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Yay, nuclear blackmail! Obama Admin caves on N. Korea denuclearization, human rights in face of nuke test threat

The Nuclear Threat Initiative Newswire, citing Yonhap, reports that the Obama Administration, South Korea, and Japan have agreed to a major shift in its policy toward talks with North Korea, “easing its conditions for returning to nuclear talks,” out of fear of a new nuclear test on the eve of mid-term elections in South Korea and the United States.

Since before Obama’s inauguration, North Korea has repeatedly said that it would never give up its nuclear weapons programs. Until now, the administration had taken the position that the purpose for having the six-party denuclearization talks was denuclearization, and that there was no point in returning to talks unless North Korea agreed that the talks were leading toward North Korea’s denuclearization at some point. Here is how Secretary of State John Kerry put it in February:

We have yet to see evidence that North Korea is prepared to meet its obligations and negotiate the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Let me be clear: The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not accept talks for the sake of talks. And the D.P.R.K. must show that it will negotiate and live up to its commitments regarding denuclearization. [John Kerry]

In Washington, however, “let me be clear” is politispeak for “here comes a talking point I’m going to repeat until I abandon it under political pressure.” And true to this rule, NTI reports that we will abandon that talking point — sorry, principle — in favor of a return to one of the most memorable flops in the history of North Korea diplomacy:

Washington, along with allies Seoul and Tokyo, now wants North Korea to accept a moratorium on its nuclear weapons development in order for the frozen six-nation, aid-for-denuclearization negotiations to be resumed, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday, citing an informed diplomatic insider.

The negotiations involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States were last held in December 2008. They propose to reward Pyongyang’s gradual and irreversible denuclearization with timed infusions of economic assistance and international treaties.

“Two principles have been set,” said the source. “The first is to make practical progress in denuclearizing North Korea and the second is to prevent the North from sophisticating its nuclear capability.”

Yay, nuclear blackmail! Now that the administration thinks the North Koreans are about to test a nuke, it’s floating this trial balloon, signaling that it’s ready to drop long-standing U.S. demands from disarmament to a freeze.

Fortunately, there are no signs that the North Koreans are ready to take this deal, but if they were smart, they would, because accepting it now — after demonstrating their leverage over Obama — could put them on a path toward de-facto recognition as a nuclear state. The administration will insist, of course, that the eventual goal of the talks is still denuclearization, but North Korea has never been more forceful in insisting that it will never give up its nukes, or more ferocious in reacting to any such suggestion. At its moment of diplomatic triumph, Pyongyang almost certainly would not sign off on place-holder language adopting, for example, the September 19, 2005 joint statement (which North Korea unilaterally reinterpreted into meaninglessness within a day of signing it).

If the administration is really desperate for a deal — and it certainly looks desperate — it will simply obscure that question within a cloud of inky unwritten commitments. That seems to be the plan this time, too. The offer on the table now is a revival of the ill-fated Groundhog Day Leap Day deal of 2012, which promised aid (and other things we’ll get to later) in exchange for a freeze (not a dismantling) of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Because nothing was reduced to writing, however, the Leap Day “deal” began to unravel almost immediately, as it became clear that the parties walked way from it with at least three different understandings. Would the WMD moratorium would be in effect while talks continued? Which would arrive first, the IAEA monitors or the aid? You’d think that a competent diplomat would have said what a competent lawyer would say: “Get it in writing.” In the end, there wasn’t even a written agreement that the North Koreans would shut down the Yongbyon reactor; the North Koreans omitted any mention of that when they announced the deal. Just 16 days after it was “agreed,” the Leap Day deal collapsed when North Korea announced a long-range ballistic missile test. The Obama Administration now proposes to pour its entire North Korea policy into this leaky vessel.

(Also, it has to be awkward to offer food aid right after the World Food Program found major deficiencies in its program to monitor the distribution of that aid. Aid monitoring conditions made up a large part of the 2012 deal. Congress would also have a say, as its last Appropriations Act put strict limits on aid to North Korea. A new aid package might require a special appropriation, which seems extremely unlikely.)

It would be bad enough if this offer had been a long-standing element of a policy that laid out a progression toward disarmament. It’s far worse that it is revived now, as a policy shift offered in response to (and therefore, as an incentive for) blackmail. Instead of a coherent policy that focuses economic, financial, humanitarian, diplomatic, and subversive pressure in an integrated campaign to change the security calculations (or failing that, the personnel composition) of the regime in Pyongyang, the administration appears to have no coherent North Korea policy at all. It looks passive, reactive, unplanned, and uncoordinated. The signals being sent from Seoul and Tokyo are equally confusing and uncoordinated — so much so that that topic merits its own post — but the real point is that if the U.S. doesn’t coordinate those policies (and it isn’t) then North Korea will divide us from our allies with clever inducements, and entropy will prevail. Deal or no deal, our diplomats are being outsmarted, bluffed, and blackmailed by a man who has never met a foreign leader or diplomat, but who has met Dennis Rodman three times.

What else did the U.S. agree to in the 2012 Leap Day deal? “[T]o take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.” (As an aside, who believes that the United States and Pyongyang are equals in any conceivable way?) Pyongyang will certainly understand that as a concession that the U.S. will sit back and do nothing of consequence later today, when Justice Michael Kirby goes to the Security Council to call for action to address the world’s worst human rights crisis. Sidelining that issue until the world forgets about it again would, by itself, be a very big win for North Korea and China.

Everything about this report sounds like a trial balloon (or a lead balloon — choose your own metaphor). Within a day or two, the administration may well deny this report — and they’ll certainly deny how I characterize it here — but I doubt that Yonhap reporters simply invented it. Far too many elements of this story fit with other things we’ve seen.

For instance, it would explain the conspicuous silence of Samantha “Genocide Chick” Powers in the face of the U.N. report finding that North Korea is committing crimes against humanity. It would explain all of those suspicious diplomatic moves last month (same link, below the embedded video). It would explain why Bob King, our Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, is saying that human rights and nuclear issues will remain separate, allowing the State Department to sideline the entire human rights issue, as it did in 2007. It would explain those “secret” talks between North Korea and Japan, given that Abe was Prime Minister in 2007, when the State Department betrayed him by sidelining the abduction issue in Agreed Framework 2.0. It would explain why the administration has kept its North Korea sanctions sluggish, incremental, and thus easily evaded.

