Archive for Washington Views

On Think Tanks, Propaganda, the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act, and Korea

Washington is a marvelous city for someone like me. Where else could a foreigner, an outsider like myself, do the things I was able to do?

                                          – Tongsun Park, to the House Ethics Committee, April 1978

A detailed story in The New York Times, examining grants and gifts by foreign governments to U.S. think tanks — and how those gifts influence scholars (and through them), voters, policymakers, and Congress — has caused much controversy and discussion in Washington this week. South Korea is not mentioned in the story, but it does feature prominently in this companion graphic tracking think tank contributions.

The Times also suggests that some of the strings attached to those gifts, whether expressed or (more often) implied, could violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is a thing people can actually go to jail for, but as we’ll see below, seldom do.

In a Washington Post op-ed, David Post calls the story “rather nasty” and wonders what the big deal is. The Brookings Institution, one of the think tanks discussed in the story, responds that the reporter’s “characterization of a few issues is inaccurate,” but promises to “continue to review our internal policies and procedures … to make sure that we are setting the standard for think tank integrity.” A “deeply concerned” Congressman Frank Wolf also wrote to Brookings. And in a thoughtful piece for The New Republic, John Judis worries that foreign influence is corrupting our foreign policy. I’ll return to Judis’s piece a few times in this post.

There is much in the Times’s story that’s concerning, such as this:

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — two nations that host large United States military bases and view a continued American military presence as central to their own national security — have been especially aggressive in their giving to think tanks. The two Persian Gulf monarchies are also engaged in a battle with each other to shape Western opinion, with Qatar arguing that Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam is the Arab world’s best hope for democracy, and the United Arab Emirates seeking to persuade United States policy makers that the Brotherhood is a dangerous threat to the region’s stability. [N.Y. Times]

Guess who else has been one of the beneficiaries of Qatar’s contributions to “political Islam.”

It’s bad enough that foreign governments vie to use our armed forces as their rent-a-cops. Now, contemplate the idea that foreign governments do this even as they simultaneously subsidize threats to themselves, to the American people, and to millions of other innocent civilians.

~   ~   ~

This brings us to Korea, one of a select group of countries to have given its name to a Washington influence-peddling scandal. In 1977, years before his conviction in the Oil-for-Food scandal, Tongsun Park was “charged with 36 counts of conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud, failure to register as a foreign agent and making illegal political contributions,” after paying off 30 members of Congress to support South Korea’s interests, including by opposing a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.

During the decade I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, I’ve never seen or heard of anything remotely resembling Koreagate. I have, however, observed the extraordinary influence of the South Korean government over our Korea policy. Specifically, I’ve observed the tendency of South Korean Embassy staff and Korea-affiliated foundations to offer grants, travel, and other things of value to persons they considered influential. People I trust — both Koreans and Americans — have described efforts by the Korean Embassy to influence the agenda, content, and comment at think tank events where scholars meet, connect, and share information. At events I’ve attended in Washington and elsewhere, “Counselors” from the Korean Consulates were always present, and always watchful.

The “news” that foreign governments buy influence in Washington will not shock many people in this town, but the possibility that conduct far less egregious than Koreagate could still be illegal might. I’ve long felt that some Korea watchers should be more wary about FARA compliance. I’ve also long felt that the Justice Department should offer clearer guidance about the FARA’s limits, and that it should be more aggressive about enforcing the law against those who have crossed them.

For example, writing a confidential gossip dossier filled with personal information of obvious intelligence value about influential scholars, journalists, congressional staffers, and government officials — and then attempting to provide that dossier to a foreign embassy — certainly runs contrary to my reading of the FARA’s spirit. The Justice Department can decide whether this was legal, but I certainly found it ethically objectionable, like a Washington analogue to The Lives of Others. I’d be astonished if South Korea’s National Intelligence Service didn’t plan to use that dossier to target its subjects. But for an errant keystroke that sent that dossier to hundreds of people, none of the subjects would ever have known that a fellow citizen was reporting their vulnerabilities and personal matters to a foreign government.

Observing all of this from my anomalous position — a hobbyist Korea-watcher without professional entanglements with Korea — I’ve often thought that South Korea’s influence was so extensive that I’ve wondered how one can even do significant policy research about Korea beyond its sphere of influence. The expectations of a foreign donor, and how those expectations impact the donee’s work, have obvious potential to push a scholar into treacherous waters, both legally and ethically. I know scholars who’ve shared similar concerns with me.

~   ~   ~

Disclosures required under the FARA are supposed to be publicly available, but until recently, you had to obtain them from the Justice Department’s FARA Unit. Today, the Sunlight Foundation has begun publishing them online, although the data are still incomplete. Here is what those disclosures tell us about:

This document provides exceptionally detailed information about what individuals or companies do for their foreign clients. This could include contacting a member of Congress, a federal official or a member of the media. It also could involve producing a conference, press releases or placing op-eds. Supplemental forms also contain key information such as who registrants have contacted in the United States, payments to registrants from clients, political contributions and disbursements that are used to pay for expenses and activities. [Sunlight Foundation]

But how does South Korea compare to other nations in terms of its influence-buying? Sunlight analyzed the FARA disclosures of different nations and found that South Korea spends $3.9 million a year to influence Americans. That would put Korea first among East Asian nations, and seventh among all nations.

It would, except that even this figure is probably a wild underestimate (Israel, a country of undeniable influence, didn’t even make the list). For one thing, it excludes “diplomatic contacts by members of a nation’s embassy.” It also excludes contributions that donees either don’t have to report to the Justice Department, or simply don’t report. Finally, we may not associate FARA-reportable contributions by foreign corporations with a foreign government, even when the foreign government orchestrates them.

The FARA also has a confusing, abuse-prone exemption for “the defense of [a] foreign government” the President has deemed “vital to United States defense.” For the life of me, I can’t see the use for that.

~   ~   ~

South Korea’s FARA-registered agents include 22 governmental, consular, political, and commercial entities. They also include at least one media entity, the Korean Broadcasting System. The Korea Herald has also reported FARA contacts with the Korea Economic Institute.

The Korea Economic Institute is the most prominent FARA-registered entity in Korea policy circles. KEI is a well-connected group that serves as South Korea’s voice (and a key hub of its influence machine) in Washington. Its current head is a former congressman, and its previous head was a former senior State Department official. According to KEI’s IRS Form 990, KEI had an annual revenue of $2.3 million in 2012, but in 2013, it reported only $1.3 million in “payments to the registrant,” suggesting that (assuming Sunlight’s math is correct) many of its financials were not reported (or reportable) under the FARA. Its FARA-reported annual outlays include overhead and salaries, and support for conferences, congressional round tables, study programs, and social events for influential people, such as the Korea Society’s Annual Gala.

Despite its considerable influence on Korea policy, the Korea Society is not FARA registered, although a number of its contributions have been disclosed under the FARA, and its Chair, a former U.S. Ambassador to Korea, has disclosed contacts on behalf of Korean principals. Its contributors include KEI and a host of Korean corporations, including LG, Doosan, Asiana, SK, Hanhwa, and Hyundai, in addition to U.S. and European corporations. They also include The Korea Foundation, an organization under the substantial control of the Korean government.

Nothing in my research surprised me as much as the fact that The Korea Foundation (unlike the South Korean government, and its Embassy) also does not appear on the list of registered foreign agents, although a few of its contributions to KEI and other organizations are listed among the FARA disclosures.

That is troubling, because there is no question that the Korea Foundation is a tiger’s paw for the Korean government. It is a creation of a Korean law. Its Chair is “appointed by the President upon the proposal by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.” Its directors and officers are all appointed by the Foreign Ministry. Most of its offices abroad, with the notable exceptions of its Washington D.C. and Los Angeles offices, are co-located with Korean embassies (See Page 51 of its 2012 annual report). Its annual budget of more than $200 million (49) is funded by the Korean government and Korean corporations.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.36.18 AM

[Figures in Korean won. W1,000 ~ $1.]

The Korea Foundation is immensely influential in U.S. policy circles. It promotes Korean culture, language, and academic exchanges, which is wonderful. It also conducts what it calls “public diplomacy,” a concept it describes in terms that strongly suggest an intent to influence policy through important people:

The Korea Foundation implements various dialogue programs to help fulfill its public diplomacy mission by providing venues for in-depth discussion among distinguished foreign figures and Korea-related specialists, and groups of next-generation leaders, expanding the community of those with a keen interest in Korea, establishing human resource networks, telling the story of Korea to the world’s peoples, and strengthening friendship with countries the world over. To enhance Korea’s public diplomacy, the Foundation organizes numerous international forums that include the participation of domestic and foreign opinion leaders from the fields of politics, economics, and academia, as well as those in the social and cultural sectors. In addition, the
Foundation supports think-tanks abroad, as well as the research projects, conferences, and publications of international organizations. (5)

Specifically, the Korea Foundation provides “support for policy-oriented research on Korea” by the American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, Berkeley’s APEC Study Center, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Council on Foreign Relations, the Korea Society, KEI, the Mansfield Institute, and the Wilson Center, among others (39). Here are some screenshots from its 2012 annual report.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.29.19 AM

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.29.48 AM

The Korea Foundation has also brokered donations by Korean corporations and wealthy individuals to numerous U.S. and third-country universities, including Harvard ($570,000), Cornell ($450,000), Indiana University ($750,000), and the Deerfield Academy ($1,113,000) (48).

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.31.26 AM


In his New Republic piece, John Judis writes that “Japan and China, two of the main countries that have tried to exercise influence in Washington, have often done so through companies and foundations rather than directly through their governments.” He recounts a number of experiences with this and concludes, “In these countries, government and business often work in concert.” Clearly, that is also true of South Korea.

