Category Archives: Diplomacy

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.

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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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GAO: State Dep’t must step up diplomacy to enforce N. Korea sanctions

The General Accountability Office has released a new report on the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea. The report, requested by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, will probably influence the contours of the Senate’s version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. You can read the full report here and a summary here, and listen to a podcast here.

The report correctly points to a key flaw in the enforcement of the sanctions that exist now — a lack of financial intelligence. The reasons for this, however, are multi-layered. The report explains some of those underlying reasons, but not all of them.

Agency officials cited obtaining sufficient information about North Korean persons to be their greatest challenge in making sanctions determinations. Most North Korea–specific sanctions authorities require a determination that a person engaged in a specific activity…

. However, officials said that gathering information on the activities of North Korean persons and personal identifying information can be difficult because of the nature of North Korean society, whose citizens are tightly controlled by the government. Without sufficient information, the United States could mistakenly designate and therefore block the assets of the wrong person, particularly one with a common surname. [GAO 15-485, p.

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On progressive diplomacy: Friends first, frenemies second, enemies last

~   Why a Freeze Deal is a Lose-Lose Proposition   ~

Two weeks ago, almost no one thought we’d see Agreed Framework 3.0 before January 2017. The Obama Administration is politically weakened and out of time, its foreign policy is even less popular than its domestic policy, and it will need all of its energy to finalize an Iran deal acceptable to this Congress. Top administration officials were publicly skeptical about comparisons between North Korea and Iran, and saying that North Korea wasn’t serious about denuclearization.

Last week, however, clear signs emerged that the administration is grasping for a deal with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that the U.S. and South Korea would engage in “exploratory” talks with North Korea without preconditions. North and South Korean envoys may have already begun those talks in Moscow. The timing favors Pyongyang, which never pays retail prices. It prefers to wait until U.S. and South Korean leaders are in the October of their tenures, when their approval ratings are low, and when the customary going-out-of business sales begin.

These talks could represent a policy shift by the Obama Administration, which had said until now that it wasn’t interested in talking to Pyongyang unless Pyongyang agreed that we’d be talking about its nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang isn’t willing to discuss that, but the administration is under pressure from the likes of Joel Wit, Robert Gallucci, and Bob Carlin to make a deal — any deal would be good enough — to freeze North Korea’s nuclear programs.

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Lesson One: Pyongyang always reneges. Lesson Two: Repeat Lesson One.

If it’s now cliché to write that North Korea might have modeled its domestic policies on Orwell’s 1984, I would like to be the first to coin the cliché that it might have modeled its foreign policy on P.T. Barnum.* North Korea has an acute sense of its interlocutors’ weakness and desperation, and an extraordinary talent for exploiting these moments of desperation to break coalitions, weaken sanctions, and bring in aid by offering its opponents “openings,” concessions, and disarmament deals. None of these deals has resulted in more than brief delays in the progress of its weapons programs, and none has altered its brutal domestic policies at all. Marcus Noland also wrote about this divide-and-rule strategy recently.

Not for the first or last time, the United States re-learned this in 2007, when George W. Bush cut his own disarmament deal with Kim Jong Il in a moment of political desperation. Japan wasn’t a party to that deal, but Pyongyang used it to induce Bush to remove sanctions it had linked to the release of Japanese abductees. Consequently, the deal strained America’s relationship with its most important Asian ally, Japan. Yes, Bush’s deal required the North Koreans to talk to Japan — bilaterally — about settling “unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern.” The State Department wanted Tokyo to read this is as a reference to the abduction issue, but Pyongyang could just as well have read it as a reference to reparations.

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Why is North Korea still in the U.N.?

