Archive for Diplomacy

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.   

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

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

10329169_908328475873426_6301317851756141996_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Incidentally — and please, stop me if you’ve read this somewhere — President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 8.16.28 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Substantively, the Republicans have good reason to worry about the President’s deal with Iran. Its main weakness is Iran’s mendacity. Iran has been caught with undeclared nuclear facilities and repeatedly lied (see page 14) to the IAEA, yet the deal would rely on NPT safeguards agreements that will only work if Iran is forthcoming. The alternative to a bad deal is not war. It would be some difficult diplomacy with our allies, and more sanctions, until Iran is ready for a deal that secures our interests, and those of our many allies within range of an Iranian bomb.

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This isn’t a grand new revelation. NK News’s Leo Byrne, one of the very best reporters to cover North Korea for any publication, noticed this last October. Four months later, Treasury hasn’t followed up with new alias designations. You can even extend that M.O. back to this 2006 New York Times report, on North Korea’s use of deceptive shipping practices, like re-naming and re-flagging. Whether Treasury’s inaction reflects a lack of political will or a simple lack of resources, I’ll decline to speculate.

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

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

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

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

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

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The POE even made this interesting diagram.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, North Korean ships are switching off their transponders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Iran (of course) has been shipping North Korean weapons to Yemen (most likely to Houthi militias). That would be consistent with Iran’s long-standing practice of buying North Korean weapons for Hamas and Hezbollah.

– Ethiopia, a long-standing arms client of North Korea, is suspected of violating the arms embargo to buy ammunition from the Korea Mineral Trading General Corporation, or KOMID, which has been designated by Treasury for its proliferation-related activities.

– Next door, Ethiopia’s arch-enemy, Eritrea is suspected of “arms-related cooperation” with Green Pine Associated Corporation, another North Korean proliferator.

I’ve previously accused Uganda of violating the arms embargo by hiring North Koreans to train its police, and apparently, the POE agrees:

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– North Korean-made 107- and 122-millimeter rockets have been found in the possession of rebels in the eastern D.R. Congo. The POE is still investigating, but Uganda and Rwanda are both known to have armed rebel groups there.

– The POE also updates us on the abortive sale by corrupt Mongolian military officers of MiG-21s to North Korea. The story has a happy ending: the sale was blocked, and the North Koreans never got their money back.

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The POE also reports that an unknown European state provided information leading to the discovery of “an air shipment” of “spare parts for Yugo class submarines that were procured in the United States market, for a military-related company based in South-East Asia.” Really? There are people in the United States who deal in that sort of gear? So where are the indictments? Maybe they’re filed in the same receptacle as Dennis Rodman’s civil penalty.

While we’re on the subject of luxury goods, the U.S. is in good company in its lackluster enforcement:

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There are certainly plenty of knowing suppliers, although the only guilty party these particular facts implicate is the one that the luxury goods almost necessarily traversed to get to North Korea.

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So while one part of the U.N. goes begging for aid for malnourished North Korean kids, another part of the U.N. can only point out that Kim Jong Un is spending freely on limousines, ski equipment, and yachts:

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Not even rule-bound Britain would (or could) make Princess Yachts answer the POE’s questions about selling yachts to North Korea. That’s typical: of 262 requests the POE sent out last year, asking for information, it only received 116 responses.

Numerous states also hosted offices of U.N.- and U.S.- sanctioned Ocean Maritime Management “including Brazil (São Paulo, Brasilia), China (Dalian, Hong Kong, Shenzhen), Egypt (Port Said), Greece (Athens), Japan, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Peru (Lima), the Russian Federation (Vladivostok), Singapore and Thailand (Bangkok).” But more on shipping in a future post.

Then, there is the example of Cuba. It violated the North Korea sanctions flagrantly, yet neither the U.N. nor the Treasury Department sanctioned a single Cuban person or entity for it. You may agree with the U.S. policy shift toward Cuba, and you may not, but the U.S. was able to improve its relationship with Burma and still sanction Burmese generals for their arms deals with North Korea.

