Category Archives: Anju Links

Pyongyang’s elites wait for Phase Five, and wait ….

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.

But not all North Korean defectors necessarily concede this, including the North Korean diaspora’s foremost public intellectual:

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.

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Koreas agree to fight another day

They came, they talked, and they signed, but they solved nothing. Plus or minus one piece of paper, three severed legs, and an implicit promise of payment, we are where we were on the morning of August 4th, when Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon embarked on their fateful patrol.

As I predicted hours before the deal was announced, Pyongyang didn’t apologize, and Seoul will continue to pay. The loudspeakers will be switched off. There will not be an all-out war, and probably never would have been. The limited, incremental war will resume, only at a time and place more to Pyongyang’s advantage.

My guess is that most analysts who prefer not to label the Ikes and the Tinas will be pleased that “both sides” found a “face-saving” way to “de-escalate” a situation that one of the sides created with malice aforethought, and will now use for its financial and political benefit, but I can’t see how we’re any closer to lasting peace or security.

So, what was agreed? Six things, as printed by the North’s KCNA, and translated by Yonhap.

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

That reads like an implicit promise of a payoff to me, and to South Korea’s business lobby. It’s a sure bet Pyongyang will read it that way, too. If so, Park Geun-Hye will give the North direct or indirect aid, or lift sanctions imposed after North Korea’s attack in 2010, for which it still hasn’t apologized. That would amount to Seoul throwing money at Pyongyang for maiming two of its soldiers, and for promising not to maim many more of them.

Or, Park Geun-Hye may, on reflection, grasp that such transparent appeasement in the face of extortion creates a perverse incentive, and refuse to pay up without getting something more tangible in return. This is, after all, only an agreement to “hold talks.” If the talks end in an agreement, it would be as subject to reinterpretation as any other deal with North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un doesn’t get his payday, he may feel justified in making further threats and provocations. He might even feel compelled to make them. Either alternative makes further violence seem more, not less, likely.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

Before this agreement was signed, President Park had demanded “a clear apology and promises not to stage any provocations.” Although Park’s National Security Advisor doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, Park got neither one. Instead, she got a Shinzo Abe Special —  a vague non-apology that it was “regrettable that some South Korean soldiers were injured by a land mine explosion that occurred in the south.” Here, the original Korean and how we translate it matters:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.21.34 PM

[via The Oranckay]

Anyone could see that an apology wasn’t likely without much more pressure and patience, and if Park wasn’t willing to apply them, she shouldn’t have gone public with those demands. The difference between an apology and an expression of regret is much more than semantic. It’s the all-important difference between “we’re sorry we did a bad thing” and “a shame that bad thing happened to you.” The North Koreans aren’t sorry, and aren’t admitting anything. Instead, they’re saying that last week’s events “taught South Korea an important lesson not to cook up a story about provocations by the North.” “We didn’t do it” is as good as “we’ll do it again.”

An apology implies contrition and a change in the actor’s behavior; an expression of regret (Korean: yugam) accepts no fault or duty. If you think the difference doesn’t matter, you aren’t familiar with the bitter historical controversies between Japan (on one hand) and Korea and China (on the other). Read the coverage of that issue in the Korean and Chinese press, and you’d think that Japan had never apologized for the crimes it committed against the Korean and Chinese people. That isn’t the case, but the subsequent words and acts of Japanese leaders have called the sincerity of those apologies into question. Recently, Japanese leaders have offered vague statements of regret instead. Koreans know the difference, and they know that North Korea didn’t apologize.

Of course, any newspaper reader will tell you that North Korea doesn’t do sorry. The last time it even expressed regret, after all, was after Operation Paul Bunyan. Yet even then, Kim Il-Sung at least promised not to provoke first.

Some have suggested that Pyongyang’s expression of regret will cause His Porcine Majesty to lose face, and might even destabilize his regime. That seems fanciful to me. I doubt that Kim Jong-Un would have printed the whole agreement in KCNA if “face” concerned him. In a must-read analysis for the Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale writes:

[A]fter walking away from the latest negotiations with a deal that is likely to be portrayed as a victory domestically, Mr. Kim appears to have mastered the provocation playbook.

“He’s very skilled. In some ways, I think he is an even greater dictator than his dad,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. [WSJ]

Well, someone is, and that someone lives in Pyongyang, not Seoul.

Importantly for Pyongyang, “I regret that thing happened” is also compatible with denial.

In return, North Korea expressed regret—but didn’t apologize—over the explosion of land mines this month that severed the legs of two South Korean soldiers, an incident that prompted Seoul to respond by broadcasting the cross-border propaganda messages.

Investigations by South Korea and the United Nations military command found North Korea responsible for the mine attack. Under the deal, Pyongyang is able to continue to deny involvement. [WSJ]

After all, North Korea has privately expressed regret for the sinking of the Cheonan, but publicly, it still denies having anything to do with it, as do its apologists. Pyongyang’s sympathizers here were quick to seize on the fact that this was not an apology, because that gives them cover to continue to deny Pyongyang’s guilt. In America, this may be a fringe view, but it won’t be in South Korea. The empowerment of North Korea’s apologists is an important part of the political war between North and South.

In the end, the difference between apology and regret matters because of what it says about the prospects for peace. An admission and an apology — along with the acceptance of some consequence for one’s crime — is part of the justice victims deserve, and a necessary assurance that it won’t easily be repeated. Japan’s expressions of regret are, perhaps rightfully, rejected decades after the fact, yet North Korea’s “regret” is accepted uncritically. Ethno-nationalism plays a part in this, but so does South Korea’s relief at the relaxation of terror. That’s how blackmail works.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

I don’t want to make too much of this, because blaring K-pop and propaganda at a few hundred conscripts was never going to change the course of history. Nor do I want to make too little of this, because the North’s hyperbolic reaction suggests that it was very afraid of what the South had to say.

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman says in a slow, deliberate voice emanating from one of the banks of 48 speakers set up along the South Korean side of the military demarcation line. The messages can travel about 12 miles at night and about half that during the day, well into North Korean territory.

Another message notes that Kim Jong Un, who took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011, hasn’t yet traveled abroad or met a single foreign leader.

“President Park Geun-hye has .?.?. visited many countries since she became the president, including three visits to China,” one of the recorded messages says, referring to the South Korean president and her close relationship with Beijing, North Korea’s supposed patron. “However, Kim Jong Un hasn’t visited any other countries in the three-plus years since he became leader.”

At other times, the speakers play peppy southern K-pop songs like “Tell Me Your Wish” by Girls’ Generation. (“Tell me your wish, tell me your little dream, imagine your ideal type in your head, and look at me, I’m your genie, your dream, your genie.”) [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

There has been a rash of defections by North Korean soldiers recently, and their morale isn’t good, but it’s hard to know how messages like these affect morale and readiness, or whether they can help prevent war by persuading soldiers not to fight. The North calls “[p]sychological warfare . . . an open act of war against it.” This tactic clearly touched a nerve. It’s probably not the loudspeakers that North Korea fears, but the precedent. It fears that Seoul will use information operations as a deterrent through a more effective challenge to its control over information, such as radio broadcasting, or the expansion of independent cellular signals.

