Agreed Framework III Watch: Syd Seiler steps down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Sung Kim even said this:

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

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

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

If only someone had thought of that before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Divided, We Fail   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   Progressive Diplomacy   ~

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating

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

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

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

The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”

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

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

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

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Seiler: N. Korea isn’t serious about denuclearization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

yongbyon6

5-mwe-nuclear-reactor-yongbyon-n-pyongan-dprk-photo-2

nuclear-reprocessing-plant-yongbyon-n-pyongan-dprk-photo-2

yongbyona3

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. That room and 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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Christian Whiton: “[W]e need a policy of truth for North Korea.”

At CNN.com, Whiton registers the signs of Agreed Framework 3, and writes:

There is another way to handle North Korea, which involves putting sustained pressure on the regime. China always says it is willing to take this step, but in fact never does — and never will as long as China itself is run by a cabal that is terrified of the will of its own people.  [….]

Help North Koreans get the truth. Grasp the truth that China will never seriously help the free world with North Korea. Accept the truth that six-party talks would fail again. Embrace the idea that the truth will set people free. 

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Chris Hill’s North Korea legacy in three concise paragraphs

Here, via Yonhap, where Hill takes credit for the idea of blowing up the cooling tower at Yongbyon.

The North’s destruction of the cooling tower briefly raised hopes for real progress in the six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear program, but the negotiating process later reached a deadlock over how to verify the North’s declaration of nuclear materials, facilities and activities.

In exchange for blowing up the tower, the North was removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. Six-party talks were convened one more time later in 2008, but the negotiations have since been stalled. That has reinforced criticism that Pyongyang abuses the negotiations only to win concessions.

Since then, the North has conducted two more nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2012,* as well as a series of long-range rocket launches in an effort to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads.

If only he could have snuck in a reference to those scantily clad women enriching uranium.

I guess when you have as much in your career to defend as Hill does, you’re eventually going to have a write a book, but judging by this sample, Hill’s diplomatic legacy will still exceed his literary talents.

The high-level calls had another unhelpful impact on our efforts. They became part of the toolbox, meaning that whenever there was an impasse on the ground, the idea of ginning up a telephone call quickly emerged on the to-do list. Senior phone calls also had still another negative impact on our efforts: Washington bureaucrats went operational. Thus we began to receive missives offering such nuggets of advice as “Never ignore Hashimi!” Of course, we had been in regular contact with him, but he wasn’t the great hope that some of these veterans of the early years had thought. Some of the Washington micromanagement extended to offering me advice as to who from the embassy I should bring along for meetings with Maliki and others. It all added up to an impression that Washington wanted out of Iraq. [Politico]

That Hill’s paragraphs are dangling, forced-together assemblies of mismatched bits of plastic and surface-printed particle board isn’t a bad metaphor for his Ikea diplomacy with North Korea. Like Ikea, Hill’s products look just fine until you scratch them, and hold up well enough as long as no one tries to climb or stand on them.

By the way, has anyone noticed that the same administration that couldn’t convince Nuri Maliki to sign a SOFA agreement a few years ago was able to push him completely out of office and choose his successor this year? (It deserves some credit for the latter achievements, amid the larger disaster it helped create.) Also, am I the only one who wonders whether our soldiers in Iraq are covered by a SOFA today?

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* This is an error. It’s actually 2013. I notified the reporter, who posted a correction.

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Kurt Campbell: We need tougher sanctions on North Korea.

Kurt Campbell, President Obama’s former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs and now CEO of The Asia Group, continues to debunk the pair of academic urban legends that North Korea sanctions (a) are maxed out, and (b) therefore, not a promising policy alternative. At a forum in Seoul last week, Campbell called on his former boss to “further toughen financial sanctions against North Korea” if it continues to refuse to give up its nuclear program and continues its military provocations.

“If we face real serious provocations going forward with North Korea, we have to keep one option … The fact is that if we choose, we can make life much more difficult through financial sanctions on North Korea,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the first term of President Barack Obama, said in a forum in Seoul. [Yonhap]

Unlike most journalists and academics who parrot these urban legends, Campbell has actually had the benefit of an informed examination of the authorities.

