Ed Royce’s North Korea sanctions bill is already giving President Obama leverage over China

Kim Jong-un’s Groundhog Day message to the world was the announcement of a long-range missile test, and as you’ve no doubt heard, he has since made good on that threat. Like the movie “Groundhog Day,” this provocation cycle has been a variation on an endless loop. In 2006, 2009, and 2013, the missile test came before the nuke test, but if reports that His Corpulency is preparing yet another nuclear test are true, that will still technically be the case.

Otherwise, events have played out much as they did then: emergency meetings at the U.N., shuttle diplomacy, calls by the U.S. for tougher sanctions, and calls by China for everyone to just chillax and talk it out.

The Obama Administration is pushing China to push North Korea, but China has pushed back, stalled, and obstructed. For all the talk about a downturn in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, Xi Jinping is being exceptionally stubborn in shielding Kim Jong-un from the consequences of his provocations. As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Pollack observes, “The sense of silence from China on this issue is really quite extraordinary.” It’s no great wonder why. Our President has done little of consequence to pressure Pyongyang or Beijing, so naturally, Xi and Kim have learned not to take him seriously. Whenever President Obama sees Kim Jong-un’s shadow, our State Department makes six more weeks of empty threats.

Will this time finally be different? Maybe so. 

Thanks to quick action by a united and bipartisan Congress — and how often do you read those words anymore? — the U.S. now has leverage with China that it didn’t have before. President Obama and the State Department may have been caught off-guard by Kim Jong-un’s nuclear test on January 6th, but Congress wasn’t. Since 2013, Ed Royce, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, had been preparing a North Korea sanctions bill (full disclosure) and quietly building a bipartisan coalition to support it in the House and the Senate. Six days after the test, Royce pounced. Now, the administration isn’t even waiting for the bill to pass the full Senate (projected next Wednesday, if there are no “poison pill” amendments) to use its secondary sanctions provisions as leverage over the Chinese.

Mr. Kerry warned the Chinese that if they didn’t toughen their response to the North the U.S. might have to use secondary sanctions or deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system to the region, according to U.S. officials. [WSJ, Jay Solomon & Josh Chin]

Separately, the New York Times quotes Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken as saying that “[t]he United States and its allies will bolster sanctions and go on the defensive against North Korea in ways that China may not like” if it doesn’t put the screws to His Corpulency.

Some of those steps “won’t be directed at China, but China probably won’t like them,” he said. Mr. Blinken refused to go into detail. But he said that “everything is on the table,” including so-called secondary sanctions, of the type the United States most recently used against Iran, which would target third-party countries doing business with North Korea. [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang-hun]

As you’d expect, that discussion and the exchanges between State and the Foreign Ministry since then have been contentious. They needed to be. North Korea’s financial links are concentrated in China. Despite China’s new propaganda meme that it really can’t control North Korea, most of North Korea’s money is in Chinese banks, and the vast majority of North Korea’s trade is with China.

That means the new sanctions could fall heavily on Chinese firms, which current and former U.S. officials have long accused of complicity in Pyongyang’s military development. [WSJ, Jay Solomon & Josh Chin]

The Chinese government says it’s opposed to “any efforts to unilaterally impose sanctions on North Korea.” So they’re unhappy. Which is sort of the idea here.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), who sponsored the North Korea legislation that was approved Jan. 28 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it aims to “send a strong message to China and others that the United States will use every punitive economic tool at its disposal to punish the regime and its enablers, wherever they may be.” [….]

“China is the place we really want to send a signal to,” said a congressional official working on the North Korea sanctions. [WSJ, Jay Solomon & Josh Chin]

President Obama has since called Xi Jinping personally “about how to coordinate efforts in response to North Korea’s provocations.” If the new sanctions legislation didn’t come up in that conversation, it surely hovered in the background. According to the WSJ, not only is the bill “unlikely to meet with a White House veto,” but the administration is threatening to do something unprecedented — enforce the law. 

Senior administration officials said they were receptive to vigorously enforcing the unilateral sanctions being developed by the Congress, despite some technical concerns.

Congressional officials working on the legislation said they’ve sought to replicate elements of the financial campaign the Obama administration used against Iran. Those sanctions cut by more than half Tehran’s crude oil exports and largely froze Tehran out of the global financial system.

The North Korea legislation aims to sanction any foreign firms aiding Pyongyang’s nuclear and cyberwarfare programs. It also is designed to block North Korea’s ability to export minerals, a key foreign exchange earner, and blacklist its entire financial system for its alleged role in illicit businesses. [WSJ, Jay Solomon & Josh Chin]

The administration is sending a clear message to China through various channels.

The United States would clearly prefer that China actively cooperate on a much fuller spectrum of measures. But Washington’s message to Beijing is clear: America will act with or without China’s concurrence.

The United States has long believed that China has the means to more decisively oppose North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, including restrictions on China’s financial, economic, and energy assistance to the North. By sharpening the choices confronting Beijing, Washington shows it believes that equivocation or indecision by China is no longer acceptable. [Jonathan Pollack, Brookings Institution]

Don’t be surprised if, when the next provocation cycle comes, Congress is ready to pounce again. 

In the end, I don’t expect Xi Jinping to agree to significantly tougher U.N. sanctions. He’ll try to wear us down, weaken any draft resolution, and eventually, if only to let us save face, agree to a watered-down resolution that nominally increases sanctions. Then, within a few months, China will go right back to violating them(We’ll almost certainly see further evidence of China’s pattern and practice of non-enforcement when the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring North Korea sanctions releases its next report in March — sooner if one of you leaks me a copy). He’ll also fight the new sanctions law tooth-and-nail, such as through barter and yuan-based transactions, although I have to wonder how many Chinese companies are interested in that kind of business.

What happens next depends on whether the Obama Administration (a) puts the new bill on a shelf for the next President to find, like both George W. Bush and Barack Obama did with the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, or (b) actually enforces it, like it wants us (and the Chinese) to believe it will. If the answer is (b), there may not be much Xi Jinping can do about it. In practical terms, even small Chinese banks and companies can live without access to North Korean markets, but not without access to ours. Even companies that don’t deal directly with the U.S. market need banking services, and banks won’t touch them if they’re designated. When China’s banking system is as shaky as it looks right now, no sane bank manager is going to risk secondary sanctions over transactions with North Korea. Once they see that the Treasury Department is serious, Chinese bankers will drop North Korean customers like so many hot potatoes.

~   ~   ~

How will we know that the administration is serious? I can think of several signs to watch for. First, the Treasury Department could finally declare North Korea, a notorious counterfeiter and money launderer, to be a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, and impose harsh special measures on its banks. This is the single most powerful tool in the President’s arsenal.

Second, it could declare North Korea to be a state sponsor of terrorism, which would immediately invoke the tougher transaction licensing regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 596, thereby closing a major sanctions loophole. If nothing else, that would help to appease Congress.

Third, it could launch criminal indictments against North Korean entities that have committed crimes. The government has expressed “very high confidence,” for example, in North Korea’s culpability for the Sony cyber attacks, which are violations of 18 U.S.C. 1030. An indictment would allow the government to issue an Interpol Red Notice for Kim Yong-chol, the assassin and terrorist who formerly headed Unit 121, until his recent promotion. Another potential basis for action could be that big meth smuggling conspiracy in New York, if any of the defendants have cut deals with DOJ and implicated North Koreans. More importantly, a conviction would allow the Justice Department to use 18 U.S.C. 981(k) and 982 to forfeit any North Korean assets involved in any crimes for which defendants were convicted, right out of the correspondent accounts through which those assets flow.

Fourth, it could take civil enforcement actions against entities that are propping up Pyongyang financially. The extraordinary reporting of George Turner at Finance Uncovered, for example, shows us that Orascom’s Naguib Sawaris, while building a cell phone network for the North Korean government, also set up a bank, Orabank, in partnership with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. The U.S. Treasury Department blocked the FTB in 2013 for WMD financing. Turner’s article implies that Treasury knew less about Sawaris than he did, including Sawaris’s U.S. citizenship and links to a major defense contractor. If Sawaris or his companies are designated under Section 104 of the new sanctions law, they and their subsidiaries could face the blocking of their assets, civil and criminal penalties, and debarment from receiving government contracts. Sawaris’s U.S. citizenship is not a prerequisite to Treasury blocking his dollar assets,  but if the Justice Department finds evidence that he broke the law, his U.S. citizenship will make it much easier for DOJ to assert personal jurisdiction over him. Another potential target is China’s 88 Queensway, which worked in direct partnership with North Korea’s money laundering agency, Bureau 39. Even the Bank of China has reason to be nervous.

Fifth, the President could direct the Securities and Exchange Commission to require issuers with investments in North Korea to disclose those investments in their public filings. The reputational risks associated with investments in North Korea could have the effect of driving investors out of North Korea, if those investments become a matter of public record. And given what happened with Orascom’s catastrophic gamble on Koryolink, who can seriously argue that the risks of investing in North Korea aren’t “material?”

~   ~   ~

One last question: did the North Koreans consider the potential impact of this before going through with these provocations? After all, they have the experience of Banco Delta Asia behind them. Of course, with the amount of turnover inside the regime since His Corpulency’s succession, there may be plenty of people in his inner circle who don’t remember Banco Delta Asia. Maybe the North Koreans don’t think President Obama dares touch them. Maybe the explanation is mostly psychological. Mabye Kim Jong-un’s domestic pressures are forcing him to take risks despite the consequences. Most likely, given Kim Jong-un’s record of brutality toward his inner circle, his advisors don’t dare try to restrain him. If Treasury enforces this law, the reality won’t set in until the checks start to bounce. That’s when the hard part comes — knowing how to use that pressure, and if and when to relax it for the deal Beijing and Pyongyang will inevitably offer us to get the sanctions relaxed.

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At the U.N., China shields Kim Jong-Un from prosecution, but not isolation (updates)

In February, two years will have passed since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released its historic report on human rights in North Korea, finding “human rights abuses on a scale ‘without parallel in the contemporary world,’ comparable to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.” The bad news is that we’re still just talking about this. The good news is that America, and most of the world, are uniting around the importance of holding Kim Jong-Un accountable for those crimes.

samantha power

[Samantha Power addresses the Security Council on North Korea last year. Via.]

Last December, the U.S., with support from the U.K., France, and Japan, succeeded in having the North Korea’s crimes against humanity added to the U.N. Security Council’s permanent agenda. Today, the U.S. leveraged its presidency of the Security Council to convene a meeting on that subject. There, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power gave an address whose words lived up to her name. You really should read it in full, but this will give you the flavor of it:

It is not only the blanket denial of enjoyment of freedom of expression and these infernal conditions in the prisoner camps that persist – but all of the grave human rights violations perpetrated by this regime: the summary executions; the use of torture; the decades of enforced disappearances with no accountability, including of citizens from neighboring countries, whose families continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The list is long, the abuses vast, and the anguish profound.

The systematic human rights violations persist for a simple reason: the North Korean government wants them to. They continue because the State still seeks to intentionally dehumanize, terrorize, and abuse its own people. The regime depends on this climate of fear and violence to maintain its grip on power. [….]

We must continue to take steps that one day will help us hold accountable the individuals responsible for the horrors like those experienced by our guests today. We cannot let immediate obstacles to accountability undermine our determination to document atrocities and identify those who order and carry them out, so that one day the perpetrators will be brought to justice. [….]

Our continuing spotlight on this situation sends a clear message that we hope will reach the North Korean people, tight as the regime’s control over information may be: We will not turn a blind eye to your suffering. You, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. And we will continue to press for the nightmare you are living to end. To the regime, our message is just as clear: We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them. [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Dec. 10, 2015]

I’ve never heard an American diplomat denounce the tyranny in Pyongyang so … powerfully. The language is even more confrontational than that of a former U.S. diplomat who, in 2005, called North Korea “a hellish nightmare.” The former diplomat’s words caused a small uproar then, among politicians and members of the commentariat who thought this was an undiplomatic thing to say to a murderous despot. Shortly thereafter, this diplomat was also nominated to be our U.N. Ambassador. Then, the Junior Senator from Massachusetts opposed his nomination, in part because of the mean things he said about Kim Jong-Il.

