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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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.


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. 


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?” 

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.00.44 AM

(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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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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.41.29 AM

[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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.42.24 AM

[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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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.





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. That room and 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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Russia’s nuclear cooperation with N. Korea violates at least three UNSC resolutions

My final excerpt from the draft U.N. Panel of Experts report is a lengthy graf (below the fold) describing long-standing and continuing Russian assistance to, and cooperation with, some of the same scientists involved in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

It’s hard for me to understand how this is not a violation of the UNSC sanctions. Despite the fact that key scientists in designated North Korean agencies (for example, its General Bureau of Atomic Energy) were invited to do research in Russia, Russia argues that technically, it didn’t invite any designated individuals, that its own facility’s purposes are peaceful, and that North Korea “should not be excluded from fundamental science activities.”

The POE responds that “all … nuclear programmes” means what it says. I’ll helpfully insert the relevant provisions, starting with this one from UNSCR 1718 (2006):

6. Decides that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, shall act strictly in accordance with the obligations applicable to parties under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the terms and conditions of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreement (IAEA INFCIRC/403) and shall provide the IAEA transparency measures extending beyond these requirements, including such access to individuals, documentation, equipments and facilities as may be required and deemed necessary by the IAEA;

And there is this, from UNSCR 1874 (2009):

“8.   Decides that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and immediately cease all related activities, shall act strictly in accordance with the obligations applicable to parties under the NPT and the terms and conditions of the IAEA Safeguards Agreement (IAEA INFCIRC/403) and shall provide the IAEA transparency measures extending beyond these requirements, including such access to individuals, documentation, equipment and facilities as may be required and deemed necessary by the IAEA;

And this, from UNSCR 2094 (2013):

“5.   Condemns all the DPRK’s ongoing nuclear activities, including its uranium enrichment, notes that all such activities are in violation of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009) and 2087 (2013), reaffirms its decision that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and immediately cease all related activities and shall act strictly in accordance with the obligations applicable to parties under the NPT and the terms and conditions of the IAEA Safeguards Agreement (IAEA INFCIRC/403);

Under Section 104(a) of the NKSEA, the Russian institute concerned would be subject to mandatory asset blocking, and possibly to criminal prosecution leading to the forfeiture of its U.S.-based assets. Unless, of course, the institute was unwise enough to have kept its funds in Euros or (may God help them) Rubles. In which case, the question would shift to which bank the Institute uses.

The POE stops short of concluding that Russia is in violation, but says it will continue to investigate. The POE is also investigating that recent report that Russia invited North Korean representatives to attend a weapons trade fair. All in all, it’s a promising candidacy for the Axis of Evil. Excerpts follow.

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North Korea evades U.N. sanctions with shell games, spell games, and whack-a-mole

On any given day, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control may publish several pages of new designations for the list of Specially Designated Nationals. Inevitably, most of the designations will be designations of aliases. That’s because one of the oldest sanctions-evasion tricks is renaming an entity, so that when banks type its name into their software, they don’t get a hit that might warn them to decline the transaction, block the account, or file a Suspicious Activity Report.

In the case of North Korea, there’s an additional and related problem. North Korea can also play spell games with the English transliteration of Korean names. The U.N. Panel of Experts has specifically raised that issue as a problem that requires closer attention from national governments.

So when Treasury designates a list of North Korean smuggling ships, as it did last July, it’s not enough to publish their names and IMO numbers and call it done.

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Like any sanctions program, the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea requires constant attention and follow-up.

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It’s a long game of what Marcus Noland calls Whack-a-Mole. And judging by the POE’s latest report, we aren’t winning that game.

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This isn’t a grand new revelation. NK News’s Leo Byrne, one of the very best reporters to cover North Korea for any publication, noticed this last October. Four months later, Treasury hasn’t followed up with new alias designations. You can even extend that M.O. back to this 2006 New York Times report, on North Korea’s use of deceptive shipping practices, like re-naming and re-flagging. Whether Treasury’s inaction reflects a lack of political will or a simple lack of resources, I’ll decline to speculate.

A key point the POE makes is that member states are required to seize these vessels as soon as they identify them.

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Instead, several nations are allowing Ocean Maritime Management to continue operating on their soil, or from their ports.

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OMM doesn’t just rename its ships; it also renames itself. Lately, for example, it has gone by the names “Haejin Ship Management Co Ltd.” and “Yongjin Ship Management Co Ltd.” Sometimes, it puts each ship under the ownership of its own shell company. The POE also suspects that OMM is working through Singapore-based entities known as ”Senat Shipping & Trading Private Limited,” “Senat Shipping Limited,” and “Senat Shipping Agency Pte. Ltd.,” particularly for the handling of its financial transactions. The POE put some questions to Senat. Senat hasn’t responded.

OMM’s deceptive practices don’t only appear to be designed to evade sanctions. They also appear to be intended to evade creditors. Switching the ownership of each ship to a single shell company is helpful for that.

As a result, OMM is still in business. And in some cases, its agents are actually North Korean diplomats.

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The POE even made this interesting diagram.

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North Korea isn’t only playing whack-a-mole with shipping. Notorious (and U.N.-designated) proliferator Ryonha Machinery sometimes goes by “Millim Technology Company.” It operates openly in Dandong and Beijing, China under that name. The General Department of Atomic Energy of the DPRK now calls itself the “Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry of DPRK.” The Korean Committee for Space Technology recently renamed itself the “National Aerospace Development Administration,” or NADA (couldn’t you have checked that one with your Cuban friends?). The Second Academy of Natural Sciences has taken to calling itself the “National Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

The moles, in other words, are popping up faster than we can whack them. Thanks to Chinese stalling, the U.N. bureaucracy is too hopelessly slow to keep up, and the member state governments (including ours) that are supposed to be enforcing these sanctions aren’t paying attention.

