What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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Meet the “Libertarians” who would surrender our liberty & our security to Kim Jong-un’s censors

I doubt that America has fully come to terms with the damage done to its freedom of expression by the Sony cyberterrorist attack of 2014, or by the increasing willingness of Muslim supremacists to extinguish our civil liberties through violence. It is an easy thing to be a civil libertarian when the subject is, say, the limits of a proposed law allowing the FBI or NSA to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists’ communications or monitor their social media posts. Even if we acknowledge the legitimacy of these debates, it is a modern marvel of hypocrisy to watch ardent, self-described civil libertarians quietly slink away from the defense of our civil liberties from greater and less restrained threats, particularly when doing so requires actual courage, whether physical, political, or professional.

Some would cede to the censorship of “Islamophobia” or “hate speech” or blame the targets and victims of terrorism for inciting attacks against themselves. Others still deny North Korea’s responsibility for cyberattacks that the FBI and the NSA watched unfoldNext time you meet one, ask a Sony conspiracy theorist (among whom we may count David Duke) what incentive President Obama had to blame North Korea for an attack on the United States. So that he would have an excuse to do nothing about it, and to face criticism from both political parties for the inadequacy of his response? To corner the market in North Korea’s vast riches of coal, meth, and refugees? In which case, why not secure an endless supply of two of those things by invading Wyoming?

To see a free society yield to its most cowardly impulses is to realize that our liberty will never be taken from us without the help of collaborators among us. Sadly, North Korea’s injury to our freedom to express ourselves in our own country has healed slowly. It may last as long as North Korea does.

The Museum of Modern Art has acknowledged it wrongly canceled the New York debut of “Under the Sun,” a documentary about North Korea that has been criticized by that country and Russia.

A slyly subversive look at the reclusive state by the Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, the film had been scheduled to be shown at the museum’s 2016 Doc Fortnight festival on Feb. 19-29. But an email exchange provided by the film’s German producer to The New York Times shows that a festival organizer, Sally Berger, an assistant curator at MoMA, expressed concern in late January about screening the film after reading an article suggesting that any organization that did so risked retribution from North Korea.

In the emails, Ms. Berger referred to a major hacking attack on Sony Pictures that the United States has described as retaliation by North Korea for a 2014 film satire of the country, “The Interview.”

She followed up a few days later to tell the documentary’s distributor that it would not be included in the festival. “It just simply came in too late to review all the possible ramifications of showing it here at MoMA,” she wrote.

Asked about the decision to withdraw the film, Rajendra Roy, the chief curator of MoMA’s film department, said Thursday in a written statement: “‘Under the Sun’ is a remarkable documentary that was wrongly disinvited.” He added that the decision was “made by the festival’s curator without my knowledge or input.”

The museum said on Friday that Ms. Berger was no longer working there. Margaret Doyle, a spokeswoman for the museum, declined to elaborate, and Ms. Berger, reached by telephone, said she would not comment. [Robert Boynton, New York Times]

Kudos to the MoMA for firing this quisling, although it gives me little comfort to wonder how many other galleries, publishers, and film studios have quietly and vicariously surrendered our freedom. If our choices are to live in a society where North Korea controls what we are allowed to see and read, or to live in a world without North Korea, please record my vote for the latter option. North Korea acknowledges no such concept as freedom of political expression. It does not respect our borders as inviolable. Its censorship knows no limits or boundaries, and to surrender to it is to forfeit our freedom. Judging by the frequency of North Korea’s cyberattacks since then, nothing President Obama has done since 2014 has persuaded Kim Jong-un otherwise.

Which brings us to some of America’s most ostentatious and uncompromising civil libertarians, who are also among the first to slink away from the greatest threats to our security, our liberty, and our rights to speak, live, and love as we choose. Take the case of some fellow called Jacob Hornberger, a lawyer, Fox News contributor, and collaborator of Ron Paul’s racist muse Lew Rockwell:

There are all sorts of suggestions as to how to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, but all of them involve one form of interventionism or another. A popular idea of late is for the U.S. government to pressure China to induce North Korea to comply with U.S. wishes. How can the U.S. pressure China? Well, maybe by threatening to impose sanctions on China or maybe by threatening a trade war.

I’ve got a different idea: How about just leaving North Korea alone for the first time in more than 50 years? How about immediately lifting all sanctions against the North Korean people and immediately bringing home all U.S. troops stationed in Korea?

No negotiations.  Just unilateral withdrawal. Just unilaterally lifting all sanctions? How about establishing normal diplomatic relations with North Korea and leaving Americans and the rest of the world to trade with and visit that country?

In other words, how about treating North Korea in much the same way that the U.S. government is now treating the communist regime of Vietnam? . [Jacob G. Hornberger]

Hornberger then proceeds to explain that the tongue bath he would thus give Kim Jong is not a literal one:

No, I’m not suggesting that U.S. officials have to kiss, hug, and make nice with the North Korean communist officials, as they are currently doing with Vietnamese communist officials. And no, I’m not suggesting that the Pentagon plead with the North Korean communist regime to establish U.S. military bases there, as Pentagon officials are doing with the Vietnamese communist regime.

I’m just suggesting that the U.S. government leave North Korea alone. No more U.S. troops in South Korea. No more sanctions. No more B-52 flyovers. No more joint military exercise with South Korea. No more U.S. warships in the area. No more insults. No more provocations. Just come home and leave them alone. [Jacob G. Hornberger]

How Hornberger proposes to get North Korea to leave us alone, he does not specify. Specifically, I want to call your attention to where Hornberger calls for “[n]o more insults.” He manages to get through his entire argument without using the words “cyber” or “Sony,” neatly avoiding denialism and conspiracy theories by conceding that even if one accepts North Korea’s responsibility for the attacks, he’d still shake the hand at the end of the long arm of Kim Jong-un’s censors. I wonder what “insults” he might possibly mean if he doesn’t mean films and books that offend His Porcine Majesty. Would he censor the statements of our leaders and allies that Kim Jong-un should feed North Korea’s children? Votes in the U.N. General Assembly condemning his crimes against humanity, or investigations of those crimes by U.N. field offices? Academic conferences about government policy toward North Korea? Or what if, as a private citizen, I were to simply ask you to picture Kim Jong-un trying to put his own socks on? 

Which of these things does Hornberger suppose to be inviolable rights of citizens in free societies, and why does he suppose that Kim Jong-un would recognize the same fine distinctions? Why does Hornberger suppose that His Corpulency would be more respectful of our rights and boundaries after we cede him an effective nuclear arsenal?

Thankfully, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson does not appear to share Hornberger’s view of North Korea policy, although I can’t say much for his coherence on the subject, either. Still, it’s concerning that most of the diverse viewpoints that fit inside the “Libertarian” circus tent advocate some form of surrender to Kim Jong-un. Take, for example, noted sanctions not-at-all-expert Doug Bandow, who is ready to pronounce sanctions a failure in the very same month that U.N. member states and banks around world have finally begun to implement them in earnest — something that never happened in the case of Cuba. 

Washington could intervene by maximizing unilateral sanctions. However, such penalties have yet to force political change in any nation. For a half century, Cuba resisted U.S. pressure, even after the U.S. imposed secondary controls. Sudan survived decades of financial isolation. North Korea almost certainly would do the same, especially if the China continued to support its frenemy. [Doug Bandow, The National Interest]

Why, it’s almost as if Bandow enters the discussion with a preconceived conclusion before the evidence comes in! So how, then, does Bandow propose to secure our vital domestic and international interests, such as our freedom of expression and the global nuclear nonproliferation framework? Spoiler: he doesn’t:

One is to initiate both bilateral and multilateral talks, and determine if there is any kind of deal to strike. Forget convincing North Korea to give up its existing arsenal. Instead, consider limits on future production, proliferation activities and conventional threats. At the same time the U.S. and its allies should emphasize steps which would reduce any perceived threat to North Korea. [Bandow]

Bandow never explains how he’d defend our civil liberties from North Korean censorship from afar, although he has previously written that we should do so by — wait for it — canceling annual military exercises in South Korea, and withdrawing from Korea. That would create a sudden power vacuum in a region that has long been stabilized by our alliances and which has, consequently, become an engine of economic growth that employs millions of Americans.

Not that I would deny that the force structure of U.S. Forces Korea should change, by withdrawing more ground forces while raising our stand-off air and naval power in the region, our capacity to supply our allies logistically, and by building a Pacific analog of NATO. Not that it would be a bad thing for South Korea and Japan to spend a greater share of their GDPs on their own defense. Not that it’s a bad thing for South Korea, in particular, so see that America feels taken for granted, or that the anti-American rhetoric of some of its own demagogues has costs. That is a far different thing from abandoning allies that have recently started acting like allies again.

Look — I can see why big-“L” Libertarians and Paulies get the idea that Americans want isolationist foreign policies in the post-Iraq era. Ask Americans a sufficiently simplistic, reductive, and loaded question, and most of them will agree that “we should mind our own business.” From this, some academics and politicians conclude that isolationism is politically profitable, but such abstract agreements almost never survive contact with specific crises.

Jacksonians who want us to mind our own business in the abstract are the first ones to demand that we bomb something when they feel provoked by something concrete. Liberals who take quasi-pacifist positions in the abstract will (if only briefly) support interventions in response to specific humanitarian crises, such as in Bosnia, Libya, Rwanda, or even Mount Sinjar in Iraq. And in the case of North Korea, while almost no one wants war, the strongly negative sentiment Americans harbor toward its government suggests that they don’t favor the Hornberger or Bandow “solutions,” which would effectively recognize it as a nuclear power. 

Americans don’t like paying for alliances, but they like the alliances themselves, and they’re capable of calculating the consequences of letting totalitarianism go unchecked. We’ve just finished eight years of the most non-interventionist foreign policy the American electorate would tolerate. It currently burdens President Obama with an approval rating of minus eight points, although it has usually been between minus ten and minus twenty points. If Obama’s foreign policy has done us a service, however inadvertently, it has been to temporarily dispel the idea that you can solve great and complex international problems by ignoring them (much less by just letting in everyone who arrives at your doorstep, including the terrorists among them). Syria is gone. Maybe Iraq and Jordan can be saved, and maybe they can’t. Now, the question is whether Europe will survive. Who thinks that a similar crisis couldn’t happen in Japan and South Korea five or ten years from now if America withdraws from Asia and leaves Kim Jong-un with an effective nuclear arsenal? Or that the consequent crisis wouldn’t come to our shores, too?