~   ~   ~

The picture this paints is of a sanctions regime that few governments — including ours — believe they have to take seriously. It isn’t the job of the POE, after all, to enforce the law. That’s something member states have to do through their national laws.

The Ugandas, Ethiopias, and Chinas of the world have their own reasons for violating sanctions. They aren’t going to be persuaded to change their behavior the easy way. We can raise the cost of their non-compliance, but that would require political will. States that receive U.S. aid may find themselves denied aid one day under Section 203 of the NKSEA, and the bureaucrats responsible for arms deals with North Korea could have their assets blocked. In the case of China, forcing change will require a combination of credible threats and face-saving diplomacy.

Other governments are probably more passive and persuadable, but they might reasonably ask why they should be the only ones enforcing the resolutions. They aren’t necessarily looking to the U.S. for leadership, but because of America’s economic power, U.S. leadership would certainly sway many of them toward a global consensus of serious enforcement of North Korea sanctions. If forced to choose whether to have an economic relationship with the United States or an economic relationship with North Korea, the choice would be an easy one for most banks and governments. Right now, that’s not a choice anyone has to make. But if the U.S. doesn’t lead, who will? And if it doesn’t, who will follow?

Most people remember that the Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia. Few people remember that top Treasury Department officials did much more than sanction one bank in 2005 — they launched a campaign of financial diplomacy to persuade bankers and finance ministers from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar to Hanoi to distance themselves from North Korea. It was multilateral diplomacy at its best, and it worked, until the State Department swallowed Kim Jong Il’s bait and undid all of it. What’s needed today is neither war nor appeasement, but some good diplomacy. Of course, all good diplomacy requires leverage, in the form of veiled consequences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos to the POE for having the courage to tell us this. Now, let the Inspectors General get to work.

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Update: Remember, this is a draft. The final still hasn’t been released yet.

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

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

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

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

On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13687, authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) authorizing secondary sanctions against the Chinese, and other entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating, but in its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Pyongyang’s charm offensives always seem to come just as the political will waxes to enforce sanctions against it. The charm offensives play on the individual interest of each interlocutor — Park Geun Hye’s domestic unpopularity, Shinzo Abe’s desire to bring abductees home, Putin’s search for ways to f**k with Obama — to disrupt any coordination among them. It works because we’re dumb enough to let it. And once sanctions enforcement wanes, so will Kim Jong Un’s interest in diplomacy.

One thing is clear enough: a credible threat of sanctions certainly hasn’t done any harm to prospects for diplomacy with North Korea. I could also say, with equal conviction, that they haven’t harmed John Hinckley’s odds of marrying Jodie Foster.

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Another possible explanation is a series of reports suggesting that North Korea’s trade relations with China are declining. For one thing, fewer North Koreans are traveling there:

Overall figures for North Korean residents entering China annually totaled between 100,000-120,000 until 2010 before jumping to 150,000 in 2011. A steady period of continual increase in visitors followed until 2013, when the number of North Koreans traveling to China reached an all-time high of 200,000, roughly half of whom noted their reason for making the trip as “looking for work.” Aside from finding employment, 34,000 went to conduct business or attend a conference, and 1,500 went purely to travel. This represents a 60% and 50% respective reduction when compared to last year’s figures. Visits to friends and relatives dropped to 1,100–one-third of those making the trip for the same reason in 2013.

Male visitors [150,000] composed five times total amount of females [30,000] visiting China from North Korea. Most North Koreans [77,000] traveled by boat for the trip. [Daily NK]

North Korean agents who do travel to China are also having more difficulty doing business there. There’s no evidence this has anything to do with sanctions. It appears to be because of a combination of a sagging Chinese economy and the lingering effects of the Jang Song-Thaek purge. After that purge, I posted here that the regime had called home large numbers of its China-based money men, presumably men who were loyal to Jang or thought to be, and that the money men had stayed away in droves. Subsequently, I posted about another reported defection of a senior financier in Russia. That trend continues:

A source in a northeastern Chinese city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 30 percent of the North Korean businessmen have returned to China after being summoned.The summonses are also believed to be part of efforts by North Korea to redistribute the “rights of doing businesses with China,” a key source of earning hard currency, to its ruling elite, the source said.”The replacement of businessmen loyal to Jang Song-thaek has been gradually carried out and a lot of North Korean businessmen were summoned until late last year,” the source said. “Of those being summoned, only about 30 percent returned to China.”There are no official data on how many North Korean businessmen are working in the Chinese border cities.A second source in another Chinese border city with North Korea said that about 170 North Korean businessmen in the city were replaced over the past year.With Chinese investor confidence eroding over the North’s unpredictable behavior, the new North Korean businessmen come under further pressure in building business connections with their Chinese counterparts, the second source said. [Yonhap, via the Korea Herald]

Not only is the sagging Chinese economy hurting Bureau 39, but according to the report, “Chinese investor confidence” is also “eroding.” One reason may be the arbitrary behavior of North Korean officials, including their inclination toward unilateral price increases and demands for bribes and prostitutes. I can’t speak to the latter concern, but the former concern can’t have improved since Kim Jong Un had Jang shot for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is consistent with evidence of a sudden onset of distress in North Korea’s mining industry, although I can’t say whether poor investor relations are a cause of the problems or a consequence of them.

The report cites Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) figures, according to which, “North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014,” from $6.54 to $6.39 billion, “marking the first decline since 2009.” These figures are sourced to Chinese government statistics, which is one reason to distrust them. For example, we read a lot of reporting last year that China had cut off North Korea’s crude oil supply, only to find that China had merely reclassified its trade as aid, or supplied Pyongyang with refined petroleum products (such as jet fuel) instead.

The report also claims that “North Korea’s exports of coal to China slipped 17.6 percent from a year ago to $1.13 billion, marking the first drop in 8 years.” I see more extrinsic evidence that that report is accurate.

And there are other signs of trouble: it would be a snub for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia before he visits China, and it was a snub for the leaders of China and South Korea to meet before the leaders of China and North Korea met. China didn’t send a representative to Kim Jong Il’s latest birthday party, either. This doesn’t yet mean that China has broken with North Korea. It certainly doesn’t mean that China wants to destabilize North Korea. It bears watching, however.

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In other ways, Pyongyang is intensifying its isolationism. The ones that have attracted the most media attention are its bans on foreigners entering North Korea for a marathon and its creepy Arirang Festival. (By contrast, it recently granted permission for this “peace” march by a group of left-wing activists, led by Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem). The dubious pretext for Pyongyang’s isolationism is that it is a precautionary quarantine against Ebola. This has inconvenienced two groups of useful idiots — the North Korea tour companies and the slummers who use them. I don’t see the down side to that. In the long run, it will mean fewer hostages for Pyongyang, and less hard currency for its bank accounts.

Why would Pyongyang shut down this lucrative, low-risk traffic in people with more money than sense or soul? No one knows but Pyongyang. Maybe it really is terrified of Ebola, yet confident that Gloria Steinem isn’t a carrier. Then again, maybe it’s terrified of a contagion of another kind.

For years, the pro-“engagement” argument for tourism in North Korea has been that there is something transformational, even dangerously subversive, about it that minders, deceptions, and other controls can’t contain. (Somehow, I doubt that Koryo Tours and Young Pioneers make the same argument to their contacts in Pyongyang.) I’ve usually been dismissive of this argument, although I’d be genuinely interested in hearing any evidence that Pyongyang thinks it has anything to fear from this kind of tourism. Even if that argument had any merit, Pyongyang knows how to deal with foreign subversive influences. Maybe it just did.

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Kim Jong Un has been isolating low-caste North Koreans since the very beginning of his reign. His regime continues to do that by terrorizing traders, cracking down on cell phones, and blocking the flight of desperate people:

“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”

The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody. [Daily NK]

Human Rights Watch has documented the border crackdown in a new report, which you can read here.

“North Korean authorities are using brutal punishments to shut the door on people fleeing the country, and cracking down on those who share information with the outside world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director. “Kim Jong-Un is trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there.”

The North Korean leadership has made clear the country must redouble its efforts to remain shut to the outside world.