It is also true of North Korea, which is increasingly using corporate profiteers as levers against Seoul’s disarmament-first policy, in favor of a unilateral lifting of sanctions to allow more investment. That view seems to be gaining traction within South Korea’s ruling party, notwithstanding significant ethical and security concerns to the contrary. And if that view prevails in Seoul, its influence will be felt in Washington, too.

The Korea Foundation also sponsors congressional staff visits to Korea.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.28.16 AM

None of this means, of course, that the scholars and think tanks that participated in Korea Foundation events allowed their work to be influenced. But having read the Times article, you may wonder whether The Korea Foundation has ever used its funding to try to control American think tanks. You don’t have to. In 2003, The American Enterprise Institute published a special Korea issue of The American Enterprise. Some of the articles in that issue questioned the return on our military subsidies to South Korea following a wave of pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiment that sometimes resulted in violence, and most of which was repulsive in some way. Shortly thereafter, the Korea Foundation withdrew its funding from AEI, and it made no great secret about why.

I can’t say how much of an in terrorem effect the Korea Foundation’s action against AEI had on other think tanks, but it seems suspect that ever since, almost no scholars of note have questioned the size or shape of U.S. Forces Korea. The only example I know of is Doug Bandow. Unfortunately, we’ve heard little from Mr. Bandow since he admitted to taking money from Jack Abramoff.

(My own belief is that U.S. Forces Korea is overdue to evolve into a command that provides air, naval, logistical, and intelligence support, as one part of a multilateral regional alliance. I’ve believed since I was a soldier in Korea that keeping U.S. ground forces there is a relic of 1960s doctrine. It puts tens of thousands of American soldiers and their families at excessive risk from a North Korean attack. American taxpayers carry too much of the burden of South Korea’s defense, and South Korea’s reliance on Uncle Sugar’s security blanket had created a false sense of security. South Korea will never be a self-confident and independent nation without greater self-sufficiency in its own defense. To achieve that, it should end its subsidies to North Koreastop cutting its defense budget, improve its missile defenses, and build a big enough Army reserve component to stabilize North Korea if the regime collapses. Also, I dislike the idea that my taxes are effectively subsiding both sides. But then, I can see why South Korea would rather not raise defense spending when having a good lobby in Washington costs so much less.)

Of course, the most effective way to influence people is through personal relationships. Indeed, The Washington Post’s report on Sunlight’s study concluded that because it’s cheaper and more effective to use long-established connections, “[t]he governments that spend the most here on hired PR are ones that typically don’t have strong established diplomatic ties.”

Not surprisingly for a culture places a high value on friendships and loyalty, Korea does that very well. In a 2007 op-ed for a Korean newspaper, one respected American scholar cited the Korea Foundation’s assistance to him and the enduring gratitude it had obviously earned, and called for the Korean government to increase its funding:

For the past ten years I have received grants from the foundation to hold conferences on Korea in the United States when I was at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, and for the past three years to support the reports being written by the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office. The amounts were never huge, but they really made a difference for my organizations. In fact, the foundation provides the only funding that Crisis Group receives from China (excluding Hong Kong), Japan or Korea. The Japan Foundation and Sasakawa Peace Foundation will not go near projects that might offend Japan’s right wingers. Crisis Group’s report on history/territorial disputes certainly would have.

This scholar corroborates the Korean government’s politicization of the Korea Foundation when he writes, “It is well known that one president’s chief (if not only) qualification was that he had backed the right horse in the presidential election.”

Although the scholar insists that “in all of my various capacities, the Korea Foundation never once even hinted at what subjects I should write about or the opinions I should express,” at the end of his piece, he alleges that “[t]hree American think tanks have quietly complained to me that they thought their funding had been suddenly cut off for political reasons.” That op-ed was published not long after the Korea Foundation cut off funding for the American Enterprise Institute.

~   ~   ~

Since you were about to ask, North Korea also has one FARA-registered agent, Woo Park of “Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A.,” who appears to be the same person as Steve Park of Pyongyang Soju infamy. To further confuse you, Park was previously convicted of acting as an unregistered South Korean agent, by giving its National Intelligence Service detailed reports of his travels in North Korea. Immediately thereafter, the judge allowed Park to leave for a business trip to Pyongyang, where he was, inexplicably, not immediately shot. (Try to imagine the conversation between Park and his lawyer — you want me to ask the judge what at your plea hearing??).

Park still aspires to promote North Korean business interests here today. Want to read a translation of his MOU with the North Koreans to promote Keumgang tours to Americans? You know you do. Yes, that would be the same Keumgang where a North Korean soldier shot and killed South Korean wife and mother Park Wang-Ja in 2008. The MOU doesn’t disclose what Park is being paid, but does have this curious term:

The two sides shall not announce the nationalities and affiliations of the tourism study delegation personnel.

In other words, this foreign influence disclosure statute disclosed a nondisclosure agreement to protect the secrecy of North Korea’s finances, which it will use to buy foreign influence.

Park isn’t the only one to violate the FARA on North Korea’s behalf. In 2003, businessman and “unification” activist John Joungwoong Yai of Santa Monica pled guilty to taking more than $18,000 from North Korean agents to work on Pyongyang’s behalf.

North Korea is also a beneficiary of the influence of Chinese commercial interests. Judis adds:

… The New York Times might have also investigated another foreign contribution to CSIS. This May, CSIS, which I’ve heard from other people at think tanks to be desperately seeking funding, announced that its posh new building would house the Zbigniew Institute on Geostrategy. The institute, which may simply be a fundraising gimmick, was seeded by a large grant from Wenliang Wang, who runs Rilin Enterprises, which is headquartered in Dandong, China.

Rilin Enterprises is the largest private construction firm in China and also controls the largest port near the North Korean border. Wang has been an advisor to municipal administrations and is on Forbes list of the China’s most wealthy individuals. Says Mann, “Anyone in construction is dependent on state banks for loans. Dandong, the closest city to North Korea, is more heavily connected to the government and the People’s Liberation Army than most other cities. It is safe to conclude the guy has extensive government connections.” Is it likely, given this bequest, that this institute will air hostile views toward China?

Dandong, of course, is also a notorious hub for North Korean money laundering.

The problem of illegal foreign influence-buying is much larger than think tanks, of course, and touches both parties. A few of us will recall the massive Chinese influence-buying scandal from the 1996 campaign, when Chinese diplomats funneled money to Democratic campaigns through their agents of influence in the United States, who in turn funneled the money through destitute immigrants who often spoke little English. The scandal resulted in several jail terms and even lapped at the feet of former Vice President Al Gore.

~   ~   ~

Having said this, the application of the FARA to think tanks and scholars isn’t as clear as The New York Times would suggest. The “Definitions” section of the FARA (see 22 U.S.C. 611), defines “foreign principal” to mean almost any foreign government, person, or entity, and “agent of a foreign principal” as any person who acts as the principal’s “public-relations counsel,” “publicity agent,” or “information-service employee.” So what do those things mean?

(g) The term “public-relations counsel” includes any person who engages directly or indirectly in informing, advising, or in any way representing a principal in any public relations matter pertaining to political or public interests, policies, or relations of such principal;

There is a specific exception for news organizations, although the FARA leaves just enough room to allow, arguably, for a prosecution of an individual journalist who agrees to censor or alter the content of a news report on a foreign principal’s behalf. (And … I’ll just stop there.)

(h) The term “publicity agent” includes any person who engages directly or indirectly in the publication or dissemination of oral, visual, graphic, written, or pictorial information or matter of any kind, including publication by means of advertising, books, periodicals, newspapers, lectures, broadcasts, motion pictures, or otherwise;

This provision would probably cover bloggers and activists. So would the following one, which is also the provision that’s most likely to apply to think tanks:

(i) The term “information-service employee” includes any person who is engaged in furnishing, disseminating, or publishing accounts, descriptions, information, or data with respect to the political, industrial, employment, economic, social, cultural, or other benefits, advantages, facts, or conditions of any country other than the United States or of any government of a foreign country or of a foreign political party or of a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of individuals organized under the laws of, or having its principal place of business in, a foreign country;

The FARA then imposes certain disclosure and registration requirements on those falling within the definition of the term “agent of a foreign principal,” but contains (at 22 U.S.C. sec. 613) a number of exceptions, including this one:

Any person engaging or agreeing to engage only in activities in furtherance of bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts;

“Bona fide” leaves much to the prosecutorial imagination, and neither DOJ’s public guidance nor its FARA regulations help to clarify it. My view, which obviously isn’t the view that really matters, is that research is “bona fide” if it’s objective and unencumbered by any “order, request, … direction or control, of a foreign principal.” It ceases to be “bona fide” when a foreign principal’s “order, request, … direction or control,” affects its content.

In most cases, of course, that control is only implied. Think tanks are undoubtedly mindful of how donors have reacted to the work of other think tanks and scholars. The Justice Department should be equally mindful of it. It should also clarify that point in a regulation, establishing prior conduct, such as asking a scholar to alter her work or threatening to cut funding, as a FARA-reportable event that becomes circumstantial evidence of intent to control in future cases.

The Justice Department’s FARA regulations are potentially helpful in another way, however. Under section 5.2, a “present or prospective agent of a foreign principal” can ask the Justice Department for a confidential advisory opinion about FARA requirements. The U.S. Attorneys’ Manual’s FARA guidance cites this process as one reason why FARA prosecutions are a rarity today. Another would seem to be DOJ’s practice of only going after easy wins: “millions of dollars in receipts or expenditures by the prospective defendants; ‘core’ violations of FARA with jury appeal; and evidence of willfulness.”

