Treasury sanctions, DOJ indicts Chinese for violating N. Korea sanctions

As of yesterday, and for the first time ever, the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of Chinese entities for violating North Korea sanctions, and the Justice Department has indicted them for sanctions violations, conspiracy, and money laundering. The company in question is the Liaoning Hongxiang Group of companies, of which Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Company Limited, or DHID, is the largest component. The individuals are Hong Jinhua, Luo Chuanxu, Zhou Jianshu, and Ma Xiaohong, the CEO of the Liaoning Hongxiang Group.

All were first implicated by the remarkable investigative work of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and the Asan Institute, which is wonderful and also troubling, in that it should not have been left to a small nonprofit research group with funding from a South Korean think tank to do the work that the Treasury and Justice Departments should have done — protecting such core U.S. security interests as global nonproliferation, the integrity of the financial system, and freedom of speech in our own towns and neighborhoods. It is wonderful and disturbing that two very young and very bright people with a tiny budget and no security clearances have now done more damage to the financial networks that sustain His Corpulency’s misrule than the Obama administration did on its own in eight years. (Full disclosure: I met with C4ADS a few times since they started work last fall, to help them focus and target their investigation.) Here is how they did it.

To map these growing overseas networks, this report used open source databases, including corporate registries; court filings; Equasis maritime database records; customs and trade data provided by Panjiva, a customs trade data aggregator; and real time data on ship activities provided by Windward, a maritime data and analytics platform. The compiled information was consolidated using Palantir’s Gotham network analysis platform.

In Part I, we focused on building bulk datasets on companies, individuals, and ships. By using corporate and tax registries in East Asian countries, we were able to identify significant points of convergence across seemingly disparate networks and identify 562 ships, companies, and individuals within one degree of separation from known DPRK illicit and regime entities.

In Part II, we identified key nodes from our expanded dataset for a more in depth investigation. We focused, in particular, on one Chinese trading conglomerate that has conducted over $500 million of trade with the DPRK in the past five years. Within this network, we were able to identify its subsidiary and affiliated entities that have transacted an additional $300 million with sanctioned Burmese and North Korean entities, helped maintain the cyber infrastructure of the DPRK, and traded in various goods and services that raise serious non-proliferation concerns. [C4ADS]

The researchers also pulled and read court filings in China, Japan, and Hong Kong to uncover what appear to be significant pieces of North Korea’s overseas financial support and shipping networks. Typically for criminal networks, the North Koreans mix legal and illegal business to conceal their illicit activity and disguise the origin of their profits. The result is that some businesses “are likely to be inadvertently facilitating North Korean illicit activity,” while others, like DHID, do so willingly. I won’t try to do justice to C4ADS’s report here; just read the whole thing. Among its findings —

  • The report uncovered 248 companies, mostly registered in Hong Kong, that operate North Korea’s shipping fleet, much of it concealed behind shell companies and flags of convenience.
  • Liaoning Hongxiang Group is directly responsible for operating 10 of those ships, which import North Korean coal and help Pyongyang get around the “livelihood” loophole in UNSCR 2270.
  • DHID’s parent company, the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, helped to run the Cambodian ship registry, which Cambodia is currently in the process of nationalizing. C4ADS found that Cambodia in the principal registrar of reflagged North Korean ships. UNSCR 2270 prohibits the reflagging of ships owned, controlled, or crewed by North Korea.
  • DHID’s annual trade volume with North Korea was more than twice that of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and more than enough to fund North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • DHID may have facilitated North Korean exports to the United States, which would violate Executive Order 13570.
  • DHID has an equity stake the Bank of Dandong, which has previously been implicated in handling money transfers to North Korea, in violation of U.N. sanctions.
  • The Liaoning Hongxiang Group’s Vice Chairman had dealings with a sanctioned Burmese tycoon, Tay Za, who also bought a nuclear reactor from North Korea.
  • DHID entered into a joint venture with the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which defector Kim Kwang-jin has accused of insurance fraud, and which has been designated by the EU for the freezing of its assets for proliferation-related activities.

DHID’s parent company is a key facilitator of North Korea’s cyber architecture, which North Korea used in cyberattacks against SWIFT; against South Korean banks, nuclear power plants, and news media organizations; and against Sony Pictures. The empty brackets are for Chinese characters that WordPress can’t read:

Companies associated with the Liaoning Hongxiang Group provide services that are critical to the underlying cyber architecture of the DPRK, including the country’s primary email relay service, facilities from which hackers are alleged to operate, and IT firms producing software with possible military and regime applicability as will be discussed in this section. The Chilbosan Hotel [ ] in Shenyang, one of Liaoning Hongxiang’s joint ventures with the DPRK,117 is alleged to be the staging area for Bureau 121, a group of North Korean hackers.118 119 The source of the allegations is a North Korean defector, Kim Heun Kwang, a former computer science professor in Pyongyang, who escaped from North Korea in 2004 and gave detailed testimony on Bureau 121, a group that began large-scale operations in China in 2005.120 The group is reported to be comprised of about 1800 “cyber-warriors” and is considered the “elite of the military.”121 It has been widely reported that Bureau 121 may have been responsible for the 2014 Sony hack.122 The Chilbosan Hotel is majority owned by the North Korean Pyongyang Economic Exchange Society [ ], 123 which controls a 70% share of the company.124 The remaining 30% is owned by Liaoning Hongxiang Group member Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. Ltd.

The Chilbosan Hotel also shares a physical address with a company called Silibank.127 128 Silibank is an email relay service that charges for sending and receiving email through servers that connect from the DPRK, through China, and then to the outside world. Established in September 2001, Silibank is reportedly the DPRK’s first ISP provider,129 charging for its service in USD for each kilobyte sent.130 The company’s domain, silibank.com, is currently registered to a Chinese company called Liaoning Zhongtian Real Estate Development Co. [ ].

And finally, C4ADS found a link between DHID and North Korea’s WMD-related procurement operations:

Information found on Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group shows that in several online classified ads and databases, Dandong Hongxiang sold products that could qualify as potential military and nuclear dual use products under the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security export restrictions.105 These goods included at least four dual use products: 99.7% pure aluminum ingots,106 aluminum oxide (Al2O3), ammonium paratungstate (APT), and tungsten trioxide (WO3).107 Information discovered using Panjiva customs records shows that Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group sent two shipments of aluminum oxide worth a total of $253,219 to the DPRK as recently as September 2015.108 Classified ads posted by Shenyang Hongyang Fine Cermaics Co., which according to the Chinese business registry is owned by a Chinese national named Ma Xiaohong ???, listed “industrial spaceship” as a potential application for aluminum oxide (further investigation is required to confirm if they are the same individual).109 110

We cannot definitively identify the end-user of such goods, but there are clear dual use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications and could possibly be linked to the North Korean nuclear program.”111 Ammonium paratungstate and tungsten trioxide are byproducts of separating tungsten from its ore.112 A U.S. patent filed in 2010 states that tungsten trioxide is one of several oxidizing agents appropriate for use in a missile design with increased aerodynamic stability.113 According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, aluminum oxide is a component used to resist corrosion in gas centrifuges during uranium enrichment.114 In April 2013, a British company discovered that a firm they had been sending aluminum oxide to had links to the Iranian government’s nuclear program and immediately “ceased transactions. The article stated that “Aluminium oxide is an important material in gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium.”115 [C4ADS]

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Strictly speaking, the Treasury and Justice Departments sanctioned and prosecuted almost none of this conduct. Let’s turn to the Treasury Department designations first. The “NPWMD” means the assets were frozen under Executive Order 13382, which makes any transaction that facilitates North Korea’s WMD procurement not only sanctionable, but punishable with criminal penalties under section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA.

“Today’s action exposes a key illicit network supporting North Korea’s weapons proliferation,” said Adam J. Szubin, acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “DHID and its employees sought to evade U.S. and UN sanctions, facilitating access to the U.S. financial system by a designated entity. Treasury will take forceful action to pressure North Korea’s proliferation network and to protect the U.S. financial system from abuse.”

OFAC designated China-based DHID for acting for or on behalf of North Korean-based KKBC. Specifically, DHID used an illicit network of front companies, financial facilitators, and trade representatives to facilitate transactions on behalf of KKBC. Ma Xiaohong, Zhou Jianshu, Hong Jinhua, and Luo Chuanxu were designated for acting for or on behalf of DHID.

KKBC was designated by OFAC under E.O. 13382 and the UN pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2270 for providing financial services in support of the previously designated entities Tanchon Commercial Bank and the Korea Hyoksin Trading Corporation. Both of those entities were designated pursuant to E.O. 13382 and UNSCR 1718 for their roles in North Korea’s WMD and missile programs. [Treasury Department press release]

As a result of Treasury’s designations, all dollar-denominated assets of the five targets are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them.

Not to be outdone, the Justice Department has unwrapped an early Christmas present by unsealing an indictment of Hong, Luo, Ma, and Zhou, and DHID for conspiracy, money laundering, and IEEPA violations, for helping a sanctioned North Korean entity circumvent sanctions. That’s about as much as you’ll see about proliferation in these indictments; the only link to proliferation is the money DHID moved for a North Korean bank that had been sanctioned for proliferation.  The Justice Department also filed a civil forfeiture action against 25 bank accounts belonging to DHID, deposited in a who’s-who of Chinese banks. Want to know the names of the Chinese banks? You know you do.

  • China Merchants Bank
  • Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
  • Agricultural Bank of China
  • Bank of Communications Co. of China
  • Bank of Dandong (as predicted)
  • China Construction Bank
  • Guangdong Development Bank
  • Industrial & Commercial Bank of China
  • Bank of Dalian
  • Bank of Jinzhou
  • Hua Xia Bank
  • China Minsheng Banking Corporation

Contrary to what some news reports have written, a forfeiture action does not freeze assets; if effectively confiscates them. The ownership interest of the person who thought he owned the assets is legally extinguished if the government proves that assets are “involved in” illicit activity.

The banks themselves have no standing to challenge the forfeiture unless they can prove that they’d already closed the accounts. Typically, the feds will use 18 U.S.C. 981(k) to take an equivalent amount to the asset right out of the foreign bank’s U.S.-based correspondent account. It’s up to the foreign bank to make itself whole by taking an equivalent sum from the account holder, something that account holders usually agree to in the fine print of their account-holder agreements.

The actions are venued in the District of New Jersey because the Chinese banks that serviced DHID and the numerous shell companies it set up used Standard Chartered Bank and Deutsche Bank as their U.S. correspondent banks, and both banks based their dollar-clearing operations in New Jersey. I’ve explained how this works a few times before, but DOJ explained it well in its forfeiture complaint.

32. An interbank, also known as a correspondent bank, is a financial institution that provides services on behalf of another financial institution. It can facilitate wire transfers, conduct business transactions, accept deposits and gather documents on behalf of another financial institution. Correspondent banks are able to support international wire transfers for their customers in a currency that their customers normally do not hold on reserve. Correspondent banks in the U.S. facilitate these wire transfers by allowing foreign banks, located exclusively overseas, to maintain accounts at the correspondent bank in the U.S.

33. To obtain goods and services in the international market place, as North Korea must, it needs access to U.S. dollars as some international vendors require purchases to be made in U.S. dollars. As a result, North Korean entities, including designated entities such as KKBC, need access to the U.S. financial system.

The New Jersey venue is interesting, in that most correspondent banks operate in New York. (I wonder if that means we can expect to see another indictment in the Southern District of New York one day soon.)

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Although news reports have said that the indictment was for aiding North Korea’s WMD programs, that’s only indirectly true. The crux of the government’s case is that after August 2009, when Treasury designated Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation (KKBC) for WMD proliferation and blocked its access to the dollar system, DHID stepped in to serve as KKBC’s work-around and to launder its money. (Broadly defined, money laundering means moving or spending money that is “involved in” certain specified unlawful activity, whether as proceeds or as an instrumentality.) I’m often asked at this juncture why the North Koreans don’t just use Renminbi. I’ll let the Justice Department answer that.

35. Following the KKBC’s designation as an SDN by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in August 2009, DHID began working to find ways to conduct trade on behalf of KKBC despite the U.S. sanctions. One means of doing so was to use Chinese currency rather than U.S. dollars to conduct commodities transactions, so as to avoid sending money through the U.S. in violation of IEEPA. In July 2010, the City of Dandong, China highlighted press reports of a pilot program between DHID and KKBC to allow Chinese Renminbi (RMB) transactions to facilitate trade between China and North Korea.

