Buzzfeed is out of its depth on Egypt and North Korea sanctions

If journalism can be reduced to its most fundamental purpose, that purpose is to tell the reader important things he does not know. Be mindful of this purpose as we review one example of the slapdash reporting one tends to see whenever North Korea intrudes into the headlines.

As the Trump administration scrambles to respond to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it is trying to coax the country’s smaller trading partners, from Sudan to the Philippines, to ramp up the pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime. Last week, the Trump administration announced that it would cut $96 million in aid and delay $195 million in military funding to Egypt, citing human rights concerns — and, according to reports, over the country’s robust relationship with North Korea.

One of the largest recipients of US aid, Egypt has also had a longstanding relationship with the isolated regime in Pyongyang, particularly trading in weapons. It’s unclear, though, what aspects of Egypt-North Korea relations the administration is displeased with, and whether it includes commerce not prohibited by sanctions. [Buzzfeed, Megha Rajagopalan & Maged Atef]

Not clear which aspect, you wonder? Might Buzzfeed have found some relevance in Pyongyang’s history of selling ballistic missiles to Egypt, no doubt to fund other missile programs that threaten the U.S. directly? Or that in 2015, the Obama administration sanctioned an Egyptian trading company for its ties to KOMID, North Korea’s principal arms exporter?

Buzzfeed’s reporters do finally get around to mentioning — near the very bottom of their piece, by which time wiser readers will have moved on — that “North Korea has even helped Egyptian scientists develop missile systems.” They do not mention that this is a long and ongoing relationship, that it flagrantly violates a U.N. arms embargo that has been in place for eleven years, that this embargo has been reaffirmed and strengthened by at least half a dozen resolutions since then, or that Egypt’s violation of it has been mentioned repeatedly by the U.N. Panel of Experts. Given the reporters’ emission of an inky cloud of confusion about what commerce is or isn’t prohibited by sanctions, wouldn’t more competent journalism have taken a moment to find the resolutions, read them, and explain them to its readers?

“The question is, if this North Korean issue is so important for the US, why didn’t they ever mention it with us before?” said Emad Gad, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “The Egypt-North Korea relationship is an old one, so why are we suddenly hearing they have problems with our relations with North Korea?”

Hey, I’m no human polygraph, but I know what bullshit smells like. A 30-second Google search yields this New York Times article (I know) noting that “[s]uccessive American administrations have privately raised the issue of North Korea in talks with Cairo, but with little success.” Suddenly?

Egypt makes up a very small part of the value of North Korea’s total trade — but it attracted headlines in 2008 when Orascom, an Egyptian telecom firm, set up the first North Korean 3G network. And Egypt is a well-known buyer of North Korean missiles and other weapons.

Again, Buzzfeed is out of its depth, leaving out revelations by better reporters that Orascom’s venture in North Korea was a likely violation of U.S. law, a fiasco for its shareholders, and a career-discriminating event for its CEO, Naguib Sawiris. All of which also goes unmentioned.

In Cairo, the development was met with confusion, and in some quarters, frustration.

“The North Korean-American issue is a conflict between the US and its allies against North Korea — not the whole world against North Korea,” said Gen. Hamdi Bakhit, a member of parliament who sits on the powerful Defense and National Security Committee. “China, for example, has a balanced relationship with both the US and North Korea … America is just fishing for a mistake to pressure Egypt.”

All of which Buzzfeed takes at face value, uncritically, without further inquiry or elucidation of its readers that a government’s mouthpiece has just lied to them like Anthony Weiner talking to a vice squad detective. Yes, we are but a simple junta leading a government that rules over almost 100 million people! We sing, we dance, we smoke our hookahs, and we craftily expunge all traces of shadowy extremist sects from every slum in Cairo, and that is all! We cannot be bothered to read U.N. Security Council resolutions or U.N. Panel of Experts’ reports, or file an implementation report that even fills a single sheet of paper.

Meaning, the Egyptian government knows damn well where to find these resolutions, what they mean, and what they prohibit. Which is more than I can say for Buzzfeed’s reporters.

Look, I understand that many journalists despise Donald Trump. I can understand why. It isn’t hard to find conservative pundits who share that sentiment. It isn’t hard to find journalists who would clearly despise a President Kasich almost as much for the sole reason that he’s a Republican. But something is terribly wrong with anyone whose moral lens is so monochromatic that she defaults to a certain sympathy for anyone whom Trump is against, even when that anyone is a sanctions-busting military junta. Or Kim Jong-Un.

In this case, however, the Trump administration is doing precisely what Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton ought to have done over the last 24 years — diplomatically, nonviolently, and consistently with a sheaf of U.N. Security Council resolutions — working to end a grave and direct threat to the United States and all of the world, and to prevent a nuclear war in Korea. Does understanding that really require extraordinary moral agility, or might a willingness to use Google suffice?

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What construction in Pyongyang tells us, and doesn’t tell us, about sanctions

As the Trump administration looks to sanctions, including secondary sanctions, to gain the leverage to disarm North Korea, it is natural that North Korea watchers would try to gauge the potential for sanctions to impact Pyongyang’s finances. In a place where predictions of glasnost go to die, it is natural that they would measure what the regime puts on display, like the development of Pyongyang’s skyline. And regrettably, it is natural that any analysis whose research begins and ends with news clippings that are half-wrong or half-read, and that betrays little understanding of the sanctions authorities or how their enforcement has evolved, will be of nearly no predictive value whatsoever.

So it is with this contribution by Henri Féron for 38 North, which suggests that sanctions can’t work in 2017 based on the failure of sanctions that either didn’t exist or weren’t enforced between 2014 and 2016. (An online bio for Féron describes him as a post-doctoral research scholar specializing in Korean language who has previously studied law in China — hardly the best place to gain a useful understanding of what the U.N. resolutions require — but hey, I went to law school in Nebraska and I do this as a hobby, so there’s that.) 38 North summarizes Féron’s argument thusly:

The construction boom in Pyongyang, along with other indicators of improved economic performance such as food production and foreign trade, provide further evidence of the ineffectiveness of current economic sanctions. The North Korean economy appears to be beating sanctions thanks to Chinese aid and trade, as well as the reallocation of conventional defense spending to the civilian economy.

There are several problems with this argument, starting with the fact that there is no general blockade of trade with North Korea and never has been. Féron argues that stable food prices (which have risen sharply recently, but that’s the subject of another post) suggest that sanctions have failed, despite the fact that all U.N. and U.S. sanctions exempt food imports. Féron writes, “[c]omparatively speaking, our most reliable indicators are food production and trade statistics.” I’ll just pause and give you a chance to stop laughing now.

Worse, citing U.N. World Food Program data, he writes, “North Korea is now more or less back to the nutritional self-sufficiency of the 1980s.” But earlier this year, UN aid agencies said that 70 percent of North Koreans were undernourished, and in 2015, they said that 80 percent of North Korean households had “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. The U.N. World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF, and the U.N. Development Programme all continue to assist North Korea. Self-sufficiency indeed!

Féron cites the recent decline in defections to imply that Kim Jong-Un’s regime is more popular, but the article he cites correctly notes that this is really a function of increased border security. Féron knocks down a straw-man “narrative of destitution” about Pyongyang, but there is general agreement that Kim Jong-Un has improved material standards of living for Pyongyang’s one percent (though elite defections continue to rise for other reasons). In North Korea, the destitution has always fallen on the victims of a unilateral class war Pyongyang wages against the “expendable” ones in the countryside and the provinces. 

~   ~   ~

But Féron’s Exhibit A is Pyongyang’s recent construction boom. At the outset, construction is a dubious metric for the effectiveness of sanctions. There are no U.N. or U.S. sanctions on construction materials or equipment and never have been. As Féron notes, North Korea has plenty of cement (he might have added that it has plenty of sand, gravel and building stone, too). As a Rimjing-gang guerrilla journalist documented in 2015, Pyongyang builds its buildings using army construction laborers working on starvation rations, without modern equipment, and under grossly unsafe working conditions. Pyongyang probably had to import lighting and plumbing fixtures, tiles, and floor coverings, but it probably didn’t need as much foreign capital for its new construction as appearances alone would suggest.

On the outside, the new construction looks great — the sort of “progress” that would look impressive from the window of a train passing a second-rate Chinese factory town. Indeed, the main purpose of this facelift appears to have been to show North Korean elites, potential investors, foreign journalists, and gullible op-ed writers that sanctions can’t stop Kim Jong-Un:

The project is intended to show “the spirit of the DPRK standing up and keeping up with the world, despite all sorts of sanctions and pressure by the U.S. imperialists and their followers,” and “the truth that the DPRK is able to be well-off in its own way and nothing is impossible for it to do,” state-media quoted Kim as saying when he ordered the beginning of construction in March. [CBS]

Still, images can be deceiving — especially in Pyongyang. In December 2015, the “completed” apartments on Mirae Scientists’ Street had no power, no running water, no heat, unfinished interiors, unsafe construction, and broken elevators that made the upper floors of the high-rise apartment buildings uninhabitable (imagine hauling your own water up 30 stories, to think nothing of what you might have to haul back down if the sewage system fails). It’s a similar story at another showpiece, Ryomyong Street (see also).

~   ~   ~

Could other sanctions provisions have applied to showpiece construction projects like Mirae Scientists’ Street and Ryomyong Street? Potentially. For example, there is evidence that other construction projects in Pyongyang, KKG Street and those revealed by this extraordinary new work of investigative journalism by Justin Rohrlich for NK News, had links to Bureau 39. Any dealings with Bureau 39 would be a clear sanctions violation today. Unfortunately, the world has been slow to designate Bureau 39, and even slower to enforce that designation. The U.N. didn’t designate Bureau 39 until March 2016, presumably because China blocked the designation until then. And even then, Treasury (to say nothing of the U.N., or China) would have hesitated to freeze any assets without a clear link between a particular construction project and a designated entity. A competent investigator with access to the right intelligence might find some link between a particular construction project and a sanctioned North Korean entity, but I don’t have that evidence, and Féron certainly doesn’t cite any.

Although much of the money for these building projects probably flowed through correspondent banks in New York, until very recently, U.S. sanctions were a case of trying to dam a river with a tennis net: in 2014, when Ri Jong-Ho was working for Bureau 39 in Dandong, there were just 43 North Korean entities designated (compared to 50 in Belarus and 161 in Zimbabwe) and (critically) no secondary sanctions — again, as I’ve been saying for years. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated Bureau 39 in 2010, five years after Treasury’s final rule about Banco Delta Asia detailed Bureau 39’s laundering of counterfeit currency. Treasury imposed some potentially broad sanctions under Executive Order 13687 in January of 2015, but has hardly used that authority to designate anyone. President Obama (reluctantly) signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in February 2016. A ban on new investment in North Korea only came into effect in March 2016. Before any of the significant sanctions that might have halted it existed, tenants were already moving into Mirae Scientists’ Street. Dozens had probably moved out again.

The same is not true of Ryomong Street, which was only completed in the spring of this year. But as with Mirae Scientists’ Street, it isn’t clear what sanctions this would have violated without further investigation — investigation that no one was doing. I don’t see evidence of a clear link to Bureau 39 or another sanctioned entity in the open sources, and given how badly President Obama under-resourced the investigation of North Korea sanctions violations, he probably didn’t, either.

Simply designating “Bureau 39” by itself is meaningless. Bureau 39 doesn’t hold its bank accounts under “Bureau 39;” it hides them behind the names of front companies, shell companies, and various Chinese trading companies, co-conspirators, and patsies. With sufficient resources and talent, we could expose these companies and agents and freeze their assets. The work of the U.N. Panel of Experts, investigative journalists like Rohrlich and Mailey, and NGOs like C4ADS and Sayari Analytics has shown us how. But ask yourself: doesn’t it seem at all strange to you that the U.N., NGOs, and journalists keep exposing networks that our own government didn’t? If you’re a journalist or a congressional staffer, here’s a question you should ask the Treasury Department: how many full-time investigators and intel analysts are dedicated full-time to investigating North Korea?

If the necessary financing for Ryomyong Street wasn’t already done by 2016, President Obama might have tried to block those transactions as they flowed between Chinese commercial banks and U.S. correspondent banks, but as I’ve discussed ad infinitum here, Obama wasn’t willing to do that, except in one isolated case, well into the eleventh hour of his presidency. I could refer you to all of the pieces I’ve published documenting this policy of passive non-enforcement. I could do even better by citing Anthony Ruggiero’s exhaustively researched testimony for the House Financial Services Committee this week, or Dan De Luce’s real-time coverage of Obama throwing away his last chance to show some spine, or this, by Bill Powell for Newsweek, showing us how China abetted Pyongyang while Obama watched and did nothing:

A one-off case against a big Dandong-based holding company such as DHID is one thing. Beijing apparently didn’t protest too much when the Treasury issued its sanctions, apparently believing that it needs to show at least some willingness to pressure Pyongyang, even at the expense of one of China’s own firms. But several Trump appointees in the national security community are increasingly scathing about the efforts of both the Obama administration and Beijing to hobble Kim’s nukes. “As the North continued to make progress [toward an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuke], the U.S. and the U.N. tightened sanctions, it’s true,” says one Trump official. “But those were sanctions with a big caveat: They didn’t much apply to China, at least when China wanted to ignore them.” Another Trump official says the Obama team was focused on climate change as the key issue in bilateral relations with Beijing—not North Korea. “At no point was the sanctions regime against North Korea as effective as the sanctions were against Iran before they came to the [nuclear negotiating table],” says one senior Trump official, “and that’s almost entirely because of China.” [Newsweek]

President Trump took the Oath of Office in January. Then, he ordered a policy review that took four months, met with Xi Jinping in April, and gave him two more months before tweeting that China wasn’t helping. Around that time, the tenants of Ryomyong Street were first climbing the stairs to their new 50th-story lofts. In July, the Trump administration finally started targeting Pyongyang’s finances in earnest, including its use of Chinese banks to evade U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Even this is only a beginning of what will be necessary to how visible effects on the palace economy, which will likely take at least a year to show. 