“We must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory,” said Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, during a speech at the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Worker’s Party on February 25, 2014. “We also have to be active to block the imperialists’ plots for ideological and cultural invasion.” The “mosquito net” system Kim referred to was developed in the North to attract the inflow of foreign investment while blocking the infiltrations of foreign ideas, news, and culture. [….]

According to the escapees, the North Korean government has also been actively tracking down unauthorized phone calls from cell-phones operating on Chinese service provider networks being used by people in the North Korean border areas to call to China or South Korea. “The phones have no signal in the cities anymore and I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up,” said Kim. “I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two.” Park said she used to get calls from North Korea at all times of the day and talk for long periods, but now the number of calls she receives has shrunk by approximately 60 percent since 2012.

“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” said Robertson. “Talking on an overseas phone call, or watching a foreign television show should not be considered crimes, but the government is tightening control through repression and fear.”

More here and here. One backlash of this increased border control is a rise in cross-border violence, and more tension with China. North Korea’s border guards had come to rely on the bribes and extortion they taxed from this localized, illicit cross-border trade. With the loss of that income, the underpaid guards have turned to violent crime, and like all criminals, they go where the money is. China has since raised militias to patrol the border regions, and North Korea has purged an official of the Supreme Guard Command as punishment for the violence. There were also purges at the local level.

There is a very important point here, one that makes Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic outreach completely consistent with his isolationism: it costs money to pay border guards, buy cell phone trackers, and isolate the people you consider “wavering” or “hostile.” North Korea earns that money by extracting aid from foreign sources, and through its officially sanctioned trade relationships. Here is another way that sanctioning the regime can actually open North Korea to outside trade and influence.

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These reports paint a picture of a regime that is struggling to maintain its financial links to the outside world, while severing the economic, social, and cultural links between its people and the outside world. If a less isolated, less hungry, less brutal, and less provocative North Korea is in our interests, then our obvious policy response is to undermine both aspects of that policy — to facilitate illicit cross-border flows of information, people, money, and goods, while cutting Pyongyang’s hard currency flows.

The first part of this strategy is the more difficult one. Some of it can be done through broadcasting, some requires creative technological thinking, and some will require clandestine operations.

The second part is about sanctions enforcement, which requires financial intelligence, legal tools, effective diplomacy, and political will.

The reports of defections by North Korean financiers suggest a potential windfall of financial intelligence. Each of these men, and each of their laptops, represents a potential Rosetta Stone. I certainly hope some of them have found safety in the care of U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents. I’ll also express my hope that The Guardian and Al-Jazeera will refrain from getting them — and their entire families — killed, by printing their names.

The Obama Administration will also have to find the political will to dissuade South Korea and Japan from subsidizing Pyongyang and loosening their own sanctions. It will have to find the political will to threaten secondary sanctions against the Chinese and Russian interests that prop Pyongyang up. Lacking this, the administration’s policy will continue to fail. My guesses are (respectively) that it won’t, it won’t, and so it will. North Korea’s hostage-taking, threats, and inducements will recoup more modest financial benefits for the regime. That’s about all Pyongyang needs to undermine the effect of U.N. sanctions, and to sustain its provocative and repressive ways.

North Korea makes more homophobic slurs against Michael Kirby

Once again, North Korea is responding to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s exhaustively documented evidence of crimes against humanity … by making an issue of Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation:

The editorial also singled out the chair of the COI, Michael Kirby, and leveled homophobic abuse at the former judge, something it has done previously to discredit his work.

“As far as the former chairman of the ‘Inquiry Commission’ Kirby is concerned, he is an old sexual maniac who earned an ill-fame for his decades-long homosexuality,” the article read. [NK News]

The last time North Korea attacked Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation, it also denied the very existence of homosexuality in North Korea. An interesting new report, however, also via NK News, informs us that this is not the case, and that homosexuality is common in the isolated and otherwise sexless North Korean Army. According to the report, “senior officers have been known take charge of ‘pretty boy privates.’” That is to say, officers rape their soldiers, which can’t be good for morale or unit cohesion.