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Designation of N. Korea’s propaganda agency could mean trouble for AP Pyongyang

Yesterday, a reader — he can identify himself if he chooses to do so — asked me an excellent question that had not occurred to me: what are the implications for the Associated Press’s Pyongyang Bureau of the Treasury Department’s designation of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department for censorship? From Treasury’s Wednesday press release:

OFAC has designated the Workers’ Party of Korea, Propaganda and Agitation Department (the “Propaganda and Agitation Department”) as an agency, instrumentality, or controlled entity of the Government of North Korea. The Workers’ Party of Korea has full control over the media, which it uses as a tool to control the public. The Propaganda and Agitation Department also engages in or is responsible for censorship by the Government of North Korea. Each month, the Propaganda and Agitation Department delivers party guidelines explaining the narrative that all broadcast and news reporting plans must follow. The North Korean media must follow all Party guidelines. The Propaganda and Agitation Department is also the primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship.

The designation was compelled by NKSPEA § 104(a)(4), which requires the President to designate any person who “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates censorship by the Government of North Korea.” Yesterday’s executive order translates this as follows, in section 2(a)(vi):

Sec. 2. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:


(vi) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for censorship by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea;

Critically, section 2(a)(viii) of the E.O. clarifies that a designation also includes persons who are “owned or controlled by, or … have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person” designated under the new executive order. That means that if an entity is designated, its subsidiaries, sub-agencies, officers, and employees are designated, too.

The nexus to AP didn’t occur to me until my reader raised it, but a few moments of googling brought me to this post by Michael Madden at 38 North. Can you read the second box from the left?


How about now?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 9.56.24 PM

Uh-oh. So, if that’s true, the designation of the Propaganda and Agitation Department is also a designation of KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, the world’s least credible news agency. The same KCNA that AP signed its still-undisclosed MOUs with, establishing its Pyongyang Bureau, and detailing two North Korean minders journalists to report for it.

Well, maybe if the AP has an OFAC license, it can be grandfathered in, right?

(b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order or pursuant to the export control authorities implemented by the Department of Commerce, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order.

No such luck, then. But if the AP doesn’t pay KCNA any money, there’s no need for a license. Only, when is the last time North Korea gave anything away for free? Also, the draft AP-KCNA MOU Nate Thayer obtained certainly suggests that money has changed hands. AP denies the authenticity of the draft, but it hasn’t released the signed, final MOU, either. Maybe this would be the time to do that.

Or, maybe one of OFAC’s new general licenses covers AP. I guess if any of them is a fit, it would be General License Number 7, which says:

(2) This general license does not authorize:

(i) The provision, sale, or lease of telecommunications equipment or technology; or

(ii) The provision, sale, or lease of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite or terrestrial network activity).


So, to summarize: The executive order blocks persons who are designated for engaging in censorship on behalf of the North Korean government. It also blocks persons or entities who are owned or controlled by those who are designated and blocked. Treasury designated the Propaganda and Agitation Department, and there’s publicly available, credible evidence that the Propaganda and Agitation Department controls KCNA. If that evidence is correct, KCNA is also blocked, and no U.S. person may transfer funds to KCNA. If AP had an OFAC license before yesterday, the new executive order voided it. Also, none of OFAC’s general licenses appear to apply here.

I see three options for the AP: either (1) AP gets an OFAC license (or general license) to keep paying KCNA; (2) North Korea lets AP run a bureau for free of charge; or (3) AP closes its bureau and visits Pyongyang when something interesting happens, just like it did before 2011, when its North Korea coverage was actually better. Also, AP can’t fly any more North Korean “journalists” and propagandists to New York for Kim Il-sung commemorative photo exhibitions. Section 4 of the E.O. bars designated entities’ employees from the United States.

Or, the AP can find a business partner in North Korea that isn’t censoring North Koreans’ rights to free expression, committing crimes against humanity, running guns, or proliferating WMDs. The legal obstacles to this would seem significant, given the breadth of the executive order’s blocking of all interests in property of the government of North Korea.

460. Can U.S. persons do business with entities in North Korea?

No. Unless authorized pursuant to a general or specific license from OFAC and/or BIS, the new E.O. prohibits new investment in North Korea by a U.S. person and the exportation or reexportation, from the United States, or by a U.S. person, of any goods, services, or technology to North Korea. [Published on 03-16-2016]

By now you may be wondering: Josh, are you really devious enough to have induced a nearly unanimous Congress and the President of the United States to get the AP kicked out of Pyongyang because you despise the secrecy and corruption of its dealings with Pyongyang? Tempting as it is to tent my fingers and declare in a serpentine Montgomery Burns hiss, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” I swear I’m not. I do admit that when we drafted the legislation that became H.R. 757, it was my idea to make censorship a basis for designation. But although this is a new idea for North Korea — there was no comprehensive North Korea sanctions law before H.R. 757 — it’s not a new idea for Earth. Other states (Iran, Syria) have been sanctioned for censorship before, just like other states (but not North Korea) had been sanctioned for human rights violations before. I just stole the idea from the people who drafted those sanctions, because like most Americans, including at least 418 members of Congress, 96 senators, and the President of the United States, I hate censorship.

But mostly, I assumed OFAC would issue a general license for journalistic activities in North Korea, as it did for Cuba, Iran, and other sanctioned countries. AP has a bureau in Tehran, despite censorship sanctions that apply to Iran’s government. And maybe AP will get one for its Pyongyang bureau, too.

But I’d be lying if I denied that this thought had crossed my mind: if the AP experiment fails because of this, it would be for the good of journalism and humanity, and also, it couldn’t happen to nicer people

Some people will say that the withdrawal of the AP would be a setback for efforts to open up North Korea. Those people will be wrong. It would really be a setback for the co-option and corruption of our news media by genocidal totalitarians who want to buy down press criticism. The AP didn’t change North Korea; North Korea changed the AP. KCNA didn’t start broadcasting truthful and objective news because the AP came to Pyongyang. AP came to Pyongyang and promptly abandoned its principles, submitted to North Korean censorship, and broadcast a stream of North Korean propaganda, fakery, hostage videos, and vox populi interviews with obvious (to me) plants to hundreds of millions of people around the world. And called it “journalism.”

And for what prize did AP sell its soul? Nothing newsworthy that was exclusive, and nothing exclusive that was newsworthy. It failed to confirm or refute credible reports of a famine in South Hwanghae Province in 2012, just an hour’s drive from Pyongyang. Or any of the dozens of rumors of purges or prolonged disappearances by North Korean generals, or of Kim Jong-un himself. Or about North Korea’s deplorable crimes against humanity, as the world’s attention turned to them so belatedly.

Or, that time an apartment building fell down—what, ten minutes away from its bureau?—possibly killing hundreds of people, when the AP never even reported from the scene. A Rimjingang reporter risked his life to take clandestine photos and predict this disaster. NK News found imagery online and published time-lapse photography of the building vanishing from the Pyongyang skyline … from a thousand miles away. And then, last year, when the most famous hotel in Pyongyang caught fire, the AP, just ….


Journalism is about asking uncomfortable questions, digging for the truth and telling it, and unmasking lies. Whatever the AP is doing in Pyongyang, it isn’t journalism. That’s why OFAC could grant AP a license, but shouldn’t. It’s why if the AP has any shame, it won’t even ask for one. It will silently acknowledge what the rest of us have said for years, collect as much of its dignity and its equipment it can, and drive them to back across the DMZ to Seoul.

~   ~   ~

Update: Oh, and the Propaganda and Agitation Department is headed by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, whom some Korea-watchers expected to be designated individually (she wasn’t).

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Did a U.S. university teach North Korea to track down dissidents?

Just after Christmas, Reuters reported on the analysis of two German IT experts who downloaded a copy of North Korea’s Linux-based Red Star operating system and analyzed its code. Inside, they found something both horrifying and completely predictable. Red Star contains code for “tagging, or watermarking, every document or media file on a computer or on any USB stick connected to it.” Meaning?

That means that all files can be traced. “It’s definitely privacy invading. It’s not transparent to the user,” Grunow said. “It’s done stealthily and touches files you haven’t even opened.”

Nat Kretchun, an authority on the spread of foreign media in North Korea, said such efforts reflected Pyongyang’s realisation that it needs “new ways to update their surveillance and security procedures to respond to new types of technology and new sources of information”. [Reuters]

BoingBoing calls this “a marvel of paranoid terribleness, with lots of marvellously bad features.” (sic)

The one I was most interested in is its covert insertion of watermarks into every file that it touches, either on the OS’s launch disk or removable USB sticks. This is used to track down North Koreans who share illicit media files with their friends and mark them out for punishment in the country’s notorious gulags. [BoingBoing]

Quartz calls it “a dictator’s wet dream:”

One of Red Star’s key features is a watermarking system that secretly creates a record of everyone who’s touched that file.

Red Star quietly adds a unique identifier to media files—pictures, Word documents, or videos—the moment they are accessible. For example, if a USB drive containing an illicit document is plugged into a computer running Red Star, that file is automatically tagged with that computer’s unique identifier. If that file is copied to another machine, the new machine’s identifier is added to the watermark. [Quartz]

The BBC says the watermarking function allows “the state to trace the journey of that file from machine to machine,” “identify undesirable files and delete them without permission.”

The watermarking function was designed in response to the proliferation of foreign films and music being shared offline, says Mr Grunow. “It enables you to keep track of where a document hits Red Star OS for the first time and who opened it. Basically, it allows the state to track documents,” he says.

The system will imprint files with its individual serial number, although it is not known how easily the state can link those serial numbers to individual users.

One element puzzling Mr Grunow is the discovery of an extended version of the watermarking software which he and Mr Schiess do not fully understand, but which he says may help identify individual users.

“What we have seen is the basic watermarking, but we found evidence of an extended mechanism that is far more sophisticated, with different cryptography,” he says.

“It could be that this file is your individual fingerprint and they register this fingerprint to you, and that could help them track down individual users.” [BBC]

Perhaps I can contribute something to the answer to this mystery. Reading this, my elephantine memory recalled that back in 2002, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Don Gregg, who takes an oddly understanding view of North Korea’s human rights abuses, brokered an academic exchange program between a U.S. university and a North Korean university to share (among other technologies) something called “digital watermarking,” which inserts distinctive metadata into digital media to trace copyright violations. 

