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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does our State Department want denuclearization or an exit strategy?

I’ve long wished that I could attend more ICAS events, but they tend to coincide with busy times in my work schedule. That was also the case when Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel spoke to ICAS earlier this week. The State Department has since published this transcript. A reader (thank you) forwarded it, and asked for my views. 

Sending a consistent message to North Korea and China is very important at this moment, and it hardly serves that purpose to try to be Jimmy Carter and John Bolton in a single speech. Russel’s message begins with a lengthy defense of Jimmy Carter, Chris Hill, and the failed Agreed Frameworks of the past, and strongly suggests that our goal now is a freeze deal and another agreed framework — in other words, a return to business as usual. He eventually gets around to threatening stronger sanctions enforcement, but says that sanctions are designed “to bring [North Korea’s] leaders to their senses” but “not to destroy North Korea.”

As one of the designers, I’d respectfully ask Assistant Secretary Russel to speak for himself. But the greater problem with Assistant Secretary Russel’s statement is that it reveals a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of our problem. North Korea’s leaders haven’t taken leave of their senses; they’re deliberately and methodically pursuing nuclear weapons to extort their way to hegemony, and with obvious success. As long as we mirror-image their interests in terms of our own logic, we will continue to misapprehend them. If Kim Jong-un is as invested in his nuclear weapons programs as most observers think he is, and if we’re unwilling to use sanctions to undermine and destroy his misrule, then the message we’re sending to Pyongyang and Beijing is that they should cut a freeze deal, get the sanctions relaxed, wait a few months for the administration to leave town, and renege on the next president’s watch.

The irony is that diplomacy stands little chance of success unless we openly consider other alternatives — alternatives that frighten Pyongyang and Beijing more than the idea of a negotiated denuclearization.

In my youth back in South Dakota, on the way to the used car lot one day, I learned an expression that’s as wise as it is ungrammatical: if you want a deal real bad, a real bad deal is what you’re going to get. Next year, we will have another president. Let’s not throw away her leverage just yet.

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Obama Administration’s “peace treaty” grasp explains its lax enforcement of N. Korea sanctions

For years, friends have asked me why the Obama Administration hasn’t made a serious effort to enforce sanctions against North Korea when we know they’ve worked before. I’ve resisted most temptations to psychoanalyze or speculate, but when pressed, I’ve supposed that the administration might have thought that a deal was still possible, however long the odds against it. With this revelation, however, everything suddenly makes sense. 

Days before North Korea’s latest nuclear-bomb test, the Obama administration secretly agreed to talks to try to formally end the Korean War, dropping a longstanding condition that Pyongyang first take steps to curtail its nuclear arsenal.

Instead the U.S. called for North Korea’s atomic-weapons program to be simply part of the talks. Pyongyang declined the counter-proposal, according to U.S. officials familiar with the events. Its nuclear test on Jan. 6 ended the diplomatic gambit.

The episode, in an exchange at the United Nations, was one of several unsuccessful attempts that American officials say they made to discuss denuclearization with North Korea during President Barack Obama’s second term while also negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale & Carol E. Lee]

Despite an uninterrupted series of North Korean outrages, the administration held off because it really believed that appeasement was possible, right up to the end, when Kim Jong-un pushed the plungerReuters puts a slightly different spin on the story …

The United States rejected a North Korean proposal to discuss a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War because it did not address denuclearization on the peninsula, the State Department said on Sunday. [Reuters]

… but it really amounts to the same thing.

“We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response,” he said. “Our response to the NK proposal was consistent with our longstanding focus on denuclearization.”

That is, the White House and Foggy Bottom were ready to enter into talks with Pyongyang with or without any “precondition that North Korea” — which has cheated on multiple deals with past Presidents of both parties — “first take steps that show a willingness to give up its nuclear program.”

In a sense, this isn’t anything new; we saw another report similar to this one two years ago. But it should still shock us — first, because those 2014 reports didn’t shock us enough; second, because of all that has happened since then; and third, because the talks came amid reports of a nuclear test, which suggests that our diplomats offered Kim Jong-un nuclear blackmail to buy him out of the headlines.

In practice, that would have meant giving Pyongyang valuable concessions before Pyongyang took a single step toward disarming. Those concessions might not have been written — the State Department has learned not to reduce its deals with North Korea to writing in any detail. The concessions might not even have been expressed. But whether there was a stated promise or not, to keep the deal from blowing up as it packed its boxes, the administration would have gone soft on sanctions, on calls for accountability over human rights, and on accountability for its cyberattacks and terrorism. Indeed, it’s almost certain that the North Koreans won valuable sanctions relief simply by a combination of threats and talks, by giving our diplomats the false hope that if we appeased them a little longer, there might be peace in our time.

