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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s no appeasing North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

trump-casino

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

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

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

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

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

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Introducing the OFK sanctions explainer and law library

For those who’ve wanted a compilation of the key U.N. documents, U.S. statutes, regulations, executive orders, general licenses, and third-country sanctions laws, along with a brief explanation of how those authorities work, start here and click your way around. It’s still a work in progress, but the most important authorities are there. I also added section-by-section links to the key provisions of the NKSPEA and an FAQ. Enjoy!

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Pyongyang’s peace trap: What is N. Korea’s asking price, and who will pay it?

In 1994, one might have been forgiven for believing that for the right price, an isolated, famine-stricken, and potentially unstable regime in Pyongyang might have agreed to trade a nascent nuclear weapons program for the financial foundations of a new stability. Much harder to accept, given subsequent experience, is how the Bush administration could have reached the same conclusion in 2007, when North Korea’s nuclear program was no longer nascent, and when (thanks to the Sunshine Policy’s unconditional aid, and Pyongyang’s resourceful use of hunger to enforce its control) the regime had survived the famine intact.

But perhaps, the Obama administration might have reckoned, the problem was that our focus was too wide, and we should start with a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. To no avail; in 2012, Kim Jong-un reneged on a freeze deal within six weeks by test-launching a “satellite.” So when Joel Wit — who claims some involvement in the negotiations of both the 1994 and 2007 agreements, and who has said that at least the first of these “worked very well”* — argues in the pages of the New York Times that the situation is grave and deteriorating quickly, I won’t argue with the latter assertion. Nor will I deny that our North Korea policy has failed, although I wonder why this suggests that we should default to what has failed before.

A successful strategy will have to include a new diplomatic initiative aimed at persuading the North to first stop expanding its arsenal and then to eventually reduce and dismantle its weapons. [Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]

I understand why we’d want to halt North Korea’s proliferation if we could do so for an acceptable price. We can only speculate what Pyongyang’s asking price is, but we’ll turn to that in a moment. Experience should teach us to be especially cautious of vague discussions with North Korea, with its aptitude for creative interpretation, its frequent assertion of fresh demands, and the inexorable advance of its goalposts.

To persuade the North Koreans to do this, Washington will have to address [Pyongyang’s] security concerns. In the short term, that may mean temporarily suspending or modifying some American-South Korean military exercises. In the longer term, it may mean replacing the armistice in place since the end of the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement.

This sets the table for a decade of creative interpretation, fresh demands, and inexorably advancing goalposts. What possible agreement might this yield that both Pyongyang and Seoul would accept? 

The more immediate obstacle could be Seoul, whose interests Wit doesn’t directly discuss. But surely any sensible South Korean president can predict how a nuclear North Korea would escalate its demands during a protracted peace treaty negotiation — and the more protracted the negotiation, the better for Pyongyang. Pyongyang would seek to sideline Seoul through bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, just as North Vietnam sidelined South Vietnam in 1973. With its leverage enhanced and growing, such a negotiation would become a process for the gradual, unilateral disarmament of the U.S.-ROK coalition, the lifting of sanctions, the de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, and a series of incremental surrenders of South Koreans’ freedom to protest Pyongyang’s brutality (thus giving that brutality greater license and a longer reach).

To be sure, Wit also advocates tightening sanctions and reassuring our allies of our protection, although this is difficult to reconcile with his proposals that we sacrifice the readiness of the forces defending Korea by canceling exercises. It’s possible, of course, that the government South Koreans elect in 2017 either won’t understand or won’t mind any of these implications. Not every potential candidate is sensible enough to predict how a “peace process” would proceed. One of them just might become South Korea’s own Nguyen Van Thieu.

Nor is it in Pyongyang’s interest to agree to a freeze right now, just as it’s at the brink of achieving the very goal it has pursued with methodical determination for decades. Whatever the terms of a deal would be, Wit isn’t quite convincing that Pyongyang is interested in them. At one point, he claims that “North Korean officials have even told me in private” that Washington could persuade them “to stop their bad behavior.” (Victor Cha, who also participated in these discussions, interprets the North Koreans’ view as little more than a repetition of “talking points.”) So is Pyongyang buying what Wit is selling?

Nevertheless, there are signs that North Korea is interested in dialogue. On July 6, the government issued a pronouncement ostensibly seeking denuclearization talks with the United States, specifically mentioning Kim Jong-un’s name in support of this initiative.

Later, however, Wit says that the North Koreans aren’t all that interested:

These initiatives will be met with skepticism not only in the United States — where many people believe that negotiating with North Korea is a waste of time — but also in Pyongyang. As a North Korean official, who believes a new administration will just tear up previous agreements, said to me earlier this year, “It’s easier for us to build nuclear weapons than to be involved with you for decades only to have agreements turn into useless scraps of paper.”

Here, Wit is almost certainly correct. Why, indeed, would Kim Jong-un freeze the nuclear program his father and grandfather pursued with such determination and at such cost for so many decades, given that it is his instrument for completing their legacy and asserting de facto negotiated hegemony over all of Korea?

Unless, of course, the asking price is right. This is what makes America the “indispensable” party.

One reason North Korea may be motivated to consider denuclearization is economic. Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has been committed to improving his country’s economy. He seems to believe that nuclear weapons would allow even more focus on that objective. Nevertheless, he has deliberately left room to ease off the nuclear track and explore a dialogue, perhaps reflecting an understanding that there are limits to what his country’s economy can achieve while it is isolated from the international community. Of course, no one is naïve enough to take these statements at face value. Talks between governments are the only way to know for sure.

Even if this year’s election is deservedly apocalyptic for the GOP, who supposes that Congress would appropriate funds to pay Kim Jong-un’s asking price? Does the President even have the power to unilaterally suspend or lift sanctions, given the specific conditions Congress set in sections 401 and 402 of the NKSPEA, and which the President agreed to when he signed the bill into law? Not unless Congress passes legislation like the Menendez bill that cleared away for the Iran deal. Who supposes the next Congress would pass that, assuming any American president proposed it?

