Archive for Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.N. Panel of Experts to investigate M/V Mu Du Mong

A U.N. panel that upholds sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is sending personnel to investigate a North Korean cargo ship moored at a Mexican port, U.N. diplomatic sources familiar with the matter told Kyodo News. [Yonhap]

“Sending personnel” suggests that the POE will inspect the ship. The POE also sent personnel to inspect the M/V Chong Chon Gang after Panamanian authorities found it smuggling weapons last year.

The travels of the M/V Mu Du Bong were first brought to our attention by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, while it was crossing the Gulf of Mexico after a stop in Cuba. When the ship ran aground in a Mexican port, I called on the U.S. government to ask Mexico to search it, explaining that under UNSCR 2094, Mexican authorities had the authority, and arguably a duty, to do so (see paragraphs 16 and 17).

The Treasury Department has since sanctioned the Mu Du Bong and 17 other North Korean vessels, probably for their associations with Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean front company that brokered the shipment of arms from Cuba to North Korea aboard the Chong Chon Gang. NK News’s Leo Byrne has also done an excellent follow-up report, finding that Mexican authorities had impounded the Mu Du Bong for lack of proper insurance.

See also Capitol Hill Cubans.

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Update: This post was edited after publication to correct the spelling of “Chong Chon Gang.”

North Korea tries to censor a British TV series

In the case of “The Interview,” North Korea used its Japanese hostages to get to Sony pictures. Now, it’s using its diplomatic relations with Britain to get to “Opposite Number.

Those who “engage” Pyongyang always say they will change it, but Pyongyang always changes them instead.

Only terrorists make hostage videos, and North Korea just made a hostage video

… of three Americans it is holding for “crimes” that wouldn’t be cognizable as such anywhere else on earth. 

All three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to North Korea to help get them out of their situations, similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009. [CNN]

At which point, Pyongyang will present its demands. Former President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Since then, President Obama has seen no reason to reverse that misjudgment.

It’s time to ban tourist travel to North Korea.

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Update: Speculation about what those demands might be focuses, naturally, on North Korea’s demand to be recognized as a nuclear state:

“Their negotiating ploy with the U.S. is to try to get us to agree to nuclear arms control, to sort of accept them as a nuclear weapons state — which we can’t do,” Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on CNN of Pyongyang’s motivations.

[....]

“First of all, their motivation always behind these interviews has been to gather U.S. attention and then try to pave a way for high-level dialogue with Washington,” Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also told CNN.

Victor Cha, chief analyst on Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who had served as a director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, also said that the North appears to want a package deal with the U.S.

“My guess is the fact that all three of them were put on tape for an American audience on Labor Day as a signal from the North Koreans that they’re looking for some sort of package deal to try to get them all out,” Cha said. “Whether they’re trying to connect this to the long-stalled nuclear negotiations is anybody’s guess.” [Yonhap]

But for now, despite rumors of a secret visit by a U.S. envoy to Pyongyang, the White House says “that Pyongyang must demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through action if it wants to reopen negotiations with the U.S.”

Is Obama’s North Korea policy at a tipping point?

Following of Congress’s resounding, bipartisan vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy last month, Secretary of State John Kerry has been traveling around the Pacific. In Australia, while meeting with that country’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, he traversed his gargantuan mandible toward Pyongyang and threatened to tighten sanctions “if it ‘chooses the path of confrontation.” If? If?

“The United States — I want to make this clear — is absolutely prepared to improve relations with North Korea if North Korea will honor its international obligations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference, according to the State Department. “But make no mistake. We are also prepared to increase pressure, including through strong sanctions and further isolation, if North Korea chooses the path of confrontation.” 

In a joint communique, the U.S. and Australia underscored their “serious concern” that North Korea’s behavior has undermined the stability of the entire region and called on it to cease its threats and provocations and comply with its international commitments and obligations, including abandoning its nuclear, missile and proliferation activities.

They also expressed deep concern for the welfare of the North Korean people and called on Pyongyang to implement the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations for ending its ongoing systematic, widespread, and extreme violations of human rights. They said that those responsible must be held to account. [Yonhap]

It’s interesting that Kerry is trying to sound concerned about human rights. Sure, you say, President Obama could have issued an executive order targeting the assets and travel of North Korean human rights violators at any stage of his presidency, and could have modeled that executive order on similar ones it has imposed on Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe, or South Sudan, to name a few. Still, Yonhap reports that the State Department “intends to increase pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights situation.”

Kerry, in his speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu, described human rights violations in North Korea as “horrific” and cited a U.N. human rights panel’s release in February of a report that chronicled abuses suffered by many of its people.

He said the report, which documented crimes against humanity including extermination, enslavement, enforced disappearance and deliberate starvation, “revealed the utter, grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.”

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down — not tomorrow, not next week, but now. And we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said. [Kyodo News]

We’ve since seen Pyongyang’s response to that. We’ll soon know just how sincere Kerry’s concern is, when the U.N. General Assembly votes to send the Commission of Inquiry’s report to the Security Council. Words are no substitute for more tangible actions, they are a start, and a necessary part of a campaign to rally allies toward a common objective.

Kerry made the demand in an unusually strong tone in an Asia policy address on Wednesday, saying such deprivation of human dignity “just has no place in the 21st century.” He stressed that gulags must be shut down “not tomorrow, not next week, but now.” The top American diplomat also said the U.S. will continue to speak out on the issue. [Yonhap]

Continue? And merely speak? Or actually do something that would matter, like deploy the Treasury Department to sanction the persons and government agencies that are running a string of concentration camps unlike anything the world has seen since 1945?

Financial and other sanctions imposed on Iran, Russia and North Korea will be among major topics discussed when a senior U.S. Treasury official visits Seoul this week, government sources said Tuesday.

David S. Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, is scheduled to visit Seoul from Wednesday through Thursday, according to the sources. The U.S. Treasury Department said Monday that Cohen will visit Japan, South Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates and Oman during the period of Aug. 18-25.