The lessons being: first, even the best 2017 sanctions can’t stop 2016 construction; second, one cannot measure the effect of sanctions through non-sanctioned commerce; and third, when offering expert analysis on any topic, there’s no substitute for some careful research. Féron is right that sanctions failed to prevent Kim Jong-Un from slapping up a lot of spiffy-looking buildings in Pyongyang, most of which did not immediately fall down. But in the end, that may not tell us much about the potential for aggressively enforced, well-targeted sanctions to present Pyongyang with some very hard choices.

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Dear New York Times: This is why your North Korea reporting stinks

I often say that the New York Times consistently has the worst North Korea coverage of any major U.S. newspaper. Next time someone asks me why that is, I suppose I’ll point them to this story by Jane Perlez, Choe Sang-hun and Motoko Rich, which could be the exemplar of everything that’s wrong with it in a single hyperlink. It was forwarded to me by an experienced journalist who writes for another major newspaper, and who probably wouldn’t want me to mention his name here. Here’s the headline:

Trump’s Muted Tone on North Korea Gives Hope for Nuclear Talks

I can’t get through the first sentence without finding a misleading claim.

For 16 years, the United States has publicly refused to engage in direct talks with North Korea, arguing that doing so would reward it for bad behavior. [NYT]

Does the Times have access to Google and a calculator? How can three members of its crack reporting team not know about George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2007 agreed framework or Barack Obama’s even more ill-fated 2012 Leap Day deal? Are ten and five still less than sixteen? (Update: A reader reminds me that I forgot Bush’s 2005 Joint Statement. Also ill-fated.)

These certainly weren’t the first examples of North Korea making agreements and reneging on them, so the Obama administration decided, sensibly enough, that it wasn’t going to negotiate with Pyongyang and offer it valuable concessions as long as North Korea continued to insist it would never denuclearize, and even wrote that into its constitution. To offer concessions under those circumstances would have risked a bipartisan congressional overthrow of its North Korea policy (something that eventually happened anyway).

But to “negotiate” is one thing; to “talk” is another, and for eight years, Obama sent a long stream of envoys to Pyongyang, New York, and everywhere in between to talk to North Korea, to see if a negotiation was even possible. As I wrote recently:

In the last eight years alone, President Obama sent former President Clinton and Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in 2009, sent Joseph DeTrani twice in 2012, and sent James Clapper in 2014. In 2011, Bosworth met North Korean diplomat Kim Gye-gwan in New York. Next came the Leap Day 2012 freeze agreement, similar to what engagement advocates call for today, and which Pyongyang reneged on shortly after signing it. Obama tried to send Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang in 2013, but North Korea canceled the visit at the last moment. There were various Track 2 meetings between former U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats as recently as last year. In the weeks leading up to the first 2016 nuclear test, U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the parameters of a peace treaty negotiation, but Pyongyang insisted that its nuclear program would not be on the agenda. As recently as last June, U.S. diplomat Sung Kim met North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui in Beijing. Mind you, this is just what’s available in the open sources.

All of these talks were “public” enough that the Times reported most of them. That’s a good set-up to debunk another demonstrably false statement in the story:

Such talks seemed politically impossible under President Barack Obama, who favored sanctions as the prime safeguard against the North’s nuclear ambitions. There is a growing sense in the region that Mr. Obama’s approach to the North failed.

As regular readers know, and unlike these New York Times reporters, I’ve actually read most of (and written some of) our North Korea sanctions. I’ve published legal analyses of what the sanctions were and weren’t. As a matter of law, the U.S. had stronger sanctions against Belarus and Zimbabwe until at least 2015, or 2016 at the latest. As a matter of fact, Obama never implemented strong or effective sanctions against North Korea, because he wasn’t willing to use secondary sanctions against China, which has consistently violated U.N. sanctions (a fact the Times selectively omits, despite the fact that U.N. reports and Justice Department filings prove it). (Update: Just about the entire U.S. Congress agreed that Obama’s sanctions against North Korea were weak, and voted to impose legislative sanctions.)

What follows is an unsupported, thinly veiled, unlabeled opinion piece that infers from — from a relative absence of inflammatory tweets, I guess? — that Donald Trump might be ready to seek talks with Kim Jong-un. The laundered opinions that Trump should negotiate with Kim Jong-un (about what?) come by way of a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece, assorted South Korean leftist ideologues, and “Chinese analysts” whose jobs depend on their adherence to the party line.

China has urged the United States to enter talks with North Korea to end its weapons program, apparently sensing that President Trump’s desire to make deals could break the yearslong deadlock on negotiations.

Beijing did so even after North Korea made another stride in its weapons program on Sunday, testing an intermediate-range missile that went into the Sea of Japan.

“The root of the North Korean nuclear and missile issue lies in the difference between North Korea and the United States and between North Korea and South Korea,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, said on Monday. “We believe that dialogue and consultation offers the way out.”


Chinese analysts said the White House should seize the chance for a new chapter in dealing with North Korea and abandon Mr. Obama’s policy of applying sanctions.

“We all think that the Trump administration should talk directly with North Korea,” said Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang. “That would be the best approach to crack this problem.” [

Just imagine the reaction if Fox News reprinted this much Russian propaganda about Ukraine this uncritically. Along with this, we’re spoon-fed the opinions of South Korea’s left — whose experiment in sanctions-busting subsidies to Pyongyang ended just a year ago — that “sanctions have failed.” This, they declare less than one year after real sanctions replaced fake ones. But then, these are the same people who think reopening Kaesong is totally fine under U.N. sanctions resolutions (it isn’t).

In sum, we have a story (really, an opinion piece) that was neither researched nor fact-checked, is consequently riddled with factual falsehoods, bases its major premise on speculation unsupported by a single source (even an anonymous one), and quotes a selection of opinions so skewed it would make Pauline Kael blush. It isn’t just that three New York Times journalists know or care so little about what they’re writing; I’ve followed Choe’s work for years, so I expect that much. It’s the fact that the Times‘s editors neither knew nor cared enough to stop them from printing it. If the Times wants to be a P.C. Breitbart with better typography and a style section, that’s fine; just don’t expect me to pay for it.

Mind you, I could speculate that Trump would send someone to make Kim Jong-un one last offer, if only to say he’d checked that block. I could speculate about a lot of things, but speculation is neither news nor fit to print. Rather than resort to the “fake news” cliche, let’s just call this what it is: terrible journalism, in a time when the public is losing confidence in journalism, and when influential people question the very idea that there are objective truths and untruths. I’ve read a lot of self-important opinion pieces by journalists lately about their importance in speaking the truth in an age of “alternative” facts. I agree — emphatically — that objective and truthful journalism plays an essential role in a democratic society. And when journalists use their positions to write biased, baseless, and factually untrue stories like this one, they do nothing to regain our confidence.

If you agree, here’s how you can contact the New York Times’s Public Editor.

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“Negotiate with N. Korea,” they say, as if we haven’t tried that for decades.

In retrospect, it was probably unfortunate that James Person and Jane Harman began their Washington Post op-ed, “The U.S. needs to negotiate with North Korea, with Albert Einstein’s apocryphal definition of insanity.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

To anyone who knows anything about the long history of our negotiations with North Korea, that’s a poor argument, but a terrific punchline, because what Person and Harmon spend the rest of their op-ed advocating is the very exemplar of that definition. I’ll spare you the suspense — it’s another freeze and maybe some day, another agreed framework. We’ll need to show “additional flexibility” — in addition to all the concessions we already gave away in the last umpteen deals. We must make “use of carrots as well as sticks,” except Person and Harmon don’t say how many carrots, and they spend most of their ink arguing why the sticks don’t work. They seem to operate on the assumption that if we’d only throw away our best leverage — sanctions — the North Koreans would negotiate with us for sure.

But “let’s talk to North Korea” is to diplomacy what “let’s stare at the sun” is to astronomy. Talk about what? North Korea has said again, and again, and again that it isn’t giving up its nukes. “Let’s talk to North Korea” is Underpants Gnomes diplomacy, because none of the gnomes can tell us what Phase 2 is.

I wonder where Harman and Person have been for the last 25 years. Surely they’ve heard that we signed disarmament agreements with Pyongyang in 1994 and 2007. Before that, in 1992, there was the inter-Korean denuclearization agreement. Pyongyang signed a trilateral safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1977, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985, and another IAEA safeguards agreement in 1992. There was also the 2005 Joint Statement, in which North Korea again agreed to disarm. Why are we supposed to believe that this time is really different, now that His Porcine Majesty is almost fully nuked up?

The current vogue is to argue that all of these agreements may have been too ambitious, so Phase 1 1/4 should be a more limited freeze deal. Except President Obama did that, too, in 2012. The North Koreans reneged within six weeks. In between all these deals, there were countless meetings of the New York Channel or Track 2, side meetings in ASEAN summits, and hostage-retrieval missions by ex-presidents and spymasters. Did no one talk during those meetings? Were our mouths full of ssoondae every single time?

Next, Person and Harmon try to pass themselves off experts on sanctions they clearly don’t understand.

For years we have applied industrial-strength unilateral and multilateral sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to denuclearize.

This term, “industrial strength,” is not a legal term of art, but if it’s supposed to mean that the sanctions were strong, I’ve debunked this again and again. Or, you can take it from Kurt Campbell. Because Harman and Person are only fake sanctions experts, they don’t know that until February, the U.S. actually had stronger sanctions against Zimbabwe and Belarus than against North Korea. (I don’t call myself an expert on sanctions, but at least I’ve read them.) Since March, the international community has begun implementing stronger new U.N. sanctions, but even tough sanctions take time to work — three years in the case of Iran.

On what basis should we believe the authors know anything about sanctions? Jane Harman was respected as a centrist on the House Intelligence Committee, which isn’t a sanctions-writing committee, though I still wonder why she signed on for this. James Person’s bio says he’s a Korea studies expert who specializes in poring through old Soviet archives. He’s also been on an anti-sanctions jihad, so I’ll suppose he wrote most of this. I don’t know him, but I’ll buy him a beer as soon as he emails me to say that he’s actually read the sanctions — the Security Council resolutions, the new sanctions law, the executive orders, the regulations, the general licenses, and the SDN designations should be a good start. (Do the Washington Post’s editors routinely ask contributors questions like these? In the times I’ve been published there, they’ve always asked me to show my sources on a few points.)

We have also urged China — North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner — to use its unique leverage to halt Kim Jong Un’s provocations, which also threaten China. But neither strategy is working. 

We’ll come back to this point later, when Person and Harmon contradict themselves on it.

Six months after the implementation of harsh new sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, North Korea remains defiant.

U.N. sanctions have only been partially implemented. Here are the implementation reports. Plenty of them are missing, others are incomplete, and other countries (China) are still cheating. Even the U.S. still hasn’t published its final rule cutting off correspondent relationships with North Korean banks.

While few expected the sanctions to work overnight, the timeline for any results will be even longer than most anticipate. Sanctions are uniquely ineffective against North Korea.

Wrong. North Korea may deny its people access to international markets — yes, so much for engagement — but the regime itself has proven to be uniquely vulnerable to financial sanctions, provided we can summon the political will to enforce them. 

Our timelines are simply out of sync. It will take far too long for sanctions to persuade North Korea’s leaders to complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement as a prerequisite for talks, and we also can’t expect China to use all of the cards in its deck.

Sanctions take too long — this from the same school that was recently promising us Gorbasms of glasnost from Swiss-educated reformer Kim Jong-un. That wasted decades and billions (including South Korean aid) on “engagement” that never moved North Korea one step in a more peaceful or humane direction, and whose proceeds may well have ended up in Kim Jong-il’s nuke fund. That feigns shock that sanctions haven’t brought North Korea to heel eight months after the U.S. passed its first comprehensive sanctions law. That turned Ri Sol-ju’s hemlines into its own doomsday clock, in the hope that if we threw enough money at Pyongyang, they might open an Arby’s by 2030, or 2035, tops. (Recently, I’ve often wondered why journalists and editors who wouldn’t think to print the views of Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz about Iraq still print the views of those who advocated for “engagement” with North Korea years after the costly failure of that policy should have been obvious.) 

The effectiveness of sanctions is also limited because of China’s protection. Chinese leaders recognize that their economic leverage over North Korea is a double-edged sword, because sustained pressure could lead to state and societal collapse, precipitating a flood of refugees into northeast China. The collapse of North Korea could also lead to a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on China’s border — which China perceives as a worse outcome than a nuclear North Korea serving as a buffer state.

This isn’t quite an outright call to lift sanctions, but it certainly isn’t calling for us to do what we’ll have to do for sanctions to work — enforce them. Any “negotiation” that begins with throwing away this essential leverage is the very definition of appeasement. It would ensure the failure of diplomacy, seal North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, and increase the danger of nuclear war. 

Besides, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the submissiveness of Pyongyang to Beijing.

I’ll leave to others the mostly speculative and probably disinformed parlor game about relations between China and North Korea. Myself, I believe almost none of what I read about that except the trade statistics, and I’m not even sure I still believe those. What’s clear is that until last week, Chinese businesses felt free to violate U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and Chinese banks still feel free to hold the deposits of those companies, and of North Korea’s own Bureau 39 managers. It’s equally true that fake sanctions experts have long exaggerated the submissiveness of the Chinese banking industry to the government in Beijing. Case in point: in 2007, as part of the second agreed framework, the U.S. agreed to give North Korea back $25 million in blocked laundered money from Banco Delta Asia. The Chinese government asked the Bank of China to do the transfer. The BoC wouldn’t touch the money. The New York Fed ended up moving it instead. If sanctions opponents have ever grasped the influence of the U.S. Treasury Department over the Chinese banking industry, they’ve pretended not to.

Suggesting that academics should take the time to study and understand a subject as specialized as sanctions law before opining on it eventually takes on all the futility of playing Shostakovich sonatas in honky-tonks. Fortunately, members of the House and Senate of both parties get it. They want the President to hold the Chinese banking industry accountable for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money through our financial system because (1) he has an obligation to enforce our laws and U.N. Security Council resolutions, (2) it’s the strategy that brought Iran back to the table, and (3) it’s the strategy that brought North Korea back to the bargaining table in 2007.

Expecting China to influence North Korean policies means asking China to do precisely what North Korea most resents. Chinese officials recognized that complying with the West’s wishes would only antagonize North Korea further.