More fundamentally, concluding a peace treaty in the foreseeable future isn’t in Pyongyang’s interest. It needs the threat of war to justify its existence. Its leaders, and elements of its population, may be biochemically addicted to instigating conflict. Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship, meaning that it will never recognize coexistence with societies that cling to the freedom to criticize and parody its deity, a man who is among the world’s easiest and most deserving targets for criticism and parody. Is there any limit to the fresh demands Pyongyang will add to those it achieves during a hypothetical “peace process?” Will Americans and South Koreans be willing to forfeit their freedom of speech and expression to buy a moment’s peace before the next threat?

Let’s end this post by burning down some straw men. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with talking to North Korean diplomats informally to gauge their positions. Should an acceptable, verifiable, enforceable diplomatic solution come into focus, that would be so good as to verge on the miraculous. Informal Track 2 talks between North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats, however, too often have become proxy wars between the policies of the past and the policies of the present.

Perhaps, two years from now, determined sanctions enforcement and subversive information operations can shift the relative bargaining positions of the parties enough that for once, Pyongyang will come to the table prepared to bargain in good faith. But when talks yield nothing more than vague expressions of possible interest in agreement on undefined terms, the proper response is to nod politely and calendar the next meeting, not to declare on the pages of The New York Times that peace —  however vague, elusive, or costly to our interests and values — may finally be at hand.

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* Since corrected. I’m not sure Wit has argued that the 2007 deal also “worked very well.”

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U.N. & Obama vacillate as our last chance to stop Kim Jong-un runs out

Have you ever heard the late Christopher Hitchens speak about his visit to North Korea, and how he promised himself that he would not use the “1984” cliche? “Eventually,” Hitchens said, “They make you do it.” I believe it was sometime around 2007 that I made the same promise to myself about the Hans Blix scene in “Team America” when speaking of the U.N.’s response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen behavior. It has become another cliche, but they also make you do it.

This week, Samantha Power went to the Security Council and said this:

The DPRK’s missile tests help it to threaten the territory of even more countries in the region, whether through its land-based missiles or now via its recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Once the DPRK has the capability to do so, we know what they intend to do with these missile systems, because they have told us. They are explicit: they intend to arm the systems with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un said this himself yesterday, according to the DPRK’s official news agency. [….]

The Security Council must remain unequivocal and united in condemnation of these tests, and we must take action to enforce the words we put on paper – to enforce our resolutions.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, words words words or something. At least the White House made a feint at meeting the test posed by Power’s last clause when it refused to rule out more sanctions, but there aren’t any signs that it means to impose any, either. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, spokesman Josh Earnest (whose name is an oxymoron) said that the U.S. and China have worked “cooperatively in a coordinated fashion” to “steadily ratchet up” the pressure on North Korea. Unless Earnest really means that we’re cooperating with Beijing because we’ve capitulated to it, this is just more bullshit.

Despite the evidentiary and analytical challenges of calculating North Korea’s trade with China, the best evidence we have suggests that China continues to exploit the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports to prop up Kim Jong-un’s rule. Despite the importance of drawing distinctions between trade that feeds the North Korean people and trade that props up the regime, bilateral trade hasn’t fallen much overall, and the small decline may owe more to China’s sagging economy than to its enforcement of sanctions. To make up for the drop in the coal trade and falling prices, China is sending more tourists to North Korea and accepting more slave labor from North Korea, including those formerly employed at Kaesong. Beijing is also engaging in public displays of affection with Pyongyang to show how much more worried it is about South Korean missile defense than it is about North Korean missiles.

China’s recent purchase of North Korean fishing rights was unconscionable and inhumane. It took away a source of food that should fill the markets that feed North Korea’s poor, and replaced it with another source of unrestricted cash for the ruling class in Pyongyang. By doing so, it arguably violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To state what should be obvious, Kim Jong-un is politically invested in his weapons programs and won’t change his behavior unless the world can unite to coerce that change. Evans Revere, a recovering engager whom I probably wouldn’t have cited approvingly a few years ago, is almost certainly correct when he says, “The only way to get North Korea’s attention is to put at risk the one thing that North Korea values more highly than its nuclear weapons. That’s the future existence of the regime.” Revere now concedes that positive incentives haven’t worked on Pyongyang, and with North Korea “rapidly improving its ability to deliver nuclear and other weapons toward specific targets accurately,” we can’t rule out the possibility that it “might seek to use nuclear weapons to blackmail one or more of its neighbors.” Well, yes.

Japan and South Korea are both calling for more sanctions to prevent this outcome, but it’s fairly clear that the Obama administration isn’t pushing for any, and is mostly concerned with avoiding any sort of crisis before it slinks out of town, after having wasted eight critical years. South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers will visit Washington in October to make their case for “specific measures” again. Seoul thinks this may be its last chance to prevent North Korea from reaching nuclear breakout and subjecting it to the slow strangulation of nuclear blackmail, and I suspect that they’re probably right about that. Hopefully, when President Obama met with President Park instead of the President of the Philippines, she made that case forcefully. Nothing less than South Korea’s survival as a democracy depends on it.

With our time quickly running out, the idea of settling for a piece of paper from the U.N. is madness. Although the U.N. statement hints at “significant measures,” a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying that “many council members supported the idea of further measures,” but “fell short of a consensus.” So presumably, China continues to be unhelpful and obstructionist, the Obama administration continues to be weak and indecisive, and no further resolutions will be forthcoming until Pyongyang does something else, like another nuke test. And perhaps, not even then.

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As for what sanctions we should impose now, I posted my own wish list in July. It includes:

(1) the designation of North Korean entities, such as Air Koryo, the DPRK Central Bank, and North Korea’s state insurance companies, all of which are facilitating sanctions violations;

(2) the closing of loopholes left over from UNSCR 2270, including the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports; and

(3) new measures, including a ban on labor and food exports by North Korea, and a requirement to disclose beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals to the Panel of Experts.

In the case of Air Koryo, there’s no question that it flagrantly violates the luxury goods ban; journalists have tweeted photographs of huge flat screen TVs being loaded aboard its flights. The U.N. Panel of Experts has implicated Air Koryo in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts, and notes that the dual civilian and military use of some of its aircraft could itself constitute a violation of the arms embargo. The Panel of Experts has also noted that Air Koryo holds a number of suspicious debts to recently formed shell companies, implying that Air Koryo is involved in money laundering or sanctions evasion. According to South Korean press reports, Air Koryo is also used to ferry bulk cash to evade U.N. sanctions. 