The report tells us some other interesting things about North Korea’s merchant fleet. As North Korea’s fleet ages out, it is switching to smaller vessels. In a rare bit of good news, its port calls in non-Chinese foreign ports have declined dramatically in recent years, “to just 6 percent of 2008 figures,” according to the POE. Today, nearly all of its direct shipping trade is with China. It would make sense for North Korea to migrate to smaller ships in that case. In the past, for example, in the 2009 ANL Australia incident, North Korea shipped its cargo to Chinese ports in containers, and then played a shell game with port authorities all the way to Dubai, and very nearly to Bandar Abbas.

North Korea is also relying more on reflagging — the use of so-called “flags of convenience,” to dodge inspections.

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The obvious answer is for governments to call on these states to stop reflagging North Korean ships, unless they physically cross-check their IMOs. If these states continue reflagging vessels that are subject to immediate seizure, vessels flying these flags should be targeted for inspection by the United States and other countries. This is a national security issue. God only knows what the North Koreans might want to slip into this country in a shipping container. For more on that option, see Section 205 of the NKSEA.

One potential exploit in North Korea’s shipping system is insurance. North Korea has found it difficult enough to insure its vessels that it self-insures.

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We saw, in the case of the Mu Du Bong, that North Korean self-insurance isn’t particularly useful. One solution to that problem is for ports to refuse to accept KSPIA as a valid insurer. When port directors and customs inspectors see that a vessel is insured by KSPIA, that should also be a signal for them to check the vessel’s IMO number, or any links to Ocean Maritime Management or its aliases. If they can, they should be seizing any of its vessels on the spot.

Finally, North Korean ships are switching off their transponders.

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Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 6.56.41 PMThat’s often the first sign of a vessel that’s engaged in smuggling or piracy. Those vessels should be followed to port, boarded, and inspected.

The POE also seems close to calling for the designation of Air Koryo, although I’d personally counsel against that, absent some established link between them and North Korea’s post-UNSCR 1874 smuggling:

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I’ll close with this graphic of POE’s various methods of deception.

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Clearly, many member states aren’t taking the enforcement of these sanctions seriously. What’s most obviously lacking is any coordination of enforcement among governments. If only there were some inter-governmental organization whose mission were to control proliferation through international air and maritime cargo. Even better, if only that organization were unencumbered by a requirement for unanimous consent, or the threat of a veto from Russia or China. Oh, wait. There is exactly such an organization. So what’s stopping us?

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U.S., S. Korea reject N. Korea’s nuke test offer

North Korea has offered to stop testing nuclear weapons — something that several U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit — if President Obama cancels annual military exercises (full KNCA article below the fold.) Which sounds something like a bank robber promising to stop robbing you if you disable your alarm system and leave the safe unlocked.

Which is almost exactly what the Korean Defense Ministry thought. To his credit, President Obama saw this for what it was:

“The DPRK (North Korea) statement that inappropriately links routine U.S.-ROK (South Korea) exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is an implicit threat,” a State Department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.


“Our annual joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea are transparent, defense-oriented and have been carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years,” the spokesperson said.

North Korea should “immediately cease all threats, reduce tensions and take the steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations,” the spokesperson said. [Yonhap]

Sounds kind of like they want to test a nuke, huh?

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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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If S. Korea’s missile defense worries China, just wait till the neighbors start nuking up.

The deployment of ballistic missile defense systems around North Korea by the United States and its allies could be an effective way to change China’s strategic thinking about Pyongyang, a U.S. congressional report said.

The Congressional Research Service made the point in a recent report, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” saying Beijing would find it not in its national interest if provocative actions by the North lead to increased military deployments in the region. [Yonhap]

Here’s the full report, which touches on a series of topics of interest to OFK readers, including refugees, human rights, proliferation, and North Korea’s support for terrorists. The money quote is more subtle than Yonhap’s characterization:

As part of the efforts by the United States and its allies to change China’s strategic thinking about North Korea, the BMD deployments may have an impact. Chinese media made the Patriot deployments a major part of their coverage of the April 2012 launch. A subtext to those reports was that North Korea’s actions are feeding military developments in Asia that are not in China’s interests. Many observers, particularly in the United States and Japan, argue that continued North Korean ballistic missile development increases the need to bolster regional BMD capabilities and cooperation.

China’s concern about South Korean missile defenses is also one of the best arguments for a more permissive approach to South Korea’s long-standing desire to close its own nuclear fuel cycle. The countervailing concern is that South Korea will acquire nuclear weapons. Unless an Asia-Pacific Treaty Organization is in our near future—and I don’t think it is—it’s not a concern I share.

A nuked-up South Korea would be a far better deterrent to Pyongyang than the so-called “U.S. nuclear umbrella.” I can see why an impulsive young leader in Pyongyang might calculate that the Pentagon wouldn’t pull the trigger if it called our bluff. I wouldn’t.

China must be concerned about the possibility that South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan would be insecure enough about U.S. power to acquire their own nuclear weapons. They have every reason to be insecure. If the choice is between nuking up and getting rolled by China, we’ll soon see how much they value their freedom and their independence.

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Bruce Bechtol on the John Batchelor show

The title: North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era: A New International Security Dilemma.

When you’re done with that, Bechtol has written a paper arguing that North Korea’s proliferation activity (contrary to some views) is increasing, and discusses ways to disrupt it. One of the many tragic consequences of the Syrian Civil War is that it has increased an old customer’s demand for North Korea’s wares.

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