Archive for China & Korea

Kim Jong Un seeks friends and funds abroad as he isolates his people.

In the three years that he has been in power, His Porcine Majesty has found plenty of time for Dennis Rodman, but none for meetings with foreign leaders. Suddenly, in the last two months, he has flirted with (1) a summit with South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye, (2) inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pyongyang, (3) and a visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May. His central bank even “committed itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (I’m sure Pyongyang will find some way to reconcile this with its arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas.)

If you believe that talks with North Korea are immediately capable of solving anything, or that they are an end in themselves, you may be pleased that Kim Jong Un has developed this urgent interest in diplomacy. What accounts for this belated quinceañera, assuming that any of these meetings comes to pass? Only Kim Jong Un knows, but I doubt it has anything to do with a yearning for more intelligent companionship. There’s almost certainly a financial motive, if not more than one.

One motive may be a growing threat of sanctions. Kim’s charm offensive began just after December 19th, when FBI and President Obama announced that North Korea had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened audiences for “The Interview.” Almost immediately, Congress called for stronger sanctions, and centrist figures in the foreign policy establishment, including Richard Haass and Winston Lord, began calling for regime change. President Obama himself suggested that the collapse of North Korea’s system was inevitable, although he didn’t declare an intent to catalyze that result.

On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13687, authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) authorizing secondary sanctions against the Chinese, and other entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating, but in its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Pyongyang’s charm offensives always seem to come just as the political will waxes to enforce sanctions against it. The charm offensives play on the individual interest of each interlocutor — Park Geun Hye’s domestic unpopularity, Shinzo Abe’s desire to bring abductees home, Putin’s search for ways to f**k with Obama — to disrupt any coordination among them. It works because we’re dumb enough to let it. And once sanctions enforcement wanes, so will Kim Jong Un’s interest in diplomacy.

One thing is clear enough: a credible threat of sanctions certainly hasn’t done any harm to prospects for diplomacy with North Korea. I could also say, with equal conviction, that they haven’t harmed John Hinckley’s odds of marrying Jodie Foster.

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Another possible explanation is a series of reports suggesting that North Korea’s trade relations with China are declining. For one thing, fewer North Koreans are traveling there:

Overall figures for North Korean residents entering China annually totaled between 100,000-120,000 until 2010 before jumping to 150,000 in 2011. A steady period of continual increase in visitors followed until 2013, when the number of North Koreans traveling to China reached an all-time high of 200,000, roughly half of whom noted their reason for making the trip as “looking for work.” Aside from finding employment, 34,000 went to conduct business or attend a conference, and 1,500 went purely to travel. This represents a 60% and 50% respective reduction when compared to last year’s figures. Visits to friends and relatives dropped to 1,100–one-third of those making the trip for the same reason in 2013.

Male visitors [150,000] composed five times total amount of females [30,000] visiting China from North Korea. Most North Koreans [77,000] traveled by boat for the trip. [Daily NK]

North Korean agents who do travel to China are also having more difficulty doing business there. There’s no evidence this has anything to do with sanctions. It appears to be because of a combination of a sagging Chinese economy and the lingering effects of the Jang Song-Thaek purge. After that purge, I posted here that the regime had called home large numbers of its China-based money men, presumably men who were loyal to Jang or thought to be, and that the money men had stayed away in droves. Subsequently, I posted about another reported defection of a senior financier in Russia. That trend continues:

A source in a northeastern Chinese city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 30 percent of the North Korean businessmen have returned to China after being summoned.The summonses are also believed to be part of efforts by North Korea to redistribute the “rights of doing businesses with China,” a key source of earning hard currency, to its ruling elite, the source said.”The replacement of businessmen loyal to Jang Song-thaek has been gradually carried out and a lot of North Korean businessmen were summoned until late last year,” the source said. “Of those being summoned, only about 30 percent returned to China.”There are no official data on how many North Korean businessmen are working in the Chinese border cities.A second source in another Chinese border city with North Korea said that about 170 North Korean businessmen in the city were replaced over the past year.With Chinese investor confidence eroding over the North’s unpredictable behavior, the new North Korean businessmen come under further pressure in building business connections with their Chinese counterparts, the second source said. [Yonhap, via the Korea Herald]

Not only is the sagging Chinese economy hurting Bureau 39, but according to the report, “Chinese investor confidence” is also “eroding.” One reason may be the arbitrary behavior of North Korean officials, including their inclination toward unilateral price increases and demands for bribes and prostitutes. I can’t speak to the latter concern, but the former concern can’t have improved since Kim Jong Un had Jang shot for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is consistent with evidence of a sudden onset of distress in North Korea’s mining industry, although I can’t say whether poor investor relations are a cause of the problems or a consequence of them.

The report cites Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) figures, according to which, “North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014,” from $6.54 to $6.39 billion, “marking the first decline since 2009.” These figures are sourced to Chinese government statistics, which is one reason to distrust them. For example, we read a lot of reporting last year that China had cut off North Korea’s crude oil supply, only to find that China had merely reclassified its trade as aid, or supplied Pyongyang with refined petroleum products (such as jet fuel) instead.

