North Korea’s cash-for-summit demands put 2010 attacks in a new light

WERE THE 2010 ATTACKS North Korea’s way of making good on extortion?  Stephan Haggard, not widely know for his hard-line views, cites an article in the Chosun Ilbo revealing that Kim Jong Il wanted a summit with Lee Myung Bak, but at a price.

The sticking point was money. How much? According to the Chosun Ilbo, $500-600 million in rice and fertilizer aid, which had effectively been cut from the first of the year, and perhaps some cash too; that was about the price that Kim Dae Jung paid for the first summit. Negotiations continued through November at Kaesong, when the North Korean delegation even presented a draft summit declaration including a resumption of aid.  [Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation]

The Chosun Ilbo story adds this important piece of evidence:

In January 2010, after the secret contacts ended and North Korea realized that it was impossible to extract any aid from Seoul, it vowed to launch a “holy retaliatory war” against the South and fired multiple artillery rounds at the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border on the West Sea.  [Chosun Ilbo]

Haggard makes a compelling (if circumstantial) argument that the attacks were meant to demonstrate that North Korea’s extortion should be taken seriously. We now know that two months after Lee refused to pay up, North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Wondering if I could make this case a bit less circumstantial, I decided to consult my archives and see what else North Korea said and did in the months between Lee’s refusal to pay and the Cheonan attack. I didn’t find what I expected.  Although there were certainly some menacing acts and words by North Korea, the threats were nowhere near as extravagant or as frequent as those issued in early 2009, after President Lee cut off aid, and as President Obama warmed up his chair.  What’s interesting, however, is that in early 2010, North Korea was facing a severe popular backlash against The Great Confiscation.

In November, of course, North Korea followed up with the Yeonpyeong attack.

Let me take Haggard’s point a step further:  if he’s correct in his inference, this course of conduct would be a good fit for the legal definition of “international terrorism.”  Some commenters have suggested that the 2010 attacks — particularly the Cheonan attack — are not a basis (not that another is needed) to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, but fresh evidence of a motive to extort merits reconsideration. The key element is that the violent act must have been intended to influence South Korean government policy, and some of North Korea’s statements from 2009 provide additional evidence of North Korea’s intent.  The evidence is circumstantial, but somewhere in North Korea are people with direct evidence, and one of them is probably thinking about defecting.

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North Korea Sort-of Admits Cheonan Sinking?

Buried within the latest AP report on Jimmy Carter’s visit to North Korea was this wonderful morsel:

Carter said North Korean officials expressed deep regret for the deaths on the South Korean warship Cheonan and for the civilians killed in the island shelling. But, he said, it was clear that “they will not publicly apologize and admit culpability for the Cheonan incident.” North Korea denies sinking the ship, despite an South Korea-led international investigation that blamed the country. It says it was provoked into the island shelling by South Korean live fire drills.

No, they didn’t intend to apologize … until the awesome global stature of Jimmy Carter and his Superfriends (TM) forced Kim Jong Il to grant them a personal audience-cum-intervention, where Kim tearfully apologized for starving, torturing, or terrorizing virtually everything in reach and agreed to check himself into rehab.

Just kidding! Actually, Kim snubbed Carter again and sent his Foreign Minister and the head of his rubber-stamp parliament to repeat their standard demands — a North-South summit without apologies or preconditions, and “[T]hey won’t give up their nuclear program without some kind of” vague, ill-defined, vanishing “security guarantee from the U.S.” That’s pretty much what the North Koreans said before Agreed Framework II, which of course brought us to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program one crumbling cooling tower, plus numerous diplomatic and material gains for North Korea. Really, though, the smothering irony of this entire story has to be that Carter and his admirers hold him out as an expert on dealing with North Korea because of Agreed Framework I, a triumph so smashing that Carter is still begging the North Koreans to disarm 17 years later.

Meanwhile, at Yongbyon ….

Carter must have been especially disappointed that Kim didn’t even tell his minions to release his newest American hostage, a pity given the perfect convenience of seizing a hostage just in time for Carter’s arrival. There is, of course, the pity of that plea from the man’s family that he’s in ill health. In spite of this, another AP correspondent (here, the unforgivably experienced Foster Klug) calls Carter “well-respected” by the North Koreans, notwithstanding the fact that we now know just what the North Koreans really think of Jimmy Carter. But even the most reasonable inferences that Klug could have drawn from his own report tell us that much.

When asked why the North Koreans didn’t meet with His Most Highly Regarded Excellency, Carter replied that the South Korean President wouldn’t meet with him, either. Could it be that the South Korean government regards Carter just as highly as the North Korean government regards him? Or that Carter’s visit has unwittingly revealed a sliver of common ground between the Koreas?

“We don’t question the decision of a head of state about the priorities they set for their own schedule,” Carter said.

Among other priorities, this particular head of state is known for his world-class collection of Daffy Duck cartoons and the lethality of his prison camp system.

A final fallacy about North Korea is again refuted in this story. The American diplomatic class and its fan-boys would have us believe that North Korea’s diplomatic Lotharios only manage to outmaneuver America’s best and brightest so consistently through their fiendish cleverness. I incline to the view that North Korean diplomacy isn’t fiendishly clever, it’s just usually less incompetent than ours. Conceding guilt for sinking the Cheonan without apologizing for it isn’t clever. For North Korea, it’s the worst of everything. It gets no credit for contrition, and yet it refutes and embarrasses its sympathizers from Seoul to New York. A more clever North Korea would either apologize for a payoff or stick to denial, but one could just as easily say that a more clever North Korea would be South Korea.

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At Last, Plan B

This afternoon, the Treasury Department finally announced its long anticipated sanctions against North Korea, in the form of a sweeping new executive order. The order, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, authorizes the blocking of assets of “any person” providing what Treasury calls “material support” for North Korea’s WMD proliferation, money laundering, counterfeiting, trade in luxury goods, bulk cash smuggling, and pretty much everything North Korea does that violates UNSCR 1718 or 1874, or the U.S. Criminal Code.

In addition to the new order, Treasury also imposed new sanctions against several North Korean entities under the existing Executive Order 13382. Below the fold, I’ve pasted the text of the Executive Order, President Obama’s letter forwarding the EO to the Speaker of the House, two Treasury press releases, and some remarks by OFK favorite Stuart Levey, all of which I’ve archived here to aid your research and mine.

My initial reaction is that the new EO gets it just right. It’s narrowly targeted at North Korea’s illicit activities, but it’s also broad enough to cover the main ones — arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, currency and pharmaceutical counterfeiting, and the squandering of its resources on luxury goods while North Korean children starve in the streets. This is a tough-yet-refined version of the Plan B I’ve been advocating since its earliest draft in 2006.

