Archive for Proliferation

South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is popular enough that its name in the political lexicon predates even the Sunshine Policy — it’s known as the “Northern Wind.” Appeasement is not as popular as it was a decade ago, but it’s popular enough that I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [....]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.


[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, Read more

Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire. The ROK has one of the world’s highest population densities, and its defense is as dependent on technology as the rest of its society. I’m not surprised, then, that the South Korean military is denying that North Korea has EMP weapons … at least for now.

Meanwhile, another writer suggests that our own EMP weapons could help restore our failing military deterrence of North Korea.

One way to threaten preemption even without missiles is to further develop a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that could neutralize missiles on the launcher.  Because North Korea will soon develop road-mobile missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons, the further development of non-nuclear EMP systems capable of taking out, say, a 50-square-kilometer joint fire area, would also shift the cost-benefit calculus against North Korea. [Patrick Cronin, The Diplomat]

There is very little (but some) publicly available information about non-nuclear EMP weapons. According to Global Security, the U.S. military may even have used them against the Iraqi military in 1991.

The use of non-nuclear EMP doesn’t raise the same concerns about nuclear escalation and clouds of radionuclides drifting over, say, China. On the other hand, South Korea is almost certainly far more dependent on technology, and thus far more vulnerable to EMP warfare, than the North. The area south of the DMZ is heavily populated, whereas the area to the North is thinly populated and technologically backward. Whether a first use of EMP is really a good idea depends on unknowable facts, such as the imminence and scale of the threat we’d be preempting, the capability of the weapons, and the likelihood that North Korea could respond in kind.

For a more scaleable form of deterrence, I’m much more comfortable with this idea, myself.

While North and South Korea agreed some years ago to forego psychological warfare against each other, the North is a flagrant purveyor of vitriol and falsehood.  Surely the alliance can better saturate the North with uncomfortable facts—from pictures of Kim Jong-Un’s luxury houses side by side with North Korean gulags, to video lectures by North Korean refugees who have managed to escape the world’s most oppressive regime.

In fact, I don’t see any good arguments against doing these things in response to North Korea’s tests of SCUD, 300-millimeter rockets, or ICBM engines. If one of our goals is to slow the rate of North Korea’s progress toward acquiring an effective nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t it make sense to convince Kim Jong Un that that progress also carries risks, and that time isn’t on his side?

Obama’s soft line on North Korea sanctions has failed.

AT LEAST ONE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER thinks North Korea has never been nastier to the United States, and if its racist attacks on President Obama aren’t proof enough of that, maybe this message from North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-Il, is:

He accused the United States of using its military power to deliberately subvert any dialogue between North and South Korea — which is also a standard North Korean assertion. But in a variant of that theme, he said the American behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptom of a mentally retarded patient.” Asked later to explain the analogy, Mr. Ri said, “The U.S. has been doing it for over six decades on our doorstep.” [N.Y. Times]

I don’t think I’ll ever get over my amazement that North Korea, a flagrant violator of U.N. Security Council resolutions that keeps 100,000 men, women, and children in political prison camps, is a member of the United Nations in good standing.

“Ambassador” Ri also threatened that Pyongyang would continue its nuclear weapons development if the U.S. continues its “threats” against North Korea, and demanded that the Security Council conduct an emergency session to review joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises.

Consider the absurdity of this. It’s the equivalent of Dennis Rodman telling his agent that unless he quits nagging him about going back to rehab, he’ll have no choice but to keep drinking and sue for breach of the peace … in Judge Joe Brown’s court.

Meanwhile, as John Kerry claims credit for keeping North Korea quiet, North Korea continues its quiet progression toward the development of an inter-continental ballistic missile, and a pad to test it from:

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters Tuesday he believes North Korea has continued to make “steady progress” in both its missile technology and nuclear capability.

So we find ourselves in a place where the sanctions we’ve imposed are woefully insufficient to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or to force it to negotiate away its nukes. Our State Department still says it isn’t interested in talks with a North Korea that rejects the premise of nuclear disarmament, and North Korea insists that it isn’t disarming. Intelligence estimates vary on North Korea’s capacity to miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon, but time clearly isn’t on our side. We also know that North Korea will sell any weapon it possesses to any willing customer, including helping listed state sponsors of terrorism with their nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to reach out his hand to rogue states if they would unclench their fists. In the years since then, the President has given North Korea the closest thing there is to immunity from sanctions for its attacks on South Korea, its missile tests, its nuclear tests, its arrests of harmless tourists and tour guides, and its proliferation and weapons smuggling.

I suppose I shouldn’t overstate my point here, because I’ve never seen that much significance in North Korea’s displays of good will or temperamental moderation for external audiences. In fact, my point is that in the North Korean context, gestures and atmospherics mean next to nothing. By now, it should be clear that those who counseled the President that he could move us closer to the realization of our nation’s interests by avoiding confrontation with Pyongyang, and by building a reserve of good toward it have sent him on a fool’s errand. North Korea is never meaner than when, fairly or unfairly, it perceives us to be soft.

Kim Jong Un stages missile test for the hard-of-hearing

“QUIET” NORTH KOREA has tested another missile to celebrate the anniversary of its survival of its invasion of South Korea. Based on the range, it was probably a SCUD, which makes the test a violation of UNSCR 1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094, in case you’re keeping track. According to Yonhap:

Saturday’s firing is the 15th rocket launch, and the sixth ballistic missile launch, by the North this year, which the international community condemned as a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

I think Yonhap meant to say that this is the 15th missile launch; after all, North Korea has probably fired at least 100 artillery rockets.* His Porcine Majesty was present to oversee the festivities in person. Knowing that our current Secretary of State can be a bit hard of hearing, he spoke in our direction:

“He examined a firing plan mapped out in consideration of the present location of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces’ bases in South Korea and under the simulated conditions of the battle to strike and destroy them before guiding the drill,” the KCNA said in an English dispatch.

AP correspondent Hyung-Jin Kim adds:

North Korea routinely test-fires missiles, artillery and rockets, but the number of weapons tests it has conducted this year is much higher than previous years. Outside analysts say this indicates that North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is handling things differently than his late father, Kim Jong Il, who sparingly used longer-range missile and nuclear tests as negotiating cards with the outside world to win concessions.

I suspect John Kerry already regrets his characterization of North Korea as “quiet.”

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* Correction, July 28: An earlier version of this post stated that “North Korea has fired well over 100 of its 300-millimeter rockets.” While crunching the numbers on this, I realized that not all of these rockets were necessarily of the new 300-millimeter type, and that some of the artillery fired in the big barrage of July 14th was old-fashioned tube artillery. I suppose now you’re going to want to see the numbers crunched. The dates are hyperlinked to my sources.

  • 2/21     4     300-mm rockets
  • 2/27     4     SCUD missiles
  • 3/3       2     SCUD missiles
  • 3/4       4     300-mm rockets
  • 3/16   25     FROG rockets
  • 3/23   46     FROG rockets
  • 3/25     2     Nodong medium-range missiles
  • 6/26     3     300-mm rockets
  • 6/29     2     SCUD missile
  • 7/2       2     300-mm rockets
  • 7/3       2     300-mm rockets
  • 7/8       2     SCUD missile**
  • 7/13     2     SCUD missile
  • 7/14  >100  Rockets and artillery
  • 7/27     1     SCUD missile

** According to this N.Y. Times report, “North Korea has conducted 13 rocket and missile tests this year, launching a total of 90 projectiles, most of them fired from sites on the country’s east coast. Ten of those missiles were ballistic, including two Rodong missiles that were fired from Sukchon, north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on March 26 and flew 403 miles across the country before landing in waters off the east coast.”

Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.

At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.

“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.

“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]

Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus – and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran – while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.

Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.

Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.

It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.

Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.

But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:

[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality. 

While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.

Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches.  [Yonhap]

To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.

One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.

Treasury nukes bank with possible North Korea links (updated)

The Treasury Department has gone full Banco Delta on Cyprus-based, Tanzanian-chartered FBME Bank for money laundering, terrorist financing, and possibly even Syrian WMD proliferation — proliferation that is closely linked to North Korea.

According to Treasury’s press release, FBME promoted itself as a provider of no-questions-asked banking services with loose anti-money laundering controls, although I saw no evidence of this at FBME’s Web site. But according to Treasury’s more detailed Notice of Finding, FBME was laundering money for Hezbollah, illegal online gamblers, phishing hucksters, drug lords, African kleptocrats, and various swindlers who ripped off victims in California, Ohio, and Michigan.

Treasury invoked Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act against FBME, applying the dreaded Fifth Special Measure, which closes the target’s correspondent accounts and effectively cuts it off from the global financial system. You can read Treasury’s Notice of Proposed Rule-Making here. Or, for those of you who aren’t banking lawyers, I’ll simplify:

Well, almost. A bank can survive that sort of thing and continue to do business, but only on a small, local scale. Banco Delta Asia itself continues to do business for a local customers in Chinese Yuan and Macanese Petacas. In the case of FBME, however, its business model depends on international transactions. It isn’t offering commercial banking services in Cyprus, and it only has four branches in Tanzania.

So far, Treasury has invoked Section 311 against four jurisdictions — the Ukraine and Nauru (since rescinded), Burma, and Iran. It has also listed 13 financial institutions, including Banco Delta Asia, which remains listed to this day.

North Korea, the only existing state known to sponsor currency counterfeiting and drug trafficking, and to encourage illicit activity by its diplomats abroad, has never been listed. Discuss among yourselves.

Treasury’s case against FBME makes no direct reference to North Korea, but according to the Notice of Finding, one of FBME’s customers was a front for a sanctioned Syrian entity, the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), and used FBME to process transactions through the U.S. financial system. (This is the part that people never get — the bad guys love them some dollars. They just don’t think they’ll get caught, probably because they usually aren’t.)

Treasury did not name the front company.

According to the Nuclear Threat institute, SSRC “collaborates heavily with Iranian and North Korean entities” on missile technology. In February 2013, the Israeli Air Force bombed a convoy loaded with anti-aircraft missiles at SSRC’s complex north of Damascus, damaging what The New York Times described as “the country’s main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons.” Further on, the Times article says, “Intelligence officials also believe that the center has links to North Korea, a source of much of Syria’s missile technology.”

Oh, and those anti-aircraft missiles were SA-17s, the same kind suspected of shooting down that Malaysian airliner today. [Update: Subsequent press reports have said that the missile used to shoot down the airliner was an SA-11.]

Earlier this year, the Times of Israel, citing Jane’s Defence Weekly, alleged that SSRC has gone into the business of manufacturing its own ballistic missiles domestically to bypass international sanctions against Syria, and that it has done so “with the assistance of countries including Iran, North Korea, and Belarus.”

The SSRC is also working on a project with North Korea to help improve its Scud D missile capabilities. North Korean officials at the Tangun corporation have already begun researching and producing components for Scud D missiles which would make it difficult for enemy targets to calculate the missiles’ flight trajectory upon atmospheric entry, Jane’s reported, thus preventing or delaying interception by anti-missile systems, including those in Israel’s possession.

Korea Tangun Trading Corporation appears on the SDN List. For more about the links between SSRC and North Korea, NK News has done some superb investigative reporting on this topic.

According to the Notice of Finding, the SSRC front company shared the same address in Tortola, British Virgin Islands with 111 other shell companies that are also subject to international sanctions. There are only 74 targets on the SDN list with Tortola addresses. Most are fronts for Cuba; a few are sanctioned for links to Hezbollah, Iran, or Zimbabwe. One, DCB Finance, is North Korean, and is a front for Daedong Credit Bank. DCB Finance and Daedong Credit Bank were sanctioned last June for proliferation-related activities.

By itself, the coincidence of address adds little to Treasury’s case, which presumably relies on financial evidence of the SSRC front company’s transactions. It does suggest that in financial terms, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than Road Town, Tortola.

FBME had did not immediately respond to a Wall Street Journal reporter who contacted it for comment. Perhaps when he called, the reporter heard a Board of Directors cry out in terror before it was suddenly silenced.

~   ~   ~

[Update: Greetings to my visitors arriving from FBME Bank and FBME Card Services on the lovely island of Cyprus. If you want to get your side of the story out there, do feel free to send an email or drop a comment. I have to say this for FBME -- after a lot of searching, I never did find the evidence that it marketed its lax AML compliance, although the pre-paid card services it offered did not have a particularly good compliance reputation.]

“Happy Fourth of July!” – Kim Jong Un

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

And this time, dammit, they mean it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

N. Korea threatens annual missile, nuke tests

Our setting is a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the prevention of WMD proliferation, last Wednesday. Ironically, a diplomat from South Korea, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, chaired the meeting.

The turn of North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong Il, came. When it did, Ri added further evidence to support the Theory of North Korean Exceptionalism — that is, North Korea is neither inclined nor expected to follow the simplest of rules that apply to everyone else on earth. Ri was supposed to have four minutes to speak, but he growls on for at least four times that. The Chair finally cut Ri off mid-sentence, just as he was getting to the part about the annual testing. Unless you find this sort of thing interesting on its own merits, skip to the 40-minute mark.

[link; hat tip to Adam Cathcart]
As a result, we miss the full flavor of just exactly what the North Koreans intend to test, and how often. Pity. I suppose there’s always KNCA.

Just test the damn thing already.

So the news this week is that the Obama Administration, which for the last five years has stayed its hand from sanctioning North Korea because of Chinese sensitivities, has just blocked the assets of top members of Vladimir Putin’s government over their seizure of the Crimea. That sounds like an effective way to piss them off, but I can’t see how it poses a serious threat to Russia’s economy or Putin’s domestic support, or how it will deter his next aggression. (If you want to do that, give the Ukrainians some capable antitank and antiaircraft missiles, train their troops well, and bait Putin into a long, nasty insurgency that will do to him politically what Chechnya did to Yeltsin.)

The other news this week is that one nuclear test may not be enough for Kim Jong Un, and as I write this, North Korea has just announced a live-fire exercise near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea. North Korea, in contrast to Russia, has unleashed a stream of homophobic, sexist, and arguably racist insults against world leaders, committed crimes against humanity on a massive scale, attacked a U.S. treaty ally twice, proliferated nuclear and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and tested two nukes (and counting).

For which, it faces the full wrath of Samantha Power’s Twitter account.

What this means is that we’re using the strategy against Russia now we that should have used against North Korea ten years ago, that we’re (finally) using the strategy in Syria that we should have used there in 2011 and should be using to help Ukraine defend itself now, we used the strategy in Libya in 2011 that we should have used in Iran in 2009 (only with a more competent follow-through), and we have no North Korea strategy at all. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a penguin square dance.