The report also claims that “North Korea’s exports of coal to China slipped 17.6 percent from a year ago to $1.13 billion, marking the first drop in 8 years.” I see more extrinsic evidence that that report is accurate.

And there are other signs of trouble: it would be a snub for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia before he visits China, and it was a snub for the leaders of China and South Korea to meet before the leaders of China and North Korea met. China didn’t send a representative to Kim Jong Il’s latest birthday party, either. This doesn’t yet mean that China has broken with North Korea. It certainly doesn’t mean that China wants to destabilize North Korea. It bears watching, however.

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In other ways, Pyongyang is intensifying its isolationism. The ones that have attracted the most media attention are its bans on foreigners entering North Korea for a marathon and its creepy Arirang Festival. (By contrast, it recently granted permission for this “peace” march by a group of left-wing activists, led by Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem). The dubious pretext for Pyongyang’s isolationism is that it is a precautionary quarantine against Ebola. This has inconvenienced two groups of useful idiots — the North Korea tour companies and the slummers who use them. I don’t see the down side to that. In the long run, it will mean fewer hostages for Pyongyang, and less hard currency for its bank accounts.

Why would Pyongyang shut down this lucrative, low-risk traffic in people with more money than sense or soul? No one knows but Pyongyang. Maybe it really is terrified of Ebola, yet confident that Gloria Steinem isn’t a carrier. Then again, maybe it’s terrified of a contagion of another kind.

For years, the pro-“engagement” argument for tourism in North Korea has been that there is something transformational, even dangerously subversive, about it that minders, deceptions, and other controls can’t contain. (Somehow, I doubt that Koryo Tours and Young Pioneers make the same argument to their contacts in Pyongyang.) I’ve usually been dismissive of this argument, although I’d be genuinely interested in hearing any evidence that Pyongyang thinks it has anything to fear from this kind of tourism. Even if that argument had any merit, Pyongyang knows how to deal with foreign subversive influences. Maybe it just did.

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Kim Jong Un has been isolating low-caste North Koreans since the very beginning of his reign. His regime continues to do that by terrorizing traders, cracking down on cell phones, and blocking the flight of desperate people:

“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”

The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody. [Daily NK]

Human Rights Watch has documented the border crackdown in a new report, which you can read here.

“North Korean authorities are using brutal punishments to shut the door on people fleeing the country, and cracking down on those who share information with the outside world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director. “Kim Jong-Un is trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there.”

The North Korean leadership has made clear the country must redouble its efforts to remain shut to the outside world.

“We must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory,” said Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, during a speech at the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Worker’s Party on February 25, 2014. “We also have to be active to block the imperialists’ plots for ideological and cultural invasion.” The “mosquito net” system Kim referred to was developed in the North to attract the inflow of foreign investment while blocking the infiltrations of foreign ideas, news, and culture. [….]

According to the escapees, the North Korean government has also been actively tracking down unauthorized phone calls from cell-phones operating on Chinese service provider networks being used by people in the North Korean border areas to call to China or South Korea. “The phones have no signal in the cities anymore and I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up,” said Kim. “I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two.” Park said she used to get calls from North Korea at all times of the day and talk for long periods, but now the number of calls she receives has shrunk by approximately 60 percent since 2012.

“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” said Robertson. “Talking on an overseas phone call, or watching a foreign television show should not be considered crimes, but the government is tightening control through repression and fear.”

More here and here. One backlash of this increased border control is a rise in cross-border violence, and more tension with China. North Korea’s border guards had come to rely on the bribes and extortion they taxed from this localized, illicit cross-border trade. With the loss of that income, the underpaid guards have turned to violent crime, and like all criminals, they go where the money is. China has since raised militias to patrol the border regions, and North Korea has purged an official of the Supreme Guard Command as punishment for the violence. There were also purges at the local level.

There is a very important point here, one that makes Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic outreach completely consistent with his isolationism: it costs money to pay border guards, buy cell phone trackers, and isolate the people you consider “wavering” or “hostile.” North Korea earns that money by extracting aid from foreign sources, and through its officially sanctioned trade relationships. Here is another way that sanctioning the regime can actually open North Korea to outside trade and influence.

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These reports paint a picture of a regime that is struggling to maintain its financial links to the outside world, while severing the economic, social, and cultural links between its people and the outside world. If a less isolated, less hungry, less brutal, and less provocative North Korea is in our interests, then our obvious policy response is to undermine both aspects of that policy — to facilitate illicit cross-border flows of information, people, money, and goods, while cutting Pyongyang’s hard currency flows.

The first part of this strategy is the more difficult one. Some of it can be done through broadcasting, some requires creative technological thinking, and some will require clandestine operations.

The second part is about sanctions enforcement, which requires financial intelligence, legal tools, effective diplomacy, and political will.

