Archive for Diplomacy

UN POE Report: North Korean spies infiltrated UNESCO, World Food Program

I’ll just let you read what the POE’s draft report says for yourself:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.07 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.30 AMWell, that might explain a few things. For those who don’t know, the Reconnaissance General Bureau handles most of North Korea’s clandestine foreign intelligence work. It is sanctioned by the Treasury Department. It is suspected of being behind the Rangoon Bombing in 1983, KAL 858 bombing in 1987, a series of attempted and completed assassinations of activists and defectors, and the Sony hack and threats. RGB agents may have also crewed the vessel that sank the Cheonan.

I wonder if this can also be linked to the diversion of U.N. emergency aid to North Korea, or the U.N. Development Programme scandal from a few years ago. Or, this angry email I received from a WFP official in Rome a few months ago:

I’ve been reading you for some months, but am stopping now because this is not aimed at helping the people of North Korea. It’s all sadly about you.

This, children, is what’s known as “projection.” I’m not going to name the official, but by googling his name, I was able to identify his position and location. There’s little doubt that this person and Kim Su Gwang were well acquainted. It’s Oil-For-Food all over again.

Kudos to the POE for having the courage to tell us this. Now, let the Inspectors General get to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea makes more homophobic slurs against Michael Kirby

Once again, North Korea is responding to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s exhaustively documented evidence of crimes against humanity … by making an issue of Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation:

The editorial also singled out the chair of the COI, Michael Kirby, and leveled homophobic abuse at the former judge, something it has done previously to discredit his work.

“As far as the former chairman of the ‘Inquiry Commission’ Kirby is concerned, he is an old sexual maniac who earned an ill-fame for his decades-long homosexuality,” the article read. [NK News]

The last time North Korea attacked Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation, it also denied the very existence of homosexuality in North Korea. An interesting new report, however, also via NK News, informs us that this is not the case, and that homosexuality is common in the isolated and otherwise sexless North Korean Army. According to the report, “senior officers have been known take charge of ‘pretty boy privates.’” That is to say, officers rape their soldiers, which can’t be good for morale or unit cohesion.

The story isn’t just an interesting one about North Korea and the mendacity of its media, but about the irrepressibility of human nature. Next time someone tells you there are no gay people in North Korea, answer them in the most fabulous way you can: “That’s not what I’ve heard, sister!”

President Obama can’t explain what his N. Korea executive order does

The bottom North Korea story of the day is that Pyongyang, which denies having anything to do with the Sony cyberattacks, has just threatened us with cyberattacks.

The North’s military will ratchet up its “retaliatory action of justice” by use of every possible means, including the nation’s “smaller, precision and diversified” nuclear striking means and cyber warfare capabilities, it added. [Yonhap]

(I’m taking Yonhap’s word for this, because KCNA isn’t working for me today.)

The top North Korea story of the day is that you can forget about those carefully downplayed Groundhog Day hopes for Agreed Framework 3.0:

“Now that the gangster-like U.S. imperialists’ military strategy towards the DPRK is inching close to the stage of igniting a war of aggression, the just counteraction of the army and people of the DPRK will be focused on inflicting the bitterest disasters upon the United States of America,” it said in a English-language statement. [….]

“It is the decision of the army and people of the DPRK to have no longer need or willingness to sit at negotiating table with the U.S. since the latter seeks to stamp out the ideology of the former and ‘bring down’ its social system,” the commission said.

No intervention can interrupt death when it’s inevitable.

I suppose this is North Korea’s reaction to Barack Obama’s observation that North Korea’s political system is doomed. Which is odd, because I haven’t seen anyone blame President Obama for riling the North Koreans, the way so many others once did following relatively milder statements by John Bolton.

No one who matters will criticize the President for being a diplomatic wrecking ball today, which is good, because that would be the wrong reason to criticize him. (If the media react differently today, maybe it’s because they’ve belatedly grasped the nature of the North Korean regime.)

A better reason to criticize him is that we have just watched a conversation between two low-information voters, neither of whom has any notion of how to respond to Pyongyang, and one of whom has been the President of the United States for six years. To his credit, the interviewer at least grasps the nature of his subject matter. He spots the contradiction in the idea of sanctioning the “most sanctioned” regime. It’s the President who isn’t capable of explaining this.