“For the North Koreans, the broadcasts are dangerous because this is about the survival of the regime,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator who has sat across the table from North Koreans on many occasions. [WaPo]

In his book, Dear Leader, Jang Jin-Sung describes his work inside the United Front Department, Pyongyang’s propaganda agency, with a well-staffed and well-equipped branch that runs a sophisticated propaganda operation inside South Korea, using every medium available to it. Jang, who defected to South Korea in 2004, probably knows more about the importance of propaganda to Pyongyang than anyone available to us.

[W]e must remember that the Supreme Leader Centred political system of the DPRK was constructed with lies, and its maintenance depends on it. The psychological dissonance brought on by confrontation with reality, in such a setup, is not to be underestimated.

That is also why the North Korean leadership is sensitive to and adamantly opposed to broadcasting and flows of information from the outside. The North Korean people today are no longer as they were under the reigns of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. While the Supreme Leader has grown younger, the people have become more mature. Today, the worth of the Supreme Leader’s divinity does not stack up to one dollar of foreign currency in the marketplaces.

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.

Although South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasting is of a lesser intensity than in the past, the North Korean regime of the third generation is weaker than it was in the past, and the impact of the blow will be correspondingly greater. In fact, proclaiming an intention to declare war in response to cross-border broadcasting is tantamount to proclaiming how a Supreme Commander cannot trust even his frontline troops.

It is in the interest not only of North Koreans, but also of the South Korean people, to broadcast information across all of North Korea. For those nations whose quality of peacetime is what is great and cherished, piercing a border in this way – not with guns but with words of truth – is the most efficient way to bring parties to negotiations, and to achieve lasting security, co-prosperity and co-operation. A nation whose quality of peacetime is cherished must not fear responding accordingly to military provocation. [New Focus International]

Read the whole thing. Freedom of information, including the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday’s agreement was a step toward ceding that right on behalf of the North Korean people. When traded for the demobilization of the North Korean military, it gives me a vague unease that non-violent speech is now equated with threats of violence.

There is also the matter of mutuality. The Il Shim Hue spy ring, for example, ran a well-placed influence operation. It appears to have penetrated U.S. Forces, Korea and the Blue House, and attempted to manipulate elections. Does the South Korean NIS run influence operations in the North? I obviously don’t know the whole story, but I doubt that its operations are equally effective. North Korea more-or-less regularly broadcasts propaganda into South Korea through stations such as the Voice of Korea. The North didn’t agree to stop that, or to uproot its influence operation in South Korea. So let the South turn off the loudspeakers, but don’t concede the wider information war.

4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

What’s noticeable here is what the two sides did not agree — not to resume Korean War II at a place, time, and intensity level more to Pyongyang’s liking. Such an agreement might have been a perfect real-world test of a peace treaty, lacking only the things Pyongyang and its sympathizers really want — the lifting of sanctions and de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

The partial demobilization will still reassure many people; there was always some risk that Seoul’s response to the original provocation would escalate unpredictably. Of course, Seoul could have eliminated that risk entirely by doing what it did in 2010: nothing. Seoul made a decision that some level of response was necessary to protect its security, and that the attendant risk was greater than the risk of doing nothing.

Today’s deal, however, contained no security guarantees for Seoul — not that those would have been worth the paper they were printed on. Seoul probably feels safer, but isn’t. The cycle will repeat, and we are still in a state that is neither all-out war nor peace. The cycles will deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear development and its new long-range rocket artillery shift the balance of terror in Pyongyang’s favor, or until the North Korean state collapses. Current trends suggest that the former contingency is far more likely than the latter.

5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.

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EU blocking of Korea National Insurance Corp. hints at key shift in N. Korea sanctions enforcement

The European Union’s administrative body, the European Commission or EC, has added seven additional designations to its regulation on “restrictive measures” against North Korea. The new designees include the Korea National Insurance Corporation, or KNIC, and six of its officials. There are several good reasons why the EC could have designated KNIC, but didn’t (the reason it did use is more interesting, but we’ll get to that later).

First, KNIC has been linked to Pyongyang’s luxury goods imports, which have been banned since the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006. Historically, most of those goods have been of European origin. The EC notice, however, does not link KNIC to the luxury goods trade.

Second, the EC designation notice says that “KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.” Office 39, a/k/a Bureau 39, the North Korean ruling party’s foreign currency-earning agency, is designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC, but not the U.N., for financing North Korea’s prohibited WMD programs. The EC notice, however, does not say that KNIC is owned or controlled by Bureau 39.

Third, one of the ways KNIC has historically earned money is through insurance fraud. A former KNIC official, Kim Kwang Jin, revealed this in a 2009 Washington Post story, by Blaine Harden, and a 2013 Reuters story. The allegations of fraud arose even before Kim’s revelations, and led to protracted litigation between KNIC (on one side) and Lloyds and Allianz (on the other). The defendants alleged that KNIC had fabricated an accident to collect insurance payments from Lloyds and Allianz, which refused to pay, until the parties settled out of court. If the EC concluded that KNIC engaged in insurance fraud, that would also justify blocking it under UNSCR 2094:

“8. Decides further that measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply also to the individuals and entities listed in annexes I and II of this resolution and to any individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, and to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means, and decides further that the measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply to any individuals or entities acting on the behalf or at the direction of the individuals and entities that have already been designated, to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means;

The notice, however, does not accuse KNIC of fraud or other illicit activity.

Fourth, I‘ve long suspected, but can’t prove, that KNIC is also involved in insuring ships owned or controlled by Ocean Maritime Management, a North Korean entity that was designated by the UN, the EC, and Treasury in 2014 for arms smuggling (specifically, for the Chong Chon Gang incident). OMM controls the ships through individual shell companies for each OMM vessel. According to this 2015 UN POE report, however, a different company, Korea Shipowners’ Protection & Indemnity Association, insured the sanctioned vessels. According to KNIC’s web site, however, KNIC is “a sole insurer of the DPR Korea” and sells maritime insurance. If the EC determined that KSPIA is a front company for KNIC, that would require the EC to block KNIC. There’s almost no information about KSPIA online, and nothing in the UN POE reports links it to KNIC. Anybody?

Unpack the language of the EC’s justification, however, and it doesn’t accuse KNIC of any of these things. It stops short of claiming that KNIC is controlled by Bureau 39. It merely says KNIC is funding the regime, and that those funds “could contribute” to North Korea’s WMD programs.

KNIC GmbH, as a subsidiary controlled by KNIC headquarters in Pyongyang (address Haebangsan-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, DPRK), a government entity, is generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea. Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.
Furthermore, the KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.’

I’m not complaining, mind you. The EC’s rationale is fully consistent with the language of UNSCR 2094, which raises the burden of due diligence that applies to transactions with North Korean state entities:

“11. Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation;

The EC’s action has significant potential to crimp Pyongyang’s finances and improve the enforcement of the Security Council’s resolutions. The blocking of Pyongyang’s state insurer will make it much more difficult for it to engage in air and sea commerce with Europe. It could affect Air Koryo, which has long been under suspicion by the U.N. Panel of Experts for being a de facto arm of the North Korean military. It will affect ships in North Korea’s merchant fleet that haven’t yet been blocked by Treasury, and will impede Pyongyang’s ability to access luxury goods from Europe. It will send a strong signal that Pyongyang can’t seek refugee in the Euro system to escape from sanctions in the dollar system. It will require Pyongyang to draw from its hard currency reserves to buy insurance on the commercial market.