The reports of defections by North Korean financiers suggest a potential windfall of financial intelligence. Each of these men, and each of their laptops, represents a potential Rosetta Stone. I certainly hope some of them have found safety in the care of U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents. I’ll also express my hope that The Guardian and Al-Jazeera will refrain from getting them — and their entire families — killed, by printing their names.

The Obama Administration will also have to find the political will to dissuade South Korea and Japan from subsidizing Pyongyang and loosening their own sanctions. It will have to find the political will to threaten secondary sanctions against the Chinese and Russian interests that prop Pyongyang up. Lacking this, the administration’s policy will continue to fail. My guesses are (respectively) that it won’t, it won’t, and so it will. North Korea’s hostage-taking, threats, and inducements will recoup more modest financial benefits for the regime. That’s about all Pyongyang needs to undermine the effect of U.N. sanctions, and to sustain its provocative and repressive ways.

N. Korea: We didn’t hack Sony, but we’re glad someone did

As suspicions grow that North Korea was indeed responsible for the Sony hack, North Korea offers that oddly unconvincing denial. If the North Koreans really did do it, some commenters think the U.S. will have to respond:

Aitel says the hacks are potentially “a ‘near red-line moment'” because they represent the kind of incident that would almost require a US policy response assuming a rival state was behind it. As Aitel says, “This is the first demonstration of what the military would call Destructive Computer Network Attack (CNA) against a US Corporation on US soil … a broad escalation in cyberwarfare tactics” that would demand some kind of American response. [Business Insider]

Personally, I’d have thought that the 2009 incident when North Korea (or its sympathizers) was suspected of hacking “27 American and South Korean government agencies and commercial Web sites” would have crossed a red line. I’d be interested in knowing what evidence linked those attacks to North Korea, but targets of cyberattacks often avoid publicizing the fact that they were attacked.

Mandiant’s extensive report on China’s state-sponsored hacking was an exception to that rule. Maybe Mandiant should write a second report on North Korea, and especially about what support the North Korean hackers receive from China.

Sony Pictures should go after North Korean hackers’ Chinese enablers

Since the weekend, several of you have e-mailed me about “suspicions” — and really, I don’t think they went further than that — that North Korea may have hacked Sony Pictures and leaked unreleased movies to file sharers to punish it for “The Interview.” Those rumors were covered by many outlets, but frankly, the open-source evidence for North Korea’s complicity was little more than speculation, at least until I read this today:

Hackers who knocked Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems offline last week used tools very similar to those used last year to attack South Korean television stations and ATMs, people briefed on the investigation said.

The similarity would reinforce a hunch among some investigators, which include Sony, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a team from Silicon Valley security company FireEye Inc., that North Korea played a role in the breach at the film and television studio, one of the largest in the U.S. South Korea publicly blamed the 2013 attacks on North Korea. [….]

Sony Pictures is set to release this month “The Interview,” a comedy in which U.S. spies enlist a television host played by James Franco and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In June, a spokesman for the Pyongyang government said distribution of the movie would be “the most undisguised terrorism and a war action” and threatened a “strong and merciless countermeasure” if the U.S. government “patronizes the film.” [Wall Street Journal]

It’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it’s something. Interestingly, “The Interview” wasn’t one of the Sony films the hackers leaked — not yet, anyway. For now, Sony Pictures continues to deny that it has direct knowledge of North Korea’s involvement. As I noted here, Sony was previously reported to have made changes to the script to appease the North Koreans. So much for appeasing North Korea, although South Korea seems congenitally incapable of learning that:

“The Interview,” a North Korea-themed satire starring actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, won’t be released in South Korea, a Seoul-based official for Sony Pictures Entertainment said. [….]

South Korean media reports cite a Sony Pictures Korea official as saying the distributor never had plans to release the film due to concerns about inter-Korean relations. A Sony Pictures official declined to comment on the reasons behind the decision not to show the film in South Korea. [WSJ Korea Real Time, Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Cowards. Kwaak’s post notes that South Korean state censors prevented “Team America” from being screened in South Korea, but doesn’t link the suppression of “The Interview” to government censorship. One possibility is that the ROK government asked Sony very politely. Another is that Sony anticipated that the usual gang of pro-North Korean thugs and thought police would try to disrupt screenings.

And what recourse does Sony have against the hackers, assuming it can prove that North Korea was responsible? Hacking is a federal felony, and an attack on a U.S.-based computer system would arguably give the feds subject-matter jurisdiction. If the Justice Department prosecutes, it probably wouldn’t find any live bodies to stick in the dock, but because hacking is a predicate offense for money laundering, DOJ would still be able to forfeit assets of anyone the court convicted. Not that that would do Sony much good.

Sony might be able to sue North Korea by taking advantage of several exceptions to North Korea’s sovereign immunity under 28 U.S.C. 1605(a). Collecting the judgements, of course, would be another matter entirely. Just ask any of the lawyers who won these judgments.

More interesting, however, are suspicions that the hackers may have been operating out of China, which isn’t a novel theory. That almost certainly couldn’t happen without the knowledge of the Chinese government and other Chinese entities, perhaps including entities with assets that could be reached by U.S. courts.

