Time Asia on the Underground Railroad

My biggest regret of my recent trip to Korea was that I wasn’t able to sit down and talk with the Rev. Tim Peters at length. Tim is one of the kindest, most selfless, most sincere people I’ve met in my life. He told me to watch for this piece in Time, which begins with this refugee woman’s description of the guard who killed her unborn baby:

Hwang, Kim says, referred repeatedly to the baby as “the Chink,” because the father was a peasant from northeastern China, where Kim had fled earlier that year. As she lay on the prison floor, Hwang demanded that she abort the fetus herself. Kim refused, so the guard began kicking her over and over again in the stomach. Then he beat her, and continued beating her as her sister screamed, until Kim Myong Suk blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she says, she “was taken to a clinic in the camp, and in the most blunt manner, they removed [the fetus] from my body.”

The rest of the piece focuses on how refugees are smuggled out of the North, and China. It gives fresh insight on “defection brokers,” who are often villified by the South Korean authorities. Must reading, and a great graphic here. You can visit the Family Care Foundation, which helps fund the underground railroad, here. I have zero qualms about endorsing this one.

(Photo Cred: PHILIP BLENKINSOPÑAGENCE, TIME)

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N. Korea Freedom Week Updates

First, please join us on the West side of the U.S. Capitol today, starting at 11:30. The rally will last well into the afternoon, with plenty of opportunities to frighten powerful and cynical people throughout the day. Some of us may even make a special appearance at the South Korean Embassy later this afternoon. At 6 PM, Suzanne Scholte of the North Korean Freedom Coalition will lead a rally at the Chinese Embassy that will become an all-night prayer vigil.

Hearing on Abductees. Thursday’s first event was a hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Asia-Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, on North Korean abductions. The testimony was too detailed and too emotional to do justice here, but two particular moments stuck with me.

The first came when Sakie Yokota, mother of abductee Megumi Yokota, described meeting a North Korean ex-spy who had first-hand knowledge of Megumi’s abduction at age 13, in 1977. Megumi was shoved into a small, dark, lower-deck compartment of a North Korean spy ship, where she cracked at the steel with her fingernails and cried, “Mother, please rescue me!” Mrs. Yokota’s voice broke as she described this, and as she held up a remarkable photo of her daughter taken in North Korea showing Megumi looking hollow and despondent. Mrs. Yokota spoke of caressing the photo and begging her daughter’s forgiveness for not rescuing her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I was also moved by the determination of a tiny South Korean woman, Ms. Lee Mi-Il, whose father was one of the reported 82,000 South Koreans abducted by the North during the war and never allowed to return. She lives to tell her father of how she survived and persevered despite being severely handicapped by childhood disease, and of the love of her mother, who waited faithfully for a husband who never came home. The hearing was packed; those who arrived late had to observe the first parts of the testimony from an overflow room, via video link. You can see the testimony via Internet here.

Others present were visibly affected by First Lieutentant Cho Chang-Ho’s description of 44 years of North Korean captivity. I had previously heard Lt. Cho give a much more detailed description last year. What the man survived, both physically and emotionally, is stunning.

Meeting with POTUS. Later today, Mrs. Yokota will reportedly meet with President Bush. I overheard, but can’t yet confirm, that Han-Mi, the little girl in the pink coat made famous in this photograph, will also attend with her mother. Han-Mi is now four, very cute, and feeling a bit overexposed by this week’s events. This is another good sign of a belated U.S. policy evolution, following the Kang Chol Hwan meeting last year.

N. Korean Human Rights Act Implementation. Congress is no longer merely frustrated over slow implementation of the NK Human Rights Act; it’s livid. Amb. Jay Lefkowitz faced severe questioning and criticism at the press conference and the preceding hearing from Rep. James Leach, Iowa, the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee Chairman, and from Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, a Democrat, had the temerity and insight to ask Amb. Lefkowitz how much of his time is even spent on North Korean human rights each week (he’s a part-time “special employee” and works at a private law firm the rest of his time). The question clearly jarred Lefkowitz, who reponded with “25-30 hours.” McCollum responded that at least in Japan, this was perceived as a sign of the administration’s incomplete dedication to the issue. Other harsh criticism followed at the press conference, via Rep. Joe Pitts, Rep. Ed Royce, and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, also a Democrat.

Radio Broadcasting. A press conference following Thursday’s hearing focused on the $2M of unspent money authorized but never appropriated to help North Koreans get outside sources of information. Without U.S. help, Kim Seung Min, Director of Radio Free North Korea, continues to expand his broadcasting operations despite the lack of any government support and a spate of hacks. Unfortunately, that means they are up to just 1 hour on short wave per day, plus Internet broadcasts that probably reach very few North Koreans. They eventually plan to go medium wave, too.

Radio Free North Korea depends entirely on private contributions. Unfortunately, their site is in Korean only. No doubt, they’d appreciate some competent help in that area. I can’t stress the importance of this project, and my own frustration that the U.S. government has been so dilatory in supporting it. Another radio service for North Korea is Open Radio for North Korea. Its director, Young Howard, was also present for this week’s events.

In response to my question, Mr. Kim reported no South Korean government action to shut them down, although he claims that North Korea pointedly asked for just that in recent N-S ministerial talks. Kim does report that Radio Free North Korea was hacked on two recent occasions. On 10 February, their site was hacked and replaced by [pro-North Korean?] propaganda. On 7-10 April, a spate of hack attacks originating in Australia, China, and Japan briefly shut down their server. Let’s hear it for tolerant progressivism!