~   ~   ~

Obama’s visit to Seoul, designed to reassure our Asian allies, coincided with so much bad press about the incoherence of his North Korea policy that it may have had the opposite effect. The Washington Post portrayed the President as at a loss for solutions to a security challenge he underestimated. The New York Times said this and more, revealing that White House staffers are frustrated, divided, and out of ideas:

“We have failed,” said Evans J. R. Revere, who spent his State Department career trying various diplomatic strategies to stop the North. “For two decades our policy has been to keep the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. It’s now clear there is no way they will give them up, no matter what sanctions we impose, no matter what we offer. So now what?”

It is an assessment some of Mr. Obama’s aides say they privately share, though for now the administration refuses to negotiate with the North until it first fulfills its oft-violated agreements to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. A recent effort inside the National Security Council to devise a new approach resulted in a flurry of papers and classified strategy sessions — and the conclusion that all the alternatives to the current course were worse.

“We’re stuck,” one participant in the review said.

The first step toward recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. The second step would be to stop listening to people like Evans Revere who gave you the sort of counsel that got you where you are now. But in the end, the administration is responsible for its own choices. It wasted valuable time on the flawed narrative that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education meant that he would be a reformer, and “largely left North Korea on the back burner while focusing on sanctions, cyberattacks and pressure on Iran.” This leaves the administration desperate for a deal, yet uncertain what that deal could be:

In recent months the Chinese have led an effort to restart diplomatic talks, and the United States has quietly met with the North. But the goal is unclear. To the United States, the purpose of the talks would be denuclearization; Mr. Kim’s government has already declared that the one thing he will not do is give up his small nuclear arsenal, especially after seeing the United States help unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who surrendered his own nuclear program in 2003. [N.Y. Times, David Sanger]

It’s implausible to me that the White House would have talked to China and North Korea without some willingness to compromise its demands for denuclearization. That lends further weight to what I wrote here a week ago. My best guess is that they were toying with the idea, but it’s not clear that they committed to it. The only thing that’s clear is North Korea’s position.

~   ~   ~

Sadly, our President can’t even sound credible when he threatens to impose new sanctions. Here is what he said in Seoul last week, amid rumors of an imminent nuclear test:

President Barack Obama says it may be time to consider further sanctions against North Korea “that have even more bite” as the country is threatening its fourth nuclear test.

Addressing a joint news conference alongside South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said threats by North Korea will get it “nothing except further isolation” from the global community. But Obama acknowledged there are limits to what impacts additional penalties can have on the country.

“North Korea already is the most isolated country in the world by far,” Obama said. “Its people suffer terribly because of the decisions its leaders have made. And we are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight.” [Korea Herald]

The veracity of that statement depends on the North Korean, but I’ll have more to say about that later this week. As threats go, the President could learn a few things from the North Koreans about clarity and message discipline. He may not believe in a magic bullet — especially if he isn’t really willing to use a high enough caliber — but a speech designed to restore the confidence of nervous allies is no place to sound wobbly, equivocal, and agnostic about his own threats. He’d have been clearer if he’d borrowed the script of ex-aide Robert Einhorn:

“There is no question, if there is fourth round of test, the U.S. will take additional sanctions, steps,” Einhorn, a former adviser on nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, said in a press meeting on the sidelines of an international forum in Seoul. “And they will increase the overall effectiveness of the sanctions regime against North Korea. I think it would be a real mistake in terms of North Korea’s own interest for them to go ahead with a nuclear test.” [Yonhap]

Other prominent members of Obama’s party have also been arguing for tougher sanctions recently.

The international community should step up efforts for “targeted sanctions” on the North Korean leadership before it hands over nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, a former U.S. nonproliferation official said Thursday. “The DPRK (North Korea) looks like a good place for targeted sanctions,” said Joseph DeThomas, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under the Bill Clinton administration. [....]

DeThomas emphasized the importance of finding “very targeted mechanisms to go after the leadership of a country doing bad things without doing damage to the population.” He said a lot of hard currency is put aside in foreign banks for leadership purposes. “Any time you can affect their access to hard currency, that has significant impact,” he said. 

The problem is not the will to impose sanctions on Pyongyang but a lack of information, said DeThomas. He said the possibility of North Korea proliferating its nuclear technology and equipment is more worrisome than another nuclear test. [Yonhap]

Every word of that makes sense to me. Finally, Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence recently told a Senate subcommittee that North Korea is “susceptible to” financial sanctions:

“What we are going to continue to do is to implement the sanctions programs that we have in place, which are focused on North Korea’s efforts to develop its nuclear program, as well as North Korea’s other illicit activity,” David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at a congressional hearing.

The North is clearly susceptible to sanctions, he added, testifying before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. [....]

The Obama administration is constantly reevaluating what it has been doing with respect to North Korea, which is a topic actively under consideration within the government, he added. Cohen added denuclearizing North Korea is an unswerving goal of the administration. [Yonhap]

Or so we hope. For its part, the U.N. had already been considering the designation of two more North Korean entities — Ocean Maritime Management and Chinpo (snicker) Shipping — for their role in the scheme to smuggle MiG-21s from Cuba to North Korea. But this whack-a-mole strategy can’t hope to outpace North Korea’s production of shell companies. Its banks are its weak link.

There are three things that can be said now that we could not say one year ago today. First, the administration is under new pressure from a newly critical media to show that it has a coherent North Korea policy. Second, if North Korea provokes in some way, the President will come under strong pressure from within his own party, and probably from within his own administration, to impose financial sanctions. Third, the President will face new pressure from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who have offered a coherent alternative to contrast with his own incoherence. Now there is a trigger, just waiting for someone to pull it.

It may well be that if the President is forced to act, he’ll prefer to claim credit by signing an executive order rather than a legislative creation like H.R. 1771. There are certainly loopholes in existing sanctions that the President could close, particularly on human rights, but as with any sanctions regime, the enforcement will be more important than the authority. That’s why the President would make a deeper impression by announcing a round of asset blocking actions under the existing Executive Orders 13,551 and 13,382. But if North Korea continues to provoke, it will only raise more election-year calls for the President to abandon incremental pressure for something that has the potential to change policies — or personnel — in Pyongyang.

Open Sources, March 6, 2014

~  1  ~

THANK YOU TO THOSE WHO CAME to this event on Capitol Hill yesterday and helped make it a huge success. We filled the room well beyond its capacity. There was an energy in the room that went beyond the question of numbers. It was who was there — young, old, in-between, conservatives, liberals, and a variety of ethnicities, including a very sizable Korean-American contingent. I don’t have words to express my admiration for the leadership of Suzanne Scholte, Greg Scarlatoiu, and Judy Yoo of the Federation of Korean-Americans. Human Rights Watch also made a very welcome contribution to the discussion.

~  2  ~

ADRIAN HONG, in The Christian Science Monitor:

We teach our children the heavy legacies of humanity’s grave past injustices: Nanjing. Auschwitz. The Killing Fields. Rwanda. Srebrenica. Darfur. Implicit in such education is the belief that had we been alive, or had we been in positions of influence while the great atrocities of the past century had been perpetrated, we would’ve acted decisively to stop them.