This suggests that a more fruitful legal strategy may be for the feds to prosecute, and for parties like Sony to sue, the Chinese enablers. There are even indications that our government might have the political will do to that. The new Congress could also require the Director of National Intelligence to report on China’s sponsorship of North Korean hacking. Unclassified portions of that report might provide useful evidence for Sony’s case.

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Update: One reason Sony Pictures might not go after the hackers’ Chinese enablers is that Hollywood has been too preoccupied welcoming its new Chinese overlords and sucking up to its new censors. I thought it was bad enough when Sony Pictures bent over for Japan’s censorship; wait till you see what stultifying delights the Chinese have in store for us.

And the unlikely hero of this alarming and underreported controversy? Oliver Stone, himself a suspected disseminator of KGB propaganda, naturally. So I guess the wounds from the Stalin-Mao rift are still raw in some quarters. Hat tip to a reader.

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Update 2: According to this report by U.S. Army Major Steve Sin, a defector reported that as of 2004, members of a North Korean military hacker unit called Unit 121 conducted “some of its operations from a North Korean government-operated hotel called Chilbosan in Shenyang, China.” Business Insider sent a reporter there (Update: or, horked the pictures online; see comments) to see what the hotel looks like today.

China’s bridge to nowhere?

The AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief reports that as China completes a $350 million bridge across the Yalu River from Dandong to Sinuiju, and weeks after its announced opening date, the North Korean side is largely an unfinished abutment.

Now, it is beginning to look like Beijing has built a bridge to nowhere.

An Associated Press Television News crew in September saw nothing but a dirt ramp at the North Korean end of the bridge, surrounded by open fields. No immigration or customs buildings could be seen. Roads to the bridge had not been completed.

The much-awaited opening of the new bridge over the Yalu River came and passed on Oct. 30 with no sign the link would be ready for business anytime soon. That prompted an unusually sharp report in the Global Times — a newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party — quoting residents in the Chinese city of Dandong expressing anger over delays in what they had hoped would be an economic boom for their border city.

The report suggested the opening of the mammoth, 3-kilometer bridge has been postponed “indefinitely.” Beijing and Pyongyang have made no official comment. [….]

The bridge — which, from the start, appears to have been of more interest to China than to North Korea — is intended to provide a new connection between Dandong and the special economic development zone in North Korea’s Sinuiju. More broadly, China wants to develop inroads with North Korea that will allow its landlocked northeastern provinces access to North Korean ports so its goods can be exported or shipped down the Chinese coastline more cheaply. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

It’s an interesting enough report, but so soon after one of Talmadge’s colleagues felt the need to discredit “defectors” and guerrilla media, I can’t help noting that the first report I saw that North Korea wasn’t completing its side of the bridge was in The Daily NK, back in July:

“The Chosun side took on the job of constructing the roads, but they are making painfully slow work of it. Because the roads are still not finished, people are wondering whether their initial aim of increasing trade volumes is on its way down the drain,” a source close to the project told Daily NK on the 1st.

“China provided a lot of materials and machinery to the North, but there is a story that this machinery was sent for use on other projects rather than for the bridge construction. The Chinese traders who did harbor high hopes for [economic] opening brought on by the bridge are showing their disappointment more and more,” the source explained. [….]

This declining enthusiasm is tangible in the property market in Langtou, the region of Dandong that ought to benefit the most from bilateral economic activity across the new bridge. “Apartment prices remain where they were three years ago, at roughly 4000 Yuan per pyeong,” explained the source. Pyeong is a Korean unit of measuring area, and amounts to 3.305785m². [….]

In addition to problems with the bridge, Daily NK established in May that almost no progress has been made on the development of two Special Economic Zones in the Sinuiju area (see linked article).

Then, last month, China’s Global Times further corroborated the story:

In the story headlined, “Opening Day of New China-North Korea Yalu River Bridge Indefinitely Delayed,” the Global Times newspaper reported that the bridge had been “fully completed and put into use on Oct. 30. However, it all becomes uncertain.”

Zhang Hui, chairman of a Chinese construction company behind the bridge, told the newspaper that, “Due to various reasons, construction was delayed for nearly a year.”

It was unclear whether Zhang’s comments indicated that the opening of the bridge has been delayed by one year. [via Yonhap]

In my experience, the most frequent propagators of apocryphal stories about North Korea aren’t guerrilla journalists, but the lower reaches of the British media ecosystem and “established” South Korean papers that cite anonymous sources.