The story isn’t just an interesting one about North Korea and the mendacity of its media, but about the irrepressibility of human nature. Next time someone tells you there are no gay people in North Korea, answer them in the most fabulous way you can: “That’s not what I’ve heard, sister!”

President Obama can’t explain what his N. Korea executive order does

The bottom North Korea story of the day is that Pyongyang, which denies having anything to do with the Sony cyberattacks, has just threatened us with cyberattacks.

The North’s military will ratchet up its “retaliatory action of justice” by use of every possible means, including the nation’s “smaller, precision and diversified” nuclear striking means and cyber warfare capabilities, it added. [Yonhap]

(I’m taking Yonhap’s word for this, because KCNA isn’t working for me today.)

The top North Korea story of the day is that you can forget about those carefully downplayed Groundhog Day hopes for Agreed Framework 3.0:

“Now that the gangster-like U.S. imperialists’ military strategy towards the DPRK is inching close to the stage of igniting a war of aggression, the just counteraction of the army and people of the DPRK will be focused on inflicting the bitterest disasters upon the United States of America,” it said in a English-language statement. [….]

“It is the decision of the army and people of the DPRK to have no longer need or willingness to sit at negotiating table with the U.S. since the latter seeks to stamp out the ideology of the former and ‘bring down’ its social system,” the commission said.

No intervention can interrupt death when it’s inevitable.

I suppose this is North Korea’s reaction to Barack Obama’s observation that North Korea’s political system is doomed. Which is odd, because I haven’t seen anyone blame President Obama for riling the North Koreans, the way so many others once did following relatively milder statements by John Bolton.

No one who matters will criticize the President for being a diplomatic wrecking ball today, which is good, because that would be the wrong reason to criticize him. (If the media react differently today, maybe it’s because they’ve belatedly grasped the nature of the North Korean regime.)

A better reason to criticize him is that we have just watched a conversation between two low-information voters, neither of whom has any notion of how to respond to Pyongyang, and one of whom has been the President of the United States for six years. To his credit, the interviewer at least grasps the nature of his subject matter. He spots the contradiction in the idea of sanctioning the “most sanctioned” regime. It’s the President who isn’t capable of explaining this.

The President, by contrast, doesn’t even betray an understanding of the need or purpose for the executive order he just signed. Instead, he seems to dismiss it as a futile and superfluous gesture. The President is an intelligent man — probably smarter than most of his contemporaries — but nothing in his response suggests he read further than the sticky red tab that said “sign here.” He reveals no sense of how it fits into a broader North Korea policy. Either (a) no one who understood it briefed him, (b) the briefing didn’t stick, or (c) he is concealing the significance of the executive order so that no one will expect him to enforce it. An even more terrifying alternative is that (d) his words don’t describe that policy, because his words are the policy. He is a passive onlooker, watching the clock run out, content to let events drift toward a conclusion he calls “inevitable,” without regard for all the evil that will be inflicted, compounded, and proliferated in the intervening years. How sad.

It just wouldn’t be Groundhog Day without a N. Korea talks story

I was starting to worry that this day would pass and allow that metaphor to go unused:

The countries’ nuclear envoys have been discussing the idea of “talks about talks,” according to multiple people with knowledge of the conversations. But they have not been able to agree on the logistics — in no small part because of North Korea’s continuing Ebola quarantine.

“We want to test if they have an interest in resuming negotiations,” a senior U.S. administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think we’ve made it very clear that we would like to see them take some steps first.”

Those steps would include suspending work at their nuclear facilities and pledging not to conduct any further nuclear tests, he said. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

So, just over a month after the most devastating and successful foreign attack on free expression in U.S. history, and just two weeks after the Obama Administration responded to that by sanctioning ten low-level arms dealers, Bill Murray is hitting the snooze button again. Nothing could possibly speak with greater eloquence about how much this administration values our freedom of expression, except maybe for thisNorth Korea’s moves to restart Yongbyon may also have factored into the administration’s decision to go back to chasing the Kims like Hinckley chased Jodi Foster. 

Last month, a group of former American officials including Stephen Bosworth and Joseph DeTrani, both of whom have a long history of dealing with North Korea, met in Singapore with Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator.

