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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U.S. joins diplomatic squeeze on North Korean labor exports

Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:


(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and

   (2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.

(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;

   (2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and

   (3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.

The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.

“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]

U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “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.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.

Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:

[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]

However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]

The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.

South Korea is also joining the campaign, following its promising reports from Africa and Cambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”

Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argument I’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.

Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.

Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 7.45.00 AM

[Wall Street Journal]

Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.

The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.

“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.

“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.

North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.

North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.

The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.

“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]

Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.

Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.

North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.

One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.

The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:

After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.  [WSJ]

Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:

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The designation of His Corpulency for human rights abuses is symbolic. Powerfully symbolic.

About a week later than my prediction in this post and a full decade after it should have done so, the Treasury Department has finally designated His Porcine Majesty, ten of his worst henchmen, and nine government agencies for human rights abuses.

“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture,” said Adam J. Szubin, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.  “The actions taken today by the Administration under an Act of Congress highlight the U.S. Government’s condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.”  [….]

OFAC designated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.  Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries, with significant restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture.  Kim Jong Un leads the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security.  These ministries, along with the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau and the Ministry of State Security Prisons Bureau, are also being designated today pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. [Treasury Department]

The targets include the State Security Department (kuk-ga anjeon bowi-bu), the North Korean equivalent of the Totenkopfverbände that runs the concentration camp system; the Ministry of People’s Security (inmin boan-bu), the Gestapo equivalent that investigates political crimes; and two sub-bureaus of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, for kidnapping North Korean refugees from China and for sending hit squads to assassinate exiles in South Korea. The full list is here, and below the fold.

Separately, the State Department issued a report on the reasons for the designations. With yesterday’s action, 161 North Korean entities are designated, equal to the number of designated Zimbabwean entities. Contrary to another rumor I heard but did not publish, there were no waivers of any of the sanctions.

Legally, the targets’ assets are now blocked in the financial system, the practical meaning of which I’ll address below. Because the designations were triggered by the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, strict performance-based conditions apply to their suspension or termination. The designations came several weeks after the passage of a deadline in section 304 of the NKSPEA to report to Congress on the individual responsibility of North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un, for human rights abuses in North Korea, and to designate any responsible officials under section 104(a).

Although the report and designations were effectively mandated by an act of Congress, senior administration officials stressed in a background-only conference call yesterday that this report was actually years in the making. Well, maybe. The first rumors the administration circulated publicly about this action came in 2015, a year after the House of Representatives passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act on a voice vote. So while I take the administration at its word — in part, because it’s useful to accept even reluctant new friends into the circle of consensus — it’s also true that whenever the administration began working on this report — which comes to four whole pages of Times New Roman 12-point type — it must have known that the legislative writing was on the wall.

At the same time, the State Department report provides more detail about the people responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korean than any other report has before. A great deal of intelligence work obviously went into it. Among the details we learn is that Kim Jong-un was born in January of 1984, which means he wasn’t even 30 the first time he sat on his double-wide throne. The State Department also appears to have used the discussion of the Reconnaissance General Bureau in “Arsenal of Terror” as a source for two of the designations. That discussion, in turn, cites Joseph Bermudez, to whom I express my gratitude again here.

So, what does all of this mean, practically?

Direct Financial Impact. Many reporters, who denigrate the potential impact of these sanctions, make two arguments, one false and one true. It is almost certainly false that Kim Jong-un has no assets “in” the United States. Again, that assumption flows from an ignorance of how international banking works, as I explained it here. As the U.N. Panel of Experts reports have demonstrated again and again, North Korean regime funds continue to flow through our banking system via correspondent accounts, where those funds can be frozen or forfeited (see 18 U.S.C. 981(k)). The real trick is identifying which funds are North Korean. One of our best sources of information is the banking industry, but banks won’t report North Korean wire transfers to their American correspondents as long as they continue to get away with concealing those funds, as the Bank of China did recently.

It is true that there is no single golden vault in Geneva with Kim Jong-un’s name engraved on the door, whose combination can be changed overnight. But the same was true of Bin Laden, Qaddafi, Assad, Milosevic, Mugabe, Lukashenko, and countless drug lords. The work of tracing and identifying assets down to the aliases, fictitious names, front companies, shell companies, and bagmen who hold those accounts is what the Treasury Department does, and does well. It will take years of hard work, and it will require a strong signal to the banking industry about their Know-Your-Customer obligations. One shortcoming here is Treasury’s failure to invoke Special Measure Two in its otherwise commendable Patriot 311 designation of North Korea. That special measure would require banks to gather information about North Korean beneficial owners of accounts. As the Panama Papers showed us, that’s key information regulators need to embark on a serious assets hunt. I’ll be posting a detailed public comment to that effect, in response to Treasury’s 311 Notice of Rulemaking, before the August 2nd deadline.

What I did not see in the transcript of the senior administration officials’ background discussion with reporters was any commitment to devoting the necessary investigative resources to the pursuit of those assets. That will be an important oversight function for congressional staff in the coming years.

World Opinion. First, these actions could — I repeat, could — help further galvanize both domestic and world opinion against Kim Jong-un’s regime, which will itself have a range of secondary effects.

Wavering states that now supply Pyongyang with much of its income will face more pressure to distance themselves from it. Governments will face greater domestic political pressure to comply with existing U.N. sanctions, especially if that domestic pressure is combined with sweeteners brought by visiting South Korean diplomats. They will face greater pressure to vote for resolutions condemning North Korea at the U.N. Here are there, governments may begin to follow Botswana’s lead and cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang entirely. China, which opposes the new sanctions, will see North Korea as a greater diplomatic liability than ever. South Korea, which welcomed the new sanctions — and certainly would not have even a year ago — could make use of it in its skillful and increasingly effective diplomacy to isolate North Korea from the overseas funding that sustains the regime in Pyongyang.

The consensus among liberals in both Europe and America will shift. That consensus once generally favored engagement; it will now shift toward sanctions and accountability, as evidenced by Congressional Democrats’ support for much tougher sanctions. The description of Kim Jong-un as “a sadistic dictator” in a draft of the Democratic Party platform suggests that a Clinton presidency would be at least marginally tougher than Obama’s.

This will have financial effects in the near term. Governments and companies will be more reluctant to use North Korean slave labor, a subject that also made headlines yesterday with the launch of the second part of the Leiden Asia Center’s report, “Slaves to the System.” Corporations will hesitate to invest in North Korea and risk boycotts by customers, or protests by shareholders.

After two wasted years since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, I now sense that the world is closing in on Kim Jong-un, and that time is not on his side. The critical question is when that sense will take hold in Pyongyang.

Opinion Inside North Korea. I have heard the word “symbolic” used to describe this act; I’d raise that to “powerfully symbolic,” with regard to a regime that devotes arguably more attention than any other on earth to the cultivation of symbol and myth. Word of this action will spread through the jangmadang, where it will erode some of the regime’s key narratives. The regime, of course, tells the people how much Kim Jong-un cares for them. This act specifies precisely how his men torture, rape, and murder them. Few North Koreans can be ignorant of those crimes, but some must cling to the idea of “if only Kim Jong-un knew.” But this will also contradict the more subtle and powerful “Barrel of a Gunnarrative that America is weak, cowed, and in awe of North Korea, and that any North Korean who feels aggrieved is isolated and forgotten by the world. This action may open more minds to the true cause of their suffering, and to the hope of liberation. It could shake the smug confidence of officials in Pyongyang. In that sense, Congress’s latest move to direct the clandestine distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Commission of Inquiry Report, and their own nation’s constitution is a powerfully subversive one.