The FARA also provides for civil penalties, but DOJ pursued fewer than two dozen such actions in the three decades preceding 1995, when the FARA section of the Manual was last updated.

Thus, members of the public and scholars can see few signs that the Justice Department is interested in clarifying or enforcing the FARA. Meanwhile, some of America’s best intellectual assets are being overgrown with entanglements. Because of its confidentiality, the advisory opinion process, as useful as it may be for scholars, does nothing to restore public confidence.

~   ~   ~

I express no legal opinion as to whether the Korea Foundation is required to register under the FARA. I am expressing an opinion as a citizen that if it isn’t, then the FARA isn’t serving its intended purposes — to protect the objectivity of our public discourse from hidden foreign influence, and to protect public confidence in the objectivity of our scholarship. Maybe the law needs to be amended, and maybe it just needs to be enforced, but it isn’t working anymore.

Public confidence is important enough that that law recognizes and prohibits “the appearance of impropriety” by those with greater duties to the public. Here, I believe that the appearance is bad enough to demand remedies.

First, the Justice Department should amend its FARA regulations to offer clearer public guidance on the FARA’s application to scholars and nonprofits. Clearer guidance is not only necessary for scholars, but also for the consumers of their research. Specifically, DOJ should promulgate regulatory guidance on implied “direction or control” that mirrors what scholars must already be thinking as they write. It should require scholars and think tanks to report attempts by foreign agents to control their work through requests or threats to cut funding, a power Congress has given the Attorney General in section 2 of the FARA. And when foreign principals fail to meet registration requirements or willfully omit material facts, the Justice Department should enforce the law and set examples.

Second, think tanks don’t have to wait for the Justice Department to act. They can set clear guidelines for their staff, assuming they haven’t already done so. They can use central funding to insulate their scholars from foreign influences on their research. They can also be clear with donors that contributions will be accepted without conditions and encumbrances. Their publications should also voluntarily disclose their contributions from foreign principals that may have interests in the work.

Nothing, however, would be a more welcome change to Korea policy than the emergence of the Korean-American diaspora as an independent political force, with influence in both the U.S. and Korean governments. Such a force would, to be certain, maintain a strong affinity to its ancestral homeland, and continue to support its security. Just as certainly, it would diminish the influence of commercial and corporate interests in favor of security and humanitarian interests. It would be far less likely to triangulate toward the anti-anti-North Korean views of many on South Korean’s political left. And given the success with which Korean-Americans are assimilating into American society, its newer generations would increasingly reflect the interests and values of America as a whole.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication.

Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

~   ~   ~

I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [....]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

Americans hate foreign policy, and also, the lack of one

One lovely April morning, the world awakened to find that its greatest power has fallen under the control of a cabal of perky Starbucks baristas. As it turns out, I am not alone in ridiculing the weaponization of tweets and hashtags as a substitute for tough and substantive national security policymaking as the world’s predators seize the day.

Conspiratorial minds will suppose that this is all somehow coordinated, and maybe some of it is, but I assure you that I’ve been excluded. This snub stings all the more, given that the illuminati’s standards of membership are permissive enough to include liberals (James Carville, Fred Hiatt), self-described “realists” (Richard Haass, see also), whatever you call David Brooks, and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, whose criticism (unsurprisingly, to many of you) looks spot-on to me:

Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).

Step 2: ????

Step 3: World peace!

(With apologies to South Park.)

As a candidate, Obama held a huge campaign rally in, of all places, Berlin, touting his bona fides as a citizen of the world. The crowd went wild, as he talked at length about a world without walls (you had to be there). As president, in his first major speech abroad, Obama suggested to a Cairo audience that the fact America elected him was all the proof anyone should need that America had turned the page.

It all seems very strange now in retrospect, but in his defense, you can understand how seductive this notion must have been. The whole world — at least the parts of it that Obama listens to — was telling him that replacing George W. Bush with Barack Obama was just the ticket for what ailed the planet. The fervor was all so detached from facts on the ground that the Nobel Committee even gave Obama a Peace Prize for the stuff they were sure he was going to do, eventually. [....]

The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B. He never really thought he’d need one, and besides, he never much cared about foreign policy. Particularly in his first term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan but then went silent about that war for years. He passive-aggressively let a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq evaporate. Even his controversial policies — targeted killing, drones, etc. — were intended to turn the war on terrorism into a no-drama technocratic affair out of the headlines.

If you prefer something more academic, then try this article by Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs.

America has two political parties, but in the field of foreign policy, it has many warring tribes — Wilsonians, Jacksonians, liberal isolationists, radical leftists, paleoconservative isolationists, neoconservatives, and “realists.” (All of these labels are imprecise, misleading, and overlapping.) It’s rare that these warring tribes reach a consensus as quickly as the one they reached last month — that our President’s foreign policy has a viscosity somewhere between the gelatinous and the vaporous. The President’s ratings on foreign policy now stand at 38.7% approval and 52.7% disapproval, for a difference of -14%.

This is not just a case of the President’s approval ratings on foreign policy being dragged down by other unpopular policies. His ratings on foreign policy are lower than his handling of the economy (41.8% approve, 54.5% disapprove, net -12.7%), Obamacare (40.7% approve, 51.6% disapprove, net -10.9%), or his presidency as a whole (43.9% approve, 51.4% disapprove, net -7.5%).

For now, Obama can take some comfort from the fact that this still isn’t as bad as Bush’s approval rating on foreign policy in May 2006, the low point of the Iraq War. But now that he has been marked as a weak leader, his ratings will enter Bush and Carter territory if more power-grabs by tyrants fill the headlines, and if Republicans make an issue of his weakness before the mid-term elections.

But if they did, what would they argue for? Do these results tell us anything useful about the kind of foreign policy Americans want? As The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt noted here, citing Robert Kagan here, the voters have a much clearer idea of what they don’t want than what they do want. They want to disengage from the world, but they don’t like what disengagement looks like. They don’t want us involved in ground wars overseas, but they’ve also been reminded that they don’t want the kind of passivity and drift that invites aggression, war, and proliferation. They don’t want Russia invading its neighbors, China threatening to do the same, Iran nuking up, and North Korea nuking off. They won’t like it if the Taliban seize Kabul, if Al Qaeda seizes Mosul and Damascus, or if Assad gasses his way to victory. (This is why isolationist fads like those of Rand Paul and his zanier father are more popular in the abstract than in practice. In practice, his foreign policy would look a lot like Obama’s, only with fewer tweets, and without its unsettling Gidget vibe.)

In other words, Americans expect pax Americana, but deny it like closeted Baptist preachers, and hate paying its costs. Our allies (some of which are better described as “supplicants”) won’t call for it publicly, but they expect it, too (too much, as I’ve often argued). That’s why President Obama went to Asia — to reassure allies and supplicants alike, although it’s far from clear that they feel more reassured now. Even before the President returned, he found himself defending his foreign policy from critics across the political spectrum. That defense was the torch of a pyromaniac in a field of straw-men,* a cheap slander that called all of the President’s diverse critics war-mongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

The president did not name his critics, except to refer to them as foreign policy commentators “in an office in Washington or New York.” He also referred to the Sunday morning talk shows, where Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fierce Obama critic, is a ubiquitous guest.

“If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. [N.Y. Times]

Nonsense. It was Obama who intervened in Libya (which I supported) and who wanted to intervene in Syria (which I opposed, because I didn’t believe he had the will to see it through to a favorable conclusion).

Even this is beside the point, because some of the toughest and most effective strategies that President has overlooked don’t involve the direct use of military force at all; they involve strategies like more aggressive information operations, more support to resistance movements against hostile leaders abroad, and a more effective use of “hub-blocking” strategies, like financial sanctions.

~   ~   ~

So after the backlash from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re now seeing the back-backlash. No, Americans still don’t like taking casualties in foreign wars when they don’t understand what compelling interests justify those losses. Part of that is due to an insufficiency of explanation, explanation often being the greater part of leadership.

Now that Bush isn’t President anymore, our screens are seldom filled with funerals and casualty statistics, although the funerals and casualties continue. That double standard relieves Obama of the burden of reminding the voters that people based in Afghanistan and sponsored by our enemies attacked and killed 3,000 American civilians, and likely cost us trillions of dollars in damages, risk insurance, and domestic security costs. It also relieves him of the burden of explaining exactly what plausible outcome his Afghan strategy is supposed to achieve, aside from yielding uncontested domination of most of the Afghan countryside — and eventually, its cities — to the Taliban. It won’t relieve him of the swift and severe impact that Chinese aggression in the Pacific would have on our economy. And it won’t relieve the rest of us of the incalculable long-term costs of global anarchy.

Picture of the Day

Taken at L’Enfant Plaza, at about 11 a.m. today.

Washington-20131001-00149

Rep. Albio Sires and Rabbi Abraham Cooper on Human Rights in North Korea

I’ll begin a gradual return from my hiatus by linking to this excellent op-ed by Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, on the imperative of addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses. It’s a welcome sign that this isn’t a partisan issue.

This op-ed, by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, follows it logically and compares North Korea’s abuses to some of those that occurred during the Holocaust.

Last week’s Senate hearings on N. Korea marked by skepticism and ambivalence

Last Thursday, two days after the  hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also held a hearing (on video here).  This time, consensus was much less evident than ambivalence, and the views of the State Department were much more in evidence.  Most of the oxygen was consumed by the first witness, Special Envoy Glyn Davies.

Our Special Envoy’s testimony, by the way, was sponsored by Deer Park Bottled Water (written statement here).