Cohen is in charge of Washington’s sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear and long-range missile tests. In Seoul, he will meet with Lee Kyung-soo, deputy minister for political affairs at South Korea’s foreign ministry as well as Hwang Joon-kook, the country’s top nuclear envoy, the South Korean sources said. Cohen’s planned visit to Seoul comes on the heels of the recent visit by Peter Harrell, a senior U.S. diplomat on sanctions affairs.

Harrell, deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the State Department, visited in Seoul late July to ask Seoul to join Washington-led efforts to impose tougher sanctions against Russia. [Yonhap]

This doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration is laying a foundation for action, or that the action will be effective. If the administration does intend to act, however, a visit like this would be a prerequisite to that. In the wake of Japan’s bilateral lifting of sanctions to the detriment of U.S. and South Korean interests, it’s particularly essential to shore up South Korea’s determination to keep its existing sanctions in place, even as Park Geun-Hye comes under domestic political pressure to lift them. Fortunately for Park, that pressure is somewhat attenuated by her party’s good performance in recent bi-elections:

President Park Geun-hye warned Thursday that South Korea’s sanctions on North Korea are inevitable as long as Pyongyang persists in its nuclear weapons program. [....]

Under the sanctions, South Korea has suspended inter-Korean projects and banned new investments in the North, except for their joint factory park in the North’s border city of Kaesong.

Nonetheless, Park said South Korea will gradually expand exchanges and cooperation with North Korea as far as they do not undermine international cooperation on implementing U.N. sanctions. [....]

Park also said South Korea is seeking to lay the groundwork for peaceful unification with North Korea by gradually expanding exchanges and cooperation. She unveiled her unification initiative in Dresden, the former East German city she traveled to in March.  [Yonhap]

Park has to be thinking that North Korea hasn’t done anything to deserve sanctions relief, and she isn’t one to give away something for nothing. She says she’s interested in a larger bargain with Pyongyang, and that sanctions relief can be one chip in that bargain. North Korea’s unsurprising position is that the South will have to lift its sanctions as a precondition to talks. Park’s answer is that that isn’t going to happen.

That means that on multiple tracks, all talks about talks with North Korea are stuck on the preconditions. As Pyongyang stalls for time and increases its capacity to threaten its interlocutors, the interlocutors struggle to maintain a coherent and consistent position, in furtherance of a policy whose ostensible desired end state, the negotiated denuclearization of North Korea, has never seemed less likely. With nuclear diplomacy in rigor mortis and North Korea advancing its weapons programs at full speed, what those allied against North Korea need desperately is leverage, and they know sanctions are the best way to get it.

Will they finally act? If they do act, will they simply ratchet up the sort of incremental pressure that North Korea has learned to adapt to, or will they deliver enough of a shock to its system to convince Kim Jong Un that time is no longer on his side?

John Kerry was right about North Korea (and so was John Bolton)

More than six months after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found Kim Jong Un responsible for crimes against humanity, our State Department has offered no credible or coherent policy response to that report. At least it hadn’t until last week, when our Secretary of State, John Kerry — no doubt, after much agonizing deliberation — finally authorized the deployment of precision-guided tactical ballistic words:

“But make no mistake, we are also speaking out about the horrific human rights situation,” Kerry said. “We strongly supported the extraordinary United Nation’s investigation this year that revealed other grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down, not tomorrow, not next week, but now, and we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said.

Kerry also said that the U.S. “will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia without arrogance but also without apology.” [Yonhap]

North Korea’s reaction to this was predictable and characteristic. It accused John Kerry of being a neocon pursuing a regime change agenda through fabricated accusations.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry let loose a spate of invectives against the DPRK over its “human rights issue” in a speech on the U.S. “Asia policy” held in Hawaii recently.

Unfit for his position, Kerry pulled up the DPRK, telling sheer lies and citing groundless data. This is the most undisguised expression of the U.S. inveterate repugnancy and hostile policy toward the DPRK. [....]

Lurking behind this is a sinister political aim to tarnish the DPRK’s image at any cost and stir up the international understanding that its social system is the object to be removed by force of arms in a bid to justify the U.S. and south Korean warmongers’ military threat. 

In recent years the U.S. has become noisy in its anti-DPRK “human rights” racket not because of any sincere interest in improving “human rights” but in pursuance of its design to bring down the social system of the DPRK under the pretext of “human rights issue”. [....]

In the DPRK the popular masses enjoy genuine rights as true masters of the country and human rights are strictly guaranteed by the state law. [Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang)]

In a separate Korean-language piece, which did not translate into English very well, North Korea called Kerrya wolf with a ‘hideous lantern jaw.’” North Korea’s derogation of the appearance of foreign leaders is odd, given that its propagandists have inadvertently acknowledged their absolute monarch’s resemblance to a post-op Chaz Bono.

Still, let’s at least be objective enough to acknowledge that both Kerry and the North Koreans make valid points. Our Secretary does look a bit like Jay Leno — if Harry Reid had embalmed him — and such a fearsome mandible might just be capable of masticating unshelled Brazil nuts. I could go on, but I’ve done enough work for the North Koreans for one night.

Of course, it is Kerry who speaks the greater part of the truth. Not only were his assertions true, but it was important for him to make them, because by failing to make them, he would have acceded to one of the greatest outrages of our age. I don’t think John Kerry has been a very good Secretary of State — for example, I’m skeptical that he’ll execute a North Korea policy that goes beyond talk — but differences of policy shouldn’t divide us so much that they blind us to what is true and what must be said, no matter who says it, and regardless of one’s party affiliation, preference, or bias.

Mr Bolton said that while Kim Jong-il lived like royalty, for millions of his people, life was a “hellish nightmare”. “While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food,” he said. [BBC]

Naturally, Kerry was statesmanlike enough to join with his colleague across the aisle and associate himself with this necessary denunciation. Right?

