Sung-Yoon Lee: Why do we appease N. Korea?

Professor Lee recounts the long history of North Korea committing outrages against peace, international order, and every standard of human civilization, and of American presidents of both parties doing approximately nothing about it.

Pyongyang’s countless provocations since the Korean War have never set off a meaningful punitive response. Even in egregious cases like assassination attempts against South Korean leaders or the shooting down of an American reconnaissance plane in international airspace in 1969, the United States and its allies have answered with restraint.

Since the early 1990s, American presidents have treated the growing threat of the North Korean nuclear program as a priority — but one to be dealt with later. North Korea’s deep poverty and the apparent clownish nature of its leaders have sustained the illusion that its nuclear program could be bought out, the regime itself could be waited out, and that its largely concealed crimes against humanity could be tuned out.
While the United States has vacillated between expedient deals, halfhearted sanctions, pleas to China for greater intervention and doing nothing, the North has methodically advanced its nuclear arsenal and missile capacity.

[….]

Through each of Pyongyang’s tests, American policy makers have harbored the hope that Beijing would come around and put real pressure on the regimes of Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong-il. But all Beijing has done is demonstrate a disingenuous pattern of diplomatic ambidexterity. China has made token gestures like signing on to United Nations Security Council resolutions while failing to enforce them fully, and at times even increasing trade with Pyongyang.

Although most North Koreans are cut off from the global economy, the regime elite remains beholden to international finance for moving proceeds from weapons trafficking. Pyongyang’s international currency of choice is the United States dollar.
North Korea is the only state known to counterfeit dollars as a matter of state policy. And the United States has largely declined to go after the Kim regime’s money trail because of concerns that doing so would push Pyongyang to escalate its provocations. The United States has also mostly shied away from imposing sanctions on the regime’s Chinese partners. [NYT, Sung-Yoon Lee]

Read the whole thing. For all its tough talk, the Trump administration shows little sign of implementing the tough policy it has articulated. It’s increasingly conspicuous to close observers that this administration has imposed no sanctions or taken any perceptible action to execute its “maximum pressure” since Xi Jinping came to Mar-a-Lago and confirmed his intention to turn Korea into its next semi-autonomous ethnic reservation. Trump is now in danger of falling into the same pattern as his predecessors, at a time when we can no longer afford to wait for some other president to solve this problem. By then, an extortionate, mass-murdering crime syndicate will have the means to nuke Seattle, its hegemony over a consensually finlandized South Korea will be functionally irreversible, and no sensible leader would ever trust America as an ally and security guarantor again.

In conclusion, terrorize your neighbors and your critics. Make sure you only let in the most pliable, controllable, and corruptible journalists. Hide your atrocities well — if there’s no video, no one really gives a shit anyway.

[Also, most people still don’t give a shit when there is video.]

Bolster the credentials of the most gullible academics and washed-up, has-been bureaucrats by giving them special, preferential access while denying it to those with the principle and basic common sense call you out. Proliferate with abandon and sell your work to the highest bidder. Keep your proles and peasants hungry. If your model of statecraft doesn’t include providing for them, and if you keep them too famished, isolated, exhausted, and cowed to start downloading plans for DIY Sten guns and shaped charges that might make the local SSD boys hesitate before hauling their families off to the gulag, it’s a winning strategy. After all, we’ve established that international institutions are either apathetic, impotent, or both, and that no democratically elected leader would sacrifice a portion of his domestic political support — such as it is — to challenge that business model.

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Our grand plans to engage North Korea must learn from their failures and evolve with the evidence

One of my cruel habits lately has been to ask the holdouts who still advocate the economic, cultural, and scientific “engagement” of Pyongyang to name a single significant, positive outcome their policies have purchased at the cost of $8 billion or more, over 20-odd years, as thousands of North Koreans died beyond our view and our earshot. I’ve yet to receive a non-sarcastic answer to that question. Yesterday, I salted this wound by pointing out that the largest remaining engagement experiment, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has become a pool for hostages for Kim Jong-un, exactly as the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang recently was, and exactly as the Kaesong Industrial Complex will be if Moon Jae-in is foolish enough to reopen it — and if we’re foolish enough to let him draw us into this potential flashpoint for conflict (think Desert One with nukes).

It is now beyond serious debate that the Sunshine Policy (and every rebranded variation of it) has failed, and that it will never succeed as long as Kim Jong-un weighs down a throne in Pyongyang. Engagers will answer that it is essential to keep open lines of communication to prevent war. Fine, but such communications are best left to diplomats who can meet their North Korean counterparts in safe, neutral locations, not to anyone addlebrained enough to visit or take up residence in North Korea in times like these.

Engagers will also argue that North Korea will never change if North Koreans aren’t exposed to better ideas and ways of life. But if you were to interrogate the engagers and me, you’d find that I believe this point more strongly than the engagers themselves do. We differ in their belief, and my skepticism, that Pyongyang-approved engagement programs have the potential to catalyze positive change from the top down. Rather, it’s the smuggling and broadcasting of media that Pyongyang is waging an unrelenting war to suppress that have the proven potential to change North Korea from the bottom up, and for the better. Remember 2012, when the engagers figured Kim Jong-un for a Swiss-educated reformer? Instead, his signature domestic policy has been a counterinsurgency campaign — a violent war by his regime against an unorganized popular uprising. Except that in this war, only one side is organized and armed, and consequently, the other side has done all of the dying.

~   ~   ~

The evidence that has accumulated over 20 years yields no basis — none — to believe that we will see a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un if we just throw enough money at him. Indeed, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is far worse than its mere failure to succeed. It has also set back the cause of reform, opening, and change by financing the machinery of oppression and terror (of both the domestic and foreign varieties) that guards the status quo.

Several years ago, for example, I linked to reports that the dreaded State Security Department finances its salaries and expenses through a China-based trading company. Since then, the Treasury Department has designated three North Korean trading companies that sell coal and iron ore — Daewon Industries, which supports the Munitions Industry Department; the Kangbong Trading Corporation, which supports North Korea’s military; and Paeksol Trading Corporation, which supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency that carries out most of North Korea’s terrorist and cyber attacks. To these, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon adds another example, involved in financing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

From this evidence, it follows that we would do more to disarm and transform North Korea by targeting those companies with sanctions and bankrupting them, and by forcing the soldiers and cadres that rely on their revenue to turn to corruption, than by financing them. If we’re serious about bringing change to North Korea, our sanctions policy should preferentially target North Korea’s security forces and border guards as much as it targets its proliferation network. That’s the part of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration gets.

The even greater potential source of pressure, which the Trump administration may or may not understand, is to employ an engagement strategy that seeks to reach the North Korea people directly, using technology to bypass Pyongyang’s minders and censors. The people of North Korea are looking for that bypass from within:

Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphone, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.” [Daily NK]

An engagement strategy that goes directly to the North Korean people has far more potential to achieve cultural, social, and political change than another rebranded variation of Sunshine. It would follow the plan I’ve written about at length and described as “guerrilla engagement” — one that directly engages North Korea’s discontented by harnessing the jangmadang economy and North Koreans’ hunger for information about the outside world. It would use entertainment and practical information (weather and market reports) as gateway drugs for those who might later opt to listen to overtly religious and political content. An essential reagent for the second phase of that strategy will be deploying the technology that not only allows North Koreans to hear our messages, but also to communicate and organize with each other. In time, it would organize and coalesce their grievances into a broad-based popular resistance movement with the capacity to broadcast photographs and video of the regime’s human rights abuses, stage strikes, deny the regime control of the market economy, and further strain the regime’s finances.

~   ~   ~

True, the election of Moon Jae-in threatens to reanimate the old, failed approach to engagement, though without much of a popular mandate. In due course, a revival of Sunshine will collapse under the weight of Kim Jong-un’s predatory and impulsive nature, just as Kim Jong-Il’s conduct eventually discredited Roh Moo-hyun’s policy. Until then, neutralizing South Korean opposition to “maximum pressure” will require us to bargain harder with Seoul that George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did. Moon’s election may require us to find information strategies that circumvent his obstructionism by relying on our own technological innovation, and perhaps by shifting toward a closer operational partnership with Japan.

We tend to forget that until just over a year ago, engagement and sanctions worked at cross purposes — effectively, sanctions and subsidies were mutually canceling. But consider the potential of those two strategies if we ever coordinated them. It is one thing to bankrupt the border guards, but entirely another to do so while helping smugglers bribe or evade them. It is one thing to bankrupt the security forces, but entirely another to do so while helping clandestine journalists show their abuses to the world. It is one thing to bankrupt the military’s commissary system, but entirely another to do so while empowering clandestine humanitarian NGOs to minister to, and provide for the material needs of, demoralized, hungry, and mistreated soldiers. If the Sunshine experiment was allowed so many years to double and triple down on failure, might we at least experiment with an engagement strategy designed to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power, gradually enough so that Kim Jong-un never faces the dangerous use-it-or-lose-it proposition that our loose talk of “decapitation” raises?

Engagers will say this means regime change, and it’s certainly some kind of change, but a kind that looks less like Iraq than the unkept promises of glasnost and perestroika we heard from the engagers themselves 20 years ago. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I pointed out in the pages of Foreign Affairs recently:

The failure of engagement was just as inevitable as the failure of the Agreed Framework. Its premise—that capitalism would spur liberalism in a despotic state—was flawed. After all, over the past two decades, both China and Russia have cracked down on domestic dissent and threatened the United States and its allies abroad, even as they have cautiously welcomed in capitalism. In 2003, even as it cashed Seoul’s checks, Pyongyang warned party officials in the state newspaper that “it is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly.” For the regime, engagement was a “silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination.” Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Il never opened up North Korea. The political change that engagement advocates promised was exactly what he feared the most.

That is to say, the Sunshine Policy could never work because it was a strategy for regime change that depended on the very people with the most to lose if it succeeded — the ruling class in Pyongyang. (Either that, or Sunshine was really a marketing strategy for overcoming U.S. objections to subsidizing Pyongyang and canceling out the effect of sanctions by clothing it as regime change. In which case, it succeeded brilliantly.)

Taking the aims of Sunshine at face value, however, its manifest failure calls for a complete rethinking. Engagement must appeal, first, to the people who seek change, rather than those who resist it. The information component of this strategy must be tailored to different constituencies — soldiers, the elites, and of course, the poor who are trapped at the bottom of the songbun scale. By engaging the North Korean people directly, we can help expand the private farming and trading that fill the markets. We can broaden the cracks in Kim Jong-un’s blockade to expand the freedom of information that really can bring social and political change. We can slow the pace of proliferation and relax the grip of the state’s oppression on the people. We can hasten the erosion of belief in Kim Jong-un’s personality cult, promote peace, and help prevent (or shorten) a war.

