Archive for Anju Links

Open Sources, April 21, 2014

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THOSE NORTH KOREAN UAVs look exactly like a model manufactured in China. Not that it’s needed, but it’s yet more evidence that China isn’t enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. I hope the U.N. Panel of Experts is paying attention.

Speaking of which, the POE’s new head will be French missile expert Erik Marzolf. I wish him luck in his important work.

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PUTIN IS BECOMING A PROBLEM ON NORTH KOREA: It looks like Russia is shifting from “mere annoyance” to “obstruction” on North Korea. First, Russia has just forgiving $10 billion in North Korean debt. It’s debt that they’d never have collected anyway, but forgiving it improves North Korea’s balance sheet, and makes it more attractive to especially gullible lenders.

Second and more worrisome, Russia is allowing North Korea to settle payments in rubles, which sounds like a scheme to circumvent the dollar-based financial system. And after all, Ocean Maritime Management ran its MiG-smuggling operation out of Vladivostok.

Presumably, this is in retaliation for our refusal to accept Putin’s land grab in the Ukraine, which we shouldn’t accept. I suppose you can’t blame a wolf for being a wolf. At some point, we have only ourselves to blame when countries like Russia and China subvert lawful, non-violent ways of resolving conflicts, and we fail to turn to other tools at our disposal to make North Korea a security and economic liability for them.

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HUCKABEE’S SELF-REFUTING HYPERBOLE: As most of you have probably heard, last week, Republican presidential contender and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said he is “beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.” You can watch Huckabee’s remarks yourself and decide for yourself if he’s joking or serious. I think he’s engaging in some deliberate hyperbole, but as one who has some sympathy with the grains of truth in Huckabee’s arguments about P.C. and the excesses of the security state, I think his comments were ill-informed, in poor taste, and a sop to any conspiracy lunatics who aren’t on Rand Paul’s wagon yet. Not surprisingly, Huckabee’s comment isn’t going over well on the left, but it’s welcome news that it isn’t going over well on the right, either. Perhaps it’s time to extend Godwin’s Law to North Korea.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice — there were spies in the neighbourhood.” See also.

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THE DAILY NK REPORTS THAT North Korea has dispatched more teams of security agents to China, to arrest North Koreans who’ve overstayed their visas. My immediate suspicion inclined toward Jang Song Thaek cronies who didn’t return when called, but the Daily NK speculates that this may be related to North Korea’s crackdown on religion.

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THE CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE UPDATES its survey of U.S. assistance to North Korea, in light of increasing restrictions imposed by the Congress in its annual appropriations.

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DENNIS HALPIN, WRITING IN The Weekly Standard, offers a skeptical view of the U.S. pivot to Asia, and at USKI, looks behind Japan’s not-so-secret talks with North Korea.

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HUCKABEE NOTWITHSTANDING, CONSERVATIVES ARE BEGINNING TO FIND their lost voice on foreign policy. Some of the better criticisms I’ve read come from John McCain, Michael Chertoff, Ian Bremmer and (just about daily) Walter Russell Mead.

If conservatives learn at least one lesson from Iraq, I hope that lesson is that wars of liberation are best fought by the liberated. That means that rather than incur the human and financial cost of fighting wars ourselves, when it is our interests to fight, our principal means of doing so should be through material assistance to those who share our interests and our values.

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GORDON CHANG REVIEWS the signs of a Chinese economic apocalypse. I met Gordon in Washington a couple of weeks ago and was able to hear him expand on the reasons for his beliefs. On the one hand, it’s hard to see how anyone — including bankers and investors in China — can predict anything about China, given the unreliability of its economic statistics and the prevalence of fraud. On the other hand, trends that can’t be sustained won’t be, and government intervention to arrest structural changes in an economy usually just transforms today’s recession into tomorrow’s crash. I think that goes far to explain what happened here in 2008.

A terrible tragedy

I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to post quite as much this week, although I have a number of posts half-finished and in the queue.

Today, however, my thoughts are with the families of the many young lives lost in the terrible tragedy off the coast of South Korea. Like everyone, I’m eager to know how this could have happened in calm seas, when the ship was reportedly near its intended course, and why the crew told the passengers to remain in place as the ship started to list.

Inspector General finds flaws in WFP monitoring in N. Korea (and I find a bigger one)

wfp-logo

A reader (thank you) directs my attention to this Fox News report covering a new report by the U.N. World Food Program’s Office of Inspector General, finding major loopholes in the WFP’s controls to prevent the North Korean government from stealing food aid and diverting it to regime loyalists and the military. The report is so cryptic that it’s almost unreadable, so I’ll summarize:

- The WFP failed to meet its targets for monitoring visits to ensure that aid was being delivered to intended recipients. The in-country program padded its monitoring visit statistics by including fly-by VIP visits, and monitoring visits that were canceled by the regime.

- When the regime did cancel monitoring visits — in many cases, ostensibly because of weather-related reasons and road damage — the WFP never checked up on the North Koreans’ excuses.

- The WFP isn’t doing adequate on-site “supervision and oversight” of its food warehouses. The report suggests — sorry, the language is so impenetrable that “suggests” is the best verb I can use — that the WPF has outsourced its warehouse security to … the North Koreans. (The North Koreans are guarding the food! What could go wrong?)

- The WFP allowed the North Koreans to help run its computer networks and databases, which creates a vulnerability in the integrity of WFP monitoring.

- The WFP failed to document what it paid the North Koreans for fuel and labor provided by North Korean nationals, making it impossible for the auditors to know if the WFP overpaid.

- And finally, there is this:

Assessment of ‘No Access, No Food’ requirement – In the absence of documented analyses and evaluations by the Country Office of the Governments’ reasons for the denial of access to WFP staff of WFP project sites, the Country Office could not demonstrate that its agreement with the Government on access is fully complied with. Collect and analyse data on reasons for denial of access for both programme and logistics at all levels and implement the relevant clause of the agreement where warranted. [Page 10]

As an aside, I can’t help wondering why the WFP pays the North Korean regime for services rendered to feed the very people the regime itself is responsible for feeding. After all, it’s not as if they’re really short of cash in Pyongyang, but that also goes to the wider issue of why the U.N. has to have a feeding program for North Korea at all.

The latest report won’t do much to improve the WFP’s donor fatigue problem:

In the case of North Korea, WFP in the past two years has been trying to raise $200 million to feed some 2.4 million of the country’s most vulnerable people. Those operations are currently only “21.3 percent funded,” according to a WFP spokesman. And as a result, the spokesman said, “WFP in 2013 distributed the lowest amount of food assistance [in the country] since 1996.” [Fox News]

Some of the worst damnation of the WFP’s efforts actually comes in guise of praise. For example, the IG praises the great working relationship between the program officers and regime officials:

“[T]he [U.N.] Country Office monitoring staff and Senior Government County officials had established effective and efficient working relationships and County officials came to meetings with the Country Office monitoring missions with most of the required supporting documentation.”