“I thought North Korea was the most sanctioned country in the world, but I was (proven) wrong when I was involved in the previous U.S. efforts to lessen sanctions on Myanmar in the past,” he said. “Myanmar is sanctioned about 10 times (more than) North Korea.” 

It would be interesting to know whether Campbell is taking a jab at his successors, or whether (as I suspect) he’s really sending a message on their behalf. Campbell also offered this elegant critique of the Sunshine Policy and its many variations:

The U.S. has for the past 20 years tried to give North Korea a choice between engagement with the international community and isolation, he said.

“The North Korean answer has always been both as opposed to choice … and it’s not clear we would be able to try to accommodate this,” he said.

Then, Campbell made another provocative suggestion: perhaps Six Parties are too many for regional diplomacy with North Korea. The question Campbell didn’t answer is who should be kicked out. There are so many good candidates for expulsion that it’s hard to see who ought to remain. North Korea itself has consistently reneged on its commitments with the other parties; talks about North Korea have proceeded before when North Korea boycotted them, and could continue as a place for the other five parties to coordinate policy and improve sanctions enforcement.

That China has demonstrated a consistent pattern of double-dealing and sanctions-busting is beyond serious debate. Talks could continue without China, among parties that really are serious about disarming North Korea. Dealings with China would have to continue in other venues, of course, but won’t make progress until China sees that the other parties are serious about enforcing sanctions.

I’ve always thought Russia’s inclusion in the 6PT was a me-too afterthought. Including Russia mostly served to give China a partner in reluctance. Since Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, Russia has shifted toward propping Pyongyang up financially and flouting North Korea sanctions, notably by forgiving North Korea’s debt and hosting Ocean Maritime Management. Japan has also broken with its allies to go its own way, and so, for that matter, has the United States when it suited us.

Finally, there is South Korea, the country with the most direct security interest in disarming North Korea, and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. defense spending each year. It’s especially ironic that Seoul has never committed itself to offering North Korea the strategic choice Campbell is talking about. Its byungjin-friendly financial subsidy of North Korea has blunted the pressure that U.N. sanctions were intended to apply, signaling to North Korea that it can have both nukes and ski resorts.

Europe is not one of the six parties, but some Europeans have offered that it should be. Europe could be offered a place, but only if it commits to playing a more productive role than it has in the past. Until recently, Europe’s main interaction with North Korea had been to host Kim Jong Un’s offshore slush funds in its banks, to sell him the luxury goods that should have paid for food instead, to support byungjin-friendly (that is, largely unconditional, regime-focused) engagement with Pyongyang despite its manifest failure, and then to oppose the strong enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions on humanitarian grounds. Despite rising consciousness of North Korea’s crimes against humanity in Europe, its compliance with U.N. sanctions is still poor.

It’s not clear to me whether there should be fewer parties than six or more, or which nations should be represented in them. It is clear that the United States has failed to use the full extent of its financial, diplomatic, cultural, and military influence to unite around a strategy of effective pressure, and then to pursue it until North Korea is disarmed — completely, verifiably, and irreversibly. Ironically for a President and a Secretary of State who each had emphasized diplomacy in their respective campaigns for the presidency, neither has had diplomatic success in coordinating the North Korea policies of our allies and military dependents in Northeast Asia, to say nothing of our rivals.

~   ~   ~

* Byungjin is North Korea’s term for a doctrine under which it will both enrich itself economically and continue to improve its nuclear weapons capability.

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Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

~   ~   ~

I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [….]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

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Only terrorists make hostage videos, and North Korea just made a hostage video

… of three Americans it is holding for “crimes” that wouldn’t be cognizable as such anywhere else on earth. 

All three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to North Korea to help get them out of their situations, similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009. [CNN]

At which point, Pyongyang will present its demands. Former President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Since then, President Obama has seen no reason to reverse that misjudgment.

It’s time to ban tourist travel to North Korea.

~   ~   ~

Update: Speculation about what those demands might be focuses, naturally, on North Korea’s demand to be recognized as a nuclear state:

“Their negotiating ploy with the U.S. is to try to get us to agree to nuclear arms control, to sort of accept them as a nuclear weapons state — which we can’t do,” Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on CNN of Pyongyang’s motivations.

