Archive for Diplomacy

U.N.’s Seoul field office to collect evidence of human rights violations in North Korea.

South Korea will soon begin working-level talks with the United Nations to discuss the specifics of establishing a U.N. field office in Seoul on North Korean human rights, officials said Wednesday. [….]

The U.N. has later proposed setting up the field office in South Korea to collect evidence and testimonies on the North Korean regime’s human rights violations, which the South Korean government has accepted. [….]

North Korea has also warned it will launch “merciless punishment” on those involved in the plan as well as staff workers at the envisioned office. [Yonhap]

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.”

Seoul to Pyongyang: Let’s talk about human rights.

“Not only in high-level talks but also in any occasions of inter-Korean dialogue in the future, (Seoul) expects to have comprehensive discussion on all sorts of humanitarian issues including human rights,” unification ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said in a briefing.

“If high-level talks are held (between Seoul and Pyongyang), I think it is desirable that they discuss all the issues they want to discuss including this (human rights) issue,” Lim said. [Yonhap]

I’m not terribly impressed with Park Geun-Hye’s attention to human rights in North Korea overall, but this does represent progress when compared to the Roh Moo Hyun / Chung Dong-Young Die-in-Place Policy.

Report: Hollywood is interested in those MiGs Panama seized from a North Korean ship …

for a “Top Gun” sequel, no less, according to The Miami Herald (in Spanish). In case you’re wondering whether Panama can legally do that, yes it can. See Paragraph 14. HT: Oliver Hotham.

Kerry to North Korea: “[C]lose those camps … shut this evil system down.”

It’s no secret to readers of this site that I’ve never been an admirer of John Kerry. His tenure has been a rolling catastrophe for our national security, in a way that even a rank amateur could have predicted years ago. It’s often difficult to see that he has a North Korea policy at all.

Not so long ago, I criticized Kerry for showing no sign of pressing for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea. But yesterday, Kerry went to “a ministerial meeting he hosted in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly,” where he said some important and commendable things:

“We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” Kerry said.

Kerry stressed that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the problem has lifted the veil on the issue, referring to a report released in February that North Korean leaders are responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” violations of human rights. [….]

“No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction because in 400 pages of excruciating details and testimonies from over 80 witnesses, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report of the DPRK (North Korea) has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” he said.  [….]

“If we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? If we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?” Kerry said. “So we say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down,” he said. [Yonhap]

The Voice of America has video of Kerry’s remarks, in which he mentions several of the camps by name.

[Good report, but please do some research before saying how heavily
sanctioned North Korea is. It isn't.]

At the meeting, Kerry joined South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently replaced Navi Pillay. In the video, Kerry can be seen seated next to Shin Dong-hyuk.

Of course, to suggest that rhetoric is the measure of policy is like saying that a man’s jawline is the measure of his virility. Substantively, George W. Bush’s North Korea policy was like Rock Hudson at the Playboy Club, and Kerry’s mandibles may be the only fearsome thing about him, but the words they loosed yesterday were both welcome and overdue. Time will tell whether these words translate into effective action, but words like these are certainly a prerequisite to effective action. And of course, no effective action will issue from the General Assembly, a body that has no binding authority on anyone. But still ….

A strongly worded resolution calling for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take responsibility for his regime’s crimes against humanity is anticipated to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly next month.

“The European Union and Japan have completed a draft resolution that endorses the February report of the Commission of Inquiry [into North Korean human rights] and will soon circulate it among UN member states,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.  [….]

“Australia, the home country of Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the COI, was also very active, and there is a high likelihood that the resolution will be adopted through the momentum on the issue in the UN General Assembly,” said one foreign affairs official.

Another diplomatic source said, “Because human rights problems are a universal issue to mankind, it will be a burden on China or Russia to stick up for Pyongyang against other member states.”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Does any of this really matter, then? Pyongyang seems to think so. The New York Times has already noticed a striking shift in the tone of North Korea’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings. At first, it flatly denied them and called its Chair “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” Now, its U.N. Ambassador is feigning some openness to considering some of the criticisms — up to a point — and says his government has “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.”

North Korea’s declaration falls far short of a commitment to follow through with any action, but the contrast with its blanket refusal to even consider similar recommendations in the past could be seen as a willingness to engage on some issues.