But for all the material effects the EC’s action may have, the action may be even more significant for the analytical shift it represents. As far as I’m aware, this is the first designation based on UNSCR 2094–on either side of the Atlantic–that does not make a direct link between the targeted entity and a specific prohibited activity. Instead, on its face, the EC designation applies Paragraph 11’s heightened due diligence requirement to say that KNIC could be funding sanctioned activities. That almost certainly happens to be true, even if the EC doesn’t directly say so.

The EU’s action, along with President Obama’s signature of Executive Order 13,687, represents movement–however glacial–from conduct-based sanctions to status-based sanctions, a shift Treasury officials recently told GAO would make the sanctions much easier to enforce. That is to say, the EU and the U.S. are both moving toward designating Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises simply because they’re Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises. That’s necessary because North Korea’s opaque and deceptive financial practices–as the Financial Action Task Force has alleged for years–make it impossible for the bankers who clear the transactions to meet the resolutions’ heightened due diligence requirements. Two years after UNSCR 2094 passed, governments are finally enforcing it according to its spirit and its letter.

That’s why this burden shifting represents such a welcome change. In fact, it’s one of the most important shifts the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act was intended to drive. It’s also fully consistent with how governments everywhere apply their financial regulations–by sanctioning entities that engage in deceptive financial practices solely for engaging in those practices, even without evidence that the underlying money flows involve illicit activity.

Just ask Dennis Hastert.

Now, a question for your consideration. If the U.S. and the EU are shifting toward status-based sanctions enforcement and enforcing the requirements for “enhanced monitoring,” how will South Korea continue to justify the Kaesong Industrial Park’s opaque financial arrangements? As Treasury Undersecretary (and now, CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen said:

“Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about,” said Cohen. “All of the hard currency earnings of North Korea are something I would say that we should be concerned about. [Voice of America]

The EC is acting on those concerns, and the U.S. has at least laid down a legal foundation for doing so. South Korea, a member of the Security Council when UNSCR 2094 passed and the principal beneficiary of the Security Council’s resolutions, simply refuses to acknowledge them, almost certainly for domestic political reasons.

Oddly enough, the EC’s action means it has designated KNIC, but that the U.S. Treasury Department hasn’t. The fact that European insurers were the main victims of KNIC’s insurance fraud may help explain this disparity. Still, as with the push for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights, this is another case of U.S. “leading from behind” in holding North Korea accountable. It’s yet another disparity between U.S. and EC regulations that Section 202 of the NKSEA urges the U.S. governments to harmonize. If the U.S. won’t lead enforcement efforts, the least it can do is be a good follower.

Hat tip to Rob York of NK News. You can read NK News’s report here.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post said that David Cohen was the Director of the CIA. He is actually the Deputy Director. Thanks to a reader for bringing the error to my attention.

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Is the North Korean military falling apart?

Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.

What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?

A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:

  • June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
  • February 2007: A platoon of approximately 20 border guards deserts, en masse, into China, after coming under suspicion for cross-border smuggling.
  • August 2010: In a possible attempt to defect, a North Korean pilot flies his MiG-21 to China, crashes, and is killed.

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  • April 2011: According to a Daily NK report, sourced to North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a brigade of starving soldiers, assigned to mine uranium, goes on strike and refuses to work until they are fed.
  • April 2012: Chinese and North Korean authorities launch a manhunt for two border guards, who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea.
  • October 2012: A soldier shoots his squad and platoon leaders to death and flees across the DMZ.
  • October 2012: Another solder walks across the DMZ and knocks (twice!) on the door of a ROK Army barracks. The incident causes several high-ranking ROK Army officers to face disciplinary action over the perceived lack of readiness. The report also references a third defection in September 2012.
  • March 2013: A border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, frags five company commanders (!) and attempts, unsuccessfully, to desert. The soldier is said to have been disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food.   
  • September-December 2014: A series of desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserts across the border into China, and robs and murders several civilians. Some Chinese flee the border villages. Chinese authorities respond by forming vigilante patrols and deploying troops to the border. This month, hypervigilant police shoot an unarmed, fleeing refugee.

Next, what conditions cause incidents like these? Many (but not all) of these accounts come from defector-run sources, such as the Daily NK, Open News, and New Focus, which likely share my view that the currents of human nature and history must eventually wash this regime away. It is likely that the reports contain some degree of selection bias. The regime itself has made independent verification of these accounts impossible, which compels us to look for patterns and consistent accounts before we credit them too strongly. But this secrecy also suggests that some adverse inferences about conditions in the North Korean military are justifiable.

First, the soldiers are hungry because the commissary system and their own officers are stealing their rations and reselling them on the markets. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article by Jonathan Corrado in The Daily NK.)

  • November 2005: Former army captain Kim Seung Min (who now heads Free North Korea Radio) tells The Daily NK that corrupt officers routinely steal and sell food, fuel, clothing, soap, and toothbrushes from the military commissary system, causing soldiers to go without.
  • July 2005: The Daily NK releases a clandestine video interview of a North Korean soldier who become so emaciated from eating grass that the army discharged him and sent him home to die.
  • June 2011: Footage smuggled out of North Korea shows starving North Korean soldiers.

Second, because the soldiers are hungry, they have turned to smuggling, or stealing from the civilian population, a sign of poor discipline and morale.

  • September 2009: North Korean soldiers are photographed in the act of smuggling across the Tumen River border.
  • May 2010:  Beginning in the famine years of the 1990s, border guards, including company-grade officers, went into the business of smuggling drugs across the Tumen River into China.
  • January 2011: According to a series of reports, North Korean soldiers, including members of elite units, are underfed, poorly clothed, freezing, deserting, and resorting to looting the civilian population to survive.
  • April 2011: The Daily NK reports that soldiers in front-line units are hungry and malnourished because of pilferage of food from multiple layers of the commissary system (see also here and here), and that more soldiers are deserting, stealing from markets, or burglarizing civilian homes because of hunger. The report interviews two separate defectors, who report that their battalion-size units, one in Kangwan-do, on the eastern DMZ front, and one in Pyongyang, had desertion rates of 5% and 10%. The defectors report that by this time, the punishment for a first-time desertion has been reduced to a criticism.
  • May 2015: Soldiers, posted in isolated areas and denied permission to marry or have girlfriends, frequently rape civilian women, some of whom carry DIY pepper spray to protect themselves. Military authorities do not investigate or punish the rapes, creating a culture of impunity.
  • June 2015: Another report tells of increased theft by border guards, directed against the civilian population.

Third, a significant number of soldiers are sick, and the military medical system doesn’t take care of them.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Military hospitals are short of medicines and vaccines, causing disease to spread among soldiers.
  • June 2015: Theft of medicine from military hospitals means that tuberculosis is widespread among soldiers. Because there is no medicine to treat the soldiers, they are put into isolation wards until they are sent home to die.

