Last night, Malaysian police revealed that Kim Jong-nam’s killers murdered him with VX, the deadliest of the nerve agents. I had hypothesized before that the killers almost certainly acted on orders from His Porcine Majesty. Saddam Hussein’s suspected possession of stockpiles of VX was at the core of our justification for invading Iraq. This time, the case doesn’t rely on grainy satellite photos or shadowy, unnamed sources. (And this time, an invasion is also the wrong answer to the problem; the right answer is a combination of financial constriction, the use of diplomacy to isolate Pyongyang, and political subversion, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Here, in no particular sequence, are some assorted thoughts on what we’ve learned since yesterday, and what could happen next.
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The next time someone tells you that human rights are a side issue or a distraction from more important issues, please punch that person in the nose.
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The revelation that North Korea used VX has caused justifiable outrage in Malaysia and around the world. There were many Malaysians studying accounting, finance, and agriculture where I attended law school. All of them impressed me deeply with their maturity, wisdom, and strict moral values. I was most recently reminded of this when Kenneth Sng, a student from Singapore (which is culturally similar to Malaysia and separated from it at the end of British colonial rule) gave the introduction at a Republican debate last October.
As a student, I formed close friendships with some of the Malaysians. This is a conservative society that takes law, public order, public safety, and integrity very seriously. That attitude isn’t just a function of the state’s authoritarianism or a remnant of the British legal tradition, the common ancestor of our own legal system. It is a necessity for keeping the peace in a society with a history of ethnic and religious conflict. As Sumisha Naidu documents on her Twitter feed (keep scrolling), this has caused public outrage and protests in Malaysia. Members of a youth group delivered a protest letter to the North Korean embassy. There’s now a safety scare about the use of the terminal. It’s hard to believe that this incident will pass without serious damage to the relationship between North Korea and Malaysia. It could end with the deportation of a large number of slave laborers and money launderers.
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How did the North Koreans get the VX into Malaysia? Judging by reports that the police (1) arrested a North Korean chemist and (2) later found a stockpile of chemicals in a condo, I’d guess they produced it locally. The other possibility being discussed is that they smuggled it in a diplomatic pouch, though this seems less likely to me.
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Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about the legal standard for putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time you read this, I’ll be at work, so I’d refer any questions to my long-form report, or this post, which predicted that North Korea would go back on the list sometime between Groundhog Day and Memorial Day. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened before 5 p.m. today. In the latter post, I noted that the criteria in Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act are so loose that Donald Trump could re-designate North Korea with a retweet. So, hold my beer and watch this!
HEY @realDonaldTrump, Pls RT: “North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” MAGA!
Both Congress and the South Koreans are becoming increasingly vocal in calling for a redesignation of North Korea. So would a redesignation do anything? Yes, it would, as I explained here, mainly by invoking the financial transaction licensing requirements in 31 C.F.R. Part 596, which are far stricter than those in the North Korea Sanctions Regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. It would also lift North Korea’s sovereign immunity from civil liability for terrorist acts. Granted, the passage of the NKSPEA preempted some of the consequences of a re-listing, but we couldn’t get all of them done at once. Any policymakers looking for tougher options should start with Ted Cruz’s letter to Steve Mnuchin. If that’s still not enough for you, e-mail me.
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For days, theories swirled that the poison was anthrax, which made no sense to me, given that anthrax has an incubation period of at least a day. You will note (because I can’t help reminding you) that in Wednesday’s post, I correctly predicted that the poison would probably turn out to be some kind of nerve agent. I derived this from the fact that the poison was applied to, and absorbed through, the victim’s skin, and the symptoms that followed: blurred vision, eye pain, headache, seizures, and death within minutes. (My long-term memory being better than my short-term memory, I recalled most of these symptoms from my Army years as the soldier’s cue to administer atropine.) All of the nerve agents have similar symptoms, so I didn’t venture a guess as to which one was used.
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The CDC classifies VX as a persistent chemical agent. It takes several days to break down, and even one droplet can kill. To use such a deadly chemical in an airport terminal crowded with civilians — with babies and little children who crawl on floors and put their mouths on armrests, with young mothers who rolled their suitcases into the restrooms the assassins used — is breathtakingly contemptuous of human life and public safety in a friendly nation. It would not surprise me at all if reports began to emerge that other people who traveled through that terminal and touched contaminated sinks, handrails, or furniture also experienced symptoms of exposure.
There are reports that the two attackers slimed Kim Jong-nam with their bare hands. Why didn’t that kill them, too? According to the CDC, “any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal.” (Emphasis mine.) At least one of the women did wash her hands immediately after the attack.
Malaysian police said one of the women also “suffered [the] effects” of VX exposure and was vomiting after the attack. Initial reports said that one of the women wore a glove, but the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield says that isn’t so. Because VX can be a binary compound formed by mixing two separately inert chemicals, it’s also possible that each of the two women applied one of those chemicals.
Another possibility is that the North Koreans who plotted and coolly observed all of this from a nearby restaurant may well have assumed (and preferred) that the poison wouldkill them. The North Koreans made careful preparations for the escape of their own men, and no apparent plans for the escape of the two women.
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Maybe the North Koreans were sure they wouldn’t get caught. For whatever reason, they seemingly gave no attention to concocting a plausible cover story. The attack itself went off without a hitch, but because it was needlessly and hopelessly elaborate, the getaway fell apart. By using a persistent chemical agent, they also raised the risk that that police would identify the agent, the composition of which suggests more sophistication than a non-state actor would ordinarily possess. The North Koreans aren’t very good at judging foreign reaction to their outrages. Perhaps history has taught them that the reaction will always be a lot of words amounting to nothing. Perhaps His Porcine Majesty’s advisors are afraid to caution him or tell him no. Still, I can’t imagine they expected their plot to be exposed as quickly and publicly as it was.
I don’t usually do job postings here, but I’m going to make an exception for a good friend. During my time on the Hill working on H.R. 1771, which would later become law as H.R. 757, the Foreign Affairs Committee leadership assigned a young intern to work with me on the bill. This friend now seeks a paid position on a Hill staff or in a think tank in the fields of foreign affairs, defense policy, or national security. Having worked closely with this person for four months, I can’t overstate my regard for his skills and abilities. (Click “continue reading” >>)
We now have at least one first-person account of what happened aboard that Air Koryo flight that filled with smoke and made an emergency landing at Shenyang earlier this week. I said in my original post that “I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant,” with deliberate understatement. In fact, many of the passengers aboard the half-empty flight thought they were about to die, and at least one began to rethink the purpose of his life (something we should all do more often, if under better circumstances).
I say “at least” one, because one account comes from a passenger who spoke to Chad O’Carroll of NK News, “requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking to media on the issue.”
But there is also a strikingly similar account by a person many North Korea watchers know well …
(Update: At a reader’s request, I’ve removed all references to the person’s name and the NGO he’s affiliated with. I’ll certainly honor the request, although the fact that it had to be made says everything you need to know about North Korea’s willingness to embrace openness and change).
I disagree with (witness’s) policy views, of course. I see the engagement theory as a conclusive failure that actually dilutes international pressure that could force North Korea to disarm and reform, and thus sets back progress toward those shared goals. I’ve also met (witness), like him very much personally, believe in the goodness of his intentions, and am very glad to hear that he’s safe. In (witness’s) account, there is also an unmistakable acknowledgment of the unaltered realities of North Korea.
In typical North Korean fashion, a senior airline staff comes into the cabin and began to repeat “no problem…no problem” to reassure passengers, especially a Russian who looked ready to punch the staff. Having worked in the country long enough, I know “no problem” means “big problem”. The smoke continues to fill the cabin. No information was forthcoming until I heard a flight attendant walking past mention “Shenyang.” I grabbed her and asked her if the flight was being diverted and she said “there is no problem, we are landing in Shenyang.” I thought “that’s not Beijing. We have a problem.” [Witness Account, since unpublished]
I can’t help wondering if (witness) really intends to go back to Pyongyang after posting this under his own name.
The plane starts dropping and the pressure builds in my ear. The friend is crying now. I realized this could be the end. I could die in North Korea, in a North Korean plane crash. There is a brief moment of clarity as I wondered why I do all this shit for North Koreans at (NGO), and the shit I put up with for my work. I was scared stiff when I realized I would be leaving loved ones behind. The North Korean at the front is still smiling and repeating “no problem…no problem.” I thought about punching him. The plane is shaking violently in the rapid descent.
Read the entire thing. And don’t just read it as a terrifying story. Read it as a microcosm of North Korea itself, and as a metaphor for the course its government has chosen for its 23 million passengers.
One parting shot: as of the time of this post, two days after the incident, the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau had not filed a report about the incident from Pyongyang. Instead, it has a dry dispatch from Beijing, quoting a Xinhua report, and containing this delectable sentence: “Calls to the airline’s office rang unanswered while the relevant department at the airport could not immediately be reached.” Compare this with Reuters‘s detailed report from Seoul.
Yet again, AP reports nothing exclusive that is newsworthy and nothing newsworthy that is exclusive. Yet again, having a bureau in Pyongyang appears to do more to impede than advance AP’s ability to report the news from North Korea.
An Air Koryo flight has had to make an emergency landing in Shenyang after the cabin filled with smoke.
The plane, belonging to the North’s national carrier, was flying to Beijing from Pyongyang when it made a forced landing because of the smoke, the airport said in a short statement on its microblog.
The aircraft made a safe emergency landing, and “nothing abnormal” was found in its condition, although an investigation was underway, it added.
Xinhua, which had initially reported a fire, cited a passenger as saying the smoke appeared about 30 minutes after takeoff, and flight crew told passengers not to panic as the plane landed.
“Later, oxygen masks dropped and several passengers began to have breathing difficulty because of the oxygen shortage in the cabin,” Xinhua said, adding that the plane landed 10 minutes later and no one on board was injured.
Fire trucks were dispatched and the aircraft was “smoking” when ground staff examined it, but no obvious fire was spotted, the passenger told the agency, which added that rain in Shenyang at the time of the landing may have averted a fire. [Reuters]
Thankfully, no one was hurt, although I’m sure the experience wasn’t pleasant. If there’s one thing worse than flying on a plane that’s had to make an emergency landing, it must be watching the mechanics scratch their heads for two hours and shrug their shoulders, and then boarding said plane again. But on the bright side, landing in Pyongyang might not seem quite so bad in those circumstances.
Although Air Koryo is often called the “world’s worst airline,” this label was obviously applied by people who (1) haven’t flown United or American lately, and (2) who suffer from severe astigmatism.
Even a staunch critic of the North Korean government has to commend Air Koryo’s heroic mechanics for keeping their ancient Tu-154s and Il-62s flying. Deutsche Welle breezily tosses out that “[i]nternational sanctions mean North Korea’s airliner fleet consists entirely of aging Soviet and Russian jets,” but then notes that this particular plane was a Tu-204-300. The Tu-204 first flew in 1989, but according to this site, Air Koryo acquired its aircraft from Russia in 2010. Even some of its older aircraft, such as its Il-62s, were purchased from Cuba in 2012. As recently as 2013, Air Koryo was able to purchase short-haul Antonovs from the Ukraine. In other words, sanctions haven’t prevented North Korea from purchasing newer planes, at least until very recently; Air Koryo’s budget has.
