Archive for Appeasement

Nuclear blackmail watch

As Pyongyang may be about to nuke off, and then again may not be, Glyn Davies is pleading for Agreed Framework III.

A U.S. envoy on Tuesday suggested Washington could accept “reversible steps” from North Korea on denuclearization in order to jump-start frozen negotiations.

“What they do, quite frankly, in the initial stages would be perfectly reversible steps that they would take, declaratory steps,” said Glyn Davies, the Obama administration’s special envoy for North Korea policy. He emphasized, however, that Pyongyang could only return to the long-paralyzed six-party process if it accepted the “fundamental premise” that the negotiations were focused on the permanent shuttering of its nuclear weapons program.

If only they had another cooling tower to blow up.

Davies was responding to a reporter’s question on whether the United States was still demanding from Pyongyang concrete proof of its commitment to irreversible denuclearization as a precondition to returning to the negotiations, which also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

“Davies’ answer suggests that if the six-party talks were to begin, the first actions the U.S. and its partners would demand would be aimed at limits that curb the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear and missile potential,” said Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association executive director, in an email.

Potential reversible steps that the North could take to gain the confidence of other countries could include a pledge to suspend nuclear and missile testing. A stillborn U.S-North Korea agreement reached on Leap Day 2012 involved such a promise of a testing moratorium; Pyongyang was seen to quickly break faith with Washington when it weeks later unsuccessfully attempted to send a rocket into space.

Although Davies is being coy with us, a careful parsing of his words doesn’t allow the reader to tell whether he’s demanding complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program – the position of the United States until now — or settling for something more like a freeze, which can be unfrozen at any time.

The insistence on “permanent shuttering” — or whatever words Davies actually used – is the closest thing we’ve seen to a denial of previous reports that it was willing to soften its disarmament demands. It isn’t much of a denial.

Let’s go with a wild assumption here that North Korea would sign any deal premised on CVID (the more likely outcome is that the deal would be silent about it, and both parties would walk away with different understandings). Any such deal would come at a heavy up-front cost in aid. Congress, however, has already prohibited most forms of aid to North Korea, and prohibits all aid to North Korea unless Congress approves it in a specific appropriation. Good luck getting this Congress to approve one in an election year.

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

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.]

Update, 24 April: This statement from the White House sounds (sort of) like a denial of the Yonhap report.

“Given the recent North Korean statements threatening new type of nuclear tests, new type of missile tests, it’s clear that North Korea is not signaling any interest in what we would consider to be credible and authentic negotiations,” Evan Medeiros, Obama’s key aide on Asia policy, said at a Foreign Press Center briefing here. “In that context, you know, we’re looking for some sign they’re actually committed to denuclearization.”

He was referring to efforts to restart the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Last held in December 2008, the negotiations also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The statement could just as well be a recognition of North Korea’s clear signals that it’s not interested in denuclearization, and appears ready to proceed with a test. One wonders what the White House would be saying now if the North Koreans sent a signal they were receptive to the deal. A separate report lends credence to that view:

The top nuclear envoys of the United States and China held in-depth talks last week, bridging their differences on ways to resume long-stalled nuclear talks with North Korea, according to China’s foreign ministry Monday.

Obviously, I don’t know who gave in to whom, but I have my own ideas about that. The subject of those talks was preconditions for restarting talks. Overall, it suggests that the administration was ready to lower the bar, but for North Korea’s own disinterest in talking.

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.

Bosworth and Gallucci: Let’s pay Kim Jong Un to pretend to disarm, and we can pretend to believe him.

Writing with Robert Gallucci in The New York Times, Stephen Bosworth writes that the North Koreans, contrary to countless public and private statements that its nukes are non-negotiable, are ready to enter disarmament negotiations in good faith, and that we should give them shiny objects for doing that:

The North Koreans — who are longtime participants in government-to-government talks and well plugged-in to their country’s leadership — stated that if dialogue were to resume, their nuclear weapons program would be on the negotiating table. They provided preliminary thinking on a phased approach that would start with a freeze of their program and end with denuclearization.

That process, they said, would have to include steps by America, such as the conclusion of a peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice that ended the Korean War, and the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on the North by the United States since the end of that war. [Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, New York Times]

Note well the words “such as.” In the language of My People — legalese — this translates to “including but not limited to.” And with respect to sanctions, the North Koreans appear to understand them as little as most American ex-diplomats and academics do. They’re going to be awfully disappointed when they see how little there is to lift, especially given that most remaining U.S. sanctions are mandated by the U.N. Security Council and can’t be lifted unilaterally.

