If Assad is the murderer of Idlib, Kim Jong-un was an accessory

With impeccable timing, His Porcine Majesty has sent friendly greetings to one of his best customers:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a congratulatory message to Syria over the founding anniversary of the country’s ruling party, Pyongyang’s media said Friday, amid global condemnation against Damascus’s suspected chemical weapon attack on civilians.

The North’s leader sent the message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the controlling Ba’ath party, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s main newspaper.

The move is seen to be aimed at showing friendly ties between Pyongyang and Damascus as about 90 people were killed by the Syrian government’s suspected uses of chemical weapons Tuesday against a rebel-held area in the northern part of the country.

“The two countries’ friendly relations will be strengthened and developed, given their fight against imperialism,” Kim was quoted as saying by the newspaper. North Korea has long been suspected of cooperating with Syria over nuclear programs. [Yonhap]

A few years ago, I noted the extensive and well-documented evidence of North Korea’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons program. Joseph Bermudez has also summarized some of that evidence, including photographs published by the U.N. Panel of Experts of some of the thousands of chemical suits, masks, and agent indicator ampules intercepted by Greece, South Korea, and Turkey while in transit from North Korea to Syria (mostly through China).

U.S. intelligence officials also believe North Korea has links to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which the New York Times calls Syria’s “main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons.”

Although North Korea’s support for Syria’s chemical weapons programs predates the Syrian Civil war, Bruce Bechtol has described how it increased during the war. Other reports have alleged that North Koreans have been present in Syria during the civil war, where they have advised Assad’s army in a number of ways, including by helping it operate vacuum dryers used to dry liquid chemical agents and the SCUD missiles that are sometimes used to deliver those agents.

In Idlib, the murder weapon was probably sarin, another nerve agent North Korea is believed to possess in quantity, but which Syria most likely produced domestically with North Korean technical assistance. If Assad was the murderer of Idlib, then, Kim Jong-un was likely an accessory.

In another sense, we should feel fortunate that Assad’s use of WMD against his own people is merely chemical. As Yonhap’s story also notes, North Korea built (and had nearly completed) a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert near Deir-al-Zour, in an area now under the control of ISIS, before the Israeli Air Force destroyed it. This CIA video summarizes North Korea’s involvement in the construction of that reactor here:

For now, it is good that Assad knows that he cannot use WMD with impunity, and that whatever affection existed between Trump and Putin before is over for now. The President may also think he can intimidate Xi Jinping by taking in bomb damage reports while coolly telling his dinner guest to try the veal. Still, consider the possibility that Xi will be salivating for an entirely different feast if he thinks we’re about to tie ourselves down half a world away.

Our response to the use of nerve gas against children and families — or in places crowded with them — must be more than nothing. But that response must also be less than stage-diving into the quicksand of the Middle East, and a very real risk of conflict with Russia, without a plausible plan to end the slaughter. It is wrong to say that Syria is not our problem; it is. It nearly destroyed Iraq, it’s destroying Europe, and it may yet destroy Jordan and destabilize Turkey. It could flood the world with a generation of terrorists and incubate another generation that will follow them.

It is also wrong to believe that there is any quick solution to this crisis, given the state to which things have descended today. That’s why I was skeptical of President Obama’s abortive, too-little, too-late intervention in 2013. Those same questions remain relevant today.

The only permanent solution to the horrors in Syria will be to arm, train, and equip enough moderate and secular Syrians to retake most their country, stabilize the front lines, raise the political and financial costs for Russia and Iran, and negotiate either a peace or a sustainable division of the country. Do any moderate or secular Syrian forces still survive between the hammers of ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the anvils of Assad, Hezbollah, and Putin? The history of how Obama allowed these people to be slaughtered — even as he allowed a morbidly obese high school dropout who tortures small animals and masturbates to bondage porn get a nuclear arsenal — ought to fill the main lobby of his presidential library.

Which brings me to my final question. Who still remembers yesterday, when North Korea was our greatest national security threat? Even in light of what happened in Idlib, isn’t that still the case? Wasn’t North Korea supposed to be the topic of tonight’s dinner conversation? Can we pressure, contain, and deter Kim Jong-un if our forces and our national will are invested half a world away? Do our plans for Syria and North Korea involve being prepared to fight two wars on different sides of the world if necessary? Must North Korea always be the crisis that builds while America is distracted on other continents? Could we have at least taken the modest step of putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism before we bombed Syria? There may be good answers to all of those questions. Now is the time to ask them.

