Trump’s speech in Seoul was the best thing he’s done. In his entire life.

Just over nine months into his presidency, Donald Trump is best known for two qualities: doing terrible things, and doing things terribly. Inevitably, he and his party are starting to pay the political price for that. But this is not a blog about Obamacare, The Wall, Richard Spencer, Twitter fights with the grieving parents of dead heroes, or the Russia investigation. There are other blogs for those subjects. This is a blog about North Korea, which leads to my paradox.

During the 13-year history of this blog, I’ve watched president after president demur on Pyongyang’s growing nuclear menace with soothing palliatives, taking the counsel of tenured geniuses who’ve grown in their influence despite being consistently wrong about Pyongyang’s intentions. I’ve watched in frustration as North Korea became the greatest national security crisis of our time, and never quite became the great moral crisis that it rightfully deserves to be. Yet now, however improbably — though it may have something to do with rejecting the counsel of tenured geniuses — I think I just watched Donald Trump become the first American president to articulate a coherent North Korea policy.

In his speech to the Korean National Assembly last night, Trump struck precisely the right tone: unyielding in the defense of our core interests and allies, forceful as he twisted the economic screws on Kim Jong-un, flexible enough to leave him a peaceful exit, strong without being bellicose, and above all, compassionate toward the North Korean people who share our interest in seeing their homeland become peaceful and humane. If you haven’t seen it yet, or if you have and your thoughts on it haven’t quite congealed, then watch it here.

Of course, many who read the title of this post immediately thought, “You set a low bar.” Of course, Trump didn’t write the speech himself. Of course, it would have been a completely different speech if Steve Bannon had written it. And of course, I still have criticisms, including his gratuitous plug for his golf course, and his description of Pyongyang’s terrorism that never quite found the clarity to call it by its legal name.

Since the so-called armistice, there have been hundreds of North Korean attacks on Americans and South Koreans. These attacks have included the capture and torture of the brave American soldiers of the USS Pueblo, repeated assaults on American helicopters, and the 1969 drowning [downing] of a U.S. surveillance plane that killed 31 American servicemen. The regime has made numerous lethal incursions in South Korea, attempted to assassinate senior leaders, attacked South Korean ships, and tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man’s death.

But the speech did much to close the biggest hole in the President’s policy, by speaking clearly of the suffering of the North Korean people. Careful listeners will have heard the President cite the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the research of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the gulag memoir of Kang Chol-hwan.

Workers in North Korea labor grueling hours in unbearable conditions for almost no pay. Recently, the entire working population was ordered to work for 70 days straight, or else pay for a day of rest.

Families live in homes without plumbing, and fewer than half have electricity. Parents bribe teachers in hopes of saving their sons and daughters from forced labor. More than a million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s, and more continue to die of hunger today.

Among children under the age of five, nearly 30 percent of afflicted — and are afflicted by stunted growth due to malnutrition. And yet, in 2012 and 2013, the regime spent an estimated $200 million — or almost half the money that it allocated to improve living standards for its people — to instead build even more monuments, towers, and statues to glorify its dictators.

What remains of the meager harvest of the North Korean economy is distributed according to perceived loyalty to a twisted regime. Far from valuing its people as equal citizens, this cruel dictatorship measures them, scores them, and ranks them based on the most arbitrary indications of their allegiance to the state. Those who score the highest in loyalty may live in the capital city. Those who score the lowest starve. A small infraction by one citizen, such as accidently staining a picture of the tyrant printed in a discarded newspaper, can wreck the social credit rank of his entire family for many decades.

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor, and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis.

In one known instance, a 9-year-old boy was imprisoned for 10 years because his grandfather was accused of treason. In another, a student was beaten in school for forgetting a single detail about the life of Kim Jong-un.

Soldiers have kidnapped foreigners and forced them to work as language tutors for North Korean spies.

This language will have made many of those in the audience — especially those in President Moon’s party — deeply uneasy, because of the power of the words that were its greatest virtue. As I listened, I wondered how North Koreans might react to these words. Try to strip away your own biases about Trump, although I wonder how many of you can. Try to imagine yourself as a student in Pyongyang or a trader in Hoeryong. Some, of course, will think back to Trump’s recent war threats and cling to the narrative that a wolf cannot become a sheep. But in my experience, we underestimate the intelligence and critical thinking skills of North Koreans. To at least some of the North Koreans who hear these words — if they ever do hear them — the compassion of those words could begin to confuse the narrative of America as their enemy.