We stressed that Pyongyang needs to indicate clearly the concrete steps it would take both before and immediately after a return to the negotiating table. The North Koreans told us that they were prepared to enter talks without preconditions and would consider some confidence-building measures once talks begin.

Maybe they can blow up another cooling tower; if they start the construction now, it might even be ready in time for the deal. If we front them some “development aid” now, it might even be enough to finance the construction (win-win, people!).

You can already see that I don’t believe what Bosworth and Gallucci are saying, but so what? The more interesting question is whether they do, and in Bosworth’s case at least, there’s reason to doubt it. Here’s what he told us a few months ago:

The former U.S. point man on North Korean diplomacy, Amb. Stephen Bosworth, is making the rounds in Seoul this week with a sharp message: it’s time for the countries pushing North Korea to denuclearize to acknowledge they may never be able to get a verifiable deal.

For years, the stated goal of U.S. and other countries that are trying to end North Korea’s nuclear pursuit has been “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID in dip-speak.

The problem is that following North Korea’s revelation in November 2010 to a visiting U.S. scientist of an operating uranium enrichment program, even if countries could persuade North Korea to accept an aid-for-denuclearization deal, there’s no way to verify they are sticking to it.

“Because of the nature of that technology, it would be almost impossible to verify North Korea’s compliance with any ban on enriched uranium production,” Mr. Bosworth said. Uranium enrichment can happen in small facilities whose activities are hidden from satellites, forcing verification experts to take North Korea’s word on compliance.


Instead, he recommends that South Korea, the U.S. and other countries negotiate a “standstill agreement” in which North Korea halts tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles – something that could be monitored.  [Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal]

So what are the North Koreans (and Bosworth) selling us this time if disarmament is an implausible goal? Bosworth has admitted that this a deal that we can never verify, and in his Times op-ed, he concedes that “[t]he North Koreans have not abided by many of their past commitments.”

But as he and Gallucci ask, not unreasonably, what’s wrong with just talking? Answer: the cover charge. We’ve seen this cycle repeat itself too many times to doubt that the first round of talks will be about paying, which throws away the very leverage we’ll need to get a good deal and make it work. They believe that the best way to disarm North Korea is to legitimize, stabilize, finance (you know that’s coming) and perpetuate a regime whose downfall would, mostly likely, result in verifiable disarmament, but whose perpetuation equates to a nuclear North Korea whose nuclear and chemical weapons technology will continue to provoke crises around the world.

But even if this deal could be negotiated, it would be dead on arrival at Capitol Hill. During my stint there, I visited nearly every congressional office of either party and several key committee offices to talk about North Korea policy. Given the weakness of its foreign policy cred today, it’s doubtful that the administration would invest in this deal. If it did, it would not be a replay of the government shutdown that split the Republicans; it’s the Democrats who would split this time. Congress killed Agreed Framework I by defunding it after we caught North Korea cheating. When Chris Hill came to Congress to sell Agreed Framework II, he promised that it would not be a deal where North Korea pretended to disarm, and we’d pretend to believe them. That’s a promise that Bosworth couldn’t make to sell Agreed Framework III. He wouldn’t be the one making it, of course, but even a Democratic Congress would have to demand robust verification.

(A tangent: One reason why the Times still prints these anachronisms is the success of their proponents at pretending that better alternatives don’t exist (the unteachability of its editors is another). What a gift it must seem to them at times like these to read calls from the other extreme for President Obama to consider preemptive airstrikes. This call is from an unlikely source — two German authors, who remind me that as little as I like the insufferable sanctimony of the new Germany, I still like the old Germany much less.)

Bosworth and Gallucci are right about one of their arguments — North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs full-bore, and the Obama Administration shows no hint of a coherent and decisive policy to reverse or arrest that trend. Their answer to that, however, is the classic definition of insanity.