The press conference was moved up to accomodate a very powerful hearing that preceded it. Unfortunately, a few members of the media didn’t get the word (the place was packed with journalists anyway; the breaking Sakie Yokota story probably explains most of that). Feel free to drop a comment here if you’d like a copy of my notes.

Wreath Laying. Gordon Cucullu emceed a small but touching ceremony, where the Exile Committee for North Korean Democracy, hosted by a local leader of the Korean War Vets’ Association, laid a wreath at the Korean War Memorial on the Mall. The small group grew larger as it attracted the attention of interested passersby. We quickly exhausted a fairly robust supply of leaflets for today’s rally. One of the North Koreans present defected across the DMZ while I was serving, and it was very gratifying to meet with a former enemy, now turned friend. My limited Korean didn’t fail me. It was just a nice moment.

North Korean Opposition. Overall, it hasn’t developed any obvious political agenda that can serve as an alternative to Kim Jong Il. It won’t attract significant support until it has that, plus dynamic and honest leaders. I’m guardedly optimistic that the Exile Committee seems to have caught on to Hwang Jang Yop’s personal unpopularity and seems to be finding a voice of its own. It will have to do more. My own personal belief is that Hwang is a major political liability. And of course, just behind the scenes, there is the predictable bickering and factionalism, which can have the effect of blinding everyone to the shared goal. Political parties in free societies bicker, too, of course. The delicate balance between compromise and principle is a one of the most difficult balancing acts of any democratic society.

Update:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan at a daily briefing said the issue is a “very high priority” for President George W. Bush. “[It is] something he brings attention to every time he sits down and meets with a world leader,” he said.
. . . .

At talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao last week, President Bush called on Pyongyang’s ally to live up to its international obligations on handling these refugees. Mr. McClellan said Pyongyang is a “repressive regime” that violates human rights.

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The FTA Debate Is Turning Ugly

FTA negotiations will likely magnify “anti-American” sentiments in the short run and unleash a backlash in America.
Balbina Hwang, March 2, 2006

There are really three premises to this post, all of them leading to one conclusion:

  • First, a Korean-American free trade agreement would be a good thing for both countries, but particularly for Korea.
  • Second, despite that being demonstrably the case, the usual suspects see the FTA as an opportunity to ride to power on the shoulders of an America-hating mob.
  • Third, the South Korean governmnent’s position on this lies somewhere in the netherworld between the ambiguous and the bizarre, meaning that it’s rapidly losing control of the debate.
  • The conclusion to which this leads is that the very discussion of a Free Trade Agreement, instead of leading to a more balanced, interdependent, post-alliance Korean-American relationship, could well result in no FTA and an accelerated deterioration in the U.S.-Korean relations.

    The FTA Is Good for Both Countries

    Even as South Korea has sometimes seemed to have lost the capacity for reason in matters of diplomacy and national security, its economic policies had been a relative bastion of reasoned (if sometimes misguided) governance. This much is obvious to any informed Korean observer: an FTA would benefit everyone, but would benefit Korea even more than it would benefit the United States.

    Commenters to a previous post had wondered how the FTA would affect the economy of each country. Rather than speculate, I went to the Web site of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, which has a superb compilation of reports and news articles on the proposed FTA, from both Korean and American perspectives. This report from the U.S. International Trade Commission (big, fat pdf alert) analyzes the likely effect on both economies, and begins to lay out its conclusions on page 130. There, it estimates that an FTA would mean a 0.8% rise in total U.S. imports and exports, a 54% rise in U.S. exports to Korea, and a 21% rise in U.S. imports from Korea. Nifty charts, too!

    Full preferential trade liberalization has minimal impact on U.S. production and a slightly larger impact on Korean production. Overall U.S. GDP is
    expected to increase by 0.2 percent, while Korean production is expected to increase by 0.7 percent as a result of the FTA.

    So clearly, Korea stands to gain much more from this agreement overall than the United States. There are sectors in both countries that lose, of course: Korean agriculture and U.S. textiles will be losers. Both sectors have outlasted their places in the economic development cycles of their host countries. The FTA thus hastens what’s probably, sadly inevitable.

    The Public Discourse

    Recent news reports suggested that the FTA was Roh Moo-Hyun’s last hope for leaving office with a legacy he can describe at his sentencing hearing, if the history of past ex-ROK presidents is an indication. If the FTA is something Roh really wants, however, you have to wonder what his plan was for accomplishing that. The public debate about the FTA should not have begun with bizarre reports that the Korean government had held a public workshop warning its negotiators to beware of CIA microphones disguised as dragonflies, and no, that is not a joke. The unhinged amateurishness of having such a discussion at all — much less publicly — almost calls the will of the South Korean government to sign an FTA into question, to say nothing of its collective mental stability. It benefits none but a few scoundels, unless you count bloggers who are always in need of good material and more traffic.

    With key elections approaching at the end of May, the hyenas pounced with a stunning swiftness . . . even for sleazy Korean politicians. The scavengers are now questioning the deal — which is fine — but the lowest of them are comparing a possible trade agreement to the Japanese colonization of Korea — which isn’t. Comparing U.S. trade negotiators to those who forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans into forced labor and sexual slavery is the sort of gutter incitement worthy of men who can’t remember which end of the alimentary canal ought to do the talking.

    First up was the former presidential secretary for economic affairs, who charged the FTA would be tantamount to “a second Eulsa treaty” after the deal that cost Korea its independence in 1905. Ex-secretary Chung Tae-in also said the plans smacked of a bid by President Roh Moo-hyun to conjure a lasting legacy out of a hat.