And of course, the timing is right — second-term administrations do deals like this when they’re weakened politically, when they lack the political energy to implement anything more plausible, and when they really just want to buy time and make a quiet exit. But for the victims of North Korea’s pathology — North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, Syrians, and eventually Americans — there is no escape.

 

[Note: This post was edited after publication, including correction of the date of the 2005 Joint Statement. Thanks to a reader for pointing that out.]

If Kaesong “wages” aren’t used to pay workers, what are they used for? (The Unification Ministry won’t comment.)

In yesterday’s post about Kaesong, I argued that by any reasonable definition, its North Korean workers are forced laborers, and that the best evidence we have suggests that the vast majority of their “wages” are probably stolen by the Pyongyang regime, through a combination of direct taxation and confiscatory exchange rates. My argument relied heavily on a recent study by the economist Marcus Noland, who has done an excellent job researching questions that most journalists have overlooked, addressing the ethical implications of the answers, and arguing for a voluntary code of ethics that could go a long way toward address those implications.

Noland has done a good enough job discussing the ethics of Kaesong’s labor arrangements that I see no need to add to it. I do, however, see some important legal implications that no one else has addressed in depth.

The first set of legal issues arises from long-standing suspicions that Kaesong manufacturers are sneaking components or finished goods from Kaesong into U.S. markets, a benefit that the South Korean government sought when it negotiated its Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and which it raised again as recently as last October. Because the two sides couldn’t agree on the inclusion of products from Kaesong, they agreed instead to Annex 22-B of the FTA, on “Outward Processing Zones.” Annex 22-B, however, is nothing more than an agreement to keep talking. It’s fair to say that Congress would not have ratified the FTA without the understanding that Kaesong products were excluded from it.

That means that despite the FTA’s ratification by the Senate, by its own terms, it lacks supremacy over a statute that specifically excludes goods that are “mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor.”

You’re entitled to question the administration’s determination to enforce this law, but as it turns out, an obscure Customs regulation at 19 C.F.R. 12.42 allows private petitioners to oppose the landing of goods made with forced labor in U.S. ports. The U.S. cotton industry has been especially effective at using this provision to tie up Uzbek cotton in customs warehouses, and to raise political pressure against the import of cotton from Uzbekistan. If human rights organizations became aware of specific Kaesong-made goods being imported into the United States, Noland’s study now gives them a strong evidentiary basis to tie those products up in customs warehouses, too. This, by itself, might be enough to make the export of those products to the United States unprofitable.

Finally, depending on the amount of Kaesong labor embodied in a product, its import to the United States could violate complex country-of-origin labeling rules, or could be receiving a lower-tariff status under the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, from which Kaesong products were ostensibly excluded (after much contentious negotiation).

Nor does the administration seem inclined to defend Kaesong imports. In 2011, President Obama signed Executive Order 13,570, which banned North Korean imports from the U.S. market. Any violation of that executive order carries the severe penalties of Section 206 the International Emergency Economic Powers Act – 20 years in prison, a fine of $1,000,000, and a civil penalty of $250,000. Despite a recent spike in suspicious travel by U.S., South Korean, North Korean, and Chinese diplomats, the North Koreans are a no-show, tensions with North Korea are back on the rise, and the Obama Administration is hinting about strengthening sanctions, not weakening them.

~   ~   ~

These still aren’t the questions that cause the greatest discomfort at the South Korean Unification Ministry. That question is this: If the money paid into Kaesong isn’t going to the workers, just where is that money going? As Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen recently said, “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.”

Cohen is concerned because his department enforces the regulations and executive orders that implement U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North’s WMD programs. Those resolutions limit unrestricted cash flows to North Korea, in order to deny its WMD programs of funding. The latest of those resolutions, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, was passed in 2013 and says this:

“11.  Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of … any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution ….;

[....]

“14.  Expresses concern that transfers to the DPRK of bulk cash may be used to evade the measures imposed in resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), and this resolution, and clarifies that all States shall apply the measures set forth in paragraph 11 of this resolution to the transfers of cash, including through cash couriers, transiting to and from the DPRK so as to ensure such transfers of bulk cash do not contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution;

“15.  Decides that all Member States shall not provide public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution;

The use of the words “could contribute” is burden-shifting language, like the language in Paragraph 8(d) of Resolution 1718 (2006) that required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available” to persons and entities involved in North Korea’s WMD programs. You can’t “prevent” unless you know where the money is going in the first place, and if you aren’t asking, you aren’t preventing. The Security Council’s clear intent was to force member states and companies under the jurisdiction of their laws to move beyond feigning ignorance and make reasonable inquiries. The Unification Ministry’s Sergeant Schultz act doesn’t work anymore.

Past precedent gives us reason to share Undersecretary Cohen’s concern. As early as October 2000, Noland wrote here that North Korea’s revenues from the Kumgang Tourist project, which he estimated at $450 million per year, were being deposited into a Macau bank account controlled by the notorious Bureau 39, for “regime maintenance,” despite the lack of “real systemic implications for the organization of the North Korean economy or society.” For all we know, North Korea could be using its Kaesong revenues for even more sinister purposes.

There is also the broader problem that a steady stream of cash dulls the economic pressure that is the outside world’s principal lever for disarming North Korea.

“The fact is, South Korea and China are providing North Korea with a considerable amount of unconditioned economic support,” said Marcus Noland, a Korea expert at the Institute for International Economics in Washington. “As long as that support is forthcoming, North Korea will not feel as much of a need to address the nuclear issue, and attempts to isolate the North economically will have less and less credibility and effect.” [WaPo 2005]

The Congressional Research Service also discusses the tension – some would say, schizophrenia — attendant in alternating between economic subsidy and economic pressure. No wonder South Korea has clung so dearly to the pretense that Kaesong wages really are paid to the workers. Unfortunately for the Unification Ministry, the evidence contradicts this cherished falsehood — it’s impossible to deny that Kaesong is a subsidy to Pyongyang. The U.N. Security Council, however, has chosen economic pressure, most recently with the active support of South Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations (at the time UNSCR 2094 passed by a vote of 15-0, South Korea was a non-permanent member of the Security Council).

But what does South Korea know about what Pyongyang is doing with its money? I posed the question to the Unification Ministry in an e-mail and on their Facebook page. Here, in relevant part, is what I asked them:

Recently, I read a report by the economist Marcus Noland indicating that most South Korean investors at Kaesong don’t actually know how much of their nominal wages the North Korean workers there actually receive, and that the North Korean government likely keeps most of the money. First, can the Ministry comment on that? If you deny this assertion, can you explain the basis for your denial?