In other words, the regime managed them, and they all got cozy. How you react to all of this will obviously depend on your perspective:

“The report makes clear that the WFP program in North Korea is unsustainable,” argues John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor. “There is simply no evidence the WFP can prevent itself from being exploited by the North Korean authorities, so that food aid is allocated according to the regime’s priorities rather than by the needs of the people.”

The WFP responds that it’s all because … they’re underfunded. So noted.

This raised one of my bushy eyebrows:

WFP also declared that “the audit report commended the geographical coverage of WFP’s monitoring and the robust monitoring systems that WFP is able to use in the country.” In fact, the report did declare that “the geographical coverage of the Country Office’s monitoring activities was commendable.” 

Yes, let’s talk about that, because I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while now. A well-regarded North Korea scholar gave me the color-coded map you see below. It was produced by the WFP. The areas shown in blue are those where the WFP claims to have had access to NorthKorea in 2013, in accordance with its “no access, no food” principle. I then made that map into a Google Earth overlay, so that I could show the locations of North Korea’s main political prison camps — places North Korea says don’t exist, and where foreigners aren’t allowed to go.

Overlay - Camps and WFP access

If you click and expand this map, you’ll see that the areas the WFP claims to be visiting, and feeding the population, include parts of Camp 14, and all of Camp 16, the largest and most secretive camp. They include Camp 25, on the outskirts of the city of Cheongjin, which recently underwent a major expansion, and Camp 12 at Cheongo-ri, also recently expanded. They even include Camp 22, from which thousands of prisoners simply disappeared, many of whom may have starved to death.

Now, if the WFP’s aid monitors had really gone to these places, you’d think that by now, one of them would have leaked word about what he or she saw there, or didn’t see. “See? Just an ordinary peaceful farming village, only surrounded by electric fences to keep the undeserving from entering this bucolic paradise!” That certainly would have been newsworthy. Or, you’d think that the WFP’s spokesman would have told me so when I posed the question to him in this interview. He didn’t answer.

In other words, the Inspector General isn’t finished inspecting the WFP’s adherence to “no access, no food.” Why isn’t the WFP feeding North Korea’s political prisoners, who may be the hungriest and most vulnerable people in North Korea? The WFP feeds prisoners in the Ivory Coast, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Why not North Korea, too? Must they be sacrificed to the WFP’s “effective and efficient working relationships” with this regime?

What I say here, I say more in sadness than in anger. The WFP is motivated by a sincere desire to help the North Korean people. Unfortunately, it fell into the same trap that all foreigners eventually fall into when they enter North Korea — they are bullied and cajoled into playing by Pyongyang’s rules and abandoning the principles that got them there in the first place. It’s what Marcus Noland has described as “North Korean exceptionalism” — Pyongyang’s ability to exempt itself from rules, like “no access, no food,” that apply to everyone else. The WFP made the difficult decision to help some North Koreans — actually, just 2.5 million out of a population of 23 million — even at the cost of perpetuating the system that starves many others. But if we can’t be sure that the WFP is feeding its intended recipients, that compromise becomes much harder to justify.

Open Sources, April 10, 2014

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YONGBYON JUST KEEPS GETTING SCARIER: OFK readers will remember the day the North Koreans blew up the cooling tower of their 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon to feign compliance with George W. Bush’s Agreed Framework 2.0. This was the modest pinnacle of Chris Hill’s diplomatic career, and came even as North Korea was submitting false declarations about its nuclear programs, denying the existence of a (since revealed) uranium enrichment program, and submitting samples of aluminum tubing and documents that were smeared with … enriched uranium.

(Meanwhile, as North Korea was reneging, Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, allowed a shipment of North Korean tanks to land in Ethiopia in violation of UNSCR 1718, did nothing about the revelation that North Korea built a nuclear reactor in Syria, and — most distressingly of all — lifted the potentially crippling financial pressure on North Korea’s accounts at Banco Delta Asia.)

At the time, a debate waged about whether the cooling tower was even essential to the operation of Yongbyon or whether its destruction was mere media theater. Later, during the Obama Administration, the North Koreans resolved that debate by laying down a network of underground pipes as an alternative cooling system, connecting it to a nearby river, and restarting the reactor.

Unfortunately, last summer, the river flooded and moved eastward, away from the intake and outlet for this system. Writing at 38 North, Nick Hansen warns of a significant risk that flooding could block — or cause the river to bypass — the system, which would probably cause the reactor’s graphite core to catch fire before the North Koreans could shut it down. Yongbyon is a small reactor, so this wouldn’t be a Chernobyl-scale disaster, but it’s safe to say that North Korea’s response to it would be inept, secretive, and almost certain to make the worst of things.

It’s an interesting post, well worth reading in full. I’ve found that a good rule to follow with 38 North is to read everything that comes with satellite imagery, and nothing that comes without it.

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DEFECTION NUMBERS RISE despite an ongoing border crackdown. The rise is modest:

Statistics released by the Ministry of Unification today have revealed a total of 360 North Korean defectors entered South Korea during the first quarter of 2014; 153 in January, 111 in February and 96 in March. While the figure is a slight increase from previous years, it would be premature to assume a rise in defector numbers across the board, a ministry official said. [Daily NK]

It will be interesting to see now many of the newer arrivals are from the Inner Party, and what they have to say about the mood in Pyongyang since the Great Purge.

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SERIOUSLY? The Japanese managed to persuade President Obama to make a three-day state visit to Tokyo, yet he’s only going to make an overnight stop in Seoul? That’s not going to endear him to the Korean Street. I can understand the importance of highlighting our friendship with Japan when it’s under threat from China, but isn’t it just as important to demonstrate our friendship with South Korea when North Korea is invading its airspace with UAVs and threatening to test another nuke?

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THE ROOF OF ONE OF KIM JONG UN’s palaces has caved in. As my grandmother would have said, “nebach.”

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NK NEWS HAS ASSEMBLED a panel of North Korean refugees, who offer their predictions about the length of Kim Jong Un’s rule.

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ANDREI LANKOV THINKS the era of “dangerous” dissent may have begun in North Korea. I don’t agree with much of Andrei’s analysis — in particular, I think this era has begun to a greater extent that Andrei does, and has waxed and waned with the circumstances, and the analogy between the U.S.S.R. and North Korea is a bad fit. It’s still interesting reading.

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KAESONG UPDATE: Say, do you ever get the idea that North Korea doesn’t share South Korea’s vision of Kaesong as a globally interconnected capitalist megaplex sprawling across the Workers’ Paradise, tempting hundreds of thousands of North Koreans with the lure of blue jeans, toilet paper, and ChocoPies? No?