There’s no limit to how far you can extend this argument. Enforce U.N. sanctions? Antagonizing! Annual military exercises to defend our treaty allies? Antagonizing! Talking about human rights and political prison camps? Very, very antagonizing! Allow Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to make stupid movies parodying North Korea’s ridiculous, morbidly obese dictator? Extremely antagonizing! Respond when North Korea shells South Korean territory or sinks its warships? Dangerous and provocative! Denying North Korea its sovereign right to nuke up, or build submarines capable of nuking our cities? You can see where this logic ends. Or rather, never does. 

Stalk the North Koreans and beg for a deal all you want, but from where I sit, they’re no more into you than Jodie Foster was into John Hinckley. We’ve been on this paper chase for a quarter of a century now. What sounds like the definition of insanity to me is watching North Korea violate an armistice, the NPT, two IAEA safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks, a joint statement, the Leap Day Deal, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions — and then believing that yet another piece of paper is our ticket to salvation. North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea and the U.S. show that it will not quietly coexist with us when it has nuclear weapons. Much time has been wasted, and the problem is much harder to solve now than it would have been when President Obama took office eight years ago. If it isn’t too late, our first and best step toward stopping Kim Jong-un would be to tune out the insanity that got us into the mess we’re in now.

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Emily Litella of N. Korea journalists meets David Irving of N. Korea scholars

Last week, NK News correspondents Hamish MacDonald and Ole Jakob Skåtun wrote some of the most biased, error-riddled reporting I’ve ever seen published in a major newspaper. Their target was a grant program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) to support human rights and freedom of information in North Korea, and to support the recommendations of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. MacDonald and Skåtun argued that the program could endanger lives, lead to more Kenneth Bae crises, set back bilateral diplomacy, edge aside humanitarian and “engagement” programs, and conflict with the recommendations of the COI report.

For me, this story began when I received a message from MacDonald in April with a series of questions, requesting my comment. (I’ve often responded to similar requests from NK News correspondents, and admire the work that many of them have done. I still marvel at the quality of the investigation that went into this one in particular.)

It wouldn’t be fair to print Mr. MacDonald’s email without his permission, so I won’t. But his questions were so loaded that they made my spidey sense tingle like the loins of a sailor after a rum-sodden shore leave in Marseille. My assigned role, so it seemed, would be to supply a token counterpoint to clothe an opinion piece in the pretense of balance. Only I already knew that my counterpoint would be circumcised and swaddled in its unread depths. I missed this briss, and I’m glad I did.

Now that Mr. MacDonald’s work has validated my worst fears about it, and now that the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian have sown his agitprop around the world without bothering to check its numerous misstatements of fact, misquotations, and mischaracterizations, I feel a sense of duty to help the truth get its pants on and zipped. If that image isn’t already awkward enough, I even find myself in the unfamiliar position of defending the U.S. State Department for doing something that’s legal, moral, and potentially good policy.

What the solicitation says.

Let’s review the wording of the solicitation, which Mr. MacDonald claims to have given “a close reading.” Its objectives include:

  • Strengthening international campaigns that increase awareness and advocacy for North Korea human rights.
  • Strengthening the capacity of non-Western organizations that mobilize action for human rights in North Korea in their countries;
  • Amplifying efforts to document abuses within, and focus attention and action on North Korea’s political prison camp system, including the fate of disappeared persons in North Korea;
  • Raising awareness of democratic principles, including addressing workers’ rights, disability rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and other rights;
  • Strengthening the capacity of organizations documenting human rights and labor rights abuses in the DPRK.

So far, not one of these objectives necessarily involves people, things, or information crossing North Korea’s borders, with the possible exception of refugees (whose exodus presumably isn’t driven by the lure of grant funding). The specific language that gives Mr. MacDonald his case of the vapors, however, is this:

  • Promoting access to information into, out of, and within North Korea. Projects can include the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea. Content should include informative and engaging ways to educate and shape North Korean understanding and attitudes toward human rights and democratic principles.

State’s proposal includes “the production of media” and “methods to send information into North Korea,” but doesn’t specify how it would be sent. To the extent the solicitation contemplates the physical (as opposed to the virtual) movement of information across the border, it could just as well harness the markets and smuggling networks that have been moving DVDs into North Korea for years.

What the solicitation doesn’t say.

Where the solicitation doesn’t support MacDonald’s argument, he misquotes it and mutilates its meaning so that it does. He claims, for example, that it “strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects” — period, no ellipsis. In fact, the full sentence actually reads, “DRL strongly discourages health, technology, or science related projects unless they have an explicit component related to the requested program objectives listed above.”

It’s hard to see how one inadvertently loses half a sentence, thereby making it mean very nearly the opposite of the original. MacDonald uses this misquote to provoke one Matthew Reichel, who runs an NGO based in Pyongyang, into calling the grant program “propaganda” that “will lead to increased tension.” (I’m sure Reichel’s minders gave him a nice little pat on the head for that one.)

This has nothing to do with Ken Bae, much less Lisa Ling.

MacDonald’s main objection to State’s grant program is that it “could encourage activities that risk criminal punishment.” He raises the case of Kenneth Bae and frets about “the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion,” as if the State Department intends to throw money at the first missionary who offers to fly to North Korea on a tourist visa with a suitcase full of Bibles. This argument is largely a creation of MacDonald’s own imagination. It finds little support — and substantial refutation — in the solicitation and its evaluation criteria.

(Incidentally, it was Laura Ling who was arrested in North Korea. Not Lisa, Laura. Also, neither of them had a grant from DRL. For that matter, neither did Ken Bae, Merrill Newman, Robert Park, Aijalon Gomes, or Matthew Todd Miller. If we had imposed a travel ban on North Korea, most of those incidents would never have occurred.)

The first 800 words of MacDonald’s article quote two experts, both sympathetic to his own view.

“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”

But the thinking through of likely consequences is supposed to happen after the proposals are submitted — after State knows what they are and who is making them. Furthermore, DRL has published detailed grant evaluation criteria that explicitly require consideration of the possible consequences:

In particularly challenging operating environments, proposals should include contingency plans for overcoming potential difficulties in executing the original work plan and address any operational or programmatic security concerns and how they will be addressed.

If you really do give the solicitation a careful read, you’ll see the link to those evaluation criteria, but in his haste to accuse the State Department of recklessness, MacDonald overlooked it. Hoare must also have thought that the argument was too good to check. He eagerly accused the State of giving “no consideration” to the risks. It’s easy enough to see why. Hoare makes no secret of his view that what he calls “the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you like), was not producing any benefits for anybody.”

Evidently, promoting freedom of information inside North Korea — or as you might also describe it, engagement with the North Korean people — is too confrontational for Hoare’s taste. (Never mind the perfectly awful record of “reforming” North Korea by propping up its regime, complete with its steadily advancing nuclear programs and its crimes against humanity, with hard currency.)

I don’t need to tell you that the U.S. government is capable of screwing anything up, of course, but that’s beside the point. Nothing in this solicitation suggests that it calls on foreigners to engage in the sort of risky smuggling that MacDonald is talking about. The only contraband these putative grantees would be carrying is the straw from which MacDonald built them.

This kind of engagement could save lives.

On the other hand, thousands of North Koreans are already risking their lives to cross North Korea’s borders now — as traders, refugees, smugglers, migrant workers, and guerrilla journalists. Information flows in and out of North Korea with this commerce, all of which already involves the risk of imprisonment and death. The guerrilla journalists face the greatest risk, because they’re willing to risk their lives to tell us the truth about their country.

This is dangerous, and if I get caught, I know I’d immediately be executed as a traitor to the Korean people. But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday, something is going to change.

                                                             – a North Korean guerrilla journalist


[PBS Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea]

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korea has been cracking down on cross-border trade, information flows, and refugees — successfully. North Korea and China have built hundreds of miles of fencing along their shared border. North Korea recently set up checkpoints in (among other places) a hospital and a hotel across the Chinese border to try to stop illegal border-crossers. It has chilled cross-border travel. It has brought in a small army of junior petty despots from Pyongyang to rat on the locals in the border regions. Armed with signal trackers, it is hunting down users of illegal Chinese cell phones — users who include traders, smugglers, conductors on North Korea’s underground railroad, and the guerrilla correspondents of the Daily NK, Free North Korea Radio, and Rimjingang. By most accounts, this crackdown is working. Gradually, our independent sources of information about North Korea, and North Koreans’ independent sources of information about us, are being snuffed out.

Kim Jong Un isn’t doing those things because he wants to open North Korea to the world and reform it. He’s doing them because he wants to wall out outside information and commerce that he doesn’t control. He knows that these cracks in North Korea’s information blockade have changed North Korea more in five years than a century of leash-and-collar exchange programs could.

More than anything, independent markets have had a profound impact on North Korea’s food crisis. Some scholars have argued that food supplied by markets did more to end the Great Famine than international aid. Today, about 80% of North Koreans now depend on these markets for their livelihoods. But markets will never reach their potential as agents of change and food security until they can tap into a free flow of information.

Technology could also provide safer, less detectable, and perhaps completely virtual paths across North Korea’s borders. Some of these have the potential to obliterate North Korea’s information blockade. That would save, not endanger, the lives of guerrilla journalists — and their comrades, and their families. It could help us understand of the true state of humanitarian conditions in North Korea, and focus our response at a time of rising donor fatigue. It could help markets and growers respond to shortages and feed the hungry, and even lead to the formation of clandestine humanitarian NGOs, labor unions, clinics, and churches. It could allow for the creation of a safe, independent, online banking system for market traders, and exiles supporting their families from abroad. It could reveal more evidence of Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and mobilize global pressure toward their cessation — evidence like this footage taken by a Rimjingang correspondent:

It could help get people out, too — people like Hyeonseo Lee, who’ve become important witnesses in our understanding of conditions inside North Korea.

If you’re blessed with an average imagination, you might be able to imagine ways to use technology to move information across North Korea’s borders virtually. Some of those ways require human beings to cross borders, and some don’t. Some are easier to conceal than others. I’m not going to elaborate on all of them for you and my readers in Pyongyang (hey there!), but if you aren’t blessed with an average imagination, you can read what others have written in one open source.

(See also Chris Green, who had some objections of his own.)

The State Department is doing what U.S. law requires, not North Korean law.

Because MacDonald didn’t research the grant program’s legal context, he missed the logical conclusion of his own argument — that State should obey North Korea’s censorship laws and disregard those of the U.S. Congress.

In 2004, the President signed the North Korea Human Rights Act (since reauthorized). Section 104 of the NKHRA is entitled, “Actions to promote freedom of information.” That section authorizes the President “to take such actions as may be necessary to increase the availability of information inside North Korea by increasing the availability of sources of information not controlled by the Government of North Korea, including sources such as radios capable of receiving broadcasting from outside North Korea.” It authorizes the President to appropriate up to $2 million each year through Fiscal Year 2017 for that purpose, money that remains available until expended. Section 104 also requires the President to make annual classified reports to Congress on what it has done to further those purposes.

Section 107 of the NKHRA creates the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. Among the specific statutory responsibilities of the Special Envoy are “to engage in discussions with North Korean officials regarding human rights,” “to support international efforts to promote human rights and political freedoms in North Korea,” “to consult with non-governmental organizations who have attempted to address human rights in North Korea, and “to develop an action plan for supporting implementation of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2004/13.” Another of the Special Envoy’s duties is to “make recommendations regarding the funding of activities authorized in sections 7812 and 7814 of this title.” (Section 7814 is the code section in Title 22 that corresponds to Section 104 of the NKHRA.)

Currently, the Special Envoy position is filled by Ambassador Robert King. Because State has appointed and is paying the salary of Ambassador King, fiscal law requires State to carry out the duties assigned to him. So when DRL solicits proposals for programs that “promote human rights and democratic principles for North Koreans,” it is trying (or, at least pretending to try) to carry out the purposes of Section 104.

I’m slightly hopeful that DRL’s newly confirmed Assistant Secretary, Tom Malinowski, may try to remain faithful to his core values (Malinowski’s previous job was Washington Director of Human Rights Watch). I’m only slightly hopeful, because if anything, the State Department’s administration of these authorities has long suffered from an excess of caution, a lack of imagination, and a tendency to defer to North Korean and Chinese sensitivities.

In other words, this grant program is what U.S. law both authorizes and mandates. Oh, and DRL has been awarding similar grants for years. (See, e.g., DRL-12-RFP-01-DPRK-120316.)

Yes, that’s right — this great investigative scoop about a neocon conspiracy within John Kerry’s State Department isn’t even news.

MacDonald mischaracterizes the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report.

MacDonald argues that the grant proposal is inconsistent with the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s protection of the identity of its witnesses, which MacDonald characterizes as a “strict ‘first do no harm” philosophy. This is simply untrue. The fact that the COI protected the identities of many of its witnesses says nothing about what individual states and NGOs should do to help brave North Koreans bring change to their country. In fact, if you actually read the COI report’s recommendations, it calls on governments to do just what State is trying to do through this grant program:

1224. States, foundations and engaged business enterprises should provide more support for the work of civil society organizations to improve the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including efforts to document human rights violations and to broadcast accessible information into each country. Eventually, and once conditions are deemed to be appropriate, such foundations and enterprises should join forces with concerned Governments to coordinate efforts to adopt a coherent plan for the development of the country, creation of livelihoods for the population and the advancement of the human rights situation.

Note the COI’s implication that “conditions” are not yet “appropriate” for “a coherent plan for the development of the country.”

MacDonald helpfully points out that “the UN’s COI report made no recommendations for individuals to smuggle external media into North Korea.” Yes, if you put it that way, the COI report’s recommendations are (unsurprisingly) silent about “smuggling,” but of course, so is State’s solicitation.

The fact that the report also encourages “inter-Korean dialogue” and “people-to-people contact” is irrelevant to the fact that it also encourages things like “efforts to document human rights violations” — things that the regime would obviously punish if it discovered them. The COI also calls for North Korea to “remove applicable obstacles to people-to-people contact,” something that MacDonald never mentions.