The meeting was designed to check “the lay of the land,” according to one person familiar with the talks. Multiple Americans with knowledge of the various discussions spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Singapore meeting resulted in the suggestion that Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, meet with a North Korean counterpart. He was in Asia last week for meetings with Japanese, South Korean and Chinese officials, and is understood to have raised the prospect of holding a meeting with North Koreans in Beijing.

North Korea offered to send Ri to Beijing or suggested that Sung Kim meet with Kim Kye Gwan and Kang Sok Ju, both more senior in the foreign ministry than Ri, in Pyongyang.

American officials thought that Kim and Kang’s ranks were better matched with Sung Kim’s position, but did not like the “optics” of the American envoy traveling to Pyongyang because it would have made the North Koreans look as though they were in the stronger position, according to the people close to the discussions.

The administration denies making any new proposals in the Singapore talks, although I don’t personally believe that.

For now, at least, it doesn’t look like Pyongyang is buying what we’re selling. Former U.S. negotiator David Straub accuses the North Koreans of “want[ing] to give the impression that it’s the Americans who are being unreasonable right now.” The North Koreans, commenting on Sung Kim’s reported refusal to visit Pyongyang, accuse the administration of “working hard to shift the blame onto the (North), misleading public opinion by creating impression that dialogue and contacts are not realized due to the latter’s insincere attitude.”

And of course, as the Post points out, the two governments have been talking to each other, in one way or another, for years. So far—praise be to Zeus—they just don’t agree on much. Which is good, because when you choose to negotiate from weakness, you’re sure to get an awful deal. To borrow an old expression, we’ve already established what kind of diplomats we have. Now, we’re just negotiating the price.

Actually, sanctions are looking like the best thing that ever happened to engagement

Since December 19th, when the President blamed North Korea for the Sony hacking and cyberterrorism attacks, Congress has been pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea, and it has looked increasingly like it has been pushing against an open door. And suddenly, a North Korean leader who has never gone abroad or met a foreign leader during his three-year reign (no, Rodman doesn’t count) has taken a sudden — even urgent — interest in personal diplomacy.

On January 1, Kim Jong Un made a highly conditional suggestion that he might be interested in meeting Park Geun-Hye. Park, with record low approval ratings and a desperate need to change the subject, seized on the offer and has pushed Kim to hurry along to Seoul.

The next day, President Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) against the third-country entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating. In its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Suddenly, within a week, press reports said that Shinzo Abe might visit Pyongyang, and that Kim might accept Putin’s invitation to Moscow in May.

Kim even reached out to Washington a little, offering a nuclear test freeze if Washington cancels annual military exercises. This was enough to fool the gullible editors of The New York Times, but not President Obama. Still, it’s more than North Korea has offered Washington for the last year.

Today, North Korea’s Central Bank responded to an obviously planted question from its state news agency by “committ[ing] itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (quote from KCNA; Reuters report here.) Kim surely knows that international efforts to enforce financial sanctions against Pyongyang will determine their success.

All of this is great news if you believe that talks are an end in themselves, rather than a means to achieve concrete interests. But it’s also great news if you’re searching for a strategy that raises enough colon-clenching horror in the palaces and ministries of Pyongyang to modify the regime’s behavior.

There’s little question that Kim Jong Un’s sudden interest in diplomacy is fundamentally about frustrating U.S. interests, rather than disarmament or genuine reform. Pyongyang is bracing for financial warfare — trying to break up the formation of an international coalition against its finances, protecting key cash cows like Kaesong, and shoring up its financial lifelines to resist sanctions. But at least for now, despite all of the “expert” opinion that sanctions can do no more, we’ve heard, however indirectly, from the best authorities on that subject — the ones in Pyongyang.

This organization does not tolerate failure.

For weeks, I’d heard rumors that the North Korean government told its diplomats that they’d be held accountable — personally — unless they stopped the U.N. from moving human rights resolutions. There may have been some truth to those rumors.

North Korea has recently replaced the deputy chief of its mission to the United Nations in New York, diplomatic sources said Wednesday, a personnel change that followed the recent U.N. passage of a unusually strong human rights resolution against the communist country.