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REGULAR READERS KNOW THAT I’M UNIMPRESSED by most foreign “engagement” projects inside North Korea. Few of them offer any real potential to trigger significant social or political change in North Korea, and nearly all of which provide significant hard currency to the regime, thus helping to pay for the secret police, propaganda apparatus, cell phone trackers, barbed wire, and other tools that help keep non-elite North Koreans isolated, ignorant, and hungry.

The one “engagement” project about which I’ve reserved some ambivalence is Koryolink, the cell phone venture of the Egyptian conglomerate Orascom. I can’t weigh the costs and benefits of the program unless I know how Pyongyang uses the money it earns from the venture, but cell phones certainly are a potential tool of inter-city communication, and it seems unlikely that the regime can monitor all of the calls. No, I don’t believe Koryolink really has 2 million subscribers — that would be about 10% of the total population — but even so, how can the regime prevent them from being used for subversive talk? An illuminating report from the VOA provides some answers, including the fact that the minutes cost so much that many subscribers carry their phones as status symbols, but can seldom afford to use them.

There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability. One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”

It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.

He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion. [VOA]

And if things get edgy enough in Pyongyang, you can be sure there’s a kill switch for the whole system. Even so, traders still manage to use them to exchange price information or arrange transactions, and trade is what’s feeding most North Koreans today.

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OH REALLY? KOREANS ARE OFFENDED when Japanese put up “Japanese only” signs? You know what? I totally understand how that sort of thing would offend someone.

It’s enough to make you wonder why South Korean troops are still defending them. Oh, wait.

Open Sources, April 7, 2014

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A THIRD NORTH KOREAN UAV has been found in the mountains near South Korea’s east coast. It’s another low aspect ratio wing design, similar to the one found in Paju last week.

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NORTH KOREA LAUNCHES A NEW CRACKDOWN on Christians: “A Pyongyang source explained the details. ‘Having sent 30 people off to prison camps, I am told that a total of around 100 more residents have been taken in for questioning by the Department of State Security. Among them there are some who went to China this year, but others were last there between five and eight years ago.’”

In February, The Daily NK reported that the regime had eased up on religious belief, but in retrospect, that was probably either a false dawn or a temporary priority shift. We later heard a rumor that 33 Christians were about to be executed for having contact with South Korean missionaries.

Needless to say, none of these reports can be confirmed. If only some big, responsible corporation had a news bureau right there in Pyongyang to investigate this, I’m sure it would get to the bottom of it.

Update:  More here. North Korean security forces reportedly lured some of those arrested back from China.  Update 2: And there’s this report that the regime has launched a campaign of anti-Christian ideological education in Pyongyang. It’s interesting that these reports are focused on North Korea’s capital, which is ostensibly a reserve of the loyal elite.

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THE RODONG SINMUN KEEPS IT CLASSY with more sexism about Park Geun-Hye. The English version of the Rodong Sinmun is publishing denunciations of President Park as a “bitch,” and more:

The three-part series, which ran in the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday, describes her as a lunatic, idiot and “cold-blooded animal”. But it also stresses the fact she has never married or had children and claims she “jabbers like a little girl”, in a string of insults presented as quotes from ordinary North Koreans. The subtitle of one piece reads: “Old cat groaning in her sickbed”. [The Guardian]

This may or may not be worse than KCNA’s previous characterization of Park as a “political prostitute,” but probably isn’t as bad as the Korea Central News Agency’s calls to slit the throat of “rat-like” ex-President Lee Myung Bak.

Now, I don’t want to be another pedantic know-it-all who tries to defend North Korea from its own English translations — a unicorn is just as mythical as a unicorn-lion, after all — but I was curious enough to track down the original Korean version to see what word the Rodong’s translators derived the b-word from. The original version doesn’t translate to a single whole word, but uses the suffix “nyon.” This requires some explanation. The Korean language uses a complex system of honorifics, most often tacked onto nouns and verbs as suffixes, to connote a person’s age and social position. “Nyon” is a suffix of dishonor, used exclusively against women. It isn’t exactly profanity, but it’s a fighting word, and fairly described as sexist, especially when used against the president of a country.

Either way, if this is a “charm offensive,” it’s more the latter than the former. I wonder if any self-described feminist could still sympathize with such a regime. Oh, wait ….

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CHILD ENDANGERMENT: Christine Ahn has been blessed with an adorable little girl, but Ahn’s adorable little girl has not been blessed with a very sensible mother. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ahn informs us that despite her sister’s appeals to better judgment, rising tensions with South Korea and the United States, State Department warnings about the risk of “arbitrary arrest and detention,” and the existence of a U.S. Embassy web page warning Americans about the severe air quality risk in Beijing in the winter, she brought her two year old girl to Pyongyang, one of the world’s unhealthiest places, to use her as an accessory for her next political argument. Which, apparently, is that air pollution in China and bad state-run medical care in North Korea (remember, this was Pyongyang) are the fault of Yankee imperialists who blocked the offshore bank accounts of the DPRK Institute of Atomic Energy.

Ahn writes that her little girl got sick from the air pollution in Beijing and struggled to breathe the night after they arrived in Pyongyang. Ahn woke her minders, who rushed them both to a hospital, where the lights (naturally) went out. Ahn’s experience with North Korea’s medical system appears to have fallen short of Margaret Chan’s.

Ahn then writes of sitting in the darkness, crying about her little girl and also, about how the people of North Korea were suffering because, you know, America. She does not recall crying about millions of North Koreans who may have starved to death because of choices made by Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, the obscenity of spending $300 million on a ski resort and other amenities instead of hospitals (or back-up generators to power them), or upon reflection on her choice to bring her toddler to such a place. The most remarkable thing about this is that as her own child struggled to breathe in a dark hospital room, Ahn’s mind still wanders off to politics. In the end, she never even bothers to tell us if her little girl recovered.

Update: A reader points out that, buried in Ahn’s long-winded article, is the fact that her little girl recovered. That’s wonderful news. Let’s all hope for the day when more North Korean parents can experience the same sense of relief.

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FELIX ABT ACCUSES NORTH KOREA OF RUNNING GULAGS: Because I get occasional visits to this site from Pyongyang, I wish to denounce this capitalist war-monger for spreading vicious lies about the DPRK’s dignified socialist system. Also, if I get an extra meat ration for turning Felix in, can I claim it without going to North Korea?

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THE U.N. HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL VOTES to endorse the report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.

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SOMEHOW, I DON’T THINK THE CHICOMS are really all that agonized about it:

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Beijing is still struggling between two priorities in terms of its North Korea strategy — stability and denuclearization. “One is the maintenance of stability on its border,” he said during a conference call hosted by the Asia Society. “The other is ending North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons capability.” And China is confronted with the daunting task of reconciling what appear to be “two contradictory imperatives — stability and denuclearization.” [Yonhap]

He forgot the part about keeping Korea weak and divided, and maintaining North Korea as a strategic distraction for U.S. forces.

