Why Moon Jae-In can’t make the sun shine again

Given the background of Moon Jae-In and some of his closest confidants, the question that has nagged at me is whether Moon is (1) a closet hard-left ideologue who has managed to let everyone around him say and do the extreme things he avoids saying and doing himself; (2) just another oleaginous opportunist who paddled his canoe to the swifter currents on the left side of the stream; or (3) a hopelessly naive squish who thinks he can simultaneously charm, tame, and please his hard-left base, moderate voters, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-Un, and who is consequently fated to end as tragically as (if less horribly or bravely than) Andres Nin.

Whatever theory comes closest to the truth, it’s apparent that Moon is no fool and has enough political sense to know his limitations. Evidence of those limitations comes in the form of new polling data from the Asan Institute. Generally, South Koreans —

– dislike the United States much less than they dislike their neighbors (I’m suspicious of Asan’s use of an approval index instead of a straight percentage of favorables). They dislike North Korea the most intensely. The biggest shift is that they now dislike China as much as they dislike Japan. That’s a fairly stunning shift, and it has been persistent since China began sanctioning the wrong Korea.

– favor the U.S. over China as their “preferred partner” by an overwhelming margin of 67 to 22, a gap that has widened by 18 percentage points in the last year after having steadily narrowed between 2014 and 2016. We can guess that China’s sanctions against South Korea, and perhaps its failure to reign in North Korea, have caused immense damage to its favorability on the Korean street. (I’ve long felt that a nationalist message with distinctly anti-China overtones has potentially high appeal in both Koreas, and elsewhere in Asia. These numbers may support that supposition.)

– oddly, hold the most favorable views of Xi Jinping of any neighboring leader. Given the other findings in the survey, it sounds like South Koreans respect Xi more than they like him. Their views of Trump recovered considerably after his reassuring phone call to Park Geun-Hye last November, although favorable views of Trump remain far lower than their favorable views of the United States. They hold Kim Jong-Un in the lowest esteem, by far.

– favor the deployment of THAAD by 55 percent, compared to just 37 percent who disapprove. This, despite Trump’s ham-handed stumbles, demanding that South Korea pay for it despite an agreement to the contrary, just before South Korea’s election. Most South Koreans, however, believe the National Assembly should ratify the THAAD deployment, which almost certainly means gridlock and indefinite delay.

– disfavor reopening Kaesong by a margin of 50 to 46, and disfavor resuming humanitarian aid by an overwhelming 72 to 26, absent a change in North Korea’s behavior (personally, I’d be much more receptive to resuming humanitarian aid that reaches the poor than resuming Kaesong, which is a wage-theft scam to fund Bureau 39).

The other interesting finding is that South Koreans in their 20s are much more conservative on national security issues than those in their 30s and 40s. That tells us that if these young voters’ views have been shaped by recent experiences, and if they continue to hew conservative as they age, the U.S.-Korea alliance may have a stronger demographic future than I’d feared.

Overall, the numbers suggest, first, that as I suspected, Moon Jae-In has no mandate to revive the Sunshine Policy; second, that they expect Moon to maintain a strong alliance with the United States; and third, that they hold extremely dim views of North Korea and His Porcine Majesty. That explains why Moon was so eager to avoid a fight with Trump during his visit to Washington. He knows very well that security issues are a vulnerability, and that by appearing to put distance between himself and Washington, he stands to lose much of his currently stratospheric approval rating, which is certain to decline as his honeymoon wears off and the media stop covering him like KCNA covers Kim Jong-Un. That is to say, if Moon Jae-In was on his best behavior, it may be because, like any good politician, he knows how to read a poll.

For the last week, I’ve been picking away at a still-unfinished post, commute by commute, about Pyongyang’s rejection of Moon’s offers of “engagement,” and demands for supplication instead. Whatever the true feelings of Moon and his inner circle about North Korea, then, a return to Sunshine faces three obstacles that seem insurmountable for now: first, of course, Pyongyang itself; second, U.S. opposition to any engagement that would undermine “maximum pressure;” and third, the South Korean people themselves. That is to say, Moon is starting his term (as did Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-Hye) by offering Pyongyang conditional engagement, only to find that Pyongyang isn’t interested in anything conditional.

If Moon is an intelligent politician — and I suppose he is that, if nothing else — he’ll decide to emphasize other parts of his agenda instead: breaking up the chaebol, cracking down on public corruption, putting limits on working hours and making other improvements to the rights of workers and consumers, and giving Korea a better-functioning welfare state. If Moon makes progress on these initiatives and supports our North Korea policy until such time Pyongyang denuclearizes (unlikely) or overthrows its king (more likely), we should support him. If he actively undermines our North Korea policy, a few well-timed and carefully written tweets (that don’t look carefully written) could damage his party in the next round of National Assembly elections.

If Moon really wants to really make me cheer, he’ll reform the Korean legal system to give defendants a right to counsel that’s more than just pro-forma, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront one’s accusers, robust discovery rights, a hearsay rule, and other procedural protections to ensure that people can get fair trials. Also, truth should be a defense in libel suits. But by now, I’m asking too much.

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North Korea policy in the South Korean election: what (little) the data tell us

What exit polling data I do have come to us from the Asan Institute. And while Asan’s analysis contains much interesting information that political types would call “internals,” it doesn’t tell us all that much about voters’ attitudes about North Korea policy. The first thing it tells us is that North Korea didn’t really weigh much on the minds of voters at all, compared to economic issues.

I wonder whether you’d see more concern among Americans about the North Korean threat if you took a poll here. South Koreans have become practiced and skilled at ignoring the North Korea problem over the years.

Our only “rare glimpse” of voter opinion on security issues comes in this surprising finding that almost by 60-40, the voters still want THAAD. That’s a surprising result given Donald Trump’s ham-handed demands that South Korea pay for it on the eve of the election. Frankly, I’d have expected something closer to the opposite result. That suggests that any plans Moon has to pass legislation in the National Assembly reversing the deployment of the system (which is now operational) could run into trouble.

Another glimpse comes from recent data, which I discussed here, showing that Xi Jinping’s unilateral sanctions against South Korea have caused a rise in anti-China sentiment, while pro-U.S. sentiment is high, and pro-North Korea sentiment isn’t. The political environment in South Korea is nothing like 2002, although I suppose that most South Koreans would probably favor some form of engagement and oppose confrontational policies in the abstract. I’m sure the administration’s war talk makes them nervous (me too).

To delve deeper into South Koreans’ views, I had to go back to 2015, because the 2016 version of this poll wouldn’t download. That poll was taken after Park’s handling the 2015 land mine incident, but before Park closed Kaesong (at least permanently). At first glance, this graph suggests that the softer line wins plurality support. But if one assumes that voters perceived Park’s policy as hard-line, and if you combine the status quo and pro-hard-line figures, you see that at that time, a majority of South Koreans who had an opinion wanted a North Korea policy that was as tough or tougher than Park’s.

Indeed, as I’ve noted before, Park’s North Korea policy was about the only thing voters liked about her. I’d say that goes for me, too (always has) although unlike most South Koreans, I don’t have to work Saturdays, stay out late drinking with my boss, or watch him promote his incompetent college classmates ahead of me. Not surprisingly, then, I differ from most South Koreans on which issue that concerns me.

The data mostly support what I said yesterday: despite voters’ fatigue with the political right, and their desire to punish it for Park Geun-hye’s sins, they are uneasy about the security situation and wary of a lowering their guard. Moon hedged carefully on THAAD, and he’s begun to hedge on Kaesong, too. He’s a smart enough politician to continue to hedge if he senses that he can’t push harder for policies he really prefers without losing political support. What Moon and those around him probably do prefer is where things take an alarming turn, but I’ll have to leave that topic for another day.

If any readers have newer or better polling data to add to this mix, kindly drop a link in the comments. (Note: Comments are moderated, so it might take a few hours until I have a chance to approve them. Please be patient. Comments here have been of very good quality lately; thanks for submitting them.)

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No, Moon Jae-In’s election probably doesn’t mean Sunshine 2.0

I’ll have to keep this post short because of time constraints, but my interest in South Korea’s election is mostly related to how Seoul’s policies toward North Korea will shift. I’ll refer you to this post and this one on why it’s likely to change less than John Delury might like, this piece in NK News where I offer some thoughts, and this excellent post by Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston. Much will depend on how hard President Trump pushes back. Maybe Moon will completely win Trump over in their first call, but I’m more inclined to believe that it will turn into a difficult cost-sharing negotiation (which Moon can use to his political advantage).

If Trump is skillful in his handling of Moon, however, he can exploit Moon’s political and legal weaknesses to prevent him from catapulting money over the DMZ. For one thing, Trump has U.N. sanctions on his side. For another, North Korea policy wasn’t the main reason people voted for Moon, and compared to past South Korean presidents, Moon’s win was hardly commanding. If you eliminate candidates who received less than 1 percent of the vote, in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung won 40.3 percent in a three-way race; in 2002, Roh Moo Hyun, won 48.9 percent in a three-way race; in 2007, Lee Myung Bak won 48.7 percent in a five-way race; in 2012, Park Geun-hye won 51.5 percent in a two-way race; and this year, Moon won 41.1 percent in a five-way race.

It’s worth asking why Moon actually performed worse in terms of percentage of the vote this year despite his name recognition, the advantage of an anti-Park backlash, and a fractious (and frankly, pathetic) field of opponents on the right. Because it was a five-way race, of course! But why was this a five-way race at all? The right had as weak a field as Moon himself could have conjured, and Moon has run against Ahn Cheol-soo before and made quick work of him. In 2012, Ahn’s support collapsed and his supporters coalesced behind Moon. This time, Moon couldn’t close that deal. Surely Moon would have preferred that outcome, and surely he still does, given that he only controls 120 (not 119) seats in the National Assembly now. He will need 151 votes to legislate his policies on THAAD, Kaesong, other elements of his agenda. Give him the Justice Party’s 6 votes. He still needs most of the People’s Party votes to pass legislation, and even then, don’t forget that Moon’s own party was able to delay passage of a North Korea human rights law for more than a decade. Can he get those votes? Probably so on less controversial issues, and hopefully so on needed reforms to make South Korea a fairer, safer society with a better quality of life, and a better work-life balance.

On the specific issue of resuming Sunshine, however, I see little evidence of a mandate. Of course, past vote totals are hardly predictive of the impact of past presidents on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea — one could argue that there is almost an inverse relationship. What does seem to be predictive of South Korea’s policy is the mood of the times, and the best data I have suggests that that mood has shifted strongly toward the center since 2002. Each nuke or missile test will weaken Moon’s hand in capitalizing Pyongyang. How Trump deals with Moon, what Kim Jong-un does next, and the results of South Korea’s next by-elections will give us a better sense of whether the voters want Moon to have a mandate or checks on his power. (Who knows when those will be?)

The immediate impact of Moon’s election is that the herculean efforts of Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to secure other nations’ compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea will end. Over to you, Secretary Tillerson. The question that weighs on me more is whether Moon will listen to the counsel of his most extreme advisors, who might endanger the rights of North Korean refugees in South Korea.

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Our grand plans to engage North Korea must learn from their failures and evolve with the evidence

One of my cruel habits lately has been to ask the holdouts who still advocate the economic, cultural, and scientific “engagement” of Pyongyang to name a single significant, positive outcome their policies have purchased at the cost of $8 billion or more, over 20-odd years, as thousands of North Koreans died beyond our view and our earshot. I’ve yet to receive a non-sarcastic answer to that question. Yesterday, I salted this wound by pointing out that the largest remaining engagement experiment, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has become a pool for hostages for Kim Jong-un, exactly as the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang recently was, and exactly as the Kaesong Industrial Complex will be if Moon Jae-in is foolish enough to reopen it — and if we’re foolish enough to let him draw us into this potential flashpoint for conflict (think Desert One with nukes).

It is now beyond serious debate that the Sunshine Policy (and every rebranded variation of it) has failed, and that it will never succeed as long as Kim Jong-un weighs down a throne in Pyongyang. Engagers will answer that it is essential to keep open lines of communication to prevent war. Fine, but such communications are best left to diplomats who can meet their North Korean counterparts in safe, neutral locations, not to anyone addlebrained enough to visit or take up residence in North Korea in times like these.

