China finally pays a (symbolic) price for its North Korean slave trade

This blog has long posited that a nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us and that war with it would be inevitable; that preventing another Korean War will require a focusing an assortment of financial, diplomatic, and political pressures on Pyongyang; and that to deter China’s government and industry from undermining that pressure will require us to pressure China itself. This will carry costs for both economies, and to the relationship between the two governments. Relations with China will have to get worse before they can get better. That is unfortunate, but it is a far better outcome than nuclear war, the collapse of global nonproliferation, or effective North Korean hegemony over South Korea.

Since the Mar-a-Lago summit in April, I’ve worried that President Trump’s tough talk about secondary sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s Chinese enablers was a bluff. It’s still too early to say that it wasn’t, but the news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dropped China from Tier 2 to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — specifically for its use of North Korean slave labor — is a welcome sign that the administration has begun (and hopefully, just begun) to escalate its pressure on Beijing.

“China was downgraded to the Tier 3 status in this year’s report in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking, including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China,” Tillerson said during a ceremony to release the report.

Tillerson said that forced labor is a key source of illicit revenues for the North.

“An estimated 52,000-80,000 North Korean citizens are working overseas as forced laborers primarily in Russia and China, many of them working 20 hours a day. Their pay does not come to them directly. It goes to the government of Korea, which confiscates most of that, obviously,” Tillerson said.

The North regime receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from forced labor, he said.

“Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced-labor arrangement to send those people home. Responsible nations also must take further action,” he said. [Yonhap]

Tillerson’s decision reflects rising anger within the administration that Beijing is (sit down for this) still not fully implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

So what does this action mean for China’s economy and trade, in practical terms? For now, not much. Beijing probably doesn’t care if the U.S. denies it foreign assistance or votes against World Bank loans for it. Any of the TVPA’s sanctions can be waived, and often are. But as Erik Voeten writes in the Washington Post, governments really do care about their tier rankings for reasons of national honor and reputation. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school by saying that during my time at the Foreign Affairs Committee, the competing appeals of diplomats and NGOs to raise or lower a government’s tier status in the next TVPA report consumed an inordinate amount of staff time. The Chinese government, being hypersensitive about its own reputation, will care very much about this.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the government was resolute in its resolve to fight human trafficking and the results were plain to see. “China resolutely opposes the U.S. side making thoughtless remarks in accordance with its own domestic law about other countries’ work in fighting human trafficking,” he told a daily news briefing. [Reuters]

Beijing is furious, naturally. I expect it to make some ostentatious displays of non-cooperation to punish Washington. It would be especially tragic if China decides to take its anger out on North Korean refugees. Hopefully, the State Department has already gamed out its responses to potential Chinese escalations. Our message to Beijing must be that we’re also prepared to escalate. China, which needs another decade of high growth rates to pay its coming crop of pensions, cannot afford this. Both sides would suffer in an economic war between the U.S. and China, but China’s export-dependent, labor-intensive economy and fragile banking sector would suffer more. That may give us more leverage to press China to expel its North Korean laborers or the U.N.-designated North Korean proliferation and money laundering networks that have operated openly on its soil for years.

The Chinese companies using the North Korean labor will care much less — at first — but they are facing far greater financial consequences, especially if the KIMS Act passes the Senate. (I sense a particularly strong appetite in both chambers of Congress and both parties for secondary sanctions against North Korean forced labor.) Under section 201 of that legislation, the products of those companies may face exclusion from U.S. markets, and their dollar assets may be frozen. (Needless to say, prospective Kaesong recidivists will not find this news reassuring.)

Dropping China to Tier III will have little immediate legal or economic effect. It still isn’t the “maximum pressure” President Trump promised us. It is an escalation and a warning. It is symbolic, but powerfully so. Ultimately, Beijing may care about being listed as Tier III for human trafficking for the same reason that Pyongyang cares about being listed as a state sponsor of terrorism — because to governments obsessed with their images, symbols can be powerful things. One hopes that this will cause more Chinese citizens to see that North Korea is a ball-and-chain on their country’s acceptance into the family of civilized nations and continued economic growth. One hopes that more of them will say that it’s time to take a hacksaw to the chain.

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Moon Jae-In passes an early test on North Korean refugee policy, but for how long?

In recent years, growing numbers of North Korean boats have drifted into the waters of neighboring countries. Most of these incidents probably weren’t attempts to defect, but cases of North Korean fishermen coming under rising pressure to stray further out to sea, to bring home bigger catches (which are often exported for hard currency, including to the U.S. and South Korea) and who are given only a marginal amount of fuel to make the journey home. Dozens of these North Koreans have arrived in Japan, though little remained of them by then but desiccated corpses and bleached bones.

Those who arrive in South Korea, thankfully, usually arrive alive, at least until the ROK authorities question them as to whether they wish to return to the North, and repatriate those who (it says) do. I’ve often privately wondered just how much various South Korean governments have, for political reasons, put their thumbs on the scales in questioning these North Koreans and judging their intentions. It worried me that the Moon Jae-In administration, with its origins in a viewpoint that has been, at best, ambivalent about protecting North Korean refugees and human rights, would repatriate North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution, in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention. Now, we have a least one case in which the Moon Jae-In administration seems inclined to offer asylum to two of four North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters along its east coast.

South Korea’s navy and coastguard rescued four people from two vessels on Friday and Saturday, and the four were then questioned by South Korean authorities, who offered to send them home, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The two who told authorities they wanted to defect to South Korea were a man in his 50s and his son in his 20s, an official from the ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said by telephone.

“We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors,” the official said.

The official, who declined to be identified, said he did not know if the two had originally planned to defect or decided to only after being rescued. The Yonhap news agency said the father appeared to have planned to defect.

The other two would be sent home, as they had requested, the ministry official said. [Reuters]

On refugee policy, Moon Jae-In now faces a test. Will he bow to Pyongyang and his own most extreme supporters, and roll up the welcome mat for North Korean refugees, or will he follow international human rights law and the values we hope South Korea still shares with us? Pyongyang is making its expectations clear:

A vigorous struggle for the repatriation of detained Kim Ryon Hui and other twelve DPRK women citizens was launched in south Korea with the people of different strata involved, amid the growing demand for the liquidation of evils done by the Park Geun Hye group of traitors for confrontation with the fellow countrymen. [….]

If the south Korean authorities are truly interested in the issues of “human rights”, “humanitarianism” and “separated families”, they should pay attention to the strong demand of the families of those abductees and settle the issue of their repatriation at an early date before anything else.

It is preposterous to discuss on the “humanitarianism” and reunion of divided families and relatives, in disregard of such hideous unethical crimes as imposing bitter pains and misfortune on the compatriots by artificially making new “divided families”.

Any humanitarian cooperation between the north and the south, including reunion of divided families and relatives, can never be expected before the unconditional repatriation of the detained women citizens of the DPRK.

We will watch the attitude of the south Korean authorities and strive for the repatriation of the detained women citizens to the last. [KCNA]

See also. The pro-Pyongyang extremists at KANCC (profiled here) and Minjok Tongshin (profiled here) are also calling for sending the women back to North Korea, for what it’s worth — probably not much, except as a barometer of pro-Pyongyang opinion in South Korea, where both websites would be illegal. The pro-Pyongyang crowd continues to repeat the transparent lie that the Ningpo 12 were kidnapped, though this assertion has been tested and rejected by a South Korean court, which granted asylum to all 12 of the women. All have since been given their freedom in South Korean society, and most have been admitted into universities. You’d think that if they had been abducted, one of them would have said so by now, although Pyongyang’s agents have previously contacted North Korean refugees in the South and coerced them into “re-defecting” and making propaganda statements before audiences of gullible journalists.

If you think this is just a fringe view in South Korea, think again. More than once, I’ve highlighted the disgraceful and unethical efforts by the hard-left “human rights” lawyers’ group Minbyun to breach the women’s internationally recognized right to confidentiality in asylum proceedings, an effort that could only have been calculated to intimidate the women into re-defecting. Given Moon’s own long history with Minbyun, no one should have taken the rejection of Pyongyang’s demand, no matter how outrageous, for granted. Moon Jae-In’s Chief of Staff, for example, has a history of anti-American and pro-North Korean activism so extensive and troubling that he couldn’t pass a U.S. government background investigation, much less be granted a security clearance here. We should be thankful that Moon was at least pragmatic enough to reject Pyongyang’s demand on its face:

The Unification Ministry in South Korea has rejected Pyongyang’s demand to return a group of North Korean restaurant employees who defected from China last year.

A ministry official told reporters on Thursday that the families divided by the Korean War are a separate and different issue from North Korean defectors.

He added that the North’s move to link the return of the restaurant employees with cross-border family reunions is incomprehensible, stressing that the issue of family reunions cannot be resolved if more time passes. [KBS]

It’s still too early to let out a sigh of relief. As Moon must surely know, sending these women back to North Korea would have caused global outrage, starting with a white-hot apoplexy in large segments of the U.S. Congress. Such a decision would reveal that the alliance itself lacks the foundation of a unity of legal, moral, political, or humanitarian interests. It would militate for sending a clear message to South Korean voters that even if the lives of North Koreans mean nothing to them, such a disunity of interests will raise calls (probably including my own) for U.S. disengagement from South Korea, if only to achieve an overdue restructuring of U.S. Forces, Korea and to damage Moon’s domestic political support. Given the fact that Moon has already managed to piss off both Dick Durbin and Ed Royce over his shifting position on THAAD, he probably concluded that the last thing his voters want to see right now is a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance in the middle of a nuclear crisis that even Moon recognizes as existential for South Korea’s survival.