Of course, the objectives of people-to-people contact did not advance much recently when North Korea called the President of the United States a monkey and told him to go live in a jungle in Africa. Likewise, it couldn’t have been good for inter-Korean relations when North Korean state media called the President of South Korea a “whore.” Nor does it show much regard for the COI’s findings to call its Chair “a disgusting old lecher” because he happens to be openly gay. You know what else is bad for the diplomatic ambience? Missile and nuclear tests. As President Park put it, “It takes two hands to clap.”

MacDonald’s main “expert” says she’s afraid of getting people sent to prison camps … whose existence she questions.

It’s odd that MacDonald would rely so heavily on Hazel Smith, of all people, to support an argument that also accuses DRL’s grant program of inconsistency with the COI report. Smith is a British academic who recently co-edited a series of lengthy harangues for a “critical” (in practice, the term is often a euphemism for “Marxist”) journal of Asian studies, with Christine Hong, whose work I fisked here. In a piece of her own for the series, entitled, “Crimes Against Humanity?,” Smith argued that the COI report is probably bullshit anyway:

The world’s media love a story about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) that fits into the genre of mad, bad, and weird, and none of these stories is more guaranteed to find a front page, a prominent internet comment, or a few minutes on the world’s TV news than a piece that illustrates the human rights abuses that allegedly underpin every action of the government and prevent almost everyone of the 24 million North Koreans from living in dignity.1 North Korea hits the news because it is a uniquely horrendous place in which to live—or so the storyline goes. The contributors to this two-part thematic edition of Critical Asian Studies2 show, however, that merely to scratch the surface of received wisdom on North Korea reveals inconsistencies, misrepresentations, and sometimes-downright untruths. To excavate the ground upon which conventional accounts are built is to uncover shaky logical and ethical foundations underpinning “common knowledge” assumptions and argumentative exposition. Some of this is the product of ideological bias, but much more is due to the often unconsciously adopted paradigmatic lens in which knowledge about North Korea is subordinated and filtered through the prism of the classic concerns of national security. This securitization of knowledge about North Korea is evident in scholarship, the policy world, and the media.

That is to say, critics of North Korea’s human rights abuses are all motivated by imperialism. It doesn’t occur to Smith that both the nuclear crisis and the human rights crisis are rooted in the fact that the people running North Korea are, to use the academic term for it, assholes. Sure, she tactically concedes, North Korea might have an oppressive government … but …

It is common to see accounts of life in North Korea that disregard scientific protocols. Basic chronological logic is ignored and bits of isolated “data” are used to support large claims that supposedly are truthful for any era and every part of society. Defector accounts are regularly misused in this way. Accounts that are speculative or unsubstantiated and where research processes cannot be replicated are also antithetical to even the most basic forms of science, yet these form a mainstay of common knowledge on North Korea. Much of North Korean “analysis” displays the classic error made of neophyte students, which is to look for “facts” that fit prior assumptions. In the case of North Korea, these are dominated by security concerns to the extent that understandings about all aspects of North Korean society, economy, and government are subsumed under and within a securitized understanding. Within this “securitized” perspective, “knowledge” outcomes are predetermined by the use of highly biased assumptions that are very often smuggled in unannounced. The prevalence of this approach is so strong that we can say that poor science is a hallmark of the securitization of knowledge on North Korea.

I reckon that if you translated Dennis Rodman’s views into academic jargon, you’d get roughly this. If Christine Hong is the Florence Foster Jenkins of North Korea scholarship, Hazel Smith is its David Irving. Still, I suppose it can be called progress of some kind when Smith says this to MacDonald:

“They may not be aware of the complications of what they are doing – that by paying people to go into North Korea with anti-government propaganda on USBs that they are effectively choosing to send people off to labour camps …”

That’s an odd thing to say for someone who so recently questioned the very existence of those camps, and what the survivors have said about the conditions inside them. Again, quoting from Smith’s recent article for “Critical Asian Studies:”

Christine Hong’s article “The Mirror of North Korean Human Rights: Technologies of Liberation, Technologies of War” points to the disturbing congruence between the particularized version of human rights monitoring that uses satellite photos to identify prison camps and the aerial photography used by U.S. Armed Forces in the Korean War (1950-1953).8 Hong shows that the pictures described as representing prison camps are by no means clear or definitive visually such that even a U.S. congressional committee chair sympathetic to the narrative that uses these pictures as definitive evidence of camps and “gulags” is compelled to ask just what it is these grainy, blurred, gray images that contain no recognizable structures or human beings are supposed to be showing.

By all means, read the evidence and the witness testimonies, compare them to the imagery, and decide for yourself.

The point is not whether North Korea has prisons or not: all countries do and many are situated in rural locations away from main population centers for the same reasons: to facilitate isolation of prisoners and minimize risk to nearby populations. The point is that these non-definitive images are portrayed with certitude as physical prisons and as prisons that are uniquely horrendous compared to prisons anywhere else in the world. Both of these claims may in fact be true, but these pictures do not demonstrate either of these claims and neither do statements elicited by North Korean defectors that they “recognize” these facilities from these photos substantiate the claims made with such certainty by the proponents of satellite imagery as “proof” of North Korean human rights abuses. 

I’ll summarize: there’s insufficient evidence that the camps exist, therefore we should act as if they don’t, and also, we shouldn’t do anything that would uncover that evidence, because that might get people sent to the camps. Hazel Smith may call herself an expert on North Korea, but judging by her writings, no one outside of Pyongyang, including her, knows a thing about it.

If you think the comparison to David Irving is harsh, remember — Irving doesn’t squarely deny the Holocaust; he just questions the truthfulness of Jewish and Allied witnesses, argues that Hitler knew nothing of the killings, and argues that historians have greatly exaggerated their scale. Smith doesn’t squarely deny that the camps might exist; she just characterizes them as ordinary prisons, denies that they’re as bad as the witnesses say they are, summarily discounts witness corroboration of satellite images of the camps, and questions that the imagery shows prison camps at all. She uses North Korea’s very concealment of the evidence as a shield to deny it.

With both Irving and Smith, crude atheism is replaced by clever agnosticism that seeks to reduce the moral profile of the subject, dull calls to act on it, and discredit the refugees, scholars, and activists behind those calls. Smith’s use of North Korea’s oppression as an excuse to oppose supporting any resistance to it would have been just as much at home in the Warsaw Ghetto as it is at Camp 16.

Smith then accuses her own critics of “shutting down debate” by responding to the questions she raises about the academic integrity of scholars who oppose her views. Nonsense. As one whose integrity Hong has questioned, with Smith’s approval, I claim standing to defend myself. I don’t think David Irving should have been prosecuted, banned, or deported for his views, and I don’t advocate any such thing in Smith’s case, either. But an academic who tries to influence world opinion through argumentum ad ignorantiam and circular reasoning shouldn’t expect to be above criticism and ridicule.

An honest answer to the doubts Smith raises, of course, would be to call on North Korea to let the Red Cross inspect the camps, and to give free and unfettered access to U.N. food aid monitors (Smith mildly criticizes North Korea for its opacity, but if she’s ever joined in a call for North Korea to reveal the evidence to the world, I’m not aware of it). Of course there is plenty about North Korea that we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Isn’t that the whole point of a grant program to “document abuses within … North Korea’s political prison camp system”? Only now that a government is trying to do that, Smith is dead-set against it.

Despite Smith’s fringe views, MacDonald gives so much space to her in the beginning of his article that it’s hard to tell where her argument ends and his begins. The first 729 words of MacDonald’s 2,089-word article are devoted entirely to the criticisms of Smith (quoted for 148 words), Hoare (75), and MacDonald himself. In fact, the first argument in support of the grant program appears at 826 words in, more than the word limit of an entire New York Times op-ed. All of the supportive quotes are much shorter than Smith’s, and most are buried near the end.

Who’s afraid of real engagement?

What’s especially odd about this argument in this context is that it is supported by two people (Hazel Smith here, and James Hoare here) who defend “engagement” with North Korea — or rather, with its government — ostensibly to reform it. Except that they only defend the kinds of engagement that line Kim Jong Un’s pockets and pay for machinery of oppression that isolates everyone else.

There is little (if any) evidence that 20 years of pay-for-play engagement with Pyongyang have catalyzed any reforms in North Korea (In fact, North Korean officials still bristle at the very word “reform”). There is ample evidence, however, that illegal or semi-legal activities like smuggling, markets, and the private businesses of lower-caste North Koreans have driven profound economic and social changes, which could eventually bring profound political changes, too.

It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to lump all “engagers” in with the likes of Hazel Smith and James Hoare. Andrei Lankov is one, and he’s also a proponent of what one could fairly describe as information smuggling. But isn’t it odd that, when confronted with the kinds of engagement that really are changing North Korea — engagement with the North Koreans who are willing to risk their lives to change their country — the likes of Smith, Hoare, and MacDonald are suddenly dead-set against it?

What you think of State’s proposal really depends on whether you believe that we should stand by while North Korea oppresses its people, throw money at the oppressors, or aid those who already risking their lives to fight it.

~   ~   ~

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Hamish MacDonald’s name. I regret the error and have corrected it. Chad O’Carroll also thinks I mistakenly described the original article as an opinion piece, but that wasn’t a mistake, that was my description. Had the piece been labeled as opinion, I might have ignored it. News is held to a higher standard. It should be factually accurate and balanced, and I don’t believe the original article meets that standard.

O’Carroll also argues that the piece never said that Bae and Ling had DRL grants. I never say they said that, either, but then why bring them up at all? The article doesn’t say either way, which only serves to confuse the reader.

O’Carroll says that the post completely overlooks the fact that NK News article quoted supporters of the grant program. Actually, I referenced this in the last sentence of the penultimate section.

He also notes that the article never says that DRL’s program does risk arrests, only that it could. I think that’s a distinction without a difference. It should be clear enough to the reader what the authors are suggesting. Nonetheless, and in the interest of clarity, I changed “would” to “could”in the first paragraph of the post.

I do think O’Carroll raises a legitimate criticism about my reference to “MacDonald’s implication that NGOs who are trying to report the news or rescue refugees from North Korea are only in it for the money.” That’s the characterization of the writers of The Guardian‘s subtitle to Chris Green’s piece, but I agree with O’Carroll that it lacks support in the original article, so I removed it.

To be clear, I’m still a fan of NK News, just not this article. It’s because some of their work has been so good that I’d hate to see its standards decline.

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Christine Hong really should tell us what she thinks about Kim Jong Un’s sweet new ski resort.

Kim Jong Un’s reign must be a dark time for North Korea’s apologists on the far left. Those who elevate equality above all other values (or say they do) must be hard pressed to find solidarity with a regime that has imposed the world’s most obscene case of economic and social injustice. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was no paragon of socialist equality. Since his dynastic succession, Kim Jong Un has added the arch-heresies of gaudy consumerism and an adoration of the coarsest elements of pop culture.

Even Bruce Cumings — Bruce Cumings — recently called Kim Jong Un “a modern Caligula,” and for once, I can’t argue with him. Off-hand, I can’t think of a richer target for “critical studies” than this one:

Kim Jong Un ski

Even so, U.C. Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Christine Hong, writing at something called “Critical Asian Studies,” lobs a verbose, meandering screed at advocates for the human rights of Kim Jong Un’s subjects, a growing number of whom are themselves North Korean, and whom Hong quite casually calls “typically ‘beneficiaries of past injustice'” and “future violence.”

Typically,” she says, apparently unconcerned that such sweeping bigotry and assignment of original sin would draw any challenge. Or, more plausibly, notice.

This is horrid stuff, on many levels. Its hackneyed language reads as if it was taped together out of ribbons from Chomsky’s shredder bin. As “scholarship,” it offers no useful data or citations of factual evidence about North Korea. Its citations of “authority” are, with few exceptions, pre-owned arguments and epithets borrowed from the co-habitants of Hong’s own echo chamber. Its most distinctive qualities are the yawning sloppiness of its arguments, and a sentence structure that combines the verbal economy of a filibuster with the literary coherence of a cattle auction. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so many words yield so little light or joy.

Hong first attacks the definition of human rights itself (“a hegemonic interpretive lens”), in a transparent effort to strip this term of any useful meaning. If I understand her correctly, she’s complaining that “the privileged ideological frame” that disapproves of the mass imprisonment and murder of political prisoners — and their kids — has influenced more people than “other epistemic forms” that perpetrate it. But if “human rights” means anything, no advocate for that concept could abide how North Korea treats its people today.

Next, Hong tries to pound the words of human rights advocates into a Jell-O mold of Don Rumsfeld’s head, arguing that human rights advocacy must be a subterfuge for invading North Korea — a straw man argument against something no one of consequence supports. In her strained effort to make all human rights advocates sound like a caricature of … well, me, Hong omits any mention of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry or the powerful words of its avowedly liberal, openly gay Chair.

Hong mendaciously accuses the U.S. of “withholding” humanitarian aid; in fact, Pyongyang has impeded the delivery of aid by the U.S. and U.N., and diverted aid to its loyalists and military. Rather than allow monitoring and other safeguards against diversion, Pyongyang forced the World Food Program to slash its feeding program from 6.5 million recipients to just 1.9 million (later increased to 2.4 million), rejected 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid, and expelled U.S. aid workers. It agreed to, then quickly reneged on, a moratorium on missile launches for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. When it received more food aid, it bought less food from abroad and spent the difference on other “priorities.” Some NGOs, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, withdrew rather than help Pyongyang use food as a tool of control.

Then, Hong plods onward to a factually selective, ham-handed evasion of the Kim Dynasty’s responsibility for everything from the Korean War (“a civil and revolutionary war, a people’s war” frustrated by a “counterrevolutionary” U.N. intervention), its atrocities against own people, and the squalid life it imposes on them.

Hong blames this squalor on “the violence of sanctions” that “predictably stifle the economic growth of North Korea, in effect declaring it off-limits to potential investors and restricting the country’s access to capital, as well as exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.” Having found a scapegoat at a safe distance from Pyongyang, Hong calls the sanctions “formidable,” which is curious, because they are not formidable, and also because she fails to cite any of the authorities on which U.S. or U.N. sanctions rest, or explain what any of those authorities do. This, evidently, is what passes for scholarship in some quarters.