Engagers will also argue that North Korea will never change if North Koreans aren’t exposed to better ideas and ways of life. But if you were to interrogate the engagers and me, you’d find that I believe this point more strongly than the engagers themselves do. We differ in their belief, and my skepticism, that Pyongyang-approved engagement programs have the potential to catalyze positive change from the top down. Rather, it’s the smuggling and broadcasting of media that Pyongyang is waging an unrelenting war to suppress that have the proven potential to change North Korea from the bottom up, and for the better. Remember 2012, when the engagers figured Kim Jong-un for a Swiss-educated reformer? Instead, his signature domestic policy has been a counterinsurgency campaign — a violent war by his regime against an unorganized popular uprising. Except that in this war, only one side is organized and armed, and consequently, the other side has done all of the dying.

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The evidence that has accumulated over 20 years yields no basis — none — to believe that we will see a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un if we just throw enough money at him. Indeed, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is far worse than its mere failure to succeed. It has also set back the cause of reform, opening, and change by financing the machinery of oppression and terror (of both the domestic and foreign varieties) that guards the status quo.

Several years ago, for example, I linked to reports that the dreaded State Security Department finances its salaries and expenses through a China-based trading company. Since then, the Treasury Department has designated three North Korean trading companies that sell coal and iron ore — Daewon Industries, which supports the Munitions Industry Department; the Kangbong Trading Corporation, which supports North Korea’s military; and Paeksol Trading Corporation, which supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency that carries out most of North Korea’s terrorist and cyber attacks. To these, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon adds another example, involved in financing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

From this evidence, it follows that we would do more to disarm and transform North Korea by targeting those companies with sanctions and bankrupting them, and by forcing the soldiers and cadres that rely on their revenue to turn to corruption, than by financing them. If we’re serious about bringing change to North Korea, our sanctions policy should preferentially target North Korea’s security forces and border guards as much as it targets its proliferation network. That’s the part of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration gets.

The even greater potential source of pressure, which the Trump administration may or may not understand, is to employ an engagement strategy that seeks to reach the North Korea people directly, using technology to bypass Pyongyang’s minders and censors. The people of North Korea are looking for that bypass from within:

Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphone, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.” [Daily NK]

An engagement strategy that goes directly to the North Korean people has far more potential to achieve cultural, social, and political change than another rebranded variation of Sunshine. It would follow the plan I’ve written about at length and described as “guerrilla engagement” — one that directly engages North Korea’s discontented by harnessing the jangmadang economy and North Koreans’ hunger for information about the outside world. It would use entertainment and practical information (weather and market reports) as gateway drugs for those who might later opt to listen to overtly religious and political content. An essential reagent for the second phase of that strategy will be deploying the technology that not only allows North Koreans to hear our messages, but also to communicate and organize with each other. In time, it would organize and coalesce their grievances into a broad-based popular resistance movement with the capacity to broadcast photographs and video of the regime’s human rights abuses, stage strikes, deny the regime control of the market economy, and further strain the regime’s finances.

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True, the election of Moon Jae-in threatens to reanimate the old, failed approach to engagement, though without much of a popular mandate. In due course, a revival of Sunshine will collapse under the weight of Kim Jong-un’s predatory and impulsive nature, just as Kim Jong-Il’s conduct eventually discredited Roh Moo-hyun’s policy. Until then, neutralizing South Korean opposition to “maximum pressure” will require us to bargain harder with Seoul that George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did. Moon’s election may require us to find information strategies that circumvent his obstructionism by relying on our own technological innovation, and perhaps by shifting toward a closer operational partnership with Japan.

We tend to forget that until just over a year ago, engagement and sanctions worked at cross purposes — effectively, sanctions and subsidies were mutually canceling. But consider the potential of those two strategies if we ever coordinated them. It is one thing to bankrupt the border guards, but entirely another to do so while helping smugglers bribe or evade them. It is one thing to bankrupt the security forces, but entirely another to do so while helping clandestine journalists show their abuses to the world. It is one thing to bankrupt the military’s commissary system, but entirely another to do so while empowering clandestine humanitarian NGOs to minister to, and provide for the material needs of, demoralized, hungry, and mistreated soldiers. If the Sunshine experiment was allowed so many years to double and triple down on failure, might we at least experiment with an engagement strategy designed to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power, gradually enough so that Kim Jong-un never faces the dangerous use-it-or-lose-it proposition that our loose talk of “decapitation” raises?

Engagers will say this means regime change, and it’s certainly some kind of change, but a kind that looks less like Iraq than the unkept promises of glasnost and perestroika we heard from the engagers themselves 20 years ago. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I pointed out in the pages of Foreign Affairs recently:

The failure of engagement was just as inevitable as the failure of the Agreed Framework. Its premise—that capitalism would spur liberalism in a despotic state—was flawed. After all, over the past two decades, both China and Russia have cracked down on domestic dissent and threatened the United States and its allies abroad, even as they have cautiously welcomed in capitalism. In 2003, even as it cashed Seoul’s checks, Pyongyang warned party officials in the state newspaper that “it is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly.” For the regime, engagement was a “silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination.” Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Il never opened up North Korea. The political change that engagement advocates promised was exactly what he feared the most.

That is to say, the Sunshine Policy could never work because it was a strategy for regime change that depended on the very people with the most to lose if it succeeded — the ruling class in Pyongyang. (Either that, or Sunshine was really a marketing strategy for overcoming U.S. objections to subsidizing Pyongyang and canceling out the effect of sanctions by clothing it as regime change. In which case, it succeeded brilliantly.)

Taking the aims of Sunshine at face value, however, its manifest failure calls for a complete rethinking. Engagement must appeal, first, to the people who seek change, rather than those who resist it. The information component of this strategy must be tailored to different constituencies — soldiers, the elites, and of course, the poor who are trapped at the bottom of the songbun scale. By engaging the North Korean people directly, we can help expand the private farming and trading that fill the markets. We can broaden the cracks in Kim Jong-un’s blockade to expand the freedom of information that really can bring social and political change. We can slow the pace of proliferation and relax the grip of the state’s oppression on the people. We can hasten the erosion of belief in Kim Jong-un’s personality cult, promote peace, and help prevent (or shorten) a war.

We will also need a separate strategy to engage the elites in Pyongyang, to persuade them not to resist change, to abstain from crimes against humanity, and to refuse (as much as they are able) to attack civilian targets in South Korea. This must be an appeal to the interests of the men with the guns. We should seek to undermine their confidence in Kim Jong-un and convince them that they have a better and safer future in a reunified Korea. That may require the difficult choice to offer some form of clemency to those who have taken innocent life, but only if they save innocent North or South Korean lives at critical moments. We must speak to them with candor about the recent purges in Pyongyang — how the status quo eventually means physical obliteration for them and a slow death in the prison camps for their families. If we employ these strategies in tandem, the elites will realize that time is not on their side, and that their reward for preserving Kim Jong-un’s reign will be physical extinction for themselves, a bleak future for their families, and a legacy on the ash-heap of history.

No pressure can ever be “maximum” if it excludes this reinvented, disruptive new approach to engagement.

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The PUST hostage crisis is a fitting symbol of the futility of engaging Pyongyang

Just one week after I predicted that the misbegotten experiment known as the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology would soon be at the center of a hostage crisis, the inevitable has happened.

North Korean state media reports the country has detained a U.S. citizen — the fourth U.S. citizen being held there amid rising tensions between the two countries. The official Korean Central News Agency identifies the man detained Saturday as Kim Hak Song, an employee of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

He was detained by North Korea “on suspension of his hostile acts against it,” according to the news agency, and “a relevant institution is now conducting detailed investigation into his crimes.” [….]

Kim Hak Song is the second PUST staffer detained within a month. As NPR’s Lauren Frayer reports from Seoul, the first, named Kim Sang Duk, “was arrested late last month while trying to leave North Korea, and accused of trying to overthrow the government in Pyongyang. North Korean media haven’t said whether the two men knew each other.”

The other two detained U.S. citizens “are already serving prison terms, with hard labor, for alleged ‘anti-state acts’ and ‘espionage,'” Lauren adds. [NPR, Merrit Kennedy]

NBC, drawing a conclusion that’s increasingly difficult to avoid, calls the latest arrests “hostage diplomacy.” President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Under his successor, Barack Obama, the State Department’s official position was that North Korea has not sponsored acts of terrorism since 1987. Discuss among yourselves.

Meanwhile, this event is opening a contrast between the Trump administration’s rhetoric and its policy — after all, rhetoric is what you say (and let’s give Rex Tillerson credit for saying the right things); policy is what you actually do. For all of Donald Trump’s talk of “maximum pressure,” there still isn’t really a Trump administration North Korea policy worth speaking of. Below the secretarial level, most of the second-level appointments of the officials who turn the dials and pull the levers of policy still haven’t been made. More than 100 days into this administration, the administration has yet to take simple, discretionary executive actions like re-adding North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, issuing sanctions designations that go beyond the slow pace of the Obama administration, or suspending PUST’s Commerce and Treasury Department licenses as U.N. resolutions require us to do, preferably before the next class of hackers graduates.

Still, it’s unlikely that revoking those licenses would have prevented this crisis or its likely growth over the coming weeks as Pyongyang takes more PUST faculty members hostage. After all, anyone who still believes that economic, cultural, or scientific engagement can change Pyongyang for the better would probably still defy travel warnings, common sense, and perhaps even the law to stay in Pyongyang anyway. One could hardly invent a better demonstration of how “engagement” has failed to change Pyongyang than a hostage crisis at PUST, the largest remaining experiment in the Sunshine Policy, but anyone who was open to drawing obvious conclusions about the potential of that policy from the abundant evidence probably did so years ago — after the killing of Park Wang-ja at Kumgang, the first Kaesong shutdown, the second Kaesong shutdown, the Cheonan attack, the Yeonpyeong attack, any of the last five nuke tests, the embarrassing flops of the AP’s Pyongyang bureau and Koryolink, the failure of 20 years of international aid to end North Korea’s food crisis, or the murder of Kim Jong-nam.

The human mind arrives at its most stubborn beliefs for reasons that transcend logic, reason, and evidence. It is often the highly educated and intelligent who are, perhaps out of intellectual arrogance, the last to abandon beliefs built on a foundation of emotions. For 30 years after the end of World War II, Japanese soldiers (the last of them an intelligence officer, Lt. Hiroo Onoda) were still emerging from their jungle hideouts on islands all over the South Pacific, having refused until then to believe that the war was over. In certain parts of Washington, one still encounters equally stubborn believers in the idea that there is a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un beneath a disposition that became obvious to the rest of us years ago. Increasingly, I find myself tempted to grab these North Korea holdouts by their shoulders, shake them vigorously, and shout, “Come out of the jungle, Lieutenant Onoda! The war has been over for 20 years!”

It is in this historical and evidentiary setting that Moon Jae-In, who commands the largest cadre of these holdouts, will begin his minority presidency of another (de facto) island in the Pacific this week — bereft of a strong popular mandate, a plausible approach to North Korea, or the support of his most important ally. One hopes that it will take less time for President Moon than Lt. Onoda to draw the obvious conclusions, but if you’ve explored his background, don’t count on it. In which case, Mr. Moon’s party could face some extinction-level losses in the National Assembly in the coming months, and will richly deserve to.

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Moon Jae-in lied, people died

We now revisit the curious case of a leader inside South Korea’s Blue House who sought and followed the counsel of a cult leader with no official position in the South Korean government and (let us hope!) no security clearance, regarding a highly sensitive question of government policy. By which I refer, of course, to Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-il (who else were you thinking of?). To refresh your memory:

Just before the Park Geun-hye scandal buried every other news story in Korea, Song Min-soon, who was Foreign Minister for the late left-wing ex-President Roh Moo-Hyun, revealed in his memoirs that in 2007, before a U.N. General Assembly vote condemning North Korea’s atrocities against its own people, Roh’s then-Chief of Staff, Moon Jae-in, agreed to ask the perpetrators of the greatest crimes against the Korean people in their long history how Seoul’s U.N. Ambassador should cast his vote. [Me, four months ago]

At first, Moon said he couldn’t remember what happened. Then, his memory recovered and he denied Song’s allegation. Then, he sued some of the conservative opponents who attacked him for it (but not Song himself). I’d begun to think that South Koreans had forgotten all about this until last week, when Moon and the other candidates for South Korea’s upcoming presidential election debated.

Two conservative candidates set an aggressive tone from the outset, accusing him of kowtowing to North Korea and flip-flopping on missile defense.

Yoo Seong-min of the splinter conservative Bareun Party revisited the allegation that the former presidential chief of staff consulted Pyongyang before the government abstained in a vote on U.N. resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations in 2007, an accusation that Moon denied again.

Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party denounced Moon for lying, citing a former foreign minister’s memoirs that first sparked the controversy. Moon countered that Hong was amplifying an unverified claim. [Yonhap]

Enter Song Min-soon, who calmly rises from his counsel table with a piece of paper in his hand. He approaches the clerk of the court, asks the judge to mark Prosecution Exhibit A for identification, and enters it into the record.

The document included what appears to be the North’s opposition to a move in the South to vote for the U.N. resolution, saying that it cannot be “justified under any circumstances” and runs counter to what the then leaders of the two Koreas agreed after holding a summit.

It went on to say that the South is urged to take a “responsible” stance on the resolution issue if it wants to advance its relations with the North, adding that it will “closely” watch how the South acts. At bottom was a handwritten memo that hinted that the document was delivered from the then spy agency chief to the then national security adviser.

The disclosure is expected to create a political controversy in South Korea ahead of the presidential election as it took issue with Moon who has denied it.

The former foreign minister said in the interview that Moon has made himself a liar by strongly denying what he claimed in the memoir and that he had no choice but to make public the document to prove himself right. [Yonhap]

For a moment, I imagined that I could hear the souls of the disappeared men, women, and children of Camp 22 weeping.

This underlines again how South Korea’s libel laws, under which truth is no defense, are harming South Korea’s public discourse. In this case, a “liberal” politician and former “human rights lawyer” tried to use the courts to censor an allegation by his political opponents that Moon sacrificed the human rights of 23 million Koreans for political expediency. That allegation has immense public interest to the voters and to Korean history itself. And as it turns out, the allegation is true.

Even before Song showed Moon Jae-in to be a liar, Moon had been weakened by his flip-flopping and evasive answers on THAAD deployment, and by his statement that the Defense Ministry’s plans would not describe North Korea as the South’s “main enemy” in its defense plans. It can’t help that Pyongyang has made its support for Moon Jae-in as clear as it could without formally endorsing him.

As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng informs us, national security has risen to the top of the list of issues that concern South Korean voters, and the attention to that issue hasn’t been good for Moon, whose support can’t break through a ceiling of 40 percent (less than he earned in his narrow loss in the 2012 election). It’s clear from the views of the candidates that the range of South Korea’s mainstream has shifted significantly (and perhaps, dramatically) since the days when Moon Jae-in ran Roh Moo-hyun’s campaign, and was his closest confidant in the Blue House.

How badly this hurts Moon remains to be seen. Even if Moon wins, he will not enter office with a mandate to pursue some of the more extreme policies he has advanced, such as snubbing the U.S. by visiting Pyongyang before he visits Washington,* canceling THAAD, or violating U.N. sanctions to reopen Kaesong. Almost as importantly, it marks the first time in recent South Korean history that human rights in the North has, however incidentally, become a significant issue in an election.

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* Moon now says this statement was taken out of context.

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Eight reasons why reopening Kaesong could be a deal-breaker for the U.S.-Korea alliance

More and more, I am hearing that Moon Jae-in, the left-wing front-runner in the South Korean presidential election, is talking about reopening and expanding the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It’s apparent that Mr. Moon and his supporters haven’t thought through the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of that. Perhaps this post will help concentrate some minds by telling Koreans, in frank terms, what most people in Washington really think about that idea.

1. Kaesong violates U.N. sanctions.

I heard somewhere that Moon Jae-in calls himself a lawyer (a human rights lawyer, no less). Perhaps Mr. Moon should devote a moment of his legal acumen to reading the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions resolutions on North Korea. Earlier this year, the South Korean government acknowledged that North Korea probably used Kaesong funds to pay for nukes. How is that anything but a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, paragraph (d), which requires states to ensure that money they pay Pyongyang isn’t used for nukes? Resolution 2321, paragraph 32, bans public and private support for trade with North Korea, “including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade.” Does Moon really think anyone will invest in Kaesong without those subsidies, which the U.N. has since prohibited? Yes, there is a provision for a U.N. committee to approve that support. Expect the U.S. to block that approval, for the reasons that follow.

2. Kaesong paves the road to war.

How can South Korea ask other countries to follow the U.N. sanctions it would be violating if it reopens Kaesong? Reopening Kaesong would also deprive the U.S. of credibility to demand that China, or African or Middle Eastern states, follow the resolutions when our own ally is also violating them. Abandon sanctions and you’ve abandoned our last hope of disarming Kim Jong-un without war. The choice the U.S. would then face comes down to a preemptive strike, or abandoning Korea to its fate. If North Korea poses a direct threat to the United States, don’t assume President Trump would consider those to be mutually exclusive options.

3. Does Kim Jong-un take payment in ChocoPies?

North Korea is now designated as a Primary Money Laundering Concern, and North Korean banks can’t access the international financial system. Many of its banks are also directly blocked from the financial system, and more will be before this year is over. What is Moon Jae-in planning to pay the North Koreans with — ChocoPies? Because paying in dollars — Kim Jong-un wants dollars — is going to be very difficult. For Moon Jae-in to subsidize the same target we’re sanctioning will put the U.S. and South Korea at cross purposes.

4. Kaesong could lead to a catastrophic breakdown in the U.S.-Korea alliance.

Worse yet, reopening Kaesong would mean that while U.S. taxpayers would be subsidizing South Korea’s defense, South Korea would be subsidizing North Korea and its nukes. How long before that shows up in Donald Trump’s Twitter feed? American taxpayers won’t stand for that, nor should they. Why should we effectively subsidize both sides of this conflict, all while bearing a rising risk that U.S. involvement on South Korea’s behalf is feeding a direct North Korean threat to the U.S. homeland? Americans are willing to bear a certain amount of cost to defend allies, but not neutrals, frenemies, or enemies. If Kaesong reopens, expect to see more calls for U.S. disengagement from Korea. Koreans shouldn’t count on President Trump to be the cooler head who prevails over that sentiment.

Worse, reopening Kaesong would effectively mean that U.S. troops and their families would be hostages to the interests of both Koreas, limiting U.S. options for neutralizing a North Korean threat to the United States. In Washington today, one increasingly hears talk of preemptive strikes to prevent Pyongyang from gaining the ability to nuke Seattle. If President Trump decides to pursue that option (see my previous comment on “cooler heads”) the U.S. would have every incentive to disengage from South Korea first, to limit U.S. casualties in the event of retaliation. That could take the form of a breakdown in cost-sharing talks, unilateral “restructuring” of the alliance, or an unscheduled NEO exercise.

5. Kaesong incentivizes proliferation.

The other day, I tweeted a story about how Israel is asking President Trump to prioritize North Korea’s disarmament, because of the message it would send around the world if North Korea becomes a de facto recognized nuclear state. What Moon Jae-in and his supporters must understand is that North Korea’s nukes are not just a Korean problem or a regional problem — they’re a global problem. North Korea’s suspicious links to Iran, its construction of the Al-Kibar reactor in Syria, and its willingness to sell any weapon to any buyer are far greater threats than its missiles will ever be. Kaesong’s backers promised us, of course, that Kaesong would soothe North Korea and encourage it to disarm. How’d that work out?

Given the belligerence of Pyongyang’s recent behavior, in what sense has Kim Jong-un earned a reward that would help him win back the fraying loyalty of his elites? In what sense can we say that Kaesong would be more successful in improving North Korea’s behavior that it was between 2006 and 2016? What kind of message would it send to Pyongyang (or Tehran) that Kim Jong-un reaps a huge financial windfall by testing nukes and missiles? Pouring cash into Pyongyang through Kaesong doesn’t just undermine the financial pressure of sanctions, and consequently, a central part of our North Korea policy, it undermines the sanctions-based diplomatic strategy that’s been essential to preventing proliferation in Iran and everywhere else. That’s why Koreans shouldn’t expect the U.S. to be the only state to raise concerns about Kaesong.

6. Kaesong is slavery.

Has Seoul ever given us a credible answer to the question of how much of their so-called wages the workers actually receive? Or what rights they have to strike, quit, or demand safer working conditions? In other words, why should we see Kaesong as anything other than the mildest form of slavery North Korea has to offer? Has South Korea even demanded labor reforms or financial transparency in its dealing with the North Koreans? Doesn’t that really tell you everything you need to know about the discredited idea that engagement would lead to reform, disarmament, and peace? Kaesong has been Pyongyang’s tool to influence Seoul, not the other way around. As with all engagement with North Korea, it really raises the same old question: “Who changed who?”

7. Kaesong could kill the Free Trade Agreement.

People in both the U.S. and South Korea have already forgotten how hard it was to get congressional approval for the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries, or the fact that Kaesong was one of its most controversial points of contention. Annex 22-C, which covers “outward processing zones,” is widely understood as a reference to Kaesong, and a desire by South Korea to export Kaesong products to the U.S. Not only is that a non-starter, it’s a poison pill that could kill the entire FTA. If Kaesong reopens, expect to hear more questions about Kaesong-made components and parts in products exported to the U.S. through the FTA. Directly or indirectly importing goods or services from North Korea is already a felony under this executive order. On top of that, there’s a section in the Tariff Act that prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States.

Donald Trump’s criticism of the FTA last year reminded us that it remains controversial here, and exposed that the FTA has ferocious critics in both parties. When I worked with the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, I met with several hundred of the staffers from both parties who tell their bosses how to vote on legislation. That experience gave me a very good idea of how Congress feels about Kaesong, and there’s no other way to say this — Congress absolutely hates Kaesong. That sentiment includes staffers for individual members and powerful committees. I can count several occasions when staffers harangued me about their hatred of Kaesong with as much intensity as . . . as I’m haranguing you right now. As you can probably guess, not one of them ever got an argument back from me. (Update: The staffer I remember best immediately asked me whether H.R. 1771 flat-out banned Kaesong products. When I said it didn’t, her immediate reaction was to tell her boss to withhold his co-sponsorship.)

That sentiment will only rise now that blue-collar, rust-belt voters have emerged as the decisive constituency in elections. Orange Republicans and Green Democrats will both have protectionist incentives to renegotiate or cancel the FTA. Red Republicans will hate the idea of indirectly subsidizing North Korea. Blue Democrats will cave to FTA opponents like Hillary Clinton caved to Trans-Pacific Partnership opponents (because they want to win Michigan, silly). Liberals will be inflamed by the idea that Americans are buying products made (in part) by slaves. I’m generally pro-free trade, and am for the TPP, yet I have some sympathy with all of those arguments. If Kaesong reopens, I’d want to see the FTA renegotiated or canceled entirely. Is reopening Kaesong worth risking the whole FTA?

8. Kaesong didn’t work.

Now, weigh the benefits of Kaesong against those costs. The idea behind Kaesong, of course, was that it was supposed to integrate the two states’ economies and interests, which would lead to reforms, the easing of tensions, the opening of North Korea’s society, and eventually, disarmament. None of those things happenednone. I would argue that Kaesong was actually a source of tension, because of North Korea’s constant arbitrary demands, leading to the 2013 and 2016 closures, costing investors millions in uninsured losses, and guaranteeing that no sane investor would ever go in. In fact, I think I may have found the perfect metaphor for Kaesong:


If you can cite any evidence to the contrary, my comments are open. From where I sit, Kaesong was such an unmitigated failure that I find the support for it inexplicable, and — here is my main point — so do most other Americans. This isn’t to say the U.S. can’t find room for compromise with a Moon administration. I can see an accord emerge in which South Korea pursues harmless forms of engagement, such as visits by athletes and artists, or well-monitored humanitarian aid. But the U.S. position ought to be that no money must change hands, because financial pressure must necessarily play a central role in our efforts to disarm Kim Jong-un, and for years, South Korean subsidies to Pyongyang undermined that strategy. Kaesong could be a deal-breaker in the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Indeed, it may well deserve to be.

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What’s that? You want the Sunshine Policy back? Good luck with that.

If Nate Silver is feeling humble these days, just let him try to predict who wins the next election in South Korea. In the 12 months between now and the time South Korea elects its next president, the ruling Saenuri party will probably break up. God willing, new candidates will emerge to supplant the dismal fare it has served until now. Divisions between the pro- and anti-Park Geun-hye factions may or may not heal. Ban Ki-moon may or may not run. If he runs, he may run with the Saenuri Party, a successor, or something entirely new. The left’s own divisions between Ahn Cheol-soo, Moon Jae-in, and a gaggle of far-left populists may not heal, either. The top candidates currently poll in the 20s.