At a critical moment with North Korea, in a speech that he gave in Seoul, that he attacked Kim Jung-Il, whom we all attacked, we all dislike, we all recognize is, you know, someone we’d love to see removed or in a different–you know, not leading that country; but, on the other hand, at this critical moment, to almost 50 times in one speech personally vilify him, was to almost guarantee the outcome of the diplomatic effort that he was engaged in. [Sen. Exec. Rept. 109-1, May 18, 2005]

By now, you’ve guessed that the critic was then-Senator John Kerry, in a confirmation hearing on John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Most of the news coverage of Bolton at the time largely mirrored Kerry’s criticism. It was cited as a reason for calling Bolton “controversial” and “an iconoclast” who “shattered diplomatic niceties and stirred anger.” Hardly a word was written about the temperamental immaturity of North Korea’s language.

There is, of course, no such reaction to Kerry’s tiff with the North Koreans in the newspapers today, nor should there be. So what justifies the distinction? If the moment (2003) when Bolton spoke those words was critical, the words themselves don’t seem to have spoiled the diplomatic ambience too badly. After calling Bolton a “scum and human bloodsucker” and refusing further negotiations with him, North Korea negotiated with another diplomat more to its liking instead. At the time, The New York Times said that Bolton’s absence was “to the relief of North Korean officials and not a few State Department colleagues” (colleagues of whom?). But let’s pick that back up again in a moment.

If we are not at an equally critical moment today, it is only because the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy — to the extent there is a policy at all — is so completely stalled, and North Korea has shown no interest in returning to the talks that our Secretary of State is waiting for it to show up for. Other than that, the clearest difference between Kerry’s statement and Bolton’s is that only one of them was made by the Secretary of State.

I don’t deny that the Bush policy on human rights in North Korea was also all talk, and I also recognize the Bush Administration’s responsibility for deepening the difficulty of Obama and Kerry’s position, if only because it eventually adopted a policy very much like the one that Kerry had advocated.

Ironically, the outcome that Kerry hoped for in May 2005 was North Korea’s signature on an agreement to disarm. The Bush Administration would not only achieve that very outcome four months later, it would also achieve it all over again in 2007! If that sounds like an outstanding record, it isn’t. Let’s just hope that Kerry isn’t vilifying Kim Jong Il’s son and heir today as part of his master plan to guarantee an equally successful outcome.

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Update: The State Department declines to respond to North Korea’s comments.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

A campaign is more than just a vote

Justice Michael Kirby, the head of U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Human Rights in North Korea, has struggled to get the attention of the U.N. Security Council since February of this year, when the COI released its report finding widespread and horrific crimes against humanity. This leaves Kirby wondering whether hundreds of European lives matter more to the U.N. than hundreds of thousands of North Korean lives.

Michael Kirby has called on the United Nations to show the same resolve and unanimity on North Korean human rights abuses as it did on passing a resolution on downed flight MH17. [....]

“The attention to MH17 was admirable … and I think we can all be proud of the way our ambassadors dealt with it. But in all truth, the case of North Korea is dealing with millions of people,” Justice Kirby told a university audience.

“The question is will the UN find a way to respond? In the last week, on a matter that had great sensitivity, through … strong political action, including by Australia, a consensus was found, and I’m hoping the same sort of spirit will operate in the case of North Korea when the matter comes to the Security Council.” [The Age]

Until now, the response to the COI’s report has advanced no further than a toothless, informal “Arria” meeting, where the idea of further action was discussed, boycotted by the Chinese and Russian representatives, and quickly (almost) forgotten. According to The Age‘s report, however, the General Assembly will take up the COI’s findings in September, and is expected to refer them to the Security Council soon thereafter.

This represents a modest improvement over nothing, but not by much. Major international actions require the mobilization of world opinion, and the expenditure of diplomatic capital, to achieve broad consensus and effective action. The point of a vote at the Security Council is not really to pass a resolution; after all, we already know that China and Russia will veto it. The point is to make that veto as diplomatically costly for China and Russia as possible, and to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the U.S., the EU, and a critical mass of the world’s civilized nations to enact and enforce targeted national sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violators. (Another potential benefit could be to support the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal in South Korea.) I see little evidence that this mobilization has begun.

Unfortunately, a lot of diplomatic bills are coming due at the moment, and capital is in short supply. When Susan Rice called America’s leadership “indispensable” recently, she was correct. That has never been clearer than in recent times, when that indispensable leadership has often seemed to be absent. Samantha Power, Rice’s successor as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., first made herself famous by writing a book that excoriated the Clinton Administration’s lack of leadership in the face of the Rwanda genocide in 1994. If Power reprises Madeleine Albright’s role, one small benefit would be the exquisite material it could yield for an unauthorized sequel. If she overperforms both her predecessors and my expectations, it could be a moment of redemption for this administration, and perhaps for the viability of international institutions that have failed so consistently.

That may be asking too much in a time of national exhaustion for the world’s indispensable leader, when it lacks the psychological, political, and diplomatic capacity to contemplate more than one genocide at a time. For a month, the endless loop called Gaza had tunneled its way from its rightful place on page four to page one and occupied it, along with the attention of our Secretary of State. At the moment, we’re somewhat more justifiably preoccupied with a very real genocide that began not long after we “ended” the war in Iraq. But consider: when a regime can make tens of thousands (or tens of thousands) of men, women, and children simply disappear, or allow perhaps millions to starve — all without any material consequence — what deters psychopaths in Pyongyang or any other place from seeking out new victims, whether within their own fiefdoms or beyond their borders? As Kirby put it:

“There’s a lot of talk in the United Nations about accountability, a lot of talk about ‘rights up front’, a lot of talk about ‘responsibility to protect’, well, in September and October of this year, the UN will face up to the question of whether it is serious about this talk in the case of North Korea.”

North Korea differs from all of these other cases in the greater scale of its crimes (so far), and its capacity to propagate evil. It’s the one with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, after all, and with the demonstrated propensity to sell them to others.

You may not like the idea of America as a global leader. I suspect Americans like it less than anyone at this point. But when the alternatives come into sharper focus, we remember that it’s still the only worst alternative except for all of the others. The real question is how to exercise that leadership as wisely and cheaply as we can. It has been obvious for some time that George W. Bush had the wrong answers to that question, with the possible exception of the Surge. Judging by recent events, President Obama’s answers haven’t been much better, but like his predecessor, bitter experience is forcing him to regress from the extreme to the mean.