As for concerns that Air Koryo also engages in legitimate civilian business, I would respond that if Air Koryo were to be designated, third-country airlines would take over its routes, because Pyongyang needs to have air commerce of some kind. The same can be said of North Korea’s financial, shipping, and insurance industries. Pyongyang has repeatedly used all of these state-owned industries for sanctions evasion and proliferation. If those industries were sanctioned and shut down, then third-country airlines, insurers, ships, and banks — which would presumably have more incentives to follow the law — would take up the slack. That would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to violate U.N. sanctions.

Above all, however, U.N. member states must be willing to use their national laws to impose secondary sanctions on entities — especially Chinese entities — that knowingly help Pyongyang violate U.N. sanctions. This is now a requirement under U.S. law, and I remain concerned that the Obama administration isn’t following it. Without secondary sanctions — and most critically, the strict enforcement of secondary financial sanctions against North Korea’s bank accounts in China and elsewhere — North Korea will find ways around the sanctions, because plenty of Chinese companies will be willing to help it find those ways. Are we serious about global nonproliferation, the security of the world’s most economically vital region, and the protection of the democratic system of our treaty ally in South Korea? I’m searching in vain for any evidence that we are.

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Update: Stop the presses. Maybe President Park was persuasive after all.

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What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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Why Treasury should require banks to keep records about N. Korean beneficial ownership

In my policy discussions about North Korea, two of the smartest sanctions skeptics I’ve debated are professors John Park and James Walsh. Not only are they both genuinely nice people, their skepticism points to flaws and gaps in the sanctions regime, and that skepticism ultimately serves to improve the quality of the sanctions and their enforcement. They’ve been particularly persuasive about the importance of pursuing “North Korea Inc.,” Pyongyang’s extensive and shadowy network of agents and trading companies in China, who facilitate not only its legal trade, but also act as money launderers and purchasing agents for its WMD programs and luxury goods demands. Such is the nature of money laundering; it uses legal trade to conceal illegal trade.

One answer to Park and Walsh’s criticisms is to add one additional special measure, found at 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), to the special measures Treasury previously announced on June 1st. This measure would require financial institutions to collect information on the beneficial ownership of property by North Korean persons, or of property in North Korea. That would mirror the European Union’s recent blacklisting of North Korea for money laundering, which triggers increased beneficial ownership reporting rules.

Happily, I’m joined in this view by the most accomplished North Korea sanctions expert I know, William J. Newcomb, who previously served with the CIA, Treasury, State Department, and the U.N. Panel of Experts (here’s a link to an address Bill gave to the Korea Society). Today, Bill and I posted a public comment on Treasury’s proposed special measures against North Korean money laundering. You can read the full text of the comment below the fold, annotated with hyperlinks. It should also be available on the federal regulations portal shortly.

To read the full comment, click the “continue reading” button below.

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If Pyongyang won’t disarm, what’s the point of talks?

Two think-pieces published last week, one by Sahand Moaref in The Diplomat and one by Patrick Cronin in Beyond Parallel, have encouraged me to write down some thoughts in response the best questions about North Korea sanctions, which have to do with our ultimate objectives, and how we can use sanctions relief as a diplomatic inducement without throwing away our leverage (today’s post is the first installment of those thoughts). There are also legitimate questions about our objectives. Is it to extract a diplomatic solution, or is it to induce the collapse the regime?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” No one need convince me of the chaos and risk that would follow regime collapse in North Korea, although where we’re headed now — a North Korea that extorts the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with impunity, that controls what films we can see, and that proliferates weapons of mass destruction to sponsors of terrorism without fear of consequence, scares me vastly more.

Of course, everyone would still prefer to see a diplomatic solution, but our diplomats’ past approaches to achieving one have failed. As those approaches failed over the course of decades, our best policy options ran out. The simple, hard truth may be that Kim Jong-un is existentially tied to both the possession of nuclear weapons and the use of those weapons to threaten the United States and its allies. We’re now left to choose between alternatives that are merely unlikely and those that are delusional.

What if there is simply no plausible diplomatic strategy to talk Kim Jong-un out of his nukes?

In fact, almost no one still believes that Pyongyang, at least as its leadership is presently constituted and disposed, is likely to agree to give up its nuclear weapons, its missiles, or its other offensive firepower along the DMZ that threatens South Korea. How do we know? Not only because Pyongyang says so constantly — North Korea says a lot of things we don’t necessarily believe, after all — but because it has made the possession of nuclear weapons an essential element of its nationalist propaganda and of Kim Jong-un’s personal legitimacy. It has even amended its constitution to call itself a nuclear state.

Experts can call for talks all they want, but they should expect us to ask in return, “Talk about what, exactly?”

Do advocates of this approach believe that North Korea doesn’t really mean what it says, and that it actually would disarm for the right price? This strikes me as both baseless and delusional. And by paying “the right price” before North Korea’s disarmament can be assured, we’d have to sacrifice the concerted international pressure that is our last slender hope for a negotiated disarmament of North Korea.

Do they believe that a combination of engagement, confidence-building, and starting a long diplomatic process with less ambitious diplomatic goals (a freeze) would eventually build up to complete disarmament? How long would this process take? How many nuclear weapons would North Korea build during this long process? How could we possibly hope to verify a freeze, or any other intermediate agreement? Would North Korea be more or less likely to sign up for the eventual goal — full disarmament — after having purchased the time to build an arsenal that would, by then, be both extensive and effective? And of course, we’ve tried variations of this approach for years; all have been conclusive failures. (See, e.g., the Leap Day deal, the Sunshine Policy). Proponents of this approach are now obligated to explain why this time would be different.