In 2015, the U.N. Panel of Experts cast its jaded eye on Air Koryo, and wrote this:
B. Air fleet
117. All civilian aircraft registered in the country continue to be owned and operated by the State-controlled airline, Air Koryo. The overall number in Air Koryo’s operational fleet has decreased since 2012. While there has been acquisition of some modern aircraft, the number of new acquisitions has been less significant than originally expected. Air Koryo has also acquired old aircraft, such as an Ilyushin Il-62 from Cuba in 2012, that have subsequently been cannibalized for spare parts.
118. In its 2014 final report, the Panel highlighted the military role of Air Koryo aircraft painted in military camouflage that undertook a fly-over in the “Victory Day” military parade on 27 July 2013. The absence of boundaries between Air Koryo and the Korean People’s Army air force was further highlighted in 2014 when an Ilyushin 76TD aircraft was filmed dropping Korean People’s Army paratroopers as part of a military exercise (see figure XXIII).
119. Analysis of the fleet shows that the Ilyushin featured in the video is not a new addition to the air force, but rather an existing asset of the State-controlled fleet bearing the livery of an Air Koryo-registered Ilyushin 76TD aircraft. The Panel considers the military use of this aircraft through participation in the military exercise further evidence that Air Koryo shares part of its assets with the Korean People’s Army.
120. Given the evidence of military use, the Panel considers that providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance relating to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s cargo aircraft could constitute a violation of the embargo on all arms and related materiel as defined by paragraph 10 of resolution 1874 (2009).
NK News has caught Air Koryo repaintingitsaircraft in civilian and military colors on multiple occasions. Despite these concerns, and despite reports that passengers regularly carry banned luxury goods and bulk cash into North Korea on Air Koryo flights, the airline has not been designated by the U.N. Security Council or the U.S. Treasury.
Still, U.N. sanctions may have affected Air Koryo in other ways. New U.N. sanctions ban the sale of dual-use equipment and aviation fuel to North Korea, except to fuel specific civilian passenger flights. Since the U.N. passed its latest sanctions, various reports hold that Air Koryo has suspended regular service to Bangkok and (temporarily) to Kuwait City. News reports say that Air Koryo’s regular flights are mostly limited to nearby cities in China and Russia, but it runs charter flights to Malaysia and other destinations. The Air Koryo website, perhaps aspirationally, lists a larger number of destinations with blank spaces where the itineraries should be. The European Union banned most its aircraft several years ago over safety concerns, except for the Tu-204s.
Despite the safety concerns, Air Koryo’s career has been relatively free of incidents, and passenger comments on the Air Koryo experience, while not uniformly negative, make for interesting (and sometimes amusing) reading. This site has some excellent photographs of Air Koryo’s aircraft.
It’s a rare day in any election year, much less this one, when anyone could write a post title like that about a major public policy issue. Now, for the first time since I began writing this blog, all of the cylinders — the President, the Congress, the U.N., South Korea, and Japan — are all firing in the same sequence to raise the pressure on Pyongyang and Beijing. Over the last week, we’ve seen the Republican Congress’s key foreign policy leaders and President Obama’s key cabinet secretaries all delivering the same message in Asia, calling for the strict and rigorous enforcement of sanctions against North Korea.
Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the architect of the legislation that was the impetus for the Treasury Department’s 311 designation of North Korealast week, is in Seoul this week, where he emphasized that “all financial institutions, anywhere, who now have a choice to make between doing business with North Korea and being cut off from financial transactions with the United States and the international financial system.” Royce added, “Given the threat posed by North Korea, now is the time to make it really difficult for Kim Jong-un to pay his generals, make it difficult to keep the production lines open for missiles, and make it difficult for him to acquire parts on the black market … and we must move in unison to take decisive action.”
Senator Cory Gardner, without whom Royce’s legislation would never have passed the Senate, and who is just back from his own visit to Seoul, also welcomed the 311 designation of North Korea.
“I’m pleased the Treasury Department, as required by my bill, acted to apply additional pressure to North Korea through this important designation that will send a strong message to Pyongyang and its enablers,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), a key author of the sanctions legislation, said in a statement.
“I encourage Treasury to continue to vigorously pursue and implement additional sanctions outlined in my legislation, including designations against North Korea for cyberattacks and human rights violations,” the senator said.
Gardner said he held a meeting in April with Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, who is responsible for enforcing U.S. economic sanctions policy, to call for vigorous implementation of the sanctions law.
“I urged him to fully implement NKSPEA, and particularly with regard to entities outside of North Korea whose illicit actions enable the regime’s survival,” he said. [Yonhap]
This is all good, but it’s the executive branch that enforces the sanctions authorities Congress gives it, and an important lesson from the 2005 squeeze on North Korea is that financial diplomacy and demonstrations of political will are essential to making sanctions work. Then, the Bush Administration dispatched senior Treasury Department officials to meet with bankers and finance ministers around the world to urge them to cut off Pyongyang’s cash flow.
I’d started to worry that the Obama Administration wasn’t demonstrating the same political will to enforce the new sanctions. The sum total of our financial diplomacy until this week had been one visit to the region by Adam Szubin in March, and a comment by the President in Vietnam since then. What is most essential is a strong demonstration to China that this is a U.S. national security priority. But after a slow start, this week, the secretaries of Treasury, Defense, and State are all in Asia, making it very clear to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing that this is a priority for us.
The U.S. will urge China to put further pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear program during meetings in Beijing next week, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on Friday, days after Washington took fresh action to cut North Korea off from global finance.
“China has the ability to both create pressure and use that as a leverage that is a very important part of global efforts to isolate North Korea and get North Korea to change its policies,” said the official, speaking to journalists during a visit to Seoul by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Lew, will head to Beijing early next week for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting on economic and security issues. [Wall Street Journal, Kwanwoo Jun]
In Seoul, Mr. Lew said the U.S. move builds on Congress legislation from earlier this year as well as Chinese-backed United Nations sanctions put in place in March to put the brakes on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions after the country conducted a fourth nuclear test in January.
“It reflects the fact that the global community will not just tolerate North Korea’s actions of developing nuclear weapons,” Mr. Lew said, while declining to elaborate on what specific steps will follow to sever global banking relationships with Pyongyang. [WSJ]
China’s banks and businesses will feel the most direct effects of the new sanctions. Kerry and Lew probably hope to secure China’s face-saving, voluntary cooperation to avoid the unpleasantness of directly sanctioning Chinese banks and businesses that continue to enable Pyongyang, either by adding them to the SDN list or the 311 list, or by imposing civil or criminal penalties on them. As the New York Times explains in a detailed, must-read report, disengaging from North Korea will cost small Chinese banks billions of dollars, but the sanctions make the risks of continuing to deal with North Korea are even greater.
Chinese banks that do business with North Korea stand to lose several billion dollars in the wake of new United States Treasury Department sanctions on all such foreign institutions, analysts said on Friday.
The Chinese banks most affected by the sanctions will be comparatively small regional ones that facilitate the bulk of North Korea’s business in China, the analysts said. Major banks in China suspended their North Korean accounts in 2013 after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, criticized a nuclear test conducted by the North that year, the analysts said. [N.Y. Times, Jane Perlez]
The Bank of China, for example, which has been expanding its operations in the United States and did not want its American business tainted by cooperation with North Korea, closed the account of North Korea’s most important financial institution, the Foreign Trade Bank, in May 2013. [N.Y.T.]
The smaller banks in the northeast area of China that borders North Korea would probably not want to risk continuing to do business with the North because the cost of sanctions by the United States would far outweigh the benefits of such commercial ties, said Jin Qiangyi, dean of the institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji. [N.Y.T.]
Now, cue China’s objection to these “unilateral” sanctions, which the Times answers perfectly.
The Chinese government said on Thursday that it opposed the Treasury action, although Beijing signed onto a tough new round of United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea in March as punishment for a nuclear test it conducted earlier this year.
“We consistently oppose imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries based on one’s domestic laws,” said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying. Instead of creating new sanctions, countries should “fully implement” the United Nations sanctions established in March, she said.
The United Nations resolution called on member states to terminate “joint ventures, ownership interests and correspondent banking relationships” with banks in North Korea within 90 days. The Treasury move goes a step further with its prohibition against United States banks’ allowing North Korea access to the American financial system via third-country banks.
If China were committed to enforcing the United Nations sanctions it agreed to, then the Treasury move would not affect it.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman’s pointed use of the word “unilateral,” however, raised questions about Beijing’s commitment to the March sanctions. [N.Y.T.]
One question I’ve been asked multiple times since last week is how Treasury’s latest action will compare to the 2005 designation of Banco Delta Asia. I think this is mostly right, too.
The collective impact on the regional Chinese banks by the Treasury action will probably be much greater than the losses incurred by Banco Delta Asia, a bank based in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, when it was designated a money-laundering concern in 2005 because of its dealings with North Korea, said Cho Bong-Hyn, an analyst at the Industrial Bank of Korea’s Research Institute in Seoul.
“The impact would amount to approximately a few billion U.S. dollars, considering most of North Korea’s foreign bank accounts are in China,” Mr. Cho said. Even so, he said, few of these banks are entirely dependent on North Korea’s business. He doubted that many banks had North Korean deposits amounting to more than 10 percent of the bank’s total deposits.
“I don’t think these Chinese banks will be shaken by the said losses,” he said. “They may, however, worry about loss of future transactions.”
Most of them are in the major trading cities of Dandong and Hunchun on the border with North Korea, he said. These banks will now have to ensure that North Korea does not open bank accounts with them by using conduits.
“If such illegal accounts are detected, it could be fatal for these banks,” he said. “So both Korean and Chinese banks will have to do their best to prevent North Koreans from opening these irregular bank accounts with them.” [N.Y.T.]
But on the other hand, as Jim Walsh and John Park argued recently, North Korea has also done much work to diversify and conceal its financial flows since 2007, so it will likely take longer for sanctions to have as great an effect. As a senior Treasury official told the Wall Street Journal, “It will take a lot of continued, focused attention to make an impact,” that this will be a challenging year for the U.S. government to apply continued, focused attention to much of anything.
Inevitably, some Chinese banks, shadow banks, and non-bank institutions will play see-no-evil with customers they pretend not to know are North Korean. That’s where Treasury (specifically, its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN) will have to show that it’s willing to drop some steel on target by enforcing its Know Your Customer rules strictly. (Note to FINCEN — your North Korea KYC guidance dates back to 2005 and may be in need of a refresh.)
It is not clear where North Korea might seek alternative places to conduct financial transactions outside the normal banking systems, the analysts said.
Certainly, North Koreans would want locations far away from financial hubs. Recently, North Korean businesspeople have mentioned Cambodia and Indonesia as possible channels, said a Singaporean analyst who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Soon after the United Nations sanctions were imposed in March, Chinese traders in Dandong, the main gateway for transportation of Chinese goods into North Korea, were using alternatives to the Chinese-run Bank of Dandong.