But the moral clarity with which we judge those who preceded us is elusive when we see our world today. Museums and memorials to the fallen victims of yesterday’s tyrants are meaningless if they do not translate to stands against the perpetrators of brutality today.”

~  3  ~

ANDREW W. KELLER, an American lawyer in Korea, writes in The American Thinker:

The United States Congress should pass H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2013, which is currently in committee.  Sanctions restrict the export to and import from North Korea of goods and technology for the use, development, or acquisition of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  Sanctions also ban the export of luxury goods to North Korea, a tactic that could help undermine the North Korean regime, which bribes its VIPs in Pyongyang with imported luxury goods while people in the countryside starve. 

~  4  ~

THE WASHINGTON POST writes a strongly worded denunciation of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, and of the isolationist escapism of too many Americans recently:

The urge to pull back — to concentrate on what Mr. Obama calls “nation-building at home” — is nothing new, as former ambassador Stephen Sestanovich recounts in his illuminating history of U.S. foreign policy, “Maximalist.” There were similar retrenchments after the Korea and Vietnam wars and when the Soviet Union crumbled. But the United States discovered each time that the world became a more dangerous place without its leadership and that disorder in the world could threaten U.S. prosperity. Each period of retrenchment was followed by more active (though not always wiser) policy. Today Mr. Obama has plenty of company in his impulse, within both parties and as reflected by public opinion. But he’s also in part responsible for the national mood: If a president doesn’t make the case for global engagement, no one else effectively can.

The White House often responds by accusing critics of being warmongers who want American “boots on the ground” all over the world and have yet to learn the lessons of Iraq. So let’s stipulate: We don’t want U.S. troops in Syria, and we don’t want U.S. troops in Crimea. A great power can become overextended, and if its economy falters, so will its ability to lead. None of this is simple.

But it’s also true that, as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.

These isolationist interludes are a feature of our history, just like our interventionist excesses. They remind me of Trotsky’s adage that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you (hat tip). These interludes eventually end with unpleasant awakenings, and I worry that we haven’t seen the last of those yet.

While this certainly counsels against the dramatic reduction in our armed forces that the President has proposed, I also wonder when we’ll realize that the best way to protect U.S. interests abroad is often to ally ourselves with the people of the affected country who share our interests and values, arm them to the teeth, and train them well. If the Russian experiences in Finland, Afghanistan, and Chechyna tell us anything, it’s that the Russians are especially bad at fighting determined opponents who use unconventional tactics. If a messy border war eventually forces Putin out of power, Russia gaining control of the historically and ethnically Russian Crimea would be a small price to pay.

~  5  ~

I AM IN RARE AGREEMENT WITH JOHN KERRY when Kerry says that North Korea is “an evil place,” but then, there isn’t much we know about North Korea now that we didn’t know in 2003, when John Bolton made substantially similar comments about the North, and the North Koreans went histrionic on him. Now it’s Kerry’s turn. Does this disqualify Kerry as an effective diplomat?

“This is another vivid expression of the U.S.’ hostile policy toward the DPRK,” a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry said, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kerry’s remarks “are no more than a manifestation of his frustration and outbursts let loose by the defeated as the DPRK is winning one victory after another despite the whole gamut of pressure upon it over the nuclear issue,” the spokesman said.

“Before blaming others, Kerry had better ponder over what to say of the U.S., a tundra of human rights, as it commits horrible genocide in various parts of the world in disregard of international law under the signboard of ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy,’” the spokesman said.

Kerry should “bear in mind that no pressure is workable” on the North, he said. [Yonhap]

What’s dramatically different, of course, is that when Bolton said it, it was more evidence that Bolton was “a crazy neocon” and further reason to derail his nomination as U.N. Ambassador. Since Kerry said it, and since the North Koreans went histrionic on Kerry, there’s been almost complete media silence. Some of this is certainly because the consensus on North Korea has shifted, but the consensus has shifted because (quelle surprise) North Korea kept right on being North Korea after January 21, 2009. Bolton was right all along, but too many of us allowed our political polarities to blind us to the truth he spoke.

Update: The North Koreans make a similar comparison.

~  6  ~

NOW, THE U.N. PANEL OF EXPERTS is investigating Dennis Rodman’s gifts to Kim Jong Un.

~  7  ~

THE PANEL MAY ALSO DESIGNATE two more North Korean companies over the Cuba MiG-21 smuggling deal, which will eventually result in the blocking of their assets once Treasury and the EU get around to listing them:

The two include Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government that is also the registered manager of the Chong Chon Gang. The other is Chinpo Shipping Co., registered in Singapore, allegedly used for the payment of costs for the Chong Chon Gang’s operation.

Chinpo Shipping? Really? So I take it the Urban Dictionary is blocked in North Korea. Pity.

I often ask myself why North Korea goes to so much risk and expense to buy up equipment that hasn’t had a combat advantage since the Johnson Administration. I often worry that North Korea’s doctrine for the use of these aircraft concentrates on low-altitude, one-way missions. After all, it’s clear that some of their airfields are fit for take-offs, but not really fit for landings.

~  8  ~

OVERALL, SANCTIONS ENFORCEMENT has a mixed record since the approval of UNSCR 2094, and my lapse of optimism about sanctions enforcement last summer was probably premature. First, via Yonhap and IHS Janes, we learn that North Korea is still able to trade in weapons, exporting $11 million and importing $63 million in weapons last year (that we know about). Admittedly, this isn’t very much, and some of these imports are probably pursuant to a loophole in the Security Council resolutions allowing North Korea to import light weapons from China. It isn’t clear whether that sum includes technology transfers and technical assistance, or North Korea’s recent acquisition of six road-mobile ICBM transporter-erector-launchers.

Second, and more worrisome, we see that despite signs of a banking crackdown last spring, trade between North Korea and China continues to increase. Obviously, the North Koreans have (1) found Chinese banks willing to accept their deposits and handle their financial transactions, and (2) avoided any significant financial disruption of their network of commercial agents in China after the Jang Song -Thaek purge.

This sort of rope-a-dope game is typical of China. They pretend to comply with sanctions for a few weeks, and go right back to the same old dirty business. That’s why we need H.R. 1771.

North Korea approaching provocation phase of its “vicious cycle”

North Korea’s bipolar cycle is now familiar to most Korea watchers, including the President of South Korea. The North pursues its nuclear weapons capability with consistent determination in all phases of that cycle, but not always with consistent ostentation. There are periodic acts of satellite theater — a new excavation here, a new launch pad there, or steam from a cooling tower. Words vacillate between conciliation (often cryptic) and belligerence (but mostly, belligerence).

You can’t really time North Korea’s cycles with a calendar — although it does strike me that it would be interesting to try — but it is possible to identify some broad patterns. The cycles have higher tides and lower ebbs when the North wants to test a new or weakened administration in the United States or South Korea. The tides ebb when the North calculates that it’s about to get a payoff, or that it has gone as far as it can without suffering some consequence that it fears. They probably rise due to a combination of domestic political motives, a desire to keep its opponents off balance, and simple extortion. As for how the tone of North Korean propaganda has changed under Kim Jong Un, I’ll recommend this analysis by the Daily NK.

What is increasingly clear is that North Korea’s current moon-faced tyrant has entered a waxing phase.