Could word of this action cause some North Korean officials to modify their behavior? The answer is as complicated and variable as the psychologies of the men — they are almost always men — who compose such evil systems. Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves as final acts of defiance. Himmler killed himself as a final act of cowardice, but only after negotiating the release of thousands of Jews to try to mitigate his own guilt. Kaltenbrunner, a key executor of the Holocaust, took the stand at Nuremberg and matter-of-factly inculpated everyone, including himself. Streicher was brought to trial, sullen and defiant until he was hanged. Goering put on an agile pro se defense, then took cyanide the night before he was to hang. Speer expressed remorse, if not quite convincingly. And in July 1944, as it became clear that the war was lost, a collection of mid-level officers very nearly killed Hitler and overthrew the whole Nazi government. We’ll probably see similar variations in the behavior of North Korean officials one day. And we should be prepared to extend clemency to those who are willing to bring this nightmare to an end with a minimum of bloodshed.

Ten years ago, the idea that a North Korean prison camp kommandant would have heard that his name was on a blacklist would have been unthinkable. Today, that that same kommandant will find out is almost inevitable, particularly if his children call from Shanghai to tell him that the bank account is frozen. Those named in yesterday’s action will now feel that their backs are against the wall, but given what these men have done, they were bitter-enders anyway. As with Himmler in the closing days of World War Two, some will still feel pressure to mitigate their brutality for the sake of their own skins. Whether each man feels that the regime is likely to survive will be important to how each man acts. Men who feel untouchable will go on with their dirty work, and those who feel the hot breath of the hangman will begin to think about accountability.

By tomorrow, expect an epic rant from KCNA. Expect the regime to respond with provocations. Those provocations will be a testimony to the symbolic power and subversive potential of what happened yesterday. The crisis in North Korea will have to get worse before it gets better. It will only get better when the regime feels metamorphic, existential pressure to change. Yesterday’s action was a step toward building that pressure.

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How happy are Kim Jong-un’s slaves? It depends on which slave you ask.

There may be no story on earth where the answer to a question is so dependent on who you ask as North Korea. Take the case of this NK News story from February, by an anonymous correspondent who went to Vladivostok, wandered into a local North Korean cafe, and found some North Korean construction workers who were — surprisingly enough! — willing to speak “freely” to a foreign journalist. Ready for your first clue?

He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.

But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.

“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work. [NK News]

Here comes your next clue.

“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”

The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.

The correspondent’s harsh questioning elicits that the men live in a comfortable dormitory, have the run of the city, are fed and treated well, and spend their weekends relaxing in cafes and shopping for cozy boots. The resulting story, however, does not mention the obvious possibility that the men are minders for the North Korean security forces.

North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.

Although the observation of a Russian journalist that the North Korean workers “make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka” suggests that the state does not quite provide for all of the workers’ needs, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago, either. Still, a review of the record reveals some niggling contradictions, such as the North Korean worker in Vladivostok who had set himself on fire just a month before. Or the very need for a new treaty between the two countries, to ensure the prompt repatriation of North Koreans who try to flee from their splendor.

But before you conclude that Russia is the workers’ paradise for North Koreans — well, for most of them, anyway — read what a Daily NK correspondent found in the logging camps near Khabarovsk more recently.

According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by a North Korean laborer in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.

Another laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK that, “Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. It’s impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him.”

He continued, “The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.” [Daily NK]

The Daily NK isn’t the only source to find horrific conditions in the Siberian camps.

Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions.

“Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.

Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets.

“It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”

Lee Yong-ho also saw frozen bodies stored. It was cheaper to them home in groups. [AP]

And so forth.

So, how can we reconcile these jarringly different accounts? For one thing, NK News‘s story relied heavily on the account of at least one “supervisor” who fed the correspondent a narrative and found his mark willing to swallow it without much further investigation. NK News‘s story doesn’t specify how widely its author ranged to question that narrative, or what efforts he made (like, say, those of Vice’s correspondent in Poland) to speak to workers surreptitiously. There’s no indication that he pulled pay or employment records, or did any of the commendable leg-work Vice’s reporter did that exposed the lies of the North Koreans’ Polish employers. Indeed, several years ago, Vice’s Shane Smith visited logging camps in Siberia and, though he found none of the horrors the Daily NK did, also found some extraordinary efforts at secrecy and control designed to keep prying eyes away. In other words, the greater the depth of the reporting, the more credible it is. The same obviously applies to the Daily NK, which has just begun publishing a series of articles on overseas workers.

Second, and whatever our concerns about the depth of the reporting, conditions for construction workers in Vladivostok might just be very different than conditions for loggers in Khabarovsk. After all, abuses in the middle of a city would be less likely to escape notice and exposure than abuses out in the taiga. This brings us to a second problem with NK News‘s report: the implication that its findings are representative of conditions for North Korean workers in Russia overall. I don’t want to overstate this; after all, the report does distingish the accessibility of its North Korean subjects in Vladivostok from those in China. But in the end, it pursues a narrative popular among “engagers” and other anti-anti-North Korean types — that overseas work is better than work inside North Korea, and ergo, not slavery. The latter doesn’t quite follow from the former, of course, but as they did in the American South, conditions for North Korean slaves undoubtedly vary. It’s never a safe thing to build a narrative on a single interview. In the end, the report’s greatest flaw may be its failure to take note of the many other reports finding conditions for North Koreans in Russia to be subhuman.

The lesson here? Several come to mind. First — as the AP’s humiliation in Pyongyang has repeatedly reinforced — never accept a North Korean minder’s narrative at face value. Second, question everything you’re told by hunting for documentary evidence to confirm or refute it. Third, make an effort to show us the bigger picture. And finally, semantics matter. As Lee Yong-ho says, North Koreans are so conditioned by their experiences at home that they probably don’t think of themselves as slaves. Asking a North Korean — especially a North Korean minder, whose living conditions may be just fine, and also grossly atypical — isn’t very useful for our conclusions about the implications of these arrangements under international law. If you’re going to argue that someone is or isn’t a “slave,” at least take the trouble the Leiden Asia Center did and try to define the term meaningfully.  In the end, what makes a slave a slave is whether he has the choice to sell his labor freely.

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U.S. to sanction N. Korean officials, possibly to include His Porcine Majesty, for human rights abuses

The Treasury Department has sanctioned the presidents of Belarus and Zimbabwe and their cabinets for undermining democratic processes or institutions and has frozen their assets in the international financial system. It has sanctioned top officials of the Russian government for Russia’s aggression against its neighbor, the Ukraine.


It has sanctioned the president of Syria for human rights violations, censorship, and corruption, among other reasons. It sanctioned Iranian officials for censorship and human rights abuses. It has even sanctioned officials in tiny Burundi for human rights abuses.

Camp 16 HQ @4500

[Camp 16, where prisoners are forced to dig their own graves and killed with hammers.]

As of the time of this post, there are still no human rights sanctions against a single North Korean official. As bad as things may be in any of the aforementioned places, are they worse anywhere than in North Korea?

starving children

The Chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that investigated human rights abuses in North Korea has said that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and described the abuses there as “strikingly similar” to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.

Camp 25 crematorium

[The crematorium at Camp 25]

The Commission’s detailed 372-page report found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

The lesson for every despot on earth is that nuclear weapons will immunize you from the consequences of your crimes against humanity.

Seeking to rectify this outrage, this year, Congress passed a law that gave the President 120 days to submit a report on human rights abuses in North Korea, along with a list of those responsible. The provision requires the President to make specific findings with respect to Kim Jong-un’s individual responsibility. Those found responsible must then be designated under section 104(a) of the law, which freezes their assets and threatens secondary sanctions against those who transact with them. The 120 days ran out on June 11th.

Even before the law passed, the administration could see the overwhelming bipartisan support for human rights sanctions and began hinting at imposing them. It still didn’t act, but after the law passed, it began dropping increasingly strong hints that it would finally impose human rights sanctions on top North Korean officials. North Korea’s latest missile launch now gives the White House new impetus to increase pressure on Pyongyang, as if that impetus was lacking after the U.N. Commission released its report.