Second, this assertion also raises the question of where the money is going. A series of U.N. Security Council resolutions requires Member States to ensure that their money isn’t being used to finance North Korea’s WMD programs. A senior U.S. Treasury official and a report by the Congressional Research Service recently raised concerns about how North Korea uses its revenue from Kaesong.

Can you describe what if any financial checks, precautions, and transparency are in place to ensure that North Korea isn’t using Kaesong earnings for illicit purposes, to facilitate human rights abuses, or to buy weapons to threaten people, including U.S. troops, in South Korea?

Also, I’m wondering if you’ve sought an advisory opinion about Kaesong from the U.N. 1718 Committee’s Panel of Experts.

So far, the Unification Ministry hasn’t responded. I’ll update this post if they do, but I’d be astonished if they had extracted enough financial transparency measures from the North to answer the question in good faith.

Incidentally, one of the interesting points I gleaned from the last U.N. Panel of Experts report is that the POE gives advisory opinions on transactions with North Korea. If the Unification Ministry isn’t asking for one, it may be because it doesn’t want to know the answer.

Largely because of South Korean domestic politics and government subsidies, Kaesong has outlasted a few of my predictions of its demise. It will face more challenges this year and next, as we appear to be entering a new cycle of North Korean provocations, and as South Korea’s present leader appears unusually disinclined to tolerate them. The fact that Kaesong’s workers are functionally slaves deserves to be one of those challenges. So does the likelihood that the entire enterprise consequently violates a series of Security Council resolutions designed to protect South Korea’s own security.

Samantha Power, North Korea is your Rwanda

Now that anyone who cares has digested the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea, the conversation has turned to a more practical question: So what? The E.U. and Japan are reportedly drafting a resolution for consideration by the Security Council that would (1) condemn North Korea for its crimes, (2) call “for its leaders to face international justice,” (3) impose travels sanctions on specific leaders deemed responsible, and (4) refer the COI report to the International Criminal Court.

The wording of the draft resolution has led to a difference of opinion between the E.U. and Japan. The E.U., stereotypes notwithstanding, favors “strong wording,” while Japan would sacrifice the strength of the wording to achieve “global consensus.” You probably won’t be shocked to see me siding with the Soft Reich here. Sacrificing important language to mollify China is a case of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic if I’ve ever seen one. China will veto the resolution anyway. This U.N. action isn’t going to change China’s behavior. It’s only a stepping stone to economic, diplomatic, and reputational costs that could cause Chinese companies to withdraw from North Korea. In which case, why not force China to veto something as compelling — and as injurious to China’s reputation — as possible?

Park Geun-Hye, who is in the The Hague for a conference on nuclear terrorism, has met with Xi Jinping there, and has called on him not to veto the resolution. Although a number of unnamed U.N. officials are congratulating themselves on the toughness of their response, it’s almost certain that China will veto anything that gets to the Security Council.

Surprisingly, South Korea has announced its support for a resolution that provides for the prosecution of North Korean officials. Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration has taken no position on a resolution. Its Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Bob King, released a mealy-mouthed statement supporting calls for “accountability,” but supporting nothing more specific than “a field-based mechanism for continued monitoring and documenting human rights abuses in the DPRK” to “carry on the investigative work of the Commission and support the work of the Special Rapporteur.” (Meaning, apparently, another decade of investigation.) Bob King, bless his heart, has been about as effective a Special Envoy as the Obama Administration let him be. I might call its North Korea policy unsound if I saw clearer evidence of any policy at all, but more on that in a moment.

In a few years, no one will remember who Bob King is, but the reputation of Obama’s U.N. Ambassador won’t escape a mortal moral wound so easily. Words Power wrote in the pages of The Atlantic in 2001, about the Clinton Administration’s reaction to the Rwanda massacre, are just as applicable, and just as compelling, in the context of North Korea today as they were to Rwanda in 1994:

Did the President really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?

Power fired a volley at a cluster of non-decisions by Clinton that might have slowed the killing, non-decisions that in all fairness seem harder than the non-decisions this Administration is making now:

In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Clinton issued what would later be known as the “Clinton apology,” which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda.

This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term “genocide,” for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing “to try to limit what occurred.” Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.

By contrast, no one is suggesting U.S. military intervention in North Korea — only a combination of clear-eyed diplomacy, aggressive information operations, and a more serious and sustained application of the financial pressure that the administration has toyed with. It’s hard to see what’s so gut-wrenching about any of those options.

You really should read Power’s entire lengthy article just to contrast her strident scholarship with the passivity and dysfunction of the administration she serves as its U.N. Ambassador today — not to mention Power’s individual silence about North Korea — in the middle of a slow-motion genocide. (North Korea is a genocide to the same extent that Cambodia was a genocide; in both cases, victims are or were culled based on political and social classifications.) Power explains why the Clinton Administration knew exactly what was happening in Rwanda, exactly as Power herself and the President she serves must know what is happening in North Korea today.

[Samantha Power bursts into tears while visiting Rwanda]

So why the passivity and dysfunction this time? My educated speculation, based on recent diplomatic movements, is that the administration probably thinks it’s on the cusp of a new deal with the North Koreans. After John Kerry’s visit to Beijing earlier this year, China engaged in a round of “shuttle diplomacy” with both Koreas. Last month, a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister visited Pyongyang to urge it to return to talks. Japan, whose current Prime Minister was sidelined by Agreed Framework II in 2007, has engaged in its own secret talks with the North, which may explain why it favors softer resolution language now. Today, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator is in Beijing, where he may meet “secretly” with unnamed U.S. officialsOFK readers have not been allowed to forget that the chief U.S. negotiator is Glyn Davies, who in 2007 asked a colleague at State to airbrush some of the strongest language out of its annual human rights report about North Korea, asking it to “sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.” 

(For its part, North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, is threatening another nuke test if the U.S. continues “using the North Korean human rights issue to undermine its regime.”)

The speculation has reached the point that the President himself is being asked if the six-party talks are about about to restart. Cyclical history certainly favors a deal now. This is a weakened second-term administration like Clinton’s in 1994, after his party lost Congress, and like Bush’s in 2007, after his party lost Congress. But as we’ve learned so many times before, the prospects for any deal with North Korea last only as long as North Korea’s reasonable fear of significant adverse consequences. What matters is that the problem is papered over and left to the next president to deal with.