Now, the ex-senator is our Secretary of State and the boss of the current U.N. Ambassador. Ambassador Power’s strong words just might give Kim Jong-Un’s minions reason to hesitate in the pursuit of their atrocities, so I hope there won’t be an uproar against her. If there isn’t, a charitable interpretation of the disparate reaction is that the global consensus has shifted.

~   ~   ~

Power also addressed North Korea’s threats against the U.N. itself:

North Korea continues to demonstrate that regimes which flagrantly violate the human rights of their own people almost always show similar disdain for the rules that help ensure our shared security. We see this in the DPRK’s flouting of prohibitions imposed by the Security Council on its nuclear and ballistic missile activities, including by undertaking launches. We see it in the destabilizing rhetoric the DPRK routinely uses to threaten the annihilation of its neighbors. And we see it in the DPRK’s aggressive response, as the High Commissioner has mentioned, to the opening of an office in Seoul by the OHCHR – an office aimed at gathering ongoing information on human rights conditions in the DPRK.

In March of this year, before the OHCHR office opened, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea – a DPRK-sponsored group, like every other group allowed to exist in the country – said that, “as soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May, a DPRK-controlled newspaper issued a near identical threat. And in June, the regime issued a statement accusing “hostile forces” of using the UN office to “make confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights.” It is hard to imagine another UN Member State making such threats against a UN office or staff; and we as a Council cannot take them lightly.

This is part of a well-established pattern of intimidation and escalation by the DPRK in response to criticism of its human rights record.

Hmm — a pattern of using threats of violence to intimidate non-combatants for political purposes. Someone should come up with a word for that sort of thing. Also, someone should teach it to Ambassador Power’s State Department colleagues in Washington.

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China and Russia “worked behind the scenes to block the debate.” They convinced Angola and Venezuela to join them in voting against holding the meeting, but they were outvoted 9 to 4, with two abstentions. Before the meeting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece said, “We have always opposed the involvement of the U.N. Security Council in a country’s human rights issues.” (Has anyone in Beijing read the U.N. Charter? One of its first stated purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”) Power had an answer for this, too:

I would like to address those who believe that what is happening in the DPRK is not a threat to peace and security. I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don’t think that. So, could this level of horror be seen as neutral? A level of horror unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Is it neutral – have no effect at all on regional and international peace and security? Really? None? It stretches credulity and it sounds more like cynicism. These arguments – some of which we’ve heard here today – will not go down well in history, particularly when North Korea opens up. For those who have charged double standards, I would ask: where are there in the world conditions like these ones, like the conditions behind the lines of the DPRK? Where? This regime has no double.

The Commission of Inquiry Report itself said that the human rights situation in North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” [….]

No member of this Council, or of the UN, can afford to ignore this situation.

Power also called on “UN Member States, and particularly members of this Council,” to “stop sending people who try to flee” back to North Korea, where “gruesome punishments” await them. Not much doubt about who she meant there.

In the end, China couldn’t shield North Korea from the bad publicity. Instead, it shared it.

~   ~   ~

For most of the journalists covering the meeting, the big headline was the call by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to bring North Korean officials responsible for these crimes before the International Criminal Court.

In a strong speech, Hussein called Pyongyang’s human rights violations dangers to “international peace and security,” and denounced its threats to the U.N.’s Seoul Field Office as “wholly unacceptable.” He spoke of the continued “vulnerabilities” of North Korea’s poor to hunger due to the “systemic failure” of state distribution system, and “social inequalities.” He cited widespread “gender-based violence,” which he attributed to a lack of “awareness that such violence is unacceptable.” (Gloria Steinem, take note.)

Hussein’s call for criminal accountability followed calls by both the U.N. Commission of Inquiry and the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights.

~   ~   ~

Depending on your perspective, the consequences of the Commission of Inquiry’s report have been either negligible or profound. True, neither the U.S., Japan, South Korea, or the EU has passed a resolution, imposed effective sanctions, or changed its policies materially. Chinese and Russian obstructionism has prevented the Security Council from acting, and there is little chance that Kim Jong-Un will face justice anytime soon. Our banks are helping His Corpulency fatten himself on foreign delicacies, and he continues to shore up the foundations of his palaces, if only by packing their crawlspaces with the corpses of those who once served his father.

But language like Power’s and Hussein’s can contribute to a crisis of legitimacy for Kim Jong-Un, a leader whose consolidation of power has shown some signs of unsteady progress. The COI report has cost him his international legitimacy by defining him as a mass murderer. It has also given an elucidating context to his nuclear tests, cyberattacks, and other provocations — after all, if he has so little regard for North Korean life, what regard could he possibly have for ours?

In 2012, a large share of the commentariat spoke of him as a Swiss-educated reformer; today, only a few sycophants and lunatics still do. This shift of perceptions will also have policy and financial consequences. It will transform North Korea into an international pariah, isolate it, and deny it access to hard currency it needs to survive. Eventually, the loss of that access will force Pyongyang to choose between reform and extinction.

~   Updates, Dec. 11   ~

In this video, Hussein answers reporters’ questions after the Security Council meeting. In response to Chinese arguments that the UNSC shouldn’t address human rights, Hussein argued, in effect, that North Korea’s defiance of standards is likely to engulf the region in war (and look no further than Syria or Libya for examples of how that could happen). He also made the point that a country that kidnaps the citizens of neighboring countries is a clear threat to international peace and security.

Hussein also reveals that the North Koreans invited him to visit, separately from the invitation they had extended to Ban Ki-Moon. This represents a change of strategy for the North Koreans, who denied or ignored repeated requests by the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur to visit. Recently, after a General Assembly resolution called for holding the North’s leaders accountable for their crimes, the Rodong Sinmun called the vote a U.S.-orchestrated plot to use “the non-existent ‘human rights’ issue,” “fabricated with falsified data,” to “discredit the DPRK and ultimately bring down by force of arms the social system the Korean people chose themselves.” Naturally, they threatened to answer this “ill-intended inveterate repugnancy” by building more nukes.

There are still no details on the timing, agenda, or venues, and one wonders if this really will happen. I’ve long feared that the North Koreans would take a (another?) page from the Nazis’ book and “prepare” one of their camps for a guided tour — and later, a propaganda movie — the way the Nazis did with the Danish Red Cross at Theresienstadt. With the ruse successfully completed, the SS sent everyone who appeared in the film to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Indeed, despite the consensus that, overall, nothing has improved in North Korea, the Daily NK has reported that conditions do seem to have improved “marginally” for non-political prisoners in some of the “reeducation” camps, because of international scrutiny and the fear of accountability.

“Detailed instructions have been handed down, ordering officials not to torture those in for financial crimes, violence, and even narcotics,” the source added. “However, this is not the case for those in because of political offenses such as watching South Korean TV dramas and other ‘non-socialist’ acts, so beatings and violence against them continue.” [Daily NK]

Obedience to the new guidance appears to be uneven, and this report follows earlier reports that conditions had gotten much worse at one of the reeducation camps, at Cheongo-ri. (None of this concerns the much larger political prison camps, such as Camps 14, 15, or 16.) That’s why the Red Cross shouldn’t settle for anything less than a permanent presence at the camps.

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I had intended (but forgotten) to mention in yesterday’s post that South Korea was recently chosen to lead the Human Rights Council for a year. Although I’d like to see South Korea amend its National Security Law to decriminalize non-violent speech, by almost any measure, South Korea is a much better choice than some of the other alternatives.

South Korea’s election is an inevitable appointment with history and destiny, but when South Korean officials say nonsensical things like this, I wonder if they’re about to flunk it. On the other hand, according to Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, “It would seem that the government of (South) Korea has geared itself towards the eventuality that accountability will have to be taken within the context of the unification process.”

I guess we’ll see just what the South Koreans are prepared to push for. In the end, South Korea is the only country with a claim to jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula, which means it could, in theory, circumvent the Security Council and (with a mandate from the General Assembly) convene an independent international tribunal under its domestic laws. This has actually been done, in Cambodia, also due to Chinese obstructionism. Whether South Korea is prepared to defy China and anger North Korea that way is doubtful today, especially under a Park Geun-Hye presidency.

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Inter-Korean phone calls can keep the promises of the Sunshine Policy

Twenty years of state-to-state engagement between North and South Korea have not lived up to Kim Dae-Jung’s promises. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and periodically attacked South Korea for good measure. Rather than reforming, it has invested heavily in sealing its borders. Pyongyang sustains itself on foreign hard currency, even as it cuts off the flow of people, goods, and information to its underprivileged classes. It knows that if it fails to do this, members of those classes will achieve financial, material, and ideological independence from the state.

In their efforts to seal the borders, the North Korean security forces’ principal targets have been the Chinese cell phones whose signals can cross a few miles into North Korea, and which provide North Koreans with their last fragile link to the outside world. Today, there is a real danger that this link will be cut, and that the market-driven changes in North Korean society — changes driven by the people, despite the government’s attempts to suppress them — will cease.

Now, imagine if signals from South Korean cell providers began spreading across the DMZ into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. You saw how Pyongyang reacted to loudspeaker propaganda, which reached a few thousand conscripts at best. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans being able to call their relatives in the South directly, reading the Daily NK on smart phones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. Small beginnings like these could be profoundly transformational. If, eventually, North Koreans gain the ability to talk to each other, free of the state’s interference, these beginnings could become the foundations of a new civil society in North Korea. That could vastly mitigate the chaos and cost of reunification.

And yet, Seoul hesitates to allow this kind of people-to-people engagement, ostensibly because it is paralyzed by paranoia that North Korean spies would also use this network.

South Korean police expressed concerns over the national security implications of mobile phone conversations between North Korean defectors in the South and their relatives in the North.

A police official who spoke to South Korean press on the condition of anonymity said the security concerns call for the passage of a law at the National Assembly that could step up surveillance, South Korean outlet Financial News reported on Friday.

Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South keep in contact with their families, who are able to circumvent North Korea regulations through the use of Chinese mobile phones. One unidentified woman defector said she calls her family in the North 3 or 4 times a week, to confirm money transfers through a broker based in China. [….]

Police officials in Seoul are saying the conversations between family members can leak sensitive information that can pose a threat to South Korea’s national security, but amendments to Seoul’s Protection of Communications Secrets Act could reduce risks. [UPI]

But given the frequency with which North Korean agents are exposed in the South — just keep scrolling — the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the United Front Department, and their assortment of spies, street thugs, slashers, hackersassassinsagents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.”

It’s a silly, short-sighted paranoia that’s tantamount to refusing to treat a disease for fear of the treatment’s side effects. The answer to spies using the phones is called law enforcement. More broadly, if Seoul doesn’t want to deal with North Korean espionage and influence operations in perpetuity, it should open a second front in Kim Jong-Un’s information war, and start running a few information operations of its own. 

One of the most important uses of inter-Korean phone links could be their use for money transfers. Plenty of families in the North rely on those remittances to survive, or to start small businesses that provide for their families. Seoul has been ambivalent about these remittances, too:

South Korea technically bans the transfers, but an official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles North Korea policy, says that the government has little incentive to stop the remittances.

“They fall into a gray area,” said the official, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak about the policy on record. “We always say no money should be sent to North Korea in case it is diverted for military purposes. But in this case, we’re not talking about huge amounts. And it’s for humanitarian purposes. So long as that’s the case, we won’t pursue it.” [WaPo, Chico Harlan, Feb. 2012]

Seoul has even fretted that small-time remittances from North Korean refugees to their families back home might violate international sanctions. Which is an argument that takes a lot of chutzpah, if you contemplate the millions of dollars Seoul pours into Pyongyang through the Kaesong Industrial Park each year.