Or do they think the world could learn to live with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea if we simply reduced tensions with Pyongyang? This proposition is the very operational definition of appeasement, and is the most dangerously delusional of all. Calls for a “peace treaty” with North Korea are a variation of this idea that’s currently popular with the extreme left (and coincidentally, in Pyongyang). What proponents of this approach downplay is the certainty that during this necessarily extended negotiation process, Pyongyang would demand a series of preconditions — the lifting of sanctions, the cancellation of military exercises, the withdrawal of anti-missile defenses, the suppression of diplomatic (and perhaps, private) criticism of Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and favorable regime-sustaining trade and subsidies. Because this would throw away all the leverage we have to disarm Pyongyang, it would amount to a de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. Giving Pyongyang these preconditions would also strengthen the regime domestically while putting Pyongyang in a strong position to gain nuclear hegemony over Seoul, finlandize it, and extort it into slow submission (a more plausible and useful objective for Pyongyang today than outright military conquest). This is why I’ve said that Pyongyang doesn’t want peace, or even a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants a peace treaty negotiation.

Of course, Pyongyang has already violated an Armistice, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, the NPT, two agreed frameworks, the 2005 joint statement, and the Leap Day deal. Why should we believe that yet another piece of paper would protect us?

Finally, do they believe that if sanctions build sufficient pressure, perhaps denuclearization can be negotiated? No one who understands sanctions would be advocating dialogue with Pyongyang now. Even if we can pressure China into enforcing them that long, sanctions will take a minimum of two years to do real damage to North Korea’s palace economy, and other subversive measures to complement sanctions will likely take even longer than this. 

But at least this approach, as unlikely as it is to result in a verifiable negotiated disarmament of Pyongyang, isn’t completely delusional; after all, sanctions have at least helped get Pyongyang to agree to disarm (before it reneged). I’ve used the phrase “igneous heat and metamorphic pressure” to describe what will be needed to change Pyongyang’s mind. Sanctions are an essential part of a policy to create this heat and pressure, but so are coalition diplomacy, law enforcement, public diplomacy, information operations, and direct engagement that empowers the North Korean people even as sanctions weaken the regime’s machinery of control.

Together, these instruments of international power can present Pyongyang with the choice it has successfully resisted for decades — to reform, or to perish. Pyongyang’s choice may come in the form of a diplomatic outreach, several false starts, and years of hard bargaining. It may also require some kind of coup or power shift, which sanctions may help catalyze if we discredit Kim Jong-un’s byungjin policy sufficiently. But unless we send a clear signal that we’re prepared to induce the collapse of North Korea’s political system barring such an agreement, that agreement will never come.

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Andrei Lankov doesn’t really know if North Korea sanctions are working

It’s no secret that I’ve been a skeptic of “engagement” with Pyongyang from the very beginning, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrei Lankov. His Korea Times columns, his book, and his other writings on social, historical, and political matters have been so useful that I often cite them, despite his unrealized predictions or the silly things he occasionally writes. His view of engagement isn’t just the conventional approach of wheeling a catapult up the DMZ and flinging bundles of unmarked bills over the fence; Andrei also advocates more subversive and creative approaches that I also support. In a field with more than its share of pomposity, he’s humble, affable, and usually honest enough to admit when he’s wrong. He’s been to my house, and he’s still welcome. Our disagreements make for lively discussions. I hope that after what follows, he’ll still stop by. But on the specialized topic of sanctions, Andrei is in over his head.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei seems very confident that sanctions aren’t working and never will. But as anyone who follows this story carefully knows, (1) the sanctions are only now being implemented, (2) as he eventually admits, sanctions need more than a few days, weeks, or month to work, (3) the evidence he cites is cherry-picked or unreliable, (4) he overlooks some promising signs that the sanctions are working, and mostly (5) he doesn’t understand the sanctions or how they work.

RFA: What has been the impact of the increased international trade sanctions against North Korea?

Lankov: I believe that four indicators show that the sanctions so far have not produced any significant impact. These involve declining grain prices in North Korea; a steadiness in exchange rates; only a minor decrease in the electrical supply in Pyongyang; and zero change in major North Korean construction projects.

U.S. and U.N. sanctions passed in February and March, respectively, and their implementation deadlines are only now coming due. For example, the U.S. can’t implement its designation of North Korea as a primary money laundering concern and cut off North Korean banks’ correspondent relationships until August 2nd, because 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(5) requires formal rule-making and a notice-and-comment period. Nor is it realistic to believe that we’d have found and frozen Kim Jong-un’s hidden slush funds just two weeks after designating him. The European Union only added North Korea to its own anti-money laundering blacklist last week, and Switzerland only enacted implementing regulations in May.

The deadline for nations to file their compliance plans with the 1718 Committee was June 2nd, but many African and Middle Eastern have yet to comply. In some cases, diplomatic pressure was necessary to secure that compliance. Our diplomats have years of hard work ahead of them.

RFA: The South Koreans have been urging some African nations to cut their ties with North Korea. Uganda said that it wouldn’t renew contracts for North Koreans who are training their military and police. Is this a significant development?

Lankov: Africa isn’t a major source of income for North Korea. Many more North Korean workers are employed in Russia and China—more than 40,000 altogether. And thousands of North Korean workers are employed in the Middle East, in countries such as Kuwait, the U.A.E., and Qatar. North Korea sells weapons to Middle Eastern countries with no questions asked, and these are countries that don’t worry about the human rights side of all this.

There are signs that diplomatic and financial pressure are impacting North Korean operations in Kuwait, Qatar, and other countries. For reasons I explained here, if we’re smart, we’ll turn to China and Russia last. Each of these income sources is small by our terms, but important for some factions in the North Korean regime. All of these income sources must come under pressure for sanctions to work.

To give you some frame of reference, it took three years for the last key piece of sanctions legislation to crush Iran’s economy. Treasury declared Burma to be a primary money laundering concern in 2004; Congress passed tough sanctions in the Burma JADE Act in 2008; and global diplomatic pressure continued to rise until the government released Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010. 

Andrei also overlooks a growing body of evidence that sanctions are starting to have an impact. Bureau 39 agents can’t pay their debts, which may or may not mean that Chinese banks froze their accounts. The regime is squeezing its overseas workers and diplomats so hard that some of them are defecting or mutinying. That, in turn, is causing Pyongyang to withdraw some of them and clamp down harder on others. A global diplomatic and human rights campaign is causing other states to send those workers home or stop granting visas to their replacements.