The design to stall Security Council action now is probably China’s design at much as North Korea’s; after all, North Korea has survived plenty of Security Council resolutions (thanks to China’s failure to enforce them). The Obama Administration’s plan probably calculates that after a brief kerfuffle at the Security Council, the COI and its after-effects will fade from the public consciousness and it will sign its piece of paper. It will be 1994 all over again.

In more ways than one.

For China, holocaust denial substitutes for diplomacy

It’s offensively obtuse things like this that convince me that Chinese will eventually be as despised in North Korea as Japan is despised in South Korea, and that its profiteers won’t be safe to walk the streets of Rajin: 

“The inability of the commission to get support and cooperation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner,” said Chen Chuandong, a counselor at China’s mission in Geneva. [Yonhap]

In the same spirit, how can we really be so sure the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731 weren’t figments of biased imaginations without Hideki Tojo’s “support and cooperation?” Speaking of support and cooperation, North Korea just missed another opportunity to offer it:

“So Se Pyon first interrupted a statement by the head of the Japanese Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea to challenge his right to address the council, before standing up and walking out in protest.” [AFP]

“The commission of inquiry on the DPRK is none other than a marionette representing the ill-minded purpose of its string pullers including the United States and its followers who are endeavoring to eliminate the socialist system on the pretext of human rights,” North Korea’s ambassador So Se Pyong told the U.N. rights forum this month. [Reuters]

See, if Goering had just refused to cooperate with the Nuremberg Tribunal, he’d have lived out his autumn years shooting up smack in his hunting lodge in the Black Forest.

Inquiry leader Kirby said it is time to act rather than talk. “What is unique has been the capacity of North Korea to avoid international scrutiny, to avoid examination of its record over such a long time, effectively 60 years of very great wrongs against its population,” he told Reuters.

“Now we have a full volume book that tells it all in a comprehensive manner. The moment of truth has approached. We must turn it into action,” he added.

Human rights were among the founding principles of the United Nations in the wake of World War Two, after discovery of atrocities against Jews and minorities, he said. He wants North Korea referred to the ICC or to a special ad hoc tribunal. [Reuters]

Modern-day Japan, notwithstanding its problems coming to terms with its past crimes against humanity, is at least leading the effort at the U.N. to hold North Korea accountable for crimes against humanity in the present tense. Modern-day China is doing its best to aid, abet, and perpetrate them:

China strongly criticized Tuesday a high-profile U.N. report on human rights situations in North Korea that said Beijing may be “aiding crimes against humanity” by repatriating North Korean defectors to their homeland against their will.

“We totally cannot accept this accusation,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, a day after U.N. investigators condemned North Korea for widespread human rights abuses under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

China, the North’s key ally, has considered tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding in the border areas as illegal migrants, not asylum-seekers, and routinely sends them back to North Korea, where they face harsh penalties, even death.

Hua repeated China’s stance on North Korean defectors, saying Beijing views them as “illegal border-crossers,” not “defectors,” therefore not subject to protection. [Yonhap]

This is why I can’t understand why anyone — least of all, any Korean — could plausibly see modern-day Japan as a threat to peace, or fail to see China as a threat to peace, or as an imminent and mortal threat to the lives and dignity of 23 million Koreans. Oh, those are North Koreans? In that case, never mind.

Event tomorrow on the COI report

I apologize for the short notice, but tomorrow at 2:45 p.m., the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the Foreign Policy Initiative will co-sponsor an event: “North Korea’s Human Rights Violations – What Next After the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report?,” at Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Melanie Kirkpatrick and Christopher Griffin will moderate, and panelists will include Hyeonsoo Lee, Roberta Cohen, and Greg Scarlatoiu.

The U.N. Panel of Experts is starting to follow Kim Jong Un’s money.

The main headlines that will come of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ new report on the enforcement of North Korea sanctions will mostly cover the Chong Chon Gang incident — the large amount of weapons seized, the brazenness of its deception, and the complexity of its corporate and financial links to entities operating from Russia, Singapore, and China. There has been relatively little attention paid to the newly revealed evidence that North Korea has helped Syria and Iran arm terrorists. In this post, I’ll discuss some other important conclusions we can draw about the enforcement of UNSCR 2094 a year after its adoption.

1. North Korea is still making a lot of money selling weapons.

In case you doubted it, the latest POE report finds that North Korea “remains … actively engaged in trade in arms and related materiel in violation of” U.N. Security Council resolutions, and concludes, “[T]here is no question that it is one of the country’s most profitable revenue sources.” How profitable? The POE doesn’t pretend to know and “doubts that all existing illicit cooperation has been identified,” but something is paying for all that rice and baby formula ski lift equipment. There has been a construction boom in Pyongyang recently, and those who know how Kim Jong Un is paying for it aren’t saying.

Clearly, North Korea is doing a brisk trade in weapons, mostly with Africa and the Middle East. Paragraphs 90 to 115 of the report recount a long series of reports of North Korean arms smuggling — everything from the fuzes in rockets fired at Israel to specialized alloys to submarine parts to gas masks — that the POE is either still investigating, or found out about after the fact and by happenstance. It’s obvious that the sanctions are leaky, and the U.N. POE admits it.

That’s why I can only shake my head when the Foreign Minister of Korea says that the POE report shows that “relatively successful in restricting the country’s ability to raise funds.” The statement could only mean two things: either he didn’t read the report, or South Korea isn’t serious about enforcing these sanctions at all. I mean, just have a look:

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 9.39.43 PM

Obviously, I can’t say what this construction costs, but it’s safe to assume it’s enough to feed a lot of hungry North Koreans. The POE doesn’t know how North Korea can afford to build two high-rise bank towers in Pyongyang, either, but judging by its inference about the arms trade, it’s fair to say that plenty of the money that’s paying for these buildings is illegally derived and laundered. This is not a picture of effective enforcement.

The report calls for no new sanctions, but once you read it, it’s apparent why: states aren’t even enforcing the sanctions that exist now. It says that member states already have adequate enforcement tools at their disposal — a point I’d quibble with — although it’s obvious that not all member states are using those tools.