In order to receive payments from North Korea, one major trader in Dandong said in April that he would receive a 50-percent down payment before a shipment. The money would be deposited in the Dandong office of the Korea Kwangson bank. [N.Y.T.]
That bank is North Korean and does business out of unmarked offices on the 13th floor of an office tower on the banks of the Yalu River. It was described as the last North Korean bank operating in the city.
The trader would pick up the remaining 50 percent payment once the goods arrived in North Korea, he said. The transactions would usually be in renminbi, although sometimes they were in dollars, he said.
In March, the Treasury singled out the Korea Kwansong bank for using front companies to gain access to the United States financial system and process transactions that supported weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
Previously, the Treasury had said that North Korean leaders had used one of the bank’s front companies to open accounts at a major Chinese bank under the names of Chinese citizens and to deposit millions of dollars in 2013. [N.Y.T.]
The Times also reported on Treasury’s 311 designation of North Korea here.
Separately, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to talk missile defense, improving the coordination of their defenses against North Korean provocations, and ensuring that they don’t undercut each other diplomatically through side deals with Pyongyang. To that end, South Korea’s Defense Minister is saying his government isn’t interested in “meaningless” dialogue with North Korea until Pyongyang commits to nuclear disarmament. Until then, it will continue to push for “watertight” sanctions. It most recently did so in a meeting between President Park and French President Francois Hollande.
So the good news is that this time, the State Department isn’t going to undercut Treasury anytime soon, our Korean and Japanese allies are solidly behind the effort, and U.N.memberstates are finally beginning in earnest to implement new U.N. financial sanctions against North Korea. The bad news is that the election is certain to distract the U.S. government. Key administration officials will depart for private sector jobs. The next administration’s North Korea policy is an even greater uncertainty, as is the North Korea policy of the South Korean president who succeeds Park Geun-hye.
A final must-read is this Wall Street Journal editorial, commending the 311 designation. I’ll give the last word to North Korea, whose reaction undercuts its argument that it doesn’t care about sanctions and that sanctions never work. Only time will tell, but the signs so far are good.
Radio Free Asia has launched an investigative reporting project into the use of North Korean labor on three continents, and the dangers those joint ventures pose not only to the North Korean workers, but to their customers abroad. RFA also published this infographic about where the North Korean workers are, doing everything from logging and construction to staffing medical clinics. No doubt, the conditions in which the North Korean workers labor also vary, which causes some to criticize the description of these workers as “slave” or “forced” laborers. But just try to rationalize this:
Desperate for hard currency, North Korea has been sending tens of thousands of its people abroad to earn cash for the state, dispatching lumberjacks to Russia, construction workers to the Middle East and medics to countries in Africa. Tanzania hosts as many as 12 medical clinics, including four in the capital Dar es-Salaam, that remit about $1 million a year to Pyongyang. The clinics, however, face growing criticism among Tanzanians for doctors who are unqualified and can’t communicate with patients, misdiagnosis of illnesses, unsanitary conditions and poorly labeled medicines that contain toxic metals. [Radio Free Asia]
Throughout history — including in the American South — slaves have always experienced variable degrees of brutality. Nat Turner and Sally Hemmings lived in different circumstances, but the forced servitude of both was disgraceful. The fact that the conditions of servitude for some North Koreans are relatively benign when compared to the conditions experienced by others (at home, or in Siberia) in no way excuses the evil of imposing the terms or conditions of labor on another person, regardless of her will.
Legally, each of these reports is pregnant with legal significance. Any of these reports would be “credible information” that would trigger a mandatory investigation under section 102(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Under section 104(a)(5), persons who knowingly engage in, are responsible for, or facilitate “serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea” are subject to mandatory sanctions, including the blocking of their assets and the denial of visas to enter the United States. Executive Order 13722, which implements the new law, blocks the dollars of persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury to have “engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Note that the executive order does not specify “forced” or “slave” labor.
This means that any of these enterprises that run transactions through the dollar system are subject to severe sanctions.
The text of the E.O. itself is strong, exceeding in several regards what both Congress and the U.N. require. It’s encouraging that Treasury was willing to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and U.N. consensus. Aid groups will be relieved that Treasury has issued the implementing guidance and general licenses I’d beenhoping it would get done quickly.
As mandated by NKSPEA 104(c), the E.O. freezes all North Korean government and ruling party assets in the dollar system. It also goes beyond the NKSPEA in banning U.S. persons from exporting any goods, services, or technology to North Korea; from making any new investments in North Korea; and from facilitating transactions banned under the E.O.
I can no longer make the claim that our North Korea sanctions aren’t comprehensive. This is comprehensive, although I’ll want to see what the new regulations say. In one important regard, however, the E.O. falls short of UNSCR 2270, by failing to prohibit correspondent relationships with North Korean banks. (Update: Treasury might take the view that blocking subsumes that.)
The North Korean regime is resourceful in its abuse of the international financial system to evade sanctions and fund its illicit programs. OFAC designated Ilsim International Bank and Korea United Development Bank for operating in the financial services industry in the North Korean economy. Ilsim International Bank is affiliated with the North Korean military and has attempted to evade United Nations sanctions. Ilsim International Bank has a close relationship with Korea Kwangson Bank (KKBC). KKBC was designated pursuant to E.O. 13382, in part for providing financial services to UN-listed Tanchon Commercial Bank. Tanchon Commercial Bank was identified by the President as a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferator in the Annex to E.O. 13382. KKBC was also singled out under UNSCR 2270 as subject to an asset freeze.
This seems to foreshadow a determination that North Korea is a Primary Money Laundering Concern. Treasury also released a list of new designations, including 10 shipping companies and 20 more ships, mostly the same ones that appear in Annex III of UNSCR 2270. Sectoral sanctions worked against Iran and Burma. This is a good sign that Treasury will have free reign to put His Porcine Majesty on a diet.
The E.O. also freezes any assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction of any “person” (a legal term that includes individuals, businesses, or entities) the Treasury Secretary (in consultation with the Secretary of State) determines to have engaged in certain categories of conduct. The categories loosely track NKSPEA 104(a), starting with the prohibition on mineral exports that also appears (in different forms) in NKSPEA 104(a)(8) and UNSCR 2270.
(ii) to have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea, metal, graphite, coal, or software, where any revenue or goods received may benefit the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea, including North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs;
North Korea generates a significant share of the money it uses to fuel its nuclear and ballistic missile programs by mining natural resources – often exploiting workers in slave-like conditions – and selling those resources abroad. In particular, coal generates over $1 billion in revenue per year for North Korea. OFAC designated the following companies for operating in the mining industry in the North Korean economy: Singwang Economics and Trading General Corporation and the Korea Foreign Technical Trade Center. Singwang Economics and Trading General Corporation is a subordinate of the DPRK’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. The Korea Foreign Technical Trade Center supports the North Korean special weapons research entity Pongwha Research Center.
UNSCR 2270’s potentially troublesome “livelihood” exception doesn’t appear in this E.O., although the general licenses and implementing guidance contain much, much narrower humanitarian exemptions, which I’ll discuss below.
Next, the E.O. freezes the assets of those designated for human rights abuses, as required under NKSPEA 104(a)(5).
(iii) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of either such entity;
I get that the traditional approach in sanctions enforcement is to go bottom-up, but after so much time has been wasted, and more than two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry reported evidence of crimes against humanity, I’d expect to see things go bottom-up pretty damn rapidly.
(iv) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea;
Next, in accordance with the mandatory sanctions for cyberattacks, per NKSPEA 104(a)(7):
(v) to have engaged in significant activities undermining cybersecurity through the use of computer networks or systems against targets outside of North Korea on behalf of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea;
OFAC has designated the Workers’ Party of Korea, Propaganda and Agitation Department (the “Propaganda and Agitation Department”) as an agency, instrumentality, or controlled entity of the Government of North Korea. The Workers’ Party of Korea has full control over the media, which it uses as a tool to control the public. The Propaganda and Agitation Department also engages in or is responsible for censorship by the Government of North Korea. Each month, the Propaganda and Agitation Department delivers party guidelines explaining the narrative that all broadcast and news reporting plans must follow. The North Korean media must follow all Party guidelines. The Propaganda and Agitation Department is also the primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship. Today’s action implements provisions of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which includes mandatory designation criteria for persons engaging in censorship in North Korea.
Music to my ears.
Now, you may be wondering why the new E.O. doesn’t cover other provisions of NKSPEA 104(a), relating to, say, WMD technology transfers or arms trafficking. I can only presume that’s because that conduct is already sanctionable under Executive Order 13382 and Executive Order 13551, respectively. Of course, those executive orders have existed since 2005 and 2010, and both have been underutilized ever since.
The new E.O. would seem to subsume the Executive Order the President signed just over a year ago, E.O. 13687, but today’s designations actually include two new “DPRK2” designees under that order, Jo Yong-chol and Ri Won-ho, officers of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security living in Syria and Egypt, respectively.
OFAC designated Ri Won Ho and Jo Yong Chol pursuant to E.O. 13687 for being officials of the Government of North Korea. Ri Won Ho is an official of the DPRK’s Ministry of State Security based in Egypt. Jo Yong Chol is an official of the DPRK’s Ministry of State Security stationed in Syria. They both facilitate North Korea’s Mining Development Trading Corporation’s (KOMID) business in Egypt and Syria. KOMID was identified by the President in the Annex to E.O. 13382 and designated pursuant to E.O. 13687. It was also designated by the United Nations Security Council pursuant to UNSCR 1718. KOMID is North Korea’s premier arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.
I was also pleased to see that, along with the new E.O. and designations, OFAC also issued a series of general licenses — effectively, exemptions to the sanctions — that will help avoid adverse consequences for innocents, and for the sorts of changes we want to promote in North Korean society. The highest-profile of these covers humanitarian work:
(1) Activities to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in North Korea, including drought and flood relief; food, nutrition, and medicine distribution; the provision of health services; assistance for individuals with disabilities; and environmental programs;
(2) Activities to support democracy building in North Korea, including rule of law, citizen participation, government accountability, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to information, and civil society development projects;
(3) Activities to support education in North Korea, including combating illiteracy, increasing access to education, international exchanges, and assisting education reform projects; and
(4) Activities to support non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the North Korean people, including preventing infectious disease and promoting maternal/child health, sustainable agriculture, and clean water assistance.
( 5) Activities to support environmental protection, including the preservation and protection of threatened or endangered species and the remediation of pollution or other environmental damage.
I’m also pleased that OFAC also granted a general license to allow refugees to send remittances home to their relatives in North Korea, for reasons I’ve described here. Another general license permits “transactions necessary to the receipt and transmission of telecommunications involving North Korea,” which would seem to allow cross-border phone calls, but “does not authorize (i) The provision, sale, or lease of telecommunications equipment or technology; or (ii) The provision, sale, or lease of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities,” which presumably would not authorize, say, Naguib Sawaris’s investments in Pyongyang. But I’ll let Naguib hire his own lawyer.