The President, by contrast, doesn’t even betray an understanding of the need or purpose for the executive order he just signed. Instead, he seems to dismiss it as a futile and superfluous gesture. The President is an intelligent man — probably smarter than most of his contemporaries — but nothing in his response suggests he read further than the sticky red tab that said “sign here.” He reveals no sense of how it fits into a broader North Korea policy. Either (a) no one who understood it briefed him, (b) the briefing didn’t stick, or (c) he is concealing the significance of the executive order so that no one will expect him to enforce it. An even more terrifying alternative is that (d) his words don’t describe that policy, because his words are the policy. He is a passive onlooker, watching the clock run out, content to let events drift toward a conclusion he calls “inevitable,” without regard for all the evil that will be inflicted, compounded, and proliferated in the intervening years. How sad.

It just wouldn’t be Groundhog Day without a N. Korea talks story

I was starting to worry that this day would pass and allow that metaphor to go unused:

The countries’ nuclear envoys have been discussing the idea of “talks about talks,” according to multiple people with knowledge of the conversations. But they have not been able to agree on the logistics — in no small part because of North Korea’s continuing Ebola quarantine.

“We want to test if they have an interest in resuming negotiations,” a senior U.S. administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think we’ve made it very clear that we would like to see them take some steps first.”

Those steps would include suspending work at their nuclear facilities and pledging not to conduct any further nuclear tests, he said. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

So, just over a month after the most devastating and successful foreign attack on free expression in U.S. history, and just two weeks after the Obama Administration responded to that by sanctioning ten low-level arms dealers, Bill Murray is hitting the snooze button again. Nothing could possibly speak with greater eloquence about how much this administration values our freedom of expression, except maybe for thisNorth Korea’s moves to restart Yongbyon may also have factored into the administration’s decision to go back to chasing the Kims like Hinckley chased Jodi Foster. 

Last month, a group of former American officials including Stephen Bosworth and Joseph DeTrani, both of whom have a long history of dealing with North Korea, met in Singapore with Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator.

The meeting was designed to check “the lay of the land,” according to one person familiar with the talks. Multiple Americans with knowledge of the various discussions spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Singapore meeting resulted in the suggestion that Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, meet with a North Korean counterpart. He was in Asia last week for meetings with Japanese, South Korean and Chinese officials, and is understood to have raised the prospect of holding a meeting with North Koreans in Beijing.

North Korea offered to send Ri to Beijing or suggested that Sung Kim meet with Kim Kye Gwan and Kang Sok Ju, both more senior in the foreign ministry than Ri, in Pyongyang.

American officials thought that Kim and Kang’s ranks were better matched with Sung Kim’s position, but did not like the “optics” of the American envoy traveling to Pyongyang because it would have made the North Koreans look as though they were in the stronger position, according to the people close to the discussions.

The administration denies making any new proposals in the Singapore talks, although I don’t personally believe that.

For now, at least, it doesn’t look like Pyongyang is buying what we’re selling. Former U.S. negotiator David Straub accuses the North Koreans of “want[ing] to give the impression that it’s the Americans who are being unreasonable right now.” The North Koreans, commenting on Sung Kim’s reported refusal to visit Pyongyang, accuse the administration of “working hard to shift the blame onto the (North), misleading public opinion by creating impression that dialogue and contacts are not realized due to the latter’s insincere attitude.”

And of course, as the Post points out, the two governments have been talking to each other, in one way or another, for years. So far—praise be to Zeus—they just don’t agree on much. Which is good, because when you choose to negotiate from weakness, you’re sure to get an awful deal. To borrow an old expression, we’ve already established what kind of diplomats we have. Now, we’re just negotiating the price.

Actually, sanctions are looking like the best thing that ever happened to engagement

Since December 19th, when the President blamed North Korea for the Sony hacking and cyberterrorism attacks, Congress has been pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea, and it has looked increasingly like it has been pushing against an open door. And suddenly, a North Korean leader who has never gone abroad or met a foreign leader during his three-year reign (no, Rodman doesn’t count) has taken a sudden — even urgent — interest in personal diplomacy.