According to rumors circulating in the press and in human rights circles, the President will finally sanction “about ten” top officials of the North Korean government today. [Update: Now we know that Monday wasn’t the day. Watch this space.] The rumor I heard last week is that His Porcine Majesty Kim Jong-un, the morbidly obese despot who rules over millions of malnourished and stunted children, will be among them.

His Porcine Majesty

That could be the first step in blocking the billions of dollars he maintains in slush funds in China, Switzerland, and elsewhere. It will be the first concrete action our government — or any other government — will have taken in the more than two years since the Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Kirby released its report.

The Obama administration will now speak with gravity and sagacity about the horrors in North Korea and its seriousness about addressing them. It will make a virtue of necessity and claim the mantle of moral leadership in holding North Korea’s rulers accountable for their crimes against humanity. I’d be content to let them carry it for their remaining months in office … if they really do lead. But this is not a moment for relief that our government may finally act, at least a decade after it should have. It is a moment to mourn for the victims, both living and dead, and for the forfeited moral leadership of a nation that acted so late, and only after Congress forced the President to act.

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A strike by North Korean workers in Kuwait portends a dark fate for them, and for Kim Jong-un.

I first learned that North Korea had exported laborers to Kuwait when I heard that those workers were providing thirsty locals with a valuable public service by brewing black-market moonshine for them. Then, in April, a report emerged that seemed almost too remarkable to be true — 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait had mutinied against their minders to protest the extra work and unpaid wages coincident to the “70-day battle” leading up to North Korea’s party congress in May. (In nearby Qatar, two more workers also fled from their worksite to a local police station.)

At the time, I speculated that the workers in Kuwait may have been driven to perform extra labor because of the seizure, by Sri Lankan authorities, of $150,000 in “wages” being carried from nearby Oman to China, cash that presumably would have been deposited in a Bureau 39-controlled account there. I also took note of reports that the North Koreans were having difficulties accessing the banking system and smuggling bulk cash across the border from China to North Korea. I hoped that U.S. and South Korean diplomats in Kuwait would intervene to help rescue as many of the workers as possible from repatriation to an uncertain fate. And regardless of whether the workers escaped repatriation, I worried (and still do) about the welfare of the workers’ families back in North Korea.

Obviously, not all defection stories about North Korea hold up under closer scrutiny, and hearing nothing about this one for so long, I’d begun to harbor doubts about it. Now, however, an independent source is corroborating the initial report and adding new facts:

“As people began to disobey orders and desert their workplaces, North Korean authorities belatedly took steps to tackle the issue,” RFA said. “On May 17, they quickly summoned dozens of North Korean workers who had caused problems by resuming Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait, which had been halted on Feb. 23.”

In March, some North Korean laborers demanded they be paid properly when their employer urged them to earn more money to send to the Pyongyang regime ahead of a large congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party in May, RFA added.


Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said North Korea appears to be checking on the situation of its overseas workers.

“We think the strikes and various actions of North Korean workers abroad could be the result of sanctions on the country,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said during a regular press briefing. [Yonhap]

Via KBS, we also learn that Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait were suspended shortly after the President signed H.R. 757 and shortly before the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, but that North Korea has resumed those flights for the purpose of repatriating its rebellious workers to God-only-knows-what fate.

I’d be most grateful to anyone who can provide me a copy of the original RFA report. The report has three important implications, which I’ll take in ascending order of importance. 

First, this is another sign that the regime’s overseas cash-earning operations may be entering the “death spiral” I first spoke of here. As sanctions and diplomatic pressure cut the flow of hard currency to Pyongyang, enterprises that had once been profitable will terminate or become unprofitable, and Pyongyang will squeeze its remaining overseas workers harder to keep up “loyalty” payments. There is recent evidence that the restaurant business isn’t bringing in as much cash as it did previously. Other examples of this pressure include the termination of profitable labor exports to the Ugandan police and Polish shipyards. You can expect Pyongyang’s overseas income to diminish further in the wake of the Treasury Department’s 311 designation, as even profitable enterprises face increased difficulty repatriating their profits. 

As the profits fall or become harder to repatriate, the benefits to Pyongyang of maintaining those overseas enterprises will fall, and the risks will also rise. As workers are pushed to their emotional breaking points, the risk of defections and mass protests will increase. To preempt that risk, the regime will withdraw workers from high-risk locations, which will further depress its revenues and raise pressure on the earners that remain. Examples include the withdrawal of North Korean students from China and a report that the regime is keeping its fishing boats in port to prevent defections, or perhaps more of those embarrassing “ghost ship” incidents. (Seafood exports had been a key source of revenue for Pyongyang, but evidently, if the state can’t export seafood for cash, the nutritional needs of the North Korean people don’t justify sending the fishing fleet out.)

As Pyongyang withdraws its overseas industries, the trading companies and workers in the remaining cash-earning industries will then come under increased stress. The “200-day battle” Pyongyang just announced to a people who are already exhausted and demoralized by the last “70-day battle” will further exacerbate this. It could instigate more dissent and defections, or cause North Korean operatives to make mistakes that will get them arrested or expelled. The remaining industries then become attractive targets for the South Korean NIS or NGOs offering to help them escape, or for legal attack, such as through the use of Executive Order 13722. And so on.

Second, to an even greater extent than the defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, the Kuwait incident illustrates the very real potential for North Koreans to organize mass political action despite close surveillance by the world’s most totalitarian state. As with the restaurant workers, presumably, these workers would have been hand-picked and vetted by the state for loyalty and obedience, yet desperation not only drove them to dissent, but to share their dissent and organize a mass act of resistance against the state. This report contradicts every expert who says, “It can’t happen.” On the contrary, it has already happened plenty of times, and will continue to happen. The real question is whether the regime can continue to contain, localize, and suppress incidents like these (and as long as North Koreans can’t communicate with each other, it will).

Third, even if Pyongyang can contain each of these mass incidents and survive the coming financial siege in the short term, these workers have shown us the potential for a long-term strategy to subvert the regime’s political control within North Korea itself. In this manifesto, I proposed such a long-term strategy for building clandestine, yet initially apolitical, civil organizations at the town, village, and factory level throughout North Korea as a foundation for (1) a post-reunification civil society and (2) a non-violent resistance movement. That movement would start by building clandestine farms, humanitarian NGOs, churches, newspapers, factories, and unions, taking on an increasingly political character with time. Once new, hard-to-censor methods of communication become available, these could overwhelm the state’s apparatus of censorship, facilitate regional and nationwide organization, and even apply some of the resistance methods the Albert Einstein Institute advocates. The ultimate objective of that strategy would be a nationwide general strike. While those tactics are still unthinkable today, Kuwait has provided a laboratory that has performed a limited, but successful, experiment with this theory.

Or, Pyongyang could bow to the inevitable and negotiate its peaceful, gradual transition to normalcy.

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RFA: Poland to stop granting work visas to N. Korean laborers

Last month, I wrote about Vice’s must-see investigative documentary on North Korean workers in Poland and the exploitative and unsafe conditions in which they work for little or no pay. Via Yonhap, Radio Free Asia now quotes South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho June-hyuck as saying that Poland will stop granting new work visas and renewing existing visas to workers from North Korea.

“The issue of overseas North Korean workers has increasingly caused concern within the international community from the perspective of human rights abuses and the flow of money into the North,” Cho said during a regular press briefing. “The Polish government also decided early this year to halt the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.”

North Korea is believed to have more than 50,000 workers stationed in some 50 countries, including China and Russia, to earn money for its cash-strapped regime.

Several hundred North Koreans are currently estimated to be working in Poland. Under the new measure, they will not be allowed to renew their visas.

Cho said other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe have also taken steps to reduce the number of North Korean laborers they receive by cracking down on illegal immigrants and not renewing work contracts.