Oh, those wacky North Korean diplomats. If they aren’t shouting death threats in a U.S. congressional office building or making racial slurs against African diplomats, they’re smuggling dope, counterfeit money, or gold, or generally behaving like complete tools at U.N. hearings. You can accuse them of many things, but you can’t deny that they represent their government perfectly. Here is how they represented their government today:

A U.S.-organized event on North Korea’s human rights briefly turned into chaos at the U.N. on Thursday as North Korean diplomats insisted on reading a statement of protest, amid shouts from defectors, and then stormed out. [….]

Defectors stood up and shouted in Korean as Power and others called for calm and a U.N. security team assembled. An observer who speaks Korean said the shouts included “Shut up!” ”Free North Korea!” ”Down with Kim Jong Un!” and “Even animals know to wait their turn.”

“There is no need for a microphone,” Power said as one North Korean diplomat persisted in reading out a statement that referred to “ungrounded allegations” and “hostile policy” toward his country. A microphone was briefly turned on for the diplomats.

Power continued: “Please shut the mike down because this is not an authorized presentation.

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On Iran & N Korea: A good deal can’t overcome bad judgment

As the Obama Administration works toward an agreed framework with Iran, a curious division is emerging among its defenders. On one hand, the administration and its supporters are understandably rejecting comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. The State Department insists that “[t]he comprehensive deal we are seeking to negotiate with Iran is fundamentally different than what we did in terms of our approach to North Korea,” and will require more intrusive inspections “because of the lessons we learned from the North Korea situation.”

These unfavorable comparisons, however, have bruised the ex-diplomats who still see the 1994 Agreed Framework as their magnum opus:

Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not. Without the 1994 deal, North Korea would have built the bomb sooner, stockpiled weapons more quickly and amassed a much larger arsenal by now. Intelligence estimates in the early 1990s concluded that the North’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. More than 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened. [Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]

Shortly after it signed AF1, the Clinton Administration found out that North Korea was cheating by building a secret uranium enrichment program.

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Seiler: N. Korea isn’t serious about denuclearization

Sydney Seiler, the special envoy for the six-party talks, spoke this week at CSIS, where he affirmed what Ambassador Mark Lippert said last week — that North Korea isn’t ready for serious talks.

“They (the North Koreans) may not have learned any lesson (from the Iran nuclear deal). If they had learned any lesson, then we would have perhaps seen it earlier,” he said during the seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Iranian deal “clearly demonstrates our willingness to engage countries with whom the United States has had long-standing differences,” Seiler said, adding that there should be no doubt the U.S. remains committed to a negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

“It is the DPRK, however, that has not yet decided to embark on this path. It has repeatedly rejected offers for dialogue. It has repeatedly and openly violated commitments … to abandon its nuclear program. It continues to ignore international obligations,” Seiler said. [Yonhap]

One could view this as throwing cold water on the silly notion that President Obama can achieve an eleventh-hour deal with the North Koreans, along the lines of his deal with the Cubans, and his unfinished deal with the Iranians.

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On Chris Hill in Iraq: “It was frightening how a person could so poison a place.”

I had long wondered why, after a difficult confirmation battle for the post, Chris Hill’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq was so brief. A friend (thank you) points me to this lengthy article in Politico, adapted from The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky, that does much to explain the brevity of Hill’s tenure, and much more. In it, Hill comes across like one of the caricatured out-of-touch diplomats from The Ugly American.

For six months, General O had tried hard to support the leadership of Chris Hill, the new American ambassador who had taken up his post in April 2009. But Odierno had begun to despair. It was clear that Hill, though a career diplomat, lacked regional experience and was miscast in the role in Baghdad. In fact, he had not wanted the job, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had persuaded him to take it; she admitted as much to General O, he told me, when he met her in early 2010 in Washington to discuss the dysfunction at the embassy. General O complained that Hill did not engage with Iraqis or with others in the diplomatic community—his only focus appeared to be monitoring the activities of the U.S.

