Category Archives: Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They found that:

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

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

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

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

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

    (f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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Agreed Framework III Watch: Syd Seiler steps down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

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

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



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

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[South China Morning Post]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Sung Kim even said this:

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

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

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

If only someone had thought of that before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. However, officials said that gathering information on the activities of North Korean persons and personal identifying information can be difficult because of the nature of North Korean society, whose citizens are tightly controlled by the government. Without sufficient information, the United States could mistakenly designate and therefore block the assets of the wrong person, particularly one with a common surname. [GAO 15-485, p. 14]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Divided, We Fail   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Progressive Diplomacy   ~

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power continued: “Please shut the mike down because this is not an authorized presentation. … Please ensure that the microphone is not live. … We are calling U.N. security.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

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

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

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

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

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

He might have taken this a step further: neither President Bush nor President Obama snapped back after North Korea broke AF2 or the Leap Day deal. Despite Obama’s campaign promise to reimpose sanctions if North Korea didn’t keep its word, two nuke tests later, he still hasn’t. Executive Order 13,570 largely reimposed the import restrictions Bill Clinton relaxed in 1999 in response to a short-lived missile moratorium (yes, North Korea broke that freeze deal, too). The total dry weight of the sanctions President Obama has imposed under Executive Orders 13382, 13551, and 13687 is still much less than what George W. Bush lifted with respect to North Korea’s money laundering through our financial system and its previous listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

What this really comes down to is whether you believe the better way to protect a diplomatic process is to excuse the parties from their obligations and throw tribute at cheaters, or to extract a heavy enough price for violations to give the other party some incentive to get back into compliance. I don’t claim to have a deep understanding of the Iran deal — in part because most of its terms are either undisclosed, disputed, or yet to be resolved — but any defense of it that also defends the agreed frameworks with North Korea does much to persuade me that an agreed framework with Iran would be equally doomed.

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Seiler: N. Korea isn’t serious about denuclearization

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

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

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

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

One could view this as throwing cold water on the silly notion that President Obama can achieve an eleventh-hour deal with the North Koreans, along the lines of his deal with the Cubans, and his unfinished deal with the Iranians. One could also view it as pleading for the North Koreans to make enough of a pretense at seriousness to allow this administration the same relatively graceful exit it afforded George W. Bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

203. At the time of the freeze order, Mr. Kim Yong Nam was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a contract as an employee at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Mr. Kim Su Gwang was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a position as an international civil servant at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. Ms. Kim Su Gyong works at the Korean United Development Bank in Pyongyang and was engaged in financial activities under false pretences in order to conceal the involvement of her country. The three are related and have all provided support to Reconnaissance General Bureau officers abroad. Additional information obtained by the Panel regarding these individuals is summarized in annex 49.

One can only speculate as to how that infiltration has affected the WFP’s internal integrity or external messaging. The very fact that the WFP hired a North Korean government official into its headquarters in Rome is disturbing, much less a spy. After all, the WFP’s own Inspector General reports give the WFP ample notice of the risk of manipulation and diversion. I’ve yet to hear a single report that the WFP has begun an investigation, or fired the spy.

Let’s make no mistake here — sanctions are not the reason North Koreans are going hungry. UN aid agencies have an obligation to be honest about the greater causes, including North Korea’s inequality, military spending, and its restrictions on aid workers. If the aid agencies don’t protect their candor and integrity, the donor fatigue problem will only worsen.

~   ~   ~

It’s the same story in other parts of the UN bureaucracy, where a whistleblower scandal is arising from the export of computers to North Korea:

At the center of the debate is the World Intellectual Property Organization, whose mandate includes helping governments create patent systems, allowing it to send technical equipment to sanctioned countries such as North Korea and Iran. Critics including former Justice Department official John Yoo argued that the computers could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

When three WIPO officials raised concerns over the shipments with member states in 2012, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee began an investigation. WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry blocked two of them from testifying before the committee and later fired one before he was due to publicly criticize the agency’s leadership, according to the three whistle-blowers, James Pooley, Miranda Brown and Moncef Kateb. [Swissinfo]

As The Daily NK noted when this story first broke in 2012, this isn’t just about a few loose MacBooks; it involves “advanced computer technology and data-storage servers.” How advanced? It would be nice to know a little more about just what that technology was. It may turn out that obstructing the whistleblowers’ testimony was a greater sin than the sanctions violation.

~   ~   ~

There is, of course, a fourth U.N. report that no one is even talking about here — the Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights. It would do much to inform the other reports, especially Relief Web’s. Unfortunately, there is no UN bureaucracy whose job it is to represent the interests of that report’s subjects, or to implement its recommendations.

More broadly, all four reports point to a widening divide between different UN bodies, their interests, and their influences. It’s clear that North Korea has succeeded in wedging those divides to pit concerns for the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people against the interests of the Security Council in enforcing sanctions meant to disarm North Korea, thus exploiting the former and weakening the latter. No one in the UN is mediating and adjudicating these conflicting interests, even where (as with humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions) sensible compromises are within easy reach. Consequently, “United Nations” is again proven to be an oxymoron.

The obvious conclusion one draws is of a leadership vacuum in the higher reaches of the UN. But perhaps strong leadership that stifles free debate and disclosure would be even worse. That’s especially so when one considers that the leader is Ban Ki-moon.

~   ~   ~

Updates, 15 April 2015:

[1] More about North Korea’s financial means, and how it chooses to spend it: North Korea increased its military spending by 16 percent over the last five years, to $10.2 billion (with a “b”) last year. That’s nearly 100 times the $111 million (with an “million) UN is asking for.

[2] Today, the Daily NK published another fascinating report on private farming, and it makes me wonder if we’re missing the real ag-reform story. To North Korean farmers, June 28th is so 2012:

While the North Korean authorities continue to push the bunjo [cooperative farm production unit] system, residents, on the other hand, are largely focusing on cultivating individual plots. According to sources within the country, this is because after failing to see the increased allotment of production under the nascent  system, discontent with the state’s hollow promises has spread rapidly among the population.

“As preparations for spring cultivation are in full swing, people feel that individual farming is far more of a priority than collective farming. It’s a major shift from last year,” a source from Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on April 13th. “With spring upon us, more households are facing decreased food supplies, so groups of residents have been gathering together to commiserate and mull over the matter together.”

North Korea stipulated in its “June 28th Measures,” announced in 2012, plans for the state to establish a “new economic management system in its own style.” Under the new system, production units on cooperative farms shrank from groups of 10 to 25, to smaller factions [pojeon] of 4 to 6 members. The state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers taking 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded. [Daily NK]

According to the report, farmers have been cheated so many times now that they distrust the state to keep its share-cropping promises. Instead, they’re doing what they can to slip outside the state’s system and grow food privately. The story even causes me to wonder whether the June 28th measures were nothing more than a way to pacify farmers whose sotoji farms were being confiscated, or whose crops were being cut down.

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

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

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

And yet, the U.S. diplomats have the gall to call the latest HRC resolution introduction “important,” apparently expecting us to forget that the move puts us right back where we were a year ago. Although the U.S. claims to be “extremely concerned” about the North’s crimes against humanity, once again, it led from behind, allowing the EU and Japan to introduce the resolution.

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

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

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