China is waging economic war against S. Korea. We must stand by our ally.

Less than two years ago, I wrote of the coming Korea missile crisis. That crisis has now arrived. As I’ve documented at this site, that crisis is, in large part, a crisis of China’s making. North Korean missiles are made in part from Chinese technology, in large part from components purchased in or smuggled through China, and that are almost always procured by North Korean agents who operate more-or-less openly on Chinese soil. North Korea’s missiles ride on Chinese trucks. North Korea’s nukes and missiles were paid for by dollars laundered through Chinese banks, by commerce (much of it illicit) that passed through Chinese ports. 

Now that those missiles have matured into a grave threat to our allies in South Korea and Japan, and to the Americans (and their family members) stationed on allied soil, the U.S. has deployed defensive missiles to both countries. Now, China has the unmitigated gall to object to South Korea defending itself against a made-in-China threat from North Korea, presumably because missile defense weakens China’s own capacity to bully those allies, Taiwan, and perhaps even the United States.

Since 2006, China has voted for seven U.N. Security Council resolutions (1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, 2094, 2270 and 2321) and proceeded to violate all seven of them almost immediately. Why? Probably because China’s long-term strategic objective was to use North Korea to intimate South Korea, drive a wedge into the U.S.-South Korean alliance, push U.S. forces out of Korea, and then apply the same strategy to Japan. China probably realizes that by backing Kim Jong-un it’s riding a tiger, but it still prefers coddling a Caligula with nukes to allowing one free Korea to arise on its border. China’s grand strategy stands a strong chance of succeeding. Many South Koreans would sacrifice some of their personal freedom and national independence for fear of war or recession. Right now, the people of South Korea are looking to us. They wonder if they can still count on us.

That’s because China, which is opposed to unilateral sanctions except when it isn’t, has just started a trade war with South Korea to disarm the wrong Korea — the one that’s trying to defend itself against the missiles it helped North Korea build. China is closing South Korean stores on administrative pretexts, canceling group tours by Chinese tourists to South Korea, imposing pretexual inspections on South Korean agricultural products, and disrupting other South Korean investments in China. Militarily, we are standing by our ally. THAAD, though by no means a defense against all of North Korea’s threats to Seoul, can stop the largest missiles that carry the most dangerous (read: nuclear) warheads. Diplomatically, we’re saying we stand behind South Korea, and the Secretary of State has just announced a visit to Seoul. Those are good first steps toward showing U.S. resolve in standing by its ally. But if the U.S. isn’t just as prepared to stand by its ally economically as it is militarily and diplomatically, South Korea may well be finlandized as a Chinese satellite under a future President Moon Jae-in, who is no friend of America

To prevent this, the U.S. must send Beijing a strong message of economic deterrence. A trade war with China would be bad for both countries, but worse for China, with its heavy reliance on exports to the U.S. and the dollar economy. Beijing is using its economic power to attack U.S. security interests and those of our allies. We can’t stand for this. As with any other war not of our choice, economic war would come with costs. The question is whether the costs of not fighting back exceed the costs of fighting back. In this case, the cost of not fighting back could include the breakdown of the security system that has freed and enriched billions of people in northeast Asia, the U.S., and (indirectly) around the world. It would include a significant setback in our efforts to prevent North Korea from irreversibly defeating the cause of global nonproliferation. Measures to mitigate the impact on South Korea are only a partial answer. We must also deter a China that is testing a new president’s resolve with a strategy that is at least as dangerous as anything it has done in the South China Sea. That is worth bearing significant economic costs. And there are ways we can, and should, respond.

1. The first and most obvious target should be the Chinese banks that are breaking U.S. law to finance Kim Jong-un’s proliferation. That’s something we should be doing regardless of China’s bullying of South Korea, so arguably, it doesn’t belong on this list at all. Still, China’s bullying might affect the strategy we use and the aggressiveness with which we implement it.

2. U.N. Security Council resolutions require all ports to inspect cargo going to or coming from North Korea. China’s ports clearly aren’t doing that. Under section 205 of the NKSPEA, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to increase inspections of cargo coming from those noncompliant ports. Ports in China’s economically depressed northeast, particularly those that import coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, should be at the top of our target list (but only one or two smaller ports, initially). The effect of such a sanction would be greatly magnified if the South Korea and Japan join it; after all, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s three largest trading partners. As they might say in New Jersey, it’s time for some traffic problems in Dandong. 

[Hey, it’s Donald. I think I have a job for you after all.]

3. China’s protectionism, censorship, and hacking make its IT companies good targets for sanctions, particularly through a more aggressive posture by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and the aggressive policing of technology transfers. Yesterday’s actions against ZTE industries, which included the imposition of a $1 billion fine, are an example of the actions the U.S. could take to prevent China from stealing and selling U.S. technology to our enemies. Importantly, those actions suggest that the Trump administration has revoked China’s de facto immunity from the consequences of breaking U.S. law. As with our money laundering laws, we should enforce our export control and intellectually property laws regardless of how China treats North Korea, but China’s behavior against South Korea can influence our prosecutorial discretion in how aggressively we enforce those laws.

4. As mentioned, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s top three trading partners. Does China really want a trade war against all three of those economies when its banking sector is teetering under mountains of debt, when it’s trying to deflate a real estate bubble, and when it’s struggling to retain control of its currency and its stock market? Again, a trade war would be bad for everyone; the strategy is to deter China and force it to retreat by making sure it knows it would get the worst of one. The three allies share a strong interest in keeping the U.S.-Korea alliance strong to protect them from a common North Korean threat. For Japan, joining that economic alliance would have the advantage of balancing its villainous image in South Korea with the reality that it can also be a strong ally for South Korea’s security. By identifying appropriate targets in China for sectoral sanctions and combining their economic weight, the three allies can force China to back down and behave reasonably. Some of those targets might include products that include North Korean labor or materials, including seafood, textiles, and precious metals. Targets should be chosen to cause the maximum amount of economic and social unrest in China.

South Korea’s response to China has a political component, too. Its political right should play the anti-China nationalist card as shamelessly the political left played the anti-American nationalist card in 2003. It has criticized the left for cozying up to China in the midst of China’s economic bullying, and should intensify that criticism, making any preemptive capitulation to China an election-year liability for the political left. Both sides in Korea have long played the anti-Japan nationalism card, which continues to put distance between two natural allies over events that concluded 72 years ago. Not one comfort woman can still be saved from the predations of imperial Japan, but thousands of (North) Korean women who are sold as sex slaves in China still can be. I wonder if it might finally occur to Beijing that its bullying is backfiring if human rights activists put a statue of one of those trafficked women in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. At the very least, it might make a few South Koreans stop to think about how China treats North Korean women, and whether that treatment is a metaphor for what China thinks of Koreans generally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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Lesson One: Pyongyang always reneges. Lesson Two: Repeat Lesson One.

If it’s now cliché to write that North Korea might have modeled its domestic policies on Orwell’s 1984, I would like to be the first to coin the cliché that it might have modeled its foreign policy on P.T. Barnum.* North Korea has an acute sense of its interlocutors’ weakness and desperation, and an extraordinary talent for exploiting these moments of desperation to break coalitions, weaken sanctions, and bring in aid by offering its opponents “openings,” concessions, and disarmament deals. None of these deals has resulted in more than brief delays in the progress of its weapons programs, and none has altered its brutal domestic policies at all. Marcus Noland also wrote about this divide-and-rule strategy recently.

Not for the first or last time, the United States re-learned this in 2007, when George W. Bush cut his own disarmament deal with Kim Jong Il in a moment of political desperation. Japan wasn’t a party to that deal, but Pyongyang used it to induce Bush to remove sanctions it had linked to the release of Japanese abductees. Consequently, the deal strained America’s relationship with its most important Asian ally, Japan. Yes, Bush’s deal required the North Koreans to talk to Japan — bilaterally — about settling “unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern.” The State Department wanted Tokyo to read this is as a reference to the abduction issue, but Pyongyang could just as well have read it as a reference to reparations. Japan has far less influence in Washington than South Korea, whose government was then led by arch-appeaser Roh Moo Hyun. There was little Tokyo could do to stop the deal.

This deal still haunts us today. In 2013, while Park Geun-Hye was refusing to budge on North Korea’s shut-down of Kaesong, Japan cut its own separate deal with the North Koreans to relax (and eventually, lift) bilateral sanctions in exchange for an accounting for Japanese abductees. The White House was none too pleased; after all, those sanctions are mandated by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a low-overhead regime like Pyongyang only needs to break one bar of its (economic) cage to slip out of it, and avoid the pressure that might otherwise disarm it.