[….]

“First of all, their motivation always behind these interviews has been to gather U.S. attention and then try to pave a way for high-level dialogue with Washington,” Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also told CNN.

Victor Cha, chief analyst on Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who had served as a director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, also said that the North appears to want a package deal with the U.S.

“My guess is the fact that all three of them were put on tape for an American audience on Labor Day as a signal from the North Koreans that they’re looking for some sort of package deal to try to get them all out,” Cha said. “Whether they’re trying to connect this to the long-stalled nuclear negotiations is anybody’s guess.” [Yonhap]

But for now, despite rumors of a secret visit by a U.S. envoy to Pyongyang, the White House says “that Pyongyang must demonstrate its denuclearization commitment through action if it wants to reopen negotiations with the U.S.”

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Congress marks 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I, asks how that’s working out

The House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee commemorated the 20th anniversary of Agreed Framework I by calling Ambassadors Glyn Davies and Bob King over for a hearing this afternoon, and it was a tough day for Team Foggy Bottom.

If you want to see how congressional oversight should work — if you want to see a well-informed, well-prepared legislator completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle 20 years of bad policy — then watch Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot’s opening statement. Chabot made great use of John Kerry’s description of North Korea as “quiet,” and his critique of State’s obtuse position on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism was devastating:

Chabot isn’t a mesmerizing speaker, but he’s an effective one, and in the ten years I’ve been watching these things, I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more effective opening statement. His questions of Ambassador King made it clear that the Administration has done nothing about the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and nothing King said suggested that that’s about to change.

Your comedy gold, however, came from Scott Perry of Pennsylvania questioning Ambassador Davies about what everyone but the State Department calls “strategic patience.” Skip to 1:06, where he begins by asking Glyn Davies about what, exactly, he’s accomplished.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Davies’s reaction to this was arrogant and snippy. Perry threw him off-balance, and off his diplomatic demeanor.

If you have time, watch the whole hearing, and strain your ears for any inkling that State has anything to show for its efforts, any confidence in its plans — indeed, any plan at all. Davies, in particular, sounds weary and resigned. They’ve all been running out the clock ever since the Groundhog Day Agreement failed.

Sherman (D-Cal.) was (as always) mercurial, and less hawkish than in the past; Bera (D-Cal.), who ordinarily comes across as very bright, didn’t seem confident in his knowledge of the subject, and Connolly (D-Va.) didn’t get anyeonghasseyeo quite right, but his questions were insightful and penetrating. He tried to get Davies to react to the House’s passage of H.R 1771, but Davies wouldn’t bite.

Members of both parties sounded unimpressed with State’s performance, both on nukes and human rights. The idea we’ve fought for years is that North Korea policy has to be a zero-sum competition between those objectives. But what if State can’t get anything done on either? What Congress saw today was a State Department that ran out of ideas 20 years ago, and that had no record to defend.

The hearing began just as Treasury announced its new round of Chong Chon Gang sanctions, something I at least partially foresaw in this morning’s post (and which I’ll say more about tomorrow). So if even I foresaw it, why couldn’t someone have at least let Davies announce them in his opening statement? Given the strong bi-partisan pressure for tougher sanctions, having that news to deliver might have helped Davies’s day go better.

Update: Yonhap’s take, here.

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Untrained eyes fail to perceive John Kerry’s North Korea “progress”

~   1   ~

BRUCE KLINGNER OF THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION asks, “You call this progress, Secretary Kerry?”

Kerry cites his meetings with China regarding North Korea, yet Beijing continues to resist U.S. entreaties to increase pressure on Pyongyang by more fully implementing UN resolution sanctions.

In the meantime, Pyongyang continues to refine and augment its nuclear arsenal while Washington remains reluctant to impose the same unilateral US sanctions that it has already imposed on Iran, Burma, and Syria. Nor has the Obama administration yet addressed the UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea’s human rights violations which reached a level to be considered “crimes against humanity.” Obama’s Strategic Patience policy does indeed require patience, since there is no strategy. [The Daily Signal]

~   2   ~

AS IF TO PROVE KLINGNER’S POINT, China’s Foreign Minister calls on the U.S. to lower its preconditions for a return to six-party talks, which doesn’t suggest that Kerry’s talks with China have yielded progress, at least for our side:

“The United States is demanding North Korea show its willingness to give up its nuclear (weapons program), while maintaining a high threshold,” Zhang was quoted as telling the lawmakers, according to the South Korean delegate.