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Why does North Korea still need food aid? (Updated)

The UN aid agencies working in North Korea — the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and WHO (writing collectively as Relief Web) — have published a new report. I draw three main conclusions from it. First, despite some reports of improved food production, the humanitarian situation is still bad. Second, aid agencies still aren’t being forthcoming about the most important reasons for that. Third, various UN entities are working at cross purposes, and don’t share a single coherent vision of how to balance providing for North Koreans in need with responding to the aggressive behavior of their government.

The Relief Web report finds that “[f]rom a population of 24.6 million, approximately 70 per cent (18 million) are food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production.” As a misery index, this is a lower estimate than in the December 2013 WFP and FAO study, which found that 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, a difference that’s probably attributable to slightly different questions and methodologies. (The 2013 study looked at consumption during the lean season, the Relief Web report focuses on dietary diversity.) The new report also finds that “[t]he chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate among under-five children is 27.9 per cent (about 540,000) while acutely malnourished (wasting) affects four per cent of children under-five (about 90,000).”

As always, one should accept such estimates with great caution.

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On N. Korea’s crimes against humanity, Congress can do what Obama won’t and the U.N. can’t.

It’s nearly a sure bet that you hadn’t heard that last month, American diplomats in Geneva co-sponsored yet another resolution (HRC/28/L.18) at the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressing “deep concern about human rights violations in North Korea.” For those who may have lost track, that follows the HRC’s vote to begin an inquiry into human rights in North Korea (March 2013), the presentation of the report (February 2014), an HRC vote endorsing the COI report (April 2014), a General Assembly resolution (November 2014), and eventually, placement of the human rights question on the Security Council’s permanent agenda (December 2014). Placing the issue on the UNSC’s agenda was not subject to a veto for the simple reason that this move, by itself, is likely to amount to approximately nothing as long as China and Russia remain certain to veto any meaningful resolution.

North Korean diplomats reacted to each of these events with lies, denials, whataboutisms, insults, and the occasional racial slur. Safe to say, there is no sign that Pyongyang has any plans to accept political reform.

And yet, the U.S. diplomats have the gall to call the latest HRC resolution introduction “important,” apparently expecting us to forget that the move puts us right back where we were a year ago.

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Kim Jong Un’s censorship knows no limits or borders. To submit to it is to forfeit freedom.

If Kim Jong Un is weighing whether to answer leaflets from South Korea with artillery, it won’t discourage him that many on South Korea’s illiberal left have already begun to excuse him for it. Within this confused, transpatriated constituency, there is much “anxiety” lately about “inter-Korean tensions.” Those tensions have risen since North Korea has begun threatening to shell the North Korean defectors who send leaflets critical of Kim’s misrule across the DMZ. But then, any rational mind can see who is at fault when the object of non-violent criticism answers his critic’s threats with violence. Right?

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[The Park Police should check those blankets for wet spots.]

I don’t suppose it occurred to these people to take their grievances and anxieties to the ones who are threatening war over non-violent expression. That would be the logical reaction if these people were really as concerned about “tension” as they were about acting as Kim Jong Un’s proxy censors. Their undisguised demand is that Seoul should censor — and that Washington should abstain from supporting — free expression, for the very reason that Pyongyang is threatening to shell civilian villages in response to it.

Dismiss this as the view of a lunatic fringe if you will, but not all of this lunacy is on the fringe.

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Three Pinocchios for Glenn Kessler’s “fact-check” on North Korea

If only for prudential reasons, 47 Republican Senators should not have written to Iran’s Supreme Leader. We only have one President at a time, and only the President should negotiate with foreign leaders. Parallel, shadow-government negotiations with foreign adversaries are wrong when Republican Senators do it; they were just as wrong when Jim Wright met with Daniel Ortega, when Nancy Pelosi met with with Bashar Assad over a Republican President’s objections, and when a young John Kerry met with Madam Nguyen Thi Binh, the Viet Cong representative to the Paris Peace talks. A country that cannot speak with one voice cannot speak coherently.