South-to-North remittances have always been risky and expensive. Remitters charge commissions as high as 30%. Today, with Kim Jong-Un’s information crackdown on illegal calls over the Chinese border, money transfers often require North Korean family members and remitters to risk their lives:

In May this year, a North Korean defector in her 40s took a call from an unknown number at her office in the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was from her brother, who she had not seen for more than a decade, calling illegally from North Korea after tracking her down.

He was speaking from a remote mountainside near the border with China, and was in dire need of money to help treat another sister’s late stage cancer, she said.

Accompanied by a Chinese broker, the brother had spent five hours climbing up the mountain, avoiding North Korean security and desperately searching for a signal on a Chinese mobile telephone. Contact with anyone in the South is punishable by death in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated states. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park, July 2012]

Defectors objected strongly to a 2011 proposal by Seoul to require licenses for South-to-North remittances. Personally, I’m not sure that a licensing procedure is such a bad idea, if it’s administered efficiently. Licensing can help prevent South Koreans from sending money to government officials — and maybe even spy-handlers — while channeling legitimate remittances through the more honest and reliable remitters.

To ease the burden of the new red tape, Seoul might consider a new way to reduce the cost of a remittance, say, by allowing direct South-to-North transfers that don’t have to run through Chinese banks or Chinese cell phones:

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by next June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members.

Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

For the last 20 years, South has poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money. As far as Seoul knows, Pyongyang used some of that money to nuke up. Yet in the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, Seoul took bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. It didn’t work, but the money still flows.

Today, however, Seoul is afraid to take a chance on the kind of people-to-people communications that are changing North Korea profoundly. If those communications become regular and safe, suddenly, they start to sound like the first steps in a plausible plan to keep the Sunshine Policy’s gauzy promises about engagement, change, reform, and reunification.

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Scott Snyder: increase sanctions, including secondary sanctions, on Pyongyang

In a new paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, Snyder has called for increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, to persuade it that it must disarm or perish:

Since defecting from Six Party negotiations on denuclearization in 2008, North Korea has pursued nuclear development unchecked by international constraints. Barack Obama’s administration has demanded that Pyongyang make a strategic choice to denuclearize and tried to build a regional consensus opposing North Korea’s nuclear efforts, but it has been
unable to halt the country’s nuclear weapons development. Instead, North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile development is designed to force U.S. policymakers to make an undesirable choice: either acquiesce to the reality of a nuclear North Korea or mobilize international support for the destabilization of the North Korean regime.

To stop the North Korean nuclear threat, the United States should take three steps. First, Washington should increase pressure on Pyongyang so that the regime recognizes its existential choice between survival and nuclear status. Second, the United States should pursue five-party talks (Six Party framework members minus North Korea) to develop a viable pathway for North Korea to survive and benefit from denuclearization. Such a regionally supported consensus on a route to denuclearization would seek to induce a debate inside North Korea regarding the costs and benefits of its pursuit of nuclear status. And third, the United States should encourage China and Russia to withdraw political support for and increase pressure on North Korea until the regime commits to denuclearization. [Scott Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations]

Read the rest on your own; it’s only a few pages long (HT: Yonhap). Whatever my small quibbles with Scott Snyder’s writings on occasion, there’s no question that he’s one of the most respected Korea scholars in Washington, and any shift in Snyder’s thinking is likely to reflect or catalyze more shifting opinions within the conventional wisdom here. I find much more to agree with in this paper than Snyder’s previous take on sanctions policy.

The paper still raises some questions. The first of these is how we can “encourage” a recalcitrant China and Russia, when both countries have engaged in a pattern of willful non-enforcement. In China’s case, I recently described that pattern in great detail. I’ll present a similar case about Russia later this week. Would Snyder be willing to go as far as taking up Andrea Berger’s call for secondary sanctions? I’d say “yes,” based on this:

The Obama administration should apply increased political and economic pressure on North Korea to convince its leaders that a nuclear North Korea is a dead-end option. The United States should work with its allies to expand sanctions to target businesses and banks that refuse to cease cooperation with North Korea. At the same time, the United States and its allies should emphasize to Pyongyang that expanded sanctions will be relieved if North Korea takes meaningful, concrete steps toward denuclearization, such as resuming cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by allowing the return of international inspectors to the country. The United States should also remind North Korea that military provocations risk escalation that could lead to the country’s demise.

We know from past experience that whatever the objections of the Chinese government to secondary sanctions — and I was recently regaled over dinner with how furiously some of its representatives reacted to this paper, much to my amusement — historically, Chinese banks have been responsive to the threat of secondary sanctions. It’s reasonable to believe that Russian banks would respond to the same forms of “encouragement.”

Then, would Snyder focus our demands exclusively on the nuclear issue, excluding concerns about North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons, its cyber-warfare, its money laundering, its increasingly dangerous artillery rocket arsenal, and its crimes against humanity? It may be that our interests demand that Pyongyang commit to a more fundamental change of its world view than disarmament alone; after all, its expansion into uranium enrichment makes disarmament much harder to verify, especially without Pyongyang’s acceptance of much more transparency.

The human rights issue is of growing importance to policy debates in Europe and elsewhere. This also points to one flaw of the five-party formulation. The use of progressive diplomacy instead would allow us to enter talks with a coalition behind us, rather than by going straight to talks with governments that are disunited or (in the case of China and Russia) hostile to our interests.

Overall, however, Snyder’s paper is refreshingly realistic about Pyongyang’s intentions, and about the need for us to be more aggressive about curtailing them.

 

 

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Video: N. Korea human rights conference at SAIS, with keynote by Hon. Michael Kirby

On Tuesday, I took a day off from the day job to attend an outstanding conference, organized by the International Bar Association, the Defense Forum Foundation, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rather than describe it, I’ll just give you a little weekend viewing and post the whole thing.

The first video starts with introductions by Jae Ku of SAIS, and speeches by Sen. Cory Gardner, Amb. Ahn Ho-Young, and Amb. Lee Jong-Hoon. After this, there were five panels:

9:45am-11:15am Panel I: Human Rights in North Korea Today

  • Moderator: Greg Scarlatoiu: Exec. Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); 
  • Robert Herman: VP for Regional Programs, Freedom House
  • Amb. Lee Jung-Hoon: Ambassador for Human Rights, Republic of Korea
  • Amb. Robert King: Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, State Department
  • John Sifton: Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

11:30am-1:00pm Panel II: Sanctions

  • Moderator: Sung-Yoon Lee: Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
  • Frank Jannuzi: President & CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
  • Bruce Klingner: Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, Asian Studies Center
  • William Newcomb: Former Member, UN Security Council Panel of Experts on DPRK Sanctions
  • Joshua Stanton: One Free Korea

1:00pm-2:00pm LUNCHEON AND KEYNOTE SPEECH: Hon. Michael D. Kirby, Chair, U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of North Korea.

Special thanks to Shaquille for taking this photo:

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2:00pm-3:30pm Panel III: Accountability for Human Rights Violations

  • Moderator: Roberta Cohen: Non Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
  • Param-Preet Singh: Senior Counsel, Human Rights Watch, International Justice Program
  • Morse Tan: Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University College of Law
  • David Tolbert: President, International Center for Transitional Justice

3:45pm-5:15pm Panel IV: Indigenous and Cross-Border Activities Aimed at Advancing Human Rights in North Korea

  • Moderator: Suzanne Scholte: President, Defense Forum Foundation
  • Jieun Baek: Fellow, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
  • Scott Busby: Deputy Asst. Secretary, State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Kang Cheol-Hwan: President, North Korea Strategy Center
  • John Fox: Founder, I-Media
  • Kim Seong Min: Founder, Free North Korea Radio


The unsung heroine of the conference was a young woman named Sosseh, who works for the International Bar Association. Sosseh handled the organization, scheduling, and logistics of all of the events, and made it all run like clockwork.

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Must read: Andrea Berger calls for U.N. to sanction N. Korea’s 3d-country enablers

When I was a single man, there was a certain magazine that I only read for the interviews (I swear). Now that I’m an older, married man, I console myself with a certain website I mostly just read for the (satellite) pictures. Much of its commentary consists of echoes in the corridor of a hospice of ideas, of things Selig Harrison might have said in 1993, but here and there one finds something fresh, substantial, and useful, including sanctions expert Andrea Berger’s excellent posts.

Just as I’ve argued that there is much more that the U.S. Treasury Department could do to strengthen U.S. national sanctions, Berger writes that there is much more the U.N. Security Council could do to strengthen international sanctions on North Korea:

Numerous options for strengthening the sanctions regime still exist. As a first order of business, the Security Council could offer clarification regarding some of the grey areas which persist in the sanctions regime, as previously discussed on 38 North.

Yet clarifications alone will not alleviate the pressures mentioned above. As a more concrete step, the Security Council should take action against those non-North Korean entities and individuals who consciously facilitate North Korean proliferation by introducing targeted sanctions against some of them. Doing so would remind countries along North Korea’s proliferation pathways—those that are not the source or destination countries for illicit goods, but rather host “middlemen”—that they must ensure that their citizens and residents comply with UN resolutions when they do business with Pyongyang. [Andrea Berger, 38 North]

As I pointed out recently, one reason U.N. sanctions aren’t working very well is that the 1718 Committee isn’t acting promptly on the recommendations of the Panel of Experts, either because of Chinese obstructionism or simple incompetence. The Security Council must take Pyongyang’s next provocation as an opportunity to fix the 1718 Committee (or better yet, its last provocation). Failing this, an alliance of like-minded member states should cooperate to impose national sanctions on violators, in accordance with their respective laws, as soon as the Panel of Experts produces credible evidence of a violation.

The list that the Security Council has agreed to target is remarkably short, considering the extent of the activities prohibited: 12 individuals and 20 entities. The UN’s own Panel of Experts on North Korea has already shown that many more are known to have materially assisted either WMD or missile programs, or arms sales overseas. By contrast, the soon-to-be-disbanded sanctions list for Iran contains 43 individuals and 78 entities.

Though designations fall out of date because the sanctioned parties change or create new aliases, formally designating North Korean individuals and entities is an important step. Resolutions concerning North Korea require UN Member States to take action against the affiliates of sanctioned parties. The 2014 designation of the North Korean shipping firm Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) has already provided grounds for Singapore to charge and try Chinpo Shipping, and its owner Tan Cheng Hoe, who assisted with OMM’s shipment of arms and related material from Cuba to North Korea in July 2013. Yet these cases are rare. Many governments only act if the UN requires them to, namely by designating a new entity or individual and providing an accompanying explanation. Countries that choose to take independent action against unnamed affiliates of sanctioned parties must rely on their own information gathering, demonstrating a legally convincing link with a UN-sanctioned party. Few appear willing to do so.

Specifically, Berger calls for the U.N. to designate such enablers as Singapore-based Senat Shipping. She notes that the Panel of Experts has identified third-country enablers as “an indispensable part of the North Korean network.”

Without them, Pyongyang would find it increasingly difficult to move goods or process payments. For decades, “trusted” partners like Chinpo Shipping have regularly facilitated North Korean transactions—both legitimate and illegitimate—as part of their broader business. An earlier investigation for 38 North showed that OMM’s other Singapore-based affiliates have similarly deep-seated business relationships with the reclusive state.

More on Senat and Chinpo Shipping here. Berger also links to a news report about British arms dealer Michael Ranger. Read the rest on your own.