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GORDON CHANG in the World Affairs Journal:  “Replace Failed Diplomacy with Sanctions on North Korea.”  Chang aptly summarizes the policy vacuum the Obama Administration has left us by failing to articulate or execute a coherent North Korea policy that lays out a plausible path to a realization of our national interests. Gradual, incremental pressure isn’t going to get us there, because Pyongyang can always adapt to and circumvent incremental pressure.

(Separately, Keith Koffler argues that this President often fails to articulate coherent policies because he’s naive and just plain disinterested in foreign affairs. Similar suspicions have crossed my mind, too.)

On the other hand, I’m not opposed to diplomacy — even with North Korea — under the right circumstances. I’m just opposed to diplomacy before we accumulate enough leverage to negotiate from strength, and I’m opposed to throwing away that leverage before we achieve enough of our essential interests to ensure that North Korea has ceased to be a threat. Unlike our State Department, I can’t envision a North Korea that continues to be a threat to its own population that isn’t also a threat to us, and to our allies. Also unlike our State Department, I’d rather induce the collapse of North Korea than lift sanctions before we achieve our objectives.

Update: Ed Royce holds forth on North Korea, Iran, sanctions, and diplomacy.

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NORTH KOREA PERESTROIKA WATCH: In Pyongyang, the regime continues to enforce its previous order to turn in and exchange foreign currency. This is a uniquely North Korean solution to the gap between rich and poor, imposing a more equal distribution of misery.

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IN CHINA, A HIDDEN CAMERA CATCHES what it claims are North Korean officials partying with bar hostesses, although the video is too blurry for me to see any evidence that the customers are North Koreans.

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ACCORDING TO THIS SURVEY, far more South Koreans believe their news media are censored than citizens of any other nation surveyed, including China and Pakistan. Are South Koreans uniquely conspiratorial and distrustful, or are Chinese and Pakistanis just afraid to answer honestly?

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A REFUGEE DESCRIBES FUNERALS in North Korea. Many of the customs sound similar to those in South Korea, including staying up all night and drinking together, but the logistics are much more complicated in a place where it’s hard to get travel passes, transportation, and burial sites.

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I’VE LONG ADVOCATED MORE SUPPORT for certain rebel groups in Syria, but at this late stage, and given the extensive radicalization of the opposition, giving them man-portable surface-to-air missiles sounds like a very bad idea. Wouldn’t 40-  or 57-millimeter guns be a far safer, less terrorist-friendly alternative?

At Kaesong, “engagement” teaches S. Korean corporations the dying art of slavery

slavery n 1. (Law) the state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune; 2. the subjection of a person to another person, esp in being forced into work; 3. the condition of being subject to some influence or habit; 4. (Industrial Relations & HR Terms) work done in harsh conditions for low pay

A good test of whether any particular “engagement” program with North Korea has lived up to its founding promises is this simple question: “Who changed who?” In most cases, it’s the foreign investor or NGO that changed to conform to North Korea’s rules and ethics (a classic case in point: the Associated Press).

Engagement advocates cling to North Korea’s outdated self-characterization as socialist, ignoring its well-established reliance on predatory state capitalism. After all, if North Korea is socialist, one can always construct a self-serving argument that any form of trade, no matter how exploitative, is somehow contributing to reform. But at Kaesong, at least, experience proves something closer to the opposite of that.

A decade later, Kaesong has failed to induce reforms or reduce tensions.

Last month, an important paper by Marcus Noland added strong support to long-standing suspicions about the exploitative arrangements at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the flagship of the Sunshine Policy and the largest surviving “engagement” project.

To the extent the newspapers noticed it, they mostly noticed Noland’s most sensational conclusion — that each North Korean worker there nets as little as $2 a month, out of average of $130 in “wages” and “bonuses” for overtime. Noland isn’t pleased with the media focus on this point (for example), although I’d argue that it’s an important one that deserved even more attention and introspection than it got.

kaesong (1)

[image via The Atlantic]

What the Korean press largely missed, however, was Noland’s deeper conclusion that North Korea has negotiated its way to pan-opticon control over Kaesong’s work force, negating the very reformist forces that Kaesong’s promoters once promised.

Survey data on South Korean employers indicate that the North Korean government has in large part successfully circumscribed exposure of North Korean citizens both to South Koreans and to new, more market-oriented economic practices. Hiring is largely conducted via the North Korean government, which pre-screens workers (possibly on political criteria), sets wage rates administratively, demands payment in foreign currency, and takes a large cut.

South Korean managers typically do not interact directly with North Korean employees, but rather manage them through North Korean intermediaries who effectively represent state interests in monitoring and exercising control over workers. And even in firms that report direct supervision of workers, there is little statistical correlation with knowledge of working conditions or worker attitudes.

In a narrow economic sense, South Korean investment in North Korea may well be beneficial both for the firms and the workers involved, but there is no evidence of broader spillovers of the sort that proponents of engagement sometimes assert.

When Kim Dae Jung’s government first sold us the Sunshine Policy — and Kaesong, its centerpiece — it promised the world that Sunshine would, by easing North Korea’s hard currency shortages, help “create an environment in which North Korea can feel safe to open up and pursue reforms.” The North Koreans were willing to accept this arrangement because they wanted the money, and because they calculated that they could change South Korea more than South Korea could change them. They calculated that they could use Kaesong to extract increasingly exorbitant payments from South Korean investors, and ultimately from the South Korean taxpayers who subsidized them, while clamping down on any heresy by isolating and terrorizing Kaesong’s North Korean work force. They could also use Kaesong as a political lever against the South Korean government, knowing that left-of-center politicians would invariably pressure Seoul to bend to Pyongyang’s demands.

We’ve watched this experiment long enough to conclude, safely, that Kim Jong Il was right and Kim Dae Jung was wrong. Contrary to the promise that the Sunshine Policy would promote “reconciliation instead of confrontation, and cooperation instead of hostility,” North Korea is a greater threat to South Korea today that it was in 2002. It has attacked South Korea multiple times, advanced its WMD programs to an operational capability, and has never been more brazen about sharing its WMD technology with Iran and Syria. North Korea’s arbitrary taxes and its use of Kaesong as a hostage to its political moods have deterred most international investment. A recent U.N. report finding North Korea responsible for crimes against humanity will further deter investors who may fear adverse publicity.

Reports from last month contained mixed news for those investors. On one hand, Kaesong’s production levels had nearly recovered from a five-month shutdown by the North Koreans last year. On the other hand, North Korea has threatened this fragile recovery by demanding another hefty increase in the “wages” ostensibly paid to its North Korean workers, from $67 to $107 a month.