“Around two weeks ago, North Korean deputy ambassador to the U.N., Ri Tong-il, was replaced and he returned to the North,” one of the sources, well-versed in U.N. matters, told Yonhap News Agency. “As far as I know, his successor, Deputy Ambassador An Myong-hun, has entered New York.”

The decision to replace Ri, a well-known U.N. expert, comes as a surprise at a time when the North is undergoing a critical phase at the international body over its human rights situation. [Yonhap]

OFK has exclusive video.

Max Fisher’s criticism of the Sunshine Policy is spot-on

Washington Post alumnus Max Fisher, now writing at Vox, presents a graph and data showing how, despite all of its abhorrent behavior, North Korea’s trade (most of it with China and South Korea) has grown, and how that leads to more abhorrent behavior.

The way it’s supposed to work is that North Korea’s belligerence, aggression, and horrific human rights abuses lead the world to isolate it economically, imposing a punishing cost and deterring future misdeeds. What’s actually happening is that North Korea is being rewarded with more trade, which is still extremely small, but growing nonetheless, enriching and entrenching the ruling Kim Jong Un government, even as it expands its hostile nuclear and missile programs. [….]

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota.

The Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters. But the trade continued, as did the work at Kaesong. South Korean corporations, which have even more political power there than do American corporations in the US, have come to enjoy this trade as a source of revenue and cheap labor, and push to maintain it. That drop you see in 2013 is actually because North Korea shut down Kaesong for a time as a political provocation — it was the South Koreans, paradoxically, who wanted to reopen the facility that directly funds the North Korean weapons occasionally used to kill South Koreans. [Vox, Max Fisher]

Those South Korean corporate profiteers have since allied themselves with “progressive activists,” who vary from the anti-anti-North Korean to the pro-North Korean, to call on President Park to lift sanctions on the North. It must be the most unlikely alliance since 1939.

I’m not sure how Fisher’s analysis of the problem could have been better, unless he’d driven home the point that the Sunshiners justified their policy by predicting that this preferential trade would catalyze economic reform and liberalize North Korean society. Clearly, that hasn’t happened; in fact, I could make a strong case that the opposite is closer to the truth. In their desperation to catalyze reform, Sunshiners have perpetuated the status quo instead.

Of course, a better North Korea policy means more than sanctions

Professor Haggard is skeptical that a “sanctions only approach” toward North Korea could work, which compels me to expand on why I agree, and on what a better approach would look like.

It should go without saying that no act of Congress can ever be more than part of a complete foreign policy, something that, by constitutional design, only the executive branch can wield. Certainly the imposition and enforcement of tough sanctions are at the heart of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, H.R. 1771, because tough sanctions enforcement is a necessary (and presently, a missing) element of a better policy, and because sanctions are also an area where Congress can express its will. H.R. 1771 sets strict conditions for relaxing sanctions to avoid repeating President Bush’s errors of 2007, but those conditions (see sections 401 and 402) clearly contemplate using sanctions as leverage for better, more effective diplomacy and engagement — assuming that’s still possible.

In an acknowledgement that a better policy has more dimensions than sanctions alone, H.R. 1771 also calls for more efforts to fund the free flow of information into North Korea (section 301), and the publication of reports on North Korea’s crimes against humanity (section 302). These, too, are areas where our government has lagged. There is much speculative debate about whether engagement with the regime is realistic at all; certainly, there is little evidence that it has transformed this regime materially, or that its effects are remotely comparable to the transformational effects of markets and smuggling. Nevertheless, H.R. 1771 tests the regime’s trustworthiness and readiness for good-faith negotiations by demanding the cessation of its counterfeiting and the release of its abductees, by demanding the free and fair delivery of food aid, and by demanding material improvements in the conditions in its prison camps.

The regime’s stonewalling on all of these outrages — despite decades of engagement and appeasement — illustrates the flaw of strategies based on obedient supplications and obsequious tribute. Outsiders have focused most of their efforts to “engage” North Korea on an oligarchy whose physical survival depends on the enforcement of the status quo, while overlooking the common people who sincerely seek change that might give them a chance at lives worth living. Wouldn’t a smarter engagement strategy emphasize them instead?