As Professor Lee and I have flogged, and flogged, and flogged, and flogged this horse that our sanctions against North Korea were far weaker than was widely assumed, we knew a few of you were rolling your eyes and wondering how long we would go on flogging it. The answer, of course, is, “As long as it takes.”
The most surprisingly strident agreement comes from Peter Harrell, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs from 2012 to 2014. In 2013, Harrell was also one of State’s representatives in discussions with House staff about the shape of H.R. 1771, the predecessor of H.R. 757. I honor the Vegas Rule with respect to the content of those discussions, but I liked Harrell personally (although, given my own calculated obnoxiousness in those meetings, the converse is less likely to be true). Without revealing more, I was surprised to see Harrell call H.R. 757 no more than “a useful first step” toward something much stronger, and to see him criticize the weakness of the sanctions in place now.
The existing sanctions are not effectively designed to challenge this dynamic. For example, the U.S. and our allies do not currently sanction international companies that establish joint business ventures in North Korea or that trade with North Korean mining, metals, textile and other companies that are mainstays of the North Korean economy. [Peter Harrell, The Hill]
Of course, civil servants don’t go to meetings to share their personal views. In 2013, Harrell served his President loyally, professionally, and competently. Now that he can speak for himself, Harrell joins fellow Obama Administration alumnus Kurt Campbell in arguing that sanctions can do much more.
There are U.S. and United Nations sanctions against selling luxury goods like sports cars and high-end watches to North Korea—an effort launched several (sic) to curb the reportedly-lavish lifestyles of North Korea’s elite —but these sanctions have rarely been enforced. [Harrell]
Then, Harrell begins to show us his inner Curtis LeMay:
First, the U.S. and our allies should begin imposing sanctions on international companies that do business with North Korea’s primary economic sectors, such as mining and textiles. These could be modeled after the sanctions imposed on Iran beginning in 2010 that drove most international companies to stop doing business with Tehran. [Harrell]
From the sound of Senator Cory Gardner’s comments to Yonhap this week, that may be where the Senate is heading. Gardner, though still a freshman, is well regarded for his intellect and his command of Asia policy, and has emerged as the Senate’s leading voice on North Korea. Critically, Gardner tells Yonhap, “The main point of the bill obviously is a mandatory sanctions regime.”
The U.S. should also ramp up financial sanctions against the handful of banks that still do business with North Korea. Unlike current legislative proposals, however, financial sanctions should not be limited to banks that facilitate North Korea’s nuclear program or other illicit activities. Instead, the goal should be to entirely cut North Korea off from the global banking system, much as the U.S. did with Iran over the past five years.
Combined, escalated trade and financial sanctions have the potential to curb North Korea’s growth and to undercut the economic base that the North requires to keep advancing its nuclear program.Stepped up enforcement of the existing sanctions targeting North Korea’s illicit activities would complement such a new broader sanctions campaign against North Korea’s economy. [Harrell]
Harrell doesn’t draw a red line at the Yalu River, either:
China, which is responsible for more than half of North Korea’s trade, is a key player and needs to make a choice: either join in an international effort to increase pressure on North Korea, or see Chinese companies that continue to trade with the North risk their ability to participate in the broader global economy.China’s own rising concern about its long-time client’s nuclear program and other destabilizing activities makes it likely that China would ultimately join in a campaign of escalated economic pressure, as long as the diplomacy is handled deftly. [Harrell]
Naturally, this is not a unanimous view. Another former Obama Administration official, Joseph DeThomas,has published a post at 38 North criticizing the CNN op-ed Professor Lee and I published earlier this week. I can see why DeThomas might have felt stung by our criticism of the Obama Administration’s dereliction in enforcing sanctions as the North Korean threat grew. It’s curious that DeThomas chooses us among so many others who’ve recently espoused similar views, but we’ve never been the kind to shy away from arguments. Fortunately, I’ve already prebutted DeThomas’s argument-to-impotence in this OFK post and this one, at The Weekly Standard, but briefly:
DeThomas calls it an “urban myth” that the Banco Delta Asia measures threatened the survival of Kim Jong-il’s regime, but officials who were in the Bush Administration at the time, and who would presumably have a stronger basis of knowledge, disagree.
DeThomas says sanctions won’t work because we don’t know where Kim Jong-un’s money is, but I’ve cited evidence to the contrary, and a source now tells the New York Times that, actually, the Treasury Department does, too, know. (It’s also odd that DeThomas doesn’t direct this argument toward Peter Harrell, who was State’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions until 2014, and who clearly feels otherwise.)
To the extent we don’t know where the money is, that’s partially due to the fact that our sanctions regulations are too weak for us to gather that information from the financial industry.
A few other points:
DeThomas argues that most of North Korea’s income isn’t strictly illegal. To be clear, we said “much of” North Korea’s income was “derived from proliferation and illicit activities.” This is the essence of money laundering — you commingle the proceeds of illicit activity with legitimate income to conceal its origins. That’s why money laundering laws make the entire commingled amount subject to seizure and forfeiture.
DeThomas says that North Korea is now working through non-bank institutions to move its money, which I believe to be partially true. It’s also true of many other rogue states, drug dealers, and terrorists we’ve successfully targeted. North Korea didn’t invent money laundering. If Osama bin Laden died broke and isolated, a country of 23 million people must have a higher financial profile.
DeThomas doesn’t think we can “internationalize” effective sanctions at the U.N. I’d urge him to reread Paragraphs 11 through 15 of UNSCR 2094. Those provisions, if enforced as written, are already sufficient authority to internationalize effective sanctions. (This is not to deny that there’s room for improvement, particularly with respect to the mandatory reporting of North Korean property, accounts, and transactions to the Panel of Experts.)
DeThomas wonders: “Perhaps the sanctions experts in the US Treasury, Department of State or in the intelligence community are aware of a Chinese entity that is: a) violating US sanctions on North Korea, and b) is clearly generating significant amounts of foreign exchange for the regime.” Well, if I’m aware of all these examples, I certainly hope the experts can name more examples than a blogger can.
DeThomas worries that sanctions on North Korea’s Chinese enablers will bring down the Chinese (and with it, the global) economy. In fact, Section 207(b)(1) of H.R. 757 allows the President to waive even mandatory sanctions if “[t]he waiver is important to the economic or national security interests of the United States.” Not that a sanctions waiver will be enough to save the Chinese banks from all the bad loans they were forced to make to prop up state-owned enterprises and pump up stock prices. Not that Chinese banks that block North Korean deposits will have anything to worry about. It’s hard to believe that any Chinese bank is so heavily invested in North Korea that it can’t cut its ties quickly.
DeThomas argues that sanctions will piss off the Chinese, and calls for more of the same meek supplications that have failed for 20 years. The risk of pissing off China clearly doesn’t deter me as much as it deters DeThomas, given the bad faith China has shown in its non-enforcement and affirmative proliferation. Relations with China might just have to get worse before they get better.
As to DeThomas’s inference that sanctions will lead to war with North Korea, they actually led to a (flawed) disarmament agreement in 2007. North Korea has actually been more menacing since 2008, when we weakened our sanctions. In any event, it certainly won’t become less menacing after it has a more effective nuclear arsenal.
To sum up, one former Obama Administration official thinks H.R. 757 goes too far, and another thinks it doesn’t go far enough. Financial Times reporter Simon Mundy even manages to make both arguments in one story, criticizing H.R. 757 for being too permissive with its waivers to be effective, yet too offensive to China.
The new consensus, however, is that we need tougher sanctions against both North Korea and its Chinese backers. All of which suggests Congress got it just about right, although the Senate will still have the last word. From some of the chatter I’ve picked up offline, many Senators’ moods toward Pyongyang aren’t far removed from those Cato the Elder harbored toward Carthage. If we aren’t all frozen solid or eaten by wolverines by Monday, we’re in for an interesting week.
Barely four months ago, Park Geun-hye’s negotiating team exchanged high-fives and backslaps with its North Korean counterparts, and came home having secured either peace in our time, or (as I called it) an agreement to fight another day.
Today, South Korea says the North’s nuke test was “a grave violation” of the August agreement, the loudspeakers are blaring on both sides of the DMZ, and North Korea says the noise is pushing the two Koreas to “the brink of war.” What noise, you ask?
“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman would say in one of the messages in a slow, deliberate voice. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This is all very nice from the perspective of a carnivorous South Dakotan and the readers of this blog, although I’m not sure how much of the NKPA audience is prepared to take in such a bluntly political message.
Smart people have done good research about what messages influence North Koreans, and they found that most North Korean listeners just want to be entertained, at least initially. North Koreans have also emerged to advise us what to broadcast. For some of them, entertainment becomes a gateway drug for complaints about material matters, local policies, state policies, and eventually, their country’s political system.
To the extent the content of broadcasts is political, it works better for creating favorable impressions of South Korea or the United States than for creating unfavorable impressions of the North Korean government. (North Koreans tend to distrust what they hear about their own country from the media. They’re more likely to trust what they hear by word of mouth, from their friends and relatives.) That counsels us that a message of peace could be effective in counteracting the state’s war propaganda.
This is not to deny that anti-state messages have their place. Frankly, when I see people argue for or against broadcasting political content, I have to wonder if they ever turn the dials on their own car radios. Not all North Koreans want the same content any more than we do. Some want k-pop, some want trot, some want dramas, some want straight news, and perhaps some demographic is just waiting for a North Korean Rush Limbaugh to come along.
The great theorist of counter-insurgency, Sir Robert Thompson, argued that reporting on the adversary’s corruption was often devastating. Another argument that seems to be resonating with some North Koreans is the idea that nuke tests are a waste of money that the government ought to be spending on providing them with food and essential services.
This leaves me wondering just exactly how loudspeaking plays into a coherent long-term strategy. Look — I’m all for deterring violence with non-violence, so I’m all for the basic concept. It’s just hard for me to see what deterrent effect this auditory punitive expedition will have, when it will end, or how. It’s also hard for Patrick Cronin, who puts it very well in this must-read piece:
Fifth, South Korea should rethink the propaganda broadcasts and replace them with a more comprehensive and strategic information campaign. This campaign would develop new means and double down on existing means of spreading facts about the lack of justice in North Korea (with gulags and summary executions for political opponents), the criminal mismanagement of North Korea’s leadership (with a quarter of a meager GDP being spent on the military) and the growing inequality between the average citizens of North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea or China on the other. The positive message of this information campaign should focus on the bonanza that peaceful unification might bring to all Koreans. [Patrick Cronin, The National Interest]
Read the whole thing.
The first question I would ask is who the audience is. If it’s conscripts, wouldn’t it be more effective to talk about corruption, abuse, disease, malnutrition, and low morale in the North Korean military? Or recent fraggings and defections? Or to send a message of peace, that soldiers should try to save the lives of fellow Koreans by sabotaging weapons, misplacing firing pins and bolts, or intentionally missing their targets? North Korean soldiers might be intensely curious about life in the ROK Army, although that’s not always a very cheery story, either.