One application of digital watermarking is source tracking. A watermark is embedded into a digital signal at each point of distribution. If a copy of the work is found later, then the watermark may be retrieved from the copy and the source of the distribution is known. This technique reportedly has been used to detect the source of illegally copied movies. [Wikipedia]

According to this book, entitled “Techniques and Applications: Digital Watermarking and Content Protection,” governments can also abuse this technology for censorship. 

“[I]t is important to note the potential that particularly usage tracing and control mechanisms have for misuse by political entities. Outright censorship or the mere knowledge that any access to information is subject to surveillance by governmental entities can result in a severe curtailment of individual freedoms of expression and ultimately thought due to a lack or selective availability of relevant information. [Page 11]

Most of the online evidence of Gregg’s exchange program has since vanished from the Internet, but thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can still retrieve this 2003 academic paper, which lists Gregg and North Korea’s former U.N. Ambassador as co-authors. It describes a “bilateral research collaboration” project between Syracuse University and North Korea’s Kimchaek University of Technology (KUT), concerning a series of information technologies, including “digital copyright and watermarking programs.”

The project claimed to have “tacit support” from the U.S. State Department.

The 2003 paper provides scant detail on what technology was actually transferred to the North Koreans, but a 2009 online newsletter from Syracuse claimed that the “ongoing collaborative initiative” had “enhanced IT capability in North Korea.” The program kept up a steady drumbeat of activity, including more delegation visits, for several years.

The Syracuse posting also raises the perennial question about engagement with Pyongyang — who changed who? If the objective of engagement is to reform North Korea, lure it into the norms and standards of civilization, and reconcile it with the U.S. and South Korea, its effect seems to have been closer to the opposite. Instead, the North Korean participants inflexibly praised Kim Jong-il and justified his nuclear proliferation, while the American academics they engaged parroted Pyongyang-friendly views of North Korea’s history, and even its nuclear program. There is more evidence that Syracuse’s program reinforced North Korea’s resistance to the norms and standards of civilization than evidence that it encouraged North Korea to conform to them. Sorry for the long quote:

“With the division of the peninsula, the U.S. virtually created a ‘Korea problem,’” says George Kallander, assistant professor of history and expert on Korea, who is on research leave this semester at the Academy of Korean Studies in South Korea. “Koreans themselves did not have a problem. Their country had never been divided like this before.”

He points out the importance of Korean pride and tenacity. “The division of the peninsula was unprecedented and no Korean wanted it. Korea has at various times in the past used foreign forces to overcome domestic political and military problems, but always, always, always Korea has prevailed. This period of division is an anomaly and will not last.

“No matter what people say, the Koreas will unite someday.”

The 1945 partition set the stage for today’s high-stakes diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In April of this year, North Korea withdrew from the Six-Party Talks on nuclear disarmament and has since taken steps to restart its plutonium reprocessing facility and tested a weapon.

Jongwoo Han, an adjunct professor of political science and an expert on Korean politics, traces the evolution of the North Korean weapons program to 1991, when the Soviet Union’s collapse changed the balance of power in Asia and made relationships with America much more important. North Korea began to develop its nuclear strategy as a bargaining chip to gain recognition from the United States.

“North Korea knows its regime security is guaranteed only if the United States recognizes it,” says Han, the co-leader of the exchange program with Kim Chaek University. [….]

In 2002, a North Korean diplomat told Han, “We are going to go all-in” in playing the nuclear development card to gain recognition from the United States, as Han wrote in a 2009 article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs. He explained, “Pyongyang has pursued nuclear proliferation primarily in order to attain security and economic aid,” a point the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung made in 2007 as he hosted visitors from Syracuse. 

[George S. Bain, Syracuse U., Maxwell School, News & Events, 2009]

Oh, and in the newsletter, Gregg pointed to Kim Jong-un’s Swiss education, suggesting that this time, reform was finally here! I could fisk that, but Gregg’s reaction to Kim Jong-un’s fourth nuclear test has so much greater a wealth of material, and Don Kirk has already done a fisking for the ages. It’s a must-read.

Ironically, the target of Red Star’s watermarking function is to stamp out intellectual and cultural engagement between North Koreans and the Outer Earth. Increasingly, that engagement takes place through computers that North Koreans purchase in the markets. Many — though we can’t be sure how many — probably use Red Star. Groups like the North Korea Strategy Center, founded by gulag survivor Kang Chol-hwan, are smuggling flash drives and DVDs loaded with books and movies into North Korea as part of a guerrilla engagement strategy designed to bring social change to one of the world’s most isolated, deprived, and militarized societies. That’s the kind of change Pyongyang is determined to stop.

The question that deserves closer technical examination, then, is whether an American university has unwittingly helped the North Korean security forces track down and punish North Koreans who read that content. We can divide that question into subparts.

  • Did Syracuse University teach North Korea digital watermarking? By its own claims, it intended to do so, although Syracuse hasn’t clearly said what technology it actually transferred. 
  • Did North Korea deploy a similar technology to censor digital content? Yes. 
  • Did North Korea use Syracuse’s technology, or a derivative of that technology, to censor digital content? For now, that’s probably impossible to know, but it seems like a strong possibility. It’s fair to point out that the regimes in Iran, China, and other countries also employ similar samizdat-tracking software. We can’t rule out other sources. 

What should be clear is that this revelation gives Syracuse an ethical responsibility to suspend its exchange program with KUT pending a thorough, independent, and transparent review. That review should examine the watermarking technology in North Korea’s OS, compare it to the technology Syracuse transferred to North Korea, and determine whether the technologies Syracuse shared with KUT are subject to misuse. 

Really, then, the questions this post raises are logically related to those raised by the still-unanswered allegations that exchange programs are training North Korean hackers, or helping North Korea weaponize anthrax. Proponents of exchange programs with North Korea can’t be oblivious to the nature of the regime they’re engaging, and the potential for it to misuse the technologies they share. Instead, they have a heightened duty to safeguard against the misuse of potentially harmful technologies with a regime of this nature.

Unfortunately, those involved in Syracuse’s project may be far too gullible to see this. That’s why it should not be left to them to reevaluate the ethical responsibility of their IT exchange programs with North Korea.

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Obama sanctions enablers of censorship in Iran, Sudan & Syria (but not North Korea)

Another announcement, last week, from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control:

Barracuda Networks, Inc. (“Barracuda U.S.”), of Campbell, California, has agreed to pay $38,930 on behalf of itself and its United Kingdom subsidiary, Barracuda Networks Ltd. (“Barracuda U.K.”), (collectively “Barracuda”) to settle potential civil liability for alleged violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 560;1 the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 538, and the Syrian Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 542. From August 2009 to April 2012, Barracuda U.K. sold Web filtering products including products that could be used to block or censor Internet activity; internet security products; and related software subscriptions to individuals and entities in Iran and Sudan, and to Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDNs”) under the Syrian Regulations. In addition, from August 2009 to May 2012, Barracuda U.S. provided the firmware and software updates for these and other software subscriptions.

So, what has our government done to find and sanction the (reportedly German) exporter of those cell phone trackers North Korea is using to seal its borders? Anyone?

Or the trading companies, controlled by the North Korean internal security services, that are financing Kim Jong-Un’s border crackdown

The Treasury Department has not sanctioned North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security or its State Security Department, their leaders, or the Chinese and other third-country entities that trade with them.

It has sanctioned the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service and its director of news services for “censorship or other activities that limit the freedom of expression,” but it hasn’t sanctioned the Korean Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun, or Korea Central Television.

Why not North Korea? Has our government recognized Pyongyang as a dead zone for freedom of information? What honest and conscientious believer in engagement with North Korea can say that its government should have the right to close off our best avenues for engagement with the North Korean people?

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The more North Korea trades, the more it reforms, right? Wrong.

Yesterday, I questioned the premises of economic engagement with Pyongyang — that Pyongyang is socialist, that trade is capitalism, that capitalism inexorably erodes socialism, and that capitalism (least of all, state capitalism) is inherently liberal and peaceful. I argued that Pyongyang adopted state capitalism decades ago, and that it has grown steadily more menacing and repressive ever since. It feigns socialism to feed our false hopes of reform and arguments against sanctions, to tempt investors, to recruit apologists who embrace its socialist pretenses, and to justify the economic totalitarianism it uses to starve and isolate the vast majority of its subjects. Pyongyang doesn’t practice socialism; it imposes it on the underclasses. The underclasses are the only ones who can change that.

Sincere advocates of changing North Korea by engaging Pyongyang may accept that their best intentions didn’t work, yet still not lose heart. If they’re willing to rethink engagement in terms of engaging the people rather than the state, they’ll find more reason than ever to believe that change is in sight. For example, it now seems likely that within the next five years, anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to access the internet. The signal might come from Google’s Project Loon, or Facebook’s Internet.org, or maybe some combination of both. Universal internet access will shatter Korea’s virtual DMZ; eventually, it can break the physical one, too. The day is coming when North Koreans will be able to attend South Korean classes, sermons, movies, clinics, lectures, and family reunions. There can be a revolution in the people-to-people engagement that the Sunshine Policy promised, but couldn’t deliver, if South Koreans have the vision and the courage to weave a virtual Ho Chi Minh Trail of clandestine communication from South to North. North and South Koreans can use this network to rebuild the North’s civil institutions from the ground up, to establish shadow governments, to build the capacity to resist the state’s most repressive policies, and to begin the process of reconstruction.

Today, however, the South Korean government remains too timid to broadcast to its northern countrymen on AM radio. My friend (and now, National Assemblyman) Ha Tae Kyung, interviewed by the Daily NK, calls for Seoul to make broadcasting a part of its unification policy, which at present desperately lacks a Phase 2. Ha wonders how the Blue House and the Unifiction Ministry can be serious about reunification when they haven’t called for radio broadcasts to the North, broadcasts that could play an important part in the cultural and social reunification.

Of course, Pyongyang will try to enforce the poverty and isolation of its subjects as if its survival depends on it. Just as it cracked down on its northern border, tracks down and arrests the users of Chinese cell phones, and sends distributors of foreign media to the gulag, it will try to arrest, imprison, terrorize, or kill anyone who listens to South-to-North broadcasts, or who makes inter-Korean phone calls. Yet the right policies on our part can give the people a fighting chance.