“There obviously has been some decision that this is the way the rest of the world relates, and the decision seems to be that North Korea should do it as well,” said Robert R. King, the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. [NYT]

Although King concedes the need to “be careful about assuming this means a great deal in terms of what they do,” a shift in tone this significant must reveal something, even if its sincerity is dubious and its execution, inartful. Last week, for example, North Korea released a self-audit of its own human rights conditions that carried all the credibility of an O.J. Simpson progress report on his search for the real killer. It recited from a fictional work called the “Constitution” of “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” which is an oxymoron. Pyongyang’s report was widely ridiculed in the press.

The North’s ambassador, So Se-pyong, speaking before the Human Rights Council, signaled that the North’s leadership was now willing to consider suggestions about, among other things, freedom of thought, “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” for humanitarian agencies and freedom for them to monitor distribution of their aid. The prevention of human rights violations and punishment for violators were also on the list.

But Mr. So said the North had rejected some recommendations that were “based on distorted information provided by hostile forces which aimed to dismantle the country’s social system,” including calls for unfettered access to detainees for the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosure of the extent and methods of capital punishment, and the end of restrictions on movement and expression.  [NYT]

If you happen to be a North Korean, all of this will look like vaporous twaddle. Nothing the General Assembly says will make North Korea a less brutal place in the foreseeable future, and I’d still reckon that a quarter of the people in these camps will be dead within a year. North Korea still denies that the camps even exist, and its verbose human rights self-audit never mentions them. In all probability, North Korea will be back to its old bombastic self within a week.

Even so, it would also be wrong to conclude that none of this means anything. King cites declining foreign aid contributions and speculates, “I think the North Koreans are feeling some pressure.” But concerns over human rights alone wouldn’t justify denying aid. North Korea’s lack of transparency in distributing the aid might, as would its massive and deliberate waste of funds on missiles, ski resorts, German limousines, and Swiss watches. To be sure, the COI report’s findings also support those concerns, but aid programs for the North were already underfunded when the COI published its report. It’s more likely that donors simply don’t think Pyongyang is serious about feeding its people, and are diverting their limited aid budgets to places that are.

I think King is closer to the mark when he also says that “‘growing concerns about human rights conditions in North Korea make it much more difficult to raise money from foreign governments’ and private sources.” (Emphasis is mine, and note that the emphasized words were added by the Times reporter.) It’s not clear if King is referring to private aid groups or private investors, but investors are the far greater source of cash. All investment decisions weigh risks against benefits, and to many investors, the image risks of being associated with North Korea can’t be justified by the limited returns to be gained in its uncertain business climate. The growing threat of intensified sanctions will add to that uncertainty.

That’s why, for the first time, Pyongyang sees human rights as a problem it can’t just ignore. Its crimes against humanity now threaten to become a significant financial liability. Like the COI report itself, a tough resolution from the General Assembly will give investors pause.

Those signs of engagement dispel what was once a common assumption that the North’s leadership was immune to foreign criticism on issues of human rights, said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “However sincere or insincere it may be, it’s a reflection it does care what the international community thinks and the international community does have leverage to push for change in North Korea,” Ms. Singh said. [NYT]

That is all the more reason to intensify that criticism, but it’s also important to understand what Pyongyang’s game is, too. Pressure is of no consequence unless it extracts fundamental change, and change will only be credible if it’s transparent. Pyongyang is a good enough illusionist to fool the Associated Press — remember how well it worked in this case? — and plenty of its readers. Let’s not forget that in 1944, even the Nazis felt the need to answer damaging charges about their concentration camps. This is Theriesenstadt, which served as Auschwitz’s waiting room. In 1944, the Nazis staged this film to dispel rumors about the “resettlement” of Jews, and portray it as humane:

[Within a month, nearly all of these people died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.]

When Pyongyang can’t ignore problems — usually because it’s under some kind of external financial pressure — it does things like agreeing to “reinvestigate” its abductions of foreign citizens, or agreeing to give up its nuclear programs. It knows well enough that for plenty of us, simply agreeing to talk or (at worst) signing a piece of paper is enough to take the pressure off.

This is where we’ll need to be smarter than the Danish Red Cross, the Associated Press, and our diplomats. Pyongyang knows that there will also be calls for divestment, the blocking of its offshore slush funds, and other forms of financial pressure. There will be calls to tighten the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, and perhaps to pass new ones. Blunting that pressure is Pyongyang’s obvious objective. And those who question that that pressure could work need look no further than the signs that Pyongyang is worried about it.