36. North Korea’s trading needs, however, cannot be met using only Chinese currency. As a result, KKBC has continued to access the U.S. financial system to facilitate the purchase of goods in violation of U.S. sanctions. KKBC has done so by using DHID and its front companies.

In other words, what I said before — North Korea uses the dollar because that’s what sellers want, and also because (as I’ll explain later) Pyongyang is dollarizing to stabilize its economy.

When KKBC wanted to buy something in dollars — in this case, sugar and urea (used for fertilizing and explosives, and also, ewww) — it would place an order with DHID, which then bought the merchandise at a substantial mark-up — as much as 23 percent, through any one of 22 different front companies or shell companies it set up for just that purpose. That’s the kind of premium that, at least according to our friends in the FBI, people only charge to take the risks associated with breaking the law. Ma and DHID were initially well-positioned to charge these commissions due to Ma’s connections with Jang Song-thaek. Only when the guns of Jang’s firing squad fell silent, Ma’s business kept right on booming.

DHID and KKBC kept a ledger where KKBC would credit or debit DHID’s dollar account in KKBC in Pyongyang. The most suspicious transactions — those that involved a North Korean nexus — were all kept off the wires. Instead, DHID set up a whole series of shell companies, mostly registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and listing fictitious addresses in Hong Kong.

And how did DOJ find all of this out? Much of it obviously began with the C4ADS-Asan investigation, but DOJ admits that it obtained a search warrant, possibly of an email account belonging to Ma or DHID.

Why sugar and urea instead of, say, aluminum oxide? I can only speculate that those transactions were the easy ones to prove. Prosecutors prefer to charge the conduct that’s easiest to prove, especially if some of the other transactions with more jury appeal might also require proving up a longer, more complex chain of shell companies and beneficial owners.

All of which is our cue for a round of “Panama Papers Bingo,” which will allow you to read fun stuff about the shell companies named in the indictment and their corporate officers. By all means, leave a comment if you find something interesting in there, although I may hold your comment unpublished for a while for legal reasons.

Although the forfeiture action doesn’t say how much money was in the 25 accounts, it describes multiple transactions in the millions of dollars, including one that was for around $11 million. It wouldn’t surprise me if we learned that the total was well over $25 million, the amount that was blocked (but not forfeited) in the case of the Banco Delta Asia action.

Anyway, now you know why we wrote a section on “forfeiture of property” into the NKSPEA. Originally, we tried to create a special fund to pay for North Korea sanctions enforcement, broadcasting, and humanitarian purposes. Because that funding provision ended up on the cutting-room floor, the Justice and Treasury Departments will put the forfeited money into their respective forfeiture funds and use the money to pay for law enforcement operations. Where, as here, DOJ and Treasury worked the case together, they’ll typically work a deal for splitting that money up between them.

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So what will the impact of all of this be? Financially speaking, DHID and Ma aren’t likely to survive the experience. Because 80% of DHID’s business was North Korea-related, His Porcine Majesty will probably feel a significant impact. DOJ’s indictment quotes a DHID powerpoint presentation that claims that as of 2012, DHID handled 20% of the volume of Sino-North Korean trade, and claims that DHID’s business was growing at 30 percent each year. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, but my guess is that these figures are exaggerated for shareholder consumption. After all, DHID was willing to file a false certification with a certain Panama-based law firm — any guesses, kids? — denying that it had any links to North Korea (exhibit 3).

The greater effect may be the in terrorem impact this action will have on companies like the 88 Queensway Group that had dealings with sanctioned North Korean entities and felt untouchable, possibly because they thought their Chinese political connections would protect them from Uncle Sam. Ma herself was a made member of the Chinese Communist Party, and Sam Pa was a former Chinese spy. Equally well-connected figures may feel less invincible today.


GIFSoup

The bad news? Not only the fact that no Chinese banks are facing indictments for facilitating Hongxiang’s willful, long-standing money-laundering scheme, but also, the fact that in its press release, the Justice Department said that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts.” I’ll discuss that in more detail in tomorrow’s post

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I don’t blame Obama for N. Korea’s nuke test. I blame him for not enforcing the law.

It’s grim vindication this morning to see my prediction from two months ago now validated. This bomb appears to have had a higher yield than those that preceded it, and may show progress toward miniaturization. I’d already posted my recommendations for how to respond to this test, back in July. For the U.N. Security Council, the response should include new rounds of designations and the closing of sanctions loopholes. I hope Samantha Power will also push for bans on North Korea’s exports of food and labor.

For the administration, the answer is simpler — it should enforce the law the President signed in February. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has now added his voice to Senator Bob Corker’s prescient call for just that.

“The North Korean regime’s continued belligerence demands a strong and swift response.  The United States cannot accept a nuclear North Korea that threatens America and our foreign partners with mass destruction.  That’s why, earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together to help impose unprecedented new sanctions on the Kim regime.  Sadly, however, it is clear the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts are falling short.

“Most notably, the administration has yet to impose sanctions on any of the many Chinese companies and banks that, according to a recent U.N. report, continue to support the North Korean regime.  This must change.  We’ve seen before that China will only comply with sanctions if Chinese banks face real consequences for doing business in North Korea.

“The United States and our foreign partners should also act quickly to sanction North Korea’s state-owned airline.  Air Koryo continues to flagrantly violate the ban on luxury goods and has been implicated in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts.  At the same time, the administration must also work with European governments to better block luxury items – including cars, watches, and liquor – from reaching North Korea’s repressive ruling elite.

“Aggressive sanctions enforcement, along with a renewed focus on stopping the North Korean regime’s export of slave labor, is key to cutting off the cash needed to sustain Kim Jong Un’s power, and his illicit weapons programs.  Today’s detonation wasn’t just about testing nuclear technology.  It was also about testing America’s resolve.  Now is the time for this administration to act.” [link]

Yes, there are more sanctions we can add that would confront Pyongyang with a clear choice between disarmament and extinction. Banning North Korea from SWIFT seems especially likely to be effective, and overdue. For the safety of our citizens alone, we’re long overdue for a tourist travel ban. And because the evidence is overwhelming that North Korea sponsors terrorism, the State Department should at least stop lying to the American people and denying that.

I don’t blame President Obama for the fact that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath.  I blame President Obama for not recognizing that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath, and for not recognizing the implications of that. Above all, I blame President Obama for not enforcing the law he signed in February, after the fourth nuke. Wasting eight critical years without agreeing on or implementing a North Korea policy may not stand out as one of this administration’s greatest foreign policy failures yet, but that’s only because it sits alongside his failure to support the Green Revolution in Iran, his non-response to the Syrian genocide, the fall of Anbar, the rise of ISIS, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destroy the European Union and its liberal social order.

No wonder Obama, sensing the weakness of his position, is now calling for “serious consequences” for North Korea. He holds the power to impose them now, but it sounds like he’s about to send Samantha Power back to the Security Council to bicker with the Chinese over the next resolution, too. He can enhance her bargaining power by sanctioning the Bank of China for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money, and by having someone in the Treasury Department leak a report that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation for the same. If we’re serious about avoiding war in Korea, we must be willing to shake the foundations of the Chinese banking system.

Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, gets it, however belatedly, and seems to realize exactly what’s at stake here. Her shrewd diplomatic and psychological warfare against Pyongyang has probably done far more damage to Kim Jong-un than anything Obama has done yet. She should now move beyond loudspeakers and open a second front in the information war for the hearts and minds of the North Korean people. As her opening act, as soon as the atmospheric conditions are favorable for good TV reception in Pyongyang, she should put Thae Yong-ho on the air to deliver a revolutionary manifesto to the Pyongyang elites. She should build a row of cell phone, AM radio, and TV towers on the mountaintops all along the DMZ. Then, she ought to get behind a guerrilla engagement strategy to undermine the regime’s control over the countryside.

For now, the calls in Seoul for nuclear armament and preemptive strikes are probably just talk, but they’ll continue to grow. The economic and security frameworks of the whole region are in greater danger than most of us realize.

As I said all along, the U.S. and South Korean election years almost guaranteed that this test would happen. I’ve also said that in the short term, sanctions would aggravate His Corpulency and force him to react. Anyone who knows anything at all about sanctions knows that they would take at least year or two to show significant impact, and that’s assuming they’re enforced. Unfortunately, they haven’t been — despite the fact that a string of high-profile defections has probably yielded more fresh financial intelligence about where Kim Jong-un’s money is than we’ve had in years. It’s long past time we used it.

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Update: To be clear here, I have no knowledge that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation or isn’t, but the BoD has been mentioned in previous reports as a holder of North Korean funds, and I expect to see more reporting in the coming weeks buttressing the case that they should be investigated.

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U.N. & Obama vacillate as our last chance to stop Kim Jong-un runs out

Have you ever heard the late Christopher Hitchens speak about his visit to North Korea, and how he promised himself that he would not use the “1984” cliche? “Eventually,” Hitchens said, “They make you do it.” I believe it was sometime around 2007 that I made the same promise to myself about the Hans Blix scene in “Team America” when speaking of the U.N.’s response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen behavior. It has become another cliche, but they also make you do it.

This week, Samantha Power went to the Security Council and said this:

The DPRK’s missile tests help it to threaten the territory of even more countries in the region, whether through its land-based missiles or now via its recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Once the DPRK has the capability to do so, we know what they intend to do with these missile systems, because they have told us. They are explicit: they intend to arm the systems with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un said this himself yesterday, according to the DPRK’s official news agency. [….]

The Security Council must remain unequivocal and united in condemnation of these tests, and we must take action to enforce the words we put on paper – to enforce our resolutions.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, words words words or something. At least the White House made a feint at meeting the test posed by Power’s last clause when it refused to rule out more sanctions, but there aren’t any signs that it means to impose any, either. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, spokesman Josh Earnest (whose name is an oxymoron) said that the U.S. and China have worked “cooperatively in a coordinated fashion” to “steadily ratchet up” the pressure on North Korea. Unless Earnest really means that we’re cooperating with Beijing because we’ve capitulated to it, this is just more bullshit.

Despite the evidentiary and analytical challenges of calculating North Korea’s trade with China, the best evidence we have suggests that China continues to exploit the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports to prop up Kim Jong-un’s rule. Despite the importance of drawing distinctions between trade that feeds the North Korean people and trade that props up the regime, bilateral trade hasn’t fallen much overall, and the small decline may owe more to China’s sagging economy than to its enforcement of sanctions. To make up for the drop in the coal trade and falling prices, China is sending more tourists to North Korea and accepting more slave labor from North Korea, including those formerly employed at Kaesong. Beijing is also engaging in public displays of affection with Pyongyang to show how much more worried it is about South Korean missile defense than it is about North Korean missiles.

China’s recent purchase of North Korean fishing rights was unconscionable and inhumane. It took away a source of food that should fill the markets that feed North Korea’s poor, and replaced it with another source of unrestricted cash for the ruling class in Pyongyang. By doing so, it arguably violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To state what should be obvious, Kim Jong-un is politically invested in his weapons programs and won’t change his behavior unless the world can unite to coerce that change. Evans Revere, a recovering engager whom I probably wouldn’t have cited approvingly a few years ago, is almost certainly correct when he says, “The only way to get North Korea’s attention is to put at risk the one thing that North Korea values more highly than its nuclear weapons. That’s the future existence of the regime.” Revere now concedes that positive incentives haven’t worked on Pyongyang, and with North Korea “rapidly improving its ability to deliver nuclear and other weapons toward specific targets accurately,” we can’t rule out the possibility that it “might seek to use nuclear weapons to blackmail one or more of its neighbors.” Well, yes.

Japan and South Korea are both calling for more sanctions to prevent this outcome, but it’s fairly clear that the Obama administration isn’t pushing for any, and is mostly concerned with avoiding any sort of crisis before it slinks out of town, after having wasted eight critical years. South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers will visit Washington in October to make their case for “specific measures” again. Seoul thinks this may be its last chance to prevent North Korea from reaching nuclear breakout and subjecting it to the slow strangulation of nuclear blackmail, and I suspect that they’re probably right about that. Hopefully, when President Obama met with President Park instead of the President of the Philippines, she made that case forcefully. Nothing less than South Korea’s survival as a democracy depends on it.

With our time quickly running out, the idea of settling for a piece of paper from the U.N. is madness. Although the U.N. statement hints at “significant measures,” a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying that “many council members supported the idea of further measures,” but “fell short of a consensus.” So presumably, China continues to be unhelpful and obstructionist, the Obama administration continues to be weak and indecisive, and no further resolutions will be forthcoming until Pyongyang does something else, like another nuke test. And perhaps, not even then.