Other passages might undermine the regime’s narrative that the world is in awe of their emperor, and thus, they must hold him in awe, too. Trump challenged that narrative when he addressed Kim Jong-un directly and declined to reward the perverse incentive of allowing nuclear weapons — which Kim Jong-un would use to threaten our own core interests and liberties, and thus, our own political system — to become a means to secure his own misrule.

I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship: The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face.

North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet, despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer, and we will do that — we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization. (Applause.)

A sky-top view of this peninsula shows a nation of dazzling light in the South and a mass of impenetrable darkness in the North. We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace. But we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program.

The sinister regime of North Korea is right about only one thing: The Korean people do have a glorious destiny, but they could not be more wrong about what that destiny looks like. The destiny of the Korean people is not to suffer in the bondage of oppression, but to thrive in the glory of freedom. (Applause.)

I don’t doubt that many in the tenured genius class will be aghast. That may be why this was the speech that Trump’s predecessors ought to have given five, ten, or twenty years ago and didn’t. The challenge with such a polarizing President is to hold onto one’s objectivity and transcend partisanship in the name of patriotism. My view now is just what it was one year ago — that the patriot’s duty is to criticize unjust policies and help the President make and execute good ones. The people can only choose one president at a time. In the case of North Korea, too much is at stake, and there is too little time, to wait to help the next president do it better.

Trump’s most inflexible supporters view all criticism of him as betrayal, while his most inflexible critics view all commendation of him as buying a first-class ticket on the express train to Vichy. Maybe my work helps me to separate my political views from my views on specific policies. I’ve voted against every American president of my adult life at least once, but gone on to serve them all loyally as a civil servant or an Army officer. In both capacities, my oath was to the Constitution alone. Of course, the Constitution gives the President great power, and our job is to help the President carry out his constitutional prerogatives, whether we agree with his policies or not. We do that, and then we go home and log into Facebook or WordPress to represent and express our own views as private citizens, just like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Bret Harte all did in the last century.

Now, if only he can execute the policy he has articulated. As I write, his meeting with Xi Jinping is testing his commitment to that execution. If he fails, the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate.

~    ~   ~

Update: North Korea’s reaction was about what you’d expect.

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How Congress forced the State Department to confront Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity

Last Friday’s post was not the first time I’ve criticized the Trump administration for the inadequacy of its recognition that America shares common interests with the North Korean people in a less murderous North Korean government. I’ve also criticized the inadequacy of the administration’s public diplomacy advocating for those common interests. Long-time readers know I also criticized the last president and the president before that one. But shortly after I published Friday’s post, as if on cue, the State Department issued a new report detailing Pyongyang’s censorship and other abuses of the people. I couldn’t have been more pleased to be refuted. State’s report even drives home the essential point that Pyongyang’s pursuit of the means to terrorize us is inseparable from its acts to terrorize its own people. Someone gets it.

This report continues to shine a spotlight on the serious human rights abuses committed by the Government of North Korea, including those involving extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, as well as rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence inside the country. Many of the country’s human rights abuses underwrite the regime’s weapons program, including forced labor in the form of mass mobilizations, re-education through labor camps, and overseas labor contracts. Thousands of North Koreans are sent abroad every year to work in slave-like conditions, earning revenue for the regime. [U.S. State Dep’t]

The report then names and shames individual top officials of the Military Security Command, the Ministry of the Peoples’ Security (MPS), the Ministry of Labor, and a construction company that employs forced labor.

And the report did, indeed, “shine a light” on those abuses. The Wall Street Journal covered the slave labor designations here. The Washington Post covered them here, and published a video report with an exclusive interview of North Korean slave laborers in Mongolia, showing the squalid quarters they’re packed into — living, eating, and shitting together like livestock.

Treasury then follows State’s bill of particulars by adding those officials to its list of specially designated nationals, which freezes any dollar-denominated assets they’ve hidden abroad.

OFAC identified the Military Security Command, also known as the Military Security Bureau or the Korean People’s Army Security Bureau, pursuant to E.O. 13722 as an agency, instrumentality, or controlled entity of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. OFAC also designated Jo Kyong-Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command, and Sin Yong Il, the Deputy Director of the Military Security Command, pursuant to E.O. 13687 for being officials of the Government of North Korea. According to the Department of State, the Military Security Command monitors military personnel for anti-regime activity and investigates political crimes in the military, and it has been described by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry as “the military’s own secret police.” [U.S. Treasury Dep’t]

This represents a strategically smart attack on the military’s immune system against rising — and increasingly violent — dissent among the enlisted ranks. If the MSC can’t pay its cadres, those cadres will have no choice but to neglect their duties and turn to bribery or smuggling to get by, internal discipline will continue to weaken, and Pyongyang will see that time is not on its side.