Zhang also criticized the U.S. policy of trying to “achieve its target even before the talks resume,” the delegate said on condition of anonymity.

The vice foreign minister reiterated China’s stated goal of “resuming the six-party talks at an early date.”

The opposite is true. It’s North Korea that’s trying to get the U.S. to accede, if tacitly, to its nuclear status before talks begin. North Korea has repeatedly declared that it’s a nuclear state, and has refused repeatedly to give up its nuclear arsenal. So what’s the point of disarmament talks if the parties don’t even agree that they’re about disarmament?

Without that acknowledgement, the talks would be a de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, even as North Korea demands more aid, cash, and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze or some equally ectoplasmic ephemera. And while I’m glad that at least officially, Kerry is sticking to that precondition, I continue to hear from well-informed people that his position is much less clear behind the scenes. When Glyn Davies talks about “reversible steps,” it further reinforces what I’m hearing.

~   3   ~

NORTH KOREAN VICE-MARSHAL Hwang Pyong-So wants to be sure John Kerry hears him:

“If the US imperialists threaten our sovereignty and survival… our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon — the sources of all evil,” Hwang said in his speech broadcast Monday on state television.

He forgot to mention Foggy Bottom, but it’s not as if Foggy Bottom ever struck fear into the heart of any psychopathic despot.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and Secretary of State of John Kerry is hard of hearing. Discuss among yourselves.

~   4   ~

NORTH KOREA DENIES selling arms to Hamas, as reported here, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center calls on the Obama Administration to “take all necessary steps” to block the sale. It also denounces some vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric from pro-North Korean Web sites based in China the United States.

For those keeping track, this year, Kim Jong Un’s sycophants have called President Obama “a wicked black monkey,” President Park Geun-Hye “a whore,” and Justice Michael Kirby “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career in homosexuality.”

~   5   ~

OH, GOOD: The Yongbyon reactor has been shut down over problems with its cooling system. In some sense, you could call that progress, but I wouldn’t give John Kerry any credit for it.

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Coalition against N. Korea crumbles due to U.S. incompetence, betrayal, and weakness

Last week, Japan and North Korea announced an agreement under which Pyongyang would “conduct a comprehensive survey” of the whereabouts of “Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and mission persons,” both dead and alive, and return them to Japan. In exchange, “Japan has announced that it is lifting sanctions against North Korea on travel, reporting remittances and humanitarian shipping.” Japan also agreed “to examine humanitarian aid to Pyongyang at an ‘appropriate time.’”

Xinhua also reports that Japan may send monitors to North Korea to verify North Korea’s “reinvestigation,” which as I imagine it, would consist of someone saying, “It’s OK boys, untie ‘em.” The latest word is that President Abe himself is talking about visiting Pyongyang, although he won’t, because no one wants to be the one who drags Kim Jong Un away from his Xbox for that.

As is with all “agreements” with North Korea, the two sides’ understandings of the agreement vary. According to KCNA (via Yonhap), Japan also “clarified its will to settle its inglorious past,” and “solve the pending issues and normalize the relations” with North Korea, apparently referring to diplomatic relations. As recently as May 31st, the Japanese and the North Koreans were still arguing about whether Chongryon’s headquarters was part of the deal. In early April, North Korea warned Japan not to bother with talks if Japan held a tax sale of the headquarters of Cheongryeon, its local affiliate and front organization. (Pyongyang later sent Chongryon a $2 million bailout, and asked Japan to rescind a court decision allowing the tax sale of its headquarters.) North Korea had demanded the resumption of ferry services and charter flights, neither of which was mentioned in the final deal. This history informs us that plenty could still go wrong.

Then, there’s the traditional pattern of North Korea preceding nuclear tests with missile tests. In April, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalated, Japan threatened to shoot down the next North Korean missile that approaches its territory. In May, North Korea said, “Japan should keep in mind that it could be the first hit by a fiery lightning in case of conflict,” the newspaper said, referring to a military strike.