We will also need a separate strategy to engage the elites in Pyongyang, to persuade them not to resist change, to abstain from crimes against humanity, and to refuse (as much as they are able) to attack civilian targets in South Korea. This must be an appeal to the interests of the men with the guns. We should seek to undermine their confidence in Kim Jong-un and convince them that they have a better and safer future in a reunified Korea. That may require the difficult choice to offer some form of clemency to those who have taken innocent life, but only if they save innocent North or South Korean lives at critical moments. We must speak to them with candor about the recent purges in Pyongyang — how the status quo eventually means physical obliteration for them and a slow death in the prison camps for their families. If we employ these strategies in tandem, the elites will realize that time is not on their side, and that their reward for preserving Kim Jong-un’s reign will be physical extinction for themselves, a bleak future for their families, and a legacy on the ash-heap of history.

No pressure can ever be “maximum” if it excludes this reinvented, disruptive new approach to engagement.

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To prevent a larger hostage crisis, shut PUST down now — all of it.

The news that North Korea arrested its third American hostage over the weekend ought to change the shape of our discussion about PUST, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Kim Sang-duk, a U.S. citizen and professor at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) in Yanji, China, was detained in North Korea on Saturday at Pyongyang’s Sunan airport, a source familiar with the case confirmed to NK News on Sunday.

Chan-Mo Park, current chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), said that Kim and his wife had been on his way back to China after teaching a class in International Finance and Management at the university.

“Professor Kim Sang-duk was arrested on the way out of the country yesterday (22nd),” Park told NK News over email. “From what I heard, he is being investigated for the matters that are not tied to the PUST.”

Kim joins two other U.S. citizens in detention there, 22-year-old Otto Warmbier and 62-year-old Kim Dong Chul, both of whom are serving sentences of hard labor of 15 and 10 years respectively.

An earlier report from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Kim is a 50-something Korean-American. [NK News, Oliver Hotham]

I’ve previously written that the Commerce Department should review PUST’s licenses for scientific and technological training while leaving its medical training programs intact for now. (The same should go for OFAC’s licenses for PUST’s financial transactions with Pyongyang.) That’s not only because the experiment itself has failed. Nor is it only because PUST has been changed by Pyongyang more than it has changed Pyongyang. It’s not even because of the danger that PUST may be training North Korean hackers, although that would be a good enough reason by itself. It’s because resolutions that our U.N. Ambassador voted for require us to suspend that training pending a review.

“11.  Decides that all Member States shall suspend scientific and technical cooperation involving persons or groups officially sponsored by or representing the DPRK except for medical exchanges unless:

(a) In the case of scientific or technical cooperation in the fields of nuclear science and technology, aerospace and aeronautical engineering and technology, or advanced manufacturing production techniques and methods, the Committee has determined on a case-by-case basis that a particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes; or

(b) In the case of all other scientific or technical cooperation, the State engaging in scientific or technical cooperation determines that the particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes and notifies the Committee in advance of such determination; [UNSCR 2321]

In plain English, this language creates three categories of scientific cooperation: medical exchange, which is fine; nuclear science and the other items in 11(a), which must full-stop pending immediate 1718 Committee review; and “all other” scientific and technical cooperation, which member states are obligated under 11(b) to review to ensure they will not contribute to banned programs (note the shifting of the burden). The 11(b) review is also subject to the “suspend scientific and technical cooperation … unless” clause; thus, 11(b) requires us to suspend “all other” scientific or technical cooperation pending that review. That the U.S. government still hasn’t acted on this can only be due to the slow pace of the Trump administration’s appointments and its consequent inattention to the problem.

As far as PUST’s medical training goes, that can continue in Yanbian or other locations outside North Korea for reasons that ought to be obvious now. The other danger that has now come into clearer focus is that the other Americans on the PUST campus will also become hostages. Admittedly, as Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid,” and the stupidity of intelligent people can be the most stubborn kind. Some of PUST’s administrators and instructors will stay in Pyongyang even if we do revoke those licenses, just as some tourists will find ways to go to North Korea even if Congress finally gets around to banning tourist travel there. What is increasingly worrisome is this question: if Pyongyang is willing to take athletes and diplomats from Malaysia hostage, despite Malaysia being a friendly country, why would Pyongyang hesitate to take any American hostage, no matter how good her intentions?

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Stop the war. Enforce sanctions.

If Kim Jong-un’s strategy is what I think it is, it involves provoking a series of escalating security crises, with a plan to “de-escalate” each one through talks, or ideally, though an extended-yet-inconclusive “peace treaty” negotiation, in exchange for a series of pre-planned concessions that would amount to a slow-motion surrender of South Korea. I say “escalating” because Pyongyang’s provocations have escalated in recent years, and because it’s a sure bet they’ll escalate even more after Pyongyang has an effective nuclear arsenal. From that moment, it could be as little as five years before Pyongyang’s strategy achieves sufficient hegemony to exercise significant control over South Korea’s politics, media, textbooks, defense policies, and economic resources, and to effectively intimidate any noisy defectors and activists into silence.

Along the way, however, the risks are great that either a miscalculation, or a U.S. or ROK refusal to slouch passively toward surrender, would end in the most devastating war since 1945. In this post, I will argue that if North Korea cannot be disarmed without war, war is inevitable, but also that premature talk of war impedes our chances of disarming Pyongyang peacefully.

Those who invited this crisis by counseling us to indulge Pyongyang now insist that Pyongyang’s only purpose for acquiring nuclear weapons is to protect itself. But having watched Pyongyang wage the war of skirmishes it resumed in 2010 with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks, I cannot agree that Pyongyang’s objective is merely regime survival. Pyongyang knows that it cannot survive forever as the poorer Korea. Rather, its strategy is to coerce Seoul into a political framework that allows it to exercise and expand its political and economic control over all of Korea. Its master plan does not involve an occupation of the South for the foreseeable future; instead, it contemplates using South Korea’s own government to enforce its writ.

If this belief makes me an outlier, so be it. Just bear in mind that what you and I believe is possible matters less than what Kim Jong-un believes is possible. I also believe that Pyongyang is closer to achieving these objectives than most Americans or South Koreans suspect. Americans underestimate how many South Koreans would willingly sacrifice freedom for the sake of “peace,” or “inter-Korean relations.” Freedom, after all, is as difficult a thing to appreciate as peace unless you’ve lived without it. But if you think that sacrifice would prevent war, keep reading.

One waypoint toward Pyongyang’s objective is sanctions relief from Seoul. This is not just for the primary economic benefits of, say, reopening Kaesong. Any laxity by Seoul in enforcing U.N. sanctions would have far greater secondary benefits for Pyongyang. It would have domino effects in the capitals of North Korea’s arms clients and enablers throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, would create more diplomatic distance between Washington and Seoul, and would break up the global sanctions enforcement coalition-building strategy that had finally taken shape. It would also put Seoul in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s emerging policy, which will emphasize economic pressure. The economic benefits of unearned sanctions relief would help Pyongyang validate its “byungjin” policy by enriching its elites, by showing off its selective prosperity to its sympathizers abroad, and by underwriting its political control over its own “wavering” and “hostile” classes.

Another waypoint is to undermine political support for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington in both capitals. Pyongyang seeks to strain that alliance by raising war fears, and by getting exercises canceled and key weapons systems (read: THAAD, Patriots) withdrawn. It wants to show South Koreans and Americans that this alliance is more risk than it’s worth. If the point comes when the alliance does more to constrain U.S. options and advance them, that time may come sooner than most of us expect.

The war scare that swept through Twitter last week advanced Pyongyang toward that objective. The Pentagon quickly debunked it, and for now, the White House’s strategy is moving toward a well-thought-through list of North Korean industries and targets for sanctions. I could not have said it better than the headline over Grant Newsham’s recent piece for the Asia Times: “Before attacking North Korea, please try everything else.” The subhead to his piece was, “Try sanctions, real sanctions.” (Do read the entire piece.) War talk is not only premature and unnecessary, it’s apt to help bring Pyongyang closer to realizing its political objectives by scaring South Koreans into wanting the U.S. gone.

Maybe some of this war talk is simple disinformation or bad journalism. My fear is that the White House thinks raising the fear of war will put Pyongyang and Beijing off their game and raise our leverage. It needs to understand that a war panic could cost us the confidence of people in Japan and South Korea whose support we’ll need to prevent war. This crisis is scary enough at it is. Turning well-grounded concerns into panic serves no one’s interests but Kim Jong-un’s.

But it is also true that the anti-sanctions / talk-to-North-Korea crowd is, however unintentionally, also contributing to the risk of war. To their credit, most of them are at least honest enough to admit that they no longer believe a negotiated nuclear disarmament of North Korea is possible. They should also be honest enough to admit that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status will lead to a catastrophic war, not peace. A nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us, with South Korea, or with human civilization itself. As Anthony Ruggiero and I recently noted:

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un last month sent assassins to Malaysia to murder his half-brother in a crowded airport terminal with a chemical weapon. Pyongyang has sent assassins abroad to kidnap and kill human rights activists and dissidents, proliferated ballistic missiles, and sold weapons — including man-portable surface-to-air missiles — to terrorists and their sponsors. It attacked South Korea twice in 2010: sinking a warship and shelling a fishing village, which killed 50 of its citizens. The hermit kingdom is a state sponsor of terrorism, even in the absence of a formal designation: it has helped Syria use chemical weapons against its own people, and attacked our freedom of expression with terrorist threats against movie theaters across the United States.

Nor can the U.S. invest its hopes in talks alone. Pyongyang insists that it will neither freeze nor dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. U.S. envoys have met with their North Korean counterparts during almost every year in the last decade, yet failed to induce Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks. In 2012, President Obama finally secured Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Two weeks later, Pyongyang reneged.

I might add that in 2007, North Korea secretly built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. There is no compromise, no half-surrender, no piece of paper that will secure peace and prevent war without Pyongyang’s disarmament and without fundamental humanitarian reforms. As long as Pyongyang possesses weapons of mass destruction, and as long as its model of survival is based on terror and secrecy, it will still pose an existential threat to the United States, to Americans’ freedom of speech, and to the security of the entire world. As the Sony cyber terrorist threat, the Bangladesh Bank theft, and the horrors in Syria have shown us, North Korea isn’t just a Korean problem, it is, as President Trump said recently, “a humanity problem.” If you really think the solution to this is as simple as “talk to them,” at least review the record on just how many times President Obama and his predecessors tried to do exactly that.

That’s why, in the medium term, the U.S. may well decide that it must strike first to prevent a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the American people. The more Washington trusts Seoul, the more value it sees in maintaining an alliance with Seoul to help disarm Pyongyang peacefully, and the less likely war is. The less Washington trusts Seoul, the less certain it is whose side Seoul is on, and the less certain it is that a warning to Seoul wouldn’t also be a tip-off to Pyongyang, the less likely President Trump is to warn Seoul of a preemptive strike. You don’t have to tell me the risks of this. There are people in South Korea I love. Not that it should matter; the people on both sides of the DMZ who would suffer are human beings. We should want all of them to have a chance not only to survive, but also to live.

