Category Archives: Diplomacy

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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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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. 14]

Executive Order 13,687, signed by President Obama on January 2, 2015, could do much to improve the enforcement of financial sanctions against North Korea, because it is status-based, rather than conduct-based. This would relieve State and Treasury, particularly the overworked staff at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, of the burden of assembling evidence that specific North Korean entities had engaged in categories of conduct prohibited by Executive Orders 13,382 and 13,551, the executive orders under which most North Korean entities are designated today.

“Could” is still the operative word, however. Of the 13 entities designated under Executive Order 13,687, three were already designated, and ten others were individual arms dealers who’ve no doubt returned to Pyongyang and had their places taken by ten other North Korean arms dealers. It’s doubly disappointing to see the administration fail to harness EO 13,687’s potential at a moment of possible political instability in Pyongyang, when our leverage over Kim Jong Un is greatest. The GAO report fails to make recommendations about designations under EO 13,687.

GAO also overlooks another financial intelligence shortcoming — the lack of any broad and detailed requirement to report financial transactions with North Korea to OFAC, except for those incident to imports and exports to or from the United States. And even this doesn’t cover foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies.

Because sanctions are most effective when enforced multilaterally, the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions resolutions should also be bringing in a wealth of shared financial intelligence about how and where North Korea does its prohibited business. They aren’t, and that’s a problem of political will. Other U.N. member states aren’t making the reports they should be making to the U.N. Panel of Experts (as noted in this post, and this one). Many more of them would if the State Department made it a priority to encourage member states to make them, or to help build capacity in those states that can’t (page 29). GAO found State’s answers about this to be lacking in specificity:

State Department officials informed us that the United States has offered technical assistance to some member states for preventing proliferation and implementing sanctions. However, they were unable to determine the extent to which the United States has provided specific assistance aimed at ensuring that member states provide the UN with the implementation reports it needs to assess member state implementation of UN sanctions on North Korea. [GAO 15-485, p. 30]

State has also failed to press China, Russia, the EU, and other states to harmonize their lists of designated “persons,” or to define simple terms like “luxury goods,” as Section 201 of the NKSEA calls for. GAO should have said more about this, but actually spent more time talking about Uganda’s violations of the resolutions than China’s.

This brings us to another important reason for the slowness of sanctions enforcement — the two usual suspects, Russia and China. Because the U.N.’s sanctions committee operates by “consensus,” either country can hold up a designation indefinitely (see diagram on page 22 for an explanation of the procedure). That’s why it took a full year after the Panama weapons seizure for the 1718 Committee to designate Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management. Even when the U.N. does designate a party, such as Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, China and Russia continue to allow that party to operate on their territory. GAO should have mentioned this, too.

GAO’s overall conclusion, however, is correct. State needs to devote more diplomatic resources to getting other member states to implement and enforce UN sanctions. This is the kind of language GAO uses when a government agency isn’t doing enough:

GAO recommends the Secretary of State work with the UN Security Council to ensure that member states receive technical assistance to help prepare and submit reports on their implementation of UN sanctions on North Korea. [GAO 15-485, p. 31]

Failing that, Treasury should impose secondary sanctions on “persons” that flout the resolutions by continuing to buy weapons from North Korea, by failing to block the assets of designated entities, and by failing to carry out “enhanced monitoring” of North Korean transactions. That’s what H.R. 757 will do, and that’s why H.R. 757 is needed. As GAO’s report notes, the panel has no enforcement authority. But because North Korea is still using the dollar system, the U.S. government does:

The panel also identified that in most cases the investigated transactions were made in United States dollars from foreign-based banks and transferred through corresponding bank accounts in the United States. The panel’s 2015 final report indicated that North Korea has successfully bypassed banking organizations’ due diligence processes by initiating transactions through other entities on its behalf. The panel expressed concern in its report regarding the ability of banks in countries with less effective banking regulations or compliance institutions to detect and prevent illicit transfers involving North Korea. [GAO 15-485, p. 27]

There is also the more basic issue of manpower. Treasury either needs more staff at OFAC to collect and act on North Korea-related financial intelligence, or it needs to re-prioritize some of the staff it has working on other sanctions programs.

I also caught some inaccuracies in its report. On Page 7, GAO implies that the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSA) sanctions Pyongyang’s trade in luxury goods. Feel free to read the INKSA yourself, deep within the fine-print notes at the bottom of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. If you can find any reference to luxury goods there, you may redeem the citation of that language for the carbonated grain-based beverage of your choice. In fact, the INKSA is narrowly focused on the proliferation of WMD technology. The U.S. government does have luxury good sanctions in the Commerce Department regulations, but administrations can always rescind or amend regulations — perhaps in exchange for false promises to disarm — after a process of public notice and comment. Statutes can only be repealed by an act of Congress.

Table 3 on Page 19 says that four North Korean entities are sanctioned under Executive Order 13619, which blocked the assets of “persons” threatening the peace, security, and stability of Burma. This didn’t sound familiar to me, so I control-F’ed by my way through the SDN list (which sounds vaguely erotic, but isn’t) and found no references to any North Korean entities sanctioned under the Treasury’s Burma sanctions (SDN Code, “Burma”). In fact, EO 13619 doesn’t even have an SDN index code, because it relaxes (rather than imposes) sanctions on Burma. I wonder if GAO meant to refer to some other executive order. If so, I can’t imagine what other executive order that might be.

The same table also claims that a total of 86 North Korean entities have been designated, but this number includes some double designations (for example, the 13 “persons” designated under EO 13,687 are added to those designated under EO 13551 and 13382, despite the fact that some of these are the very same entities). I actually count 73, excluding aliases. My count assumes that “persons” designated under the INKSA are also designated under EO 13,382 (SDN Code, “NPWMD”).

Appendix I contains a chart comparing North Korea sanctions to Iran sanctions. The chart could have been a very useful tool, but because it reduces broad categories of sanctions to a binary “X” rather than breaking them down by type and degree, it ends up being more misleading than informative, suggesting a parity that does not exist. It overlooks some of the most important sanctions, including special measures under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Iran, yes; North Korea, no), comprehensive transaction licensing requirements (ditto), terrorism-related sanctions (ditto), tourist travel sanctions (Cuba, yes; North Korea, no), and the blocking of assets belonging to the government and its top officials (Belarus, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Russia, but not North Korea).

Worst of all, the chart contains an “X” indicating that there are human rights sanctions against North Korea. This is also misleading. Not one single North Korean person or entity has has been sanctioned for human rights violations (again, in contrast to most of the top leaders of Belarus, Syria, and Zimbabwe). The only possible basis for this claim is the fact that EO 13,687 — the one POTUS signed on January 2nd — finally refers to human rights, along with a host of other evil things Kim Jong Un is doing.

What GAO’s report really tell us, then, is that the administration hasn’t prioritized the enforcement of North Korea sanctions. The lesson for Congress is that if it wants that to change, it will have to force the administration’s hand through legislation and oversight.

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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. This means we could only be talking about something along the lines of the ill-fated Leap Day deal.

But talks about a freeze deal are a losing proposition, whether they end in an agreement or not. The worst case would be a freeze deal that gives Pyongyang aid, security guarantees, and sanctions relief without securing an explicit commitment to disarm. That would throw away what little leverage we have left, and would be tantamount to recognizing Pyongyang as a nuclear power. Because of North Korea’s progress toward a uranium enrichment program — a program whose dangers Wit and Gallucci spent most of the last two decades minimizing — a freeze deal would probably be impossible to verify. At one time, David Albright also questioned that danger, but to his credit, he now concedes that the intelligence estimates he once doubted may have been right all along:

The worst case scenario is based on an assumption that the North has two centrifuges,[*] not only the one at the country’s main nuclear complex, but also a secret facility whose existence has been widely suspected but has not been confirmed, he said.

“I went from deeply skeptical to believing that it’s possible … that they have another major centrifuge plant. We have to do more work … to see if that’s true. But I take the U.S. assessment intelligence that there is this earlier centrifuge plant much more seriously now than I did maybe five, six years ago,” he said. [Yonhap]

At best, a freeze deal would only hold until Pyongyang reneges. That took a few months for the 2007 deal, and just six weeks for the 2012 Leap Day deal. At worst, it would be left to the next President to recognize when Pyongyang cheats. That would allow Wit, Gallucci, and Carlin to reprise their argument that we should let Pyongyang go right on cheating, and keep the aid flowing anyway.