By now, it’s safe to say that Kaesong will never live up to its master plan, which once forecast that it would employ 150,000 North Koreans, without dramatic political change in Pyongyang. Kaesong’s remaining investors, most of them South Korean, still rely heavily on South Korean government subsidies.

Kaesong “wages” are confiscated through taxes and exchange rates.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry frequently asserts that Kaesong workers are paid a surprisingly high nominal wage, currently just over $67 a month. Few of the newspapers that pass that figure along to their readers ever bother to question it. In fact, only the North Koreans really know how much of “their” wages Kaesong workers are actually paid. Noland’s paper does much to reenforce those doubts. First, the regime takes a large cut off the top:

At the time of its closure in April 2013, the minimum wage at the KIC was $67.05 per month, and once all payments and bonuses were accounted for, the average wage was $130. Workers, however, were not receiving the full $130 per month; the North Korean government was thought to retain roughly 30 to 40 percent of this payment, ostensibly to cover social security payments, transportation, and other in-kind benefits. More importantly, while South Korean firms pay in US dollars, North Korea pays the workers in North Korean won converted at the wildly overvalued official exchange rate.

Evaluated at the more realistic black-market rate, North Korean workers may have been netting less than $2 per month (if the entire dollar amount were converted into won at the black market exchange rate). Alternatively, market prices for rice have been on the order of 4,000 to 5,000 (North Korean) won per kilo, suggesting that monthly after tax wages might purchase roughly 2 to 3 kilos of rice.3 These figures imply that the real wages of KIC workers are low. Nevertheless, while conditions in Kaesong may be exploitative, they probably are considerably better than those existing elsewhere in North Korea, and there appears to be no shortage of North Koreans willing to work on these terms.

What Noland can’t know, of course, is what these particular workers were doing before they were drafted into Kaesong. Presumably, they were from families with good political backgrounds, so they probably weren’t among North Korea’s poorest. For all we know, they were successful market traders who were forced to abandon more lucrative professions to enrich the state instead.

Next, Kaesong workers probably receive very little of what remains:

Given that wages are usually paid to the North Korean government, the firms hiring via the government were asked if they knew exactly how much money their workers were in turn receiving from the government. A majority of the employers refused to answer the question. Of those that did, their responses were split nearly evenly between those that said they knew (21 percent) and those that said they did not (18 percent). In other words, only one in five firms indicated that they knew how much their workers were actually paid. 

And also, 21 percent of those surveyed lied. At least 21%.

Remarkably, none of the firms that reported paying piecework rates indicated that they knew how much the workers were paid—they simply paid their North Korean counterparty and left it at that. However, when asked the follow-up question whether they believed that the government took a large amount of money that was supposed to go to their employees, a majority responded affirmatively (76 percent overall, 77 percent in the KIC, 71 percent outside the KIC). The implication is that those firms claiming to be paying piecework wages cannot know for sure if they actually are. 

But what about payment of the workers in rations, or access by the workers to alternative forms of exchange like ChocoPies? As it turns out, the North Koreans have made additional demands to suppress the ChocoPie trade, too:

[C]hoco-Pies, a South Korean snack similar to American Moon Pies, emerged as a kind of parallel currency in the city of Kaesong. Originally providing Choco-Pies to workers as a snack, South Korean firms, unable to vary wage rates or reward particularly productive workers, began using extra allocations of the snacks as a way to lure workers away from their competitors. (The cakes circulated as a kind of parallel currency in the environs of Kaesong, so that providing workers with extra cakes that could be sold outside the KIC effectively amounted to granting them a bonus.4) 

Like cigarettes in prison?

The North Korean government became sufficiently concerned over these developments that in November 2011, North Korean officials, the South Korean KIC management committee, and the employers agreed to rules to limit the distribution of the snacks. Choco-Pie rules were on the agenda when North and South Korea negotiated the reopening of KIC after its closure in 2013.

What you make of this depends on your perspective. I doubt that most North Koreans would find the existence of packaged snack cakes in South Korea to be particularly subversive, but I suppose the regime differs with me on that. The more important point is that, a decade into this experiment in arbeit-macht-frei, North Korea remains intolerant of even the smallest foreign heresy.

Most Kaesong workers are “managed” by North Korean security forces.

North Korea has also negotiated away most of the human contact between North and South Koreans. South Korean firms doing business in Kaesong do not supervise North Korean workers directly. Instead, the supervision is done by North Korean “intermediaries”:

Apparently supervision via North Korean intermediaries is a highly imperfect substitute for direct supervision. This may come from the fact that the North Korean intermediaries are not individuals who are assigned to Kaesong because of any managerial expertise, but who essentially play a political function; indeed, it is plausible that such intermediaries reduce the efficiency of Kaesong businesses, as has been reported anecdotally with respect to other foreign-invested businesses.

This isn’t really news. We’ve known since at least 2007 that the North Koreans had seized control of the management of the workers. In circumstances that are still unclear, in 2009, a South Korean worker was arrested after being accused of trying to induce a North Korean worker to defect. North Korean workers are reportedly under close supervision by the regime. Draw your own conclusions, but it’s reasonable to assume that these intermediaries are security forces officers (it would be naive to doubt it).

In spite of all this, Kaesong workers may still be the envy of their wretched countrymen, which is saying a lot. But if they had no choice in the matter of their assignments to work at Kaesong, where they earn a pittance for hard work and long hours, they are effectively slaves.

~  ~  ~

To summarize, the North Korean government prescreens and drafts Kaesong’s workers, sets wage rates arbitrarily, demands wage payments in foreign currency, taxes a high percentage of those wages and other payments off the top, steals most of what remains by converting it to worthless local currency and paying that to the workers, and denies the workers the right to organize or strike.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, needless to say, has never uttered a peep about any of this. And what of the South Korean government that once promised to make Kaesong an engine of change? Noland finds, “To date, there is no evidence that the South Korean government has undertaken any steps that would encourage or require its firms to abide by any standards whatsoever.” Remember, South Korea is supposed to be the “good,” “free” Korea.

The likelihood that Kaesong’s workers receive just a fraction of their nominal wages is an important ethical question. Noland discusses the limitations of international law in setting clear standards to address it, and advocates for a business code of ethics akin to the Sullivan Principles, which major investors once applied to apartheid-era South Africa. For that, I really suggest you read Noland’s own paper and discussion. But as much as the adoption of some ethical limits would be a welcome improvement, the problems with Kaesong are more than ethical, they are also legal. Setting up the legal discussions that will follow tomorrow is the principal reason why I wrote this post. (Its intentionally provocative title is another.)