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 12.00.57 PM

Chairman Bob Menendez (opening statement here) and Ranking Member Bob Corker* seem to agree that past policies, whatever you may think of them, have failed. (* Yes, Corker, not McCain. Noted.).  You may also be interested in what Menendez had to say in Foreign Policy.  On the Senate side, it’s just as clear that the current policy direction is considered a failure; it’s less clear what the Senators think a better policy would be, and the State Department’s traditional influence was much more evident in the selection of witnesses.

Say what you will about Davies, but the man certainly knows how to follow a script. Listening to him talk about North Korea’s “deplorable” human rights conditions, or its starvation of its people while it pours money into WMD programs, you wouldn’t think that this was the same guy who once asked a State Department colleague to Trotsky the naughty bits out of a human rights report on North Korea, during the heyday of Agreed Framework II.  His statement today reads like an indictment, and he didn’t counsel the senators to show patience or restraint while he works on Agreed Framework III, although later in the hearing, he let on that that’s still his objective. For now, however, the focus has clearly shifted to counter-proliferation and sanctions.  Davies mostly talked about U.N. sanctions, but also talked about “national” sanctions, such as the weak ones Treasury recently imposed under E.O. 13382.

Behind the tough talk, however, Davies still sees sanctions as just another way to pressure North Korea back to the bargaining table.  To Davies, sanctions are “not punitive, but a tool to impede,” “make clear the costs” of refusing to engage in “meaningful dialogue” and “authentic and credible negotiations” to “bring North Korea into compliance with its international obligations” toward irreversible disarmament.  Davies says he (meaning he) “will not engage in talks for talks’ sake,” and that he will insist on “serious and meaningful change in North Korea’s priorities.” I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that last sentence, but then, I didn’t disagree with it when Chris Hill said it, either.

Davies didn’t express, and did not seem to harbor much optimism about diplomacy.  He took a swipe (1:30) at the “Camelot” view of Kim Jong Un, a view that he now thinks has been discredited by events.  He suggested (1:34) that the most effective sanctions are those directly focused against luxury good and proliferation (seriously?). In his highlighting of sanctions directed at particular categories of transactions, Davies reveals an approach that targets the proceeds of prohibited activities, rather than the instrumentalities of regime maintenance and WMD proliferation.  He’s clearly more interested in pressuring North Korea at the margins than in rocking their world.

With respect to what diplomatic approaches stood the best chance of being effective, Davies said that North Korea “allowed” the famine to happen (1:42) in 1990s, so food aid isn’t worth much to the regime as an inducement.  He noted that that the Chinese are paying close attention to debates like the one he’s participating in there, at the Senate.  In what was clearly intended as a message to China, he references the U.S. “pivot” to Asia and told China (1:44) that if it doesn’t bring North Korea to heel, it will see “more of the same” and “you’re not gonna like it.”

Chairman Bob Menendez was hard to read, but clearly skeptical of past strategies and ready to be persuaded (if not yet persuaded) that the right kind of sanctions could work.

Corker wasn’t hard to read at all.  He thinks we’re at a “crossroads,” where if we don’t get results now, we may never get them.  Later, at 1:04: “Some people are saying we should call the entire North Korean government as a money laundering concerns, which we could then enforce against third party entities, some of which reside in China.”  Gee, who might that be?  Davies thinks we’ve already reaped a lot of the benefits to be gained from sanctioning illicit activities, but we should continue to focus on it.  Corker also endorsed a greater emphasis on human rights issues in North Korea, and suggested we should increase broadcasting to the North Korean people.

Later, Corker suggested that Davies conceded that a diplomatic solution was years away at best, and that North Korea is well past the red line we drew for Iran.  Do we need a red line in North Korea, like with Iran?  Why is our policy in North Korea so different than it is from Iran (1:56).  Davies thinks pressure will eventually get North Korea to change course.  Corker called that “highly aspirational” and unrealistically optimistic.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D, Conn.) gets it.  Listen to him distinguish the peoples’ economy from the palace economy at 1:38.  Davies notes that “many people are fooled when they go to Pyongyang” based on more cars on the street, and more cell phones.  Hmm.  He really doesn’t sound like an AP fan, does he?

Sen Chris Coons (D, Conn.) also seemed interested in emphasizing the human rights issue, potentially via the inquiry proposed by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.  He also expressed concern about our inability to monitor food aid distribution.  Davies seems to think the answer is following the examples of groups like Mercy Corps, that have continued to work in North Korea (not the World Food Program, interestingly enough).

Sen. Mark Udall (D, N.M.) asked if negotiated denuclearization is still our goal.  Davies thinks there’s still a hope for the six-party talks.  Maybe “within a generation or so” we’ll see a very different situation in North Korea.  He certainly is good at being cryptic.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) thinks North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear power and stay isolated notwithstanding its “atrocities.”  He doesn’t think they can be negotiated out of that goal. Everything North Korea does until it achieves that goal is a scare tactic or a delay tactic. Japan and South Korea will want nukes, and Iran will see what North Korea can get away with.  Rubio thinks we should (1) delay North Korean’s proliferation, (2) never let the world forget what the North Koreans’ atrocities, and (3) begin to create the conditions for reunification — a unified, democratic, peaceful Korea.  Rubio doesn’t think Davies is likely to succeed, and Davies (1:19) agreed to a great extent.

Sen. Mark Warner (D, Va.), thinks the transition to a hereditary dictatorship is a dangerous and unstable time for North Korea.  He’s clearly focused on the potential for “fracking” the “microfractures” inside North Korean society.  Good analogy.  I think I’ll use that.

After Davies’s testimony, there was a second panel, consisting of Amb. Stephen Bosworth, Amb. Joseph DiTrani, and Amb. Robert Joseph.

I had not realized what an extreme figure Bosworth really was until this hearing.  You could have mistaken him for Christine Ahn with sensible glasses. Bosworth thinks we’ll eventually engage again, because there are no better ideas.  But for what purpose?  (Bosworth didn’t say it here, but he has acknowledged that North Korea will never verifiably disarm.)  Bosworth wants broad engagement that would give North Korea aid, diplomatic recognition, and a peace treaty.  He thinks we need to make North Korea feel secure.  Bosworth blamed the BDA sanctions for the collapse of the 2005 agreement — because all negotiations with North Korea are tenuous, and they have to be “reassured” that they are not giving up their one piece of leverage for nothing.

DiTrani took a more careful view — yes, we have a lot of benefits to offer North Korea, but only after they denuclearize.  In a way he didn’t when he testified at the House, he seemed to blame the BDA sanctions for the collapse of the 2005 agreement.  Menendez picked up with this in a revealing question, asking why, if North Korea was serious about diplomacy, it still refused to allow verification in 2008, long after we dropped the BDA sanctions. DiTrani backed away from what Menendez and I heard, saying that we’d always told North Korea that law enforcement was a separate matter, unrelated to disarmament talks.  Later, under questioning by Corker, DiTrani spoke up that economic sanctions against the regime could be an effective pressure point.

Robert Joseph, in my view, got it exactly right: North Korea will only abandon its nuclear and missile programs “if it is judged essential to regime survival.”  Listen to his statement at 2:17; it’s a shame no one was listening anymore.  Joseph doesn’t suggest we should shouldn’t abandon diplomacy, but we should do it right, and we should adjust our expectations to reality.  We need to pressure China “the principle obstacle to effective pressure on North Korea,” which supports them unconditionally, no matter how deadly their behavior.  and we always release pressure prematurely.  “Promotion of human rights, while part of official U.S. talking points for years, has not been a significant element of U.S. strategy.  It should be ….”  Listen to him again at 2:36.  He’s on fire.

Rumors Hint at Policy Shifts in U.S. and South Korea

From Engagement to Reunification?

So says the Chosun Ilbo, in describing what would be a major policy shift for South Korea. From 2008 until now, the policy would best be described as reluctant engagement, which brought out North Korea’s violent and extortionate streak. Now, according to unnamed sources in the Unification Ministry, the administration seems to be looking for ways to prepare for and even accelerate reunification:

The government is shifting the emphasis of North Korea policy from exchanges and cooperation to fully fledged preparations for reunification beginning in 2011. “Next year, we intend to concentrate our efforts on strengthening our reunification capabilities rather than on dialogue with the North,” a Unification Ministry official said. It is apparently looking to influence ordinary North Koreans to bring about changes in the Stalinist country. “We must free ourselves from the perception that reunification by absorption is unfeasible,” he added.

More on that here. The problem with stories like this, of course, is that they name only anonymous officials, and therefore, we really don’t know whether we’re hearing the views of a junior official with rogue views, someone who represents a faction within the Ministry, or someone who is intentionally disinforming the Chosun Ilbo to scare the North Koreans. I maintain that the Lee Administration isn’t serious about holding North Korea accountable for anything, catalyzing change, or even about cutting off the money used to terrorize its own population until it shuts down Kaesong. When Kaesong closes, it will be time for a serious discussion of a policy shift. Everything else, especially this, is empty talk.

The Force Has Great Power Over the Weak-Minded

One of our perpetual questions about North Korea has to be whether they’re just too smart for us to comprehend, or whether it’s just the rest of us that are too stupid and weak-minded to deal with them properly. I still vote for the latter:

Senior Grand National Party lawmakers who gathered yesterday to deliberate the government’s policy toward North Korea after its attack on Yeonpyeong Island quarrelled intensely and broke into two camps.

One group argued the government should ease its tough stance against the communist regime to abate the highly strained relations between the two Koreas. This met fierce opposition from another group that maintained it was too early to “appease” North Korea.