Is our State Department really that gullible? Does it really believe that a regime that can’t abide by an Armistice, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, two agreed frameworks, a Leap Day deal, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would abide by yet another piece of paper, assuming one were ever signed? For that matter, who believes that this administration could have concluded a peace treaty in its remaining months in office? Not all Korea watchers seem fully capable of believing that, and several alternative theories have emerged.

1. We talk to the North Koreans all the time. This is no big deal.

2. The State Department outsourced its North Korea policy to a noisy little cabal of rabid North Korean sympathizers, fringe kooks from Oakland, and Code Pink, who are almost the only Americans who are calling for a peace treaty with North Korea (I said “almost”). But who would give them the time of day or entertain their views?

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 8.01.05 AM

[Via KANCC]

Christine Ahn is in the center, the white-haired man to her right is KANCC President Yoon Kil-Sang, and the man at the head of the table is Robert King, your Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. Of course, “meeting” and “influencing” are two different things, but who would have thought that a man in King’s position would meet with two leading North Korean human rights denialists? Still, as disgraceful as this is, it seems to be a partial explanation at best.

3. David Maxwell hypothesizes that the State Department (despite all outward appearances) is deviously clever and made this offer to discredit calls for a peace treaty. If so, mission accomplished, although it seems like a big political risk to take to appease a few fringe kooks during an election year, despite the lack of support for such an endeavor within the U.S. political mainstream, among our allies, or in Congress. After all, any fool knows that North Korea can’t survive in a state of peace with American and South Korea, right? Could our State Department really be so ignorant about North Korea? Well, just watch their A-team at work before a congressional subcommittee before you answer that.

4. My favorite theory is that President Obama wanted a deal to cover his exit, just like George W. Bush did before him. As these talks were happening, there were already published rumors of a nuke test. Japan and South Korea also seem to have expected a test. This was the administration’s last-gasp offer of concessions to prevent an election-year test and the utter collapse of its North Korea policy, whatever that policy was. In retrospect, what it really looks like is an offer to pay nuclear blackmail.

Kim Jong-un was a fool to walk away from State’s offer. His father made and broke agreements to denuclearize for years, reaping valuable concessions from lame duck administrations in exchange for lies and empty gestures. Inevitably, and as long as the “peace process” survived, Pyongyang could have secured our silence and abstention on its crimes against humanity, the cancelation of military exercises, lax sanctions enforcement, and discussions about the withdrawal of U.S. forces. IAEA inspectors would have come and gone with Kim Jong-un’s mood swings, but there had never been real progress toward disarmament before. What person of any common sense or judgment thinks things would have ended any differently this time?

Related thoughts from Gordon Chang and Claudia Rosett; other reports via Yonhap and the Joongang Ilbo.

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In The Weekly Standard: Kaesong, where life imitated Monty Python & the Holy Grail

large wooden badgerIn Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Knights of Camelot are on a quest for the Holy Grail, but find their way barred by a group of ornery French knights – never mind what they are doing in England – who have walled themselves inside an impregnable castle. After a pathetic attempt to breach the walls fails, Sir Bedivere the Wise devises a scheme to do
through guile what could not be done through force. He persuades King Arthur to build a large, hollow wooden rabbit, leave it at the castle gate just before nightfall, and wait for the curious French knights to pull it inside. The French do so, at which point it occurs to the Englishmen that they were supposed to be inside the rabbit. Bedivere’s “ingenious” plan ends with the French catapulting the empty rabbit back onto the humiliated English.

On several levels, this scene is a near-perfect analogy for South Korea’s and our own failed efforts to “engage” North Korea, right down to the French knights’ vitriolic-yet-awkward taunts. (The Korean Central News Agency, for example, has a curious affinity for the word “brigandish.”)

Read the rest at The Weekly Standard.

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Inter-Korean phone calls can keep the promises of the Sunshine Policy

Twenty years of state-to-state engagement between North and South Korea have not lived up to Kim Dae-Jung’s promises. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and periodically attacked South Korea for good measure. Rather than reforming, it has invested heavily in sealing its borders. Pyongyang sustains itself on foreign hard currency, even as it cuts off the flow of people, goods, and information to its underprivileged classes. It knows that if it fails to do this, members of those classes will achieve financial, material, and ideological independence from the state.

In their efforts to seal the borders, the North Korean security forces’ principal targets have been the Chinese cell phones whose signals can cross a few miles into North Korea, and which provide North Koreans with their last fragile link to the outside world. Today, there is a real danger that this link will be cut, and that the market-driven changes in North Korean society — changes driven by the people, despite the government’s attempts to suppress them — will cease.