This picture taken on April 6, 2013 shows a Chinese border guard standing on a look out post by the bridge that crosses the Yalu river to the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the city of Dandong. The US is pressuring China's new President Xi Jinping to crack down on the regime in North Korea or face an increased US military presence in the region, The New York Times reported late April 5, 2013. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

[STR/AFP/Getty Images, via WaPo]

Isolating a country costs money, and with the decline in the Chinese economy, Pyongyang may be having more difficulty finding that money. The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale cites Chinese trade data showing that “[t]he value of North Korean exports to China … fell 9.8% through August from the year-earlier period … accelerating from a 2.4% decline last year.” Meanwhile, another report confirms what I’ve long suspected — that the security forces are funding themselves through some of this trade:

North Korea’s feared State Security Department (SSD) has established a new “trade organization” tasked with earning foreign currency from China, according to sources who say the branch will likely use its broad powers to tap into channels used by the impoverished nation’s subsistence smugglers.

The SSD, also known as the Ministry of State Security, set up the organization “very recently” with its headquarters in the capital Pyongyang and several satellite offices in “local areas” of North Korea, a source from North Hamgyong province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“While the whole nation is aware of the shortage of foreign currency in North Korea, it seems strange to establish a new trade organization under the SSD, which traditionally monitors the population’s activities to ensure they do not contravene the rules of the regime,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, after recently visiting China.

In addition to keeping an eye on the political actions of the public in North Korea, the SSD’s secret police force keeps tabs on North Koreans who travel to and from China, as well as telephone communications in border areas.

Sources said the move will likely have implications for North Koreans who subsist on Chinese currency they earn by running smuggling operations over the border. [….]

A source based in China who maintains a close relationship with North Koreans earning foreign currency there told RFA that a “large number of people belonging to the SSD” had been dispatched across the border since spring to “monitor and control the activities of North Korean residents” in the country.

“Since they are ostensibly working for foreign currency, they are called ‘trade representatives,’ just like others [who have been sent to earn cash for the regime],” said the source, who also declined to provide his name. [Radio Free Asia]

The regime’s use of trade to finance this crackdown sets up a zero-sum competition between state capitalism and free-market capitalism, the kind that has genuine potential to transform North Korean society. The SSD’s profiteering is neither a quiet capitalist revolution nor a sign of reform that is washing away the foundations of socialism. It pays for the enforcement of isolationism, and makes North Korea more unequal, oligarchical, and totalitarian (read: fascist). This may also be true of Pyongyang’s other trade relations, too, but we can only guess, because its finances are so opaque that not even the Treasury Department knows how it uses the proceeds.

In addition to broadcasting and people-to-people engagement, then, sanctions targeting the SSD’s assets are an important part of a policy to protect North Koreans from censorship and help them liberalize their society. By starving the security forces of cash, anti-censorship sanctions would deny the SSD the means to equip and pay its officers. They would foster the corruption that facilitates smuggling, and preferentially support engagement through independent free markets. The use of sanctions to fight censorship and support freedom of expression is nothing new. Treasury has anti-censorship sanctions against Iran to “facilitate communications by the Iranian people.” Why not North Korea?

Ha is dismissive of sanctions, perhaps because he lumps all kinds of sanctions together, and (like most people) doesn’t know the significant gaps in their enforcement. It’s a common myth that sanctions against Pyongyang are still strong, although I’ve previously debunked this myth in detail. Ha argues that the trade sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang in 2010, after the attack on the ROKS Cheonan, haven’t made Pyongyang apologize or come to the negotiating table. He concludes that “economic sanctions don’t have effects, but broadcasts do.”

Respectfully, I think Assemblyman Ha is missing a few key points, including the role sanctions can play in protecting his North Korean listeners. First, the lifting of these trade sanctions has been at the top of Pyongyang’s list of demands since 2010. If it can be argued that loudspeaker propaganda was effective because Pyongyang sounded desperate to switch it off, the same can be argued of the bilateral trade sanctions.

Second, by lumping all “sanctions” together, Ha overlooks what is beyond serious dispute — that financial sanctions hit Pyongyang where it hurt most:

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” [….]

Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.” [N.Y. Times Review, “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate]

Third, the May 24, 2010 sanctions are narrow sanctions with narrow purposes — they exclude Kaesong, after all. Ha has a vision for reunification and has articulated it; Park Geun-Hye doesn’t and hasn’t. Still, even Park’s limited goals can be valid ones. Trade sanctions deter Pyongyang by imposing a (small) price for murdering South Koreans with premeditation and malice aforethought. They’re also consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which prohibit member states from providing “public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.” South Korea voted for those sanctions when it was a member of the Security Council. The other members of the Security Council approved them, in large part for South Korea’s own protection. Seoul can’t very well ignore them now.

We now have evidence that regime-controlled trade funds the oppression that isolates North Koreans, retards change, and helps Pyongyang repress the people who would listen to the broadcasts Ha supports. If the world wants North Korea to change, it has to give free markets — North Korea’s only independent institutions, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival — a fighting chance to survive. As long as Pyongyang’s oligarchy has unrestricted access to our financial system, it will use it to isolate and repress its people. We should seek to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power away from the ones with the guns and food toward those without. That means giving North Korea’s people information and access to markets. That, in turn, means blocking the funds that pay for Pyongyang’s policy of isolation and oppression.

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Sale of cell phone detectors to N. Korea adds to Germany’s debt to history

If there is any justice in our universe, there is a special septic tank in hell reserved for the people who profit by selling these things to Pyongyang:

According to local sources, North Korean authorities have recently begun carrying small, German manufactured radar detectors when patrolling near the Chinese border for the purpose of monitoring international phone calls made on Chinese-made cell phones.

These intensified measures follow a proliferation of stationary detectors installed in North Hamgyong Province in conjunction with enhanced wiretapping technology, as previously reported by Daily NK. [Daily NK]

What I wouldn’t give to know the name of the manufacturer and exporter. The Treasury Department has the authority — and the responsibility — to sanction them to extinction under Executive Order 13687.


[Berlin, 1941: Gestapo officers demonstrate “a mobile radio detector to pick up resistance signals” to a visiting Spanish delegation]

Every government whose desire to open North Korea to the world matches its self-serving rhetoric ought to be investigating this case actively, including Germany, including South Korea, and including our own State Department.

On September 14th, Daily NK staff spoke with a source in Yanggang Province who confirmed that recently, personnel from a number of different security organs including the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the State Security Department, have formed a ‘gruppa,’ or public order teams established for specific tasks, specifically for the purpose of cracking down on overseas phone calls. This unit patrols day and night using the small radar detectors to pick up on cell phone signals calling overseas.

An additional source in Yanggang Province confirmed these developments.

In the past,  the majority of sensors used for enforcement were carried in bags but the new radar detectors from Germany are small enough to be carried in a pocket, the source said, noting, “Before this, citizens who were wary of being caught would simply avoid any security officers toting bags. With the new devices, many people will see officers without bags and assume it is safe to make an overseas phone call–then they get caught.”

Knowing the human species’s gift for self-justification as I do, I’m sure that if you confronted the German government with evidence that one of its companies was helping Kim Jong-Un to seal the borders and oppress his population, at least one official would justify this trade by using the word “engagement.”

“Members of the task force, whether they are from the SSD or the MPS, are blindly rounding up citizens and searching the stored contents of their phones. If they find any South Korean songs, videos, or other materials the authorities deem ‘sensitive,’ the offender is arrested right then and there,” he said.

Despite the increase in and intensity of crackdowns, the appetite for South Korean dramas and films remains large and ever expanding, especially among university students. Because many students sell this type of media for a living, it is difficult to stamp out the problem at its roots.

But then, how different is the engagement that sells Kim Jong-Un cell phone detectors from the engagement that gives Kim Jong-Un the cash to pay for them?

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N. Korea Glasnost Watch: Video shows men sent to camps for copying American movies

The Telegraph has obtained guerrilla footage of two men, one 27 and one 30, being tried and sentenced to nine months in a labor camp for copying and selling American movies.

The North Korean judge, or official, says that one of the defendants is “a person immersed in the corrupt ideology of capitalism” and tells the crowd that the criminal acts were “revealed by agents in South Korea operated by our party.”
During the full 12 minutes of footage, filmed secretly by an onlooker and seen exclusively by the Telegraph, neither man is given the chance to speak, and both are sentenced to time in an unnamed correctional labour camp. The exact length of the sentence appears to be around nine months – experts say around one to two years is common.

Not stated in the article is that the men aggravated their crime by failing to pay a sufficient bribe to avoid trial entirely.

The footage is from September 2013, and the cameraman who took it obviously did so at great risk. With the recent crackdown on border control, it has become much harder to get information in or out of North Korea. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) and New Focus International teamed up to smuggle the video out and get it into the hands of the media. Michael Glendenning, EAHRNK’s Director, comments:

“This video is in itself very rare – very few bits of footage are able to get out of North Korea. But also, public trials are extremely rarely reported outside North Korea,” he said.

“This video corroborates the vast evidence from witnesses’ testimony that there is no judicial system to speak of. People are denied access to lawyers, or any right to defend themselves, and are sentenced without any knowledge of what their sentence will be, in terms of length, or where they will end up. It demonstrates the brutality of the North Korean system.”

Footage like this is incalculably important for corroborating the testimonies of defectors, for increasing international pressure on the regime and those who help finance and perpetuate it, and as a deterrent against repressive actions like these. If cameras become ubiquitous enough that Pyongyang reasonably fears that its repressive acts will be filmed and shown abroad, it will face pressure to reconsider its actions for fear of greater international isolation.

In related news, the Daily NK reports that Pyongyang granted a Liberation Day amnesty to “thousands” of prisoners in its labor-reeducation camps. It arrives at this estimate by extrapolating from the number of releases observed in local areas. These are the smaller kyo-hwa-seo, not the larger kwan-li-so political prison camps. Those watching for signs of political change will be disappointed:

The first batch of released prisoners mainly consisted of petty economic criminals, robbers, violent offenders, and those who injured others while driving due to carelessness, he explained. Notably, the first cohort did not include a single prisoner arrested by the State Security Department [SSD] for what are considered “political crimes.” The second amnesty wave, set to take place at 5 prisons, is slated to follow the same pattern as the first: that is, political prison camp [kwanliso] detainees will remain exempt from amnesty. [Daily NK]

In other words, the regime is releasing people sentenced for acts that would be crimes in normal societies, even as it continues to arrest and hold people for thoughtcrimes, and other offenses against the state’s totalitarian control.