There will be other tests of South Korea’s commitment to its fellow Koreans who had the misfortune to be born north of the DMZ, of course. Moon may not be as helpful as Park Geun-Hye was in helping the next group of expatriated North Koreans who try to defect. He may also find more subtle ways of making refugees unwelcome, such as by breaching their confidentiality. Rather than returning the Ningpo 12 outright, someone within Moon’s administration could leak the locations of the Ningpo 12 to North Korean agents working in South Korea, and then allow one or more of them to “re-defect” through some lapse in security. There would, of course, be another sham news conference. (Will Ripley, take note.) The only real question is how complicit Moon Jae-In’s government is prepared to be in this sham. Evidence of complicity would arguably obligate the United States to accept North Korean refugees who, reasonably enough, would then feel unsafe in South Korea. That would also lead to frictions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Decision points like this remind us why the Trump administration’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is an important oversight in its North Korea policy. Eventually, the administration will have to realize that the North Korean people themselves could be our most important allies in any effort to disarm, reform, and change North Korea. We will have little influence with these potential allies if they look to us as protectors and allies and we let them down. Pyongyang’s reaction to this particular decision point also reminds us that Seoul’s decision to receive North Korean refugees has the potential to be historically determinative by setting off a preference cascade among key constituencies inside North Korea, maybe even including the military. One could say that a welcoming, prosperous, and free South Korea presents Pyongyang with the most “maximum” pressure of all.

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Malaysia may expel North Korean miners (if it can find them)

Kim Jong-un is getting away with murder in Malaysia, thanks to the weakness and corruption of its government. Four North Korean suspects in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam fled immediately after the fatal attack. Because the world has taught Kim Jong-un that terrorism works, the Malaysian government let three other suspects leave after North Korea took several Malaysians (including diplomats) hostage.

Malaysia has since said that it will not cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, which (as some | excellent  | investigation | and | journalism | have revealed) uses Malaysia as a base of operations for moneylaundering on a large scale. The best one can now hope is that the exposure of these violations of U.N. sanctions and human rights abuses, hopefully backed by strong diplomacy and the threat of sanctions, will embarrass Malaysia into shutting down those commercial links.

One of those links is the use of North Korean miners in Malaysia for work so dangerous that “[n]o local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs.” And of course, in the end, the workers probably don’t see more than a fraction of their own wages. The other day on Twitter, I pointed to an apparent discrepancy between an Arirang report that 140 of 176 North Korean workers in Malaysia had “gone missing,” and the Borneo Post report it apparently referenced as its source, which said that the 140 were merely overstaying their expired work permits. But if this CNN report is to be believed, Arirang might not have been so far off.

Authorities in Malaysia are looking for 117 North Koreans who have overstayed their work permits, according to the country’s Immigration Department.

Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali, director-general of Malaysia’s Immigration Department, told CNN on Tuesday that authorities are seeking the North Korean workers. [….]

That standoff ended, but it revealed that a significant number of North Koreans lived and worked in Malaysia.

All of the 117 North Koreans wanted by immigration are in the state of Sarawak, Ali said. It is the only state that employs North Korean workers, the country’s human resource minister said, according to state-run Bernama news agency.

Ali said the workers have been given one week to turn themselves in, and he said his department knows of their whereabouts.

“We will definitely go after them as their work permits have expired, and thus they are considered illegal workers,” he said. “But first we would like to give them or their employers a week’s notice to voluntarily turn them in.” [CNN]

While investigating the discrepancy between the Arirang and Borneo Post stories, I ran across another Borneo Post story in which two reporters traveling in Sarawak missed their turn and almost (but not quite) accidentally ran into one of the coal mines where the North Koreans work.

A few hundred metres into the road, we met a couple of strange looking foreigners, who happened to be North Koreans. We asked one of them, a woman maybe in her late 30s, for the location of the coal mine which is still operating. But she asked us our purpose of coming and we told her that we just wanted to have a look at the coal mine as it would be an interesting subject to write.

As journalists, we have the basic instinct of a good subject matter. And there and then, We knew we had got a good one. Then we drove to a cemented square in front of two rows of barracks. As we stopped our vehicle – the MU-X – a few strangers came charging at us. We had no clue what they were saying, but obviously they were speaking in Korean. As we tried to explain to them our purpose, more of them showed up. One of them rudely pointed to their site office.

At the office, we met a security guard and a general clerk – a pleasant Iban lady who spoke both Mandarin and English fluently. We told her of our purpose and she was very informative. It was from her that we knew that there are 49 North Koreans and a few Nepalis working at the coal mine.

While we were interviewing the Iban lady, the North Korean woman came charging and asked us to leave immediately as we did not have an authorisation letter. So we called Snowdan again and asked him to talk to the Korean woman. But she insisted that we should leave immediately and threatened to call in the police if we failed to listen to her command.

Feeling uneasy and sensing something unpleasant might happen, we decided that we should just leave.

After we had left the site, many questions popped in our minds such as ‘How is it that the locals do not know there are at least 49 North Koreans working and living in their midst?’ and ‘Why has the coal mine been operating so secretively and discreetly?’ We hope the authorities could shed some light on this. [Borneo Post]

And here is where those workers live:

One possibility is that the workers’ minders have told them to lay low for a while until the heat is off, and the appropriate officials can be “convinced” to extend their visas. The more intriguing possibility is that some of those workers have no intention of going back to North Korea at all. They couldn’t survive for long on their own, but if journalists can find North Korean miners, so can the South Korean NIS.

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The U.N. Human Rights Council needs reform (again)

Again, the idea of a U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council is under consideration. Americans, especially American conservatives, tend to fixate on the Council’s fixation with Israel. For reasons I’ll make clear enough below, that fixation is not just silly, it’s cynical. Still, I think leaving the HRC just yet would be a big mistake. I might have answered that question differently ten years ago, before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry proved that the HRC is capable of doing good and altering the global consensus in ways that not only have the potential to help the people of North Korea, but to do so in ways that also align with our own interests (a point I’ll return to below). Before that, I couldn’t have argued that the HRC’s influence was, on the whole, positive, or even potentially positive. Institutions like the HRC require careful tending. Without it, they become worse than useless. If you wonder what I mean, read this resolution. Once I’d read about it, I was glad we had at least threatened to leave:

In a resolution (A/HRC/34/L.14) on human rights and unilateral coercive measures, adopted by a vote of 32 in favour, 14 against and zero abstentions, the Council calls upon all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States; and rejects all attempts to introduce unilateral coercive measures, as well as the increasing trend in this direction, including through the enactment of laws with extraterritorial application. The Council requests the High Commissioner, in discharging his functions in relation to the promotion and protection of human rights, to pay due attention and to give urgent consideration to the present resolution; and also requests the High Commissioner to organize for the thirty-sixth session of the Council the biennial panel discussion on the issue of unilateral coercive measures and human rights, and prepare a report on the panel discussion for submission and presentation to the Council at its thirty-seventh session.

In English, that means that governments should not sanction other governments for human rights abuses unless all members of the Security Council (including China and Russia) agree. The votes:

In favour (32): Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

Against (14): Albania, Belgium, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States of America.

The HRC’s fixation with Israel is only a symptom of the deeper problem. This vote is much more probative of what the deeper problem is — the Council’s (lack of) membership standards, and the hostility of many of its members to the very idea of holding abusers accountable. In many cases, sanctions are the only way despots can be held accountable in the short term. That hostility isn’t hard to explain when you realize that the HRC’s current members include Bolivia, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and numerous other states that should never pass a Universal Periodic Review. As they taught us to say in lawyer school at such moments, res ipsa loquitur.

Liberals who value the U.N. as an institution must acknowledge this for what it is: a cynical takeover of a human rights institution by some of the world’s most despotic states, which seek to sit in judgment over their betters. The issue that underlies all of the HRC’s troubling votes is who is allowed to sit on the HRC at all. Beneath that issue, in turn, must be the establishment of basic standards for membership. After all, the despot’s favorite strategy against his critics is moral equivalence — to obliterate the meaning of human rights standards by equating every sin with every other sin. If all sins are equal, and if all states commit sins, then China and Saudi Arabia are qualified to fill the HRC’s agenda with resolutions condemning Switzerland for conditions in its immigration detention centers, or Israel for walling out bus bombers. Then, the HRC becomes a parody of itself. Such an institution is not only not worth having, it’s worse than nothing. When we reach that point, it’s time for some careful tending and hard bargaining, including threats to withdraw.

In America, there is a long-standing argument between so-called “realists” and Wilsonians over the proper role of human rights in our foreign policy. So-called “realists” tend to advocate for the U.S. doing whatever supports its immediate, short-term interest, but when that involves supporting despotic regimes, “realism” comes with long-term costs. Anyone who has lived in South Korea knows how anti-Americans have fetishized every difficult or flat-out wrong choice the U.S. has made during its long (and overwhelmingly beneficent) involvement there. But the opposite can also be true.

I believe that it is usually in our long-term interest to take the side of persecuted peoples, because people tend to have long memories about who supported them in their darkest days. A case in point here is one of the states that voted against the cynical resolution I cited above, and one we seldom hear about: Albania. (Our successes are seldom as well-publicized as our failures.) Once one of the world’s most despotic states, Albania now enjoys friendly relations with the United States. Pro-American sentiment is strong, largely because its people remember the U.S. role in ending the slaughter in Kosovo. It can’t hurt, either, that former dictator Enver Hoxha often demonized the United States. As a partial consequence of this favorable publicity, Albania has become a valuable ally. While not a perfect democracy, it has evolved rapidly into a representative government with regular free elections. Its human development index has risen steadily in recent years, to the point where it is now considered a middle-income country. Albania is an example of a nation whose favorable memories of U.S. intervention paid long-term dividends by creating a friendly government that pursues friendly policies, and whose people are far better off than they were under a previous hostile and oppressive regime.

How we use our influence at institutions like the HRC and the Security Council can be an important instrument of our national power to advance those interests. Time has convinced me that there is no universally correct answer to the argument between self-described realists and Wilsonians. Not every society (case in point, Egypt) is presently capable of self-government. In such places, forcing an immediate transition to Jeffersonian democracy can only end in one form of despotism or another. Yet even in those places, our objective should be to use whatever influence we have to catalyze the evolution of a society, to prepare it for self-government as quickly as its economic, educational, and cultural conditions allow.

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Why human rights must be a part of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy

Yesterday, the State Department hailed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses and recommending that member states help identify perpetrators for possible prosecution. The U.N.’s progress has been agonizingly slow, and I won’t argue against those who say that the HRC’s membership standards are Exhibit A in the case for reforming it. Still, for an administration that has not emphasized human rights, that’s an encouraging sign.