I’d wonder where the constituency is for appeasing North Korea now, except that public opinion in South Korea is almost impossibly unpredictable. One person who obviously thinks there’s a constituency for appeasement is our old friend Comrade Chung. Although I can certainly see why the administration denied him permission to visit Kaesong, there’s a part of me that thinks he’d have been an ideal hostage — just think of what a win-win that would be for all of those involved.

Kim Jong Bill for Secretary of State?

Meanwhile, there are also rumors foreshadowing a policy shift on this side of the Pacific. I find those rumors hard to believe, beginning with the explanation that Hillary Clinton would step down … so spend more time with Bill. Yeah, right! If Hillary Clinton steps down, she’ll do it to distance herself from the administration or to mount a primary challenge, which I think is also unlikely.

Still, I can’t quite dismiss this. The obvious argument for Richardson’s appointment is that it would help the President with Latino voters, and I’ve always suspected that this President cares very much about domestic politics and so little about the actual substance of foreign policy that he’s delegated it to a group of sensible advisors, including James Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Philip Goldberg. Putting Richardson in charge of them would be like putting a cat in a basket of pigeons. At a bare minimum, it would cost us a year of policy reviews, internecine struggles, and purges — a repeat of what happened after 2004. It might even mean that someone gets to follow in Mike Chinoy’s footsteps and write a book chronicling this administration’s paralysis-by-analysis on North Korea.

Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen because the adverse political consequences would outweigh the benefits, and the Administration seems smart enough to get this. Kim Jong Il’s behavior has been bad enough that any hint of Agreed Framework 3.0 would go over badly with the American people. Until now, President Obama has successfully neutralized foreign policy as a campaign issue, but a Bill Richardson foreign policy would give the Republicans an opportunity to cast off their discrediting by Bush, Rice, and Hill, find their voice, and make this an issue they can run on.

The greatest barrier, however, may be South Korea’s certain opposition to such a shift in Washington. Lee Myung Bak will still be President for a little more than two years, and with him facing a likely challenge from Park Geun-Hye on the right, you can expect his Administration to strongly oppose a new American diplomatic initiative to the North now. Say what you will about Lee not having a vote in our elections, but South Korea exerts a powerful influence over U.S. policy toward North Korea.

I wonder if China is pleased with Japan’s new plans to expand defense spending, deploy more PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries, build more submarines to patrol disputed waters, and arm more Aegis cruisers with Standard-3 missiles. Again, there is even talk of acquiring nuclear weapons. China has only its own reckless backing of North Korea to blame for this. Me, I’d be happier if we sold the same types of gear to Taiwan, which as I take delight in repeating, happens to have China’s only legitimate government anyway. But any step toward an integrated alliance of stronger Asian democracies is a step in the right direction. Key to this is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must not give in to the temptation of excessive dependence on a fickle and debt-laden America, and they must be able to survive a first strike well enough to give America a viable option of coming to their assistance. Chinese and North Korean behavior this year has tilted Asian voters sharply in the direction of demanding more defense spending and closer relations with the United States.

__________________________________

In the Washington Post, Victor Cha argues against what he describes as five myths about North Korea. I mostly agree with 1 and 3; I agree with 4 for other reasons; and I agree with 5 even if I wish Cha gave us a better explanation than a consensus of august diplomatic minds that hasn’t a thing to do with the price of rice in Chongjin (the North Korea crisis will be solved in places like this, not in any embassy’s foyer). On point 2, Cha argues against the perception that “Kim Jong Eun is too young and inexperienced to successfully replace his father,” which he defends by noting that older, more experienced people will really be running things from behind the scenes. But isn’t that what most Kim Jong Eun skeptics have always said? Cha always notes that we have no good options in North Korea, something that’s undoubtedly been true since we irreversibly licensed North Korea’s nuclear power status in 1993. But rather than simply reflecting consensus views and writing pieces that no one ever disagrees with more than 40% of the time, I wish that Cha would actually offer a least-worst solution.
__________________________________

In the Wall Street Journal, Brian Myers takes apart Selig Harrison’s imaginings of a reformist faction in North Korea. The key to scoring this speculative argument is the question of whether you really count what the North Koreans tell Selig Harrison as evidence of anything, because that’s about all the evidence Harrison really has. Myers might have answered this with his own interpretations of what the regime tells its own subjects, but as interesting as those interpretations are, I’m glad he didn’t rely on them. After all, North Korea’s actions alone are sufficient to refute Harrison’s view. The same can be said of too much of our foreign policy commentariat, which held similarly naive and wishful views for far too long. The less credit given to those views, the sooner we’ll turn to more productive alternatives.
__________________________________

No, now that I think of it, Kim Jong Il probably isn’t accustomed to seeing his work panned by critics. Yes, Kim Jong Il’s writing is an easy enough target, but the piece actually ends with an insightful argument. Hat tip: Theresa.
__________________________________

OPLAN 5027 1/2? It occurred to me last night that if North Korea escalates hostilities to the point that a military response becomes necessary to save lives in South Korea, such a response need only be sufficient to neutralize North Korea as an immediate threat to the South and deal its system a fatal political blow. This doesn’t necessarily require a full-scale invasion and occupation of all of North Korea, which could well unite much of the population around the regime. Instead, it might “only” require an intense bombardment of North Korea’s artillery sites near the DMZ — yes, a big “only,” that — followed by the seizure of a ten-mile-wide strip of North Korean territory nearest the DMZ. This would neutralize the artillery threat to the South and completely disrupt North Korea’s own military plans for threatening the South or repelling an allied invasion. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit whatever nuclear targets we can, although there are undoubtedly some we’ll never find until after reunification. Rather than taking on the bloody work of racing the Chinese Army to Pyongyang and occupying a hostile country, we could encourage, support, and supply whatever elements were thereby emboldened to rise up against the regime (this would have the added effect of discouraging China from getting involved, unless it wants to get bogged down in an insurgency that would turn unpopular very quickly for any foreign power). Again, I doubt that such an uprising would succeed in the short term, but in the medium term, it would bleed the regime to death, both economically and politically.

In the comments, there have been some suggestions of arming the prisoners in the camps to fight as well, as they are said to have done in the Onsong Camp many years ago. I’m deeply ambivalent about this idea, because I think some of us underestimate how weakened those prisoners really are from the starvation and torture they’ve experienced. To arm people with no military training, organization, or outside logistical support can only mean one inevitable result — the massacre of the prisoners in any camp that rises. But then, it’s probably assured that the prisoners in most of these camps will never get out alive anyway.

Huzzah, I’m finally a moderate!

Not being a frequent reader of Foreign Policy, I don’t know much about the leanings of the particular bloggers there, although most would call that publication a stalwart of the “realist” view that had so recently become fashionable in Washington, before Al Qaeda in Iraq was squeezed down to a small nub of its former self, and before it became evident that North Korea, Iran, and China weren’t prospective negotiating partners after all. This week, we read one FP contributor calling for us to give up on the six-party talks, and another, Will Inboden, coming to the realization that we need leverage against North Korea to have any prospect of productive negotiations:

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il’s $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea’s behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea’s (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime’s leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China’s cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.

I knew that if I waited long enough I could be a moderate, too! The consensus, it seems, has washed right past the self-professed Militant Wing of the Korea blogosphere, and we are all neocons again. I don’t mean to pick on these gentlemen, by the way, for their delayed arrival at the idea that negotiation alone is no way to deal with people like the North Koreans. Words like these from Inboden are especially welcome in wresting this debate from the shrill voices who dominated it for too long:

Let me be clear — I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the “partisan mind” at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other’s positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic “negotiate or not” rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal.

I’ve been as guilty as caricaturing as anyone. It’s fun, and some people just insist on making caricatures of themselves. But to expand on what I said here, I’ve never been a fan of Americans who blame each other for Kim Jong Il’s outrages (here’s a particularly discredited example). I believe those Americans vastly overestimate our influence over Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il’s perceptions of President Obama or Lee Myung Bak may or may not have played a role in his recent decisions, but it’s more likely that once he correctly dismissed our long-lost capacity to deter him, he made his own decisions for domestic reasons. Or, maybe because he’s just not all there anymore.

Actually, I think the administration is playing the talks issue exactly right — refusing to talk when North Korea makes war on its neighbors, but displaying some willingness to talk in the future should talks ever show real promise. I doubt that talks with North Korea will show any promise as long as the Kim Dynasty persists, but if the six-party talks become five-party talks, they might become a useful forum for pressuring China, and for doing the important diplomatic business of averting conflict over North Korea in the event of a sudden or “rolling” collapse of the regime’s authority.

China’s conduct is more rational (if malicious) to us, and more responsive to diplomatic and economic stimuli. In China’s case, there may be more that all of our recent presidents might have done to present an image of an America willing to attach consequences to China’s support for Kim Jong Il. For those Koreans that this regime hasn’t yet killed, there is still time for America to learn that.

Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see conservatives again taking up the idea that (lacking real military or diplomatic options) we should try to undermine the regime from within. Michael Gerson has been particularly persist about this:

There is, however, a third possible outcome that has not been considered seriously enough – an option other than possible war or strategic humiliation. South Korea, America and Japan, employing their technology and vast wealth, could attempt to undermine the North Korean regime from within. An aggressive, sustained campaign to break the North Korean information embargo, expose the barbarity and corruption of the regime to its own people, promote the work of dissidents and defectors, and encourage disloyalty among North Korean elites may or may not work. But the alternatives are increasingly unattractive.

Hat tip to Theresa.

Update: A better-informed reader tells me that I’ve quoted the more conservative “Shadow Government” blog, as opposed to FP’s “The Cable,” which represents a view I’d tend to associate with that publication. That certainly weakens my case that these posts prove that Washington is moving my way, although I do believe that that is the case, for many other reasons. The most important of those is Kim Jong Il’s behavior, but a close second is the Obama Administration’s admirable refusal to reward it. I hope that by now, they’re thinking hard about ways to deter it.