2. China is violating North Korea sanctions — flagrantly.

China, naturally, is caught in flagrante delicto. The POE recounts the story of a trade show in China last year, when a concerned citizen spotted a booth festooned with a banner bearing the name of Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, a subsidiary of a firm designated by the U.N. for proliferation activities, and an entity named on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 7.44.36 AM

When the POE pointed that out, hilarity ensued:

149. In its reply to the Panel’s inquiry, Chinese authorities reported that Ryonha’s name was not on the list of exhibitors provided by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nor did it appear on any booth before the fair’s opening. Upon discovering its presence, China requested Ryonha to withdraw from the fair and ensured that the relevant persons left its territory (according to Panel information there were at least seven Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals working on behalf or at the direction of Ryonha during the fair).

150. The Panel also discovered that, even though designated, Ryonha remained listed as a “recommended company and member” on the website of the China- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Trade Network.103 In reply to an enquiry from the Panel, China responded that Ryonha had been removed from the listing.

At the end of the day, the POE wasn’t even able to confirm that the ChiComs had frozen Ryonha’s assets and seized the machinery on exhibit, as required under UNSCR 2094. Another North Korean firm, Leader International, still appears on Hong Kong’s official business registry more than a year after its U.N. designation.

Embarrassments like this will not cause China to actually enforce the sanctions it supported in the Security Council. Nothing less than sanctions against the Chinese entities that knowingly fail to enforce sanctions will do that. And because China would block those additional sanctions at the U.N., it’s up to the Treasury Department, which can bar those companies from the global financial system, to put some teeth into the sanctions now.

3. Other nations, including nations in Europe, aren’t taking sanctions seriously enough.

China isn’t the only member state that has failed to enforce North Korea sanctions effectively. Taiwan, in particular, has emerged as North Korea’s main new source of precision machine tools and related technology since it lost its access to the Japanese market. Plenty of states haven’t met their requirements to file compliance reports with the POE. Others aren’t reporting violations they find out about.

Notably, not a single Member State reported a violation of the luxury goods ban, despite the many violations that occurred at the Masik Pass Ski Resort. Even the U.K. failed to report North Korea’s attempt to purchase a yacht from a British manufacturer.

In most of these cases, the non-enforcement isn’t coming from the highest levels of the government, as with China. It’s a simple problem of member states failing to make enforcement a priority, or failing to reign in the profiteers in their jurisdictions. That’s a problem that could be dealt with through competent bilateral diplomacy in most cases, though sanctions and criminal prosecution should be options for deserving violations.

There is an another, more fundamental problem — what, exactly, are member states supposed to report? U.N. definitions of controlled items are often too narrow. For example, ski lift equipment doesn’t fit the U.N. definition of a “luxury good.” (Update: It does fit the U.S. and EU definitions.)

The same problem recurs with North Korea’s acquisition of missile parts. When the South Korean Navy recovered the remains of the last Unha-3 from the bottom of the Yellow Sea, it found that the rocket contained numerous foreign components, including some of U.S. origin, that were not on the U.N. list of controlled items.  A shipment intercepted by “a Member State” contained parts described as being for “freezing carriers”and “fish-factory mother ships,” all of which were “spare parts or other items related to Scud ballistic missile systems.” Yet those items also did not meet “the criteria defined by the lists of prohibited items, material, equipment, goods and technology related to nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.”

This calls for the POE itself to proffer an expanded list of controlled dual-use items, something that was (but for a few especially sensitive items) lacking in the POE’s report. (Update: If it wanted to, the U.N. could borrow or cross-reference the U.S. Munitions List.)

4. Existing financial sanctions on North Korea only show the tip of a big, dirty iceberg.

The best news in this report is that it appears to be the work of people who are intelligent, inquisitive, and serious about their work. They’ve begun investigating how North Korea launders the money it makes from its illicit activities:

166. During its mandate, the Panel commissioned an in-depth study to learn more about how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea makes use of foreign-based firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of its assets, financial and trade dealings. It sought a comprehensive view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s commercial footprint abroad to learn how entities and individuals that have figured in its investigations relate to this broader network and to one another. The Panel believes that an examination of those linkages would assist its efforts to detect and advise the Committee and Member States about others who might play controlling and supportive roles in evading trade and financial measures adopted in the resolutions.

167. [....] The study provided the Panel with a rich database of leads for further investigation. Starting with less than 500 loosely connected or unconnected individuals and entities that had come to the Panel’s attention during its investigations, the study found connections to an additional 700 individuals, more than 1,600 companies and nearly 2,500 corporate identifiers.

168. The results of the study show that the operations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abroad no longer fit the description of “two persons and a fax machine”. Instead, it found a relatively mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem. Patterns that emerge from examination of the connections between identified individuals and entities show six large, discrete networks, all of which share links.

Other North Korean banks come under suspicion because of the POE report.  A table at Annex XXXIV gives a list of banks known to be affiliated with North Korea, including those designated by the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. But among those not designated —

  • The Ilshim International Bank “was reported to be associated with the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.”
  • The Koryo Bank is “possibly associated with Office 38 of the KWP.” (Office or Bureau 38 is the slush fund of Kim Jong Un and his court, and receives funds from the more notorious Bureau 39, which is in charge of laundering the proceeds of North Korea’s illicit activities by co-mingling those proceeds with the proceeds of “legitimate” business operations, like its overseas restaurants. The restaurants are believed to fall under the control of Bureau 39.)
  • The Kumgang Bank is “described as a window of the Foreign Trade Bank,” which was recently designated by the Treasury Department for its involvement in proliferation.
  • The North East Asia Bank is “[a]ssociated with the Korea National Insurance Corporation,” whose massive insurance fraud scam was the subject of international litigation and revealed by former KNIC official Kim Kwang Jin.

Curiously absent from the list is Sili Bank, which is based in Shenyang, China, and which briefly aroused international curiosity when it began offering e-mail services to and from North Korea, but which has no functioning English web site today. At one time, Sili Bank was the only game in town for anyone, including North Korean companies, to obtain international e-mail service.

Ocean Maritime Management, which the Washington Post describes as “a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government,” used a Sili Bank e-mail address to send a protest letter to the Panamanian authorities when they boarded the Chong Chon Gang and found a cargo of MiGs, MiG engines, missiles, and other weapons hidden under a layer of sugar. OMM, which arranged the shipment from its Vladivostok office, denied knowing of any cargo other than the sugar, which it describes as “essential for our people’s living” and “a cargo of humanitarian nature.”

