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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Gause’s views here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 7.45.00 AM

[Wall Street Journal]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does all of this mean, practically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes your next clue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so forth.

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

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

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

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

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

cheonan

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

Camp 16 HQ @4500

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

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

starving children

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

Camp 25 crematorium

[The crematorium at Camp 25]

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

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

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

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

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

His Porcine Majesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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