At (ironically enough) Johns Hopkins yesterday, I made the point that one does not ask whether a symphony should be played with a tuba or a xylophone alone. In the same way that an orchestra is made of many instruments, effective sanctions are one important element of a credible foreign policy. One can extend this analogy to say that U.S. and U.N. sanctions, like trumpets and trombones, work best in concert. Cuba is an example of how U.S. sanctions aren’t as effective without strong international support. Cuba could (barely) scrape by on euros, Swiss francs, Canadian dollars, and with help from banks that were willing to look the other way and help it move money through the dollar system illegally.

North Korea sanctions present the opposite problem. Nominally, North Korea sanctions are backed by reasonably strong Chapter VII U.N. resolutions, but lack aggressive enforcement by the main stewards of the financial system: the U.S., Europe, and other issuers of convertible currencies. An ad hoc alliance between these states, South Korea, and Japan, could join forces to squeeze a target’s finances.

They would also be able to squelch Russia’s transparent attempt to dodge sanctions with a bilateral trading house. After all, it’s difficult to imagine that the two countries could carry on much trade using the (worthless, non-convertible) North Korean won, or the plummeting ruble. 

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Ban Ki-Moon on N. Korea: U.N. must “hold perpetrators of crimes accountable” (updated)

The U.S., the EU, South Korea, and other “like-minded” governments are renewing their push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to refer “the highest official responsible” for Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

South Korea, the U.S., Britain and Japan have launched fresh efforts to adopt a similar resolution this year, the high-level source at the U.N. told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity, adding the countries have been drafting a resolution since last weekend.

The new resolution will include the ICC referral part just like last year’s resolution, the source said.

The countries have also begun collecting views from other U.N. members on what should be included in the new resolution, the source said.

“ICC referral resolutions that the U.N. has adopted so far usually don’t include the names of those responsible,” another source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s because more people could be found responsible in the course of the ICC’s investigation.” [Yonhap]

The reports — from Yonhap, UPI, and the Voice of America — quote unnamed South Korean diplomatic sources. Although the new resolution dares not speak His name, Yonhap’s source confirms that “highest official” does, indeed, mean His Corpulency.

The new resolution is also expected to include calls for punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, resolution of abductions and kidnappings while voicing concerns about torture, public executions and other types of human rights abuses in the North, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

Yonhap’s source fully expects China and Russia to block the resolution at the Security Council, but the proponents plan to push on, if only to draw more international attention to the issue. This time, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles. The UNSC’s non-permanent members now include Angola, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, all of which have close commercial or diplomatic ties to North Korea, and some of which have been implicated in using North Korean slave labor.

These developments follow the recent opening (despite Pyongyang’s threats) of the Seoul Field Office of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, and a very strong new report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur that repeated the Commission of Inquiry’s call to hold North Korean officials accountable. U.N. Member States are clearly under more pressure to answer the U.N.’s calls and lead. (In this case, however, Europe appears be doing most of the leading.)

Pyongyang responded by calling the U.N. reports “nothing more than lies from North Korean defectors, whose testimonies cannot be corroborated,” and threatening to take “the toughest counteraction” to “foil the hostile forces’ reckless ‘human rights’ hysteria.”

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

Interestingly enough, however, despite the fact that Seoul’s diplomats are talking up this effort to the international press, Pyongyang still allowed its hostage meetings — the ones Michael Kirby called “barbarous” and “extremely cruel” — to proceed as planned.

There is reason to doubt that all of this talk will amount to anything. After all, back in JulyThe Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported that the Obama Administration would focus “on human rights to further isolate North Korea.” But of course, as the General Accountability Office recently pointed out, at the stroke of a pen, President Obama could have reached the obvious conclusion that His Porcine Majesty and his top minions are officials of the government of North Korea for purposes of Executive Order 13687, and summarily blocked all of their assets, in full accordance with the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. Just like Obama’s predecessor did to the top leaders of Burma, Sudan, Belarus, and Zimbabwe, and their top minions, years ago.

But if this resolution really does go forward, it would be immensely important. Not only are we having a global debate — at long last — about human rights in North Korea, but that debate is clearly building toward a global consensus that North Korea’s leaders must be held to account for their crimes. And as favorably astonished I am about this, nothing could have prepared me for what Ban Ki-Moon said yesterday:

Frankly, when I first read this Yonhap report of Ban’s words, I simply couldn’t believe that Ban Ki-Moon — the godfather of the Sunshine Policy and patron saint of fence-sitters, who has consistently said as little as possible about human rights in the North — said this. Unwilling to post it without confirmation, I emailed a contact at the U.N., who kindly and promptly did confirm it. Here’s the whole statement.

Just about everyone on Earth missed the seismic importance of Ban’s call, especially in the context of growing calls by U.N. Member States, the Special Rapporteur, and the Commission of Inquiry to hold Kim Jong-Un individually accountable. Yes, they’re just words — a few words buried near the end of a very long report — but they represent an important step toward international consensus. They mean that the price China and Russia will pay to keep covering for Kim Jong-Un will rise. They’re an embarrassment to every government that stands in the way of action or makes itself complicit. Furthermore, I doubt that Ban would have said them if he thought it would diminish his chances in the next South Korean presidential election. Ban’s words are sure to put him strongly at odds with the Democratic Party’s hard left, at a time when the DP’s leaders are already struggling to keep them under the porch.

The mills grind slowly, but they are picking up speed.

~   ~   ~

Update, October 25, 2015: Wow:

Navi Pillay told an audience in Seoul that North Korea’s caste system discriminates against its own population and is a new example of apartheid, Voice of America reported. Pillay said North Korea should eliminate its “Songbun,” or caste system, and release the tens of thousands of political prisoners who are serving sentences after receiving unfair trials. [UPI]

Despite what these resorts say, a well-informed friend tells me that for now, the resolution is only headed for the Third Committee for now, but with the Security Council being the eventual destination. It was, indeed, Japan that has joined up with the EU to draft the resolution.

Despite protests from Pyongyang, member states of the European Union said Thursday they plan to present a draft resolution on North Korean human rights to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of October. South Korean outlet Newsis reported the announcement offers a preview of the extensive discussion of North Korea human rights abuses expected to be held before the end of the year.

The Austrian foreign ministry told press that the European Union and Japan submitted a draft resolution in September, during the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly. The ministry said it recommends the referral of the North Korea human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.

There is some question, however, whether the resolution will target Kim Jong-Un individually:

Kim Jong Un, however, would not necessarily be the target of any cases brought before the International Criminal Court. A U.N. source who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity said that the purpose of any court case would not be to pin blame on Kim Jong Un. That would be an “unreasonable interpretation,” the source said.

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U.N.’s 1718 Committee does NADA about N. Korean missile agency; Update: Membership revoked!

NK News is reporting that North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, whose name yields the unfortunate acronym “NADA,” has been accepted as a member of the International Astronautical Federation, a group that describes itself thusly:

Founded in 1951, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) is the world’s leading space advocacy body with 246 members from 62 countries on six continents including all leading agencies, space companies, societies, associations, universities and institutes worldwide.

Hat tip to Chad O’Carroll for the link. As O’Carroll concedes, however, the source of his story is “an attendant of an annual congress event organized by the federation,” and the IAF itself hasn’t confirmed this. Let’s hope it backs off promptly, because in a report published earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with international sanctions on North Korea found extensive links between NADA and North Korea’s banned missile programs, and recommended that NADA be designated and sanctioned by the Security Council.

First, the Panel’s findings:

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Now, the Panel’s recommendations:

 

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A designation would require all U.N. member states to immediately freeze all of NADA’s assets, and to expel its representatives from their countries.

As conspicuous a blunder as this is on IAF’s part — assuming this isn’t just the statement of one rogue member — the systemic problem it points to is the failure of the U.N. bureaucracy to act on the consistently superb reports of its own Panel of Experts. Eight months after the publication of the Panel’s latest report, the U.N.’s 1718 Committee, which is responsible for approving the designations, still hasn’t designated NADA. Meanwhile, NADA is free to pursue sensitive technology and international legitimacy, and to conceal its funds and operations.

Nor is this the first time the 1718 Committee has dropped the ball. It took the 1718 Committee a full year after the Chong Chon Gang incident to designate Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean shipping company that was smuggling MiGs and missiles from Cuba to North Korea, in flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions. Each time the 1718 Committee is inexcusably slow in reacting to Panel of Experts reports, it becomes more apparent that it is a weak link in U.N. sanctions enforcement, either for political reasons, or because of the simple incompetence of its management.

Either way, as Security Council members continue to consider possible responses to a North Korean missile or nuclear test, they should be thinking about more than passing new sanctions. New sanctions on financial messaging, shipping, reflagging, air cargo, and insurance might be useful, but the Security Council should also focus on making the existing sanctions work better.

The obvious alternative is to simply do away with the 1718 Committee entirely, although that would depart from standard U.N. procedure. This panel-committee formulation isn’t unique to North Korea. A similar committee was also set up to approve Iran (and other) sanctions designations. The political reality is that member states will want to retain some control over designations. In that case, why not allow the recommended designations of the Panel of Experts to go into effect within 30 days, unless a majority of members of the 1718 Committee vote to disapprove them? That would have the advantage of forcing China and Russia to engage in their obstructionism more openly.

Another suggestion, which isn’t mutually exclusive with the last one, is to do what the Security Council’s resolutions did in the case of Iran — require the Committee to report to the Security Council regularly on its enforcement actions. That will ensure that the P-5 keep a careful eye on the enforcement of the sanctions resolutions, and hold the 1718 Committee accountable for the slovenly pace of its actions.

(By the way, I’d like to give my special thanks to the U.N., proprietor of possibly the world’s worst website, for effing up all of its hyperlinks and all of my bookmarks to its committees and designations. Sanctions geeks may wish to update their bookmarks with the U.N.’s consolidated sanctions list.) 

In the end, however, it will be up to individual member states to impose national sanctions in appropriate cases, without waiting for a dilatory U.N. Committee. That’s not only plausible, it has happened. The EU sanctioned the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which is not designated by the U.N., and the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, also not sanctioned by the U.N. A good first step would be for the U.S. and the EU to harmonize their own designations mutually. Next, they should seek the cooperation of Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and other key middle powers holding North Korean property. Finally, they can reach smaller states, such as those that reflag North Korean ships and buy its weapons, and convince them to shun North Korea’s business. That strategy of progressive diplomacy will make it harder for the Chinese and the Russians to succeed in their obstructionism.

~   ~   ~

Update: Well, well. It seems after the IAF got some mail from concerned citizens in the U.N. Panel of Experts and the South Korea government, they revoked NADA’s membership. Chad O’Carroll has the rest of the story.

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U.N. report demands that N. Korean leaders be held accountable through prosecution, sanctions

marzukiU.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has issued another report on human rights in North Korea (or more accurately, the lack thereof). The bad news is that the situation hasn’t improved, and North Korea and China are still stonewalling:

Regrettably, the situation remains the same, despite the grave concerns reiterated by the international community in different forums. The Special Rapporteur also reflects on issues around accountability for those human rights violations, which should be addressed at an early stage, and on current efforts by the international community to address the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in general.

3. The Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight from the outset that in March and again in June 2015 he requested meetings with delegates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to follow up on the discussions that he had with them in October 2014 in New York. He regrets that his requests were declined. He firmly believes in the value of dialogue and hopes that the authorities will answer his future request positively.

The good news is that the report itself is strong — exceptionally so. In clear and strong language, it recounts the reports of North Korea’s recent waves of purges and executions, its failure to make progress on the return of abductees, its refusal let divided families reunite, and evidence that North Korea and China systematically abuse North Korean women, including by forcing them into sexual slavery.

41. The Special Rapporteur notes with great concern from the data provided by the Ministry of Unification on arrivals of defectors in the Republic of Korea that more than 70 per cent of the defectors are women. A striking estimate of 70-90 per cent of those women reportedly become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to, inter alia, forced marriage and sexual exploitation in China and in other Asian countries.14 They are particularly vulnerable to actions by smuggling gangs, whose influence has significantly increased recently owing to the clampdown by Chinese authorities on charities and evangelical groups from the Republic of Korea that used to facilitate their escape through China. 