5. Air Koryo is effectively an arm of the North Korean Air Force, and is involved in suspicious financial dealings.

North Korea’s General Administration of Civil Aviation, which is controlled by the North Korean Air Force and in turn controls Air Koryo, also lists a Sili Bank e-mail address. Air Koryo falls under the POE’s suspicion for a series of “dubious” debts owed to it by “recently formed shell companies” related to gold trading.

The Panel is suspicious that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be using or considering the use of precious metal sales on credit terms to create “accounts payable”. Such sources for funds would not necessarily show as being under its control and even could be swapped with other firms to further distance its connection and thereby better evade sanctions and enhanced due diligence by banks.

Because of its military links, the POE says that “providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s aircraft” could be a violation. It will be interesting to see whether future POE reports confirm whether Sili Bank (a) still exists and (b) is knowingly facilitating illicit activities.

6. North Korea’s overseas monument business may be a money laundering scheme, too.

Finally, North Korea’s work building memorials and statues overseas has drawn its share of snark from bloggers and reporters, but the POE gives us cause to suspect that those operations could be used as fronts for money laundering, too:

Available media reports, particularly about projects in several African countries, note that project values appear inflated. Participation in overseas construction also takes place through joint ventures where a foreign partner could hold funds on behalf of or for the benefit of designated entities and prohibited programmes.

For example, if the Syrians wanted to pay for North Korean technical assistance with a missile program or a reactor while avoiding detection, they could commission the construction of a grandiose memorial at an inflated price. All perfectly legal, right?

If so, the POE should be wondering whether North Korea has recently made illicit deals with Zimbabwe and Namibia. Ironically, Zimbabwe once paid North Koreans to train their troops, who proceeded to kill tens of thousands of civilians in areas backing the Zimbabwean African Peoples’ Union, led by Joshua Nkomo. Today, Zimbabwe is paying North Korea to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo, and Zimbabwean dissidents have taken note.

A Christian blogger in Namibia also protests his government’s hiring of North Korea to build political monuments in Windhoek, when North Korea is rumored to be shooting people for having contact with Christian missionaries. (By contrast, nearby Botswana severed diplomatic relations with North Korea when the U.N. COI report came out.)

POE Part 2: Terrorist rockets that landed in Israel may have had N. Korean fuses

When the Syria collapsed into civil war in 2011, Hamas and other Sunni Palestinians broke with their sponsors in Damascus for sectarian reasons, while Hezbollah sent troops to defend the Assad regime. But in 2009, before the civil war, Assad and his own backers in Iran armed both Hamas and Hezbollah.

The year 2009 was a big one for interceptions of North Korean weapons bound for Iran and its terrorist clients. The UAE found rocket propelled grenades and explosives inside a container aboard the ANL Australia, and authorities in Bangkok seized a massive shipment of arms, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles, from the hold of a chartered Il-76 cargo plane in Bangkok.

Now, we learn from last week’s POE report that the Israelis also intercepted a third shipment on its way to Syria that year:

108. The Panel recently obtained information indicating that some items found in a large arms consignment (500 tons) shipped by the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Syrian Arab Republic in November 2009 may have originated from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This consignment was found by the Israeli Navy inside containers onboard the vessel Francop when en route from Damietta, Egypt, to Lattakia, Syrian Arab Republic.62 It was considered to be a violation by the Islamic Republic of Iran of resolution 1747 (2007) prohibiting it from exporting any arms or related materiel.

The rockets and their markings bore strong similarities to the weapons seized at Bangkok and Abu Dhabi, leading the POE to conclude that it was “highly likely” that the weapons found aboard the Francop were produced in North Korea, too.

Israel’s Foreign Minister had previously said that the arms in the Bangkok and Abu Dhabi shipments were bound for Hamas or Hezbollah. The Francop shipment fits the same M.O. and looks like a glimpse of the same pipeline, further down the line. It’s curious that the Israelis didn’t report their interception at the time, given that both Thailand and the UAE were transparent about the shipments they seized. That’s particularly true in light of this newly revealed evidence that some North Korean weapons made it into the hands of Hamas, and were actually fired into Israel.

111. The Panel recently also obtained a photograph of remnants of a 333 mm FAJAR rocket launched at Israel in November 2012. It notes that the remnants of the rocket’s fuse present some similarities with fuses produced in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea previously seized.65 Here again, because the date of its transfer and the chain of custody are unknown, the Panel cannot determine whether there could be a violation of the arms embargo.

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

You can find a photo of a Fajar (a/k/a Fajr) at this Flickr page, and as you’ll see, it’s a big rocket. Among the many things I’ve never understood about the pro-Israel groups that exercise substantial political influence on the Hill is why they’ve never backed North Korea sanctions as a core security interest of Israel. There’s little question that North Korea tried to give Syria a nuclear bomb, or that it has contributed to Syria’s development and use of chemical weapons. It gave both Iran and Syria the capability to hit Israel with ballistic missiles. There are growing suspicions that it has given assistance to Iran’s nuclear program.

In a way, the revelation that North Korea has assisted terrorists with the relatively primitive Fajr-5 is less shocking than what we already know. But the fact that this technology has been used to strike Israeli territory certainly highlights both the threat to Israel and North Korea’s recklessness about the end uses of the weapons it proliferates.

U.N. Panel of Experts releases new report on N. Korea sanctions enforcement

The report, which you can find here, publishes photographs and a detailed description of the weapons seized from the Chong Chon Gang.

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 8.40.11 AM

I had not realized how big the shipment was:

72. The Panel found that the hidden cargo (see figure XI, a complete list at annex VII and detailed analysis at annex VIII) amounted to six trailers associated with surface-to-air missile systems and 25 shipping containers loaded with two disassembled MiG-21 aircraft, 15 engines for MiG-21 aircraft, components for surface-to-air missile systems, ammunition and miscellaneous arms-related materiel. This constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since the adoption of resolution 1718 (2006).

The POE goes into great detail about the modifications to the ship, the false bills of lading, deceptive statements by both the Cuban and North Korean governments, and other deceptive practices to conceal the cargo, its ownership, and its destination. It also calls out a Vladivostok-based shipping company, Ocean Maritime Management Company, for operating the Chong Chon Gang without listing it as a part of its fleet.