    The comparison is repellent both to Americans, whose sons bled and died to keep South Korea free and prosperous, and to the actual victims of Japanese occupation. A Korean government with an ounce of principle would swiftly repudiate it. Chung’s comments even put the far-left Hankyoreh Sinmun in the unfamiliar position of being the the voice of reason, calling bullshit on some of the milder portions of Chung’s rhetoric (he says “pro-American” like it’s a bad thing) and pointing out that Chung himself was negotiating FTA’s just a year ago. A sudden attack of principle? I doubt it. I suspect that the Hani’s real agenda is using an FTA to advance its morally blind enthusiasm for Kaesong, North Korea, where workers labor for pay and under conditions that would outrage the Hani’s writers and union readers if it were happening in any other nation on earth.

    Next, we hear from the obligatory tenured lunatic:

    On Monday, Sangji University President Kim Sung-hoon, a former minister of agriculture and forestry, joined the chorus, telling an online newspaper an FTA with the U.S. would reduce Korea to a 51st state. “The FTA would not only be political suicide but also brand Roh as the most incompetent president in the country’s history and his “˜participatory government’ as the one that sold out the country’s economy and culture,” Kim charged.

    It’s not surprising; the universities are some of Korea’s most ossified, inefficient, and uncompetitive Korean business, and they stand to lose plenty to an FTA, especially if its goes along with visa waiver. We can always run down the alternatives, of course. South Korea could isolate itself the way North Korea has, a decision that’s brought economic ruin even as China carves off colonies in the starving northeastern provinces. Or, it could just let itself drift into the Chinese orbit entirely, but of course, China tends to look with disfavor upon vassal states who try to play “balancer” or dare question the motherland’s historic boundaries. China tends not to care much for unruly strikers, either.

    On March 28, some 270 civic groups including the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement formed a coalition against a free-trade deal with the U.S. and decided to start their national campaign on April 15. They plan to declare the situation an “emergency.

    This means pretty much the entire Korean labor movement, meaning you can expect (1) violence, and (2) a limp government response, meaning (3) that mobs will rule the streets of Seoul wherever and whenever they wish. Today Seoul, tomorrow the world. The virulently anti-American thugs at the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the nation’s largest labor group and proud new owner of the Korean Government Employees’ Union, even announced that it would launch a cyber attack against the White House and the Pentagon to protest the “Americanization” of Korea.

    Who haven’t we heard from yet? The Korean Teachers’ Union, which infamously celebrated 9/11 in an infamous video for Busan schoolkids before the last APEC summit. I can hardly wait.

    In an election year in which Roh Moo Hyun has largely lost control of his own party, it may not have been an opportune moment to lay fresh meat before the snarling factions, each eager to define themselves as being the most radical, anti-Capitalist, and anti-American. Roh will have to demonstrate that he can engage and defeat these demagogues in a public debate, or quietly set the issue aside until more mature leadership can.

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    Is Kim Jong Il Bankrupt?

    There is more evidence to suggest that North Korea really is in dire financial straits after all. Some would not call this a novel conclusion to make about a country in which 2.5 million people have starved to death, but a careful reading of what NGO workers and refugees tell us of how the food was passed out suggests that the North Korean regime was not unduly upset about that, as long as its elite ate well and never lacked for brandy, luxury cars, or nice places to go bowling. Or MiGs.

    Preserving that status quo meant maintaining sources of foreign exchange, most of them illegal. Operation Smoking Dragon was the first sign those sources were imperiled; the U.S. Treasury Department’s action against Banco Delta appears to have administered a powerful shock to the North Korean system of privileges on which the regime’s power structure rests. Like-minded (to me) individuals in the Bush Administration are encouraged by the results, reports Yonhap:

    Newspapers here have said the U.S. policy on the North is showing signs of changing in the direction of lumping the protracted nuclear crisis with other problems, such as counterfeiting, human rights abuse, and illicit weapons trade, for a package solution.

    Which would be fine with me. . . .

    Hard-line officials in Washington have been encouraged by the bigger-than-expected success of their latest financial sanctions on North Korea to put pressure on the already isolated regime, they added.

    The LA Times’s Barbara Demick, almost certainly the best reporter covering North Korea today, explains that the growing lure of American capital helped the Macanese authorities put Banco Delta and the North Korea trade into perspective (big ht to Plunge here):

    Businesspeople here say the North Korean presence became a liability at a sensitive time. The North Korean government in Pyongyang is more unpopular than ever internationally because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. At the same time, China is trying to develop Macao into a gambling destination to rival Las Vegas.

    After Macao reverted to Chinese control in 1999, the Chinese government busted the casino monopoly of billionaire Stanley Ho, a long-standing friend of the North Korean government and the owner of a casino in Pyongyang.

    The first U.S.-owned casino in Macao, the Sands Macao, opened in 2004, and a $1.2-billion casino operated by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn is scheduled for a September opening. Even Ho’s family — he has passed many of his casino interests to his daughter, Pansy — has struck a deal with MGM Mirage for another new casino.

    “Today people here want to do business with the Americans, not the North Koreans,” said Jose Rocha Dinis, director of the Jornal Tribunal de Macau, a Portuguese-language newspaper, as he drove along a waterfront cluttered with construction cranes. “When they are seeking investment from the outside, they can’t let the North Koreans get in the way.”