But today, Japan has re-learned — for a while — the lesson that everyone who deals with North Korea eventually learns: North Korea always reneges. (If there is a second lesson, it’s that there are no exceptions to the first lesson. The third lesson is that no one ever learns lessons one or two for long.) Two years later, Tokyo has finally lost patience with Pyongyang. The 2013 deal is over.

Japan launched a major push at the United Nations on Tuesday, May 5, to rally support for efforts to finally resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea 4 decades ago.

Japan’s minister responsible for the abductions issue, Eriko Yamatani, said she is seeking “specific actions” from countries to turn up the pressure on North Korea and seek information on the fate of the abductees.

“It is not Japan alone that is suffering from this problem,” the minister told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

“It is an international problem and there has to be solidarity and collaboration within the international community so that we can finally resolve the abduction problem and the human rights problem in North Korea.” [AFP]

More on that conference at this link. The issue is important to the Japanese government, but it’s far from clear how much influence Japan really has.

“All Japanese citizens feel as though their own family members have been abducted,” said Yamatani, who was appointed as minister responsible for the issue last year.

“They are all in deep anger and feeling this sadness over the lack of progress.”

Yamatani said she is still hopeful that North Korea will produce “a sincere report as soon as possible.”

Barring that, the United Nations should step in to hold Pyongyang to account and governments should consider imposing sanctions on North Korea, the minister said.

Washington’s envoy on North Korea, Robert King, told the gathering that sanctions had “limited impact” on the Pyongyang regime because it has “very few connections with other countries other than China.”

This is the nonsense I thoroughly debunked in this analysis of the sanctions, sanctions that King probably hasn’t read and certainly doesn’t understand. The most obvious response to it is that the administration could easily re-impose the sanctions the Bush Administration lifted in 2008, starting by re-designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could proceed to a campaign of financial diplomacy to pressure banks in China and Europe to block North Korea’s assets, something U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 would support. The administration says it can’t do those things, but the reality is that it doesn’t choose to do them, because those things would conflict with its own separate dealings with Pyongyang.

When history repeats itself this many times, tragedy and farce cease to be mutually exclusive. Pyongyang now sees that it faces two lame duck administrations in Washington and Seoul. Both share low poll numbers, external pressure from inveterate appeasers in their foreign policy establishments, and the absence of any coherent vision for solving the North Korean problem at its source. Seoul and Washington are now starting “exploratory” talks with Pyongyang, which sounds like a word that no high school girl should ever believe. That means that once again, Japanese abductees and their families will continue to be the victims of Pyongyang’s terrorism, and its clever game of divide-and-rule.

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* Yes, I know the quote is apocryphal, at least as attributed to Barnum.

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Japan will demand answers from North Korea on promised abduction “reinvestigation”

So despite North Korea’s express agreement to provide Japan its “reinvestigation” report within a month, North Korea now says not so much. Anyone who doubted this outcome from the beginning (a) doesn’t know much about the history of North Korean diplomacy, or (b) lacks that kind of intelligence called “judgment.”

Japan will demand an explanation for the delay when officials from both sides meet in Shenyang, China, on Monday.

“What will result from the meeting? I’m not in a position to say… I can’t speak in detail about Japan’s expectations at this time,” Eriko Yamatani, Japan’s state minister in charge of the abduction issue, told reporters on Thursday.

“The way North Korea deals with this will affect not just the abductions… it is an important test of how serious it is about addressing its human rights abuses.” [The Guardian]

Which sounds like a veiled threat by Japan to support tougher action by the Security Council if North Korea doesn’t deliver. (I realize that the Japanese have always linked these issues, but they shouldn’t).

Abe must now decide if he’s going to spend the next two years being strung along, just like Glyn Davies, Chris Hill, Robert Gallucci, Roh Moo Hyun, Kim Dae Jung, and so many others before him.

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The Japan-North Korea deal will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1 ….

It could have been predicted from the moment of its revelation — and was — that Pyongyang would renege on its ransom deal with Tokyo. And so, as surely as the sun rises, Pyongyang has reinterpreted its “reinvestigation” of its abductions of Japanese so as to reveal approximately nothing, slowly. Tokyo says it will reject Pyongyang’s report:

Pyongyang said the report would include only information on missing persons who are not on Tokyo’s official list, which totals 17 Japanese. Instead, the North’s report will only cover cases of Japanese suspected of having been abducted by North Korea but not officially designated as such, of Japanese left behind in North Korea amid the chaos of the end of World War II, and of Japanese spouses of North Koreans who returned to their native country, the source said. [Japan Times]

I’ll go out on a limb here: North Korea’s “investigation” of these cases will clear North Korea of all responsibility.

Pyongyang has told Tokyo it is still investigating the fates of the 12 officially listed as having been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Japanese government replied that, as it places the highest value on that group, it will not accept the report unless it includes new information on their fates. The other five designated abductees were repatriated in 2002. [Japan Times]

Bloomberg adds that Pyongyang may stall the release of information about the 12 for another year, further angering their families. One of the 12 is Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped when she was just 13 years old. Yokota personifies the abduction issue in a way that resounds deeply with the Japanese people.

Providence-20140921-00306

[At an event I attended at the Japanese Embassy last year, workers passed out copies of this Megumi Yokota manga, which was published and translated by the Japanese government.]

Pyongyang says that Yokota committed suicide in 1994 and sent “her” bones to Japan in 2005, but a DNA test proved that the bones weren’t hers. Japan was outraged by the revelation.

Tokyo believes the half-baked proposal by Pyongyang shows it aims to offer information in small increments, each time trying to elicit as many economic benefits as possible from Japan in exchange. During past negotiations, North Korea asked Japan to ease unilateral economic sanctions and sought humanitarian support, such as food, and Pyongyang may have made a similar request during the latest talks, the source said. [Japan Times]

In other words, the Japanese think the North Koreans are milking them. Pyongyang wants to maintain the relaxation of sanctions for as long as possible, and probably demand more, in exchange for revealing as little as possible and as slowly as possible, and setting no one free. If only they had first solicited the advice of someone who knows from bitter experience:

“I lived in North Korea long enough to know how things work,” Ueda said. “They want money from Japan — that’s why they’re negotiating — but if the government gives them the money upfront, they won’t get anyone back.” [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

One apparent problem with this deal is its vagueness, which allowed the two sides to walk away from the table with a deal, but also with two different understandings of what the deal was. This is the same problem that vexed American diplomats who negotiated, and then tried to enforce, the Leap Day Deal (Where does it say we can’t test missiles?), the 2005 joint statement (You have to build us a reactor first!), and 2007 agreed framework (Where does it say anything about uranium? Which we absolutely, positively aren’t enriching?). Pyongyang’s interlocutors keep their agreements vague so that they can clinch their deals. Most international agreements are vague, compared to, say, legislation, or the settlement agreements that lawyers write. Inevitably, Pyongyang exploits that vagueness.

Just as a diplomatic experiment, I wonder what would happen if Japan told North Korea that it had a week to come clean on just the 12, or face the reimposition and expansion of sanctions.

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A greater obstacle to this deal is Pyongyang’s irredeemable lack of credibility. The Japan Times cites estimates by abductee advocates that North Korea is “highly likely” to have been behind 77 disappearances of Japanese citizens, and may have been involved up to 470 disappearances in all. If that sounds like a wild exaggeration, Japan’s National Police Agency “believes North Korea may have been involved in the disappearance of about 880 Japanese nationals.” Yet Pyongyang already seems ready to clear itself in some of these cases.

Given how pathologically North Korea has lied to Japan before, how can the victims’ families, or those who represent them in government, ever believe them? The North Koreans will probably never reveal the full extent of their kidnappings, but what if they did? They could admit to kidnapping another dozen more people, or a couple hundred more. It still wouldn’t matter, because mankind has never built a structure that can suspend so much disbelief. Only a fool would believe Pyongyang’s pinkie-swear that there were no others, even if it had nothing to do with most of those 880 disappearances. Pyongyang finds itself trapped by its own lies, incapable of convincing Japan that it’s telling the truth.

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The collapse of this deal will certainly provoke another outraged reaction in Japan, and in due course, a hardening of Japan’s policies. You need only recall how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted to North Korea’s lies in 2004:

“If we give North Korea one more chance and it fails to respond by the deadlines, we need to strongly urge the government to immediately exercise economic sanctions on North Korea,” Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Sunday. [N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 2004]

In 2005, the Japanese government responded with new sanctions, and by taxing Chongryeon, North Korea’s front organization in Japan, to near-extinction. Last week, Abe called the abduction issue “the top priority of [his] administration,” adding, “My mission will not be over until the day all of the abduction victims have been returned to their families.” Having invested himself in this issue, Abe can’t easily forgive North Korean backsliding.

