Archive for Diplomacy

Veto or not, a Security Council vote on N. Korean human rights is a victory

A draft U.N. General Assembly resolution, co-authored by EU and Japanese diplomats, may ask the Security Council “to refer North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to an international court” for his crimes against humanity, as documented extensively by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry.

A draft leaked to the press on October 9th called for “effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity,” possibly including Kim Jong Un himself. The draft also recommended “reporting the country’s situation and its leaders to the International Criminal Court” at The Hague “for crimes against humanity.”

Negotiations over the text of the draft continue, and it remains subject to “change before it goes to a vote in the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which focuses on human rights.” Whatever text passes the Third Committee is expected to “be sent to the UN General Assembly in December.” Only then will it go to the Security Council, where it’s a foregone conclusion that China and Russia will veto any resolution worth passing.

The inevitability of a ChiCom veto, however, does not mean that the pursuit of a resolution is necessarily an exercise in futility, although it could certainly become one if civilized nations fail to agree on an alternative plan of action. The Editors of The Washington Post, who say that North Korea’s “malevolent system … should not be acceptable,” suggest one such plan:

Another course of action was suggested recently by 20 defectors from North Korea, including Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from the notorious Camp 14. The defectors asked the Swiss government in a letter to freeze any financial assets held by members of the North Korean regime in Swiss bank accounts. It is not known whether Mr. Kim and his cohorts have stashed fortunes there, but some news accounts have suggested as much. North Korea’s leaders have paid attention to efforts to cut off their source of lucre. An asset freeze would be another way to get their attention and send a message that they cannot escape accountability for their crimes. [Editorial, Washington Post]

As they say, great minds think alike. After all, if passing a Security Council resolution is really a solution, we’ve solved the North Korean nuclear crisis four times since 2006. To be sure, an ICC indictment would be a powerful symbol that would also have important diplomatic and economic consequences, but China and Russia are certain to ignore any resolution’s key provisions anyway. A more plausible objective is to mobilize civilized humanity to deny North Korea the means–particularly, the financial means–to commit crimes against humanity, and Chinese bankers have never been willing to risk their capital and market access for North Korea’s sake.

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, notes that Pyongyang’s infamy has already had some significant diplomatic consequences:

Pyongyang could hardly have failed to notice that its human rights record has begun to have impact on an array of governments it might need politically or for foreign investment and aid. In 2013, Mongolia’s President made the news by stating during a visit to Pyongyang that “no tyranny lasts forever” and arguing for linking the nature of “tyrannous governance to prospects for economic development.”[8] Japan has been holding up further economic concessions to North Korea until information is forthcoming about the fate of abducted Japanese citizens.[9] At a meeting of Security Council members in 2014, the Ambassador of France declared that his government did not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and didn’t intend to given the COI report, while the southern African state of Botswana terminated its relations with North Korea over the COI’s findings.[10] The world’s leading industrialized nations in the Group of 8 (now 7) for the first time urged North Korea to address international concerns about its human rights violations,[11] while the United States has made clear that overall relations with North Korea will not fundamentally improve without some change in human rights practices, including closing the prison labor camps.[12] And President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has agreed that her country will host the UN office to be established in order to continue the monitoring done by the COI into human rights in North Korea with a view to promote accountability. [Roberta Cohen, 38 North]

This diplomatic isolation has probably also dissuaded potential investors, who may see investment in North Korea as a big risk to their capital and their reputations, even with the backing of their country’s diplomats. The financial price of North Korea’s atrocities is rising.

Finally, if the objective of a General Assembly vote is to show the world that it has a North Korea problem, a Security Council vote could be just as useful to show the world that at its root, the North Korea problem is a China and Russia problem. The leaked drafts have further increased pressure on Russia and China for shielding Kim Jong Un, and all that is done in his name. That understanding could be a step toward consensus for effective action by civilized nations.