I’ll discuss those legal issues in tomorrow’s post. The greatest of them — and the one that the Unification Ministry fears the most — is this: if the money isn’t going to the workers, where is it going?

Open Sources, March 27, 2014

~  1  ~

CONSEQUENCES: The State Department sends a strong hint that it’s mulling more sanctions on North Korea in response to the North’s recent missile tests, including two medium-range missiles fired toward Japan, but offered no details on the type of sanction or whether they would be unilateral or at the U.N. This separate report, however, says that our U.N. ambassador is talking with other members of the Security Council.

If State does press for U.N. sanctions, that would almost inevitably involve the U.S. in efforts to sanction North Korea (and refer its officials for prosecution) for its crimes against humanity. It would also mean, contra my speculation here, that no diplomatic deal is on the near horizon.

~  2  ~

DENNIS HALPIN CALLS CHINA OUT FOR HYPOCRISY on North Korean human rights:

If Mr. Xi is concerned over the sexual exploitation of women and children, he does not need to visit the new Comfort Women museum in Nanjing commemorating human rights atrocities from over seventy years ago. The tragedy of North Korean women being sexually trafficked in China is not history — it is happening today. And it is a situation, unlike Nanjing, where Mr. Xi could take immediate action.  The best way to pay homage to the Korean Comfort Women would be to assure that their North Korean sisters in China today are not sexually exploited.   

~  3  ~

TREASURY ISSUES ANOTHER ADVISORY about money laundering risks emanating from North Korea. These are a fairly regular occurrence now. They certainly pressure the regime’s finances, but they don’t cut them off, either.

~  4  ~

YESTERDAY WAS THE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY of the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a sneak attack the killed 46 South Korean sailors.

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the South Korean public reacted with confusion and denial, but much of that seems to have dissipated when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island eight months later. Yesterday, both of South Korea’s major political parties demanded a North Korean apology for the attack, which tells you at lot about where the consensus has landed.

~  5  ~

I WISH ADMIRAL AKBAR HAD BEEN IN THE ROOM when Park Geun-Hye was briefed on the idea of that anti-“slander” agreement with North Korea, because in retrospect, because it was pretty obvious that Park was about to be trapped by North Korea’s double standards of interpretation:

North Korea has made a blistering verbal attack on South Korean President Park Geun-hye, calling her a “faithful servant and stooge” of the U.S. and comparing her to a “blabbering” peasant woman. [....]

The North’s attack was in response to Park’s speech this week at a nuclear summit at The Hague, where she warned Pyongyang’s nuclear material could wind up in the hands of terrorists or spark a colossal nuclear accident.

A North Korean government spokesman called the speech “dumb,” saying Park should stop “rambling recklessly” if she wants improved relations. He also said the comments “violently trample” an agreement that the two Koreas to stop slandering each other. [Voice of America]

More here. Any agreement between a free society and a totalitarian society to control speech is necessarily to the disadvantage of the free society.

~  6  ~

NORTH KOREA, WHICH WAS REMOVED FROM THE LIST of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, has “threatened … to ‘deal merciless sledgehammer blows’ to South Korea for allegedly disseminating leaflets critical of” its regime. I suppose they’re referring to the leaflets that were actually disseminated for Park Sang-Hak and Fighters for a Free North Korea.

If North Korea is stretching to implicate South Korea for something South Korea didn’t actually do, it suggests that the entire agreement was created as a pretext for some planned provocation.    

~  7  ~

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN HAS RUN A SERIES of excellent reports on human rights in North Korea, in the wake of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report and in light of Japan’s co-leadership of the effort to get the Security Council to act on it.

The articles cover the vulnerability of North Korean refugee women to human traffickers, the ubiquity (and disintegration) of the state’s thought control, the plight of ethnic Koreans who moved from Japan to North Korea, and a report, in cooperation with the Dong-a Ilbo, offering more refugee testimonials about atrocities in the North. One of those testimonials really stuck with me:

A man in his 60s who was mobilized to demolish a camp for political prisoners said: “The bones of children were dug up from the ground. There were also tools designed for children, so it appears they were forced into labor.”

Could this have been Camp 22?

~  8  ~

I HAVE TO AGREE WITH THOSE who say this Kim Jong Un haircut story sounds like bullshit.

~  9  ~

I’M BEGINNING TO THINK THAT YONGSAN GARRISON is going to be there forever.

~  10  ~

EWW. Rimjingang looks at North Korea’s “artificial meat.”

~  11  ~

OF COURSE IT IS. In addition to those statues of Joshua Nkomo, North Korea is also building statues of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Recall that the U.N. POE report cast suspicion on those projects as schemes to conceal payment for weapons and other prohibited items.

~  12  ~

THE WONDERFUL ROBERT KAPLAN has written a very insightful piece in The Atlantic on the balance between isolationism (and its hidden costs) and interventionism (and its more obvious costs). I don’t want to discourage you from reading this in the least, because it’s well worth reading in full, but as is so often the case, Monty Python summarized the argument quite nicely, years ago. (This entry is dedicated to Bruce Klingner.)

~  13  ~

HOW CHINA CENSORS YOUR NEWS: By pressuring corporate leadership and shareholders of news organizations, which caused at least one news service, Bloomberg, to pull a major story.

After the veto: A Cambodian model for prosecuting Kim Jong Un

“At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’,” he said. “Well, now the international community does know… There will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know,” he said, at a news conference at UN headquarters in Geneva. “Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well this is a time for action.” – Hon. Michael Kirby

Every family has its own traditions; all parents have their own rites of passage. My son and I had one of those last week when we watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian together for the first time. With that memory fresh in my mind, I’m watching the extended procedural debate about U.N. resolutions to call for an end to atrocities that have gone on for years, and will almost certainly continue for years. We can already see this parliamentary debate descending into farce, because we know the odds that anyone will actually stand trial. As I watch it, I can’t help thinking of this scene:

Let’s assume, as we safely may, that China vetoes a resolution referring the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report to the International Criminal Court. Does that end all hope that North Korean leaders will face trial — even in absentia? Maybe not. Yonhap, quoting “a diplomatic source,” is reporting that the U.N. “may seek to establish a special court to try North Korean leaders responsible for atrocities against people there,” apparently to circumvent the threat of a Chinese veto. What would this tribunal look like? Reuters gives us a few hints:

The EU-Japan proposal also lays out a parallel path: the creation of a small U.N. human rights office dedicated to documenting crimes and raising awareness. This would probably be based in Seoul or Bangkok, collecting more evidence and testimony to widen the data base. [....]

South Korea’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se expressed support for strengthening U.N. mechanisms to “implement the commission’s recommendations”, but did not spell out how. [Reuters]

One additional advantage a Special Tribunal would have is that it would be more likely to gain the support of the Obama Administration, which has never signed the Rome Statute or agreed to submit to the ICC’s jurisdiction, and is reportedly uncomfortable with using the ICC as a vehicle for accountability. (It will not overcome the problem that the Obama Administration and the State Department don’t give a f**k about any of this.)