By now, it’s fairly clear that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy review will not recommend that we chase Kim Jong-un for talks he doesn’t want, to plead for a freeze or disarmament he won’t give, or (in the unlikely event he does agree, when under pressure) long keep. That is for the best. There may yet be a time for talks with North Korea, but that time will be after progressive diplomacy aligns the rest of the world behind denying the regime the choice to survive as a nuclear state, and after pressure begins to threaten the regime’s survival.

By now, it’s also fairly clear that to build that pressure, the Trump administration won’t spare the Chinese banks whose money laundering has been essential to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, despite the discontent that this consolidation has sown among the elites. That is also good.

What I have been watching for, and what I have not yet seen much of, is evidence that the policy will include another essential ingredient: pressure on Pyongyang over its denial of human rights to its people (and on Beijing, for its support for that denial). Yesterday, I took the afternoon off to attend this event at the American Enterprise Institute, commemorating the third anniversary of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, where Justice Michael Kirby attended and spoke (starting at 2:43:00 of this video). My panel started at 3:50:00 and focused on the links between security issues (which often crowd out and sideline other issues) and human rights. Watch all of the presentations — they’re all excellent. In fact, when I have the time to watch it, I’m sure I’ll say the same of all of the day’s speeches and panels. At 4:29:00, I make my case that one cannot build or sustain an international or domestic consensus on North Korea policy without making human rights a central issue in that policy. Here’s why:

1. Congress will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. Human rights is the issue that unites liberals and conservatives in Congress more than any other. Neither will stand for its exclusion, and neither will stop talking about it.

2. The world will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. In recent years, we’ve seen Europe, Japan, and even such far-flung nations as Botswana mobilize around human rights as a central issue in their own approaches to North Korea.

3. North Korea’s denial of human rights explains why we should care about its missiles, VX, and nukes. I lose no sleep over the fact that France, Israel, or India have nukes. No other nuclear state — not even China — shows nearly the reckless disregard for human life that North Korea does. North Korea can’t be trusted with small arms, much less nukes. We know that because of how North Korea treats its people.

4. It’s a source of surprising leverage over North Korea. I won’t say it’s exactly kryptonite to them, but they’re showing signs of being much more vulnerable to it than even I had suspected.

5. It will be a source of leverage over South Korea. It will be a way to pressure Moon Jae-in if he tries to reopen Kaesong or make similar arrangements that violate and undermine U.N. sanctions by using the slave labor of fellow Koreans. It will be a way to pin the shame of history on him if he again advocates abstaining from U.N. resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity, or permitting the sort of outrageous and unethical harassment of North Korean refugees that Minbyun used against the Ningpo 13. So let South Korea engage in cultural and sports exchanges if it thinks this will lower tensions or improve relations, as long as money does not change hands, and as long as South Korea does not legitimize the crimes that the world should instead unite to demand that it end.

6. Human rights is a test of whether diplomacy is even possible. Given North Korea’s negotiating history, we’d be fools to trust it as it is. Why should we trust it when it tells flagrant lies about the most basic conditions of life within its borders or denies that its political prison camps even exist? Or when it hides vast areas of its territory from the world, including a prison camp, Camp 16, that’s directly adjacent to its nuclear test site? Or when every scientist, soldier, or resident who tells the truth to a weapons inspector fears being sent to one of those camps? Engagement advocates insist that North Korea wants diplomatic and trade relations with us. But in the end, we will never have — and should never have — a normal relationship with a county that commits crimes against humanity. Engagement advocates laugh when I suggest that North Korea should allow food aid workers to freely monitor how their aid is distributed, or let Red Cross workers set up clinic or feeding stations in prison camps (like we’d expect any other government to do). What does that tell you about the prospects for an enduring disarmament or a peace treaty?

Finally, if the Trump administration eventually accepts that the defense of human rights is a source of American strength — not just against North Korea, but against Iran, China, and (yes) Russia — it will realize that it cannot adopt policies that render its own advocacy of human rights a punchline. That does not mean that it must yield to every naive or extreme demand that we open our borders to all comers, but it does mean that some of the more practical minds in the new administration will have stronger arguments against candidate Trump’s less practical and more extreme ideas about fighting terrorism that would deny us moral authority ourselves. That, too, would be to the betterment of the world.

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North Korean security forces now asking politely for protection money

Yet more reports are validating that, since the recent ouster of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong for “human rights violations” and other reasons, something has changed (at least for now) in the way North Korea’s internal security forces are operating:

Following orders from Kim Jong Un for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) to refrain from violating human rights, its personnel have begun to shy away from their characteristic extortionist behavior during their interactions with residents. This appears to be an attempt to balance their effectiveness in garnering bribes from residents while avoiding punishment from above.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 14 that MSS officials have eased up on heavy-handed behavior, most noticeably amongst those with regional areas under their jurisdiction.

A source in North Hamgyong Province added, “Even until early this year, security agents used to threaten people unless they paid bribes, but these incidents have recently been in decline. The change seems to have been influenced by Kim Jong Un’s instructions, but it is unclear how long will it continue.” [Daily NK]

The reports suggest several interesting things. First, MSS officers aren’t being paid enough to support themselves without shaking down citizens. That means the pursuit and blocking of the revenue that supports the MSS can further damage North Korea’s internal control and further strain relations between the state and its subjects.

Second, the state is more afraid of the people than many of us had assumed. Why else would it order the MSS to stop shaking citizens down? Now, citizens who are used to being extorted are “surprised to see MSS officials pleading with them for money instead of threatening them like they used to.” The Daily NK‘s sources don’t think this change will last, but it’s still significant that they think this:

“Recent measures against the MSS, including the purge of Kim Won Hong and the execution of high-ranking officials, are just political posturing to appease the residents. The MSS is likely to have its power restored soon and the agents will return to their old ways again,” he said.

That validates my first theory of Kim Won-hong as scapegoat, a la Yezhov. Another theory, sourced to a think tank run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, is that Kim was done in by his rivalry with Choe Ryong-hae, who sabotaged him to get revenge for his own punishment by being sent to the fields for a few months.

I’m convinced that we’ve underestimated the power of talking to the North Korean people about human rights. No wonder the regime is so furious when we do it. We underestimate the regime’s fear of its poorest classes. We also underestimate the connection between money and internal control in North Korea. The right strategy isn’t to talk about human rights or target the regime with sanctions. It’s both strategies pursued in coordination. These surprising reports give us small hope that we can present Pyongyang’s intrigue-riven elites with a stark choice: to change, or to perish.

Our most urgent diplomatic priority this year will be to prevent Moon Jae-in from relieving Pyongyang of that choice, using any leverage at our disposal.

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Weirdly, corroboration emerges that Kim Won-hong was ousted for “human rights abuses”

Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

– Apocalypse Now

Earlier this month, when the purge or demotion of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong was first reported, I seized on one rather bizarre part of the justification for his ouster from that key post for “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.” North Korea has always angrily denied the existence of human rights abuses and called itself a paradise for its citizens. Such a concession would be extraordinary for a regime that prioritizes its own stability above everything and the rights of individuals beneath everything. It would imply that individuals have rights in a real way, as opposed to the theoretical rights guaranteed to them under North Korea’s farcical constitution. It would imply that the regime saw the perception that it denied individuals their rights as a threat to the stability it prizes over everything else, and perhaps, to its access to the global economy.

At the time, I said it would be important to watch for corroboration — first, that Kim Won-hong really had been ousted, and second, that human rights abuses really were part of the regime’s justification for that. As to the first, I’ll refer you to Michael Madden, who reviews the evidence to support the claim. As to the second, we now have a report from inside the MSS (formerly known as the SSD):

In the aftermath of the purge of Kim Won Hong, the former head of North Korea’s State Security Department, Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered the State Security Department to cease human rights abuses.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on February 8 that an emergency meeting was held at the Ryanggang Province branch of the State Security Department (SSD) for three days from January 25 to 27. During the meeting, the decision to dismiss Kim Wong Hong (sic) and execute five SSD cadres was announced, as well as orders to eliminate human rights abuses such as beatings and the torture of residents.

“Statements such as ‘You should not abuse your power to make money,’ and ‘These corrupt actions are turning the residents away from the Republic (North Korea)’ were also made during the meeting,” the source said. [Daily NK]

Of course, we are speaking here of North Korea’s Gestapo and SS — the agency that controls the borders, runs the prison camps, carries out the purges, and maintains the regime’s state of terror over the people. That’s why it’s appropriate to treat this report with as much skepticism as the North Korean people themselves are treating it.

However, residents have been responding coldly. The SSD has already established itself as “nothing but evil in the minds of residents,” she said, and no one expects that there will be any improvement in human rights.

“Residents are mostly pessimistic, saying, ‘I am not interested in whether Kim Won Hong was purged or SSD cadres were executed,’ or ‘The vampires sucking our blood and sweat remain,'” she noted.

“Some residents are also saying, ‘The [state-run publication] Rodong Sinmun has been claiming that there are no human rights violations, but now the regime admits that it has been abusing human rights after all.'” [Daily NK]

One interpretation is that this is really an anti-corruption drive to maintain the MSS’s discipline. The report also notes that some MSS agents are leaking news of the MSS’s abuses, which are damaging the regime’s standing. Another possibility is that because the regime knows these reports will leak out, the lectures are meant to disinform us. The North Korean official responsible may be seeking to mitigate his image, or to avoid sanctions or prosecution. And given Kim Won-hong’s seniority, there’s really only one official we could be talking about here. That, in turn, would infer that Kim Jong-un is hedging his own bets about his own future.

Finally, consider the possibility that North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un himself, really believe their own propaganda, and really do believe (in their own strange way) that they’ve created a paradise for the North Korean people. Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly led a sheltered existence. He does not travel alone or visit any site that has not been carefully prepared and polished. For obvious reasons, he cannot be inconspicuous among his rail-thin subjects. Of course, many of the purges, killings, and other atrocities the regime has carried out could not have happened without his personal approval. Psychopaths always find ways of justifying such crimes. It is almost as certain that most of the rapes, killings, and myriad violations of rights of low-ranking North Koreans were arbitrary acts by lower-ranking guards, soldiers, and officials acting with a sense of omnipotence and impunity. Kim Jong-un could easily believe that all of those crimes are a droit du seigneur.