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As for what sanctions we should impose now, I posted my own wish list in July. It includes:

(1) the designation of North Korean entities, such as Air Koryo, the DPRK Central Bank, and North Korea’s state insurance companies, all of which are facilitating sanctions violations;

(2) the closing of loopholes left over from UNSCR 2270, including the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports; and

(3) new measures, including a ban on labor and food exports by North Korea, and a requirement to disclose beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals to the Panel of Experts.

In the case of Air Koryo, there’s no question that it flagrantly violates the luxury goods ban; journalists have tweeted photographs of huge flat screen TVs being loaded aboard its flights. The U.N. Panel of Experts has implicated Air Koryo in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts, and notes that the dual civilian and military use of some of its aircraft could itself constitute a violation of the arms embargo. The Panel of Experts has also noted that Air Koryo holds a number of suspicious debts to recently formed shell companies, implying that Air Koryo is involved in money laundering or sanctions evasion. According to South Korean press reports, Air Koryo is also used to ferry bulk cash to evade U.N. sanctions. 

As for concerns that Air Koryo also engages in legitimate civilian business, I would respond that if Air Koryo were to be designated, third-country airlines would take over its routes, because Pyongyang needs to have air commerce of some kind. The same can be said of North Korea’s financial, shipping, and insurance industries. Pyongyang has repeatedly used all of these state-owned industries for sanctions evasion and proliferation. If those industries were sanctioned and shut down, then third-country airlines, insurers, ships, and banks — which would presumably have more incentives to follow the law — would take up the slack. That would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to violate U.N. sanctions.

Above all, however, U.N. member states must be willing to use their national laws to impose secondary sanctions on entities — especially Chinese entities — that knowingly help Pyongyang violate U.N. sanctions. This is now a requirement under U.S. law, and I remain concerned that the Obama administration isn’t following it. Without secondary sanctions — and most critically, the strict enforcement of secondary financial sanctions against North Korea’s bank accounts in China and elsewhere — North Korea will find ways around the sanctions, because plenty of Chinese companies will be willing to help it find those ways. Are we serious about global nonproliferation, the security of the world’s most economically vital region, and the protection of the democratic system of our treaty ally in South Korea? I’m searching in vain for any evidence that we are.

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Update: Stop the presses. Maybe President Park was persuasive after all.

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Rice, peace & freedom: It’s time we told the N. Korean people the truth about why they’re hungry.

It is fitting that Groundhog Day was a busy day in North Korea. On the same day that Pyongyang announced that it would test a long-range missile, the U.N. released $8 million from its emergency aid fund “to assist [the] most vulnerable women and children” in North Korea.

Bangkok, 2 February 2016) United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 January 2016 released US$ 8 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). These funds will enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition. The DPRK was one of nine countries to receive such grants within the overall $100 million allocation to underfunded emergencies.

Undernutrition is a fundamental cause of maternal and child death and disease: in DPRK, chronic malnutrition (stunting) among under-five children is at 27.9 per cent, while 4 per cent of under-five children are acutely malnourished (wasting). Around 70 per cent of the population, or 18 million people, are considered food insecure. Food production in the country is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs and is highly vulnerable to shocks, particularly natural disasters. Due to drought in 2015, 11 per cent of the main harvest was lost.

Health service delivery, including reproductive health, remains inadequate, with many areas of the country not equipped with the facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Under-five children and low-birth-weight newborns are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea if they do not receive proper treatment or basic food, vitamins and micronutrients.

CERF funds will be used to sustain critical life-saving interventions aimed at improving the nutrition situation in the country through reduction of maternal and under-five child mortality and morbidity. More than 2.2 million people, including 1.8 million under-five children and 350,000 pregnant and lactating women, will benefit from assistance provided by CERF funds. “The commitment and support of the international community is vital. Protracted and serious needs must be addressed” said United Nations Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Mr. Tapan Mishra. “Humanitarian needs must be kept separate from political issues to ensure minimum living conditions for the most vulnerable people.” The United Nations will continue to work towards addressing the structural causes of vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition through its interventions agreed with the DPRK Government. [Relief Web]

Separately, UNICEF recently warned that “25,000 children in North Korea require immediate treatment for malnutrition after a drought cut food production by a fifth and the government reduced rations.” But the true “structural cause” of the “vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition” Mr. Mishra cites is staring us in the face.

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The fact that donor nations can see this is why the U.N. must dip into its emergency fund to provide for the most urgent needs of North Korean children. No other industrialized country has ever experienced such a prolonged food crisis. Most readers probably have a general idea that Kim Jong-un could afford to feed his population by spending less on weapons, but let’s examine the figures in greater detail. First, $8 million is a small sum compared to $200 million, the total cost of the World Food Program’s (WFP) current two-year program to assist 2.4 million vulnerable women, children, and families. That’s an annualized cost of $100 million per year.

A close reading of WFP Inspector General reports reveals that a substantial, but unquantifiable amount of this is overhead — salaries of the aid workers, salaries of the North Korean workers provided to the WFP by the North Korean government, fuel purchased from the North Korean government, and other costs (such as storage) paid to the North Korean government. In other words, the actual food costs are likely just a fraction of that $100 million a year.

It also bears repeating that 2.4 million North Koreans represents a small percentage of the North Koreans who are food insecure. Recent U.N. studies have placed the percentage of North Koreans who are food insecure at between 70 percent and 84 percent, out of a population of roughly 23 million people. Before the North Korean government expelled most international aid workers in 2006, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans. 

For comparison, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile programs in 2012 alone. In 2013, it spent $644 million on luxury goods, which U.N. resolutions prohibit it from importing. Let no one say that North Korea’s missiles never killed or hurt anyone.

Yet in listing the causes of the food crisis, the World Food program lists droughts, floods, typhoons, deforestation, an “economic downturn,” a “lack of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers,” and “limited capacity to access international capital markets and import food.”

In 2015, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring international compliance with sanctions against North Korea found that the North Korean government had placed an intelligence officer inside the WFP’s Rome headquarters.

Recent evidence, however, suggests that the North Korean government has no difficulty importing the things it really wants.

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Satellite imagery of North Korea’s Nampho port reveals what appears to be a new 50-meter pleasure craft, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).

The boat which was first spotted by Curtis Melvin at the U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington D.C., and can be seen docked at the naval headquarters of North Korea’s West Sea fleet. [….]

“No visitors have reported seeing or photographing this boat. We are under the impression that this boat was imported, at one point or another,” Melvin added, though admitted more me definite proof (sic) had so far been hard to come by. [….]

The new boat joins a number of other pleasure craft visible on satellite imagery around the DPRK’s coasts. In 2013, an NK News investigation revealed Kim Jong Un’s $7 million yacht, originally manufactured by British company Princess.

UN sanctions prohibit the sale of pleasure craft, cars and other luxury items to North Korea, but patchy implementation often means that prohibited goods can still find their way across the DPRK’s borders. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

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Photos obtained by NK Pro reveal North Korea’s new gondolas at the Masikryong ski resort originally came from Austria, in what could constitute a breach of UN luxury goods sanctions and EU regulations.

The recently installed cable car system now running up the Taehwa Peak in the DPRK’s Kangwon Province, once ferried passengers around the high end Ischgl resort on the border between Austria and Switzerland as part of network of 45 ski lifts and cable cars.

Coming amid momentum for fresh United Nations sanctions to respond to the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, the gondola is the latest in a string of controversial purchases by the North Korean resort, which also include skiing equipment and specialized machinery sourced from Europe and Canada. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

A government that can import yachts and ski gondolas surely has the means to import rice.

In its 2014 report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea discussed Pyongyang’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of the right to food” in extensive detail.

660. Large amounts of state expenditure are also devoted to giant bronze statues and other projects designed to further the personality cult of Kim Il-sung and his successors and showcase their achievements. These projects are given absolute priority, which is also evidenced by the fact that they are often completed in a short period of time.  The DPRK Minister of Finance, Choe Kwang-jin, reported about the 2012 budget of the DPRK:

Of the total state budgetary expenditure for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard, 44.8 per cent was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.

661. In 2013, Kim Jong-un ordered the KPA to construct a “world-class” ski resort that would rival the winter sports facilities that are being built in the ROK in preparation of the ROK’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. When visiting the site in May 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly “was greatly satisfied to learn that soldier-builders have constructed a skiing area on mountain ranges covering hundreds of thousands of square meters, including primary, intermediate and advanced courses with almost 110,000 meters in total length and between 40 and 120 metres in width.” 

662. A number of similar prestige projects that fail to have any immediate positive impact on the situation of the general population have been pursued, including the construction of the monumental Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, the Rungna Dolphinarium and Pleasure Park in Pyongyang and a beach resort town in Wonsan.

(f) Purchase of luxury goods

663. The DPRK continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods, as confirmed by the reports of the United Nations Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), which inter alia monitors the implementation of the Security Council sanctions prohibiting the import of luxury goods. In one report, the Panel of Experts described the confiscation, by Italy, of luxury items such as high quality cognac and whiskey worth 12,000 euros (USD 17,290) and equipment for a 1,000-person cinema valued at Euro 130,000 (USD 187,310). The report further revealed that the DPRK has attempted to purchase and import a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. 

664. Luxury goods expenditure by the DPRK rose to USD 645.8 million (470 million euros) in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of USD 300 million a year under Kim Jong-il in October 2013. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on Human Rights in N. Korea, Feb. 2014]

In response to North Korea’s missile test, a State Department spokesman called on Pyongyang to “put food in the mouths of the North Korean people instead of spending money on dangerous military capabilities.” There is fresh evidence that this message would resonate with North Koreans, too. Although the North Korean government’s propaganda blames international sanctions for causing food shortages, the claim is nonsense. Professor Lee and I debunked it here, in the pages of the New York Times. The North Korean people also question that narrative.

Q: North Korea may be sanctioned again by the international community. I presumed that only ordinary people will suffer, not the upper class. What do you think about that?

A: Our life is so miserable; we are so poor with or without sanctions. We make a living selling in the marketplace, because the government no longer provides rations as they used to. Sanctions make any difference. [….]

Q: North Korean official media are showing scenes of people in Pyongyang celebrating the success of the hydrogen bomb test. How about in the provincial towns?

A: There haven’t been any meetings or gatherings regarding the nuke test. No one has any interest in it. A successful test will not provide a single teaspoon of rice. We are only concerned about the price of rice. We don’t care about that shitty bomb story; we are too busy trying to feed ourselves. [Rimjin-gang]

And separately, this:

Q: How do the people feel about the hydrogen bomb test?

A: I doubt that many people would have pride about that (the nuke test)! We don’t have enough food to eat! Everyone is making an outcry since they are doing that kind of thing even though we are so hungry! [Rimjin-gang]

North Korea watchers often speculate that the regime uses bomb and missile tests to create an us-versus-them mentality, to bolster national pride in the regime, and to distract the people from the hardships they endure. As The New York Times notes, “Most of the country, especially outside the capital, remains in dire poverty, a fact that analysts say has spurred Mr. Kim to focus attention on his nuclear program.” There’s evidence that it’s not working anymore.

She said, “People here are more apprehensive than boastful. They say the regime has finally blown it after the repetitive talks about the nuclear test. People in the markets also argue, ‘The government should have spent the money on food supplies. The state media announced that the nuclear test was a success, but who knows whether it was.’ ”

The situations in the North Korean border region remain unchanged; the residents are largely indifferent to the success of its nuclear test. The regime propagated justifications for possessing nuclear weapons and its success on the 4th nuclear test, on the basis that it defends peace and protects from the United States and its other enemies.

In the past, people in the DPRK have been proud of nuclear test success and its purported power to defend the state. But public opinion has turned against nuclear weapons over the years, with people’s perception of nuclear arms development going from ‘possession of national defense power’ to ‘waste of financial resources’. [New Focus Int’l]

The South Korean government has just announced that it will increase its loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ. If Seoul ever develops and deploys a comprehensive information operations strategy for broadcasting to the North Korean people, it should make the true causes of hunger in North Korea a centerpiece of its message. Seoul’s message to the people of North Korea should be a variation on a message that has long proven effective when delivered to oppressed people: rice, peace, and freedom … and reunification.