Here is the key language:

All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, including any overseas branch, of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

(i) the persons listed in the Annex to this order; and

(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

The EO then goes on to describe a wide range of activities, assistance, and financial activities that could support North Korea’s illicit activities, including the assets of any entity held by a U.S. person, or within U.S. jurisdiction. This means that if a Chinese entity is involved in helping a blacklisted North Korean entity acquire missile components, Treasury could freeze the Chinese entity’s tainted assets based in the U.S., assets of its U.S. subsidiaries, its assets in U.S. banks, or potentially, the entity’s foreign bank’s correspondent accounts in U.S. banks. This is all we could ask, and — if applied vigorously — it will be enough to force international businesses to choose between the use of the global financial system and their business ties with North Korea. Yes, North Korea could try to conceal, blur, obfuscate, and obscure which companies are connected to its illicit activities, but Treasury’s answer to this is that its effect will be to spread suspicion to all North Korean entities, even those that claim to be legit. This could be a severe blow to North Korea’s ability to comingle illicit and legitimate finance (the essence of money laundering) and will terrify investors and cause capital flight from the Palace Economy just as the Kim Dynasty is trying to engineer a smooth succession.

For Senator Sam Brownback, it is also a rightful claim to an important legacy when he leaves the Senate to become, almost assuredly, the next Governor of Kansas. In recent months, as North Korea’s behavior changed thinking in the Obama Administration, Brownback effectively lobbied State for tougher economic sanctions, and skillfully parlayed the stayed threat of nomination holds to build friendships with State Department officials with whom he found common ground. In the absence of strong conservative thinkers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brownback filled the void, seized the opportunity to build relationships in the Treasury Department, and encouraged it to press for tougher enforcement. The question now turns to the Administration’s determination to use this tool aggressively, and follow the money to the very ash heap of the Kim Dynasty if necessary.

Who is targeted? A lot of entities that were already on Treasury’s list of specially designated nationals, but also, two key additions: Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, and the notorious Reconnaissance Bureau, the prime suspect in the recent attempt to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop. Also sanctioned was a North Korean state enterprise responsible for making and exporting submarines and torpedoes.

For the moment, senior State Department people like Robert Einhorn seem determined to use financial pressure to force a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior, and talk of re-engaging with North Korea all seems very theoretical and conditional. I don’t think anything short of a coup will actually cause that fundamental change, and the real test will come when State and the Administration come to grips with this. For now, this is all we could have hoped for from this Administration.

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Did Lee Myung Bak Just Get His Mojo Back?

I’ve been meaning to write about the latest off-year election results in South Korea for the last several days. In what must be a welcome shift for Lee, unlike the June local and provincial elections, the ruling GNP scored what Yonhap called “a stunning victory over the opposition parties.”

In crucial by-elections gauging public sentiment toward the Lee Myung-bak administration midway through its term, the ruling Grand National Party yesterday scored precious victories in high-profile districts, making a successful political rebound from painful defeats in last month’s local elections.

Eight vacancies in the National Assembly were filled through yesterday’s elections, and victories of two advisers of President Lee were confirmed last night in Seoul and North Chungcheong, as well as two more victories in Incheon and South Chungcheong. [Joongang Ilbo]

The big race, in my wife’s home district, put Lee Jae-Oh back into the National Assembly.

The Democrats were clearly disappointed. Party officials’ faces became tense as the vote count progressed. Reflecting such a mood, DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun only visited the party’s headquarters around 10:10 p.m. “I and the party’s leadership did our best,” Chung said. “We humbly accept the outcome.

It’s interesting to contrast the general lack of media interest in these results to the broadly reported consensus that the June local elections represented a “rebuke” by voters of Lee Myung Bak’s supposed “hard-line” policy toward North Korea (any reports of which are interpretive hallucinations).

What can I make of this change? There are several possibilities:

* These elections chose members of the National Assembly, not local executives. In other words, this time, the issues were national, not local. This is where the Cheonan Incident gains some direct relevance.

* Lee is wisely backing off on his ambitious local projects, and there has been a new sacrifice in accord with this.

* Turnout was high, which may mean that more conservative voters turned out. The mid-term effect was suppressed. Maybe the June elections shook some of them out of their complacency.

* The elections were held just as the U.S. and Korean navies held exercises that drew the predictable North Korean threats and much whining from the Chicoms. They also began as South Korean newspapers began to report that the U.S. government would start a global pursuit of North Korean assets to block. This time, there’s actually a credible case for there being a “hard line” to rebuke. And yet there was no rebuke.

As interesting as these theories are to me, a more likely one is that South Korean politics are just unstable and unpredictable, and that any efforts to make enough sense of them to achieve any predictive value are doomed.

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The Peace Train Stops at Al-Jazzeera

Professor Sung Yoon Lee is a friend of mine, and this is why friends don’t let friends go on Al Jazzeera. When the floodlights snap on, you just might find yourself in a circus tent. In the extreme opposite corner, we have present “Professor” of Pacific Rim Studies Christine Hong, who appears to a an exact genetic clone of her comrade in the struggle, Christine Ahn, right down to the hip, urbane glasses (damn you to hell, Hwang Woo-Seok!).

The now-moot premise of Riz Khan’s interview is that the U.S.-South Korean naval exercises — but not North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship! — might have triggered more naval clashes. Khan asks Christine Hong whether she thinks that perhaps North Korea’s reaction to the exercise (the threat of a “physical response“) might have been excessive. Hong responds without hesitation: “Absolutely not!” If I understand Hong’s argument, North Korea has to sink South Korean warships, withdraw from the 1953 Armistice unilaterally, test nukes, proliferate, keep hundreds of thousands of people in prison camps, and threaten war — most of which she defends and justifies — because America and South Korea haven’t signed a peace treaty. To be precise, these people aren’t really pro-peace or anti-war, they’re just on the other side.

As much as I feel for the legions of young zombies Hong and others like her will be churning out, Hong really represents the die-hard remnant of an ideological shift in the American left on North Korea. The days of seeing North Korea as prepared to disarm, reform, and make peace but for G.W. Bush’s cowboy axis-of-evil rhetoric have ended for most of them. Only North Korea’s most extreme sympathizers can still defend its conduct. Even on the far left, Mike Chinoy and John Feffer can’t go that far, even if they’re forced to leave its conduct unexplained and unanswered in their proposals for more talks, which only makes those proposals seem more detached from reality than ever. The mainstream left is mostly following the Obama Administration’s recognition of the need for sanctions.