It’s almost as if Kim Jong-un had some unique insight into the arguments that prosecutors could make against him.

More likely, however, is that Kim Jong-un sees negative foreign and domestic sentiments about his rule as a growing threat to his own survival. I’ll be the first to admit my astonishment at the regime’s apparent vulnerability to the power of words alone, but of course, those words also have important diplomatic, security, and financial consequences. There is ample evidence to suggest that North Koreans are frequently expressing (and occasionally, acting on) their discontent. There is also evidence that this discontent is affecting the regime’s hold over its elite, including the most trusted of the elites, whom it sends overseas to maintain friendly relations with foreign governments, maintain access to foreign markets, and earn hard currency. There is some evidence that Pyongyang may be feeling some of the financial effects, too.

Calls by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for Kim Jong-un to be summoned to a tribunal, and for North Korea’s U.N. privileges to be suspended, will be further reason for Kim Jong-un to worry. By persuading him that the world is closing in on him, and that his regime is fraying from within, we will gain more leverage to force him to negotiate for verifiable reforms. When Kim Jong-un is more afraid of not reforming than he is of reforming, those negotiations will have some prospect of eventual success.

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Video of N. Korea’s child slaves shows us (again) the value of Pyongyang’s signature

The video was clear and stark. Its authenticity was beyond serious question. It would have shocked us if North Korea had not already dulled our capacity for outrage. Indeed, there are times when I think it has dulled even mine. Then, last December, came the videos of North Korean children set to work in coal mines, and carrying sacks of heavy stones to build railroads.

[Original reports here and here.]

The Daily Mirror called it a “chain gang,” but the only chains were psychological, and the truth was bad enough: this government conscripts little children to do hard and dangerous work that only adults should do, and even then, only with heavy construction machinery.

Then, in January, a reporter photographed civilians, including children, clearing snow from a road so that foreign tourists and members of North Korea’s political elite could ski at Masikryeong, the resort Kim Jong-un built — it should not be forgotten — while the World Food Program pled for foreign governments to donate enough money to feed North Korea’s poor. This is the life of North Korean children that the Associated Press never showed you, or even tried to.

Most recently, the Daily NK described how the regime conscripts little girls to polish gemstones it exports for hard currency.

Trading companies affiliated with the Daesung General Bureau are reportedly seeking teenage girls with soft hands for employment as manual polishers at gemstone-processing plants. The report is one of the more unusual examples of the North Korean regime’s desperate bid to earn foreign currency.

“Young female students with smooth palms are being selected to work in gemstone-processing factories in cities across South Pyongan Province, South Hamgyong Province, and North Pyongan Province. These kids are being selected because it is believed that the best polish can be achieved by rubbing the jewels in the palms of their hands,” a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 3.

“For this reason, teenage girls can be seen sitting in groups at the gemstone factories, diligently rubbing the jewels. The tiny jewels are so small that they are hard to pick up. The students sometimes grimace as they place the jewels between their two palms and rub away.” [….]

“After rubbing the gemstones with their hands all day, the young workers develop blisters and their skin begins to peel off. They are forbidden from complaining about the pain. Instead, they keep their heads down and work hard for eight hours every day,” the source said.

He added, “Those who complain about blisters receive no sympathy. They get kicked out of the factory and lose their jobs. So they have no choice but to endure. Instead of caring for the workers, the cadres at the helm of the operations are completely focused on fulfilling the quotas set by the Ministry of Foreign Trade.”

“Most of the laborers work so hard that they get calluses. When this becomes an issue, they’re told to leave the factory,” he said.

The meager wages earned by the workers reportedly amounts to 5,000 KPW per month, an amount that is insufficient to purchase a kilogram of rice. [Daily NK]

North Korea’s forced child labor has now drawn condemnation from Human Rights Watch, which is teaming up with other NGOs to bring evidence of those abuses before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Jeon Hyo-Vin, 16, experienced forced labor in school almost daily, until she had to leave secondary school because of her family’s inability to pay the required cash payments. Kim Eun-Sol, 18, endured forced labor in school while she was a teenager. By age 13, she became an unpaid worker in a private home in order to survive since her grandmother could not support her. Her mother, who had left to earn a living in China, could not maintain contact with her daughter. [HRW]

See also this op-ed. Even as it enslaves more children at home, Pyongyang is enslaving more adults abroad to alleviate a “chronic shortage of funds,” even at the risk that more of them will defect. In its desperation to monetize the slavery of its people, including little children, Pyongyang will make itself all the more toxic to investors who could transform its economy — if that was what Pyongyang really wanted. Instead, it pursues a business model that relies on a smaller number of the gullible and unethical partners to meet the cost enforcing the enslavement and isolation of most of its people.

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Does Kim Jong-un care what some U.N. committee says? Almost certainly not, but his propagandists care very much. Their obsession with the regime’s image abroad has caused them to lash out at criticisms of the regime, even to the point of forcing North Korean diplomats to make arguments so implausible that they’re more demoralized than their audiences are persuaded.

But sometimes, the regime’s strategy of implausible deniability does work, at least up to a point. For example, a recent report by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights credited Pyongyang for signing a convention on the rights of the disabled, while noting that it has refused to allow a U.N. Special Rapporteur or any U.N. representatives into the country to assess or verify its compliance with human rights standards.

So when Tomás Ojea Quintana, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur who replaced Marzuki Darusman in monitoring North Korean human rights issues, proposes to use Pyongyang’s accession to the Disability Convention as a keyhole to achieving broader improvements in human rights in North Korea, I can only shake my head in dismay.

“This initiative is a very useful step forward in the promotion and protection of all human rights in the DPRK and the implementation of recommendations from the latest Universal Periodic Review*,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

“Ratification of the Convention will help the country address prejudice against people with physical, mental, sensory or other impairments. It should also serve to address other forms of discrimination to which certain groups may be subjected based on any other attribute,” he added.

Mr. OJEA QUINTANA stressed that it was now important for the government in Pyongyang to implement the treaty in full consultation with people with disabilities, and to allow technical experts to visit the country. “The ratification should also be used as an opportunity for the country to move forward in the implementation of the other human rights treaties it has ratified, and for it to engage more with human rights mechanisms,” he added. [U.N. Human Rights Council]

Mr. Ojea really ought to review the U.N.’s list of human rights conventions North Korea has already signed — almost as many as the number of arms control agreements it has signed and broken. Among those treaties is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990, and an optional protocol, in 2014.

By now, anyone remotely familiar with North Korea must know that its signature on a piece of paper is meaningless. It is all well and good to offer Pyongyang some incentives for meaningful cooperation, but any engagement strategy for North Korea must begin with the understanding that a signature alone is not meaningful. It must end with a threat of accountability and consequences, something to which the regime has proven surprisingly sensitive.

Thus far, Mr. Ojea hasn’t shown much understanding of those principles. At best, he’s in for a long breaking-in period while the North Korean people will go on suffering without his support. At worst, his office, which had become one of the few U.N. bodies that told the truth, will soon revert to the irrelevance and parody that have been more typical of U.N. bodies. We should all hope that he adopts a more realistic strategy soon.

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Roberta Cohen at 38 North: A Serious Human Rights Negotiation with North Korea

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and one of the lions among those speaking out for the rights of the North Korean people, has published a detailed and well-thought-out case for why human rights should be part of any negotiation with Pyongyang, along with a tough-love strategy for conducting that negotiation. Anyone in the Trump administration who may be tempted to sideline human rights should read it in full, but I’ll summarize it: first, Pyongyang’s disregard for human life is central to why its nuclear weapons pose a threat; second, the law now requires Pyongyang to make progress on human rights before sanctions can be suspended (much less lifted); third, both Congress and many of our allies will insist that human rights occupy a central place in the agenda; and fourth, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses has proven to be one of the regime’s greatest vulnerabilities, and one of our strongest tools for exerting pressure on Pyongyang to accept change.

Cohen acknowledges that Pyongyang will resist talking about human rights (just as it will resist denuclearization), but notes that since the publication of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the consensus has grown, both in America and globally, that human rights must have an important place in the agenda.

Cohen then proposes a specific negotiating strategy, rejecting “[a] permissive approach born out of fear that ‘a forceful human rights policy may backfire.'” “North Korea will not become less dangerous by being asked to promulgate another law on economic, social and cultural rights, ratify more human rights treaties or add more women to public office….” As a starting point, she calls for the release of Americans held in North Korea and meetings between Korean-Americans and their North Korean relatives. Next, she would demand that Pyongyang give full access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur and humanitarian agencies to North Korea’s most vulnerable people, including political prisoners.

Although in 2012, the US regarded prisoners in the prison labor camps as too sensitive to talk about, its statements and policy changed dramatically after satellite imagery, former prisoner and guard testimonies and the COI report offered evidence of the camps’ existence and the cruelty practiced there. In 2016, Congress required the State Department by law to compile and provide information about the prison camps; and US human rights sanctions came about in part because of the camps. The intention is clear: the US must support the access of humanitarian agencies not only to places North Korea allows, but to the most vulnerable in camps and detention facilities. [Roberta Cohen, 38 North]

Cohen would then call negotiations, through the Red Cross, for the release of those held in North Korea’s political prison camps, starting with the children. She would then call for the release of Japanese, South Korean, and other abductees. She emphasizes that this would be “a negotiation, not a dialogue,” using sanctions as leverage to extract meaningful (rather than transitory or cosmetic) concessions.

Certainly, were nuclear negotiations to take place, diplomacy and common sense would dictate that the US not use the occasion to publicly call for the accountability of people with whom the US is negotiating. But at the UN, over the past five years, the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea and more than 100 other states have stood firmly behind strong resolutions on North Korea’s human rights situation, including accountability. This multilateral effort is the only human rights measure that has ever unnerved North Korea, and could, over time, lead to results. It was the General Assembly’s reference to crimes against humanity and the ICC that prompted North Korea to offer visits to UN human rights officials. Its sensitivity even prompted Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci to comment that human rights could serve as “a source of leverage and pressure on North Korea for the nuclear issue.”[23] Similarly, in the United States, the human rights provisions in the North Korea Sanctions Act, adopted by near unanimity in Congress cannot simply be bartered away. Specific human rights steps are required to suspend and then terminate sanctions.[24]

Impossible? Perhaps, but a North Korea that remains determined to resist fundamental reforms will also resist denuclearization, monitoring, verification, and the cessation of its other threats to peace. There’s no way around it — Pyongyang cannot be credibly disarmed unless it is willing to accept other fundamental reforms and changes to its conduct. Human rights can be a test of whether Pyongyang is prepared to show respect for human life and for peace. Such a change is a sine qua non to peace and prosperity in the region, and the widening list of places impacted by Pyongyang’s proliferation, crime, and cyberattacks.