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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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Der Spiegel: N. Koreans helping Syria to nuke up. Again.

Evidently, I refreshed your memory of the 2007 Al-Kibar reactor raid just in time for this cheery piece of news: Der Spiegel, citing anonymous intelligence sources, reports that Syria “has apparently built a new nuclear facility at a secret location” in the mountains near the Lebanese border. The conclusion is based, in part, on signals intelligence:

[T]he clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

It’s a real Axis of Evil reunion, starring Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and some special guests from Yongbyon:

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

The report is interesting and worth watching more closely, although Der Spiegel‘s report isn’t exactly an airtight case.

Jeffrey Lewis, whose observations about nuclear and weapons technology are as consistently interesting and informative as his policy recommendations are conformist and outdated, has done more investigation on Google Earth. Lewis tweets that the facility dates back to between 2008 and 2009, and is more likely to be an enrichment facility than a reactor, due to its distance from a supply of cooling water.

The “good” news is that, thanks to Hezbollah, nearby rebels haven’t quite managed to overrun the site and seize its estimated 8,000 fuel rods.

In other words, our choices are (a) North Korea sharing nukes Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah; (b) Al Qaeda; and (c) ISIS? Gee, thanks, President Obama!

The only thing we do have going for us is that we’re already bombing targets all over Syria. Although I’d suspect that this site would be far trickier from an air defense perspective, it might not push the diplomatic envelope so far to bomb one more site in Syria.

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How the Iran deal affects North Korea policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding that difference unlocks some obvious comparisons.

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

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

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

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

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

 

* With apologies for mixing my metaphors.

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Review: Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate

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

Treasury's War cover

[clicking the image takes you to Amazon]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Syria-North Korea Axis

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

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

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

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

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Is North Korea importing oil from Iran?

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

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

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

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

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Did Iran test a nuke in North Korea?

It would be a very serious matter if Iran had tested a nuclear weapon in North Korea in 2010, as this German language report in Die Welt claims. The claim has received much less attention in the U.S. press than it would seem to merit, and most bloggers who have picked up the story have merely wondered aloud whether it could be true (the notable exception being Stephan Haggard). I’ll add my summation of the evidence to Stephan’s, but I’ll also leverage the OFK archives to add some additional circumstantial evidence suggesting that the claim, though not proven, is plausible.

The best translation/summary of the claim is at the Jerusalem Post, of all places, and it tells us a bit more about the source of this allegation, a man named Hans Ruhle, “who directed the planning department of the German Defense Ministry from 1982 to 1988,” and who it claims is “widely respected among defense and security officials in Germany.” Drilling down further, the article claims that “some” or “many” intelligence agencies incline to the view that Iran has tested a nuke in North Korea, although the article tells us nothing about which agencies arrived at that view, or what the evidentiary basis for that view is. European intelligence agencies seldom have the reach that ours do, so they often get their intelligence second-hand, from the CIA. In this case, however, the conclusion may be based on open sources. This particular claim appears to originate, at least in part, from Swedish Nuclear Physicist Lars-Erik de Geer, who spent a year studying data from a private network of radioisotope-monitoring stations before publishing his conclusions in the British scientific journal Nature.

Remember that weird story back in May of 2010, when the North Koreans claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion? Most observers ridiculed the story, but that network of monitoring stations picked up some anomalies that lent the claim some corroboration:

The news was largely ridiculed in the South Korean and Western media — but it was not so quickly dismissed by the small circle of experts who devote their careers to identifying covert nuclear tests. South Korean scientists had detected a whiff of radioactive xenon at around that time, hinting at nuclear activity in its northern neighbour, which had already tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

In August 2010, experts meeting in Vienna informally discussed the South Korean data and measurements from an international network of radioisotope-monitoring stations operated by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which supports an as-yet-unratified treaty that seeks to ban nuclear-weapons testing. Among those experts was Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric scientist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Stockholm. When they looked at the monitoring data from Russian and Japanese stations close to North Korea, “the conclusion from everyone was, ‘Hell, we cannot explain them.'”, De Geer recalls.