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Can Hollywood still make movies about North Korea? We’re about to find out.

Via Deadline Hollywood:

Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim and his CBS-based production company 3AD are partnering with Sriram Das’ Das Films (November Man) to develop Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea: Defiance And Hope In The World’s Most Repressive Country, as a feature film. Rosalind Ross (Matador) is attached to pen the adaptation, and the South Korean-born Daniel Dae Kim will star as Mike Kim (no relation).

The 2008 memoir chronicles a first-hand account of a high-risk mission to lead a group of refugees over the North Korean border through Southeast Asia using a modern-day Underground Railroad. Over the course of his four years in Asia, Mike Kim would end up aiding thousands of people of all ages find safe haven through his humanitarian missions. The project is timely given the recent border standoff and escalation in tensions between North and South Korea.

Yes, and by the time it’s released, it will be timely for some other reason. Maybe, let’s say, a nuke test. Or an artillery attack on a leaflet launch. Or a large, suspicious explosion somewhere in South Korea. Oh, here’s a good one — how about a cyberattack on 3AD studios and a threat against every movie theater that shows this movie?

Those damn disgruntled insiders — you never know when they’ll show up. No, seriously — I sure hope CBS and 3AD invest in some good cybersecurity, like now. Because, welcome to the age of global censorship, when in a small but very real sense, we’re all the subjects of Kim Jong-Un.

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Kim Jong Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit freedom.

If Kim Jong Un is weighing whether to answer leaflets from South Korea with artillery, it won’t discourage him that many on South Korea’s illiberal left have already begun to excuse him for it. Within this confused, transpatriated constituency, there is much “anxiety” lately about “inter-Korean tensions.” Those tensions have risen since North Korea has begun threatening to shell the North Korean defectors who send leaflets critical of Kim’s misrule across the DMZ. But then, any rational mind can see who is at fault when the object of non-violent criticism answers his critic’s threats with violence. Right?


[The Park Police should check those blankets for wet spots.]

I don’t suppose it occurred to these people to take their grievances and anxieties to the ones who are threatening war over non-violent expression. That would be the logical reaction if these people were really as concerned about “tension” as they were about acting as Kim Jong Un’s proxy censors. Their undisguised demand is that Seoul should censor — and that Washington should abstain from supporting — free expression, for the very reason that Pyongyang is threatening to shell civilian villages in response to it.

Dismiss this as the view of a lunatic fringe if you will, but not all of this lunacy is on the fringe.

For example, today is the fifth anniversary of North Korea’s premeditated and unprovoked sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an act of war that killed 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation team found that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan. Yet only yesterday, the head of the left-opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy finally acknowledged that the North did it. For five years, conspiracy kooks and appeasers had enough influence within the NPAD to prevent it from giving the first small comfort of this acknowledgement to the souls of the dead and the hearts of the bereaved. The NPAD’s long, reprehensible silence speaks more loudly than its words.

And now, here is Jeong Se-Hyun, who headed the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland Reunification Ministry under Kim Jong Il Roh Moo Hyun:

“The (South Korean) government claims the leaflet scattering is a matter of free expression, but such a slander on (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is something fatal to the North,” the former point man on the North said in a local symposium.

“If the Park Geun-hye administration wants to hold a meaningful inter-Korean dialogue during its term, it should send a sincere message that (Seoul) will acknowledge and respect (Pyongyang),” he noted. [Yonhap]

I could not answer this better than Shirley Lee did, in a series of three profound and cogent tweets:

With all this and more, it is laughably tragic that we who are free to think continue to think only within frames set by such a system.

Where each of its subjects living beyond its narrative must be despised and scorned, and those submitting to its frame to be praised.

We side with a brutal, inhumane, zero-sum system merely by siding with its frames, by not calling it out, forging and articulating our own.

Also, Jeong reveals too much here. If he really thinks that non-violent expression is “fatal,” he must believe that a few scattered scraps of paper have the potential to inspire the North Korean people to risk their lives to overthrow His Porcine Majesty. That, given half a chance, they’d hang him from a lamppost (and they should be sure it’s a very sturdy one). Jeong is a closet collapsist! Perhaps he could write me a guest post expanding on this.

Park Sang Hak – Hacking North Korea’s… by NORTHKOREATV

This week, Pyongyang’s proxy censors are especially afraid of Park Sang-Hak. Park is obviously under great pressure from both Korean governments, including the one that hasn’t yet tried to assassinate him. Just this week, Park has said that he would abstain from sending leaflets “for now,” and also vowed to send them “next week” despite the North’s threats.

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[This is a syringe, loaded with the poison neostigmine bromide. Agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau use them to assassinate dissidents and activists. One of them tried to kill Park Sang-Hak with this one.]

Incidentally — and please, stop me if you’ve read this somewhere — President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission has opined that Park’s activities are guaranteed under Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It might also have said that they’re protected under Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution. There is another party whose rights we shouldn’t forget, either. The North Korean people also have a right to receive information from across the no-smile line:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

Writing in The New York Times before the Sony attack and threat, Professor Lee and I took the moderate view that the South Korean government must honor these rights, but could still impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which Park sends his leaflets. After all, North Korea clearly has no regard for the lives of South or North Koreans. Perhaps, then, we should concede the prudence of asking the activists to send their leaflets from less populated areas, for the sake of those who live nearby. But then, this recent story caused me to wonder if we had conceded too much:

North Korea on Tuesday threatened to mercilessly punish South Korean activists for allegedly hurting the dignity of its young leader Kim Jong-un during a public demonstration, the latest in a series of harsh rhetoric against rival South Korea.

The latest threat came days after a conservative activist in Seoul trampled a photo of Kim and slashed it with a knife during a rally as others burned printed replicas of North Korean flags. [Yonhap]

In other words, North Korea is now threatening free assembly and expression in downtown Seoul. When you consider that Pyongyang has sent multiple assassins to Seoul and to China to murder dissidents there, no dissident should see this as an idle threat. It has also repeatedly threatened and cyber-attacked South Korean newspapers and broadcasters. It’s not as if Pyongyang has the standing to demand that anyone respect its (unconscionable, soul-crushing) laws when it shows such contempt for the South’s society and laws. No government that submits to such threats can call itself a democracy. The only appropriate response to this is unprintable on a blog with a PG-13 rating, and for most people, would be anatomically impossible.

Aside from the desire to police thought on the streets of Seoul, what other principled grievance might Pyongyang have? Might it have a principled objection to cross-border propaganda leafleting, based on some idea of mutual non-interference? Umm, no:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.28 PM

In 1998, just after morning formation one day, a soldier friend found this outside the fence around Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and gave it to me. The Army told us to drop these things into special leaflet collection boxes, but who needs one of those cheap gift pens the ROK Defense Ministry hands out every year when you could have a souvenir like this? (Sorry for the wrinkles. Sweaty PT uniforms do that.)

Is it North Korea’s principled position that it’s an act of war to fly physical objects across the DMZ? I doubt that, too.

In any event, if the objection to balloons is that they’re a physical intrusion — notwithstanding their obvious non-violence — then the South Korean and U.S. governments should expand their support for Radio Free North Korea and Open Radio. South Korea should also let them broadcast on medium wave. Pyongyang and Seoul both broadcast to each other now, although on a limited scale.

~   ~   ~

The odds are greater than ever that someone who shares Jeong’s world view will be the next President of South Korea. In fact, given the healthy tendency of voters to tire of any extended rule by a single party, I’d assess them slightly higher than that. If Jeong speaks for a majority of South Koreans, South Korea won’t remain a free and open society for long. It was barely a free and open society when Roh Moo-Hyun was in charge. Let’s not forget that last year, the NPAD proposed to regulate (read: ban) cross-border leafleting. Does anyone expect North Korea to be more respectful of free expression in the South now that it’s at the verge of nuclear breakout? It wouldn’t be unprecedented for an appeasement-minded government in Seoul to add the in terrorem effect of arrests and tax audits to this.

The question here is nothing less than whether South Korea has the courage and reason to remain a free society. If it does, we should give South Korea our support. If not, just remember that Pyongyang’s demands have no borders or limits. Accede to one and there will be another. As a wise man said,

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like.”

Last year, Kim Jong Un effectively extended the reach of his censorship to the United States, not only by preventing theaters from screening a film critical of him, but also by preventing Hollywood studios from making any more of them. By my count, in the last year, Pyongyang has attempted to extent the writ of its censorship — with some success — to Seoul, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Rangoon, Paris, and an academic conference in downtown Washington, D.C. It is also suspected of a cyberattack against The Washington Post. Several years ago, someone hacked this very site.

Of course, South Korea doesn’t have to remain a free society, any more than the United States has to keep 28,500 soldiers and airmen there. Regardless of what kind of society South Korea chooses to be, the United States would still have interests in maintaining friendly relations and trade with it. It’s just that the world is descending into madness at the moment, and we’ve become more particular about who and what we’re willing to die for.

There are two possible lessons here, depending on the path taken in Seoul, Washington, and the world’s other capitals.

The first is that terrorism works when governments are more willing to yield to it than to stand up to it and protect free expression.

The second may not be the one that Pyongyang hoped for: that Pyongyang sounds as afraid of free expression as it is of sanctions. Something here has nipped an especially sensitive nerve in the tender man-bosoms of His Porcine Majesty. Where there is upset, there is also a deterrent. Perhaps Pentagon planners should explore the “soft” power of free expression, not only as a tool to transform North Korean society, but to deter North Korean provocations. An extended deployment of Commando Solo may be just the thing to deter a fourth nuclear test. Perhaps free speech isn’t the problem at all. Perhaps it’s an important part of the solution.

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How Barack Obama let Kim Jong Un get away with censoring and terrorizing America (updated)

Last December, after the FBI and the National Security Agency  concluded that North Korea’s Unit 121 had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened the Americans who wanted to see “The Interview,” President Obama publicly accused North Korea of the cyberattack and threat, and promised a “proportional response” to it. On January 2nd, the President signed a new executive order whose potential was sweeping, but whose actual effect was “symbolic at best.” In practice, the designations under the new executive order amounted to whack-a-mole sanctions against ten small-time arms dealers, who were probably replaced by ten other small-time arms dealers within weeks.