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Kim Won-hong may have just lost the world’s most dangerous job

Three weeks ago, as mandated by section 304 of the NKSPEA, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials, including Kim Won-hong, head of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The MSS operates Pyongyang’s horrific political prison camp system, and the basis for his designation was human rights abuses that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has called “crimes against humanity.” Clearly, Kim Won-hong bears a large share of the responsibility for those crimes. At the same time the Treasury Department announced Kim Won-hong’s designation and froze his dollars, the State Department issued a report on those designated.

Kim Won Hong is the Minister of State Security. In this capacity, he oversees the Ministry of State Security (MSS). He served on the National Defense Commission (NDC) and serves on its successor commission. In the July 6, 2016, report, the Department of State identified the MSS and the NDC as responsible for serious human rights abuses and censorship. [1] According to the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in DPRK report (COI), the MSS is implicated in “widespread gross human rights violations.” It administers the country’s network of political prison camps, where, according to defector testimony and satellite imagery, summary executions and torture are commonplace. The COI found that inhumane acts perpetrated in the DPRK’s political prison camps occur on a large scale and follow a regular pattern giving rise to the inference that they form part of an overarching State policy. Given the highly centralized and hierarchical nature of the North Korean government and Kim’s status as Minister of State Security, it appears that Kim plays a role directing the abuses perpetrated by the MSS and managing its day-to-day activities, including in the political prison camp system, where serious human rights abuses are reportedly systematized as a matter of State policy.

Kim Won Hong directs the operations of the interagency task force, which is responsible for censorship in North Korea, including confiscating digital devices and information from foreign sources. NGOs report that, in some instances, individuals caught carrying contraband movies into the country face harsh punishments meted out by this task force, which include sentencing to political prison camps and, in some instances, public execution. As the interagency Director of this task force, Kim Won Hong directly commands its operations. [U.S. Dep’t of State, Jan. 11, 2017]

Now, the New York Times, Reuters, and Yonhap are reporting that Kim Won-hong was purged in January, which must have been almost immediately after his designation. (Update: I should be clear that the reporting is not clear. Some versions have it that he was demoted, and the sources don’t know if he’s dead or alive.) A good friend, who knows more about North Korea’s power structure than anyone I know, has described Kim Won-hong as the most hated man in North Korea. You could compare his powers and functions to those of Heinrich Himmler (except that the lightly armed MSS lacks an equivalent to the heavily armed Waffen SS). Kim Won-hong was also a made member of the Korean Workers’ Party Politburo, Central Committee, and Central Military Committee. This was not a man who was on the outs. If he was in fact purged, the purge was not only unexpected but potentially very significant. I’ll get to why later in this post, after I develop a few historical precedents to give this story some context.

All analogies have flaws, and Himmler kept his position until Hitler’s last days in the bunker. In terms of survivability, the better analogy may be Ernst Röhm, the most fabulous of the Nazi leaders, who led the Sturmabteilung or SA until 1934. The SA’s street thugs spent most of the 1930s beating Jews, burning synagogues and banned books, and generally muscling aside and intimidating everyone who barred Hitler’s path to power. A year after the SA had secured his hold on power, Hitler told Himmler to purge Röhm and his associates.

An even better analogy than this may be Nikolai Yezhov, possibly the most terrible of a series of leaders of what we’ve come to know as the KGB. In 1936, when the KGB was called the NKVD, Stalin told Yezhov to purge his boss, Henryk Yagoda. Having done this, Yezhov sought to ingratiate himself with Stalin by launching what Western historians call “The Great Purge” or “The Great Terror,” and which Russians call “the Yezhovshchina.” The Great Purge killed between 600,000 and 3 million Soviets, most of them for made-up charges of “wrecking,” sabotage or espionage, but in reality for their political, social, ethnic, or family associations. Eventually, word got back to Stalin that the Great Purge was alienating the Soviet people and had hollowed out the bureaucracy (it also hollowed out the Soviet officer corps, making the army easy meat for Finnish snipers in 1940 and Nazi panzer divisions in 1941). Yezhov fell into disfavor and under suspicion and began drinking heavily. Eventually, Stalin had him arrested and shot, and replaced him with the serial rapist (and fellow Georgian) Lavrentiy Beria, who was equally brutal but more cunning.

That is to say, being the political enforcer for a totalitarian regime is a very dangerous job.

And now, the weirdest (and potentially, the most significant) part of the Kim Won-hong story: Reuters quotes South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee as citing “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses” as the reasons for his purge. (Update: The New York Times report is even more specific: “Mr. Jeong said General Kim was accused of corruption and held responsible for various human rights violations, including torture, committed at his agency.”)

North Korea is thought to be one of the world’s most corrupt states, and North Korea cited corruption as one of the reasons why it purged Jang Song-Thaek. Allegations of corruption are plausible, and could be either made-up or exaggerated, but would be the most ordinary justification for a purge of a senior leader. The same would apply to an alleged abuse of power (abusing certain kinds of power is probably written into your job description when you run the MSS).

But the purge of a top North Korean official for human rights abuses — if Pyongyang indeed cites this as a justification — would be unprecedented, extraordinary, and could have profound policy implications. Until now, Pyongyang has answered every accusation of human rights abuses, including the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, with shrill denials, homophobic slurs against the Commission’s Chairman, and claims to be an earthly paradise of human rights (feel free to laugh, weep, or both). Any acknowledgment by Pyongyang that one of its top officials was responsible for human rights abuses could be incalculably important. Pyongyang’s unparalleled state surveillance system certainly watches the popular mood carefully for signs of dissent. The last time we saw a widespread outbreak of dissent in North Korea was in 2009, after its disastrous currency confiscation, which it described as a “reform.” Then, Kim Jong-il identified a scapegoat, Pak Nam-ki, and shot him.

If you’re looking for a clear indication that the regime’s power structure is divided and disloyal, the recent defections of diplomats, money launderers, and children of the elites are evidence of that, but the purge of Kim Won-hong may or may not be. I’ve never disguised my hope for the end of this horrible regime — even knowing how much now-hidden chaos that will plaster on our TV screens, and the risk that it would involve us — but the precedents of Rohm and Yezhov certainly don’t suggest that that’s necessarily imminent. For Hitler and Stalin, Rohm and Yezhov were but two more stepping-skulls along their paths to war and genocide. Rather, their precedents suggest something almost indescribably bleak. Hitler and Stalin used Röhm and Yezhov to purge potential sources of dissent and then, with their usefulness outlived, duly disposed of them, too. That helped them consolidate their rule and clear the decks for their plans for war. If those precedents tell us anything about North Korea today, the purge of Kim Won-hong could mean that Kim Jong-un thinks (wrongly or not) that he has consolidated his rule, and is about to take his next step toward his more aggressive plans.

If, on the other hand, Kim Jong-un is reacting to reports that the purge has cost him the loyalty of the elites who are his levers of power, or that popular discontent over the regime’s widespread human rights abuses is spreading among the people, purging Kim Won-hong would mean that international criticism and sanctions over North Korea’s human rights abuses have damaged the stability of the regime. Other recent reports lend some support to this explanation; human rights criticism has unnerved North Korean diplomats and even contributed to Thae Yong-ho’s defection. Kim Won-hong’s recent Treasury Department designation could also have played a role, by injecting his name into the global discourse about North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Pyongyang is obsessed with its international image, perhaps because it depends on international investment and finance. It also knows that media reports from the outside increasingly find their way into North Korea itself. If any of these things are true, Kim Won-hong, the most hated man in North Korea, would be the perfect scapegoat to sacrifice to win them back.

It’s also just possible that with his accounts frozen, Kim Won-hong failed to make his kick-up payments to his boss, although I see no evidence whatsoever to suggest that (1) we found and froze any of his accounts, or (2) that any banks had reacted to his designation. Knowing which of these alternative explanations is more likely depends on (1) whether and (2) why Kim Jong-un purged Kim Won-hong. I’ll eagerly await any announcement from KCNA. It’s a story that bears very careful watching.

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Update: This report suggests another theory: that after Thae Yong-ho’s defection, the ruling Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department ordered an “inspection” of the MSS. James Pearson of Reuters adds a missing link to this theory by revealing that Thae (by his own admission) was the designated MSS minder for everyone else at the London Embassy. As such, Thae claims he would file watered-down reports on his colleagues to appease the Mother Ship after giving them a heads-up and a secret handshake. The report suggests that Kim Won-hong took the fall for the lapses of his mole in London. The theory is plausible. It would also suggest a wider institutional failure of the snitching system that’s an important part of the regime’s internal control.

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Update, 2/13/2017: More than a week after this report, we’ve seen nothing from KCNA on this story, and Yonhap reports that most North Koreans still hadn’t heard that Kim Won-hong had been dismissed from his post. Whether the report of Kim’s dismissal is true or false, the regime isn’t reporting it, which by itself casts doubt on the Yezhov theory (that Kim Won-hong was a scapegoat for admitted “human rights abuses”), at least until some other evidence emerges. And of course, it’s also possible that the report simply isn’t true at all and Kim Won-hong could show up on North Korean TV tomorrow.

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Treasury designates N. Korea’s Himmler & “Angel of Death,” & Kim Jong-un’s sister

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials under Executive Order 13687, and two ministries under Executive Order 13722 (the authority has legal implications, which I’ll touch on later in this post). Along with the designations, Treasury and State issued, respectively, a statement and a report explaining the designations.

“The North Korean regime not only engages in severe human rights abuses, but it also implements rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior,” said John E. Smith, Acting OFAC Director.  “Today’s action exposes individuals supporting the North Korean regime and underscores the U.S. Government’s commitment to promoting accountability for serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.”