An even more welcome designation, coming just as the President prepares to leave for Beijing, was this one:

OFAC designated Ri Thae Chol, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) First Vice Minister of the Ministry of People’s Security, Ku Sung Sop, Consul General in Shenyang, China, and Kim Min Chol, a diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in Vietnam, pursuant to E.O. 13687 for being officials of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. Ku Sung Sop and Kim Min Chol are also associated with the Ministry of State Security and, according to the State Department, have participated in the forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers. On July 6, 2016, OFAC designated the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security 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. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t]

No previous administration has ever sanctioned anyone for involvement in the inhumane and illegal repatriation of North Koreans from China to Kim Jong-un’s gulag. The administration deserves particular commendation for doing this, especially now.

~   ~   ~

Shortly after the announcement of these designations, Isaac Stone Fish criticized them as disingenuous efforts to attack Pyongyang’s proliferation by back-handed means. Isaac may be struggling, as many others are, to separate his judgment of a polarizing president’s policies from his judgment of the President himself. But in this case, the policy decisions were right, and they had overwhelming bipartisan support from the Congress that mandated them.

The same was true in July 2016, when the Obama administration, almost certainly with the knowledge of the President himself, designated Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses. Administration officials told me at the time that this decision was imminent regardless of Congress’s actions, but it did not happen until the coming of a statutory deadline in a law Congress passed by a veto-proof, nearly unanimous vote. Politically, President Obama had little choice but to sign the law. Title III and section 104(a) of that law, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, required the President to investigate North Korean officials responsible for human rights abuses, designate them, and impose a series of serious sanctions on them. Now it is the Trump administration that must comply.

That’s why we shouldn’t view the new human rights sanctions against North Korea through a partisan lens. I write as one with first-hand knowledge of exactly what motivated the Republican and Democratic staffers who drafted the legislation that mandated those sanctions. Their motives did not arise from partisan conflict, but from humanitarian compassion and institutional conflict. Congress writes forcing mechanisms into sanctions laws because it has lost confidence in the State Department to do what our elected representatives want it to do — to attach financial, diplomatic, and political consequences to Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity.

Chairman Ed Royce, whose views are shaped by his father’s presence at the liberation of Dachau, and who probably has more influence on North Korea policy than anyone in Washington today, has long spoken with sincere passion about human rights in North Korea. So have his many Korean-American constituents. Ranking Member Elliot Engel is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. Engel must be conscious of the fact that his immigrant ancestors left behind communities that were later exterminated during the Holocaust. I know I’ve had similar thoughts about the communities my own ancestors left behind in Belarus and Hungary. Those thoughts have helped to motivate me to write here for more than a decade.

Royce was also one of the strongest critics of George W. Bush’s 2007 agreement to lift sanctions against Pyongyang, while sidelining human rights and effectively nullifying the North Korean Human Rights of 2004. In the short term, State protected its prerogative to do nothing with great skill and guile. But in the long term, the price State paid was a loss of confidence that still endures in the form of forcing mechanisms that divest it of that discretion. We learned some bitter lessons from the North Korean Human Rights Act. One of them was to write basic human rights conditions for the lifting of sanctions into the statute itself.

In 2004, it was easier legally, politically, and diplomatically to sideline human rights. Today, Congress is far less likely to overlook it, the U.N. continues to talk about it, and NGOs and journalists — with the obvious exception of the New York Times — are paying more attention to it. Pyongyang may protest at the mention of human rights as though it fears for its very survival, and some in the State Department may view Pyongyang’s objections as obstructions to their myopic goals, but this is not an issue that will go gently away.

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Thae Yong-ho will testify at the House of Representatives next week

For those who have not read my previous posts about him, Thae was the number two diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London before he defected just over one year ago. Since his defection, Thae, who speaks excellent English, has shown his potential to be a powerful messenger to the world, and to the elites in Pyongyang, about the nature of the regime he once defended.