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Christine Hong really has no idea what U.S. or U.N. sanctions do (that’s the more charitable of the two alternatives that come to mind). Had Hong bothered to read the object of her criticism, she would know that those sanctions are not, as she would have her readers to imagine, a broad-based attack on North Korea’s economy, but a set of limited sanctions focused on North Korea’s trafficking in WMD components and technology, weapons, contraband like drugs and counterfeit currency, and luxury goods — and poorly enforced at that, as we’ll soon see. Hong doesn’t offer any analysis of what legitimate industry would, but for sanctions, lift North Korea’s economy with Chollima speed.

(To be fair, Hong would have her readers imagine that our North Korea sanctions are almost as tough and comprehensive as I wish they really were. Of course, I favor broad exceptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, I’d make the transparent delivery of humanitarian aid a specific objective of a sanctions program, and I’d forfeit Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten wealth to pay for it.)

~  ~  ~

Hong takes great care not to mention that a principal target of sanctions is Kim Jong Un’s appetite for luxury goods. After all, how in the world could she defend that? Still, I’d love to know, and each non-sequitur Hong offered only made me wonder how she would justify, say, a decision by the leader of a half-starved nation to spend millions of dollars on a ski resort.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 10.48.05 AM

Yonhap, quoting the South Korean National Intelligence Service, reports that Kim Jong Un spent $300 million building “leisure and sports facilities, including the ski resort,” at a time when 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat. That expenditure is three times the amount that the World Food Program asked donor nations to contribute to feed hungy North Koreans last summer.

There’s nothing new about this pattern. I’ve already elaborated on some of the luxuries Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un bought that cost more than the amount needed to feed every hungry North Korean. I’ve explained why each of the MiG-29s in these satellite images killed as many North Koreans by starvation as one B-29 killed at Nagasaki. Lest any future prosecutor have difficulty proving his charges against the one responsible, KCNA helpfully offers that the ski resort was “built on the personal initiative of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and under his wise leadership.” (The unlinkable KCNA article is preserved below the jump.)

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea’s luxury goods imports in 2006, long after the famine ended, mostly humanitarian reasons. Historically, North Korean dictators have preferred European brands. Since at least 2007, EU regulations have prohibited persons and businesses under the jurisdiction of its member states from directly or indirectly selling or transferring “luxury items,” a term defined to specifically include “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports.”

Last summer, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea ski lift equipment worth almost exactly as much as Switzerland’s annual humanitarian aid allocation for North Korea, North Korea called the refusal “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.” Today, as if for the express purpose of taunting the world, KCNA borrows the operative word of the U.N. sanctions in describing Masik Pass as a place “for the people to enable them enjoy luxury and comfort under socialism.”

Masik Pass has done the world two great services. First, it has helped make an even bigger fool of Christine Hong, and second, it has illustrated how poorly the world is enforcing those sanctions. After the Rodong Sinmun published these photos, a Swedish manufacturer expressed surprise at seeing his company’s snow cannons there. Immediate suspicions fell upon a Chinese reseller. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, NK News’s Chad O’Carroll notes that plenty of other equipment at Masik Pass appears to have been imported in violation of U.N. sanctions, and even identifies the manufacturers, prices, and countries of origin:

A “Ski-Doo” Snowmobile manufactured by Canadian owned Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles was visible in pictures circulated by AFP, while at least seven snow blowers produced by Sweden’s Areco and at two snow ploughs produced by Italy’s Prinoth were visible in pictures released Thursday. A further snow plough produced by Germany’s Pisten Bully was also visible.


Johan Erling, the chief executive of Areco said that he had “no idea” how at least seven Areco snow cannons had turned up in North Korea, pointing out they could have been supplied through any number of intermediaries, formal or informal.

Mr Erling said that the seven snow blowers pictured by KCNA, known as the Areco Supersnow, cost anything between £13,900 to £22,400 each.

How North Korea could have acquired so many without his company’s knowledge was beyond him, Mr Erling said. Areco sells around 40 units per year to its Chinese reseller and the units pictured in North Korea are no more than 1.5 years old, he added.

The Italian produced snow ploughs visible in the picture published by KCNA are the Prinoth BR350 (yellow) and Prinoth Bison X (silver).

A previously owned BR350, first produced in 2006, is currently selling on a Canadian website for £48,400 while the Bison X, first produced in 2008, has a higher market value.

The red plough is a Pisten Bully unit, made in Germany. Units like the one pictured can be found online from £70,000.

Neither Prinorth, Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles or Pisten Bully could be reached for comment about the transfer of equipment to North Korea.

Bjørn-Erik Skjærvik, a Norwegian snowmobile reseller, said the unit pictured by AFP is the Skidoo GT550, produced in either 2011, 2012 or 2013. The GT series retail between £4500 to £7260 each.

Observers had already questioned just how many of “the people” will really enjoy Masik Pass. The fact that North Korea had to photoshop an image to manufacture a crowd of skiers suggests an answer.

photoshop of ski resort

[via, incredibly enough, The Hankyoreh]

In the top image, the man in the green-and-black jacket appears in triplicate, and the building in the foreground, if compared to the Rodong Sinmun slideshow and other images, appears to have been cropped and inserted, but turned 90 degrees in the process (study the eaves of the roof).

Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, conspicuous consumption puts North Korea’s left-leaning apologists on ground they can’t defend, and that increasing numbers of them won’t even try to defend. Once, John Feffer offered an apologia for Kim Jong Il’s policy choice to sacrifice millions of people for North Korea’s “defense” against imperialist hegemons. Hong won’t offer a defense against Kim Jong Un’s obscene squandering on waterparks, amusement parks, 3D cinemas, and ski resorts. Instead, she chooses the obtuse alternative of ignoring their existence. But pretending that there is no elephant in the room is not an argument; it is a tacit admission that the argument is too ridiculous for even the regime’s most tendentious apologists to offer.

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In case this isn’t self-evident, all analysis of North Korean New Year’s speeches is crap.*

In this year’s annual New Year’s Day message, Kim Jong Un boasted about his squalid little kingdom’s “brilliant successes in building a thriving socialist country and defending socialism,” its “upsurge … in production in several sectors and units of the national economy,” its “brilliant victory in the acute showdown with the imperialists,” and its “policies of respecting the people and loving them.” It’s crap like this that makes me proud of how little I’ve contributed to the torrent of junk analysis foisted on you after every one of these speeches.

To analyze a North Korean New Year’s speech is to embark on an intellectual misadventure. It can’t be otherwise when you start with an input that must be discounted by the mendacity of political promises in general, the mendacity of this regime in particular, and Kim Jong Un’s personal unsteadiness and detachment from declared principle. The meaning of the words degrades further under analysis that invariably veers toward wishful thinking, baseless speculation, or the ridiculous over-analysis of information that is almost entirely useless. Rudiger Frank provides an example of the latter by expending 4,039 words of sonorous, pedantic linguistic parsing on a 4,416-word speech, and even attempts to find year-on-year empirical trends in the frequency of usage of specific words. He might as well have counted the sand grains on a beach at low tide. If the Rain Man earned a Ph.D. in Asia studies, this is what I imagine he’d write.

The most typical error, however, is to turn each speech into a Rorschach test of that splotch on Gorbachev’s head. If, as is usually the case, the analyst’s bias is to believe that North Korea really wants glasnost, perestroika, and peace in our time, he can always find some confirmation for it among 4,000 words of vague and mutually conflicting language (though this year may be especially challenging in this regard).

This Rorshach fallacy has a good pedigree. A year ago, AP reporters Foster Klug and Sam Kim seized on the purge of Ri Yong Ho and the elevation of “moderates” close to Jang Song Thaek (enough said about that). Alexandre Mansourov, overlooking evidence of increased domestic repression and the disappearance of 30,000 prisoners in Camp 22, cited the New Year’s message as bringing “an end to the era of faceless joint party editorials” and ushering in a hopeful new era. (Since then, we’ve all gained a clearer view of what Kim Jong Un’s personal touch looks like.) The January 1, 2012 speech, Kim Jong Un’s first, promised a drive for prosperity (not so much). In the 2011 New Year’s message, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad saw the threats (thankfully, unrealized), and the AP quoted South Korea’s Unification Minister and a South Korean academic, who saw an interest in talks (ditto). My favorite example, however, is this one, via CNN, circa January 2010:

North Korea stated its commitment to lasting peace and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula in an editorial published on New Year’s Day, state-run media reported.

“The Workers’ Party of Korea and the government … will strive to develop relations of good-neighborliness and friendship with other countries and achieve global independence under the unfurled banner of independence, peace and friendship,” KCNA reported. The editorial may be a hopeful sign as the international community tries to coax Pyongyang back to six-party negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear program.

Two months after this was published, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. Eight months after that, it shelled a South Korean fishing village, killing two Marines and two civilians. North Korea hasn’t shown up for six-party talks since 2008, and even then, only showed up to lie its way out of sanctions. A great philosopher — I believe it was Rutger Hauer — characterized it best: their words are like tears … in rain.

~  ~  ~

Because a lot of people are slow learners, this year, Yonhap is grasping at Kim Jong Un’s call for “an atmosphere for improving North-South relations,” and declaring it an “olive branch.” Within a day, it promoted this clause to a full-fledged “peace offensive.” To do this, however, it had to ignore Kim Jong Un’s inconvenient salute to his “compatriots in the south, who are fighting for independence, democracy and national reunification,” presumably including those currently on trial for “conspir[ing] to storm firearms depots to secure weapons, destroy oil-storage and communication facilities and assassinate unspecified figures” in support of a North Korean invasion. Had it swapped the words it quoted for those it ignored, its headline might have read, “Kim Jong Un calls for terrorist attacks in South Korea.” Sure, that would be a stretch, but it wouldn’t be any less silly than calling the speech an “olive branch.” And in South Korea, where it’s illegal to read the original speech on KCNA — which is ridiculous — this half-truth could deceive plenty of people. (I’ve pasted the full text below the jump in case you’re in South Korea and care to read it. Not that you should, if you’ve read this far.)

Another example comes from Bob Carlin, who finds hopeful signs in what he sees as North Korean media’s “surprisingly restrained … treatment of ROK President Park Geun-hye.” (Indeed, it’s been all of six weeks since North Korea called her a “political prostitute.”) Carlin finds that thin reed, but doesn’t find this thick paragraph:

The US and south Korean war maniacs have deployed legions of equipment for a nuclear war in and around the Korean peninsula and are going frantic in their military exercises for a nuclear war against the north; this precipitates a critical situation where any accidental military skirmish may lead to an all-out war. Should another war break out on this land, it will result in a deadly nuclear catastrophe and the United States will never be safe. All the Korean people must not tolerate the manoeuvres for war and confrontation by the bellicose forces at home and abroad but stoutly resist and frustrate them.

Carlin thinks that we can set the stage for talks by “agreeing to stop slander of the other.” But of course, North Korea’s definition of “slander” includes speech protected under Chapter II, Article 21 of the South Korean Constitution, and maybe even speech that’s protected by the First Amendment of our own. Carlin also overlooks North Korea’s implicit rejection of returning to six-party talks:

To resolve the reunification issue in keeping with the aspirations and desires of our fellow countrymen, we should reject foreign forces and hold fast to the standpoint of By Our Nation Itself.

The driving force for national reunification is all the members of the Korean nation in the north, in the south and abroad; only when we remain steadfast in this standpoint can we reunify the country independently in line with our nation’s interests and demands. To go on a tour around foreign countries touting for “international cooperation” in resolving the inter-Korean relations issue, the one related with our nation, is a humiliating treachery of leaving its destiny in the hands of outside forces. The north and the south should uphold the principle of independence which is one of the three principles for national reunification and has been confirmed in the north-south joint declarations, hold fast to the standpoint of By Our Nation Itself, and respect and implement the declarations with sincerity.

Does that mean North Korea isn’t coming back to the six-party talks? Hell if I know. My point is that vagueness times mendacity divided by selection bias times preconception plus confirmation bias equals garbage with the predictive utility of an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope, if a lunatic wrote it. Not since the drafting of the United Nations Charter have so many keystrokes been wasted on anything so meaningless. Unless Kim Jong Un uses his next New Year’s address to announce his abdication, I look forward to watching the news media treat the next of these addresses as the non-event it will be.

You know what would be real news? If the next New Year’s address North Korea sees is delivered by Park Geun Hye.

This isn’t to say that the address was completely devoid of anything interesting. Kim conceded that “the circumstances were harsh and complicated last year,” which would still be mildly remarkable even if it wasn’t juxtaposed with Kim being callous enough to tell 23 million half-starved people that he’d just built them a ski resort, a war museum, and a water park.

Personally, I read these speeches for their humor, not their predictive value. In my favorite part of this year’s address, Kim Jong Un seemed to be promising a reign of terror to crush any hint of reform or dissent — the kind of promise North Korea usually keeps — before he revealed the entire speech to be a practical joke:

It is imperative to establish the monolithic leadership system in the Party, definitely ensure the purity of Party ranks and improve the militant functions and role of Party organizations. We should intensify ideological education among officials, Party members and other working people to ensure that they think and act at all times and in all places in line with the Party’s ideas and intentions with the steadfast faith that they know only the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and our Party. We should ensure that they approach with political awareness even the slightest phenomenon and element that infringe on the unity of the Party and revolutionary ranks and undermine their single-hearted unity, and eliminate them in a thoroughgoing way. They should wage a vigorous struggle to stamp out any sort of alien ideology and decadent lifestyle which may undermine our system and thus resolutely smash the enemy’s schemes for ideological and cultural infiltration.

Get it? Kim Jong Un had just flown in from his new ski resort.

Kim Jong Un ski

[We begin this year with a new entry for the gallery of unfortunate North Korean photo ops]

I’d like to think that when he got home after the speech, he emailed Dennis Rodman, surfed for some bondage porn, and then had a good laugh about the fact that people all over the world were actually going to devote hours of analysis to every meaningless word of that wretched crap he’d just read.

* Unless, maybe, the analyst is Jang Jin-Sung, “the man who used to orchestrate the nexus between internal policy planning and external presentation” before he defected. See comments.

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Mansourov praises Kim Jong Un’s “surprisingly good” domestic policies, sees “hope in the air.”