The opposite has happened in South Korea, where the mainstream left has adopted various conspiracy theories and disinformation. There’s probably a conspiracy theory for every individual’s emotional need to believe that someone other than North Korea sank the Cheonan, or even that all of this is somehow America’s fault. To which I say, there’s really no point in reasoning with the logically retarded. The only thing you can do about people like this is to a better job of raising and educating their younger siblings. Their emotions have already told them what they believe, and their only use for logic is to find some explanation, plausible or otherwise, to lend some support to their faith. They have no evidence to support their beliefs, of course, but they did have a generous assist from Lee Myung Bak’s government, whose various leaks and stumbles have given the twoofers plenty to pick at.

My understanding is that the complete report of the international investigation is much longer than the report I’d linked here. If so, it might be helpful to would-be de-bunkers to redact out the secret material and release the rest of it.

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Plan B Watch: Clinton Announces Tightening of N. Korea Sanctions

Well, it’s about damn time:

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would impose further economic sanctions against North Korea, throwing legal weight behind a choreographed show of pressure on the North that included an unusual joint visit to the demilitarized zone by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The measures, announced here by Mrs. Clinton after talks with South Korean officials, focus on counterfeiting, money laundering and other dealings that she said the North Korean government used to generate hard currency to pay off cronies and cling to power. [N.Y. Times]

Clinton announced the sanctions as she visited the DMZ, while accompanied by SecDef Gates, and while displaying her supernatural frost-projection powers against a hapless North Korean border guard. I count at least three priceless expressions in this photo.


The Treasury Department announcement I linked here yesterday now looks to be just the first part of the Obama Administration’s dangerously overdue and initially weak response to the sinking of the Cheonan, using at least some of the legal and financial tools I’ve advocated using for the last several years.

“Today, I’m announcing a series of measures to increase our ability to prevent North Korea’s proliferation, to halt their illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs and to discourage further provocative actions,” Clinton told a news conference in Seoul after high-level security talks with South Korean officials.

Clinton said Washington’s “new country-specific sanctions” will target the North’s “sale and procurement of arms and related material and the procurement of luxury goods and other illicit activities.”

“Let me stress that these measures are not directed at the people of North Korea who have suffered too long due to the misguided and malign priorities of their government,” she said. “They are directed at the destabilizing illicit and provocative policies pursued by that government.” [Yonhap]

With apologies to KCJ, this is encouraging — a strong opening message that will get the attention of the investors on whose cash North Korea depends. Unfortunately, Clinton offered few details about the sanctions, and via some inside sources, I’ve learned that the administration is still debating just what specific measures it’s going to announce. Until I see what those specific measures are, and how strong and comprehensive they are, I will reserve judgment. Or, as one observer put it:

Nicholas Szechenyi, a northeast Asia policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the key to effective U.S. sanctions is how they are implemented.

“If the U.S. is doing this in isolation, doing this piecemeal, then I don’t think they’ll have much effect,” he said. “But if there’s a unified effort to not only announce these sanctions as an act of solidarity with our South Korean allies but also to apply some pressure on North Korea, then I think over time it might work.”

That sounds exactly right to me. Nick Eberstadt is more skeptical, and maybe he knows something I don’t:

The moves resemble piecemeal steps of the past, they add, and are unlikely to strike where it hurts: the regime’s access to under-the-table international funds.

“If I were in Pyongyang, I would not be trembling in my boots about this,” says Nick Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. [Christian Science Monitor]

The real question here is what the sanctions will be designed to achieve:

“The real question, if the talks resume, is so what?” says Mr. Lieberthal. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been successful over two decades at curtailing the North’s nuclear ambitions, he says, adding that the Obama administration “shows no signs of being in the mood to reward North Korea” to prompt its cooperation, a pattern he says the North has become accustomed to.

“So even if the talks resume at some point, would they produce any serious results?” he asks. “I remain very skeptical about that. [Christian Science Monitor]

If the administration is looking for sanctions that are undone as easily as they’re done, this won’t work. Our financial power over North Korea is our power to scare away investors and sever its financial lifelines, including those that originate in China. If we try to spare Chinese entities and only target isolated investors like Orascom and various shady bankers here and there, this won’t work. If the administration nips at North Korea’s illicit financing at its fringes, a U.S.-led sanctions program will fail just as U.N. sanctions always have, because North Korea is very nimble at setting up new banks and companies to evade sanctions, and because Chinese entities will adopt a see-no-evil approach to transactions with North Korea unless it’s made clear to them that their own comingled assets are also at risk.

For what it’s worth, Hillary Clinton and Robert Einhorn will both be traveling to China to seek its cooperation. Wish them luck.

But if the administration goes all-in to hit North Korea’s finances hard before its big succession-focused party conference in September, this could be extremely effective, and might even disrupt Kim Jong Il’s plans to purge his and promote the next generation of apparatchiks to preserve his dynasty for another generation.

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China’s North Korean Puppet Is Getting Away With Murder … Again (Updated, Bumped)

[Update 12 Jul 2010: I’ve located the full text of the Presidential Statement, and contrary to reports I linked below, it does use the word “attack.” It takes note of “the findings of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group led by the ROK with the participation of five nations, which concluded that the DPRK was responsible for sinking the Cheonan” before noting North Korea’s denial. But because the statement is completely toothless, none of this was terribly upsetting to the North Koreans, who still characterized what Ambassador Rice called a “very clear and appropriate response” as a “victory.” You wouldn’t ordinarily think both of those statements could be true. This is one of those times when I tend to believe the North Koreans more.]

After weeks of stalling by China, the flaccid U.N. response to a premeditated North Korean attack on a South Korean warship — in flagrant violation of the Korean War Armistice Agreement — is a non-binding “Presidential Statement” that that doesn’t condemn or blame North Korea, doesn’t use the word “attack,” and adds helpfully that North Korea denies everything. And being a “Presidential Statement” — not a resolution — the U.N.’s final response to this act of war doesn’t impose any sanctions or other tangible consequences.

To add insult to injury, the statement thanks the South Korean government for doing nothing about any of it, which I suppose is the inevitable consequence of relying on failed international institutions and dying alliances to guarantee the security of your country.

America’s U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, nonetheless seemed very satisfied with herself, calling the statement a “very clear and an appropriate response” that sends “a unified message that the Security Council condemns the attack of the March 26 that led to the sinking of the Cheonan.” (She had to use the word that the statement couldn’t.) But the clear falsity of Rice’s words mostly underscores the weakness of American diplomacy and the U.N. itself.