To Bosworth and Gallucci, sanctions are an obstacle; in reality, they’re a vehicle. Talks can’t work unless Kim Jong Un (or his replacement, should sanctions dethrone him) is prepared to disarm. Everyone either knows that he isn’t, or should. Negotiations won’t work without leverage, sanctions are the best leverage we have, and our sanctions against North Korea are much too weak to give us that leverage. As I’ll explain in greater detail in a future post, our North Korea sanctions are a shadow of the targeted sanctions that are working in Iran, or the broad and blunt ones that aren’t working in Cuba, to name two. (If you can’t wait, read the statutes and regulations yourself.)

Despite some early and hopeful signs, it’s far from clear that sanctions have put life-altering pressure on Kim Jong Un, despite the fact that he sounds desperate to get them lifted. He still has the money and materials to keep building amusement parks, ski resorts, and missile sites. All outward signs tell us that he sees sanctions are a mere annoyance, and the sanctions that annoy him most are probably those on luxury goods imports, which are logically unrelated to disarmament and, aside from being a general pressure tactic, are aimed at his obscene starvation of his own people. If these are the sanctions Kim Jong Un wants us to lift, a logical counter would be to offer to ask the Security Council to suspend them, but only temporarily, and in exchange for lifting all restrictions on the delivery of food aid. That would seem to be a good early test of the North’s seriousness about accepting some transparency, a sine qua non of effective diplomacy. But, as at least Bosworth knows, that sine qua non is lacking here.

Joel Wit: Agreed Frameworks “Worked Very Well”

Fortunately, Sung Yoon Lee is there to remind us of the reality of Mr. Wit’s sterling record. Depending on your perspective, you may wish to avert your eyes:

Watch Kim Jong-un Orders Rockets Ready to Strike United States on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Some viewers may judge Wit a bit too boastful about the length of his experience dealing with the North Koreans, but on closer examination, he understates his experience almost as much as he overstates his success. According to some reports, Wit was meeting with Kim Gye Gwan in January 2007, and seemed familiar with the terms of Agreed Framework II, which the North Koreans and Chris Hill signed the following month.  It’s reasonable to infer that Wit was, at the very least, greasing the wheels for Hill’s deal.  As late as February 2008, after North Korea was caught lying about its HEU program, after North Korea refused to provide a full disclosure of its nuclear programs as agreed, and even after the Israeli Air Force destroyed the reactor Kim Jong Il was building for Bashar Assad, Wit was quoted as saying that “the level of cooperation is very good, better than I have seen it in 10 years.”  (Wit was an avowed denier of North Korea’s HEU program, at least before the North Koreans showed Sig Hecker an underground complex filled with thousands of centrifuges.)  In his eagerness to bolster the length of his experience dealing with North Korea, Wit also takes responsibility for a longer list of misjudgments and failures.

So if Wit’s approach is the right one, why, after all these years of brilliantly successful diplomacy, is he on the PBS News Hour talking about North Korean nuclear blackmail?


North Korea’s cash-for-summit demands put 2010 attacks in a new light

WERE THE 2010 ATTACKS North Korea’s way of making good on extortion?  Stephan Haggard, not widely know for his hard-line views, cites an article in the Chosun Ilbo revealing that Kim Jong Il wanted a summit with Lee Myung Bak, but at a price.

The sticking point was money. How much? According to the Chosun Ilbo, $500-600 million in rice and fertilizer aid, which had effectively been cut from the first of the year, and perhaps some cash too; that was about the price that Kim Dae Jung paid for the first summit. Negotiations continued through November at Kaesong, when the North Korean delegation even presented a draft summit declaration including a resumption of aid.  [Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation]

The Chosun Ilbo story adds this important piece of evidence:

In January 2010, after the secret contacts ended and North Korea realized that it was impossible to extract any aid from Seoul, it vowed to launch a “holy retaliatory war” against the South and fired multiple artillery rounds at the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border on the West Sea.  [Chosun Ilbo]

Haggard makes a compelling (if circumstantial) argument that the attacks were meant to demonstrate that North Korea’s extortion should be taken seriously. We now know that two months after Lee refused to pay up, North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Wondering if I could make this case a bit less circumstantial, I decided to consult my archives and see what else North Korea said and did in the months between Lee’s refusal to pay and the Cheonan attack. I didn’t find what I expected.  Although there were certainly some menacing acts and words by North Korea, the threats were nowhere near as extravagant or as frequent as those issued in early 2009, after President Lee cut off aid, and as President Obama warmed up his chair.  What’s interesting, however, is that in early 2010, North Korea was facing a severe popular backlash against The Great Confiscation.