Having said this, most observers of Korean politics suppose that the political left has the upper hand. Myself, I’m no Nate Silver, and I offer any prediction with low confidence, but I reckon they’re probably right. Over time, voters grow tired of presidents, their parties, and their policies. Memories of the opposition’s own failings fade, and the longer an opposition party is out of power, the more it can escape its record of governance and define itself by its promises — especially by the impractical, disingenuous, or absurd ones. Promises, of course, are almost always more appealing than the dreary realities of governance.

Because this is a blog about North Korea, my interest in South Korean politics mostly relates to the question of what North Korea policies a left-of-center government would actually implement. Wishful foreigners yearn for a return to the Sunshine Policy. And because I (obviously) don’t, I’d like to throw some December pond water on their hopes. Even if the left does win Korea’s presidency, the obstacles to picking up where Roh Moo-hyun left off in 2007, when he tried to turn South Korea’s most vital shipping lane into a neutral North-South “peace zone,” may be insurmountable. 

At the heart of the problem is that North Korea has always been pay-for-play, and in recent years, a consensus has solidified in the U.N., the U.S., and (to a lesser extent) South Korea that paying has made matters worse, not better.

1. Only one man gets rich in North Korea

Without business, the Sunshine Policy would have been nothing but a plan to catapult money over the DMZ. Business was the paisley silk bath robe that clothed naked appeasement in the garb of a transformational philosophy. Business was what allowed Kim Dae-jung to market Sunshine as a plan to leverage greed to form relationships, entangling interests, and the gentle metastasis of soft power. “Good enough for us!,” said the Nobel Committee. One could have pointed out that the little gray men in Pyongyang are already sophisticated enough profiteers and money launderers to finance Kim Jong-il’s priorities. Or that Krupp, I.G. Farben, and Messerschmitt were capitalists, too. But the greatest flaw in Sunshine has always been the North Koreans.

You know who can tell you all about getting rich in North Korea? Naguib Sawaris, the recently deposed CEO of Orascom Telecom, whose stock tanked last year after North Korea confiscated half a billion dollars in profits from a cell phone network joint venture, and when it turned out that a bank Orascom set up in North Korea had ties to a North Korean bank that was sanctioned for proliferation financing.

Ask Nigel Cowie, whose Daedong Credit Bank was blocked by the Treasury Department for proliferation financing, and which was recently back in the news when it showed up in the Panama Papers. Or Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and former Senator Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, or Roh Jeong-ho, all of whom had tearful partings with their money and their reputations at the departure terminal of Pyongyang Sunan Airport.

Then, there is that last, great hope for North Korea’s slow capitalization — the so-called donju class, a class of traders who have leveraged their political connections to become wealthy (for North Korea) crony capitalists. After a series of high-profile defections, the regime started putting geographical limits on where they could operate, and recalled some of them from China entirely. It may soon a institute a formal taxation system for them, which would likely supplement (rather than replace) the current, informal system of kick-up payments to political patrons. As you might expect, the donju have always been vulnerable to shake-downs by the security forces, whose agents can easily extort them by accusing them of spying or disloyalty. At latest word, top officials have been muscling in on donju businesses, purging them for trumped-up political reasons and installing their own relatives and cronies as the new management. That’s the kind of development I’d expect to see if the effects of sanctions are driving resource competition, but it’s too early to make that connection. 

Or, you could ask most North Korean farmers. Remember those agricultural reforms that amounted to a transition from collectives to sharecropping? The ones that, for most of 2012, were briefly the next great Pyongyang Spring? The reality of that is “not so much.” Some farmers say they aren’t getting the surpluses they were promised and that they’re suffering as much as ever. I know some people take a contrary view and believe that these reforms really are being implemented. Maybe they are in a few places, depending on local conditions and corruption, but the evidence mostly refutes claims of broad-based agricultural reform.

Or, you could ask anyone foolish enough to invest in Kaesong before Park Geun-hye finally shut the whole smarmy boondoggle down in January, after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. When Kaesong was first set up during the Roh Moo-hyun years, its cheap labor was supposed to attract hordes of international investors and draw North Korea into the global economy. It never quite worked out that way. For years, the investors suffered under North Korea’s politically driven unilateral expulsions, suspensions, arrests, threats of interference, and summary “wage” and tax increases. None of this could have been reassuring to potential investors. It didn’t help matters when, in 2011, President Obama signed an executive order that essentially excluded anything made in Kaesong (or anywhere else in North Korea) from being imported into the United States, the world’s biggest export market.

In 2013, Kim Jong-un unilaterally expelled the South Korean managers and employees from Kaesong. They didn’t return for six months. Park Geun-hye shut it down it again in January, and Kaesong has been closed for almost a year. Given the risks of arbitrary interference, confiscation, and taxation — not to mention obliteration — you have to ask yourself who’d be foolish enough to invest in Kaesong if it reopened tomorrow. It’s like building a resort hotel on top of an active volcano. Of course, Seoul knew all along that Kaesong was a risky investment, so it reassured investors with generous subsidies and risk insurance. Kaesong investors are still fighting with Seoul over their government insurance payouts. For anyone to consider returning to Kaesong now, the insurance and subsidies would have to be extremely generous, which is a perfect segue to our next reason.

2. U.N. and U.S. Sanctions

I’ve long argued that because South Korea never really knew how Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un spent their Kaesong money, those no-questions-asked payments arguably violated the U.N. sanctions that have been in force since October 2006. For years, Seoul insisted that the money was all given to the workers in the form of wages — a very dubious claim — and that taxes were paid to a local North Korean committee that had nothing to do with nukes. For political reasons, the Bush and Obama administrations never pushed the issue, but they weren’t comfortable with Kaesong, either. Even during the Obama administration, how Pyongyang spent its Kaesong income was a problem for the Treasury Department.

Then, in January, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, Park Geun-hye’s government did something incredible — it said that yes, indeed, North Korea was using Kaesong money for nukes all along. Was this an admission that South Korea was knowingly funding the North Korean nuclear program and violating U.N. sanctions all along? These were logical questions — logical enough that Seoul backed off and said that Kaesong money could be funding nukes as far as it knew. The difference hardly matters, of course, if you read Resolution 1718, which requires member states to “ensure” that their payments are not diverted to WMD programs. Of course, Seoul could never ensure that. When I called them out on that, they sat on their hands, stared at the ceiling, and whistled. But the admission of 2016 means that Seoul can’t just go back to catapulting $100 millon a year into Pyongyang without “ensuring.” This isn’t just a problem for Kaesong; it’s a problem for any engagement program that pays money into Pyongyang’s bank accounts.

Not that it would be hard to avoid that problem, mind you. All they’d have to do would be to get Pyongyang to agree to take its payments in food, or let Seoul pay it by funding the long-underfunded humanitarian work of the World Food Program. Stop laughing.

Three U.N. Security Council resolutions later, there has never been less doubt that Kaesong cash is contrary to U.N. sanctions. In March, the Security Council specifically addressed public and private support for trade in North Korea, but left some wriggle room for Seoul to pretend that Kim Jong-un absolutely, positively couldn’t possibly use Kaesong earnings for nukes (as it had insisted, however incredibly, for years). This month, the Security Council approved much more restrictive language:

“32.  Decides that all Member States shall prohibit public and private financial support from within their territories or by persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade), except as approved in advance by the Committee on a case-by-case basis; [UNSCR 2321]

You will note that a U.N. Committee could, in theory, agree to authorize export credits, insurance, and other support. Of course, the first thing the 1718 Committee will want to know is who the South Koreans are dealing with, where the money is going, and how the South Koreans know it won’t be used for nukes. The North Koreans will never agree to that kind of transparency, of course. And if they don’t, they may find Ambassador Nikki Haley unwilling to support them in making that case to the 1718 Committee. Would a left-wing South Korean government try to go around the U.S. and get China’s support for a Kaesong waiver? After all, China might want a waiver of its own for Rason. They could try, but only at the risk of doing more damage to their relations with the United States. Which are likely to be strained as it is.

Even then, of course, Kaesong has always been a dollar operation — the North Koreans want dollars — and Executive Order 13722 makes dollar-denominated transactions for labor exports by North Korea sanctionable. Investors would probably run and hide, and even a general license from the Treasury Department is probably only good until the next nuke test. The uncertainty of President Donald J. Trump might be the last straw, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

3. Human Rights

The last time the United States had a Republican president, its Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea was Jay Lefkowitz, who called Kaesong “material support for a rogue government, its nuclear ambitions, and its human rights atrocities.” Strong words, but at the time, one could have dismissed them as a Republican, “neocon” view. Indeed, by 2007, it wasn’t even clear whether Lefkowitz, a decent and well-meaning man who nearly resigned his post in principle, even spoke for his President, who had turned back toward appeasing Kim Jong-il as the Iraq surge consumed all of his diminished foreign policy capital.

To many people around the world, Kaesong looks a lot like slave labor. No one ever knew how much of their own “wages” the workers actually receive. Concern about North Koreans’ labor rights has grown in recent years. It’s now high enough to have merited an expression of “concern” in the latest U.N. Security Council Resolution. Marcus Noland recently made a specific proposal that employers at Kaesong agree to an ethical code of conduct. Employers would come under strong public pressure to agree, but Pyongyang would resist, obviously. Wage theft is their whole game at Kaesong.

Paradoxically — unless you’ve lived there, of course — South Koreans probably care less about human rights in North Korea than people in almost any other civilized country. But South Koreans care intensely about global opinion. If they see that the world is looking down at them for exploiting North Korean workers, that will impact domestic public opinion and public policy to a greater degree than it has in the past (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).

4. The U.S. has turned away from Sunshine.

In 2007, the standard liberal response to criticisms like Lefkowitz’s was that only engagement with the North Korea would really change it for the better. That view persists, but it no longer predominates. I can’t cite a better example than Max Fisher’s 2014 takedown of Kaesong and the Sunshine Policy at Vox:

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota. [Max Fisher, Vox]

I could have written those words myself. Fisher then noted that “[t]he Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters.” The fact that South Korea’s sophisticated, powerful, and well-funded lobby was no longer defending Sunshine also cost it much of its American support. In the past, U.S. administrations have been strongly influenced by Seoul’s view, but that pattern may not hold when Donald Trump is President (but more on that in a moment).

Since then, the American consensus on Sunshine Policy projects like Kaesong has shifted immeasurably. Just count the votes for the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Bernie Sanders would have been one of them had he not been campaigning in New Hampshire at the time.

You can’t attribute that shift to any one event; it was the cumulative effect of Pyongyang reneging on deal after deal, testing nuke after nuke, its attacks on South Korea, and its refusal to take Barack Obama’s outstretched hand. By 2013, it was clear that congressional staff of both parties were interested in ways to exert more pressure. Then came the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report in 2014, the work of the U.N.’s long-absent liberal conscience. To many conservatives, the report confirmed what they’d long believed, but the report’s impact on liberals who dominate human rights NGOs would be difficult to overstate. After that, some liberal groups added their substantial organizational savvy to lobbying for passage of the NKSPEA. By the time North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in 2016, both the House and the Senate were ready to pass it.

From the perspective of most Americans, North Korea is deeply unpopular and we shouldn’t be supporting it economically. From the perspective of most Korea watchers of all tribal affiliations, Kaesong was a closed enclave, disconnected from broader North Korean society that delivered no visible dividends of peace, reform, or openness.

5. South Koreans have turned away from Sunshine

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama was personally popular while his foreign policy was generally unpopular — throughout his second term, it usually polled between 10 and 20 points underwater. Park Geun-hye typically found herself in the opposite situation. Although her overall approval rating was seldom over 50 percent, her North Korea policy was popular until the final weeks of her presidency.

In fact, it’s likely that Park’s tough-minded North Korea policy was the one issue that buoyed her poll numbers at all for the latter years of her presidency. Her hard-nosed handling of the first Kaesong shutdown, which lasted from April to October of 2013, was popular with voters. In August 2015, shortly after Park “resolved” the land mine crisis with what amounted to an agreement to fight another day, her popularity soared 15 points to 49 percent, her highest rating since the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Not until late September, when the scandal that destroyed her presidency first hit the headlines, did popular support for Park’s North Korea policy fall below 50 percent in a Gallup Korea poll. Even then —

As to whether North Korea is a partner with which dialogue and compromise is possible, 30.5 percent made positive replies, up from 28.7 percent last year. The share of respondents who said they felt threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons also fell from 84 percent to 79.5 percent. [Korea Times]

That was the first time public approval of Park’s North Korea policy fell below 50 percent since she took office in early 2013. In the same poll, Park’s personal approval rating was 31 percent. Yet support for reopening Kaesong fell to just 47 percent, and support for resuming Mt. Kumgang tours was almost exactly 50 percent. If Park fatigue affected those numbers, the long-term popularity of Sunshine may be even lower. And of course, if either side of the debate were to gain a credible standard-bearer, the numbers could move a few points up or down.