Whether or not this is true of President Obama, it’s an insightful analysis.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment. And we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct, the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.

Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the subject but misses the heart of the matter.

I’m still working out how much of this I agree with as it applies to the President,* but that’s not my real interest in this passage. What interests me is Noonan’s insightful distinction between “brightness” and judgment.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone through a similar analysis while reading scholarly articles about North Korea. So many bright people have constructed intricate, coherent, and rational packages of incentives for North Korea to disarm, to reform, and to better the lives of its people — and still do, to this day, in spite of everything! — while misjudging much more fundamental things: Why do they think Kim Jong Il/Un wants those things as much as they want him to want them? What makes them think he’d go along with their plans? Why should we trust him? What outcomes are their plans likely to have achieved a year after we’ve made the down payments? What kind of behavior are we incentivizing and perpetuating?

Asking bright people such questions can be like asking the gnomes about Phase 2. They repeat Phases 1 and 3 — a little more slowly, this time — and patiently re-annunciate why the plan’s logic is so unassailable, even (especially!) from Pyongyang’s perspective. They’re almost always correct. And it’s almost always irrelevant that they are. In projecting their own reason and altruism onto the little gray men in Pyongyang, some of the world’s brightest people sound as oblivious to the bigger picture — as lacking in judgment — as those missionaries who set off in a shiny new air-conditioned tour bus to read Bible verses to the Taliban … in Korean. The outcomes were not dissimilar.

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* I know I don’t agree with the word “faux.” I think the sophistication is real. I also agree that sophistication is overrated.

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Update: Here’s a good example of what I’m talking talking about. Phase 1, throw money at North Korea. Phase 3, peace! HT: Stephan Haggard.

What Bob King should have said about travel to North Korea.

Ambassador Robert King, whose title is Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, has written to The Washington Post in response to Anna Fifield’s reporting on North Korea’s efforts to market itself as a tourist destination (which may be more accurately described as the efforts of foreign collaborators to sell North Korea as a fine place to go slumming).

King wishes that Fifield had given more emphasis to what should be obvious to anyone with good sense — that “[t]ravel to North Korea carries significant risks.” Fifield’s separate report on Matthew Miller’s “trial,” however, ought to have made that point clear enough; indeed, it recounts the history of North Korea’s hostage diplomacy in greater detail than King’s letter does. Unfortunately, to people without good sense, those risks are a feature, not a bug.

King argues that the actions of Matthew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle, and Kenneth Bae would not have warranted arrest in any ordinary place, and they “are being used by North Korea for propaganda purposes.” If that message was meant for Americans, again, he was stating the obvious. A more effective message might have been, “If you go, you’re on your own.”

If King’s message was meant for Pyongyang, it was probably received like an enfeebled appeal to Kim Jong Un’s sense of fair play. And if Pyongyang was not King’s intended audience, why would he have said this?

If North Korea wants to increase tourism, particularly from U.S. tourists, it must reduce the risk of traveling there. Granting clemency to those three Americans would be a start.

If what? In the same spirit, if ISIS wants to improve the quality of its media relations, not chopping the heads off journalists on video would be a start.

When Congress created King’s position, it gave him a very specific mandate, and that mandate did not include serving as a special advisor to the Pyongyang Chamber of Commerce. It does include supporting “international efforts to promote human rights and political freedoms in North Korea,” a topic never even came up in King’s letter. If King had wanted to send a powerful and effective message to American citizens and to Pyongyang that was consistent with his mandate, he would have argued that tourists who go to North Korea help sustain a system that murders, starves, and terrorizes the North Korean people. In suggesting how Americans should respond to that, he might have taken his direction from Desmond Tutu, who said,

“In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.”

… or from Martin Luther King, Jr., who said,

Any solution founded on justice is unattainable until the Government of South Africa is forced by pressures, both internal and external, to come to terms with the demands of the non-white majority. The apartheid republic is a reality today only because the peoples and governments of the world have been unwilling to place her in quarantine.”