Today’s designations were issued pursuant to E.O. 13687, which targets, among others, officials of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea.  As a result of today’s actions, any property or interest in property of those designated by OFAC within U.S. jurisdiction is frozen.  Additionally, transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited.  The identifications of two entities as blocked were issued pursuant to E.O. 13722, which, among others, blocks the property and interests in property of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, including those two entities. [Treasury Dep’t]

The Hill and Yonhap both reported on the designations. The individuals designated included Kim Won-hong, Kim Il-nam, Kim Yo-jong, Choe Hwi, Min Byong-chol, Jo Yong-won, and Kang P’il-hun.

  • Kim Yo-jong is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and Vice Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which Treasury calls “North Korea’s primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship, among other things.” The PAD is also the business partner of the Associated Press. Although officials in both Seoul and Washington have played up Kim Yo-jong’s influence, I tend to doubt that a regime as patriarchal as this one has really entrusted functions as vital as propaganda and censorship to a 26-year-old woman.
  • Choe Hwi, also designated today, is another Vice Director of the PAD. But, acknowledging that no analogy is perfect, the real Goebbels of North Korea is probably Kim Ki-nam, who has many decades of experience in the field, and who was designated by Treasury earlier this year, also under EO 13687.
  • If Kim Ki-nam is North Korea’s Goebbels, its Himmler is Kim Won-hong, the Minister of State Security. The MSS (formerly the State Security Department until it was renamed recently) is responsible for the Gestapo that enforces internal security, and the Totenkopfverbände that guard its political prison camps.
  • Kang P’il-hun is Director of the General Political Bureau of the Ministry of People’s Security. The MPS is North Korea’s regular police force, but it is also much more. It runs local interrogation centers all over North Korea, refers some of those it arrests to the prison camp system, and previously ran (and perhaps currently runs) a camp of its own, the closed-and-recently-reopened Camp 18.
  • Kim Il-Nam is responsible for the Yodok political prison camp, or Camp 15, in South Hamgyeong Province, best known through the gulag memoir of Kang Chol-hwan, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”
  • Min Byong-chol is known locally as the “angel of death” for “his record of political inspections and purges.” Think of him as an internal enforcer, like Heinrich Müller, Nikolai Yezhov, or Lavrentiy Beria. Officially, his his title is Director of the Inspection Division of the Organization and Guidance Department.
  • Jo Yong-won is the Vice Director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the ruling Worker’s Party. The OGD has been firmly in charge in Pyongyang at least since the purge of Jang Song-taek in late 2013 — longer according to some experts. If anything, State and Treasury may be understating Jo’s importance. Jo is often photographed with Kim Jong-un during his “looking at things” tours, which is one of the indicators of an official’s importance.

Special thanks to a good friend of OFK, who will remain nameless, for providing additional background for this post.

Now, the weird part. Note how the seven individuals designated are noted as “DPRK2,” meaning Executive Order 13687. That’s a status-based EO that allows for the designation of any agent of the North Korean government or Workers’ Party. Treasury and State offer extensive, conduct-based justifications for the designations. There are certainly good public advocacy reasons for doing that, but legally, it would have been enough to say they were ruling party officials.

On the other hand, Treasury designated North Korea’s State Planning Commission and Ministry of Labor as “DPRK3,” meaning EO 13722, which partially implements the NKSPEA and is conduct-based (in this case, for human rights violations). Yet Treasury’s statement explaining the designations under a conduct-based EO only says it’s because they’re “agencies, instrumentalities, or controlled entities of the Government of North Korea,” which happens to be language ripped straight from EO 13687. Admittedly, the statement also says that the ministries have roles in allocating labor to the mining sector, which is subject to sectoral sanctions under EO 13722.

Anthony “the Beard of Knowledge” Ruggiero also finds the choice of EOs odd, and wonders if this is an effort to avoid the conditions for suspending and lifting sanctions in the NKSPEA. Overall, however, the choices of targets are good ones (if belated). One important objective of sanctions should be to de-fund and break down the system of control, and shift North Korea’s internal balance of power. Here’s what it would look like in practice if that half of the strategy actually works. Here’s how the other half would work.

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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

Park Geun-hye, the cautious triangulatrix who belatedly became South Korea’s most subversive (to North Korea) president for two decades, is all but gone, and almost everyone in South Korea is applauding. None, however, have applauded with as much enthusiasm as those on South Korea’s far left, who fill a spectrum between anti-anti-North Korean and violently pro-North KoreanThe left now senses that it has an advantage headed into next year’s presidential campaign and hopes to end Seoul’s campaign of diplomatic and financial isolation of its renegade provinces in the North, and its encouragement of embarrassing and damaging defections by senior regime officials like Thae Yong-ho. But if the left hoped that the end of Park’s presidency would also mean the end of that campaign, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is dashing those hopes. These examples, which I’ve collected over the last three months, show Yun carrying right on where Park left off.

  • 9/27: In Seoul, Park asks the President of the Netherlands “to play an ‘active role’ in pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions and provocations through sanctions and diplomacy.”
  • 9/29: North Korea opens a new embassy in Belarus, but without an accredited ambassador.
  • 9/30: South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister visits Germany, in part “to discuss strategies for global coordination against North Korea’s nuclear program.”
  • 10/4: Yonhap reports that Seoul has asked the Bulgarian government to curtail North Korea’s abuse of the Vienna Convention, “generating hard currency through illicit real-estate dealings.” (UNSCR 2321 has since emphasized that diplomatic missions may not be used for commercial purposes.)
  • 10/6: Yun suggests that U.N. member states should downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (The State Department has also called on states to “downgrade or sever” diplomatic relations with the North.)
  • 10/12: Costa Rica’s President visits President Park in Seoul and promises to issue a decree implementing UNSCR 2270.
  • 11/1: Under international pressure, Indonesia cancels a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong
  • 11/2: Sudan’s Foreign Minister visits Seoul, meets with Yun, and says it has cut all military ties with North Korea.
  • 12/1: Yun says South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. will announce their own national sanctions, foreshadowing the latest round of Treasury Department designations.
  • 12/3: Immediately after the approval of UNSCR 2321 by the Security Council, Yun urges China to implement the new resolution faithfully. He also urged the incoming Trump administration  to “take over and implement the strong sanctions.”
  • 12/6: Yun says he’s scheduled to hold high-level talks with his counterparts from the U.S., China, and Russia on implementation of the sanctions, and adds, “The unprecedentedly powerful UNSC resolution, combined with individual sanctions by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, will corner North Korea into a situation that it cannot circumvent.”
  • 12/16: Visiting Yun in Seoul, Hungary’s Foreign Minister promises to support sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea is not only vowing to continue its campaign, it is now starting to claim that it’s putting the North under severe financial and diplomatic strain. You can find the most detailed case for that claim here. It’s worth reading in full, but take it with a grain of salt.

On the optimistic side of the ledger, there is an alleged internal North Korean document exhorting diplomats to strengthen ties to “non-aligned” states, traditionally some of its best trading partners and arms clients. This interview (in Korean) with Thae Yong-ho adds recent direct evidence that sanctions have caused financial problems for the North Korean embassy in the U.K. Thae’s description of life as a North Korean diplomat adds further evidence to my observation that North Koreans overseas who can’t kick up enough tribute to their bosses — perhaps because of sanctions — worry about being punished or purged. That may make them attractive targets for recruitment to provide even more financial information, or to defect.

One could also read Pyongyang’s campaign to improve its foreign trade structure as an effort to get around trade sanctions it didn’t need to evade before. Its raising of taxes on its people may be an effort to make up for lost foreign revenue, although that connection isn’t entirely clear, nor would it be a departure from past practice. Either way, Pyongyang pays a morale penalty for those levies.

Not everything has gone South Korea’s way, however. North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, some of which have long-standing commercial and ideological ties to Pyongyang, have been stubborn targets. For example, despite Uganda’s claim that it would end its military training contracts with North Korea — UNSCR 2270 requires member states to do so immediately — it turns out that Uganda is merely choosing not to renew those contracts.

This blog has also followed Namibia’s illogical and self-serving justifications for its arrangements with North Korea.Despite claims by the Namibian government that it would end its cooperation with sanctioned North Korean entities, that relationship apparently continues. The Treasury Department’s recent designation of its principal North Korean partner, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, a front for KOMID, may make that cooperation more difficult for Namibia and the many other African countries where Mansudae operates. It will send a message to Windhoek that it must enforce the U.N. resolutions, confiscate the factory, and send the KOMID and Mansudae representatives home. For example, the South African insurance company Old Mutual insured some of Mansudae’s work in Namibia. It may hesitate to continue providing that service now. We’ll need to do more of this to give Yun the support he needs.

Then there is the case of Angola, which after a meeting with South Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, said that it supports South Korea’s position on the sanctions, but hasn’t exactly enforced them to the letter since then. The fact that Seoul is dangling an agreement “to boost ties in trade, investment and development” may help. More on Yun’s extensive travels to make UNSCR 2270 stick, here and here, via Marcus Noland.

Reports that Poland and Oman had stopped employing North Korean slave labor may also have been premature. Even Thailand has allowed a new North Korean restaurant to open.

While I understand the importance of showing South Korean audiences that sanctions can work, the stories I linked in this post, and my posts here, here, and here, show a more mixed picture than Seoul’s optimistic assessments. The reality is more a case of two steps forward, one step back, with South Korea making significant gains, but not fast enough, and without enough fire support from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments to put steel on the harder targets.

The question that increasingly preoccupies me is whether it’s already too late. And given the rising talk of preemptive strikes — if only to buy time — will South Koreans be willing to accept the risks those strikes would entail? Stated differently, did Barack Obama and the chaos that rules the streets of Seoul squander our last chance to disarm North Korea peacefully?

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Treasury fires a broadside at Kim Jong-un’s slave labor racket

This blog has promoted the outstanding investigative work and legal analysis of the Leiden Asia Center in exposing North Korea’s rental of forced labor to European shipyards and construction companies, under unsafe and exploitative conditions. That work, ably led by Remco Breuker, yielded this Vice documentary and reports filled with actionable information. 