    For the sheer quality of the reporting, look at how Demick finds knowledgeable sources everywhere, beginning with financial crimes guru David Asher:

    “Macao had to clean up its act,” said David L. Asher, a former State Department official who specialized in North Korea and was one of the architects of the action against the Macao bank. “There are $5 billion in annual gaming revenues at stake. They have to work with the United States.”

    Demick assesses the impact with the help of a British banker who actually works inside Pyongyang:

    The freezing of the $25 million in the Banco Delta Asia has been a particularly big blow for a government scraping by for lack of hard currency. North Korean banks kept large sums of money in the Macao bank. Now, with those accounts suspended and other banks frightened off by the Treasury Department action, North Korea has been largely cut off from international trade.

    “The impact is severe,” said Nigel Cowie, a British banker based in Pyongyang who is general manager of the Daedong Credit Bank, serving mostly the tiny foreign community in the North Korean capital.

    In a telephone interview from Pyongyang, Cowie said that North Korea, because it had no credit and a weak banking system, dealt almost exclusively in cash, which might have created the appearance that it was laundering money when it was not.

    “I can’t speak for what everybody was doing, but I can say that in our case, a lot of legitimate business has been hurt,” Cowie said.

    Legitimacy being a matter of subjective definition, one supposes. But after reading Demick’s article, you may well come away with the impression that Bush has Kim Jong Il by the balls after all. Left unresolved is whether he’ll be swayed by falsetto appeals for mercy.

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    The Other Nuclear Option

    Much info on the economic front of late, including some initial, sketchy evidence to back U.S. claims that the sanctions are biting.

    The Chosun Ilbo continues to tremble over what the U.S. Treasury Department’s next move could be. Have a look at Section 311 (115 Stat. 298) of the USA PATRIOT Act, and if you can bear it, keep reading. It empowers Treasury to declare all of North Korea a jurisdiction of special money laundering concern — as we’ve apparently done to the Ukraine for a brief period — and thereby force the entire world economy to choose between the United States and North Korea:

    [T]he designation of North Korea as a whole would likely paralyze its transactions with any international financial institutions, which must maintain a place of business in the U.S. if they are to conduct dollar transactions. “It would mean North Korea is in effect kicked out of the international financial world, where the U.S. exercises the greatest influence,” a government official said.

    It’s curious to watch how North Korea’s neighbors have only just “discovered” supernotes within their own borders. Partly as a result of a single massive seizure last year, Seoul is reporting a dramatic rise in the amount of counterfeit currency detected in South Korea last year (Discrepancy alert! Was it $40,000 or $140,000? If last year’s total was in fact $121,760, I presume that it’s the lower figure.). The DailyNK reports that China is cracking down on North Korean counterfeiting, to which I’d add that the threat of sanctions against Chinese banks may have been an incentive.

    Next, I pick up where James left off with this Washington Post piece, which notes that there’s some debate about how this will affect diplomacy with the North. Some believe North Korea will keep stalling; others believe North Korea’s Tokyo meeting with representatives of the other five nations means that the North is newly incentivized. The pressure isn’t relaxing yet:

    Japanese politicians have made progress on both a bill threatening sanctions if it does not negotiate in good faith on the nuclear issue and a dispute over Japanese citizens abducted by the North Koreans during the 1970s and ’80s to help train potential spies. On Tuesday, Japan added 20 North Korean firms and institutions to an export restriction list aimed at keeping them from obtaining materials and technology that could have military use.

    How is this affecting North Korea? It’s obviously hard to say with certainty, but the Dong-A Ilbo makes an admirable effort to pierce the opacity:

    North Korean authorities no longer have access to outside financing after fiscal restrictions imposed by the U.S. blocked North Korean access to illegal funds, estimated to be worth 500 million dollars annually. These funds were largely generated from the trading of counterfeit dollars, drugs, and missiles.

    The making and selling of weapons of mass destruction has become an impossible task for North Korea now because it lacks sufficient funds to buy the necessary high-tech components. Recent visitors to the North tell stories of how North Korean authorities often express their agonies over the financial crackdown.

    Chairman of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong Il met Chinese President Hu Jintao January this year and said, “U.S. fiscal restrictions might disintegrate the North Korean system,” reported an article from the latest edition of Newsweek.

    Finally, what may be the most curious story of all: why are members of the North Korean elite reportedly buying up large amounts of dollars (presumably a mixture of real and fake) on the black market?

    The official exchange rate in the North is W150 per dollar. But in the black market, the greenback had soared from around W2,000 to W2,600 by late last year. “It varies from region to region, but the dollar now seems to have risen to W3,000 because of the financial sanctions,” a South Korean official said.

    A North Korean defector says in some black markets in Pyongyang and Shinuiju $1 will fetch W3,800-4,000 and rising. An expert on North Korea said rumor has it that some people are hoarding dollars in the expectation that their value will keep going up.

    Given that the average monthly income of North Korean workers is around W3,000, the surge has effectively reduced their wage to less than $1 a month.

    Obviously, one wishes that the hardship imposed by these actions could be focused tightly on the elite, rather than ordinary workers. Barring that, it should cause us to redouble our efforts and public pressure to get a strictly monitored feeding program in place.

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    Treasury Official: NK Sanctions Are Leaving a Mark

    Last week, we heard that Kim Jong Il was trying to wait out President Bush. This week, a new report suggests that the converse may also be true:

    The U.S. Treasury Department says its ongoing financial sanctions against North Korea put “huge pressure” on the regime that could have a “snowballing … avalanche effect.” Under Secretary Stuart Levy was quoted in the latest edition of Newsweek, which analyzed the possible effect on the regime from Washington’s identification of the Banco Delta Asia in Macau as Pyongyang’s “primary money-laundering concern” and other financial sanctions last September.