Those numbers are consistent with data showing a long-term trend away from sympathetic, ethno-nationalist views of North Korea, toward a grouchy, introspective don’t-tread-on-me nationalism. In other words, this isn’t 2002 anymore. At best, the political gain to be had from proposing a new Sunshine Policy is a wash. It may become a net negative if North Korea launches a major provocation soon (spoiler: it will). And if the Trump administration makes clear that South Korea has to pick a side — ours — Koreans may not view Sunshine as a good bet in uncertain times.

Of course, South Koreans have mood swings, just like Americans. Some of them just want things to go back to what they’ve been for the last 20 years. To them, North Korea has been a quiet crisis for decades. Why, from their perspective, can’t it just go on as a quiet crisis? Why shake things up instead of letting things go on as they always have? Why not buy their silence for just a little longer? I understand that sentiment, but good luck buying Kim Jong-un’s silence when he’s nuked up and poised to achieve the hegemony that was the lifelong ambition of his father and grandfather. Pyongyang has never allowed things to go on quietly for long, and when North Korea has provoked recently, South Koreans have increasingly demanded military retaliation. And of course, Kim Jong-un will soon pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States, which changes everything.

6. Donald J. Trump

The other day, I predicted that if the left wins Korea’s next presidential election, it would be on a collision course with Donald Trump over North Korea policy. It’s still too early to predict exactly what Trump’s policy will be, but does this look like a soft-line, pro-engagement cabinet to you? Yeah, me neither. As I’ve said before, Trump’s voters want a tough guy, and Trump wants to be admired by his voters. That’s why I’ve always been more worried that Trump would go kinetic than that he’d sell out to the North Koreans. And if North Korea gets to the point of reaching the U.S. with an ICBM or submarine-launched missile, no South Korean president is going to get a veto on his response to that. Past U.S. presidents have been surprisingly deferential to Seoul’s policy preferences. Don’t expect that to continue if Kim Jong-un can range the U.S. with a nuke.

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Park Geun-hye finds her inner Thatcher

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.25.35 AMThis week, the South Korean government imposed bilateral sanctions on North Korea, banning from its harbors ships that have been to North Korea in the last 180 days, cancelling a joint logistics project with Russia to export coal through Rajin, and designating “30 companies with links to the North’s nuclear and missile programs …, 38 North Korean nationals and two foreigners.” The targets include “Leonard Lai, president of ­Singapore-based Senat Shipping” (see this post) and “the Taiwanese president of Royal Team Corporation,” which repeatedly sold North Korea missile parts

The designations will do in the Won system approximately what an OFAC designation would do in the dollar system — freeze any assets the targets have in South Korea and ban them from the South Korean financial system. By itself, this will have modest effects; the Won is a semi-convertible, non-reserve currency. But if this marks the beginning of a coalition in which Japan, the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, and other nations issue coordinated designations of North Korea and its enablers, the effect will be devastating. It will also mark South Korea’s graduation from a bystander to its own national destiny, to a global leader in shaping it.

It now seems apparent that the closure of Kaesong was a complete change in the polarity of South Korea’s policy toward the North, to all-out pressure on Pyongyang to change or perish. How times have changed since 2002, when my Army-chartered flight lifted from the tarmac at Osan Air Base, my pregnant wife weeping silently beside me as she left her homeland and her newly widowered father behind. Since then, I’ve wondered whether the land where I’d spent the last four years — a land which had so endeared itself to me, and so often exasperated me — could long protect its imperfect freedom and its independence from its rapacious neighbors. Would it grasp that it was being slowly censored and seduced into servitude before that process became irreversible? Would it spend the next century apologizing to history for its failure to stand in solidarity with its oppressed brothers and sisters in the North? For most of the 14 intervening years, I’ve held little hope that it would.

Two years ago, I saw the first clear, statistically supportable evidence that the appeasement fever had broken, but still, no leader emerged to challenge the sultry delusions of the Sunshine Policy. No one, least of all the cautious triangulatrix Park Geun-hye, manifested the courage, the convictions, or the coherence to start and win the national conversation about Pyongyang’s nature, or the unwelcome truths this implied. Who would call out Pyongyang for what it really was — pathologically martial, militarist, mendacious, and existentially irreconcilable to peaceful coexistence with the South’s democracy and prosperity? What politician would dare say so, and convincingly?

I was in the audience when President Park addressed a joint session of Congress in 2013. I saw hints of resoluteness in Park’s words and bearing, but her policies always fell short of anything grounded on coherent vision for inducing change and securing peace.

Until now. Since January 6th, and in defiance of the low expectations she had spent a decade instilling in me, Park Geun-hye has started that conversation, abandoning the fantasy that Pyongyang can be appeased. Park’s policy shifts this year may have been the first genuinely brave decisions of her political career. She did not bow to pressure; she defied it. She took risks, and she led. She defied the rage of the streets to resolve (however imperfectly) old grievances with Japan, and unite around shared interests. She sent her diplomats around the world to help build a global coalition to pressure Pyongyang to disarm. And most importantly, she offered a strong defense of those decisions to her countrymen, in a historic speech before the National Assembly last month.

North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program “will only hasten its collapse,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday, forgoing her usual caution to warn in uncharacteristically blunt terms that her government would do all it could to punish Pyongyang for its recent provocations. [….]

“Dear people of South Korea, it’s obvious now that our previous methods and goodwill cannot break Pyongyang’s nuclear will,” Park said in a special address to the National Assembly. “We should no longer be fooled by their deception and threats. I believe we should not provide them with unconditional support anymore nor succumb to their provocations. We now need to find a fundamental solution to effectively change North Korea, and it is our time to be brave,” she said firmly in the televised address. [….]

The shutdown was just the start, Park said Tuesday. “From now on, the government will start taking stronger and more effective measures to push North Korea to make changes by creating an environment in which the North will realize that nuclear development is not a way to ensure their survival but a way to ensure the quick collapse of the regime,” she said. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Events have finally clarified to Ms. Park that His Porcine Majesty is not a reformer-in-waiting or amenable to a negotiated disarmament, but an impulsive, brutal man who has lived a life without hearing the word “no.”

It was time to face the “uncomfortable truth” that the North would not change, Park said in comments that mark a significant reversal for a leader whose policy on Pyongyang had been based on what she’d described as “trustpolitik” that she hoped would lay the ground for eventual unification.

Park said past efforts at engagement had not worked. “It has become clear that the existing approach and goodwill are not going to break the North Korean regime’s nuclear development drive,” she told parliament. [….]

“The government will take strong and effective measures for the North to come to the bone-numbing realisation that nuclear development will not help its survival but rather it will only speed up the collapse of the regime,” Park said. [Reuters]

It probably wasn’t an accident that Park delivered the speech on Kim Jong-il’s birthday. She also addressed, however briefly, His Corpulency’s repression of the North Korean people.

Park’s speech contained harsh language, describing North Korea as “merciless” and under an “extreme reign of terror” following recent purges of top officials that outside analysts say were aimed at bolstering leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on power. Park also referred to Kim by his name several times when she criticized his government, something many Seoul leaders have avoided in the hopes of improved ties with Pyongyang. [AP]

And in an instant, Park swept away the irreconcilable contradiction between subsidizing North Korea and sanctioning it, a contradiction that had hobbled the world’s response to North Korea for the past 20 years, and that had denied Seoul the standing to ask other governments to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang.

“We cannot continue this situation in which we are de facto sponsoring the North Korean regime’s nuclear (capacity) and missile development,” Park said during a speech she requested to deliver before the legislative body, the first time she has made such a request since her inauguration. She emphasized that most of the funds South Korea paid were delivered to the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which is in charge of nuclear and missile development. [NK News, Ha-young Choi]

The best news of all is that now that Park has decided to lead, the South Korean people are behind her. The reactions from the center-left Korea Herald and the center-right Joongang Ilbo and Korea Times were all favorable. Park’s poll numbers are hardly stratospheric — she’s better at geopolitical chess than at empathy, noblesse oblige, or day-to-day administration — but her tough response to the North Koreans has at least raised those numbers from negative to neutral territory. In particular, most South Koreans support her decision to close Kaesong. Her emissaries are now delivering the message that if North Korea doesn’t disarm, the consequence will be regime collapse and reunification. The United States has also offered its support for “President Park’s principled and firm approach toward North Korea.” 

The left-wing opposition, no doubt preoccupied by its own internal divisions, has hardly raised a peep as Park has dismantled the Sunshine Policy, its legacy, and its political base of support. It even welcomed the U.N. Security Council’s passage of UNSCR 2270. Instead, writes Steven Denney, “Security is a main concern for many South Koreans, and with elections coming up, no one — not even liberals — will want to come across as ‘soft on security.’” Denney describes the current political mood in South Korea as one of “national security populism,” which seems vaguely familiar somehow. For now, Park will publicly resist calls by some South Korean politicians to get some nukes of their own, but it would not surprise me to see those plans go forward under a future administration. Nor, all told, would that cost me much sleep.

I would not go so far as to say that compassion for the North Korean people has caught fire in South Korean society, but the recent passage of a human rights bill in the National Assembly means that appeasement had become a politically indefensible reason to block the long-stalled law. The political ground has shifted, and much for the better. All that is lacking now is President Park’s plan to engage, to aid, and to earn the trust and support of, her 23 million countrymen between the Imjin and the Tumen.

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In The Weekly Standard: Kaesong, where life imitated Monty Python & the Holy Grail

large wooden badgerIn Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Knights of Camelot are on a quest for the Holy Grail, but find their way barred by a group of ornery French knights – never mind what they are doing in England – who have walled themselves inside an impregnable castle. After a pathetic attempt to breach the walls fails, Sir Bedivere the Wise devises a scheme to do
through guile what could not be done through force. He persuades King Arthur to build a large, hollow wooden rabbit, leave it at the castle gate just before nightfall, and wait for the curious French knights to pull it inside. The French do so, at which point it occurs to the Englishmen that they were supposed to be inside the rabbit. Bedivere’s “ingenious” plan ends with the French catapulting the empty rabbit back onto the humiliated English.

On several levels, this scene is a near-perfect analogy for South Korea’s and our own failed efforts to “engage” North Korea, right down to the French knights’ vitriolic-yet-awkward taunts. (The Korean Central News Agency, for example, has a curious affinity for the word “brigandish.”)

Read the rest at The Weekly Standard.

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The rebirth of an alliance: The U.S., South Korea & Japan are finally getting North Korea policy right

As you and I both know, I spend a lot of keystrokes here kvetching about the lax enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, but I’ve also written that diplomacy is essential to making sanctions work. Now, for the first time I can recall, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are coordinating their policies as allies should. They’ve coordinated their defense responses to the North’s missile test, their calls for tougher U.N. sanctions, their strategies to strengthen sanctions enforcement, and their recruitment of new partners into this coalition. I can’t remember the last time I saw Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington all pull in the same direction. It’s a welcome change from the incoherence of the past.

Japan is our first case in point. After its 2013 nuclear test, Pyongyang foiled coordinated sanctions enforcement by promising to “re-investigate” its past abductions of Japanese citizens. In exchange, Tokyo relaxed sanctions, just as Seoul and Washington were trying to tighten them.

In due course, Pyongyang reneged, and now, Japan is taking a hard line again. Unilaterally, it has banned all but small humanitarian remittances to North Korea, banned port calls by North Korean ships, and imposed “a complete ban on North Korean nationals from entering into Japan.” (President Trump, Prime Minister Abe on line one.) Multilaterally, it is calling sanctions “one of the important tools … to bring a comprehensive solution” and citing the example of Iran as “clear proof that sanctions do work.” Japanese authorities have also arrested a high-ranking North Korean agent and comrade of Lee Seok-ki.

In Washington, the President is poised to sign (and hopefully, enforce) tough new sanctions legislation that passed Congress almost unanimously. Even the editors of the New York Times have belatedly endorsed it. 

While China temporizes, others are acting. Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved strict sanctions intended to limit the North’s ability to finance warheads and missiles. President Obama should sign the measure into law. It is aimed at weapons and traders of raw minerals, as well as money launderers and human rights abusers, and its effects are likely to be felt acutely by Chinese companies, which are most involved with the North. [Editorial, N.Y. Times]

Reuters reports that the President “is not expected to veto the bill, given its huge support in Congress.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said, “I think this is an area where we and Congress are in the same space and agree on the need for increased sanctions.”