~   Divided, We Fail   ~

But what is the harm in talking? Aside from the vanishingly small chance of Agreed Framework III, the foundation of our North Korea policy, as set forth in a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, is multilateral economic pressure. That means that all hope of success rests on building multilateral unity before we negotiate with Pyongyang. Every time Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington is taken in by Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule tactics, there is a piecemeal relaxation of pressure by one or two of them, at the expense of one or two others. Mistrust grows among three governments that ought to be coordinating at every step and concentrating their combined strength to achieve all of their shared goals. Fence-sitters in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East see even less risk in violating U.N. sanctions.

Unfortunately, all three governments are vulnerable to the temptation of exceptionalism: for America, because of the fear of proliferation; for South Korea, because of the greed of Kaesong and ethnically induced confusion; and for Japan, because of an understandable interest in bringing its abductees home.

Japan’s 2013 deal with North Korea over its abducted citizens — a deal Tokyo finally left for dead last week — is a perfect case-in-point of how Pyongyang uses those temptations to break up coalitions before they can concentrate economic and financial pressure on it. In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. In the weeks that followed, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2094. In March, the Treasury Department blocked North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank out of the financial system. In early April, partially as a reaction to South Korea’s vote in favor of UNSCR 2094, North Korea withdrew its workers from Kaesong, which began a six-month interruption of a key source of hard currency. In late April, Congress would introduce legislation that may yet impose devastating financial sanctions on Pyongyang. In May, Chinese banks would begin to cut their ties to the FTB, for fear of incurring secondary sanctions. The world seemed to be closing in, and might have.

Of course, Pyongyang knew how the Security Council would respond to its nuclear test before it pushed the plunger. So in early April, just as the pressure began to build, it told Tokyo that it was prepared to “reinvestigate” the cases of dozens of Japanese it had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s (even if all of those abductees are dead, Pyongyang is still effectively using them as hostages). Japan was still smarting from the Bush Administration’s betrayal in 2007, which made it an ideal target for Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule strategy. To the consternation of John Kerry, Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions just as the White House and the Blue House were trying to raise the pressure on Pyongyang.

Something similar happened after December 19, 2014, when President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for the terrorist threats that drove “The Interview” from theaters across America, and aborted a second film project in the creative womb. This may have been the most successful foreign attack on free expression in American history. On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13,687, an instrument whose potential was as vast as its designations were negligible. Yet the following week, Japan’s Prime Minister hinted that he might visit Pyongyang, and North Korea began hinting that Kim might visit Moscow in May. Pyongyang also offered Washington a freeze in its nuclear tests, which U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit. The White House dismissed this as an “implicit threat,” but the usual suspects called on it to “test North Korea’s intentions.” Once again, Pyongyang broke our unity and resolve before the pressure began to concentrate.

Now that Pyongyang has reneged on its deal with Tokyo, the polarities have flipped again. Now, Japan wants to raise the pressure on Pyongyang, and the U.S. and South Korea want a deal.

~   Progressive Diplomacy   ~

The impulsive, emotional, and uncoordinated diplomacy on which Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have wasted the last two decades resembles nothing so much as an engine with a broken distributor. An engine can’t run if its cylinders keep firing during the intake and exhaust cycles, and especially when China is a leaky head gasket. Pyongyang’s charm offensives confuse the circuitry that should keep the cylinders firing in sequence.

For an administration that ran on smarter diplomacy, it has certainly made some dumb mistakes. The dumbest of these was to approach its enemies first and its friends last. Common sense dictates that complex, multilateral diplomacy must be progressive diplomacy. It should begin with agreements with those who generally share our interests, so as to combine their national power to influence those who do not. A coherent policy would have begun with a trilateral agreement between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo on a coordinated policy framework of strategies, benchmarks, and even potential concessions. The allies might then have approached some of North Korea’s trading partners in the EU, Switzerland, and Southeast Asia to improve and coordinate the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Next, this coalition could have exerted coordinated pressure on Russia, China, and a host of African and Middle Eastern governments to stop servicing Pyongyang’s financial transactions and buying its weapons. That, in turn, could have exerted an irresistible economic force on Pyongyang to comply with years of discarded promises, and given diplomacy a plausible (if slim) hope of success.

Instead, like an adolescent’s obsessive pursuit of a suitor, the very desperation with which we pursue our diplomacy ensures that it will never win the object of its desire.

~   ~   ~

* Probably a misquote. Two centrifuges would be a garage experiment. Albright probably referred to two centrifuge cascades of several hundred to several thousand centrifuges each.

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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. Japan has far less influence in Washington than South Korea, whose government was then led by arch-appeaser Roh Moo Hyun. There was little Tokyo could do to stop the deal.

This deal still haunts us today. In 2013, while Park Geun-Hye was refusing to budge on North Korea’s shut-down of Kaesong, Japan cut its own separate deal with the North Koreans to relax (and eventually, lift) bilateral sanctions in exchange for an accounting for Japanese abductees. The White House was none too pleased; after all, those sanctions are mandated by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a low-overhead regime like Pyongyang only needs to break one bar of its (economic) cage to slip out of it, and avoid the pressure that might otherwise disarm it.

But today, Japan has re-learned — for a while — the lesson that everyone who deals with North Korea eventually learns: North Korea always reneges. (If there is a second lesson, it’s that there are no exceptions to the first lesson. The third lesson is that no one ever learns lessons one or two for long.) Two years later, Tokyo has finally lost patience with Pyongyang. The 2013 deal is over.

Japan launched a major push at the United Nations on Tuesday, May 5, to rally support for efforts to finally resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea 4 decades ago.

Japan’s minister responsible for the abductions issue, Eriko Yamatani, said she is seeking “specific actions” from countries to turn up the pressure on North Korea and seek information on the fate of the abductees.

“It is not Japan alone that is suffering from this problem,” the minister told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

“It is an international problem and there has to be solidarity and collaboration within the international community so that we can finally resolve the abduction problem and the human rights problem in North Korea.” [AFP]

More on that conference at this link. The issue is important to the Japanese government, but it’s far from clear how much influence Japan really has.

“All Japanese citizens feel as though their own family members have been abducted,” said Yamatani, who was appointed as minister responsible for the issue last year.

“They are all in deep anger and feeling this sadness over the lack of progress.”

Yamatani said she is still hopeful that North Korea will produce “a sincere report as soon as possible.”

Barring that, the United Nations should step in to hold Pyongyang to account and governments should consider imposing sanctions on North Korea, the minister said.

Washington’s envoy on North Korea, Robert King, told the gathering that sanctions had “limited impact” on the Pyongyang regime because it has “very few connections with other countries other than China.”

This is the nonsense I thoroughly debunked in this analysis of the sanctions, sanctions that King probably hasn’t read and certainly doesn’t understand. The most obvious response to it is that the administration could easily re-impose the sanctions the Bush Administration lifted in 2008, starting by re-designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could proceed to a campaign of financial diplomacy to pressure banks in China and Europe to block North Korea’s assets, something U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 would support. The administration says it can’t do those things, but the reality is that it doesn’t choose to do them, because those things would conflict with its own separate dealings with Pyongyang.

When history repeats itself this many times, tragedy and farce cease to be mutually exclusive. Pyongyang now sees that it faces two lame duck administrations in Washington and Seoul. Both share low poll numbers, external pressure from inveterate appeasers in their foreign policy establishments, and the absence of any coherent vision for solving the North Korean problem at its source. Seoul and Washington are now starting “exploratory” talks with Pyongyang, which sounds like a word that no high school girl should ever believe. That means that once again, Japanese abductees and their families will continue to be the victims of Pyongyang’s terrorism, and its clever game of divide-and-rule.

~   ~   ~

* Yes, I know the quote is apocryphal, at least as attributed to Barnum.

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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. … Please ensure that the microphone is not live. … We are calling U.N. security.”

As soon as the North Korean diplomat stopped talking and the next featured defector, Jay Jo, started speaking, the North Korean diplomats stood and walked out.