Is that all? Maybe not. If you believe Rep. Michael McCaul, the President also directed the intelligence community to take down North Korea’s internet for a few days. The Director of the CIA, who seems rather desperately to want to deny the story, nevertheless stuck to the CIA’s customary neither-confirm-nor-deny line — sometimes called a “Glomar” response — which will be read in most places, including Pyongyang, as, “So they did it.”

Had this been the act of a band of angry nerds in Guy Fawkes masks (and by the way, about those masks), most people would have applauded it. I still hope that it was. As the act of a great power that once treasured and defended the free expression of its people with all of its might, no word would describe this better than “chickenshit.” It suggests that angry nerds in Guy Fawkes masks have been put in charge of defending the lives, liberty, and security of the world’s greatest power with a mighty arsenal of college pranks. What’s next, flaming dog poop on the doorstep of North Korea’s U.N. mission? It’s hard to see how this will deter future North Korean attacks; after all, the internet is about as vital to North Korea as a subway system is to North Dakota.

In the United States, freedom of expression is not only the foundation of our system of government — of what makes us America — it is also the foundation of what those who shrink from the use of hard power call “soft power.” It is difficult to measure the damage our freedom of expression has suffered in just the last three months alone, but the cyberattack caused Sony Pictures to cancel the release of a major film just before the holidays, and a second studio, New Regency, also announced that it would scrap a second film about North Korea.

In a very real way, the world’s most oppressive system of government has extended the reach of its censorship to our society, and our government acts as if it is impotent to react to this. When one considers the very real legal and safety risks attendant to engaging in what the most extreme adherents of Islam call “blasphemy” today, one strains to argue that the United States is as free today as it was five years ago. If only there were a man whose duties and authorities consisted of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States.

~   ~   ~

Knowing, as history has taught us, that finance is the only North Korean vulnerability the United States has ever exploited successfully, smarter people are following the money. No one should be following North Korea’s money more closely than Adam Szubin, the head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Szubin is also the Acting Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence because his predecessor, David Cohen, has been picked to be the new CIA Director. That should tell you everything about the importance of financial intelligence in U.S. foreign policy today.) This week, Szubin delivered a speech to a trade group in Florida, where he talked about the Obama Administration’s sanctions enforcement priorities:

We are imposing costs on Russia for its brazen violation of core international principles.  We are working to deprive ISIL of the financial means to terrorize the people of Iraq and Syria and spread its warped ideology.  We are keeping up the pressure on Iran while we seek a diplomatic means of ensuring that it will not acquire a nuclear weapon. [Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

By now, you’ve noticed a glaring omission from the list — the only state counterfeiter of the U.S. dollar. One of two nations (Iran being the other) singled out for countermeasures by the Financial Action Task Force. The only nation to have successfully suppressed freedom of expression in the United States by directing its clandestine agents to make a terrorist threat against the American people, in their own country. And as of this week, the only nation to have sponsored a cyberattack against multiple nuclear power plants, an attack that the South Korean government claims was intended to cause a reactor malfunction.

Where it matters — on the financial front — North Korea is a blind spot for the Obama Administration. You can see this manifested in a variety of ways. In this paper, I explained the general weakness of the sanctions authorities in place against North Korea, the relatively small number of North Korean entities designated for the blocking of their dollar-denominated assets, and the relatively low level of the entities designated. This matters, because as the U.N. Panel of Experts recently confirmed, North Korea still relies heavily on the dollar system to violate U.N. Security Council sanctions. Yet you’ll have to search far and wide for any evidence that Treasury has enforced even those sanctions against the banks that help North Korea finance itself, violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, break our laws, and suppress our fundamental freedoms, all by using our own financial institutions.

Last year, for example, the Treasury Department entered into the largest settlement of a potential sanctions penalty in its history, when the French parastatal bank BNP Paribas agreed to pay nearly $1 billion for stripping data out of records of transactions to evade sanctions. Sanctions against whom, you ask?

For instance, a Sudanese bank seeking to move U.S. dollars out of Sudan transferred funds internally within a BNP satellite bank, which then transferred the money to the Sudanese bank’s “intended beneficiary” without reference to the Sudanese bank.

BNP Paribas agreed with sanctioned entities “not to mention their names in U.S. dollar transactions,” and included explicit instructions to bank personnel, such as “! Payment in $ to [French Bank 1] without mentioning Sudan to N.Y.!!!” [….]

According to New York regulators, the scope of the violations was much larger. DFS said from 2002 to 2012, BNP Paribas provided more than $190 billion of dollar-clearing services for Sudanese, Iranian and Cuban parties.

Under orders from “high levels of the Bank’s group management,” BNP Paribas engaged in a “systematic practice…of removing or omitting Sudanese, Iranian or Cuban information” from U.S. dollar-denominated transactions with the purpose of avoiding disclosure “to any potential investigatory authorities,” according to the DFS document. [Wall Street Journal]

Once again, North Korea is absent from the list. Even after the BNP Paribas settlement, Treasury continued to investigate “at least six banks in Germany, France, Italy or Japan” for violating sanctions against “Iran, Sudan, Cuba or other nations hit with U.S. sanctions.” Although North Korea wasn’t one of the principal targets of that investigation, the article gave reason to hope that there would be at least one enforcement action against a bank this year. It linked to this 2014 report by Germany’s Commerzbank, revealing that the bank was under investigation for possible sanctions violations involving North Korea. That probably means that Commerzbank was suspected of dealing with the Foreign Trade Bank or Daedong Credit Bank, the only two North Korean banks of significance that have been designated by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Months passed with no word of any enforcement action against Commerzbank. Then, last week, Treasury issued a press statement confirming the outcome of its investigation: Commerzbank signed a settlement with OFAC, agreeing to pay $258,660,796 for “apparent” violations of sanctions on Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba. What about North Korea? To be fair, OFAC also suspected Commerzbank of violating Executive Order 13,382, “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and Their Supporters,” which is the authority for approximately half of the North Korean designations. Yet no North Korean entities are mentioned in the settlement agreement, which explains Commerzbank’s alleged violations in detail. Here’s Treasury’s summary of how Commerzbank did it:

Those practices included deleting or omitting references to Iranian financial institutions and replacing the originating bank information with Commerzbank’s name from payment messages sent to U.S. financial institutions.  Commerzbank also created a process to route payments involving Iranian counterparties to a payment queue requiring manual processing by bank employees rather than routine, automated processing.  Commerzbank utilized these practices in 1,596 financial transactions routed to or through banks in the United States between 2005 and 2010….

As is customary, Commerzbank denied any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. The report does have one bright spot — It also notes that “Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, has said it stopped doing new business with Iran, Syria, Sudan and North Korea in 2007.”

It’s worth clarifying that the Treasury Department isn’t the problem here. Szubin is regarded by congressional staffers of both parties as a highly competent bureaucrat and technocrat. The problem is that his remarks reflect the priorities of the president he serves. For the same reasons, the OFAC staff aren’t the problem, either; when sufficiently resourced, they do their jobs very well. The problem is at the top — the President hasn’t made it a priority or dedicated sufficient resources to the problem, most likely because the State Department has persuaded the President to slow-walk sanctions enforcement. The result is that the President keeps the sweep of the sanctions narrow, barely enforces the sanctions that are in effect, and pays token attention to violations and offenses he absolutely can’t ignore.

That abstention from responsibility is now threatening the most fundamental freedoms of the American people, the safety of the South Korean people, the integrity of the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions, and the entire global nonproliferation system. North Korea has made it clear that its system of government and ours cannot coexist. The very least we should do is less of what we’re doing now to help North Korean fascism to continue to exist.

~   ~   ~

If you believe the anonymous U.S. government sources who talked to the Daily Beast, we didn’t knock KCNA down, but we did something else. The sources won’t say what, and more importantly, it’s hard to tell if these sources are high enough in their own organizations to understand the full picture of what various other agencies were up to.

On Tuesday, the online news outlet Daily Beast cited unidentified sources with knowledge of the U.S. government cyber-operations against North as saying that the operations were “designed to send a message that North Korean officials weren’t beyond the reach of the American government.”

The U.S. operations took place before the blackout, but the takedown itself was not the result of those operations, the sources were quoted as saying. The report also said independent hackers have claimed they are the ones that took the North offline.

Former U.S. intelligence officials were also quoted as saying that the American government would hesitate to take down the North’s entire network because it would cut intelligence agencies off from the cyber-spying they were doing inside North Korea. [Yonhap]

You can read the Daily Beast report here.

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Once again, North Korea threatens free speech here in the United States

On December 19, 2014, in response to the FBI’s conclusion that North Korea was behind the threats against audiences for “The Interview,” President Obama said, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” After all, the President reasoned, “if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.”

Or, he might have added, a human rights conference put on by an N.G.O. in downtown Washington, D.C., where current and former U.S. diplomats were in attendance.

North Korea says it will respond “very strongly” to a conference in Washington on Tuesday about its widespread human rights abuses and says the United States ignored Pyongyang’s offer to attend and defend itself. Puzzled conference organizers said the event was open to the public.

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters Monday his country has asked the U.S. government to “immediately scrap the so-called conference” hosted by the nonprofit Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speakers include Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. [AP]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

You can debate what Jang meant and exactly what he was threatening, if you care to. I have no doubt that Jang’s masters chose exactly the words they did so that they could preserve a modicum of deniability, while allowing the rest of us to put his words into the context of North Korea’s recent actions and draw the obvious conclusions. What’s beyond dispute is that Pyongyang is trying to censor debate right here in Washington, D.C., by purporting to tell Americans what they can meet and talk about. Pyongyang now believes it can enforce its censorship writs on Rhode Island Avenue. It must be disabused of that notion.

If the President of the United States believes in defending our freedom to debate issues that are important to public policy, his first response will be to expel Ambassador Jang for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. His second response will be to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. His third response will be to get on with that “proportional” response he promised, after North Korean hackers threatened to attack American moviegoers. Those threats successfully suppressed two major films, and they have done incalculable harm to our freedom of expression. The President’s response ought to be premised on the determination that if North Korea forces us to choose between our freedom of expression and North Korea’s existence, then North Korea must cease to exist. A policy of imposing incremental inconvenience would no longer do.