As for the bridge itself, I wouldn’t be too quick to write it off as a failure just yet. China’s real purpose for it may have more to do with contingency planning and future colonial administration than trade.

bridge

[Times of London]

North Korea’s failure to prioritize the project is curious. Maybe, in due course, it will get around to building those road links and customs checkpoints. Even if North Korea regulates the traffic across the bridge strictly and meters it down to a trickle, having this infrastructure available for the use of controlled and preferred trade would seem to serve the interests of the state capitalists in Pyongyang. Still, I can see why Kim Jong Un might think he’s already dependent enough on trade with China, and why he might see the rapid expansion of trade as risky:

“[China]’s not even shepherding anymore. It’s more of just inundating North Korea with all of these influences from the Chinese side where the idea is to essentially corrupt them, show them what it tastes like to make money,” said John Park, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Kennedy School. [Reuters, Apr. 2013]

For whatever reason, this bridge isn’t Kim Jong Un’s highest priority right now, and Kim Jong Un’s highest priorities get done with Masikryeong speed. Time will tell whether he’s actively resisting or delaying it, and how long it will sit unused, like the Ryugyong Hotel. That would be a potent symbol indeed of the failure of the premises behind the Sunshine Policy.

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Update: More here, at NK News.

NIS: China oil-cutoff story was bogus

China is secretly providing North Korea with oil, with shipments over the border either intentionally omitted from its export statistics or broadly identified as aid, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

Customs data released by Beijing indicates that no crude oil went over the border to North Korea in the first nine months of the year, although analysts in Seoul say that such a drastic halt in imports would have played havoc with the North’s industrial capability and its military forces.

Instead, analysts point out, industry appears to operating as usual and the military has to be unaffected by any shortages of fuel.

“Without China providing crude oil, the operation of many of North Korea’s industrial facilities and vehicles would have been suspended,” intelligence sources told Yonhap news agency. “But there have been no such indications as yet.” [The Telegraph, Julian Ryall]

Isn’t that what I’ve been saying for months? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to see an oil embargo enforced against North Korea, except with respect to some very specific refined petroleum products that didn’t also have agricultural uses.

China arrests 11 more N. Korean refugees

Eleven North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese police while seeking to cross the border with Myanmar, a source said Friday.

Local police rounded up the defectors — 10 adults and a seven-year-old child — at around 3-4 a.m. on the day, shortly before they were to head towards the border in the southern region of Yunnan Province, according to the source.

They were immediately put in custody in a police station there, added the source.

A South Korean foreign ministry official said the government is still trying to determine the exact details of the situation. [Yonhap]

For China to do this, even as the U.N. debates action on a Commission of Inquiry report that called on China to grant asylum to North Korean refugees and stop repatriating them, tells you all you need to know about China’s contempt for human rights, and how it will vote in the Security Council.

Perhaps it’s time to start talking about alternatives like a special tribunal, and actions to block the assets of Chinese officials and agencies responsible for these repatriations. If no one talks about alternatives like these, it’s a sure bet that China will feel safe to veto any U.N. action with impunity.

Kirby presses China to support ICC referral of North Korea

Western diplomats say China, North Korea’s principal protector on the UN Security Council, will likely use its veto power there to knock down any attempt to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But Michael Kirby, a former Australian judge who led the independent UN inquiry into alleged human rights abuses in North Korea, told reporters at UN headquarters that it was by no means certain if Beijing would block an ICC referral. “I don’t think a veto should be assumed,” Kirby said. “China is a very great pal with great responsibilities as a permanent member. Veto is not the way China does international diplomacy. China tends to find another way.” [Joongang Ilbo, via Reuters]

I suspect that the Korean reporter mistook Kirby’s Australian pronunciation of “power” for “pal.” If not, the word “pal” must have some completely different meaning in the Australian vernacular. Because China is nobody’s pal.

China will never agree, of course, but I hope Justice Kirby keeps bringing the subject up every time a microphone or a camera finds him. On this subject—and plenty of others—China deserves all the infamy its gets, and exposing its unreasonable positions raises the cost of its support for Kim Jong Un and his crimes against humanity. It will also help persuade other nations to seek out and join in alternative, multilateral strategies for sanctioning North Korea.

30% fewer N. Korean companies exhibiting at trade fair in Dandong

Yonhap attributes this to chillier relations between China and North Korea. That may be, and it may also be that the network of North Korean vendors uprooted by Jang Song Thaek’s purge hasn’t fully recovered. A third possible explanation is that China may prefer to avoid repeating the embarrassment of another revelation by the U.N. Panel of Experts that it was allowing North Korean companies involved in proliferation to exhibit openly at another trade fair last year. The knowledge that there are gweilos with cameras about may have changed their perspective.

Also from Dandong, CNN reports that there are still smugglers operating there, but that it has also become a nest of North Korean regime spies.

Chinese behave badly in South Korea, and it doesn’t end well for them (updated).

It looks like the South Koreans may have learned something from their northern cousins about how you deal with illegal fishing by the Chinese. For years, Chinese fishermen have entered South Korean waters illegally and violently resisted arrest by the South Korean Coast Guard. In 2011, a Chinese fishermen stabbed and killed a ROK coastie who was trying to board his vessel.

This week, ten the Coast Guardsmen boarded a Chinese boat fishing illegally in Korean waters, and this happened:

“At 8:07 a.m., the officers gained control of the ship and began moving into a safer zone. At 8:11 a.m., the ship had to stop due to an internal malfunction. Taking advantage of the stop, four Chinese vessels nearby flanked the ship on the left and right, with two ships on each side. Chinese fishermen from the four vessels then began exercising violence against the officers,” said Choi Chang-sam, head of the Mokpo Coast Guard during a press briefing yesterday.