“They’re so rude,” Jo said later, adding that she wished that the diplomats had stayed so she could have spoken with them. The U.S. said North Korea had been informed before the event that it would have a chance to speak. [AP, via New York Times]

It’s another great moment in public relations, North Korean style, and shortly after a U.N. dweeb named Ivan Simonovic said that North Korea had shown “new signs of engagement.” Evidently, Simonovic hadn’t heard that Kim Jong Un bailed on his Moscow trip this morning. For “internal” reasons. Hmm.

Samantha Power serves an administration without an effective North Korea human rights policy, but she conducted herself well today. When the North Koreans began to heckle and interrupt, at first, she told them to wait their turn. Later, she said, “The audience will agree that it’s better to allow the DPRK to speak, since it is a self-discrediting exercise, and we will resume our panel. Conclude your statement, and we will go back to our panel.”

As the event came to a close, Power said the “true weapons of mass destruction” in North Korea was the tyranny of its government against its citizens.

But the best reaction came from my good friend, Daniel Aum:

“What is most striking here is not North Korea’s attempt to chill speech, but that its increasing willingness to export its policies, including the Sony Pictures hack, to the U.S,” said Daniel Aum a fellow with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights who attended the event.

I doubt very much that the AP and the Times would have published their coverage of this event if not for the behavior of these “diplomats,” which is a tragic thought if you watch the video (hat tip: Roberta Cohen).

If you don’t have time to watch this today, bookmark it and watch the whole thing later. The rumble starts at 17:30, but don’t just skip to that. Watch the wonderful Barbara Demick’s introduction, and the heartbreaking story of Joseph Kim (at 6 minutes). At 20 minutes, defector Jinhae Jo (in red) calmly and bravely confronts her former persecutors, telling them to stop spouting ignorant nonsense, and later, to stop lying. Then, the other defectors join in and shout back. At 24 minutes in, when Jo starts speaking and holds up her new American passport, the North Korean diplomats walked out. They did not hear her weep as she described saying goodbye to her dying brothers and sisters, one after another. I dare you to watch it and not weep with her.

At 57:45, another witness reports that she received threatening texts, in an attempt to intimidate her into silence. She also claims that one day, she found a man with a knife in her house.

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.

~   ~   ~

It all causes me to wonder — why is North Korea even in the U.N., an institution whose values, proceedings, and resolutions it holds in such contempt? Under Article 4 of the U.N. Charter, membership is open to “all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.” Under Article 6, “a Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Well? Well?

As a practical matter, expelling a member state is hard. The U.N. never quite managed to expel South Africa (thanks to U.S. and U.K. veto threats), but in 1968, it banned “cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime,” and in 1984, it purported to nullify a “racist” new South African constitution. It did manage to kick Taiwan out in a roundabout way, by giving China’s seat to the Chicoms, and then by denying Taiwan entry.

Kicking North Korea out of the U.N. wouldn’t mean that humanitarian programs couldn’t continue there. Gaza isn’t a U.N. member state, and the U.N. operates there. Of course, whether the U.N. should give North Korea food aid is a different question entirely. At the one-hour mark, the Dutch Permanent Representative asks the defectors whether we should be giving North Korea food aid. They all voted no.

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Update: Ambassador Power’s full closing remarks, below the fold. Another hat tip to Roberta Cohen for forwarding them.

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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. Because uranium programs are easier to hide than plutonium programs, overlooking this and giving Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid, diplomatic cover, and (unless they were also willing to walk away) de facto permission to go on cheating would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies. The uranium program may have been in its early stages then, but the more it progressed, the harder it would have been to force Kim Jong Il to dismantle it. George W. Bush was right to realize this, but he was too distracted by Iraq, too ill-advised by his diplomats, and too indecisive to respond to it coherently. Instead, he vacillated between tough talk, weak sanctions, a brief interlude of sanctions that worked, and inept diplomacy, culminating in AF2 in 2007. There are many good reasons to damn George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but the collapse of AF1 is the least of them.

More fundamentally, we’re speaking of North Korea, a state that broke an Armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, a 1999 missile moratorium, the 2007 agreed framework, the 2005 joint statement, the 2012 Leap Day deal, a slew of agreements governing the Kaesong Industrial Park, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What made AF1 different from the rest of these broken deals? How many times must a frog be stung to see the scorpion’s nature? Even so, 1994 was many broken agreements ago. That makes it slightly easier to argue that AF1 was worth trying than AF2 (although Joel Wit has the unique qualification of being associated with both of them). For Gallucci and Wit to concede AF1’s failure in retrospect would not necessarily draw harsh judgment from their peers, even if AF1’s legacy and Pyongyang’s record speak plainly for themselves. It would not necessarily establish that their experience with AF1 is less of a qualification than the opposite. But their refusal to concede its failure, even after all we’ve learned, does.

The collapse of the North Korea deal has been used to argue that it is impossible to conduct diplomacy with rogue states. But the only litmus test that matters is whether an agreement serves our national interest, is better than having no deal at all, and is preferable to military force. The arrangement with Iran appears to be well on its way to meeting that standard. [Gallucci & Wit]

And inevitably, we are offered the false choice of appeasement or war. But the real litmus test is whether other options might have saved a deal that wasn’t necessarily flawed on paper, or alternatively, given us a more trustworthy partner to negotiate with. Those options might have included tougher sanctions supported by (rather than subverted by) diplomacy, to cut the flow of Chinese and South Korean cash to Pyongyang, and more subversive engagement with North Korea’s disgruntled and dispossessed. 

As a result, the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions. This does not excuse the North’s behavior, but it does show these deals require constant attention. [Gallucci & Wit]

That is to say, Gallucci and Wit contend that North Korea has nuclear weapons, not because North Korea wanted nuclear weapons, but because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to grant Kim Jong Il’s regime more aid and full diplomatic relations as it cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework. Are there limits to the concessions Gallucci and Wit would have granted while Kim Jong Il went on with his uranium program? Are there limits to the amount of cheating or provocation that would have finally been too much for even them? Are there limits to how far they would they have let North Korea’s uranium program go before walking away from AF1? If so, it’s not evident from their op-ed. Nor is it encouraging that Gallucci and Wit already concede that “we should not be surprised if Tehran is caught cheating.” I wouldn’t be, but Gallucci and Wit would make a stronger case by revealing what they would do to get Iran back in line with its obligations, when they would walk away, and what their Plan B would be. If you go into any negotiation without knowing those answers, you aren’t really negotiating.

At least John Delury explains just how far he would have been willing to take this, which is helpful, because it helps us understand how far we should take his counsel.

The central lesson of the failed diplomacy with North Korea is that even the best nuclear deal with Iran is merely a prelude to the real diplomatic drama. To ensure that Tehran does not go the way of Pyongyang, the nuclear accord must be followed by the creation of a framework for fundamentally new Iranian relations with the United States, the region, and the international community. The United States’ nuclear deal with Korea wasn’t enough on its own—and its deal with Iran won’t be, either. [John Delury, Foreign Affairs]

Unlike Delury, the central lesson I draw is that even a nominally useful deal becomes useless when one party is pathologically mendacious, and the other party is emotionally and irredeemably predisposed to denial, and unwilling to hold the first party to the terms. Even the best deal is worse than useless when its benefits to the cheating party exacerbate the very problems it was intended to address. Yet Delury’s faith in Kim Jong Il’s intentions extends to preposterous proportions:

Had the United States made an all-out effort to sign a peace treaty and guarantee North Korean security, while also lifting sanctions and encouraging economic integration in the region, North Korea could have been another Asian communist success story, without needing nuclear weapons. But Clinton’s big push came too late, and then George W. Bush dealt this fragile process a death-blow by walking away from the table. [Delury]

Delury assumes that Pyongyang is interested in “fundamentally new relations” that would have American journalists and food aid workers crawling all over North Korea, speaking almost freely to starving villagers and factory workers, and taking selfies in front of missile bases and gulags. Myself, I’m much less sure that Pyongyang wants this. And then, there is the example of the Sunshine Policy, which also failed to change the scorpion’s nature, as Sue Terry and Max Boot point out:

In short, North Korea was cheating both before and after the signing of the Agreed Framework. It did so in spite of the copious benefits flowing to the country as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, through which, from 1998 to 2008, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pumped approximately $8 billion in economic assistance into North Korea in the hope of improving bilateral relations. Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Peace Prize for meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 2000—a summit, it was later divulged, that was made possible only through the payment of a $500 million cash bribe to Kim Jong Il. [Sue Terry and Max Boot, Foreign Affairs]

Delury breezily throws out that “six years of patient sanctions has not stopped Pyongyang from making dramatic progress in its uranium enrichment and missile programs,” and then proceeds straight to the false choice argument. One must catch him mid-sentence to note that he reveals no sign of having read the sanctions, but perhaps he’ll offer us his own legal analysis of what the sanctions are, what they are not.