On January 1, Kim Jong Un made a highly conditional suggestion that he might be interested in meeting Park Geun-Hye. Park, with record low approval ratings and a desperate need to change the subject, seized on the offer and has pushed Kim to hurry along to Seoul.

The next day, President Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) against the third-country entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating. In its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Suddenly, within a week, press reports said that Shinzo Abe might visit Pyongyang, and that Kim might accept Putin’s invitation to Moscow in May.

Kim even reached out to Washington a little, offering a nuclear test freeze if Washington cancels annual military exercises. This was enough to fool the gullible editors of The New York Times, but not President Obama. Still, it’s more than North Korea has offered Washington for the last year.

Today, North Korea’s Central Bank responded to an obviously planted question from its state news agency by “committ[ing] itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (quote from KCNA; Reuters report here.) Kim surely knows that international efforts to enforce financial sanctions against Pyongyang will determine their success.

All of this is great news if you believe that talks are an end in themselves, rather than a means to achieve concrete interests. But it’s also great news if you’re searching for a strategy that raises enough colon-clenching horror in the palaces and ministries of Pyongyang to modify the regime’s behavior.

There’s little question that Kim Jong Un’s sudden interest in diplomacy is fundamentally about frustrating U.S. interests, rather than disarmament or genuine reform. Pyongyang is bracing for financial warfare — trying to break up the formation of an international coalition against its finances, protecting key cash cows like Kaesong, and shoring up its financial lifelines to resist sanctions. But at least for now, despite all of the “expert” opinion that sanctions can do no more, we’ve heard, however indirectly, from the best authorities on that subject — the ones in Pyongyang.

This organization does not tolerate failure.

For weeks, I’d heard rumors that the North Korean government told its diplomats that they’d be held accountable — personally — unless they stopped the U.N. from moving human rights resolutions. There may have been some truth to those rumors.

North Korea has recently replaced the deputy chief of its mission to the United Nations in New York, diplomatic sources said Wednesday, a personnel change that followed the recent U.N. passage of a unusually strong human rights resolution against the communist country.

“Around two weeks ago, North Korean deputy ambassador to the U.N., Ri Tong-il, was replaced and he returned to the North,” one of the sources, well-versed in U.N. matters, told Yonhap News Agency. “As far as I know, his successor, Deputy Ambassador An Myong-hun, has entered New York.”

The decision to replace Ri, a well-known U.N. expert, comes as a surprise at a time when the North is undergoing a critical phase at the international body over its human rights situation. [Yonhap]

OFK has exclusive video.

Max Fisher’s criticism of the Sunshine Policy is spot-on

Washington Post alumnus Max Fisher, now writing at Vox, presents a graph and data showing how, despite all of its abhorrent behavior, North Korea’s trade (most of it with China and South Korea) has grown, and how that leads to more abhorrent behavior.

The way it’s supposed to work is that North Korea’s belligerence, aggression, and horrific human rights abuses lead the world to isolate it economically, imposing a punishing cost and deterring future misdeeds. What’s actually happening is that North Korea is being rewarded with more trade, which is still extremely small, but growing nonetheless, enriching and entrenching the ruling Kim Jong Un government, even as it expands its hostile nuclear and missile programs. [….]

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota.

The Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters. But the trade continued, as did the work at Kaesong. South Korean corporations, which have even more political power there than do American corporations in the US, have come to enjoy this trade as a source of revenue and cheap labor, and push to maintain it. That drop you see in 2013 is actually because North Korea shut down Kaesong for a time as a political provocation — it was the South Koreans, paradoxically, who wanted to reopen the facility that directly funds the North Korean weapons occasionally used to kill South Koreans. [Vox, Max Fisher]

Those South Korean corporate profiteers have since allied themselves with “progressive activists,” who vary from the anti-anti-North Korean to the pro-North Korean, to call on President Park to lift sanctions on the North. It must be the most unlikely alliance since 1939.

I’m not sure how Fisher’s analysis of the problem could have been better, unless he’d driven home the point that the Sunshiners justified their policy by predicting that this preferential trade would catalyze economic reform and liberalize North Korean society. Clearly, that hasn’t happened; in fact, I could make a strong case that the opposite is closer to the truth. In their desperation to catalyze reform, Sunshiners have perpetuated the status quo instead.