Throw the Book at Him

So I will assume that Stephen Kim, the Korean-American State Department contractor who is now being prosecuted for leaking top secret / sensitive compartmentalized information was neither employed by, nor sympathetic to, North Korea given his choice of Fox News as a recipient for his leak of information that might have revealed U.S. intelligence sources in North Korea. And having said that, I really don’t care what Kim’s specific views were, I just want to know if any foreign government put him up to this. Regardless of Kim’s views, the administration is right to throw the book at those who illegally leak classified information.

One of the most inviolable rules any civil servant, contractor, or employee must respect is that confidential or classified information must never leave the office. That’s why you’ve never seen me talk about my work, and you seldom even see me allude to it. There are exceptions, recognized by law, for revealing abuse of authority or a violation of law by colleagues, but the appropriate vehicle for those reports is to report that information to the Inspector General, not Fox News or Wikileaks.

I already regret making the comparison to Robert Kim, because I only draw it because of Stephen Kim’s ancestry, which shouldn’t matter. But among South Korea’s favorite methods for exerting its extensive influence over U.S. policy toward the Koreas is to leak reports that favor its policy goals. I emphasize that I have no particular reason to believe that Stephen Kim was working for South Korea, but Kim’s case does illustrate the danger that foreign governments will use leaks to corrupt U.S. government employees for their own purposes (and in case you’re wondering, I hold precisely the same view of Jonathan Pollard, who deserves to die in prison). Ultimately, this legitimizes suspicions of dual loyalties against loyal and honest American citizens who may bring badly needed linguistic and cultural understanding to the federal service. That means that leaks of this kind are toxic for good policymaking, for the civil service, and for society as a whole, and that the Obama Administration gets my full support for this prosecution.

The New Conventional Wisdom: We Have No Idea

I don’t recall ever seeing Victor Cha offer a view that was particularly original, imaginative, or likely to end in a successful result, but he is a reliable indicator of Washington conventional wisdom about North Korea, which in turn is heavily influenced by Seoul’s views about the North. And here is the new conventional wisdom: we have no idea what to do now. In Cha’s own words:

North Korean behavior has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.

“You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?” [East-West Center]

For years, the conventional wisdom has been based on mirror-imaged rationalizations of North Korean motives, rationalizations that failed to understand its irrational (to us) pathology. This was needless, of course. The pathology would have been evident to anyone who confronted is capable of doing to other human human beings, and the profound pathological implications of that capability. Our foreign policy establishment, accustomed to dealing with states that respond to ordinary economic and political incentives, assumed the same of North Korea — that it seeks better trade relations, more commerce with the outside world, the exchange of ambassadors, the reduction of tensions, and a better life for its people. The Foreign Policy Industry clung to them throughout the mutual partisan recriminations (yes, a cliche) that blamed everyone but Kim Jong Il for the collapse of two agreed frameworks.

Perhaps President Obama’s election was just the first necessary element of the destruction of these false assumptions. During the last year, I’ve watched them fall, starting with North Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test, and concluding (for everyone but Mike Chinoy and a few others) after North Korea sank the Cheonan. The new consensus is that talks stand no chance of disarming North Korea, and perhaps not even of preserving the peace. The new consensus is that China isn’t a “responsible partner” that will help us restrain Kim Jong Il within the range of what passes for acceptable provocations. And while sanctions have become more attractive as a policy option, there is no “accepted” view of what plausibly attainable objective they are supposed to serve, because the conventional wisdom still sees them as an accessory to diplomacy. Simply stated, the conventional wisdom is still trying to recover from the destruction of its fundamental assumptions. It has no idea what to do next.

The first step toward a better policy is to acknowledge that the last one didn’t work, and won’t work. The second step is just beginning.

Back to Gridlock?

Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Asia, including South Korea, next week. In announcing the visit, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell gave this July 15th on-the-record briefing. In contrast to the Bush Administration’s anytime, anywhere approach to the six-party talks, you can sense a subtle shift in tone:

Let me say that the United States and South Korea have always maintained, and our position is clear, that we are prepared under the right circumstances to sit down in a dialogue with North Korea. But as President Lee Myung-bak has said on numerous occasions, we do not want to talk for talking’s sake; there has to be a clear determination that North Korea rejects its provocative ways and embraces a path towards denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

I get a growing sense of polarization in the Obama Administration. On the one hand, they seem to have figured out that diplomacy is going nowhere, and accordingly, they’re backing away for the Bush Administration’s desperate pursuit of it. On the other hand, they seem to have found neither the will nor the means to punish, deter, or change to the behavior of the North Korean regime.

All of which sounds very much like the polarization that beset the Bush Administration, almost from the very beginning.

Washington’s “Conventional Wisdom” About North Korea Is an Oxymoron

Professor Sung Yoon Lee, writing in the Asia Times, says:

[T]he North Korean regime is in the midst of the most serious internal political challenge in nearly 20 years. Facing severe economic stresses, increasing infiltration of information into North Korea, ever more North Koreans attempting to defect to the South, and the challenge of handing over power to an unproven son only in his twenties, the allegedly ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, must wrestle with profound questions of regime preservation as time runs out.

Here lies a rare opportunity for policymakers in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo to accelerate and effect positive changes in the North Korean regime. Engaging the North Korean people rather than the regime through information operations and facilitating defection, while constricting Pyongyang’s cash flow, is the best means to that end. It’s also important for Washington to hold quiet consultations with Beijing to envision and prepare jointly for a unified Korea under Seoul’s initiative, a new polity that will necessarily remain free, peaceful, capitalist, pro-US and pro-China.

Bingo. And what better window of opportunity will we have than the nepotist succession of a 27 year-old kid in a society that reveres age and battle experience, and which at least purports to be different from its feudal predecessors?

It’s gratifying to see someone of greater consequence than, say, some crank with a blog circulating ideas that have real promise, rather than the same old crap that’s failed and failed again. This is pretty much what the Council on Foreign Relations recently gave us — a lot of has-beens and wrung-out minds repeating and re-writing unoriginal proposals that haven’t been plausible since 1997. Don Kirk is a bit more generous than me:

Perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of the report is the blind faith placed on China as a potentially faithful partner in restraining North Korea. The task force “calls for a US strategic dialogue with China to discuss the future of the peninsula”, in order to, ” clear misunderstanding, build trust”. China does not want anything to happen that might create instability on the Korean Peninsula, and the record shows that the Chinese are not going to cooperate with the US on getting tough on North Korea.

Considering some of the well-known figures involved in this report, one has trouble understanding why they settled on such tired cliches. The problem may be that the task force members represented different strands of thinking on North Korea, and they had to synthesize their viewpoints.

If the CFR report was meant to be helpful advice to the President, and I believe it has those delusions of grandeur, then its authors might consider that no advice is less helpful than, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” That’s really what the CFR’s report amounts to. It offers nothing that hasn’t been tried and conclusively refuted by recent events. Yet these people, my ex-theater commander among them, have the nerve to expect the rest of us to think of them as a brain trust of some sort.

I’d like to see Professor Lee develop his own proposals a bit further. They might just stimulate more productive conversations in a town that, not far below the surface, knows it has run out of ideas. My only quibble is that Lee cites the higher, uncorrected figure for U.S. casualties in the Korean War that includes non-theater deaths. But I can’t think of a better way to honor these men than to complete their victory for the lowest possible cost in lives.

Friends With Benefits: Another Silly, Tired “Engagement” Debate

My general impression of the new North Korea blog 38 North is that it’s mostly the same old crap from the same old people who’ve been proposing the same demonstrably failed approaches to North Korea for the last 20 years. They’ve finally published one thing of interest to me, however, a response to John Feffer by Roberta Cohen of the liberal Brookings Institute. If anyone can show me that anyone to the right of Cohen has ever been published on 38 North, I’ll buy you a cookie. Nor would I call 38 North a true blog with regards to format or style — it’s more of an online op-ed page, only with a smaller audience. This general lack of balance and originality is especially unfortunate because there are some smart, sensible, and not-necessarily left-of-center people at SAIS’s U.S.-Korea Institute, which puts out 38 North. Perhaps more broadly, the real failure of originality is with the Foreign Policy Industry itself, for which we should be thankful that John Feffer at least breaks up the soccer-like scoreless ennui.

Cohen’s arguments against Feffer won’t be unfamiliar to OFK regulars, and certainly on the specific questions of North Korea’s willful disregard for the welfare of its people, Cohen argues the points well enough with the wealth of evidence available to her. After all, John Feffer is to pristine logic what Stephen Hawking is to ballroom dancing, and it’s always obvious where Feffer is really coming from:

Feffer, nonetheless, would side with North Korea in accusing those trying to hold it to account as being “politically motivated.

Treating North Korea differently, as Feffer proposes, and looking away when Pyongyang violates human rights standards it has freely accepted seems an odd privilege to extend to any country, particularly to one whose violations are so egregious. Human rights treaties do not contain escape clauses that excuse violations on the grounds that the country is not yet ready to assume its obligations. Making North Korea into a human rights exception will create the patronizing relationship that Feffer, with his social work sensitivities, so deplores, and undermine the goals of the international human rights system.