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Debunking the 3/26 Conspiracy “Science”

I have not, until now, seen the report of the The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group linked elsewhere, so let’s begin there. You can read the whole thing for yourself, but for your convenience, I’ll reproduce something about the composition of the investigative group itself. Emphasis mine:

The Joint Civilian-military Investigation Group (JIG) conducted its investigation with 25 experts from 10 top Korean expert agencies, 22 military experts, 3 experts recommended by the National Assembly, and 24 foreign experts constituting 4 support teams from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden. The JIG is composed of four teams–Scientific Investigation Team, Explosive Analysis Team, Ship Structure Management Team, and Intelligence Analysis Team.

Here is a summary of its findings. Apologies for the long quote.

The basis of our assessment that the sinking was caused by a torpedo attack is as follows:

* Precise measurement and analysis of the damaged part of the hull indicates that a shockwave and bubble effect caused significant upward bending of the CVK (Center Vertical Keel), compared to its original state, and shell plate was steeply bent, with some parts of the ship fragmented.

* On the main deck, fracture occurred around the large openings used for maintenance of equipment in the gas turbine room and significant upward deformation is present on the port side. Also, the bulkhead of the gas turbine room was significantly damaged and deformed.

* The bottoms of the stern and bow sections at the failure point were bent upward. This also proves that an underwater explosion took place.

Through a thorough investigation of the inside and outside of the ship, we have found evidence of extreme pressure on the fin stabilizer, a mechanism to reduce significant rolling of the ship; water pressure and bubble effects on the bottom of the hull; and wires cut with no traces of heat. All these point to a strong shockwave and bubble effect causing the splitting and the sinking of the ship.

We have analyzed statements by survivors from the incident and a sentry on Baekryong-do.

* The survivors made a statement that they heard a near-simultaneous explosion once or twice, and that water splashed on the face of a port-side lookout who fell from the impact; furthermore,

* a sentry on the shore of Baekryong-do stated that he witnessed an approximately 100-meter-high “pillar of white flash” for 2~3 seconds. The aforementioned phenomenon is consistent with damage resulting from a shockwave and bubble effect.

Regarding the medical examination on the deceased service members, no trace of fragmentation or burn injury were found, but fractures and lacerations were observed. All of these are consistent with damage resulting from a shockwave and bubble effect.

The seismic and infrasound wave analysis result conducted by the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) is as follows:

* Seismic wave intensity of 1.5 degrees was detected by 4 stations.
* 2 infrasound waves with a 1.1-second interval were detected by 11 stations.
* The seismic and infrasound waves originated from an identical site of explosion.
* This phenomenon corresponds to a shock wave and bubble effect generated by an underwater explosion.

Numerous simulations of an underwater explosion show that a detonation with a net explosive weight of 200~300kg occurred at a depth of about 6~9m, approximately 3m left of the center of the gas turbine room.

Based on the analysis of tidal currents off Baekryong-do, the JIG determined that the currents would not prohibit a torpedo attack.

As for conclusive evidence that can corroborate the use of a torpedo, we have collected propulsion parts, including propulsion motor with propellers and a steering section from the site of the sinking.

The evidence matched in size and shape with the specifications on the drawing presented in introductory materials provided to foreign countries by North Korea for export purposes. The marking in Hangul, which reads “1 [Hangul not reproducible] (or No. 1 in English)”, found inside the end of the propulsion section, is consistent with the marking of a previously obtained North Korean torpedo. The above evidence allowed the JIG to confirm that the recovered parts were made in North Korea.

Also, the aforementioned result confirmed that other possible causes for sinking raised, including grounding, fatigue failure, mines, collision and internal explosion, played no part in the incident.

In conclusion, The following sums up the opinions of Korean and foreign experts on the conclusive evidence collected from the incident site; hull deformation; statements of relevant personnel; medical examination of the deceased service members; analysis on seismic and infrasound waves; simulation of underwater explosion; and analysis on currents off Baekryong-do and collected torpedo parts.

* ROKS “Cheonan” was split apart and sunk due to a shockwave and bubble effect produced by an underwater torpedo explosion.

* The explosion occurred approximately 3m left of the center of the gas turbine room, at a depth of about 6~9m.

* The weapon system used is confirmed to be a high explosive torpedo with a net explosive weight of about 250kg, manufactured by North Korea.

Now, pause and breathe deeply, because what I’m about to say is going to shock the bejeezus out of you. There are left-wing Korean professors who are questioning that North Korea sank the Cheonan.

I’ve never really bought the analogy between the Cheonan Incident and the September 11th attacks, but in one sense, the analogy holds up well. In both cases, persons of low emotional intelligence have constructed elaborate arguments to facilitate the belief that their own governments (rather than an external attacker) caused a national tragedy. The conclusion that an external enemy really did carry out a successful attack is hard for some people to accept for a variety of reasons. I suppose for some, the consequent sense of vulnerability and fear may be too much to accept. For more, I suspect that it’s based on simple malice toward their own government, or perhaps even a degree of emotional or ideological identification for its enemies. And because emotional intelligence and academic intelligence are two completely different things, a mind that combines low emotional intelligence and high academic intelligence is only going to construct its justifications more elaborately.

All of this may be a complicated way of saying that I’m completely unsurprised to see left-wing Korean academics say things like this:

Researchers J.J. Suh and Seung-Hun Lee say the South Korean Joint Investigation Group made a weak case when it concluded that North Korea was responsible for sinking the Cheonan.

Speaking in Tokyo Friday, the two said the investigation was riddled with inconsistencies and cast “profound doubt” on the integrity of the investigation. “The only conclusion one can draw on the basis of the evidence is that there was no outside explosion,” Suh said. “The JIG completely failed to produce evidence that backs up its claims that there was an outside explosion.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Reading this, you’d think these two distinguished academics had collaborated in a detailed scientific study or critique of the International Joint Investigation. You would think that these men were highly qualified experts in some relevant field of study, such as naval engineering, metallurgy, or forensic science.

And you would be wrong. Suh, whom the Chosun describes as a “researcher,” is none other than Professor Jae Jung Suh, a Professor of Korea Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. That’s right. Korea studies. And in that field, Suh’s previous analysis includes his early 2009 prediction, via the left-wing Hankyoreh, that relations with North Korea were at “an important turning point” — and I suppose they were! — and that President Obama would soon energetically engage North Korea and build momentum for His Vision of a world without nuclear weapons. As early as this year, Suh, via the left-wing Foreign Policy in Focus of John Feffer infamy, had aligned himself with calls to give North Korea a peace treaty in exchange for denuclearization, an objective that North Korea had by then firmly renounced. In this 2007 piece, edited by Feffer himself, Suh seemed irrationally exuberant over the visit of the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, and used this as a vehicle to oppose the relocation and consolidation of the USFK into larger (and less vulnerable) posts, which Suh worried would advance the Pentagon’s “neoliberal militarism.” Overall, however, the tone of Suh’s writing isn’t (or wasn’t, anyway) particularly acerbic or doctrinaire. What it really exhibited was a sincere but striking naivete about North Korean history, behavior, and intentions, which gave his analysis a dismal predictive value.