Of course, a better North Korea policy means more than sanctions

Professor Haggard is skeptical that a “sanctions only approach” toward North Korea could work, which compels me to expand on why I agree, and on what a better approach would look like.

It should go without saying that no act of Congress can ever be more than part of a complete foreign policy, something that, by constitutional design, only the executive branch can wield. Certainly the imposition and enforcement of tough sanctions are at the heart of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, H.R. 1771, because tough sanctions enforcement is a necessary (and presently, a missing) element of a better policy, and because sanctions are also an area where Congress can express its will. H.R. 1771 sets strict conditions for relaxing sanctions to avoid repeating President Bush’s errors of 2007, but those conditions (see sections 401 and 402) clearly contemplate using sanctions as leverage for better, more effective diplomacy and engagement — assuming that’s still possible.

In an acknowledgement that a better policy has more dimensions than sanctions alone, H.R. 1771 also calls for more efforts to fund the free flow of information into North Korea (section 301), and the publication of reports on North Korea’s crimes against humanity (section 302). These, too, are areas where our government has lagged. There is much speculative debate about whether engagement with the regime is realistic at all; certainly, there is little evidence that it has transformed this regime materially, or that its effects are remotely comparable to the transformational effects of markets and smuggling. Nevertheless, H.R. 1771 tests the regime’s trustworthiness and readiness for good-faith negotiations by demanding the cessation of its counterfeiting and the release of its abductees, by demanding the free and fair delivery of food aid, and by demanding material improvements in the conditions in its prison camps.

The regime’s stonewalling on all of these outrages — despite decades of engagement and appeasement — illustrates the flaw of strategies based on obedient supplications and obsequious tribute. Outsiders have focused most of their efforts to “engage” North Korea on an oligarchy whose physical survival depends on the enforcement of the status quo, while overlooking the common people who sincerely seek change that might give them a chance at lives worth living. Wouldn’t a smarter engagement strategy emphasize them instead?

In addition to sanctioning, defunding, and degrading the security forces that are closing North Korea’s borders and suppressing change, a smarter engagement strategy would increase our support for things that really might change North Korea in very real and tangible ways — broadcasting, an independent cellular network, the smuggling of food and information, remittances, quasi-legal private agriculture, clandestine cross-border banking, and whatever else would catalyze the growth of markets that provide food, goods, and information to those who are hungriest for them. Eventually, engaging the North Korean people would create the conditions for the rise of independent trade networks, unions, churches, and political organizations. Certainly, this will require more creativity than the conventional approaches that have failed so consistently. By now, you realize that this isn’t an argument against engagement. It’s an argument that we’ve been engaging the wrong people.

At the same time, every member of the Security Council has agreed, in principle, that sanctions against the regime are a necessary element of a policy designed to alter its behavior (or failing that, its very nature). That does not mean that a better North Korea policy can be based on sanctions alone. An orchestra can no more play a symphony with brass alone than it can play one without it. A better policy will require our government to devote more intelligence, investigative, law enforcement, and (yes) diplomatic resources to this problem. As with engagement, there is no argument against diplomacy to be found here, only an argument that our diplomacy is out of sequence. The initial focus of our diplomacy should be on building unity and cohesion among allies in enforcing sanctions consistently, and as the U.N. has agreed (see section 202). Unanimity among allies can strengthen our capacity to force China and Russia to enforce those sanctions, too. Only then, when sanctions enforcement is broad and consistent, can diplomacy with North Korea have any hope of success. That means that North Korea’s should be the last government we approach, not the first. Diplomacy with a target like North Korea, in particular, requires enough leverage to persuade it to give up things it would rather keep.

As for whether a deal with North Korea is still possible, I personally espouse what I’ll call strategic ambivalence. Either sanctions — in concert with these other elements of a smarter policy — can coerce policy changes in Pyongyang, or they can hasten the destabilization of the regime. The choice lies with Kim Jong Un (and to a lesser extent, with Xi Jinping and Putin) as to which direction the policy will have to follow. As long as the countries that have agreed to sanction Pyongyang subsidize it instead, and until Pyongyang fears that collapse is a real and imminent danger, Pyongyang will be able to choose the status quo, and therefore, it will.