In explaining as to what led to the use of deadly force, Choi said the Chinese threatened the officers with knives and beer bottles and tried to choke the officers. The officers fired three warning blanks before they shot eight times to subdue the attackers. The Coast Guard said the deceased fisherman was the captain of one of the three vessels that came to rescue the seized fishing ship from the Koreans. [Joongang Ilbo]

The captain was hit in the abdomen, so the Coast Guard called a helicopter and flew him to a hospital in Mokpo, but unfortunately for the captain and his family, he didn’t make it. Five South Korean coasties were also injured in the brawl and were treated in the same hospital.

chinese boats, via AFP getty images and The Guardian

[AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian]

A Chinese government mouthpiece called for an investigation, denounced the coasties’ “violent execution of laws,” and “demanded stern punishment for those responsible,” which is the natural reaction of a government so justly esteemed for the tender mercy of its own law enforcement. Anyway, here’s the ChiCom side of the story, via China Central Television:

No word on what plans the Chinese government has to keep its fisherman out of Korean waters or warn them about the perils of resisting arrest in the savage police state known as South Korea, but maybe this incident will help get the point across — never get between a Korean and his haemul-ttang.

According to The Joongang Ilbo, the incident happened somewhere 89 nautical miles west of the tiny islet of Wangdeung, the home of a radio mast and no human habitation, but just a few miles east of the populated island of Anma-do. The vertical yellow line on this map is 89 nautical miles west of there, and as you can see, it’s closer to Korea than China.

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Ordinarily, a country’s exclusive economic zone — which includes fishing rights — extends for 200 nautical miles from its coast line, but the Yellow Sea isn’t wide enough for that, and the two countries’ EEZ claims overlap, most notably around the reef known as Ieodo. Unfortunately for Korea, China has an expansive unilateral interpretation of its own EEZ.

Even so, one thing you don’t hear the Chinese saying is that the waters were theirs, or disputed. Nor do they deny that the Chinese boat was fishing illegally, other than to call the incident the result of “an alleged crackdown on illegal fishing.” (Note to CCTV: I think we can stipulate to the existence of a crackdown.)

The Chinese also called for “harsh punishment” of the coasties, despite their acknowledgement of the need for an investigation, and despite the fact that all of the available evidence tells us that the coasties were defending themselves against violent and orchestrated resistance to a lawful arrest.

Speaking of things Chinese people wouldn’t dare do in China, Korea has just deported a Chinese student for violating the National Security law:

According to South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, the student came to South Korea from Guangdong Province in late 2012 to learn Korean. During his stay he posted messages on Facebook that slammed South Korea and lauded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the report.

Praising the North is a crime in the South under the National Security Law, which bars “anti-government” activities.

The student’s postings, written in Korean and Chinese, continued until his deportation, and mostly contained messages that solely represented Pyongyang’s position on issues, the Chosun report said, citing an unnamed ministry official. [Jeyup Kwaak, Korea Real Time]

Oddly enough, the Chinese captain and the Chinese student both had the same surname — “Song.”

As much as I dislike the idea of using any kind of legal sanction against non-violent speech, I’m ambivalent about this, because governments should have the right, within reason, to exclude or deport non-citizens who advocate for ideologies that necessarily involve the overthrow of the host nation’s government. Lest you ask, “What’s the harm?,” just look at the consequence of Europe not doing that, or recall the 2008 Olympic Torch Riots in Seoul, which may or may not have been organized by the Chinese government. For that matter, the ChiComs aren’t known for their tolerance of actual journalists who propagate “incorrect” views in China.

Unlike Korean citizens, Chinese don’t have a right to free speech under the ROK Constitution — much less their own. If you don’t see China protesting this incident, it may be because (a) China would rather not admit that Song was doing their bidding, or (b) if Song wasn’t doing their bidding, China would rather not let Korea become for politically repressed Chinese youth what Tijuana is for sexually repressed American youth. If Mr. Song wants the right to speak freely, then by all means, let him gather some friends, take to the streets of Beijing, and demand it.

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Update: China demands the release of three arrested fishermen. How about in five to ten, with good behavior, plus regular conjugal visits?

More criticism of North Korea appears in the Chinese press

It will take more than this and this to convince me that China has tipped away from its support for North Korea, but a growing movement to take on North Korea’s crimes against humanity in the U.N., and a growing threat of secondary sanctions in our own Congress, have made North Korea a greater liability for China than ever before.

In the same sense that North Korea has been forced to shift its tone on human rights and feign willingness to engage in sincere dialogue about the subject, China is probably calculating that it has to convince influential foreigners that it’s finally ready — no, this time, we really mean it! — to pressure North Korea to behave.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Even Chinese government newspapers are talking about North Korea’s camps now.

Adam Cathcart forwards this link, which contains some rather familiar-looking imagery.