His testimony comes at a time when Kim Jong-un appears to have slowed a stream of high-level defections that had threatened to start a preference cascade and expose the regime’s entire overseas financial network. In recent months — perhaps coincidentally, since approximately the time Moon Jae-in took power in South Korea and appointed a former pro-North Korean, anti-American activist as his Chief of Staff — we’ve read about fewer high-profile defections and heard less from Thae himself. Whether that surge of defections has halted or merely gone unreported isn’t clear.

It also comes at a time when the U.S. government is also downplaying the importance of human rights in North Korea, sending messages that North Korean refugees are unwelcome, and merging the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights into a full-time part-time job instead of using it as a global pulpit for a more humane, tough-love policy.

The slowing of those defections also coincides with a campaign by the hard-left lawyers of Minbyun — a campaign largely ignored by the foreign press — to intimidate and expose refugees in the South. Pyongyang has also induced at least one high-profile defector into returning to Pyongyang and publicly renouncing the South, using means I can more easily guess based on past events than prove in this specific case. To gullible reporters, this campaign to publicize “re-defections” is evidence that North Koreans can’t adjust to life in a modern society. To more inquisitive journalists, and to the North Koreans themselves, the message will be the same one that Pyongyang’s assassins have delivered to refugees and Christian missionaries in China, to dissidents in South Korea, and at the airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur: “You can’t escape from us.” Perhaps Thae can better elucidate the reasons for this than I can.

Thae will testify at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building, on November 1st at 10:00 a.m. Because the government of North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism, security will be tight. The hearing will also be webcast live on the Committee’s website.

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CNN, UN Panel raise the pressure on Namibia over North Korea sanctions violations

Namibia (or as some refer to it locally, Nambia) has long been one of Africa’s worst violators of UN sanctions against North Korea, including by hosting an arms factory run by Mansudae Overseas Projects Group, in violation of an arms embargo that has been in effect since the adoption of UNSCR 1718 in 2006. It has also been a major consumer of North Korean slave labor (the export of which was only recently truncated by UNSCR 2375) and statues (also a recent ban, under UNSCR 2321). Mansudae itself was subsequently designated in UNSCR 2371. Because this commerce invariably caused dollars to change hands, this also meant that North Korean money launderers based in South Africa transited to and from Windhoek and made use of Namibian banks and a South African insurance company.

To add to the corruption of cherished institutions, I was even distressed to see some of Mansudae’s construction make a brief cameo in an episode of “The Grand Tour.”

The exposure of these illicit relationships began with the U.N. Panel of Experts’ report in March 2016. Because Namibia is functionally a one-party state that nonetheless has a vigorously free press, my own first post on its violations of the sanctions and potential consequences under U.S. law went viral in Namibia (see update). This was followed by some outstanding investigative reporting by Namibian journalist John Grobler for NK News, and sharp criticism in the Namibian press. The Namibian government initially pretended as if it was winding up those relationships, but in retrospect, it was probably just stalling for time until things settled down.

Now, CNN has added its own outstanding investigation to our information about North Korea and Namibia. Click the image to watch its video report.

One interesting detail in CNN’s report is that Namibia is a recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. Unfortunately for Namibia, under section 203 of the NKSPEA, as amended by section 313 of the KIMS Act, it now becomes ineligible for certain categories of U.S. assistance. Second and more acutely, now that there can be no doubt that its violations were knowing, continued violations subject the Namibian Defense Ministry to the mandatory asset freezes of NKSPEA section 104(a)(9).

The Namibian government clearly wants us to believe that it has terminated its relationships with North Korea. The speedy disappearance of the North Korean workers and its claims to CNN are unconvincing in this regard. They are also unconvincing to Hugh Griffiths of the U.N. Panel, who takes the extraordinary step of appearing in CNN’s broadcast to say so. U.N. sanctions don’t enforce themselves. It’s time for Namibia to come clean with the U.N. Panel, or to be made an example of.

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How the U.S. fishing industry can do its part to disarm Kim Jong-un

Long-time readers know that I’ve had many uncomplimentary things to say about the Associated Press’s North Korea coverage. Its still-undisclosed agreements with the North Korean government to open a bureau in Pyongyang sacrificed journalistic ethics for a dubious dividend of access. Since opening its bureau in 2012, AP and its state-supplied North Korean stringers have reported a great deal of North Korean government propaganda and almost no actual news, while ignoring major news stories (to include a hotel fire, a building collapse, the taking of at least a dozen foreign hostages, and multiple purge rumors).