Unwilling to let the matter rest, De Geer took the radioisotope data and compared them with the South Korean reports, as well as meteorological records. After a year of work, he has concluded that North Korea carried out two small nuclear tests in April and May 2010 that caused explosions in the range of 50″“200 tonnes of TNT equivalent. The types and ratios of isotopes detected, he says, suggest that North Korea was testing materials and techniques intended to boost the yield of its weapons. His paper will appear in the April/May issue of the journal Science and Global Security. [Nature, ht Israel Matsav]

Significantly, De Geer claimed that this was indicative of a test of a small uranium device, “in the range of 50-200 tons of TNT.” You may have heard those stories about North Korea having a uranium enrichment program, but as everyone now knows, Dick Cheney and John Bolton made it all up.

Having gotten that out of my system, I’ll add that a test of this size probably wouldn’t register as much more than background noise on a seismograph (small earthquakes are very common). By comparison, North Korea’s 2009 test measured a modest 4.7 on the Richter scale after a yield estimated between 2 and 8 kilotons. Its 2006 test registered 4.2, at a yield of just under a kiloton.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first published report of Iran testing a nuke in North Korea. Back in 2007, the London Daily Telegraph reported this:

North Korea is helping Iran to prepare an underground nuclear test similar to the one Pyongyang carried out last year. Under the terms of a new understanding between the two countries, the North Koreans have agreed to share all the data and information they received from their successful test last October with Teheran’s nuclear scientists. [….]

A senior European defence official told The Daily Telegraph that North Korea had invited a team of Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of last October’s underground test to assist Teheran’s preparations to conduct its own — possibly by the end of this year.

There were unconfirmed reports at the time of the Korean firing that an Iranian team was present. Iranian military advisers regularly visit North Korea to participate in missile tests. Now the long-standing military co-operation between the countries has been extended to nuclear issues. As a result, senior western military officials are deeply concerned that the North Koreans’ technical superiority will allow the Iranians to accelerate development of their own nuclear weapon.

“The Iranians are working closely with the North Koreans to study the results of last year’s North Korean nuclear bomb test,” said the European defence official. [The Telegraph]

There have been long-standing suspicions of nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea, and there is conclusive evidence of nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran’s ally Syria, possibly enabled with Iranian funding.

Would North Korea cross the line to joint nuclear testing with other countries? Some in our intelligence community have long believed that North Korea conducted its first nuclear test way back in 1998. In Pakistan.

North Korea’s proliferation relationship with Iran is broad and deep. There have been reports of North Korean technicians working in Iran, and vice versa. Most of the cooperation that’s been described in open sources relates to the countries’ missile programs, but according to multiple published reports, Iran and North Korea have a long cooperative relationship in the development of chemical weapons, including a mysterious explosion in Syria in 2004, reported cooperation in putting chemical warheads on missiles, and North Korea shipping chemical protective suits to Iran’s closest ally, Syria.

Most of this evidence is circumstantial. It doesn’t confirm the latest report, but it certainly makes it plausible. And given the reason why we can’t confirm any of this, I tend not to assign North Korea and Iran the benefit of the doubt.

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North Korea shipped chemical reagents to Syria, possibly via China

This is a little old now, but I haven’t seen anyone else talking about it, so I will. The U.N. has launched an investigation into an attempted shipment of chemical weapons reagents and protective suits to Syria, a close ally of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and whose government gave safe passage to recruits on their way to Iraq to join Al Qaeda forces there.

In November 2009, Greek authorities seized a container from a Liberia-registered freighter as it headed toward Syria. Inside the container they found wooden boxes stuffed with several types of ampules believed to be made of glass, each containing liquid or powdered reagents, the sources said. These reagents are used to identify chemical substances that become airborne after the use of chemical weapons, the sources said. The reagents can be used in chemical weapons attacks and for defending against them, they added.

The Greek authorities also seized about 14,000 anti-chemical weapons suits from the vessel. The suits were the same type as those seized by South Korean authorities in September of the same year, which were determined to be designed for military use as they are extremely airtight, the sources said. Observers say North Korea tried to build up their foreign currency reserves through the export of reagents and protective suits. [Yomiuri Shimbun]

North Korea is a member in good standing of the United Nations, and was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves. It may also be worth discussing this:

The diplomatic sources pointed out the possibility that the attempted export of chemical weapons reagents was conducted through China, as in past smuggling cases involving North Korea. [….] As long as Beijing does not stop neutralizing the sanctions against Pyongyang, it will be impossible to prevent arms smuggling by North Korea, the sources said,

The U.N. resolution calls for U.N. member nations to take forcible measures to inspect North Korean cargo ships if they are suspected to be in violation of the arms embargo. But it is unclear whether China inspected North Korea’s cargo shipments strictly. According to annual reports submitted by the Sanctions Committee’s expert panel to the Security Council in 2010 and 2011, China served as a transit point in at least four of the 10 arms smuggling cases involving North Korea.