PUST’s un-Christian attacks on Suki Kim

Ms. Kim’s recollections about PUST and North Korea have obvious public interest value for citizens and policymakers, but it’s hard to believe she told us much that an astute observer wouldn’t have guessed anyway. I think the most valuable thing Suki Kim may have taught us is how invested those who “engage” Pyongyang become in imposing a code of omerta to conceal the truth from us, regardless of the ethical cost.

But the author, Suki Kim, may have provoked even more anger among the university’s Christian educators. They have denounced Ms. Kim for breaking a promise not to write anything about her experiences and said her memoir contains inaccuracies, notably her portrayal of them as missionaries, which could cause them trouble with the North Korean authorities. [….]

Dr. Kim sent her what she described as a series of angry and distressed emails when he found out about her plans to publish the book. At least two of her former fellow teachers also wrote, imploring her to scrap the idea.

In a telephone interview from China, Dr. Kim sought to rebut the entire book.

“I am really upset about the attitude, her writings, her telling lies, her cheating us,” he said.

He was especially critical of what he called the erroneous assertion that the other teachers were missionaries. “We are educators,” he said.

If the North Korean authorities thought that the school was seeking to convert the students to Christianity, Dr. Kim said, “we would have trouble.”

“They know we are Christian, we do not hide that,” he said. “But we are not missionaries. Christians and missionaries are different.” [N.Y. Times]

As you analyze whether any “engagement” project with North Korea is beneficial, ask yourself who changed who. The evidence that PUST has made Pyongyang more like America is far from clear, but it’s very clear that the PUST administration has taken on some very North Korean characteristics.

I must put Miss Kim’s book on my list now.

Kirby: “strategy of non-criticism” gained only “crumbs” for Japan, S. Korea

In an op-ed for CNN.com, Michael Kirby talks about North Korea’s crimes against humanity, the history of the U.N.’s attempts to “engage” Pyongyang on human rights, and the broader failure of strategies that sought to transform North Korea though scented candles, mood lighting, and Marvin Gaye music alone:

The strategy of non-criticism, attempted friendliness and deference was singularly unsuccessful in securing either the goal of peace, national reunification or human rights compliance. For example, the meetings in Pyongyang in September 2002 with Japan’s prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, and in September 2000 with then-President Kim Dae-Jong of ROK, were not long-term substantive successes.

In the case of the Japanese prime minister, a tiny number of abductees were returned with an acknowledgment of a state policy of abductions by the DPRK that was said to have been abandoned. However, when the bones of some of the Japanese abductees, said to have died in DPRK, were returned to Japan, they were found to have no DNA match to the families of the abductees. In some cases they were probably animal bones — an affront to Japan and to the abductees’ families.

Negotiations with ROK actually coincided with the clandestine development of nuclear weapons at the very time of the promotion of the “Sunshine Policy” by President Kim.

Whilst such strategies are sometimes rewarded by minor concessions, objectively such measures can only be assessed as “crumbs” when measured against the violations and international crimes reported by the COI. [Michael Kirby, CNN]

These days, true liberals sound like neocons when it comes to North Korea. In America, most of those who still keep faith with the discredited and unrealistic premises behind the Sunshine Policy are hard-left progressives, or people who call themselves “realists.”

Kirby appeals to China and Russia to support the recommendations of the U.N. General Assembly and refer Kim Jong Un’s regime to the International Criminal Court:

Unlike earlier totalitarian states and oppressive conduct, the world cannot now lament, “if only we had known…” Now, the world does know. And the question is whether the world will respond effectively and take the necessary action. [….]

The world has therefore reached a moment of truth over DPRK. The international community and people everywhere will be watching closely the United Nations’ consideration of the COI report. I am hopeful that the outcome will be positive.

The human rights of the people of DPRK demand it. The peace and security of the Korean peninsula and its region require it.

If When China does veto a Security Council resolution, the world’s civilized nations must do more than shrug their shoulders helplessly. They should be ready to move on to a discussion of alternatives, including financial isolation, travel bans on regime officials, and a special tribunal under the authority of the General Assembly. My friend, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, adds this:

“High-profile actions at the U.N. that pit China and the DPRK on one side against the ‘civilized’ nations of the world on the other have implications on how states and multinational corporations conduct trade and business with the DPRK,” he said.