Now, imagine if signals from South Korean cell providers began spreading across the DMZ into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. You saw how Pyongyang reacted to loudspeaker propaganda, which reached a few thousand conscripts at best. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans being able to call their relatives in the South directly, reading the Daily NK on smart phones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. Small beginnings like these could be profoundly transformational. If, eventually, North Koreans gain the ability to talk to each other, free of the state’s interference, these beginnings could become the foundations of a new civil society in North Korea. That could vastly mitigate the chaos and cost of reunification.

And yet, Seoul hesitates to allow this kind of people-to-people engagement, ostensibly because it is paralyzed by paranoia that North Korean spies would also use this network.

South Korean police expressed concerns over the national security implications of mobile phone conversations between North Korean defectors in the South and their relatives in the North.

A police official who spoke to South Korean press on the condition of anonymity said the security concerns call for the passage of a law at the National Assembly that could step up surveillance, South Korean outlet Financial News reported on Friday.

Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South keep in contact with their families, who are able to circumvent North Korea regulations through the use of Chinese mobile phones. One unidentified woman defector said she calls her family in the North 3 or 4 times a week, to confirm money transfers through a broker based in China. [….]

Police officials in Seoul are saying the conversations between family members can leak sensitive information that can pose a threat to South Korea’s national security, but amendments to Seoul’s Protection of Communications Secrets Act could reduce risks. [UPI]

But given the frequency with which North Korean agents are exposed in the South — just keep scrolling — the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the United Front Department, and their assortment of spies, street thugs, slashers, hackersassassinsagents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.”

It’s a silly, short-sighted paranoia that’s tantamount to refusing to treat a disease for fear of the treatment’s side effects. The answer to spies using the phones is called law enforcement. More broadly, if Seoul doesn’t want to deal with North Korean espionage and influence operations in perpetuity, it should open a second front in Kim Jong-Un’s information war, and start running a few information operations of its own. 

One of the most important uses of inter-Korean phone links could be their use for money transfers. Plenty of families in the North rely on those remittances to survive, or to start small businesses that provide for their families. Seoul has been ambivalent about these remittances, too:

South Korea technically bans the transfers, but an official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles North Korea policy, says that the government has little incentive to stop the remittances.

“They fall into a gray area,” said the official, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak about the policy on record. “We always say no money should be sent to North Korea in case it is diverted for military purposes. But in this case, we’re not talking about huge amounts. And it’s for humanitarian purposes. So long as that’s the case, we won’t pursue it.” [WaPo, Chico Harlan, Feb. 2012]

Seoul has even fretted that small-time remittances from North Korean refugees to their families back home might violate international sanctions. Which is an argument that takes a lot of chutzpah, if you contemplate the millions of dollars Seoul pours into Pyongyang through the Kaesong Industrial Park each year.

South-to-North remittances have always been risky and expensive. Remitters charge commissions as high as 30%. Today, with Kim Jong-Un’s information crackdown on illegal calls over the Chinese border, money transfers often require North Korean family members and remitters to risk their lives:

In May this year, a North Korean defector in her 40s took a call from an unknown number at her office in the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was from her brother, who she had not seen for more than a decade, calling illegally from North Korea after tracking her down.

He was speaking from a remote mountainside near the border with China, and was in dire need of money to help treat another sister’s late stage cancer, she said.

Accompanied by a Chinese broker, the brother had spent five hours climbing up the mountain, avoiding North Korean security and desperately searching for a signal on a Chinese mobile telephone. Contact with anyone in the South is punishable by death in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated states. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park, July 2012]

Defectors objected strongly to a 2011 proposal by Seoul to require licenses for South-to-North remittances. Personally, I’m not sure that a licensing procedure is such a bad idea, if it’s administered efficiently. Licensing can help prevent South Koreans from sending money to government officials — and maybe even spy-handlers — while channeling legitimate remittances through the more honest and reliable remitters.

To ease the burden of the new red tape, Seoul might consider a new way to reduce the cost of a remittance, say, by allowing direct South-to-North transfers that don’t have to run through Chinese banks or Chinese cell phones:

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by next June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members.

Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

For the last 20 years, South has poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money. As far as Seoul knows, Pyongyang used some of that money to nuke up. Yet in the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, Seoul took bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. It didn’t work, but the money still flows.

Today, however, Seoul is afraid to take a chance on the kind of people-to-people communications that are changing North Korea profoundly. If those communications become regular and safe, suddenly, they start to sound like the first steps in a plausible plan to keep the Sunshine Policy’s gauzy promises about engagement, change, reform, and reunification.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

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

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

 

 

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Divided, We Fail   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Progressive Diplomacy   ~

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

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

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

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

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

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

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

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

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Seiler: N. Korea isn’t serious about denuclearization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

10329169_908328475873426_6301317851756141996_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

uranium girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No intervention can interrupt death when it’s inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PUST’s un-Christian attacks on Suki Kim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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