Of course, I continue to believe that blaring noise to a few hundred, or a few thousand, conscripts is small ball. If the ROKs are really serious about changing North Korean society, they’ll need to engage the whole population. Once there is cross-border cell service, the possibilities are limitless. The Albert Einstein Institute has published a well-developed theory of using non-violent resistance to topple totalitarian regimes, but few of the strategies articulated here have any realistic chance of success in North Korea. By Einstein’s own admission, non-violent resistance harnesses the power of indigenous civil institutions. Those don’t exist in North Korea today, but if the security forces suddenly found themselves unable to pay their cadres, the internal balance of power could start to shift. South Korea’s strategic goal, then, ought to be to remotely rebuild the civil institutions that North Korea lacks.
There are some new technical ideas that may help us do this. First, in a little-noticed but fascinating report by the UPI’s Elizabeth Shim, a North Korean defector reports that it is now possible for some defectors in China to Skype their relatives back home by bringing a South Korean smartphone into the Chinese side of the border zone.
Second, with the caveat that I’m not a telecommunications expert, I’d like to hear some well-informed thoughts on the following modest proposal: now that Orascom has written off Koryolink, could South Korea build some towers along the DMZ and broadcast a cell signal on Koryolink’s frequency? Would this allow a South Korean in, say, Musan to call a North Korean in, say, Cheongjin? If you’re one who believes in engaging North Korea in principle, how could you possibly be against shattering the digital DMZ, and allowing all Koreans the means to engage with one another, people-to-people?
The point being, Kim was a pezzanovante. He (along with Hwang Pyeong-so) negotiated that agreement between the Koreas to fight another day, after the crisis that followed when North planted mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers. In terms of ideology, Michael Madden describes him as “not exactly a moderate, but … a pragmatist,” and worries that his subtraction from the equation might benefit “more hawkish elements.”
Kim’s official cause of death was a car “accident,” if you can believe that. A few people, including Andrei Lankov and Greg Scarlatoiu, seem skeptical. Personally, I have no idea. North Korea’s roads aren’t much better than the rest of its infrastructure. By most accounts, Pyongyang has more traffic now than in previous years, which still isn’t saying much. There are actual, accidental car accidents in Pyongyang. But there is also a very suspicious history:
In 1976, an official said to be a rival to then-president Kim Il Sung died in a car crash. In 2003, a predecessor to Kim Yang Gon died in a traffic accident and in 2010 top official Ri Je Gang also died in a crash.
“North Korea has a long track record of suspicious deaths around high-level officials,” said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. “Most die either because they are machine-gunned, or they die in car crashes”.
“There are almost no cars and security for high-officials traveling in cars is extremely tight. Given that, one is bound to be skeptical about any such report coming from North Korea.” [Reuters, Jack Kim & James Pearson]
Scarlatoiu notes that senior officials like Kim Yang-gon have drivers for their fancy European sedans. Except, so senior defectors tell Scarlatoiu, when they have to drive themselves to parties — like, say, New Year’s parties — at Kim Jong-il’s house. That’s when the more suspicious accidents tend to happen.
In its 2012 annual report on North Korea, Amnesty International cited “unconfirmed reports that the authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue.”
Only in North Korea would your organizational affiliation dictate your precise cause of death.
Later that same year, a defector claimed he’d been ordered by His Corpulency’s Secret Service to target his equally corpulent (but much nicer) sibling, Jong-nam, for a car not-accident in China. Still unexplained is the 2013 incident in which Kim Jong-un thanked a female traffic cop for saving his life, which caused some to speculate that His Corpulency might also have been the target of a car not-accident.
(Update: And after all that, Choe was a no-show for Kim’s funeral. This is all just too weird.)
Grisafi, for whom I have much respect, thinks that the fates of Kim Yang-gon and Choe Ryong-hae mean that “the Kim Jong Un regime appears to have recently shifted away from violent purges by execution of senior officials in favor of milder punishments and reeducation.” But if Kim Yang-gon’s death really was an accident, it means that Choe’s resurrection is the only data point Grisafi has to support this argument. If it wasn’t, a staged car accident isn’t what I’d call “mild” punishment, although it could mean that his parents, children, and wife might be spared relocation to a gulag peace farm.
I think the data pool is much too thin, and the standard deviation much too high, to identify any trends. In fact, I’m officially prepared to admit that I have no effing idea what is going on in His Corpulency’s Court, except that by all outward appearances, it’s amateur hour with nuclear weapons up there.
“This is the big question right now facing Pyongyang watchers,” Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said. “Was this an accident or is this a cover up for a purge? Sometimes when leaders are purged, the car accident is used as a way of getting rid of them without branding them a criminal or a traitor.” [….]
“The early indications are that this was an accident,” Gause said. “If, however, we begin to see a major shift away from inter-Korean dialogue toward a more aggressive, brinksmanship or isolationist policy, then we may have to take another look at this ‘accident.'”
“Kim Yang-gon’s death in a car accident might be interpreted as paying the ultimate price for the collapse of the inter-Korean mini-detente following the August agreement,” Bruce Klingner, a senior Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said.
But Klinger also pointed out that prior to his death, there were no indications Kim was distrusted or in danger of being purged. The frequency of Kim accompanying the leader had also increased under Kim Jong-un’s reign as compared with the era of late leader Kim Jong-il, he said.
The expert also noted leader Kim’s expression of sorrow about the loss of Kim.
“The North Korean leader attended the funeral, expressing ‘bitter grief’ and bemoaning the loss of ‘his faithful helper whom nobody can replace,’ suggesting an accidental rather than planned death,” Klingner said. “That said, other North Korean elites may now be more wary of getting into their cars.”
Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared. – Niccolo Macchiavelli
For a while, I was starting to wonder who was still giving His Corpulency his adult supervision, after Yonhap reported that Number Two Hwang Pyong-So had vanished, sought medical treatment in China, and then (never mind!) reappeared. Because in extreme cases, sucking up can fracture your palate:
Top North Korean official Hwang Pyong-so has campaigned to spread a song expressing strong allegiance to the country’s young leader throughout the military, a South Korean think tank said Thursday.
Hwang, the 75-year-old director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), has introduced the song, tentatively named “Yes, Sir,” to his troops, which stresses the need to follow every instruction from leader Kim Jong-un, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy. [….]
“With the song, Hwang is seeking to induce the military into swearing allegiance to the leader,” said an official at the institute. [Yonhap]
A leader who trusts in the loyalty of his army shouldn’t need such infantile affirmations. In fact, there is ample evidence that morale and discipline in the North Korean military are low, and there is alsoample evidence — admittedly, much of it from the NIS — of discontent within the ruling party because of purges and surveillance. That evidence continues to accumulate:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has executed around 100 party and military officials since he took office in late 2011 in a bid to tighten his grip on power, a Seoul think tank said Wednesday.
But a number of North Korean power elites are disenchanted with the leader’s so-called reign of terror, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under South Korea’s spy agency.
“Deep doubts about Kim’s leadership are spreading among working-level officials. Some officials based in foreign nations are trying to seek asylum,” it said. [….]
A source familiar with North Korean affairs said that North Korean officials are increasingly irritated by Kim’s iron-fist rule and some of them have applied for asylum in South Korea. [Yonhap]
Another NIS-sourced report claims that “[a] growing number of North Korean key party and military officials has been fleeing” the North to escape the purges. The recent defectors reportedly include “some officials from the North’s state security department.”
In August, the Daily NK reported the security forces were demoralized by revenge attacks by angry citizens. Last week, it reported that a man disemboweled himself in front of a ruling party office as an act of protest:
“The person had filed a grievance case, claiming to have been wrongfully accused of something, but after that didn’t go well, the resident committed ‘seppuku’ in front of the central Party’s office building in protest.” [….]
“We do not know the details of this grievance letter, but it is said to involve reports about losing everything the person owned because of a Ministry of People’s Security [ MPS, or North Korea’s equivalent of a police force] cadre.” [….]
People who know the individual have criticized MPS personnel, noting that this (injustice) could happen to anyone, she said, adding most people even in Pyongsong are already aware of this incident and that it would hard to control this rumor from spreading. [Daily NK]
It reminds me of how the Arab Spring began. It also shows how fragile North Korea’s nascent merchant class is. If the long term trends favor marketization, it’s less clear that marketization is a function of a state policy, much less reform. Lax enforcement is more likely to be a function of the state’s pervasive corruption, its knowledge that a heavy-handed approach could spark unrest, or some combination of these things.
Make of this what you will; three of the Korea analysts I respect the most all disagree. Bruce Klingner views the purges as a sign of Kim Jong-Un’s confidence and control; Ken Gause thinks the regime is stable for now but has a high potential for instability if the economy doesn’t improve soon; and Bruce Bennett thinks the regime could fall tomorrow.
“We have to think that sooner or later someone in that military chain is going to consider that if they don’t do something about Kim Jong-un, they will be next,” Bennett told South Korean journalists in a meeting Friday organized by the Korea Press Foundation and the East-West Center. “Even in Germany during World War II, where security was extreme, there was still an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by the military. So it could happen.” [Yonhap]
Myself, I incline toward the view that totalitarian systems are inherently unstable. Just as rigid materials can’t deform under physical pressure, rigid systems can’t evolve under political and social pressure. They eventually shatter when the pressure becomes great enough to fracture them along some latent flaw, although it’s seldom possible to predict when. The reports also fit with the limited psychological evidence we have, that Kim Jong-Un, though rational from a certain perspective, is addicted to risk-taking. The safest predictions are usually those that look the most like the status quo — in this case, a system that continues to erode gradually. The problem with the “safe” view is that it looks increasingly like a trend that can’t continue.
Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration’s point man on North Korea policy told Congress that sanctions are hurting Pyongyang. I must confess to some skepticism.
[Ski lift made in China.]
Instead, the evidence suggests that North Korea’s rich are getting richer, and its poor are staying poor. Materially speaking, the capital’s elites have never had it better, and openly buy imported consumer goods with dollars. Marcus Noland also sees evidence that, whatever the official statistics tell us, Pyongyang’s palace economy appears to have grown in recent years. Outside Pyongyang, however, 70 to 84 percent of the people are barely scraping by.
If our diplomacy is at an impasse and our sanctions aren’t working, then by what measure can the administration say that its North Korea policy is working? When President Park visited Washington last month, she and President Obama warned Kim Jong-Un that if he “carries out a launch using ballistic missile technology or a nuclear test,” he will “face consequences, including further significant measures by the U.N. Security Council.” But for all the talk that China is unhappy with Kim Jong-Un, China’s willingness to violate U.N. sanctions — violations that are too numerous to be anything less than state policy — continues to be the most important reason why sanctions aren’t working.
As I’ve argued recently, U.N. sanctions against North Korea will continue to fail until the U.N. and its member states do what they have not yet done — actpromptly to designate the third-country enablers that help Pyongyang break them. Earlier this week, I posted a detailed case study about one of Pyongyang’s most important enablers, Chinese ex-spy and businessman Sam Pa, his 88 Queensway Group, and his North Korean joint venture, known as KKG, a partnership with Bureau 39, Pyongyang’s official money laundering agency. Pa first entered North Korea in 2006, just in time to prop up Kim Jong-Il as the Banco Delta Asia action was starving his regime of the hard currency on which its survival depends.