“Divestiture was a powerful tool the world used against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Likewise, deterring European states and companies from selling North Korea luxury goods in violation of several UNSC resolutions can only put pressure on the Kim regime.” [CNN]

Perhaps the most important role Justice Kirby can play is to keep this issue in the public eye, and to impose political and reputational costs on Pyongyang and its enablers.

I heard Obama told Putin that Kim Jong Un was too big a wuss to test a nuke to punish the U.N.

Before the committee voted Tuesday, North Korea warned that it might retaliate with further nuclear tests. Trying to punish it over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests,” said Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign-ministry adviser for U.N. and human rights issues, according to the Associated Press. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Oh, dear God, please, please do this.

Today’s General Assembly vote is about the people of North Korea, and the relevance of the U.N. itself (Update: UNGA approves, 111-19-55)

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.  – Voltaire

It now seems that the U.N. General Assembly’s vote on a North Korea human rights resolution is to take place this very day. Because of Justice Kirby’s report — and because of what so many survivors have told us, at the risk of their lives — no one can ever again say, “I did not know.” Unlike the bystanders of previous generations, we are free to speak, and to act.

Germany 1945

The draft resolution itself mostly states what has been obvious for years to anyone who has paid attention. It is strong in many regards, but conspicuously weak in failing to note North Korea’s denial of the right to food, where the influence of the World Food Program in weakening the draft is obvious. Nor did Pyongyang need any external encouragement to punish “human traffickers,” who are now the only way out of North Korea for its most desperate people. But it is still the best text we’re likely to see for a very long time. You can read it here. Read more

Dennis Halpin: North Korea is the new “sick man of Asia”

Just as a prosperous and powerful Europe grappled for decades, ultimately unsuccessfully, over what to do about its weakest link, the strong and prosperous Pacific powers have faced, so far unsuccessfully, the dilemma of a weak but nuclear-armed North Korea. A series of diplomatic formulae, including the Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, and, most recently, the aborted Leap Day Agreement of 2012, have all come to naught. Pyongyang, like Constantinople, seems on perpetual life support, gasping for air but never quite expiring. [The Weekly Standard]

Claudia Rosett hopes the Obama Administration won’t screw up Iran …

policy with a bad deal the same way the Clinton and Bush Administrations screwed up North Korea policy with their own bad deals. Rosett isn’t the only one making the comparison:

“Like North Korea in the 1990s, Iran will use a weak deal as cover to get nuclear weapons,” said Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a prominent skeptic of the negotiations. [CNN]

The historical record yields little cause for optimism, and the common thread that runs through much of that record is Wendy Sherman. In an exquisite understatement, CNN says that President Obama wants a nuclear deal with Iran to burnish his legacy because he “lacks a defining foreign policy triumph.”

No doubt, George W. Bush was thinking the same thing in February 2007, and I doubt that Bush’s presidential library devotes much space to Agreed Framework II. That may help explain why most observers agree that Obama isn’t about to stick his neck out for Agreed Framework III, and why the President himself shows no interest in doing so. If his policy shifts, it will shift in the opposite direction, either at Congress’s initiative or (ironically) the U.N.’s.

If the shape of the Iran debate is any indication of where the North Korea debate is headed, the Republican takeover in the Senate suggests that Congress will be skeptical about agreements and more active on sanctions legislation. Whether you believe that Congress will push North Korea policy depends on whether you believe Yonhap’s American experts, who say nothing will change, or the Joongang Ilbo‘s sources in the Korean foreign policy establishment, who worry that “[s]anctions on the North could be tightened.” As if that’s a bad thing.

The actual answer will depend on events. If Kim Jong Un does something stupid enough, or if U.N. action builds a big enough head of steam, Congress will put a bill on the President’s desk. The President probably won’t veto it, but the real question will be whether he enforces it.