Three years ago the retaliation was limited to Yeonpyeong, but in the future it will include the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae and other centers of the puppet South Korean government,” said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

The KPA command, which is responsible for units facing the sea demarcation line in the Yellow Sea, claimed that if Seoul has forgotten the “crushing defeat” it received in the past, it will face greater tragedy for making any kind of impudent provocations.

A senior North Korean official has also threatened the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with “a nuclear catastrophe.” (North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.)

By the end of the Lee Myung Bak administration, the North had posted banners on the KCNA website calling for the slitting of Lee’s throat. We can already see that Pyongyang has begun the process of making Ms. Park its new Emmanuel Goldstein. Last week, KCNA called Park “a political prostitute.” This week, it’s Uriminzokkiri’s turn:

Uriminzokkiri, North Korea’s main Internet-based media and propaganda website, said a Pyongyang printing house released a booklet called a “diagnosis of the South’s theory of principle” that dissected the follies of policy goals being pursued by the conservative Park government.

It said the so-called principled approach lauded by the chief executive who took power in late February effectively aims to change the North, and is based on the arrogant idea that the South can dictate actions of the North.

According to the website, the booklet claimed South Korean hardliners want to wrestle the initiative in inter-Korean dialogue and use this advantage to strive for unification based on a free and democratic political system.

Where else is this headed? For one thing, we continue to read rumors that the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test. Recent strains between the U.S. and China may tempt Pyongyang to see a moment of opportunity to get away with a provocation.

Personally, I hope North Korea does test a nuke. If it can be said that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy at all, that policy clearly isn’t working, and is allowing North Korea to rush toward nuclear breakout almost unimpeded. The administration seems disinterested in North Korea, perhaps because it has quietly resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea, or perhaps because it’s distracted by domestic troubles or Iran. Whatever the cause of the administration’s apparent lack of a coherent policy, it’s not going to change unless busy policymakers stop thinking about immigration reform, Obamacare, the 2014 elections, or Iran long enough to focus on this problem for a week or two. Every time they do, it becomes more obvious to them that the old approach has failed and that a new, tougher approach is needed.

What will make this test different from every other test is that this time, there is a ready policy alternative at hand that threatens to cause severe (and possibly fatal) damage to North Korea’s ruling class. At the very least, a sudden case of bankruptcy should convince an unsteady new North Korean leader that time isn’t on his side.

How the Iran deal affects North Korea policy

You would think that the world’s biggest government would be capable of handling more than one global proliferation crisis at a time. Unfortunately, Washington isn’t wired for that kind of bandwidth. Major policy initiatives require political capital, and it will take all of this administration’s dwindling reserves to fend off a new round of Iran sanctions in Congress.* The administration couldn’t defend a deal with North Korea now if it had one, and that goes double for the sort of non-disarmament deal being pushed by the likes of Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth.

Regardless of your subjective views, the Obama Administration’s political position has eroded significantly in the last month. Its approval ratings on foreign policy are almost as low as they are on Obamacare. I suspect that the administration’s approval rating on foreign policy will get a short-term bump — reporters are using words like “historic” and “euphoria,” word choices that have proven to be poor predictors of longer-term success. Opposition to the deal, however, is already significant. Even key Democrats like Bob Menendez and Charles Schumer reason that the deal fails to freeze Iran’s enrichment or do enough to stop its progress toward the Bomb to merit billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and the lost leverage that entails. It can’t help that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is saying this:

Let anyone make his own reading, but this right is clearly stated in the text of the agreement that Iran can continue its enrichment, and I announce to our people that our enrichment activities will continue as before.

Unlike Agreed Framework II in 2007, this deal will exacerbate, rather than mollify, opposition to the President when the President is weakened politically. Agreed Framework II was the Bush Administration’s way of deferring a North Korea debate when it was weakened by Iraq. The Iran deal will intensify the Iran debate when it is weakened by Obamacare. All bets are off, of course, if the Democrats lose the Senate next year, but in the meantime, Democratic senators in swing states will face tough pre-election votes and won’t want to be portrayed as soft on regimes that most Americans loathe. It seems unlikely that the administration would expend more of its capital on appeasing North Korea at a time like this.

Iran could also shape the North Korea debate in other ways, but first, you need to understand the difference between Iran sanctions and North Korea sanctions. Every time North Korea provokes, bands of “experts” emerge to say that our North Korea sanctions are already maxed out (so what can we really do except try to appease them?). What all of these experts have in common is that none of them know what they’re talking about. They’re repeating a consensus formed in an echo chamber — a consensus with little basis in the relevant executive orders (123), statutes, or regulations. In fact, North Korea sanctions are relatively weak — far weaker than the ones that forced Iran to bargain with us.

What made Iran sanctions so devastating wasn’t just their targeted attack on Iran’s regime-linked banks, its oil sector, and the shipping lines that carry Iranian oil to markets in Europe and Asia. It was the fact that they also targeted third parties — Iran’s oil customers, and those who maintain correspondent relationships with its banks. There is nothing comparable to this in the North Korea sanctions regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. By all means, go to Title 31 of the Code of Federal Regulations and do what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing — compare the various sanctions regulations for yourself. We have travel sanctions against Cuba, but not against North Korea, which is holding two U.S. citizens captive, and which abducted and murdered a lawful permanent resident in 2000. We have human rights sanctions against those who stifle free expression in Iran and Belarus (but not North Korea). We sanction those who commit crimes against humanity in Sudan (but not North Korea). We specifically target the oil sectors of Iran and Sudan, but not North Korea’s mineral sector, which has long been associated with its proliferation programs. To get a contract with the U.S. government, you have to certify that you don’t do business with the government of Sudan (but not North Korea). The Burma JADE Act allows Treasury to ban correspondent relationships with Burmese banks (no such authority applies to North Korea). Iran and Burma are listed as primary money laundering concerns, restricting their access to the global financial system. North Korea, the world’s most notorious counterfeiting and money launderer, is not.

Instead, our North Korea sanctions target only a narrow list of individuals, trading companies, and banks that have been specifically linked to WMD proliferation. Although Treasury recently blocked two additional North Korean banks from the financial system, the third-country banks that facilitate North Korea’s illicit and prohibited commerce haven’t been targeted since 2007. We have import and export sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Import sanctions were not applied to North Korea until 2011, and you can still export to North Korea, provided you aren’t shipping any sensitive technology and obtain the requisite license (you might also want to get your money up front). The tough third-party sanctions that disconnected Iran and Burma from the financial system and stranded its assets overseas aren’t in force against North Korea. Overall, our North Korea sanctions are more comparable to those we have against Belarus and Zimbabwe than to those we have against Iran, or even Cuba.

Understanding that difference unlocks some obvious comparisons.

First, it’s no longer possible to make a serious argument that well-crafted sanctions don’t work. By “well-crafted,” I mean the kind of sanction that isolates key sectors of the target’s economy from global trade and finance, not simple bilateral trade sanctions, which are just a beginning.