Writing at 38 North, the last fantasyland of Sunshine’s remaining advocates, Alexandre Mansourov argues that “Kim Jong Un’s domestic policy record” so far has been “surprisingly good.”

But, by the time 2012 came to a close, one could detect hope in the air, and new positive expectations about the future. There was also plenty of public thirst for new information and foreign experiences, and an especially surprising amount of joy and enthusiasm on the streets of Pyongyang, now illuminated by jumbotrons, the multicolor lights of the newly built residential complex on Changjon Street, and the spectacular 2013 new year fireworks. Whatever happened last year in North Korea, it obviously lifted the spirits and hopes of its population, and the leadership led by Kim Jong Un deserves some credit for that.  [Alexandre Mansourov, 38 North]

Mansourov bases this on an amalgamation of marginally significant regime reports he accepts at face value, cryptic rumors of purges and rehabilitations, his overreading of empty sloganeering, and the shallow proposition that equates the plagiarism of pop culture with reform.  I cannot write a better answer to this superficial thinking than one brave North Korean woman did when she said this to a New York Times reporter:

“Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” she asked tartly, wringing her hands as she recounted the chronic malnutrition that has sickened her two sons and taken the lives of less-well-off neighbors.

Mansourov might also have helpfully suggested that Kim Jong Un loan his father’s collection of Daffy Duck cartoons to the Grand Peoples’ Study House for the cause of reform, too.  

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Is the paradigm shifting on hunger in North Korea? (Also, fiskings of Chris Hill and Selig Harrison)

OFK regulars should all know how much regard I have for Christopher Hill. So are my own preconceptions causing me to find something vaguely repellent in the way Hill frames the issue of food aid, or do others see things the way I do?

Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world? If so, and if denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand, what could such a decision mean for eventual relations among Korean peoples living in the northern and southern parts of a unified country?

In the coming weeks, South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits (also in terms of human lives) that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring. [link]

But of course, famine wouldn’t induce regime collapse, for the same reason it didn’t induce regime collapse between 1993 and 2000: because the last thing starving people are thinking about is overthrowing their government. What I think Chris Hill fundamentally misunderstandings about North Korea in this case is that the regime uses hunger to cow its subjects.

Hill is also partially correct. He’s right to suggest that food aid would be diverted to the army and the elite, and that it would be misused to prop up the regime. He’s probably also right that this year, hunger does pose threat to the regime’s stability. But that threat doesn’t rise from the prospect of expendable orphans and peasants dying en masse in front of train stations. Instead, it rises from what I see as a very consequential paradigm shift in the North Korean economy: for the first time ever, the economic balance of power seems to be shifting away from the regime and toward the common people. The commissary officer who carries nothing but won can’t outbid the trader with yuan or dollars. North Korea’s endemic corruption may even allow leakage of food from government and military storehouses into markets, where citizens with dollars and yuan remitted by relatives abroad become the favored buyers. All of this represents something of a reversal of fortune in the last few years.

I admit that I’m making some interferences here, based on evidence of (a) a decline in the regime’s buying power, due in part to international sanctions, (b) a hungry army, (c) a rise in remittances from abroad, and (d) multiple reports that the North Korean won has become a currency of last resort ever since the Great Confiscation. I can’t say definitively that I’m right about this, but my theory is the best explanation I can find for these changing trends. If so, the right policy should be to deny the regime aid, absent a monitoring network that addresses the regime’s long history of diversion and discrimination.

On the other hand, it’s unconscionable to see something as horrible as a famine as advancing the objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Especially when it doesn’t. Instead, our objective ought to be to find the best available way to feed and empower the North Korean people. My view of hunger and food aid is very different from Hill’s. As I see it, nothing would be so transformational for North Korea as the arrival of foreign aid workers to actually hand out food to the hungry and ensure that the intended recipients get to eat it. I’d go so far as to make the regime’s acceptance of food aid — delivered directly by international donors and supervised by WFP monitors — a primary objective of the financial and diplomatic pressure we’re exerting on the regime now. I wouldn’t exclude the soldiers from the feeding program, either. Let them look into our eyes and see how long they’ve been lied to.

Not that any of this could possibly happen, in which case, our next-best option is to quietly encourage remittances, food smuggling, the flow of information, and whatever else erodes the regime’s economic and political control. Of course, a lot of people are going to die waiting for that to happen, but even more will die if we just keep propping up the system.

Which is exactly what Selig Harrison would have us do, naturally. Writing from some parallel universe, Harrison tells us that starvation in North Korea is our next missed opportunity to cozy up to the very people who are causing all of this suffering. He says that “a long-term commitment” to feed the North Korean army would be just the excuse North Korea’s closet reformers have been waiting for to disarm. And when I say “feed the North Korean army,” I’m not twisting Selig’s words. Here he is on the topic of monitoring:

This is a hypocritical response to the present crisis, since Washington does, in fact, impose blatantly political conditions for participating in UN food aid by demanding that Pyongyang agree to more intrusive inspections to assure that the aid does not go to the armed forces. This conditionality makes no sense because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid.

Harrison is willing to accept that our aid will be diverted to the army and allocated in a politically discriminatory manner. This is also repugnant, and completely contrary to the ICRC’s Code of Conduct, but give Harrison credit for not even bothering to conceal his motives, which turn out not to be very humanitarian at all. Oh, and Harrison knows this long-term commitment will advance America’s diplomatic interests because — get this — in 1994, during one of his innumerable visits to Pyongyang, “Kang Sok Ju, then Deputy Foreign Minister . . . persuaded Kim [Jong Il] in my presence to accept the proposal” for a nuclear freeze. You see, people? If you’d only done it my way!

But by now, even the Obama Administration is treating Selig like the crazy old uncle who lives in the attic, and Selig’s ego is not amused:

In contrast to the Bush Administration, which allowed me to host meetings for North Korean dignitaries at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Campbell has refused to let me convene a proposed discussion of US-North Korean policy issues to be addressed by Han in Washington. The argument is that this would look like “weakness” on the part of the United States.

You don’t say. So you mean to say that American diplomats see an appearance problem with hosting a function with a diplomat whose country just sank an allied nation’s warship and followed that up by shelling and killing its civilians? If that part of Harrison’s proposal sounds ridiculous, then wait until you see how he has defined the word “dignitary” down. The “Han” he refers to is none other than Han Song Ryol, who in a 2005 incident at a congressional office building accosted the founder of Free North Korea Radio and said: “You, bastard, you wanna die. Look at that son of a bitch ….” Fortunately, Han was with ex-Representative Curt Weldon, so no reputations were harmed. But this surely stretches the definition of “ambassador” and “diplomat,” much less “dignitary.” A man who comes to a congressional office building and threatens a witness to a hearing shouldn’t be sent an engraved invitation. He should be served with a restraining order.

Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In February 2005, Selig Harrison alleged “that the Bush administration misrepresented and distorted the data” about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program to scuttle the first Agreed Framework. In August 2009, Harrison told an Associated Press reporter that, “Everything I’ve ever said about North Korea since 1972 has seemed at the time like screaming into the wilderness, and everything I’ve ever advocated has come to pass.

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You Say That Like It’s a Bad Thing: “China Hand” Fears Treasury Sanctions

I’m apparently not the only one who cocked an eyebrow at the refusal of a State Department spokesman recently to rule out applying new sanctions to be directed at North Korea to third-country entities.

The United States Wednesday did not preclude the possibility of freezing North Korean assets in foreign banks to effectively cut off resources for the North’s development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“I’m not going to predict any particular step that we’re contemplating, but these are steps that are available to us under existing U.S. international law,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters at a daily news briefing.

He was responding to the question if Washington was considering freezing North Korean assets at foreign banks just like it froze more than US$25 million in North Korean accounts in Banco Delta Asia in Macau in 2005. [Yonhap]

Whether we actually set about doing this or not, the response itself is significant. One only hopes that investors in Kim Jong Il’s regime will take enough heed to proceed in an orderly manner to the rooftops of their embassies in Pyongyang with semaphore flags and briefcases stuffed with all the dollars — and yuan — they can carry. One hopes that the most recent G-8 summit also took up this topic in detail, and went beyond gauzy statements about “consequences” for North Korea’s “irresponsible behavior.” Not all power, it seems, comes from the barrel of a gun these days. You’d think this would be cause for rejoicing, but not for Beijing and its tools.

If you’ve deduced that most of the third-country entities that would be affected by U.S. sanctions on North Korea are Chinese, you and I are not alone in this. Peter Lee, whom I gather is the very same “China Hand” from whom I waterboarded this retraction of a completely groundless statement about the topic of sanctions (and me) a while back, now says that a worried China “will be observing [the Treasury Department’s potential sanctions] actions on Iran and North Korea with a good deal of wary curiosity.”

Well, good! If China were not abetting mass murder, proliferation, and now acts of war by Kim Jong Il, if China were not cynically undermining the same U.N. resolutions for which it voted, it wouldn’t have to worry about its banks and mining companies being sanctioned for their role in propping up Kim Jong Il. It seems to me that Treasury is supplying the leverage we’ve been missing all along. Consequently, Lee seems to have reserved particular degree of enmity for OFK favorite Stuart Levey, whose inconvenience is that his record disproves the narrative that America has no options but to tolerate and even subsidize Kim Jong Il’s ongoing nuclear buildup. After all of the finger-wagging we’ve had to endure from assorted “China Hands” that America mustn’t do anything to harm about its relations with China, maybe it’s about time the converse was finally true, too.

The main theme of Lee’s argument against sanctioning North Korea and Iran through their Chinese sponsors is that it’s somehow immoral or unfair of the United States and Treasury in particular to use the power of the dollar to influence China toward a foreign policy that’s less malignant toward America’s national security. He calls the threat of sanctions “an abuse of America’s privileged position at the center of the financial world.” Lee’s have-you-no-decency-sir tone makes for an amusing contrast to his giddy harrumphing about America’s debt to China, a subject I previously discussed here. As Lee eventually acknowledges in part, America’s currency gives it this power, in part, because of China’s (artificial) depression of the yuan exchange rate against the dollar to generate more export revenue, but then, what else is China supposed to do with its dollars? I don’t think any Chinese banker is really thinking much about Lee’s suggestion that it buy more Euro these days.

The curious shift in Lee’s tone is a curious thing to observe, but when it comes to the relationship between U.S. sanctions and North Korea policy, Lee is in way over his head and doing his best to cast economic pressure as the moral enemy of effective diplomacy. Now, either the flaw in this argument is obvious to you or it isn’t, but regardless of how you see that question, this flawed argument is built on some real howlers I couldn’t let myself pass up:

Hopefully, the results for the US this time will not be as dire as North Korea’s rush to the atomic bomb occasioned by the sanctions campaign of the Bush administration.

So in addition to The Bomb, Lee must think Kim Jong Il somehow acquired a De Lorean and a flux capacitor. That’s right — Lee is suggesting that President Bush’s financial sanctions caused North Korea to go nuclear, or to dispel any doubts that it has. Perhaps China would be better off if Americans were still arguing over op-eds by Selig Harrison and Mike Chinoy insisting to this day that North Korea’s nuclear program was all some figment of Dick Cheney’s imagination. The truth, however, is that Kim Jong Il’s “rush to the atomic bomb” actually began in earnest during the Reagan Administration. How could he have known that George W. Bush would eventually give it all a perfectly good (for Lee, anyway) post-hoc justification?

I suppose anyone can characterize coincidence as causation, but I see a far greater chance of a causal connection between North Korea’s nuclear test and the open encouragement of people believed to speak for the Chinese government, such as the influential Chinese academic Shen Dingli. Shen’s articles are well worth reading for just to see the malice he expresses toward the United States and its basic security interests, but they’re also important documentary evidence of China’s insincerity when its flacks insist that they, too, want a nuclear-free North Korea. In 2005, Shen wrote the development of nuclear weapons was Kim Jong Il’s “sovereign right,” and he was again showing a green light to the North Koreans as recently as three days before the October 2006 nuclear test Lee now calls a dread “consequence” of sanctions Treasury had announced against a Chinese bank, Banco Delta Asia, on September 15, 2005:

First, and most importantly, North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks in fury, abandoned its nuclear haggling with the United States, and detonated its first atomic bomb on October 9, 2006. Despite revisionist attempts to decouple BDA from the bomb, Levey’s paternity of the Nork nuke is pretty much indisputable.

You can either enforce the law or negotiate with North Korea, but never both. Here is the proof!


That’s right. North Korea was not only still at the six-party talks on September 19, 2005, four days after Treasury took action against BDA, it signed a statement agreeing in principle to give up its nukes. This all happened while depositors were lined up outside of BDA trying to withdraw their money. Now, far be for me to suggest that a North Korean promise, much less merely showing up to talk, represents progress. I’ll leave it to Lee to explain just how much the six-party talks have accomplished, the likelihood that they’d ever accomplish anything, and how China has been helpful in this whole endlessly receding process. You can believe that if you choose, but just know that there are some important facts Lee isn’t telling you.

Secondly, America’s image as an honest broker impartially protecting the integrity of the dollar-based international financial system was seriously tarnished.

Now here is some odd logic. Lee is actually suggesting that Treasury harmed the integrity of the dollar-based international financial system by taking an enforcement action against a willing accomplice of a syndicate that distributed remarkably high-quality counterfeit U.S. dollars, requiring multiple redesigns of U.S. currency. Are we supposed to take this seriously? Lee says that turning Treasury loose on a government with which the U.S. government has differences “weaponizes” law enforcement. But what’s unprecedented here isn’t that Treasury follows crime to its source; it’s that a state is engaging in counterfeiting, and doing so backed by the full faith and credit of the Chinese government, which has the unmitigated chutzpah to suggest that for the sake of a failed diplomatic track, we’re obligated to exempt both China and North Korea from the enforcement of the laws that protect our currency.

Feebly, Lee also questions the evidence that North Korea is counterfeiting dollars:

US laziness in making its case – though largely unchallenged by the media with the exception of McClatchy’s Kevin Hall – did not enhance international confidence in OTFI’s ability to wield this considerable power responsibly.