[Korean refugees flee south, 1950. This photo, by Max Desfor, won a Pulitzer Prize.]

There are times when I suspect that it requires a Ph.D. to harbor the madness that we can ever have peace with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea. Thankfully, the first 2,000 names in the telephone directory have a firmer grasp on reality than this. Only 35 percent of them support preemptive strikes, but just 11 percent of them support the idea of accepting that North Korea will keep building nukes. Overwhelming majorities want us to enforce sanctions (80 percent) and continue our diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program (81 percent). They hold uniformly dim views of North Korea (78 percent “unfavorable” and 61 percent “very unfavorable”). Majorities are “very concerned” about North Korea having nuclear weapons (65 percent) but would still support the use of force if an Asian ally got into a “serious conflict” with North Korea (64 percent).

Each week that passes diminishes our chances to prevent another war in Korea. There is no more time to be wasted on the palliative policies of engagement and talks that have produced no positive results, and which have done so much to bring us to the present crisis by paying Pyongyang to nuke up. For now, there is no chance that talks will achieve our key aim of disarming Pyongyang, but it would be a grave error to rule out talks entirely, because the time will come when diplomacy will be essential to preventing war. If sanctions and political subversion bring Pyongyang to the point where it fears (and Beijing also fears) that its regime will collapse — and to achieve the necessary pressure to disarm Pyongyang, they must — then we must leave Pyongyang a diplomatic escape that, while distasteful to it (and in some regards, to us) is still preferable to war. But for now, our choice increasingly comes down to making sanctions work or accepting that war is inevitable.

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The U.N. Human Rights Council needs reform (again)

Again, the idea of a U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council is under consideration. Americans, especially American conservatives, tend to fixate on the Council’s fixation with Israel. For reasons I’ll make clear enough below, that fixation is not just silly, it’s cynical. Still, I think leaving the HRC just yet would be a big mistake. I might have answered that question differently ten years ago, before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry proved that the HRC is capable of doing good and altering the global consensus in ways that not only have the potential to help the people of North Korea, but to do so in ways that also align with our own interests (a point I’ll return to below). Before that, I couldn’t have argued that the HRC’s influence was, on the whole, positive, or even potentially positive. Institutions like the HRC require careful tending. Without it, they become worse than useless. If you wonder what I mean, read this resolution. Once I’d read about it, I was glad we had at least threatened to leave:

In a resolution (A/HRC/34/L.14) on human rights and unilateral coercive measures, adopted by a vote of 32 in favour, 14 against and zero abstentions, the Council calls upon all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States; and rejects all attempts to introduce unilateral coercive measures, as well as the increasing trend in this direction, including through the enactment of laws with extraterritorial application. The Council requests the High Commissioner, in discharging his functions in relation to the promotion and protection of human rights, to pay due attention and to give urgent consideration to the present resolution; and also requests the High Commissioner to organize for the thirty-sixth session of the Council the biennial panel discussion on the issue of unilateral coercive measures and human rights, and prepare a report on the panel discussion for submission and presentation to the Council at its thirty-seventh session.

In English, that means that governments should not sanction other governments for human rights abuses unless all members of the Security Council (including China and Russia) agree. The votes:

In favour (32): Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

Against (14): Albania, Belgium, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States of America.

The HRC’s fixation with Israel is only a symptom of the deeper problem. This vote is much more probative of what the deeper problem is — the Council’s (lack of) membership standards, and the hostility of many of its members to the very idea of holding abusers accountable. In many cases, sanctions are the only way despots can be held accountable in the short term. That hostility isn’t hard to explain when you realize that the HRC’s current members include Bolivia, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and numerous other states that should never pass a Universal Periodic Review. As they taught us to say in lawyer school at such moments, res ipsa loquitur.

Liberals who value the U.N. as an institution must acknowledge this for what it is: a cynical takeover of a human rights institution by some of the world’s most despotic states, which seek to sit in judgment over their betters. The issue that underlies all of the HRC’s troubling votes is who is allowed to sit on the HRC at all. Beneath that issue, in turn, must be the establishment of basic standards for membership. After all, the despot’s favorite strategy against his critics is moral equivalence — to obliterate the meaning of human rights standards by equating every sin with every other sin. If all sins are equal, and if all states commit sins, then China and Saudi Arabia are qualified to fill the HRC’s agenda with resolutions condemning Switzerland for conditions in its immigration detention centers, or Israel for walling out bus bombers. Then, the HRC becomes a parody of itself. Such an institution is not only not worth having, it’s worse than nothing. When we reach that point, it’s time for some careful tending and hard bargaining, including threats to withdraw.

In America, there is a long-standing argument between so-called “realists” and Wilsonians over the proper role of human rights in our foreign policy. So-called “realists” tend to advocate for the U.S. doing whatever supports its immediate, short-term interest, but when that involves supporting despotic regimes, “realism” comes with long-term costs. Anyone who has lived in South Korea knows how anti-Americans have fetishized every difficult or flat-out wrong choice the U.S. has made during its long (and overwhelmingly beneficent) involvement there. But the opposite can also be true.

I believe that it is usually in our long-term interest to take the side of persecuted peoples, because people tend to have long memories about who supported them in their darkest days. A case in point here is one of the states that voted against the cynical resolution I cited above, and one we seldom hear about: Albania. (Our successes are seldom as well-publicized as our failures.) Once one of the world’s most despotic states, Albania now enjoys friendly relations with the United States. Pro-American sentiment is strong, largely because its people remember the U.S. role in ending the slaughter in Kosovo. It can’t hurt, either, that former dictator Enver Hoxha often demonized the United States. As a partial consequence of this favorable publicity, Albania has become a valuable ally. While not a perfect democracy, it has evolved rapidly into a representative government with regular free elections. Its human development index has risen steadily in recent years, to the point where it is now considered a middle-income country. Albania is an example of a nation whose favorable memories of U.S. intervention paid long-term dividends by creating a friendly government that pursues friendly policies, and whose people are far better off than they were under a previous hostile and oppressive regime.

How we use our influence at institutions like the HRC and the Security Council can be an important instrument of our national power to advance those interests. Time has convinced me that there is no universally correct answer to the argument between self-described realists and Wilsonians. Not every society (case in point, Egypt) is presently capable of self-government. In such places, forcing an immediate transition to Jeffersonian democracy can only end in one form of despotism or another. Yet even in those places, our objective should be to use whatever influence we have to catalyze the evolution of a society, to prepare it for self-government as quickly as its economic, educational, and cultural conditions allow.

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North Korea calls U.S. Ambassador to U.N. “a political prostitute,” usual suspects fall silent

The regime that called President Obama a “wicked black monkey” and an “ugly subhuman,” and called Justice Michael Kirby “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality,” has responded to Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement at the U.N. last week that Kim Jong-un was not rational:

KCNA Commentary Brands U.S. Representative at UN as Political Prostitute

    Pyongyang, March 11 (KCNA) — The U.S. representative at the UN Haley known for her capricious political savvy has now gone helter-skelter.

    At a press conference on March 8 that followed a session of the UN Security Council on discussing measures to counter the DPRK’s ballistic rocket launch, she said they are not dealing with a man of reason, meant the supreme leadership of the DPRK, not content with such words as “blame” and “no negotiations”.

    Her wild words are just sophism of political and diplomatic half-wit devoid of the ability to analyze and judge things and express oneself.

    She is no more than a crafty woman who rose to the post of representing the U.S. at the international body for her worldly wisdom and disguise.

(Update: Come for the sexism, stay for the racism!)

    In the past she posed herself as a white for her political purpose and at the 2010 election of state governor she was fined for hiding the case of lobbying only to be branded as political swindler and criminal.

    She is pointed as a political prostitute even from ordinary people for her chameleon-like nature.

    At the presidential election last year she opposed the present owner of the White House, saying that certain is the point that no support will be given, and flattered Rubio, key election rival, saying only when he is elected, every day will be pleasant.

    But no sooner had the present chief executive taken office than she twisted his arm to sending her to the UN to represent the U.S. She is, for sure, a matchless political prostitute.

    She has only pursued successful career and financial benefits, with no heed given to conscience and morality. Now she has become an idiot unable to judge whether it is realistic and reasonable or not to trumpet about the “north Korea’s denuclearization first”.

    We have no interest in dealing with such human rejects as Haley, wagging her tongue without elementary concept on the reason. -0-

On behalf of Gloria Steinem, Christine Ahn, Code Pink, and Women Cross DMZ, who were not available for comment, I condemn this vile sexism. Still, on occasions like these, North Korea becomes a useful reagent for separating liberals from the alt-left. To liberals, tolerance and the rejection of racism, sexism, and homophobia are among the highest social imperatives. The alt-left wields these imperatives as cudgels, but invariably falls silent when a totalitarian enemy of America offends them.

The North Koreans might have offered a better criticism of Haley by pointing out — without the use of nasty, sexist language — that she was muted in her criticism of Donald Trump when his most offensive statement about women came to light (for which, it must be said, Trump offered some form of apology for the first time in his campaign). One might attribute Haley’s response to partisanship or opportunism. One might also say that for Haley, as for most Americans, last November was about choosing which candidate she disliked less. (That Haley expressed this openly certainly wasn’t partisan, and may or may not have been opportunistic, depending on your interpretation.)

The fact that Gloria Steinem isn’t running for office, and that Ahn and the Code Pink crowd know they’re on the political fringe here in America, doesn’t mean that their silence isn’t its own form of opportunism. It’s just that their opportunistic silence is meant to avoid disfavor in another capital, in another hemisphere. Yet by their selective silence, they again show their hypocrisy and their tolerance of intolerance. Some of them seem to define themselves by their hatred of America, which they reveal by associating themselves with its most repugnant enemies. Others may be simply deluded. In all cases, all that is necessary for misogyny to triumph is for women to fall silent. Yet in the end, there is no equivalence here. You have every right to hate what Donald Trump said about women, but if you have a shred of principle in you, you should hate what North Korea does to women far more.

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Yay, it happened! Jim Rogers got burned by hyping North Korea!

And just like that, crackpot investment advisor Jim Rogers joins the distinguished company of Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, Roh Jeong-ho, and Orascom’s Naguib Sawaris, all of whom won Darwin Awards in North Korea. I’ve previously written about Rogers and his enthusiasm for North Korea and its worthless currency. That OFK post caught the eye of a New York Times reporter, who has just published a story on the relationship between Rogers and his self-described business partner, a Chinese entity called Unaforte:

“It’s very exciting. The kid has been opening up North Korea,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview, referring to Kim Jong-un, the country’s ruler.

But North Korea can be a murky place to tread — as Mr. Rogers’s experience shows.