You may believe in the U.N., and you may be a skeptic, but whichever of those things you are, you must still acknowledge that for many governments and many people, a good-faith effort to act at the U.N. is a prerequisite to other forms of action. If nothing else, that effort is placing this issue before the eyes of the world.

The good news is that for the first time in North Korea’s history, its rulers face a real risk of accountability for murdering or starving to death more than two million of their own people. In the short term, this raises little or no direct legal risk to Kim Jong Un and his courtiers. In the long-term, a global deliberation on Kim Jong Un’s responsibility for crimes against humanity could unite the world in pressuring North Korea to discard its malevolence, or alternatively, until its malevolent system ceases to exist.

Amb. King: “Do not go to North Korea.”

“Do not go to North Korea. It is a tough place and Americans find themselves getting into trouble there,” he said, apparently referring to three U.S. citizens who have been detained in the communist nation for as long as nearly two years. [Yonhap]

That’s much better, although King’s case should have a stronger moral component.

Christian Whiton: “[W]e need a policy of truth for North Korea.”

At CNN.com, Whiton registers the signs of Agreed Framework 3, and writes:

There is another way to handle North Korea, which involves putting sustained pressure on the regime. China always says it is willing to take this step, but in fact never does — and never will as long as China itself is run by a cabal that is terrified of the will of its own people.  [….]

Help North Koreans get the truth. Grasp the truth that China will never seriously help the free world with North Korea. Accept the truth that six-party talks would fail again. Embrace the idea that the truth will set people free. 

Chris Hill’s North Korea legacy in three concise paragraphs

Here, via Yonhap, where Hill takes credit for the idea of blowing up the cooling tower at Yongbyon.

The North’s destruction of the cooling tower briefly raised hopes for real progress in the six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program, but the negotiating process later reached a deadlock over how to verify the North’s declaration of nuclear materials, facilities and activities.

In exchange for blowing up the tower, the North was removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. Six-party talks were convened one more time later in 2008, but the negotiations have since been stalled. That has reinforced criticism that Pyongyang abuses the negotiations only to win concessions.

Since then, the North has conducted two more nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2012,* as well as a series of long-range rocket launches in an effort to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads.

If only he could have snuck in a reference to those scantily clad women enriching uranium.

I guess when you have as much in your career to defend as Hill does, you’re eventually going to have a write a book, but judging by this sample, Hill’s diplomatic legacy will still exceed his literary talents.

The high-level calls had another unhelpful impact on our efforts. They became part of the toolbox, meaning that whenever there was an impasse on the ground, the idea of ginning up a telephone call quickly emerged on the to-do list. Senior phone calls also had still another negative impact on our efforts: Washington bureaucrats went operational. Thus we began to receive missives offering such nuggets of advice as “Never ignore Hashimi!” Of course, we had been in regular contact with him, but he wasn’t the great hope that some of these veterans of the early years had thought. Some of the Washington micromanagement extended to offering me advice as to who from the embassy I should bring along for meetings with Maliki and others. It all added up to an impression that Washington wanted out of Iraq. [Politico]

That Hill’s paragraphs are dangling, forced-together assemblies of mismatched bits of plastic and surface-printed particle board isn’t a bad metaphor for his Ikea diplomacy with North Korea. Like Ikea, Hill’s products look just fine until you scratch them, and hold up well enough as long as no one tries to climb or stand on them.

By the way, has anyone noticed that the same administration that couldn’t convince Nuri Maliki to sign a SOFA agreement a few years ago was able to push him completely out of office and choose his successor this year? (It deserves some credit for the latter achievements, amid the larger disaster it helped create.) Also, am I the only one who wonders whether our soldiers in Iraq are covered by a SOFA today?

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* This is an error. It’s actually 2013. I notified the reporter, who posted a correction.