Recently, Breuker wrote a long, sad, and funny opinion piece lamenting that LAC’s research has incurred much harassment from Pyongyang’s wacky bands of online sympathizers while having little apparent effect on the EU’s enforcement of its worker protection laws. That’s why I was so pleased to be the one to tell Mr. Breuker that, thanks in part to LAC’s work, the U.S. Treasury Department just froze the assets of several North Korean slave merchants LAC first identified.

OFAC designated the Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies, Korea General Corporation for External Construction, Namgang Construction, and Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.  The Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies has been reported to conduct business in countries including Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, Syria, Togo, and Zimbabwe.  Korea General Corporation for External Construction has worked to supply North Korean laborers in the Middle East for the purpose of earning hard currency for the North Korean regime.  Namgang Construction has worked to supply North Korean laborers in the Middle East and Asia for the same purposes.  The Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation also works to supply North Korean laborers in Asia and Africa to earn foreign currency for the North Korean regime.  Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Leiden Asia Center’s work also had a greater impact on EU states’ policy than he acknowledges, even if that impact may be an indirect one. Poland and Malta have come under media and diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and South Korea over their acceptance of North Korean workers. Both have since stopped issuing visas to more of them. Per capita, Pyongyang’s slave laborers in the EU brought it its highest profits. There’s little question that the Leiden Asia Center’s work was the impetus for much of this change.

There are some notable exceptions. Mansudae Overseas Project Group was exposed by the 2016 report of the U.N. Panel of Experts for helping to build an arms factory in Namibia (a topic that merits its own post). Treasury’s list also omits one of the North Korean entities exposed by LAC and Vice, the DPRK Chamber of Commerce, which lists two Pyongyang addresses: “c/o Ministry of Foreign Trade, Central District, micom@co.chesin.com,” and “Jungsong-dong, Central District, P.O.Box 89.”

Once again, Treasury’s authority for the designations was Executive Order 13722, And once again, the executive order implements section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. 

Sec. 2. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

[….]

   (iv) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea; [EO 13722]

If diplomatic pressure was already starting to constrict Pyongyang’s slave trade before these new sanctions, it’s reasonable to expect that the freezing of the slave merchants’ assets and a new U.N. resolution expressing “concern” about the trade will give those efforts new impetus. Pyongyang still has some stubborn customers in Qatar, Kuwait, and Malaysia who might be persuaded to terminate those relationships.

Will Pyongyang simply shift those workers to China and Russia? Those markets may also be reaching the point of saturation. Employers of North Korean laborers in Russia have recently been embarrassed by a series of on-the-job deaths and injuries, defections, reports of torture and mutilation by local minders, video of a mass brawl with Russian workers, and at least one suicide by self-immolation. Even in China, Reuters recently suggested that the number of expatriate North Korean workers is declining. That, too, may be a function of defections, which have caused Pyongyang great embarrassment and forced it to plow some of its profits back into the deployment of more minders, and minders for the minders. The death spiral swirls.

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Dec. 8th: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in N. Korean Political Prisons

As one who has played a small role in organizing this event, I’m pleased to announce it here at OFK:image002

In my capacity as one of the co-organizers of the Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons, I write to invite you to a groundbreaking hearing that will feature live testimony from three North Korean defectors: a former prisoner, a former prison guard, and a former official from the Ministry of People’s Security, which oversees North Korea’s network of gulags. Three renowned jurists will preside over the hearing: Navanethem Pillay (Chair), Mark Harmon, and Thomas Buergenthal. Collectively, these luminaries have served on the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Notably, it was during Ms. Pillay’s tenure as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“COI”) conducted its investigation and issued its landmark report. The hearing also will feature expert testimony from renowned experts on North Korea’s gulags and its penal system generally — David Hawk and Ken Gause. With pro bono assistance from the law firm of Hogan Lovells, the case will be presented by members of the IBA’s War Crimes Committee, Greg Kehoe, Federica D’Alessandra and Steven Kay, Q.C., the latter of whom worked on notable trials such as the Milosevic case (ICTY), and the Kenyatta case (ICC).

The hearing will be held at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on December 8th in Washington, D.C.

The Inquiry is an unofficial follow-on to the United Nations COI referenced above, and will focus solely on alleged crimes against humanity in North Korean political prisons. The Inquiry seeks to advance three goals: (1) to increase awareness of human rights violations in North Korean political prisons, (2) to explore the practical and legal barriers associated with holding the architects and overseers of the political prison system accountable for alleged crimes against humanity, and (3) to provide a model that other civil society organizations may wish to replicate when accountability for past or ongoing human rights violations has proven elusive because of inaction by the international community or otherwise.

To RSVP, please contact Ms. Sosseh Prom at sosseh.prom@int-bar.org.

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S. Korean human rights ambassador: Target N. Korean officials with sanctions

The U.N. has issued two more reports finding that North Korea’s abysmal human rights situation still hasn’t improved, and that Pyongyang refuses to even discuss it. Kim Jong-un continues to seal the borders, terrorize and purge potential dissenters, and cut off any subversive information. Camp 18 has reopened, Camps 1214 and 25 have expanded, and the fate of thousands of men, women, and children who were held in Camp 22 remains a mystery.

How do you make the words “never again” mean something in a place like North Korea? Certainly the very publication of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report has done the regime great reputational harm, obstructed the regime’s apologists’ efforts to normalize it, and cost it much investment from which its elites might have profited. I increasingly see and hear talk of kicking North Korea out of the U.N. — which wouldn’t prevent diplomacy or humanitarian aid any more than it does in Gaza, but which Russia and China would certainly veto.

One even sees legal scholars raising the idea of a Cambodia-like tribunal under South Korean law, an idea that was so radical and out of alignment with Park Geun-hye’s policies that I hesitated to suggest it back in 2014. But sadly, that, too, remains a near-impossibility in a political climate in which “mainstream” left-of-center politicians ask Pyongyang for instructions before taking U.N. votes, and continue to stall the implementation of South Korea’s new human rights law. They will have to answer to their children.

But so will we have to answer to ours, and as Kim Jong-un’s enablers obstruct accountability, it falls on the United States to show its allies the way to impose accountability now. Writing in The Washington Quarterly, Jung-Hoon Lee, the South Korean Ambassador for Human Rights and founding Director of the Center for Human Liberty at Yonsei University, and Joe Phillips, an Associate Professor of Global Studies and another founding Director of the Human Rights Center at Pusan National University, review the options and the COI’s recommendations, and find that targeted sanctions are likely one of “our most effective options” now.

Another commission recommendation is targeted sanctions, which focus on leaders, other decision-makers, their principal supporters, and discrete economic sectors. Against North Korea, they can serve multiple goals: they may coerce officials to cooperate on human rights, deny the government resources needed to engage in human rights violations, and stigmatize behavior. [link]

I especially liked this part. Not only was it an accurate statement of the law, it was impeccably sourced.

There are naysayers when it comes to North Korean sanctions. They argue that an array of heavy penalties has failed to produce positive results. That is far from the truth. Until the Security Council’s March 2 resolution, international sanctions were weak compared to those against other countries like Iran.31 Even with the new, tougher Council resolution, enforcement has a long way to go.

Lee and Phillips go on to point out that this must be a multilateral project, and that many U.N. member states have yet to show much understanding of the resolutions, much less submit their implementation reports. That will require stronger diplomatic efforts, which South Korea has exerted and the Obama administration has not.

Besides the WMD-related targets, priority should remain on the sources of North Korea’s foreign currency such as sales of illegal drugs, counterfeiting, arms trafficking, and exporting labor. Embargoing luxury goods is also an effective tactic. North Korean leadership expert Ken Gause has chronicled the critical role that gift-giving plays in the stability of Kim Jong Un’s regime. He argues that sanctions have the effect of constricting the regime’s ability to continue this largess and consolidate power.33

More on Gause’s views here.

China and other countries exporting these non-essential goods are vulnerable to a global ‘naming and shaming’ campaign as well as secondary sanctions. Seoul, meanwhile, is in a much better position to push other states to enforce firmer sanctions now that it has shut down the Kaesong Industrial Park, a North–South collaborative economic project within the DPRK where the North provided workers to South Korean manufacturers. Turning a blind eye to Kaesong’s ‘forced labor’ conditions, not to mention the transfer of about US$9 million annually to the Pyongyang regime, has for years compromised South Korea’s principles. At a minimum, sanctions are a normative declaration that we are not oblivious to the North’s atrocities and that countries and firms which do business with Pyongyang are trafficking with an international pariah.

The article then discusses some of the same loopholes in the existing sanctions that should be closed. While we’re on that topic, I’ve posted a new page on policy options that covers much of this territory, and more.

Other models for bilateral action include the 2016 Gardner-Menendez North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires the U.S. president to investigate any person who knowingly engages in serious human rights abuses, issue a report identifying severe human rights abusers, and sanction them, such as through forfeiture of property. President Obama’s Executive Order 13687, issued in 2015, links U.S. security to ending the North’s human rights violations and allows the Office of Foreign Assets Control to designate for sanctions North Korean cover companies and individuals, exposing them and subjecting their global businesses to penalties.

Hat tip to Steph Haggard. Lee and Phillips don’t mention the individual designation of Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses in July, perhaps because their article was a long time in the writing and publication. Knowing that might have helped them sharpen the debate about how to use sanctions. Those designations ought to have been more than bad publicity. They ought to have marked the start of a global campaign to find and freeze the offshore bank accounts without which Kim Jong-un’s throne would crumble beneath his weight. Until we do this, Pyongyang will never have to make the existential choice to change or perish. 

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North Koreans don’t want to be slaves overseas after all

The last refuge of those who defended North Korea’s use of overseas slave labor is that at least it was better than slave labor inside North Korea. It was always a con, of course — the North Korean regime promised its workers big money if they went overseas to toil in Siberian forests, Polish shipyards, Qatari construction sites, or Chinese garment factories. That the officials earned steep bribes with this con gave them a motive to lie and exaggerate. The reality was back-breaking, unsafe work for long hours and little pay (after the minders and Kim Jong-un took their cuts). Some of the workers slipped away and defected, despite the risk to their families back in North Korea. Recently, some have begun to flee in groups, or mutiny en masse. And back in Pyongyang, hardly anyone wants to work abroad anymore.