I wonder how many Chinese people know how important a part their own government plays in filling those camps.

N. Korea seizes another Chinese fishing boat.

For once, I’m mostly in sympathy with North Korea’s position. Chinese fisherman are notorious for invading the territorial waters of their neighbors, the Chinese government may well have grander plans to invade them, and the North Korean people certainly need those fish more than the Chinese do. (Leave aside the question of whether the fish would otherwise be eaten by hungry North Koreans or exported by the regime for hard currency.)

The North Koreans have impounded the ship, pending payment of a $40,000 fine, and sent the six crew members home — after they beat a confession out of the captain at gunpoint:

The captain also claimed that his ship did not enter North Korean waters at the time of the seizure and the North Korean coast guard dragged them into the North’s waters by force.

After arriving in the North’s waters, North Korean coast guard officers took photographs of them as “evidence” and ordered Yao to sign a document admitting the violation.

“I said no. And they hit me and pointed a gun at me. Then I signed,” Yao was quoted as saying in the online report. [Yonhap]

As a former defense attorney, I have to say this is one of the unlikelier stories I’ve ever heard. The North Koreans accuse the Chinese vessel of illegal fishing, and I believe them. The Chinese captain accuses the North Koreans of torture, and I believe that, too. As Kissinger once said, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”

The last time this happened, it wasn’t a very good experience for the Chinese fisherman, either — they spent two weeks in a North Korean jail. Still no comment from noted Chinese fish authority and asshole Shen Dingli.

Fifty a day, every Tuesday. Men. Women. Children.

“These days, China trucks about 50 North Korean defectors from its immigration detention center in Tumen to North Korea’s Namyang city just across the border every Tuesday,” an activist said, citing an unidentified Chinese official familiar with the matter. He did not elaborate on the official’s identity for fear of possible reprisal against her by the Chinese government. [Yonhap]

Update: The title of this post was edited after publication, adding the words “every Tuesday.”

Is Yonhap disinforming us about China and crude oil?

If they keep feeding us the same false story after it’s been debunked, perhaps a little paranoia is in order. Again, the report is that China hasn’t export any crude oil to North Korea. The report is based on KOTRA statistics that show no crude oil shipments — which may or may not go unreported as “donations” — but those statistics also show a sharp rise in exports of refined petroleum products like diesel and jet fuel.

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Update: NK News has more information that debunks Yonhap’s story. Apparently, North Korea is also getting fuel from a spiteful Russia now. Why does Yonhap want us to believe this? I suppose the most likely explanation is just a reporters’ careless reading of the KOTRA statistics, but it does cross my mind that someone might want Americans to believe that China is finally putting pressure on North Korea.

If I were to pick a pressure point against North Korea, however, it wouldn’t be fuel, which has dual-use applications, including the growing and transportation of food. A fuel cut-off would hurt too many of the wrong people.

Peter Hahn speaks out about China freezing his accounts and investigating him …

for his humanitarian activities. Hahn says, “We feed 22,000 children every day,” including the most pitiful children of all, the kkotjaebi. While I’m generally skeptical of claims that food aid can reach the intended recipients inside North Korea, Hahn tells a sympathetic and compelling story. Read and decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if Hahn is doing as much good as he thinks he is, but I am sure that China and Kim Jong Un are the villains of this story. How ironic (and typical) that China won’t freeze the assets of North Korea proliferators and money launderers, but does freeze the assets of people who are trying to feed North Korean orphans.

Those who believe that China is ready to abandon His Porcine Majesty, and those who still see any glimmer of hope that Kim Jong Un wants to open North Korean society, should read this story carefully.

Keeping China’s Cold War cold: The case for PATO

As our alliance diplomacy fails in Asia, “Pentagon officials,” no doubt with some prodding from the White House, say that if the Senate confirms Mark Lippert as Ambassador to South Korea, he would redouble U.S. efforts to rebuild a trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea.

“Trilateral” would be a very good start toward “multilateral,” and I wish the administration success. I don’t know much about Mr. Lippert, but a diplomatic vacuum now could mean war and chaos for us all, while good diplomacy could still restore peace and order in the world’s most economically dynamic region. While you’re thinking about how alarmist that was of me to write, give this Washington Post article a read. Then, try to think about soft, cuddly pandas.

Lippert’s job didn’t get any easier when Xi Jinping presumably strong-armed Park Geun-Hye into saying this:

“The basic stance of the (South Korean) government is that Japan in principle is not allowed to exercise its collective self-defense right within the Korean Theater of Operation, or KTO,” a government source said, requesting anonymity.

Apparently, Park rejects the possibility that Japan might exercise that right while protecting South Korea (among others) from China’s self-declared air defense identification zones or unilateral maritime claims, or to help it stabilize a post-collapse North Korea. Take another look at the map in the Post’s article:

1484_SouthChinaSea

[Washington Post]

It’s clear that China, in deference to the tested principle of “divide-and-rule,” has carefully avoided expanding that zone into the Yellow Sea. For now, China is content with buying the fishing rights (or simply stealing the fish).