Obama’s soft line on North Korea sanctions has failed.

AT LEAST ONE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER thinks North Korea has never been nastier to the United States, and if its racist attacks on President Obama aren’t proof enough of that, maybe this message from North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-Il, is:

He accused the United States of using its military power to deliberately subvert any dialogue between North and South Korea — which is also a standard North Korean assertion. But in a variant of that theme, he said the American behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptom of a mentally retarded patient.” Asked later to explain the analogy, Mr. Ri said, “The U.S. has been doing it for over six decades on our doorstep.” [N.Y. Times]

I don’t think I’ll ever get over my amazement that North Korea, a flagrant violator of U.N. Security Council resolutions that keeps 100,000 men, women, and children in political prison camps, is a member of the United Nations in good standing.

“Ambassador” Ri also threatened that Pyongyang would continue its nuclear weapons development if the U.S. continues its “threats” against North Korea, and demanded that the Security Council conduct an emergency session to review joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises.

Consider the absurdity of this. It’s the equivalent of Dennis Rodman telling his agent that unless he quits nagging him about going back to rehab, he’ll have no choice but to keep drinking and sue for breach of the peace … in Judge Joe Brown’s court.

Meanwhile, as John Kerry claims credit for keeping North Korea quiet, North Korea continues its quiet progression toward the development of an inter-continental ballistic missile, and a pad to test it from:

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters Tuesday he believes North Korea has continued to make “steady progress” in both its missile technology and nuclear capability.

So we find ourselves in a place where the sanctions we’ve imposed are woefully insufficient to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or to force it to negotiate away its nukes. Our State Department still says it isn’t interested in talks with a North Korea that rejects the premise of nuclear disarmament, and North Korea insists that it isn’t disarming. Intelligence estimates vary on North Korea’s capacity to miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon, but time clearly isn’t on our side. We also know that North Korea will sell any weapon it possesses to any willing customer, including helping listed state sponsors of terrorism with their nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to reach out his hand to rogue states if they would unclench their fists. In the years since then, the President has given North Korea the closest thing there is to immunity from sanctions for its attacks on South Korea, its missile tests, its nuclear tests, its arrests of harmless tourists and tour guides, and its proliferation and weapons smuggling.

I suppose I shouldn’t overstate my point here, because I’ve never seen that much significance in North Korea’s displays of good will or temperamental moderation for external audiences. In fact, my point is that in the North Korean context, gestures and atmospherics mean next to nothing. By now, it should be clear that those who counseled the President that he could move us closer to the realization of our nation’s interests by avoiding confrontation with Pyongyang, and by building a reserve of good toward it have sent him on a fool’s errand. North Korea is never meaner than when, fairly or unfairly, it perceives us to be soft.

Congress marks 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I, asks how that’s working out

The House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee commemorated the 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I by calling Ambassadors Glyn Davies and Bob King over for a hearing this afternoon, and it was a tough day for Team Foggy Bottom.

If you want to see how congressional oversight should work — if you want to see a well-informed, well-prepared legislator completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle 20 years of bad policy — then watch Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot’s opening statement. Chabot made great use of John Kerry’s description of North Korea as “quiet,” and his critique of State’s obtuse position on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism was devastating:

Chabot isn’t a mesmerizing speaker, but he’s an effective one, and in the ten years I’ve been watching these things, I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more effective opening statement. His questions of Ambassador King made it clear that the Administration has done nothing about the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and nothing King said suggested that that’s about to change.

Your comedy gold, however, came from Scott Perry of Pennsylvania questioning Ambassador Davies about what everyone but the State Department calls “strategic patience.” Skip to 1:06, where he begins by asking Glyn Davies about what, exactly, he’s accomplished.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Davies’s reaction to this was arrogant and snippy. Perry threw him off-balance, and off his diplomatic demeanor.

If you have time, watch the whole hearing, and strain your ears for any inkling that State has anything to show for its efforts, any confidence in its plans — indeed, any plan at all. Davies, in particular, sounds weary and resigned. They’ve all been running out the clock ever since the Groundhog Day Agreement failed.

Sherman (D-Cal.) was (as always) mercurial, and less hawkish than in the past; Bera (D-Cal.), who ordinarily comes across as very bright, didn’t seem confident in his knowledge of the subject, and Connolly (D-Va.) didn’t get anyeonghasseyeo quite right, but his questions were insightful and penetrating. He tried to get Davies to react to the House’s passage of H.R 1771, but Davies wouldn’t bite.

Members of both parties sounded unimpressed with State’s performance, both on nukes and human rights. The idea we’ve fought for years is that North Korea policy has to be a zero-sum competition between those objectives. But what if State can’t get anything done on either? What Congress saw today was a State Department that ran out of ideas 20 years ago, and that had no record to defend.

The hearing began just as Treasury announced its new round of Chong Chon Gang sanctions, something I at least partially foresaw in this morning’s post (and which I’ll say more about tomorrow). So if even I foresaw it, why couldn’t someone have at least let Davies announce them in his opening statement? Given the strong bi-partisan pressure for tougher sanctions, having that news to deliver might have helped Davies’s day go better.

Update: Yonhap’s take, here.

Former U.N. sanctions investigator calls U.N.’s slow response to Chong Chon Gang incident “regrettable”

If you care at all about North Korea sanctions, then NK News’s interview with Martin Uden, the former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts investigating the enforcement of sanction on North Korea, is an absolute must-read. I’ll give you a taste, and then you’ll have to read the rest on your own:

In particular, the seizure of a DPRK cargo vessel in Panama in 2013 – the Chong Chon Gang – highlighted that North Korea remains actively engaged in sanction-breaking behavior.

But even though the most recent Panel of Experts report published in March concluded that the vessel’s cargo of munitions – MiG fighter jets and Soviet-era radar systems – did constitute a breach of sanctions, the response from the UN Sanctions Committee was muted.