    “In today’s interconnected financial world, an official U.S. move to blacklist a foreign bank would be the kiss of death, since any financial institution doing business in dollars needs to hold accounts in correspondent U.S. banks in order to complete transactions,” the weekly said. “Washington has finally found a strategy that is putting real pressure on the regime — going after its sources of cash, all across the world.”

    Better yet, Treasury thinks the sanctions are hurting those whose pain ought to please us:

    “From what we’ve seen, this has been affecting the North Korean elite in particular,” it quoted an expert as saying. According to a U.S. government document Newsweek says it obtained, Kim is reported to have told Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to China in January that his regime might collapse due to the U.S. crackdown on its financial transactions.

    Later, the report says that the Bush Administration began its program of economic pressure shortly after President Bush took office. I declare myself completely unconvinced about that. It sounds like the self-serving statement of an administration that’s been gridlocked for six years and couldn’t decide on a consistent policy. Now that North Korea’s complete lack of seriousness about diplomacy is beyond question, we’ve decided to cut Roh, Chung & Co. adrift, and to cut Kim Jong Il off. Better late than never, I suppose, but is it too late?

    Says Levy: “We’re just starting.”

    Things have indeed been accelerating, but I’m somewhat skeptical that this has already had that significant an impact, given the North Korean regime’s opacity and surprising resiliency. Signs I will look for include significant slowing in North Korea’s surviving industries, a rise in defections by members of the elite, and the adoption by North Korea of a dramatically more flexible diplomatic position (which won’t last long). Otherwise, it’s entirely possible that the statement is designed to make this administration sound tougher than it has been.

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    Lefkowitz Denounces Kaesong Slave Labor; U.S. Continues to Squeeze NK’s Finances

    It’s like they’re reading this blog . . . or perhaps great minds just think alike.

    You may recall that recently, I blogged about a media visit to the Kaesong Industrial Park. Piecing together several excellent reports allowed one to gather: (1) the extraordinary degree of control over the North Korean workers; (2) the extraordinary degree of supervision of the South Korean visitors; (3) the fact that the North Korean workers actually receive just $8 a month, not the widely-reported $58; and (4) that the workers at Kaesong can forget about forming independent labor unions, or striking for better wages or working conditions. There is little doubt that Kaesong workers have almost no choice whatsoever in the conditions of their employment.

    The latter fact is legally significant, because “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining,” is considered an international right under Article 2 of the 1988 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. I have personal knowledge that at least one NGO with status at the UN is considering filing a complaint.

    Fast-foward to the last remarks by Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, at the Heritage Foundation, and a big hat tip to Sperwer, who found video of the address:

    The Unification Ministry condemned remarks by the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, that North Korean laborers at the complex are paid less than US$2 a day and conditions there should be inspected by the International Labor Organization. Lefkowitz told a forum at the conservative Enterprise Institute in Washington that North Korean workers at the complex do not enjoy guaranteed labor rights and an international organization like the ILO should inspect the complex and report its findings to the UN.

    In fact, as the LA Times tells us, Lefkowitz greatly overstated what the workers at Kaesong are actually paid, after “voluntary” payments to the regime. I especially liked this:

    Ministry spokesman Lee Gwan-se said the official’s remarks were made without verifying actual conditions and “provide misleading information that not only distorts the situation but damages the image of South Korean enterprises working there.

    There’s no need to blame Jay Lefkowitz for slandering those South Korean corporations; just listen to the words of one manager at one of those same enterprises:

    Not only are the wages the lowest in Northeast Asia, but independent labor unions are banned.

    “Strikes?” Hwang replied dismissively in response to a reporter’s question. Raising crossed arms, he said with a slight smile: “Absolutely not.”

    What’s more, Lee’s suggestion that Lefkowitz should go to Kaesong and see things for himself is facially fatuous. The North Koreans have refused to allow monitoring of food aid distribution, and have also refused to let UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Murtarbhorn into the country. Of course, if I were Lefkowitz, I’d call the bluff immediately and ask to visit and speak freely with the workers without minders present.

    [Update: This report suggests that a more recent visit to Kaesong was a big disappointment even to some of its South Korean supporters.]

    Much more significantly for 6.5 million hungry North Koreans, Lefkowitz also criticized countries (read: China and South Korea) that provide North Korea unmonitored or almost-completely-unmonitored food aid, thus making it possible for the regime to feed its priority subjects without accepting monitored aid from the World Food Program. In light of the President’s recent denunciation of Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees, it’s the latest in a series of signs that the Bush Administration, though now in its sunset, has finally shaken its gridlock and gone on the attack against the North Korean regime’s financial lifelines and political control mechanism. Also last week, the Administration froze the assets of Swiss firm Kohas AG and its president, whom the Treasury Department suspected of dealing with a North Korean firm whose own assets were frozen over its proliferation activities.

    These are also signs that the U.S.-South Korean relationship has deteriorated to the point of each nation essentially acting in ways that are independent of and contrary to each other’s policy objectives, and each then publicly criticizing the other after the fact. The instigation and exploitation of that division is probably North Korea’s greatest diplomatic and political success, and may be the single most important factor in North Korea’s survival thus far.