“Our government takes note of such efforts by the international community to address the issue of overseas North Korean workers and plans to continue to seek possible steps in cooperation with the international community,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s not a bad start, although it falls short of the better answer — revoking the existing visas, and blocking the assets of the North Korean firms involved in this trade. According to the Leiden Asia Center, whose research contributed to Vice’s documentary, those firms include the Rungrado General Trading Corporation, the Korea Cholsan General Corporation, the Korea South-South Cooperation Corporation (which seems a deliberate effort to confuse researchers), and the Korean-Polish Shipping Company (a.k.a. Chopol). For good measure, blocking the assets of the Polish wholesalers of this labor would serve as a useful example to others. The Leiden Asia Center’s report also contains other newsworthy information, including the fact that some shipyards that use this slave labor receive EU subsidies … and repair NATO warships.

The end of Poland’s use of North Korean laborers would be financially significant. The Leiden Asia Center reports that Poland issues around 500 visas to North Korean workers each year, “one of the highest numbers of work permits issued to North Koreans” in Europe. Between 2008 and 2015, that amounts to more than 2,700 work permits. That’s still a small percentage of the estimated total of 50,000 North Korean overseas laborers, but each North Korean worker in Europe earns nine times as much as a North Korean worker in Africa.

North Korean workers are active all over the world, but mainly in China, Russia, the Middle East, the African continent and the EU. General statistics from the ILO show that on average US$3,900 is earned in Africa per victim of forced labour; US$5,000 per victim in the Asia-Pacific region; US$15,000 per victim in countries in the Middle East; and US$34,800 per victim in so-called developed economies. While the actual amount will vary according to the particular situation, the overall relative distribution of profits is correct. The ILO further notes that “[total] profits are highest in Asia (US$ 51.8 billion) and Developed Economies (US$ 46.9 billion), mainly for two reasons: the high number of victims in Asia and the high profit per victim in Developed Economies.” [Leiden Asia Center]

RFA’s report attributes Poland’s decision to sanctions — implicitly U.N. sanctions — but nothing in the Security Council’s resolutions directly bans the use of North Korean laborers. There is, however, a requirement to ensure that U.N. member states prevent the transfer of funds to North Korea that could be used for its WMD programs. (For years, I argued that the Kaesong Industrial Complex’s see-no-evil payments violated this requirement, and this year, after a decade of denying it, the South Korean government finally admitted that I was right all along.)

The more direct sanction against North Korea’s labor exports, however, is a unilateral U.S. sanction, found in Executive Order 13722, signed in March of this year. That provision allows the Treasury Department to block the assets of any person found to have “engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue” for the North Korean government or its ruling party.

It’s possible that sanctions played some role in forcing Poland’s hand, or even in deterring the users of the laborers, but it’s more likely that the terrible publicity of Vice’s documentary and the Leiden Asia Center’s publications caused the Polish government to make this decision than sanctions.

Like Kaesong, the restaurant trade, tourism, and arms sales to Uganda, the termination of the labor trade by one country will not, by itself, bankrupt Pyongyang. But since this year began, we’ve seen many of North Korea’s external revenue sources come under pressure.

The loss of all of these revenue sources collectively would cause serious financial distress, the loss of elite confidence in His Porcine Majesty’s rule, and inter-factional competition over increasingly scarce resources. We’re a long way from hearing Ri Chun-hee sing “A Bicycle Built for Two,” but this is how things start.

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Stop saying N. Korean overseas laborers aren’t slaves. They are, and here’s proof.

You absolutely must watch this extraordinary work of investigative journalism by Vice, exposing the North Korean slave labor racket in Poland. There are English subtitles available.

What is so exceptional about this reporting is that its detailed and careful investigation makes it immediately actionable. With a little googling, it’s possible to identify the names, position titles, and e-mail addresses of the Polish and North Korean companies involved.

That’s enough for the Treasury Department to add all of them to the list of Specially Designated Nationals for violating Executive Order 13722, which prohibits “engag[ing] in, facilitat[ing], or [being] 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 prime target of designation should be the Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation, Segori-dong, Pothonggang District, Pyongyang, and the DPR Korea Chamber of Commerce, P.O.Box 89, Jungsong-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, for supplying the laborers. As Vice notes, Rungrado was also implicated in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ most recent report for selling missile parts to Egypt. The Polish nationals and companies that knowingly employ this labor under such exploitative conditions — and who lie about it so blatantly — should also be designated, to make an example for other users of North Korean labor.

Although North Korean laborers in Europe (chiefly, Poland and Malta) are smaller in number than those in Asia and Africa, they also earn the regime more funds per capita than their counterparts in poorer countries. And do you suppose the working conditions for North Korean workers are better in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East? If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcing its new authorities, it should start by watching this report and taking careful notes.

~   ~   ~

Update: On a related note:

North Korean workers are toiling for Chinese factories that make clothes for global labels like Ralph Lauren and Burberry, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.

One of their employers is Mei Dao Garment in Hebei Province, a source told the radio station.

Mei Dao first employed 54 North Korean workers via a North Korean trading company from January to July 2012. In April last year it also established another firm in Dandong, Miryong Garment, as a joint venture with another North Korean company.

Mei Dao now employs hundreds of North Koreans, according to the source.

Garment maker Phoenix Gold in Dandong also employs about 1,200 workers, and 800 of them are from North Korea, the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

That’s specific enough to investigate, either by an outside NGO, or by the retailers themselves.

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The North Korean Army’s rape epidemic

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.12.22 AMA few days ago, the Korea Times carried a profile of Lee So-yeon, a native of Hoeryong in North Korea’s far northeast, who defected to the South in 2008, did menial jobs for a few years, later earned her bachelor’s degree in social welfare from Gukje Cyber University based in Suwon, and then founded an NGO called the North Korea Women’s Union.

Founded in 2011, the group hosts talks at schools and other groups, and provides job training and psychological counseling to defectors as well. What makes Lee, a defector, stand out is that she comes forth to speak about the ordeals of women defectors from North Korea.

“Whether it’s in the restaurant business, in the radio industry or something else, I believe North Korean defectors groups all are working for unification, for the democratization of North Korea and for change in North Korea,” Lee said in a recent interview at her office in Dangsan-dong, western Seoul. [Korea Times]

By Lee’s reckoning, she endured far less than other women refugees whose accounts she’s heard: “[W]hen I hear the stories of other female defectors, I think they are the stuff for movies.” After all, Lee was only caught and sent back for one attempted defection, and only spent one year in a North Korean prison for it. The interview briefly mentions that Lee previously served in the North Korean army’s signal corps, but doesn’t mention what she endured during her service. But elsewhere, Lee talked about what army life is like for female soldiers in North Korea, and what she said was horrifying.

“Out of 120 soldiers in my unit, there were only 20 men, but they were all high-ranking officers. I was in the 1st squad, but a couple of squad leaders in the 2nd squad raped every single one of the low-ranking female soldiers,” Lee testified.


One defector, Kim Eun-mi, who worked as a railway attendant, said in the conference, “women crew members often fell victim to sexual assault and rape, which was common in trains carrying soldiers, especially in the evening when lights were turned off.”

Kim also mentioned that she worked under a squalid condition where female crew had to “reuse sanitary pads that were already solidified (with blood).”

Choi Su-hyang, a former nurse in the North Korean Army, left the country for the South in 2014. She pointed out that 30 to 40 percent of the North‘s military personnel are women, who are often raped and assaulted by superior officers.

Adding to the sexual assault, she added, most military soldiers, both males and females, suffer from malnutrition, and are at high risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. [Korea Herald]

A New York Times blog also took notice of the accounts, but could have found many other consistent ones. New Focus International has previously reported that North Korean soldiers commonly stalk and rape civilian women, often impregnating them or infecting them with sexually-transmitted diseases contracted from prostitutes. Women aren’t the only victims, either. Male soldiers also suffer frequent abuse, including sexual abuse, by their superiors.