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Obama’s weakness and Xi Jinping’s bullying are about to start a nuclear arms race in Asia

Next Wednesday, the full Senate will vote on, and almost certainly pass, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Actan almost unprecedented bipartisan vote of no confidence against a sitting president’s foreign policy. If the bill becomes law, it will legislate the biggest shift in our North Korea policy in more than two decades.

Meanwhile, our Asian allies are holding another, quieter vote of no confidence on our North Korea policy. During the power vacuum of the Obama years, China accelerated its military buildup and made a series of spurious territorial grabs in the Pacific. Japan responded to China’s buildup and its claims to the Senkaku Islands with its own rearmament program. Despite the presence of nearly 30,000 American military personnel in South Korea, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, shelled South Korean territory, planted the mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, and got away with all of it without losing China’s financial backing. Then, last week, two Chinese aircraft intruded into South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed reef of Ieodo.

Clearly, the deterrents that protected South Korea since the 1950s aren’t working anymore. Outwardly, South Korea still relies on the U.S. to guarantee its security. Its decision to accept a deployment of the THAAD missile defense system will offer some protection against North Korea’s nuclear missiles, but no practical defense against North Korea’s long-range, chem-and-bio-capable, multiple-launch 300-millimeter artillery rockets.

If the Sunshine Policy was South Korea’s all-night borrachera, its hangover was to wake up next to a morbidly obese high-school dropout with a penchant for the NBA, torturing small animals, bondage porn, and gruesome executions, and who has nukes and the apparent intent to keep them. If South Korea is starting to see its security differently, so would you if you were South Korea. How would you calculate the potential outcomes of North Korea’s escalating provocation cycles once His Corpulency has an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula?

South Korea nukes

[Via Alastair Gale on Twitter]

America’s political uncertainties can’t offer much reassurance, either. If the very words “President Trump” don’t scare you enough, ask yourself whether a President Trump or a President Cruz would stay engaged in the region. Would Hillary Clinton, who never formed a coherent strategy to disarm North Korea or executed any other policy with particular competence as Secretary of State, suddenly come up with and execute one as president? Would President Sanders really threaten nuclear retaliation against a North Korean first strike? Even if he did, would Kim Jong-un believe him or gamble that he was bluffing? If I couldn’t nuke Pyongyang, I can’t imagine that Bernie Sanders could.

My point here is that a promise to nuke an enemy for a friend assumes more than a security or fiscal burden. It assumes a moral and historical burden that may well be unbearable for modern America, especially given all that could happen in today’s world. The world might forgive South Korea for massive retaliation, but it would never forgive us. That’s why I wonder how much America’s so-called nuclear umbrella is really worth today, and so do a growing number of people in Seoul:

The South feels insecure because of the nuclear threat by the North and, more importantly, the lack of a counterpunch it pack have to prevent the North from using nuclear weapons against it.

Thereby, the next question for the South is whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella is good enough to cope with this fast-changing status. Obviously, it’s not.

Above all, the umbrella is a deterrent. To borrow a metaphor, the umbrella was not made for a new purpose ? the North, a rogue state led by an unpredictable 32-year-old dictator. More importantly, it has never been used so its effectiveness is still in question.

First, would the U.S. act in kind, if the North attacked the South with its nukes? In the era of MAD, a nuclear war would have meant a world war and the Americans would have been the first targets of the Soviets.

Against the North, a small country with a population of 20 million, the U.S. would be bound to think twice, especially when it is incomparably stronger in conventional weaponry and few of its people would get killed.

A blood stain is still on its collective conscience as the only country that has ever used nuclear devices against humans, Hiroshima and Nagasaki during its war with Japan in the Second World War. From the U.S. perspective, it is no 9/11 or even the attack on the Pearl Harbor. This alone means a great reduction in the credibility of the U.S.-extended deterrence. [Oh Young-jin, The Korea Times]

I’ve never been a great fan of Oh Young-jin, but his perspective is probably a fair reflection of the hawkish and nationalist inclinations of many South Koreans today. The idea of a nuclear South Korea has just entered the country’s political mainstream. 

“It is time to possess a peaceful nuclear program for the right of self-defense.”

This declaration came not from North Korean state media, but South Korean lawmaker Won Yoo-cheol of the ruling Saenuri Party on January 7, the day after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.

More politicians from the ruling party have echoed this argument, saying “only South Korea is isolated from nuclear (power) in Northeast Asia.” This is far from the first time that South Korean politicians have spoken in favor of nuclear arms: Former ruling party presidential candidate Cheong Mong-joon openly called for independent nuclear development in 2012, saying South Korea could “achieve peace without the ‘balance of fear.’”

Well-known columnist Kim Dae-jung of South Korea’s most influential newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, also spoke in favor of starting a conversation on the nuclear possession on February 2, saying that withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty may be necessary.

A certain segment of academia in Seoul has also spoken in favor of nuclear development. Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, generally an engagement-inclined expert, has recently been asserting the necessity of nuclear arms, even as he argues for the need to talk with North Korea following most inter-Korean incidents. [NK News, Choi Ha-young]

Yonhap, noting that “calls” for “the South to have its own nuclear deterrence … have grown,” quotes President Park Geun-hye as saying “she understands such a sentiment but made clear that her administration will stick to the policy of denuclearizing the entire peninsula.”

Since at least 2009, South Korea has been bargaining hard with the U.S. on a nuclear cooperation accord it wants to expand, to allow South Korea to “close the nuclear fuel cycle” by enriching and reprocessing nuclear fuel. Left mostly unsaid, but often implied, is the U.S. worry that South Korea may want to use its nuclear energy industry as a cover to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

Openly withdrawing from the NPT or declaring an intent to build nuclear weapons would draw disastrous diplomatic consequences for Seoul, so it would want to nuke up quietly. Politicians who want to nuke up would have to stay ambiguous about it, just like Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan all did. Japan, which can reprocess nuclear fuel, reportedly has a “bomb in the basement,” with enough plutonium to go nuclear within as little as six months

The drawbacks of a nuclear South Korea for the U.S. are obvious, starting with the collapse of global nuclear nonproliferation, severe strains on the U.S.-Korea alliance, and the fact that South Korea’s nukes will reinforce North Korea’s nuclear status while doing nothing to deter the real North Korean threat to the United States — that North Korea sells a nuke to a terrorist (which it has threatened to do) or nuclear technology to another state that arms terrorists (which it has tried to do).

It’s certainly not an ideal outcome. The ideal outcome would be a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, bread that tastes great and doesn’t make you fat, and commuting over I-66 in a pod racer. But if the ideal solution is out of reach, the next-best solution would be not giving the most aggressive, most brutal, and least restrained regimes on the block an effective nuclear monopoly. 

Of course, China would have fits about being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, but there’s a certain justice in that, given all that China has done over the years to nuke North Korea up. And if you’re a small nation under the rapacious gaze of China and North Korea, nuclear weapons are a cheap and effective way to protect yourself. If you’re Taiwan, a marginalized ally with little reason to believe it’s still under Uncle Sam’s umbrella, nuclear weapons make particularly good sense.

Not for the first time in recent years, the weak diplomacy of well-meaning, peace-loving politicians and diplomats has undermined the very policies that preserved peace and averted conflict, and tempted states to reach for more forceful ones. The Obama Administration’s weak deterrence and weaker sanctions against North Korea have undermined the security framework that protected peace and incubated prosperity in (what is now) the world’s most dynamic region. It’s a future full of dreary ironies. The greatest of these is that a President who wanted a world without nuclear weapons may have, as his legacy, that he scared half the world into nuking up. 

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Update: I’ve always been impressed by how quickly ideas catch fire in South Korea.

A right-wing South Korean journalist insisted on Friday that South Korea and Japan push for their own nuclear armament for protection from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

In a contribution to the conservative Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun, Cho Gab-je said that the two countries should be nuclear-armed for legitimate self-defense as long as a neighboring enemy is armed with atomic bombs.

Cho, former president of Monthly Chosun, said nuclear armament is a very natural option for the sovereign countries whose existence is being jeopardized constantly.

He also said the two countries should be able to ask for the revision of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) so that they are able to push for their nuclear armament under Article 10 of the NPT.

“It is possible for the two countries to give prior notice for the withdrawal from the NPT as they are faced with a crisis of national existence due to constant nuclear threats,” he said.

“South Korea and Japan should ask the United States to participate in the decision-making process of the U.S. nuclear umbrella strategy,” Cho said, insisting the U.S. nuclear umbrella promised to both countries, respectively, will have to be revamped into a combined command system among the three countries.

The reports have Xi Jinping’s attention, and he doesn’t sound happy:

Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday that there should be neither nuclear weapons nor war on the Korean Peninsula as he spoke by phone with President Park Geun-hye for the first time since the North’s nuclear test last month.

Xi also said that all relevant parties should deal with the situation in a “cool-headed” manner from the perspective of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula while sticking to the principle of dialogue and negotiations, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“Under any circumstances, China will consistently make efforts to realize Korean-Peninsula denuclearization, safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula and resolve problems through dialogue and negotiations,” Xi was quoted as saying.

And yet, when President Park asked Xi to help disarm North Korea through economic pressure, Xi pretty much gave Park the big F-U, just like his Foreign Minister did with John Kerry. I’m not saying that South Korea should nuke up or shouldn’t, but Xi shouldn’t be surprised that ideas like these gain currency when he won’t lift a finger to help protect South Korea’s fundamental national security interests from threats by one of his clients.

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Update 2: Don Kirk, who has been covering Korea long enough to give almost any story its full historical context, relates the long history of South Korea’s nuclear program, and how the U.S. pressured Park Chung-hee to end it. Then, as now, the program was driven by the fear of an aggressive North Korea, and a fear of U.S. disengagement. Given that North Korea got its first experimental nuclear reactor in the 1960s, I wonder whether Park or Kim Il-sung was the first to get the idea of going nuclear. What matters, in the end, is that Park’s backers forced him to end his nuclear program, and Kim’s backers just threw money at him and his successors.

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North Korea says it just tested an H-bomb. Here’s how we should respond.

North Korea has just announced that it tested a hydrogen bomb. The announcement came shortly after the U.S. Geological Survey measured an artificial earthquake in the vicinity of North Korea’s Punggye-ri test site (Google Earth images of the site, and the gulag next to it, here).

Events are moving faster than reporters can type right now, but the most comprehensive reports at this moment are at NK News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

This would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, and its third during the Obama Administration. On the Richter Scale, the test measured 5.1, compared to 4.9 in 2013, 4.7 in 2009, and 4.2 in 2006. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, which means that a 5.0 is ten times more powerful than a 4.0.

Last month, when North Korea first claimed to have built an H-bomb, most experts reacted skeptically, but North Korea has surprised us before. To confirm that this was an H-bomb, we’ll send a plane to fly through the plume from the blast, collect air samples, and analyze them. That will take days, if not weeks.

This is the first North Korean nuke test that didn’t follow the usual pattern of a missile test as the opening act, unless you count (and believe) reports that Pyongyang recently carried out a successful test of a submarine-launched missile. Once North Korea has a serviceable SLBM, it will no longer need a long-range ballistic missile to hit the United States. North Korea’s ICBM program has struggled, but its short- and medium-range missiles are relatively accurate and reliable.

I’m glad Professor Lee and I mentioned this possibility in our latest op-ed, just published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal. Frankly, that op-ed works well enough as a prescription for how to respond to a nuke test as the cyberattack we never really called Kim Jong-un to account for. I’m glad we timed this one so well, and I’m glad the right people are taking notice of that.

Now comes the part where I have to read “experts” who’ve never once read 31 C.F.R. Part 500 or an executive order tell us that North Korea is already so heavily sanctionedall without screaming and waking the neighbors.

If the President doesn’t impose some actual, legitimately tough sanctions now, I really don’t know what to say for him. He’s just lost all political cover to do a deal with the North Koreans in the last year of his administration. What does he have to lose now?

And, of course, this is an election year, and an exceptionally volatile one. That won’t make it any easier for the President to continue with his avoidant North Korea policy.

As for Congress, it has strong North Korea sanctions bills pending in both houses now. If it doesn’t put a tough bill on the President’s desk now, it will forfeit the credibility of its criticisms of one of this administration’s — and the last administration’s — great foreign policy failures.

Internationally, the administration should put resources and capital behind a program of progressive diplomacy, to unite our allies in exerting coordinated pressure on Pyongyang, building capacity for smaller states to enforce existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, and building a larger coalition that would leave North Korea’s few remaining enablers increasingly isolated.