Fourth, hazing and abuse—even rape—of solders by their superiors are serious problems, leading to fratricides and suicides.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Morale is low; hazing, assaults, and suicides are widespread; and enlisted soldiers do not respect their officers. As of 1999, over 1,000 deserters were hiding out. According to the report, the punishment for desertion is a sentence to a labor camp or a severe, crippling beating.
  • June 2015: “Violence and brutality in North Korea’s armed forces have surged after Kim Jong Un came into power, with severe beatings of lower ranking soldiers becoming more commonplace, Daily NK has learned…. After Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, internal monitoring and surveillance have been ramped up to establish order over officers and lower ranking soldiers. However, this approach has led to young troops frequently escaping or going absent without leave, as they are ordered into submission without being provided with proper food supplies.” The report claims that “a lot of” low-ranking soldiers die from being beaten by their superiors. The report also claims that soldiers frequently fight over food, property, and work and that South Korean culture is a “growing influence” on North Korean soldiers in front-line units.

Fifth, corruption and morale problems are having a significant impact on military readiness.

  • April 2011: Via The Daily NK: “In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.” It claims that during a 1999 naval skirmish, some patrol boats were unable to join the battle because they had no fuel.
  • October 2013: Two unexplained fires destroy a train carrying military uniforms and an arms factory.
  • November 2013: According to a South Korean think tank, “Corruption is rife in the North Korean army as sanctions eat into official perks for soldiers,” and that “officers have smuggled out sensitive files,” including “orders of the supreme command, wartime plans, and guidelines for electronic warfare,” to sell to “information traders” in China. Low-ranking soldiers pay bribes to their superiors to be assigned to guard the Chinese border, where they can earn money by smuggling, or taking bribes from smugglers. (More)
  • November 2013: A submarine chaser and a patrol boat collide off Wonsan, on the east coast, killing “scores” of sailors.
  • April 2015: The theft of fuel by military drivers and quartermasters is reported to be common. In the navy, sailors siphon fuel out of warships and replace it with (corrosive) sea water to foil inspectors.

Finally, there is some evidence—most of it very recent—that the mutual distrust and low morale reach from the lowest ranks to the very highest.

  • November 2008: The regime rations and controls ammunition strictly, which may explain why there aren’t more fratricide incidents. This means, however, that soldiers get little marksmanship training.
  • April 2015: The regime maintains tight control over every round of ammunition, in part to prevent fratricides.
  • May 2015: Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol is abruptly purged and executed. Afterward, The Daily NK reports that the regime has tightly restricted the movements of officials, and that “military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well.”
  • June 2015: The regime disbands an elite anti-aircraft unit, whose mission is to guard statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after some of its 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are found deployed along a highway traveled by Kim Jong Un.
  • June 2015: Yonhap reports that the regime is laying more land mines along the DMZ, to prevent its soldiers from fleeing. Reports trickling out of the North, mostly third-hand, seem to confirm that Kim Jong Un purged and replaced his Defense Minister, Hyon Yong-chol.
  • June 2015: Interviewed by The Washington Post, South Korean President Park Geun Hye says:

Since [he] took power 3 1 / 2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.

Some cautions are in order here. First, not all of these reports can be verified independently. Second, conditions from unit to unit are almost certainly as variable as the ethics of the men who lead them. Theft is probably tolerated much less among the Special Forces than in other units. Units that are effectively used as construction brigades are probably the least disciplined and cohesive. Note also that none of these reports originate from North Korea’s ballistic missile forces, which pose the greatest military threat to the South, and to U.S. Forces, Korea. This may be because those units are better led, or because they tend to be located in the interior, away from our prying eyes. It is telling, however, that many of these stories originate in either the border guard units along the northern border, or from the front-line army units posted near the DMZ. This suggests that the decay of the military’s values, culture, cohesion, and readiness are likely advanced and widespread.

This doesn’t mean that the North Korean army wouldn’t fight; after all, the reports suggest that morale and cohesion were already poor before the attacks of 2010. But morale problems in the North Korean military do suggest opportunities to prevent war and free more North Koreans–soldiers and civilians alike–from the grip of fear. When soldiers are ordered into battle, they usually obey orders, at least initially, unless they are mentally and emotionally prepared to disobey. What these reports tell us is that the soldiers have lost faith in their leaders, and that they are ready to be led in different and more peaceful directions. But first, we must prepare them.

First, information operations should target low-ranking North Korean soldiers with a message of peace–that war between the Koreas would be fratricidal and destructive to both Koreas. South Korean culture can play an important role here, in humanizing the potential victims of war. Soldiers should be told that theft, pilferage, and sabotage of military fuel, supplies, and other equipment helps to prevent war, and is an act of national patriotism. The highest ranking leaders, after all, are less likely to provoke a war if they know that their armed forces are neither ready nor willing to fight.

Second, reports of poor morale, discipline, and cohesion should be publicized, both internationally and internally, so that company-grade, field-grade, and flag officers will question their own sense of purpose, their confidence in their soldiers, and their confidence in other units. Top officials in the North Korean government have internet access; reports like these may dissuade them from joining in any attack against the South, particularly if they are told that they will be held accountable for the loss of civilian lives. The objective is to cause officers to waver or hesitate before following orders to use deadly force, until opposition to those orders has a chance to build momentum. If the officers come to believe rumors (whether true or not) that there are supplies of ammunition beyond the state’s control, they will fear for their own safety if they continue to mistreat their soldiers.

Finally, soldiers who fear for their lives, their health, their safety, and their survival shouldn’t have to walk through minefields to find refuge. Eventually, guerrilla engagement advances sufficiently, it can create a network of shelters inside North Korea, where deserters can receive forged identity documents, regular meals, medical treatment, education, religious services (should they choose them) and humane treatment, in exchange for useful labor in guerrilla NGO-run farms and factories. The methods used to recruit these soldiers need not differ substantially from the methods used to recruit them into smuggling networks, and often into close (even intimate) relationships with smugglers, today. Indeed, many North Korean soldiers in border regions already live in civilian homes; the next steps aren’t hard to imagine. Some of these deserters could be re-formed into security services to protect markets, trade, and the local population from the predations of soldiers. If there is a sudden and unexpected descent into anarchy, those units may prove invaluable in the restoration of order.

~   ~   ~

* A previous version of this post said, “Given the geography, this soldier must have come from one of North Korea’s front-line units, whose members are usually selected for their reliably loyal family backgrounds.” Commenter Yang (thank you) points to a Korean-language story that the soldier’s unit was in Hamheung, which is at a considerable distance from the DMZ.

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Under NKSEA, transactions in N. Korean slave labor would be punishable by prison time

Yet again, a news story is reporting that North Korea is sending workers abroad to toil in conditions tantamount to slavery:

When the North Korean carpenter was offered a job in Kuwait in 1996, he leapt at the chance. He was promised $120 a month, an unimaginable wage for most workers in his famine-stricken country, where most people are not allowed to travel abroad.