Careful readers also know that I’ve singled out AP reporter Tim Sullivan as a bright spot in this dreary picture. Like most foreign reporters, Sullivan, who is not a part of AP’s Pyongyang bureau, does his best reporting from outside North Korea. The latest example is his outstanding investigative reporting, along with Seoul-based Hyung-Jin Kim and half a dozen others, finding evidence that Chinese fisheries are smuggling seafood packed by North Korean laborers into U.S. markets.

Through dozens of interviews, observation, trade records and other public and confidential documents, AP identified three seafood processors that employ North Koreans and export to the U.S.: Joint venture Hunchun Dongyang Seafood Industry & Trade Co. Ltd. & Hunchun Pagoda Industry Co. Ltd. distributed globally by Ocean One Enterprise; Yantai Dachen Hunchun Seafood Products, and Yanbian Shenghai Industry & Trade Co. Ltd.

They’re getting their seafood from China, Russia and, in some cases like snow crab, Alaska. Although AP saw North Korean workers at Hunchun Dongyang, manager Zhu Qizhen said they don’t hire North Korean workers any more and refused to give details. The other Chinese companies didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Shipping records seen by the AP show more than 100 cargo containers of seafood, more than 2,000 tons, were sent to the U.S. and Canada this year from the factories where North Koreans were working in China.

Packages of snow crab, salmon fillets, squid rings and more were imported by American distributors, including Sea-Trek Enterprises in Rhode Island, and The Fishin’ Company in Pennsylvania. Sea-Trek exports seafood to Europe, Australia, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. The Fishin’ Company supplies retailers and food service companies, as well as supermarkets.

American importers and retailers are already cutting their ties with these Chinese suppliers, which may be one reason why Chinese factories are sending their North Korean laborers home, despite the fact that new U.N. sanctions (see paragraph 17) allow the workers to serve out their (typically, three-year) contracts.

Often the seafood arrives in generic packaging, but some was already branded in China with familiar names like Walmart or Sea Queen, a seafood brand sold exclusively at ALDI supermarkets, which has 1,600 stores across 35 states. There’s no way to say where a particular package ends up, nor what percentage of the factories’ products wind up in the U.S.

Walmart spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said company officials learned in an audit a year ago that there were potential labor problems at a Hunchun factory, and that they had banned their suppliers, including The Fishin’ Company, from getting seafood processed there. She said The Fishin’ Company had “responded constructively” but did not specify how.

Some U.S. brands and companies had indirect ties to the North Korean laborers in Hunchun, including Chicken of the Sea, owned by Thai Union. Trade records show shipments came from a sister company of the Hunchun factory in another part of China, where Thai Union spokeswoman Whitney Small says labor standards are being met and the employees are all Chinese. Small said the sister companies should not be penalized.

Shipments also went to two Canadian importers, Morgan Foods and Alliance Seafood, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Boxes at the factories had markings from several major German supermarket chains and brands — All-Fish distributors, REWE and Penny grocers and Icewind brand. REWE Group, which also owns the Penny chain, said that they used to do business with Hunchun Dongyang but the contract has expired. All the companies that responded said their suppliers were forbidden to use forced labor. [AP]

The report is long and detailed, and well worth reading in full. The moral and national security hazards should be clear enough, so I’ll devote most of this post to the legal hazards for the companies involved in this trade. Let’s start with this one:

At a time when North Korea faces sanctions on many exports, the government is sending tens of thousands of workers worldwide, bringing in revenue estimated at anywhere from $200 million to $500 million a year. That could account for a sizable portion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, which South Korea says have cost more than $1 billion. [AP]

Of course, there is no direct evidence that the world’s most financially opaque regime is using its slave labor revenues to fund its nuclear program. As with the Kaesong Industrial Complex, however, the importer’s duty under UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), is to know where its money goes, and to “ensure” that Pyongyang is not using it for nukes. Ignorance is no defense, and cash is fungible. A dollar in Pyongyang’s bank accounts can just as well be used for centrifuge parts, barbed wire, cognac, or cell phone trackers.

Second, the U.N. Security Council has recently banned North Korean exports of seafood, and the KIMS Act authorizes sanctions against transactions in North Korean food exports or fishing rights. Transactions in North Korean forced labor are subject to mandatory sanctions under the NKSPEA, as “severe human rights abuses.” By exposing this latest example of China violating U.N. sanctions, the legal and diplomatic pressure on Beijing to enforce the sanctions it voted for increases.