Thing is, my own views on this topic have evolved to the point were I now think Feffer and Cohen are both wrong — Feffer for the familiar reason that he’s a tool who seldom says anything that’s not already a proven falsehood, and Cohen because she believes that “engaging” the North Korean government will change its behavior (that word again — so we have to give them a ring, too?). To support her argument, Cohen cites a host of laws that North Korea has ostensibly altered under international pressure, though she can cite no more evidence than Feffer or anyone else can that this has done any good for the North Korean people. Nonetheless, she says:

If any of these reforms have helped even one prisoner, one person, or one family, the process has been worthwhile.

I like Cohen, but I respectfully disagree. Even assuming that the reforms were real and had helped one prisoner, they’re not worthwhile if they come at the cost of legitimizing, funding, and prolonging a regime that will hurt millions more over years. That’s really the problem with all kinds of engagement with North Korea — only rarely can anyone really prove that it’s done any good for anyone but Kim Jong Il himself, or that any form of engagement has materially changed the character or behavior of his regime for the better.

By contrast, I can cite ample evidence for the fact that millions suffer needlessly for every day foreign money preserves Kim Jong Il’s misrule. The urgent priority beneath all of the others, then, is to get rid of the regime itself, and the least painful way I see of doing that begins with defenestrating the regime economically and ends with empowering the people to alter or abolish it. Oddly enough, this principle was easy enough for the Human Rights Industry and just about every liberal pressure group in the case of South Africa under apartheid. But now, in a case where the abuses are far more grave, extensive, and intractable, we can only manage to argue over just how understanding and patient we should be before we talk to Kim Jong Il about human rights at all.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen Pays Respects to Cheonan Victims

cheonan.JPGFrom Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s staff:

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had flowers placed on her behalf at South Korea ‘s Daejeon National Cemetery in honor and memory of those lost on the Republic of Korea naval ship Cheonan. Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:

“As we conclude Memorial Day observances in the U.S. and South Korea and honor the sacrifices of our military personnel, I would like to take the opportunity to, once again, express my most profound sadness for the tragic loss of 46 South Korean sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.

“The vital alliance between the governments of the United States and South Korea and the unbreakable bond between the people of both nations are as strong now as ever.

“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of South Korea during this trying time.

Ros-Lehtinen is the Ranking (Republican) Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In related news, SecDef Gates says that the Pentagon isn’t in any hurry to hold naval exercises off the coast of Korea, and South Korea has referred North Korea to the U.N. Security Council.

Robert Einhorn to Lead North Korea Sanctions Implementation Effort

einhorn.jpgThe Joongang Ilbo is reporting that Clinton Administration alumnus and counter-proliferation expert Robert Einhorn is going to be put in charge of “streamlining the process by which it implements” international sanctions against North Korea, sanctions that are likely to be enhanced after an international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed and sank the South Korean warship Cheonan.

“The U.S. administration was seeking more efficient management of implementation of sanctions, which had been divided between the State and the Treasury departments,” the source said. “Philip Goldberg, the assistant state secretary at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, had been doubling as the implementation coordinator, but Einhorn is poised to take over.

“The U.S. government also tried to strengthen its sanctions system after the second North Korean nuclear test last year, when Goldberg was named the coordinator,” the source said. Goldberg was appointed to his Bureau of Intelligence and Research post in February.

Another source said Einhorn’s nomination is also part of the U.S. government’s efforts to follow up on President Barack Obama’s order to review “existing authorities and policies” on North Korea. Soon after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak unveiled Seoul’s countermeasures against Pyongyang Monday, the White House expressed its support and said in a statement, “This review is aimed at ensuring that we have adequate measures in place and to identify areas where adjustments would be appropriate.

You can read more information about Philip Goldberg here and here. Previous reports suggested that he would quit as North Korea sanctions coordinator, but he continues to occupy a senior post within the State Department.

My research and inquiries about Einhorn suggest that we could do worse. He was deeply involved in negotiating Agreed Framework I, but since then, Einhorn has caught on faster than most of those in the foreign policy industry. His statement in 2007 that North Korea was “backtracking” on its promises to disarm suggests that he could see how Agreed Framework II would end a year before most reporters would see through Chris Hill’s glib deceptions.

“Aside from his knowledge of North Korean nuclear issues, Einhorn is tight with Gary Seymour, the weapons of mass destruction coordinator at the White House, and other nonproliferation officials in the Obama administration,” another source in Seoul said. “Einhorn should be able to provide leadership in his new role.

This is another good sign. The report probably means to refer to Gary Samore, an Obama Administration official whose validation of longstanding suspicions that North Korea was secretly enriching uranium departed from Democratic orthodoxy that the Bush Administration’s 2002 uranium enrichment accusations blew up a perfectly good disarmament deal with North Korea over sketchy evidence. Today, the evidence of North Korea’s cheating is so overwhelming that the Obama Administration is also insisting that North Korea disclose its uranium enrichment activities.

Is it bad news that someone from State, rather than Treasury, is going to lead the implementation effort? Yes, State ought to be handling our dealings with foreign governments, but Treasury — and I single out Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey in particular — has generally been much more determined and effective than State in making sanctions work. The last time State and Treasury confronted one another over sanctions, Chris Hill rolled Treasury and got sanctions lifted against North Korea, in spite of Treasury’s persistent belief that North Korea continues to counterfeit U.S. currency. My suspicions are fueled by this recent history, and also by the fact that the same people are running State’s East Asia Bureau and Treasury’s Bureau for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence now as during President Bush’s second term. All of the key players in both departments are holdovers or career civil servants. During the Bush Administration, the absence of strong leadership at State, the White House, and the NSC meant that more junior officials like Christopher Hill could effectively set policy. Today, the White House and the NSC seem to be setting policy for the more junior officials to implement.

What the policy will be comes down to the question of political will, but the more reliable information I’ve heard, both before and after the Cheonan report, indicates that the Obama Administration is determined to pressure Kim Jong Il rather than caving in and signing Agreed Framework III. Einhorn isn’t one who appears to favor talks for the sake of talks, at any price. There’s reason, then, for cautious optimism. The question, of course, is where the pressure is taking us. Is the objective to force Kim Jong Il back to talks? There isn’t much point in that if, as almost everyone agrees, he’ll never disarm anyway. That’s especially so when China continues to signal that it will block and undermine sanctions against North Korea, and fails to enforce the sanctions in effect now. At some point, one can only hope that the administration decides to make North Korea China’s problem by trying to destabilize the regime.

Another diplomatic source said the Obama administration needed to tighten its sanctions regime. The source said when North Korean overseas accounts were closed off by U.S. sanctions, they simply changed the name of the individual or the company which had opened the account and resumed transactions. The sanctions were aimed at banning transactions by companies or individuals suspected of involvement in the North’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

“U.S. officials have taken note of such [name-changing] practices and they’re preparing measures to eliminate them,” the source said.

At the same time, the Chosun Ilbo reports that the Obama Administration intends to devote more attention to finding and freezing Kim Jong Il’s substantial personal accounts stashed in overseas banks. This is something I’ve been calling for for years.

Sanctions against North Korea by the U.S. government are expected to focus on Kim Jong-il’s personal slush funds. The aim is to tighten the noose around Kim and the rest of the North Korean leadership rather than to increase pressure on the North Korean people, in a parallel with the 2005 freezing of what was apparently money for Kim’s private use in the Banco Delta Asia in Macau.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence are exchanging information about the bank accounts managed by a department of the North Korean Workers Party’s Central Committee codenamed “Room 39,” which manages Kim’s personal coffers. “We discovered long ago that most of the overseas bank accounts that received money from South Korean businesses involved inter-Korean projects were owned by the North Korean military,” said a South Korean government official.

I’ll just pause here to let you bask in the warm, gentle glow of Sunshine and reflect on how much kinder and gentler it has made North Korea.

Room 39 is expected to be the main target of the latest financial sanctions. It has 17 overseas offices, some 100 trading companies, a gold mine and its own bank. The $200 million to $300 million earned by subsidiary companies have gone straight into Kim’s overseas bank accounts. The director of Room 39, Jon Il-chun, is expected to face financial sanctions as well. Kim appointed Jon after the former head, Kim Tong-un, was put on a blacklist of North Korean officials by the EU in December.

The U.S. government may also freeze overseas bank accounts held by North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau, which is believed to have orchestrated the attack on the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March. But some experts say the U.S. may find it more difficult to apply financial pressure on North Korea because the North moved most of its money to accounts in China and Russia.

Are these developments connected? I can’t say for certain, but Einhorn has previously expressed support for tightening sanctions on luxury goods that support Kim Jong Il’s patronage system. The overseas accounts probably consist largely of proceeds of illicit activities, or those banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions. The funds in those accounts are probably paying for the yachts, cars, booze, and other luxuries that Kim Jong Il continues to import in violation of those resolutions.

How can the U.S. government reach those funds? I can think of at least two ways off-hand. One is to designate North Korea, Bureau 39, and/or Kim Jong Il as primary money laundering concerns under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which would force any bank holding those accounts to freeze them, or risk losing its access to its correspondent accounts with U.S. banks. As the example of Banco Delta Asia showed, access to correspondent accounts in the United States means access to the global financial system. Depositors who are engaged in international business transactions can’t bank at an institution without that access. With the marginal rate at which banks are capitalized, even the threat of Section 311 sanctions would render most banks insolvent.

Another alternative would be to issue indictments and forfeiture counts against the North Korean accounts themselves, under 18 U.S.C. sec. 1956, our strongest money laundering statute. Because North Korea never contests litigation in U.S. courts, the Justice Department would win convictions on the criminal forfeiture counts, and correspondent accounts of the banks holding those assets would be blocked. The banks, in turn, would have to freeze the accounts to avoid absorbing the loss. Because the money laundering statute has extraterritorial jurisdiction, Justice could pursue the assets almost anywhere in the world. But how would we prove that all of the funds were proceeds of illicit activity? We wouldn’t have to. A long-standing principle of money laundering laws is that if illicit funds are “co-mingled” with legitimately derived funds, the entire amount is considered tainted and can be forfeited.