“I understand they may begin to have misgivings,” Abe said of the victims’ families in a speech on Sept. 19 in Tokyo. “It’s unfortunately true to say this is taking time and trouble.” [….]

“The abduction problem was the first issue he took up as a politician and it’s what made his name in national politics,” said Yoshiyuki Inoue, an upper house lawmaker for Your Party who served as secretary to Abe before and during his 2006-2007 administration. [Bloomberg]

Pyongyang’s interest in a deal proves that sanctions influenced Pyongyang’s decision-making. But unless sanctions are coordinated with other nations that have coercive power over Pyongyang, not one of those nations will get what it wants. America’s allies, which are incapable of working things out between themselves, need America’s help to coordinate sanctions policy. Under the best of circumstances, that’s like gathering a basket of ants. But an America that itself seems visionless can offer no plausible outcomes to induce its allies to cooperate. Until the White House articulates such a vision, Pyongyang will continue to blunt international pressure by making separate appeals to the individual interests of governments, and to the various profiteers, politicians, and hucksters who can influence them.

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This post was edited after publication.

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The WaPo has noticed how Korean-Americans’ political power

… in northern Virginia has grown dramatically in recent years, and accuses politicians of “pandering” to them. To that, I’d ask you to name any well-organized constituency that can’t make a politician pander now and then, and I’ll show you a constituency that isn’t organized at all. We have the worst political system there is, except for all of the others, and in our political system, constituencies matter very much.

The WaPo dwells on what it doesn’t like about the uses of this new power, but as one who has personally encouraged Korean-Americans to embrace and harness that power, I think the editors also overlook the extent to which Korean-Americans are emerging as a powerful liberating force on their ancestral homeland (second item) and on our government’s policy toward North Korea. Inevitably, as the generations change, the sensibilities and priorities of Korean-Americans will increasingly mesh with those of other Americans, but that doesn’t have to mean forgetting Korea’s interests, history, and perspective.

No, I suppose I’m no more excited about “East Sea” than I would be about asking Koreans to call the Gulf of Mexico the South Gulf, because place names should have universal descriptive value, but I have a very different view of recognizing the comfort women, only some of whom were Korean. If the fear of making German tourists uncomfortable didn’t prevent us from building a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall, I don’t see why Japanese-Americans (except deniers) should feel any discomfort about a comfort women memorial government behind the Fairfax County Government Center. The test for any historical recognition should not be whom it might offend, but whether it is true.

I also have to wonder if we’d be seeing any of this controversy today if it weren’t for the stupidity of Shinzo Abe.

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How terrorism works: N. Korea uses Japanese hostages to censor “The Interview”

Last week, I wrote that the North Koreans who had unwittingly lavished free publicity on “The Interview” by threatening its makers still had a thing or two to learn from the mobs of angry Muslim extremists who extorted President Obama into asking YouTube to “consider” removing “The Innocence of Muslims.”

My judgment may have been premature. Film industry trade journals are now reporting that Sony Pictures Japan has demanded changes to the script of “The Interview” to minimize the offense against His Porcine Majesty. If true, the report suggests that North Korea has successfully used its kidnapping of Japanese civilians from their own country to demand — and get — the censorship of a mass-marketed film parodying its dictator:

The film, about a pair of TV journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean despot, has become a hot potato for the studio, which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp. (the country recently has taken steps to ease tensions with its enemy to the West after decades of icy relations). Sources say the studio is considering cutting a scene in which the face of Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park) is melted off graphically in slow motion. Although studio sources insist that Sony Japan isn’t exerting pressure, the move comes in the wake of provocative comments from Pyongyang that the film’s concept “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” (Directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are in fact Canadians.) An unofficial spokesperson for the rogue nation took issue with the satirical depiction of the assassination of a sitting world leader and on July 17 asked President Barack Obama to halt the film’s release.

It is unlikely that North Korea is just now catching wind of the film’s hot-button storyline given that THR first wrote about The Interview and its plot in March 2013 (Dan Sterling wrote the screenplay). What’s more likely irking Kim Jong Un — a noted film buff, like his father — is the use of the military hardware, which can be seen in the film’s first trailer released in June.

A source close to Sony’s decision-making says the move to alter the hardware was precipitated by “clearance issues,” particularly because it involves a living person, Kim Jong Un. [The Hollywood Reporter]

The website Firstshowing.net is denying that these changes are due to pressure from Sony Japan, but why else would Sony make this change other than because of North Korean objections?

Some of the changes reportedly come at the behest of Sony Japan, in the interest of improving and maintaining relations with its nearby neighbor. The face-melting scene is reportedly being judged for comic value, but who actually believes that it might be cut at this point for any reason other than keeping North Korea happy? [Slashfilm]

The next question is why Sony Pictures Japan even cares what Kim Jong Un thinks. The answer is almost certainly ransom. If not for a recent ransom deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, in which Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to “investigate” the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees, there would be no reason for anyone pay attention to North Korea’s bluster.

In the years preceding October 11, 2008, it had been the U.S. government’s view that North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens (including a 13 year-old girl) from their own country was terrorism, and that its continuing captivity of these hostages (not all of them Japanese) was one of several reasons to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In April of 2006, President Bush met with the mother of that girl, calling it “one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the President here in the Oval Office.”

But North Korea is an accomplished exceptionalist to the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and just two years after that meeting and Bush’s implied promise to the mother, Sakie Yokota, Kim Jong Il cajoled Bush into removing it from the list and lifting some powerful financial sanctions that may have brought his regime to the brink of extinction, and that might well have forced North Korea to let the abductees go.

Suddenly, and with a brazen mendacity not seen since Moscow in the 1930’s (except, of course, in Pyongyang), it became the official position of the U.S. Department of State that North Korea was “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” (The statement would become more difficult to defend with the passage of time, as North Korea was caught selling arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and launched a campaign of poison-needle assassinations of human rights activists and North Korean exiles.)

The unintended consequences of Bush’s reversal have continued right up to this year, and include a decision by an impatient Japanese government to unilaterally lift sanctions against North Korea as an initial ransom payment for the return of its people. The Obama Administration, which paid little mind to Japan’s pleas for U.S. support on the abduction issue, has reacted to this with justifiable alarm. Japan’s relaxation of sanctions not only rewards terrorism, it weakens a regional security alliance against Pyongyang, and relaxes the economic pressure that is its last slender hope to disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

Although Pyongyang has delivered little so far in admitting to the whereabouts of the missing Japanese, there have been rumors in the Japanese press that its demands were not all financial. It has demanded, for example, the return of the headquarters of Chongryeon, the North Korean front organization in Japan that had a hand in the kidnappings of Japanese, and which had been seized for non-payment of taxes. It is also rumored to have used its business relationships with Japanese media companies to suppress the views of critics of North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

So it always goes when governments and businesses are tempted into intercourse with Pyongyang. The patron is expected to pay exorbitantly for a brief and unsatisfying rut, and in the end, it is never Pyongyang that is seduced — or infected — by the exchange.

The fact that “The Interview” is likely of dubious artistic merit is beside the point. If North Korean censorship has arrived at a multiplex near you, that’s pernicious, and may be the best reason yet to boycott the film.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication.

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U.S. urges Japan to rejoin coalition against N. Korea

When Japan’s ransom deal with North Korea threatened to fracture the regional coalition pressuring Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs, I was critical of the Obama Administration for failing to use its influence to prevent Japan’s defection. As leaks to the Japanese press have since confirmed, however, someone in the White House subsequently arrived a similar conclusion. Soon thereafter, the administration began some desperate behind-the-scenes diplomacy to press Japan to get back on the team:

A senior White House official said the multilateral sanctions imposed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should not be sacrificed by Tokyo in exchange for greater cooperation by Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue involving Japanese nationals.

The message was delivered by Ben Rhodes, a senior National Security staffer, on July 3rd. Under Japan’s deal with North Korea, Japan agreed to “ease restrictions on travel” and “allow port calls by some North Korean registered ships and money transfers” to North Korea, in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to “investigate” its abductions of Japanese.

Rhodes raised the possibility that the Abe administration’s deal with North Korea could adversely affect cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea in trying to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities.

“I think it’s important, though, that they send a message that this is not going to ‘let North Korea off the hook’ for the nuclear issue,” he said. The deputy national security adviser said U.S. President Barack Obama is well aware of the Japanese position of wanting to resolve the abduction issue.