Third, although these authorities are relatively recent, smuggling any North Korean products into the United States has long been a felony. Executive Order 13570, signed by President Obama in 2011, banned all imports of products made with North Korean goods, services, or technology. Because the authority for this executive order is the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, violations of this order are punishable by 20 years in prison, a $1 million fine, a $250,000 civil penalty, and even the forfeiture of any property “involved in” that transaction. The exporter also faces the risk of designation by the Treasury Department, which would freeze any assets that enter or transit the United States.

Fourth, Chinese fisheries that use North Korean laborers may face additional sanctions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The workers wake up each morning on metal bunk beds in fluorescent-lit Chinese dormitories, North Koreans outsourced by their government to process seafood that ends up in American stores and homes.

Privacy is forbidden. They cannot leave their compounds without permission. They must take the few steps to the factories in pairs or groups, with North Korean minders ensuring no one strays. They have no access to telephones or email. And they are paid a fraction of their salaries, while the rest — as much as 70 percent — is taken by North Korea’s government.

This use of North Korean labor also puts a powerful sanction in the hands of the U.S. fishing industry. Recall that in this post, I wrote about the similar problem of Chinese textile factories smuggling clothing made by North Korean workers, or using North Korean materials, into the United States, and noted how U.S. textile manufacturers have taken advantage of an obscure Customs regulation to bar Uzbek cotton* exports from entering U.S. commerce if those products may be made by convict or forced labor.

It’s unknown what conditions are like in all factories in the region, but AP reporters saw North Koreans living and working in several of the Hunchun facilities under the watchful eye of their overseers. The workers are not allowed to speak to reporters. However, the AP identified them as North Korean in numerous ways: the portraits of North Korea’s late leaders they have in their rooms, their distinctive accents, interviews with multiple Hunchun businesspeople. The AP also reviewed North Korean laborer documents, including copies of a North Korean passport, a Chinese work permit and a contract with a Hunchun company.

When a reporter approached a group of North Koreans — women in tight, bright polyester clothes preparing their food at a Hunchun garment factory — one confirmed that she and some others were from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Then a minder arrived, ordering the workers to be silent: “Don’t talk to him!” [AP]

Under section 321 of the KIMS Act, products made with North Korean labor now face a rebuttable presumption that they are made with forced labor, which means that Chinese seafood exports made with North Korean labor (whether inside or outside North Korea) could end up spoiling in warehouses or running up storage charges while the petition process runs its course. That, in turn, will incentivize bankers and insurers to do due diligence to ensure that Chinese exporters cleanse their supply chains of North Korean labor.

The reputational cost of using North Korea labor or materials may be just as effective as any legal sanction.

Every Western company involved that responded to AP’s requests for comment said forced labor and potential support for North Korea’s weapons program were unacceptable in their supply chains. Many said they were going to investigate, and some said they had already cut off ties with suppliers.

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood trade association in the U.S., said his group was urging all of its companies to immediately re-examine their supply chains “to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a dangerous dictator.”

“While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China,” said Connelly, “we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime.” [AP]

And lastly, lest this point be missed amid the other reasons to be outraged, North Korea’s poor have a severe protein deficiency in their diet. Why is Pyongyang allowed to export its main source of protein for cash while most of its people are malnourished?

~   ~   ~

* Previously said “Chinese seafood.” Since corrected.

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Do you own any clothing made in North Korea? (Answer: Don’t be so sure.)

The U.N. Security Council is reportedly considering a variety of new sanctions against North Korea over its latest missile test, and according to Reuters, a ban on textile exports is among the sanctions under consideration. For a few years, we’ve known that the export of textiles (or textile workers, who labor under sweatshop conditions for little or no pay) is increasingly lucrative for Pyongyang. I don’t need to explain that historically, textile work has lent itself to particularly exploitative labor arrangements.

As always with North Korea sanctions, enforcement is the rub. We can expect North Korean exporters to continue sewing “made in China” labels on their wares and sneaking them into foreign markets — including the United States — to defraud customs officials to get lower tariff rates, and to defraud consumers who would boycott North Korean products and the stores that sell them. In case you’re wondering, yes, we have a law against country-of-origin fraud, and yes, President Obama did sign an executive order prohibiting imports of goods made with North Korean goods, services, or technology (so that’s two felonies, in case you’re keeping count).