But for Rim Il, the deal soured from the start: Under a moonlit night, the bus carrying him and a score of other fresh arrivals pulled into a desert camp cordoned off with barbed-wire fences. There, 1,800 workers, sent by North Korea to earn badly needed foreign currency, were living together under the watchful eyes of North Korean government supervisors, Mr. Rim said. They worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or, often, midnight, seven days a week, doing menial jobs at construction sites.

“We only took a Friday afternoon off twice a month but had to spend the time studying books or watching videos about the greatness of our leader back home,” Mr. Rim said at a recent news conference in Seoul, the South Korean capital. “We were never paid our wages, and when we asked our superiors about them, they said we should think of starving people back home and thank the leader for giving us this opportunity of eating three meals a day.” [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang Hun]

The workers’ rights issue is the more obvious one, and more on that in a moment. There are a few other problems here, too, including the familiar question of how Pyongyang is spending the money, and the fact that U.N. member states are supposed to be keeping an eye on that sort of thing. Do the math, and it’s quite possible that Pyongyang is pulling down $300 million a year this way, which would make it a significant source of income. Ahn Myeong Chol of NK Watch speculates that Pyongyang uses the money to buy luxury goods, which would violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. His guess is as good as mine, but only Kim Jong Un knows for certain. The other interesting detail is this one:

The Workers’ Party, the ruling party in North Korea, instructed a group in Kuwait to send home $500,000 a month, more than its members’ regular salaries combined, a North Korean supervisor who worked there from 2011 to last year told NK Watch.

When net income exceeds gross income, it’s time to be suspicious. One possibility is that North Korea is using “wages” as more than just a source of income. It may be commingling them with the proceeds of other illicit activities, such as arms sales. That’s commonly known as money laundering. Similar suspicions have been voiced about North Korea’s restaurants abroad.

~   ~   ~

I’ve previously written about the business ethics and legal issues surrounding North Korea’s labor practices abroad, including in Siberian logging camps, at future World Cup venues in Qatar, and in Malaysian mines.

They described a system where government minders monitored their movements and communications and required them to spy on one another. The minders often confiscated the workers’ passports.

“These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties,” the State Department said in a report published last year. “Workers’ salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various ‘voluntary’ contributions to government endeavors.”

In theory, the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States. A Customs regulation at 19 C.F.R. § 12.42 also allows private petitioners to oppose the landing of goods made with forced labor in U.S. ports; however, few North Korean goods should be imported into the United States now, due to economic reasons, and the licensing requirements applicable under Executive Order 13,570. More fundamentally, the U.S. and North Korea are neither natural nor historic trading partners, which means that this strategy would only be useful in rare circumstances.

In a thoughtful paper, Marcus Noland suggested that those doing business with North Korea apply a code of ethics akin to the Sullivan Principles, which were once applied by U.S. investors in apartheid-era South Africa. In theory, if investors were required to report their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, shareholders could pressure them to adopt more ethical business practices. If North Korea were to be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, the SEC’s Office of Global Security Risk would require the reporting of any such investments, and that requirement would apply to non-U.S. businesses that issue securities in the United States. Unfortunately, those who do business with North Korea are almost by definition unethical, unwilling to press ethical issues, or more concerned about competition from other unethical businesses than with business ethics.

This is where the NKSEA provides a more comprehensive answer, in the form of Section 104(a)(1)(F):

(1) CONDUCT DESCRIBED.—Except as provided in section 207, the President shall designate under this subsection any person the President determines to—

. . . .

(F) have knowingly engaged in or been responsible for serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, forced labor or trafficking in persons, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of a person;

Section 207 contains the humanitarian exceptions, for imports of food and medicine I wrote about here. And obviously, the U.S. has to have jurisdiction to impose these sanctions, such as the use of the U.S. financial system by one of the participants.

Note that this provision is mandatory. If the executive branch finds that a person or entity has “engaged in or been responsible for” human trafficking by the Government of North Korea, the Treasury Department is required to block the designated entity’s assets as they enter the U.S. financial system. Other potential sanctions include criminal penalties, including a $1 million fine, 20 years in prison, or a civil penalty of up to $250,000. The sanctioned person or entity may also be debarred from being awarded U.S. government contracts, or be denied a visa to enter the United States.

For those (such as banks) that facilitate such transactions, other discretionary sanctions may apply under Section 104(b)(1)(G), including the blocking of assets.

Some will argue, in response, that as bad as these working conditions are, they’re far worse in North Korea itself. But the fact that conditions in Qatar or Vladivostok are minimally better than in Hamhung does not make them acceptable. Is a living wage for the workers and their families too much to ask of a nominally socialist regime? Wasn’t the idea of economic engagement to loosen Pyongyang’s restrictive brutality and gently introduce it to the standards and norms the rest of the world lives by? Wasn’t part of the idea to improve the lives of the North Korean people, rather than to be just another way for its oligarchy to exploit its people and enrich itself? Or to undermine fair wages and living standards in the receiving nations?

As always, the question of engaging North Korea becomes a question of who changed whom.

After 20 years of “engagement,” there’s little evidence that any of North Korea’s partners have expected it to engage meaningfully enough to let its workers spend their own paychecks or work in safe conditions. At what point will the defenders of these arrangements expect to see meaningful change, or is this simply an open-ended hope? If the world doesn’t expect even this much of North Korea, where is the social value in engagement, and where is it realistically leading? How can it be anything but a worn-out justification for profiteering on slavery?

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Ten questions Gloria Steinem should ask the N. Koreans about women’s rights (but probably won’t dare to)

This week, I read that North Korea has granted permission for a group of women, including Gloria Steinem, and led by outspoken North Korean regime sympathizer Christine Ahn, to do a “peace march” across the DMZ. The group also intends to “hold international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul,” where Ahn will probably repeat one of her favorite falsehoods, that “crippling sanctions against the government make it difficult for ordinary people to access the basics needed for survival.” It’s a statement that could only have been written by a legal illiterate who has never read the actual sanctions, or by a hack who has spent at least a decade overlooking the real causes of hardship and starvation in North Korea.

Steinem, on the other hand, is known for her accomplishments fighting for the rights of women, so rather than rehash old arguments with Ahn, I’d prefer to focus on a point of potential agreement with Steinem — that the women of North Korea could really use the support of a fearless feminist. In that spirit, I decided to suggest a few questions that Steinem should ask her hosts in Pyongyang if she’s truly concerned about the status of women in North Korea:

1. Why do you impose idiotic, despotic, and harmful rules on women, like not allowing them to ride bicycles, or wear pants?

An acquaintance of mine, a North Korean refugee currently living in South Korea, told me how, in the early 2000s, she broke a bone. The incident happened one afternoon when she was on the way home. A few streets away from her house she encountered a patrol of regular police and militia, and she instantly knew she was in trouble because she had done something seriously improper. She had no choice but to run, and while trying to get away from her pursuers she broke a bone in her feet. But she still escaped the hand of law.

What was the crime she had committed? She was wearing trousers while walking the streets of a major North Korean city.

2. Was it really necessary for you to call the female President of South Korea a “whore,” a “political prostitute,” a “crazy bitch,” and a “comfort woman?

What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [….]

She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]

3. Is your government forcing women to work as prostitutes in China?

A group of female North Korean workers has been forcefully repatriated from China after it was learned that they had been asked to work as prostitutes on the sly by their overseer while officially hired at a food factory, according to a local source.