… and who also said,

“We can join in the one form of non-violent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa – the action which African leaders have appealed for – in a massive movement for economic sanctions […] If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil; if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”

In South Africa, a system of racial apartheid determined, based on hereditary characteristics, where and how a person lived. In North Korea, a system of political apartheid called songbun determines, based on hereditary characteristics, not only where and how a person lives, but also whether a person lives at all, because a North Korean’s songbun is often determinative of whether he or she receives food rations, wages, medical care, and a job with safe working conditions (start at page 75).

Certainly much of what gave the opposition to apartheid its popular appeal was its racism, our own guilt about racism, and our desire to earn a degree of absolution from that guilt. Say what you will about apartheid — and even in its waning days, it was a revolting thing to witness — but I doubt that even John Vorster would have compared the President of the United States to a monkey or killed babies because they were suspected of being racially “impure.”

The other main difference between South Africa and North Korea is that South Africa sat on top of some of the world’s largest diamond, platinum, and gold deposits. North Korea exports coal, pine mushrooms, meth, and refugees. It sustains itself on its fragile links to the global financial system. Whose hub is in New York City.

Instead of using his voice to articulate a vision and strategy for carrying out his mandate, however, King has squandered much of his tenure angling to go to Pyongyang to plead for the release of Miller, Fowle, Bae, and other hostages. King is supposed to “engage in discussions with North Korean officials regarding human rights,” but he’s not a hostage negotiator — or for that matter, an issuer of travel advisories, or just another cog in the East Asia Bureau. When King is reduced to being any of these things, Pyongyang has succeeded at more than taking three Americans hostage. It has taken what should be an important part of the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy hostage, too, and effectively neutralized both King and his mandate. Who says terrorism doesn’t work?

Perhaps the question of what King discusses in Pyongyang is academic anyway, as North Korea doesn’t seem interested in talking to him about anything.

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Are the North Koreans just assholes, or do they have a strategy? Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel is almost certainly correct when he says of Pyongyang, “This is the way that they play…. They use human beings, and in this case American citizens, as pawns.” (I swear, there is a word for that sort of thing somewhere.) I don’t doubt that the list of North Korea’s ransom demands is long. Cash, oil, and de facto recognition as a nuclear state probably appear on it. The production of hostage videos for propaganda use, and a longing for the pleasure of Joe Biden’s company, are probably lesser motives.

Pyongyang’s immediate objective, however, is about what’s happening in the U.N. General Assembly now, as the General Assembly considers the report of the Commission of Inquiry for Human Rights in North Korea. In February, that report documented, in extensive detail, North Korea’s crimes against humanity, including the operation of a system of horrific concentration camps. Before this month is over, the General Assembly is scheduled to vote on whether to refer that report to the Security Council. The State Department has begun discussions “with South Korea and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring foreign ministers of U.N. member countries” about what to do in response to that report. John Kerry will also participate in those discussions, which is a modestly hopeful sign, assuming that Kerry’s participation isn’t just a half-hearted concession to bipartisan public pressure:

The group of 14 people, who undersigned the letter, included former U.S. Assistant Secretaries of State Morton Abramowitz and Lorne Craner; Victor Cha, chief analyst on Korea at the CSIS; and Roberta Cohen, co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The group also welcomed the U.S. interest in co-sponsoring a draft resolution on North Korea currently being written by Japan and the European Union, and called on the U.S. to ensure the resolution condemns the North’s human rights violations “in the strongest possible terms.”

They also urged the text contain language urging the Security Council to consider new targeted sanctions against those who are most responsible for crimes against humanity, prioritize the commission’s call for immediate access to North Korea’s prison camps for human rights monitors and humanitarian groups, and endorse the creation of a field-based office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. [Yonhap]

Bob King should be at the front and center of America’s public and private leadership of a global response to the COI’s report, both in the U.N. and elsewhere. Maybe, behind the scenes, he is, but as a public diplomat, he sounds far more concerned about hostage negotiations, and about helping Pyongyang raise its Travelocity ratings. It’s worrisome that the official in charge of leading the administration’s response to North Korea’s crimes against humanity betrays no vision or sense of mission about the concrete terms of that response.

Does Bob King agree with Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr. that economic pressure is a necessary instrument to change an evil regime that shows no inclination to change — at least for the better — on its own? Or does he believe, despite the risks of travel to North Korea, that tourism to North Korea advances positive change in some meaningful way? I have no idea what he thinks, and if I don’t know, it’s safe bet that almost no one else does, either.

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.