Second, if the administration’s position is that more Iran sanctions should be deferred because Iran is negotiating in good faith, what basis does the administration have to argue that North Korea sanctions should also be deferred? Last Thursday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the U.S. won’t resume dialogue with North Korea “as long as it keeps key parts of its nuclear weapons program running.” The next day, Special Envoy Glyn Davies said that “North Korea must ‘cease’ all its nuclear activities, both plutonium and uranium, before a resumption” of the six-party talks. Now, the Park Administration is saying that the North must re-commit to denuclearization and agree to “detailed action plans” before new talks. So it’s settled, then — North Korea clings to its nukes, we have nothing to talk about, and by the way, the clock is ticking. South Korea’s Defense Minister is now saying that North Korea now has the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Third, if sanctions at least gave Iran an incentive to negotiate — an incentive that it had lacked for years — then couldn’t they create a similar incentive for Kim Jong Un? North Korea’s economy has a fraction of Iran’s GDP, is far less diverse, and is far more dependent on foreign currency and imports to fund its priorities. We already know that financial pressure forced Kim Jong Il to negotiate in 2006.

Fourth, if the administration is only opposed to Iran sanctions because they could hurt the prospect for a diplomatic solution with Iran, but there is no immediate prospect for talks with North Korea, doesn’t the administration’s argument on Iran look disingenuous if it opposes sanctions on North Korea? Wouldn’t opposition to North Korea sanctions by the administration allow its critics to argue that the administration is reflexively opposed to sanctions because it’s simply weak?

The consensus today is that tough sanctions forced Iran back to the bargaining table after years of stalling, lying, and obfuscation, yet our North Korea sanctions are a pale shadow of the sanctions we have against Iran. Whether you believe that the purpose of sanctions on Iran was to slow its nuclear progress, open the way to diplomacy, or weaken the regime domestically, you can argue that sanctions were moving us in all of those directions. Why we aren’t using sanctions to move us toward the same goals with North Korea?

 

* With apologies for mixing my metaphors.

Review: Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate

Let me begin with an apology for the lack of posting lately. While tossing a football around with some friends, I took a direct head-on hit to that finger you need for typing words that contain the letters “l” or an “o,” which turn out to be less dispensable than you might think. The time I didn’t spend typing, I spent reading instead:

Treasury's War cover

[clicking the image takes you to Amazon]

If you want to understand why the Banco Delta Asia action worked so well, how financial sanctions bankrupted al Qaeda, and how they’re bankrupting Iran today, you have to read this book. If you’re reading this site, however, the odds are you’re interested in what Zarate has to say in chapters 9 and 10, where he writes about North Korea, Banco Delta Asia, and Chris Hill.

Zarate, who is usually effusive in his praise for the people he worked with in government, clearly has no use for Hill. Hill comes off looking like a boorish, incompetent asshole who, despite repeated explanations of how Section 311 worked, either didn’t grasp the concept or didn’t care. According to Zarate, Hill’s minions reduced Daniel Glaser to tears by bullying him into simply switching off the section 311 action–and its downstream effects–almost instantly, which is a lot like asking Treasury to instantly give North Korea a new reputation for honest financial dealings with a banking “ecosystem” that’s extremely concerned about reputations and access to correspondent accounts in U.S. banks and dollar-clearing through New York.

Readers of this site already know that I’m no fan of Chris Hill. I’ve written extensively about how Hill played fast and loose with the truth when he sold his deal to Congress in 2007. Two years later, after his deal with Kim Jong Il had collapsed under the weight of its own suspended disbelief, Hill was eventually confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, but only after a bitter confirmation fight. After just 16 months in office, Hill retired, having failed to broker a new Iraqi government or to negotiate a suitable status of forces agreement (and you’d think a guy like Hill could have closed a deal if he wanted one badly enough), and with his relations with U.S. military commanders strained.

I’ve already told you that Zarate’s book is indispensable (it’s also a fun read) but I do have two criticisms. First, his treatment of the SWIFT network as sacrosanct, and his implicit criticism of Section 220 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 reads like a set of SWIFT talking points. Zarate worries about U.S. laws and EU regulations that forced SWIFT to cut off certain Iranian banks, and wonders how far down this slippery slope we’d go to sanction other countries.

I agree that SWIFT should be commended for helping Treasury after 9/11, and that The New York Times shouldn’t have outed SWIFT for doing it. But SWIFT has significant business operations located in the United States, and it derives significant benefits from the security of our country and the health of our financial system. By Zarate’s admission, SWIFT took the actions it took in 2001 because it knew it would not prevail if Treasury served it with subpoenas for financial information. Should SWIFT be forced to stop financial messaging services to every country that gets low marks for human trafficking or anti-money laundering countermeasures? Clearly not. But when some supranational authority demands countermeasures against specific banks known to be involved in proliferation or money laundering, SWIFT shouldn’t be exempt, either, particularly given that by its nature, SWIFT doesn’t know the purpose of the transactions it facilitates. Here’s paragraph 11, from UNSCR 2094:

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

Zarate is otherwise pretty big on enforcing international norms and standards, and to be fair, Zarate’s manuscript was probably already with the publisher when this resolution passed. It’s hard to argue today that North Korean banks that have been specifically sanctioned by the U.N. itself, the EU, or the United States because of “credible information” about their proliferation should continue to receive messaging services without interruption. Maybe Zarate wouldn’t argue that now. I hope he wouldn’t. But even before that, we’d seen a long services of messages about the need for “countermeasures” against North Korea from the Financial Action Task Force.

My second criticism is of the opportunity Zarate misses at the end of his book when he calls for the government to help preserve and enhance our economic power. That’s especially unfortunate when Zarate’s explanation of that power and its importance were so effective. His last chapter and his epilogue introduce a series of important concepts concepts about trade, protectionism, technology, foreign investment, and the strength of the dollar, but unfortunately, and perhaps because of the editing process, those concepts aren’t explained or illustrated well, and I finished the book without understanding how more government intrusion would advance, rather than inhibit, our economic competitiveness. I hope that’s something Zarate will explain further, perhaps in a future edition.

(This chapter still stimulated much thought about other key networks, aside from the financial system, that run through the United States. Could the free flow of information through U.S.-based servers, or a cloud network, be another future power source? How about restricting the access to U.S. ports of cargoes originating from ports that fail to take their counter-proliferation or counter-terrorism responsibilities seriously?)

Treasury’s War won’t win any literary awards, but its simple and clear writing style is probably best for a topic this complex. The information, clear explanations, and illustrative examples make it required reading for any student of economics or foreign policy in this age. If you’re a North Korea watcher or congressional staffer who wants to understand how H.R. 1771 would work, and why its strategy is nothing at all like the old fashioned sanctions used against Saddam Hussein, read Zarate’s book (it’s also available on e-book).

Sanctions are working in Iran. They’ll work better against North Korea, and here’s why.

Drag a modest grant check through DuPont Circle and you’ll accumulate at least ten pundits, several dozen grad students, and a multitude of assorted kooks who would willingly write you an academic paper entitled, “Why Sanctions Never Worked.” And that’s true, except for South Africa, Yugoslavia, Burma, Nauru, Al Qaeda, Iran, and North Korea, and only if you limit the argument to trade sanctions and exclude other tools of economic pressure, like coordinated divestment, third-party financial sanctions like those in Section 311 of the Patriot Act, or targeted money-blocking sanctions like those in executive orders 13,382 and 13,551.

The notable counter-example is Iraq, which was willing to let its people and infrastructure suffer while it survived on oil smuggled through Turkey. But the sanctions against Iraq were old-fashioned trade sanctions, and it’s not hard to understand why they failed.