The women, believed to number about half a dozen, were among North Korean workers sent across the border to gain precious foreign exchange revenue and had been placed under strict living conditions, including being barred from traveling outside their lodging alone, a source from China’s Liaoning province bordering North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service.

However, the women, who worked at a food production factory in Liaoning’s Donggang city, had been leaving their compound at night to engage in illegal activities—including prostitution—at the behest of their handler, infuriating the local community, the source said. [….]

“As a result, some of the workers and their North Korean handler were deported by the Chinese public security personnel.”

4. Why are so many North Korean women trafficked in China, and what kind of society is so insufferable that it forces women to risk that fate?

My parents died of starvation and my two younger brothers were killed by robbers in North Korea. After I lost all my family members, I was left wandering in the countryside, all by myself. One day, I met a North Korean couple who looked little bit younger than me. In November 1999, they suggested I go to China with them. As soon as we arrived in Helong and went into the house where they took me, I was taken to Longjing and then to Yanji by the ethnic Koreans. From Yanji I was taken to Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang Province by train. When we arrived in Mudanjiang, the brother of my current father-in-law was waiting for us. I was then taken to Jidong in Heilongjiang where I live with an ethnic Korean man. I have been told that my current husband paid 10,000 yuan for me.

5. Why have so many North Korean women turned to prostitution to survive?

Current estimates by South Korean and U.S. analysts place the number of fulltime prostitutes throughout North Korea at around 25,000 in the state of 24.5 million people – a figure that Young agreed with. That would mean one full-time prostitute was working per 1,000 people.

The high estimate does not include the far larger number of women who supplement their meager income by occasional freelance participation in prostitution activities. [….]

The age range of women involved in prostitution in North Korea is broad, stretching from 17 to 45, according to Young. The large percentage of women engaging in the practice again reflects the widespread and growing destitution and hunger pervading North Korean society.

A North Korean defector said there are about 500 prostitutes in a city which has a population of 400,000, Young noted. “If [we] depend on the simple arithmetic calculation and put North Korean population as 20 million, we can assume that there should be about 25,000 prostitutes in North Korea.”

A few years ago, that estimate would have been widely rejected as too high. The history of poor harvests, food shortages and the desperate demand for short-term extra income has made its mark. The hard drug pandemic may well have put those numbers too low.

In any case, the boast North Korean spokesmen made until recent years that there was no prostitution in their country rings hollow.

6. If women have to prostitute themselves, can’t you at least give them access to decent birth control and health care? (see also)

“[T]he women have their own ways to deal with STDs,” she adds. “Opium is supposed to prevent STDs.”

“Opium is not considered illegal in North Korea,” she explains. “It is cheap and typically goes for 5,000 won per gram. There is also contraceptive medicine available, but because they are much more expensive than opium, prostitutes don’t consider using them.”

“Contraceptives may prevent pregnancy, but women believe opium prevents and even treats almost all forms of disease. People think of it as a cure-all drug.”

She describes how North Korean prostitutes regularly use opium to protect their bodies: “Lightly mix some water with the opium, and dab a cotton ball in the mixture. Before placing the cotton ball in the vagina, wrap string around it in a cross shape (+) so it can be pulled out more easily.”

7. Speaking of which, I have some questions about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” health care system ….

North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”

8. Same question about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” education system.

[D]efectors testify with one voice to the fact that in modern North Korea, free education is an oxymoron. Instead, they say that even elementary school students must pay money for firewood, the repairing of school facilities and to make donations to the People’s Army or construction units.

The bribes needed to enter university are substantial, too. To gain entrance to a university in Pyongyang can cost up to $1,000, and for a provincial university between $300 and $500.

Kim Yong Cheol, a 22-year old who joined Hyesan College of Education in 2007 but defected to Seoul in 2009, explained to The Daily NK, “If they offer some money to the relevant university and the Education Department then they can possibly get into the university; students who do not have a good school record want to enter that university even though it requires bribery.”

Cho Hyun Mee, a 26-year old studying at Seoul National University said, “When I joined a university in Chongjin, the city Education Department demanded a computer, so I sold a television set to collect money and bought them a laptop.” Thanks to the laptop, Cho was shown the type and range of the entrance examination.

9. Would it kill you to let North Korean women wear their hair the way they choose?

Sure, you say, a list of 18 state-approved hairstyles certainly seems generous and libertine, but on closer examination, it’s actually more like 18 pictures of three hairstyles — three hideous, man-shriveling hairstyles — one of which (6, 10) is a mullet, and the rest of which appear to have been inspired by the 80s metal band Queensrÿche.

10. Why wouldn’t you let Ban Yon-Mee be a doctor?

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”

Sure, feel free to tone the questions down if you must, as long as you ask them. Being asked hard questions might convince the little gray men in Pyongyang that these things matter to us, and that they should matter to the regime, too. By not asking them, you might lead them — and us — to believe that you’re willing to overlook the rights of North Korean women and be Pyongyang’s tool, for no better reason than to attract media attention to yourself.

~   ~   ~

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention those racist forced abortions and infanticides, which must be the most extreme anti-choice position of all:

When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.

Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves” (see “Witness,” below), the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide: anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.

The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.

So I guess that’s eleven….


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Three Cheers for Obama’s Sony attribution, a golf clap for his “proportional” response.

In The Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima describes how Sony’s decision to cancel the premiere of The Interview catalyzed the Obama Administration’s decision to blame North Korea publicly:

The next day, alarmed by the surrender, President Barack Obama convened his top officials in the White House Situation Room and, based on their unanimous recommendation, decided to take an action the United States had never dared before in response to a cyberattack by another nation: name the government responsible and punish it. [….]

The blocking of Sony’s freedom of expression, on top of a highly damaging hack, is what ultimately compelled officials to act, in the name of deterrence.

“The argument I made was the whole world is watching how we as a nation respond,” said Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, who, other officials said, was at the previously undisclosed meeting.

“And if we don’t acknowledge this, if we don’t name names here, it will only — I’m concerned — encourage others to decide: ‘Well, this must not be a red line for the United States. This must be something they’re comfortable [with] and willing to accept,’ ” Rogers said at an international cybersecurity conference at Fordham University last week.

There “was a significant debate within the administration about whether or not to take that step” of naming North Korea, a senior administration official said. “Attribution is hard, and there are all sorts of reasons we don’t normally want to do that,” including setting a precedent that would increase pressure to name other countries in future incidents and antagonizing the offending governments.

But the attack on Sony’s right to screen a movie struck a nerve. The entertainment company may not be “critical” to national security, but free speech is “a core value,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Yes, it was a Seth Rogen comedy, but next time it might not be,” he said. What he described as the hack’s “destructive” nature combined with the element of coercion against Sony “crossed the threshold,” he said. “It took us into a new realm.”

The attack was a violation of U.S. sovereignty “coupled with an attempt to interfere with freedom of expression,” said Christopher Painter, State Department coordinator for cyber issues. “You had, in many ways, the perfect storm of all these things coming together that were really important.” [WaPo, Ellen Nakashima]

I applaud this unreservedly. It was the right decision for the right reasons.