Speaking of enablers, the other party that might be rather exasperated right now is China. It was reportedly trying to arrange a visit to Pyongyang by a senior diplomat. I assume the purpose of this would have been to dissuade His Porcine Majesty from going through with the test. That, combined with the recent Moranbang fiasco, Kim Jong-un’s failure to visit China, and the fallout (sorry) from the Jang Song-thaek purge, give China reasons for exasperation. It still won’t cut off aid to North Korea, but I’m guessing it won’t put up much of a fight when Samantha Power asks the Security Council to approve another sanctions resolution.

Which China will then proceed to ignore, just like all the rest of those resolutions. Of course, we don’t have to just keep watching them do that. With China’s economy and stock market tanking again, the last thing it needs is for its banks to get fined, or even lose their access to the dollar systemfor helping North Korea break U.N. sanctions.

The outcomes we should seek now are, first, China’s good-faith implementation of the sanctions it has been voting for and willfully violating since 2006, and second, China’s abstention on a resolution referring Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, even if the only consequence of that is to isolate Putin as the lone veto.

Finally, it’s time to acknowledge that none of the problems North Korea continues to create for its people and ours are going to be solved without a fundamental change in the character of its government. Those around Kim Jong-un must understand that their only choices are to reform or to perish. China, for its part, must understand that Kim Jong-un’s oppressive and dangerous ways will inevitably bring something resembling the chaos and violence of Syria to its frontier. There is much China can do to encourage internal change, followed by gradual, negotiated reform and disarmament, if it wants to.

Failing this, the way to force change at the top is to refocus our engagement efforts toward the bottom. That means denying the regime the hard currency that sustains it, but it also means giving North Korea’s hungry and dispossessed the capacity to communicate, organize, resist, and build institutions that can challenge the state.

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Update: A few additional thoughts on what we should ask the U.N. Security Council to do.

First, expect the Security Council to meet in emergency session to consider yet another sanctions resolution. The most important thing that resolution could require is for member state banks to report any deposits, accounts, or property suspected to be owned or controlled by North Korean officials to the U.N.’s 1718 Committee. That will help build an international database of North Korean funds, and help the Security Council trace North Korean funds, identify violations, and better deter North Korean provocations.

Above, I argued that the U.S. should now push to refer Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court. If China and Russia absolutely refuse to go along with a new resolution that directly holds Kim Jong-un accountable for crimes against humanity, there are also more indirect ways to do this. One would be to add new provisions prohibiting the use of forced labor from North Korea, which would cut off a major source of funds for Pyongyang. China and Russia would argue that this crosses a new rubicon, but that’s not so. After all, John Bolton persuaded them both to go along with prohibiting North Korea’s imports of luxury goods as early as 2006. The intent behind that sanction was that Pyongyang had no business importing Swiss watches and luxury sedans while the North Korean people went hungry. That provision had no direct bearing on proliferation. It was about human rights.

Whatever the Security Council does is likely to continue to focus on squeezing North Korea’s shipping networks. And while I can certainly think of some useful provisions for a new resolution in this regard, what may be more desperately needed to make sanctions work at last is new designations under the old resolutions. Targets should include shipping companies, air cargo carriers under military control, state insurance companies that facilitate arms shipments, businesses that are known to be fronts for money laundering, and third-country entities that reflag North Korean ships or otherwise help it break sanctions. For example, the Treasury Department has sanctioned China’s 88 Queensway Group for breaking sanctions against Zimbabwe. To show its seriousness, Treasury should also designate 88 Queensway and its head, Sam Pa, under Executive Order 13687, for all it has done to break sanctions against North Korea.

The Security Council should also approve the designations of higher-level North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un-himself, and the members of his Organization and Guidance Department, which would effectively freeze their assets.

Finally, the Security Council must also revamp and streamline the moribund and bureaucratic 1718 Committee, which approves the designations, and require it to make regular reports to the Security Council.)

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HRNK: Camp 16 “has likely expanded” in recent years

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has published a detailed new report on Camp 16, the subject of this extensive OFK post from April 2012. It’s always validating when the findings of an experienced professional imagery analyst like Joseph Bermudez are generally consistent with mine. Picking up at about the same time my post left off, Bermudez finds that “[d]uring the period under study, there has been an increase in the number of housing units and support buildings,” and most likely, the prisoner population:

If those working at the camp are prisoners, the prisoner population within the camp has likely expanded over the period examined. The camp population maintains the agricultural fields, orchards, and livestock, and work in the camp’s logging activities and wood products, light industrial facilities, and mines. [HRNK]

Bermudez’s report is documented extensively with detailed, annotated imagery.

From the context of the whole report, Bermudez seems convinced that Camp 16 is indeed a prison camp. Presumably, his caution is a function of having no eyewitness confirmation; however, in 2013, Amnesty International published this account:

In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr. Lee (full name withheld), who was a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly. [Amnesty International]

This witness left North Korea long before the beginning of nuclear testing at Punggye-ri. Like me, Bermudez was interested in whether the evidence in the imagery supported reports that North Korea uses prisoners from Camp 16 at the adjacent Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Like me, he found nothing in the imagery to support that, although he notes:

It is important to reiterate the analytical caution presented in previous reports (such as North Korea: Imagery Analysis of Camp 155 and North Korea’s Camp No. 25 Update6 ) produced by HRNK and AllSource. North Korean officials, especially those within the Korean People’s Army and internal security organizations, clearly understand the importance of implementing camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD) procedures to mask their operations and intentions. It would be reasonable to assume that they have done so here. [HRNK]

Of course, my analysis was also based on the geographical convenience of moving prisoners directly from Camp 16 to Punggye-ri, in that the west side of Camp 16 is the east side of Punggye-ri. If the kuk-ga anjeon bowibu guards wanted to bring prisoners from Camp 16 to Punggye-ri, wouldn’t the most convenient and secure way to do that be to drive them out a gate on the western side of the camp? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Most of the camp’s population is located on the southeastern part of the camp, near the main gate. There is a road that goes from that vicinity westward to Punggye-ri, outside the camp’s boundaries. It wouldn’t be that great an inconvenience to simply load the prisoners onto trucks, drive them out the gate, and then a few miles to the west, and then to the north, around the camp’s southern and southwestern circumferences.

The other big question I hope we’ll answer one day: was Camp 16 the ultimate destination for the survivors of Camp 22? If so, how many survivors arrived at Camp 16? Until we get more information from witnesses to either Camp 16, Camp 22, or Punggye-ri, all we can do is watch, and follow the evidence to wherever it takes us.

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Sen. Gardner calls on Congress to pass North Korea sanctions bill

Amid all of the slaughter and chaos sweeping over us, Senator Cory Gardner doesn’t want us to forget which government built a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, and that may soon be able to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

It is time to ratchet up the pressure. That is why I’ve introduced the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. This bill would require the president to impose sanctions on people who have contributed to North Korea’s nuclear program, enabled its human rights abuses, and engaged in money laundering, counterfeiting or drug trafficking that benefits the regime.

North Korea skirts financial sanctions by setting up shell companies in countries like China. This bill would add pressure by asking the Treasury Department to designate North Korea “a country of primary money laundering concern” under the Patriot Act.

Similarly, North Korea evades U.N. embargoes on arms trafficking. This bill would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to seize any ships the regime uses for smuggling if they enter U.S. waters. It also asks the president to identify foreign ports that are not doing enough to prevent smuggling.[Sen. Cory Gardner, Wall Street Journal]

Senator Gardner’s bill, S. 2144, shares most of its content with H.R. 757, a bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R., Cal.) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D., N.Y.). In several ways, S. 2144 improves on its elder sibling. Hopefully, as the bills work their way through their respective committees and chambers, they will converge in a form that combines their best elements. That needs to happen soon, because we’re already near the end of the first session of this Congress. Time is finite, and unfortunately, it seems the only person who can get the whole Congress’s attention is Kim Jong-Un.

Events may soon favor Sen. Gardner’s call, because Kim Jong-Un also doesn’t want us to forget about Kim Jong-Un. The day after the Wall Street Journal published Sen. Gardner’s op-ed, 38 North published images showing that North Korea is digging a new tunnel at its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Perhaps, then, tomorrow’s crisis might crowd into a few of the news cycles that have been preoccupied, lately, with the slaughter of the week. If that’s what it takes to get us toward a policy that recognizes the North Korea that is, rather than the North Korea we would prefer to believe in, so much the better.

Historically, North Korea’s nuclear tests have come every three or four years, so we’re about due. If what His Porcine Majesty most needs now is to whip up xenophobic hostility to distract his ruling class from their fears of him, and if he thinks he’s reached the limits of what Park Geun-Hye will tolerate, maybe a nuclear test is just what he needs in the short term. But if his survival depends on ready access to hard currency in his Chinese and Swiss bank accounts, in the long term, this might mean the end of him.

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Treasury blocks assets of North Korea’s ambassador to Burma

Although I suppose it’s probably a complete coincidence that Treasury finally blocked the assets of four North Korean proliferators in Burma last Friday, I’d like to think it stung a bit when, a few weeks ago, at this conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I said this:

Here’s a link to Treasury’s announcement of the designation of four individual North Koreans, including Pyongyang’s Ambassador to Burma:

HWANG, Su Man (a.k.a. HWANG, Kyong Nam); DOB 06 Apr 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472220033 (Korea, North) (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Kwang Hyok, Burma; DOB 20 Apr 1970; nationality Korea, North; Passport 654210025 (Korea, North); Korean Mining Development Trading Corporation Representative in Burma (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Sok Chol, Burma; DOB 08 May 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472310082; North Korean Ambassador to Burma (individual) [DPRK2].

RI, Chong Chol (a.k.a. RI, Jong Chol); DOB 12 Apr 1970; Passport 199110092 (Korea, North) expires 17 Mar 2014; alt. Passport 472220503 (Korea, North) expires 06 Jun 2018; alt. Passport 654220197 (Korea, North) expires 07 May 2019 (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

The bracketed “DPRK2” means the designations were under the potentially sweeping but still barely used new Executive Order 13687, which allows Treasury to designate any North Korean government or ruling party official, entity, or enabler. This means Treasury doesn’t have to publish detailed reasons for its designations. According to GAO, this should make the process of designating North Korean entities much easier, although we’ve seen relatively little action from Treasury since the order was signed on January 2nd, shortly after President Obama blamed Pyongyang for the Sony hack and cyberterrorist threat.

Treasury’s announcement doesn’t give a specific reason for the designations, but does say that the targets are linked to the Korea Mining Development Corporation (KOMID), which has been designated for WMD proliferation since the George W. Bush administration. Treasury also designated a North Korean trading company in Egypt.

EKO DEVELOPMENT AND INVESTMENT COMPANY (a.k.a. EKO DEVELOPMENT & INVESTMENT FOOD COMPANY; a.k.a. EKO IMPORT AND EXPORT COMPANY), 35 St. Abd al-Aziz al-Sud, al-Manial, Cairo, Egypt [DPRK2].

According to Yonhap, EKO is “a North Korean government entity located in Egypt,” and was designated “for helping KOMID market North Korean weapons systems to foreign countries.” You can find references to similarly named entities through a Google search.

“Today’s action is designed to counter North Korea’s attempts to circumvent U.S. and United Nations (UN) sanctions, as well as maintain the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on individuals and entities that are linked to the North Korean Government’s weapons of mass destruction procurement network,” the department said. [Yonhap]

Let’s start by accentuating the positive. The designation of a sitting ambassador represents a notable and long-overdue escalation in Treasury’s designations.

The Ambassador was reportedly paid by the sanctioned DPRK company and arranged meetings on their behalf.

“‘The designation of the DPRK Ambassador to Burma is unprecedented. It is a strong signal to the new Burmese government that the US has persistent concerns about the relationship between North Korea and the country’s military which it expects to be promptly addressed,” Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News.

“The January EO is much broader in scope and therefore involves a different standard of evidence: it is only necessary to demonstrate that a person is a North Korean official or has materially assisted the North Korean government. There is no doubt that the Ambassador meets these criteria,” Berger added. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

Ordinarily, the Vienna Convention protects the activities of diplomats as inviolable. North Korea’s abuse of these protections, however, is so widely acknowledged that even the U.N. Security Council’s latest North Korea sanctions resolution calls for the “targeting the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel,” expresses concern that Pyongyang “is abusing the privileges and immunities accorded under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations,” and calls on member states “to exercise enhanced vigilance over DPRK diplomatic personnel so as to prevent such individuals from contributing to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by” U.N. resolutions. By itself, however, the designation of four individuals and one trading company represents a small dent in a global network.

