About a week later than my prediction in this post and a full decade after it should have done so, the Treasury Department has finally designated His Porcine Majesty, ten of his worst henchmen, and nine government agencies for human rights abuses.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture,” said Adam J. Szubin, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. “The actions taken today by the Administration under an Act of Congress highlight the U.S. Government’s condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.” [….]
OFAC designated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries, with significant restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture. Kim Jong Un leads the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security. These ministries, along with the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau and the Ministry of State Security Prisons Bureau, are also being designated today pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. [Treasury Department]
The targets include the State Security Department (kuk-ga anjeon bowi-bu), the North Korean equivalent of the Totenkopfverbände that runs the concentration camp system; the Ministry of People’s Security (inmin boan-bu), the Gestapo equivalent that investigates political crimes; and two sub-bureaus of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, for kidnapping North Korean refugees from China and for sending hit squads to assassinate exiles in South Korea. The full list is here, and below the fold.
Separately, the State Department issued a report on the reasons for the designations. With yesterday’s action, 161 North Korean entities are designated, equal to the number of designated Zimbabwean entities. Contrary to another rumor I heard but did not publish, there were no waivers of any of the sanctions.
Legally, the targets’ assets are now blocked in the financial system, the practical meaning of which I’ll address below. Because the designations were triggered by the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, strict performance-based conditions apply to their suspension or termination. The designations came several weeks after the passage of a deadline in section 304 of the NKSPEA to report to Congress on the individual responsibility of North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un, for human rights abuses in North Korea, and to designate any responsible officials under section 104(a).
Although the report and designations were effectively mandated by an act of Congress, senior administration officials stressed in a background-only conference call yesterday that this report was actually years in the making. Well, maybe. The first rumors the administration circulated publicly about this action came in 2015, a year after the House of Representatives passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act on a voice vote. So while I take the administration at its word — in part, because it’s useful to accept even reluctant new friends into the circle of consensus — it’s also true that whenever the administration began working on this report — which comes to four whole pages of Times New Roman 12-point type — it must have known that the legislative writing was on the wall.
At the same time, the State Department report provides more detail about the people responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korean than any other report has before. A great deal of intelligence work obviously went into it. Among the details we learn is that Kim Jong-un was born in January of 1984, which means he wasn’t even 30 the first time he sat on his double-wide throne. The State Department also appears to have used the discussion of the Reconnaissance General Bureau in “Arsenal of Terror” as a source for two of the designations. That discussion, in turn, cites Joseph Bermudez, to whom I express my gratitude again here.
So, what does all of this mean, practically?
Direct Financial Impact. Many reporters, who denigrate the potential impact of these sanctions, make two arguments, one false and one true. It is almost certainly false that Kim Jong-un has no assets “in” the United States. Again, that assumption flows from an ignorance of how international banking works, as I explained it here. As the U.N. Panel of Experts reports have demonstrated again and again, North Korean regime funds continue to flow through our banking system via correspondent accounts, where those funds can be frozen or forfeited (see 18 U.S.C. 981(k)). The real trick is identifying which funds are North Korean. One of our best sources of information is the banking industry, but banks won’t report North Korean wire transfers to their American correspondents as long as they continue to get away with concealing those funds, as the Bank of China did recently.
It is true that there is no single golden vault in Geneva with Kim Jong-un’s name engraved on the door, whose combination can be changed overnight. But the same was true of Bin Laden, Qaddafi, Assad, Milosevic, Mugabe, Lukashenko, and countless drug lords. The work of tracing and identifying assets down to the aliases, fictitious names, front companies, shell companies, and bagmen who hold those accounts is what the Treasury Department does, and does well. It will take years of hard work, and it will require a strong signal to the banking industry about their Know-Your-Customer obligations. One shortcoming here is Treasury’s failure to invoke Special Measure Two in its otherwise commendable Patriot 311 designation of North Korea. That special measure would require banks to gather information about North Korean beneficial owners of accounts. As the Panama Papers showed us, that’s key information regulators need to embark on a serious assets hunt. I’ll be posting a detailed public comment to that effect, in response to Treasury’s 311 Notice of Rulemaking, before the August 2nd deadline.
What I did not see in the transcript of the senior administration officials’ background discussion with reporters was any commitment to devoting the necessary investigative resources to the pursuit of those assets. That will be an important oversight function for congressional staff in the coming years.
World Opinion. First, these actions could — I repeat, could — help further galvanize both domestic and world opinion against Kim Jong-un’s regime, which will itself have a range of secondary effects.