Why was there no settlement? Simply put, domestic politics undermined prudent foreign policy. One month after Clinton signed the Agreed Framework, the success of the Republican Party in the 1994 U.S. midterm elections turned Congress into a fortress of obstruction. [Delury]

That is, the elected representatives of the American people were unwilling to establish full diplomatic relations with a state that was breaking its word and lying about it, and that inflicts this on its people and lies about that, too. The idea must have taken hold among the bourgeoisie in flyover country that it is immoral and unwise to trust and perpetuate a state founded on secrecy, mendacity, xenophobia (especially anti-Americanism), and an utter disregard for human life. Not even a frog has to be stung twice to understand the scorpion’s nature, yet to this day, Gallucci (and let’s remember, whatever his judgment, Gallucci is a man of integrity) is counseling us to cut yet another freeze deal with the North Koreans — a deal only he, Stephen Bosworth, and a few of the frogs in the adjacent wells believe the North Koreans have any serious interest in.

It takes a willful denial of reality to claim, as Gallucci, Wit, and Delury do, that the United States was at fault for the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean negotiations. A dispassionate reading of the evidence suggests that North Korea was never serious about giving up a nuclear program into which it had invested decades—not to mention billions of dollars—and that it saw as vital to regime protection and internal legitimacy. If North Korea has not developed as many nuclear weapons as U.S. intelligence agencies once feared, that is most likely a side effect of the regime’s dysfunction rather than any lack of desire to acquire more weapons. [Terry & Boot]

The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, writing at The National Interest, brings us back to the central flaw of the agreed frameworks with North Korea — that even a good agreement can’t survive when entrusted to men and women of subpar judgment. It’s an argument that Wit, Gallucci, Delury do much to validate:

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

Pyongyang serially deceived, denied, and defied the international community. Yet arms control proponents responded to growing evidence of North Korean cheating by doubting, dismissing, deflecting, denouncing, deliberating, debating, dawdling, delaying, demanding, and eventually dealing.

These “experts” initially rejected intelligence reports of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program, its uranium weapons program, complicity in a Syrian nuclear reactor, and steadily increasing nuclear and missile capabilities. [Bruce Klingner, The National Interest]

Wit, for example, questioned the scale and significance of intelligence estimates about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program just three years before Pyongyang revealed the existence of a “vast” program of perhaps thousands of centrifuges — a program that posed “both a horizontal and a vertical proliferation threat,” and was an “avenue for North Korea to increase the number and sophistication of its nuclear weapons.” Klingner also adds another important and related point:

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

The UN has shown a remarkable ability to emit a timid squeak of indignation when its resolutions are blatantly violated and then only after extensive negotiations and compromise. Hampered by Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the UN Security Council has been limited to lowest-common denominator responses. 

He might have taken this a step further: neither President Bush nor President Obama snapped back after North Korea broke AF2 or the Leap Day deal. Despite Obama’s campaign promise to reimpose sanctions if North Korea didn’t keep its word, two nuke tests later, he still hasn’t.

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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. One could also view it as pleading for the North Koreans to make enough of a pretense at seriousness to allow this administration the same relatively graceful exit it afforded George W. Bush.

But if the North Koreans aren’t willing to give President Obama even that much, what is the alternative? Sung Kim, the administration’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, bristled at this hearing when its North Korea policy was described as “strategic patience,” but how else can one describe this? To call it a policy may be too generous.

Seiler stressed that the U.S. is not opposed to talking to North Korea, but that negotiations must focus on denuclearization. The communist regime should also halt its nuclear activity and refrain from nuclear and missile tests before talks resume.

“We seek negotiations … And indeed the entire international community is looking for this type of policy shift in Pyongyang and that policy shift would be positively responded to,” he said.

Seiler, who is rumored to be one of this administration’s more tough-minded policymakers, rightly recognizes that a freeze deal would probably get us nothing more than the last freeze deals — the agreed frameworks and the Leap Day agreement — got us. Without disarmament, a freeze deal would probably be worse than useless. After all, if a freeze is ultimately about buying time, Pyongyang’s price for that freeze would buy Pyongyang more time than a freeze would buy for us.

Rule out appeasement and war, and what is this administration’s policy? Its sanctions are weak and hollow, and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything to catalyze North Korea to change from within. The word “strategic” implies purpose, but there is no sign of a purpose or plan behind the administration’s patience. Meanwhile, North Korea is growing its nuclear arsenal, proliferating missiles and chemical weapons (and maybe more), and inside North Korea, people are dying. No policy is less bad than a policy that would exacerbate these threats with more appeasement, but no policy at all is no longer acceptable. But by all appearances, that’s what President Obama has.

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Update: In a transparent effort to pressure President Obama into some sort of freeze deal with Kim Jong Un, China is upping its assessment of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Our State Department Harfs:

“We certainly have been and remain concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program. And we’ve been working with the five parties, as we’ve talked about, to pressure North Korea to return to credible and authentic denuclearization talks,” State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf said in response to the report. [….]

Asked if the Chinese assessment raises alarm, Harf said, “We’ve had alarms for a long time about North Korea’s nuclear program. A very high level of alarm. That’s why we have worked with our partners to see what we can do to get them back to the table. [Yonhap]

Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, adds:

“Our partners, along with the wider international community, have consistently made clear to the DPRK that it will not be accepted as a nuclear power,” he said in a statement submitted for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, saying the five-party unity “has never been stronger.”

If Pyongyang were smart enough to extend them the courtesy of a lie, and pretend that it was prepared to disarm, would these people be desperate enough to take it? My guess is that some of them would.

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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. military.

It was frightening how a person could so poison a place. Hill brought with him a small cabal who were new to Iraq and marginalized all those with experience in the country. The highly knowledgeable and well-regarded Arabist Robert Ford had cut short his tour as ambassador to Algeria to return to Iraq for a third tour and turned down another ambassadorship to stay on in Iraq and serve as Hill’s deputy. But Hill appeared not to want Ford’s advice on political issues and pressured him to depart the post early in 2010. In his staff meetings, Hill made clear how much he disliked Iraq and Iraqis. Instead, he was focused on making the embassy “normal” like other U.S. embassies. That apparently meant having grass within the embassy compound. The initial attempts to plant seed had failed when birds ate it all, but eventually, great rolls of lawn turf were brought in—I had no idea from where—and took root. By the end of his tenure, there was grass on which the ambassador could play lacrosse. [Politico]

According to an old adage, personnel is policy. The fact that Hillary Clinton not only approved of Hill’s performance after the fiasco of Agreed Framework II became manifest, but also insisted on putting Hill into the most critical diplomatic position on earth just as SOFA negotiations began is more than a simple misjudgment. It’s disqualifying on two levels — as a reflection of Clinton’s misjudgment of North Korea, and as a significant contribution to the rise of ISIS.

If the first unforgivable error was the decision to invade Iraq (along with the way the invasion was executed), the second unforgivable error was the manner in which we abandoned Iraq to the likes of ISIS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, after it had been stabilized at such great cost. Is there one viable candidate in the next presidential election whose fingerprints are not on one of those two historic misjudgments, or who can credibly say he would not have committed either of them?

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Update: Of course, Hillary Clinton has the distinction of having her fingerprints on both of them.

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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. The regime is very practiced at skewing assessments like these by showing aid workers precisely what it wants them to see. For example, North Korea denied the UN assessment teams access to the entirety of Jagang Province, a remote mountainous area that, according to the same report, has one of North Korea’s highest rates of food insecurity. We also know that — despite the professed principle of “no access, no food,” North Korea has long denied the aid agencies access to its horrific prison camps. Marcus Noland often says that one should never trust a statistic from North Korea that includes a decimal point.