Said “possibility” must have been fairly strong for “diplomatic sources” to see the need to implicate China by name, although I don’t think anonymous leaks will be much of a political disincentive for the likes of Xi Jinping.

What a shame it would be if somehow Taiwan acquired nukes small enough to be carried on a new indigenous delivery system with an uncanny resemblance to the Tomahawk. Of course, some wouldn’t see this as a shame at all, but as a far better way to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait than putting an American aircraft carrier battle group in the middle of that. A nuclear Taiwan might even restore enough deterrence and cross-strait stability to allow us to back away from the infamous “Three Communiques,” and give Taiwan a stronger incentive to budget more for its own conventional defense, such as against a naval blockade. After all, the Chinese are smart enough to play the proxy game with little apparent restraint, and nuking up Taiwan looks increasingly attractive as a way to ensure its defense without getting us into a war with another nuclear power. It isn’t the proliferation WMD’s that I lose sleep over, it’s the proliferation of WMD’s to psychopaths, especially when our government isn’t doing anything effective to deter that.

This has been a pretty depressing election year, and it’s probably too much to expect to have a real debate about whether the people who run China really harbor enough malice against us to facilitate these things intentionally. It might do the “realists” of the world much good if they’d spend a few minutes each day reading Global Times editorials like this one instead of the echo chamber that Foreign Policy has become. You can argue that the Global Times is only one side of a spectrum of official opinion that the Chinese government tolerates, but its viewpoint certainly seems well represented by people like Shen Dingli, and speaks much more like China’s actions than the ones you’re likely to hear on CCTV’s new English-language channel.

Below the fold, I reprint a slightly edited version of something I wrote at the late New Ledger in February of 2010.

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Al-Kibar Redux

There’s nothing more I really care to say about what we should have done about the North Korean-built nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in Syria, which Israel destroyed in a September 2009 air strike. This was a matter of some temporary inconvenience to Chris Hill’s efforts (abetted by the President and Secretary of State) to sell us a shiny, pre-owned agreed framework, complete with rust-proofing and warranty.

Recently, however, Dick Cheney’s memoir has revived that debate. Michael Anton, writing in The Weekly Standard, summarizes Cheney’s argument. Bob Woodward responds here, at the Washington Post. For sur-rebuttal, we have this piece by Elliott Abrams, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman and John Hannah, writing in the Washington Post. Among the interesting facts we learn from this is that Syria apparently had other facilities on its territory, presumably reprocessing facilities, that were designed to work with the reactor.

On a somewhat related note, although this piece by Jonathan Pollack about North Korea’s missile trade is interesting, it finds that North Korea’s missile exports declined precipitously after 2006. So how can Pollock be so sure of that? He thinks this decline coincides roughly with when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1695, the first resolution banning North Korea’s missile program. I suspect that Pollack is partially right — North Korea probably did sell fewer missiles outright since the Proliferation Security Initiative began to bite, although I have yet to be convinced of exactly when the decline began or how steep it was. The reason? It may just be that because of said resolution, the North Koreans and their customers simply became more cagey about hiding their commerce. One way they went about this was to fly their missile parts right through the Beijing airport. Maybe Pollack has ways of registering that traffic, too, but I tend to doubt it.

Also somewhat related: I don’t find myself agreeing with Jennifer Rubin all that often, but I think failing to block Wendy Sherman’s confirmation will eventually turn out to be one of the worst decisions the Republicans in the Senate failed to make. It would have been better to let Sung Kim slip through and make Sherman the political issue, but some congressional oversight is still better than none at all.

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IAEA report concludes that North Korea aided Syria in nuclear proliferation

Recently, a friend provided me a bootleg copy (thanks) of an International Atomic Energy Agency report implicating North Korea and its Syrian client in violating IAEA safeguards by developing a clandestine nuclear weapons capability. The IAEA doesn’t appear to have released the report publicly; it appears to have been leaked. With that said, it’s really nothing we haven’t known since the spring of 2008, when congressional pressure finally forced Chris Hill to lift his embargo on all information related to the North Korea-Syria connection. The greater significance of the report, if you can call it that, is the likelihood that it will soon reach the Security Council, thus giving China another opportunity to block, stall, water down, and generally provide further proof of its irresponsibility, bad faith, and malice. And for Russia to grasp at some degree of diplomatic relevance.