“North Korea’s continued violation of international law and its commitment to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat to the United States and to global peace and security,” Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin said in the statement.

“Today’s designations underscore our ongoing efforts to obstruct the flow of funds used to augment North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” he said. 

[Yonhap]

To get an idea of what a serious and sustained sanctions enforcement program would look like, you need look no further than Treasury’s own sanctions search tool, which reveals that there are no less than eleven sanctions programs dedicated exclusively to Iran, compared to two dedicated to North Korea. The number of designations is even more telling. Hold down your “control” key and click “561List” (signifying 31 C.F.R. Part 561), EO13622 (signifying the executive order of the same number), EO13645, FSE-IR, HRIT-IR, IFSR, IRAN, IRAN-HR (human rights), IRAN-TRA (under this statute), IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guards Council), and ISA. You should get 845 results. Because these programs still exclude designations under other sanctions programs, such as “NPWMD” (for WMD proliferation) and “SDGT” (for terrorism), it’s entirely possible that Treasury has designated more than 1,000 Iranian and Iranian-linked entities, compared to around 90 in North Korea’s case. 

An effective sanctions program will require years of sustained and determined effort, and the political will to designate North Korea’s banks, higher-level ministries, senior officials, and third-country enablers. Such an effort begins by requiring all transactions with the North Korean government to be licensed by OFAC, which is one way Treasury can begin to gather financial intelligence on where North Korea’s money is, and how it moves. As of now, however, there’s no such comprehensive requirement. The most optimistic way to view this is as a small but welcome start.

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Congress to hold hearings on N. Korea & terrorism, human rights, nukes this week

The first hearing, entitled, “The Persistent North Korea Denuclearization and Human Rights Challenge,” will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m., before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The witnesses will be Sung Kim, the State Department’s Special Representative For North Korea Policy And Deputy Assistant Secretary For Korea and Japan, and Robert King, State’s Special Envoy For North Korean Human Rights Issues.

The second hearing will be before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, on October 22nd at 2 p.m. It will be entitled, “North Korea: Back on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List?” 

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(Coughs, clears throat, looks down at shoes.)

The witnesses will be Sung Kim and Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, State’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations. 

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U.N.’s 1718 Committee does NADA about N. Korean missile agency; Update: Membership revoked!

NK News is reporting that North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, whose name yields the unfortunate acronym “NADA,” has been accepted as a member of the International Astronautical Federation, a group that describes itself thusly:

Founded in 1951, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) is the world’s leading space advocacy body with 246 members from 62 countries on six continents including all leading agencies, space companies, societies, associations, universities and institutes worldwide.

Hat tip to Chad O’Carroll for the link. As O’Carroll concedes, however, the source of his story is “an attendant of an annual congress event organized by the federation,” and the IAF itself hasn’t confirmed this. Let’s hope it backs off promptly, because in a report published earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with international sanctions on North Korea found extensive links between NADA and North Korea’s banned missile programs, and recommended that NADA be designated and sanctioned by the Security Council.

First, the Panel’s findings:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.02 AMScreen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.15 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.33 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.59.01 AM

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Now, the Panel’s recommendations:

 

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A designation would require all U.N. member states to immediately freeze all of NADA’s assets, and to expel its representatives from their countries.

As conspicuous a blunder as this is on IAF’s part — assuming this isn’t just the statement of one rogue member — the systemic problem it points to is the failure of the U.N. bureaucracy to act on the consistently superb reports of its own Panel of Experts. Eight months after the publication of the Panel’s latest report, the U.N.’s 1718 Committee, which is responsible for approving the designations, still hasn’t designated NADA. Meanwhile, NADA is free to pursue sensitive technology and international legitimacy, and to conceal its funds and operations.

Nor is this the first time the 1718 Committee has dropped the ball. It took the 1718 Committee a full year after the Chong Chon Gang incident to designate Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean shipping company that was smuggling MiGs and missiles from Cuba to North Korea, in flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions. Each time the 1718 Committee is inexcusably slow in reacting to Panel of Experts reports, it becomes more apparent that it is a weak link in U.N. sanctions enforcement, either for political reasons, or because of the simple incompetence of its management.

Either way, as Security Council members continue to consider possible responses to a North Korean missile or nuclear test, they should be thinking about more than passing new sanctions. New sanctions on financial messaging, shipping, reflagging, air cargo, and insurance might be useful, but the Security Council should also focus on making the existing sanctions work better.

The obvious alternative is to simply do away with the 1718 Committee entirely, although that would depart from standard U.N. procedure. This panel-committee formulation isn’t unique to North Korea. A similar committee was also set up to approve Iran (and other) sanctions designations. The political reality is that member states will want to retain some control over designations. In that case, why not allow the recommended designations of the Panel of Experts to go into effect within 30 days, unless a majority of members of the 1718 Committee vote to disapprove them? That would have the advantage of forcing China and Russia to engage in their obstructionism more openly.

Another suggestion, which isn’t mutually exclusive with the last one, is to do what the Security Council’s resolutions did in the case of Iran — require the Committee to report to the Security Council regularly on its enforcement actions. That will ensure that the P-5 keep a careful eye on the enforcement of the sanctions resolutions, and hold the 1718 Committee accountable for the slovenly pace of its actions.

(By the way, I’d like to give my special thanks to the U.N., proprietor of possibly the world’s worst website, for effing up all of its hyperlinks and all of my bookmarks to its committees and designations. Sanctions geeks may wish to update their bookmarks with the U.N.’s consolidated sanctions list.) 

In the end, however, it will be up to individual member states to impose national sanctions in appropriate cases, without waiting for a dilatory U.N. Committee. That’s not only plausible, it has happened. The EU sanctioned the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which is not designated by the U.N., and the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, also not sanctioned by the U.N. A good first step would be for the U.S. and the EU to harmonize their own designations mutually. Next, they should seek the cooperation of Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and other key middle powers holding North Korean property. Finally, they can reach smaller states, such as those that reflag North Korean ships and buy its weapons, and convince them to shun North Korea’s business. That strategy of progressive diplomacy will make it harder for the Chinese and the Russians to succeed in their obstructionism.

~   ~   ~

Update: Well, well. It seems after the IAF got some mail from concerned citizens in the U.N. Panel of Experts and the South Korea government, they revoked NADA’s membership. Chad O’Carroll has the rest of the story.

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Shoot it down.

As some of you may be aware, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Legally and factually, this has long been a difficult view to defend. Although this week’s threat from Pyongyang to nuke the United States (see coverage in The Washington Post and The New York Times) would not meet the strict legal definition of terrorism, because the existing definition requires the use or threat of violence by clandestine or non-state actors, this nuance will probably be lost on the average congressman or primary voter who applies a common-sense definition of what “terrorism” means. There’s little question that Pyongyang is engaging in nuclear blackmail.

Pyongyang is also claiming to have improved its nuclear facilities and capabilities. According to the regrettably acronymed Institute for Science and International Security, Kim Jong-Un is building a new facility at Yongbyon to separate different isotopes, including tritium, from spent nuclear fuel, to make even more powerful nuclear weapons.

Satellite imagery of the new building being constructed shows signatures that are “consistent with an isotope separation facility, including tritium separation,” the institute said, adding that the assessment is also shared by a government expert who has long experience in assessing activities at the Yongbyon site. [….]

“Whether North Korea can make nuclear weapons using tritium is unknown although we believe that it remains a technical problem North Korea still needs to solve. Solving this problem would likely require more underground nuclear tests,” it said. [Yonhap]

South Korea says that if North Korea does launch, it will take the case to the U.N. Security Council, ask for more sanctions, and turn the loudspeakers back on. The State Department is warning Pyongyang that its “threatening behavior and provocations,” such as “a nuclear or missile test,” would be a “mistake” that “would represent a setback in its hopes to grow its economy and to end its isolation.” John Kerry is warning Pyongyang of “severe consequences,” and is also saying that “North Korea will not be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state — even if it takes more than sanctions to convince them.” Kerry did not specify what “more than sanctions” means, but the U.S. Navy is sending Aegis destroyers to the region, which are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with Standard-3 surface-to-air missiles. And China, while nominally calling on North Korea to comply with Security Council resolutions, is doing what it usually does: sending crude.

North Korea’s long-range missile tests have often been tied to nuclear tests. In 2006, 2009, and 2013, a missile test preceded a nuclear test by approximately three months. It looks like we may be headed into our fourth such cycle. Even so, an international nuclear crisis is no reason to lose one’s sense of humor, even if you’re a reporter for South Korea’s official news service. This line made me laugh harder than anything in The Interview did:

The North’s threat is likely to dampen South and North Korea’s hard-won conciliatory mood on the peninsula following their landmark deal on easing military tension in late August. [Yonhap]

A close second was the reaction of Christopher “Captain Obvious” Hill, a/k/a Kim Jong Hill, who comes to a Yonhap reporter bearing a stone tablet, inscribed with the revelation that our problem is North Korea’s disinclination to denuclearize. Hill was interviewed at what ought to be a legacy-defining moment, the tenth anniversary of the September 2005 Joint Statement he negotiated, and which North Korea reneged on the following day.

I suppose international outrage is useful, if someone backs it up with something more ferrous. Historically, however, that “if” has been wanting. For example, this Administration has tended to talk out of both sides of its mouth, threatening Pyongyang with more sanctions at one moment, and at the next, repeating the twaddle that North Korea is already “the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.” I’ve already written at length about the relative weakness of U.S. national sanctions, but in the last week, I’ve also looked at the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions for opportunities for improvement. As always, Iran sanctions (in this case, UNSCR 1929) are a useful model. As to the specifics, however, I’ll be saving those for something I’d prefer to publish for a wider audience.

But if, as the Joint Chiefs are now saying, North Korea is approaching the capability to hit the United States by putting a nuke on a KN-08, we’re entering a new paradigm. I’m now at the point where I believe the President should revive (in modified form) a 2006 proposal by Ashton Carter, our current Defense Secretary, and Secretary William Perry, a former Defense Secretary — to destroy the missile. To be clear, I reject (as I did then) the idea of destroying the missile on the launch pad, which would require a strike on North Korean soil. Instead, I’m talking about intercepting the missile in flight.

It’s beyond serious debate that North Korea’s missile test would be a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It would also be a direct threat to the security of the United States. Intercepting it over the water would threaten no one, and carries no significant risk of harming any civilian population. It would be a strictly defensive act, meant to reassure Americans — and their Asian allies — that the U.S. military will defend them from extortion. It would refute the groundless misconception by 96% of the world’s adult population that the Obama Administration is a collection of milquetoasts and masochists whose red lines are drawn in colored chalk, and whose threats are really safewords. It would embarrass China, which has willfully enabled North Korea’s progress toward a nuclear arsenal, and willfully violated the same U.N. Security Council resolutions it voted for. In doing so, the U.S. might coax Beijing into rethinking the value of enforcing sanctions. And finally, at a time when Kim Jong-Un may feel withering domestic pressure to produce a victory of intimidation over the hated American enemy, it would be an unprecedented domestic humiliation that would weaken his standing among his population, and within the ruling junta known as the Organization and Guidance Department. If an interception retards His Porcine Majesty’s unsteady consolidation of power, it might buy the U.S. more time to prevent him from taking firm control of an outlaw kingdom with no regard for human life and an effective nuclear arsenal.

Five years ago, I might not have been at this point. But now that we’ve clearly entered a cycle that has, on three prior occasions, led us to a nuclear test, it’s time to demonstrate some seriousness about breaking that cycle.

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In its losing battle against N. Korean proliferation, State Dep’t whacks 2 more moles

Yonhap reports that the State Department has sanctioned two North Korean trading companies under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, a narrow counterproliferation statute entombed in the notes following the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, at the end of Title 50.

The firms are Polestar Trading Company, Ltd., a North Korean entity in China, and RyonHap-2, a trading firm in the North, were among a total of 22 entities sanctioned by the State Department under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the department said in a Federal Register notice.

Affiliated with the North’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences, Pyongyang’s main weapons development agency, RyonHap-2 is believed to be involved in weapons exports and parts procurements. [Yonhap]

According to the State Department’s Federal Register notice, the designation means that the sanctioned entities are ineligible for U.S. government contracts, foreign assistance, or military sales (that’ll show ’em!). Oh, and if you were planning on asking the Commerce Department for a license to export anything controlled under the Export Administration Act to Polestar or RyonHap-2, tough luck — for two years, anyway.