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So why, after 20 years of aid, can’t this fully industrialized state feed its people? Primarily, the UN finds that “[f]ood production is hampered by a lack of” things that money can buy from any number of commercial sources, including (most obviously) food, but also “agricultural inputs, such as soybean seeds, fertilizer and plastic sheets.” But as OFK readers know, lack of money isn’t an issue for Kim Jong Un.[1]

The report also repeatedly describes North Korea as “vulnerable” to “shocks” like natural disasters, but doesn’t explain how it is that North Korea (again, in contrast to all other industrialized societies) remains vulnerable to famine after two decades of food aid. The report cites “the fragility of the national emergency response capacities,” but that’s an essential government function that other governments prioritize. If you can assemble, equip, and train a million-man army with special forces and a mobile missile force, why not a disaster response agency or EMTs? North Korea is in a temperate zone, not the sahel, so it’s not uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather. When is the last time you heard about anyone going hungry because of extreme weather in South Korea, or for that matter, Mongolia?

The report also reminds us not to assume that increased food production, even if we’ve measured it accurately, translates to a better nutritional situation:

DPR Korea’s Crop Production and Food Security Assessment (CPFSA), carried out by the Government in November 2014, reported a modest increase of 48,700 MT in cereal production in 2014, despite a prolonged dry-spell from spring to autumn. However, production did not reach the targeted level, which was higher than previous years due to increases in consumption patterns, as well as the need to use cereals for seed and livestock feed. As a result the shortfall of cereal increased from 40,000 MT in 2013 to 891,508 MT in 2014. Soybean production also decreased to 160,364 MT in 2014; approximately 1.83 per cent lower than 2013 and the third consecutive year of decline. Crop rotations of soybeans are critical to improve nitrogen levels in the soil and also to provide dietary protein for a number of protein-rich products, such as soymilk, soy-sauce and soy-flour. The estimated level of vegetable production was 0.45 million MT against a requirement of 2.50 million MT, leaving a gap of 2 million MT. Despite improved harvests in some crops, the food security situation will remains similar to previous years with poor food consumption in most households. [Page 7]

Does “increases in consumption patterns” mean that people are eating more, that the UN is adjusting expectations to account for what a human being needs to eat, or is it just creative accounting? I can’t tell.

What Relief Web doesn’t explain is that private, gray-market (sotoji) farming is another important component in North Korea’s food production story that UN survey statistics can’t measure. Andrei Lankov once wrote that in some areas, sotoji farming could account for “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” To some extent, and despite all of the renewed talk of agricultural reform, the state’s confiscatory policies toward sotoji agriculture may also be offsetting these nominal increases, but to an unknowable degree. The crackdown is manifested in two ways: increased fees for the use of the plots, and the confiscation of some plots in the name of reforestation. In the recent past, the regime has also exported “excess” production for hard currency. Stories like these cause me to wonder, at times, whether Pyongyang is deliberately limiting the food supply.[2]

According to the report, donor fatigue is a growing problem: “[F]unding for United Nations (UN) agencies decreased substantially over the past decade, from US$300 million in 2004 to less than $50 million in 2014.” It isn’t hard to think of any number of sound reasons for that, from the regime’s own culpably malignant priorities, to its interference with aid workers (see also Steph Haggard’s comment on this) by limiting access or expelling them, to the aid agencies’ own refusal to confront those problems frankly and directly. The UN agencies still appear to be relying on the state’s Public Distribution System, a system that experts will tell you barely functions at all.

Perhaps donors should still do more to meet UN’s requests for vaccination programs to prevent tuberculosis, malaria, and cervical cancer, and for the treatment of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even medicine isn’t completely free of the risk of diversion, however, which means that monitoring is still important.

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Of course, what the report does not confront is the fact that North Korea shouldn’t need humanitarian aid at all. According to Marcus Noland, North Korea could close its food gap with “less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of [its] military budget.” Its known annual spending on luxury goods is six times the amount of the UN’s latest appeal for North Korea. Its gap between rich and poor is obscene and growing. Similarly, every North Korean who died in the Great Famine of the 1990s was a victim of Kim Jong Il’s priorities — not weather, not lack of resources, and not sanctions. And yet the report says this:

Recent political developments resulted in further international sanctions on DPR Korea, creating additional constraints in providing vital assistance. As a result of sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank imposed in March 2013, led to the significant issues and delays in transferring funding into DPRK throughout 2014. UN agencies put in place contingencies to continue programmes, with lifesaving activities prioritised. Measures to reduce in-country payments included maximizing off-shore payments and minimizing in-country operating expenses. The inability of UN agencies to use their regular banking routes created multiple operational obstacles and affected in-country procurement, monitoring visits, effective programme delivery, in-country capacity building programmes and general operating expenditures. [Page 15]

Now, here is what a UN Panel of Experts charged with monitoring the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions just said about that same topic:

209. While the Panel has been made aware of allegations that sanctions are contributing to food shortages, its assessment has found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid. National legislative or procedural steps taken by Member States or private sector industry have been reported as prohibiting or delaying the passage of certain goods to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these measures from United Nations sanctions. The Panel will continue to seek information on the issue. 210. Although the resolutions underline that the sanctions measures are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, there is no exemption mechanism in the resolutions under embargoes to that end. The Panel therefore recommends that the Committee propose to the Security Council exemptions under embargoes, provided that such items are confirmed to be solely for food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes. [U.N. Panel of Experts, Feb. 2015 report]

The latter recommendation, of course, is both humane and sensible. Sanctions resolutions and legislation should always contain flexible waiver and exemption provisions for purely humanitarian transactions. But agonizing dilemmas like these again point us to Pyongyang’s skill at using its own poor as human shields to divide the world’s response to its offenses and outrages.

To the extent sanctions have complicated aid delivery, the UN Relief Web report attributes that to “recent political developments” — that is, Kim Jong Un’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in February 2013 — and then says that this “resulted in further international sanctions” by the UN Security Council. The U.S. Treasury Department is obligated to enforce UN sanctions, so when Treasury concluded that North Korea was using its Foreign Trade Bank “to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network,” it blocked that bank out of the dollar system. It’s unfortunate that North Korea also forced humanitarian groups to use the same bank, but thankfully, according to Ghulam Isaczai, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, UN aid agencies have “been able to work around” those complications “and still bring in humanitarian aid to support the population.”

On close reading, the “complications” the aid agencies cite are related to “local procurement.” Those complications only exist because Pyongyang is demanding payment for that local procurement in U.S. dollars. In plain English, it looks like Pyongyang is charging UN aid agencies for fuel and labor in hard currency, leaving the aid agencies to feed poor North Koreans, while Pyongyang spends its own cash on ski resorts, limousines, private jets, and flat screen TVs.

Despite all of this, the aid agencies and NGOs choose to reserve all of their public criticism for the U.S., because they know the U.S. can’t expel them from North Korea, and actually cares if North Koreans starve. But that selective criticism only does more harm to their credibility and fuels more donor fatigue. Last month, in a supreme irony, Pyongyang expelled the Country Director of one of the NGOs that complained when Treasury blocked the Foreign Trade Bank.

And of course, the latest UN Panel of Experts report also contains this explosive allegation:

202. On 30 January 2014, the French Ministry of Economy and Finance ordered the freezing of assets held by two Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals affiliated with the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Mr. Kim Yong Nam and Mr. Kim Su Gwang, and one affiliated with the Korean United Development Bank, Ms. Kim Su Gyong, on the grounds that they were likely to engage in activities prohibited by the resolutions (Table 11).

203. At the time of the freeze order, Mr. Kim Yong Nam was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a contract as an employee at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Mr. Kim Su Gwang was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a position as an international civil servant at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome.

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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. Although the U.S. claims to be “extremely concerned” about the North’s crimes against humanity, once again, it led from behind, allowing the EU and Japan to introduce the resolution.

This is not to say that absolutely nothing has been gained. One day, a better president who really is “extremely concerned” about this issue will be better positioned to raise human rights at the Security Council, and to pressure the next South Korean government to let the newly established OHCHR office in Seoul do its work. The best we can hope from President Obama is that he might schedule “briefings” to the Security Council, which China and Russia will skip, and where those who bother to attend will nod along in sagacious impotence. If there was any question that President Obama would earn his Nobel Peace Prize with a serious and meaningful policy response to crimes against humanity comparable to those of the Khmer Rouge, the Bosnian Serbs, and (on a per capita basis) the Nazis, that question is now resolved. Obama will not force a vote on a Chapter VII resolution at the Security Council, an act that would force China and Russia to veto the resolution and forever own Kim Jong Un’s crimes against humanity. North Korea will be Samantha Power’s Rwanda, and hopefully, history will at least hold her, Obama, and Ban Ki Moon accountable for their failures.