What Lee mischaracterizes as laziness is in fact the secrecy in which all law enforcement and intelligence services need to pursue their investigations to completion; after all, the lead agency in this investigation is called the Secret Service. This is a principle recognized under law by exceptions to our Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps Lee would like to submit his own FOIA request to the Chinese authorities to see what documents they’d be willing to disclose on this topic. This is an odd argument indeed, coming as it does from a supporter of an opaque and unaccountable dictatorship.

Now if you want to see laziness, it’s Kevin Hall’s failure to so much as pull and read the Treasury Department’s final rule explaining why it took action against BDA. I’ve debunked Hall’s sloppy reporting extensively here. Before and since then, multiple detailed accounts reports by real journalists and researchers, not hacks — have explained the detailed history of the supernote operation, who in the North Korean government is behind the counterfeiting, where the notes are printed, where the North Koreans got their presses and ink, and how North Korea distributes the counterfeit currency right here in the United States, largely through Chinese intermediaries. There’s more here, plus reports from the Congressional Research Service here and here. For those who are willing to examine the open-source evidence, it’s overwhelming.

By the way, Lee helpfully informs us that the president of BDA was “Stanley Au, a local businessman with close ties to Beijing” and “a delegate to the China People’s Consultative Congress.” Just in case you think this was a matter over which the Chinese government had no influence. And BDA was only a small player in Chinese banks’ abetting of the counterfeiting scam:

“Banco Delta was a symbolic target. We were trying to kill the chicken to scare the monkeys. And the monkeys were big Chinese banks doing business in North Korea… and we’re not talking about tens of millions [of dollars], we’re talking hundreds of millions.

Lee is horrified that anyone in the U.S. government attempted to intimidate big Chinese banks away from handling counterfeit dollars, or from keeping Kim Jong Il on his throne. It won’t surprise you that I differ on this. I believe that it’s possible to have biases about a topic, as both Lee and I undoubtedly do, and still follow the known facts to objectively defensible conclusions. Instead, Lee shoehorns them into his conclusions, conclusions that have never seemed more driven by emotion and nationalism, and which, consequently, he simply cannot support.

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Fareed Zakaria shows us how anyone can earn a living as a North Korea expert!

zakaria.jpgNext time my brother and I argue about why I’m not big a fan of Fareed Zakaria, I think I’ll point him to this link where Zakaria gives us his “analysis” of the Cheonan Incident. The interviewer asks him a series of questions, which I rephrase. Zakaria then spits up State Department talking points and pulp he stole from wire service reports, and then blends this with his own analysis.

I’ve hosed the pulp, talking points, and context off of Zakaria’s analysis, leaving it naked and exposed for you to gawk upon. So Fareed — the Norks sank that ship. What’s up with that?

The truth is that North Korea is such a strange and strangely governed place that no one really knows.

So is there a danger we’ll end up going to war?

It’s dangerous because it suggests that North Korea is acting in an unpredictable way.

So why did Kim Jong Il do it?

What’s strange about this is that it’s not entirely clear what the purpose behind it is.

And what about the ChiComs? What’s their deal, Fareed?

That, to me, is the greatest mystery of this whole puzzle.

Thank you, Mr. Zakaria, for that penetrating insight. Does being an expert on all things mean that the words “I have no idea” and “I actually bring no useful knowledge or insight to this discussion” must be purged from your vocabulary? Because Zakaria certainly manages to find a lot of ways to say that … and to collect a paycheck for it. All he needs is an infomercial to run on the Home and Garden channel at 2 a.m.

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On Second Thought, Don’t Keep Your Day Job, Either.

feffer1.jpgAs a public service to OFK readers, I’d like to remind you that on Day Two of the Cheonan crisis, Noam Chomsky’s favorite Korea analyst and military expert, John Feffer, was quoted thusly:

“I doubt that North Korea was involved in the incident,” said John Feffer, co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It didn’t seem to involve any artillery fire from the North.

Feffer disagreed with the assumption that North Korea attacked the South Korean naval vessel, noting this incident is different from the previous clashes that involved fishing boats of the two Koreas crossing their sea border.

“There have been naval clashes between North and South in the past, but these have usually involved rising tensions, warnings, fishing boats crossing the NLL,” he said. “But this was, as far as we know, a surprise. And there was no larger reason why the North might engage in such a surprise attack. [Yonhap]

Today, readers (thank you) point me to Feffer’s return from seclusion. He now concedes the North Korean culpability that he’d initially denied, and even admits that President Lee was “reluctant to point the finger at North Korea in the first place.” This might have been a good beginning to an honest admission that he’d erred before a global audience because of his lack of objectivity, and his general ignorance of North Korea and military matters in general. Lacking this capacity, Feffer asks us to join him in seeing the humor in his complete, verifiable, and irreversible discrediting. There are two main problems with this. First, Feffer isn’t funny. Second, Feffer’s attempt at humor is tasteless:

Kim Jong Il must work for the American Enterprise Institute. Or maybe it’s the Heritage Foundation. The North Korean dictator doesn’t talk much about his non-resident fellowship at a right-wing U.S. think tank. It might not go over well with the Politburo in Pyongyang. [….]

North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean ship that went down in March in the Yellow Sea near the maritime border between the two countries, is just what the right-wing doctors have ordered. Japan was looking a little squishy on the Okinawa base issue. China needed some reminders about just how rogue its erstwhile ally really is. And South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung Bak wanted confirmation that his containment approach to the north was justified. [….]

If the Dear Leader didn’t receive under-the-table payments from John Bolton and friends, what on earth motivated such a self-destructive act?

Ordinarily, I would say, “Keep your day job.”

Still, it’s funny — not because Feffer’s evocation of Heritage scholars toasting the drowning of the Cheonan crew members induces peals of laughter, but because I couldn’t help thinking that John Feffer must work for Kim Jong Il, only he doesn’t talk about it much because it might cause him to be dismissed as a fascist tool and purged from journalists’ blackberries everywhere. And if you think about it, that would mean that John Feffer actually works for the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and how the hell would he ever live with that kind of moral stain on his soul karma?

North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean ship that went down in March in the Yellow Sea near the maritime border between the two countries, is just what the right-wing doctors have ordered. Japan was looking a little squishy on the Okinawa base issue. China needed some reminders about just how rogue its erstwhile ally really is. And South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung Bak wanted confirmation that his containment approach to the north was justified.

There is an alternative theory: North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan has exposed John Feffer’s delusions about North Korea to sensible people all over the world. Because in the end, most people don’t really think this is all about John Feffer, or how sorry we should all feel for him because Kim Jong Il makes him look st00pid. They think this is about how to deter the sort of sociopath who, without provocation and with malice aforethought, pins 46 young sailors inside the twisted wreckage of a ship sinking in a cold, dark sea, or the grief-stricken loved ones they thought of as they took their last breaths on this earth.

But then, you can only judge that sort of thing if you hate peace.

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The Head of the World Health Organization Bears May Day Greetings from Pyongyang! (Update: No Signs of Obesity There!)

chan.jpgIt could have been worse, I suppose, had I awakened this morning to the clatter of panzerkampfwagens rolling through the D.C. suburbs blaring the Horst Wessel Lied from loudspeakers. But if the prospect of the U.N. as Government of Earth horrifies you any less, get a load of what Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organization, holds up as the very model of a peachy health care system:

UN health agency chief Margaret Chan said on Friday after a visit to North Korea that the country’s health system would be the envy for most developing countries although it faced “challenges”. “Based on what I have seen, I can tell you they have something that most other developing countries would envy,” she told journalists, despite reports of renewed famine in parts of the country.

“To give you a couple of examples, DPRK has no lack of doctors and nurses, as we see in other developing countries, most of their doctors and nurse have migrated,” the director general of the World Health Organisation said. She also highlighted its “very elaborate health infrastructure” extending to a district network of household doctors, she added. [AFP]

The factual ignorance and the prevailing moral retardation of the United Nations even manage to put the Catholic Church’s recent troubles into perspective. Hey, at least they’ve only enabled the rape of a few thousand children! Speaking of a regime that willfully allowed up to 2.5 million of its people to starve to death, while the survivors merely watched their loved ones starve to death, Chan concedes that all is not perfect in North Korea:

“I can see perhaps that malnutrition is an area where the government has to pay attention, especially in pregnant women and young children,” Chan said in a telephone news conference about her visit.

Then, citing official North Korean statistics without apparent irony or suspicion …

[S]he praised the extent of child vaccination in the country, citing coverage of about 90 percent, as well as the way it tackled tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases.

But there were some qualifications. An OFK reader — one of (so far) two journalists for major news services who e-mailed me from the verge of apoplexy about this story, I will note — described this one as “perhaps the understatement of the decade:”

Chan later accepted that what she saw in Pyongyang “might not be representative of the rest of the country.

To say the least. Chan clearly wasn’t led to the hospital in Chongjin where the doctors, denied any medicines or modern equipment, spent large parts of their days gathering, drying, and grinding herbs to make “traditional” medicines, but who could seldom do more for their starving patients than watch them die. She wasn’t guided to the black markets where people buy the medicine — often, it’s crystal meth — that their government refuses to provide while it spends its money on luxuries for its Inner Party. Or to any of the schools that had to close during the most recent of North Korea’s frequent epidemics of H1N1, tuberculosis (regular and drug-resistant), typhoid, paratyphoid, typhus, or scarlet fever, despite the regime’s vaunted excellence at vaccinating children. Or any of the places Norbert Vollertsen described in this Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Though I was assigned to a children’s hospital in Pyongsong, 10 miles north of Pyongyang, I visited many hospitals in other provinces. In each one, I found unbelievable deprivation. Crude rubber drips were hooked to patients from old beer bottles. There were no bandages, scalpels, antibiotics or operation facilities, only broken beds on which children lay waiting to die. The children were emaciated, stunted, mute, emotionally depleted. [….]

Once, I had an opportunity to visit my driver, a member of the military, who was in the hospital because of injury. The authorities were vexed that I wanted to see him, but I was able to overcome objections. As was my custom on hospital visits, I took bandages and antibiotics–basics. On this occasion, I was embarrassed to see that, unlike any other hospital I visited, this one looked as modern as any in Germany. It was equipped with the latest medical apparatus, such as magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, electrocardiograms and X-ray machines. There are two worlds in North Korea, one for the senior military and the elite; and a living hell for the rest.

Ms. Chan’s belief in the illusion through which she was paraded is, quite simply, beyond belief. It is in jarring contrast to North Korea’s refusal to so much as let the U.N.’s Human Rights Special Rapporteur, Vivit Muntarbhorn through his borders.

He also highlighted reports that the regime had tightened its grip on food distribution by prohibiting smallholders and markets. “The situation concerning food shortages in 2009 — with impact on 2010 — remains severe,” especially in the northeast, he added. Muntarbhorn stressed that “the problem is not simply food shortage but distorted food distribution, from which the elite benefits.” [AFP]

“Logically, it would seem that if the authorities are not able to satisfy the basic needs of the people, the people should be able to participate in activities which can help generate income so as to enable them to produce or buy their own food as well as sustain their livelihood,” he told the council. [Reuters]

This, children, is why the very term “United Nations” has become an oxymoron.

Update: Oh my God. Please tell me she was misquoted:

Chan spent most of her brief visit in Pyongyang, and she said that from what she had seen there most people had the same height and weight as Asians in other countries, while there were no signs of the obesity emerging in some parts of Asia.

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Hankyoreh “Experts:” North Korea Sank the Cheonan, But It’s Still South Korea’s Fault

I expect the Hanky and its fellow travelers to be committed 24/7 tools of North Korea, but for God’s sake, people, your country is in mourning. Is this really the time?

People’s Solitary for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) General Secretary Kim Min-young offered his diagnosis of the situation, saying, “If the government had faithfully executed the existing agreement between North Korea and South Korea for the peaceful use of the waters near the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, things would not have escalated into a confrontation scenario.

Implicitly, this is an agreement that the North Koreans did it, even as it argues that they did it because President Lee forced them to. What the “General Secretary” is really saying is that the responsibility for what he assumes to have been a deliberate attack lies with the South Korean government for protecting its territory rather than surrendering it. He is justifying a sneak attack just off the shores of an island North Korea explicitly ceded in the Korean War Armistice agreement. One could not make such an argument on the day South Korea buried 40 of its sailors without having lost sight of how the needless theft of their lives has profoundly aggrieved thousands of people who loved them, people who will spend the rest of their lives missing them.

Following the 2007 Inter-Korean Summit, late President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made an agreement to establish a “˜special West Sea zone of peace and cooperation,’ including the establishment of joint fishing zones and peaceful waters and the construction of a special economic zone. But the Lee Myung-bak administration has effectively refused to respect or implement the October 4 2007 Summit Declaration that includes this agreement. Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said, “They need to reconsider how to carry out policy for the stable management of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

And what would any Hankyoreh editorial be without a choice quote from Cheong Wook-Sik, possibly Kim Jong Il’s most brazen South Korean apologist and stooge? The fact that the Hanky describes this marionette as an “expert” really tells you all you need to know about the Hanky’s more common tactic of citing “experts” without even telling you who they are:

Some experts expressed concern that the Lee government and the public are placing too much weight on “keeping the peace” by strengthening the alert against North Korea or building up military forces. Peace Network representative Cheong Wook-sik said, “If this incident simply leads South Korea to focus on simplifying its rules of engagement and beef up its aggression and forces, the situation of military confrontation between North Korea and South Korea could worsen as this combines with the North Korea’s response.

Got that? He’s worried about South Korea “beef[ing] up its aggression.”

I’ll let you read the rest on your own and decide for yourself if you can actually believe you’re reading this, much less reading it while the country is in mourning over the murder — yes, I said it — of 40 of its sailors.

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Nothing to Offer, by Glyn Ford

Glyn Ford was a socialist member of the European Parliament until, under even its fringe-friendly rules, he lost his seat by placing fifth in the EP elections. Ford, an early defender of North Korea’s right to possess nuclear weapons, now finds himself with one less demand on his time, and so he reviews Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. I’m not sure whether Ford himself or the Tribune Magazine is responsible for the headline under which his review is published: “North Korea: Grim, but that’s no reason to make things up.” Dig into the accusation, however, and the substance of the charge of “making things up” comes down to this.

1. Ford claims that some completely different person, also a journalist, made up a story about her cell phone being confiscated at the airport.