However, Rhodes indicated that Japan should not expand the range of sanctions it relaxes against North Korea, especially if they are related to measures based on U.N. Security Council resolutions that were issued in the wake of three underground nuclear tests by North Korea. “The overarching point is that the security threat posed to Japan and the region, and the world, for North Korea’s nuclear program and its missile program cannot be set aside if there is progress made on the abductee issue,” Rhodes said.

He said the three countries need to continue working together to apply pressure on North Korea regarding its nuclear program. “All of us in the six-party talks, and particularly the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, I think, want to be very forthcoming with one another about how we’re looking at the nuclear issue,” Rhodes said. [Asahi Shimbun]

Things have now gone so far that John Kerry has been forced to plead with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discourage him from visiting North Korea.

In his telephone talks with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on July 7, Kerry requested that Japan hold behind-the-scenes consultations with the United States in advance should Tokyo consider a visit to North Korea by Abe, according to the sources.

The top U.S. diplomat also expressed displeasure over Japan’s policy of gradually lifting its unilateral sanctions on North Korea depending on progress in the new round of investigations into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s. [….]

Kerry, who spent most of his telephone talks with Kishida on the issue of sanctions on North Korea, asked Japan to be careful about additionally removing sanctions, according to the sources. [Mainichi Shimbun]

While it’s good news that the administration understands the critical importance of concerted pressure on North Korea, it may have waited too long to speak up. The abduction issue is an extremely emotional one for Japanese voters, and it probably eclipses North Korea’s nuclear threat in Japan’s national (and thus, political) consciousness. Japan can’t walk away from this deal now, but it can be prepared to walk away if (or rather, when) North Korea reneges.

Still, cooler heads in Japan understand, first, that North Korea has an extremely poor track record for keeping its agreements, and second, that the nuclear issue holds all Japanese hostage in a very real sense.

It is crucial that a concerted international approach to the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program and missiles be maintained, and that Japan share information with and gain the understanding of both the U.S. and South Korea toward a resolution on the abduction issue. The challenge has only just begun. [Editorial, Mainichi Shimbun]

I feel some sympathy for the Obama Administration, which inherited a bad situation from its predecessors. For years, the Clinton and Bush Administrations had included North Korea’s abductions of Japanese as a key reason for U.S. sanctions against North Korea — and particularly, of its listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Bush’s ill-advised 2007 deal with North Korea dropped those sanctions for a deal that North Korea began to break almost before the ink on its signature dried. This deal followed the most minimal of consultations with the Japanese government and nearly threw it into crisis. No wonder Japan feels no obligation to coordinate with the U.S. before cutting its own deal with Pyongyang.

But while the Bush Administration is responsible for setting up this prisoners’ dilemma, the Obama Administration had months of warning that Tokyo was interested in cutting a deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, despite overwhelming evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism and the lack of progress on the abduction issue, it squandered numerous opportunities to restore North Korea to the list, and to make Pyongyang’s failure to return Japanese abductees a specific reason for that action.

That small gesture toward the interests of an important ally would have cemented the coalition against Pyongyang and shown Tokyo that sticking with the coalition was the best way to achieve its interests and get its abducted citizens back. It’s still not too late to make that gesture, and last week’s news provides more opportunities for the administration to make it.

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In another area, Japan shows signs of stepping back from a position that had disgusted its allies and delighted its enemies — its flirtations with denying its responsibility for the “comfort women” during World War II:

The Japanese government assured South Korea on Wednesday that it will uphold an official apology over frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II for which mainly Asian women were procured.

Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, made the assurance in a meeting with Lee Sang Deok, head of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said. [Kyodo News]

Japan’s re-litigation of this issue is one of the most spectacularly ill-advised things I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve been writing here. It secured nothing of value for Japan’s interests, did serious damage to Japan’s standing in Washington, as Korean-American constituents mobilized their representatives to protest it, and disrupted a budding alliance with South Korea that could prove crucial to a common defense against Chinese aggression in the Pacific. I hope this means that on this issue, too, cooler heads have won the day.

For more background on the comfort women issue, see this op-ed by Sung Yoon Lee and Zachary Przystup, and this one by Dennis Halpin.

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“Happy Fourth of July!” – Kim Jong Un

It is already the 2nd of July in Korea, where Yonhap is reporting more missile launches off North Korea’s East Coast. This time, the missiles are said to be KN-09 cruise missiles,* a brand whose alleged proliferation to the North recently generated controversy between two bloggers, each of whom is not me.

The latest launch follows the weekend launch of two short-range (300-mile) SCUDs missiles into the Sea of Japan from the vicinity of Wonsan. (Here is KCNA’s commentary on Kim Jong Un’s on-the-spot guidance of the fireworks.) The launches follow the test of another short-range system last week, which North Korea says was a guided tactical missile.

Before the latest launch, Reuters reported that “North Korea has so far conducted test firing of its ballistic missiles and rockets 11 times this year, including four involving ballistic missiles,” and that fireworks are routine before and during joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The last joint exercises ended months ago, however, and the next one, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, won’t happen until August or September.

All of the launches are either flagrant or potential violations of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions. Each may represent a modest improvement in North Korea’s technical and operational capabilities, but the launches themselves aren’t really the story. The story is that hardly anyone even pretends to care anymore.

The launches also remind us that we’re still in the hostile phase of the vicious cycle President Park described in her address to Congress last year, a cycle that often climaxes with long-range missile and nuclear tests. For reasons that have never been clear to me, North Korea has always preceded nuke tests with long-range missile tests. This was the case in 2006 (missilenuke), 2009 (missilenuke), and 2013 (missilenuke). The exception to this pattern was the first test of the Unha-3 in April 2012, which broke up shortly after launch. And even then, there was only a ten-month gestation until the next nuke test.

Last spring was a time of intense speculation that North Korea would carry out its fourth nuclear test, and that this test would take some novel form, such as the use of a uranium-based device. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet, and like all of you, the reasons for that intrigue me. Whoever organized a pool on the test date has likely refunded all of the wagers advanced by now, and unless Kim Jong Un is even more impulsive and reckless than I assume him to be, a test is unlikely until mid-July at the soonest, to put some respectful distance between a test and Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul (scheduled for July 3rd and 4th).

I’m not a mudang, so I will offer no prediction as to when and whether North Korea will test this year. Eventually, however, North Korea will nuke off again. A moment when foreign policy has emerged as one of the Obama Administration’s greatest political vulnerabilities seems as a good a time as any. And an election year always presents opportunities for extortion.

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In an act of characteristic chutzpah, North Korea followed last weekend’s unannounced launch by “propos[ing] … that the two rival Koreas stop all military hostilities starting this week.” Yonhap called this “a rare conciliatory gesture toward South Korea ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul,” but noted that in exchange, South Korea would have to cancel Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Much to the disappointment of soldiers from Camp Red Cloud to Camp Carroll, South Korea’s Reunification Ministry said it wasn’t interested in that deal. The Foreign Ministry added that if North Korea tests a nuke, it will face the full wrath (or playful tickle) of U.N. sanctions South Korea has never really enforced.

And this time, dammit, they mean it.

The launches are a small complication for Japan, which has since begun another round of remittances-and-maybe-aid-for-hostages talks with North Korea in Beijing.

In Beijing, North Korea is expected to unveil details about a special panel to reinvestigate the abductions. Japanese newspapers have reported that Tokyo could announce the lifting of some of its own sanctions if the North’s investigation panel meets conditions set by Japan. [Yonhap]

Tokyo must have felt obligated to offer a pro forma protest last weekend’s test, but according to Yonhap, despite the protest, “the mood at the Beijing talks was not tense and the opening remarks were ended without angry arguments.” Tokyo may feel some obligation to protest again, but lately, its protests have sounded almost as insincere as its apologies.

“It was very regrettable that the North Korean side launched ballistic missiles on Sunday that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution,” Ihara said in his opening remarks at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Japan “lodges a stern protest and strongly demands that North Korea not fire ballistic missiles again in the future,” Ihara said.

However, Song insisted that North Korea does not recognize the U.N. resolutions, saying the Sunday launch “was smoothly conducted without minor effects on international shipping order and ecological environment in the region.” [Yonhap]

These incidents won’t derail the progress of those talks, although other things might. Japan knows North Korea tests missiles and violates U.N. resolutions. A certain willingness to overlook those concerns, and a certain willingness to alienate its allies by overlooking them, are both part of Tokyo’s calculations. And after all, what has President Obama ever done to bring Japan’s abducted citizens (or their remains) home?