A Hong Kong company called Unaforte that is involved in several North Korean businesses named Mr. Rogers as a shareholder a year ago, according to a corporate filing. Investing in a North Korean business like that would probably violate American sanctions if it happened now, though experts say it was legal at the time. [NYT, Patrick Boehler & Ryan McMorrow]

In this case, “experts” means me. Rogers’s investment came just a month before President Obama signed Executive Order 13722, which imposed sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation, mining, energy, and financial services industries. That E.O. was enough to drive investor and fund manager James Passin out of North Korea. Before that, however, our threadbare North Korea sanctions probably didn’t prohibit what Rogers did. Still, staying one step ahead of the law doesn’t mean one isn’t stepping in something.

Mr. Rogers said he gave Unaforte $100 as a token of good will but never expected that it would name him as a shareholder. Asked about his stake in the company in October, he interrupted an interview with The New York Times to call Unaforte and told the English-speaking sister of its founder that the company had agreed he could not be a shareholder.

Speaking into his phone, Mr. Rogers said, “I know I have told you, ‘Never, never, never.’”

Unaforte no longer lists Mr. Rogers as a shareholder in its filings but will not release shareholder records that might show more details about the shares given to Mr. Rogers. Officials at Hong Kong’s corporate registry said they were investigating whether Unaforte is complying with the city’s disclosure laws. Unaforte did not respond to emailed questions for comment. [NYT]

The Times chronicles how Rogers quickly distanced himself from Unaforte once its reporters started asking questions (“I make speeches for hundreds of people.”). At one time, Unaforte featured Rogers prominently in its promotional materials. Its founder, Zhao Chunhui, calls himself “Jim Rogers’s business partner in China.” Then, a Unaforte website marketing its North Korea investments — a bank, an office park, and a stake in a gold mine — “went offline after The Times began to ask about its businesses.” On March 17, 2016, two days after President Obama signed EO 13722, Rogers wrote to Unaforte, asking “that it return his $100 and take back an unspecified number of shares.”

To make matters worse, Unaforte also drew a mention in the latest report of the U.N. Panel of Experts, for setting up a bank in the Rason Special Economic Zone. Sorry, my WordPress installation doesn’t read hanja:

221. A Hong Kong, China, company, Unaforte (?????????), with a Yanbian branch (?????) established the First Eastern Bank (????) in Rason in 2014 as a subordinate enterprise to provide financial support and loans to Chinese investors in mining and real estate projects in Rason (see annex 15-11). The bank is licensed by the Central Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (see annex 15-12) and provides loans to Chinese individuals and companies in the Rason area. In its promotional materials, Unaforte claims: “The [First Eastern] Bank is fully independent and does not require proof of identity. It is not subject to the jurisdiction of China or [the] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is not required to report to the Chinese government or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government!” (see annex 15-13). The Panel notes that foreign nationals holding accounts in banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be a violation under resolution 2321 (2016).

Under sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council last year, the Far Eastern Bank must now be closed. Specifically, Paragraph 31 of UNSCR 2321, adopted on 30 November 2016, requires Member States to close all existing representative offices, subsidiaries or banking accounts in the DPRK within 90 days. UNSCR 2270, paragraph 33, requires Member States to “prohibit in their territories the opening and operation of new branches, subsidiaries, and representative offices of DPRK banks,” to “prohibit financial institutions within their territories or subject to their jurisdiction from establishing new joint ventures,” except with a U.N. Committee’s advance approval, and requires member states “to close such existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices, and also to terminate such joint ventures [and] ownership interests.”

Previously, Leo Byrne of NK News also reported on Unaforte’s exports of gold jewelry to Hawaii. The gold was allegedly mined in North Korea; thus, exports to the U.S. could have violated a 2011 executive order prohibiting imports from North Korea, except pursuant to a Treasury Department license. Rogers comes across looking like a fool, a charlatan, and a generally amoral person, but from a strictly legal perspective, not even he can be faulted for ex-post facto sanctions violations. There’s no evidence that Rogers knew of the gold jewelry exports to the U.S., but if he did, that might be his greatest legal risk.

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U.N. report: SWIFT banking network violated North Korea asset freeze

Since last year, this blog has covered SWIFT’s continued provision of financial messaging services to North Korean banks, despite suspicions that North Korea was involved in stealing almost $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank by hacking into SWIFT’s messaging software. Later, I wrote about an effort in the last Congress to ban North Korean banks from SWIFT, mirroring a sanction that was one of our most effective measures against Iran. SWIFT is effectively the postal service of the financial system, sending instructions between banks to credit and debit accounts to facilitate payments. Losing SWIFT access makes it slow, costly, and inefficient for a bank to operate.

The U.N. Panel of Experts’ latest report, released over the weekend, now confirms that SWIFT continued to provide services to three North Korean banks — Bank of East Land, Korea Daesong Bank, and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, the object of this recent Justice Department indictment — long after those banks were designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department. Worse, the Belgian government authorized that. Generally speaking, both sets of designations require the freezing of any of the target’s assets, and prohibit any action that facilitates the target’s transfer of property or interests in property.

248. In response to inquiries by the Panel, SWIFT confirmed to the Belgian authorities that it provided financial messaging services to designated banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As part of its procedure for doing so, SWIFT requests authorization from the Government to receive the moneys owed for the services. Upon receipt of such authorization, SWIFT receives payment for its services from the designated banks.  The payments are then entered in its books and recorded as revenue. The Belgian authorities have authorized SWIFT to receive the amounts set out in tables 13 and 14 from designated banks in exchange for the provision of financial messaging services, the provision of the SWIFT handbook, training in the use of the SWIFT network and maintenance costs.

SWIFT stopped providing services to four other North Korean banks — Amroggang Development Banking Corporation, Daedong Credit Bank, Tanchon Commercial Bank, and Korea United Development Bank — not because SWIFT was even minimally principled, but because “those banks themselves requested SWIFT to do so.”

Paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 requires all Member States, and all persons subject to their jurisdiction, to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of” designated entities. The whole point of financial messaging services is to make economic resources available. I can’t for the life of me see how financial messaging on behalf of designated North Korean banks is anything but a clear violation of 1718.

The unavoidable fact of SWIFT messaging is that it enables banks to effect financial transfers. Thus, messaging services that facilitate designated banks’ financial transactions violate a Member State’s duty (in this case, Belgium’s) to “prevent” the funds “from being made available” to designated entities, per paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 (2013), and paragraph 10 of UNSCR 2270 (2016). To authorize the acceptance of payment from designated DPRK entities would permit those entities to purchase goods and services and access the global economy, which would contravene the plain meaning of an asset freeze. That’s exactly what Belgium and SWIFT did here. Bear in mind that last summer, the Justice Department indicted Dandong Hongxiang for using an off-the-books ledger system to move funds for one of the very same banks.

Then, there is the question of whether SWIFT provided “financial services” to North Korean banks. In relevant part, Paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 requires Member States to “prevent the provision of financial services . . . by their nationals or entities organized under their laws . . . of any financial or other assets or resources . . . that could contribute to” activities prohibited by the Security Council’s resolutions. By citing Paragraph 8 (d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), this provision specifically applies to entities that have been designated by the Security Council.

Now, I take it that SWIFT’s highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists (at least, more highly paid than me) have gone to great lengths to persuade people that financial messaging services aren’t “financial services.” In paragraph 249 of the Panel’s report, Belgium cites domestic and EU law to that effect. At best, that’s a valiant effort to make chicken salad from chicken shit. To its credit, the Panel didn’t buy that, although it focused on a different angle — the receipt of fees by SWIFT from North Korean banks.

The Panel notes that, in the absence of a determination by the Committee that these payments fall under the exemptions in paragraphs 9 (a) and/or (b) of resolution 1718 (2006), the receipt of funds from a designated entity is a violation of the asset freeze pursuant to paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013).

Myself, I’m much less concerned about the minuscule fees SWIFT received — a few thousand dollars — than the (undoubtedly, much larger) sums SWIFT’s messaging services helped those designated banks to move.

With U.N. resolutions, we’re lucky if many states’ officials read them at all. For the resolutions to have any chance to work as intended, thousands of officials in hundreds of member states have to interpret and apply them consistently. Not all of those officials are banking lawyers. Pedantic interpretations of resolutions that fly in the face of their plain meaning are a recipe for exceptionalism. That’s what happens when a Member State’s interpretation of its domestic law is allowed to contravene the plain meaning and purpose of the resolutions.

Belgium, of all places, now finds itself cast as a unilateralist rogue state defying U.N. resolutions and flirting with money laundering. Given SWIFT’s influence on both sides of the Atlantic, it probably saw itself as above the law. There is nothing on SWIFT’s website reacting to that revelation at the time of posting. But with the truth of SWIFT’s enabling of dirty North Korean banks now revealed, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be business as usual. At a bare minimum, I’d expect SWIFT to disconnect the three designated banks. The next move may well be up to Congress. For SWIFT, that’s a lot of risk to take to feed the hand that bites them.

~   ~   ~

Update:

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North Korea should negotiate with the U.S.: No Rodong Sinmun op-ed, ever

This was supposed to be a big week for talk-to-North-Korea crowd, a constituency that’s well-represented in certain academic circles and op-ed pages … and pretty much nowhere else. Track 1.5 talks between current North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats were supposed to begin tomorrow — in Washington, no less. This aroused certain Nobel Peace Prize aspirants and their megaphones in the New York Times and the AP about the prospect that Donald Trump want to might cut a deal with North Korea.

Personally, I’m not privy to the discussions inside the White House. I don’t know if the President wants to cut a deal or not, what kind of deal he’d cut, or who he’d cut it with. I don’t know if the administration asked anyone to convey any messages or what those messages might have been. Officially, Track 1.5 and Track 2 talks aren’t official, but Yun Byung-se, Seoul’s indispensable man, saw that possibility as significant enough to ask Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to cut a freeze deal and stick to C.V.I.D.

By now, it has occurred to the wisest ones among you that our own arguments and negotiations about talks are an exercise in masturbatory diplomacy if the North Koreans aren’t even showing us any leg. After all, they’ve said over and over and over and over again that they aren’t going to denuclearize, period. Two weeks ago, the Rodong Sinmun specifically rejected Jeffrey Lewis’s bizarre proposal to offer North Korea help with its “satellite” program (which would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions currently in force) in exchange for a freeze on its missile programs. And in the week leading up to the scheduled talks, Pyongyang said this:

There is a heated argument among the political circles in the U.S. about whether the goal of denuclearizing north Korea” is possible or not. Minju Joson Tuesday observes in a commentary in this regard: It is nonsensical to argue about this matter and an attempt to realize the above-said scenario is as foolish as trying to turn back the clock of history.  [KCNA, Feb. 21, 2017]

And, lest anyone suspect that these were the words of a rogue North Korean editor, this:

The DPRK is a nuclear power possessed of even H-bomb which the world calls “absolute weaponry”. The increased nuclear threat to the DPRK will put the security of the U.S. mainland in a greater peril.

The Trump administration has to bear in mind that it may lead the U.S. to its final ruin should it follows in the footsteps of the Obama group which faced only denunciation and derision by the world people, being branded as a defeater for its pipe dream of leading the DPRK to “change” and “collapse” during its tenure of office.