In November, of course, North Korea followed up with the Yeonpyeong attack.

Let me take Haggard’s point a step further:  if he’s correct in his inference, this course of conduct would be a good fit for the legal definition of “international terrorism.”  Some commenters have suggested that the 2010 attacks — particularly the Cheonan attack — are not a basis (not that another is needed) to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, but fresh evidence of a motive to extort merits reconsideration. The key element is that the violent act must have been intended to influence South Korean government policy, and some of North Korea’s statements from 2009 provide additional evidence of North Korea’s intent.  The evidence is circumstantial, but somewhere in North Korea are people with direct evidence, and one of them is probably thinking about defecting.

This Just In: North Korea fails to absorb any of Dennis Rodman’s tact, class, gentility, or gravitas.

So yet again, we learn that visitors do not change North Korea. The tricky part is getting out before North Korea changes the visitor.

Since I broach the engagement-versus-isolation debate, it’s been argued enough times that I seldom hear any new arguments, but this one by Michael Totten, in response to the reliably trite Nick Kristof, is a terrific deconstruction of mirror-imaging by both the North Koreans and the Americans who don’t understand how they think.

The answer to the debated question, of course, is “both,” but we’ve gotten the mechanics of it exactly backwards.  By engaging North Korea’s regime on its terms — lots of cash, no questions asked — we’ve provided it the financial and political means to isolate and immiserate its people, the ones we should have been finding ways to engage in spite of the regime.

What would be the death blow for totalitarianism in North Korea?  Aid workers from free societies — kindly Bible-thumping missionaries from Missouri and Busan, side-by-side with German hipsters with pierced lips and eyebrows — all passing out humanitarian aid in the bleakest quarters of Hamhung and Wonsan, unimpeded by the regime’s minders.  That will only be possible when the regime is so constricted financially that it is forced to allow that to save the residue of its elite.

Update:  Via Spencer Ackerman, Rodman can’t even keep his Koreas straight, so he may also be ignorant of how conditions are for most of the North Korean people.  Kudos to Ackerman for trying to shift the focus back to that.

Breaking: North Korea Still Poor, Ignorant, and Run by Narcissistic Assholes

I’ve never expected anything good to come from a Bill Richardson visit to Pyongyang, and this visit fulfilled my expectations. A lot of journalists, bloggers, and academics in Washington and New York made a big deal out of this. (It was good for our traffic.) But in the places that really count — in Chongjin and Hamhung and Uijongbu and even in Pyongyang — it didn’t change a thing.  It will not reduce the black market price of corn, it will not improve conditions in the camps, it will not save a single kkotjaebi from an early and lonely death, it will not crack open the borders or let in the truth, it will not slow the crackdowns on defections or South Korean soap operas, and it will not reduce the risk of a nuclear test or an attack on South Korea. It did not free Ken Bae or any of the Japanese or South Korean abductees or signal a Pyongyang Spring. But there was one delightful surprise in this — it did cost Kim Jong Bill his cred.

Maybe this post isn’t a complete waste of time after all.

Just a few years ago, Richardson was in the running for Secretary of State. Sure, we hard-line types have always loathed Richardson, but the appeasers loved him, and he was at least respected by the center-left swing voters of the North Korea Industry. Judging from the tone of the commentary coming from the swing voters now, Richardson has lost them. I usually agree with Don Kirk, so I’m not surprised that he sees the trip as a failure. On the other hand, when the New York Times scores your “engagement” trip 1-0 Pyongyang, your wardrobe has malfunctioned. At least one swing voter, Nir Rosen, was inspired to completely rethink engagement and aid in this thoughtful essay. Stephan Haggard admits to scratching his head at the futility of it all. With few exceptions, those who didn’t criticize the trip ridiculed it.

Worse for Richardson, even the North Koreans gave him the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Consider: KCNA is reporting today that a Vice-Premier met with a visiting Chinese delegation led by a Vice-Minister of Commerce. What North Korean of any stature met Richardson? The Rodong is touting that Kim Jong Un received a gift from the Chicoms; but characterized the Richardson visit as one to pay “tribute,” and said nothing about who greeted him. (As for Schmidt, KCNA reports that some North Koreans taught him a thing or two about technology.) Moving on to quasi-official media — that is, a certain foreign-owned news service that employs KNCA “reporters” – AP Pyongyang says they “met with officials,” but doesn’t identify anyone of significance. Why, when Richardson visited in 2010, he at least rated Ri Yong HoThat’s no way to treat your favorite tool. 