Because trade is mainly decentralized, it is difficult to regulate and control. The finance on which trade depends, however, is centralized–around the U.S. dollar, U.S. financial institutions, and the financial district of New York City–the Treasury Department’s power to restrict the access of bad actors to the global financial system by regulating U.S. financial institutions has emerged as a key tool of global U.S. power. That’s especially true in an age of weariness about the use of military force. Washington is only coming to terms with the potential power of these new legal and financial tools.

Sanctions also require unity of effort. They can only work as part of a comprehensive strategy that may include military deterrence, carefully monitored humanitarian assistance, law enforcement, financial regulation, industry liaison, information operations in the targeted country, and tough-minded diplomacy with the targeted country, domestic opposition, and third countries. They don’t work if they’re at odds with these other tools of national policy. The State Department’s failed 2007 deal with North Korea, which threw away the very leverage that made that deal possible, is an ideal example of this.

At almost every meeting aimed at getting the North Koreans to halt their nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has demanded that the United States lift its penalties against Banco Delta Asia. This week the Russian government asked the United States to remove the sanctions against the bank, too. [New York Times, Jan. 18, 2007]

Now we know it worked against North Korea, but not long ago, we were told it wouldn’t work against Iran. This 2007 New York Times report quotes a skeptical eurocrat, who explains why the financial sanctions that devastated North Korea’s palace economy and exceeded even Treasury’s expectations would never work against Iran:

The United States has tried to apply similar pressure on Iran in recent years without as much success. The size of Iranian oil exports and the country’s deeper integration into the international financial system make it much more difficult to isolate.

“It is not so easy with Iran, but it has shown great effect on North Korea,” said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday.

That an EU official would hold this view shouldn’t have been surprising. Europe has long resisted the use of financial pressure against rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism. Some of its influential banks and businesses enjoy cozy relationships with them. But there was a sound basis for the skepticism in the case of Iran, which unlike North Korea, has a diverse economy. It sells oil, of course, but also automobiles, carpets, fruit, pistachios, carpets, and other things that people want to buy. Diverse economies are harder to isolate than those whose links to the global financial system are fragile.

Harder, but not that hard, as we learn from a Times report this week:

In repeated meetings during the week, Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the government’s financial condition was far more dire than the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had let on.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif did not publicly specify the severity of the cash squeeze. But Western economists believe the crisis point may be much closer than previously thought, perhaps a matter of months. Iran news outlets have reported that the government owes billions of dollars to private contractors, banks and municipalities. [N.Y. Times]

What happens in a few months? The businesses and government agencies that have lost their export markets, and that have no domestic customers left, that have been running at losses for months, and that employ most of Iran’s workers will run out of credit and savings. They will have to lay off their workers. Iran’s streets will be full of the unemployed. Most of those people, if asked, would probably say that they want Iran to have nuclear weapons. By a stronger margin, however, they will say they would rather have jobs. When their voices are heard in Iran’s streets and when the regime knows it can’t pay the forces it will need to crush them, diplomacy with Iran will have a chance to work.

It won’t work quite this way in a society as terrorized, physically stunted, and psychologically scarred as North Korea’s. But eventually, the men with guns won’t be able to make up their margin of survival by preying on peasants. They will have to prey on each other.

For a more fulsome explanation of why we can isolate North Korea financial without the cooperation of (and even despite the active resistance of) China’s government, I’ll turn to this Times review of Juan Zarate’s book, Treasury’s War (which I downloaded today):

The genius of Section 311 is that Treasury doesn’t do anything other than apply a financial “scarlet letter.” The actual damage is done by the bank’s peers, which typically refuse to do business with it out of fear that they, too, will be cut off from the financial system. Just the threat of a 311, Mr. Zarate writes, has caused nations as powerful as Russia, and as recalcitrant as Myanmar, to change their money-laundering laws, forcing their banks to conform to international standards. A handful of well-placed 311’s, he says, has put much newfound pressure on governments including North Korea and Iran.

“Geopolitics is now a game best played with financial and commercial weapons,” Mr. Zarate writes. “The new geoeconomic game may be more efficient and subtle than past geopolitical competitions, but it is no less ruthless and destructive.”

The centerpiece of the book, and probably the best example of Section 311’s uses and limitations, is the story of Treasury’s assault, beginning in 2005, on North Korea, which American officials said was involved in activities like counterfeiting and drug trafficking. Mr. Zarate describes how the United States hit one of the banks it linked to North Korea, Banco Delta Asia in Macau, with a 311.

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” He adds: “The North Koreans didn’t know what hit them.”

As the depth of its plight sank in, North Korea appeared to panic. First, it fired off a missile into the Pacific, a move that had the additional benefit of freaking out the State Department, which demanded to know what Treasury was up to. Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.”

Eventually, however, Treasury’s pressure on Pyongyang had to be lifted at the insistence of the State Department, which was far more worried about North Korea’s missiles than its bank accounts. Mr. Zarate deplores the move. “The North Koreans had expertly turned the tables” on the United States, he says. “We were outmaneuvered at the height of international pressure and gave up our leverage.” [New York Times]

If you can’t get enough of this sort of thing, here’s a Q&A with Zarate in the Wall Street Journal, and here’s a must-see video of him explaining how these new tools of financial pressure pressure work:

Stop me if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a bill in Congress now that would utilize this very strategy framework to isolate North Korea from its billions in offshore deposits and its sources of regime-sustaining hard currency until it disarms, and makes significant progress on human rights, shuts down its death camps, and allows the open and fair distribution of food aid. And also, allows us to verify these things for ourselves.

We fret constantly about North Korea. We fret that it has restarted the Yongbyon reactor, and that its centrifuges are spinning away, enriching uranium. We fret that it sells nuclear reactors and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and that it might be testing nukes for both itself and Iran. We fret that it starves its people while it blows hundreds of millions of dollars on ski lift equipment, water parks, and yachts. We fret that its new mobile missiles will be able to deliver WMDs, including miniaturized nuclear weapons, and that we won’t be able to find them all in time. We fret that it may have liquidated several thousand people from one of its its prison camps. All this fretting is the constant companion of futility–the implication that there isn’t a thing we can do about any of it.

Except that we can. We could saw the trunk out from under Kim Jong Un’s money tree overnight. A determined campaign of financial pressure would destroy the regime in one or two years. And long before that, Kim Jong Un would come to us and ask for a deal. Only this time, that pressure should only be suspended as long as the progress continues.

H.R. 1771 is the bill that would do this. It has 125 bi-partisan co-sponsors. Some of them are as conservative as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King. Others are as liberal as Jim Moran, Joseph Kennedy, and Carol Shea-Porter. You could even call it a rare example of bi-partisan agreement within a Congress that’s often bitterly (and often, unnecessarily) divided. Is your representative on that list? Is your Senator willing to introduce companion legislation?

Can North Korea have both Kaesong and Yongbyon?

Who is the real Park Geun Hye? The uneasy coexistence of two headlines may soon tell us. The first headline tells us that, six months after North Korea withdrew its workers, the Kaesong Industrial Park will soon restart.  The second tells us that North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon already has. Both of these developments are bad news for those who want to see North Korea disarmed, for reasons I explained here. But if Park is really as tough as some of us wanted to believe she was, she’ll at least make Kim Jong Un choose one.