China has been in a Cold War with us since before our Cold War with the U.S.S.R. ended. All that’s missing is our acknowledgement of that. Chinese domination of all of East Asia would cause a series of dramatic shocks to our economy, as China used its military supremacy to monopolize and tax the region’s resources, manufacturing, and trade routes. Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property would skyrocket, and China would impose its own terms on trade, and the costs of raw materials and finished goods. China would control the Strait of Molucca, and with it, our oil imports from the Middle East. The result would be our impoverishment as a nation. You think China is already doing many of those things now? Wait until it controls the entire Western Pacific.

In a few years, we may find ourselves facing a choice of defending (or not) our treaty allies in the region. (A second-worst case scenario would be finding ourselves bearing the entire cost of their defense.) Some of those allies have made the decision to appease China for now, in the hope that they can buy time. We all earnestly hope that our conflicts with China don’t become military conflicts. The best way to prevent that would be through good diplomacy that concentrates minds across the Pacific on their common interests and their collective strength, if allied to each other, and to us. That is, good diplomacy and strong alliances can deter China, prevent war, and avoid the common impoverishment of the U.S. and its Pacific allies.

I worry that John Kerry, who may be the worst Secretary of State in U.S. history, isn’t the man for that job.

None of this will work, of course, as long as Japan continues to shift the region’s focus to debates over settled history, and as long as other Asian nations continue to take Japan’s bait and elevate those debates over their own interests. Koreans can’t seem to confront the fact that Chinese men are turning North Korean women into sexual slaves today, because of the Chinese government’s own crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Japan needs to be told in clear terms to stop hedging on its apology for the Comfort Women and other historical issues. In exchange, we’ll support its claims to Senkaku, and use forceful financial sanctions to force North Korea to return its abductees.

Just as NATO preserved the peace in Europe, we need a Pacific-Asia Treaty Organization* to preserve the peace in Asia. Of course, China would say that this alliance is meant to “contain” it, which is exactly what John Kerry is telling the Chinese we aren’t doing. But a time when China is grabbing territory and resources across East Asia is past the time for reassurances. In fact, it’s probably past time for China to reassure us.

* If it bothers you that “pato” means “duck” in Spanish, we could always use “APTO” instead.

Refugees’ lives may depend on interpretations of Sino-Korean consular agreement

Human rights advocates have long contended that China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees violates international law, including obligations China undertook voluntarily in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1969 Protocol. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry recently added its weight to that contention and strongly criticized China’s disregard of that Convention.

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[Suzanne Scholte and Rep. Park Sun-young protest
outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul
, 2012]

Some rights advocates have hoped that the COI’s report would force China to alter its refugee-deportation policy, for reasons best explained by Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an interview with NK News, and by Stephan Haggard here.

These hopes are about to be tested. This week, following Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul, The Daily NK reports that eleven North Korean refugees, arrested by China on June 19th, are in grave danger of repatriation to the North. The arrests were first reported on July 3rd Korea time, as Xi arrived in Seoul. More here, via Reuters.

If only Park Geun-Hye had seen fit to raise the issue of repatriations in her meetings with Xi. If only Xi’s desire to improve relations with Seoul had potential to benefit the 23 million Koreans unfortunate enough to reside North of the DMZ. But in one of the lesser-reported outcomes of the summit, the two leaders actually signed an agreement on consular protections for each others’ citizens:

The agreement mainly calls for the two countries to notify each other within four days when a national from the other country is arrested or detained. Meeting with consular officials will be also allowed within four days, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

But what does the agreement say about North Koreans? The ROK Constitution claims the entire Korean peninsula as its territory, and Korean nationality law extends citizenship to Koreans born on Korea’s territory.* The issue was contentious enough to prevent agreement after 11 years (!) of negotiations, so the two governments eventually decided to sidestep it:

The two countries previously had made little progress as they could not bridge the gap over whether to cover North Korean defectors and Chinese living in South Korea. The concept of “a national” was not specified, which made it easier for the two parties to reach the agreement, the sources said. [Yonhap]

The two sides also failed to agree on the status of ethnic Koreans in China, who could also have standing to argue their own ROK citizenship under the ROK Nationality Law. To further complicate matters, China asked for the agreement to cover Taiwanese arrested in Korea. A cynical man would say that China raised the latter complication solely to get South Korea to drop the issue of North Korean refugees.

The negotiations received new impetus from the case of ex-leftist and rights activist Kim Young-Hwan, whom the Chinese police arrested in 2012, held for 114 days, and allegedly tortured through sleep deprivation and the administration of electric shocks. Three other South Koreans, including Daily NK correspondent Lee Sang Yong, were also arrested with Kim.

Whether Park invokes the agreement on the refugees’ behalf, and how Xi reacts, will be a test of the quality and the extent of where Park’s conscience ends, and Xi’s begins. Eleven lives hang in the balance.

* Admittedly, this is a sweeping simplification of a complex law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PORT CALLS

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

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

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

MONEY TRANSFERS

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

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

EXPORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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