The new legislation has drawn enthusiastic support from the South Korean government. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he “expected the secondary boycott clause in the new bill [to] have considerable impact down the line,” and called the bill’s swift passage a sign of U.S. “resolve to tackle this issue.” The South Korean Ambassador even came to Congress to congratulate Ed Royce, who led the congressional revolt against “strategic patience.” Royce, in turn, welcomed Seoul’s decision to shut down Kaesong.

North Korea had a different reaction.

“Unpardonable is the puppet group’s act of totally suspending the operation in the [Kaesong complex], finding fault with the DPRK’s H-bomb test and launch of a satellite,” the committee said in a statement. [….]

“The recent provocative measure is a declaration of an end to the last lifeline of North-South relations, a total denial of the June 15 [2000] North-South Joint Declaration and a dangerous declaration of war, driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war,” the committee said.

It lashed out at President Park Geun-hye, saying that “South Korea will experience what disastrous and painful consequences will be entailed by its action.” [Joongang Ilbo]

FrenchTaunt

[Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries.]

The decision will have financial costs for Seoul, including the confiscation of property, machinery, and land that it will end up paying for. It will also have to write off $2.5 billion in loans that Pyongyang was never going to repay anyway. Moodys may downgrade Seoul’s credit due to the political risk of increased tensions. (Apparently, Seoul’s previous lack of a coherent counterproliferation strategy was less of a risk.)

The decision will also have political costs for President Park. The Unifiction Minister’s inept walk-back of his claim that Pyongyang was using Kaesong funds for nukes will not help matters. Given the way the U.N. resolutions require payers to “ensure” that their money isn’t spent on WMDs and luxury goods, either way, Kaesong was inconsistent with those resolutions, but the unforced error makes Seoul look foolish.

Seoul was lucky in one regard, however — it escaped Kaesong without a hostage crisis. As I’ve argued, Kaesong had actually become a source of inter-Korean tensions. In the long term, its closure may reduce tensions by giving Seoul and Pyongyang one less thing to fight about.

But the most important consequence of shutting down Kaesong wasn’t its elimination as an irritant or the $120 million it funneled into Pyongyang’s accounts each year. It was the removal of Kaesong as a punchline from any call by Seoul for other countries to enforce “bone-numbing” sanctions.

Publicly, the U.S. supported Seoul’s decision, but privately, it may have done more than that. The Joongang Ilbo reports that the U.S. was “adamant” in demanding that Seoul close Kaesong. Even the Russians and Chinese answered South Korean pleas to enforce sanctions by saying, in effect, “You first.”

Park Geun-hye, who has conditionally supported engagement with Pyongyang for her entire political career, now says, “The only way to stop North Korea’s misjudgement is to make [it] realize that it cannot survive unless it abandons its nuclear program.”

So how will she get that point across? Several ways, starting with persuading other countries to “focus on drying up the financial resources of the Kim Jong-un regime.”

Seoul has already begun to build international support for the new strategy. Last week, Foreign Minister Yun was in Munich, where he met with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. There, the two agreed that both “the U.N. Security Council and the European Union should impose strong and effective sanctions on North Korea.” Mogherini said that “the EU will join the international community’s efforts to put pressure on North Korea,” reportedly by restricting cash transfers to Pyongyang. Europe has long provided Pyongyang with banking services and luxury goods, so this could be an extremely important shift.

In Munich, Yun also met with diplomats from the U.S., China, Russia, and Britain, and warned North Korea “that any further provocation” would lead to it “being completely cut off from the rest of the international community.” Separately, the Foreign Ministry also asked Australia to support “multidimensional, multilayered” sanctions on the North.

The Donga-Ilbo also reports that Seoul is “moving to expand overseas its efforts to cut off the funding” for Pyongyang’s WMD programs by trying to shut down Pyongyang’s global slave-rental racket, “by asking each country not to use North Korean laborers.” Initially, Seoul will focus its efforts on Southeast Asia, but also plans to make similar pleas to China and Russia. Seoul estimates that slave labor rakes in $300 million a year for Pyongyang, more than double what Pyongyang earned from Kaesong, but less than half of His Corpulency’s annual luxury goods budget.

The allies are also helping ASEAN member nations buy “high-tech scanning equipment” to help “search North Korean ships on the high seas.” South Korea is also considering a secondary shipping boycott against ships that have visited North Korean ports. (Seoul banned North Korean ships from its ports after the sinking of the Cheonan, in 2010.)

Views within South Korea’s foreign policy establishment have also shifted. This summary of an interview of a panel of South Korean scholars will give you the flavor of it.

Moderator: To summarize, we must rid ourselves of the perceived influence that China has wielded over South Korea since the third nuclear test. Inter-Korean relations are something that we must solve without waiting for China. ‘Trustpolitik’ is over, and we must be ready to add independent sanctions, disband the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and deploy the THAAD missile defense system if we are to have adequate means of self-defense. [Asan Institute]

There’s too much there to do justice in this post; read the whole thing for yourself. What’s clear, at least for the time being, is that we’ve entered the post-Sunshine era of Korean history. 

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests weren’t the only reasons to conclude that the Sunshine Policy had little prospect of reforming or disarming North Korea, or reducing tensions. The recent promotion of Kim Yong-chol, mastermind of the Cheonan and Yeonpyong attacks, was a slap in South Korea’s face, and a clear signal that Kim Jong-un wasn’t interested in improving inter-Korean relations. As they say, personnel is policy. But whether public opinion in South Korea has shifted as strongly remains to be seen, and no policy change can last long without political support.

~   ~   ~

The backdrop to the rise of this new alliance is the U.N. Security Council’s failure to act against Pyongyang, more than a month after its fourth nuclear test. Despite the personal pleas of Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama, China refuses to enforce the very sanctions it previously voted for at the U.N. Security Council.

Meanwhile, a leaked draft of the latest U.N. Panel of Experts report concludes that U.N. sanctions have “failed to prevent Pyongyang from scaling up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” and raises “serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.” The report blames member state governments, “particularly in Africa, for failing to fully implement the measures,” but everyone knows who is principally to blame here.

By covering for Kim Jong-un’s obnoxiousness at the U.N., China is causing the allies to look past the U.N. and toward ad hoc coalitions to disarm Pyongyang. Other coalitions that could play useful roles include the Proliferation Security Initiative , the Global Financial Action Task Force, and an Asian military alliance.

Of course, any expectation that U.N. sanctions could work without robust member state enforcement is fantasy. So is any expectation of robust member state enforcement unless developed states help less-developed ones to build better enforcement capacity, or alternatively, threaten them with secondary sanctions. Once the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have recruited the EU, Canada, Australia, and other law-abiding states into an effective coalition against Pyongyang, we’ll be in a stronger position to do both.

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The End of Sunshine: S. Korea suspends ops at Kaesong, “suspected” of funding N. Korea’s WMD programs

Year after year, and almost alone, I have argued that the Kaesong Industrial Park was incompatible with U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang. At Kaesong, “South Korea has 124 companies … employing 54,700 North Korean workers … whose wages are paid to a North Korean state agency.” All told, those fees, taxes, and “wages,” which the North Korean workers probably never saw after Kim Jong-un took his cut, totaled $110 million last year alone.

Contrary to Kaesong’s founding purpose of promoting North-South engagement and people-to-people contact, the workers were heavily supervised and prohibited from direct action with their South Korean bosses, who had to relay their directives through North Korean state minders. And because Seoul never really knew how Kim Jong-un used the money, I argued that Kaesong was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that required it to know, and to “ensure” that they money was not used for prohibited weapons programs.

Here, for example, is a quote from the first Chapter VII resolution against Pyongyang, UNSCR 1718:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 6.56.56 AM

And here is UNSCR 2094, which South Korea itself voted for as a non-permanent member of the Security Council at the time:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 6.58.31 AM

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 6.58.51 AM Mind you, I said I was almost alone in arguing this, because as then-Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said in 2013, “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” I’ve publicly challenged the Unifiction Ministry to say whether it knew how Pyongyang was spending the funds it earned from Kaesong (it never responded).

But with Seoul’s decision today to “temporarily” halt operations in Kaesong comes this stunning admission from the Unifiction Minister himself:

The suspension of activity there comes amid calls from the United States and South Korea for tougher U.N. and other sanctions against the isolated North following the rocket launch and its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.

South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told media North Korea was suspected of spending funds from Kaesong on advancing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles programs, and the suspension of operations was to stop funds being used for that.

“We are not going to be able to crack North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs by sticking to the same kind of response we have taken all along,” Hong told a briefing. [Reuters]

Cue the usual bitching from Kaesong investors who profit from what amounts to slave labor by its workers, and from leftists who say that closing Kaesong (as opposed to Pyongyang’s conduct) will raise tensions. But here in Washington, opinion had shifted decisively against Kaesong, and calls for its closure had become deafening.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I welcome Seoul’s decision and its refreshingly truthful admission. By closing Kaesong, Seoul can now call on other nations to enforce sanctions without having those nations laugh in Seoul’s face. But really, how long did Seoul “suspect” that Pyongyang was using its Kaesong earnings this way? Based on Cohen’s statement, since at least 2013. Seoul’s admission today will make it almost legally impossible for Seoul to reopen Kaesong again under similar arrangements, now that it has admitted, in effect, that those arrangements were in violation of the Security Council’s resolutions. But if Pyongyang ever becomes serious about engagement, change, and reform, perhaps both sides can agree to reopen Kaesong on the condition that all of those wages and taxes are paid in kind, as food aid, distributed to North Korea’s hungry, by the World Food Program.

Dream on. And, God willing, good riddance to the Sunshine Policy, which died today.

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If S. Korea won’t close Kaesong, let it pay N. Korea in food.

The bad news from North Korea’s nuclear test is that its yield exceeded those of its 2006, 2009, and 2013 tests. The good news is that while the blast wasn’t thermonuclear, it was still hot enough to burn away plenty of policy fog. In Congress, sanctions legislation has sailed through the House, and seems to have good prospects in the Senate. Opinions are shifting among Korea scholars here, too. This morning, I had a chance to finish reading last week’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. It’s telling, and quite gratifying, to see that two of those witnesses, Bruce Klingner (a good friend) and Victor Cha (whom I can’t say I know personally) cited this humblebrag blog in their written testimony. 

It seems the mainstream has caught up with me.

There is also encouraging diplomatic clarity. Just before the test, South Korea and Japan came to an admittedly imperfect but timely agreement on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, almost as if both governments knew what was to come. The agreement came far too late to undo the harm to those poor women, but may have come just in time to give the last survivors a measure of compensation, and just some of their stolen dignity back. It may also help to protect future generations of Koreans through cooperation with Japan toward shared interests in disarming Kim Jong-un. 

If the agreement holds, perhaps the controversial statue of that young sex slave should be moved to the doorstep of the Chinese Embassy, given all that China’s policies are doing to keep North Korean women in sexual slavery today. After all, there is still time to prevent some of those women from being enslaved and raped by Chinese men.

~   ~   ~

Today, in no small part because of that agreement, South Korea, U.S., and Japan appear to be coordinating their policy responses, like the natural allies they should be. All three governments are pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions, but there is still little public information on the specifics. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will visit Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing this week, to talk about a draft U.N. Security Council resolution and sanctions enforcement. Oh, and John Kerry will also visit China later this month.

As a long-time reader would say: “Tremble, Commies.”

South Korea, cognizant of the fact that its own security is the most at risk from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, is asking Japan to impose tougher sanctionsJapan unilaterally relaxed its sanctions in 2014, after North Korea made a successful divide-and-rule ploy, promising to “investigate” its own past abductions of Japanese. Naturally, that deal has yielded no actual progress on the return of any abductees or their remains.

Seoul is also asking Beijing to support tougher sanctions. Although China says it’s willing to sign on for some sort of resolution on paper, it’s also trying “to water down the U.N.-led sanctions on the North in a familiar pattern following its nuclear and long-range missile tests” and to minimize the sanctions’ impact. China is also stalling, perhaps hoping that other events and priorities will intervene and weaken the U.S. and South Korean position.

In return, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is hinting at the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, apparently as a way to pressure Beijing. 

For the time being, Park has also stopped feeding the South Korean people implausible feel-good Sunshine Lite twaddle about dialogue, Trustpolitik, and reunification. Instead, she’s calling for the “strongest yet sanctions” on Pyongyang and trying to awaken them to the danger posed by nuclear-armed eliminationists with no regard for human life:

On Wednesday, a week after the North’s nuclear test, Park described the South as facing “emergency situations” both in security and the economy.