Neither high-intensity nuclear threat and blackmail nor economic sanctions will work on the DPRK.

The U.S. has to face up to the reality and get awakened from pipe dream. The present U.S. administration has to make a bold decision of policy switchover, not trying to repeat its totally bankrupt anti-DPRK policy. [Rodong Sinmun, Feb. 21, 2017]

In the end, the White House decided that it might have sent the wrong message to grant the North Koreans visas and welcome them to Washington just two weeks after eight of their countrymen — including one of their diplomats! — committed an act of international terrorism with a weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal, in a peaceful and friendly country. After all, unless I’m overlooking something, this was the world’s first state-sponsored terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

Invariably, the usual suspects will use the denial of the visas to blame Trump for the fact that the talks didn’t happen. But given the inflexible position the North Koreans took going in, the better question is why we should have bothered at all. If North Korea’s nukes aren’t on the table, what conceivable benefit can we derive from negotiations? I suppose there’s value in sending certain messages to the North Koreans — putting them on notice that tougher sanctions are coming, and warning them of the consequences of attacking civilian targets. But there are other times and places to send those messages without committing the grave symbolic and diplomatic error of welcoming Pyongyang’s diplomats to Washington at such an inappropriate time.

But those are conversations, not negotiations, which is what the North Korea doves want, and which is also what the U.S. has tried to start again, and again, and again, even after North Korea reneged on the agreements it did make, again and again and again. Maybe, then, the North Korea doves should stop submitting all of those op-eds to The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Maybe they should start sending them to the editors of The Rodong Sinmun and KCNA and The Minju Choson instead. Let me know if you ever see one published.

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Trump struggles on North Korea, but it’s still the first quarter (updated)

By this time tomorrow, we’ll know whether initial reports that Kim Jong-nam was assassinated by two North Korean women with a poison needle at the Kuala Lumpur Airport were wrong or only half-wrong. For now, I’ll dwell on grading the Trump administration’s answers to its first North Korean test — the test of a missile system whose moderate range belies its potential dangerousness, given its potential to be launched from a mobile carrier or a submarine. So far, that grade is a C-minus, but it’s still only the first quarter.

No doubt, the North Koreans knew that Trump would get the news during dinner with Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Largo. That Trump devoted two days to meeting with Abe and restoring the confidence of an important ally is praiseworthy. Trump’s immediate reaction to the test, however, attracted criticism that he, Abe, and their aides held a sensitive (and perhaps, classified) discussion in an open, non-secure area. That was followed by a short, overly cautious, obviously scripted (good!) statement from a glowering Trump, who said nothing except that he would stand by Japan. The next day, Trump called North Korea “a big, big problem” and promised, without elaborating, to “deal with that very strongly.” So?

So, the administration is hinting at another Air Force flyover in Korea. That’s fine for reassuring the South Koreans, but I strongly doubt that Kim Jong-un cares.

The U.S., South Korea, and Japan also agreed to take the matter straight to the U.N., but they walked away with no better than a pro-formastatement, which has no legal effect. I didn’t expect a resolution, but I would have at least expected Trump to direct Ambassador Haley to push for some additional U.N. designations — of Air Koryo, the Korean National Insurance Corporation, various slave-labor exporters, or at the very least, some additional ships (such as those the Obama administration recently undesignated). It’s possible that behind the scenes, the U.S. and its allies are still pushing for this; we’ll know within a few days. The U.S. and its allies could also carry their frustrations with North Korea and China into the bargaining over the text of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ next report, which is due to be released in a month or so, and which is sure to contain at least one (literally) explosive revelation.

To back up its negotiating position with a threat of consequences, the Treasury Department could do another round of designations of North Korean targets, or (better yet) Chinese targets that are helpingNorth Korea break sanctions. The latter option is (a) what’s needed, (b) what Congresswants, and (c) what Rex Tillerson promised in his confirmation hearing.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado on Sunday issued a statement on Pyongyang’s latest missile test, urging the Trump administration “to immediately pursue a series of tough measures, to include additional sanctions designations and show-of-force military exercises with our allies in the region, to send a message to Kim Jong-un that we remain committed to deterring the North Korean threat.”

Gardner, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, authored the North Korea Sanctions Policy and Enhancement Act enacted last year through which Washington imposed landmark unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.

He said that the latest missile test is an example of why “U.S. policy toward North Korea should never be ‘strategic patience,’ as it was during the Obama administration.”

On Friday, Gardner sent a letter to Trump to urge his administration to take a “determined and resolute U.S. policy toward North Korea.”

In the letter, Gardner urged the Trump administration to fully enforce existing U.S. and multilateral sanctions regarding North Korea and impose additional sanctions as necessary, highlight the regime’s illicit nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, human rights abuses and malicious cyber activities.

He also urged Trump to “employ all diplomatic tools to pressure” Beijing to fully enforce its North Korea sanctions commitments and encouraged secondary sanctions on any China-based entities that are found to be in violation of U.S. and UN measures.

Gardner called upon Trump to enhance Washington’s “defense and deterrence posture in East Asia,” especially urging the placement of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, system in South Korea.

“We must not allow China’s unprecedented pressure campaign against the ROK (Republic of Korea) to cancel the Thaad deployment succeed,” he wrote. [Joongang Ilbo]

Recent events give us a strong basis for optimism in this regard. On February 3, following an Iranian missile test, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 13 individuals and 12 entities. Of these, three of the individuals had Chinese names or nationalities, and one of the entities was Chinese. This drew the usual howls of protest from the Forbidden City, which is firmly opposed to unilateral sanctions, exceptwhenit isn’t. The designations of Chinese entities working with Iran could mean that China’s days of immunity to U.S. sanctions are over.

Finally, the missile test could influence the new administration’s review of its North Korea policy and help it decide how to improve on “strategic patience.” Michael Flynn’s resignation last night could impact the contours of the new policy, depending on who succeeds him. Whatever Flynn’s other faults — and this is a blog about North Korea, so I’ll leave that discussion to others — he said nothing about North Korea that I disagreed with. Critical to that policy review will be the question of whether the U.S. will be willing to take diplomatic, overt, covert, or clandestine action to subvert Kim Jong-un’s political control inside North Korea itself. Such a strategy, in tandem with strong sanctions enforcement, will probably be a necessary element in convincing the generals in Pyongyang that they can only survive by coming to an accord with the U.S. and South Korea.

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Updates: Have you heard that thing where they say “take him seriously, but not literally?”

I guess “on” is better than “with,” so take from that what you will, if anything at all. Ambassador Haley sent a clearer signal:

Haley may be a novice in foreign policy, but she pretty obviously gets it. Experience is no substitute for good judgment.

It wasn’t the council condemnation that was significant and notable, but rather the print statement issued by new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley as she entered the consultations room.

Just weeks into her position, the tough-talking diplomat said Monday, “It’s time to hold North Korea accountable, not with our words, but with our actions.” Also in contrast to other recent US ambassadors, there was criticism aimed at China over its support of Pyongyang.

Haley wrote, “We call on all members of the Security Council to use every available resource to make it clear to the North Korean regime, and its enablers, that these launches are unacceptable.”

Enablers? No doubt a Trump administration shot across the bow aimed at Beijing. China went along with the council statement issued Monday night calling the launch a grave violation of its obligations under Security Council resolutions.

[….]

Haley’s veiled shot at China is not the diplomatic norm at the United Nations. Usually, harsh words among the big powers are expressed behind closed doors, though former US Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin went at it during public council meetings on Syria, the anger spilling over after years of war.

President Trump said last week he had agreed that Beijing is the one China in the US relationship, not Taiwan, but the Haley comment means relations among the big permanent five countries on the Security Council are likely to be in potential roller-coaster mode for the next four years. [CNN]

Relations with China may have to get worse before they can get better.

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Roberta Cohen at 38 North: A Serious Human Rights Negotiation with North Korea

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and one of the lions among those speaking out for the rights of the North Korean people, has published a detailed and well-thought-out case for why human rights should be part of any negotiation with Pyongyang, along with a tough-love strategy for conducting that negotiation. Anyone in the Trump administration who may be tempted to sideline human rights should read it in full, but I’ll summarize it: first, Pyongyang’s disregard for human life is central to why its nuclear weapons pose a threat; second, the law now requires Pyongyang to make progress on human rights before sanctions can be suspended (much less lifted); third, both Congress and many of our allies will insist that human rights occupy a central place in the agenda; and fourth, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses has proven to be one of the regime’s greatest vulnerabilities, and one of our strongest tools for exerting pressure on Pyongyang to accept change.

Cohen acknowledges that Pyongyang will resist talking about human rights (just as it will resist denuclearization), but notes that since the publication of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the consensus has grown, both in America and globally, that human rights must have an important place in the agenda.

Cohen then proposes a specific negotiating strategy, rejecting “[a] permissive approach born out of fear that ‘a forceful human rights policy may backfire.'” “North Korea will not become less dangerous by being asked to promulgate another law on economic, social and cultural rights, ratify more human rights treaties or add more women to public office….” As a starting point, she calls for the release of Americans held in North Korea and meetings between Korean-Americans and their North Korean relatives. Next, she would demand that Pyongyang give full access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur and humanitarian agencies to North Korea’s most vulnerable people, including political prisoners.

Although in 2012, the US regarded prisoners in the prison labor camps as too sensitive to talk about, its statements and policy changed dramatically after satellite imagery, former prisoner and guard testimonies and the COI report offered evidence of the camps’ existence and the cruelty practiced there. In 2016, Congress required the State Department by law to compile and provide information about the prison camps; and US human rights sanctions came about in part because of the camps. The intention is clear: the US must support the access of humanitarian agencies not only to places North Korea allows, but to the most vulnerable in camps and detention facilities. [Roberta Cohen, 38 North]

Cohen would then call negotiations, through the Red Cross, for the release of those held in North Korea’s political prison camps, starting with the children. She would then call for the release of Japanese, South Korean, and other abductees. She emphasizes that this would be “a negotiation, not a dialogue,” using sanctions as leverage to extract meaningful (rather than transitory or cosmetic) concessions.

Certainly, were nuclear negotiations to take place, diplomacy and common sense would dictate that the US not use the occasion to publicly call for the accountability of people with whom the US is negotiating. But at the UN, over the past five years, the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea and more than 100 other states have stood firmly behind strong resolutions on North Korea’s human rights situation, including accountability. This multilateral effort is the only human rights measure that has ever unnerved North Korea, and could, over time, lead to results. It was the General Assembly’s reference to crimes against humanity and the ICC that prompted North Korea to offer visits to UN human rights officials. Its sensitivity even prompted Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci to comment that human rights could serve as “a source of leverage and pressure on North Korea for the nuclear issue.”[23] Similarly, in the United States, the human rights provisions in the North Korea Sanctions Act, adopted by near unanimity in Congress cannot simply be bartered away. Specific human rights steps are required to suspend and then terminate sanctions.[24]

Impossible? Perhaps, but a North Korea that remains determined to resist fundamental reforms will also resist denuclearization, monitoring, verification, and the cessation of its other threats to peace. There’s no way around it — Pyongyang cannot be credibly disarmed unless it is willing to accept other fundamental reforms and changes to its conduct. Human rights can be a test of whether Pyongyang is prepared to show respect for human life and for peace. Such a change is a sine qua non to peace and prosperity in the region, and the widening list of places impacted by Pyongyang’s proliferation, crime, and cyberattacks.