Few Americans would describe President Obama as a particularly good president, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, although I’d still argue that with respect to North Korea, President Bush’s combination of empty tough talk and appeasement was even worse. Yet for some reason, fair or unfair, the North Koreans have made the calculation that Obama is a lightweight, and that he won’t offer a serious response to this sort of thing. That means we’re sure to hear more like this from them.

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S. Korean Human Rights Commission: Government can’t ban leaflets

“The privately organized spread of propaganda leaflets is a form of free speech protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the sources quoted the final statement as saying. “Restricting these scatterings is like listening to the North’s demands at the expense of South Koreans’ human rights.” [Yonhap]

Yes! I’d started to wonder whether anyone in South Korea grasped this. I think we can now say that the HRC has rehabilitated itself from the days under Roh Moo Hyun when it became a laughingstock because of its refusal to consider human rights in North Korea, while taking up Iraq. Well, no longer.

But then, there are people right here in America who would ban “slander” of North Korea, or who don’t think Americans should be able to make films like “The Interview” in deference to the sensitivities of foreign despots. For some, the temptation to appease overcomes greater principles. For others, who set out to engage and transform North Korea, it is they who change to match their surroundings.

I also hope that the leafleters will take some reasonable precautions, and launch from unpopulated areas, or at night.

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Then they came for the Germans: N. Korea’s global censorship campaign

Having seen “The Interview,” I’d rate it as good an artistic fit for the Berlin Film Festival as Klaus Nomi might have been for the half-time entertainment at a tractor pull. North Korean diplomats, however, aren’t widely esteemed for certain qualities — like, diplomacy, or diplomacy, academic rigor, or cultural sophistication. Consequently, when they heard that “The Interview” was to open in Germany on February 5th, they misunderstood that it was on the festival agenda. And they said this:

The North Korean statement issued Wednesday stated: “The screening of the movie that hurts the dignity of the supreme leadership of North Korea and openly agitates state-sponsored terrorism has nothing to do with the ‘freedom of expression’ touted by Germany. It is evidently agitation of terrorism quite contrary to the purpose and nature of the Berlin International Film Festival.” [Variety]

They also called the film “state-sponsored terrorism.” Sigh. Someone really should lend the North Koreans a dictionary or a law book, because words, like, you know, actually mean stuff.

It ended: “The U.S. and Germany should immediately stop the farce of screening the anti-North Korean movie at the film festival. Those who attempt at terrorist acts and commit politically-motivated provocations and those who join them in violation of the sovereignty and dignity of North Korea will never be able to escape merciless punishment.” [Variety]

You can thank me for verifying that quote on KCNA, the Phuket back-alley ladyboy of the Internet, so you don’t have to. KCNA even compares “The Interview” to the Holocaust, which is a privilege they’re not entitled because … well, this would be one reason. And this would be another. And this (OK, you get the idea). Read it in full below the fold. It’s a thing of such blithe obliviousness that a certain childlike wonder soon washes over one’s sense of outrage.

You’d think that in these times, Europe would be unusually principled and protective of free expression. To sterner folk, the appropriate response would have been a gruff “Verpiss dich!,” and the prompt addition of “The Interview” to the festival agenda. To other Europeans, “Je Suis Charlie” is the safeword their dominatrix taught them, to be cried out in vain during a prison riot. That attitude describes the reaction of the German government, which summoned the head of the festival to give the Norks a polite explanation. Or so say the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Grauniad.

Festival head Dieter Kosslick was reportedly forced to meet with the North Korean ambassador to Germany to explain. A spokesperson told Variety the situation was now resolved and Pyongyang understood the comedy was not being screened at the Berlinale. [The Guardian]

His name is even Dieter. Delicious ….

No word as to whether the North Koreans were able to suppress their embarrassment quickly enough to demand that the film be declared verboten everywhere else in Germany.

There are signs, however, that North Korea is expanding its campaign to suppress “The Interview” globally. On January 16th, The New York Times reported that North Korean diplomats demanded that Burmese authorities seize any copies of “The Interview” they find. (The copies were bootlegged; this may have been the first thing North Korea has done in the last two months that Sony Pictures approved of.) On January 25th, The Bangkok Post reported that North Korea had asked Cambodia to ban sales of “The Interview.”

Now, I suppose it’s better for Nork diplos to be wasting their time on a movie than on rounding up child refugees to send back to reeducation camps. Still, one fears that when the ostensibly democratic world would rather define free expression down than stand up for it, precious few of us will have the testicular fortitude to say, “Je suis Park Sang-Hak.”

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China to Obama: Drop dead

The best news I’ve heard today is that Sony Pictures has either grown a pair or decided that it would rather wilt under domestic political pressure than wilt under foreign terrorist pressure. That means that some theaters will be showing The Interview on Christmas after all. I won’t stand in line to see it, but when it comes to my neighborhood, I’m taking my son (my daughter might not be old enough).

Fortunately, this sounds like exactly the kind of crappy movie that might just be fun to watch with a twelve year-old. At Epcot Center, we almost punctured our lungs laughing at Captain EO, clearly the worst film I’ve ever seen. How much worse could this possibly be? I expect The Interview to be stupid and distasteful, for the reasons we explained here, but I’m willing to compartmentalize that. There is an even more important principle involved now, and my son is old enough to understand that.

That also suggests one reason why China would harbor those responsible for these attacks, from Chinese soil, routed “through servers in Singapore, Thailand and Bolivia.” China also favors the remote-control censorship of American speech. The editors of The Global Times, for example, believe they have standing to define the acceptable limits of free speech here:

“No matter how U.S. society looks at North Korea and Kim Jong-un, Kim is still the leader of the country. The vicious mocking of Kim is only a result of senseless cultural arrogance,” the Chinese state-run paper said in an editorial.

“The biggest motive for Sony Pictures may be the box office, by putting out a sensational story. However, if the movie really was shown on a large scale, it would further upset the already troubled U.S.-North Korea ties,” it said. [Yonhap]

The editors of The Global Times can go fuck themselves. They’re the first ones to whine about “interference” in China’s “internal affairs” when civilized nations protest that China’s tyrants gun down students, jail dissidents, persecute Tibetans, or send North Korean kids to death camps. It takes some chutzpah for a gang of toadies for stultifying, culture-strangling despots to lecture a free society with a legitimate government about what kinds of speech it should allow.

Good thing whoever hacked North Korea’s internet didn’t also take down The Global Times. Why, that might cause problems for U.S.-China relations! Perish the thought that China should conclude that the U.S. was allowing people to attack its interests from U.S. soil.

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, also strongly denied media reports that China was involved in the Internet outage in North Korea, slamming such reports as “not trustworthy” and “irresponsible.” [Yonhap]

Yesterday, there was some speculation that the outage of North Korea’s internet service might be the result of China shutting down North Korea’s access at the White House’s request.

“We have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack, and to ask for their cooperation,” the official said. “In our cybersecurity discussions, both China and the United States have expressed the view that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.”

North Korea’s Internet traffic goes through China. President Barack Obama said Friday, “We’ve got no indication that North Korea was acting in conjunction with another country.” [CNN]

But if there was any such “cooperation,” it didn’t last long. The evidence to the contrary is stronger. Not only is Xi Jinping knowingly harboring North Korean hackers who attack U.S. interests, he’s also telling President Obama to leave him out of it and work it out with Kim Jong Un himself:

“We have noted the relevant remarks made by the U.S. and the DPRK (North Korea) over recent days,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying replied during a regular press briefing, when asked whether China has responded to calls by the U.S. over the Sony hacking.

“We believe that the DPRK and the U.S. can have communication on that,” Hua said, without elaborating further. [Yonhap]

Again, the newspapers are filled with speculation that at last, China is done with North Korea and ready to cooperate with us to pressure Kim Jong Un — the same kind of speculation we see after every North Korean nuke test, missile test, purge, or attack. It makes for interesting reading. I can even believe that some people in China really are annoyed with Kim Jong Un. But I’ll believe that China is ready to cut Kim Jong Un off when I see it. I’d say it’s at least 60% likely that this is disinformation, designed to restrain gullible Americans from taking legal action against North Korea’s Chinese enablers. Which is the only way to change China’s behavior, and North Korea’s.

After 9/11, we didn’t ask the Taliban to “investigate” Osama Bin Laden. We’re obviously not going to invade China, but we should do to those who sponsored North Korea’s hackers and terrorists what we did to Kim Dotcom. In the Kim Dotcom case, the Chinese government saw that its interests favored cooperation, so it cooperated. If China continues to sponsor attacks against American interests in our own country, then it’s time to restrict China’s access to U.S. markets. If push comes to shove, China isn’t going to choose its relationship with North Korea over its relationship with the United States. Its business interests won’t allow that. We must force China to make that choice.

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N. Korea perestroika watch: corruption defeats information crackdown

I’ve previously reported on Kim Jong Un’s efforts to crack down on illegal cell phones, memory sticks, DVDs, and other subversive information flows, even as some wishful observers clung to sketchy evidence to argue that Kim Jong Un was a reformer. The good news is that after an initial period in which smuggled DVDs became hard to find, they are making their way back into circulation.

“People caught for watching South Korean dramas aren’t being punished that harshly anymore,” a source based in Pyongyang told the Daily NK on Wednesday. “Authorities in charge have been turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes, so all we hear about is people being caught and not punished for what they did.”

However, she was quick to note that this situation is not indicative of any lax in regulation. “This doesn’t mean the crackdowns from the 109 group, the SSD, the Ministry of People’s Security, and inminban [people’s unit] have gotten any looser,” she explained. “They frequently search people’s homes and demand bribes if any CDs or flash drives containing South Korean dramas are discovered.”

She went on to explain that the 109 Group, a specialist team comprising people from the Ministry of People’s Security [MPS], the Party, and the administration, looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music. Some residents have reportedly paid up to 500 USD in bribes in response to the demands by this group and others conducting clampdowns.

“Some of the personnel carrying out these crackdowns tell people that if they don’t give them bribes, they might be sent to prison camps, never to leave for the rest of their lives,” the source said. “They often tell you that if you don’t have enough, that you should at least make an effort; many times they eventually say they’ll look the other way for 100 USD.” [Daily NK]

According to the article, lower-ranking officials are telling their seniors that the crackdown is working to a greater extent than it really is. Similarly, officials at all levels pay lip service to Kim Jong Un’s threat to punish corruption, which continues as it always has.