The Syria report concludes that all evidence points toward the site bombed by the Israeli Air Force in September 2007 being a nuclear reactor under construction, with North Korean assistance (the site is called Dair Al Zour in the IAEA report, and Al Kibar in this CIA video briefing for the U.S. Congress). Although the report says initially that “no nuclear material had been introduced” to the reactor, it later notes that the IAEA found traces of natural uranium nearby. Syria has repeatedly refused the IAEA access for follow-up inspections, something that isn’t likely to change as long as its “security” forces are fully occupied with machine-gunning demonstrators and torturing children to death, but I digress. The IAEA pronounces Syria’s explanation implausible: “[T]he features of the destroyed building and the site could not have served the purpose claimed by Syria.” It concludes that “the dimensions, shape and configuration of the destroyed building are comparable to those found in reactors of the alleged type,” specifically, the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.

In spite of this overwhelming evidence, the IAEA Director General would like everyone to know that “he did not say that the IAEA has reached the conclusion that the site was definitely a nuclear reactor.” Thanks for that.

As an added bonus, I’ve also provided a similar report on Iran’s compliance with IAEA safeguards. Read both reports in full here:

iaea-syria-report.pdf

iaea-iran-report.pdf

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U.N. Report Implicates China in N. Korea-Iran Missile Transfers; China Tries to Block Said Report

If Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are an Axis of Evil, then China must be the Limited-Slip Differential of the Axis of Evil:

North Korea and Iran appear to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missile technology in violation of U.N. sanctions, according to a confidential U.N. report obtained by Reuters on Saturday. The report said the illicit technology transfers had “trans-shipment through a neighboring third country.” That country was China, several diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity. [Reuters]

China is a member in good standing of the U.N. Security Council notwithstanding the fact that its conduct aided and abetted the violation of at least four Security Council resolutions it voted for (1695, 1718, and 1874, linked on my sidebar, and 1737). Just to put all of this in perspective, the Security Council is a law-giving body where the members who make the rules can pretty much freely break them. Think of it as a little like the House Ways and Means Committee, only without mid-term elections, only five members, no accountability whatsoever, and vast consequences for the security of billions of people.

“Prohibited ballistic missile-related items are suspected to have been transferred between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Islamic Republic of Iran on regular scheduled flights of Air Koryo and Iran Air,” the report said. “For the shipment of cargo, like arms and related materiel, whose illicit nature would become apparent on any cursory physical inspection, (North) Korea seems to prefer chartered cargo flights,” it said. It added that the aircraft tended to fly “from or to air cargo hubs which lack the kind of monitoring and security to which passenger terminals and flights are now subject.”

Several Security Council diplomats said China was unhappy about the report and would likely not agree to release it to the public. At the moment, only the 15 council members have official access to the document. One of the experts on the panel is from China and diplomats said he never endorsed the report, which was delivered to the Security Council on Friday. His refusal to endorse the report delayed its submission for around 24 hours, diplomats said.

Sure, you say, but that still doesn’t prove that the Chinese knew anything. I mean, it’s not as if North Korean planes loaded with missile parts were landing at the Beijing Airport en route to Tehran while Condi Rice was sending the Chinese government angry cables asking them to seize the planes, is it? Oh, right. I guess it kinda is like that. Never mind.

So what was China’s response? The traditional one:

The report was submitted to Security Council members over the weekend, but had been delayed for days before that after the Chinese expert on the panel refused to sign off on the report. “The Chinese expert refused to sign the report, under pressure from Beijing, and this raises serious issues about a panel of experts that is supposed to be free from political interference,” said a senior United Nations diplomat, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. [N.Y. Times]

China has a history of using its misbegotten seat on the Security Council to block reports that criticize North Korea, Sudan, and itself.

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Brazil: The New Venezuela?