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Kim Jong-un flips the freeze deal crowd the Hawaiian good luck sign

Unlike most of the appease-now scolds, Jeffrey Lewis also writes things that are worth reading. He can snark with the best of them. He can be genuinely interesting when he sticks to technology, despite his occasional lapses into tendentiousness. His imagery analysis and geolocation are as persuasive as his policy views are surreal. If Lewis never talked policy at all, frankly, I might never question him, but when he talks about what a swell and moderate guy Shen Dingli is, or why the breakdown of the 2012 Leap Day Deal was our fault because we didn’t specify that the freeze covered both missile and “satellite launch vehicle” tests, I can’t help questioning his judgment. (Point of order: after seeing Lewis argue that last year, I asked someone who was at the negotiations whether we’d clarified that point. He said we had.)

Of course, one of the problems with our North Korea deals is that they tend to produce either unwritten agreements, or agreements that are brief, vague, and subject to reinterpretation. But as the ungrammatical expression goes, if you want a deal real bad, a real bad deal is what you’re going to get. And judging by Lewis’s latest at Foreign Policy, he thinks our diplomats should be chasing a deal with Kim Jong-un with a fistful of begonias and a desperation unseen since John Hinckley failed to win Jodie Foster’s love. Lewis’s twist on the freeze idea you’ve seen circulated so much lately is that we should cut a deal to help North Korea’s “peaceful” satellite program in exchange for them freezing or giving up their missile programs. (Yes, I know. Even Lewis concedes that “there isn’t much difference.”)

But if you actually research the record, our diplomats have been chasing North Korea for one deal or another for the last several decades. In the last eight years alone, President Obama sent former President Clinton and Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in 2009, sent Joseph DeTrani twice in 2012, and sent James Clapper in 2014. In 2011, Bosworth met North Korean diplomat Kim Gye-gwan in New York. Next came the Leap Day 2012 freeze agreement, similar to what engagement advocates call for today, and which Pyongyang reneged on shortly after signing it. Obama tried to send Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang in 2013, but North Korea canceled the visit at the last moment. There were various Track 2 meetings between former U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats as recently as last year. In the weeks leading up to the first 2016 nuclear test, U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the parameters of a peace treaty negotiation, but Pyongyang insisted that its nuclear program would not be on the agenda. As recently as last June, U.S. diplomat Sung Kim met North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui in Beijing. Mind you, this is just what’s available in the open sources.

All of these “talk to North Korea” people can’t possibly be so uninformed as to be ignorant of this history. And if they aren’t, they’re really being disingenuous. If they know how much we really have talked to (or at) North Korea, they can’t really mean “talk to North Korea;” they must really mean “pay North Korea,” either by paying blackmail (which we’d call aid, with the understanding that we wouldn’t monitor how the money was spent) or relaxing the sanctions that are our last hope of putting any real pressure on Pyongyang to reform and disarm.

Lewis (and Joel Wit, and John Delury, et al.) would probably respond that all of these talks went nowhere because of our stubborn precondition that Pyongyang commit to nuclear disarmament. After all, if the talks aren’t really about disarming them, what are we even talking about? Except that according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in 2014, the State Department got Japan and South Korea to agree to “a moratorium on nuclear weapons development” in exchange for “timed infusions of economic assistance and international treaties.” To my eyes, that looks a lot like dropping our preconditions and (given Pyongyang’s history) a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status. The White House subsequently (sort of) denied this, and because Pyongyang didn’t bite, we never found out whether Congress would have paid for it.

If you’re about to ask, “What’s the harm in talking?,” the answer is, “Potentially, plenty.” A freeze is really a pay-and-pray policy that’s as endless and inconclusive as Kim Jong-un wants it to be. Depending on what we concede, it could weaken South Korea’s defenses and give Kim Jong-un the time and money to get over the nuclear finish line. I’ve laid all that out before, but I’ve never said it better than former Obama administration official David Straub did here. Of course, there’s another necessary party to any nuke deal whose views Americans tend to forget while we’re busy shouting at each other. Yesterday, that party responded directly to Lewis:

DPRK Will Bolster up Capability for Self-Defence in Every Way

A recent issue of the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy said that since the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs have already made too rapid progress and they are considered as an important affair of the state, there is little likelihood to give up them for the purpose of improving the relations with the U.S. It seems no diplomatic agreement can succeed in pressing the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapon and missile programs, but diplomacy is still necessary and there is an opportunity to prevent the situation from going to worse as it has not yet test-fired ICBM, the magazine added.

It went on: The Trump administration should propose the DPRK to adjust military drills in 2017. During the Clinton administration, the annual joint military drill Team Spirit had been suspended. It is necessary to cut down the scale of the military drills, though belatedly.

This reflects the present situation in which the structure of muscle between the DPRK and the U.S. has dramatically changed and proves that the U.S. is the arch criminal escalating the tension and, therefore, it should move first.

The DPRK’s access to nuclear weapons is an inevitable outcome of the U.S. heinous hostile policy toward the DPRK pursued for a long time.

It is the stand of the DPRK not to hesitate or make any concession in bolstering up its capability for self-defence.

The U.S. is sadly mistaken if it thinks the nuclear deterrence of the DPRK is a matter for political bargaining and economic deal after putting it on the negotiating table.

Explicitly speaking once again, the DPRK’s bolstering of its nuclear force is the exercise of the right to self-defence to counter the U.S., the world’s biggest nuclear weapons state bringing the danger of a nuclear war to hang over the Korean peninsula.

The DPRK will continue to bolster up its capability for self-defence and preemptive attack with the nuclear force as its pivot as long as the U.S. and its vassal forces persist in its nuclear threat and blackmail. [Ri Hyon Do, Rondong Sinmun]

Translation: they’re not that into you. Whenever I rehash this debate — and lately, that has been often — I tend to point out that Pyongyang has already broken an armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks (in 1994 and 2007), a 2005 joint statement, a 2012 nuclear and missile freeze, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions. If insanity has a working definition, it’s the notion that what we really need now is another piece of paper.

I hope, one day, the time will come when diplomacy has some prospect of success. Obviously, we aren’t close to that time now. If that time comes at all, it will only come when we’ve exerted enough financial and political pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime that he sees nuclear disarmament as the only way he can survive. I’d like to think that Americans on both sides of this debate ultimately want the same thing — to avoid war. Rather than arguing with each other over futile and Sisyphean proposals that neither the U.S. Congress nor Kim Jong-un would accept anyway, wouldn’t our energy be better spent on building the pressure and leverage we’ll need to make diplomacy work?

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China’s latest cheating on North Korea sanctions is a test for Trump

Like most people, I would prefer that the new President of the United States refrained from conducting diplomacy by Twitter. Without endorsing the medium, I gave a qualified endorsement to the message President Trump sent to China when he accused it of not helping to reign in His Porcine Majesty. Trump was right about this, of course. Over the last several years, the U.N., no less, has published a wealth of evidence that China has (almost certainly willfully) violated the North Korea sanctions it voted for in the Security Council. Here’s the latest example:

26. Decides … that the DPRK shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, coal, iron, and iron ore, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such material from the DPRK by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of the DPRK, and decides that this provision shall not apply with respect to:
. . . .
(b) Total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever is lower, between the date of adoption of this resolution and 31 December 2016 …. [UNSCR 2321, Nov. 30, 2016]

Just eight weeks later, the inestimable Leo Byrne cites customs data showing that China imported twice the amount of North Korean coal permitted for the remainder of 2016:

Customs figures show Chinese traders imported over 2 million tonnes of coal in December, up from 1.9 million the previous month. North Korea’s received $168 million for the commodity, a figure over three times that outlined in Resolution 2321. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

So yesterday, a reporter asked the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s mouthpiece to explain herself.

Q: [I]t is stipulated in Resolution 2321 of the UN Security Council that the imported coal from the DPRK by 31 December 2016 should not exceed one million ton or 54 million US dollars. Statistics recently released by China’s customs shows that China’s volume of coal imports from the DPRK in December 2016 exceeded the cap. What is China’s comment on that?

A: On your first question, it is a shared obligation of UN member states to implement resolutions of the Security Council. According to Chinese laws, it is required for the Chinese government to issue a statement for actions taken to implement Resolution 2321. This is a regular practice of the Chinese side. The statement by relevant Chinese ministries is one such step. The list of dual use items and technologies annexed to the statement is a verbatim quote of the list in the resolution.

The mouthpiece is referencing this belatedly updated list of things Chinese companies aren’t supposed to export to North Korea, unofficially translated here, at NK Pro.

On your second question, let me point out that Resolution 2321 should be implemented in a comprehensive and balanced manner. And it is not only China who should implement the resolution. The resolution called for solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means. I would like to ask, what efforts have been made by other relevant countries? [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

The mouthpiece implies that China’s compliance with the sanctions resolutions is conditioned on “other relevant countries … solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means.” But the resolutions impose no such obligation or condition. The argument is spurious. It’s also circular, because North Korea’s first demand in negotiations will surely be that we stop enforcing sanctions, meaning that China’s de facto position is that it won’t comply with sanctions unless we lift sanctions.

Specifically on your question, competent authorities of China issued a statement on 9 December, immediately after the adoption of Resolution 2321 by the Security Council, ordering the suspension of coal imports from the DPRK until 31 December 2016. The Chinese side have taken measures in line with the requirements of the resolution and fulfilled its own international obligation. [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

China’s obligation under Resolution 2321 does not end with issuing a statement and then forgetting about it. Surely China, which can have Jingjing and Chacha at a dissident’s doorstep 20 minutes after an offending Weibo post, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its laws. Surely China, whose customs authorities know how to detect and hold up shipments when doing so serves Beijing’s interest in bullying its neighbors, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its customs laws. When confronted with evidence of a violation of a U.N. sanctions resolution China voted for eight weeks ago in a clear, blue question, China’s mouthpiece gave a vague, red answer. That answer shows contempt for the United Nations and the United States.

For eight years, Barack Obama mostly kowtowed in the face of a whole course of aggressive Chinese conduct. Obama’s passivity pleased many “China hands” in academia, but worried our military, shook the confidence of our allies, and yielded some grave setbacks for peace and security in an economically vital part of the world. The most menacing of these is Kim Jong-un’s alarming progress toward nuclear breakout. Beijing acts as if it does not understand the risk of war if sanctions fail, or the risk that this war would involve China. Either that, or China sees a nuclear North Korea as useful for China’s plans to dominate northeast Asia.