~   ~   ~

The administration has stumbled twice since then, however. For several weeks, the administration failed to challenge inside-job theories from some IT security experts. Some of them challenged the sufficiency of the publicly available evidence, which is fair enough. But to argue that North Korea didn’t do it is much more problematic. Some of the inside-jobbers lost sight of the possibility that they were arguing based on incomplete information. Others may have been motivated by grudges against the administration over the Snowden revelations, or other biases. Yet others, including inmates of the Alex Jones, Christine Ahn, and Ron Paul asylums, shared the sort of skepticism that’s unique to the world’s most gullible people.

The administration continued to lose this argument for several weeks before FBI Director James Comey publicly reaffirmed that he was certain that the North Koreans did it. Comey’s call to declassify more of the evidence is now being answered by the National Security Agency:

Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the American spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies, according to former United States and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations and a newly disclosed N.S.A. document.

A classified security agency program expanded into an ambitious effort, officials said, to place malware that could track the internal workings of many of the computers and networks used by the North’s hackers, a force that South Korea’s military recently said numbers roughly 6,000 people. Most are commanded by the country’s main intelligence service, called the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and Bureau 121, its secretive hacking unit, with a large outpost in China.

The evidence gathered by the “early warning radar” of software painstakingly hidden to monitor North Korea’s activities proved critical in persuading President Obama to accuse the government of Kim Jong-un of ordering the Sony attack, according to the officials and experts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the classified N.S.A. operation. [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger & Martin Fackler]

The CIA’s malware was built on its highly successful Stuxnet worm:

For about a decade, the United States has implanted “beacons,” which can map a computer network, along with surveillance software and occasionally even destructive malware in the computer systems of foreign adversaries. The government spends billions of dollars on the technology, which was crucial to the American and Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and documents previously disclosed by Edward J. Snowden, the former security agency contractor, demonstrated how widely they have been deployed against China. [N.Y. Times]

For those incapable of wrapping their heads around the idea of North Korea being technologically sophisticated enough to hack someone, the Times story also provides an extensive history of Unit 121, and an interview with two defectors with insider knowledge of the unit’s operations.

See also CNN and CBS News (quoting Comey, “We could see that the IP addresses that were being used to post and to send the e-mails were coming from IPs that were exclusively used by the North Koreans.”).

Interestingly enough, just a few weeks before the Sony hack, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had dinner with Kim Yong-Chol, the head of North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau (RGB), the man responsible for overseeing North Korea’s hackers, and also for multiple attempts to assassinate human rights activists and North Korean dissidents in exile. The RGB’s assets are blocked, but Gen. Kim’s are not. I can’t help wonder if Gen. Kim smiled at the thought of how Clapper would react to the Sony attacks. Let’s hope that the Obama Administration gives Gen. Kim cause to regret this lapse of malignant egomania.

It amuses me some to wonder whether there was a small bandage on Mr. Clapper’s right palm when the two men shook hands.

~   ~   ~

Which brings us to the President’s second stumble: his failure, so far, to respond credibly, to deter others from crossing the red line that North Korea crossed in November, and also to deter others from blunting President Obama’s response by undermining sanctions.

It did not take long for American officials to conclude that the source of the attack was North Korea, officials say. “Figuring out how to respond was a lot harder,” one White House official said. [N.Y. Times]

That’s becoming more painfully obvious by the day. President Obama has said that Executive Order 13,687 and the designations of January 2nd were only a beginning, and let’s hope he’s right about that. Sanctions work better when they hit with a shock than when they’re applied incrementally, and give the target time to adapt. If my guess is right, however, Treasury needs more time to do that, because this administration hasn’t made North Korea a priority in its financial intelligence targeting. But so far, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden said, the administration’s new sanctions have been “symbolic at best,” for reasons I explained here. Worse, our apparent lack of determination is inviting troublemakers to undermine the administration’s negative reinforcement.

Here is Vladimir Putin’s cue to enter stage left.

According to this article, Russia has recently begun to service transactions for the U.S. Treasury-sanctioned Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea in rubles. Treasury sanctioned the FTB in March 2013 for its involvement in servicing WMD-related financial transactions. The article’s author, whose work reads like that of a Putinjugend fangirl, may not have considered the possibility that the Russian businesses involved could still be cut out of the financial system under EO 13,687 or (one day in the not-too-distant future, according to Chairman Royce) the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. However unwittingly, fangirl has done us a great public service by bringing this information to our attention.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to defend us against cyberattacks. He didn’t mention North Korea by name, but the reference was obvious. Deterrence is a critical part of defense. Imposing new cybersecurity laws and regulations on industry alone will not be a complete answer, and the new requirements will come with massive costs to American industry. Even if the administration has good reasons to delay the main thrust of its response to Kim Jong Un until it finds a critical mass of North Korea’s financial nodes, it still needs to make a bold demonstration that it’s unwilling to tolerate the willful subversion of its policies by Russia and others. If the sanctions of January 2nd are the only price a foreign enemy pays for a devastating and chilling attack on the central principle of our political system, those sanctions will mean less than no deterrent at all.

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House Foreign Affairs Committee holds briefing; members demand tougher sanctions on N. Korea, China (updated with video of full hearing)

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a briefing on North Korea and the Sony hack today. Three witnesses appeared:

The Honorable Sung Kim
Special Representative for North Korea Policy and
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan
U.S. Department of State
[full text of statement]

The Honorable Daniel Glaser
Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing
Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
U.S. Department of the Treasury
[full text of statement]

Brigadier General Gregory J. Touhill, USAF, Retired
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity Operations and Programs
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
[full text of statement]

Here’s Chairman Royce’s opening statement.

In all the years I’ve gone to these things, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more bipartisan unity about, or rage toward, North Korea. Some members continue to labor under misconceptions about what our sanctions are and what they can do, but all of them want sanctions intensified. One Democrat, Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, said the solution to the North Korea problem is “to end North Korea’s existence as an independent entity and reunify the Korean Peninsula.”

If anything, there was even more rage directed at China, for knowingly hosting the hackers who attacked U.S. interests and threatened Americans from Chinese soil, and for failing for years to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Congress could not have been more united and emphatic that it wants North Korea’s Chinese enablers sanctioned. Chairman Royce pushed Kim and Glaser hard on secondary sanctions. Brad Sherman (D-CA) called on China to be designated as a currency manipulator. He questioned whether China would give sincere cooperation on cybersecurity, when “their hands are dirty” and they’re involved in cyberespionage “all four hands and snout.” (Russia was also criticized by some members for its closer ties with North Korea.)

Sherman, always the funniest guy in the room, said, “I’d like to give [North Korea] a double dose of free speech.” He called for 24-hour broadcasting into North Korea and suggested that the State Department look into “satellite television broadcasting into North Korea … because I particularly want to broadcast a particular movie … the director’s cut.” (Right idea, Brad, but wrong movie.)

Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a member of the Committee again, and Issa may be the most frightening man on Capitol Hill to be questioned by. He called on China to be sanctioned under a new cyberespionage sanctions authority (scroll to the bottom of page 893). Issa noted that China doesn’t have a free internet, that it gives North Korea all of its internet access, and that that access is narrow. There’s simply no way China didn’t know.