Resign, Margaret Chan

330px-Margaret_Chan_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_2011_cropChan, the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO), probably owes her job to her pedigree as a Communist Party quisling in Hong Kong‘s public health bureaucracy.* As Hong Kong’s Director of Health during the SARS outbreak, Chan’s public statements made her the object of widespread derision and ridicule. Later, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council commissioned a Select Committee to conduct an exhaustive study on the response of the government and its officials. The Select Committee’s Findings about Dr. Chan’s performance, which begin on page 252, are strikingly similar to what you’re about to see excerpted in this post, with respect to her slow response to the Ebola outbreak. The report concluded:

The Select Committee finds the performance of Dr Margaret CHAN not satisfactory in the handling of the SARS outbreak in the above aspects.

Chan’s boss and one other politician resigned, but Chan was promoted into the leadership of the World Health Organization.

In hindsight, you can’t help but wonder how Chan could have risen to a position of global responsibility, except for the reason already noted. Nor can you avoid the lesson for Hong Kong itself, where the Communist Party may soon succeed at smothering public debate and accountability for the failures of government officials and institutions.

It may have been inevitable that Chan’s ambitions would also promote her into the position of global laughingstock. In 2010, Chan earned this distinction when, after a stage-managed tour of some showpiece hospitals in Pyongyang and a clinic outside the capital, she called North Korea’s health care system “something that most other developing countries would envy,” and observed (really!) that North Korea shows “no signs of the obesity emerging in some parts of Asia.” When challenged by Amnesty International for these breathtakingly stupid observations, Chan’s minions doubled down on them.

Now, The Washington Post reports that under Chan’s leadership, the WHO was a weak link in the global response to the Ebola outbreak. This time, no one is laughing.

The WHO, an arm of the United Nations, is responsible for coordinating international action in a crisis like this, but it has suffered budget cuts, has lost many of its brightest minds and was slow to sound a global alarm on Ebola. Not until Aug. 8, 4 1 ? 2 months into the epidemic, did the organization declare a global emergency. Its Africa office, which oversees the region, initially did not welcome a robust role by the CDC in the response to the outbreak.

Previous Ebola outbreaks had been quickly throttled, but that experience proved misleading and officials did not grasp the potential scale of the disaster. Their imaginations were unequal to the virulence of the pathogen.

“In retrospect, we could have responded faster. Some of the criticism is appropriate,” acknowledged Richard Brennan, director of the WHO’s Department of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response. But he added, “While some of the criticism we accept, I think we also have to get things in perspective that this outbreak has a dynamic that’s unlike everything we’ve ever seen before and, I think, has caught everyone unawares.”

Lack of funding is not an excuse this time. When a public health organization is charged with responding to a crisis of this magnitude, its leaders must call the world to action and lead. Had the WHO timely recognized the crisis, the world would have followed WHO’s leadership. It was the leadership itself that was lacking. Worse, some WHO officials actually obstructed the CDC’s efforts to assess the outbreak, and to fill the leadership void the WHO had created.

… Americans can’t simply charge into a country and begin barking orders. The CDC must be invited. Even then it plays a supporting role to local officials and the World Health Organization.

Early in this outbreak, the CDC ran into bureaucratic resistance from the WHO’s regional office in Africa. The American officials wanted a greater leadership role in managing the outbreak response, including data collection and resource deployment. The CDC’s Frieden asked Keiji Fukuda, a former CDC official who is now the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, to intervene. Fukuda flew to the WHO’s regional office in Congo and persuaded his colleagues to allow the CDC to play a larger role.

What did it take for Chan herself to act, at last?

In late July, with the epidemic roaring, Liu, the head of Doctors Without Borders (known internationally by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières), requested a meeting with WHO Director-General Margaret Chan at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters. [….]

On July 30, she implored Chan to declare an international health emergency. Chan responded that she was being very pessimistic, Liu said.

Liu replied: “Dr. Chan, I’m not being pessimistic. I’m being realistic.”

Chan soon flew to West Africa to meet with the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and announced a $100 million push to stop the outbreak.