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    2ID KATUSA Escapes Captivity in N. Korea

    Some translation is appropriate for non-military readers: KATUSA means Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army, and 2ID means Second Infantry Division, a brigade of which remains stretched out in an arc perpendicular to the Northern approaches to Seoul. Hundreds of KATUSAs still serve with U.S. Army units there today, but the first KATUSAs served during the Korean War. Here’s what happened to one of them:

    Lee participated in the Korean War after enlisting in August 1950 as a Korea auxiliary with the U.S. Army. He was assigned to K Company, 38 Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. In December of the same year, he was taken captive by Chinese forces around Gaecheon-gun in Pyongnam.

    Based on the accounts of other defectors, one can imagine that Lee’s life in the North was hard. Still, he seems to have believed the party line that things were just as bad in the South:

    News from his family in South Korea reached him one day when he was leading a difficult life with a family in the Nanam area, Cheongjin City, Hambuk. A North Korea defection guide had come to see Lee in June of 2004.

    Lee made arrangements to meet his family in South Korea in China, and left with his wife Kim Sang-ok, who is now deceased, but they failed to go through a checkpoint in Hoeryeong-gun, and had to return. Lee attempted once more to go to China, but failed again, and in late August by secretly getting close to the border patrol guards, he succeeded in crossing to China on his third try.

    At a point, Lee refused his South Korean family’s suggestion to come to South Korea citing, “I can’t go to an impoverished and famished South Korea . . . .

    Lee seems to have been straightened out on that matter, because he arrived in the South three months later. The rest of the family had to make five separate attempts over more than a year to get out. The last two of them finally arrived at Incheon Airport this week.

    Lee is not the first ex-POW (held by North Korea in flagrant violation of the 1953 Armistice) to escape to the South to tell the tale. James Brooke of the New York Times previously wrote about the return of Jang Moo-Hwan and Nam Tae-Kyo. I heard two others, whose names I’ve been asked not to print, speak on Capitol Hill last year (they’re different people from those written about in the other articles). Others, such as Private Han Man-Taek, were not as lucky. Han was caught by the Chinese and sent back to the North, also in flagrant violation of the Armistice. South Korea raised a token peep and then forgot the whole thing.

    Life in the South hasn’t been without its tragedies, either. Lee’s wife died in a traffic accident last November, just months before the family was finally reunited. But what is his reaction to finally seeing the rest of his family safely out of the world’s largest open-air prison?

    “I will have no regrets, even if I die now,” said ex-Korean War prisoner of war (POW) Lee Gi-chun (75) on March 31, when he heard that his youngest daughter Lee Bok-hee, 33, and grandchildren Kim Sun-gun, 2, and Koh Il-hyuk, 3, reached Korea safely at Incheon International Airport.

    I hope the Division Commanding General decides to pay Mr. Lee a visit.

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    White House Calls for China to Release NK Refugee

    This is an encouraging development. Can anyone recall the White House getting involved on behalf of a North Korean refugee before this?

    STATEMENT BY THE PRESS SECRETARY

    The United States is gravely concerned about China’s treatment of Kim Chun-Hee. Despite U.S., South Korean, and UNHCR attempts to raise this case with the Chinese, Ms. Kim, an asylum seeker in her thirties, was deported to North Korea after being arrested in December for seeking refuge at two Korean schools in China. We are deeply concerned about Ms. Kim’s well-being. The United States notes China’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and believes that China must take those obligations seriously. We also call upon the Government of China not to return North Korean asylum seekers without allowing UNHCR access to these vulnerable individuals.

    Yonhap has more here, including the fact that Hu Jintao will soon visit Washington. This is a significant step in the right direction.

    Thanks to two readers for forwarding.

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    The Death of an Alliance, Part 35

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld adds the second hint in about a week that more troops cuts are coming for South Korea. 

    U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on March 23 that South Korea and the United States have agreed on the transfer of wartime command of South Korean forces to South Korea, and that the two nations are discussing a timetable.

    Rumsfeld confirmed this in a Pentagon news briefing yesterday and commented on the timing of the turnover, saying, “The timing depends on how quickly the Korean government develops its capabilities to assume [wartime command] responsibility. A greater South Korean role would allow further U.S. troop reductions.

     

    Rumsfeld also said, “South Korea brought up the issue of transferring wartime command and talks are underway. Everyone agrees that 55 years after the Korean War, it is reasonable that South Korean forces increasingly take on more responsibility.“

    This is overdue by at least a decade, and will be overdue by two by the time it’s done.  The previous such statement, by USFK Commanding General Burwell B. Bell,  here.  Expect the announcement of the timetable in October. 

    Update:   Meanwhile, the ChiComs have started piling their furniture on the lawn outside Kyongbukkung Place:

    China’s ambassador to South Korea, Ning Fukui, on Wednesday offered a rare comment on a recent Korea-U.S. agreement to give the U.S. forces stationed here greater “strategic flexibility” so they can intervene in trouble spots elsewhere. “If it is targeted against a third country, China will have no choice but to shift attention to the matter,” the envoy said at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. He expressed hope that “both sides will do nothing to jeopardize security and peace in Northeast Asia.”

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    Supernotes Scandal to Hit Bank of China; NK Gov’t in Talks with U.S. on Counterfeiting

    Via the Chosun Ilbo:

    The U.S. is preparing to seize more than US$2.67 million from three frozen bank accounts with Chiyu Banking, a subsidiary of Bank of China Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post reported the funds are believed to be the first known link between a Hong Kong bank and North Korea’s underground trade in “supernotes,” or high-quality fake US$100 bills. The accounts belong to an unemployed mainland Chinese woman named Kwok Hiu Ha.