To all of this, Glaser said that if evidence implicates Chinese entities, “We’re fully committed to holding entities in China accountable.” Sung Kim tried to say that he saw a change in China’s attitude, but Glaser said it best, in response to a question from Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI): “China’s not going to do us any favors. China is going to work with us because it’s in their interests.” “We’ve seen that with China’s commercial banks time and time again.”

About that new executive order, now numbered as Executive Order 13,687: you saw that I struggled with two possible interpretations, one broad and one narrow. The narrower interpretation turns out to be the correct one. So while EO 13,687’s potential is sweeping, its present impact is minuscule. In other words, Kim Jong Un’s assets are not blocked yet; the Pope is Catholic when John Kerry says he is.

Having said that, the dialogue between Chairman Royce and Glaser sounded like the old Danny Glaser we once knew and loved. Talking about the effect of Banco Delta Asia, Royce said, “I later talked to defectors who worked on the missile program … that program came to a halt” because of the BDA sanction. “They couldn’t buy gyroscopes.” Royce wanted to see an “impact on the the family itself that runs that country” until “the generals are not paid, the army is not paid,” and they conclude that “there has to be a better way” than following Kim Jong Un.

To this, Glaser said that in 2005 and 2006, “hundreds of banks at the time” cut the North Koreans off. But then, Glaser said that because of the “chilling effect” of this, that was the “world in which we’re still living.” (I thought it was 1984 again, and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.) Glaser called the Foreign Trade Bank, which Treasury blocked in 2013, North Korea’s “primary source of access to the international financial system.” Even so, he allowed that EO 13,687 “gives us the ability to really step … up” the process of identifying and cutting off North Korea’s “financial nodes.”

Glaser didn’t seem worried about our ability to influence Chinese banks. He cited their behavior after Treasury acted against the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea as an example.* He said the main challenge was identifying North Korea’s “financial nodes.” (My guess is that if Treasury doesn’t know, it’s because Treasury never put enough investigative resources on the task. Sanctions can’t work if you don’t have good financial intelligence. Let’s hope it’s about to get better.)

And lest anyone wonder where North Korea keeps its money, Glaser said, “We shouldn’t take our eye off the ball, and the ball is Asia. That’s where they get their primary access to the international financial system … specifically China.” Glaser chided the Chinese for continuing to allow Korea Kwangson Bank, an entity blocked by Treasury and designated by the European Union, to operate a branch in China.

Glaser ducked a question on whether North Korea should be designated a primary money laundering concern. On the humanitarian effect of sanctions, Glaser repeatedly insisted that the government of North Korea “bears sole responsibility for the suffering of the people of North Korea.”

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) did a masterful grilling of Sung Kim on putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sung Kim would only say State is studying the issue. Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN, a new member) asked whether EO 13,687 represents “an increase in intensity” in North Korea sanctions. Ambassador Kim said, “I think that would be accurate.”

All of the witnesses affirmed their confidence that North Korea was responsible for hacking Sony. When Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) asked Kim whether he believed North Korea was responsible for the 2013 Dark Seoul attack, Kim said, “We believe so, more importantly, the South Korean government believes so.”

Royce said twice that the next version of H.R. 1771 would be introduced in the near future, but wasn’t specific.

It’s not clear whether EO 13,687 represent a policy change or an empty threat. The true answer will depend on interpretation and enforcement. Glaser tried to sound like we’ve kept the pressure on North Korea since the days of Banco Delta Asia, but Juan Zarate has already told us that isn’t so, and if it was, Kim Jong Un and his top thugs would be sanctioned by name, just like Mugabe and Lukashenka are.

Here’s how Yonhap covered the story; more here. See also AP and Reuters. The Reuters piece was good, but it incorrectly states that Royce’s new bill will label North Korea a Primary Money Laundering Concern; actually, it will urge the President and the Treasury Department to do that.

~   ~   ~

* The news there is mixed. In May of 2013, two months after Treasury sanctioned the Foreign Trade bank and a little more than a week after the introduction of H.R. 1771, China’s four largest banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China  — all halted money transfers to North Korea. Other, smaller Chinese banks, like the Bank of Dandong, continued to move money for Pyongyang, and at the lowest reaches of the financial ecosystem, North Korean money launderers still operate in Guangdong with impunity, and more discreetly, in places like the British Virgin Islands. Enforcing sanctions is like mowing the lawn. If you don’t do it regularly, things grow back quickly, and it’s the weeds that will thrive the most. Unlike mowing the lawn, you can’t take a uniform approach to different enforcement targets.

~   ~   ~

Update: After all that, here’s the whole thing on video. If you catch any errors in my transcription, kindly drop a comment or email. Thanks.

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But wouldn’t Su-35s divert money needed for flat-screens and ski resorts?

I could be wrong, but I doubt even Vlad Putin would violate U.N. Security Council Sanctions so blatantly as this:

North Korea made an attempt to purchase advanced fighter jets from Russia by sending a special envoy, a senior South Korean military official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday.

“Choe Ryong-hae, who visited Moscow as a special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in November last year, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets,” the military source said.

Little has been disclosed about the discussions between Choe and Putin. Choe, a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, met with Putin on Nov. 18 and delivered a letter from Kim, the Russian presidential office has said, without providing further details. The Kremlin said the meeting was not open to the press, and no press conference was arranged afterward. [Joongang Ilbo]

According to the report, the Russians gave Choe a tour of the factory in Khabarovsk where the jets are produced. The very fact that the Russians gave Choe a tour of a plant producing something that North Korea isn’t allowed to buy probably suggests what Putin’s real game is — to show much trouble he could make for us if he chose to, even as the Russian economy dissolves on his watch due to all the trouble we’ve made for him.

That would be Choe’s second international visit since a cryptically worded KCNA report caused some of us to speculate that he’d been sent on his final state visit … to the glue factory.

According to the report, “It is unknown how many jets the North attempted to acquire.” Starting at $40 million each, that would mean each aircraft costs about 40% of the one-year cost for the World Food Program to feed just 2.4 million of the kids and pregnant women that Kim Jong Un isn’t feeding.

Hat tip to The National Interest.

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Ros-Lehtinen bill to call for N. Korea’s listing as a terrorism sponsor

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) — A U.S. congresswoman said Monday she will introduce a bill calling for re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in response to the communist nation’s alleged cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

“North Korea should have never been taken off the state sponsor of terrorism list and should be reinstated immediately,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in comments emailed to Yonhap News Agency. “I will soon be reintroducing legislation to redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and to ratchet up the sanctions pressure on the North Korean regime.”

The congresswoman welcomed the latest sanctions that the administration of President Barack Obama imposed on North Korea last week in response to the Sony hack, but she stressed that what’s more important is to enforce those sanctions.

“Simply talking tough on sanctions without enforcing them in order to manipulate public opinion, as this White House has done with regard to North Korea and other rogue regimes, will only diminish whatever credibility and influence the administration has left while putting the security of the United States at risk,” she said. [Yonhap]

Funny how the administration says an SSOT listing would be “symbolic,”yet so stubbornly refuses to do it. If it’s only symbolic, what are they afraid of?

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