In addition to sanctioning, defunding, and degrading the security forces that are closing North Korea’s borders and suppressing change, a smarter engagement strategy would increase our support for things that really might change North Korea in very real and tangible ways — broadcasting, an independent cellular network, the smuggling of food and information, remittances, quasi-legal private agriculture, clandestine cross-border banking, and whatever else would catalyze the growth of markets that provide food, goods, and information to those who are hungriest for them. Eventually, engaging the North Korean people would create the conditions for the rise of independent trade networks, unions, churches, and political organizations. Certainly, this will require more creativity than the conventional approaches that have failed so consistently. By now, you realize that this isn’t an argument against engagement. It’s an argument that we’ve been engaging the wrong people.

At the same time, every member of the Security Council has agreed, in principle, that sanctions against the regime are a necessary element of a policy designed to alter its behavior (or failing that, its very nature). That does not mean that a better North Korea policy can be based on sanctions alone. An orchestra can no more play a symphony with brass alone than it can play one without it. A better policy will require our government to devote more intelligence, investigative, law enforcement, and (yes) diplomatic resources to this problem. As with engagement, there is no argument against diplomacy to be found here, only an argument that our diplomacy is out of sequence. The initial focus of our diplomacy should be on building unity and cohesion among allies in enforcing sanctions consistently, and as the U.N. has agreed (see section 202). Unanimity among allies can strengthen our capacity to force China and Russia to enforce those sanctions, too. Only then, when sanctions enforcement is broad and consistent, can diplomacy with North Korea have any hope of success. That means that North Korea’s should be the last government we approach, not the first. Diplomacy with a target like North Korea, in particular, requires enough leverage to persuade it to give up things it would rather keep.

As for whether a deal with North Korea is still possible, I personally espouse what I’ll call strategic ambivalence. Either sanctions — in concert with these other elements of a smarter policy — can coerce policy changes in Pyongyang, or they can hasten the destabilization of the regime. The choice lies with Kim Jong Un (and to a lesser extent, with Xi Jinping and Putin) as to which direction the policy will have to follow. As long as the countries that have agreed to sanction Pyongyang subsidize it instead, and until Pyongyang fears that collapse is a real and imminent danger, Pyongyang will be able to choose the status quo, and therefore, it will.

PUST’s un-Christian attacks on Suki Kim

Ms. Kim’s recollections about PUST and North Korea have obvious public interest value for citizens and policymakers, but it’s hard to believe she told us much that an astute observer wouldn’t have guessed anyway. I think the most valuable thing Suki Kim may have taught us is how invested those who “engage” Pyongyang become in imposing a code of omerta to conceal the truth from us, regardless of the ethical cost.

But the author, Suki Kim, may have provoked even more anger among the university’s Christian educators. They have denounced Ms. Kim for breaking a promise not to write anything about her experiences and said her memoir contains inaccuracies, notably her portrayal of them as missionaries, which could cause them trouble with the North Korean authorities. [….]

Dr. Kim sent her what she described as a series of angry and distressed emails when he found out about her plans to publish the book. At least two of her former fellow teachers also wrote, imploring her to scrap the idea.

In a telephone interview from China, Dr. Kim sought to rebut the entire book.

“I am really upset about the attitude, her writings, her telling lies, her cheating us,” he said.

He was especially critical of what he called the erroneous assertion that the other teachers were missionaries. “We are educators,” he said.

If the North Korean authorities thought that the school was seeking to convert the students to Christianity, Dr. Kim said, “we would have trouble.”

“They know we are Christian, we do not hide that,” he said. “But we are not missionaries. Christians and missionaries are different.” [N.Y. Times]

As you analyze whether any “engagement” project with North Korea is beneficial, ask yourself who changed who. The evidence that PUST has made Pyongyang more like America is far from clear, but it’s very clear that the PUST administration has taken on some very North Korean characteristics.

I must put Miss Kim’s book on my list now.