But what else would a Security Council vote achieve? There has been much emphasis on pressing for a referral to the International Criminal Court, a body that’s unlikely to lay its jurisdictional hands on any North Korean official responsible for crimes against humanity. A more effective response would be the sort of cultural and economic boycott that ultimately forced change in South Africa, when paired with an effective grass-roots campaign. But then, we already know what North Korea’s vulnerability is, and Congress knows that it has a greater power to attack that vulnerability than the U.N. itself. After a short spasm of vitality, a divided U.N. has failed again. The President appears apathetic, and has abdicated his responsibility. Now, Congress must act.   

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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.

For example, today is the fifth anniversary of North Korea’s premeditated and unprovoked sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, an act of war that killed 46 South Korean sailors. An international investigation team found that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan. Yet only yesterday, the head of the left-opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy finally acknowledged that the North did it. For five years, conspiracy kooks and appeasers had enough influence within the NPAD to prevent it from giving the first small comfort of this acknowledgement to the souls of the dead and the hearts of the bereaved. The NPAD’s long, reprehensible silence speaks more loudly than its words.

And now, here is Jeong Se-Hyun, who headed the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland Reunification Ministry under Kim Jong Il Roh Moo Hyun:

“The (South Korean) government claims the leaflet scattering is a matter of free expression, but such a slander on (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is something fatal to the North,” the former point man on the North said in a local symposium.

“If the Park Geun-hye administration wants to hold a meaningful inter-Korean dialogue during its term, it should send a sincere message that (Seoul) will acknowledge and respect (Pyongyang),” he noted. [Yonhap]

I could not answer this better than Shirley Lee did, in a series of three profound and cogent tweets:

With all this and more, it is laughably tragic that we who are free to think continue to think only within frames set by such a system.

Where each of its subjects living beyond its narrative must be despised and scorned, and those submitting to its frame to be praised.

We side with a brutal, inhumane, zero-sum system merely by siding with its frames, by not calling it out, forging and articulating our own.

Also, Jeong reveals too much here. If he really thinks that non-violent expression is “fatal,” he must believe that a few scattered scraps of paper have the potential to inspire the North Korean people to risk their lives to overthrow His Porcine Majesty. That, given half a chance, they’d hang him from a lamppost (and they should be sure it’s a very sturdy one). Jeong is a closet collapsist! Perhaps he could write me a guest post expanding on this.


Park Sang Hak – Hacking North Korea’s… by NORTHKOREATV

This week, Pyongyang’s proxy censors are especially afraid of Park Sang-Hak. Park is obviously under great pressure from both Korean governments, including the one that hasn’t yet tried to assassinate him. Just this week, Park has said that he would abstain from sending leaflets “for now,” and also vowed to send them “next week” despite the North’s threats.

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[This is a syringe, loaded with the poison neostigmine bromide. Agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau use them to assassinate dissidents and activists. One of them tried to kill Park Sang-Hak with this one.]

Incidentally — and please, stop me if you’ve read this somewhere — President George W. 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.

South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission has opined that Park’s activities are guaranteed under Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It might also have said that they’re protected under Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution. There is another party whose rights we shouldn’t forget, either. The North Korean people also have a right to receive information from across the no-smile line:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

Writing in The New York Times before the Sony attack and threat, Professor Lee and I took the moderate view that the South Korean government must honor these rights, but could still impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which Park sends his leaflets. After all, North Korea clearly has no regard for the lives of South or North Koreans. Perhaps, then, we should concede the prudence of asking the activists to send their leaflets from less populated areas, for the sake of those who live nearby. But then, this recent story caused me to wonder if we had conceded too much:

North Korea on Tuesday threatened to mercilessly punish South Korean activists for allegedly hurting the dignity of its young leader Kim Jong-un during a public demonstration, the latest in a series of harsh rhetoric against rival South Korea.

The latest threat came days after a conservative activist in Seoul trampled a photo of Kim and slashed it with a knife during a rally as others burned printed replicas of North Korean flags. [Yonhap]

In other words, North Korea is now threatening free assembly and expression in downtown Seoul. When you consider that Pyongyang has sent multiple assassins to Seoul and to China to murder dissidents there, no dissident should see this as an idle threat. It has also repeatedly threatened and cyber-attacked South Korean newspapers and broadcasters. It’s not as if Pyongyang has the standing to demand that anyone respect its (unconscionable, soul-crushing) laws when it shows such contempt for the South’s society and laws. No government that submits to such threats can call itself a democracy. The only appropriate response to this is unprintable on a blog with a PG-13 rating, and for most people, would be anatomically impossible.

Aside from the desire to police thought on the streets of Seoul, what other principled grievance might Pyongyang have? Might it have a principled objection to cross-border propaganda leafleting, based on some idea of mutual non-interference? Umm, no:

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In 1998, just after morning formation one day, a soldier friend found this outside the fence around Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and gave it to me. The Army told us to drop these things into special leaflet collection boxes, but who needs one of those cheap gift pens the ROK Defense Ministry hands out every year when you could have a souvenir like this? (Sorry for the wrinkles. Sweaty PT uniforms do that.)

Is it North Korea’s principled position that it’s an act of war to fly physical objects across the DMZ? I doubt that, too.

In any event, if the objection to balloons is that they’re a physical intrusion — notwithstanding their obvious non-violence — then the South Korean and U.S. governments should expand their support for Radio Free North Korea and Open Radio. South Korea should also let them broadcast on medium wave. Pyongyang and Seoul both broadcast to each other now, although on a limited scale.

~   ~   ~

The odds are greater than ever that someone who shares Jeong’s world view will be the next President of South Korea. In fact, given the healthy tendency of voters to tire of any extended rule by a single party, I’d assess them slightly higher than that. If Jeong speaks for a majority of South Koreans, South Korea won’t remain a free and open society for long. It was barely a free and open society when Roh Moo-Hyun was in charge. Let’s not forget that last year, the NPAD proposed to regulate (read: ban) cross-border leafleting. Does anyone expect North Korea to be more respectful of free expression in the South now that it’s at the verge of nuclear breakout? It wouldn’t be unprecedented for an appeasement-minded government in Seoul to add the in terrorem effect of arrests and tax audits to this.

The question here is nothing less than whether South Korea has the courage and reason to remain a free society. If it does, we should give South Korea our support. If not, just remember that Pyongyang’s demands have no borders or limits. Accede to one and there will be another. As a wise man said,

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like.”

Last year, Kim Jong Un effectively extended the reach of his censorship to the United States, not only by preventing theaters from screening a film critical of him, but also by preventing Hollywood studios from making any more of them. By my count, in the last year, Pyongyang has attempted to extent the writ of its censorship — with some success — to Seoul, Tokyo, Berlin, London, Rangoon, Paris, and an academic conference in downtown Washington, D.C. It is also suspected of a cyberattack against The Washington Post. Several years ago, someone hacked this very site.

Of course, South Korea doesn’t have to remain a free society, any more than the United States has to keep 28,500 soldiers and airmen there. Regardless of what kind of society South Korea chooses to be, the United States would still have interests in maintaining friendly relations and trade with it. It’s just that the world is descending into madness at the moment, and we’ve become more particular about who and what we’re willing to die for.

There are two possible lessons here, depending on the path taken in Seoul, Washington, and the world’s other capitals.

The first is that terrorism works when governments are more willing to yield to it than to stand up to it and protect free expression.

The second may not be the one that Pyongyang hoped for: that Pyongyang sounds as afraid of free expression as it is of sanctions. Something here has nipped an especially sensitive nerve in the tender man-bosoms of His Porcine Majesty. Where there is upset, there is also a deterrent. Perhaps Pentagon planners should explore the “soft” power of free expression, not only as a tool to transform North Korean society, but to deter North Korean provocations. An extended deployment of Commando Solo may be just the thing to deter a fourth nuclear test. Perhaps free speech isn’t the problem at all. Perhaps it’s an important part of the solution.