RFA: The U.S. and South Korea as well as human rights groups have called on other nations to stop employing North Korean workers, because many of these workers labor under harsh conditions and most of their income goes to the Kim Jong Un regime. Has this been effective in curbing the regime’s income?

Lankov:  I would say that two thirds to three quarters of the workers’ salaries go to the state. But the remaining amount still makes these by far the best jobs that ordinary North Koreans can get. It might make sense to stop North Korea from making money from the income of these workers. But let’s not pretend that we’re helping these suffering workers by doing so. People pay bribes to get these jobs.

Just to remind you what Andrei is defending here, North Korean workers in his homeland toil 20 hours a day, only to have their wages stolen by the state or by their managers, and loggers who run away are literally hamstrung by their managers. Anyone who pays a bribe to get that kind of work has been deceived about what he’s getting himself into.

RFA: China agreed to the U.N.-sponsored sanctions. But do you see signs that China is doing enough to implement them?

Lankov: It’s unclear whether China is deliberately avoiding the implementation of some sanctions, but the participation of China is absolutely vital. One problem, however, is that relations between the U.S. and China are worsening. The Chinese will see no reason to help sort out what they see as essentially an American problem.

It’s correct that China’s compliance record has been mixed since it voted for UNSCR 2270. This is still a vast improvement over its long history of willfully flouting U.N. sanctions, but mixed enforcement isn’t good enough anymore.

Russia turned in its compliance plan just last week — six weeks late and evidently written on a vodka-stained bar napkin. The entire report is one page long, a curiously brief submission for a nation that hosted the Ocean Maritime Management office that arranged the Chong Chon Gang arms shipment, which has invited North Korean nuclear scientists into its laboratories, which still allows designated North Korean companies to operate on its soil, and which has set up a ruble clearinghouse with North Korea as an obvious sanctions dodge.

The U.S., South Korea, and their allies must keep the pressure on Chinese and Russian interests. China isn’t a monolith. Its banks, ports, and government ministries have different interests, and therefore, different responses to sanctions. The critical decision we must make for sanctions to work is to threaten the interests of its banks and businesses that enable Kim Jong-un, and that need access to our markets and our financial system. They must be forced to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business with the United States, or they’ll continue to choose both.

Even so, there has been a sharp decline in China-North Korea trade recently. Official statistics show declines in coal exports, overall exports, and North Korea’s trade with China. I’ll allow that we should treat these statistics skeptically. China’s economic decline and North Korea’s pathological ambivalence about trade could also account for this decline, although it’s noteworthy that bilateral trade actually rose in the first quarter of 2016 before falling sharply. Evidence of vacant office buildings, half-empty warehouses, and reports of disruptions to trade and banking relationships all suggest that there is some truth behind the official statistics. If these reports are accurate, Pyongyang’s financial situation will deteriorate in the coming months.

Yes, food prices in North Korea have remained mostly stable, and for the reasons I explained here, that’s good news. Sanctions do not target the food supply. So far, their targeting appears to be working as intended. 

RFA: And if grain prices have decreased, isn’t this a sign that the sanctions were designed to spare ordinary North Koreans from suffering any more than they do already?

Lankov: The idea of selective sanctions—the idea that sanctions can spare the ordinary people—is a fantasy.

Evidence, please? Where, for example, is the evidence that the Banco Delta Asia sanctions caused suffering to ordinary North Koreans? The evidence of the pain they caused Kim Jong-il even a year after they were imposed, on the other hand, is difficult to deny. The argument is also contradictory — on one hand, Andrei argues that sanctions are failing because they aren’t starving the poor; on the other hand, he argues against sanctions because they will starve the poor.

Can we avoid all adverse impacts on ordinary North Koreans? Regrettably, probably not, and we should be ready to mitigate those impacts with food aid if necessary. But so far, I can cite more evidence that sanctions have improved North Korea’s food supply than Andrei can cite that they’ve strained it. Sanctions have prevented Kim Jong-un from exporting luxury food for cash; that food has been sold at a discount in the markets instead. Sanctions have also forced trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. Whatever adverse impacts sanctions may have, they’ll surely pale in comparison to the sanctions Kim Jong-un has imposed on his own people by restricting market trade, cutting down private crops, confiscating and replanting private farms, and restricting cross-border trade.

As for that new construction, it’s largely supported by the use of forced labor. Its specific purpose, as RFA reports, is to persuade foreign observers that sanctions aren’t working.

RFA: When you mention electricity supply holding relatively steady, how can you measure this? Don’t electricity shortages vary from region to region in North Korea? And the North Koreans consider themselves technically at war. They’re big on camouflage, concealment, and deception.

Lankov: Studies at Stanford University have shown that under sanctions, the North Korean leadership can simply reallocate electricity from the countryside to the capital. Of course, they still face electrical shortages, as always. But the regime has to keep the elite citizens of the capital happy.

I’ve already fisked that study here. It did too poor a job of surveying the sanctions to establish a causal link to any condition inside North Korea. Nor did it account for any number of alternative explanations for its observations. In fact, a source I can’t name reports that since the sanctions were imposed, Pyongyang has had more hours of electricity than usual. For what it’s worth, my source speculates that that’s because Pyongyang is using coal it can’t export to generate electricity at home.

RFA: There’s a long history of sanctions not working in a number of cases, but they did work against South Africa.

Lankov: Sanctions against South Africa worked because it was a democracy. They had to take into account what their own people were thinking. Sanctions don’t work when a leader can ignore the views of the common people, which is the case with North Korea … Sanctions worked in Iran because while the system is twisted and lacking in many ways, they do have elections and some accountability. They do have to listen to public opinion. Sanctions do not seem to work well against an isolated country.

Wait, apartheid was democracy? This certainly would have shocked the non-white South Africans I knew there in 1990! I lived just west of Johannesburg for a few pivotal months in South African history, four years after the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, and just as F.W. DeKlerk began repealing the apartheid laws. 