She voiced concern that Pyongyang’s provocation, allegedly hydrogen-based, may lead to a “fundamental change” in the regional security landscape. Many are anxious about the possibility of an arms race in Northeast Asia, with Japan widely viewed as capable of producing nuclear bombs.

Park said her government will make every diplomatic effort to make the North’s regime feel “bone-numbing” pain through the United Nations. 

[Yonhap]

It’s a welcome step back toward reality for South Korea, which continues its long, slow awakening from the national acid trip known as the Sunshine Policy.

pink elephant in the room

But it also puts South Korea in an awkward position, because Japan, China, and the U.S. can’t help staring at the very thing South Korea doesn’t want them to notice.

~   ~   ~

The elephant, of course, is the Kaesong Industrial Park, a complex just north of the DMZ where regime-picked North Korean workers labor in South Korean-run maquiladoras for “wages” that are either low or non-existent, at least after Kim Jong-un skims his cut off the top. According to some sources, Kaesong provided Pyongyang $90 million in cash annually, even before its most recent unilateral hikes in “wages” and land-use taxes.

Since the January 6th nuclear test, calls to close Kaesong have been growing. The most surprising proponent of this is the usually pro-engagement Daniel Pinkston, who has the eccentric habit of referring to North Korea as “Songun Korea,” complete with diacritical marks (which this blog does not like to display, sadly). I enjoy reading Dan’s views, if only because I never quite know if they’ll cause me to applaud or cock my head like a dog hearing a new sound. When he wrote this comment on one of my tweets that auto-posted to Facebook, I’ll admit to having had both reactions:

KIC was a good experiment, but it operates like it’s the International Space Station. No backward or forward linkages to local enterprises that could be established as part of an opening and liberalization process. We now see that the regime is not interested in becoming integrated with the international economy. They only want cash payments as rents to the KWP. I congratulate and admire Kim Dae-jung for getting KIC started and trying. I supported it at the time. But we tested that hypothesis and the results are in. I think it should be closed down. And better to do it before there is a crisis and the ROK citizens in KIC become hostages. [Daniel Pinkston, Jan. 7, 2016]

That is to say, Kaesong failed to achieve the purpose that justified its establishment — to draw North Korea out of its isolation and into compliance with international norms and standards. As I said last May, Kaesong promised us peace and reform. It delivered conflict, tension, and exploitation.

It also surprised me when Victor Cha, a long-time advocate of “hawk engagement,” wrote this in his testimony last week.

Kaesong Industrial Complex: Another useful asymmetric pressure point is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. A legacy of the sunshine policy, this project now provides $90 million in annual wages (around $245.7 million from December 2004 to July 2012) of hard currency to North Korean authorities with little wages actually going to the factory workers. The South Korean government will be opposed to shutting this down, as even conservative governments in South Korea have grown attached to the project as symbolic of the future potential of a united Korea, but difficult times call for difficult measures. [Victor Cha, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Asia Subcommittee, Jan. 13, 2016]

See also the testimony of Bruce Klingner, who also called for Kaesong’s closure.

South Korea must surely perceive the awkwardness of its position here. No wonder its statements about Kaesong have been so confusing. On January 8th, two days after the test, the Unifiction Ministry said, “At this stage, we don’t think it is appropriate to talk about withdrawal or closure of the complex.” On the 11th, it said it would further limit access to Kaesong, allowing only “businessmen directly involved in the operation of factories” (but no contractors) to stay overnight, reducing the number of South Koreans staying at Kaesong from 800 to 650. South Korea left open the possibility of further restrictions, depending on “relevant circumstances.” The next day, the Unifiction Ministry reverted to its previous talking points, saying, “At this stage, it is too early to talk about a possible closure of the factory zone,” and, “We are not considering shutting down the complex for now.” But then, on the 13th, Park Geun-hye “said the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex will depend on the North’s move down the road.”

So, is all that perfectly clear? No?

I’ve written before that until the three allied nations get their act together on sanctions enforcement, North Korea will continue to divide them and nullify the effect of sanctions. North Korea uses abductees to weaken Japan’s sanctions, uses hostages and denuclearization deals to weaken U.S. sanctions, uses hegemonic aspirations and anti-American mischief-making to weaken Russia’s and China’s sanctions, uses the lure of engagement to weaken Europe’s sanctions, and uses ethno-nationalism to weaken South Korea’s sanctions. Without much better cooperation among these governments, a low-overhead regime like North Korea’s can resist reform and disarmament indefinitely. For South Korea’s calls for tougher sanctions to be credible, it must make some sacrifices of its own. After all, its own interests are the most affected by North Korea’s nukes.

I’m under no illusions about the political challenge this presents for Park. She knows that pan-Korean nationalism remains popular among many of her voters. So does the idea of economic cooperation with Pyongyang, for all its failure to produce any positive results for South Korea’s security. But the fact remains — Park can’t credibly ask Japan, China, the U.N. and the U.S. to help it impose “bone-numbing” sanctions while it continues to pour a massive subsidy into Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts through Kaesong. Other governments would rightly view that as Korean Exceptionalism and a sign that Seoul isn’t serious. Years ago, after all, Treasury Undersecretary (and now CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen had expressed his concerns about how Pyongyang is using that cash.

Maybe Park is fiddling with access to Kaesong and dropping hints about closing it because she can see the awkwardness of her position, and knows she has to feign some toughness for foreign consumption. Maybe these are trial balloons to test the reaction on the streets of left-leaning Kwangju. Maybe she wants to goad the North Koreans into shutting Kaesong down themselves, as they did in 2013, thus saving her the political cost of doing so herself. Maybe she’s signaling to foreign investors that both Korean governments are putting political burdens on Kaesong, in the hope that the whole sordid project will wither during her successor’s tenure.

Unfortunately, South Korea’s security won’t wait that long. Her successor may not share her own clarity about the security risk that her country faces. The choice Park faces now is to continue with what has failed, or to return to what has worked.

~   ~   ~

Having said all this, I doubt Park will have the political courage to shut Kaesong down outright. In that case, she has other alternatives at her disposal that would work almost as well, at less political cost. Rather than closing Kaesong down herself, she need only hold Kaesong to the same international norms and standards that the Sunshine Policy promised to spread into North Korea, but hasn’t.

First, she could set a timeline for Kaesong to comply with International Labor Organization standards, to protect the rights of the workers there. The most important of these rights is the right of each worker to keep her wages. In tandem with this, South Korea should look toward Marcus Noland’s suggestion that all joint ventures with North Korea, including Kaesong, adopt baseline standards for worker protection.

Second, Park should announce the phase-out of subsidies to Kaesong. If Kaesong can’t turn a profit without state subsidies a decade after its establishment, it isn’t really introducing capitalism to the North, it’s just nuclear welfare by another name. Cutting subsidies will also discourage Pyongyang from any more unilateral wage and tax raises.

Finally, South Korea must abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, paragraphs 11 and 15, which require it to ensure that North Korea isn’t using the proceeds of Kaesong for purposes prohibited by the resolutions. How can South Korea possibly expect to know this? One way would be for Pyongyang to accede, at long last, to a degree of financial transparency about where Kaesong’s proceeds go, and how much the workers are allowed to earn and spend. Not likely, you say. And you’re probably right.

Alternatively, South Korea could comply with UNSCR 2094 by announcing that henceforth, Seoul will only pay Pyongyang for Kaesong rents and labor in kind — in food, fertilizer, seed, medicine, humanitarian supplies, and humanitarian services, all of which would be distributed by the World Food Program. After all, if the U.N. is correct that the vast majority of North Koreans barely get enough to eat and have dismal medical care, does Kim Jong-un really have a sovereign right to spend that money on luxury goods and ski resorts instead? Humanitarian aid has its own diversion risks, but those risks are far fewer than those that come with paying Pyongyang in dollars, no questions asked.

Perhaps Pyongyang will respond by shutting Kaesong down entirely. But then, if Pyongyang has that reaction after all these years of gentle inducements, who can really argue that Kaesong was likely to serve its intended purposes anyway?

~   ~   ~

* A previous version said “Director.” Thanks to a reader for the correction.

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Inter-Korean phone calls can keep the promises of the Sunshine Policy

Twenty years of state-to-state engagement between North and South Korea have not lived up to Kim Dae-Jung’s promises. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and periodically attacked South Korea for good measure. Rather than reforming, it has invested heavily in sealing its borders. Pyongyang sustains itself on foreign hard currency, even as it cuts off the flow of people, goods, and information to its underprivileged classes. It knows that if it fails to do this, members of those classes will achieve financial, material, and ideological independence from the state.

In their efforts to seal the borders, the North Korean security forces’ principal targets have been the Chinese cell phones whose signals can cross a few miles into North Korea, and which provide North Koreans with their last fragile link to the outside world. Today, there is a real danger that this link will be cut, and that the market-driven changes in North Korean society — changes driven by the people, despite the government’s attempts to suppress them — will cease.

Now, imagine if signals from South Korean cell providers began spreading across the DMZ into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. You saw how Pyongyang reacted to loudspeaker propaganda, which reached a few thousand conscripts at best. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans being able to call their relatives in the South directly, reading the Daily NK on smart phones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. Small beginnings like these could be profoundly transformational. If, eventually, North Koreans gain the ability to talk to each other, free of the state’s interference, these beginnings could become the foundations of a new civil society in North Korea. That could vastly mitigate the chaos and cost of reunification.

And yet, Seoul hesitates to allow this kind of people-to-people engagement, ostensibly because it is paralyzed by paranoia that North Korean spies would also use this network.

South Korean police expressed concerns over the national security implications of mobile phone conversations between North Korean defectors in the South and their relatives in the North.

A police official who spoke to South Korean press on the condition of anonymity said the security concerns call for the passage of a law at the National Assembly that could step up surveillance, South Korean outlet Financial News reported on Friday.

Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South keep in contact with their families, who are able to circumvent North Korea regulations through the use of Chinese mobile phones. One unidentified woman defector said she calls her family in the North 3 or 4 times a week, to confirm money transfers through a broker based in China. [….]

Police officials in Seoul are saying the conversations between family members can leak sensitive information that can pose a threat to South Korea’s national security, but amendments to Seoul’s Protection of Communications Secrets Act could reduce risks. [UPI]

But given the frequency with which North Korean agents are exposed in the South — just keep scrolling — the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the United Front Department, and their assortment of spies, street thugs, slashers, hackersassassinsagents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.”

It’s a silly, short-sighted paranoia that’s tantamount to refusing to treat a disease for fear of the treatment’s side effects. The answer to spies using the phones is called law enforcement. More broadly, if Seoul doesn’t want to deal with North Korean espionage and influence operations in perpetuity, it should open a second front in Kim Jong-Un’s information war, and start running a few information operations of its own. 

One of the most important uses of inter-Korean phone links could be their use for money transfers. Plenty of families in the North rely on those remittances to survive, or to start small businesses that provide for their families. Seoul has been ambivalent about these remittances, too:

South Korea technically bans the transfers, but an official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles North Korea policy, says that the government has little incentive to stop the remittances.

“They fall into a gray area,” said the official, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak about the policy on record. “We always say no money should be sent to North Korea in case it is diverted for military purposes. But in this case, we’re not talking about huge amounts. And it’s for humanitarian purposes. So long as that’s the case, we won’t pursue it.” [WaPo, Chico Harlan, Feb. 2012]

Seoul has even fretted that small-time remittances from North Korean refugees to their families back home might violate international sanctions. Which is an argument that takes a lot of chutzpah, if you contemplate the millions of dollars Seoul pours into Pyongyang through the Kaesong Industrial Park each year.

South-to-North remittances have always been risky and expensive. Remitters charge commissions as high as 30%. Today, with Kim Jong-Un’s information crackdown on illegal calls over the Chinese border, money transfers often require North Korean family members and remitters to risk their lives:

In May this year, a North Korean defector in her 40s took a call from an unknown number at her office in the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was from her brother, who she had not seen for more than a decade, calling illegally from North Korea after tracking her down.

He was speaking from a remote mountainside near the border with China, and was in dire need of money to help treat another sister’s late stage cancer, she said.

Accompanied by a Chinese broker, the brother had spent five hours climbing up the mountain, avoiding North Korean security and desperately searching for a signal on a Chinese mobile telephone. Contact with anyone in the South is punishable by death in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated states. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park, July 2012]

Defectors objected strongly to a 2011 proposal by Seoul to require licenses for South-to-North remittances. Personally, I’m not sure that a licensing procedure is such a bad idea, if it’s administered efficiently. Licensing can help prevent South Koreans from sending money to government officials — and maybe even spy-handlers — while channeling legitimate remittances through the more honest and reliable remitters.