Unfortunately, KKG is just one of many examples of China helping North Korea to evade sanctions over the course of decades. Not only that, Chinese technology transfers played a major role in helping North Korea build its long-range ballistic missiles to begin with.
The National Security Agency (NSA) suspected in late 1998 that the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) was working with North Korea on its space program (closely related to missiles) to develop satellites, but that cooperation was not confirmed to be linked to the Taepo Dong-1 MRBM program, the Washington Times reported (February 23, 1999). An NSA report dated March 8, 1999, suggested that China sold specialty steel for use in North Korea’s missile program, reported the Washington Times (April 15, 1999). In June 1999, U.S. intelligence reportedly found that PRC entities transferred accelerometers, gyroscopes, and precision grinding machinery to North Korea, according to the Washington Times (July 20, 1999). Another official report dated October 20, 1999, said that China’s Changda Corporation sought to buy Russian gyroscopes that were more of the same that China supplied to the North Korean missile program earlier that year, reported the Washington Times (November 19, 1999). In December 1999, the
NSA discovered an alleged PRC deal to supply unspecified PRC-made missile-related items to North Korea through a Hong Kong company, said the Washington Times (January 1, 2000).
The DCI first publicly confirmed PRC supplies to North Korea, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in July 1999. [….] The DNI’s Section 721 Report of May 2007 told Congress that PRC “entities” continued in 2005 to assist North Korea’s ballistic missile program. [Congressional Research Service, Jan. 5, 2015]
China also gave North Korea’s nuclear weapons program substantial help, both directly and through Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network:
The New York Times and Washington Post reported on October 18, 2002, that U.S. officials believed Pakistan provided equipment, including gas centrifuges, for the North Korean uranium enrichment program, in return for North Korea’s supply of Nodong MRBMs to Pakistan by 1998. The Washington Post added on November 13, 2002, that the Bush Administration had knowledge that Pakistan continued to provide nuclear technology to North Korea through the summer of 2002. Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center wrote in National Review Online (November 19, 2002) that “one might call on Pakistan, Russia, and China to detail what nuclear technology and hardware they allowed North Korea to import.”
The New York Times reported on January 4, 2004, about a history of nuclear technology proliferating from Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan and disclosed that he had transferred designs for uranium-enrichment centrifuges to China first. DCI George Tenet confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 24, that North Korea pursued a “production-scale uranium enrichment program based on technology provided by A.Q. Khan.” Particularly troubling was the reported intelligence finding in early 2004 that Khan sold Libya a nuclear bomb design that he received from China in the early 1980s (in return for giving China centrifuge technology), a design that China already tested in 1966 and developed as a compact nuclear bomb for delivery on a missile.47 That finding raised an additional question of whether Khan also sold that bomb design to others, including Iran and North Korea.
Moreover, PRC firms could have been involved directly or indirectly in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs or weapons proliferation to other countries. In June 1999, authorities in India inspected the North Korean freighter Kuwolsan and found an assembly line for Scud ballistic missiles intended for Libya, including many parts and machines from China or Japan, according to the Washington Post (August 14, 2003). The Washington Times reported on December 9 and 17, 2002, that a PRC company in the northeastern coastal city of Dalian sold to North Korea 20 tons of tributyl phosphate (TBP), a dual-use chemical that U.S. intelligence reportedly believed would be used in the North Korean nuclear weapons program. [CRS, Jan. 5, 2015]
It bears repeating that just days before North Korea’s first nuclear test, influential Chinese academic, frequent Pyongyang visitor, and maleficent asshole Shen Dingli publicly flashed a green light. Shen has since called North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons “a sovereign right to which the D.P.R.K. is entitled.” China’s is not a society that values academic freedom, particularly in the field of its foreign relations. If Shen wasn’t speaking for Beijing, you could forgive Pyongyang (and Washington, and for that matter, me) for believing he was.
According to former State Department official David Asher, China has “long served as a safe harbor for North Korean proliferation and illicit trading networks and a transport hub for these networks via its airports and airspace, harbors and sea space.”
[I]n the past decade there have been way too many incidents of Chinese companies actively fronting for North Korea in the procurement of key technologies for the DPRK’s nuclear program. Some of these incidents suggest lax enforcement of export controls, poor border controls, and a head-in-the-sand attitude of senior authorities. Others suggest active collusion and/or deliberately weak enforcement of international laws and agreements against WMD and missile proliferation. There is a great body of information about this and the Chinese are well aware of our grave concerns. [David Asher at the Heritage Foundation, Sept. 14, 2006]
The evidence that has emerged, both before and since 2006, overwhelmingly supports Asher’s charge. China’s failures to enforce U.N. sanctions constitute a long-standing pattern and practice of non-enforcement. In 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained to the Chinese government about its failure to inspect and intercept a shipment of missile parts aboard a North Korean flight to Tehran as it refueled in Beijing.
[Flight path from Pyongyang to Tehran]
In 2008, China failed to inspect two containers of rocket fuses that were shipped from North Korea to Iran, via the Chinese port of Dalian (page 31). Most of the photographs that follow are from the U.N. Panel of Experts charged with investigating compliance with the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions resolutions.
In 2011, China blocked a report by a U.N. panel of experts that implicated it in North Korean arms transfers to Iran. In 2012, a Chinese state-owned firm, Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co., sold North Korea chassis for missile transporter-erector-launchers (pages 80-84, or the CRS report linked above, at 19, or the reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts).
While the Treasury Department had (at least temporarily) scared off the bigger Chinese banks from North Korean business that year, the Bank of Dandong and North Korean banks operating from China took up the slack. In 2014, the U.N. Panel of Experts reported that a U.N.-sanctioned firm linked to North Korea’s WMD programs was operating openly at a Chinese trade show (page 53). As recently as November 2014, the same company still operated in China and Russia.
The U.N. Panel of Experts has named multiple Chinese firms that have facilitated shipments of luxury goods to North Korea (page 41). North Korea is still using the dollar system to conduct its business, although some of that business has moved to a lower level in the financial ecosystem, through intermediaries like the banks in Dandong and Shanghai, 88 Queensway, and the money launderers in Guangdong.
In 2008, the Chinese government also set up “a system which will allow companies and people from North Korea to open bank accounts in China to settle business transactions in yuan,” to avoid the dollar system and Treasury regulations entirely. In 2013, when Treasury sanctions again started to cause pain in Pyongyang, 40 senior North Korean officials gathered in a restaurant in Shenyang to discuss strategies to evade them. Such a meeting could not have taken place without the knowledge and approval of Chinese authorities.
Draw your own conclusions from this evidence, but here’s mine: the Chinese government has provided extensive, active, and long-term support to North Korea’s WMD programs and sanctions violations. This support has come from Chinese government agencies and state-owned firms that work with some of China’s most sensitive (and presumably, most closely watched) defense technologies. In numerous other cases, Chinese law enforcement officials looked the other way when North Korean proliferators smuggled weapons through its ports or its airspace. And we’re talking here about the world’s second-most policed society, where the government can have Jing-Jing and Cha-Cha at a teenager’s doorstep within minutes of her posting “Tibet” or “6.4” on her weibo.
All of which sets the table for a fisking of the five Chinese academics from state schools or government institutions whom NK News interviewed for this article. I’m glad NK News did the interview. It’s important for us to have a clear-eyed view of how China sees North Korea, even if that clear-eyed view reveals that China is, despite much wishful thinking to the contrary, fundamentally hostile to our interests, and either ignorant of the facts or willfully blind to them. These insights may not be comforting, but they’re consistent with a long history of China’s behavior:
Sanctions can’t hurt North Korea at all. I was in North Korea last year. It doesn’t look like North Korea’s economy was hurt by the sanctions in any way. The idea to impose sanctions to change North Korea’s behavior is wrong.
Either he’s saying that his overlords, who voted for six U.N. Security Council resolutions (the most recent of them two years ago) were “wrong,” or he’s accurately reflecting the groupthink in Beijing, thus revealing how fundamentally disingenuous China really is, and how different its U.N. votes are from the actual policies it pursues.
Again, as I said earlier, we have exhausted most of the options to try and shape North Korea’s behavior.
As long as Washington doesn’t give up its interests in Northeast Asia, especially maintaining its military forces, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons.
As long as China doesn’t give up its claims to Taiwan, there’s nothing we can do to keep Taiwan from buying our gas centrifuges, “satellite launch” vehicle gyroscopes, and trucks for transporting curiously long, eight-foot-thick tree trunks.
Is it possible for China to stand on the same side with the U.S.? No. To me, the gap in Western society and Eastern society seemed to grow wider after the September 3 military parade.
Translation: you may not think we’re in a Cold War with China, but China thinks it’s in a Cold War with us.
The sanctions are meaningless. International society believes cutting off the supply of luxury goods to the elites is punishment. The problem is North Korea’s economy has remained relatively independent from the rest of the world. During the Cold War era, its economy was associated with Eastern European nations. After the Cold War, its economy has mainly interacted with China, which means North Korea’s economy has little linkage with international society and the sanctions can barely hurt the country.
Western opinions have successfully shaped North Korea as an evil power.
Yeah, where did we ever get that idea? From the former Attorney General of Indonesia, who might (in turn) have gotten it from any of 30,000 North Koreans who inexplicably risked death, rape, torture, and the gulag to flee their homeland.
So, how exactly can you ban North Korean from importing luxury goods?
The fifth Chinese “expert,” a young Ph.D candidate, actually comes dangerously close to the truth when he says this:
According to China’s official response, it is not breaking UN sanctions on luxury goods when it comes to the items exported from China.
I think China usually holds a vague approach to sanctions on North Korea. On the one hand, China does not want to provoke North Korea on this issue. On the other hand, North Korea’s main trading partner is China. So sanctions would cause harm to Chinese businessmen.
As we know, exporting luxury goods is a high-profit business. So the businessmen have a high incentive to conduct it. So I think it is difficult for China to officially forbid this behavior when confronting pressure from this interest group.
With the possible exception of our Ph.D candidate, all of the Chinese “experts” insist that their government has enforced the U.N. sanctions. I suppose if you live in a society where slavish groupthink is either compulsory or essential to one’s career advancement, and where inconvenient evidence is censored for your protection, you might actually believe this. It has also occurred to me that most of them don’t.
Whether the Chinese actually believe this or are willfully disinforming us, our survey says that four out of five Chinese experts are dealing in falsehoods. Why does China play these games? Lots of reasons, I suppose, not all of them mutually exclusive. The fact that well-connected Chinese companies are making a lot of money from their North Korea trade would be reason enough. After all, that seems to be why South Korea continues to subsidize trade with North Korea, contrary to its national interests. Other, more malign motives may also play a part — a desire to distract U.S. power in the region, to gain bargaining leverage over the U.S. on the Taiwan issue, an institutional hostility to the U.S. and its interests, and as part of a grander ambition to finlandize both Koreas (which is easier done by keeping them divided).
It’s all speculative, of course. What’s beyond denying is that China isn’t interested in solving this problem; China is the problem. And until China’s support for North Korea draws consequences in its relations with the U.S. and its allies, it will continue to be.