“The problem of course is the lack of action by the Sanctions Committee, and that I think is more regrettable. This [case] was a pretty much an in flagrante delicto violation of UN sanctions” Uden said. [Leo Byrne, NK News]

It’s reporting like this that makes me hope we’ll have NK News at least as long as we have North Korea.

Lo and behold, five days after that interview is published, the Sanctions Committee has finally designated Ocean Maritime Management, but not Chongchongang Shipping, Chinpo Shipping, Korea Central Marketing and Trading Corporation, Tonghae Shipping Agency, or any of the Cuban entities involved in the transactions.

Or, the bank that processed the transactions, whose identifying information was redacted out of the documents published in the POE Report. (Although it’s interesting that the sugar transaction, at least, was denominated in dollars.)

At this point, Treasury probably has no choice but to designate OMM, but of course, OMM could fold up and restart in Magadan, Trinidad, or the Seychelles next week.

Another OMM ship, the M/V Mu Du Bong, remains stranded in a Mexican port after running aground and damaging a nearby coral reef.

Where is John Bolton when we need him?

Untrained eyes fail to perceive John Kerry’s North Korea “progress”

~   1   ~

BRUCE KLINGNER OF THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION asks, “You call this progress, Secretary Kerry?”

Kerry cites his meetings with China regarding North Korea, yet Beijing continues to resist U.S. entreaties to increase pressure on Pyongyang by more fully implementing UN resolution sanctions.

In the meantime, Pyongyang continues to refine and augment its nuclear arsenal while Washington remains reluctant to impose the same unilateral US sanctions that it has already imposed on Iran, Burma, and Syria. Nor has the Obama administration yet addressed the UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea’s human rights violations which reached a level to be considered “crimes against humanity.” Obama’s Strategic Patience policy does indeed require patience, since there is no strategy. [The Daily Signal]

~   2   ~

AS IF TO PROVE KLINGNER’S POINT, China’s Foreign Minister calls on the U.S. to lower its preconditions for a return to six-party talks, which doesn’t suggest that Kerry’s talks with China have yielded progress, at least for our side:

“The United States is demanding North Korea show its willingness to give up its nuclear (weapons program), while maintaining a high threshold,” Zhang was quoted as telling the lawmakers, according to the South Korean delegate.

Zhang also criticized the U.S. policy of trying to “achieve its target even before the talks resume,” the delegate said on condition of anonymity.

The vice foreign minister reiterated China’s stated goal of “resuming the six-party talks at an early date.”

The opposite is true. It’s North Korea that’s trying to get the U.S. to accede, if tacitly, to its nuclear status before talks begin. North Korea has repeatedly declared that it’s a nuclear state, and has refused repeatedly to give up its nuclear arsenal. So what’s the point of disarmament talks if the parties don’t even agree that they’re about disarmament?

Without that acknowledgement, the talks would be a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, even as North Korea demands more aid, cash, and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze or some equally ectoplasmic ephemera. And while I’m glad that at least officially, Kerry is sticking to that precondition, I continue to hear from well-informed people that his position is much less clear behind the scenes. When Glyn Davies talks about “reversible steps,” it further reinforces what I’m hearing.

~   3   ~

NORTH KOREAN VICE-MARSHAL Hwang Pyong-So wants to be sure John Kerry hears him:

“If the US imperialists threaten our sovereignty and survival… our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon — the sources of all evil,” Hwang said in his speech broadcast Monday on state television.

He forgot to mention Foggy Bottom, but it’s not as if Foggy Bottom ever struck fear into the heart of any psychopathic despot.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and Secretary of State of John Kerry is hard of hearing. Discuss among yourselves.

~   4   ~

NORTH KOREA DENIES selling arms to Hamas, as reported here, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center calls on the Obama Administration to “take all necessary steps” to block the sale. It also denounces some vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric from pro-North Korean Web sites based in China the United States.

For those keeping track, this year, Kim Jong Un’s sycophants have called President Obama “a wicked black monkey,” President Park Geun-Hye “a whore,” and Justice Michael Kirby “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career in homosexuality.”

~   5   ~

OH, GOOD: The Yongbyon reactor has been shut down over problems with its cooling system. In some sense, you could call that progress, but I wouldn’t give John Kerry any credit for it.

Is the U.S. ready to take N. Korea’s crimes against humanity to the Security Council?

On balance, probably not, but hey, it’s an election year, which may or may not explain why it’s making noise like it might:

The United States, France and Australia called for the United Nations Security Council to deal with North Korea’s human rights violations, a news report said Saturday.

It isn’t clear why this push is happening nearly six months after the release of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) report; after all, the testimony before the COI was widely covered in the news, signaling what the eventual outcome had to be. Was the State Department unprepared for the report’s conclusions, not interested, or simply flat-footed and ill-prepared?

It also isn’t clear which of the three nations is pushing for the resolution most aggressively. The Government of Australia, however, has shown great interest in the findings of the report, written under the direction of native son Michael Kirby.

Ambassadors from the three countries to the U.N. sent a joint letter to the president of the Security Council on July 17, which called on the U.N. body to formally discuss a report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights violations in the North, according to the Voice of America (VOA).

The U.N.’s General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, is of indeterminate nationality.

Following a year-long probe, the COI published a report in March, accusing North Korea of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” It added that North Korean leaders’ crimes against humanity should be dealt with by the International Criminal Court. They also urged the Security Council to take proper actions against the North’s appalling track record on human rights, the VOA added.

A number of human rights groups have been pushing the Obama Administration to take issue to the Security Council. That would be a welcome move, despite the ambivalence I harbor about it. I was initially skeptical of the COI, but I later realized the importance of the attention it brought to this topic, and I was convinced to become a strong supporter. Justice Kirby himself is a significant part of my own support. I met with him twice during his last visit to Washington, and he made a deep impression on me for his gravitas and his determination.