On Aug. 8, the WHO declared a global health emergency.

Chan declined to comment for this article. The WHO’s Fukuda said that if anyone asks whether his organization did a perfect job, the answer will be, “Hell no.”

Eventually, even Ban Ki-Moon appointed someone else to carry out the responsibilities that Chan could not:

In a sign of ebbing confidence in the WHO’s ability to coordinate a response, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Aug. 12 appointed David Nabarro, 65, a longtime troubleshooter, as senior U.N. system coordinator for Ebola.

Dr. Chan ought to have been driven from office years ago. This is only the latest and most compelling reason why she should step down. The best thing that could be said of her earlier gaffes on North Korea is that they only relegated the people of one forgotten nation to sickness, hunger, and misery. But it is also true that they demonstrated a paucity of judgment and candor that foreshadowed her failure in this crisis.

By early September, there was still no agreement among the major global health organizations and governments on how to respond to the epidemic. Unlike other disaster responses, such as the one after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, no major U.N. operation was in place. And despite a 20-page “road map” that the WHO had introduced, it was unclear how anyone would put it into effect.

“Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it,” Liu, of Doctors Without Borders, told the United Nations on Sept. 2. For the first time, she implored countries to deploy their military assets – something her organization had previously opposed for health emergencies.

During these critical days and weeks of what could be the greatest global health crisis since the Spanish Influenza — if not the Black Plague — humanity can’t afford to relegate a position of such critical responsibility to someone who either can’t see the truth, can’t tell it, or can’t act on it. Can anyone in the U.N., no matter how hard she fails, ever be held accountable? If so, this is the time to show it.

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* Update: This New York Times story, written before China re-nominated Chan, paints a different picture of her, not so much as a CCP quisling — even as someone who was willing to challenge the CCP on occasion — but as someone who is simply out of her depth. Today, however, Dr. Chan must be doubly indebted to the CCP for both her rescue from disgrace and for her renomination. Chan could be a deep-red Maoist for all I care, if only she were a competent one.

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Update 2: I see that Reuters (via The New York Times) and Bloomberg have also published news articles critical of Chan’s performance. Even in this less critical Times piece, Chan admits that WHO was not prepared.

Secret Service fails to protect microphone from Joe Biden

Wasn’t the whole point of putting Joe Biden on the ticket to make us feel safer about foreign policy? I figured they’d finally have ball-gagged him after last month, but I figured wrong. Mind you, I think Biden was absolutely correct about Turkey, but this was an extremely unwise thing for the Vice President of the United States to say.

Kurt Campbell: We need tougher sanctions on North Korea.

Kurt Campbell, President Obama’s former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs and now CEO of The Asia Group, continues to debunk the pair of academic urban legends that North Korea sanctions (a) are maxed out, and (b) therefore, not a promising policy alternative. At a forum in Seoul last week, Campbell called on his former boss to “further toughen financial sanctions against North Korea” if it continues to refuse to give up its nuclear program and continues its military provocations.

“If we face real serious provocations going forward with North Korea, we have to keep one option … The fact is that if we choose, we can make life much more difficult through financial sanctions on North Korea,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the first term of President Barack Obama, said in a forum in Seoul. [Yonhap]

Unlike most journalists and academics who parrot these urban legends, Campbell has actually had the benefit of an informed examination of the authorities.

“I thought North Korea was the most sanctioned country in the world, but I was (proven) wrong when I was involved in the previous U.S. efforts to lessen sanctions on Myanmar in the past,” he said. “Myanmar is sanctioned about 10 times (more than) North Korea.” 

It would be interesting to know whether Campbell is taking a jab at his successors, or whether (as I suspect) he’s really sending a message on their behalf. Campbell also offered this elegant critique of the Sunshine Policy and its many variations:

The U.S. has for the past 20 years tried to give North Korea a choice between engagement with the international community and isolation, he said.