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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. The alternative to a bad deal is not war. It would be some difficult diplomacy with our allies, and more sanctions, until Iran is ready for a deal that secures our interests, and those of our many allies within range of an Iranian bomb.

~   ~   ~

Not surprisingly, the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea arises as an analogy to the negotiations with Iran. Also not surprisingly, The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler speaks up to defend the Agreed Framework and “fact-check” Senator Cotton’s criticism of it.

Obviously, Kessler has strong opinions about this subject. He covered North Korea during most of the Bush Administration, and his coverage leaned strongly toward the 1994 agreement’s most outspoken defenders, and against the Bush Administration for allegedly abandoning it. This 2006 story, for example, was a thinly veiled opinion piece defending the 1994 deal. Worse, Kessler treated North Korea itself like a sideshow to Foggy Bottom, mostly ignoring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and thereby missing one of the decade’s most important human rights stories. Even when viewed through Kessler’s narrow aperture, North Korea’s lying and cheating about food aid and prison camps mirrored its approach to nuclear negotiations.

Kessler characterizes North Korea’s nuclear program as “nascent” in 1994, but by then, that program included a functioning reactor and reprocessing plant. You can see archived satellite imagery here. They don’t look “nascent” to me.

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What these images show is a large investment in the acquisition of nuclear weapons — a point Kessler concedes — even as between 600,000 and 1 million North Koreans starved to death.

As subsequent events would show with increasing clarity, North Korea was also pursuing a second, parallel path to a bomb by enriching uranium, in clear violation of the 1994 agreement. The gravity of this threat lies in the relative ease of concealing a uranium enrichment program, compared to a plutonium program like that shown above. A nuclear agreement that gave Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid and diplomatic cover, but that failed to curtail his uranium program, would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies.

The extent of the uranium program became a matter of intense controversy by the late 1990s. By then, not even the Clinton Administration could certify Pyongyang’s compliance with the 1994 agreement. In a 1999 policy review, Clinton’s Defense Secretary, William Perry (assisted by current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter) also conceded the evidence of North Korea’s “possible continuing nuclear weapons-related work.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missiles continued, almost without interruption.

The uranium controversy intensified during Bush’s presidency. The 1994 deal finally collapsed in 2002, when North Korean diplomats admitted the program’s existence to visiting U.S. diplomats. In response, the Bush Administration stopped shipments of fuel oil to North Korea, and the North Koreans kicked out IAEA inspectors and restarted the Yongbyon reactor. Because of Washington tribalism and North Korean exceptionalism — the tendency of some observers to excuse North Korea from the rules by which the rest of humanity lives by, or pretends to — many left-of-center scholars, diplomats, and reporters blamed the breakdown on Bush. Yet even as the evidence of North Korea’s uranium program mounted, Kessler questioned its existence.

The uranium controversy mostly ended in 2010, when North Korea dressed a visiting American nuclear scientist in a red velvet smoking jacket, handed him a Cohiba and a glass of Hennessy, and showed him through what former diplomat Christopher Hill once mocked as “a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium.” Inside that room was a cascade of perhaps thousands of centrifuges, most likely based on designs from the A.Q. Khan network that Pyongyang worked on both before and after the 1994 agreement. The room did not exist in 2008, but its contents were years in the making.

uranium girl

Even now, Kessler questions the veracity of North Korea’s 2002 admission, saying, “Questions have since been raised about whether the Bush administration misinterpreted North Korea’s supposed confirmation.” Pyongyang’s admission was a particularly damning one for the Agreed Framework’s defenders, but if the facts leave little room for doubt about it, Kessler should not have left it unresolved:

One of the specialists who visited North Korea last week, former State Department official Charles L. Pritchard, was part of the U.S. delegation that reported hearing the North Korean admission. U.S. officials said they had three translators at the 2002 session and have no doubt the North Koreans confirmed the program.

One official present at the 2002 meeting said Pritchard and Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly began passing notes as Kang Suk Ju, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, “looking flushed and defiant,” began a 50-minute monologue reacting to the U.S. declaration that it knew North Korea had an enrichment program. As the translation progressed, Pritchard and Kelly each passed notes, asking, “Is he saying what we think he’s saying?” A half minute later, they passed notes again, in effect saying, “Never mind — it’s clear.” [Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2004, archived here]

Tong Kim, one of the translators who was present for the discussion, later published his own confirmation of what Kang Suk Ju said (archived here). The Washington Post‘s story interests me the most, however. Given its date, it’s likely that Kessler himself wrote it. Unfortunately, it has fallen so far down the memory hole that not even The Internet Archive can retrieve it. For Kessler to question this admission is particularly disingenuous in light of what his own paper reported.

In 2007, Kessler wrote a book, “The Confidante,” which painted a flattering portrait of George W. Bush’s own sequel to the 1994 Agreed Framework (review here, first chapter here). Bush’s diplomats repeatedly deceived Congress to forestall opposition to their eleventh-hour deal with Pyongyang, but their agreed framework would turn out as badly as Clinton’s, and for the same reason. Shortly after the 2007 deal was signed, North Korea was caught red-handed building a nuclear reactor in Syria. (Kessler did not see this as a vindication for skeptics of North Korea’s trustworthiness, but as “an awkward moment for the Bush administration.”) Throughout 2008, North Korea lied about its uranium program, balked at inspections, and eventually withdrew from the deal shortly before Bush left office. Even in 2007, the outcome seemed predictable, and was.

Kessler writes that by 2009, talks with North Korea were “considered such a loser that the Obama administration has barely bothered to restart” them. He omits that Pyongyang greeted President Obama with a missile test and a nuclear test within six months of his inauguration. He also omits that the Obama Administration has engaged in years of onandoff back-channel talks with Pyongyang, talks that may continue right up to this year. Those talks reached their pinnacle with the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement,” a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and which Pyongyang reneged on within weeks of signing it. If President Obama kept the profile of his talks with Pyongyang low, it may be because Pyongyang was so justly infamous for its mendacity that he felt some understandable insecurity about “buying the same horse twice,” as his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, described it.

Who can name a single agreement with the United States, starting with and including the 1953 Armistice, that North Korea has kept? Kessler indulges much counterfactual speculation about how a Gore Administration would have handled the HEU question, but there’s little reason to believe that anything short of much tougher sanctions or regime collapse would have prevented Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, or the two subsequent tests it carried out during the Obama Administration. At a convenient moment, Pyongyang can always find an excuse to violate its agreements. Several such excuses arise each year.

Between 1994 and 2002, Kim Jong Il may well have concluded that the Agreed Framework was a small price to pay for the aid it raked in. After all, it would be years until Pyongyang could miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon to South Korea or Japan. By some accounts, it finally developed that capability during Barack Obama’s second term.

Where Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all deserve blame is their shared failure to draft and implement a Plan B for Pyongyang’s inevitable cheating. That oversight deprived our diplomats of the leverage they needed to succeed, and may have encouraged Kim Jong Il to renege.

~   ~   ~

Interestingly, Kessler does not assign any Pinocchios to Cotton’s statement. Had Kessler only omitted the whole truth about Kang Suk Ju’s admission, I’d have afforded him some deference on an issue that has long been controversial, and where the whole truth still has not come to light.

The most important sentence in Kessler’s article, however, is this one: “North Korea got the bomb because the agreement collapsed.” It’s a conclusion that ignores years of evidence that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — through both uranium and plutonium — was calculated, deliberate, and only partially delayed by the diplomacy Kessler now defends with a selective recitation of the facts.

Make no mistake: North Korea got the bomb because Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wanted the bomb. They were willing to expend any amount of money, lives, and lies necessary to achieve that goal. Although the 1994 Agreed Framework may have delayed North Korea’s progress toward a plutonium bomb for a few years, ignoring its uranium program would have irresponsibly ignored the greater long-term threat. North Korea did not get the bomb because George W. Bush finally acknowledged that the 1994 deal had been falling apart for years. North Korea got the bomb because it wanted the bomb, and no American President was willing to do what it would take to interrupt that pursuit.

I don’t believe that Kessler wrote his article with intent to deceive, but it contains significant factual errors, selective omissions, and contradictions. More than anything, it’s a tendentious presentation of dubious and debatable opinion as fact. By my reading of Kessler’s own standards, that qualifies for three Pinocchios.