I fully expect China to veto any resolution on human rights, and I suppose that given the state of U.S.-Russian relations, Russia will probably join that veto. I think it’s useful to force China and Russia to veto those resolutions, if only to hold their cynicism and profiteering up before the eyes of the world.

That still doesn’t completely foreclose options for bringing North Korea before the International Criminal Court, although I’ve written about that institution’s flaws.

In the end, the South Korean Government could host an ad hoc tribunal like the one Cambodia held because China wouldn’t let the ICC try the Khmer Rouge. The South Korean Constitution, after all, claims jurisdiction over the entire Korean Peninsula. If only South Korea had the courage to do that.

Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.

At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.

“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.

“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]

Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus — and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran — while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.

Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.

Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.

It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.

Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.

But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:

[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality. 

While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.

Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches.  [Yonhap]

To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.

One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

PORT CALLS

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

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

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

MONEY TRANSFERS

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

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

EXPORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coalition against N. Korea crumbles due to U.S. incompetence, betrayal, and weakness

Last week, Japan and North Korea announced an agreement under which Pyongyang would “conduct a comprehensive survey” of the whereabouts of “Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and mission persons,” both dead and alive, and return them to Japan. In exchange, “Japan has announced that it is lifting sanctions against North Korea on travel, reporting remittances and humanitarian shipping.” Japan also agreed “to examine humanitarian aid to Pyongyang at an ‘appropriate time.’”

Xinhua also reports that Japan may send monitors to North Korea to verify North Korea’s “reinvestigation,” which as I imagine it, would consist of someone saying, “It’s OK boys, untie ‘em.” The latest word is that President Abe himself is talking about visiting Pyongyang, although he won’t, because no one wants to be the one who drags Kim Jong Un away from his Xbox for that.

As is with all “agreements” with North Korea, the two sides’ understandings of the agreement vary. According to KCNA (via Yonhap), Japan also “clarified its will to settle its inglorious past,” and “solve the pending issues and normalize the relations” with North Korea, apparently referring to diplomatic relations. As recently as May 31st, the Japanese and the North Koreans were still arguing about whether Chongryon’s headquarters was part of the deal. In early April, North Korea warned Japan not to bother with talks if Japan held a tax sale of the headquarters of Cheongryeon, its local affiliate and front organization. (Pyongyang later sent Chongryon a $2 million bailout, and asked Japan to rescind a court decision allowing the tax sale of its headquarters.) North Korea had demanded the resumption of ferry services and charter flights, neither of which was mentioned in the final deal. This history informs us that plenty could still go wrong.

Then, there’s the traditional pattern of North Korea preceding nuclear tests with missile tests. In April, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalated, Japan threatened to shoot down the next North Korean missile that approaches its territory. In May, North Korea said, “Japan should keep in mind that it could be the first hit by a fiery lightning in case of conflict,” the newspaper said, referring to a military strike.

For what it’s worth, North Korea is promising to keep its end of the bargain, although I can’t think of a single international agreement North Korea did keep with anyone other then the U.S.S.R. or China. The other conclusion we can draw from this history is that Japan’s defection from the administration’s coalition shouldn’t have surprised anyone. President Obama had plenty of chances to stop it. Worse, his predecessor planted the seeds that undermined that coalition’s foundation.

~   ~   ~

In April, President Obama visited Seoul during a frenzy of speculation that North Korea was either preparing, or ready for, a fourth nuclear test. To deter this, the President said that North Korea’s threats would gain it “nothing except further isolation” from an oxymoron USA Today referred to as “the global community.” “Global” means global, but as the President elaborated, it especially means our treaty allies: “We can’t waver in our intention. We have to make sure that, in strong concert with our allies, that we are continuing to press North Korea to change its approach.”

The President also said, “It is important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite.” (But of course, Congress has already found them. It would take one phone call from the National Security Staff to Harry Reid’s staff to put the President’s finger on the trigger.) Publicly, South Korea sent the same message:

“If North Korea carries out a nuclear test, (it) will certainly have to pay severe costs,” the foreign minister said, urging the communist North to make the right choice. “The North Korean leadership must choose between isolation from the international community, including China, that have resolutely opposed further nuclear tests and the path toward greater cooperation (with them).” [Yonhap]

The President must search for new ways because the old ones haven’t worked. They haven’t worked because when it comes to North Korea policy, everyone is an exceptionalist. Behind the joint statements, Japan’s deal is only the most dramatic example of how our North Korea coalition is falling apart.

In the case of China and Russia, the disunity is understandable. China and Russia are — and see themselves as — our enemies. It’s harder to understand how an administration that stresses and flouts its diplomatic management of alliances can’t coordinate a consistent, coherent policy with its own treaty allies and military dependents. Even the administration concedes that as the first among equals, it is supposed to lead:

I can tell you when we . . . went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it. 

- Ambassador Susan Rice, June 1, 2014

In early April, there were signs that a coalition was congealing. The Joongang Ilbo reported that “[r]epresentatives from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo reached a consensus on taking measures against North Korea if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear weapons test,” and quoted South Korea’s envoy to the six-party talks threatening to make North Korea “pay a price” for nuking off. But to the extent there was ever unity among North Korea’s five interlocutors, the Japan deal destroyed it. The coalition has collapsed, and it was never that strong to start with.

China is the most obvious exceptionalist of the five. It ignores U.N. sanctions and subsidizes North Korea, mostly to f*ck with us, and also to keep half of Korea as a buffer state and a source of cheap coal and comfort women, while whining disingenuously about how powerless it is do anything about it. As the economist Nicholas Eberstadt says in a new analysis, “[T]he North Korean economy has never before been so totally dependent on the largesse of a single trade patron as it appears to be today.” No one believes a word China says, but no one does anything about it, either.

Russia is an exceptionalist because of Crimea. Old Bolsheviks bang their shoes on podiums; psychopaths do things more quietly — things like importing more North Korean slave laborers, sending their Deputy Prime Ministers to visit Pyongyang, opening new rail lines between Khasan and Rason, signing new economic cooperation agreements with Pyongyang, and writing off almost $10 billion in old North Korean debt (Professor Haggard has more on Russia’s “pivot,” here.) Russia does these things to harm our interests, and to use that as leverage against us. So noted. How many Ukrainians does it take to grease a T-90 with a TOW missile? It’s not an ethnic joke, it’s a question. We have leverage, too.