We know Richardson’s score, but how did the North Koreans do? That depends on what you think they wanted, and that question gets to the heart of a long-standing debate about the motivations and pathology behind North Korea’s foreign policy. Is it (a) all about domestic reenforcement, are they (b) trying to improve relations with and extract aid and investment from us, or do they (c) really want a Grand Opening to the world? (These theories aren’t mutually exclusive — myself, I’m 85% (a), 0% (c), and 15% (b), provided that (b) supports (a) and excludes the possibility of (c). Still with me?)

Let’s take these theories in inverse order, starting with (c). Schmidt’s pleas notwithstanding, the North Koreans certainly didn’t show any hint that they intend to open their society or economy in any meaningful way.  (The better reporting on the subject strongly suggests the very opposite.) They may want their own people to think that Google and the U.S. recognize them as global technology leaders, but that would only reenforce a North Korean sense of self-reliant isolation.  Also, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because that goes back to (a).

If (b) or (c) were true, you’d think the North Koreans would have at least empowered a proponent of (b) and (c) in America’s public debate in America about the utility and timing of the visit. The most obvious way to do that would have been to release Ken Bae, who is currently doing time in a North Korean jail for being dumb enough to believe (c).* Releasing Bae would have swung the argument in Richardson’s favor with a certain percentage of the audience. True to my previous prediction, however, the North Koreans aren’t letting Mr. Bae go just yet, at least until his captivity helps ensure that Susan Rice gives in to the Great Wall of China and abandons all hope of getting the U.N. to sanction it for that missile test.

Also, if (b) or (c) were true, this was a huge lost opportunity for the North Koreans. Imagine the reaction here if Kim Jong Un showed up unexpectedly, shook the hands of Richardson and Schmidt, and spent just five minutes talking about some hobby of his — say, Starcraft or the NBA or bondage porn or assassinating your siblings — in front of David Guttenfelder’s fully erect lens. This wouldn’t have made the visit any less meaningless, but it would have caused a mediagasm of talk about how enlightened and open-minded Kim Jong Un is as the dying went on unimpeded and safely out of our sight. That didn’t happen — praise be to Zeus — because sending His Porcine Majesty to meet some has-been ex-governor would have lowered His stature. Not that further proof is really needed, but this tells us that North Korea isn’t terribly interested in (c) or even that much (b), no matter how fervently some of us may want it. It is also is our segue to (a).

A lot of us hard-line types have been talking about what a great propaganda victory this was for North Korea, but we seldom explain our argument very well.  How, specifically, does facilitating propaganda that Kim Jong Un is the Man of the Year, the Sexiest Man Alive, and the object of global respect, fear, and adoration stabilize the North Korean regime? Why, indeed, is KCNA filled with reports about delegations from Juche societies in Burkina Faso and Ecuador? Could any North Korean possibly believe that for the rest of the world, excluding Korea bloggers, it’s all about North Korea?

Oddly enough, I believe the answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a uniquely North Korean phenomenon.


[Hat Tip]

This is one of those things that’s about 50% less mysterious to me for having lived in South Korea. For most Americans, it really isn’t all about Korea, but Koreans continue to expend finite diplomatic and financial resources on billboards, front-page newspapers ads, wines, and essay contests about two uninhabited lumps of guano that South Korea already occupies. The Tokdo Complex is diagnosed by one’s sincere and emphatic belief that people all over the world obviously care much more deeply about Korea than they do about other places, and therefore they must care deeply about Tokdo than they do about Darfur, Tibet, or less explicably, Camp 22. Now, as the former owners of Dokdo Sushi in Rockville, Maryland must realize by now, we really don’t. But the emotional roots of the Tokdo Complex must run deeper than 1945 and must also appeal to a powerful psychological need. If I’m right about that, North Korea’s propaganda machine feeds this, and probably also believes it to a certain extent. I can even believe this propaganda is an effective adhesive for people who latently despise the regime and His Porcine Majesty, and who would actively participate in its violent overthrow if they saw any prospect that this could be accomplished successfully.