Wavering states that now supply Pyongyang with much of its income will face more pressure to distance themselves from it. Governments will face greater domestic political pressure to comply with existing U.N. sanctions, especially if that domestic pressure is combined with sweeteners brought by visiting South Korean diplomats. They will face greater pressure to vote for resolutions condemning North Korea at the U.N. Here are there, governments may begin to follow Botswana’s lead and cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang entirely. China, which opposes the new sanctions, will see North Korea as a greater diplomatic liability than ever. South Korea, which welcomed the new sanctions — and certainly would not have even a year ago — could make use of it in its skillful and increasingly effective diplomacy to isolate North Korea from the overseas funding that sustains the regime in Pyongyang.
The consensus among liberals in both Europe and America will shift. That consensus once generally favored engagement; it will now shift toward sanctions and accountability, as evidenced by Congressional Democrats’ support for much tougher sanctions. The description of Kim Jong-un as “a sadistic dictator” in a draft of the Democratic Party platform suggests that a Clinton presidency would be at least marginally tougher than Obama’s.
This will have financial effects in the near term. Governments and companies will be more reluctant to use North Korean slave labor, a subject that also made headlines yesterday with the launch of the second part of the Leiden Asia Center’s report, “Slaves to the System.” Corporations will hesitate to invest in North Korea and risk boycotts by customers, or protests by shareholders.
After two wasted years since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, I now sense that the world is closing in on Kim Jong-un, and that time is not on his side. The critical question is when that sense will take hold in Pyongyang.
Opinion Inside North Korea. I have heard the word “symbolic” used to describe this act; I’d raise that to “powerfully symbolic,” with regard to a regime that devotes arguably more attention than any other on earth to the cultivation of symbol and myth. Word of this action will spread through the jangmadang, where it will erode some of the regime’s key narratives. The regime, of course, tells the people how much Kim Jong-un cares for them. This act specifies precisely how his men torture, rape, and murder them. Few North Koreans can be ignorant of those crimes, but some must cling to the idea of “if only Kim Jong-un knew.” But this will also contradict the more subtle and powerful “Barrel of a Gun” narrative that America is weak, cowed, and in awe of North Korea, and that any North Korean who feels aggrieved is isolated and forgotten by the world. This action may open more minds to the true cause of their suffering, and to the hope of liberation. It could shake the smug confidence of officials in Pyongyang. In that sense, Congress’s latest move to direct the clandestine distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Commission of Inquiry Report, and their own nation’s constitution is a powerfully subversive one.
Could word of this action cause some North Korean officials to modify their behavior? The answer is as complicated and variable as the psychologies of the men — they are almost always men — who compose such evil systems. Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves as final acts of defiance. Himmler killed himself as a final act of cowardice, but only after negotiating the release of thousands of Jews to try to mitigate his own guilt. Kaltenbrunner, a key executor of the Holocaust, took the stand at Nuremberg and matter-of-factly inculpated everyone, including himself. Streicher was brought to trial, sullen and defiant until he was hanged. Goering put on an agile pro se defense, then took cyanide the night before he was to hang. Speer expressed remorse, if not quite convincingly. And in July 1944, as it became clear that the war was lost, a collection of mid-level officers very nearly killed Hitler and overthrew the whole Nazi government. We’ll probably see similar variations in the behavior of North Korean officials one day. And we should be prepared to extend clemency to those who are willing to bring this nightmare to an end with a minimum of bloodshed.
Ten years ago, the idea that a North Korean prison camp kommandant would have heard that his name was on a blacklist would have been unthinkable. Today, that that same kommandant will find out is almost inevitable, particularly if his children call from Shanghai to tell him that the bank account is frozen. Those named in yesterday’s action will now feel that their backs are against the wall, but given what these men have done, they were bitter-enders anyway. As with Himmler in the closing days of World War Two, some will still feel pressure to mitigate their brutality for the sake of their own skins. Whether each man feels that the regime is likely to survive will be important to how each man acts. Men who feel untouchable will go on with their dirty work, and those who feel the hot breath of the hangman will begin to think about accountability.
By tomorrow, expect an epic rant from KCNA. Expect the regime to respond with provocations. Those provocations will be a testimony to the symbolic power and subversive potential of what happened yesterday. The crisis in North Korea will have to get worse before it gets better. It will only get better when the regime feels metamorphic, existential pressure to change. Yesterday’s action was a step toward building that pressure.