Even South Korea — the principal beneficiary of deterring North Korea, but also the principal beneficiary of a Pentagon-subsidized status quo — recently had the chutzpah to argue that U.N. sanctions don’t apply to its politically popular “inter-Korean projects,” which are effectively no-strings-attached subsidies into the opaque void of Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Cash earnings from an inter-Korean tour project would not be subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, amid growing expectations for its resumption. [....]

Questions have risen whether North Korea’s earnings from a joint inter-Korean tourism project in the North’s eastern mountain region would violate the resolution banning the transfer of bundles of cash to the wayward country.

“In the ministry’s understanding, (bulk cash banning) is aimed at curbing attempts to transfer illicit funds through hand-carrying with the purpose of circumventing bank trading,” the ministry said in a written response to independent lawmaker Park Joo-sun’s questionnaire regarding the Kumgang tour program and the U.N. sanctions.

Also asked whether the bulk cash restriction applies to commercial transactions over the banking system, the ministry said, “Given the purpose of bulk cash banning in the UNSC resolutions, normal dealings through the banking system are not relevant in our understanding.”

The U.N. has not detected any violations of bulk cash banning so far, while the Kumgang tour program has not been discussed as a possible violation, according to the ministry’s response to the lawmaker.”  [Yonhap]

That’s a green answer to a blue question. The fact that Kaesong and Kumgang don’t violate Paragraph 14’s prohibitions on bulk cash transactions doesn’t make them kosher under Paragraphs 11 or 15, which require financial transparency in transactions involving the financial system, including money transfers, correspondent accounts, the opening of new branches, and trade credits. And if there was any transparency, don’t you suppose the Unification Ministry would have answered my questions by now? Sweet Jesus — did they even read the resolution, or are they just lying? Because South Korea sat on the Security Council when that resolution passed. Seoul is hardly in any position to criticize Tokyo or Beijing about North Korea policy. It’s the worst hypocrite of all.

~   ~   ~

As for us, I’d say a Japanese diplomat pegged us in 2007, after the second failed Agreed Framework, when he observed that “[t]he United States always jumps to hasty decisions as a presidential election approaches.” In North Korea, the American exceptionalism means that American Presidents seldom let U.N. resolutions get between them and a convenient opportunity to buy North Korea out of the headlines. Despite everything that the last two decades should have taught us, self-described North Korea “experts” still insist that the answer to our nuclear impasse with North Korea is to soften our precondition that North Korea agree to disarm, and appease it with “engagement” initiatives that inevitably provide it regime-sustaining cash. These people still have enough influence within the Obama Administration to have it adopt their failed ideas, or at least float them as trial balloons. Only North Korea’s disinterest in denuclearizing at all has stalled the idea. Kim Jong Il would have taken our money and run like a thief; Kim Jong Un doesn’t even bother to.

Which brings us back to Japan, which has made itself an exceptionalist for more understandable reasons — a desire to bring home its citizens, kidnapped by North Korea decades ago. What makes that especially understandable is that Japan is driven to this desperation because of an exceptionalist grasp by President Bush that, despite his personal assurance to the contrary, betrayed Japan and its abductees. After personally meeting with abductee Megumi Yokota’s mother in the Oval Office, Bush reversed a long-term U.S. policy of listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism for its abductions of Japanese, refusing to lift that designation until the abductees came home. The decision shook the Japanese government and infuriated its people. Here’s a flashback to that event in 2007, and to how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted at the time:

Japanese politicians like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained this week that the United States should not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until there is a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Doing so would harm relations between Tokyo and Washington, Abe warned.

On Wednesday, Bush talked to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda by telephone and assured him that he had not forgotten about the abductees. And in a nod to Japan in his comments Thursday, Bush said the United States would “never forget” the abductions of Japanese citizens.

On Thursday, Fukuda, a moderate, rejected criticism inside Japan that Tokyo now had little leverage over Pyongyang because of its removal from the terrorism list. He said working with the United States “will be really necessary to realize the denuclearization and, at the same time, pave the way for solving the abduction issue, which is a major task for our country.”

North Korea recently agreed to reinvestigate the abductions, while Japan said it would lift some minor sanctions against the North. But so far, Tokyo has refused to contribute energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation nuclear agreement, and Japanese participation is expected to become crucial as considerably more assistance has been promised to the North.

Both Bush and Rice addressed the strong sentiment in Japan that the Bush administration had abandoned Tokyo, its most important ally in Asia, for the sake of reaching an imperfect agreement with the North.

“We’re continuing to expect the North Koreans to take this issue seriously because it is a major issue for Japan and it’s a major issue for the United States,” Rice said of the abductions issue. [N.Y. Times]

With malice aforethought, we threw one of our closest allies under the bus to appease our most implacable and mendacious enemies. That’s not deference to our allies, it’s deference to our enemies and a betrayal of our allies. It isn’t smart diplomacy, either; you can see how well it worked out for us. None of that is President Obama’s fault, of course, but it is his fault that the same State Department geniuses are still running our North Korea policy today instead of stamping passports in Bamako. We’re still paying the price for their incompetence today.

~   ~   ~

It’s difficult to calculate the value of this financial windfall without knowing just how soon North Korea will renege, and just how much reneging prepared Japan is to tolerate. It could be substantial, and loosening restrictions on remittances could be an early payoff. Japan and North Korea are natural trading partners, and as The Hankyoreh notes, “Trade between North Korea and Japan was as high as 46 billion yen (US$452 million) in 2002 before plummeting to 14.1 billion yen (US$138.7 million) in 2006, then drying up more or less completely.” Not bad for a country with a GDP of about $40 billion (privately, economists scoff at that figure). Thus, North Korea rakes in a big payday just as it threatens to conduct a new nuclear test, and just as President Obama is trying to prevent that by threatening to starve North Korea of cash.