42. Female overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent to China have also fallen victim to sexual exploitation. It was reported that, in June 2014, the Government of China deported a group of female workers in a food factory because they were forced into prostitution at night, upon instructions from an executive of the factory and with the complicity of the security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of their surveillance. The latter was also forcibly repatriated.

The report also denounced China’s inhumane repatriation of refugees, including children, to an uncertain fate in North Korea.

36. In that regard, the Special Rapporteur is strongly concerned by reports indicating that a group of 29 citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including a 1-year-old child, were detained by the Chinese authorities in Shandong and Yunnan provinces between 15 and 17 July 2014 and subsequently forcibly returned to their country of origin.12 Their whereabouts were unknown at the time of writing. In addition, in October 2014, the Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 individuals (10 adults and 1 child aged 7) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were seeking to enter Myanmar in the southern region of Yunnan province.13 Their whereabouts are also unknown.

37. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Committee against Torture included that case in its list of issues in relation to the fifth periodic report of China. It sought information about their fate upon return and enquired, inter alia, whether there were “post-return monitoring arrangements in place to ensure that those returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are protected from the danger of being subjected to torture” (CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 9). He hopes that the Government of China will clarify the matter during the fifty-sixth session of the Committee, in November 2015.

38. The Special Rapporteur regrets that his requests to meet representatives of the Permanent Missions of China in Geneva and New York in March and May 2015, respectively, were unsuccessful. He remains available to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government of China to find a sustainable solution to that pressing issue.

Some of the report’s best language, however, dealt with North Korea’s exports of forced labor for hard currency. Its choice of words in this context — “forced labor,” “slave labor,” “contemporary forms of slavery” — deserves to draw greater global attention and action. And it names names:

26. According to various studies, it is estimated that more than 50,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operate abroad. 8 The vast majority are currently employed in China and the Russian Federation. Other countries where workers operate reportedly include Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

27. The overseas workers are employed mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. Their conditions of work have been documented by civil society organizations that conducted interviews with former overseas workers.

They found that:

    (a) The workers do not know the details of their employment contract;

    (b) Tasks are assigned according to the worker’s State-assigned social class (songbun): the lower classes are reportedly assigned the most dangerous and tedious tasks. Workers with relatives in the country are preferred, to ensure that they will fully comply while abroad;

    (c) Workers earn on average between $120 and $150 per month, while employers in fact pay significantly higher amounts to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (employers deposit the salaries of the workers in accounts controlled by companies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);

    (d) Workers are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. In some instances, if they do not fulfil the monthly quota imposed, they reportedly do not get paid;

    (e) Health and safety measures are often inadequate. Safety accidents are reportedly not reported to local authorities but handled by security agents;

    (f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;

    (g) Freedom of movement of overseas workers is unduly restricted. Workers are under constant surveillance by security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of ensuring that they comply with the Government’s rules and regulations. Those agents confiscate the workers’ passports. The workers are also forbidden to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during their assignment;

    (h) Workers are threatened with repatriation if they do not perform well enough or commit infractions. Defectors apprehended are sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

28. It is alleged that the host authorities never monitor the working conditions of overseas workers.

29. It is worth noting that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is paying increased attention to the scrutiny by foreign media and organizations on its overseas workers. In April 2015, it issued instructions to overseas workers and supervisors to prevent anyone from reporting human rights abuses in the workplace. Workers and supervisors have reportedly been ordered to destroy any recording equipment, confiscate the memory cards and even assault the person documenting the abuses. Failure to do so would result in the worker or supervisor being punished, although it is not clear what type of punishment would be applied.

30. The Special Rapporteur notes (with satisfaction) the decision in May 2015 of a construction company in Qatar to dismiss 90 employees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (nearly half of the workforce employed) for alleged repeated violations of domestic labour legislation. According to the company, “supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly”.

10 One of the workers reportedly died as a result of such treatment. The company agreed to keep the remaining workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the condition that they no longer breach any rules. 

31. The Special Rapporteur takes all such reports very seriously. He intends to pay close and sustained attention to the issue in future, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul. To that end, he calls upon the Member States concerned to grant him, his successor and OHCHR staff access to verify all of the allegations.

32. The Special Rapporteur reminds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of its obligation under article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not to engage in forced labour. He stresses that companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour. They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.

In other places, the Special Rapporteur’s report shows why his office needs investigative support to keep up with the evidence. Paragraph 16, for example, cites unverified reports that Camp 15 was being dismantled, but we’ve since seen reliable reporting, backed by satellite imagery, that refutes this claim. The report also cites reports that nine North Korean children repatriated by the Laotian government might have been executed or sent to Camp 14, but fails to note that Pyongyang, no doubt mindful of the attention they’ve attracted, later showed (at least some of) the children on television. These are distracting errors, but now that the Seoul field office has started its work, we can expect to see the quality, length, and frequency of the Special Rapporteur’s reports improve.

It’s equally apparent that the Seoul field office, which is working under threats of violence by Pyongyang, needs the Special Rapporteur to offer it some protection from those threats. After all, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is both willing and able to carry out assassinations inside South Korea. Marzuki denounced those threats at length:

65. In relation to the third point, the Special Rapporteur notes with deep concern the series of threats issued by the authorities and media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Seoul office. On 23 June 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a statement accusing the “hostile forces” in the international community led by the United States of America of using the field presence to plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and “incite confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights”. On 30 March 2015, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement threatening an attack against the then forthcoming office and accusing the Republic of Korea and the United States of orchestrating a human rights plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The statement specifically said: “we will never sit back and watch as South Korea hosts the United Nations office on human rights of DPRK in Seoul. As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May 2015, the newspaper Minju Joson stated that “[the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never pardon but mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body”. 18

66. This is not the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has issued a threat. On 9 June 2014, a spokesperson for the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement protesting against the OHCHR field office in the Republic of Korea, threatening punishment and attacks at those involved in the plan, as well as staff in the office, referring to the plan as a scheme led by the United States and the Republic of Korea. 

67. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cease issuing such threats. He believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Government of a United Nations Member State to issue a statement that blatantly threatens punishment and attacks on a United Nations office and its staff members. He stresses that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has a responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations to protect the United Nations, its staff and its assets.

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

Clearly, then, this Special Rapporteur will not let the world forget what the Commission of Inquiry told us about crimes against humanity in North Korea. He repeated his call to hold the responsible North Korean officials accountable:

49. The Special Rapporteur remains convinced that the accountability track must be pursued urgently, in parallel with sustained efforts to seek engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is an irreversible process that the authorities will have to face sooner or later.

50. In his view, issues around accountability should be addressed at an early stage and with long-term strategies in mind. A process of reflection and discussion on possible accountability mechanisms and processes should start as soon as possible. This should not be done, as in previous instances with other countries, at the last minute of a change process.

Both Pyongyang and Beijing have ignored the Special Rapporteur’s attempts to engage them, and to cooperate with an investigation of the allegations. Beijing still intends to block any attempt by the Security Council to hold Kim Jong-Un accountable. Yet the Special Rapporteur did not yield on the urgency and importance of accountability. In addition to repeating the Commission of Inquiry’s call for a referral to the International Criminal Court, it called for establishing an ad hoc tribunal, and a human rights contact group of member states. Which sounds a lot like what S. 2144, a bill introduced by three Republican U.S. Senators, also called for (see, e.g., sections 302 and 305). The report also called for financial accountability through targeted, bilateral sanctions. 

55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.

I don’t know what states other than the U.S. the Special Rapporteur might have had in mind. The logic is clear: if the Security Council won’t act, then it’s up to member states to use their national laws, and to mobilize world opinion, to force Pyongyang to change. And thankfully, that’s exactly where things seem to be headed. Indeed, one sees an almost unprecedented convergence here between a U.N. report and a Republican-led Congress. Meanwhile, President Obama sits passively, like the king of an ancient Asian vassal state, deferring to the emperor in the Forbidden City.

The U.N. has not shown itself to be an effective agent for action, but at least reports like these, and the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions compliance, show that the U.N. can still be an effective fact-finder. Eventually — though too late for far too many North Koreans — better facts will make better policies.

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The U.N. will just go on talking about Kim Jong-Un’s crimes against humanity, and that’s still better than nothing

Since July, when the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights opened its new field office in Seoul, the office has hired a six-person staff and gotten to work. Last week, The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale spoke to the office’s Representative, Ms. Signe Poulsen of Denmark, who clarified that the field office will carry on the work of the UNHCHR’s Commission of Inquiry, investigate new reports of human rights abuses, and keep those reports in the public eye.

“We’re looking to bring more depth to the report. Seoul is the best place to be for that,” Signe Poulsen, representative for the office, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. Ms. Poulsen arrived in South Korea in August and will coordinate information gathering from North Korean refugees, activist groups, academics and other North Korea-related parties. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Poulsen explained to Yonhap, the official news service of a government that represents South Korea’s largely apathetic people, why the rest of the world cares about this.

“Many of these violations are so systematic and so widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity,” Poulsen said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “That’s a high threshold. That’s not business as normal. That’s really very serious.” [….]

“The scale of violations against people living in North Korea is so large that it concerns all of us,” she said. [….]

Poulsen said that public executions have continued for a long time as a “pattern” of the North’s serious rights violation.

The office will mainly collect relevant information from North Korean defectors, experts and civic groups. It will later report its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council. [Yonhap]

Poulsen, apparently a person with a predisposition for optimism, also told Gale that Pyongyang’s “strong response” to the opening of the office a sign that “it is taking the issue very seriously.” I suppose that depends on what one means by “seriously.” If she means that the office’s opening has clearly touched a nerve, there’s little doubt about that. But instead of offering a serious and substantive response, Pyongyang has adopted a diplomatic strategy of denial, disruptions, racial slurs, homophobic slurs, threats against both witnesses and the U.N. office itself, and Halloween candy. To be specific:

“Anyone who challenges our dignity and social system and agrees to go ahead with the establishment of the office will be ruthlessly punished,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement. [….]

South Korean president Park Geun-hye and others from international human rights organizations would “pay the price”, the statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency, said.

The planned office was a “hideous politically-motivated provocation”, and an “anti-North Korean plot-breeding organization,” led by South Korea and the United States, it added.

North Korea “categorically and totally” rejected the accusations set out in the report, saying they were based on material faked by hostile forces backed by the United States, the European Union and Japan. [Reuters, James Pearson, June 9, 2014]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.

The Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), a state body handling inter-Korean affairs, said late Monday that the office was an “unforgivable provocation” and would become a “first-strike target.” [….]

As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the target for our merciless punishment,” the CPRK said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency. [AFP, March 30, 2015]

The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

PoulsenMs. Poulsen, whose photograph does not evoke my stereotype of a neocon conquistadora, nonetheless answers the threats bravely:

Poulsen said she is not afraid of the North’s threat, saying that there are many field workers and rights advocates who are putting their lives at risk every day. [….]

Poulsen said that she will ramp up efforts to gather information on the North’s rights abuses in a “comprehensive and accurate” manner despite limitations, as she cannot visit the North for her assignments.

“My expectation and my strong hope is that I will be able to fulfill the mandate to the satisfaction of all U.N. member states,” she said. [Yonhap]

Of course, the field office will not satisfy all of the member states, but if it can eventually produce reports as detailed as this new report from the Korea Institute for National Unification (hat tip and thanks to a reader) it will succeed at fulfilling its mandate and keeping the issue in the public eye. Whatever you may think of the U.N. as an institution, reports that carry its imprimatur carry more global credibility. The U.N. almost always fails as an agent of international action, but the U.N. Panel of Experts and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry have shown us that it can be an effective fact finder, and facts change policies.