Suh, in other words, is no more qualified as an authority on engineering, shipbuilding, or forensics than John Feffer — who has at least conceded North Korea’s probable culpability — or me. Yet even after the two halves of the Cheonan had been raised, Suh suggested that a more likely cause of its loss was a South Korean mine. Suh offers no evidentiary or scientific basis for that speculation, which is nonetheless revealing. His views can be ignored with confidence.

Another of the “scientific” critics of the international investigation, the former naval officer and shipbuilder Shin Sang-Chul, has stated that the Cheonan was rammed by another ship, a conclusion that’s facial nonsense to anyone who has seen the two halves of the destroyed ship.

Lee, who is at least a physicist, is harder to dismiss, and it’s not quite fair of me to leave hanging the implication that he’s “left-wing” when none of his online writing reveals what his political views might be. His CV reveals that he also used to teach at Johns Hopkins, which probably explains how me met Suh. His particular field of specialty, however, is quantum mechanics, and the subject on which he writes really falls within the disciplines of metallurgy and forensic science. Were Lee to be called as an expert witness at trial, a competent lawyer would likely be able to get a court to disqualify him as an expert on the matters on which he opines here.

As to the substance of Lee’s argument, which you can read in greater detail here, the Ministry of Defense has responded in detail, suggesting that Lee bases his conclusions of conditions of temperature and pressure that aren’t anything like what the fragments of the Cheonan torpedo would have experienced. And given that the destruction of the Cheonan was the result of a pressure wave moving through cold water, this is just common sense. But for people who simply don’t want to believe that North Korea sank the Cheonan — even highly intelligent people — that may be too much to ask.

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Is the Obama Administration Ready for Plan B at Last?

Well, finally!

The Obama administration is considering going after the assets of North Korean entities and individuals to punish Pyongyang after the sinking of a South Korean warship, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday. Freezing offshore assets would be the first tangible U.S. action to make North Korea pay a price for the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan corvette in which 46 South Korean sailors died. Pyongyang has denied responsibility for the incident.

While there have been extensive U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang for decades, such a move could influence North Korea because it would hit accounts controlled by military and political leaders whom U.S. officials believe must have authorized the attack.

Speaking on condition that they not be identified, the sources said targeting North Korea’s illicit funds appeared to be one of the few ways the United States can get the attention of the leadership of the impoverished communist state. They also said there is a growing view within in the Obama administration that former President George W. Bush’s 2005 move to blacklist a Macau bank for allegedly laundering North Korean money was ultimately useful in pressuring Pyongyang. [Reuters, Arshad Mohammad]

One minute, you’re an isolated crank shouting at the heavens from the wildness, the next moment, well … you’re an isolated crank whose ideas were several years ahead of their time. And if this administration really has the testicular fortitude to do this, I couldn’t be happier to admit that I was wrong in predicting that it didn’t. But then, we’ve heard leaks like this before, and the measures we’ve applied thus far have fallen far short of their full potential.

“We are facing an imperative to demonstrate once again to North Korea that there is no reward for its provocative behavior, that in fact there is going to be a penalty,” the official said. “We have all the authority that we need to tighten the screws on specific individuals or institutions that support the leadership.”

Perks and luxuries derived from North Korea’s shadowy network of overseas interests are believed to be one of the main tools Pyongyang uses to ensure loyalty among top military and party leaders. The sources said the Treasury had done extensive work to identify targets but if the administration does employ the financial sanctions it would be expected to wait for the U.N. Security Council to first move on against North Korea.

The officials suggest that this new policy direction is largely motivated by a growing consensus that “there is little chance” that the U.N. — sit down for this — “will approve additional sanctions” against North Korea, which is a polite way of saying that China is filibustering and neutering the Security Council’s already dubious utility as an instrument for preserving peace. So we’re going to give the U.N. its opportunity to fail and then proceed, unless this is just a leak designed to get the Chinese to move.

A U.S. Treasury spokesperson said it was not policy to comment on possible investigations or actions. Asked what consequences North Korea had suffered for the Cheonan’s sinking, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to go into details with reporters on Tuesday.

“We continue to look at ways in which we can affect North Korea’s thinking. And it’s not only the institutions, the revenue stream that goes into the government,” he said.

This updated version of the Reuters report offers a few more details:

Crowley said that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell consulted with Japan and South Korea over possible financial sanctions on North Korea when Campbell traveled to the two countries earlier this week. ”We consult closely with allies on these subjects all the time,” he said, suggesting that Washington is likely to work together with Tokyo and Seoul on further sanctions against Pyongyang. He declined to comment on specific measures the government is studying, saying, ”I’m not going to predict any particular step.”

According to U.S. government sources and those familiar with the matter, the U.S. government is preparing to bar financial institutions suspected of involvement in shady deals with North Korea such as transactions of weapons of mass destruction, currency counterfeiting and money laundering.

If this policy shift really takes place, it’s pregnant with two wonderful ironies. The first is would be the restoration — by President Barack Hussein Obama — of American foreign policy to American institutions, steering us back away from a drum-circle foreign policy held hostage by the U.N., which in turn is the hostage of the ChiComs, the Frogs, and sort-of-post-Soviet Russia. The second would be that the sinking of a South Korean warship during the tenure of a weak South Korean General Secretary could be a League of Nations moment for the United Nations, and with any luck, one of enduring consequence for supplanting the U.N. with a coalition of democracies forming a strong economic coalition and a loose military one.

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A Nation in Denial: On South Korea’s Mid-Terms

I’ve taken a good long while to chew on the results of South Korea’s recent election, and while I’m ready to offer some unscientific speculation about what it didn’t mean, I really wish that I had some good, reliable polling numbers to give me a more concrete idea of what motivated people to vote, and what didn’t. With that said, my main interest in the results (below the fold for the winners) is the media consensus that it was rebuke for President Lee’s hard line toward North Korea after the Cheonan Incident, or, as the BBC put it, “a blow for Mr Lee’s tough stance on North Korea, accused of sinking the Cheonan.”