I do not exhibit this fossil record to question the Democrats’ objections, but because both parties need reminding to adhere to this principle, regardless of which party occupies the White House or controls Congress, and no matter how ardently the opposition may disagree with the President. Congress, of course, has the right and duty to legislate against bad deals, and to communicate its objections to the President and the people. Had the same objections come from Majority Leader McConnell or Chairman Corker to Secretary Kerry or President Obama, they would have been appropriate.

Substantively, the Republicans have good reason to worry about the President’s deal with Iran. Its main weakness is Iran’s mendacity. Iran has been caught with undeclared nuclear facilities and repeatedly lied (see page 14) to the IAEA, yet the deal would rely on NPT safeguards agreements that will only work if Iran is forthcoming.

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North Korea evades U.N. sanctions with shell games, spell games, and whack-a-mole

On any given day, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control may publish several pages of new designations for the list of Specially Designated Nationals. Inevitably, most of the designations will be designations of aliases. That’s because one of the oldest sanctions-evasion tricks is renaming an entity, so that when banks type its name into their software, they don’t get a hit that might warn them to decline the transaction, block the account, or file a Suspicious Activity Report.

In the case of North Korea, there’s an additional and related problem. North Korea can also play spell games with the English transliteration of Korean names. The U.N. Panel of Experts has specifically raised that issue as a problem that requires closer attention from national governments.

So when Treasury designates a list of North Korean smuggling ships, as it did last July, it’s not enough to publish their names and IMO numbers and call it done.

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Like any sanctions program, the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea requires constant attention and follow-up.

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It’s a long game of what Marcus Noland calls Whack-a-Mole. And judging by the POE’s latest report, we aren’t winning that game.

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This isn’t a grand new revelation. NK News’s Leo Byrne, one of the very best reporters to cover North Korea for any publication, noticed this last October.

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Yes, North Korea is still using the dollar system to launder its money.

The Financial Action Task Force has re-issued its call for “countermeasures” against the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing emanating from North Korea. The FATF’s call is not significantly different from advisories the FATF has issued since 2011, but it is significant in one way.

More sensible Korea-watchers are accustomed to the pavlovian response of the South Korean press, and of certain American academics, whenever North Korea hints at being willing to talk. We saw this again after Kim Jong Un’s New Year speech, which was (as is traditional) so selectively overanalyzed that Kim Jong Un’s intent could not be identified from dental records. We saw it when the editors of The New York Times seized on a risible North Korean offer and called on President Obama to “test North Korea’s intentions” — it would be equally enlightening to test Dennis Rodman’s urine — as if the last 20 years have tested nothing. By my count, North Korea has conducted three underground tests of its intentions. But I digress.

We saw the same Pavlovian response in some reporters after North Korea agreed to hold talks with the FATF, and after its Central Bank issued a statement committing “to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (As if.) Yonhap even took it seriously when Pyongyang announced that it had established its own anti-money laundering body.

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North Korea’s arms trade flourishes as U.S. diplomacy falters

The latest U.N. Panel of Experts report is a bleak one for the U.N., and for an Obama Administration that seems content to outsource its policy to it. North Korea shows no sign of complying with the resolutions, and every sign of pursuing its WMD programs at full speed. Yongbyon was active for a while last year, and as recently as last September, there were signs of new excavation at North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. North Korea has improved its Seohae missile test site, tested a KN-08 engine, and fired off large numbers of rockets and missiles from its east coast.

By design, the U.N. can’t enforce its own resolutions, and governments’ enforcement of the U.N. sanctions is flagging. This chart from the latest U.N. Panel of Experts report should tell you most of what you need to know:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.23.14 AMIn other words, most member states are less likely to have reported back to the U.N. on their enforcement of North Korea sanctions than they were to have reported on their enforcement of other U.N. sanctions. We’ll turn to why later in this post, but a number of anecdotes reported by the POE should give you a good idea:

– Iran (of course) has been shipping North Korean weapons to Yemen (most likely to Houthi militias).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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