For what it’s worth, North Korea is promising to keep its end of the bargain, although I can’t think of a single international agreement North Korea did keep with anyone other then the U.S.S.R. or China. The other conclusion we can draw from this history is that Japan’s defection from the administration’s coalition shouldn’t have surprised anyone. President Obama had plenty of chances to stop it. Worse, his predecessor planted the seeds that undermined that coalition’s foundation.

~   ~   ~

In April, President Obama visited Seoul during a frenzy of speculation that North Korea was either preparing, or ready for, a fourth nuclear test. To deter this, the President said that North Korea’s threats would gain it “nothing except further isolation” from an oxymoron USA Today referred to as “the global community.” “Global” means global, but as the President elaborated, it especially means our treaty allies: “We can’t waver in our intention. We have to make sure that, in strong concert with our allies, that we are continuing to press North Korea to change its approach.”

The President also said, “It is important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite.” (But of course, Congress has already found them. It would take one phone call from the National Security Staff to Harry Reid’s staff to put the President’s finger on the trigger.) Publicly, South Korea sent the same message:

“If North Korea carries out a nuclear test, (it) will certainly have to pay severe costs,” the foreign minister said, urging the communist North to make the right choice. “The North Korean leadership must choose between isolation from the international community, including China, that have resolutely opposed further nuclear tests and the path toward greater cooperation (with them).” [Yonhap]

The President must search for new ways because the old ones haven’t worked. They haven’t worked because when it comes to North Korea policy, everyone is an exceptionalist. Behind the joint statements, Japan’s deal is only the most dramatic example of how our North Korea coalition is falling apart.

In the case of China and Russia, the disunity is understandable. China and Russia are — and see themselves as — our enemies. It’s harder to understand how an administration that stresses and flouts its diplomatic management of alliances can’t coordinate a consistent, coherent policy with its own treaty allies and military dependents. Even the administration concedes that as the first among equals, it is supposed to lead:

I can tell you when we . . . went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it. 

Ambassador Susan Rice, June 1, 2014

In early April, there were signs that a coalition was congealing. The Joongang Ilbo reported that “[r]epresentatives from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo reached a consensus on taking measures against North Korea if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear weapons test,” and quoted South Korea’s envoy to the six-party talks threatening to make North Korea “pay a price” for nuking off. But to the extent there was ever unity among North Korea’s five interlocutors, the Japan deal destroyed it. The coalition has collapsed, and it was never that strong to start with.

China is the most obvious exceptionalist of the five. It ignores U.N. sanctions and subsidizes North Korea, mostly to f*ck with us, and also to keep half of Korea as a buffer state and a source of cheap coal and comfort women, while whining disingenuously about how powerless it is do anything about it. As the economist Nicholas Eberstadt says in a new analysis, “[T]he North Korean economy has never before been so totally dependent on the largesse of a single trade patron as it appears to be today.” No one believes a word China says, but no one does anything about it, either.

Russia is an exceptionalist because of Crimea. Old Bolsheviks bang their shoes on podiums; psychopaths do things more quietly — things like importing more North Korean slave laborers, sending their Deputy Prime Ministers to visit Pyongyang, opening new rail lines between Khasan and Rason, signing new economic cooperation agreements with Pyongyang, and writing off almost $10 billion in old North Korean debt (Professor Haggard has more on Russia’s “pivot,” here.) Russia does these things to harm our interests, and to use that as leverage against us. So noted. How many Ukrainians does it take to grease a T-90 with a TOW missile? It’s not an ethnic joke, it’s a question. We have leverage, too.

Even South Korea — the principal beneficiary of deterring North Korea, but also the principal beneficiary of a Pentagon-subsidized status quo — recently had the chutzpah to argue that U.N. sanctions don’t apply to its politically popular “inter-Korean projects,” which are effectively no-strings-attached subsidies into the opaque void of Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Cash earnings from an inter-Korean tour project would not be subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, amid growing expectations for its resumption. [….]

Questions have risen whether North Korea’s earnings from a joint inter-Korean tourism project in the North’s eastern mountain region would violate the resolution banning the transfer of bundles of cash to the wayward country.