“The North Korean answer has always been both as opposed to choice … and it’s not clear we would be able to try to accommodate this,” he said.

Then, Campbell made another provocative suggestion: perhaps Six Parties are too many for regional diplomacy with North Korea. The question Campbell didn’t answer is who should be kicked out. There are so many good candidates for expulsion that it’s hard to see who ought to remain. North Korea itself has consistently reneged on its commitments with the other parties; talks about North Korea have proceeded before when North Korea boycotted them, and could continue as a place for the other five parties to coordinate policy and improve sanctions enforcement.

That China has demonstrated a consistent pattern of double-dealing and sanctions-busting is beyond serious debate. Talks could continue without China, among parties that really are serious about disarming North Korea. Dealings with China would have to continue in other venues, of course, but won’t make progress until China sees that the other parties are serious about enforcing sanctions.

I’ve always thought Russia’s inclusion in the 6PT was a me-too afterthought. Including Russia mostly served to give China a partner in reluctance. Since Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, Russia has shifted toward propping Pyongyang up financially and flouting North Korea sanctions, notably by forgiving North Korea’s debt and hosting Ocean Maritime Management. Japan has also broken with its allies to go its own way, and so, for that matter, has the United States when it suited us.

Finally, there is South Korea, the country with the most direct security interest in disarming North Korea, and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. defense spending each year. It’s especially ironic that Seoul has never committed itself to offering North Korea the strategic choice Campbell is talking about. Its byungjin-friendly financial subsidy of North Korea has blunted the pressure that U.N. sanctions were intended to apply, signaling to North Korea that it can have both nukes and ski resorts.

Europe is not one of the six parties, but some Europeans have offered that it should be. Europe could be offered a place, but only if it commits to playing a more productive role than it has in the past. Until recently, Europe’s main interaction with North Korea had been to host Kim Jong Un’s offshore slush funds in its banks, to sell him the luxury goods that should have paid for food instead, to support byungjin-friendly (that is, largely unconditional, regime-focused) engagement with Pyongyang despite its manifest failure, and then to oppose the strong enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions on humanitarian grounds. Despite rising consciousness of North Korea’s crimes against humanity in Europe, its compliance with U.N. sanctions is still poor.

It’s not clear to me whether there should be fewer parties than six or more, or which nations should be represented in them. It is clear that the United States has failed to use the full extent of its financial, diplomatic, cultural, and military influence to unite around a strategy of effective pressure, and then to pursue it until North Korea is disarmed — completely, verifiably, and irreversibly. Ironically for a President and a Secretary of State who each had emphasized diplomacy in their respective campaigns for the presidency, neither has had diplomatic success in coordinating the North Korea policies of our allies and military dependents in Northeast Asia, to say nothing of our rivals.

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* Byungjin is North Korea’s term for a doctrine under which it will both enrich itself economically and continue to improve its nuclear weapons capability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and who also said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

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I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [....]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

U.N. Panel of Experts to investigate M/V Mu Du Mong

A U.N. panel that upholds sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is sending personnel to investigate a North Korean cargo ship moored at a Mexican port, U.N. diplomatic sources familiar with the matter told Kyodo News. [Yonhap]

“Sending personnel” suggests that the POE will inspect the ship. The POE also sent personnel to inspect the M/V Chong Chon Gang after Panamanian authorities found it smuggling weapons last year.

The travels of the M/V Mu Du Bong were first brought to our attention by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, while it was crossing the Gulf of Mexico after a stop in Cuba. When the ship ran aground in a Mexican port, I called on the U.S. government to ask Mexico to search it, explaining that under UNSCR 2094, Mexican authorities had the authority, and arguably a duty, to do so (see paragraphs 16 and 17).

The Treasury Department has since sanctioned the Mu Du Bong and 17 other North Korean vessels, probably for their associations with Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean front company that brokered the shipment of arms from Cuba to North Korea aboard the Chong Chon Gang. NK News’s Leo Byrne has also done an excellent follow-up report, finding that Mexican authorities had impounded the Mu Du Bong for lack of proper insurance.