If that’s true, then this was the most consequential election in South Korea, because it was effectively a referendum for surrender to North Korean terror. America cannot defend a people who are able but not willing to defend themselves. Even more fundamentally, there was no hard line, merely the absence of that comfortable denial to which South Koreans have become so accustomed. This is what Roh Moo Hyun duly delivered when North Korea committed outrages during his presidency, but President Lee Myung Bak is made of sterner and smarter stuff than that. Lee asked for and got an international report of investigation, which confirmed my immediate suspicion that North Korea did it. Armed with this result, Lee lobbied for the oxymoron called the “international community” (or United Nations, take your pick) to restore deterrence and preserve peace. The response was a lot of Chinese obstructionism, denial, and callousness; the predictable bupkes from the U.N.; and not much more from the Obama Administration, at least so far. The only consequences North Korea has suffered, aside from the loss of some trade Kim Jong Il was clearly prepared to sacrifice, was that a few North Korean soldiers must now endure the agony of K-pop on loudspeakers and giant TV screens, though to be fair, I’m sure Amnesty International would denounce this as torture if we played it for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

The thing is, I’m not sure that the media have this right. I think they found a simple, easy headline that oversimplifies a slightly different point, which is that Korean voters chose not to fulfill President Lee’s expectation that the Cheonan Incident would propel him to victory at the polls. But there are important differences.

How badly the GNP really did, of course, depends on your expectations. The GNP had expected to win nine of the 16 big races last week. Pre-election polls showed them winning big where they barely won, or barely lost. The GNP obviously thinks it lost; hence the ritualized gesture of the the resignation of its party leader, whom I seem to recall was already a somewhat controversial figure. Of course, up until the Cheonan incident, the GNP was expected to suffer big losses. One analyst said, “Without the Cheonan incident, the opposition party would have won in Seoul as well.” After the incident and President Lee’s initially clumsy but commendably calm handling of it, however, the GNP expected that Korean voters would rally to Lee following a surge of patriotic unity.

It’s safe to say this much: those expectations were misplaced. Here, then, is how I explain this:

1. The people, including many conservatives, don’t like Lee’s megaprojects.

Some politics are local, and that’s especially so when the candidates, after all, are running for mayor and governor, not for President or the National Assembly. The GNP’s losses in central South Korea appear to have had more to do with local issues than international or security issues:

The ruling party was powerless even in North and South Chungcheong provinces and Daejeon, where voters rallied behind the GNP in previous local elections. The GNP’s defeats in those areas clearly reflected the dissatisfaction among Chungcheong residents with the government’s revision of the Sejong city blueprint, which overturned former President Roh Moo-hyun’s plan to create a new administrative capital, creating instead a regional business hub.

Not even conservatives like these grandiose plans. Lee’s intra-party opponent, Park Geun-Hye, opposed the Sejong City plan and sounds tepid on the four rivers project. I understand why. Frankly, both projects sound like money pits and unforced environmental disasters to me. I’m not certain whether this helps explain the loss of the GNP governorship in Incheon which must have hurt.

2. The mid-term effect.

First, here are the partisan voting patterns:

About 48 percent of voters supported candidates from the Democratic Party and two other opposition parties, while 40 percent voted for candidates from Lee’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP), according to the election commission. In midterm elections four years ago, GNP candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote. [WaPo, Blaine Harden]

Note that Democratic Party votes are lumped in here with all other opposition parties. For all we know, a good share of these votes were for the arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party, which actually won the mayoral election in Daejon. This doesn’t tell us all that much.

Mid-term elections tend to draw fewer moderate or “swing” voters. They turn out people who dislike the party that holds most of the power and favor the party in opposition. Swing voters also tend to hold the party in power responsible for whatever isn’t right with the country at the time. We saw this in 2006 and 2008, and we’ll see it again in 2010. In fact, it’s a well established historical trend. Whenever this happens, pundits are fond of calling it a mandate or a referendum, which is often true, but less true than pundits often assume, typically because they (a) favor one party over another, or (b) want the party they favor to behave differently. But an equally important reason why ruling parties lose mid-term elections is that voters loathe a monocracy. They like checks and balances. (Consider this my warning to you not to overestimate the meaning of 2010, other than the fact that voters think the Democrats have too much power and want to trim it back.)

“The public sentiment to check the GNP and keep the balance seemed to have reduced the gap between the ruling and opposition parties,” said Jeong Han-wool, executive director at the East Asia Institute, a Seoul-based research group. “The ship incident seems to have reinforced the existing conservative votes for the ruling party, but was not enough to change the minds of independent and left-leaning voters.” [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]

We saw this same disparity of turnout in the Korean election. “Complacent” supporters of the GNP didn’t turn out in high numbers. More voters — not all of them leftists, I’d guess — responded to opposition calls to keep the GNP’s “monopoly” in check. Said another,

“The opposition DP’s victory in the local elections was a surprise to the market as the last polls had suggested a GNP landslide victory,” said Kwon Young-sun, an analyst at the Japanese investment bank Nomura International. “We interpret this result as Korean voters’ choice for reining in the ruling camp.” [Yonhap]

Leftists, by contrast, twittered off to the polls like disciplined cadres:

Turn-out was at 54.5%, the highest for local polls in 15 years. Large numbers of young people were said to have voted. The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says that perhaps this group, thought to be more liberal in its outlook, chose to register its protest against a conservative president and his tough anti-North Korean stance. [BBC]

Again, some of this is to be expected, but adults on both side of the Pacific ought to be plenty worried about how extreme South Korea’s left really has become.

3. The results weren’t quite as advertised.

By picking up seven seats, the Democratic Party beat expectations, but it’s also important to remember that one of the seats stolen from the GNP was won by Lee Hoi-Chang’s arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party. Two others were won by independent politicians whose affiliations are not yet clear.

4. Anti-Americanism sells better than national security.

Regardless of what drove this election, the lackluster reaction of South Koreans to the murder of 46 of their sailors ought to make Americans much more realistic about how South Koreans see us, and the costly support we lend to their security. In fact, it ought to make them angry. Consider: to this day, the Hankyoreh is still exploiting the deaths of two young South Korean girls killed accidentally by a U.S. Army vehicle in 2002 to stir hate against America. For more than a year after the incident, Americans in Korea were confronted with massive demonstrations, violent attacks on U.S. facilities and military personnel, and ugly displays of anti-American bigotry. It worked; that hatred is what installed Roh Moo Hyun into a misbegotten presidency that even he came top regret, though Roh’s party renewed its lease on power by exploiting it again in 2006 (the Humphreys expansion) and 2008 (the urban myth that was Mad Cow). Whatever can be said of North Korea’s impact on Korean voters, it sure doesn’t sell at the ballot box, or on the streets, like anti-Americanism obviously does.