Is a special tribunal a plausible option? Special tribunals for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone were all established under the authority of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but as it turns out, there’s a long menu of other options for mixed tribunals that are merely established under agreements with the U.N.

One structural model for this could be the Special Tribunal for Cambodia, whose U.N. stamp of approval came from the General Assembly in 1999 because — sit down for this — China, the main sponsor of the Khmer Rouge and all its good works, threatened to veto a Security Council resolution establishing a tribunal to try its old comrades. The Cambodia tribunal was specifically designed “to circumvent a possible Chinese veto,” and it still managed to convict a few senior Khmer Rouge officials, eventually. It is a plausible alternative, to a point.

There are also some obstacles to this alternative. First, the Cambodia tribunal had to be established under the authority of … the government of Cambodia. That invariably introduced conflicts between the pursuit of justice and domestic political and pecuniary interests. The obvious analogue in the case of North Korea is South Korea, whose constitution claims jurisdiction over all of Korea. Given the number of hooks Pyongyang has put into domestic political and business interests in South Korea, however, it’s obvious that there would be strong opposition to this. Still, the words of South Korea’s Foreign Minister give some slender hope that his government might support it if pressured strongly enough:

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, in his speech at the U.N. human rights session early this month, proposed strengthening the role of the U.N. commission on North Korea’s human rights.

“For the international community, it is now time to begin the discussions on next steps to effectively follow up on the commission’s recommendations to improve the human rights situation in North Korea,” Yun said.

“In this vein, we strongly support the strengthening of the U.N. mechanisms to implement the commission’s recommendations. We also look forward to the leading role of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea,” Yun said. [Yonhap]

I wonder if Minister Yun ever contemplated that his own government might get stuck with leading that effort, rather than passively supporting a conception that would, despite Park Geun-Hye’s pro forma appeals, be stillborn into the U.N. bureaucracy. We may soon see just how sincere the South Korean really are, but I’m very skeptical of South Korea’s sincerity about most things. I’m guessing that the pressure would have to be overwhelming to force South Korea to host a tribunal. It’s also true that South Korea was initially lukewarm to the Commission of Inquiry, but was eventually pressured to support it. And now that the COI has issued a strong report, the big human rights groups that had made North Korea a third-tier issue for years are sufficiently interested in this issue today to bring it:

Campaigners want action. “The fact that these violations are now deemed to be crimes against humanity triggers the responsibility of the international community to respond,” Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch told Reuters. “It might be a long route but steps need to be taken.”

Roseann Rife of Amnesty International said in a statement: “This is the first real test of the international community to show it is serious about acting on the Commission of Inquiry’s chilling findings. There needs to a concerted effort to ratchet up the pressure on the North Korean government to address these systematic, widespread and grave human rights violations.” [Reuters]

One potential benefit of South Korea resisting pressure to establish a tribunal would be to expose that, for all of South Korea’s posturing about being our “blood ally” and a bulwark of democracy, it’s really buying Pyongyang off and propping up Kim Jong Un’s regime though projects like the heavily subsidized Kaesong Industrial Park. Because U.S. taxpayers subsidize so much of South Korea’s own defense, this amounts to indirect U.S. taxpayer support for Kim Jong Un’s regime. That revelation would at least help concentrate minds on this side of the Pacific.

In the short term, recalcitrance by the South Korean government could also expose a growing ideological gap between the Korean government and more conservative Korean-American voters, who are emerging as a domestic political force here in support of isolating North Korea financially.

This isn’t the only problem with the Cambodia model. The Cambodia tribunal turned out to be a procedural wreck, mostly because of personalities, domestic politics, and Cambodia’s legal environment. South Korea’s legal system is no paragon of due process, either, at least judging by my most recent experience with it, in 2002. Courts routinely admitted hearsay statements, legal representation was anemic, the rights to confrontation and cross-examination were virtually non-existent, witnesses were often intimidated by government investigators, and judges did not interpret the law and the evidence with rigor. If this leads to necessary reforms in the South Korean judicial system, the biggest winners would be the people of South Korea.

Finally, there’s the problem that eclipses all others — you can’t hold Kim Jong Un and his minions accountable if you can’t arrest them, although in absentia proceedings could draw significant publicity and effectively isolate North Korea’s worst abusers. The only events likely to cause a defendant to actually face justice would be events that pretermit due process in favor of revolutionary justice. But I can imagine greater injustices than that, including the status quo.

Michael Kirby believes that the pressure will eventually prevail.

But Michael Kirby, chief author of the report, said he was convinced North Korea’s leadership would eventually face the ICC for crimes documented in the commission’s archives, which hold the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses.

“I have lived long enough to see things that looked impossible come to full fruit,” Kirby said in a news conference.”The independence of East Timor, the independence of the Baltic states and other steps following the fall of the Berlin Wall are all indications that things can happen that don’t look certain now. They won’t meet media deadlines but they will occur.” [....]

“Contending with the scourges of Nazism, apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike,” he said. “It is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” [Joongang Ilbo]

This is quixotic, Sisyphean, and glorious. It convinces me that a tribunal is worth pursuing, if only in tandem with other alternatives. But if the COE report was the U.N.’s best moment since 1950, it’s soon going to lay bare the sunken footings of the U.N.’s utopian vision. When one despotic oligarchy stymies the U.N. from carrying out the purposes of its charter to shield its hegemony over another despotic oligarchy, the U.N. becomes irrelevant. Fine, then. Block duly checked. The civilized and accountable governments of the world could meet in Seoul, Bangkok, Prague, Taipei, or Gaborone (your choice) to unite around the economic isolation of North Korea’s regime, and the sanctioning of its foreign (read: Chinese) enablers into extinction.

So often, our setbacks are opportunities to adapt. We may have to adapt to this one by gradually rebuilding our international institutions around ad hoc international organizations and coalitions outside the U.N. framework, taking greater care this time to exclude all who mean to frustrate the common purpose.

Open Sources, March 20, 2014

~  1  ~

SO U.S. NAVY SEALS HAVE BOARDED that North Korean-flagged tanker in Libya, and we may soon find out if the ship was connected to North Korea after all, Pyongyang’s denials notwithstanding. If North Korea was up to something fishy, disavowing it wasn’t a smart move. That gave us grounds to call the vessel stateless and board it.

Update: Marcus Noland has a possible explanation, but my intuition says this isn’t the whole story.

~  2  ~

IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ a Chinese translation or a Korean mistranslation of our New York Times piece, have at it. The Korean-language piece incorrectly states that in 2012, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its nuclear and missile programs. That’s actually what it spent on missile programs alone, according to South Korean intelligence sources.