Is Brazil Joining the Axis of Evil? I’d be skeptical if anyone less than Bertil Lintner had written this, but Lintner has a well established history of finding out some rather amazing things that no one else can:

Recent indications are that Pyongyang has sought willing trade partners outside of Asia and its new closest commercial ally appears to be Brazil. Relations between the two countries have warmed considerably since leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president in January 2003.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported in October 2004 that North Korea planned to open an embassy in Brasilia, its fourth in the Latin and South American region after Havana, Cuba, Lima, Peru and Mexico City. On May 23, 2006, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Brazilian media reported that the two countries had signed a trade agreement.

More recently, the KCNA reported last December that a “protocol on the amendment to the trade agreement” had been signed in the capital Pyongyang. “Present at the signing ceremony from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] side were Ri Ryong Nam, minister of foreign trade, and officials concerned and from the Brazilian side Arnaldo Carrilho, Brazilian ambassador to the DPRK, and embassy officials,” according to the news report.

China’s role in facilitating trade between Brazil and North Korea remains a matter of conjecture, but it is significant that the state mouthpiece Xinhua has eagerly reported on the warming of relations between the two countries. China remains Pyongyang’s most important base for all kinds of foreign trade – legitimate as well as more convoluted business transactions through front companies in Beijing and elsewhere. [Bertil Lintner, Asia Times]

Why Brazil? According to Lintner, it has its own nuclear ambitions, and so far, it’s not on any international sanctions lists. Worse, it’s also partnering up with Iran. Brazil also shares a part of the notorious tri-border area, which has become notorious for money laundering and terrorist financing. I can’t imagine that Lula’s rise to power has improved Brazil’s cooperation in this area, either.

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North Korea Calls Israeli Foreign Minister an “Imbecile”

North Korea has reacted, and predictably, to the allegations of the Israeli Foreign Minister that it’s arming terrorists:

A spokesman for Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry described Lieberman as an “ultra-rightist” and “an imbecile in diplomacy.” The spokesman, quoted by the North’s official news agency, said Israel was itself being criticized for its nuclear program and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. He also said it would never pardon Israel for “daring slander the dignified (North) by faking up sheer lies.” The North “has nothing to do with any spread of WMDs” (weapons of mass destruction),” the spokesman said. [Y-Net News]

North Korea is to diplomacy what Tiger Woods is to monogamy. Still, I’m guessing Israel has a acquired a more practical, sticks-and-stones approach to words like these. They may also be more interested in getting some rare validation from the United Nations:

A report by a UN panel says that Iran, Myanmar and Syria may have been involved in weapons smuggling by North Korea. [….]

The report identified 4 cases in which North Korea had smuggled armaments in violation of a Security Council resolution. It said the panel had received information that Iran, Myanmar and Syria may have been involved in the smuggling.

The report also said North Korea conducted the transactions under a paper company or other means instead of using companies designated as targets of UN sanctions, in order to avoid detection by other countries. [NHK]

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North Korea Arms Terrorists, State Department Dozes

The Foreign Minister of Israel has become the first government official to openly accuse North Korea of arming terrorists since the U.S. government removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008:

The Israeli foreign minister said on Wednesday that North Korean weapons seized in Thailand last year were headed for Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. [….]

“With huge numbers of different weapons … (it had the) intention to smuggling these weapons to Hamas and to Hezbollah,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a news conference in Tokyo, where he is visiting until Thursday. [Reuters]

North Korea is prohibited from selling any weapons by, inter alia, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.

“The cooperation between Syria and North Korea is not focused on economic development and growth but rather on weapons of mass destruction” Lieberman said. In evidence he cited the December 2009 seizure at Bangkok airport of an illicit North Korean arms shipment which US intelligence said was bound for an unnamed Middle East country.

Lieberman said Syria intended to pass the weapons on to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and to the Islamic Hamas movement, which rules Gaza and has its political headquarters in Damascus.

“This cooperation endangers stability in both southeast Asia and also in the Middle East and is against all the accepted norms in the international arena,” Lieberman was quoted as telling Hatoyama.

Thai officials at the time said that acting on a tipoff from Washington they confiscated about 30 tonnes of missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons when the North Korean plane landed for refuelling in Bangkok. [AFP]

According to some reports I’ve seen, the Bangkok cargo also included parts for Nodong or SCUD-C ballistic missiles, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles that terrorist groups have used to attempt to shoot down airliners.

Avigdor Lieberman described North Korea, Syria and Iran as a new “axis of evil” during an official visit to Japan today. He accused them of building and spreading weapons of mass destruction, adding that they posed “the biggest threat to world security”.