“Until just a few years ago, most workers sent overseas were from Pyongyang, but those numbers have been on a downward trend recently,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China recently told Daily NK. “People have learned that if you go abroad to work you’ll toil like a slave. This is why the number of applicants is dropping.”

However, residents from provincial areas are stepping in to fill in the gap. “The standard of living in other provinces is just so much worse compared to Pyongyang. Notwithstanding the appalling conditions awaiting them, they choose to go work abroad anyway,” he explained. [Daily NK]

How bad could things possibly be in North Korea’s provinces to make conditions like these seem relatively good? Defenders of the regime bristle at the description of North Korea as one vast, open-air prison. No doubt, many North Koreans have managed to find better lives than this. 

[A]s marketization gains a stronger foothold, more people are finding more ways to make money within North Korea’s borders, provided they have access to goods to hawk at the marketplace. This has greatly improved the standard of living for a large chunk of the population, which–taken together with abounding rumors of abject conditions and strict surveillance at worksites abroad for diminishing returns–challenges previously held beliefs about jobs abroad as a gateway to a better life.

But if the regime can still find people in Hamheung who prefer to risk death in Siberia for low-to-nonexistent wages at home, either the workers in the provinces are still being conned, or they’re laboring at the verge of starvation.

Languishing in positions at moribund factories with patchy, meager remuneration, overseas work offers many the promise of a steady stream of foreign currency and, by extension, a new life upon their return to North Korea. These overseas jobs are so coveted, in fact, provision of hefty bribes is a prerequisite requirement for applicants.

Finally, residents of Pyongyang have realized that overseas work makes their families targets for state surveillance.

Moreover, following the group defection of twelve North Korean restaurants workers and their manager from a restaurant in China, these shifting perceptions are more palpable, said a source in Pyongyang.

“Since Kim Jong Un’s accession to power, there has been great emphasis placed on fearpolitik and guilt by association. In that political climate, who would want to send their children overseas?” she pointed out.

Parents once saw working overseas as an opportunity to advance their children’s careers. Now, however, “more worry they’d become nothing more than helpless targets for exacting surveillance.”

Pyongyang residents probably have more information about actual working conditions abroad than people in the provinces. As North Koreans return to Pyongyang, they tell their wives why they brought so little pay home. The wives tell their friends, who tell their own husbands. The word gets around in a small city with a relatively higher concentration of ex-expats faster than it does in the provinces.

This shift also applies to perceptions about laborers dispatched to Russia, where a local source familiar with North Korean affairs told Daily NK that Pyongyang workers now account for only about 40% of the North Korean workforce, markedly down from the majority stake they held before.

“There are all kinds of people–everyone from those struggling to make ends meet to others who were having marital conflicts back home,” this source continued. “They say they knew they would have to work like slaves, but that they didn’t know how bad it would be.”

Until recently, the regime’s overseas labor operations’ main constraint was diplomatic and humanitarian pressure that has forced several countries to end or curtail their use of North Korean labor. Now, rising domestic opposition is also putting pressure on the labor racket. Given that this opposition comes from residents of Pyongyang, a constituency Kim Jong-un can’t afford to alienate, the regime will have to turn elsewhere for laborers. But this presents other dangers to the state. To a resident of Hamheung or Hwanghae, the gap between his own standard of living at home and that of his new host country will be far more dramatic, and his ties of loyalty to the state may also be weaker.

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In the debate over N. Korea’s overseas workers, listen to the workers

As of January, two EU nations — Poland and Malta — were its principal consumers of North Korean labor. As the Leiden Asia Center has shown us, those North Korean workers labor under harsh and unsafe conditions, the North Korean government steals most of their wages, and the state’s per capita wage theft is far more profitable in Europe, where prevailing wages are higher, than it is in Africa or Asia where most North Korean laborers work. That’s why the recent decisions of Poland and — as of last week, Malta — to stop granting and renewing visas for North Korean workers will cause significant pain to the regime in Pyongyang.

Malta’s decision not to renew the visas of 20 North Korean workers follows “a push by South Korea and human rights groups that raised concerns about the conditions faced by the North Korean workers.” Two Maltese firms employed these workers — the construction firm Rite Mix, and the Chinese-run textile maker Leisure Clothing.

An official of Rite Mix said that about 15 North Koreans had worked for the company, but all of them left en masse around late May. A Leisure Clothing official also said that the company is no longer hiring North Korean workers. Malta is considered to have the closest relations with North Korea among EU members.

A source said that there have been continued media reports in Malta that North Korean workers have been suffering from long working hours and other abuses while getting only one third of their wages, with the rest sent to their government. [Yonhap]

Admittedly, 20 isn’t a very large number. Presumably, it excludes the three North Korean workers who defected from their jobs in Malta to South Korea last year. There is also more bad publicity for the Russian companies that employ North Korean labor, and that sometimes advertise their use of it openly, in the form of the Daily NK’s latest report in its series.

Before going to Russia, the provincial Party cadres informed me that when forestry production normalized, I could expect to receive an average of US $300 per month. With that in mind, I calculated that I could make $10,000 over the course of my contract (the standard three year term). When I considered the costs of food and lodging, I thought I could take home at least $5,000. I realized after six months that the reality would be totally different from this inflated expectation.

The money that was put in my hand at the end of the month was closer to $70-$80.  And that was what we received in the winter. Winter production lasted from October until May. We worked extremely hard during that time. However, 40% of our wages went to the State Forestry Administration, 20% to the affiliated state-run enterprise, and 15% went to the production unit’s  operational funding. The remaining 25% went to the laborers.

During the summer, we went to the lumber worksites to set up the facilities and equipment, including tools and vehicles. Our wages were cut in half during this period. [Daily NK]

The workers were misled about more than just their wages. After all, who would pay a bribe for the “privilege” of being crippled for life, or dying broke and far from home?

Sometimes logs fall on the laborers. The logs sometimes crushed laborer’s legs. The authorities do not provide any compensation or health services. Instead, they send injured workers home empty handed. In a single moment, these poor laborers are transformed into handicapped people and immediately get sent away.

Some workers fall from high heights resulting in concussions. Others are too immersed in their work to avoid a falling tree. People have died upon impact from such injuries. There was also an incident when dozens of workers died together. They made temporary lodging because they were deep in the forest. They got caught in a forest fire while they were sleeping.

One laborer went into town to buy some food supplies when he was confronted with a drunken local. The local was wielding a deadly weapon, and he ended up killing the laborer. That made the workers quite upset, especially because the North Korean authorities did not demand a just response from the Russian government. Even now, when I think about that, I get angry. The authorities were so obsequous (sic) and inhumane. I get the most upset when I recall how my colleagues frozen, dead bodies were loaded up on a train. [Daily NK]

Recently, I fisked an NK News article that found two North Korean construction workers in Vladivostok (they were rather obviously minders) and, based on their statements, reached the implausible conclusion that North Korea’s overseas “slaves” are actually quite happy. Similarly, in his recent interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei Lankov argued that, while the conditions for the workers might not be ideal, they must be better than working conditions inside North Korea if the workers paid bribes to get those jobs. Leave aside whether working conditions inside North Korea are a useful comparator for anything. What’s clear is that the workers are paying those bribes because they’ve been lied to, baited with false promises of high wages they seldom see.

Of course, nothing speaks louder than the actions of the workers themselves. Growing numbers of them are rebelling against their minders or fleeing from them. As for those who remain behind, there’s ample evidence that whether they’re working in restaurants or canneries in China, construction sites in Qatar or Kuwait, or the Siberian taiga, they labor in miserable conditions for wages that are invariably a fraction of what corrupt state officials promise them. Conditions at Leisure Clothing in Malta don’t sound as bad as those in Siberia, but they do sound worse than running a stall in a jangmadang in Chongjin, where one at least has some freedom of movement, and to set one’s own working conditions. The fact that the state lies to them to steal their labor doesn’t mean they aren’t slaves. It means they are.

Malta’s decision, however, is drawing criticism from a surprising source — the Polish human rights activist Johanna Hosaniak, who has been advocating the rights of North Koreans longer than I have, and as a full-time job. Hosaniak’s view is that expelling North Korean workers is a lost opportunity to draw North Korea’s labor arrangements into compliance with EU and international norms, and to expose North Koreans to more developed and liberal societies. Marcus Noland has advocated something similar, proposing a code of ethics for foreign investors in North Korea, similar to the Sullivan Principles that investors in South Africa previously agreed on, at least before anti-Apartheid activists concluded that only complete divestment would force that system to change.

Despite my respect for Hosaniak’s views generally, I don’t find this particular argument persuasive. First, given North Korea’s resistance to transparency in financial and all other matters, there’s no reason to think that it would agree to more open and fair labor arrangements. Arguably, it might rather send the workers to China than accept more transparency. Second, it seems impossible to verify that the workers would receive most of their own pay, or that they or their families wouldn’t face punishment for organizing or demanding safe working conditions. Third, as with all engagement projects, North Korean minders go to great lengths to limit interpersonal contact with foreigners, and presumably only posts workers abroad when it calculates that it can keep them isolated. Fourth, the image that North Korean workers see of “liberal” societies abroad is of societies that are content to exploit them and that have little if any moral or material superiority over their own. It evokes the old Soviet joke about the difference between capitalism and communism: under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it’s exactly the opposite!

There is also the darker aspect of engagement that has been a consistent theme of its moral comprises — the fact that in our interactions with North Korea, we are uniquely prone to compromising our own ethical and legal standards, rather than expecting Pyongyang to compromise its standards. Some day, we are forever told, Pyongyang will begin to change gradually, although this never quite seems to happen. Meanwhile, we are left asking, “Who changed who?”

If Pyongyang continues to resist even marginal, incremental, and gradual change, that’s because it can afford to. It is the nature of totalitarian systems to remain totalitarian and unaccountable, to resist change, and to protect the status quo. What should be clear today from the failure of Sunshine is that Pyongyang must be denied the choice to resist change. If the system will not change at the margins, then the entire system must change, either because it is forced to accept transparency, or because it ceases to exist entirely.  That fundamental choice can only be forced if the very survival of the entire system is threatened. That happens to be the same conclusion that anti-Apartheid activists reached three decades ago.

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