For all that was wrong with the Obama administration’s North Korea policy, the former President did lay down a marker in blocking the assets of the North Korean military-controlled companies responsible for most of the coal exports. To the extent that Chinese importers purchased from those designated suppliers or failed to limit North Korean coal imports as required under U.N. resolutions and Chinese law, the U.S. has the authority to freeze the Chinese importers’ dollars. Alternatively, it could invoke section 205 of the NKSPEA to increase the inspection of cargo arriving at U.S. ports from Chinese ports that facilitated violations of the coal cap. This is a test for the new Trump administration. We’re about to find out if Donald Trump’s tough talk is more than just talk.

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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

Park Geun-hye, the cautious triangulatrix who belatedly became South Korea’s most subversive (to North Korea) president for two decades, is all but gone, and almost everyone in South Korea is applauding. None, however, have applauded with as much enthusiasm as those on South Korea’s far left, who fill a spectrum between anti-anti-North Korean and violently pro-North KoreanThe left now senses that it has an advantage headed into next year’s presidential campaign and hopes to end Seoul’s campaign of diplomatic and financial isolation of its renegade provinces in the North, and its encouragement of embarrassing and damaging defections by senior regime officials like Thae Yong-ho. But if the left hoped that the end of Park’s presidency would also mean the end of that campaign, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is dashing those hopes. These examples, which I’ve collected over the last three months, show Yun carrying right on where Park left off.

  • 9/27: In Seoul, Park asks the President of the Netherlands “to play an ‘active role’ in pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions and provocations through sanctions and diplomacy.”
  • 9/29: North Korea opens a new embassy in Belarus, but without an accredited ambassador.
  • 9/30: South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister visits Germany, in part “to discuss strategies for global coordination against North Korea’s nuclear program.”
  • 10/4: Yonhap reports that Seoul has asked the Bulgarian government to curtail North Korea’s abuse of the Vienna Convention, “generating hard currency through illicit real-estate dealings.” (UNSCR 2321 has since emphasized that diplomatic missions may not be used for commercial purposes.)
  • 10/6: Yun suggests that U.N. member states should downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (The State Department has also called on states to “downgrade or sever” diplomatic relations with the North.)
  • 10/12: Costa Rica’s President visits President Park in Seoul and promises to issue a decree implementing UNSCR 2270.
  • 11/1: Under international pressure, Indonesia cancels a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong
  • 11/2: Sudan’s Foreign Minister visits Seoul, meets with Yun, and says it has cut all military ties with North Korea.
  • 12/1: Yun says South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. will announce their own national sanctions, foreshadowing the latest round of Treasury Department designations.
  • 12/3: Immediately after the approval of UNSCR 2321 by the Security Council, Yun urges China to implement the new resolution faithfully. He also urged the incoming Trump administration  to “take over and implement the strong sanctions.”
  • 12/6: Yun says he’s scheduled to hold high-level talks with his counterparts from the U.S., China, and Russia on implementation of the sanctions, and adds, “The unprecedentedly powerful UNSC resolution, combined with individual sanctions by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, will corner North Korea into a situation that it cannot circumvent.”
  • 12/16: Visiting Yun in Seoul, Hungary’s Foreign Minister promises to support sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea is not only vowing to continue its campaign, it is now starting to claim that it’s putting the North under severe financial and diplomatic strain. You can find the most detailed case for that claim here. It’s worth reading in full, but take it with a grain of salt.

On the optimistic side of the ledger, there is an alleged internal North Korean document exhorting diplomats to strengthen ties to “non-aligned” states, traditionally some of its best trading partners and arms clients. This interview (in Korean) with Thae Yong-ho adds recent direct evidence that sanctions have caused financial problems for the North Korean embassy in the U.K. Thae’s description of life as a North Korean diplomat adds further evidence to my observation that North Koreans overseas who can’t kick up enough tribute to their bosses — perhaps because of sanctions — worry about being punished or purged. That may make them attractive targets for recruitment to provide even more financial information, or to defect.

One could also read Pyongyang’s campaign to improve its foreign trade structure as an effort to get around trade sanctions it didn’t need to evade before. Its raising of taxes on its people may be an effort to make up for lost foreign revenue, although that connection isn’t entirely clear, nor would it be a departure from past practice. Either way, Pyongyang pays a morale penalty for those levies.

Not everything has gone South Korea’s way, however. North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, some of which have long-standing commercial and ideological ties to Pyongyang, have been stubborn targets. For example, despite Uganda’s claim that it would end its military training contracts with North Korea — UNSCR 2270 requires member states to do so immediately — it turns out that Uganda is merely choosing not to renew those contracts.

This blog has also followed Namibia’s illogical and self-serving justifications for its arrangements with North Korea.Despite claims by the Namibian government that it would end its cooperation with sanctioned North Korean entities, that relationship apparently continues. The Treasury Department’s recent designation of its principal North Korean partner, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, a front for KOMID, may make that cooperation more difficult for Namibia and the many other African countries where Mansudae operates. It will send a message to Windhoek that it must enforce the U.N. resolutions, confiscate the factory, and send the KOMID and Mansudae representatives home. For example, the South African insurance company Old Mutual insured some of Mansudae’s work in Namibia. It may hesitate to continue providing that service now. We’ll need to do more of this to give Yun the support he needs.

Then there is the case of Angola, which after a meeting with South Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, said that it supports South Korea’s position on the sanctions, but hasn’t exactly enforced them to the letter since then. The fact that Seoul is dangling an agreement “to boost ties in trade, investment and development” may help. More on Yun’s extensive travels to make UNSCR 2270 stick, here and here, via Marcus Noland.

Reports that Poland and Oman had stopped employing North Korean slave labor may also have been premature. Even Thailand has allowed a new North Korean restaurant to open.

While I understand the importance of showing South Korean audiences that sanctions can work, the stories I linked in this post, and my posts here, here, and here, show a more mixed picture than Seoul’s optimistic assessments. The reality is more a case of two steps forward, one step back, with South Korea making significant gains, but not fast enough, and without enough fire support from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments to put steel on the harder targets.

The question that increasingly preoccupies me is whether it’s already too late. And given the rising talk of preemptive strikes — if only to buy time — will South Koreans be willing to accept the risks those strikes would entail? Stated differently, did Barack Obama and the chaos that rules the streets of Seoul squander our last chance to disarm North Korea peacefully?

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Yonhap: U.S., ROK & Japan to impose coordinated sanctions independently of U.N.

With reaction to UNSCR 2321 ranging from the skeptical to the unfavorable, U.S. and South Korean diplomats have been practicing their skills at porcine cosmetology this week. But if the generals in Pyongyang are already quaffing Hennessey to celebrate the latest advance for the byungjin policy, that may be premature. The Security Council may not have the last word on North Korea’s September 9th nuke test after all:

South Korea, the United States and Japan are preparing to announce their own sanctions on North Korea at the same time in a joint action to maximize their impact to the communist country, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Thursday.

“Basically, (the three countries’ independent sanctions) will be announced concurrently or at a very similar time,” Yun told Yonhap News Agency, referring to the nations’ follow-up measures to the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2321. South Korea is set to unveil its own set of new sanctions on Friday. [Yonhap]

My two greatest concerns with 2321 are, first, that the surprisingly high coal export limits are a license to cheat that may actually raise the amount of coal Pyongyang can export, and second, that within the negotiations with China over the resolution was a sub rosa agreement by the U.S. to abstain from using the power of the dollar against Chinese banks and businesses that are propping up His Supreme Corpulency. This report doesn’t address the first concern, but it may palliate the second.

Obviously, how much the new bilateral sanctions would palliate my concern depends on what the sanctions are, and Yun didn’t say much about that, except that “[b]ilateral sanctions prepared by the U.S. side may be strong enough to hurt North Korea more than the recent UNSC resolution.” This article, however, gives some vague hints at the South Korean actions. Yun also didn’t say exactly when the new sanctions would be announced, because the different countries have different “internal procedures.”

I can certainly imagine what kind of sanction would have that sort of effect. So can the Obama administration, and so can the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, whose most vocal members and committee chairs are going to be pushing for just that for at least two more years. That the allies appear to be practicing Progressive Diplomacy is also excellent news.

I may not miss Park Geun-hye as much as I’d miss Yun Byung-se. I certainly hope he stays on in the banana republic that South Korea has recently become, but then, who am I? I’m writing this from Washington, D.C.

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The U.N.’s new North Korea resolution wasn’t worth the wait

Lest anyone think I’m blindly criticizing the Obama administration as it tries to cover its exit and legacy, start with my favorable comments on UNSCR 2270. That resolution might have been the baseline for a genuinely effective global sanctions program, but the text of the new resolution the Security Council will vote on tomorrow arguably lowers the high bar set by 2270. Indeed, because of our independent authority to enforce 2270 in tandem with our allies, we would have been better off with no resolution at all than a weak one.

Although the text contains some useful provisions, including a ban on shipping insurance and the expulsion of North Korean bank operatives, many of the nominally tough provisions are full of loopholes. For example, how many North Korean diplomats must each country expel? What prevents North Korean diplomats, now limited to one bank account each, from simply putting those accounts in the names of “private” trading companies?

The ban on North Korea using real property abroad for non-diplomatic purposes could, depending on how it’s interpreted, require it to shut down the Chilbosan Hotel, its Chinese base of operations for cyberattacks. And anyone who might have fantasized about reopening Kaesong or the success of Rajin should read paragraph 32 carefully.

The veiled threat in paragraph 19 to suspend North Korea’s U.N. privileges is interesting, but ultimately empty. China and Russia would veto any such move.

The new designations in the annexes are weak, mostly consisting of mid-level officials who will be easy to replace. The absence of Air Koryo, the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and Mansudae Overseas Project Group from the list are big disappointments.

But the biggest overall disappointment may be the text’s lack of hard, clear, enforceable follow-the-money provisions. There is no new requirement for member states to track and report beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals, which would have been a potential windfall of financial intelligence on North Korean money laundering and sanctions evasion.

Many of the provisions — such as the ban on dual-use items, helicopters, and technical assistance — were already prohibited under any reasonable interpretation of UNSCR 2270. Russia, India, and other states have violated those prohibitions.

The addition of two items — rugs and china — to the luxury goods list is laughable.

The most talked-about provision, the new cap on North Korean coal exports, will be difficult to monitor and enforce. How will the U.N. Panel of Experts really know what minerals China is importing, in what volumes, or at what prices? Even if they are enforced, the cuts in coal exports are not deep enough to create the kind of financial crisis in Pyongyang that will force it to reconsider its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang exports $1 billion worth of coal in a typical year. This text would cut that amount in half. If you’d asked me in March to guess what “livelihood purposes” means, I’d have said it sets a much lower cap than what the Chinese extracted from us. (Update: Also, I’d have said that for “livelihood purposes” to be anything but a farce — a license to cheat, really — it would have required the Chinese to pay the North Koreans in food instead of dollars. But now, Pyongyang and Beijing can safely conspire to starve the North Korean people, while using the profits of their trade to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.) Arguably, the Chinese won the right to sell North Korea more coal than we’d have allowed to pass through our financial system under the new U.S. sanctions law and executive order. For the sake of getting China to sign another piece of paper, we threw away that leverage.