See also Capitol Hill Cubans.

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Update: This post was edited after publication to correct the spelling of “Chong Chon Gang.”

North Korea tries to censor a British TV series

In the case of “The Interview,” North Korea used its Japanese hostages to get to Sony pictures. Now, it’s using its diplomatic relations with Britain to get to “Opposite Number.

Those who “engage” Pyongyang always say they will change it, but Pyongyang always changes them instead.

Only terrorists make hostage videos, and North Korea just made a hostage video

… of three Americans it is holding for “crimes” that wouldn’t be cognizable as such anywhere else on earth. 

All three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to North Korea to help get them out of their situations, similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009. [CNN]

At which point, Pyongyang will present its demands. Former President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Since then, President Obama has seen no reason to reverse that misjudgment.

It’s time to ban tourist travel to North Korea.

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Update: Speculation about what those demands might be focuses, naturally, on North Korea’s demand to be recognized as a nuclear state:

“Their negotiating ploy with the U.S. is to try to get us to agree to nuclear arms control, to sort of accept them as a nuclear weapons state — which we can’t do,” Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on CNN of Pyongyang’s motivations.

[....]

“First of all, their motivation always behind these interviews has been to gather U.S. attention and then try to pave a way for high-level dialogue with Washington,” Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also told CNN.

Victor Cha, chief analyst on Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who had served as a director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, also said that the North appears to want a package deal with the U.S.

“My guess is the fact that all three of them were put on tape for an American audience on Labor Day as a signal from the North Koreans that they’re looking for some sort of package deal to try to get them all out,” Cha said. “Whether they’re trying to connect this to the long-stalled nuclear negotiations is anybody’s guess.” [Yonhap]

But for now, despite rumors of a secret visit by a U.S. envoy to Pyongyang, the White House says “that Pyongyang must demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through action if it wants to reopen negotiations with the U.S.”

Is Obama’s North Korea policy at a tipping point?

Following of Congress’s resounding, bipartisan vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy last month, Secretary of State John Kerry has been traveling around the Pacific. In Australia, while meeting with that country’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, he traversed his gargantuan mandible toward Pyongyang and threatened to tighten sanctions “if it ‘chooses the path of confrontation.” If? If?

“The United States — I want to make this clear — is absolutely prepared to improve relations with North Korea if North Korea will honor its international obligations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference, according to the State Department. “But make no mistake. We are also prepared to increase pressure, including through strong sanctions and further isolation, if North Korea chooses the path of confrontation.” 

In a joint communique, the U.S. and Australia underscored their “serious concern” that North Korea’s behavior has undermined the stability of the entire region and called on it to cease its threats and provocations and comply with its international commitments and obligations, including abandoning its nuclear, missile and proliferation activities.

They also expressed deep concern for the welfare of the North Korean people and called on Pyongyang to implement the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations for ending its ongoing systematic, widespread, and extreme violations of human rights. They said that those responsible must be held to account. [Yonhap]

It’s interesting that Kerry is trying to sound concerned about human rights. Sure, you say, President Obama could have issued an executive order targeting the assets and travel of North Korean human rights violators at any stage of his presidency, and could have modeled that executive order on similar ones it has imposed on Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe, or South Sudan, to name a few. Still, Yonhap reports that the State Department “intends to increase pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights situation.”

Kerry, in his speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu, described human rights violations in North Korea as “horrific” and cited a U.N. human rights panel’s release in February of a report that chronicled abuses suffered by many of its people.

He said the report, which documented crimes against humanity including extermination, enslavement, enforced disappearance and deliberate starvation, “revealed the utter, grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.”