To maintain such a large army in proportion to its population, the North Korean military has long terms of enlistment, often as long as ten years. Soldiers aren’t allowed to marry or have girlfriends, so rape and prostitution become outlets for their desires. The state and the command don’t punish rape or abuse — sexual or otherwise — thus creating an environment of impunity.

“Those who got pregnant were sent to a hospital in the city of Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, the only hospital in the vicinity of the military base,” Lee said, according to the report. “Medical personnel in the hospital who found out about the incident divulged the fact after two years.”

Rape targeting female soldiers is frequent at North Korean military bases and those responsible are rarely punished, she said. Victims are often dishonorably discharged from the military.

“Authorities, aware of time and money invested in nurturing high-ranking male officers, are reluctant to punish them, although they are responsible for the crime,” Lee said. [Korea Times]

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry found evidence of frequent rapes and murders of female inmates in its prison camps, and that violence against women both in public and in the home was commonplace.

I’ve prosecuted and defended multiple sexual assault cases in the U.S. Army (nearly all of them soldier-on-soldier, with an occasional civilian wife as the accuser), and it must be the case that sexual assault is a serious problem that every army has to confront. That’s just a demographic inevitability. What implicates a command as responsible for the problem is whether it investigates and prosecutes credible allegations, whether it maintains a fair process to try the accused, and whether it punishes the guilty. What’s clear is that the North Korean government appears to be doing none of those things. What’s less clear is why some self-described feminists in this country give the North Korean government a free pass for that.

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Radio Free Asia launches investigation of N. Korean forced labor

Radio Free Asia has launched an investigative reporting project into the use of North Korean labor on three continents, and the dangers those joint ventures pose not only to the North Korean workers, but to their customers abroad. RFA also published this infographic about where the North Korean workers are, doing everything from logging and construction to staffing medical clinics. No doubt, the conditions in which the North Korean workers labor also vary, which causes some to criticize the description of these workers as “slave” or “forced” laborers. But just try to rationalize this:

Desperate for hard currency, North Korea has been sending tens of thousands of its people abroad to earn cash for the state, dispatching lumberjacks to Russia, construction workers to the Middle East and medics to countries in Africa. Tanzania hosts as many as 12 medical clinics, including four in the capital Dar es-Salaam, that remit about $1 million a year to Pyongyang. The clinics, however, face growing criticism among Tanzanians for doctors who are unqualified and can’t communicate with patients, misdiagnosis of illnesses, unsanitary conditions and poorly labeled medicines that contain toxic metals. [Radio Free Asia]

Throughout history — including in the American South — slaves have always experienced variable degrees of brutality. Nat Turner and Sally Hemmings lived in different circumstances, but the forced servitude of both was disgraceful. The fact that the conditions of servitude for some North Koreans are relatively benign when compared to the conditions experienced by others (at home, or in Siberia) in no way excuses the evil of imposing the terms or conditions of labor on another person, regardless of her will.

The use of North Koreans as doctors and nurses in Africa is an aspect of the story I did not know much about. Given the deplorable state of North Korea’s own health care system, it seems criminal of Pyongyang to send its doctors and nurses abroad to earn cash, until you read the reports of the quack cures the North Koreans are foisting on their African patients. Viewed in that light, the quality of the services North Koreans are denied seems dubious. The crime is shifted to a different class of victims instead.

Legally, each of these reports is pregnant with legal significance. Any of these reports would be “credible information” that would trigger a mandatory investigation under section 102(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Under section 104(a)(5), persons who knowingly engage in, are responsible for, or facilitate “serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea” are subject to mandatory sanctions, including the blocking of their assets and the denial of visas to enter the United States. Executive Order 13722, which implements the new law, blocks the dollars of persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury 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.” Note that the executive order does not specify “forced” or “slave” labor.

This means that any of these enterprises that run transactions through the dollar system are subject to severe sanctions.

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President Park demands end to North Korea’s “tyranny”

Park Geun-hye has a long and distinguished history of saying next to nothing about human rights in North Korea, so these remarks are another welcome step in the right direction:

“I will sternly and strongly deal with North Korea … until North Korea embarks on the path toward denuclearization and ends the tyranny of oppressing the human rights of North Korean people and pushing them to starvation,” Park said in an annual meeting with South Korea’s top envoys around.

A U.N. report showed last year that about 70 percent of North Korea’s 24 million people are suffering due to food shortages. It said 1.8 million, including children and pregnant women, are in need of nutritional food supplies aimed at fighting malnutrition. [Yonhap]

With the U.N. increasingly calling for the prosecution of His Corpulency for crimes against humanity, South Korea risks being sidelined by foreigners as a force in its own history. Park’s words are welcome, but the ones who really need to hear them are the North Koreans themselves. South Korea could gradually, patiently, and clandestinely build a base of influence among them by helping to provide for the unmet needs that their own government refuses to meet.


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South Korean National Assembly passes human rights bill. Finally.

Last month, I leveled some bitter criticism at South Korea’s opposition Minju Party for blocking North Korean human rights legislation (ironically enough, “Minju” means “democracy”). This week, after an eleven-year battle, the opposition finally gave up its obstructionism, yielded to the tides of morality and history, and allowed the bill to pass the National Assembly. The final vote for 212 for and 24 abstentions (and none against?).

Belated as it was, this victory gives us some reasons to rejoice. First, it’s a hopeful sign that some in the Minju Party are breaking with their tradition of anti-anti-North Korean willful blindness to the horrors in the North. This is fresh evidence that South Korea’s political realignment on North Korea policy goes on.

Second, we finally get to see what the bill does in enough detail to see that it does some useful things, which I’ll discuss in ascending order of importance. It creates committees and commissions studies to keep human rights issues in the government’s policy and plans. As with the American analog to the South Korean bill, it is sometimes necessary to force diplomats not to forget such things. When it becomes law, the bill will also require Seoul “to seek human rights talks with North Korea.”

There will be needed reforms to humanitarian aid programs, prioritizing “children and pregnant women as being the main recipients of government humanitarian aid,” and mandating that aid “should be monitored for transparency in accordance with international standards.” This reflects concerns that, as Yonhap puts it, “past government food assistance ended up in the hands of the North Korean military and the ruling elites instead of helping ordinary people.”

Then there is the weighty question of accountability, which has been much on the mind of Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman and Justice Michael Kirby. One of the bill’s more controversial provisions was its creation of an archive of human rights abuses in North Korea. The opposition objected to the prosecutorial implications of housing this database in the Justice Ministry and wanted it kept in the Unification Ministry. In the end, the ruling Saenuri Party mostly got its way — the Unification Ministry will collect, archive, publish the information, but will also share it with the Justice Ministry.

The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

The bill’s most consequential provisions direct a new human rights archive to collect and publish “information about human rights in North Korea,” to Korean audiences on both sides of the DMZ. That pleases some of us …

“We in the Global Coalition are delighted that the South Korean government will—for the first time ever—finance the defector organizations that send films, e-books, radio broadcasts, and educational materials to the North Korean people.”

The North Korean Human Rights Act also establishes a public campaign to raise awareness about North Korea’s human rights violations and takes steps to ensure that South Korean humanitarian aid is not misused by the Kim regime. The goal of establishing the human rights archive, inspired by the post-war German model, is to monitor and document the crimes of the North Korean dictatorship. It is vital to note that no such archive or record has ever existed in South Korea. [Human Rights Foundation]

… and makes other people deeply uncomfortable.