Mr Lieberman told reporters: “We saw this kind of cooperation only two or maybe three months ago with the North Korean plane in Bangkok with huge numbers of different weapons with the intention to smuggle these weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. [Times of London]

Yonhap adds this delectable tidbit:

A pay-off years ago by Israel reportedly failed to persuade North Korea to stop shipping weapons to the Middle East.

I’m already wondering when, and how much.

On a related note, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell, while in Rangoon to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, has warned Burma to stop buying weapons and WMD technology from North Korea:

The U.S. envoy issued what appeared to be Washington’s strongest warning to date concerning Myanmar’s arms purchases from North Korea, which some analysts suspect includes nuclear technology.

A U.N. Security Council resolution bans all North Korean arms exports, authorizes member states to inspect North Korean sea, air and land cargo and requires them to seize and destroy any goods transported in violation of the sanctions.

Campbell said that Myanmar leadership had agree to abide by the U.N. resolution, but that “recent developments” called into question its commitment. He said he sought the junta’s agreement to “a transparent process to assure the international community that Burma is abiding by its international commitments.”

“Without such a process, the United States maintains the right to take independent action within the relevant frameworks established by the international community,” said Campbell.

He did not explain what the new developments were or what action the U.S. might take, though it has in the past threatened to stop and search ships carrying suspicious cargo from Pyongyang. [AP]

There isn’t much news here for OFK regulars. I speculated after the recent seizures of North Korean weapons off the UAE and at Bangkok last year that a terrorist end-user makes more sense than any other explanation. Iran is already major manufacturer of rocket-propelled grenades. It doesn’t need RPG’s, but it might find plausible deniability useful. Likewise, Iran can buy much more sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia for its own use. The weapons’ light and portable nature makes them best suited to the use of terrorist and insurgent groups. The Washington Post has also come to the same conclusion.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. President Obama decided not to restore North Korea to the list on February 3, 2010. Discuss among yourselves.

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Axis? What Axis?

In the wake of reports that North Korea shipped raw uranium to Syria just before the al-Kibar strike, North Korea is now suspected of exporting yellowcake to Iran:

Leonard Spector, a deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, made the remarks Tuesday. Spector quoted reports as saying the 45 tons of what is known as “yellowcake” were then delivered to Iran via Turkey. The material would be sufficient for several nuclear weapons if enriched to weapons grade. The 45 tons could be only the first of many such shipments, he speculated.

“After having flagrantly violated relevant UN Security Council resolutions by continuing their respective nuclear operations, it now appears that North Korea and Iran may have begun to assist each other to bypass the Council’s demands,” he said. He warned that a North Korea-Iran nuclear axis could gravely undermine international nonproliferation efforts.

And yet, there are intelligent observers who think we should just ignore North Korea.

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Did North Korea Ship Yellowcake to Syria?

Say it with me: thank God Chris Hill came along in time to keep us safe:

Syria in 2007 received approximately 45 tons of raw uranium from North Korea for use in producing fuel for a secret nuclear reactor, informed military and diplomatic sources told Kyodo News on Saturday (see GSN, Feb. 26). An Israeli air assault destroyed the undeclared reactor not long after Syria received shipment of the material and the “yellowcake” uranium is thought to have been sent to Iran in summer 2009, a Western diplomatic source said. A Middle East military source, however, says that Damascus might actually have sent the uranium back to North Korea following the Israeli attack.

The incident draws attention to Pyongyang’s proliferation of nuclear material and raises the question of whether Iran might enrich the received uranium, according to Kyodo. Forty-five tons of yellowcake could be converted into 196 to 287 pounds of bomb-grade uranium, according to Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright. “In any case, 45 tons of yellowcake is enough for several nuclear bombs,” he said (Kyodo News/iStockAnalyst.com, Feb. 28). [Global Security, via NTI]

See also Mainichi News. Around the time of the Israeli strike known as Operation Orchard, there were persistent and still-unconfirmed reports that North Korea had shipped “nuclear material” to Syria, possibly using a mysterious ship that landed in the Syrian port of Tartus.

Me: this certainly doesn’t sound conclusive, but it’s worthy of further investigation. It’s also a vivid illustration of why you have to be stoned to think North Korean proliferation is a problem we can just ignore away. Even if this particular report isn’t true, we have to be worried all the time that North Korea will sell anything to anyone. One shudders at the thought of what they’ve already sold that we don’t know about.

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