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 8.39.56 AM

The report concludes that the incident was a violation, but suggests that in many cases, North Korea isn’t the final destination for the weapons, but a middleman that buys up old equipment, refurbishes it, and resells it. In this case, as I noted here, the Chong Chon Gang MiG engines already appeared to have been refurbished when shipped.

The POE also implicates Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, and of course, Iran for suspected arms deals with North Korea. This casts considerable doubt on the news item here, suggesting that North Korea exported only $11 million in arms last year.

The POE also discusses suspected violations of the luxury goods ban, including the Masikryong ski resort, a attempted yacht purchase from the UK, and Dennis Rodman’s gifts to Kim Jong Un.

Most tantalizingly, the report begins to examine North Korea’s sanctions-busting financial arrangements in greater detail. Here’s a taste.

164. Financial measures in the resolutions, along with the strengthening of standards governing international finance, have combined to change fundamentally the financial environment in which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operates. In particular, it has become much more difficult to make direct use of its banks to remit earnings and make payments for transactions in prohibited goods, training and technology. The long-term trajectory of changes to improve standards promoted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)106 promises it will face even more difficulty in future. The technical efforts of FATF, especially recent steps taken to help counter the financing of proliferation, complement Security Council actions.

165. Consequently, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has had to adapt, explore and perfect ways to evade detection and circumvent constraints on the financing of prohibited programmes and activities. All evasion techniques involve higher risk, extra cost and loss of timeliness. The Panel has begun to examine more deeply the institutional frameworks and operational techniques it employs. It is experienced in using foreign-based individuals, front companies and shell companies and joint ventures engaged in legitimate business to mask illicit activities associated with sourcing nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction programmes. Ownership structures often are complex and opaque and take advantage of lax rules in some Member States regarding the identification of beneficial owners.

The report calls for a more in-depth investigation of North Korea’s financial activities, connections, and methods. I certainly look forward to reading it.

I think the U.N. has been trying to confuse me by being effective recently. It’s working. But then, the U.N. still can’t really enforce measures like these without the cooperation of U.S. and EU financial regulators. POE reports can, however, be highly complimentary of national enforcement authorities, including those of Treasury.

Unlike most other U.N. products, Panel of Experts reports make for interesting reading, and often contain hard-hitting findings. Here are links to previous UNPOE reports from 2010, 2012, and 2013, along with the U.N.’s list of persons designated for asset blocking. Note that the list does not match the EU list, or the U.S. Treasury list of Specially Designated Nationals. Members states (and the U.N. itself) have far to go to harmonize their enforcement efforts, but reporting on those gaps is a good beginning.

U.N. Commission finds North Korea committed crimes against humanity, will recommend referral to the International Criminal Court

After years of apathy that not even accomplished appeaser Ban Ki-Moon could enforce, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has released a devastating report accusing Kim Jong Un and his late father, Kim Jong Il, of crimes against humanity. You can download a summary report, or the long version, here.

CoIDPRK

I will probably have more to say about the report in the coming days as I read it, but it’s clearly having an immediate and profound impact on the public discourse. Here’s how CNN ran it:

A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” a United Nations panel reported Monday.

North Korean leaders employ murder, torture, slavery, sexual violence, mass starvation and other abuses as tools to prop up the state and terrorize “the population into submission,” the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said in its report.

The New York Times summarizes it this way:

“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials,” the report asserted, referring to North Korea by its official name. The report stopped short of alleging genocide but specified among others the crimes of “extermination,” murder, enslavement, torture, rape and persecution on grounds of race, religion and gender.

Reuters led with this:

North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, U.N. investigators said on Monday.

The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, AFP, and yes, even the AP also ran stories. The dominant focus of the reporting is that Kim Jong Un could face trial for crimes against humanity, which as most of you already know, he won’t (but more on that in a moment). And on what do they base that?

In the letter, dated Jan. 20, the panel chairman, the retired Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby, summarized the investigation’s findings of crimes against humanity committed by officials that could be inferred to be acting under Mr. Kim’s personal control.

Addressing Mr. Kim, 31, Judge Kirby wrote in the letter that his panel would recommend that the United Nations Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, to make all those responsible for crimes accountable, “including possibly yourself.” [N.Y. Times]

No, that’s not going to happen, but it has to be the ballsiest thing ever written on U.N. letterhead. Congratulations to Judge Kirby for delivering things we so seldom see coming out of the U.N. — truth and relevance.

“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action,” Judge Kirby said. “Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.”

If you read nothing else in this report, read Michael Kirby’s remarkable letter to Kim Jong Un — maybe the word I’m searching for here is “surreal” — starting at page 23 of the summarized report.

Also, North Korea says all 372 pages are based on faked evidence. Duly noted.

In South Korea, the report received prominent coverage in Yonhap and the Joongang Ilbo, but not the left-wing Hankyoreh or the right-wing Chosun Ilbo, at least as of the time of this writing (early morning in Korea, with a lot of other big news stories happening there today). The reports will probably budge opinions in the South, which are both complicated and ambivalent, but only slightly. The South Korean government welcomed the report, and it bears repeating that prior South Koreans governments — including the one that General Secretary Ban used to serve — wouldn’t have.

As you would expect, the report has a lot to say about North Korea’s prison camps, starting at Paragraph 729. But for all the horrors of the camps, North Korea’s greatest weapon of mass destruction has always been starvation. The report lays out the evidence for North Korea’s culpable starvation of its people in meticulous detail, beginning at Paragraph 500. Starting at paragraph 1115 of the long-version report, the COI methodically lays out the legal standard for “extermination” by starvation as a crime against humanity, and explains how a series of deliberate policy decisions by North Korea’s leaders starved perhaps several million people to death, and physically or emotionally scarred millions more.

The principal impact of the report, if there is one, will be to galvanize a consensus, both nationally and (to a lesser extent) internationally, to do something effective for once. The U.N. isn’t going to be the vehicle for that, however. China, which is criticized heavily and by name for its illegal repatriation of North Korean refugees, wasted no time in announcing that it would block any referral to the International Criminal Court, which just reinforces the hard truth that our North Korea problem is, at its root, a China problem. It can only be solved by making it prohibitively expensive for China to go on supporting a puppet that, of late, has failed to kowtow when called. China’s statement pours cold water on irrational exuberance that, last week, boosted an obscure academic paper into evidence of a major policy shift in which China would abandoning Kim Jong Un. No, not yet, anyway.