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, each North Korean provocation, each declaration of its nuclear status, and each defiance of the Security Council should remind us that the Obama Administration refuses to direct the Treasury Department to expand sanctions against one of North Korea’s principal vulnerabilities — its weak links to the financial system. It isn’t just Japan, China, and South Korea that don’t take U.N. Security Council sanctions seriously; “their indispensable leader” doesn’t, either.

Bear in mind — this is the administration that promised us a more competent foreign policy that would contain crises by building strong alliances, international institutions, and precise weapons of non-lethal “smart”power. If it can’t get any of those things right, what else does it have to offer?

Even so, I hesitate to criticize the administration for not having a North Korea policy. What if it actually gets one? Weakened presidents tend to cut bad deals. Clinton did it in 1994, and W did it in 2007. Today, the Real Clear Politics average showed President Obama’s approval rating at negative 18.5% (that’s 55.5% against, 37% for), the highest net disapproval rating I’ve yet seen this President draw, ever. Those figures are two points below the President’s approval rating on the economy, and seven points below his overall approval rating.

As I said before, Americans hate foreign policy, and also, they hate the lack of one. [Update, 2 July: This morning, the President’s approval rating on foreign policy plunged even further, to -21% in the RCP average. Once again, Americans don’t like the concrete effects of policies they favor as abstractions.]

I hope the White House won’t confuse today’s political climate with that of 1994 or 2007. In 1994, we hadn’t yet watched North Korea renege on two denuclearization deals. In 2007, the national mood was tired and desperate, the media consensus favored another agreed framework, and no deal was beneath Bush’s standards.

Today, we’re seeing the beginnings of a backlash against the backlash against the Iraq War — a war the President campaigned on “ending,” and has since been forced to reenter. Thanks to his dithering in Syria, what started as a pro-democracy protest movement turned into a stage-three cancer of terrorism that metastasized into Lebanon and Iraq, and could spread to Jordan next. In Libya, anarchy was the consequence of refusing to expend diplomatic and financial capital on “nation-building.” Just as a premature retreat from a once-stabilized Iraq drew us back in, a premature retreat will draw us back into a not-yet-stable Afghanistan. Finally, the Bergdahl case shows that Americans expect their leaders to drive harder bargains than they often have.

And for the record, I think the President has probably chosen the best alternatives that remain in both Syria and Iraq, but only after squandering far better (or less-bad) options.

If the Administration thinks that a deal with North Korea now would “pause” another crisis it doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with, it should remember that any deal now would be made from a position of weakness. As such, it would validate criticism of the administration’s foreign policy as disengaged, reactive, and toothless. North Korea has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear weapons programs are non-negotiable, and has even amended its constitution to say so. What bargain, then, is there to be made? The deal would be an albatross around the President’s neck. Congress — including many Democrats — is rejecting appeasement and wants a harder line. So has the press, which wouldn’t give a North Korea deal the sympathetic coverage today that it gave Chris Hill’s in 2007.

Finally, as politically difficult as it would be to make a deal before November, it could be an even harder sell after November. A tough-minded Democrat like Bob Menendez would be a harder sell than a soft Republican like Dick Lugar. The days when the White House could count on the Lugar-Biden Axis and the Leach-Lantos Axis to pay for its fuel oil are over. Good luck getting the likes of Ed Royce or Bob Mendenez to go along with that.

Or, depending on how the next election goes, Bob Corker or Marco Rubio.

~   ~   ~

* A well-informed reader writes in to argue that (1) we really don’t know what the KN-09 is, (2) its range is too short to be covered by the UNSC prohibition against ballistic missiles, and (3) even if the KN-09 is (as Lewis suggests) a clone of the Russian Kh-35, it’s a stretch to call it a cruise missile. My response to each of these points is (1) true, (2) also true, but the UNSC prohibits the development of all WMD delivery systems, and Lewis (whose knowledge of the weapons systems, at least, I respect) says it has the potential to be nuclear capable. Of course, open sources don’t describe the Kh-35 as nuclear capable, either, and its payload is small. That means that the North Koreans are probably years away from putting a nuke on it, but not from putting a chem or bio warhead on it.

As for (3), I’ve seen variable definitions of “cruise missile.” If the KN-09 is like the Kh-35, it’s a short-range, air-breathing, turbofan-powered, radar-guided anti-ship missile, similar to the U.S Harpoon. That fits my layman’s definition, but decide for yourself. For that matter, I’ve heard plenty of people call the old Nazi V-1 a cruise missile (it was guided by gyroscopes and impellers, and powered by a fascinating thing called a pulse jet, which I’m absolutely, positively going to build when I reach the Christopher Lloyd phase of my life).

The gist of this is that we can’t really be certain that all of these launches were UNSC violations, although North Korea must wish they all did. And if you want to find a violation, remember that UNSC 2094 says North Korea “shall not conduct any further launches that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests or any other provocation,” which is admittedly a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography. But in recognition of those uncertainties, I changed “flagrant violations” to “flagrant or potential violations.” After all, we can all agree that the SCUD launches were violations, and that North Korea was flagrant in the launches themselves, and in its dismissal of the UNSC resolutions.

Thanks to this reader for his concern for the accuracy of this blog.

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Coalition against N. Korea crumbles due to U.S. incompetence, betrayal, and weakness

Last week, Japan and North Korea announced an agreement under which Pyongyang would “conduct a comprehensive survey” of the whereabouts of “Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and mission persons,” both dead and alive, and return them to Japan. In exchange, “Japan has announced that it is lifting sanctions against North Korea on travel, reporting remittances and humanitarian shipping.” Japan also agreed “to examine humanitarian aid to Pyongyang at an ‘appropriate time.’”

Xinhua also reports that Japan may send monitors to North Korea to verify North Korea’s “reinvestigation,” which as I imagine it, would consist of someone saying, “It’s OK boys, untie ‘em.” The latest word is that President Abe himself is talking about visiting Pyongyang, although he won’t, because no one wants to be the one who drags Kim Jong Un away from his Xbox for that.

As is with all “agreements” with North Korea, the two sides’ understandings of the agreement vary. According to KCNA (via Yonhap), Japan also “clarified its will to settle its inglorious past,” and “solve the pending issues and normalize the relations” with North Korea, apparently referring to diplomatic relations. As recently as May 31st, the Japanese and the North Koreans were still arguing about whether Chongryon’s headquarters was part of the deal. In early April, North Korea warned Japan not to bother with talks if Japan held a tax sale of the headquarters of Cheongryeon, its local affiliate and front organization. (Pyongyang later sent Chongryon a $2 million bailout, and asked Japan to rescind a court decision allowing the tax sale of its headquarters.) North Korea had demanded the resumption of ferry services and charter flights, neither of which was mentioned in the final deal. This history informs us that plenty could still go wrong.

Then, there’s the traditional pattern of North Korea preceding nuclear tests with missile tests. In April, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalated, Japan threatened to shoot down the next North Korean missile that approaches its territory. In May, North Korea said, “Japan should keep in mind that it could be the first hit by a fiery lightning in case of conflict,” the newspaper said, referring to a military strike.

For what it’s worth, North Korea is promising to keep its end of the bargain, although I can’t think of a single international agreement North Korea did keep with anyone other then the U.S.S.R. or China. The other conclusion we can draw from this history is that Japan’s defection from the administration’s coalition shouldn’t have surprised anyone. President Obama had plenty of chances to stop it. Worse, his predecessor planted the seeds that undermined that coalition’s foundation.

~   ~   ~

In April, President Obama visited Seoul during a frenzy of speculation that North Korea was either preparing, or ready for, a fourth nuclear test. To deter this, the President said that North Korea’s threats would gain it “nothing except further isolation” from an oxymoron USA Today referred to as “the global community.” “Global” means global, but as the President elaborated, it especially means our treaty allies: “We can’t waver in our intention. We have to make sure that, in strong concert with our allies, that we are continuing to press North Korea to change its approach.”

The President also said, “It is important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite.” (But of course, Congress has already found them. It would take one phone call from the National Security Staff to Harry Reid’s staff to put the President’s finger on the trigger.) Publicly, South Korea sent the same message:

“If North Korea carries out a nuclear test, (it) will certainly have to pay severe costs,” the foreign minister said, urging the communist North to make the right choice. “The North Korean leadership must choose between isolation from the international community, including China, that have resolutely opposed further nuclear tests and the path toward greater cooperation (with them).” [Yonhap]

The President must search for new ways because the old ones haven’t worked. They haven’t worked because when it comes to North Korea policy, everyone is an exceptionalist. Behind the joint statements, Japan’s deal is only the most dramatic example of how our North Korea coalition is falling apart.