Legally speaking, by the way, North Korea and South Africa sanctions have as much in common as elderberries and Fruity Pebbles. The CAAA was a dog’s breakfast of symbolic gestures (banning Krugerrands) and protectionist goodies (banning sugar, iron, and steel imports) unworthy of the just cause it was meant to serve. It never invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, even in its paleozoic pre-9/11 form, never blocked South African government assets, never cut its banks’ access to the financial system, and politely warned P.W. Botha to move his government’s money from U.S. banks to, say, Switzerland within 45 days.

Four years after those sanctions took effect, my anecdotal impression of South Africa’s economy was that it was stagnant but functional. The impact of the sanctions was mostly psychological, but powerfully so. Sanctions didn’t wreck the South African economy, but they did persuade the white minority that the world was closing in. All oligarchies are sensitive to that perception, even if North Korea’s one percent has fewer ways to express that. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the world will soon begin to close in on Pyongyang, too.

If you pushed Andrei, I suspect he’d be honest enough admit that he’s not a sanctions expert, and that he’s really arguing his policy opinions. This isn’t to say that only experts can craft reasonable conclusions and arguments in specialized topics. I’m no expert on missile defense, so for this post, I consulted two people who are. I can’t say for certain how many of the relevant resolutions, statutes, or executive orders he’s read (I tried to ask him, but he’s traveling). Sanctions are a specialized field. Not every generic “North Korea expert” qualifies as a sanctions expert.

I raise this point, despite some hesitation, because most generic North Korea experts spent the last two decades repeating — and most journalists spent the last two decades printing — the myth that North Korea was the world’s most heavily sanctioned country. Legally, this was nonsense, and anyone who had bothered to research it could have questioned it, but it supported the inference that “tough” sanctions had failed. Maybe people repeated this because it supported their policy arguments. Or, maybe they’d heard so many people say it that they didn’t bother to check.

Now that this myth has been mostly debunked, sanctions are a hot topic again. Ironically, some of the same “experts” who got the sanctions story wrong for years are still being quoted as experts in the newspapers. I don’t mean to pick on Andrei here. Jenny Town is a lovely human being and, as far as I know, a fine arms control expert. Joel Wit is such an experienced diplomat that every time he talks North Korea into disarming, someone asks him to disarm it all over again.

Still, maybe it’s time for those reporters to expand their rolodexes to keep up with the times. William Newcomb, David Asher, Juan Zarate, George Lopez, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Peter Harrell, Martin Uden, Andrea Berger, and Joseph DeThomas all have expert-level knowledge of sanctions law or experience in sanctions administration at the national or international level. These aren’t all people I agree with, but they know more than the people who’ll read their opinions in the papers. That’s the least that any journalist should expect of an expert.

To work, sanctions will need good faith compliance by U.N. member states and time. Gaining international support and time, in turn, will require governments to put their diplomatic muscle into the fight. As Ambassador Mark Lippert said recently, “sanctions aren’t just a short-term game.” 

Yet some supporters of engagement policies, many of them people who never understood sanctions and still don’t, are ready to declare sanctions a failure at the starting line. The policy fiasco they backed wasted decades and billions of dollars, and I have yet to hear one of them cite a single significant, positive change engagement achieved. This is not to say that all would keep digging us deeper into that hole. Evans Revere, for example, now wants to make North Korea “stare into the abyss,” and I suppose he should be commended for yielding to the evidence. James Hoare confesses that “after 40 years,” he is “rather bored with it all.” The views of Chris Nelson and Daniel Pinkston have quite obviously shifted, too. As Andrei admits elsewhere, Washington’s consensus has shifted toward support for sanctions, at least for the time being.

But to the bitter-enders who want to go back to these failed appeasement policies now, and who measure success in terms of designer shoe sightings in Pyongyang, how many decades must pass, how many billions must we spend, and how many nukes will Pyongyang have before it opens a Jimmy Choo’s? How many North Koreans must die before we see the changes and reforms they’ve spent decades promising us? Engagers demanded endless patience with their Sisyphean fiasco, yet beat the drum of fierce urgency to pressure President Obama into Agreed Framework III. Now, they call on us to abandon sanctions before we’ve even begun to turn the screws. I’d like to borrow a cup of chutzpah from these people.

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U.S. joins diplomatic squeeze on North Korean labor exports

Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:

SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.

(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and

   (2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.

(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;

   (2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and

   (3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.

The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.

“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]

U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.

Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:

[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]

However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]

The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.

South Korea is also joining the campaign, following its promising reports from Africa and Cambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”

Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argument I’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.

Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.

Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 7.45.00 AM

[Wall Street Journal]

Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.

The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.

“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.

“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.

North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.

North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.

The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.

“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]

Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.

Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.

North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.

One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.

The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:

After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.  [WSJ]

Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:

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Barack Obama disappointed Kim Jong-il. Donald Trump will disappoint Kim Jong-un.

We will see a better relationship between the U.S. and the Korean Peninsula with Obama, who sternly criticizes Bush and who would meet the leader of Chosun without pre-conditions, than with the “Bush clone” and scarecrow of the neocons McCain.

                             – from the pro-Pyongyang Chosun Sinbo, June 9, 2008 (original Korean here)

Like most of you, I slept uneasily on the night after the New Hampshire primary results came in. When sleep finally did come, dreamed I was tending an empty bar in Aspen during the off-season, as Wolf Blitzer droned in the background about the Democratic front-runner’s historic negative likability ratings. I contemplated closing the bar early when two vaguely familiar-looking men staggered in, sharing the swaggering, manic laugh of newly divorced junk bond traders on a weekend bender in Cartagena.

“Garcon, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red!”

In my dream, I brought a bottle and two glasses of ice. Squinting through the dim light, I realized that my patrons were none other than James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal. They were engrossed in somber, brooding discussions of their least-favorite subject (their hapless candidate) and more raucous discussions of their favorite subject (Republicans). Over Wolf’s sonorous rambling, I heard the unmistakable sound of a wager offered — that a plurality of GOP primary voters was so blinded by its rage at Barack Obama that it would vote for his nearest temperamental opposite, no matter how comically stupid, racist, and neurotic he might be to the majority of the U.S. electorate. To this plurality of a minority, it wouldn’t matter how substantively ignorant he was, or how glaringly unfit he was to control the FBI, the NSA, the FCC, judicial appointments, and the nuclear codes.