2. Demick “travels with” Nick Eberstadt by citing him in her acknowledgments, and Eberstadt is (hiss!) a neocon, meaning, any foreign policy thinker to the right of Jimmy Carter and to the left of (choose one) Joachim Von Ribbentrop or Pat Buchanan. Ford might also have pointed out that on Pages 295-296, Demick also cites such liberal sources as Good Friends, former Ambassador Donald Gregg, Tony Banbury of the World Food Program, Katharina Zellweger of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, lefty columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, classical liberal and former Amnesty Exec Director David Hawk, and Leonid Petrov. She also thanks Scott Snyder, Bradley Martin, and Michael Breen, all relative moderates. If there’s any imbalance in the ideological orientation of Demick’s sources, it may be that people like Christine Ahn and Glyn Ford have lacked the intellectual means and will, respectively, to make much of a scholarly impact on this topic.

I wish Ford were equally forthright about just who he “is traveling with” — to borrow his phrase — by disclosing the frequency with which he is cited affectionately by the Korea Central News Agency, something the North Korean regime reserves for its favored stooges. If there is any relevance in Ford’s selective citation to Demick’s acknowledgment of Eberstadt, I find far more weight in KCNA’s frequent use of Ford as a propaganda prop.

3. Demick relates that one of her subjects witnessed the selektion of pregnant detainees, which the subject presumed preceded the forced abortion of their babies. Ford reproduces only the text in bold:

The guards strip-searched the new arrivals, separating those who obviously pregnant and sending them off for abortions, no matter how advanced the pregnancy. The assumption was that the babies’ fathers were Chinese.

I could quibble that Ford takes this quotation out of context on several levels. First, his truncation of Demick’s sentence could cause a reader to believe that “obviously” modifies “sending” rather than “pregnant.” Judge for yourself, but I don’t believe the passage even implies that the subject witnessed a forced abortion, so Ford is reading into the passage a deception that isn’t there. The greater problem of context and interpretation arises from the way Demick tells her story, using the narrative of her subjects as a vehicle to discuss the findings of scholarly researched and published reports. There might be fair criticisms of that approach, but Ford doesn’t offer them. Plenty of readers might be content to read those narrations alone; they’re readable, interesting, and incorporate rational inferences drawn from the knowable facts. For those inclined to read (or pick at) Demick’s book for scholarly research or criticism, she offers numerous footnotes for citations and clarifications, which Ford duly finds.

So who is deceiving who here? Ford at least implies that the claims of forced abortion are nonsense. They might be — it’s not as if North Korea allows Red Cross inspections — but that’s not what the available evidence suggests now. Yoonok Chang’s 2006 survey of 1,300 North Korea refugees (52% of them women) found that fully 5% of North Korean refugees reported personally witnessing “forced abortions or infanticide performed on women who were pregnant when repatriated from China to North Korea and suspected of carrying binational children” (see footnote 14). Or we could examine this study, or David Hawk’s research from 2003, among others. A reasonable reader would conclude that this evidence is less than conclusive to prove the charge but more than enough for Glyn Ford and others with Kim Jong Il’s ear to demand transparency and an explanation. Ford’s review is yet another lost opportunity to do this. Instead, he does what North Korea’s apologists always do: he rests on argumentum ad ignorantium.

There are other problems, too. Ford states that the subjects of Demick’s book left North Korea for “non-ideological” reasons, which is flat wrong (schoolgirl howler, indeed; what book was he reading?). Every one of the stories in “Nothing to Envy” represents a different path toward political disillusionment. For some, the decision to break with the system came only after they could see, for example, that Chinese dogs eat better than North Korean doctors (page 257). Mi-Ran and her family decided to go to South Korea after their father, a South Korean POW, died (page 206), but scarcely dared to confront their own intentions at first. Kim Hyuck, on his release from Camp 12, “decided that his only chance was to make a break for South Korea.” (Page 260) Jung-San secretly listened to foreign broadcasts, came to loathe the system and decide to flee (pages 195-97), and “spent three years saving money for his escape,” (page 275) with the specific purpose of defecting to the South via a consulate in China. I could go on. Ford then rakes up the ugly business of human trafficking across the Chinese border, a business into which North Koreans presumably wouldn’t place themselves if their homeland wasn’t a hell on earth and China wasn’t a flagrant violator of the Refugee Convention. I saw no other point in this than portraying the refugees themselves to be whores, pimps, and low-lifes, and to quote Ford directly, “fools.”

Ford’s contempt for the refugees themselves contends to be the most repulsive thing he writes, but there is also this:

Certainly the North Koreans bear some responsibility for the famine, yet there is no mention of the fact that the CIA were well aware of what was happening and said nothing, maintaining a silence even when Pyongyang appealed for assistance in 1996 to an initially sceptical (sic) world. And there is lots more where that comes from.

Did he really say some?

Now that is an odd construct: holding the CIA responsible for a famine in the Earth’s great intelligence Black Hole, rather than on the world’s most secretive and controlling regime, one that could have found sufficient resources to import food had its priorities not been distracted by shopping sprees for aluminum tubing, MiG’s, and a pizza chef for Kim Jong Il. I will leave it to Andrew Natsios to make the case that North Korea blocked access and monitoring by aid workers, and diverted food aid from neediest people and regions to those that were the most politically favored. Contrary to Ford’s allegation, Natsios argues there was considerable and prolonged debate within the U.S. government about the food situation in North Korea. There still is, for that matter. North Korea itself has never allowed sufficient access and transparency to allow for a reliable nutritional survey.

Ford’s final non-sequitur worth mentioning is to echo North Korea’s demand for a peace treaty, a bit of nonsense I’ve already dealt with here and here, but which Ford really ought to put into the context of North Korea’s recent unilateral renunciation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

In the end, you have to at least credit Glyn Ford for having brass to publish his review in the place with libel laws like Britain’s. His readers would have been better served by more careful reading, and more honest writing.

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Jackass Mails Hash to Self in South Korea, Does Time, Compares Self to Laura Ling and Euna Lee

When the news of Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s release broke, I warned you that you were going to read a lot of really stupid things, and you are.  But a reader also forwards a link to something completely unexpected from Cullen Thomas, writing at The Daily Beast.

What could be more useful in making sense of an isolated and unpredictable rogue state’s holding of journalists as hostages than the unique perspective of a hash-smoking ex-con who did time in Chonan, South Korea?  Screw Mitch Koss.  Has the CIA debriefed this guy?

This story reminded me very much of my experience of being held and tried for a crime in South Korea in the 1990s. Yes, North and South have their obvious differences, ….

Sure, the cases aren’t exactly alike.  But aside from the offenses, the absence of hostage-holding and nuclear brinkmanship in one case, the completely different ways in which the two Korean different judicial systems are unfair, the utter lack of international and political sympathy or interest in one case, North Korea’s routine torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, the lack of any socially redeeming behavior on Thomas’s part, the fact that South Korea hasn’t isolated itself from the entire world — in short, the lack of any greater interest, significance, or newsworthiness to Thomas’s story — it’s a great analogy.

In advance of my criminal trial in Seoul in 1994–I had stupidly mailed myself hashish from the Philippines; the indiscretion of a 23-year-old–Korean guards and prisoners at the Seoul Detention Center urged and recommended me, as they did the other foreign prisoners as well, not only to plead guilty to my offense (I was guilty) but more importantly to show remorse in front of the judges.

As someone who has given exactly that advice to no small number of dead-to-rights guilty American soldiers facing courts-martial, I’d like to interject to question whether Mr. Thomas is describing a particularly Korean characteristic here.  Still, Mr. Thomas seems to perceive himself as an authority on Asian cultural psychology.  It’s a rather odd path toward international academic recognition, this.  But with the patience of an experienced teacher, he introduces us to the vagaries of the oriental mind that some might not have mastered by browsing the dust jackets of James Clavell novels in airport bookstores:

The second reason that Laura Ling’s statement that she and Lee did break the law and were not then simply unwitting victims of the nefarious North Korean state was a wise and positive step is that it allowed the North Korean authorities enough “face” to release the two reporters.

It had not occurred to me that a tyrant who was just about to flout two U.N. resolutions, test an ICBM, and then test a nuclear weapon wanted nothing more than a quiet, graceful exit from the undue harshness of a sentence to 12 years in the gulag, no doubt the result of that fiercely independent rogue elephant known as the North Korean judiciary.

The North then would be letting them go out of mercy and clemency, they could legitimately claim, and have the event be a show of their magnanimity. To have this cover, this “face” in place, is absolutely vital to the two women’s chances of getting out.

I’m glad you approve, Cullen, and relieved that you manage not to use the word “stoked” even once.  Do enlighten us more:

Secretary of State Clinton’s public comments last month–describing the remorse of the two reporters and their families and asking North Korea to grant Ling and Lee “amnesty”–were an excellent step in this direction. Bill presumably continued on that tack.

I’ve been told that cannabis has the quizzical effect of causing people to believe that all problems — even problems with nuclear-armed rogue psychopaths — can be solved by deep conversations; hence, Mr. Thomas apparently believes that good diplomacy can solve all of our problems with North Korea.  There is, of course, the discordant note of last month’s infantilization of international diplomacy:  “You have no friends,” “You look like an elderly pensioner on a shopping trip.”  Better-informed readers might want to see this explained away, but in that context, you could say this was almost like diplomatic make-up sex.  You could say it, and we could laugh at you.

Then Thomas, missing the more obvious comparison, imagines the conditions in which Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee might have been held and compares it what he endured.  Apparently, Chonan harshed his mellow:

And even in the South there was a strong and ever present sense of the authorities trying to shield and separate us foreigners from the raw realities of the Korean underbelly. We were put into our own cellblock, and there were serious qualms about letting us live and work among the Korean convicts in the prison factories. In addition, prison rule forbade us from writing about the prisons, and guards and officers often told me to speak well of Korea, to give a favorable impression back to the world at large after my release.

Sounds like their plan had a flaw, though it’s a mystery why Korean prison guards would go to such painstaking efforts to protect the republic’s reputation against someone who so obviously got what he deserved.  How any of this informs us about Laura Ling, Euna Lee, or North Korea is still apparently beyond my powers of comprehension.

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Being Irrational and Ill-Informed Still No Barrier to Getting a Global Audience

No one in the Obama Administration sounds terribly interested in North Korea’s offer of a bilateral dialogue about what concessions America is prepared to grant North Korea this year, but at the Christian Science Monitor, Professor Zhiqun Zhu of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (you remember it from the matchbook covers, right?) calls North Korea’s statement “a rare opportunity” and writes one of the most scary-stupid things I’ve read all year:

Frankly, it is unrealistic for the US to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear technology. The reason is simple: The nuclear card is the only one North Korea has; it will not easily give it away. The ostrich policy of refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state has to be ditched. A solution to the North Korea conundrum must begin with recognizing the fact that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear weapons and will remain nuclear-capable.  [link]

So North Korea will never bargain away its nuclear weapons, meaning the United States must bargain anyway!   Reading Zhu’s argument is like watching an animal give live birth and eat its own young.  When he’s done refuting any U.S. incentive to bargain with North Korea over nukes that it won’t give up, we’re left to infer that our only incentive is to agree on the price of extortion, which is an endlessly renewable expense that America is expected to shoulder:

The impoverished North needs the nuclear program as a bargaining chip. It is also in dire need of energy, which nuclear technology can provide. It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will actually use nuclear weapons against its neighbors or the US ““ the Communist leaders are fully aware that it would be suicidal.

And yet they seem to feel that proliferating nuclear weapons extremist Middle Eastern dictatorships isn’t quite so suicidal.  Somehow, I doubt the Professor Zhu would be so prosaic if North Korean technicians were spotted at a suspicious and remote construction site in Taiwan, or secretly meeting with East Turkestan separatists.

Zhu goes on to advocate the recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power and the establishment of full diplomatic relations, because after all, why would North Korea want to hurt anyone?  I’ll assume nothing from the romanization of Professor Zhu’s name about his connections to the Chinese government, although Zhu’s views on North Korea’s nukes are indistinguishable from those of the very state-sanctioned Shen Dingli.  Instead, let’s give Zhu the benefit of the doubt and assume he really is that ill-informed about the North Korean regime’s complete disregard for / malevolent breaking of human life and liberty — of its own citizens’ and other nations’ — and that he really believes that it’s just as safely left in the possession of nuclear weapons as France or India.

Acquiring nuclear technology does not make North Korea more dangerous; it is how the regime uses this technology that matters. Since North Korea is already nuclear-capable, the US should keep this traditional enemy close by signing a nuclear cooperation deal with it and co-managing its nuclear program. Both South Korea and China are also supportive of a less confrontational approach to North Korea.

So what editor gave space to an the article riddled with such gross factual errors as glossing over North Korea’s recent provocations and having a completely outdated understanding of South Korean policy?  Zhu also extends the unsupported hope of economic reform, without mentioning that all of the current evidence is strongly to the contrary.  It’s as though Zhu either did all of his research on, or he submitted this thing in 2006 at the latest, and the piece was completely overcome by events while it sat on an editor’s desk.  At least they had the courtesy to edit out “Bush” and replace it with “Obama.”

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Stoopid Idea of the Week

A talentless buffoon named Peter Carlson wants to share his epiphany with us:

I’ve got a better idea: Obama should invite Kim to the United States and let him wander around for a couple of weeks, sipping cocktails with capitalists, visiting a home economics class in Iowa and mingling with Hollywood stars.

Fifty years ago, in similar circumstances, that’s what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did. And it worked, sort of. [Peter Carlson, Washington Post]

An equally sensible idea would be to reform a pedophile by inviting him to a strip club instead of maximum security.  Clearly, someone who lives in this house will not envy our standards of living; someone who keeps this movie collection will not be transformed by exposure to the liberalizing influence of our culture; and someone who keeps his people this isolated will not be forced into perestroika when he loses the next Great Kitchen Debate (as if North Koreans would be allowed to watch it all live on CNN).

There are two ways to read Mr. Carlson’s piece — as a serious proposal, or as a feeble mockery meant to trivialize the very real horror that Kim Jong Il has made of North Korea.  Whichever interpretation you choose, Carlson reveals no thought, reasoning, or writing skill that merits ink in the Washington Post.

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