Some critics say the foundation may assist civic groups that send leaflets or make radio broadcasts to North Korea to provide information to people about their authoritarian homeland. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

As if that’s a bad thing. As if North Korea doesn’t have extensive propaganda and influence operations of its own in South Korea. It’s not like the North Koreans have a legitimate complaint here, but legitimacy has never been an object for Pyongyang. Its state media says that enactment of the bill into law will result in “miserable ruin.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Of the many heroes in this story, none stands greater than former political prisoner, lawmaker, and Governor of Kyonggi Province Kim Moon-soo, whom I profiled here and here during the Paleozoic era of this blog. Kim sponsored the original form of this legislation back in 2005, near the height of the Sunshine Policy’s popularity.

“While its passage is long overdue, the country can now defect (sic: deflect?) international criticism for not approving a North Korean human rights law,” said Kim Moon-soo, who first submitted the law 11 years ago. “People inside the North will know about the law’s enactment and it will put considerable pressure on the political elite in Pyongyang.” [Yonhap]

One day, Governor Kim will make a fine President of a united Korea. Let’s also remember the hard work of Hwang Woo-yea, who fought for years to get this bill through the National Assembly.

Other proponents, including Kim Seong-min of Free North Korea radio and Park Sang-hak of Fighters for a Free North Korea, both refugees from North Korea who became dissidents in exile — and at least one of them, the target of an assassination attempt by North Korean agents — were more skeptical. Understandably, both complained about the long delay in the bill’s passage.

Kim Seong-min, head of Free North Korea Radio, based in Seoul, said it took too long for the bill to be passed, especially in light of the suffering endured by North Koreans all these years. The defector-turned-activist, who came to the South in 1999, voiced hope that the new law would give civic groups in the South championing North Korean human rights “big momentum” to speed their work and help get outside information into the North. [….]

Others like Park Sang-hak, head of a leading civic group that flies anti-North leaflets across the border, criticized the bill for having a clause that calls for improvement in inter-Korea relations. “I don’t see why the bill encourages dialogue with an evil-natured regime,” said the activist. [Yonhap]

Another reason to rejoice is that the hard work of NGOs like the Human Rights Foundation, among many others, paid off. Thor Halvorssen, Garry Kasparov, and the HRF had joined the push for the bill and were understandably pleased by its passage.

Last September, the Global Coalition visited Seoul to campaign for the Act and hosted a widely-publicized press conference that included Garry Kasparov, Serbian democracy advocate Srdja Popovic, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and South Korean lawyer Kim Tae-hoon. Other members of the Global Coalition include Malaysia’s opposition leader Nurul Izzah Anwar, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il, Peru’s former president Alejandro Toledo, Romania’s former president Emil Constantinescu, and Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yushchenko.

South Korea’s failure to pass the bill had become a global embarrassment.

“The Republic of Korea has taken its head out of the sand and has finally confronted the cruelty and horror of the North Korean dictatorship. It is a victory for all who support human rights and human dignity,” said HRF chairman Garry Kasparov. [Human Rights Foundation]

Oh, and this, via HRF:

Its North Korea program has resulted in multiple threats of violence emanating from the North Korean government including threats of assassination, bodily harm, and missile attacks on HRF staff, members, and associates. [Human Rights Foundation]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list … oh, never mind. Congratulations to all who fought for this soon-to-be law, and please donate your old flash drive to Flash Drives for Freedom.

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Of the North’s crimes against humanity, the world will ask, “Where was South Korea?”

South Korea’s political left, which has long been divided over whether to be violently pro-North Korean, ideologically pro-North Korean, or merely anti-anti-North Korean, has again blocked a vote in South Korea’s National Assembly on a North Korean human rights law that’s been languishing there since 2005. The law itself is weak bori-cha. It had been watered down until it did little more than fund NGOs seeking direct engagement with the North Korean people. But even as a symbolic gesture, as a beginning, and as a small preemptive apology to history, the bill deserved to pass.

The bill includes provisions to create a North Korean Human Rights Foundation that could fund non-governmental groups to conduct research and seek to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, educate South Koreans about rights conditions in North Korea, and provide humanitarian aid in line with international monitoring standards. The law would also establish a system to document and archive information about rights abuses by the North Korean government and its leaders that could be used for future efforts to pursue accountability for rights crimes, in line with similar international efforts.

The action by South Korea would help intensify international pressure on North Korea over its horrendous rights record, and would bring South Korea in line with other countries focused on rights concerns in North Korea. [Human Rights Watch]

On one hand, Korea’s left wants to use “quiet diplomacy” to address North Korea’s widespread, horrific, and present-day crimes against humanity — quiet diplomacy that in practice has never meant or accomplished anything. On the other hand, it fans the public and often hysterical rage against Japan over crimes against humanity that, as horrible as they were, happened 70 to 90 years ago in a world where mass murder and enslavement briefly became the global norm from Mauthausen to Babi Yar to Nanking to the Kolyma River.

There is no question that those past crimes justify rage. All the more so, when the Japanese government continues, incredibly, to say idiotic things like this. Although, it must be said, Japan has at least managed to pass a North Korean human rights law. That’s more than South Korea can say.

South Koreans’ rage against Japan’s past crimes is both sincere and justified. In the case of South Korea’s political left, it is also breathtakingly hypocritical when viewed alongside its culpable silence about Pyongyang’s present-day “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Here is a dismal and undeniable fact: no amount of rage will save even one of the aging Korean women who suffered so much at the hands of the Japanese army so long ago. It may, with a generous assist from some influential idiots in Japan, mean that the last survivors among them die without the small and inadequate measure of compensation promised to them. But fanning anti-Japanese is a convenient way for some Korean politicians — and for the Chinese and North Korean governments — to exploit them for all their political value until the end of their days. And for good reason, at least for South Korea’s cynical politicians and rapacious neighbors: it may help them dissolve a nascent security alliance that every sober-minded observer knows both countries need, thereby endangering millions of people, both born and yet to be born. 

Meanwhile, the world is waiting for South Korea’s rage against what goes on today, even as I write, and even as you read:

• Mr Ahn Myong-chol explained that there is no designated burial spot for inmates or a Korean-style tomb. Instead, they were simply placed in shallow holes in collective burial sites: “They sometimes buried bodies over other bodies. As we are digging the ground and we sometimes found the bones, and so if there is a [prison] mine, then surrounding hills, and mountains would be something like a cemetery. There is no actual cemetery for political prisoners…”

• Mr Kang Chol-hwan remembered that he buried over 300 bodies during his 10 years in Political Prison Camp No. 15 at Yodok. Inmates assigned to bury the bodies stripped them of their clothes so as reuse or barter them. Eventually, the camp authorities simply bulldozed the hill used for burials to turn it into a corn field: “As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of friends vomited.

The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface.”

781. Former prisoners and guards interviewed by the Commission all concurred that death was an ever present feature of camp life. In light of the overall secrecy surrounding the camp, it is very difficult to estimate how many camp inmates have been executed, were worked to death or died from starvation and epidemics. However, based on the little the outside world knows about the horrors of the prison camps, even a conservative estimate leads the Commission to find that hundreds of thousands of people have perished in the prison camps since their establishment more than 55 years ago. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry report]

What can still save Korean women, men, and children is for South Koreans to lead the world in speaking out against these crimes, and against the Chinese government for enabling them. That will not happen as long as South Korea is confused and divided, and as long as the rest of the world asks, “Where is South Korea?”

Germany 1945

[As the Germans and the Japanese did before them, they will say they did not know.]

Indeed, for generations, the world will ask, “Where was South Korea?” 

“South Korea arguably has the greatest interest of any country in improving human rights in North Korea, yet unlike some of its allies, it has made no legislative commitment to that task,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Passing this bill would ensure that human rights issues in the North are not pushed aside for political convenience on the Korean peninsula, now or in the future.” [Human Rights Watch]

Modern South Korea’s apathy to the mass murder of its countrymen in the North isn’t just an embarrassment to its own history. It is an embarrassment to human history.

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Update: The Korea Times is now reporting that the bill’s proponents will try again. Hat tip: Jonathan Cheng.