5. People are in denial.

The sentiment may be easier to understand when you live within range of thousands of artillery tubes and missiles, many of which carry chemical, biological, and thermobaric warheads. My guess is that plenty of South Koreans, for various reasons, are still in denial about the Cheonan Incident. For most of them, I suspect, it’s a passive denial, rooted in their terror of confronting its implications. Denial certainly holds some appeal to these people on an emotional level, though on a rational level, if confronted, they’d mostly concede that North Korea did it. This mostly motivates people to stay home on election day. These are, in a very real sense, the kind of people that terrorism is meant to reach and influence. They may accept the truth of what happened, but they’re scared enough to sell their freedom, one bought peace at a time. How else do you reconcile this election result with pre-election polls that show most Koreans believe North Korea deliberately attacked the Cheonan, or that most South Koreans support sanctions against the North? The most plausible answer is that the poll of potential voters and actual voters are two different things, and polls can’t always measure the complexity of opinion beneath a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

Another guess I’ll advance: These same people probably want Uncle Sam around to make sure it all proceeds gradually enough. Maybe a sense that Uncle Sam won’t always be there will awaken some of them from this denial, but if it doesn’t, there’s nothing Uncle Sam can really do about it. It’s the job of South Korea’s president to lead South Koreans.

6. Stupidity is a persistent thing.

By now, you’re wondering: Is he really saying that everyone who voted for a Democratic Party candidate this year is stupid? Yes, I am. Every last one of them. The DP’s response to the gravest national security crisis in Korean history since 1968 has been a mendacious and unpatriotic blend of conspiracy theories, expedient ankle-biting, and weak-minded counsel against the urgent priority of restoring deterrence. The DP deserved to be punished and marginalized as the lunatic fringe and North Korean puppet it has become, but it wasn’t.

Here, I generally lump the DP with the Korean Left because functionally, I see little difference in their views. The Left’s denial is a different sort from the denial of moderate voters; this is on-the-spot guidance fed to them by their puppetmasters in the Guidance Bureau, and if you think I’ve crossed the line to wacky John Birch Commie conspiracy territory, I’d only ask you to review the evidence of just how extensive North Korea’s network of influence in South Korea really is.

The hard left’s denial isn’t passive, it’s active and strident. This denial, of course, is faith-based, not fact-based. Having concluded either that Kim Jong Il is incapable of such evil or that only President Lee really could be, they defy all of the evidence and cling to an assortment of theories about reefs, the torpedo’s German origin, or (most convenient of all) a joint exercise with the Americans “gone wrong.”

You can’t dismiss this as a vocal lunatic fringe, either. It has the capacity to swing mid-term elections and get millions of people into the streets. And South Korea only just completed a ten-year period when this group held the levers of power in Seoul, propped up Kim Jong Il’s regime with billions in aid, and allowed North Korean spies to run amok in the Blue House, bedding officers for classified documents and cajoling major generals for war plans. But the problem is, ten years from now, the zany lunatic fringe voters will still be voting, and the geriatric conservatives won’t be. This suggests that unless President Lee can bridge this generation gap, demographics will be destiny, and the two Koreas will be in a race toward collapse.

(On a side note, consider: if you were Kim Jong Il and the Reconnaissance Bureau informed you one day that they’d managed to get one of their operatives elected as President of South Korea, what would you do next? Have the new president open the DMZ and let your tanks roll to Yosu? Not a chance. Your emaciated little kingdom has half of South Korea’s population, and surely some parts of the Army would break away and resist. The Americans might intervene. Worst of all, you wouldn’t want your soldiers to get a look at Seoul, would you? Instead, you’d steer your new subordinate toward gradually distancing himself from the Americans, stirring anti-Americanism among southerners, weakening South Korea’s defenses, suppressing criticism of your regime, and keeping you well supplied with cash — no questions asked. All of which sounds a lot like what did happen when Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were in office. I’m just saying.)

What should Lee do about this? One thing he certainly ought not to do is to prosecute people for espousing zany views, which is what some people are calling for now in the case of one such group, called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. I obviously can’t prove they’re working for the North Koreans, but it’s telling that their rhetoric is indistinguishable from North Korea’s. But PSPD is only one of these groups. There’s the Hanchongryon, and Korea’s largest labor organization and teachers’ union both show symptoms of having this virus. Certainly not all of these people are knowingly working for the North Koreans. Lee can’t prosecute all of them, nor should he. But he ought to order his police (investigation hasn’t been their strong suit, traditionally) to investigate and prosecute people for actively working for the North Koreans in South Korea. Rather than giving them long show trials and jail terms, the government ought to expose them and their organizations publicly, brand them with the stigma of criminal convictions, remove them positions of influence in schools and unions, and fine them. And one point where I strongly agree with the conservatives is that the South Korean government ought to investigate who is funding these groups. I emphasize: I speak here only of those who knowingly work under the direction of the North Korean government and its agents.

One good piece of news here is that so far, President Lee is at least trying to explain matters to his people:

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls for a strong response. “If we fail to sternly respond to North Korea’s wrongdoing in cooperation with the international community and build up solid military readiness, a second and third provocation like the Cheonan incident can occur anytime,” he said in a nationally televised speech. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

He has far to go, and there are great obstacles in his way. I wish him luck. His country is worth saving.

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China’s Support for Kim Jong Il Undermines the U.N., Nonproliferation, and Regional Peace

Some of us, of course, have never really believed that the United Nations could play much of a useful role in restraining North Korea anyway, other than helping us enlist the support of Old Europe, which is almost alone in paying any heed to the U.N. After all, the institution is led by Ban Ki-Moon, who rose from local obscurity to international obscurity by appeasing Kim Jong Il, and who, by all outward appearances, suffers from a genetic testosterone deficiency. If Ban isn’t an outright tool of the Chinese, he’s functionally indistinguishable from one. This doesn’t mean the United States lacks options, as conventional wisdom often suggests. As I’ve laid out in great detail, we have yet to unloose Treasury and Justice to go after North Korea’s enablers — Chinese enablers included — and credibly threaten to block their assets under existing anti-money laundering and anti-proliferation authorities. This isn’t to suggest that the alternative is dreaded unilateralism; it just means that the only effective multilateral institutions must be those where China lacks a veto. Two excellent examples include the Financial Action Task Force and the Proliferation Security Initiative, which work because responsible governments everywhere enforce their core principles.

To get to the point of going around the U.N., however, the Obama Administration will first have to grasp the basic truth that China will continue to block all effective action there. In fact, China has been undermining U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years. Worse, it has also helped North Korea to acquire and sell key WMD components and technologies, voting for U.N. resolutions against North Korea while under international pressure, and then undermining those very resolutions. By all accounts, it continues to undermine UNSCR 1874 to this day, with respect to anti-proliferation measures and its luxury goods ban (see here, here, here, and here for just some examples of this).