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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. Four months later, Treasury hasn’t followed up with new alias designations. You can even extend that M.O. back to this 2006 New York Times report, on North Korea’s use of deceptive shipping practices, like re-naming and re-flagging. Whether Treasury’s inaction reflects a lack of political will or a simple lack of resources, I’ll decline to speculate.

A key point the POE makes is that member states are required to seize these vessels as soon as they identify them.

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Instead, several nations are allowing Ocean Maritime Management to continue operating on their soil, or from their ports.

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OMM doesn’t just rename its ships; it also renames itself. Lately, for example, it has gone by the names “Haejin Ship Management Co Ltd.” and “Yongjin Ship Management Co Ltd.” Sometimes, it puts each ship under the ownership of its own shell company. The POE also suspects that OMM is working through Singapore-based entities known as ”Senat Shipping & Trading Private Limited,” “Senat Shipping Limited,” and “Senat Shipping Agency Pte. Ltd.,” particularly for the handling of its financial transactions. The POE put some questions to Senat. Senat hasn’t responded.

OMM’s deceptive practices don’t only appear to be designed to evade sanctions. They also appear to be intended to evade creditors. Switching the ownership of each ship to a single shell company is helpful for that.

As a result, OMM is still in business. And in some cases, its agents are actually North Korean diplomats.

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The POE even made this interesting diagram.

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North Korea isn’t only playing whack-a-mole with shipping. Notorious (and U.N.-designated) proliferator Ryonha Machinery sometimes goes by “Millim Technology Company.” It operates openly in Dandong and Beijing, China under that name. The General Department of Atomic Energy of the DPRK now calls itself the “Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry of DPRK.” The Korean Committee for Space Technology recently renamed itself the “National Aerospace Development Administration,” or NADA (couldn’t you have checked that one with your Cuban friends?). The Second Academy of Natural Sciences has taken to calling itself the “National Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

The moles, in other words, are popping up faster than we can whack them. Thanks to Chinese stalling, the U.N. bureaucracy is too hopelessly slow to keep up, and the member state governments (including ours) that are supposed to be enforcing these sanctions aren’t paying attention.

The report tells us some other interesting things about North Korea’s merchant fleet. As North Korea’s fleet ages out, it is switching to smaller vessels. In a rare bit of good news, its port calls in non-Chinese foreign ports have declined dramatically in recent years, “to just 6 percent of 2008 figures,” according to the POE. Today, nearly all of its direct shipping trade is with China. It would make sense for North Korea to migrate to smaller ships in that case. In the past, for example, in the 2009 ANL Australia incident, North Korea shipped its cargo to Chinese ports in containers, and then played a shell game with port authorities all the way to Dubai, and very nearly to Bandar Abbas.

North Korea is also relying more on reflagging — the use of so-called “flags of convenience,” to dodge inspections.

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The obvious answer is for governments to call on these states to stop reflagging North Korean ships, unless they physically cross-check their IMOs. If these states continue reflagging vessels that are subject to immediate seizure, vessels flying these flags should be targeted for inspection by the United States and other countries. This is a national security issue. God only knows what the North Koreans might want to slip into this country in a shipping container. For more on that option, see Section 205 of the NKSEA.

One potential exploit in North Korea’s shipping system is insurance. North Korea has found it difficult enough to insure its vessels that it self-insures.

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We saw, in the case of the Mu Du Bong, that North Korean self-insurance isn’t particularly useful. One solution to that problem is for ports to refuse to accept KSPIA as a valid insurer. When port directors and customs inspectors see that a vessel is insured by KSPIA, that should also be a signal for them to check the vessel’s IMO number, or any links to Ocean Maritime Management or its aliases. If they can, they should be seizing any of its vessels on the spot.

Finally, North Korean ships are switching off their transponders.

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Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 6.56.41 PMThat’s often the first sign of a vessel that’s engaged in smuggling or piracy. Those vessels should be followed to port, boarded, and inspected.

The POE also seems close to calling for the designation of Air Koryo, although I’d personally counsel against that, absent some established link between them and North Korea’s post-UNSCR 1874 smuggling:

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I’ll close with this graphic of POE’s various methods of deception.

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Clearly, many member states aren’t taking the enforcement of these sanctions seriously. What’s most obviously lacking is any coordination of enforcement among governments. If only there were some inter-governmental organization whose mission were to control proliferation through international air and maritime cargo. Even better, if only that organization were unencumbered by a requirement for unanimous consent, or the threat of a veto from Russia or China. Oh, wait. There is exactly such an organization. So what’s stopping us?

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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. And here’s how the FATF dispensed with that:

Since October 2014, the DPRK sent a letter to the FATF indicating its commitment to implementing the action plan developed with the FATF.

However, the FATF remains concerned by the DPRK’s failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF urges the DPRK to immediately and meaningfully address its AML/CFT deficiencies.

The FATF reaffirms its 25 February 2011 call on its members, and urges all jurisdictions, to advise their financial institutions to give special attention to business relationships and transactions with the DPRK, including DPRK companies and financial institutions. In addition to enhanced scrutiny, the FATF further calls on its members, and urges all jurisdictions, to apply effective counter-measures to protect their financial sectors from ML/FT risks emanating from the DPRK. Jurisdictions should also protect against correspondent relationships being used to bypass or evade counter-measures and risk mitigation practices, and take into account ML/FT risks when considering requests by DPRK financial institutions to open branches and subsidiaries in their jurisdiction. [FATF]

The force may have a strong influence on the weak-minded, but Pyongyang’s mind tricks haven’t influenced the FATF’s bankers. Maybe all those years of foreclosing on tearful widows and orphans have built an immunity that can, in a different context, serve mankind’s greater good. It never ceases to fascinate me how much better bankers are at diplomacy than diplomats are. A certain discipline may come with the expectation that the words in contracts are meaningful and enforceable as written. The FATF expects more than words from North Korea, and the latest draft U.N. Panel of Experts report goes far to explain why.

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That is, North Korea habitually uses deceptive financial practices similar to those used by criminal organizations. Moving money this way has a higher risk premium, higher cost, slower speed, and less flexibility. North Korea wouldn’t use these cryptic, bronze-age methods unless it was hiding something. Similarly, if Pyongyang’s finances are legit, why is it using Reconnaissance General Bureau agents as bulk cash smugglers?

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The U.N. report also tells us that North Korea continues to use the dollar system for those deceptive practices.

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That isn’t the only report this week that King Dollar rules in Pyongyang, partially as a consequence of Pyongyang’s catastrophically self-destructive currency “reform.” An interesting report in The Daily NK tells us that North Korea’s Ministry of Railways expects payment for shipping from both its state-controlled “foreign-currency earning enterprises” and “individual vendors” in U.S. dollars. This Yonhap report quotes an anonymous source, who says that “Pyongyang has become a de-facto dollar-using economy,” although the Yuan is more popular near the Chinese border.

And here’s an example of how this works in practice:

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The FATF’s warnings, of course, are merely persuasive authority; they don’t have the force of law. They are persuasive to responsible governments and banks, but North Korea finds its enablers among the world’s less responsible actors. That will not change until the U.S. Treasury Department and other regulators credibly threaten those actors with secondary sanctions. You can almost hear the Panel of Experts calling on the Treasury Department to do exactly that here, with respect to North Korean weapons smuggler/shipper Ocean Maritime Management, and others:

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And what has President Obama done about any of this lately? On January 2, 2015, he signed Executive Order 13687, the actual legal effect of which was to block the assets of ten low-level arms dealers. If there is a single theme that emerges from the latest POE report, however, it is Pyongyang’s speed and deftness at whack-a-mole. I can just about guarantee you that those low-level arms dealers have been replaced by ten other low-level arms dealers. Whatever the effect of EO 13687’s original designations, they were minimal and brief.

There are several conclusions this evidence points to. First, Pyongyang is worried about sanctions. Second, its growing dependency on King Dollar gives it good reason to be. Third, it continues to use the dollar system to engage in money laundering and to violate U.N. Security Council sanctions. Fourth, the Obama Administration has yet to show that it is serious about protecting the U.S. financial system from North Korea’s money laundering, or about making U.N. sanctions work. It tells you everything you need to know that even the U.N. is (in its own subtle way) pleading for the President to enforce the law.

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