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Rev. Tim Peters is feeding N. Korea’s hungry, and showing us how to re-think food aid

The Rev. Tim Peters, a man who embodies everything I admire about the word “Christian,” leads the group Helping Hands Korea, which has been helping North Koreans escape for more than a decade. Now, he’s putting into action what I call “guerrilla engagement,” reaching inside North Korea covertly and helping its oppressed and starved classes achieve material independence. He’s doing it by harnessing the private sotoji farms that operate on the edge of legality, and which may have saved North Korea from famine last year.

Rather than just spiriting a trickle of refugees to freedom abroad, he is also smuggling nutrient-rich vegetable seeds into North Korea, in a bold effort to provide food security for the 24.9 million people still trapped behind its barbed wire borders.

This campaign comes at a critical time. Due to some minor land reforms in the North, rural families now are allowed to cultivate tiny plots of land privately. A China-based refugee explained to him: “We have the land now, but we don’t have seeds.” [….]

Reverend Peters recalled of that time: “We sent the first batches into North Korea using various networks. Soon after that, another Catacombs member, Ed, mentioned that his grandfather bequeathed to him a chestnut orchard some time ago. I half-jokingly said: ‘Ed, are all those chestnuts just rotting on the ground when you’re over here in Korea?’ The next thing I knew, his family had sent a big box of seeds from America as a donation to our initiative. That is how The Seed Project began.”

Catacombs volunteers — a motley assortment of graduate students, English teachers, military personnel, and local high school students — now gather weekly at a small art gallery. Their goal is to repackage high-quality vegetable seeds with Korean planting instructions, while keeping up-to-date on the latest North Korea headlines. This winter, they have prepped over one thousand units. [Rachel Stine, The World Post]

I’m proud to call Rev. Peters, and several other participants in this program, my friends:

Despite the religious nature of Peters’ approach, Catacombs enjoys significant support from human rights activists on the secular left. At any given meeting, a third of the attendees are atheist or agnostic. Included in this demographic is regular attendant Craig Urquhart. A Canadian activist, Craig recently donated approximately 100 packets of organic, heirloom seeds designed to grow well in frosty climates.

“It’s not like we’re sending Bibles North,” he said. “We’re sending seeds – food – and a path to a better future. Sending seeds North is one way to help North Koreans who suffer repression by their government. It slightly reduces their dependence on the state dictatorship and it fosters food independence. There’s no negative to this kind of engagement.”

Kurt Achin, a Seoul-based journalist and Catholic supporter of the program, remarked: “I met Tim in 2004 when I came over here to report on defectors and human rights. I am a huge supporter of his quiet approach.”

My only complaint about this otherwise groundbreaking article is that it cites low estimates of the percentage of food-insecure North Koreans. According to recent U.N. reports, that number is somewhere between 70 and 84 percent. Admittedly, U.N. assessments should be treated with skepticism; they may well be skewed by both regime manipulation and the hoarding of food, including sotoji-grown food.

The obvious challenge for this program will be to stay covert and avoid the state’s domination. After more than two decades of humanitarian aid from the U.N. and various NGOs — aid that has long been subject to diversion and manipulation — North Korea is still in a chronic food crisis despite being an industrialized society in a temperate zone with more than enough cash to feed every last North Korean. And after all, how different is the weather in North Korea (perpetual food crisis) from that in South Korea (no food crisis)?

Without a doubt, regime-sanctioned aid must have helped many (but certainly not most) needy North Koreans, but it has not solved the larger food crisis, and may even be contributing to it. As Benjamin K. Silberstein writes, “Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.” Or, as Nicholas Eberstadt wrote recently:

There is one final, and particularly bitter, piece in the puzzle: the role of foreign aid in financing and ultimately facilitating North Korea’s ruin. Mirror statistics reveal that the DPRK has never been self-supporting. To the contrary, it has relied on a perennial inflow of foreign resources to sustain itself. Since 1960, North Korea has reportedly received more than $60 billion (in today’s dollars) more merchandise from abroad than it has shipped overseas. Nearly $45 billion of that came from Beijing and Moscow—a figure we can treat as a rough approximation of total Chinese and Soviet/Russian financial support.

Why didn’t these massive transfers result in any appreciable measure of long-term economic advancement? The work of economists Craig Burnside, David Dollar and Lant Pritchett, published in the late 1990s under the aegis of the World Bank, suggests an answer: Aid can have a negative effect on growth when a recipient state has a bad business climate, because foreign subsidies allow the regime, in the short term, to escape the consequences of its misrule. In such cases, the greater the volume of aid, the bigger the harm.

Unfortunately, North Korea’s horrific economic performance was enabled in part by leaders abroad who sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang. Those resources allowed the Kim dynasty to continue policies so patently destructive that they would have been forced to cease, or at least to moderate, them absent subsidy from overseas.

International aid workers and humanitarian policy makers have always feared that foreign assistance, through cascading mishaps, might leave recipients poorer and worse off in the end. [Wall Street Journal]

If Helping Hands can keep operating below the state’s radar, it can be a small beginning for a series of far greater things. With material independence comes intellectual independence. If you want to donate to Helping Hands Korea, here’s a link.

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At the U.N., China shields Kim Jong-Un from prosecution, but not isolation (updates)

In February, two years will have passed since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released its historic report on human rights in North Korea, finding “human rights abuses on a scale ‘without parallel in the contemporary world,’ comparable to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.” The bad news is that we’re still just talking about this. The good news is that America, and most of the world, are uniting around the importance of holding Kim Jong-Un accountable for those crimes.

samantha power

[Samantha Power addresses the Security Council on North Korea last year. Via.]

Last December, the U.S., with support from the U.K., France, and Japan, succeeded in having the North Korea’s crimes against humanity added to the U.N. Security Council’s permanent agenda. Today, the U.S. leveraged its presidency of the Security Council to convene a meeting on that subject. There, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power gave an address whose words lived up to her name. You really should read it in full, but this will give you the flavor of it:

It is not only the blanket denial of enjoyment of freedom of expression and these infernal conditions in the prisoner camps that persist – but all of the grave human rights violations perpetrated by this regime: the summary executions; the use of torture; the decades of enforced disappearances with no accountability, including of citizens from neighboring countries, whose families continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The list is long, the abuses vast, and the anguish profound.

The systematic human rights violations persist for a simple reason: the North Korean government wants them to. They continue because the State still seeks to intentionally dehumanize, terrorize, and abuse its own people. The regime depends on this climate of fear and violence to maintain its grip on power. [….]

We must continue to take steps that one day will help us hold accountable the individuals responsible for the horrors like those experienced by our guests today. We cannot let immediate obstacles to accountability undermine our determination to document atrocities and identify those who order and carry them out, so that one day the perpetrators will be brought to justice. [….]

Our continuing spotlight on this situation sends a clear message that we hope will reach the North Korean people, tight as the regime’s control over information may be: We will not turn a blind eye to your suffering. You, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. And we will continue to press for the nightmare you are living to end. To the regime, our message is just as clear: We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them. [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Dec. 10, 2015]

I’ve never heard an American diplomat denounce the tyranny in Pyongyang so … powerfully. The language is even more confrontational than that of a former U.S. diplomat who, in 2005, called North Korea “a hellish nightmare.” The former diplomat’s words caused a small uproar then, among politicians and members of the commentariat who thought this was an undiplomatic thing to say to a murderous despot. Shortly thereafter, this diplomat was also nominated to be our U.N. Ambassador. Then, the Junior Senator from Massachusetts opposed his nomination, in part because of the mean things he said about Kim Jong-Il.

Now, the ex-senator is our Secretary of State and the boss of the current U.N. Ambassador. Ambassador Power’s strong words just might give Kim Jong-Un’s minions reason to hesitate in the pursuit of their atrocities, so I hope there won’t be an uproar against her. If there isn’t, a charitable interpretation of the disparate reaction is that the global consensus has shifted.