China’s uninterrupted shielding of Kim Jong Il from post-Cheonan consequences has angered the South Korean government, and may also have shifted the thinking of a critical mass of American opinion about China’s intentions. Here’s SecDef Robert “Not Going to Buy the Same Horse Twice” Gates, speaking at an international security forum in Singapore:

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged China to deal realistically with the short-term question of how to respond to an antagonistic North Korea and the longer-term issue of whether Beijing’s expanding military can establish more durable ties with the U.S. Asian nations cannot stand by in the face of North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, Gates said during an international security summit Saturday that was dominated by questions about the North.

“To do nothing would set the wrong precedent,” Gates said. [AP, Anne Gearan]

Meanwhile, China shows signs of further expanding its trade with North Korea, effectively undermining the economic pressure mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Yes, I suspect that China is mildly embarrassed by North Korea’s behavior, but it’s still not prepared to impose any consequences on the North for the most brazen act of war since the Korean War Blue House Raid Rangoon Bombing KAL Bombing. It gets worse:

Over the last several years, China has given North Korean government officials jewels and precious stones worth $4 million, perfume and cosmetics worth $4.7 million, furs valued at $3.8 million as well alcohol and tobacco products worth $44 million, all in direct violation of a 2006 United Nations Security Council sanction China voted to approve.

The world is trying to determine how to punish North Korea for sinking a South Korean warship last month, killing 46 sailors. But all will be for naught as long as China continues serving as North Korea’s enabler. Along with those luxury goods, China also provides nearly all of North Korea’s fuel and more food than anyone else — $2 billion in declared aid each year and far more provided under the table.

There comes a point at which soft diplomacy isn’t smart diplomacy; it’s just plain dangerous to let believe believe that there’s no deterrent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent much of the last 10 days urging China to condemn the naval attack. China is resisting. But that’s a hollow exercise. China did criticize North Korea after its first nuclear-weapons test, in 2006. What did that accomplish? China shipped 20 percent more caviar to Kim Jong-il the next year, and North Korea tested another nuclear weapon in 2009. [….]

We can legitimately ask why China holds up a regime that allows its economy to remain in such “dire straits” that “a considerable share of the population is on the edge of starvation,” as a Congressional Research Service report puts it. Meantime, China feeds the political and military elite cigarettes, jewels, perfume and yachts.

Government and NGO reports from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan detail China’s luxury-good exports and show they actually increased by 40 percent in the year after the first nuclear-weapon test. The Congressional report says most of the luxury items “come into North Korea largely cost-free.” If anyone is to blame for North Korea’s renegade behavior, and the misery of its people, it is China.

UNICEF reports almost half of North Korea’s children are so malnourished they grow up stunted, both physically and mentally. The problem is irreversible and so prevalent the military had to lower its height requirement for new troops, to meet its recruiting goals. The average height for a 17-year-old boy now is 5 feet.

During the 1990s, as many as 2 million people starved to death. [McClatchey, Joel Brinkley]

John Feffer and Christine Ahn were not available for comment. Fortunately, Gates is showing signs that he gets this.

Washington is “assessing additional options to hold North Korea accountable,” apart from the UN Security Council route and planned military exercises with South Korea, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore. He did not specify what the new measures might be but, in an apparent message to China, warned of the risks of inaction after North Korea’s alleged torpedo attack on the ship in March which killed 46 South Korean sailors. [….]

Gates said the sinking, which an international investigation blamed on Pyongyang, was not an isolated incident but “part of a larger pattern of provocative and reckless behaviour” by the North. The Pentagon chief, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security, called on countries in the region to respond to North Korea’s “dangerous provocations”. “Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia,” he said.

His remarks appeared aimed at China, an ally of North Korea that was slow to react to the incident and has yet to accuse Pyongyang of sinking the Cheonan. Gates pledged “full support” to South Korea at a “difficult hour” but avoided talk of any US or allied military response. [AFP]

Meanwhile, South Korea is now hinting that it may seek a toothless “Security Council letter” instead of a Security Council resolution. Whether that has to do with China’s obstruction, domestic politics, or both isn’t clear. Cue the video!

The effect will be to further weaken an already weak South Korean response, unless South Korea and the United States have in mind other ways to attack Kim Jong Il’s palace economy and undermine his internal political control.

What this means is that North Korea and China have effectively transformed the U.N. into an obstacle to the preservation and peace and the prevention of proliferation. That means that if we mean to accomplish those objectives, there’s no time to lose in going around the United Nations in the pursuit of effective action. And it would be one of history’s wonderful ironies if Nobel Laureate Barack Obama proves himself to be the man who finally has the backbone to do it.

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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.

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Plan B Watch

I really, really like the way the South Korean Foreign Minister is talking lately, and I hope he also expresses the sentiments of U.S. officials with whom he’s spoken:

Strangling the flow of cash to North Korea is the most effective non-military way to hold the Stalinist country accountable for the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said Tuesday.

“The U.S. is keeping a close eye on North Korea’s trafficking of counterfeit banknotes, drugs and tobacco while strictly applying existing sanctions on the North,” Yu told the Chosun Ilbo. He said the U.S. has a web of mechanisms to thwart North Korea’s trade, financial transactions and weapons exports but has not yet been running them to full capacity. Now, however, it will gradually step up action.

The U.S. has monitored North Korea’s illicit activities including the forgery of banknotes but has held off from punitive measures so far. “It’s quite possible to punish North Korea effectively through individual actions taken by South Korea’s allies such as the U.S., Japan and the EU even if the UN Security Council won’t impose additional sanctions on North Korea,” Yu said.

Strangling off the cash flow would be effective, he said, because the North “has to import parts to develop weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons, so restricting the cash flow will make that more difficult and discourage North Korea from pursuing provocations.”

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1 June 2010

How many years have I been saying this?

CHINA HAS BEEN treating its neighbors, and the world, to a demonstration of why its rising power is not necessarily to be welcomed. Though it has become undeniable that its neighbor and client, North Korea, committed an act of war by sinking a South Korean warship in March, Beijing continues to shield the loathsome regime of Kim Jong Il. [Washington Post Editorial]


I wonder how many regimes’ archives will have to be opened before Bruce Cumings has the shame to retire, once and for all. Cumings has been led into so many grievous, unforced errors by his sympathy for the North Korean political system that I would respectfully disagree that he can still be called a “leading” scholar with respect to Korea.


Reading this New York Times story, you’d think South Korea has as great a need to send money to North Korea as North Korea has a need for the South’s money. What this really looks like is push journalism, the message of which is that Sunshine, failed and discredited as it may be, is the only alternative South Korea has.


If you get one of these propaganda faxes or e-mails from North Korea, by all means tell me the number or address it came from. I know someone who’d like to know.

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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.

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