Washington Post Editorial calls for International Criminal Court referral

The Editors of The Washington Post aren’t falling for North Korea’s so-called charm offensive, nor (thankfully) do they use that inapt cliché:

[R]ecent maneuverings suggest that Pyongyang views the latest debate with alarm. North Korean diplomats have been attempting to head off any action that would lead to a referral to the ICC. The latest gambit was to invite Mr. Darusman to visit North Korea for the first time, a cynical gesture after the country refused to allow a visit by the commission of inquiry.

No amount of damage control by North Korea should get in the way now. The Security Council ought to vote on a referral, and if China decides to veto it, then the entire world will see who supports the thugs who have built a superstructure of brutality in North Korea. As Mr. Darusman states in his report, there is no justification for inaction, given the horrifying facts that have now been brought to light. The United States should give his recommendation full support. [Washington Post]

Even Marzuki Darusman, probably the wobbliest of the three Commissioners, is calling for an ICC referral. Similar thoughts here, via the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

~   ~   ~

Update: I fixed the bad link to HRNK’s press release.

Kirby presses China to support ICC referral of North Korea

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

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

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

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

Charm offensive: N. Korea threatens to nuke U.S., hands out Halloween candy

As near as I can figure, Kim Jong Un’s stages of grief over his potential indictment for crimes against humanity have included denial, homophobia, mendacity, engagementracism, and (again) terrorism, not necessarily in that order. The North Korean model differs from the Kübler-Ross model in its inclusion of several additional stages, and also, for its lack of an “acceptance” stage.

In any case, North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and opaque countries, seems to be taking the threat of at least some action seriously. Its envoys have struck back in recent weeks with a mix of unusual diplomatic concessions, hard-line rhetoric and propaganda videos, handed out to reporters like Halloween candy in the corridors of the United Nations. Earlier this month, North Korea even circulated a draft measure of its own, calling on the United Nations to conduct an “unbiased reassessment” of its human rights record; it regards Mr. Kirby’s commission of inquiry as a Western plot. [N.Y. Times]

Some commentators have described this series of reactions as a “charm offensive,” which is a charmingly stupid way of describing it:

DPRK Will Mercilessly Shatter U.S. and Its Followers’ “Human Rights” Campaign

[….] First, Now that the U.S. “human rights” offensive against the DPRK has reached an extreme phase, the DPRK formally notifies the U.S. that the DPRK will settle accounts with those related to the offensive without the slightest clemency and by every possible means and methods generation after generation.

[….]

Second, Now that the U.S. anti-DPRK “human rights” campaign is leading to a vicious plot to bring down the dignified social system in the DPRK, it declares its new tough counter-action of its own style to frustrate the campaign of the U.S. and its allied forces.

The “human rights” campaign of the U.S. is another version of the most undisguised act of aggression against the DPRK’s sovereignty and rights.

To cope with this, the DPRK, too, decided to launch a new tough counter-action of its own style to blow up the stronghold of the violators of “human rights.”

The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK had already declared before the world that an operational plan for striking all the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in the Pacific targeting the DPRK and the main cities of the U.S. mainland where war maniacs are stationed was ratified.

The DPRK never hides the fact that the declaration of the most powerful new counter-action of its own style is based on a powerful nuclear force built in every way and various ultramodern striking means deployed in the ground, sea, underwater and air.

The world will clearly see how the DPRK’s declaration of a powerful counter-action will be put into practice to blow up the citadel of the U.S. now that its “human rights” campaign to infringe upon the sovereignty and rights of the DPRK has gone beyond its tolerance limit.

Third, The army and people of the DPRK call upon the world to thoroughly shatter the sinister cooperation for aggression sought by the U.S. and its followers under the pretext of the “human rights issue” through anti-U.S. cooperation based on justice and truth.

[….]

The anti-U.S. cooperation called for by the DPRK will lead to a decisive battle through which human beings will kill beasts and justice will prevail over injustice and truth over lies.

The nuclear forces of the DPRK and political and military deterrence including them will demonstrate unimaginably tremendous might in effecting worldwide anti-U.S. cooperation.