In the case of China and Russia, the disunity is understandable. China and Russia are — and see themselves as — our enemies. It’s harder to understand how an administration that stresses and flouts its diplomatic management of alliances can’t coordinate a consistent, coherent policy with its own treaty allies and military dependents. Even the administration concedes that as the first among equals, it is supposed to lead:

I can tell you when we . . . went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it. 

Ambassador Susan Rice, June 1, 2014

In early April, there were signs that a coalition was congealing. The Joongang Ilbo reported that “[r]epresentatives from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo reached a consensus on taking measures against North Korea if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear weapons test,” and quoted South Korea’s envoy to the six-party talks threatening to make North Korea “pay a price” for nuking off. But to the extent there was ever unity among North Korea’s five interlocutors, the Japan deal destroyed it. The coalition has collapsed, and it was never that strong to start with.

China is the most obvious exceptionalist of the five. It ignores U.N. sanctions and subsidizes North Korea, mostly to f*ck with us, and also to keep half of Korea as a buffer state and a source of cheap coal and comfort women, while whining disingenuously about how powerless it is do anything about it. As the economist Nicholas Eberstadt says in a new analysis, “[T]he North Korean economy has never before been so totally dependent on the largesse of a single trade patron as it appears to be today.” No one believes a word China says, but no one does anything about it, either.

Russia is an exceptionalist because of Crimea. Old Bolsheviks bang their shoes on podiums; psychopaths do things more quietly — things like importing more North Korean slave laborers, sending their Deputy Prime Ministers to visit Pyongyang, opening new rail lines between Khasan and Rason, signing new economic cooperation agreements with Pyongyang, and writing off almost $10 billion in old North Korean debt (Professor Haggard has more on Russia’s “pivot,” here.) Russia does these things to harm our interests, and to use that as leverage against us. So noted. How many Ukrainians does it take to grease a T-90 with a TOW missile? It’s not an ethnic joke, it’s a question. We have leverage, too.

Even South Korea — the principal beneficiary of deterring North Korea, but also the principal beneficiary of a Pentagon-subsidized status quo — recently had the chutzpah to argue that U.N. sanctions don’t apply to its politically popular “inter-Korean projects,” which are effectively no-strings-attached subsidies into the opaque void of Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Cash earnings from an inter-Korean tour project would not be subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, amid growing expectations for its resumption. [….]

Questions have risen whether North Korea’s earnings from a joint inter-Korean tourism project in the North’s eastern mountain region would violate the resolution banning the transfer of bundles of cash to the wayward country.

“In the ministry’s understanding, (bulk cash banning) is aimed at curbing attempts to transfer illicit funds through hand-carrying with the purpose of circumventing bank trading,” the ministry said in a written response to independent lawmaker Park Joo-sun’s questionnaire regarding the Kumgang tour program and the U.N. sanctions.

Also asked whether the bulk cash restriction applies to commercial transactions over the banking system, the ministry said, “Given the purpose of bulk cash banning in the UNSC resolutions, normal dealings through the banking system are not relevant in our understanding.”

The U.N. has not detected any violations of bulk cash banning so far, while the Kumgang tour program has not been discussed as a possible violation, according to the ministry’s response to the lawmaker.”  [Yonhap]

That’s a green answer to a blue question. The fact that Kaesong and Kumgang don’t violate Paragraph 14’s prohibitions on bulk cash transactions doesn’t make them kosher under Paragraphs 11 or 15, which require financial transparency in transactions involving the financial system, including money transfers, correspondent accounts, the opening of new branches, and trade credits. And if there was any transparency, don’t you suppose the Unification Ministry would have answered my questions by now? Sweet Jesus — did they even read the resolution, or are they just lying? Because South Korea sat on the Security Council when that resolution passed. Seoul is hardly in any position to criticize Tokyo or Beijing about North Korea policy. It’s the worst hypocrite of all.

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As for us, I’d say a Japanese diplomat pegged us in 2007, after the second failed Agreed Framework, when he observed that “[t]he United States always jumps to hasty decisions as a presidential election approaches.” In North Korea, the American exceptionalism means that American Presidents seldom let U.N. resolutions get between them and a convenient opportunity to buy North Korea out of the headlines. Despite everything that the last two decades should have taught us, self-described North Korea “experts” still insist that the answer to our nuclear impasse with North Korea is to soften our precondition that North Korea agree to disarm, and appease it with “engagement” initiatives that inevitably provide it regime-sustaining cash. These people still have enough influence within the Obama Administration to have it adopt their failed ideas, or at least float them as trial balloons. Only North Korea’s disinterest in denuclearizing at all has stalled the idea. Kim Jong Il would have taken our money and run like a thief; Kim Jong Un doesn’t even bother to.

Which brings us back to Japan, which has made itself an exceptionalist for more understandable reasons — a desire to bring home its citizens, kidnapped by North Korea decades ago. What makes that especially understandable is that Japan is driven to this desperation because of an exceptionalist grasp by President Bush that, despite his personal assurance to the contrary, betrayed Japan and its abductees. After personally meeting with abductee Megumi Yokota’s mother in the Oval Office, Bush reversed a long-term U.S. policy of listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism for its abductions of Japanese, refusing to lift that designation until the abductees came home. The decision shook the Japanese government and infuriated its people. Here’s a flashback to that event in 2007, and to how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted at the time:

Japanese politicians like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained this week that the United States should not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until there is a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Doing so would harm relations between Tokyo and Washington, Abe warned.

On Wednesday, Bush talked to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda by telephone and assured him that he had not forgotten about the abductees. And in a nod to Japan in his comments Thursday, Bush said the United States would “never forget” the abductions of Japanese citizens.

On Thursday, Fukuda, a moderate, rejected criticism inside Japan that Tokyo now had little leverage over Pyongyang because of its removal from the terrorism list. He said working with the United States “will be really necessary to realize the denuclearization and, at the same time, pave the way for solving the abduction issue, which is a major task for our country.”

North Korea recently agreed to reinvestigate the abductions, while Japan said it would lift some minor sanctions against the North. But so far, Tokyo has refused to contribute energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation nuclear agreement, and Japanese participation is expected to become crucial as considerably more assistance has been promised to the North.

Both Bush and Rice addressed the strong sentiment in Japan that the Bush administration had abandoned Tokyo, its most important ally in Asia, for the sake of reaching an imperfect agreement with the North.

“We’re continuing to expect the North Koreans to take this issue seriously because it is a major issue for Japan and it’s a major issue for the United States,” Rice said of the abductions issue. [N.Y. Times]

With malice aforethought, we threw one of our closest allies under the bus to appease our most implacable and mendacious enemies. That’s not deference to our allies, it’s deference to our enemies and a betrayal of our allies. It isn’t smart diplomacy, either; you can see how well it worked out for us. None of that is President Obama’s fault, of course, but it is his fault that the same State Department geniuses are still running our North Korea policy today instead of stamping passports in Bamako. We’re still paying the price for their incompetence today.

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It’s difficult to calculate the value of this financial windfall without knowing just how soon North Korea will renege, and just how much reneging prepared Japan is to tolerate. It could be substantial, and loosening restrictions on remittances could be an early payoff. Japan and North Korea are natural trading partners, and as The Hankyoreh notes, “Trade between North Korea and Japan was as high as 46 billion yen (US$452 million) in 2002 before plummeting to 14.1 billion yen (US$138.7 million) in 2006, then drying up more or less completely.” Not bad for a country with a GDP of about $40 billion (privately, economists scoff at that figure). Thus, North Korea rakes in a big payday just as it threatens to conduct a new nuclear test, and just as President Obama is trying to prevent that by threatening to starve North Korea of cash.

The South Koreans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, sound angry and bitter about Japan cutting a deal:

A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday: “It was just a relationship between two isolated leaders, Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom have no friends in Northeast Asia.” The deal threatens to break the united front that Japan, South Korea and the United States have maintained in dealing with Pyongyang. [Joongang Ilbo]

Diplomats often let such things go unsaid, but not today. This has caused a real rift among nations that have common interests and ought to act like allies:

Following reports of a fresh deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, South Korean officials warned of a possible negative impact on the troubled denuclearization process.