“In the ministry’s understanding, (bulk cash banning) is aimed at curbing attempts to transfer illicit funds through hand-carrying with the purpose of circumventing bank trading,” the ministry said in a written response to independent lawmaker Park Joo-sun’s questionnaire regarding the Kumgang tour program and the U.N. sanctions.

Also asked whether the bulk cash restriction applies to commercial transactions over the banking system, the ministry said, “Given the purpose of bulk cash banning in the UNSC resolutions, normal dealings through the banking system are not relevant in our understanding.”

The U.N. has not detected any violations of bulk cash banning so far, while the Kumgang tour program has not been discussed as a possible violation, according to the ministry’s response to the lawmaker.”  [Yonhap]

That’s a green answer to a blue question. The fact that Kaesong and Kumgang don’t violate Paragraph 14’s prohibitions on bulk cash transactions doesn’t make them kosher under Paragraphs 11 or 15, which require financial transparency in transactions involving the financial system, including money transfers, correspondent accounts, the opening of new branches, and trade credits. And if there was any transparency, don’t you suppose the Unification Ministry would have answered my questions by now? Sweet Jesus — did they even read the resolution, or are they just lying? Because South Korea sat on the Security Council when that resolution passed. Seoul is hardly in any position to criticize Tokyo or Beijing about North Korea policy. It’s the worst hypocrite of all.

~   ~   ~

As for us, I’d say a Japanese diplomat pegged us in 2007, after the second failed Agreed Framework, when he observed that “[t]he United States always jumps to hasty decisions as a presidential election approaches.” In North Korea, the American exceptionalism means that American Presidents seldom let U.N. resolutions get between them and a convenient opportunity to buy North Korea out of the headlines. Despite everything that the last two decades should have taught us, self-described North Korea “experts” still insist that the answer to our nuclear impasse with North Korea is to soften our precondition that North Korea agree to disarm, and appease it with “engagement” initiatives that inevitably provide it regime-sustaining cash. These people still have enough influence within the Obama Administration to have it adopt their failed ideas, or at least float them as trial balloons. Only North Korea’s disinterest in denuclearizing at all has stalled the idea. Kim Jong Il would have taken our money and run like a thief; Kim Jong Un doesn’t even bother to.

Which brings us back to Japan, which has made itself an exceptionalist for more understandable reasons — a desire to bring home its citizens, kidnapped by North Korea decades ago. What makes that especially understandable is that Japan is driven to this desperation because of an exceptionalist grasp by President Bush that, despite his personal assurance to the contrary, betrayed Japan and its abductees. After personally meeting with abductee Megumi Yokota’s mother in the Oval Office, Bush reversed a long-term U.S. policy of listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism for its abductions of Japanese, refusing to lift that designation until the abductees came home. The decision shook the Japanese government and infuriated its people. Here’s a flashback to that event in 2007, and to how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted at the time:

Japanese politicians like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained this week that the United States should not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until there is a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Doing so would harm relations between Tokyo and Washington, Abe warned.

On Wednesday, Bush talked to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda by telephone and assured him that he had not forgotten about the abductees. And in a nod to Japan in his comments Thursday, Bush said the United States would “never forget” the abductions of Japanese citizens.

On Thursday, Fukuda, a moderate, rejected criticism inside Japan that Tokyo now had little leverage over Pyongyang because of its removal from the terrorism list. He said working with the United States “will be really necessary to realize the denuclearization and, at the same time, pave the way for solving the abduction issue, which is a major task for our country.”

North Korea recently agreed to reinvestigate the abductions, while Japan said it would lift some minor sanctions against the North. But so far, Tokyo has refused to contribute energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation nuclear agreement, and Japanese participation is expected to become crucial as considerably more assistance has been promised to the North.

Both Bush and Rice addressed the strong sentiment in Japan that the Bush administration had abandoned Tokyo, its most important ally in Asia, for the sake of reaching an imperfect agreement with the North.