Yes, that’s right. As little as these particular sanctions do, the State Department imposed them for just two years, the minimum amount of time allowable under the law.

Here’s the part of Yonhap’s report that made me do a facepalm, however:

But the U.S. Treasury Department maintains more comprehensive sanctions on counties like North Korea and Iran. About 70 North Korean individuals agencies, entities, and vessels are on the department’s Specially Designated Nationals’ list. [Yonhap]

The second sentence is true, but misleading. The first is false. I’ll take them in inverse order. North Korea sanctions are not comprehensive and are not remotely comparable to those in place against Iran. I emailed the reporter, and asked what expert opinion or authority formed the basis of this statement; I received no response. I submit that a journalist who undertakes to write legal conclusions into her reporting undertakes an obligation to find an authoritative source or a legal expert to support her conclusion. (A foreign policy expert doesn’t count, unless he has performed or reviewed a legal analysis.) It is journalistic malpractice to publish a legal conclusion that lacks a foundation in legal authority.

Finally, a small point of order on the relationship between the INKSNA and the blocking of assets by Treasury: an INKSNA designation doesn’t necessarily add the sanctioned entity to the Treasury Department’s SDN list, which would tell banks around the world to block the entity’s property and assets. It’s certainly possible (and one hopes, inevitable) that Treasury will designate Polestar and RyonHap-2 under any of three executive orders (13382, 13551, or 13687) in the coming days, but according to Treasury’s SDN search tool, and its list of recent changes to the SDN List, that hasn’t happened yet. As it stands, then, the Yonhap report also leaves the reader with the impression that Polestar and RyonHap-2 are blocked in the financial system, which isn’t true.

To call these half-measures would be a gross exaggeration. Our losing game of whack-a-mole against Kim Jong-Un goes on.

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Mr. President, You’re no Jack Kennedy: The Coming Korean Missile Crisis

In October 1962, the United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union over Khrushchev’s deployment of nuclear capable missiles to Cuba. The Cuban crisis has been in my thoughts recently because of how it compares to the Korean nuclear crisis as it is today, and how it will be in January 2017. While most attention is on Iran, the consensus is quietly shifting to the view that North Korea is at the verge of nuclear breakout. Furthermore, President Obama seems fully prepared to leave office without a serious response to this. That means that, barring some miraculous intervention, the North Korean missile crisis will soon look much more like 1962 than 1994.

The urgent question for us is whether we can afford to simply tolerate this.

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[Missile silo, Hwadae County, via Google Earth, July 2015]

Let’s review some of those similarities and differences. Like the Cuba crisis, the short-range missiles of a former Soviet client state are one potential means to deliver a nuclear weapon, although the former client state’s Il-28 bombers are a secondary means. Like the Cuba crisis, a perception currently exists — fairly or unfairly — that the American President is “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations … too intelligent and too weak.” (Yet the Kennedy Library is probably correct in its implicit assessment that history approves of Kennedy’s conduct during the crisis.)

Unlike the North Korean missile crisis, there was no hotline between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1962. Unlike the North Korean crisis, the United States had recently directly threatened Cuba’s regime by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion. The opposite is true of North Korea, which recently carried out a series of deadly attacks against our South Korean allies.

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[West Sea long-range missile site, Cholsan County, via Google Earth, March 2015]

Unlike the North Korean crisis, a nuclear superpower was directly involved and on the opposite side in the Cuban crisis. Unlike the North Korea crisis, in 1962, the United States was within range of an opposing party’s nuclear weapons (so were the cities of Western Europe). There is still substantial debate about how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, or whether it can fit any of them on its medium or short-range missiles, but some experts believe it can already nuke Seoul or Tokyo. In 1962, there was no such thing as missile defense; today, a relatively small North Korean arsenal faces an imperfect missile defense system, although North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons have probably represented a greater threat since at least the 1980s, and probably still do.

The critical difference, however, is that in 2017, we will know much less about how rational our adversary is.

For Pyongyang, the consequence of a less-than-fully-successful attack is the execution of OPLAN 5027 and ends in the destruction of His Porcine Majesty and his stockpiles of fine wines and Emmental cheese. Thus, as matters stand today, a rational North Korean leader would not launch a first nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. But as North Korea expands its arsenal, our ability to deter a first strike, or to defend South Korea and Japan against one, will continue to decline. For now, North Korea’s short and medium-range missile are the greater threat. As far as we know, North Korean missiles can’t reach the United States — yet — although its container ships and cargo planes can.

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[Short-range missile site, Yontan County, via Google Earth, September 2014]

If one views Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea as driven by rational judgments — I’ll also review the evidence for the other alternative, later this week — his most rational choice is to delay a wider confrontation while he builds his arsenal. Once he possesses an effective nuclear arsenal, he will have the freedom of action to engage in a series of escalating provocations that gradually achieve his objectives — the lifting of sanctions, de facto recognition as a nuclear state, economic and political independence from China, the removal of U.S. forces from the region, and the finlandization of South Korea. Time is on his side. The longer he delays this confrontation, the more likely he will prevail.

That is how Kim’s predecessors have calculated matters historically. Although the U.S. and South Korea legitimately worried that their North Korean counterparts were dangerous, unpredictable, or even irrational, both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il deferred conflict when they believed their positions to be inferior.

Kim would also have a motive to portray himself as irrational, to gain a negotiating advantage over his adversaries. American presidents have done this, too.

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace. – Richard Nixon, to H.R. Haldeman

Yet when Kim Il-Sung believed he faced a real danger of a U.S.-South Korean attack, he met with Jimmy Carter, and the eventual result was Agreed Framework 1. When Kim Jong-Il believed that financial sanctions would deprive him of the means to feed and pay the people who kept him in power, he acceded to Agreed Framework 2. In both cases, at each critical moment, the North Korean leaders at that time calculated that their best available option was a deal. In both cases, North Korean leaders subsequently calculated that they could get away with cheating on the deal, thus progressing toward a nuclear status without the consequences of that.

When Kim Jong-Un concludes that he has an effective nuclear arsenal, this calculus will shift. Thus, there is no more urgent task for us than preventing Kim from building an effective nuclear arsenal before his deterrent overmatches our own. If we fail, the strategic interests of the United States will also shift, and may favor at least a partial disengagement from the region, with U.S. ground forces and as many civilians as possible leaving South Korea and Japan, and the forces that remain (mostly air and naval forces, and missile defense units) moving into more hardened facilities. That assumes, of course, that South Korea does not accede to North Korean demands to withdraw them.

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N. Korean biowar researcher defects, will testify about human experimentation

[Update, 4 Aug 2015: I inquired with well-connected friends in Europe about when this testimony was likely to take place. Those friends instead questioned the accuracy of Yonhap’s report. Last week, I wrote to a Yonhap correspondent, and asked whether Yonhap stands by the story. Although the correspondent passed my question along to the author of this report, I have not heard back from Yonhap. The lack of a response is further reason to question the accuracy of Yonhap’s story.]

~   original post below   ~

A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”

The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.

“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.

Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.

The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]

Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime.

For years, newspapers had published defectors’ unconfirmed allegations of chemical and biological experiments in North Korean prison camps (see here, here, here, and here). Of these allegations, the best known are the reports of a gas chamber at the since-closed Camp 22.

The account that Mr. Lee’s disclosure most closely resembles, because it alleges the use of biochemical weapons, is that of Lee Soon-Ok. I’d long harbored doubts about Ms. Lee’s account because of internal inconsistencies I saw in versions of her story I read at long-dead links. The new evidence may call for us to reexamine her story:

North Korea is suspected of having weaponized smallpox and anthrax, which is why your correspondent endured the small discomfort of seven anthrax vaccination injections (it would have been six had I not misplaced my shot record one day) and the low-grade fever that followed each of them.

If this witness presents credible evidence supporting North Korea’s responsibility for additional crimes against humanity, it will strengthen the calls for Kim Jong-Un’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, or failing that—and thanks to China, it will fail—the formation of an ad hoc coalition to raise the financial pressure on Kim Jong-Un and his regime. The revelations will give the UNHCR’s Seoul Field Office an important question to investigate, shortly after its opening. Politically, the EU’s active involvement in publicizing the new evidence would be a welcome departure from the ambivalence European nations have often harbored about holding Pyongyang accountable.

One wonders how much sooner this witness, and others like him, might have emerged from North Korea had Congress enacted the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, with its informant asylum provisions in Sections 206 and 207. Perhaps that proposal could be revived if, one day, there’s still need for a North Korean Freedom Act of 2016.

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South Korea’s new unilateral sanctions point to a multilateral sanctions strategy

South Korea has imposed unilateral financial sanctions “on six Taiwanese individuals and entities for their alleged arms trade with North Korea,” and on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. The Taiwanese entities include Global Interface Company, Trans Merits, Trans Multi Mechanics, Tsai Hsein Tai, Su Lu-Chi and Chang Wen-Fu. None of the entities are currently designated by the U.N. Security Council, whose designation process has historically been slow and subject to Chinese and Russian obfuscation.

It is the first time that the government has taken such a punitive step against foreigners and groups who are not from North Korea, in a bid to put pressure on the nuclear-armed communist neighbor.

Officials said there is “evidence of illegal ties” between those blacklisted and the North.

“It’s evident that they are involved in weapons trade with North Korea. They have already faced U.S. sanctions,” a ministry official said, requesting anonymity. “We have shared related information sufficiently with the ally and international organizations.” [Yonhap]

The measure requires South Koreans doing business with the blacklisted companies to request permission from the Bank of Korea. Engaging in any such transactions without BOK permission carries criminal penalties, including fines and prison time. The process sounds roughly similar to the process requiring a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The South Korean action suggest a model for an effective ad hoc global alliance to make sanctions enforcement more effective, and that China cannot effectively hobble with a veto threat. By itself, South Korea is not a hub of international finance and does not have a convertible currency, but if enough states–and the EU in particular–were to agree on a coordinated blacklist of companies trading with North Korea, that list could become a powerful tool to make the U.N. Security Council resolutions work as intended. The existing institution that’s best equipped to coordinate these efforts is the Financial Action Task Force, which has already published guidelines to prevent the financing of proliferation. The FATF has broad international acceptance and recognition, including from the UNSC.

Governments may be reluctant to use an instrument as blunt as a blacklist against some of North Korea’s larger bankers and trading partners. For those banks and companies, there should be a second, separate Watch List requiring higher levels of compliance and due diligence before transactions can be approved. This would increase the pressure on generally reputable banks to scrutinize (or avoid) transactions with North Korea to protect their reputations.

A challenge for South Korea will be to create a list of sanctioned companies, similar to the Treasury Department’s list of specially designated nationals, commonly known as the SDN List, and getting South Korean banks and businesses to check that list before conducting transactions. In the United States, building a culture of compliance with sanctions regimes took years, and required a willingness to prosecute offenders and set examples. South Korea will also have to create a culture of compliance to make this action effective. If the next South Korean President comes from the left-of-center New Politics Alliance for Democracy, that will present a challenge to the creation of that culture. Historically, the NPAD has been unwilling to impose adverse consequences on North Korea for its conduct.

Japan, which is seeking new ways to pressure North Korea, could also increase its regional influence by adding its economic weight to this informal alliance.

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Must read: Iranian bank handled arms transactions for Tehran, Pyongyang through Seoul branch

Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, who covered the Tienanmen Massacre and exposed the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, has written an extensive report about the operations of Iran’s Bank Mellat in Seoul during the administrations of Roh Moo-Hyun and Lee Myung-Bak:

In a cable dated March 20, State asked its embassy in Seoul to tell the South Korean government that “Bank Mellat has facilitated the movement of millions of dollars for Iran’s nuclear program since at least 2003.”

Four days later, State followed up with a cable asking its embassy to “Inform Seoul that the U.S. views Bank Mellat’s Seoul branch as a key node for facilitation of proliferation-related activities.” That same cable included a list of U.S. allegations regarding specific transactions of Bank Mellat in Seoul. For example, State alleged that in 2007 Bank Mellat in Seoul had served as an intermediary for a Hong Kong company that was “almost certainly a front company for Tanchon Bank (North Korea’s primary weapons trade bank)” and that Bank Mellat in Seoul had played a role in financial transactions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program, purchase of a surface-to-air missile system, and illicit nuclear procurement networks in China.

Tanchon is a front for KOMID, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, a notorious proliferator for North Korea. Treasury designated  KOMID under Executive Order 13,382 in 2005, and the U.N. designated it in 2009. Treasury designated Tanchon Bank under the same Executive Order in 2009.