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down — not tomorrow, not next week, but now. And we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said. [Kyodo News]

We’ve since seen Pyongyang’s response to that. We’ll soon know just how sincere Kerry’s concern is, when the U.N. General Assembly votes to send the Commission of Inquiry’s report to the Security Council. Words are no substitute for more tangible actions, they are a start, and a necessary part of a campaign to rally allies toward a common objective.

Kerry made the demand in an unusually strong tone in an Asia policy address on Wednesday, saying such deprivation of human dignity “just has no place in the 21st century.” He stressed that gulags must be shut down “not tomorrow, not next week, but now.” The top American diplomat also said the U.S. will continue to speak out on the issue. [Yonhap]

Continue? And merely speak? Or actually do something that would matter, like deploy the Treasury Department to sanction the persons and government agencies that are running a string of concentration camps unlike anything the world has seen since 1945?

Financial and other sanctions imposed on Iran, Russia and North Korea will be among major topics discussed when a senior U.S. Treasury official visits Seoul this week, government sources said Tuesday.

David S. Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, is scheduled to visit Seoul from Wednesday through Thursday, according to the sources. The U.S. Treasury Department said Monday that Cohen will visit Japan, South Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates and Oman during the period of Aug. 18-25.

Cohen is in charge of Washington’s sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear and long-range missile tests. In Seoul, he will meet with Lee Kyung-soo, deputy minister for political affairs at South Korea’s foreign ministry as well as Hwang Joon-kook, the country’s top nuclear envoy, the South Korean sources said. Cohen’s planned visit to Seoul comes on the heels of the recent visit by Peter Harrell, a senior U.S. diplomat on sanctions affairs.

Harrell, deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the State Department, visited in Seoul late July to ask Seoul to join Washington-led efforts to impose tougher sanctions against Russia. [Yonhap]

This doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration is laying a foundation for action, or that the action will be effective. If the administration does intend to act, however, a visit like this would be a prerequisite to that. In the wake of Japan’s bilateral lifting of sanctions to the detriment of U.S. and South Korean interests, it’s particularly essential to shore up South Korea’s determination to keep its existing sanctions in place, even as Park Geun-Hye comes under domestic political pressure to lift them. Fortunately for Park, that pressure is somewhat attenuated by her party’s good performance in recent bi-elections:

President Park Geun-hye warned Thursday that South Korea’s sanctions on North Korea are inevitable as long as Pyongyang persists in its nuclear weapons program. [....]

Under the sanctions, South Korea has suspended inter-Korean projects and banned new investments in the North, except for their joint factory park in the North’s border city of Kaesong.

Nonetheless, Park said South Korea will gradually expand exchanges and cooperation with North Korea as far as they do not undermine international cooperation on implementing U.N. sanctions. [....]

Park also said South Korea is seeking to lay the groundwork for peaceful unification with North Korea by gradually expanding exchanges and cooperation. She unveiled her unification initiative in Dresden, the former East German city she traveled to in March.  [Yonhap]

Park has to be thinking that North Korea hasn’t done anything to deserve sanctions relief, and she isn’t one to give away something for nothing. She says she’s interested in a larger bargain with Pyongyang, and that sanctions relief can be one chip in that bargain. North Korea’s unsurprising position is that the South will have to lift its sanctions as a precondition to talks. Park’s answer is that that isn’t going to happen.

That means that on multiple tracks, all talks about talks with North Korea are stuck on the preconditions. As Pyongyang stalls for time and increases its capacity to threaten its interlocutors, the interlocutors struggle to maintain a coherent and consistent position, in furtherance of a policy whose ostensible desired end state, the negotiated denuclearization of North Korea, has never seemed less likely. With nuclear diplomacy in rigor mortis and North Korea advancing its weapons programs at full speed, what those allied against North Korea need desperately is leverage, and they know sanctions are the best way to get it.

Will they finally act? If they do act, will they simply ratchet up the sort of incremental pressure that North Korea has learned to adapt to, or will they deliver enough of a shock to its system to convince Kim Jong Un that time is no longer on his side?