To some, Park’s tactical success at negotiating the reopening of Kaesong revealed a predisposition to a more conditional variation of Sunshine. To others, it showed that Park was a completely different kind of leader than her predecessors–one who was not only willing to let Kaesong die rather than yield on principle, but perhaps even secretly hopeful that it would die, for reasons not easily attributed to her. As one who previously held the latter view, with declining confidence, over the last few months, I grasped at her insistence that the North “guarantee” that it wouldn’t shut Kaesong down again. Perhaps these guarantees were really poison pills. Perhaps they disguised demands for apologies or compensation–things that North Korea couldn’t possibly accept. But it doesn’t look that way now.

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said it best in a conversation over dinner a few weeks ago, when he called Trustpolitik “a Rorschach test.”

~          ~          ~

In early April, just before North Korea was hit by a wave of financial pressure, Kim Jong Un made what turns out to have been a grave miscalculation by withdrawing 53,000 workers from Kaesong.  Kaesong was a source of $80 million a year in hard currency, but in early April, Kim Jong Un calculated that Park Geun Hye would be as easy as her predecessors to manipulate, that the disruption would be brief, and that he had enough cash reserves to weather it.  He would not have withdrawn the North Korean workers from Kaesong had he known what would happen in the following weeks.

The Kaesong affair has taught us all–but Kim Jong Un most of all–that Park Geun Hye’s tactical sophistication is a dimension beyond her predecessors. For years, I’ve watched North Korea lead the likes of Roh and D.J. with nose rings forged from their own beneficent hallucinations.  I’ve watched them stampede every American president to hold office since 1993 with thunderclaps of scary headlines.  President Obama is the only one of them who hasn’t paid Pyongyang off yet, but it’s still hard to see what his policy vision is, or that he even has one.

Park Geun-Hye is not like these others.  Park–who was poised and statesmanlike at an age when most of us were experimenting with facial hair, whose North Korea messaging has been maddeningly consistent for a decade, who coolly questioned her staff as they rushed her to the hospital with a slashed throat–has an actual, calculated policy vision for North Korea.  I’m not sure exactly what that vision is, but I doubt that it’s quite the same as the advertised vision.  I saw hints of it when I was fortunate enough to be in the Capitol for her speech to a joint meeting of Congress.

I’m at the upper center-right of the audience in the beginning of the video (appropriately enough). Recognize me? No? Neither do I. Here’s what I keyed in on:

But as we say in Korea, it takes two hands to clap. Trust is not something that can be imposed on another.

The pattern is all too familiar — and badly misguided. North Korea provokes a crisis. The international community imposes a certain period of sanctions. Later, it tries to patch things up by offering concessions and rewards. Meanwhile, Pyongyang uses that time to advance its nuclear capabilities. And uncertainty prevails.

It is time to put an end to this vicious cycle.

Pyongyang is pursuing two goals at once, a nuclear arsenal and economic development. We know these are incompatible.You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

The leadership in Pyongyang must make no mistake. Security does not come from nuclear weapons. Security comes when the lives of its people are improved. It comes when people are free to pursue their happiness.

North Korea must make the right choice. It must walk the path to becoming a responsible member in the community of nations.

In order to induce North Korea to make that choice, the international community must speak with one voice. Its message must be clear and consistent.

Is Park now letting that cycle re-play itself? Her tactical achievement in negotiations over Kaesong now threatens to become a strategic setback, both for Park and for her American allies, who expended substantial diplomatic capital securing the passage of U.N. Security Council 2094.

What financial transparency ensures us that Kaesong and Yongbyon aren’t really just two reactors in different stages of North Korea’s nuclear cycle? No one knows that answer. And if Park doesn’t know, she’s violating that Security Council resolution we’ve just fought to secure, and are trying to get other nations to enforce. That would be a major diplomatic victory for North Korea. And weakening the enforcement of Security Council resolutions shortly after their passage is part of North Korea’s playbook.

The Syria-North Korea Axis

After watching North Korea get away with shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists and its past chemical and nuclear proliferation to Syria, it’s gratifying to see people catch onto North Korea’s role in the tragedy in Syria.  There are several more op-eds and stories on this today, all of them well worth reading:

These weren’t necessarily Korea-related, but did provide useful information:

  • Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is collapsing. It’s unfortunate that we seem divided and irresolute, but it’s better that the President steers toward a new strategy, hopefully after he solicits Congress’s views and gets its support. A strike would make us feel like we’ve done something, but the only way it could slow Assad’s use of chemical weapons at this point would be to hit enough artillery to also, incidentally, help Al Qaeda. Better to attack the proliferation network that supplies the weapons to begin with. That network’s source is in Pyongyang, and the best ways to attack it don’t involve the use for military force.
  • It’s a pretty rare week when Tom Friedman writes two columns, and I agree with a majority of what he writes in both of them.

[Update: I changed the wording in the first sentence, which previously read "proliferation" to terrorists, to "shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists," because "proliferation" implies the transfer of WMD, which I don't know to be the case (not that I'd doubt it, either).]

Is North Korea importing oil from Iran?

Remember when Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard wrote that North Korea, notwithstanding the deepening misery of most of its people, had begun to show a current account surplus in recent years? Their conclusion was based largely on trade data showing that North Korea was importing more foreign goods, mostly through China.  If you believe these official Chinese government statistics for the last six months, however, Pyongyang’s imports from China fell sharply … for the first time in four years.

Is this welcome evidence that sanctions are starting to work? Not so fast. The main thing the North Koreans seem to be buying less of from China is oil.  Noland expressed his skepticism about a similar previous report of falling oil imports from China, suggesting that the drop might have been because of seasonal factors.

Another possible explanation, however, may be the announcement, in April, that Iran and North Korea had reached an oil-for-minerals barter deal.  The deal makes sense for Iran, which is having difficulty finding markets for its oil because of tightening international sanctions, and for North Korea, which had been paying above-market prices for Chinese oil.

The transactions would undermine international sanctions against Iran, and might (depending on the specific financial arrangements) also undermine sanctions against North Korea.  The use of barter, which doesn’t rely on the international financial system, lends itself well to sanctions evasion.

N. Korea builds new pad, support facilities at Musudan-ri

Although it’s certainly possible (maybe even inevitable) that someone else has already noticed this, the first one who pointed it out to me was Jacob Bogle, who posted about it here and emailed me (thanks, Jacob). Here’s an overview of the area showing the old launch gantry and support areas. The new pad is marked with the orange arrows.

Musudan @ 7200 412

The new pad clearly shows the flame channel, similar to the one at the Seohae launch facility.  In April 2010, there was nothing there but empty fields:

Musudan New Pad @ 1000 410

Here’s what it looked like last April:

Musudan New Pad @ 1000 412

The angle of the shadows suggests a disturbing possibility — that rather than an above-ground launch pad, this is a silo, which would would significantly harden the site against air strikes. Whereas the shadow inside the flame channel suggests depth, there is no such shadow at the launch site itself, suggesting the absence of a gantry.  This image also suggests that construction was incomplete, but proceeding rapidly.

A nearby assembly area shows substantial evidence of new construction since the next most-recent image, from April 2010.

Musudan Assy. Area @ 2000 410

Musudan Assy. Area @ 2000 412

Similarly, this support area more ongoing construction … and a substantial amount of demolition, as well.  See the village on the center right?

Musudan Suppt. Area @ 2000 410

 

Now you don’t.  I wonder where those people were shoveled off to.

Musudan Suppt. Area @ 2000 412

Thanks again to Jacob for the find and the tip.

Update:  Imagery from 38 North suggests that this is indeed a silo of some sort.