What I can’t explain is why the Tokdo Complex doesn’t apply to China’s moves on Mount Paektu, its lease of Rajin to China, or China’s treatment of North Korean women like comfort women, or worse. All of these things seem like important matters of territorial integrity, nationhood, sovereignty, and humanity, yet they hardly exist in the public consciousness of South Koreans. For that matter, I’ve never known of a place so obsessed with the atrocities of the past, yet so apathetic about the atrocities of the present.  If you can explain that, then for God’s sake, do.


* Assuming, of course, that Ken Bae’s purpose for being in North Korea really was to be a tour guide.  I don’t really know what he was doing there or why he was arrested. He’s not my client.

State Department Disses Kim Jong Bill, and There Is Much Rejoicing

So, to answer those of you who asked, I don’t know why Google’s Eric Schmidt is flying to Pyongyang with Kim Jong Bill, but whoever is in charge of the State Department these days doesn’t sound very happy about the visit, or by the timing of our least favorite camera-hog has-been ex-governor.  Says State’s mouthpiece –

As you know, they are private citizens. They are traveling in an unofficial capacity. They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions.

Why am I smiling?  Because I voted for a government that has no use for washed-up politicians who think that mass murderers make good props for their self-aggrandizing photo ops, and that their capacity to appease them is a qualification.  My best guess is that Richardson is trying to spring Kenneth Bae, which he probably thinks would make him relevant again.

Schmidt’s game is harder to guess, but he has a history of what one informed OFK reader calls “war tourism” and naive altruism.  The fact that he’s well known as a big Obama donor probably required State to distance itself from him.  At the same time, Google has sometimes made gestures toward advocating human rights and internet freedom in North Korea. For example, Google even flew 10 North Korean defectors to a Google Ideas INFO Summit in California last year.  One of them related this story:

When he entered the camp for the first time, he was terrified at the sight of emaciated prisoners with hollowed eyes and no human dignity. They performed meaningless and arduous labor tasks from sunrise to sundown, and suffered from not only physical torture, but also excruciating mental pain. People whispered to him that they did not know what crimes they were being sentenced for, yet they did not have the strength to complain. One day, he was sent to the prison ‘hospital,’ where people laid on wooden boards shoulder to shoulder. He saw people cultivate diseases in their own bodies so that they could expedite their deaths, since committing suicide was considered a crime that would punish their loved ones living outside the camps. At the young age of 17, he developed the sense to predict when somebody would die, based on their breathing patterns. Paul recalls thinking, “that man has about two more days left before he leaves this earth.” After a bedmate would pass, Paul would not report his/her death because he would be able to eat the corpse’s food ration. He would continue to sleep next to corpses and eat their foods until nurses noticed the rotting bodies, after which patients would be tasked with carrying the stiff corpses out into a mass open grave. He left the hospital, and went back his barracks, even more determined to survive and defect from this country.

Bill Richarson was unavailable for comment.  Schmidt, on the other hand, actually spoke at the opening of the conference. (HT to a reader and friend for this information).

If you forced me to wager, I’d bet Richardson doesn’t bring Bae back.  North Korea still hasn’t exhausted his hostage value yet.  They’ll probably want to keep him in a cage until they’re secure in their knowledge that Susan Rice has failed to secure any meaningful U.N. response  for their missile test.  Then, they’ll summon someone of higher status to fetch him.  When they do, I hope our State Department will issue a travel advisory like this one:

The Department of State strongly advises U.S. citizens to stay the fuck out of North Korea.  You have no business there.  Nothing good will come of your visit.  Did your hippie professors, your pastor, and your mom tell you that you could change the world? They were all full of shit.  Actually, you are incapable of changing the world.  If you were capable of changing the world, you wouldn’t be going to North Korea; you would be gainfully employed as an electrical engineer.  Your visit will not make peace.  That “Three Cups of Tea” guy?  A fraud.

This regime will milk you for cash until it decides that it can milk Uncle Sam for even more cash by entrapping you into doing something stupid.  Have you heard about the Fiscal Cliff?  It means we’re done done filling suitcases with the taxpayers’ hard-earned, non-counterfeit cash for Jimmy to come ransom you out.  North Korea would only use that cash (or yours) to buy sarin and incubators from a scientist in Uzbekistan who borrowed money from the mob and lost it playing Texas Hold’Em online.  So don’t say we didn’t warn you.

That goes double diplomats and ex-presidents.  We had to cut the travel budget this year.  That’s why you all have e-mail accounts.