It’s entirely possible, of course, that retailers may be selling North Korean-made textiles without knowing it. This recent New York Times story, for example, claims that North Korean sweatshops sew “made in China” labels on their products. That’s consistent with other reports I’ve bookmarked over the years that Chinese exporters are conspiring to commit country-of-origin fraud. Way back in 2004, in the earliest days of this venerable blog, the Korea Times reported that JC Penney was importing and selling North Korean-made textiles in its stores. At the time, I wrote to JC Penney to inquire about the story. JC Penney wrote back promptly and strongly denied having ever imported or sold North Korean-made goods in its stores.

In other cases, manufacturers knowingly use North Korean labor while hoping we won’t find out about it. RipCurl Sportswear and Woolen Mills clothing both became objects of controversy recently for using North Korean labor. And of course, textiles were among the main products manufactured in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Textile export sanctions would be yet another blow to Moon Jae-In’s plans to revive Kaesong.

As with other facets of the North Korea problem, there isn’t just one answer to this problem. Part of the answer lies in better due diligence by merchants about their supply chains. Next, suspend your sense of historical irony and learn a lesson from the American cotton industry, which has waged an effective anti-slavery campaign against cheap imports made with Uzbek cotton. The cotton industry collected evidence that this cotton is often harvested with forced labor, and then joined forces with human rights NGOs to mount an effective public and political pressure campaign. It also made good use of this regulation to petition Customs and Border Protection to exclude the imports from U.S. commerce.

Finally, when NGOs, industry groups, and investigators discover evidence of fraudulent or illegal North Korean exports within U.S. jurisdiction — either because the transactions were cleared through U.S. banks, because a U.S. person was involved in a transaction facilitating the exports, or because the wares entered U.S. commerce — the U.S. government has several tools it can use to prosecute offenders, and to freeze or forfeit their assets. These include the prohibition against country-of-origin customs fraud, Executive Order 13570 , the new discretionary textile export sanctions authority in section 104(b)(1)(E) of the NKSPEA (as amended here), and the new sanctions against users of North Korean forced labor, which blacklist not only the manufacturers that use North Korean labor, but also the governments that tolerate it.

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Speaking out for the North Korean people is more than a full-time part-time job

For months, I’ve heard rumors that the Trump administration isn’t fond of special envoys, and quietly, some of us fretted that the administration was planning to eliminate the job of Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. As it turns out, Tillerson isn’t doing exactly that:

The functions and staff of the special envoy for North Korean human rights issues would now fall under the office of the under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, who will now also assume that title. The position of special envoy for the six-party talks dealing with North Korea will be removed, as the talks ended in 2008. [CNN]

Why stop there? Why doesn’t Tillerson just eliminate both posts? Because he can’t. The human rights envoy’s position is a creation of statute — specifically, of section 107 of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, now codified at 22 U.S.C. 7817. A cabinet secretary can’t unilaterally eliminate a position that Congress has created.

The good news is that the job would move out of the East Asia Bureau, where the Special Envoy’s mission was more easily subordinated to each Assistant Secretary’s pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize. But the proposal to merge the Special Envoy’s job into another position is problematic. Until recently, Congress cared deeply about the issues within the Special Envoy’s mandate. We’re about to find out if it still does. It was never pleased that former Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz was a part-time Special Envoy. In the notes below section 7801, in fact, there is sense-of-Congress language expressing the sentiment that “the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues should be a full-time position.”

The State Department will say that merging a position doesn’t mean it isn’t full time. Congress will answer that if you’re doing more than one job full-time you aren’t doing either job full-time, and the notion of a full-time part-time job is absurd. Anyone who can’t think of why this should be a full-time job doesn’t understand what the job should be. The Special Envoy should be the administration’s principal public voice who speaks to the world, and to the people of North Korea, in explaining, defending, and encouraging the implementation of policies that force Pyongyang to accept transparency, and to respect human life and dignity, or perish.

Congress and the world will not unite around a policy that diminishes or sidelines human rights. Transparency and respect for human life are logically inextricable from issues of war, peace, and proliferation. Those issues are also linked geographically, and perhaps operationally. To sideline human rights would throw away an important source of leverage over North Korea, China, South Korea, and Japan, which sees getting its abducted citizens back as a part of the Special Envoy’s job.

Human rights is also a test of whether diplomacy can work at all. If Pyongyang can’t accept transparency in its acceptance of aid or the amelioration of conditions in its gulags, why should anyone believe that we can have credible nuclear diplomacy? Human rights can be an important force multiplier in sanctions enforcement. If you’re a North Korean diplomat in Vientiane or Asmara who’s thinking about jumping the fence and taking your laptop and the passwords to your bank accounts with you, does this make it more or less likely that you’ll go through with that?