E.O. 13,382 is an authority that allows the blocking of the dollar-denominated assets of entities involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

South Korean officials thanked the U.S. for this demarche, and reaffirmed their commitment to investigating Bank Mellat’s branch in Seoul.

A few months later, in June, 2008, U.S. authorities, in turn, thanked Seoul, and urged them, consistent with U.N. sanctions on Iran, to “establish reporting and/or licensing requirements for all transactions executed by Bank Mellat Seoul.” The U.S. also suggested that South Korea, “once its investigation is complete, explore options for closing Bank Mellat Seoul.”

So while 28,500 Americans were in South Korea, defending it from North Korea’s growing WMD threat, South Korea let an Iranian bank front for a North Korean proliferator … admittedly one that Treasury itself has not yet designated.

Still, you’d think that Seoul would be especially sensitive to violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which prohibited North Korea’s missile programs, and sales or purchases of major weapons systems. Those resolutions were largely U.S. initiatives to protect South Korea’s security, meaning that South Korea ate our sugar from one end and shat it right out the other. I’ll just let that be your kachi kapshida image for that day. (Update: No, I won’t. Not this day. See the next post.)

Two more years went by, during which the U.S. continued to prod South Korea to take action. In June, 2010 the U.N. Security Council passed its fourth sanctions resolution on Iran. This resolution included, in an annex, the statement that “Over the last seven years, Bank Mellat has facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions for Iranian nuclear, missile and defense entities.”

… and by this time, the U.N. Security Council had also passed UNSCR 1874, further tightening the restrictions on North Korea’s arms trade.

Even then, it took three more months, and a visit from the State Department’s then-serving special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, Robert Einhorn, before South Korea in Sept. 2010 worked around to blacklisting Bank Mellat’s branch in Seoul. [Claudia Rosett, Forbes]

Although Rosett makes a strong case that South Korean regulators turned a blind eye to Treasury’s pleas for years, Treasury itself was slow to act against Bank Mellat. Bank Mellat is not listed as a Primary Money Laundering Concern by Treasury, and Treasury did not designate Bank Mellat under Executive Order 13,382 until 2011. To an extent, I can understand the South Koreans’ slow reaction: why should they take action against Bank Mellat when not even Treasury itself had done so? You would think that South Korea’s own security interest in the success of the global nonproliferation system would answer that question, but that sort of logic does not match the prevailing point of view in South Korea then or now.

In any event, the chronology you see illustrated here is a combination of financial diplomacy and enforcement that this administration would take against a target in which it shows genuine interest. That’s exactly what you won’t see with respect to North Korea.

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Three Pinocchios for Glenn Kessler’s “fact-check” on North Korea

If only for prudential reasons, 47 Republican Senators should not have written to Iran’s Supreme Leader. We only have one President at a time, and only the President should negotiate with foreign leaders. Parallel, shadow-government negotiations with foreign adversaries are wrong when Republican Senators do it; they were just as wrong when Jim Wright met with Daniel Ortega, when Nancy Pelosi met with with Bashar Assad over a Republican President’s objections, and when a young John Kerry met with Madam Nguyen Thi Binh, the Viet Cong representative to the Paris Peace talks. A country that cannot speak with one voice cannot speak coherently.

I do not exhibit this fossil record to question the Democrats’ objections, but because both parties need reminding to adhere to this principle, regardless of which party occupies the White House or controls Congress, and no matter how ardently the opposition may disagree with the President. Congress, of course, has the right and duty to legislate against bad deals, and to communicate its objections to the President and the people. Had the same objections come from Majority Leader McConnell or Chairman Corker to Secretary Kerry or President Obama, they would have been appropriate.

Substantively, the Republicans have good reason to worry about the President’s deal with Iran. Its main weakness is Iran’s mendacity. Iran has been caught with undeclared nuclear facilities and repeatedly lied (see page 14) to the IAEA, yet the deal would rely on NPT safeguards agreements that will only work if Iran is forthcoming. The alternative to a bad deal is not war. It would be some difficult diplomacy with our allies, and more sanctions, until Iran is ready for a deal that secures our interests, and those of our many allies within range of an Iranian bomb.

~   ~   ~

Not surprisingly, the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea arises as an analogy to the negotiations with Iran. Also not surprisingly, The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler speaks up to defend the Agreed Framework and “fact-check” Senator Cotton’s criticism of it.

Obviously, Kessler has strong opinions about this subject. He covered North Korea during most of the Bush Administration, and his coverage leaned strongly toward the 1994 agreement’s most outspoken defenders, and against the Bush Administration for allegedly abandoning it. This 2006 story, for example, was a thinly veiled opinion piece defending the 1994 deal. Worse, Kessler treated North Korea itself like a sideshow to Foggy Bottom, mostly ignoring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and thereby missing one of the decade’s most important human rights stories. Even when viewed through Kessler’s narrow aperture, North Korea’s lying and cheating about food aid and prison camps mirrored its approach to nuclear negotiations.

Kessler characterizes North Korea’s nuclear program as “nascent” in 1994, but by then, that program included a functioning reactor and reprocessing plant. You can see archived satellite imagery here. They don’t look “nascent” to me.

yongbyon6

5-mwe-nuclear-reactor-yongbyon-n-pyongan-dprk-photo-2

nuclear-reprocessing-plant-yongbyon-n-pyongan-dprk-photo-2

yongbyona3

What these images show is a large investment in the acquisition of nuclear weapons — a point Kessler concedes — even as between 600,000 and 1 million North Koreans starved to death.

As subsequent events would show with increasing clarity, North Korea was also pursuing a second, parallel path to a bomb by enriching uranium, in clear violation of the 1994 agreement. The gravity of this threat lies in the relative ease of concealing a uranium enrichment program, compared to a plutonium program like that shown above. A nuclear agreement that gave Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid and diplomatic cover, but that failed to curtail his uranium program, would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies.

The extent of the uranium program became a matter of intense controversy by the late 1990s. By then, not even the Clinton Administration could certify Pyongyang’s compliance with the 1994 agreement. In a 1999 policy review, Clinton’s Defense Secretary, William Perry (assisted by current Defense Secretary Ashton Carter) also conceded the evidence of North Korea’s “possible continuing nuclear weapons-related work.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missiles continued, almost without interruption.

The uranium controversy intensified during Bush’s presidency. The 1994 deal finally collapsed in 2002, when North Korean diplomats admitted the program’s existence to visiting U.S. diplomats. In response, the Bush Administration stopped shipments of fuel oil to North Korea, and the North Koreans kicked out IAEA inspectors and restarted the Yongbyon reactor. Because of Washington tribalism and North Korean exceptionalism — the tendency of some observers to excuse North Korea from the rules by which the rest of humanity lives by, or pretends to — many left-of-center scholars, diplomats, and reporters blamed the breakdown on Bush. Yet even as the evidence of North Korea’s uranium program mounted, Kessler questioned its existence.

The uranium controversy mostly ended in 2010, when North Korea dressed a visiting American nuclear scientist in a red velvet smoking jacket, handed him a Cohiba and a glass of Hennessy, and showed him through what former diplomat Christopher Hill once mocked as “a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium.” Inside that room was a cascade of perhaps thousands of centrifuges, most likely based on designs from the A.Q. Khan network that Pyongyang worked on both before and after the 1994 agreement. The room did not exist in 2008, but its contents were years in the making.

uranium girl

Even now, Kessler questions the veracity of North Korea’s 2002 admission, saying, “Questions have since been raised about whether the Bush administration misinterpreted North Korea’s supposed confirmation.” Pyongyang’s admission was a particularly damning one for the Agreed Framework’s defenders, but if the facts leave little room for doubt about it, Kessler should not have left it unresolved:

One of the specialists who visited North Korea last week, former State Department official Charles L. Pritchard, was part of the U.S. delegation that reported hearing the North Korean admission. U.S. officials said they had three translators at the 2002 session and have no doubt the North Koreans confirmed the program.

One official present at the 2002 meeting said Pritchard and Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly began passing notes as Kang Suk Ju, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, “looking flushed and defiant,” began a 50-minute monologue reacting to the U.S. declaration that it knew North Korea had an enrichment program. As the translation progressed, Pritchard and Kelly each passed notes, asking, “Is he saying what we think he’s saying?” A half minute later, they passed notes again, in effect saying, “Never mind — it’s clear.” [Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2004, archived here]

Tong Kim, one of the translators who was present for the discussion, later published his own confirmation of what Kang Suk Ju said (archived here). The Washington Post‘s story interests me the most, however. Given its date, it’s likely that Kessler himself wrote it. Unfortunately, it has fallen so far down the memory hole that not even The Internet Archive can retrieve it. For Kessler to question this admission is particularly disingenuous in light of what his own paper reported.

In 2007, Kessler wrote a book, “The Confidante,” which painted a flattering portrait of George W. Bush’s own sequel to the 1994 Agreed Framework (review here, first chapter here). Bush’s diplomats repeatedly deceived Congress to forestall opposition to their eleventh-hour deal with Pyongyang, but their agreed framework would turn out as badly as Clinton’s, and for the same reason. Shortly after the 2007 deal was signed, North Korea was caught red-handed building a nuclear reactor in Syria. (Kessler did not see this as a vindication for skeptics of North Korea’s trustworthiness, but as “an awkward moment for the Bush administration.”) Throughout 2008, North Korea lied about its uranium program, balked at inspections, and eventually withdrew from the deal shortly before Bush left office. Even in 2007, the outcome seemed predictable, and was.

Kessler writes that by 2009, talks with North Korea were “considered such a loser that the Obama administration has barely bothered to restart” them. He omits that Pyongyang greeted President Obama with a missile test and a nuclear test within six months of his inauguration. He also omits that the Obama Administration has engaged in years of onandoff back-channel talks with Pyongyang, talks that may continue right up to this year. Those talks reached their pinnacle with the 2012 “Leap Day Agreement,” a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and which Pyongyang reneged on within weeks of signing it. If President Obama kept the profile of his talks with Pyongyang low, it may be because Pyongyang was so justly infamous for its mendacity that he felt some understandable insecurity about “buying the same horse twice,” as his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, described it.

Who can name a single agreement with the United States, starting with and including the 1953 Armistice, that North Korea has kept? Kessler indulges much counterfactual speculation about how a Gore Administration would have handled the HEU question, but there’s little reason to believe that anything short of much tougher sanctions or regime collapse would have prevented Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, or the two subsequent tests it carried out during the Obama Administration. At a convenient moment, Pyongyang can always find an excuse to violate its agreements. Several such excuses arise each year.

Between 1994 and 2002, Kim Jong Il may well have concluded that the Agreed Framework was a small price to pay for the aid it raked in. After all, it would be years until Pyongyang could miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon to South Korea or Japan. By some accounts, it finally developed that capability during Barack Obama’s second term.

Where Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all deserve blame is their shared failure to draft and implement a Plan B for Pyongyang’s inevitable cheating. That oversight deprived our diplomats of the leverage they needed to succeed, and may have encouraged Kim Jong Il to renege.

~   ~   ~

Interestingly, Kessler does not assign any Pinocchios to Cotton’s statement. Had Kessler only omitted the whole truth about Kang Suk Ju’s admission, I’d have afforded him some deference on an issue that has long been controversial, and where the whole truth still has not come to light.

The most important sentence in Kessler’s article, however, is this one: “North Korea got the bomb because the agreement collapsed.” It’s a conclusion that ignores years of evidence that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — through both uranium and plutonium — was calculated, deliberate, and only partially delayed by the diplomacy Kessler now defends with a selective recitation of the facts.

Make no mistake: North Korea got the bomb because Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wanted the bomb. They were willing to expend any amount of money, lives, and lies necessary to achieve that goal. Although the 1994 Agreed Framework may have delayed North Korea’s progress toward a plutonium bomb for a few years, ignoring its uranium program would have irresponsibly ignored the greater long-term threat. North Korea did not get the bomb because George W. Bush finally acknowledged that the 1994 deal had been falling apart for years. North Korea got the bomb because it wanted the bomb, and no American President was willing to do what it would take to interrupt that pursuit.

I don’t believe that Kessler wrote his article with intent to deceive, but it contains significant factual errors, selective omissions, and contradictions. More than anything, it’s a tendentious presentation of dubious and debatable opinion as fact. By my reading of Kessler’s own standards, that qualifies for three Pinocchios.

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