For the foreseeable future, then, the dying will continue, and the U.N. isn’t about to do anything concrete about that. China has blocked any move toward accountability in the Security Council, although the issue remains on the Security Council’s permanent agenda. Poulson also notes that the General Assembly will take up the issue again this month. That means that for now, all the field office can really do is to “keep the issue of North Korean human rights on the U.N. agenda.”*

Beyond that, as Christine Chung writes at HRNK insider, there is little agreement about what to do next. Japan says it wants its people back, but suggests that it might normalize relations after that. The EU calls on Pyongyang to close the gulag, but threatens no consequences if it doesn’t. France called for an ICC referral, which China and Russia have blocked, and the U.S. won’t push for. China wants a peace treaty, which would amount to de facto recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear status and crimes against humanity. The usual rogues’ gallery of Pyongyang’s allies criticizes the critics. Other well-meaning observers, including Michael Kirby himself, call for more of the “dialogue” and exchanges that have never gotten us anywhere, and never will, unless they’re backed by tougher policies that persuade Pyongyang that it must change or perish.

Of the incoherence of South Korea’s policy, little more needs to be said, although one can at least hope that the U.N. office will begin to change minds and awaken some level of consciousness — the prerequisite to a more coherent policy. That may be the best we can hope for from the U.N. for the foreseeable future, but if it’s enough to shift public opinion, and enable a coalition of member states to form a consensus for more effective action, it might, in a few years’ time, be just enough.

~   ~   ~

* Quote is from Gale’s report, paraphrasing Poulsen’s words.

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Agreed Framework III Watch: Syd Seiler steps down

Yonhap is reporting that Syd Seiler, the State Department’s Special Envoy to the long-defunct six-party denuclearization talks, has stepped down and returned to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The move was unexpected enough that an e-mail from a Yonhap reporter to Seiler bounced back, with an out-of-office message saying that Seiler was “moving on to [his] next assignment.”

A diplomatic insider in Washington said, “The departure of one of the most trustworthy experts on North Korea seems to suggest that the Obama administration does not place much weight on improving relations with North Korea.”

Pundits had predicted that North Korea would be next on the agenda after Washington concluded a denuclearization agreement with Iran.

But insiders believe Seiler’s position may be left vacant after he leaves. [Chosun Ilbo]

How Seiler’s departure affects the prospects for Agreed Framework III could be interpreted in different ways. My view is that Seiler brought a great deal of Korea knowledge, experience, and authority to the White House and the State Department, and would not have left if he believed that he would have an important role in Korea policy during the administration’s final year. His recent public comments also revealed his pessimism about North Korea’s interest in a deal. Seiler was rumored to be one of the tougher minds in this administration. As a moderate, Seiler might have been a more effective salesman for a deal than some of his State Department peers.

If the administration were not preoccupied with Iran, and if it had more time and political support, the departure of an influential moderate like Seiler could have broken the gridlock in favor of the soft-liners. It’s hard to see a deal happening at this stage, however.

One could also say that Seiler’s departure represents little more than the turning of the political seasons. At the end of an administration, political appointees and those in senior policy-making roles are expected to resign, and those who have not already found work risk unemployment when the next administration begins. As an administration enters its seventh year (or its third, if it’s polling especially badly) political appointees begin to seek employment that will carry them beyond the end of the administration. If Seiler managed to keep one foot in the career civil service, where he would be protected from the effects of a transfer of power, it only makes sense that he would return there now.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.

 

 

Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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Obama Administration plans N. Korea human rights push at U.N., but is it too late?

Had you asked me two months ago how a deal between the Obama Administration and Iran would affect North Korea policy, I’d have answered that it would preoccupy Congress through September, and that after that, things would pick right up where they left off.

How wrong I was. The Iran deal continues to dim the odds of another Agreed Framework with North Korea by drawing so many unflattering comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework as to destroy its legacy. Republicans hold up the 1994 deal as a paragon of diplomatic malpractice and say the Iran deal is 1994 all over again. John Kerry, cognizant that the results of the Agreed Framework speak for themselves, is trying to uncouple this analogy by conceding its failure, and insisting that the State Department has learned its lesson. (Support for the Iran deal is dropping anyway.) One can only hope Democrats will remember to throw George W. Bush’s equally disastrous Agreed Framework of 2007 in the face of a future Republican president who tries to repeat it. This history doesn’t give us much confidence in State’s capacity to learn from its errors, but it would take some chutzpah for Kerry to grasp for Agreed Framework 3 anytime soon.

A second unexpected consequence of the Iran deal is the provocation of an unforced (and potentially decisive) error by the Pyongyang regime — a series of public declarations that it doesn’t want a denuclearization deal. The North Koreans may be accomplished and compulsive liars, but they aren’t always sophisticated ones. Smarter tyrants would have milked this administration for more aid and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze deal, and cheated their way to Inauguration Day. Kim Jong-Un probably doesn’t feel the need to do that, as The Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale explains, because he isn’t feeling much pressure to. My special commendation to Mr. Gale for getting this part right:

Some observers say that the lack of leverage is because sanctions on North Korea are far weaker than those imposed on Iran. Chun Young-woo, a former South Korean negotiator at the six-nation talks process that for several years tried to coax North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions, says there’s plenty of room to tighten the screws, such as further “secondary sanctions” on companies that do business with the country.

“If we are going to try diplomacy again it’s necessary to change North Korea’s strategic calculus with biting sanctions,” he says.

U.S. officials say that they are working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world. North Korea sanctions enforcement bills have also been submitted to the U.S. House and Senate. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Let’s return to that topic later in this post. First, however, let’s turn to Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who has published an important story for purposes of the next 18 months. Fifield reports that six years and two nuclear tests after President Obama’s inauguration, the administration has finally had an epiphany — that Kim Jong-Un isn’t interested in negotiating his nuclear disarmament after all. (South Korea may have reached the same epiphany.) This epiphany has caused the administration to consider a new strategy.

The Obama administration is instead focusing on human rights to further isolate North Korea, encouraged by the outbursts this approach has elicited from Kim’s stubbornly recalcitrant regime — apparently because the accusations cast aspersions at the leader and his legitimacy. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Fifield then quotes Andrei Lankov, who characterizes human rights advocacy as “the next political infatuation.” It’s the sort of statement that causes me to wonder, as do more than a few of my friends, what has come over Andrei lately. It’s a statement that offends those of us whose infatuations are anything but transitory, and who’ve done years of hard work to keep this issue in the public’s eye.

This [pressure] is likely to increase as a U.N. committee reports back in October on a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations and seeking to refer its leaders to the International Criminal Court. It comes after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry released a landmark report last year, detailing abuses including torture and imprisonment in labor camps for political crimes, forced abortions and infanticide.

The administration intends to push for a Security Council resolution to “keep the issue alive” and “continue the drumbeat of criticism” despite its expectation that China will veto it.

“I think this focus on human rights is beginning to get their attention,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the department. “We’ve been able to push on [the Commission of Inquiry report], and we are continuing to keep these efforts going.”

Unfortunately, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles our diplomats will face this year. The current membership of the Security Council includes Angola, a customer of North Korea’s banned arms exports; Malaysia, which has commercial ties to North Korea and uses its slave labor; Nigeria, which recently signed an economic cooperation agreement with the North; and Venezuela (enough said). Worse, most of these problem states will be members of the Security Council through 2016. Beyond this, there is the awkwardness of pushing for an ICC referral when the U.S. hasn’t signed the Rome Statute itself. These aren’t reasons not to continue to press North Korea at the U.N., but they are substantial enough obstacles to give us pause about the strategy. Had we pressed for a Security Council vote last year, when the membership of the Security Council was more favorable, we would have at least isolated and shamed China and Russia. Today, it’s hardly assured that we’d win an absolute majority of the votes.

On the other hand, Pyongyang does seem genuinely worried about how the Commission of Inquiry’s findings affect its legitimacy.

“That’s what caused them some real concern. For the North Koreans, legitimacy is a big deal. It’s a question about the leader and his dignity,” Kirby said.

Fifield’s report points out that Pyongyang “has been engaging energetically” in the face of criticism of its human rights record, which is a gentle way of putting it. After one meeting, a North Korean diplomat was overheard calling a diplomat from Botswana (which cut its ties to Pyongyang over the COI report) a “black bastard.” At the Council on Foreign Relations, Pyongyang’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il-Hun engaged in a bizarre dialogue with the unctuous Don Gregg, in which Jang denied the COI’s findings and boasted that the regime’s construction of water parks and ski resorts proves how much Kim Jong-Un has done for human rights. And there was this episode:

At a human rights panel in April hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, North Korean diplomats mounted a noisy demonstration that led to their microphones being cut off. They were escorted from the hall by security officers.

As Fifield’s report notes, correctly, Pyongyang used to simply ignore criticism of its abuses. Now, it can’t. Hardly a day passes in which the Korean Central News Agency doesn’t publish a denunciation of the U.S. or South Korean “human rights racket.” It may or may not be true that Pyongyang has ordered the assassinations of the North Korean refugees who denounced the regime’s abuses, but Pyongyang is clearly shaken. This causes Bill Newcomb — formerly with the CIA, State, Treasury, and the U.N. Panel of Experts — to recall the last time the U.S. had a strategy that seized Pyongyang’s undivided attention:

Pyongyang’s reactions to the human rights push have been similar to its visceral reaction to American financial sanctions in 2005, said William Newcomb, a former Treasury official who served on a special U.N. panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.

By sanctioning Banco Delta Asia, a small bank based in Macau that handled North Korean money, the United States effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the international financial system. That brought Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table.

“I perceive their response as being similar to how they reacted once they realized what had been done to them via BDA — and that took a while to sink in,” Newcomb said. “Even then, they really didn’t understand how BDA could be leveraged to have lasting negative consequences on their access to the international finance system.

Those who oppose sanctions for policy reasons often deny that financial pressure worked against Pyongyang. Professor John Park, for example, argues that sanctions have only made Pyongyang more resilient, which is like advocating the use of aromatherapy to treat TB because some strains of TB have become drug-resistant. Of course, some strains of TB have become drug-resistant — either because doctors administer low doses of antibiotics, or because patients don’t finish the doses doctors give them, which allows mycobacterium tuberculosis the opportunity to survive, adapt, and replicate in resistant forms. In the same manner, our current weak sanctions against Pyongyang have allowed it to adapt and resist.

It is time for stronger medicine. History has shown us that when sanctions are concerted and strong, North Korea’s isolation becomes its greatest vulnerability. The regime (unlike its downtrodden subjects) remains dependent on hard currency and imported luxuries. According to those who were inside the Bush Administration at the time, and those who covered the BDA story, the pressure was extremely effective. Newcomb sees comparisons between Pyongyang’s stunned reaction to the actions against BDA and denunciation of its crimes against humanity.

Now, imagine the effect on Pyongyang if financial sanctions were our mechanism for sanctioning its crimes against humanity. There is ample precedent for this. The Treasury Department has blocked the assets of Sudanese officials for human rights violations in Darfur. It has blocked the assets of senior Iranian officials for “perpetrating human rights abuses” and Iranian companies for “activities that limit the freedom of expression or assembly.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Belarus for “undermining democratic processes or institutions.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Zimbabwe (search “mugabe”) and their third-country enablers and cronies for “undermining Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions or facilitating public corruption.” Following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, it blocked the assets of more than a dozen men simply because they are “officials of the Russian government.” Until recently, it had sanctioned members of Burma’s ruling junta for human rights violations and for “military trade with North Korea,” meaning that the administration had sanctioned senior Burmese officials for (among other reasons) buying arms from North Korea, but no senior North Korean officials for selling them to Burma.

To this day, the U.S. government has not made a serious or sustained effort to block the billions in misspent assets of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, or any senior North Korean official — not one. The legal authority to do this, Executive Order 13687, is already in place. It would allow President Obama to sanction every member of the National Defense Committee and the Organization and Guidance Department at the stroke of a pen.