“We’re continuing to expect the North Koreans to take this issue seriously because it is a major issue for Japan and it’s a major issue for the United States,” Rice said of the abductions issue. [N.Y. Times]

With malice aforethought, we threw one of our closest allies under the bus to appease our most implacable and mendacious enemies. That’s not deference to our allies, it’s deference to our enemies and a betrayal of our allies. It isn’t smart diplomacy, either; you can see how well it worked out for us. None of that is President Obama’s fault, of course, but it is his fault that the same State Department geniuses are still running our North Korea policy today instead of stamping passports in Bamako. We’re still paying the price for their incompetence today.

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It’s difficult to calculate the value of this financial windfall without knowing just how soon North Korea will renege, and just how much reneging prepared Japan is to tolerate. It could be substantial, and loosening restrictions on remittances could be an early payoff. Japan and North Korea are natural trading partners, and as The Hankyoreh notes, “Trade between North Korea and Japan was as high as 46 billion yen (US$452 million) in 2002 before plummeting to 14.1 billion yen (US$138.7 million) in 2006, then drying up more or less completely.” Not bad for a country with a GDP of about $40 billion (privately, economists scoff at that figure). Thus, North Korea rakes in a big payday just as it threatens to conduct a new nuclear test, and just as President Obama is trying to prevent that by threatening to starve North Korea of cash.

The South Koreans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, sound angry and bitter about Japan cutting a deal:

A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday: “It was just a relationship between two isolated leaders, Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom have no friends in Northeast Asia.” The deal threatens to break the united front that Japan, South Korea and the United States have maintained in dealing with Pyongyang. [Joongang Ilbo]

Diplomats often let such things go unsaid, but not today. This has caused a real rift among nations that have common interests and ought to act like allies:

Following reports of a fresh deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, South Korean officials warned of a possible negative impact on the troubled denuclearization process.

“We understand the importance of the abduction issue in Japan’s diplomacy, but now is an important time for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia to cooperate for the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability,” a senior South Korean diplomat here said on background. [Yonhap]

Japan defended the agreement.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, says the move does not mean Japan is out of step with the United States and South Korea on the issue. “It’s impossible – this agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”  

In fact, the relaxation of rules against remittances has the immediate potential to violate UNSCR 2094, depending on what restrictions and reporting requirements Japan puts on them. Lifting the travel ban certainly raises the risk of bulk cash smuggling from Japan to North Korea. If Japan’s “aid” to North Korea takes the form of cash, it also has the potential to violate U.N. sanctions, although it’s not clear what nature, amount, or form the aid would take. The greater point is one that even some Japanese can see — that North Korea’s game is to disrupt or offset any international coalition that could focus deterrent economic pressure. It’s succeeding because no one is leading that coalition.

Among the most significant is the possible easing of a ban on cash remittances from the thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are loyal to the regime. That could provide the North with much-needed hard currency for its weapons programs, and could undermine international efforts to bring the regime to heel, said academic and activist Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University.

“Kim Jong-Un’s regime has won a major compromise,” he told AFP. “It has secured a way for money to flow to North Korea. “Kim has issued an order to Chongryong (its de facto embassy in Japan) to press Korean business people to invest, which will mean cash flowing to North Korea.“They badly want this money to maintain the regime and to fund the nuclear program.” [Japan Today]

In the short term, Pyongyang has managed to split the allied coalition and disrupt its strategy for deterrence — a strategy that won’t work if various nations continue to put their individual interests ahead of the collective interest in disarming North Korea. Today, Pyongyang is doing a better job of using those individual interests to divide its neighbors than anyone else is doing of coordinating a collective response to deter it. The only nation with the financial, diplomatic, and military clout to coordinate an international response is the United States.

The Obama Administration doesn’t quite seem to be paying attention. The potential exists for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate effective pressure on North Korea. Even China seems irritated at Kim Jong Un, and the fragile condition of its economy increases U.S. financial leverage over the Chinese banks that hold most of Kim Jong Un’s offshore deposits. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had in years to roll back Pyongyang’s destructive ambitions. Instead, the North Koreans are taking advantage of this leadership vacuum, appealing to the individual interests of China, South Korea, and Japan, and dividing the nations whose cooperation could put devastating economic pressure on Pyongyang.

North Korea will break its word, of course, at a time of its choosing. The result will be a more dangerous world for Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

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