“We understand the importance of the abduction issue in Japan’s diplomacy, but now is an important time for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia to cooperate for the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability,” a senior South Korean diplomat here said on background. [Yonhap]

Japan defended the agreement.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, says the move does not mean Japan is out of step with the United States and South Korea on the issue. “It’s impossible – this agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”  

In fact, the relaxation of rules against remittances has the immediate potential to violate UNSCR 2094, depending on what restrictions and reporting requirements Japan puts on them. Lifting the travel ban certainly raises the risk of bulk cash smuggling from Japan to North Korea. If Japan’s “aid” to North Korea takes the form of cash, it also has the potential to violate U.N. sanctions, although it’s not clear what nature, amount, or form the aid would take. The greater point is one that even some Japanese can see — that North Korea’s game is to disrupt or offset any international coalition that could focus deterrent economic pressure. It’s succeeding because no one is leading that coalition.

Among the most significant is the possible easing of a ban on cash remittances from the thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are loyal to the regime. That could provide the North with much-needed hard currency for its weapons programs, and could undermine international efforts to bring the regime to heel, said academic and activist Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University.

“Kim Jong-Un’s regime has won a major compromise,” he told AFP. “It has secured a way for money to flow to North Korea. “Kim has issued an order to Chongryong (its de facto embassy in Japan) to press Korean business people to invest, which will mean cash flowing to North Korea.“They badly want this money to maintain the regime and to fund the nuclear program.” [Japan Today]

In the short term, Pyongyang has managed to split the allied coalition and disrupt its strategy for deterrence — a strategy that won’t work if various nations continue to put their individual interests ahead of the collective interest in disarming North Korea. Today, Pyongyang is doing a better job of using those individual interests to divide its neighbors than anyone else is doing of coordinating a collective response to deter it. The only nation with the financial, diplomatic, and military clout to coordinate an international response is the United States.

The Obama Administration doesn’t quite seem to be paying attention. The potential exists for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate effective pressure on North Korea. Even China seems irritated at Kim Jong Un, and the fragile condition of its economy increases U.S. financial leverage over the Chinese banks that hold most of Kim Jong Un’s offshore deposits. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had in years to roll back Pyongyang’s destructive ambitions. Instead, the North Koreans are taking advantage of this leadership vacuum, appealing to the individual interests of China, South Korea, and Japan, and dividing the nations whose cooperation could put devastating economic pressure on Pyongyang.

North Korea will break its word, of course, at a time of its choosing. The result will be a more dangerous world for Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

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Obama Intercepts North Korean Missile with Experimental Laser-Guided Words

So President Obama’s visit to Seoul, the nuclear terrorism summit, and the DMZ has concluded without anything especially newsworthy taking place. Obama challenged North Korea to change its behavior and China to help coerce North Korea to change its behavior, but with relatively mild language that won’t deter North Korea from launching the thing. I had wondered whether the dynamic of this being an election year might tempt the President to show a little more spine than he or his predecessors have before, but his political incentive instead appears to have been to attract as little attention to the issue as possible while saying just enough to deflect criticisms from his Republican opponent.

As President Obama spoke, the North Koreans were speaking through their actions:

The North Koreans moved the main body of the Unha-3 rocket to the newly built launching station in Dongchang-ri, a village in northwest North Korea, as President Barack Obama and other world leaders traveled to Seoul over the weekend for a nuclear security summit meeting. Mr. Obama visited the border with North Korea on Sunday to show solidarity with South Korea and warn the North against further provocations. [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang-Hun]

The timing was almost certainly not coincidental. It was also classic North Korean behavior — provocation for the sake of provocation, motivated by little more than the existence of a high-profile event in, or high-profile visit to, South Korea. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sung Yoon-Lee takes note of the seamless continuity in North Korea’s cycle of extortion, both before and after Kim Jong Il’s death. It’s frankly enough to make you wonder just how much control Kim Jong Il exercised in the years between his stroke and his death. If anything, the real shift in North Korea’s behavior came around 2010, with the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong attacks, which suggests that North Korea’s real leadership transition preceded those events. On the other hand, meetings between His Late Porcine Majesty — or someone who looked exactly like him — and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, plus various Chinese apparatchiks, suggest that he wasn’t completely incapacitated, either.

Whoever is giving President Obama his briefings doesn’t seem to be much more certain than I am about who is really in charge, although it seems doubtful (at least, to me) that Kim Jong Eun is that person.

Mr. Obama said Sunday the situation in North Korea was still too “unsettled” for him to have developed an impression of Kim Jong Eun.

“It’s not clear exactly who’s calling the shots and what their long-term objectives are,” Mr. Obama said. “But regardless of the North Korean leadership, what is clear is they have not yet made that strategic pivot where they say to themselves, ‘What we’re doing isn’t working. It’s leading our country and our people down a dead end.’ ”

President Obama didn’t give us a tear-down-this-wall moment, but he did take this dig at the North Korean system:

“The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity,” he told U.S. troops stationed along the border, which is dotted with minefields and encased in barbed wire. [WSJ, Carol E. Lee]

The President’s words for China weren’t any clearer or more direct than the ones that haven’t worked before.

“My suggestion to China is that how they communicate their concerns to North Korea should probably reflect the fact that the approach that they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. [WSJ]

The president said he would attempt to enlist help from China, one of North Korea’s few allies, during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Explaining his message for Hu, Obama seemed to express frustration with past failures of this approach, saying the Chinese had seemed to be “turning a blind eye” and “trying to paper over” North Korea’s provocations.

“That’s obviously not working,” Obama said. [L.A. Times, Kathleen Hennessey]

“I believe that China is very sincere that it does not want to see North Korea with a nuclear weapon,” he told a news conference in Seoul before a global summit on nuclear security. “But it is going to have to act on that interest in a sustained way.” [Reuters]

There was also a not-too-veiled threat of more sanctions:

“Every time North Korea has violated a Security Council resolution it’s resulted in further isolation, tightening of sanctions,” Mr. Obama said. “I suspect that will happen this time as well. They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly to North Korea’s leadership in a speech Monday morning at a university in Seoul, saying the U.S. “has no hostile intent towards your country” but will not tolerate provocative acts from Pyongyang. “You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads,” Mr. Obama said. “It leads to more of the same.” [WSJ]

“Bad behavior will not be rewarded. There’s been a pattern for decades in which North Korea thought that if they acted provocatively, they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting,” Obama said at a news conference with Lee several hours after the visit to the DMZ. “We’re going to break that habit,” he said. [LAT]

If I may be so bold as to offer some gratis advice to the President, I’ll just suggest that if another U.N. resolution is all he really has in mind, all it will do is to highlight the farcical character of our response. (There are, of course, better options that don’t involve the direct use of force.)

Another card I hope he’ll play is to green-light Japan to shoot the rocket down, in the unlikely event that the Japanese are actually serious about this. Forcing Japan to cancel its annual Cherry Blossom Festival should be justification enough, even if Fukushima was probably a more important reason. A Japanese response would have the benefit of not involving us directly, and of setting Japan irreversibly down the path of protecting itself rather than perpetually relying on American taxpayers for its defense, it would also show us some fascinating reactions. For one thing, we’d get to see just how many South Koreans would rally to North Korea’s side out of sheer blind nationalism and hatred of Japan. We’d be denied that perverse joy if South Korea shoots it down, but we’d still get to enjoy watching China call on us to restrain one of our allies, as we shrug our shoulders and say it’s not our problem, and then ship the next consignments of PAC-3 Patriots and Standard-3s to Yokohama and Pusan.

And while we’re at it, Taipei.

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Heritage Scholar Calls for Asian Missile Defense Alliance

Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation is proposing an idea whose time has come: a comprehensive, multi-national missile defense system for Asia. Klingner’s argument begins with an explanation of what should be obvious — that diplomacy has failed to disarm North Korea, as China’s own missile arsenal is growing rapidly. The land- and sea-based system Klingner proposes would protect Asian democracies from both North Korea and China, and enhance U.S. national security, as well. Here’s the abstract:

The United States and its allies are at risk of missile attack from a growing number of states and non ­state terrorist organizations. This growing threat is partic ­ularly clear in East Asia, where diplomacy has failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them on target, and where China continues the most active nuclear force modernization pro ­gram in the world. To counter these growing threats, the U.S. should work with its allies, including South Korea and Japan, to develop and deploy missile defenses, including ground-based, sea-based, and air-based components.

Read the rest here.