There is no question that sanctions are most effective when we invest diplomatic resources in getting other countries to enforce them. If the U.N. is temporarily hostile and congenitally paralyzed, there is fresh evidence that Europe may be willing to work with us to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang. Viewed in this light, might our limited diplomatic resources be better spent on a campaign of progressive diplomacy that begins with our friends in Europe and Japan, then South Korea, and other wavering states? The combined economic power of these states alone might be sufficient to pressure North Korea to either change or collapse. They could also combine their economic power to force China and Russia, whose economies are both reeling today, to enforce the sanctions they’ve already voted for in the Security Council.

Whatever the strategy, it is important to keep pressing the issue at every U.N. forum where we can continue to publicize Pyongyang’s crimes. It is important that we do this, not because it makes a good bargaining chip for some other purpose, but because it is important to achieve improvements in human rights in North Korea. After 20 years and countless deaths, vague strategies of “engagement” and “dialogue” toward that end will no longer do.

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Does the Iran deal make a North Korea deal more likely? Here are six reasons why it doesn’t.

The Korean press today is filled with analysis of how the Iran deal could affect North Korea policy. China, which has long sought what would amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, thinks the Iran deal is a swell model for a deal with North Korea, which almost certainly means that China sees the Iran deal as a capitulation. State itself is saying it’s ready for “authentic, credible” negotiations with Pyongyang, although State’s operational definitions of “authentic” and “credible” leave much to the imagination. The Chosun Ilbo thinks the deal increases pressure on North Korea to make a deal. Some of the Daily NK’s experts see the Iran deal as a potential model, while others see it as a potential incentive to press on with its nuclear programs. Yonhap publishes a balanced and diverse selection of views from safe pro-engagement establishment scholars, who conclude that the Iran deal won’t have much effect at all.

My view is actually closer to the last of these views, and here’s why.

1. The President is running out of time and influence. Even in the diplomatic arena, presidents’ power and time are limited as their terms end. The Cuba opening cost President Obama much support within both parties, particularly among the powerful Cuban-American delegation and its allies. The Iran deal now pits the President against Israel’s many powerful friends on the Hill. At a time when the Republicans have strong majorities in both houses of Congress, and when the President is already leading his party into a presidential election while saddling it with an image of weakness and unilateral conciliation, a deal with an unrepentant and aggressive North Korea, just months after Kim Jong-Un’s cyberattacks and terrorist threats against The Interview, strains political plausibility.

2. The Iran deal will exhaust most of that time and influence. One immediate effect of the Iran deal will be that Congress will now be absorbed with Iran for the next three months, both before and after the August recess. For two months after that, it will be absorbed with whatever it didn’t deal with when it was dealing with Iran. After that, it may have a chance to turn to North Korea, if North Korea is still a high enough priority. In the short term, then, the Iran deal is probably a temporary setback for any North Korea legislation, but in the long term, it dims the prospects for a deal with North Korea. The Iran debate will consume the administration’s energy and credibility in Congress, and will restrain the President from fighting Congress on North Korea while conserving his energy to hold an Iran deal together. Even congressional supporters of the Iran deal will want to portray themselves as tough-minded. North Korea is an excellent vehicle for that, and the number of Democratic co-sponsors for H.R. 1771 is the best empirical measure of this incentive. That tendency will help help cement a centrist, bi-partisan majority around a tougher policy going into the next administration.

3. North Korea wants money, but Congress won’t pay. Congress has less power to obstruct diplomatic agreements than domestic policy initiatives, which invariably require Congress to pass legislation and appropriate funds. Yes, the Senate must ratify a treaty, but one-off deals with dictators are almost never written as treaties. Congress can refuse to appropriate funds for a deal, and has repeatedly passed amendments restricting the delivery of funds to North Korea, but that doesn’t stop State from asking allies to pay instead. Thus, Congress can seldom block a deal outright without a Senate supermajority. In the case of Iran, there is an important difference — Congress has already passed a series of sanctions statutes that the President can’t lift unilaterally without some kind of built-in authority for that (as with sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act).

4. The Optics of the Iran-North Korea Analogy. Opponents of the Iran deal frequently cite the 1994 Agreed Framework with Pyongyang as an example of a bad agreement that doesn’t prevent proliferation, but facilitates it. The administration denies the comparison. (If Republicans were completely honest here, they’d admit that George W. Bush’s 2007 deal was worse than either the Iran deal or the 1994 deal, in that it lifted sanctions before North Korea even began to perform.) The last thing the President needs now is another Agreed Framework with North Korea to validate that analogy and remind us that the same person — Wendy Sherman — was a key player in negotiating both deals.

5. North Korea isn’t buying what we’re selling. All of the above assumes North Korea would take a disarmament deal, or even a freeze deal. Based on what North Korea has been saying recently, however, that probably assumes too much:

Rodong Sinmun Slams U.S. Mandarins’ Reckless Remarks on DPRK’s Nukes

Pyongyang, May 20 (KCNA) — The U.S. ambassador to south Korea was recently reported to have said as regards the denuclearization that if north Korea takes landmark measures, it can improve its relations with the U.S. and head for “peace and prosperity”. [….]

     The U.S. is foolishly seeking to denuclearize and stifle the DPRK. However, the U.S. would be well advised to clearly know that the DPRK is neither Iraq nor Libya.

     The DPRK would like to declare once again that its nuclear force serves as the nation’s treasure which can never be abandoned nor be bartered for anything as long as there are imperialists on the globe and nuclear threat to the DPRK persists.

     Peace and prosperity depends on bolstering up the nuclear force. Neither pressure nor blackmail nor appeasement can ever stop the DPRK from dynamically advancing, pursuant to the line of simultaneously developing the two fronts. -0-

DPRK Will Continue Developing Powerful Deterrence for Self-Defence: Minju Joson (2015.05.17)

Pyongyang, May 17 (KCNA) — The south Korean puppet groups is pulling up the DPRK over its recent underwater test-fire of ballistic missile from a strategic submarine, terming it a “violation of UNSC resolution” and “serious challenge”. [….]

    Explicitly speaking, the DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence serves as the almighty treasured sword greatly contributing to peace and security not only on the Korean peninsula but in Northeast Asia.

    A particular mention should be made of the fact that it is irrefutable that if the ballistic missiles from strategic submarines are to go on a serial production and be deployed in a near future, peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia will be consolidated so much. [….]

6. A deal with North Korea isn’t a legacy-maker. It’s a well-established pattern that lame-duck Presidents grasp for “accomplishments” abroad as their power wanes at home. There’s no better president to negotiate with than one who knows he’ll be safely ensconced in his presidential library by the time the deal falls apart. North Korea’s track record tells us it will cheat, and when it does, the next president will come under strong pressure to walk away. I suspect that the administration has been involved in secret talks with North Korea periodically, but there’s usually at least some warning before a deal is announced. I first got wind of Chris Hill closing a deal with the North Koreans in Berlin in late 2006, and the deal was announced the following February. But then, how often do you hear George W. Bush boast about Agreed Framework 2? And even assuming this were possible, how long would it last under a future president? Probably not much longer than the Leap Day Deal itself. That’s a pretty dubious foundation for a legacy.

~   ~   ~

Update: So on the one hand, Wendy Sherman, who wrote the North Korea deal that Iran learned from, now wants North Korea to learn from the Iran deal. As Kevin Kim says:

On the other hand, Ambassador Lippert confirms that the North Koreans don’t sound interested in any deal we’d offer:

“But I think the key difference between those three cases and North Korea is the lack of interest in coming to the table and talking seriously about denuclearization and rolling back its missile programs,” the U.S. envoy said in a speech given to a meeting of Seoul National University alumni in Seoul.

The communist country has so far only rejected the U.S.’ signal for dialogue, refusing to return to the six-party denuclearization talks or inter-Korean talks, canceling leader Kim Jong-un’s trip to Moscow and aggravating its relations with China, he said.

“We were met with more silence and unwillingness to come back to the table (from North Korea),” Lippert noted.

The U.S. policy is built on principled diplomacy, “not appeasement,” and the U.S. will continue to effectuate the harder-line approach until the North has seriousness of purpose, he said. [….]

“Our principal hope is that North Koreans will agree to come back to the table … we are less concerned about the platform or less concerned about the process,” according to Lippert. “We are interested in coming back to the table and exercising the principled diplomacy to roll back and get back to serious, incredible and authentic negotiations toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” [Yonhap]

Maybe one reason why Iran and North Korea are behaving differently today is that our Iran sanctions were tough and effective, while our North Korea sanctions are a joke.

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Can the UNHCR address North Korea’s human rights crisis, despite Ban Ki-Moon?

At long last, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights has opened its new field office in Seoul. Its mandates will be as follows:

  • Strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Enhance engagement and capacity-building with the Governments of all States concerned, civil society and other stakeholders
  • Maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives

The U.N. picks up this work after a lost year, in which China and Russia prevented the Security Council from acting on the February 2014 report of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State.’” Those crimes include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” All of these crimes went unanswered because no one made China and Russia pay a political price for shielding their perpetuation, least of all the nominal of leader of the U.N. itself.

If the UNHCR takes its mandates seriously, it still could do much to attach political, diplomatic, and eventually, financial costs to Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity. UNHCR investigations could help to separate established fact from rumor and disinformation, test the credibility of claims and counterclaims, report on and publicize the facts it establishes, humanize the victims, and keep the rights of the North Korean people in the public eye and on the diplomatic agenda. Ultimately, its findings could build support for an international movement, along the lines of the movements that isolated South Africa and Sudan.

Judging by its reaction, Pyongyang also recognizes this potential. It has called the opening of the field office an “unpardonable hideous politically-motivated provocation and an open declaration of a war,” threatening “revenge” and “harsh punishment,” and written that the field office “will be the first target of its merciless punishment and strike immediately the office is set up in south Korea.”

Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry also threatened Seoul for hosting the field office, calling it a “hideous politically motivated provocation challenging [the North’s] the dignity and social system.” Its counterpart to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, has threatened to “mercilessly punish” South Korea, and threatened “‘catastrophic’ consequences” in relations between the Koreas. But then, Pyongyang says that the human rights issue in the North is “non-existent,” which unwittingly validates the need for the office.

High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein hasn’t escaped Pyongyang’s charm offensive, either. Uriminzokkiri recently called him “a mediocre peddler of cheap goods.”

Hussein responded to at least some of this, calling the “threats from a member state” of the U.N. “deeply regrettable and unbecoming of that member state.” (What’s really unbecoming of the U.N. is that North Korea is still a member at all.) Threats notwithstanding, Hussein promised that “the U.N. will continue to work to highlight the dire human rights situation in North Korea and pressure the Kim Jong Un regime to change.” He added, “The fact that this U.N. human rights office in Seoul is now a reality and will start fully operating in a month or so is a sign that the commission’s work is starting to bear fruit.”

(Similarly, Pyongyang has also threatened the United States last month with “tougher countermeasures” over a new State Department report criticizing its human rights conditions as “among the worst in the world.” The North Korean threat came just a week after another State Department report concluded that North Korea is not known to have supported an act of terrorism since 1987, which is a lie. Also last week, South Korean police stated that a pro-North Korean attacker who slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert—for which North Korea almost immediately expressed its approval—was inspired by North Korean propaganda. Discuss among yourselves.)

~   ~   ~

U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was a no-show for the office’s opening, although just three weeks earlier, he tried to visit Kaesong, North Korea, only to be turned away by the North Koreans. But despite Ban’s absence, the field office has had a modestly good beginning. The office’s publicity, and its bilingual posts and tweets, are finding their way into the newspapers. As such, they will force a younger generation of South Koreans to pay some attention to issues their elders spent the last two decades ignoring.