The U.S. anti-DPRK “human rights” racket is bound to go bankrupt as it is faked up by those fanatics whose days are numbered, without elementary understanding of their rival and it is based on the brigandish and self-opinionated theory of hostility. [KCNA, Oct. 25, 2014]

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

North Korea may also have reached the “bargaining” stage:

North Korea has offered to invite the top U.N. human rights official to Pyongyang if the European Union drops any mention of referring the country’s leader to the International Criminal Court from a U.N. human rights resolution, a news report said.

The North made the offer via Cuba earlier this month, saying it would invite the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to discuss the situation in exchange for EU assurances that the “North Korean leader would be off-limits,” Foreign Policy magazine has reported.

“The Cubans came forward with a proposal to drop the ICC referral from our text. In exchange, they would accept a visit from the high commissioner for human rights,” an EU diplomat was quoted as saying. “The reaction was very negative to such a deal. We don’t trust them.”

China subsequently delivered the same offer to the EU, the report said. [Yonhap]

And in what even the AP described as “probably … another attempt to stop a growing international call to refer its dismal human rights situation to the International Criminal Court,” North Korea even met with a U.N. special investigator, and said that they could “’envisage’ him visiting their country.” In the unlikely event that comes to pass, I can imagine how that would work in practice. Apologies for the second long quote:

Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified.” Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries.

[….]

After considerable stalling, the RSHA finally authorized a visit for representatives of the International Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross for June 1944 and ordered the SS staff in Theresienstadt to complete the preparations.

Elaborate measures were taken to disguise conditions in the ghetto and to portray an atmosphere of normalcy. The SS engaged the Council of Jewish Elders and the camp-ghetto “residents” in a “beautification” program. Prisoners planted gardens, painted housing complexes, renovated barracks, and developed and practiced cultural programs for the entertainment of the visiting dignitaries to convince them that the “Seniors’ Settlement” was real. The SS authorities intensified deportations of Jews from the ghetto to alleviate overcrowding, and as part of the preparations in the camp-ghetto, 7,503 people were deported to Auschwitz between May 16 and May 18, 1944.

[….]

In the wake of the inspection, SS officials in the Protectorate produced a film using ghetto residents as a demonstration of the benevolent treatment the Jewish “residents” of Theresienstadt supposedly enjoyed. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety. When the film was completed, SS officials deported most of the “cast” to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Despite the effort involved in making the propaganda film, the German authorities ultimately decided not to screen it. [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum]

You can still see parts of that film here. If the pressure were sufficient to require it, the North Koreans might also contemplate allowing a one-and-done inspection of one smaller prison, but not one of the larger camps. This would almost assuredly be a hoax. Only a broad inspection of all of the known camps, followed by a regular inspection regimen, would bear any credibility.

The Obama Administration might, possibly deserve some degree of credit for the effectiveness of this campaign in reaching a large audience, but it’s hard to much evidence for that right now.

The Times reports that Samantha Power gave Justice Kirby an award of some kind, but it would be far better if President Obama made it clear that if the U.N. fails to address the issue by consent of the P-5, it will lead a global campaign to impose the kind of financial sanctions on North Korean human rights violators—and their Chinese and Russian enablers— that it imposed on Iran, Burma, Syria, and Russia, and even on Belarus and Zimbabwe.

Publicly, the U.S. is not leading the effort to the extent that the EU and Japan are, and there are reasons to be worried that Pyongyang might find ways to buy off the EU and Japan through trade, or a ransom deal. For that matter, I worry that Pyongyang’s hostage-taking has also silenced the U.S. to an extent; it certainly has succeeded in moving Bob King’s job description away from human rights.

I can see some tactical benefit in allowing other nations to take a leadership role here. What I can’t say is whether that was a deliberate plan or simply a case of foreign powers filling an American void.

~   ~   ~

Update: According to the Chosun Ilbo, North Korea is already preparing Yodok for just that purpose.

North Korea is secretly moving political prisoners out of its most notorious concentration camp in Yodok, in apparent preparation for a PR exercise showing that conditions are not as bad as reported, a source claimed.

“The regime is transferring the inmates one by one during the night so that their movement can’t be detected by satellites,” the source said Monday.

The regime aims to show the camp to foreigners looking like little more than a collective farm, the source added. “The regime will probably send farmers to the political prison camp to do the labor there,” the source said. [Chosun Ilbo]

What does that mean for the prisoners who are being moved, I wonder?