Meanwhile, most of North Korea’s other revenue sources are untouched by any enforceable provisions (the text merely expresses “concern” about North Korea’s slave labor exports). A modest exception is a ban on the sale of North Korean crew services.

What hovers over all of this is that Chinese banks and businesses — encouraged by Beijing — have willfully and persistently cheated on the sanctions right up to this very minute. The new resolution would not have restated UNSCR 2270’s requirement to inspect checked baggage and cargo at land borders if China has not failed to enforce those provisions to begin with.

What’s needed much more than new measures is a stark demonstration to Chinese banks, businesses, and ports that those who cheat will suffer the same fate as Banco Delta Asia and Dandong Hongxiang. President Obama has decided to sacrifice the greater need, which is enforcement, for a lesser need, a new resolution. To the very last, this administration’s North Korea policy is much more tongue than tooth. At such moments, I sympathize with Donald Trump’s criticism that this administration doesn’t excel at negotiation. We’ll soon see if he can do any better.

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There’s no appeasing North Korea

North Korea has violated or summarily withdrawn from an armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two IAEA safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks, a joint denuclearization statement, the Leap Day agreement, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions — and yet, the most stubborn “engagers” of Pyongyang look on this clear historical record and declare that it calls for yet another piece of paper. Now that calls to negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang are metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into far-left quarters of Washington academia, Pyongyang has presented further proof (not that any is needed) that the appeasement of Pyongyang is a fool’s errand. With delectable timing, it comes just after Joel Wit’s awkward call for Donald Trump to be the next POTUS to negotiate an unenforceable and unverifiable nuclear deal with North Korea.

The latest proof comes in the form of a nine-page bill of particulars against noted neocon collapsist Barack Obama, again clarifying (not that further clarification is needed) that Kim Jong-un will never give up the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. (And to think what high hopes the North Koreans had for Obama before they called him “a wicked black monkey.”) The headline of the statement, “The DPRK’s Strengthening of its Nuclear Forces Is a Righteous Choice to Defend Itself from the Extreme Moves of the U.S. to Stifle It,” seems fairly conclusive to me, but then, I don’t work in a think tank.

But the real eyebrow-raiser is Pyongyang’s lengthy list of demands in exchange for — for what, again? Not even Wit can answer that, but for years now, the North Koreans have demanded that U.S. end its “hostile policy” toward North Korea, which raises the sensible question of just exactly what a “hostile policy” includes. According to the new North Korean statement, it includes U.N. and U.S. sanctions, South Korea’s defensive and deterrent military exercises, missile defense, criticism of Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity, and quite possibly the First Amendment right of private citizens to ridicule His Supreme Corpulency. To Joel Wit, the price would also almost certainly include vast amounts of money (money that Congress would almost certainly never appropriate).

But this obstructionist manifesto is also an invaluable insight into Pyongyang’s diplomatic strategy, because it helps us understand just how a North Korea “peace process” would play out in practice. Of course, a regime that constantly breaches the peace with acts of war doesn’t really want peace. A regime that uses war rhetoric to whip up xenophobic hostility to justify the isolation and poverty of its people, and whose stock in trade is to pile new and increasingly unreasonable demands on top of old ones can’t really want a peace treaty. That would not only truncate its list of demands, but would also undermine its martial propaganda narrative.

What North Korea really wants is a peace treaty negotiation — the longer and more inconclusive, the better. Its diplomatic strategy is to draw the U.S. and South Korea into an extended “peace process” in which it would make a series of up-front demands (the lifting of sanctions) in exchange for (at most) a partial freeze of its nuclear programs, which would effectively recognize it as a de facto nuclear weapons state. In short order, it would also demand the end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the curtailment of missile defense, and other demands that would ensure its nuclear and military hegemony over South Korea. Then, Pyongyang would demand an end to diplomatic and humanitarian criticism of its regime, censorship of anti-regime leaflets, demonstrations, and satirical films — in short, a limited recognition of its political supremacy over Seoul that would end in a one-country-two-systems Korea under North Korean domination, with Pyongyang gradually escalating its financial and political demands. We know this because it is already making those demands.

Pyongyang’s list of intolerable outrages includes “malicious slander and criticism,” military exercises, deterrent fly-pasts (mostly after North Korean missile or nuke tests), and (naturally) sanctions. They’re so pissed off about the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act that they mentioned it no less than four times, not even counting the many other executive actions that the NKSPEA required, and which this manifesto also lists.

If Pyongyang really believes all the things on this nine-page list really are unacceptable, it’s sure to add them as demands in any negotiation, and most of them are deal-breakers. As they say at the very end:

All the facts above clearly substantiate the truth that the root cause of escalated tension on the Korean peninsula lies with the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threats against the DPRK, not the latter’s nuclear and missile tests.

The DPRK has chosen the road of possessing nuclear weapons as a self-defensive measure to safeguard its state and system from the constant nuclear threat of the U.S. We are strengthening our nuclear forces both in quality and quantity, holding fast to the line of simultaneously developing the national economy and nuclear forces as our strategic line.

The U.S. should face up to the new strategic position of the DPRK and take actual measures to show that they are willing to scrap its anachronistic hostile policy and nuclear threat against the DPRK.

This, and only this will be the first base of resolving all the issues. (emphasis mine)

Does North Korea really expect President Trump or a future President Ban to end what it calls the “human rights racket?” Granted, President Roh tried, a President Moon might try again, and candidate Trump expressed some fairly unconventional views of the First Amendment, but what Pyongyang is really demanding is that the U.S. and South Korea accept North Korea’s nuclear status, effectively abrogate their military alliance, and alter the constitutional foundations of their systems of government to make sure no one says mean things about His Porcine Majesty. They might as well have demanded that we revive Harambe, but a long “peace process” would leave ample opportunities to pile on more demands.

If the North Koreans found Barack Obama unforgivably insensitive, I wonder if they’ve read what Donald Trump and his advisors have said about them. I wonder if they’re expecting more diplomatic restraint and tact from Donald Trump than Barack Obama after their next nuke test. You can follow him on Twitter, by the way, at @realDonaldTrump. For your convenience, I understand he sometimes tweets during normal Pyongyang office hours. Full manifesto follows:

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If China is gambling on Trump to blunt N. Korea sanctions, it could lose bigly*

By all outward appearances, President Obama never really had a coherent North Korea policy. While pursuing a deal that Pyongyang either didn’t want or wouldn’t keep, it reacted to each nuclear test by building on John Bolton’s work and nominally tightening the sanctions the U.N. initially imposed a decade ago, in Resolution 1718. The idea, apparently, was to deter Pyongyang by threatening its plans to develop Hamhung and Chongjin, something it no more intends to do than the Confederacy intended to institute a slave literacy campaign. Under President Obama, sanctions were always incremental, were never well-enforced, and never seemed to be part of any plausible broader strategy.

Still, if only to make a display of doing something after each test, the U.S. would expend much diplomatic energy on haggling with China (and Russia — let’s not forget Russia) over the terms of a new resolution. In due course, the Security Council would approve it, and for three or four months, everyone would pretend that this time was different before returning to business as usual.

As of today, 74 days have passed since September 9th, when North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, yet there is still no agreed draft resolution. For those keeping score, that’s the longest delay yet between a test and a resolution (the previous record of 56 days was set earlier this year, after the fourth nuclear test).

Three weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the P-5 were close to a deal on “[a] new sanctions package … that more effectively blocks the regime’s overseas funding sources,” and might narrow a “livelihood purposes” loophole that effectively nullified a ban on North Korea’s coal exports (see also). The U.S. side was also pushing China to agree to “crack down” on North Korea’s slave labor exports.

Meanwhile, Bureau 39 continues to rake in millions of dollars from higher coal prices, at the expense of military-controlled trading companies (but see this contrary report that coal prices are actually falling).

Reports today say that talks between the U.S. and China are in “their final stages,” but we’ve heard that before, and we still have no word that the two sides have agreed on a draft resolution. A few days ago, Obama had his last meeting with Xi Jinping. The meeting produced little more than a pro-forma agreement that the Korean Peninsula should be nuclear-free, a statement that increasingly becomes moot for North Korea as it gains relevance for South Korea. One of Obama’s priorities for that meeting was to push China to crack down on North Korea. If the result isn’t a significantly tougher resolution within a week, we can probably conclude that President Obama failed to achieve that goal.

That would lend credence to reports that China is stalling talks on a new resolution, perhaps until Obama leaves office. According to those reports, China is still smarting over the U.S. indictment of flagrant sanctions cheat Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development (while sparing the banks that facilitated the violations). It may be calculating that a President Trump will be more focused on economic issues and won’t want to start off by antagonizing China over a low-priority issue like North Korea. That would be a big gamble.

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If so, China may be miscalculating. Although the President-Elect has yet to name several key members of his national security cabinet, what we know so far doesn’t suggest that he’s likely to adopt a soft line or make North Korea a back-burner issue. The most talked-about contenders for Secretary of State are Mitt Romney and … John Bolton (enough said?). James Mattis, who recently spoke to the President Elect about North Korea and other issues, didn’t earn the nickname “Mad Dog” by calling for agreed frameworks. (Update: My favorite Mattis quote: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”)

There is also direct evidence of what those close to President Elect Trump have said about North Korea policy. In a meeting with South Korea’s deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong, Michael Flynn, the selectee to be the next National Security Advisor, called the U.S.-South Korea alliance “vital” and said the new administration would make North Korea a priority. At the time, Flynn did not specify how, but Cho later said that Trump would adopt “stern measures,” and that his aides see “no momentum” for dialogue with North Korea. Flynn was previously quoted as saying, “We should not let the current North Korea regime … exist for a long time.” 

Despite Trump’s loose talk of talks with His Porcine Majesty, one Trump advisor, former congressman Pete Hoekstra, has already ruled them out for “the near future.” Heritage Foundation ex-President and Trump advisor Edward Fuelner has specifically said that the U.S. would impose a secondary boycott on Chinese firms that are propping up Pyongyang financially.

Even before Election Day, we knew that the next president could clash with China over North Korea. The result of the election doesn’t seem to have diminished the likelihood of that. I increasingly incline to the view that either the current President or the next one should signal to the Chinese that if they don’t agree to and enforce tough new sanctions, we’ll walk away from talks over a new resolution and act on our own. That strategy would use a combination of progressive diplomacy and the thinly veiled threat of Executive Order 13722 sanctions to get foreign governments to enforce UNSCR 2270. President Obama knows what he needs to do, but lacks the will. China would be ill-advised to assume the same of President Trump.

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* Update: I couldn’t resist changing the title.

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