commitments to Taiwan serves the U.S. interest in showing its reliability as an ally and deters war. Sidelining Taiwan is a formula for a slow strangulation of the best evidence that Chinese people are capable of self-government. And if the U.S. abandons Taiwan, from Taipei’s perspective, given its already advanced state of diplomatic isolation, it would make sense for it to acquire nuclear weapons.

“China needs to launch a resolute struggle with him,” the editorial said. “Only after he’s hit some obstacles and truly understands that China and the rest of the world are not to be bullied will he gain some perception. “Many people might be surprised at how the new U.S. leader is truly a ‘businessman’ through and through,” the paper said. “But in the field of diplomacy, he is as ignorant as a child.” [WaPo]

For Americans who find Trump’s statements to be emotionally satisfying, and for Chinese who find Global Times editorials to be emotionally satisfying, it’s wise to question the tactical utility of each side’s rhetoric. Taking these in inverse order, surely the editors of The Global Times have learned by now how well Donald Trump responds to criticism. Their editorials can make James Fallows call for his smelling salts, but other than that, the best possible outcome they can have is if Donald Trump never reads about them on Twitter.

The utility of Trump’s statements is more complex, because one could view those statements as corrections of the opposite extreme — the deferential policies of his predecessors. In accord with Trump’s statement, it has often seemed that China did, in fact, dictate to American presidents, who overlooked a series of actions by Beijing that damaged U.S. interests, disrupted the international order, violated international law, or were calculated to insult our leaders. Examples include China’s seizure of the South China Sea and its defiance of an international arbitration; its bullying of Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines; its international abductions of Taiwanese and anti-“Western” show trials of dissidents; its hacking of OPM’s files; forcing President Obama to exit through the back door of Air Force One; and of course, its many violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

Barack Obama indulged all of this without attaching serious consequences to any of it. And just as proponents of appeasing Pyongyang err by assuming that asking nicely is our only policy option and ruling out more coercive alternatives, proponents of appeasing China cannot see any policy options beyond asking nicely. What if asking nicely isn’t enough? It’s not an unreasonable question, given that the results of asking nicely speak for themselves. In any negotiation, unless you’re prepared to walk away and impose some penalty on an uncooperative adversary, you aren’t negotiating, you’re supplicating. The trick is to impose consequences without unduly escalating the problem.

Trump’s unpredictability frightens people near DuPont Circle and in Manhattan, which may eventually weaken him (though such predictions have had a poor track record so far). It won’t play well with many U.S. allies, who don’t want to be tied to an erratic ally, and who will need to be reassured that this is an act (and by all means, beseech the deity of your choice that it is). For that matter, it sometimes frightens me. But although Trump’s words sound impulsive and often are, in this case, they’re rooted in the coherent and well-thought-out views of those who are schooling him, whether you agree with those views or not. Support for closer relations with Taiwan extends to thoughtful, moderate conservatives who haven’t always supported Trump, but who reject the counsel of those who would have him indulge China’s arrogant expansionism. In recent years, China’s predations have only grown more extreme as American presidents have indulged them.

Unpredictability can also have tactical advantages for dealing with adversaries. Richard Nixon called his strategic unpredictability “the Madman Theory.” If Trump can take a methodical and minimally disciplined approach to what costs he’s willing to impose on China for its misconduct — and admittedly, that’s asking a lot — the result may be more U.S. leverage, more effective diplomacy, and a prevention of the very war that China hands are raising panic about. It’s not without its own risks, of course. In the end, this may be the strongest criticism of Trump on Taiwan:

“Trump’s call with President Tsai may signal a possible readjustment of the U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China respectively,” he said. “But from the perspective of the Taiwanese people,” he said, “the legitimate principle should be that Taiwan should not be used as something for trade between the great powers.” [WaPo]

Taiwan is not a card; it’s a country. It’s a vibrant democracy of 24 million people besieged by a repressive and illegitimate dictatorship whose legitimacy we nonetheless acknowledge for pragmatic reasons. Far be it from me to concede the importance of defanging Kim Jong-un, but if the price of protecting one ally is to sell the freedom and independence of another, that price is too high. The Taiwan-North Korea linkage can become a dangerous trap if taken too far. Our message to Beijing must be that while the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will not ebb below a certain minimal level, it might crest well above China’s present expectations if China continues to destabilize the region.

I’ll close with a qualified apologia for Trump, whose critics raise the concern that he may give Russia free reign to achieve its territorial ambitions forcefully. It would not excuse Russia or Trump to recall that the Clintons have had a series of foreign influence scandals of their own, including over their campaign contributions from donors linked to China. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for whatever reasons, gave China license to achieve its territorial ambitions forcibly. Trump is now standing up to China on Taiwan and North Korea just as his critics expect him to stand up to Russia on Ukraine and the Baltic states. Give him credit for getting it at least half right for now, and hope he gets the other half right very soon. One can only hope that by 2020, our democracy will offer us better choices than picking the candidate whose patron dictator we fear the least. 

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

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

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

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

Just before the Park Geun-hye scandal buried every other news story in Korea, Song Min-soon, who was Foreign Minister for the late left-wing ex-President Roh Moo-Hyun, revealed in his memoirs that in 2007, before a U.N. General Assembly vote condemning North Korea’s atrocities against its own people, Roh’s then-Chief of Staff, Moon Jae-in, agreed to ask the perpetrators of the greatest crimes against the Korean people in their long history how Seoul’s U.N. Ambassador should cast his vote. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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