This proposal sends a message that America is abandoning the people of North Korea just when we need each other most. It will cost us the support of a global liberal coalition that is tempted to view sanctions-busting engagement or squandering unmonitorable aid as strategies for advancing humanitarian conditions in the North. It will undoubtedly please accountants in OMB and career diplomats in some quarters of the State Department, but it’s short-sighted and wrong. Congress should protest.

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State Department issues new reports on N. Korean gulags, religious repression

Last week, State issued two new reports on North Korea. The first of these reports, mandated by section 303 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, terms itself a report on North Korea’s prisons. In fact, it only describes the worst tier of them — the dreaded kwan-li-so, or political prison camps, several of which are places where the condemned never leave.

CAMP 16 HWASONG
41.314103,129.342054

There is little information available on the total control zone Camp No. 16 (Hwasong political prison camp). Located in Hwasong County, North Hamgyong Province, 385 kilometers northeast of the capital of Pyongyang, there are no known former prisoners or camp officials available to testify about conditions in the camp. The limited information about the facility has been drawn from testimony by local residents. Camp 16 is reported to be a total control zone divided into three sections for prisoners whose crimes differ in severity. Unconfirmed reports suggest prisoners may be used in the construction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This camp site also has hydropower capabilities and light agricultural and mining industrial activities along the waterway.

The National Human Rights Commission of [South] Korea has estimated there are approximately 20,000 prisoners in Camp 16. Some NGOs report that prisoners from Camp 22 may have been transferred to Camp 16 in 2012. Satellite imagery analysis does show some modest construction at Camp 16 around that time, but more information would be necessary to conclude whether the expansion was the result of a growing prisoner population.[2] [U.S. State Dep’t]

Of course, North Korea also has other levels of prisons, including local jails and detention facilities, and larger re-education camps that hold a mixture of actual violent criminals, lower-grade political criminals, and economic criminals who may fall into a gray area between the two. Imagery of Camp 16 was first published at this humble blog, describing a reported mass escape that I’ve never been able to confirm, and on which I’ve never seen any subsequent reporting. Years later, I published a much longer, prisoner’s-eye analysis of imagery of the camp, and of the nuclear test site immediately adjacent to its western boundary, as a public service to anyone who thinks the nuclear and human rights issues can be separated.

The report doesn’t cite its sources, but it appears to rely heavily on the excellent reports and imagery analysis of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, specifically its long-form “Hidden Gulag” reports, and the shorter updates it publishes on observations in the satellite imagery.

This is not to say that State’s report isn’t helpful. I know of at least one prominent NGO that’s already poring over it, and will likely cite it in an upcoming authoritative report that could have global and historical implications. Furthermore, the very publication of this report forces State to confront this issue, and will frustrate those (on the far left, the far right, and aspiring Nobel Peace Prize winners in the State Department) who would rather not upset His Porcine Majesty by speaking of such unpleasantries.

Which is exactly what happened with State’s annual report on religious freedom.

North Korea “categorically rejected the report, branding it as the thing that does not deserve even a passing note,” its state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted a spokesman for the country’s Religious Believers Council as saying.

The spokesman said the U.S. action “is nothing but a last-ditch effort for tarnishing at any cost the international image and strategic position (of North Korea) … and further fanning up the climate of sanctions and pressure against the DPRK.” The DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The Religious Believers Council of Korea will as ever take a strong counteraction against the U.S. arbitrary practices and hostile policy toward the DPRK in a solidarity with the international religious organizations,” the spokesman said. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang claims that its people are perfectly free to practice any religion they choose and maintains several sham churches for the convenience of gullible journalists and other visitors who accept that illusion at face value. North Korean Christians will tell you otherwise:

The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions. CSW said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.

Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. According to the NKDB, there was a report during the year of disappearances of people who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment including imprisonment in political prison camps. [U.S. Dep’t of State]

To read the rest on your own, go here and mouse over “countries.” For reasons that become clear to the student of political psychology, Pyongyang is absolutely terrified of Christianity. Click here for more posts on North Korea’s persecution of Christians — which is one of two compelling cases for a charge of genocide (the murder of ethnically mixed, half-Chinese babies of refugee women being the other).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is where those workers live:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Korean security forces now asking politely for protection money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Apocalypse Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Original reports here and here.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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