Or, we can let this report be a 208,000-word monument to the impotence of civilization, go back to treating North Korea like a tasteless joke, and beseech Zeus that the psychopaths who rule it will remain content to only kill North Koreans until some miracle elixir saves us from the next stage of the cancer’s metastasis. That is the stage when regimes that make war on their own people inevitably turn outward in search of more victims.

 

Update: Jonathan Cheng at Korea Real Time has done a good job of summarizing and citing the report’s key findings, and some of its more dramatic evidence. Chris Green and Stephan Haggard both comment on the report, and both pieces are well worth reading.

The conservative Chosun Ilbo’s story is harsh in tone but relatively brief. The left-wing Hankyoreh doesn’t attempt minimize the report’s charges or evidence, but buries and dulls its discussion of Kim Jong Un’s potential individual responsibility, and generally dismisses the report’s practical significance.

So, far, no reaction from KCNA or the Rodong Sinmun, but I’m willing to bet it will use any of the following words: “brigandish,” “madcap,” or “flunkeyist.”

Witnesses: North Korea culpable for famine deaths

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry for North Korea has done excellent and necessary work collecting testimony about the regime’s political prison camps. Michael Kirby, the Commission’s Chairman, has earned the eternal gratitude of the Korean people for his forthrightness, and friends of mine who met him during the COI’s session in Washington last week tell me they were deeply impressed with both Kirby and Sonja Biserko (the third commissioner, Marzuki Darusman, who performed admirably as the U.N. Special Rapporteur, fell ill during his visit and didn’t make as many of the rounds).

CoIDPRK

Before the COI convened, I had low expectations. I’d grown accustomed to the impotence and incompetence of Ban Ki Moon’s U.N. I’m glad to admit that I was wrong this time. The COI’s report may or may not result in charges before the International Criminal Court, but it matters that the world is hearing the testimony that the COI is taking. Governments will consider it, and the COI’s findings, as they decide how to implement laws and regulations, and companies will consider it as they decide where not to invest. The COI has already imposed a penalty on Kim Jong Un, and that penalty will increase with each hearing, press conference, and finding.

But as much as the attention on the prison camps is necessary and welcome, I initially regretted that the COI hadn’t focused on a even greater but less understood crime — the needless and entirely preventable famine that may have killed millions of North Koreans. Nothing can bring the victims back, but at least their deaths should not be overlooked or misattributed to natural causes. Fortunately, they won’t be:

North Korea economy expert Marcus Noland told the panel Thursday that Pyongyang is “clearly culpable” in the denial of the right to food, both under current leader Kim Jong Un and his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who ruled during the devastating famine era.

“The North Korean government did not and continues not to use the resources available at its disposal to address the lack of food among the populace, and when aid was offered, it hindered and continues to hinder the operation of relief programs,” he said.

The North Korean government’s economic and agricultural policies contributed to the food shortages that led to the famine, he said, and the leaders could have avoided the devastation it wreaked by devoting a small portion of its budget—such as by diverting some from military expenditures—to addressing food needs.

“This was a man-made, preventable tragedy.  These people died needlessly, and the government is culpable.”  [Radio Free Asia]

Andrew Natsios, author of The Great North Korean Famine, whom I’ve come to know and respect over the previous year, reached a similar conclusion:

Former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios said that even if natural causes had been behind the early factors contributing to the famine, once it knew about the problem, Kim Jong Il’s government did not act fast enough to address it.

“He was in charge, he was responsible, he knew what was going on, and he chose not to buy food and give it to the people.”

The leadership would have known how the famine was devastating the population—including from government records showing a massive drop in children’s heights and weights due to malnutrition, Natsios said.

Its lack of action could not be put down to “incompetence,” he said.

“They knew what was going on and they chose not to take action to protect the population because their first objective was survival.”

If the Commission should care to accept my offer, I hope they’ll consider adding this exhibit to their indictment.

MiG-29 base @ 1400' 14oct2010

[The world's deadliest operational aircraft...]

This is Suncheon Air Base, not far from Pyongyang. It’s the home of North Korea’s few modern combat aircraft — its MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Both types are modern enough to still be in service with the Russian Air Force, although these are almost certainly cheaper export models.

North Korea purchased its Su-25s between 1987 and 1989, before the famine, so we won’t count them in the analysis that follows. But Kim Jong Il acquired his first 12 MiG-29s from Belarus in 1995, just as North Korea plunged into famine. An export version of a MiG-29 costs about $35 million, which excludes maintenance, training, spare parts, and armament. The following year, North Korea bought 18 more MiG-29s from Belarus and Mother Russia. The total purchase cost of thirty MiG-29s works out to over $1 billion. In addition, the annual cost to maintain each aircraft is around $5 million, which works out to over $600 million for the period between 1995 and 2000. Let’s assume that North Korea skimped on fuel and spare parts and accept a more conservative cost figure of $1.5 billion.

MiG-29s @ 600' 14oct2010

[... and they've never been used in combat.]

Obviously, this $1.5 billion figure doesn’t include what Kim Jong Il spent on missiles, nuclear weapons, palaces, yachts, or limousines, or the 40 MiG-21s he bought from Kazakhstan in 1999, near the end of the famine.

The best estimates of the North Korean famine’s human toll range from 600,000 to 2.5 million (other estimates are higher). I’ve explained here why I believe the 2.5 million figure is better supported. To parse it for yourself, you’ll need to read Andrew Natsios’s book.

At the height of the famine, in 1997, North Korea’s grain deficit was estimated at 1.9 million tonnes. During the famine years, the average price of corn was around $120 a tonne. That works out to an annual cost of $228 million to close North Korea’s grain deficit during each of the famine years. If you divide $1.5 billion by $228 million, the cost of these MiG-29s could have more than covered North Korea’s food deficit for six and half years, a period that spans the duration of the famine. If Kim Jong Il had imported corn instead of these MiGs, there would have been no famine.

Now, divide 2.5 million dead by 30 MiG-29s. You arrive at a cost of 75,000 lives per aircraft — roughly the same death toll as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. For each plane.

[A million deaths is just a statistic.]

The victims of North Korea’s famine didn’t have to die, but they did — maybe by the millions, and often after watching their children die before them. They were killed by the deliberate polices of their government — policies whose effects were felt year after agonizing year — as surely as the victims of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Auschwitz. The main difference is that the North Korean victims didn’t die after moments of agony. Their final agony lasted weeks, if not months.