Until recently, only cranks like me could propose things like this, and few would have thought we’d see much interest in this in Asia. As recently as two years ago, Asian nations might have seen good diplomacy with China as a cheaper and equally plausible way to mitigate any security threat from China. Today, all of this is revealed as dangerously wishful by China’s own bullying — its failure to throttle North Korea, its risible claims on the Yellow and South China Seas, and its provocations of skirmishes with Japan. In Washington, there is a sizable Hail Ants crowd that loves to speak admiringly of how Chinese diplomacy, unburdened by the whims of the electorate, takes the long view. I’m really not seeing the evidence for that in recent events. Instead, I see a Chinese political class unburdened of the need for objective analysis, beholden to enforced group-think, and addicted to emotional, bombastic nationalism.

Regular readers know that I’ve long advocated removing U.S. ground forces from Korea, but this is the sort of alliance I could support enthusiastically. Our Asian military alliances are still modeled on the deterrence of Cold War-era threats. They are in dire need of modernization to keep peace in the region until the the political systems of China and North Korea inevitably yield to the demands of the governed and become representative states, living (more or less) at peace with their neighbors. The stand-off capability of U.S. air and naval power will be essential to building a modernized Pacific Area Treaty Organization, and beleaguered Taiwan is the exception that proves just how essential. Its conventional deterrent is declining as it loses is qualitative and quantitative edge, as China’s missile force grows to overwhelming strength, and as U.S. security guarantees to a diplomatically marginalized Taiwan become tenuous. This widening military imbalance raises the risk of Chinese aggression, which is why one day, Taiwan should be invited into this alliance, too.

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I wonder if China is pleased with Japan’s new plans to expand defense spending, deploy more PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries, build more submarines to patrol disputed waters, and arm more Aegis cruisers with Standard-3 missiles. Again, there is even talk of acquiring nuclear weapons. China has only its own reckless backing of North Korea to blame for this. Me, I’d be happier if we sold the same types of gear to Taiwan, which as I take delight in repeating, happens to have China’s only legitimate government anyway. But any step toward an integrated alliance of stronger Asian democracies is a step in the right direction. Key to this is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must not give in to the temptation of excessive dependence on a fickle and debt-laden America, and they must be able to survive a first strike well enough to give America a viable option of coming to their assistance. Chinese and North Korean behavior this year has tilted Asian voters sharply in the direction of demanding more defense spending and closer relations with the United States.

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In the Washington Post, Victor Cha argues against what he describes as five myths about North Korea. I mostly agree with 1 and 3; I agree with 4 for other reasons; and I agree with 5 even if I wish Cha gave us a better explanation than a consensus of august diplomatic minds that hasn’t a thing to do with the price of rice in Chongjin (the North Korea crisis will be solved in places like this, not in any embassy’s foyer). On point 2, Cha argues against the perception that “Kim Jong Eun is too young and inexperienced to successfully replace his father,” which he defends by noting that older, more experienced people will really be running things from behind the scenes. But isn’t that what most Kim Jong Eun skeptics have always said? Cha always notes that we have no good options in North Korea, something that’s undoubtedly been true since we irreversibly licensed North Korea’s nuclear power status in 1993. But rather than simply reflecting consensus views and writing pieces that no one ever disagrees with more than 40% of the time, I wish that Cha would actually offer a least-worst solution.
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In the Wall Street Journal, Brian Myers takes apart Selig Harrison’s imaginings of a reformist faction in North Korea. The key to scoring this speculative argument is the question of whether you really count what the North Koreans tell Selig Harrison as evidence of anything, because that’s about all the evidence Harrison really has. Myers might have answered this with his own interpretations of what the regime tells its own subjects, but as interesting as those interpretations are, I’m glad he didn’t rely on them. After all, North Korea’s actions alone are sufficient to refute Harrison’s view. The same can be said of too much of our foreign policy commentariat, which held similarly naive and wishful views for far too long. The less credit given to those views, the sooner we’ll turn to more productive alternatives.
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No, now that I think of it, Kim Jong Il probably isn’t accustomed to seeing his work panned by critics. Yes, Kim Jong Il’s writing is an easy enough target, but the piece actually ends with an insightful argument. Hat tip: Theresa.
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OPLAN 5027 1/2? It occurred to me last night that if North Korea escalates hostilities to the point that a military response becomes necessary to save lives in South Korea, such a response need only be sufficient to neutralize North Korea as an immediate threat to the South and deal its system a fatal political blow. This doesn’t necessarily require a full-scale invasion and occupation of all of North Korea, which could well unite much of the population around the regime. Instead, it might “only” require an intense bombardment of North Korea’s artillery sites near the DMZ — yes, a big “only,” that — followed by the seizure of a ten-mile-wide strip of North Korean territory nearest the DMZ. This would neutralize the artillery threat to the South and completely disrupt North Korea’s own military plans for threatening the South or repelling an allied invasion. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit whatever nuclear targets we can, although there are undoubtedly some we’ll never find until after reunification. Rather than taking on the bloody work of racing the Chinese Army to Pyongyang and occupying a hostile country, we could encourage, support, and supply whatever elements were thereby emboldened to rise up against the regime (this would have the added effect of discouraging China from getting involved, unless it wants to get bogged down in an insurgency that would turn unpopular very quickly for any foreign power). Again, I doubt that such an uprising would succeed in the short term, but in the medium term, it would bleed the regime to death, both economically and politically.

In the comments, there have been some suggestions of arming the prisoners in the camps to fight as well, as they are said to have done in the Onsong Camp many years ago. I’m deeply ambivalent about this idea, because I think some of us underestimate how weakened those prisoners really are from the starvation and torture they’ve experienced. To arm people with no military training, organization, or outside logistical support can only mean one inevitable result — the massacre of the prisoners in any camp that rises. But then, it’s probably assured that the prisoners in most of these camps will never get out alive anyway.

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Once Again, More Slowly: Isolating the North Korean People Only Helps Kim Jong Il

Now it’s a Japanese government minister suggesting that Japan shouldn’t grant visas to North Korean athletes.

I fear an important distinction is being lost here. On the one hand, I strongly agree with the need to isolate the North Korean regime financially — to do no harm, to refuse to sustain or legitimize an evil system of government. On the other hand, I recognize that maintaining the isolation of the North Korean people actually helps sustain that system. Because the North Korean regime usually demands financial and propaganda concessions as precondition to engagement, and because the harmful effects of those preconditions tends to outweigh the modest benefits of any engagement, I oppose most of those engagement projects in practice (see any of my arguments with my friend Andrei Lankov on this point). But this is not to deny Andrei’s major premise — that isolation supports the North Korean system, and that breaking that isolation corrodes it.

Kim Jong Il allows very limited contact between ostensibly loyal citizens and the outside world for propaganda purposes. He believes that he is creating a positive image for his regime, and that the citizens he exposes to the outside world have no lasting and subversive impressions based on what they see. He is wrong on both counts. This sort of engagement cannot fail to have a subversive effect on people who have never seen traffic jams, or forests of gleaming skyscrapers, some with massive TV screens mounted on them. Unfortunately, it’s often outweighed by some financial benefit the regime recoups, and in some cases, by the stupidity and ignorance of the morally retarded.

The North Korean government ought to pay its own expenses and should not be allowed to profit financially from the visit. But we should not believe that we hurt Kim Jong Il — as opposed to helping him keep his people isolated — by excluding North Koreans from contact with the outside world.

If the goal is to damage Kim Jong Il’s regime, I can think of any number of more constructive approaches, including giving the team members and coaches assurances that they’d be received if they defect. And given the history of North Korean athletes failing drug tests recently, I’d get plenty of urine samples. Finally, there is no reason why North Korean visitors need to be shielded from demonstrators protesting against the regime’s abuses of its own people, or its abductions of Japanese citizens. Let them experience how people in free societies really view His Withering Majesty. And make sure the tour bus passes through Shibuya both to and from the airport — at night.

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The Decline and Fall of Chongryon

The Daily NK has an interesting two-parter on the history and decline of North Korea’s front organization in Japan, here and here. Once a major source of income for Kim Il Sung’s regime, its decline under Kim Jong Il’s rule can all be attributed to (surprise!) North Korea’s nastiness and mismanagement.

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So Far, Few Hints that Japan’s N. Korea Policy Will Shift

Sure, there’s been plenty of cross-Pacific bitching about U.S.-Japan alliance and basing issues, but there’s no sign that Prime Minister Hatoyama will shift Japan’s North Korea policy yet.  Japan is showing off its ability to shoot down North Korean missiles, and for now, Japan’s government is adhering to a hard line on North Korea and discouraging America from departing from one.

The abduction issue is highly emotional in Japan, and Hatoyama probably couldn’t provide aid, loosen trade restrictions, or open talks on diplomatic relations without risking the wrath of the voters.

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