Not all of the news is good. Illegal cell phones are still nearly impossible to use, thanks to cell phone trackers the regime recently imported from Germany. That’s important, because those phones provide a critical cross-border link for the escape of refugees, and for cross-border trade in all kinds of smuggled goods.

The obvious caution is that most of these reports invariably depend on a small number of sources. They may reflect local conditions, or individual biases.

One can imagine the existence of a degree of passive official tolerance of this corruption, and even the possession of the offending materials, as a function of those officials’ political apathy or disillusionment. It’s likely that corruption has now embedded itself into the official culture to the point where it will be difficult to extirpate, even after reunification.

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N. Korea: Stop accusing us of terrorism, or else!

There is something strangely unconvincing about North Korea’s denial that it hacked Sony Pictures or threatened “9/11 style” attacks on theaters:

North Korea rejected the notion that it would attack “innocent moviegoers.”

“We will not tolerate the people who are willing to insult our supreme leader, but even when we retaliate, we will not conduct terror against innocent moviegoers,” KCNA said.

“The retaliation will target the ones who are responsible and the originators of the insults. Our army has the intention and ability to do (so).” [CNN]

And this:

“As the United States is spreading groundless allegations and slandering us, we propose a joint investigation with it into this incident,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The spokesman also threatened “grave consequences” if the US continued to discuss retaliation against North Korea on this matter. [….]

Despite denying the attack, the North’s top military body the National Defence Commission has slammed Sony for “abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership”, according to KCNA. [AFP]

In contrast to this hyperbolic characterization, President Obama offers an oddly hypobolic one, calling North Korea’s actions “cyber vandalism.” I suppose we should be thankful that he didn’t attribute it to the “junior varsity” of North Korea’s hack squad, Unit 121. But if North Korea is also responsible for the threat to attack American movie theaters that Nakoulad two of the world’s largest movie studios into submission — and that’s how I read the FBI’s statement — we’re talking about something far worse than “vandalism.”

North Korea is also threatening a nuke test, in response to the full General Assembly’s passage of a resolution condemning it for crimes against humanity, and recommending a prosecution of responsible North Korean officials by the international criminal court.

“We will step up our efforts to strengthen self-defensive capability, including nuclear capability,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, arguing that the resolution was a U.S-led political scheme to find an excuse for a military invasion against it. [Yonhap]

You can read the full text of that General Assembly resolution here, which you should, because we are all North Koreans now.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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We are all North Koreans now

As far as I know, I didn’t liberate a single North Korean during my four-year tour with the Army in South Korea, although I’ve argued their distant and forgotten cause ever since I came home. The crimes of Kim Jong Un were still distant just five weeks ago, when Professor Lee and I, writing in The New York Times, sounded a lonely warning about Kim’s efforts to censor his critics in the South with terror and violence, writing that “[c]aving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail.” To some, that probably seemed absolutist, even hyperbolic. It should seem more prophetic now.

One morning this week, I awoke to the realization that the rights I’m arguing for are my own—in my own home, and in my own neighborhood. Here, in America. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Today, in a very small way, we are all North Koreans. Most of us have spent the last several decades ignoring the men who oppress North Koreans. Now, in a small but incalculably important way, the same men have oppressed us. Here is the FBI’s statement about the Sony hack, and the terrorist threats that followed it:

As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions. While the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information, our conclusion is based, in part, on the following:

– Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.

– The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.

– Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.

We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there. Further, North Korea’s attack on SPE reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States. Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart. North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior. The FBI takes seriously any attempt—whether through cyber-enabled means, threats of violence, or otherwise—to undermine the economic and social prosperity of our citizens. [FBI Press Release]

The feds sound very confident about their conclusions:

Intelligence officials “know very specifically who the attackers are,” said one individual familiar with the investigation, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing. [Washington Post]

As with the Cheonan incident, it’s almost as if North Korea wants everyone to know it did it, while leaving just enough doubt to let its apologists do their work. That strategy worked well for them in South Korea, which never responded to the two deadly attacks on its territory in 2010. Why should Kim Jong Un believe that attacking us would lead to different results? That’s one reason why I’m so glad the President said something about the importance of protecting free speech:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” Obama said. “Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.

Obama said he wished Sony had “spoken to me first,” adding: “I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern where you get intimidated by these criminal attacks.’ ” [Washington Post]

Well, depending on who you believe, maybe they did. Still, that’s a welcome change, coming from the President who asked YouTube to take down “The Innocence of Muslims,” and whose Justice Department hustled Nakoula Nakoula off to jail to appease the whooping loonies who dominate the Middle East’s political culture today. But not to worry—the CEO of Sony Pictures says he’s “considering some sort of release on the Internet.”

I’ve never been much of a George Clooney fan, but he’s one of the few people in Hollywood with the spine to stand against North Korea’s terrorism:

“We’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have,” he told Deadline. “This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have.”

“What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. [CNN]

Our attention now turns toward what President Obama will do. Let’s hope it exceeds my low expectations, and Pyongyang’s:

Even in my myopic world view, these attacks raise far weightier questions than what our North Korea policy should be. The President’s response must be enough to restore U.S. deterrence of North Korea, and the confidence of our artists, media, journalists, and lowly bloggers that our government will protect them from the world’s petty despots:

“We will respond proportionally,” Obama said, “and we will respond at a place and time that we choose.”

U.S. officials have made clear for several years that they have a range of diplomatic, economic, legal and military options at their disposal in response to cyberattacks. Those steps might include indicting individuals believed to be behind the attack, asking like-minded states to join in condemning the intrusion, and if North Korea persists, undertaking a covert action to dismantle the computer systems used in the operation. [Washington Post]

I’ve already written here about what that response should include. One of those possible responses seems almost inevitable, now that Senator Bob Menendez has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s difficult to see how he could avoid doing that, given the destructive power of the attack, its chilling effect on free speech, and the extensive evidence that North Korea was already sponsoring terrorism even before this incident.

“The United States condemns North Korea for the cyber-attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment and the unacceptable threats against movie theaters and moviegoers,” he said in written statement.

“We encourage our allies and partners to stand with us as we defend the values of all of our people in the face of state-sponsored intimidation,” Kerry added.

Separately, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. and Chinese officials had met in Washington and Beijing to discuss the issue, adding that: “Both China and the United States agree that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.” [Yonhap]

As is customary among journalists, The New York Times and Reuters printed the standard-issue, off-the-record-senior-State-Department-official talking point that North Korea sanctions are maxed out, without bothering to read the sanctions. This talking point sometimes comes without any citation of authority whatsoever, and sometimes cites “experts” who appear not to have ever read a sanctions regulation. When I pointed out to these Bloomberg reporters that they’d cited a cybersecurity expert‘s analysis of a legal question–and that the analysis was wrong–I received a polite and interested reply, suggesting that the reporters genuinely intend to research the question. In the case of Reuters, in particular, the propagation of this false narrative is disappointing, because most of the Reuters reporters I follow check their facts painstakingly before publishing them.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup Kwaak did a better job:

On the financial front, the U.S. has wide latitude to target the North’s financial capabilities and its links to the global banking system, says Joshua Stanton, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and blogger who has advised the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on North Korea sanctions legislation.

Mr. Stanton says the U.S. can designate the North’s banking system as a money-laundering concern, add the country back to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and move toward blocking U.S. tourism to the North.

“Our North Korea sanctions are weaker than our Zimbabwe sanctions,” Mr. Stanton said in an interview. “All of the top officials in the government of Zimbabwe have their assets blocked, and none of the top officials in the government of North Korea do.” [….]

“The single biggest thing that we can do is to designate the country as a primary money-laundering concern,” Mr. Stanton says, which he says would block the regime from conducting dollar-denominated transactions through the U.S. financial system, as its institutions can now do.

“That would have a very big impact on North Korea—banks around the world are very reputation-conscious,” he says, and would shy away from conducting any transactions with institutions tied to Pyongyang.

Some defectors from North Korea say Pyongyang has learned from the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, and now keeps much of its money outside the traditional banking system, which could limit the impact of such a move.

Mr. Stanton also notes that U.S. sanctions list just 63 North Korean ships, companies and individuals, far fewer than those for Myanmar or Cuba. He also says that U.S. Congress could start moving legislation that would impose similar restrictions blocking U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea and spending money. [Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng and Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage foundation was also battling against this myth:

Oh, and for the record:

A North Korean U.N. diplomat said Pyongyang had nothing to do with the cyber attack. “DPRK (North Korea) is not part of this,” the diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. [Reuters]

I think I speak for all of humanity when I sincerely hope this isn’t all Barack Obama’s pretext to advance Joe Biden’s cryptic plot to dominate North Korea’s vast riches of coal, meth, and refugees.

One thing that seems far more likely today is that the House and Senate will make North Korea sanctions legislation a higher priority. Even before the FBI fingered North Korea for this attack, and before President Obama announced his outreach to Cuba, Senator Menendez introduced a sotto voce version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, S. 3012. That bill is too weak to be worth passing in its current form, but it’s structurally similar enough to what the House passed last year that it should be viewed as a serious opening bid and a welcome step toward a good compromise.

A friend on the Hill told me yesterday that in terms of seizing Congress’s attention, the events of this week are the equivalent of “two or three nuke tests.” A Chinese Security Council veto of U.N. human rights sanctions–sanctions that were just recommended by the full General Assembly–should be the equivalent of another. At an exceptionally formative moment, Congress’s attention has been focused on North Korea. The administration is distinguishing North Korea from Cuba, is almost certainly considering new sanctions, and has probably just scrapped its plans for Agreed Framework 3.0. If a bipartisan, centrist consensus concludes that the agony of North Koreans is no longer a problem we can treat as remote and irrelevant, and that it’s time to discard the failed solution of appeasement, we will have reached an inflection point in our North Korea policy.

One avenue of response I hope the President won’t overlook is that information warfare works both ways. Certainly, carefully targeted sanctions can play an important part in defunding and disrupting the regime’s capacity to censor and oppress its people. Symbolically and practically, however, no response–not even sanctions–would do more to alter North Korea than to wage a quiet, non-violent war against its information blockade. It is difficult to imagine that despite all of America’s innovative potential, it still lacks the means to bring free speech to the people of North Korea, and to help them find their own way to rid themselves of the accursed men who tread them–and us–down.

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