The South Koreans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, sound angry and bitter about Japan cutting a deal:

A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday: “It was just a relationship between two isolated leaders, Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom have no friends in Northeast Asia.” The deal threatens to break the united front that Japan, South Korea and the United States have maintained in dealing with Pyongyang. [Joongang Ilbo]

Diplomats often let such things go unsaid, but not today. This has caused a real rift among nations that have common interests and ought to act like allies:

Following reports of a fresh deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, South Korean officials warned of a possible negative impact on the troubled denuclearization process.

“We understand the importance of the abduction issue in Japan’s diplomacy, but now is an important time for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia to cooperate for the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability,” a senior South Korean diplomat here said on background. [Yonhap]

Japan defended the agreement.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, says the move does not mean Japan is out of step with the United States and South Korea on the issue. “It’s impossible – this agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”  

In fact, the relaxation of rules against remittances has the immediate potential to violate UNSCR 2094, depending on what restrictions and reporting requirements Japan puts on them. Lifting the travel ban certainly raises the risk of bulk cash smuggling from Japan to North Korea. If Japan’s “aid” to North Korea takes the form of cash, it also has the potential to violate U.N. sanctions, although it’s not clear what nature, amount, or form the aid would take. The greater point is one that even some Japanese can see — that North Korea’s game is to disrupt or offset any international coalition that could focus deterrent economic pressure. It’s succeeding because no one is leading that coalition.

Among the most significant is the possible easing of a ban on cash remittances from the thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are loyal to the regime. That could provide the North with much-needed hard currency for its weapons programs, and could undermine international efforts to bring the regime to heel, said academic and activist Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University.

“Kim Jong-Un’s regime has won a major compromise,” he told AFP. “It has secured a way for money to flow to North Korea. “Kim has issued an order to Chongryong (its de facto embassy in Japan) to press Korean business people to invest, which will mean cash flowing to North Korea.“They badly want this money to maintain the regime and to fund the nuclear program.” [Japan Today]

In the short term, Pyongyang has managed to split the allied coalition and disrupt its strategy for deterrence — a strategy that won’t work if various nations continue to put their individual interests ahead of the collective interest in disarming North Korea. Today, Pyongyang is doing a better job of using those individual interests to divide its neighbors than anyone else is doing of coordinating a collective response to deter it. The only nation with the financial, diplomatic, and military clout to coordinate an international response is the United States.

The Obama Administration doesn’t quite seem to be paying attention. The potential exists for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate effective pressure on North Korea. Even China seems irritated at Kim Jong Un, and the fragile condition of its economy increases U.S. financial leverage over the Chinese banks that hold most of Kim Jong Un’s offshore deposits. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had in years to roll back Pyongyang’s destructive ambitions. Instead, the North Koreans are taking advantage of this leadership vacuum, appealing to the individual interests of China, South Korea, and Japan, and dividing the nations whose cooperation could put devastating economic pressure on Pyongyang.

North Korea will break its word, of course, at a time of its choosing. The result will be a more dangerous world for Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Nuclear blackmail watch

As Pyongyang may be about to nuke off, and then again may not be, Glyn Davies is pleading for Agreed Framework III.

A U.S. envoy on Tuesday suggested Washington could accept “reversible steps” from North Korea on denuclearization in order to jump-start frozen negotiations.

“What they do, quite frankly, in the initial stages would be perfectly reversible steps that they would take, declaratory steps,” said Glyn Davies, the Obama administration’s special envoy for North Korea policy. He emphasized, however, that Pyongyang could only return to the long-paralyzed six-party process if it accepted the “fundamental premise” that the negotiations were focused on the permanent shuttering of its nuclear weapons program.

If only they had another cooling tower to blow up.

Davies was responding to a reporter’s question on whether the United States was still demanding from Pyongyang concrete proof of its commitment to irreversible denuclearization as a precondition to returning to the negotiations, which also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

“Davies’ answer suggests that if the six-party talks were to begin, the first actions the U.S. and its partners would demand would be aimed at limits that curb the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear and missile potential,” said Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association executive director, in an email.

Potential reversible steps that the North could take to gain the confidence of other countries could include a pledge to suspend nuclear and missile testing. A stillborn U.S-North Korea agreement reached on Leap Day 2012 involved such a promise of a testing moratorium; Pyongyang was seen to quickly break faith with Washington when it weeks later unsuccessfully attempted to send a rocket into space.

Although Davies is being coy with us, a careful parsing of his words doesn’t allow the reader to tell whether he’s demanding complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program — the position of the United States until now — or settling for something more like a freeze, which can be unfrozen at any time.

The insistence on “permanent shuttering” — or whatever words Davies actually used — is the closest thing we’ve seen to a denial of previous reports that it was willing to soften its disarmament demands. It isn’t much of a denial.

Let’s go with a wild assumption here that North Korea would sign any deal premised on CVID (the more likely outcome is that the deal would be silent about it, and both parties would walk away with different understandings). Any such deal would come at a heavy up-front cost in aid. Congress, however, has already prohibited most forms of aid to North Korea, and prohibits all aid to North Korea unless Congress approves it in a specific appropriation. Good luck getting this Congress to approve one in an election year.

N. Korea threatens annual missile, nuke tests

Our setting is a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the prevention of WMD proliferation, last Wednesday. Ironically, a diplomat from South Korea, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, chaired the meeting.

The turn of North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong Il, came. When it did, Ri added further evidence to support the Theory of North Korean Exceptionalism — that is, North Korea is neither inclined nor expected to follow the simplest of rules that apply to everyone else on earth. Ri was supposed to have four minutes to speak, but he growls on for at least four times that. The Chair finally cut Ri off mid-sentence, just as he was getting to the part about the annual testing. Unless you find this sort of thing interesting on its own merits, skip to the 40-minute mark.

[link; hat tip to Adam Cathcart]
As a result, we miss the full flavor of just exactly what the North Koreans intend to test, and how often. Pity. I suppose there’s always KNCA.