~  3  ~

CNN HAS A VIDEO INTERVIEW of Ahn Myong Chol describing the deaths of five children who were attacked by dogs in a prison camp where he was a guard. There are also a few snippets of clandestine video of the camps I hadn’t seen before.

~  4  ~

DID YOU KNOW THAT South Korea appoints shadow governors of North Korean provinces? Neither did I.

~  5  ~

THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST calls for China to “reign in” North Korea. The call isn’t prompted by North Korea’s crimes against humanity, but by shelling that crossed the path of a Chinese airliner. Instead, China calls for “all relevant parties will do more that is conducive to peace and stability” after China’s puppet fires off a couple dozen rockets that appear to be based on a Chinese design.

What would actually be conductive to peace and stability would be for China to stop proliferating weapons technology to North Korea, and to cut off Pyongyang’s funds until it disarms.

~  6  ~

THE LEGACY OF NORTH KOREA’S CURRENCY “REFORM” is that North Koreans have stopped accepting the North Korean won:

According to internal North Korean sources, in recent times transactions have started to take place entirely in Chinese Yuan (RMB). When 100 Yuan is presented in payment, the transaction is computed at the daily black market exchange rate and change is then provided in 10 and 1 Yuan bills. This is a new development; previously, it was the absence of small denomination bills and coins that precluded completing transactions in hard currency.

The dollar is also widely circulated. But other than making it harder for Pyongyang to confiscate wealth from the people, I’m not sure what the impact of this will be.

~  7  ~

ENTERPRISING NORTH KOREANS have gone into the inter-city bus business, something that’s only possible because the owners and passengers pay hefty bribes to bypass checkpoints and travel pass regulations.

A source from North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on the 11th, “Trains only run about once a week, and you’d be a fool if you believed that they would run on time. Demand has risen thanks to this state of affairs, so people are making good money from running servi-cha.”

“If you want to ride a servi-cha you can’t use Chosun currency, you have to use Chinese or American money,” the source went on to claim. “You can get anywhere in the country that you want for 200 Yuan.”

The source said that people in Hyesan opt to travel by servi-cha in part because the journey can take up to a week by train but only takes a day by servi-cha. The route from Pyongsung to Chongjin costs 100 Yuan, and a similar amount is required for the trip from the North Hamkyung Province county of Kilju to the border near Hyesan. 

If this experiment prospers, it will further erode the regime’s control over the movement of people, information, and goods from region to region, city to city. As always, these roots of change grow from the bottom up, and have to push their way through a stifling pavement of oppression.

~  8  ~

THIS IS WHY I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS about those so-called family reunions:  “North Korea’s pre-eminent mathematician Cho Ju-kyong reportedly committed suicide a decade ago after severe criticism from authorities for weeping in front of his long-lost mother during a reunion of families separated by the Korean War.” (Hat tip to a reader.)

~  9  ~

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R, FL) has called for more sanctions on both Cuba and North Korea over the Chong Chon Gang seizure. And South Korea answers North Korean fireworks by threatening to call for more U.N. sanctions, although it sounds like an empty threat to me.

~  10  ~

SOME KOREAN LANGUAGE NEWS COVERAGE about H.R. 1771, from Radio Free Asia, the Dongpo News, and the Overseas Koreans Times, along with some English language coverage in the Christian Post.

~  11  ~

I HAVE PREVIOUSLY DESCRIBED KIM JONG UN’S North Korea as functionally fascist, and that view gains some support here, in the pages of Foreign Policy (hat tip: Marcus Noland).

~  12  ~

THIS MUST BE THE MOST INTERESTING AND ORIGINAL OP-ED about North Korea I’ve read (excluding those I’ve helped write) in a very long time — James Romm, a professor of Classics at Bard College, compares Kim Jong Un to Nero in the pages of the L.A. Times. I don’t suppose the analogy can have that much predictive value in an age of global finance, when mass media penetrate to the world’s darkest places eventually, but the psychologies of the two rulers seem remarkably similar. (Hat tip: Sung-Yoon Lee)

~  13  ~

PEGGY NOONAN: “Not being George W. Bush is not a foreign policy. Not invading countries is not a foreign policy. Wishing to demonstrate your sophistication by announcing you are unencumbered by the false historical narratives of the past is not a foreign policy. Assuming the world will be nice if we’re not militarist is not a foreign policy. What is our foreign policy? Disliking global warming?

Yes, the President’s foreign policy has seemed particularly inattentive and passive recently. I’ve often expressed my appreciation that at least President Obama hasn’t repeated the errors of his predecessors to make bad deals with North Korea out of a blind urge to “do something,” but doing nothing isn’t acceptable when North Korea may already have a nuclear weapon and the effective means to deliver it.

Open Sources, March 12, 2014

~  1  ~

I’LL HAVE MUCH MORE TO SAY ABOUT THE U.N. PANEL OF EXPERTS REPORT later this week as I read through it during my spare time, but I can’t resist telling you that there is such a thing as “The Gorgeous Bank of North Korea.”

~  2  ~

MICHAEL KIRBY ANSWERS HIS CRITICS on the left, thus illustrating the widening difference between “liberal” and “progressive.” I miss liberals. I didn’t always agree with them, but I almost always found them nice to have around.

~  3  ~

THERE IS STILL A DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER Kim Jong Un is really in charge, apparently. New Focus says Kim Jong Un is just a puppet of the Organization and Guidance Department, which is effectively a military junta. The Daily NK rounds up a variety of other views, including one that holds that Jong Un is “smarter than his father.” Neither view is persuasive to me.

~  4  ~

A CHINESE “LEGISLATOR” IS UNHAPPY that North Korean artillery shells crossed the path of a Chinese airliner. For those who may be wondering, “Chinese legislator” is an oxymoron, sort of like “North Korean election,” or for that matter, “Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.”

~  5  ~

HOW NORTH KOREANS SURVIVE WITHOUT ELECTRICITY: As is so often the case, corruption plays a big role.

~  6  ~

THE CENTER FOR SECURITY POLICY interviews North Korea expert Bruce Bechtol. (They refer to him as a “North Korean expert,” but he doesn’t look very North Korean to me.)

~  7  ~

THE LIBYAN NAVY has surrounded that North Korean tanker, now loaded with oil and sitting in a “waiting area” at the edge of the port.

~  8  ~

THE CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN GROUP Breakpoint has called on its members to call their Senators and Representatives, to support H.R. 1771, which is at or beyond its now-or-never point to pass the Congress in an election year.

~  9  ~

DENNIS RODMAN OFFERS A tearful apology and a promise never to return to North Korea, sort of: “If you don’t want me to go back there ever again, I won’t go back.” Maybe we should have a referendum.