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Power also addressed North Korea’s threats against the U.N. itself:

North Korea continues to demonstrate that regimes which flagrantly violate the human rights of their own people almost always show similar disdain for the rules that help ensure our shared security. We see this in the DPRK’s flouting of prohibitions imposed by the Security Council on its nuclear and ballistic missile activities, including by undertaking launches. We see it in the destabilizing rhetoric the DPRK routinely uses to threaten the annihilation of its neighbors. And we see it in the DPRK’s aggressive response, as the High Commissioner has mentioned, to the opening of an office in Seoul by the OHCHR – an office aimed at gathering ongoing information on human rights conditions in the DPRK.

In March of this year, before the OHCHR office opened, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea – a DPRK-sponsored group, like every other group allowed to exist in the country – said that, “as soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May, a DPRK-controlled newspaper issued a near identical threat. And in June, the regime issued a statement accusing “hostile forces” of using the UN office to “make confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights.” It is hard to imagine another UN Member State making such threats against a UN office or staff; and we as a Council cannot take them lightly.

This is part of a well-established pattern of intimidation and escalation by the DPRK in response to criticism of its human rights record.

Hmm — a pattern of using threats of violence to intimidate non-combatants for political purposes. Someone should come up with a word for that sort of thing. Also, someone should teach it to Ambassador Power’s State Department colleagues in Washington.

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China and Russia “worked behind the scenes to block the debate.” They convinced Angola and Venezuela to join them in voting against holding the meeting, but they were outvoted 9 to 4, with two abstentions. Before the meeting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece said, “We have always opposed the involvement of the U.N. Security Council in a country’s human rights issues.” (Has anyone in Beijing read the U.N. Charter? One of its first stated purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”) Power had an answer for this, too:

I would like to address those who believe that what is happening in the DPRK is not a threat to peace and security. I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don’t think that. So, could this level of horror be seen as neutral? A level of horror unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Is it neutral – have no effect at all on regional and international peace and security? Really? None? It stretches credulity and it sounds more like cynicism. These arguments – some of which we’ve heard here today – will not go down well in history, particularly when North Korea opens up. For those who have charged double standards, I would ask: where are there in the world conditions like these ones, like the conditions behind the lines of the DPRK? Where? This regime has no double.

The Commission of Inquiry Report itself said that the human rights situation in North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” [….]

No member of this Council, or of the UN, can afford to ignore this situation.

Power also called on “UN Member States, and particularly members of this Council,” to “stop sending people who try to flee” back to North Korea, where “gruesome punishments” await them. Not much doubt about who she meant there.

In the end, China couldn’t shield North Korea from the bad publicity. Instead, it shared it.

~   ~   ~

For most of the journalists covering the meeting, the big headline was the call by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to bring North Korean officials responsible for these crimes before the International Criminal Court.

In a strong speech, Hussein called Pyongyang’s human rights violations dangers to “international peace and security,” and denounced its threats to the U.N.’s Seoul Field Office as “wholly unacceptable.” He spoke of the continued “vulnerabilities” of North Korea’s poor to hunger due to the “systemic failure” of state distribution system, and “social inequalities.” He cited widespread “gender-based violence,” which he attributed to a lack of “awareness that such violence is unacceptable.” (Gloria Steinem, take note.)

Hussein’s call for criminal accountability followed calls by both the U.N. Commission of Inquiry and the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights.

~   ~   ~

Depending on your perspective, the consequences of the Commission of Inquiry’s report have been either negligible or profound. True, neither the U.S., Japan, South Korea, or the EU has passed a resolution, imposed effective sanctions, or changed its policies materially. Chinese and Russian obstructionism has prevented the Security Council from acting, and there is little chance that Kim Jong-Un will face justice anytime soon. Our banks are helping His Corpulency fatten himself on foreign delicacies, and he continues to shore up the foundations of his palaces, if only by packing their crawlspaces with the corpses of those who once served his father.

But language like Power’s and Hussein’s can contribute to a crisis of legitimacy for Kim Jong-Un, a leader whose consolidation of power has shown some signs of unsteady progress. The COI report has cost him his international legitimacy by defining him as a mass murderer. It has also given an elucidating context to his nuclear tests, cyberattacks, and other provocations — after all, if he has so little regard for North Korean life, what regard could he possibly have for ours?

In 2012, a large share of the commentariat spoke of him as a Swiss-educated reformer; today, only a few sycophants and lunatics still do. This shift of perceptions will also have policy and financial consequences. It will transform North Korea into an international pariah, isolate it, and deny it access to hard currency it needs to survive. Eventually, the loss of that access will force Pyongyang to choose between reform and extinction.

~   Updates, Dec. 11   ~

In this video, Hussein answers reporters’ questions after the Security Council meeting. In response to Chinese arguments that the UNSC shouldn’t address human rights, Hussein argued, in effect, that North Korea’s defiance of standards is likely to engulf the region in war (and look no further than Syria or Libya for examples of how that could happen). He also made the point that a country that kidnaps the citizens of neighboring countries is a clear threat to international peace and security.

Hussein also reveals that the North Koreans invited him to visit, separately from the invitation they had extended to Ban Ki-Moon. This represents a change of strategy for the North Koreans, who denied or ignored repeated requests by the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur to visit. Recently, after a General Assembly resolution called for holding the North’s leaders accountable for their crimes, the Rodong Sinmun called the vote a U.S.-orchestrated plot to use “the non-existent ‘human rights’ issue,” “fabricated with falsified data,” to “discredit the DPRK and ultimately bring down by force of arms the social system the Korean people chose themselves.” Naturally, they threatened to answer this “ill-intended inveterate repugnancy” by building more nukes.

There are still no details on the timing, agenda, or venues, and one wonders if this really will happen. I’ve long feared that the North Koreans would take a (another?) page from the Nazis’ book and “prepare” one of their camps for a guided tour — and later, a propaganda movie — the way the Nazis did with the Danish Red Cross at Theresienstadt. With the ruse successfully completed, the SS sent everyone who appeared in the film to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Indeed, despite the consensus that, overall, nothing has improved in North Korea, the Daily NK has reported that conditions do seem to have improved “marginally” for non-political prisoners in some of the “reeducation” camps, because of international scrutiny and the fear of accountability.

“Detailed instructions have been handed down, ordering officials not to torture those in for financial crimes, violence, and even narcotics,” the source added. “However, this is not the case for those in because of political offenses such as watching South Korean TV dramas and other ‘non-socialist’ acts, so beatings and violence against them continue.” [Daily NK]

Obedience to the new guidance appears to be uneven, and this report follows earlier reports that conditions had gotten much worse at one of the reeducation camps, at Cheongo-ri. (None of this concerns the much larger political prison camps, such as Camps 14, 15, or 16.) That’s why the Red Cross shouldn’t settle for anything less than a permanent presence at the camps.

~   ~   ~

I had intended (but forgotten) to mention in yesterday’s post that South Korea was recently chosen to lead the Human Rights Council for a year. Although I’d like to see South Korea amend its National Security Law to decriminalize non-violent speech, by almost any measure, South Korea is a much better choice than some of the other alternatives.

South Korea’s election is an inevitable appointment with history and destiny, but when South Korean officials say nonsensical things like this, I wonder if they’re about to flunk it. On the other hand, according to Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, “It would seem that the government of (South) Korea has geared itself towards the eventuality that accountability will have to be taken within the context of the unification process.”

I guess we’ll see just what the South Koreans are prepared to push for. In the end, South Korea is the only country with a claim to jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula, which means it could, in theory, circumvent the Security Council and (with a mandate from the General Assembly) convene an independent international tribunal under its domestic laws. This has actually been done, in Cambodia, also due to Chinese obstructionism. Whether South Korea is prepared to defy China and anger North Korea that way is doubtful today, especially under a Park Geun-Hye presidency.

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