To ease the burden of the new red tape, Seoul might consider a new way to reduce the cost of a remittance, say, by allowing direct South-to-North transfers that don’t have to run through Chinese banks or Chinese cell phones:

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by next June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members.

Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

For the last 20 years, South has poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money. As far as Seoul knows, Pyongyang used some of that money to nuke up. Yet in the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, Seoul took bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. It didn’t work, but the money still flows.

Today, however, Seoul is afraid to take a chance on the kind of people-to-people communications that are changing North Korea profoundly. If those communications become regular and safe, suddenly, they start to sound like the first steps in a plausible plan to keep the Sunshine Policy’s gauzy promises about engagement, change, reform, and reunification.

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The Great Engagement Debate: Stanton v. Delury at NCNK

On October 22nd, the National Committee for North Korea invited me and Professor John Delury of Yonsei University to a debate, in which we each offered three proposals for the next president on North Korea policy, all premised on a delusion of grandeur that Donald Trump really cares what either of us thinks.

The debate was held in a beautiful conference room on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building overlooking the Capitol. There was a great crowd — probably about 60 people. Stephen Noerper, the Senior Vice President of the Korea Society, moderated.

ncnk3 ncnk2 ncnk1

Naturally, the debate became a debate about the Sunshine Policy, the Sunshine Lite Policy, and other Sunshine hybrids and mutations that have dominated U.S. and South Korean policy for most of the last 20 years. And while I could hardly agree less with Professor Delury on policy matters, I also found him to be an exceedingly likable and genial person. I’m glad to have met him, and honored to have debated him. My only regret is that there wasn’t video, but the transcript is here.

Many thanks to Keith Luse and NCNK for their kind invitation, and to Daniel Wertz for arranging this, and for his careful attention to the transcripts.

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The Myth of North Korean Socialism: How Pyongyang’s Profiteers Fooled the World

Over this long weekend, I’ve been reading Brian R. Myers’s new book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” a copy of which Prof. Myers was kind enough to send. Myers argues that juche, that cryptic ideology reporters often mention but never explain, is a sham ideology that is both overblown and seldom understood, by foreigners as well as North Koreans. Very roughly translated, juche means that man must be the master of his own destiny (in contrast to North Korea’s reality, in which individuality is uniquely suppressed). Myers argues that juche is a loanword from the Japanese zhuti, first seen in an 1887 Japanese discussion of Kant, and became a term of common usage in both Koreas. Pyongyang built the Juche Myth to give Kim Il-Sung ideological gravitas, and to decoy naive foreigners away from its real — and more implacable — ideology of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, which Myers described in “The Cleanest Race.” (You can hear Myers explain his argument here, in an interview with Chad O’Carroll.) Myers argues that Pyongyang maintains this duality (triality?) by code-switching between its foreign propaganda, its propaganda for its elites, and its propaganda for its underprivileged classes. (As we have seen.)

I’m not prepared to declare myself convinced of the entire argument before I finish the book, but I’m already mulling my own companion volume: “North Korea’s Socialist Myth.” The thesis of this book (or rather, this post) will be that Pyongyang’s claims of socialism are a sham, meant to lure naive or self-serving foreigners with more money than good sense, with a mirage that its profiteering represents progress toward ever-receding reforms. In recent years, that mirage has gained Pyongyang $7 billion dollars in South Korean aid, perhaps billions more from other gullible investors, and probably billions in sanctions relief from those who did not want to interfere with these phantom reforms.

By feigning socialism, Pyongyang also gains a small, fanatical, and almost influential following of apologists on the far left — apologists who are themselves willing to overlook not only its gross inequality, but also its racism (Barack Obama: “a wicked black monkey … an ugly sub-human … suitable to live among a troop of monkeys in the world’s largest African animal park, licking at the crumbs tossed by onlookers“), its homophobia (Michael Kirby: “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality”), its misogyny (Park Geun-Hye: “a whore [who] lifts her skirt to lure strangers“), its acts of war, its crimes against humanity, and the violence of their own allies.

Socialist ideology also justifies the economic totalitarianism by which Pyongyang prevents its subjects from achieving economic independence, and the other forms of independence (of thought, of movement, from want, from fear) that would inevitably follow. Socialism is not something that Pyongyang practices, it’s something that Pyongyang imposes on the weak and vulnerable. Its real economic policy is — and has long been — unrestrained state capitalism,* shielded by deceptive financial practices, and revealed only when its agents are caught carrying it out. Which is often, for those who are paying attention. (* See comments.)

Pyongyang has long been a profiteer from the un-socialist vices of gambling (both online and in pachinko parlors), narcotics smuggling, slaverymoney laundering, cigarette smuggling, currency counterfeiting, gold smuggling, pharmaceutical counterfeiting, the trade in endangered species, and even prostitution. For decades, it has permitted as much capitalism as necessary to maintain its elites, its security forces, and its weapons programs, but never enough to allow meaningful interaction between foreign ideas and non-elite North Koreans. The long-predicted penetration of capitalism into North Korean society did happen — not because the regime accepted reforms, but despite Pyongyang’s best efforts to suppress it. (Since the succession of Kim Jong-Un, once touted as a Swiss-educated reformer, the regime has made significant progress toward stanching the flow of goods and information into the peoples’ economy.)

Pyongyang’s controlled isolation was not a difficult thing to foresee, for those who read Nicholas Eberstadt’s quotations of past North Korean policy pronouncements. A sample:

It is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly. Their bourgeois ideology and culture are reactionary toxins to paralyze people’s ideological consciousness. Through such infiltration, they try to paralyze the independent consciousness of other nations and make them spineless. At the same time, they work to create illusions about capitalism and promote lifestyles among them based on the law of the jungle, in an attempt to induce the collapse of socialist and progressive nations. The ideological and cultural infiltration is their silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination….

As a reflection of Pyongyang’s doctrine, this statement is as true of North Korea’s peoples’ economy as it is irrelevant to Pyongyang’s palace economy. In North Korea, socialism is for little people. For decades, Pyongyang sustained itself on state capitalism while enforcing socialism on the expendable underclasses, wallowing in bacchanalian luxury while a million or two people starved to death. North Korea remains one of the world’s least equal societies.

KJU ski kju airport

This week’s reporting on North Korea’s big parade reenforces the evidence of widening inequality, showing us both the relative prosperity of Pyongyang (James Pearson, Reuters), but also the unabated poverty of the rural provinces (AP, Eric Talmadge), and the hardships of those who must still evade tightened border controls to work in China illegally, to support their families at home (Anna Fifield, Washington Post).

Pyongyang, by contrast, has now had decades of exposure to capitalism, but capitalism has not pacified North Korea, any more than it pacified Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Baathist Iraq, or Xi Jinping’s China. Rather, in all of these cases, state capitalism fueled each state’s military-industrial complex. The experience of the last two decades provides no basis to believe that capitalism on Pyongyang’s terms will transform North Korea into anything but a more stable, more repressive, and better-armed version of itself.

Of course, to accept what should be obvious by now, one must abandon the hope which sustained a fading generation of American and South Korean policymakers — that Pyongyang will eventually allow more than minimal economic reforms, and that trade (beyond enriching the state and perpetuating its policies of repression at home and extortion abroad) will eventually lead to broad economic, social, and political reforms. Pyongyang’s construction boom, cell phones, traffic jams, and Mickey Mouse merchandise have become the slender reed on which the Sunshine school sustains itself. But so what?

For years, I’ve challenged advocates of “engagement” with Pyongyang — as opposed to engagement with the North Korean people — to name a significant and positive change their policies have brought about. I have yet to hear an answer. The comments are open.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.

 

 

Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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The Korea Development Institute wants to help companies “bypass” U.N. sanctions against N. Korea

Pyongyang’s latest business model for accessing hard currency despite U.N. sanctions is to rent out tens of thousands of its workers to Chinese factory owners. Those workers then labor in exploitative conditions, while Pyongyang steals most of their wages. Now, the Korea Development Institute—an “independent” think tank created under South Korean law in 1970, and “partnered” with several U.N. bodies and at least one South Korean government ministry—is urging small and medium-sized South Korean firms to join these exploitative arrangements.

I’ve often argued that engagement schemes put cash in Kim Jong-Un’s pockets, no questions asked, while the U.N. is ostensibly trying to starve his WMD programs of funds and crimp his lifestyle until he complies with the resolutions. Proponents of these arrangements usually answer these arguments with a see-no-evil approach–hey, we don’t have any reason to think Kim Jong-Un is using our money for nefarious purposes, and all engagement is good engagement! (Is that so?) It’s rare to see them come right out and admit that their deliberate purpose is to help Pyongyang circumvent U.N. sanctions–here, the same sanctions the South Korean government voted for in 2013:

South Korea’s small and medium enterprises (SME) should try to create an industrial park in northeastern China to bypass international sanctions and expand business ties with North Korea, a state-run think tank said Sunday. [Yonhap]

Perhaps the reporter misunderstood them? Well, no:

“More importantly, investment in the city can bypass new investment restrictions imposed by Seoul against North Korea, as well as the United Nations ban on bulk cash reaching North Korea,” it said. The U.N. ban has been imposed after Pyongyang detonated nuclear devices and fired off long-range rockets.

Judging by state-run Yonhap’s report, the reporter sees nothing wrong with this splendid idea, either. He (or she) never cites any of the U.N. Security Council resolutions or quotes their text, nor does he seek comment from any legal experts or South Korean government officials about the legality of this. Least of all, no one bothers to ask a South Korean labor activist about the ethics of this, not that you’d easily find one who isn’t under Pyongyang’s substantial influence anyway.

Instead, everyone seems to blithely accept circumventing U.N. sanctions and enslaving North Korean workers as a swell ideas. What’s not clear is whether they simply don’t care, because they assume China and South Korea won’t enforce the sanctions, or whether they think they’ve found a neat little loophole. Have they? Let’s unpack what the latest of these resolutions, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, has to say about this.

First, Paragraph 11 “decides” that all member states “shall … prevent the provision of financial services … by their nationals or entities organized under their laws … any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.” It also requires member states to prevent “the evasion of” a series of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions going back to 2006.

Next, Paragraph 14 “[e]xpresses concern that transfers to the DPRK of bulk cash may be used to evade the measures imposed in” the resolutions, and “clarifies that all States shall apply the measures set forth in paragraph 11 of this resolution to the transfers of cash, including through cash couriers, transiting to and from the DPRK so as to ensure such transfers of bulk cash do not contribute to” prohibited activities, or “to the evasion of” U.N. sanctions.

Finally, Paragraph 15 “decides” that member states “shall not provide public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to” prohibited activities, or “to the evasion of” U.N. sanctions.

So KDI’s scheme would be in clear violation of the sanctions. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether KDI didn’t read them or doesn’t care. Many South Koreans have long subscribed to Korean Exceptionalism, which is not so much an argument as an emotional impulse that subordinates the enforcement of law and principle to ethnic solidarity. To Americans, of course, this is another case of South Koreans violating the very rules that were largely written and approved for their own protection.

The onus now shifts to the South Korean government, which is legally obligated to block this. After all, KDI isn’t just an “entity organized under” South Korean law, it’s also under the government’s obvious and substantial influence. The South Korean government can’t allow this plan to move forward without itself violating the resolutions.

One last point–KDI also claims that “[p]roducts made at such factories should enjoy price competitiveness and could be shipped to other parts of China and the world without restrictions,” but this isn’t quite so, either. Executive Order 13570 prohibits the “importation into the United States, directly or indirectly, of any goods, services, or technology from North Korea.” (Emphasis mine, but you knew that.) Willful violations carry severe penalties, including 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $1 million, and a $250,000 civil penalty.

Which isn’t to deny that there are willful violations going on anyway, either for lack of intelligence, lack of interest by the Obama Administration, or both. (Eventually, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act will also make this commerce sanctionable as a product of forced labor or human trafficking.) But like a heat rash, the Obama Administration won’t last forever, and one day, a new administration will come along.

And it will screw this up in a completely different (but almost certainly, less tolerant) way.

Functionally, what KDI wants to do here isn’t that different from Kaesong or any number of similar “engagement” projects run by China, Russia, or other countries. What makes it different is the brazenness with which the proponents admit (in an unguarded moment) what their game is. In doing so, they unwittingly validate my darkest suspicions, not just of KDI’s true motives, but of the true motives behind other engagement projects, too.

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