    The Bank of China is a parastatal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Beijing authorities know everything that BoC is up to, but it does mean that sanctions against China’s largest bank could hit China’s economy very, very hard. Speculation: China’s cooperative attitude may explain why Treasury is still only naming BoC subsidiaries.

    North Korea is apparently feeling the pain, too. After some initial bluster and yet another declaration that it would walk out of the six-nation facade, the North Koreans are sending reps to hear a U.S. briefing on the latter’s anti-counterfeiting measures. Since appeasement has achieved nothing, we may soon see if a firmer policy will have more success. Declarations of success still seem premature, as U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow reminds us:

    “There have been some signals in the last few weeks indirectly indicating that North Korea is beginning to acknowledge that there is a problem and they need to take steps to address the issues,” Mr. Vershbow told the JoongAng Ilbo and JoongAng Daily on Wednesday. The U.S. envoy to Seoul has been a strong critic of the North in his four months on the job here, and in turn has joined more senior U.S. officials in Pyongyang’s rogues’ gallery. Pyongyang media outlets took special exception to the label of “criminal regime” that the ambassador used recently in referring to the government there.

    Mr. Vershbow declined to use the words again. “Looking back at that episode, my main concern is that it may have diverted attention from the real issue that I wanted to address “• illicit activities by the North Korean regime,” he said. Conceding that the substance of the issue may have been obscured by his rhetoric, he added, “Since that time, I have left it to academics and journalists to describe North Korea. I think that it is better understood by North Korea that the issues will not go away.”

    That language represents a climbdown by Vershow in rhetoric, though not in substance. An emotional letdown perhaps, but the firmness of the policy position appears to be undiminished

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    What Ban Would Bring to the U.N., and to His Party

    The U.N.: No Values Necessary

    What could say more about what’s wrong with the United Nations when a candidate for its top post – an experienced diplomat – would say this publicly?

    “I don’t think a specific issue like North Korean human rights has a direct connection to the bid for the UN secretary-general’s seat,” Ban told reporters. Asked by a CBS reporter whether the way the South Korean government handles human rights conditions in North Korea could hurt his bid for the UN job, Ban replied, “What the secretary general does is not directly related to a specific issue in a particular country.

    Why even provide our tax revenue to such an organization? Ban’s ascendancy would only emphasize, in the UN’s case, many of the same problems that undermine the justification for the U.S.-Korea alliance: both are expensive anachronisms that appear to do little to advance U.S. interests or values. What could be most telling of all will be China, which I fully expect will come out in favor of Ban for the General Secretary’s job.

    One can only hope that the U.S. and Japan will manage to abort Mr. Ban’s ambitions. What good are ambitions without principles?

    The Real Reason for Ban’s Candidacy?

    Actually, I can think of one thing: Ban’s candidacy could be a win-win for the Uri Party. If Ban wins, it will be another “O Pilsung Korea” moment, which Uri can exploit for a nice bounce from its present approval rating, now at a rock-bottom-dismal 18.4%. If Ban loses, it can milk just as much support from the voters by heaping the usual blame on a secret U.S.-Japanese conspiracy, which I’d posit would have some basis in truth this time, if only because Ban’s own policies are such a dramatic departure from the interests all three nations once shared.

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    Congress Criticizes State Dep’t on NK Refugees

    [Updated; scroll down] Thanks to a dedicated group of Congressional staffers who forwarded me a scanned copy, which is signed by members of both parties and both houses. I’m going through WordPress hell trying to publish the entire text, but in the meantime, here’s a scanned copy on the Committee’s site.The executive summary is that Congress believes that State is turning away refugees, thus flouting its unanimous will and throwing away America’s credibility on this issue.

    Update: OK, full scanned letter posted at “continue” link below.

    Update 23 Feb: The Chosun Ilbo covers the story and quotes Doug Anderson, an aide to Asian-Pacific Affairs Subcommittee Chairman James Leach, as follows:

    Meanwhile, an advisor to International Relations Committee, Doug Anderson, told a seminar hosted by the Institute for Corean-American Studies that Congress will consider a revision of the act if Washington continues to drag its feet in admitting North Korean refugees. It could designate refugees “Priority 2″, which would offer them group exile and make it easier for them to seek asylum. The status would eliminate the need for defectors to be given refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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    Will U.S. Finally Let in N.K. Refugees?

    North Korean refugees rush a foreign embassy in China in search of asylum (AP photo)It’s long past time we did this

    The U.S. government plans to break with long-established policy and start giving asylum to refugees from North Korea. Wording in the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act that allows it to admit defectors from the Stalinist country has not yet been put into practice due to failure to confirm identities and objections from countries where the refugees were staying.

    Prominent  activists for human rights in the North – Suzanne Scholte, Jae Ku, and Adrian Hong, to name three – were becoming increasingly vocal about their disillusionment with the State Department and Lefkowitz’s failure, thus far, to get the North Korean Human Rights Act implemented.  What we have seen recently is a new outreach effort by the State Department, which  is  the result of those concerns being relayed to Congress (via a knowledgeable source, Reps. Frank Wolf, James Leach, and Chris Smith  were particularly instrumental; Rep. Henry  Hyde may  also have  helped).

    Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean Human rights, admitted to the activist group Freedom House in a closed-door meeting that the refugees are becoming a credibility problem for Washington. He also reportedly promised to become more active on the issue. In the meeting, which was attended 20 U.S. campaigners for North Korean human rights, Levkowitz [sic] said he would focus on rights, the issue of refugees and promoting greater openness in North Korea.