The mystery over his origins may be related to his former career as a spook. “All his life he’s worked in Chinese intelligence,” one source told the Financial Times. [The Independent]
An FT investigation last year found that Mr Pa and his fellow founders of the Queensway Group have connections to powerful interests in Beijing, including Chinese intelligence and state-owned companies. [Financial Times]
The routine need to bribe officials is not a deal-breaker for Queensway either. Chinese investigators found that Queensway’s leaders had bribed high-level officials in Nigeria and several other countries. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
Queensway’s deals often traded Africa’s resources for promises to build infrastructure — promises on which Queensway ultimately failed to deliver. The exchange of Africa’s commodities for services has the additional advantage of avoiding the dollar system, and with good reason: the Justice Department and the SEC have opined that making a payment through a U.S.-based correspondent account gives them jurisdiction to prosecute non-U.S. companies under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Even if the feds never make an arrest, they can still forfeit assets “involved in” any predicate offense for a money laundering transaction.
Deals with Zimbabwe would be especially risky. Most of its top officials’ assets are blocked for “subverting or undermining democratic practices and institutions.” One of the Zimbabwean officials with whom Sam Pa has met, Happyton Bonyongwe, heads its dreaded Central Intelligence Organization, its internal security branch. In 2008, the Treasury Department blocked Bonyongwe’s assets for “political repression.” In 2011, opposition members of the Zimbabwean government cut funding for the CIO, but soon, according to The Economist, the CIO was “suddenly flush with cash,” and had “doubled the salaries of agents” and “acquired hundreds of new off-road vehicles and trained thousands of militiamen” who could then help “intimidate voters during next year’s elections.” The Economist adds, “Several sources who have looked at the deal concluded that the money came from Mr Pa.” According to Mailey, Pa financed the CIO, which paid Pa in diamonds, which Pa then smuggled out of Zimbabwe.
Pa and Queensway have also had extensive dealings with North Korea. According to the Financial Times, that relationship started in 2006, right after Treasury’s action against Banco Delta Asia, when most banks wouldn’t touch North Korean customers.
Shortly after establishing contact, Queensway representatives began making frequent trips to North Korea. During these visits, China Sonangol lined up a series of projects in North Korea, including the construction of a gigantic riverfront commercial district called “KKG Avenue” in Pyongyang. Sam Pa also procured 300 Nissan Xterra SUVs for Kim Jong Il’s regime, some of which had “KKG” inscribed on their exterior. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
In October 2006, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to” persons providing support for North Korea’s WMD programs.
According to The Financial Times, however, Queensway’s North Korean partner was none other than the notorious Bureau 39 of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, via a front company called Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation. Both Daesong and Bureau 39 are designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for “engaging in illicit economic activities,” including drug dealing and currency counterfeiting; managing regime slush funds; money laundering; and luxury goods imports, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As Treasury noted when it designated Bureau 39 five years ago, “deceptive financial practices” play an important role in North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation, and arms trafficking.
In March 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, the Security Council passed Resolution 2094, which tightened the financial due diligence requirements applicable to North Korea, prohibiting the provision “of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute” to Pyongyang’s WMD programs or other prohibited activities. Still, Queensway continued to send a stream of mysterious payments to North Korea.
A document request attached to a June 2013 Hong Kong court decision lists US$11,143,463 (HK$86,505,484) in payments from July 2008 to November 2009 described as “Budget for North Part” or “Kumgang Budget.” The records also describe almost US$2 million in “consulting fees” paid in relation to KKG during 2008 and 2009. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
In April 2013, Pa flew to Pyongyang on a charter jet. Mailey quotes a Korean-language report from the Naeil Sinmum that around this time, Pa “visited North Korea up to five times … to discuss the development of an oil field in Seohan Bay.”
Mr Pa struck a deal with Daesong for an eclectic range of North Korean projects, the Asian official says, ranging from power plants to mining to fisheries. Money started to flow — although it is unclear how much flowed directly into North Korea. A ledger published in a 2013 Hong Kong high court ruling in a dispute between some of Mr Pa’s business associates refers to Queensway Group payments including “Pyongyang city bus system”, “Korea airport”, “Korea: 5,000 tons of soyabean oil” and “exhibition sponsored by the Korean consul”. There are no further details. But the list of payments also contains references to KKG. [Financial Times]
In November of 2013, shortly after the end of the Kaesong Industrial Park’s six-month shutdown, Queensway broke ground on a new Kaesong Hi-Tech Industrial Park, which adds concerns about technology transfers to other concerns previously expressed by the Treasury Department: “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” Even a South Korean official has suggested that the new high-tech annex to Kaesong “could be a violation of UN Security Council sanctions on the regime.”
As recently as last year, KKG began running a new fleet of taxis in Pyongyang, collecting all of the fares in yuan, euros, or dollars. A taxi business working on a cash basis might have a utility beyond the income it earns. As with Pyongyang’s chain of overseas restaurants, it’s a “perfect vehicle” for commingling “legitimate” cash earnings with more questionable payments, to conceal the true origin of the funds.
The first hearing, entitled, “The Persistent North Korea Denuclearization and Human Rights Challenge,” will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m., before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The witnesses will be Sung Kim, the State Department’s Special Representative For North Korea Policy And Deputy Assistant Secretary For Korea and Japan, and Robert King, State’s Special Envoy For North Korean Human Rights Issues.
Regrettably, the situation remains the same, despite the grave concerns reiterated by the international community in different forums. The Special Rapporteur also reflects on issues around accountability for those human rights violations, which should be addressed at an early stage, and on current efforts by the international community to address the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in general.
3. The Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight from the outset that in March and again in June 2015 he requested meetings with delegates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to follow up on the discussions that he had with them in October 2014 in New York. He regrets that his requests were declined. He firmly believes in the value of dialogue and hopes that the authorities will answer his future request positively.
The good news is that the report itself is strong — exceptionally so. In clear and strong language, it recounts the reports of North Korea’s recent waves of purges and executions, its failure to make progress on the return of abductees, its refusal let divided families reunite, and evidence that North Korea and China systematically abuse North Korean women, including by forcing them into sexual slavery.
41. The Special Rapporteur notes with great concern from the data provided by the Ministry of Unification on arrivals of defectors in the Republic of Korea that more than 70 per cent of the defectors are women. A striking estimate of 70-90 per cent of those women reportedly become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to, inter alia, forced marriage and sexual exploitation in China and in other Asian countries.14 They are particularly vulnerable to actions by smuggling gangs, whose influence has significantly increased recently owing to the clampdown by Chinese authorities on charities and evangelical groups from the Republic of Korea that used to facilitate their escape through China.
42. Female overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent to China have also fallen victim to sexual exploitation. It was reported that, in June 2014, the Government of China deported a group of female workers in a food factory because they were forced into prostitution at night, upon instructions from an executive of the factory and with the complicity of the security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of their surveillance. The latter was also forcibly repatriated.
The report also denounced China’s inhumane repatriation of refugees, including children, to an uncertain fate in North Korea.
36. In that regard, the Special Rapporteur is strongly concerned by reports indicating that a group of 29 citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including a 1-year-old child, were detained by the Chinese authorities in Shandong and Yunnan provinces between 15 and 17 July 2014 and subsequently forcibly returned to their country of origin.12 Their whereabouts were unknown at the time of writing. In addition, in October 2014, the Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 individuals (10 adults and 1 child aged 7) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were seeking to enter Myanmar in the southern region of Yunnan province.13 Their whereabouts are also unknown.
37. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Committee against Torture included that case in its list of issues in relation to the fifth periodic report of China. It sought information about their fate upon return and enquired, inter alia, whether there were “post-return monitoring arrangements in place to ensure that those returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are protected from the danger of being subjected to torture” (CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 9). He hopes that the Government of China will clarify the matter during the fifty-sixth session of the Committee, in November 2015.
38. The Special Rapporteur regrets that his requests to meet representatives of the Permanent Missions of China in Geneva and New York in March and May 2015, respectively, were unsuccessful. He remains available to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government of China to find a sustainable solution to that pressing issue.
Some of the report’s best language, however, dealt with North Korea’s exports of forced labor for hard currency. Its choice of words in this context — “forced labor,” “slave labor,” “contemporary forms of slavery” — deserves to draw greater global attention and action. And it names names:
26. According to various studies, it is estimated that more than 50,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operate abroad. 8 The vast majority are currently employed in China and the Russian Federation. Other countries where workers operate reportedly include Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
27. The overseas workers are employed mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. Their conditions of work have been documented by civil society organizations that conducted interviews with former overseas workers.
They found that:
(a) The workers do not know the details of their employment contract;
(b) Tasks are assigned according to the worker’s State-assigned social class (songbun): the lower classes are reportedly assigned the most dangerous and tedious tasks. Workers with relatives in the country are preferred, to ensure that they will fully comply while abroad;
(c) Workers earn on average between $120 and $150 per month, while employers in fact pay significantly higher amounts to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (employers deposit the salaries of the workers in accounts controlled by companies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);
(d) Workers are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. In some instances, if they do not fulfil the monthly quota imposed, they reportedly do not get paid;
(e) Health and safety measures are often inadequate. Safety accidents are reportedly not reported to local authorities but handled by security agents;
(f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;
(g) Freedom of movement of overseas workers is unduly restricted. Workers are under constant surveillance by security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of ensuring that they comply with the Government’s rules and regulations. Those agents confiscate the workers’ passports. The workers are also forbidden to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during their assignment;
(h) Workers are threatened with repatriation if they do not perform well enough or commit infractions. Defectors apprehended are sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
28. It is alleged that the host authorities never monitor the working conditions of overseas workers.
29. It is worth noting that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is paying increased attention to the scrutiny by foreign media and organizations on its overseas workers. In April 2015, it issued instructions to overseas workers and supervisors to prevent anyone from reporting human rights abuses in the workplace. Workers and supervisors have reportedly been ordered to destroy any recording equipment, confiscate the memory cards and even assault the person documenting the abuses. Failure to do so would result in the worker or supervisor being punished, although it is not clear what type of punishment would be applied.
30. The Special Rapporteur notes (with satisfaction) the decision in May 2015 of a construction company in Qatar to dismiss 90 employees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (nearly half of the workforce employed) for alleged repeated violations of domestic labour legislation. According to the company, “supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly”.
10 One of the workers reportedly died as a result of such treatment. The company agreed to keep the remaining workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the condition that they no longer breach any rules.
31. The Special Rapporteur takes all such reports very seriously. He intends to pay close and sustained attention to the issue in future, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul. To that end, he calls upon the Member States concerned to grant him, his successor and OHCHR staff access to verify all of the allegations.
32. The Special Rapporteur reminds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of its obligation under article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not to engage in forced labour. He stresses that companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour. They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.
In other places, the Special Rapporteur’s report shows why his office needs investigative support to keep up with the evidence. Paragraph 16, for example, cites unverified reports that Camp 15 was being dismantled, but we’ve since seen reliable reporting, backed by satellite imagery, that refutes this claim. The report also cites reports that nine North Korean children repatriated by the Laotian government might have been executed or sent to Camp 14, but fails to note that Pyongyang, no doubt mindful of the attention they’ve attracted, later showed (at least some of) the children on television. These are distracting errors, but now that the Seoul field office has started its work, we can expect to see the quality, length, and frequency of the Special Rapporteur’s reports improve.