“Less than 50 miles from here lies another world marked by the utmost deprivation,” Hussein said in a statement to mark the opening, referring to the North.

“The Seoul office will monitor and document human rights issues in (North Korea), building on the landmark work of the commission of inquiry and special rapporteur. We firmly believe this will help the basis for future accountability,” he said.

Many North Koreans have escaped to find a new life in the South, but millions remain “trapped in the grip of a totalitarian system which not only denies their freedom but increasingly their basic survival needs”, he added.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson described the new UN office as a “critical step forward” in the campaign to end North Korea’s “systematic and pervasive human rights abuses”. [AFP]

There is much work for the UNHCR to do. A new report from the Korean Institute for National Unification alleges that North Korea carried out 1,382 known public executions since 2000, the year Kim Jong Il met Kim Dae Jung, although the “actual number of public executions is presumed to be higher.” This figure certainly excludes many more hidden executions, deaths in labor camps, and culpably preventable deaths due to starvation and disease.

Shortly after the field office opened, some of the 27,000 North Korean refugees living in the South presented it with a list of 180 of their countrymen whom they believed were held at Camp 15, one large camp within North Korea’s gulag, as of 2000. Some estimates hold that 20% of the prisoners die from starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution each year. And soon, a defector’s evidence may confirm whether there is a modern-day Mengele at work inside North Korea.

~   ~   ~

It’s also worth noting that 20 “activists” of another kind protested against the opening of the office, “saying it would be used to ‘bring down’ the North Korean government”—as if that would be a bad thing—and “aggravate strained inter-Korean relations.”

To be sure, there is a hard core of North Korean sympathizers in South Korea, but many other South Koreans will be ambivalent about the UNHCR’s work, and will eventually be tempted to throttle it. If North Korea’s most successful political strategy has been its appeal to ethnic nationalism, its most successful diplomatic strategy has been to lure governments into commercial ventures that never quite transform the North, and talks that never quite disarm it, but which keep them too conflicted to choose between their principles and their own short-term interests. Consequently, many South Koreans in the squishy center share Pyongyang’s view that any inter-Korean contact is a privilege—for the South, that is.

Pyongyang is already linking the establishment of the field office to inter-Korean contacts, such as a sporting event in Gwangju, to pressure Seoul. Pyongyang’s strategy appears to be to force the South Korean government to choose between abolishing (or more plausibly, muzzling) the field office, or going without the pleasure of its company.

North Korea reiterated its strong opposition against the opening of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul via its state-controlled media, warning that the move has made the possibility of improved bilateral ties “hardly imaginable.”

[….]

The Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the North’s ruling Communist Party of Korea, slammed the South for establishing the office.

“The puppet forces’ hosting of such ‘office’ for confrontation in Seoul which no country in the world dared do is as a foolish an act as planting a time bomb in their house,” the paper was quoted as saying in the English dispatch of the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“Dialogue and improved relations between the north and the south can hardly be imaginable,” it said, adding, “It is the steadfast will and determination of the DPRK to mercilessly punish those who are keen to hurt its dignity and social system.” [Yonhap]

That strategy is likely to have some success during Park Geun-Hye’s administration, which has always seemed ambivalent about pressing the human rights issue. It would almost certainly be even more successful under a left-leaning South Korean government, and the law of pendulums suggests we’ll soon see one of those.

It is particularly likely to succeed if the next President of South Korea is the current U.N. General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon. It is one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that Ban intends to run in South Korea’s 2017 presidential election. As Foreign Minister under Roh Moo Hyun, Ban was the executor of Roh’s appeasement policies. For a more detailed criticism of Ban’s record in office in South Korea, I’ll refer you to this 2006 post.

As Foreign Minister, Ban was architect and executor of a no-questions-asked appeasement policy toward North Korea. During those years, North Korea’s human rights record was the worst on earth, and probably the worst since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Kim Jong Il’s absolutist regime, supported by $7 billion in South Korean aid since 1994, stands accused of racial infanticide, the use of gas chambers for horrific chemical weapons on entire families, and a politically selective famine that “cleansed” North Korea of millions while the regime went on an arms-buying spree. North Korea’s forced labor camps are estimated to hold as many as 250,000 people,* including thousands of children.

Ban and his government had little to say and nothing to ask as these atrocities went on, and go on to this very day. When resolutions condemning these crimes came before the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and later, the General assembly, South Korea’s ambassadors were instructed to either refuse to vote or abstain. Publicly, Ban’s government failed to raise more than one mild, belated, token call to improve human rights in the North, and then, only in the most vague and general sense and in response to withering criticism from abroad.

As General Secretary, Ban validated my worst suspicions by devoting token attention, at best, to the North Korean human rights issue. He continues to prioritize appeasement over human rights.

Consider, for example, Ban’s recent comments about the Kaesong Industrial Park, despite long-standing criticism from human rights groups that it violates the labor rights of the workers, and despite the Treasury Department’s long-standing concerns about how North Korea spends the money it earns from Kaesong. Ban, however, sees no down-side to Kaesong, nor any need to bound it with any principled conditions:

“All parties would benefit from renewed engagement and commitment to genuine dialogue. It is essential for building trust and promoting inter-Korean relations,” Ban said at an education forum in the South Korean city of Incheon, adding he aimed to make the visit on Thursday.

“The Kaesong project is a win-win model for both Koreas,” he said.

“I hope my visit will provide a positive impetus to further develop it and expand to other areas,” he said. [Reuters]

But as I argued here, engagement programs like Kaesong haven’t raised North Korea’s standards; they’ve lowered South Korea’s standards, and diluted the pressure needed to force North Korea to disarm–pressure that is the logical basis of five U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Perhaps I fret too much over the electoral hopes of Narcolepsy Patient Zero. But Ban–and the many other Koreans who share his world view–can still do plenty of damage to the UNHCR’s work. By extension, they can also damage the argument for a world where institutions preempt violence by addressing the humanitarian crises that inevitably lead to war. I would argue that Ban’s failure to speak up for his countrymen in North Korea is an exemplar of his tenure at the U.N. Among the following international crises that occurred during Ban’s tenure, how many have the U.N. or Ban himself addressed effectively: (a) Syria, (b) Ukraine, (c) Ebola, (d) climate change, (e) the South China Sea, or (f) the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS?** Not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re fundamentally opposed to a strong, activist United Nations. But what a shame if you still think the U.N. might have played a useful role in any of these crises.

~   ~   ~

* More current estimates range between 80,000 and 120,000.

** Or, I might have added, Iran’s Green Revolution, Boko Haram, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen.

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U.S., allies talk sanctions and human rights (emphasis on talk)

We’d hardly had time to digest all those rumors of “exploratory talks” with North Korea just two weeks ago, before John Kerry was in Seoul, sounding like his speechwriters had slipped him some cut-and-pasted OFK text. There, Kerry denounced Pyongyang’s “recent provocations,” said it wasn’t “even close to” ready for serious about talks, and accused it of “flagrant disregard for international law while denying its people fundamental freedom and rights.”

“The world is hearing increasingly more and more stories of grotesque, grisly, horrendous public displays of executions on a whim and a fancy by the leader against people who were close to him and sometimes for the most flimsy of excuses,” he said, referring to a report from South Korea’s spy agency that the North Korean defense minister was publicly executed with an antiaircraft gun after he fell asleep during a meeting led by Kim.

Kerry vowed to speak out against “North Korea’s atrocities against its own people” and warned that Kim’s mercurial behavior is likely to lead other nations to push for charges against him and North Korea at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. [Washington Post, Carol Morello]

This is all good, although if there’s one execution in North Korea that I care less about than any of the rest of them, it’s Hyon Yong-Chol’s. Overall, my reaction to Kerry’s words is the same as Bruce Klingner’s — I’ll believe them when I see him act on them. (Bruce is now on Twitter, by the way, and you really should be following him.)

Still, the Obama Administration has shown encouraging, if belated, signs of having discovered the advantages of progressive diplomacy. This week, Sung Kim was in Seoul meeting with his South Korean and Japanese (!) counterparts, and 70 year-old distractions have cleared away, if ever so briefly, because of a shared panic over the apparent pace of North Korea’s progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal.

For this instant, anyway, they are all saying sensible things, and in splendid harmony. Amb. Kim said the three nations “agreed on the importance of enhancing pressure and sanctions on North Korea even as we keep all diplomatic options on the table and open.” Kim, rumored to be a soft-liner in the administration’s Korea team, said, “In a sense, they (North Korea) have given us no choice but to cooperate on enhancing pressure ….” South Korean negotiator Hwang Joon-Kook offered also agreed on the need for “stronger pressure” on Pyongyang, in tandem with “active efforts for dialogue.”

And Sung Kim even said this:

“We also agreed on the importance of working with the international community to address the grave human rights situation in North Korea,” Mr. Kim told reporters in Seoul as he emerged from a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Hwang Joon-kook and Junichi Ihara. [….]

Officials here said that other options under discussion included tightening inspections of cargo traveling in and out of North Korea and squeezing the source of hard currency North Korea earns through the tens of thousands of workers it sends to factories, building sites, logging camps and other work sites in China, Russia and countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The North Korean workers are estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year but toil in poor, sometimes slavelike, working conditions and have most of their wages confiscated by their government, according to former workers and rights groups.[N.Y. Times]

If only someone had thought of that before.

Next, Kim and Hwang will fly to Beijing to pressure the ChiComs into turning the screws on the North Koreans. Wanna know how to get their attention? I’ll give you a hint, from my visitors’ log today:
Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 2.04.39 PM

The three governments are talking about ways to “to deter North Korea’s provocations and increase the effectiveness of sanctions,” which is good, because as the U.N. Panel of Experts and GAO have both told us — and as I told you even before they did — the sanctions we already have aren’t being enforced. The three diplomats didn’t announce any new sanctions. The effort instead seems to be about doing a better job of enforcing the sanctions that already exist.

It’s interesting that North Korea’s recent claim to have tested a submarine-launched missile (which might have been fake) seems to have done more to change policy than a direct North Korean terrorist threat against free expression in the United States (which was almost certainly real).

So what exactly do all of these oscillating signals mean? My guess is, they probably all mean about the same thing: a lot of talk, and not much else. But let no one say the Obama Administration dares not confront grave threats as they gather far from our shores. Your government has deployed a brigade of its finest cops and lawyers, armed with the power of the mighty dollar, to fight that existential threat to our liberties, our security, and the sanctity of humanity itself known as … FIFA, which sounds like the name of small, yappy dog, and is probably about as great a threat to our national interests.

Yes, that’s right: the cops, lawyers, and authorities we should be using to bring Kim Jong Un to heel are being kept busy cleaning up a game that Americans don’t even watch.

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N. Korea calls S. Korea’s president a skirt-lifting, crotch-licking whore, just as Gloria Steinem arrives in Pyongyang

Gloria Steinem must have had her first reservations about “Women Cross DMZ” when the march’s organizer was outed as a North Korean apologist, and reporters began to ask her uncomfortable questions about North Korea’s war on women. Since then, Steinem has had to duck questions about the regime’s rape and murder of female prisoners, the endemic and unpunished rapes of North Korean women by its soldiers, and the infanticides and forced abortions this regime inflicts on North Korean refugee women and their babies. Steinem dismissed calls to speak up for North Korea’s millions of vulnerable women as “a bananas question.”

Of course, things could always get worse, and so they did. After this inauspicious start, the “peace” march has been overshadowed by North Korean missile tests and a gruesome purge. Now, a lengthy sexist screed about South Korean President Park Geun Hye, published by North Korea’s official “news” service, has given Steinem a whole new set of questions to duck.

What’s interesting about this particular screed is its selective translation. I’ll give you the English version first. It’s probably one-third as long as the original, and it’s pretty standard fare for North Korea’s inimitable Korean Central News Agency:

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