“There are two sides to every Bell Curve.”

“In fact, I know just the guy. So do you. Think about it.”

They shared a knowing look, peals of loud laughter, and (if I’m not mistaken) a line of coke. “Hell, even she couldn’t lose to him!” Hands were shaken. Unspeakable services were promised to the winner. I shuddered as I thought that here were the sort of men who kept few promises, except for promises like these. 

And then, I awoke. I’d fallen asleep with the TV on and awakened from one nightmare into another.

Much overanalysis of Donald Trump this year has described him as a new species of political savant, but there’s nothing new about his species. Vast swaths of Africa, Latin America, and the ‘stans are governed by men just like him. I incline to the view that Trump’s success, so far, is mostly a function of the civic nihilism of our news media and the idiocy of the ovine masses who bleat at his trough. He is to politics what Lord Arthur Scoresby is to tactics. Until now, he has been lucky enough to be the firmest stool in the fecal smorgasbord that is this year’s ballot. If, five months from now, the polls in my state dictate that it is my solemn duty to vote for Mrs. Clinton to preserve our republican form of government, I’ll close my eyes and think of America, and of how much garden-variety, devil-I-know incompetence and mendacity it has already survived, without interruption, since January of 1993.

ratched

[Good morning, Ma’am. I’ve come to check myself in and entrust myself to your care.]

By now, you may be wondering if I’m coming to a point about North Korea. You may already have forgotten that two weeks and several Donald Trump outrages ago, Trump casually sharted out that he’d be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. He has since reaffirmed that he’d “negotiate” with Kim. This drew immediate and heavy criticism from conservatives with views as diverse as Mark Levin, Gordon Chang, Michael Green and Adam Kinzinger. Even the pro-Trump Breitbart didn’t quite seem to know how to react.

How shocked we should really be depends on some unknowns. Of course Trump would negotiate with Kim Jong-un. So did Hillary Clinton, through her diplomats. So did Barack Obama. George W. Bush and (of course) Bill Clinton talked to Kim Jong-il. And at the right time, so would I. That right time is at least two years in the future, after sanctions, subversion, and information operations force Kim (or, more likely, a junta of generals) to breach North Korea’s isolation and accept fundamental transparency, disarmament, and reform as the price of survival. (The sanctions, however, would stay firmly in place until he performed. The conditions for suspending and lifting them are now written into statute.)

From there, however, the questions proliferate. Does Trump’s offer mean he won’t ask China to assassinate Kim Jong-un (as if), or that he’d defer that part of the discussion for later? Does he still think Kim Jong-un is a “madman” who is “sick enough to use” a nuke? Would he still conspire with China to “close down” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or ask China to make Kim “disappear”? Would these be direct talks or would he use, you know, diplomats for that? Would Trump go to Pyongyang? (He later said he wouldn’t, thus preempting the question of whether he’d stay.) Does he have any sense of what he’d hope to achieve through talks, how his objectives would fit into a coherent policy, or how that would advance our national interests? And most importantly:

Personally, I wouldn’t waste too much time on these questions. Any serious effort to derive a coherent policy from Trump’s election-year statements is to confuse aromatherapy with flatulence. Nothing Trump says is coherent. Everything he says is meant to please the half of the mob that’s content to overlook the completely contradictory thing he said ten minutes before to please the other half of the mob. He’s a dark cloud that pisses and throws thunder wherever the wind blows him. By the end of July, he’ll be threatening to bomb Pyongyang. If a promise to talk to Kim Jong-il was meaningless when the guarded, thoughtful, and feckless Barack Obama made it, surely one of Trump’s witless ejaculations means even less.

But would Trump at least try to negotiate? Probably, and it is worrying that Trump seems as easy to manipulate as he is to enrage. In fact, I can almost imagine that first Trump-Kim negotiation going a little like this:

[From there, things would only go downhill.]

The caliber of mind that enrolls in the Trump University School of Foreign Relations doesn’t survive in a place like Pyongyang. North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland initially dismissed Trump’s offer “a gesture for campaign purposes,” “propaganda,” and “nonsense,” while wisely allowing that “[i]t is up to the decision of my supreme leader.” Since then, however, the China-based, North Korean controlled “news” site DPRK Today has warmed to Trump, or pretended to. But if the West has nothing to teach North Korea about profiteering, then surely Donald Trump has nothing to teach North Korea about how to run a confidence game.

North Korea has backed presumptive U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump, with a propaganda website praising him as “a prescient presidential candidate” who can liberate Americans living under daily fear of nuclear attack by the North.

A column carried on Tuesday by DPRK Today, one of the reclusive and dynastic state’s mouthpieces, described Trump as a “wise politician” and the right choice for U.S. voters in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. [Reuters, Jack Kim]

Just when I thought Trump couldn’t do worse than the endorsements of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, he has. But although news sites are crowing that North Korea has endorsed or offered its support to Trump, or that its state media has endorsed or “backedhim, it would be more precise to say that a pro-North Korean website based in China, which obeys Pyongyang’s writ and probably expresses its views, has praised him and criticized his opponent, and also, Trump seems to be totally fine with that. And that is bad enough.

DPRK Today called Trump a “wise” politician, saying that if the United States withdraws its troops from the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas will seek peace and reconciliation. [….]

“There are not a few positive aspects about what Trump said,” the propaganda website said. “If the U.S. does not interfere in affairs on the peninsula, the two Koreas will reconcile and cooperate.” [….]

“The candidate whom Americans should select is not (Democratic candidate) Hillary Clinton who seeks to apply the Iran-model to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, but Trump who hopes for direct talks with us,” the North’s outlet said. [Yonhap]

In these dreary times, you take your joy where you find it. The most delightful absurdity in this year of depressing absurdities has been watching Hillary Clinton — the wife of the man who presided over Agreed Framework I — tag Donald Trump as Kim Jong-un’s candidate and “unfit for office.”

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday accused her Republican rival Donald Trump of “praising” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying it is one of a series of statements that show the real-estate tycoon is not qualified to be president. Clinton made the remark in an interview with CNN, calling the North’s leader “a despotic dictator.”