65. In relation to the third point, the Special Rapporteur notes with deep concern the series of threats issued by the authorities and media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Seoul office. On 23 June 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a statement accusing the “hostile forces” in the international community led by the United States of America of using the field presence to plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and “incite confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights”. On 30 March 2015, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement threatening an attack against the then forthcoming office and accusing the Republic of Korea and the United States of orchestrating a human rights plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The statement specifically said: “we will never sit back and watch as South Korea hosts the United Nations office on human rights of DPRK in Seoul. As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May 2015, the newspaper Minju Joson stated that “[the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never pardon but mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body”. 18
66. This is not the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has issued a threat. On 9 June 2014, a spokesperson for the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement protesting against the OHCHR field office in the Republic of Korea, threatening punishment and attacks at those involved in the plan, as well as staff in the office, referring to the plan as a scheme led by the United States and the Republic of Korea.
67. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cease issuing such threats. He believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Government of a United Nations Member State to issue a statement that blatantly threatens punishment and attacks on a United Nations office and its staff members. He stresses that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has a responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations to protect the United Nations, its staff and its assets.
Clearly, then, this Special Rapporteur will not let the world forget what the Commission of Inquiry told us about crimes against humanity in North Korea. He repeated his call to hold the responsible North Korean officials accountable:
49. The Special Rapporteur remains convinced that the accountability track must be pursued urgently, in parallel with sustained efforts to seek engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is an irreversible process that the authorities will have to face sooner or later.
50. In his view, issues around accountability should be addressed at an early stage and with long-term strategies in mind. A process of reflection and discussion on possible accountability mechanisms and processes should start as soon as possible. This should not be done, as in previous instances with other countries, at the last minute of a change process.
Both Pyongyang and Beijing have ignored the Special Rapporteur’s attempts to engage them, and to cooperate with an investigation of the allegations. Beijing still intends to block any attempt by the Security Council to hold Kim Jong-Un accountable. Yet the Special Rapporteur did not yield on the urgency and importance of accountability. In addition to repeating the Commission of Inquiry’s call for a referral to the International Criminal Court, it called for establishing an ad hoc tribunal, and a human rights contact group of member states. Which sounds a lot like what S. 2144, a bill introduced by three Republican U.S. Senators, also called for (see, e.g., sections 302 and 305). The report also called for financial accountability through targeted, bilateral sanctions.
55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.
I don’t know what states other than the U.S. the Special Rapporteur might have had in mind. The logic is clear: if the Security Council won’t act, then it’s up to member states to use their national laws, and to mobilize world opinion, to force Pyongyang to change. And thankfully, that’s exactly where things seem to be headed. Indeed, one sees an almost unprecedented convergence here between a U.N. report and a Republican-led Congress. Meanwhile, President Obama sits passively, like the king of an ancient Asian vassal state, deferring to the emperor in the Forbidden City.
The U.N. has not shown itself to be an effective agent for action, but at least reports like these, and the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions compliance, show that the U.N. can still be an effective fact-finder. Eventually — though too late for far too many North Koreans — better facts will make better policies.
The new bill was revealed in this column by Josh Rogin, and includes a link to the full text. The bill, which still has no number, will be the Senate’s second version of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, following the introduction by Senators Menendez and Graham of S. 1747 in July.
Both bills follow the lead of Ed Royce and Elliot Engel, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who introduced H.R. 757 in January. H.R. 757, in turn, is the successor to H.R. 1771, which Royce and Engel introduced back in April of 2013, and which passed the full House on a voice vote, with 145 co-sponsors, in July of 2014, but died when the last Congress ended. All three bills share the same title and most of the same content. Despite its all-Republican co-sponsorship, Gardner-Rubio-Risch takes a middle way between those versions, with some important differences and improvements. Collectively, the three bills suggest growing congressional momentum for the NKSEA, which would legislate the most important shift in our North Korea policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. Here’s Rogin:
Now that Iran sanctions are on the verge of being rolled back, Congressional attention is turning to increasing and tightening sanctions on North Korea, a country with a growing nuclear weapons program and that continues to threaten and provoke the international community.
Oct. 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Western governments are concerned that Kim Jong Un will mark the holiday by launching a rocket or satellite, or even detonating a nuclear bomb for the fourth time. There’s new activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site, but nobody really knows what, if anything, the country is planning to do next. [Josh Rogin, Bloomberg]
This, children, is how you eventually attract the wrong kind of attention from Congress. Quoting Gardner:
“This bill actually puts teeth into a policy that has been lacking in action,” he said. “All we are doing right now is talking about what North Korea shouldn’t be doing and following it up with a few cherry-picked sanctions here and there. But that’s not stopping North Korea.”
Of course, the bill is a long way from becoming a law, but support for sanctions against rogue regimes is usually high in Congress, Gardner argued. Even if the bill is enacted, it gives the president national security waivers that could be used to avoid imposing sanctions. In that case, however, the administration would have to explain its inaction.
Following the cyberhack of Sony last year, the Obama administration did use executive orders to sanction 10 North Korean officials and three state-run organizations, including the country’s intelligence service. The White House indicated that there would be other non-public responses. North Korea was already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world.
And Rogin was doing so well, right up until that last sentence. If you’re an OFK regular, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re not, no, North Korea is not one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. The Treasury Department’s financial sanctions against North Korea — the ones that really matter, even more than U.N. sanctions — are not remotely comparable to our sanctions against Iran or Syria, and they’re arguably weaker than our sanctions against Belarus or Zimbabwe.
Gardner also wants to legislate sanctions on any person, organization, or government that has “materially contributed” to North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile, WMD or weapons programs, even in an advisory capacity. That could implicate Iran, but Gardner says that shouldn’t affect the Iran nuclear deal, which lifts many sanctions on Tehran.
For now, both H.R. 757 and the new Senate bill are the most likely to pass their respective chambers, although we still haven’t heard from Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who will have the final word on what goes to the Senate floor. Because the House and Senate bills are different, the bills that pass would then be referred to a conference committee for the resolution of their differences, before both chambers pass an agreed text and send it to the President’s desk.
What’s good about the new bill:
It makes the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea report directly to the Secretary of State. This is a good step forward for advancing the stature of the position, which had recently been swallowed up by the East Asia Bureau’s agenda. There are, however, always ways to get around provisions like this. Regardless of the bill’s mandate, State can still dictate who gives the Special Envoy her assignments of work, where she sits, or who writes her performance evaluation.
Section 302, “Strategy to Promote North Korean Human Rights,” is an important and an excellent addition. It requires the President to make the promotion of human rights in the North a greater diplomatic priority, and to build alliances, coalitions, and public support for a stronger approach to the problem.
The bill retains the all-important element of personal accountability for Kim Jong-Un and his key minions, requiring that they be individually designated, and that their personal assets be blocked, specifically for their human rights abuses. Which is apparently something that U.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman welcomes, in light of the paralysis in the U.N. Security Council:
55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.
Section 305 is the new bill’s single best contribution. It calls on the State Department to work diplomatically to end other countries’ repatriation of North Korean refugees, and their use of North Korean slave labor (see the same U.N. report for more information about this practice).
What could be better:
Unlike the House bill, the findings lack any reference to North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, probably as a palliative to State Department objections. (For new readers, I’ve compiled and published the evidence of North Korea’s repeated sponsorship of terrorism here. That evidence was good enough for three federal district courts, one federal appellate court, and at least one South Korean court. Why not State?)
All three bills (Correction: the new bill and H.R. 757) lack some of the more creative funding provisions to use forfeited North Korean property to pay for humanitarian programs, or authorizing the use of blocked North Korean assets to fund carefully monitored food aid programs. (I almost forgot: Menendez-Graham kept them.) There’s a perfectly good argument that those provisions are best dealt with in authorization and appropriations acts instead of a sanctions bill, but let’s remember that the one goal that both sunshiners and hard-liners espouse is the transformation of North Korean society. Empowering North Koreans who share that goal is an important part of a broader policy.
The new bill lacks H.R. 757’s detailed transaction licensing provisions. With the removal of mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government (see Section 104(c) of H.R. 757) the careful regulation of dollar transactions with Pyongyang becomes particularly important. This should be a high priority for resolution at the conference committee.
I’d like to put in a word for the Connolly Amendment, proposed Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.). It adds “significant progress in planning for unrestricted family reunification meetings” as a condition for suspending the sanctions. I hope that will survive in the final bill that emerges from the conference.
The rationale for the new exception in Section 106 for the importation of goods is difficult to understand. I see no appetite in either Congress or the executive branch for importing more goods from North Korea; in fact, it was none other than Barack Obama who signed Executive Order 13570 in 2011, severely restricting those imports, and many in Congress seethe with bitter hostility toward Kaesong.
Arguably, the enhanced inspection authorities in Section 205 should also apply to persons designated under Section 104(b), such as for arms trafficking, and not just 104(a).
Section 207’s call for travel advisories will do nothing to dissuade gullible people from visiting North Korea. A stronger approach would have been to authorize Treasury to ban transactions incident to travel while Americans were arbitrarily detained there.
I wish the lifting provision in Section 402 said “U.S. persons” instead of “U.S. citizens,” so that it would cover the Rev. Kim Dong Shik.
Unlike the House’s H.R. 757, both Senate bills remove the mandatory blocking of all property of the North Korean government. Unlike Menendez-Graham, the new Gardner-Rubio-Risch bill puts the key word “shall” back into Section 104(a), which is only logical; the whole logical structure of the bill is based on tiered, conduct-based sanctions. Having two distinct sets of discretionary sanctions with different penalties never made much sense; it just replaced “shall” with “may” to please the State Department. The new Senate bill steers a compromise position that I believe is a sound approach. If the next President enforces Gardner-Rubio-Risch as written, and also takes advantage of the new authority of Executive Order 13687 when necessary, there will be sufficient authority to strand the regime’s offshore billions, while avoiding unintended consequences on North Korea’s poor.
This isn’t a perfect bill, but it’s a very strong one. It’s the work of some of our brightest senators, including freshman rising star Cory Gardner, and Marco Rubio. (At the risk of speaking out of school, I’ll tell you that Rubio personally read every word of a previous version of the bill, clearly understood it, and made many intelligent edits and comments to it. Many members of Congress would simply have relied on their staffs.) Where the new bill is less strong than the House version, it makes smart compromises and leaves room to strengthen the sanctions after future provocations. A combination of all three pending bills, taking the best elements of each, would be an important step forward to slowing Pyongyang’s proliferation, and toward shifting North Korea’s balance of power away from the men with the guns and the food, toward those without.
Latest word, however, is that the launch pads are empty. Who knows, of course, what Pyongyang’s intentions ever were, but I wonder if the warnings dissuaded Pyongyang from going through with it, at least for now.
Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.
Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:
He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]
It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:
“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”
At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.
He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.
But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]
“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.
“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”
Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.
CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:
In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]
Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.
People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]
After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.