What charges would we be able to prove? First, Justice would have indicted North Korean entities for the supernote counterfeiting conspiracy years ago, had it not been for the State Department’s intervention. Second, an Australian newspaper recently reported that indictments could be forthcoming for the transactions associated with the 2009 Bangkok weapons seizure.

Finally, does the fact that many of Kim Jong Il’s funds have moved to Russian and Chinese banks put them beyond the reach of Treasury and Justice? No. Like every bank that needs access to the international monetary system, Russian and Chinese banks need their correspondent accounts in U.S. banks to operate. Back in 2005, when the Treasury Department first announced its sanctions against Banco Delta Asia, there were also reports that the Bank of China was also under suspicion. This caused such extreme consternation in the Bank of China that two years later, its officers refused to touch the frozen Banco Delta funds that both the U.S. and Chinese government wanted it to transfer back to North Korea to facilitate Agreed Framework II. For China’s government, the downside of its transition to a market economy is that even it doesn’t have complete control over its capital. And in the face of any hint of a Treasury Department investigation, capital is a coward.

Cheonan conclusions will mean tougher N. Korea policies … for a while, anyway

It certainly looks like every government official outside Beijing who has seen the evidence now believes that North Korea sank the Cheonan and killed 46 members of its crew. Among those who have drawn their conclusions are the South Korean government, the Obama Administration, and the Republicans in Congress. The multinational investigation is now sufficiently advanced that the official Yonhap News Agency says that the findings could be released as early as next week. One interesting leak references a stray North Korean torpedo the ROK Navy recovered several years ago. The investigators are now comparing it to aluminum fragments recovered near where the Cheonan sank, and which don’t appear to be pieces from the ship.

The South Korean government’s comments are not exactly, but tantamount to, a conclusion of North Korean guilt:

“The sinking of the Cheonan has shown the world the cruel reality of division” on the Korean Peninsula, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in a speech to a forum in Seoul. His comments came hours after a presidential aide for political affairs said “an external attack was highly likely” to have sank the 1,200 corvette, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea.

“From such a standpoint, this is a grave situation concerning national security,” Park Hyung-joon told a radio interview. [Yonhap]

Coming from the Unification Minister, whose traditional role has consisted of obsequious kowtowing toward North Korea, those comments are even more meaningful.

The Joongang Ilbo reports that the Obama Administration and its semi-autonomous subsidiary, the U.S. State Department, also agree:

The U.S. government has concluded that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in March and has begun discussing possible measures to be taken in response, according to a source here.

Another diplomatic source said the Obama administration is also preparing a joint U.S.-South Korean statement condemning the North Korean action and strengthening the two countries’ military alliance. The statement, the source added, would be issued after the findings of the Cheonan probe are announced sometime next week.

“About a dozen officials handling East Asia and the Korean Peninsula at the State Department, the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency held a closed-door meeting [Monday, Washington time] to talk about responses to the Cheonan sinking for the first time,” the source said. “They discussed measures to take in case North Korea attacked the ship, and they didn’t bring up any other possibility [that some other cause may have been responsible].

What the Administration is prepared to do about this isn’t nearly as clear. The only specific response mentioned, a new round of military exercises, certainly would not be a complete response, and hopefully isn’t meant to be. The Mainichi Shimbun adds that the U.S. and South Korean plan to hold more high-level military and diplomatic meetings between now and July.

Needless to say, the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy is about to face its most important test so far. North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009 was more effective than its 2006 test, but the probably premeditated sinking of a South Korean warship is an entirely level of provocation, and quite possibly the first in a series that’s intended to provoke a limited conflict. How President Obama responds now could be very important to the lives of plenty of people on both sides of the DMZ. And while a direct military response is probably unwise, Obama has to choose options that are at once restrained, principled, and which will genuinely deter Kim Jong Il’s next bad decisions.

One important (but also incomplete) response would be to re-add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Via the Chosun Ilbo, it appears that a bill to do just that is now percolating among the Republicans in Congress. It’s interesting that the South Korean embassy doesn’t seem opposed. One wonders whether John Kerry will block this attempt to re-list North Korea, just as he blocked the last one, by a very close vote. Certainly Kerry would not do this against the will of the White House. We’ll soon have a much better idea of who is running this administration’s North Korea policy. But one wonders what negotiating atmosphere Kerry would be afraid of spoiling today, when even the State Department has said that it can’t be business as usual if North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Some would tell you that re-listing is mostly a symbolic gesture, but they’re wrong. First, a terror-sponsor listing effectively blocks North Korea’s access to international loans, something we’d likely do anyway in times like these, but this measure would also send an important signal of political risk and bad creditworthiness to other potential lenders and investors. Second, it’s important for reasons of principle — since it was de-listed, North Korea has been caught arming terrorists at least twice, has attempted to assassinate a dissident in exile, and has repeatedly used its official state media to terrorize the populations of other states. These actions meet the statutory definition of international terrorism, and we can’t deter state-sponsored terrorism if it doesn’t have consequences. Third, the de-listing was originally a quid-pro-quo for nuclear disarmament, a condition that North Korea decisively repudiated when it tested a nuclear weapon in May 2009.

While re-listing itself would not be symbolic, a congressional resolution would be. The legal procedure for listing a state as a sponsor of terrorism leaves that decision entirely within the discretion of the Secretary of State and the President. But then, this is an election year, and Obama is already under attack for having a weak North Korea policy:

Ironically, Obama’s negotiating posture with the North is, so far at least, somewhat less objectionable than that of the Bush administration’s last years. Bush’s negotiators were, in effect, negotiating with themselves, making unforced concessions to create the illusion of diplomatic progress, while North Korea did little or nothing.

By contrast, the Obama team, at least optically, has seemed more prepared to have China make the grease payments necessary to persuade Kim’s regime to resume the long-stalled six-party talks.

But beneath the optics is a disturbing reality. Obama’s underlying strategy remains fixed in the belief that once everyone returns to the bargaining table, progress on denuclearizing North Korea is still possible. It is a major article of faith, closely linked to Obama’s view that negotiations with Iran might actually divert the mullahs from their determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. [John Bolton, N.Y. Daily News]

Bolton is one of the few conservatives who carries over enough consistency from the Bush Administration to be a credible critic of Obama, who has at least recognized the power of financial constriction to affect North Korea (if not its behavior). Speaking of sanctions, I also liked this quote from the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner on this:

What is Obama’s Plan B? The Obama administration’s two-track policy of pressure and negotiations is an improvement over earlier approaches that veered to either extreme. However, “strategic patience” is insufficient as a long-term strategy. Simply containing North Korea in a box is problematic for several reasons. First, it allows Pyongyang to expand and refine its nuclear and missile delivery capabilities. This not only further undermines the security of the U.S. and its allies but also sends a dangerous signal of de facto acceptance to other nuclear aspirants. Members of Congress, the media, and think tanks who excoriated the Bush administration’s policy of “benign neglect” are now hypocritically silent against Obama’s similar strategy. [Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation]

Read that one in its entirety.

If no sane person still thinks that North Korea can be talked out of its nukes — and that’s only a very slight exaggeration in this town — then the question becomes what the point of sanctions really is. Is it to get North Korea back to the six-party talks to stall us for a few more years while it keeps proliferating nukes to Syria, Iran, Burma, and God-knows-who-else?

As Klingner argues persuasively, sanctions, like talks, are not an end in themselves. Both need to be part of a more comprehensive policy with a concrete goal. To me, the policy ought to be to weaken the regime’s grip on its population by damaging its capacity to oppress. The Great Confiscation and the backlash it created are good illustrations of how this works in practice. So for the moment, Obama’s sanctions happen to advance us toward the same goal I envision, even if it’s probably not the same goal that Obama’s people envision. To me, the concrete goal is a regime so subverted, destabilized, weakened, and lacking in the means to maintain order and control that China (along with a critical mass of the North Korean military) has a fundamental change of attitude and decides that perpetuating Kim Jong Il’s misrule impedes, rather than advances, the objective of stability in North Korea. Maybe then, China will have an incentive to join in forcing North Korea into a negotiated and controlled abdication. That’s not in the cards now, and it won’t be until the North Korean people acquire the means to organize against the state.

Statement from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on North Korea Freedom Week

2007-8-2-lehtinen.jpgDear People of both South and North Korea, Members of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, Ms. Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, Members of the NGO Human Rights Community, Pastors, North Korean Defectors, Abductee Families, Members of the Korean-American Community and Friends of Korea:

It is particularly fitting and proper that this year’s annual North Korea Freedom Week will be held for the first time on the Korean peninsula. This week of events also comes at a particularly critical time as we seek answers to the tragic sinking last month of the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, and look forward to honoring veterans during the upcoming sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in June.

I have joined with Representative Sam Johnson as a co-sponsor of legislation commemorating the anniversary of the commencement of that tragic war, due to North Korean treachery, which nonetheless formed an unbreakable bond between two allies, the United States and the Republic of Korea. As a friend and ally, I also wish to state that I fully agree with President Lee Myung-bak’s recent statement of the need for a resolute response once the cause of the South Korean ship’s sinking is determined. The families of the forty-six dead South Korean sailors deserve no less than a full accounting.

North Korea’s refusal to allow a transparent and thorough verification regime for inspection of its nuclear program led to a complete breakdown of the Six-Party Talks last year. This followed the premature and unwise decision by the United States in 2008 to remove North Korea from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. Read more