“Whether it’s attacking Great Britain, praising the leader of North Korea, a despotic dictator who has nuclear weapons, whether it is saying, ‘Pull out of NATO,’ let other countries have nuclear weapons, the kinds of positions he is stating and the consequences of those positions, and even the consequences of his statements, are not just offensive to people, they are potentially dangerous,” Clinton said.

[….]

She did not elaborate on Trump’s praise of the North’s Kim. But she was believed to be referring to remarks Trump made in January. Even though Trump at the time described Kim a “total nut job” and a “madman playing around with the nukes,” he also said it was “amazing” for the young leader to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]

It consoles me some to think that when Clinton wins the presidency this fall, she’ll have done so by positioning herself as tough on Kim Jong-un. I’d love to believe that she would be, and hey, it’s just possible. It isn’t her partisan affiliation that makes me skeptical. Democrats in Congress voted overwhelmingly to support tough new sanctions against North Korea. A realignment of Democrats to stronger views will be important if Trump’s nomination puts Democrats in control of the White House, the Senate, and maybe even the House.

But while tough rhetoric will complicate Clinton’s path to Agreed Framework III, it won’t bar it, either. Only Congress can do that. As tempted as I am by the Clinton Accommodation Syndrome that has understandably afflicted some Trump rejectionists, let’s be realistic enough to temper our hopes with an examination of the historical record. Mrs. Clinton, as I’ve pointed out before, has an impeccable record for making “safe,” consensus-backed, and catastrophically terrible decisions. The axiom that politicians will always disappoint you surely goes double when the politician is a Clinton. 

But if there is no God (or if there is, and He hates us) and Trump does win, no one is likely to be more disappointed than Kim Jong-un and the electorally insignificant number of alt-right fans they both have in common. Why? First, the percentage of Americans who are masochistic enough to meet Kim Jong-un’s demands is too insignificant to be useful to Trump. As with David Duke, every vote Kim Jong-un delivers costs Trump five or six others. Second, that small percentage is split between perhaps three percent of Americans on the far right, and another ten percent on the far left, who would are no more likely to vote for Trump than I am. Americans consistently rate North Korea as among their least-liked countries. Last year, it rated 8 percent favorable, below Russia, China, and Iran. And by my reckoning, if you asked that 8 percent why, an absolute majority would say it’s because they like their Hyundais.

Most importantly, talks with Kim Jong-un won’t get Trump the only thing he cares about — the adoration of the mobs. Trump’s mob appeal is all about his projection of dominance. His supporters are angry, weak, insecure men who feel cheated by life. They roar when Trump calls other people “losers,” because they’re so overjoyed that for once, the speaker isn’t talking about them. The obsession (see “cuck”) some of them have with the idea that their economic and genetic betters are secretly seeding the wombs of their wives — or their imagined wives — surely has some basis in their darkest inadequacies. Trump makes them feel strong and respected. Attaching themselves to him makes them feel like winners. 

And that’s what makes North Korea such bad politics for Trump. Any deal Kim Jong-un would give him would make him look like the one thing his supporters won’t tolerate: a loser. Weak. Kim Jong-un may want Trump to lift sanctions, but he will still want nukes, and he still needs conflict with America to justify his misrule. Without America as his enemy, Kim Jong-un is just the guy who inherited the browner, shittier Korea you can’t see from space at night. He still won’t coexist with an America that feels at all free to produce films, TV shows, op-eds, laws, scholarly reports, or conferences that offend him. And as much as isolationism polls well here in the abstract, Americans are quick to demand action — and often, overreaction — when they feel provoked. That’s especially true of Americans for whom the politics of simple, neat, and wrong have the most appeal.

Kim Jong-un can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his inadequate and insecure subjects for the same reason that Trump can’t afford to look weak in the eyes of his supporters. In that sense, each is a political mirror image of the other. That sets them on a collision course. 

So in the end, Pyongyang’s hopes for a Trump presidency will end at least as badly as the hopes it once expressed for an Obama presidency. In the end, not even Obama, the most restrained American President since Jimmy Carter, could resist the political pressure to hold North Korea accountable for its outrages. Support for his North Korea non-policy finally collapsed after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, with stunning swiftness and bipartisan unanimity. If elected, Trump would inherit a Congress where he’s an embarrassment to his own party and anathema to the other, which means that he’d have nothing to offer or bargain with. Independently of Congress, Trump’s murine instincts or impulses would drive him toward conflict with a pathologically belligerent North Korea. Does anyone think this is Kim Jong-un’s last nuclear or missile test? Or that Trump would then ignore the same angry mobs who’d hoisted him onto their shoulders?

That’s why a Trump-Kim axis couldn’t last. That’s why I’m less worried that Trump would give the store away to North Korea than I am that he’d invade it. 

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[Not that these possibilities are mutually exclusive.]

Donald Trump’s North Korea policy is the least of my worries about him. If we elect Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, we’ve got much bigger problems than North Korea.

~   ~   ~

Update: But I’ll give Clinton’s people credit for this much — they’re saying the right things.

Sharply increasing pressure on North Korea would be the only way to get the communist regime to authentic negotiations over its nuclear program, a top adviser to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying.

Jake Sullivan, head of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy team, made the remark during an Asia Society discussion in New York earlier this week, stressing that North Korea will be a top priority for the next president and Clinton will deal with the problem in a similar way she dealt with Iran’s nuclear program.

“This is a paramount security challenge of the United States. It will have to be right at the top of the agenda for the next president to deal with,” Sullivan was quoted as saying by the Bloomberg View. “It’s hard for me to underscore how important it is that we place urgency behind this.”

Sullivan, considered the No. 1 candidate for national security adviser under a Clinton presidency, also said that the only way to get North Korea to negotiate in good faith about its nuclear program will be to drastically increase pressure on the already heavily sanctioned regime, according to the report.

That’s what happened with Iran, he said.

“Those negotiations were set up by a comprehensive, highly tailored, highly resourced effort that involved basically every significant economy in the world getting together and putting real pressure on that regime in a concentrated, sustained way,” Sullivan said. [Yonhap]

Which means that my disappointment will be that much deeper when they sign Agreed Framework III.

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