    After this meeting, which I did not attend but from which I was sent some notes, I heard that  this move was coming, although I was asked not to blog it and was fairly skeptical in any event.  I still am.  Read this closely:

    On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also implied a policy shift by saying, “We are reviewing our policies on refugese,[sic] reviewing them with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), reviewing them with the FBI, to see if we can find a way to participate in the refugee activities as well. If it does admit them, it is likely to exacerbate tensions with North Korea in an already chilly climate because of Washington’s sanctions and the North’s nuclear ambitions.

    For the record, the objections about North Korean infiltration are serious.  Put nothing past this regime.  But those problems are not insoluble, and must not be allowed to interfere with our higher obligations under federal statute and  international treaty.  A close reading, in fact, does not completely persuade me that this change has yet made its way to the embassy gates. 

    For background, see this post by Richardson as well.  I must say how great it is to search the new, merged  archives and find so many on-topic, well-written posts by my co-bloggers.

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    Banco Delta Sanctions ‘Severe Blow’ to NK Economy

    The Chosun Ilbo,  relaying an AWSJ story, reports that the Treasury Department’s action against the Macau-based bank “dealt a severe blow to the secretive country,” “dried up its financial system,” and “brought foreign trade virtually to an end.”

    In December, I noted reports  that North Korean front companies and spies were fleeing Macau en masse. According to today’s story, Banco Delta has now announced that it’s ending its financial ties with North Korea in an effort to prevent a run on its assets and a devastating rash of actions by other banks to cut their ties with Delta.

    Because of the high percentage of bad loans and undercapitalization in the Chinese banking system, Beijing is clearly concerned about controlling the damage to its financial system.

    The evidence of North Korean counterfeiting now appears to be beyond serious dispute.  The supernote issue emerged with an undercover bust and seizure in the U.S.  Shortly thereafter, the  Justice Department indicted an ex-IRA terrorist for circulating North Korean supernotes.  In January, this article (ht Richardson; pic, too!) reported that North Korean supernotes were found at Las Vegas casinos.  Last month, a Chinese government investigation confirmed North Korea’s counterfeiting and money-laundering activities.

    Recently, a Korean newspaper reported a huge seizure of North Korean supernotes in Seoul’s famous Namdaemun market, and that South Korean police even sought U.S. assistance in confirming the notes’ North Korean origin.  The disclosure was an embarassment to South Korea and its president, which had expressed  doubts about the existence of evidence of recent North Korean counterfeiting, despite presumably knowing otherwise.

    Although North Korea may be  hinting that it’s willing to discuss the counterfeiting issue, the U.S. Ambassador says his government will not be satisfied until the North Koreans hand over the plates and ink.

    Update:   The BBC also covers the story, with this dramatic fact (as dramatic as banking gets, anyway):

    The scandal weakened Banco Delta’s financial position, with customers withdrawing 10% of its total deposits after the allegations surfaced.

    Wow.  No wonder Macanese authorities had to step in to save the bank from insolvency.

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    Stranger Than Fiction: The Pyongyang Charm School

    Everyone is ashamed of something in his past.  High on my own list is the time my brother persuaded me to read “The Charm School,” a Nelson Demille spy novel.  The plot premise was that  Moscow took custody American MIA’s from North Viet Nam to create a “charm school,” an exact replica of an  American  neighborhood, complete with American residents.  The idea was to immerse Soviet sleeper agents into their next work assignments.

    Unlike some other aspects of life in North Korea, it is possible to make this stuff up, and the truly  creepy  similarity between a pulp spy novel and the real North Korea is emerging.   Contrary to what’s been reported in most press coverage,  the victims aren’t just Japanese and South Koreans:

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    ‘He Doth Protest Too Much’

    Would a statement like this have been uttered by a Korean diplomat ten years ago?

    Responding to a question about giving greater “strategic flexibility” to the U.S. Forces Korea, Kim said, “Even though I am an ambassador to China, I would say that it is certain that Korea and the U.S. are allies, and as such the bilateral relationship is far stronger than other relationships, which allows us to agree on strategic flexibility. He said China has not so far mentioned the controversial move to allow the USFK to be deployed in trouble sports elsewhere. “In my opinion China may understand that the Korea-U.S. alliance is very special, having lasted for more than 50 years,” he added.

    No Korean diplomat would have had   to make a statement like that until recently.  And then Ambassador Kim provided  this harbinger of things to come . . . .

    “It is going to take a long time for the Korea-China relationship to evolve similarly to the Korea-U.S. relationship politically.

    Funny, I had no idea that the SOFA had a provision like this.

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    Has George Bush Finally Put the Fear of God in Kim Jong Il?

    Via Kyodo news:

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il thinks his government could collapse if the United States continues to impose financial sanctions against the country, diplomatic sources close to the six-way talks on North Korea’s nuclear program told Kyodo News on Saturday.

    The sources said Kim made the remarks when Chinese President Hu Jintao asked him at their meeting in Beijing last month to drop the lifting of the sanctions as a condition for Pyongyang to return to the stalled six-party talks, which involve China, North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States.

    This also tells us something about Kim Jong Il’s purpose in visting Beijing recently: to persuade China to put the U.S. measures into the six-party agenda. Apparenty, counterfeiting was too much for even China to stomach. That must have been due, in no small part, to what U.S. sanctions did to Banco Delta Asia.

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