Category Archives: WMD

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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I heard Obama told Putin that Kim Jong Un was too big a wuss to test a nuke to punish the U.N.

Before the committee voted Tuesday, North Korea warned that it might retaliate with further nuclear tests. Trying to punish it over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests,” said Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign-ministry adviser for U.N. and human rights issues, according to the Associated Press. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Oh, dear God, please, please do this.

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How much should we worry about N. Korea’s missiles? Basho explains.

My post on North Korea’s alarming progression toward a nuclear missile capability inspires a knowledgeable reader and friend to send me an extended comment. Because he has asked me to withhold his name and where he works, we’ll call him “Basho, an observer of Things, and international affairs raconteur.” Without saying more, I’m confident that Basho has a basis to know what he’s talking about. I print his comments in their entirety, unedited except that I embedded his hyperlinks.

~  ~  ~

There are tested and fielded road mobile missiles in the DPRK inventory. The biggest threat to us is the question of whether they have a tested, capable, and fielded, road mobile ICBM. The surmised vehicle that may have an intercontinental capability (defined as a missile capable of 5,500 Km or more range) is the KN-08. (link)

Western ‘experts’ have said until relatively recently the ICBM threat from nK is negligible because the north Koreans are not capable of making a small enough nuclear warhead to fit on an airframe like the KN-08. In Spring ‘14 the north Koreans put the launch vehicles on display with mock up missiles. (The transporter vehicles were sold by PRC to north Korea as ‘lumber trucks’).

The United States Forces Korea (USFK) commander’s comments a few days ago indicated that the north Koreans are able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, which would be essential to fitting a nuke to one of their missiles. Just a year or two ago, our experts and analysts were testifying to Congress that the north Koreans couldn’t field anything like that for years. Oops.

The South Korean MOD’s comments supporting this supposition may not be that credible – I get the sense they’re just jumping on Gen. Scapparotti’s comments to garner more support (i.e. funding) for missile defense.

The public comments also come at a curious time considering the tensions related to the potential fielding of THAAD to ROK. Airing these conversations publically has more to do with influencing that discussion than any real technological satori.

Other road-mobiles that *could* be nuclear-capable:
Musudan IRBM, possibly just shy of being considered an ICBM (link)

Nodong MRBM (this is potentially the missile that will be tested as an SLBM)

Public analysts frequently reduce their reporting to the trees rather than the forest,  whether ‘they’ might have something or not, reporters seem to totally gloss over any analysis related to what the real risks are if the north Koreans do have something. That’s a bit frustrating. While we shouldn’t overreact, prudent man theory indicates we should acknowledge the risks of the worst case.

The newest threat is whether the north Koreans will have a nuclear-capable submarine fleet capable of launching missiles. Granted, their submarines are largely Cold War diesel-electrics but they present a threat to the region and, possibly, the United States.

Diplomacy. As for the diplomatic strains between the three-party group (Japan,ROK, US), I would offer that Japan and, to a lesser extent, South Korea are both pursuing diplomatic options with China and nK because of the lack of leadership by our executive and diplomatic efforts. The DOD is heavily engaged with South Korea on the potential employment of THAAD accompanied by the implications of missile defense for Seoul, and the handover of military authority from the U.S. Forces Korea to the South Korean military – two huge topics.

As for Japan, I don’t think our mil-to-mil relationships have ever been stronger. The Japanese have agreed to host a second missile defense radar in their country that will not just protect Japan, but also bolster missile defense for the US and our allies in the Pacific region.  The governments of Japan and the United States just signed agreements on space surveillance tracking that will advance scientific research. Also, Japan has committed to buying several more Aegis missile defense destroyers over the next few years.

Because of their recognition of the regional threats, and interest in respecting common global interests, I’m not terribly worried about them holding bilateral talks with north Korea on other issues (e.g. kidnap victims, etc.). They’re only doing bilateral talks as a result of the vacuum of US leadership.

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And in other news, North Korea now has nuclear warheads

So last week, when I was busy writing about the U.N. and human rights, the Commanding General of U.S. Forces Korea went to a press conference at the Pentagon and said, “I believe [the North Koreans] have the capability to miniaturize a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially deliver what they say they have.”

The general added that even if we haven’t seen a test, we’re at the point where we have to operate under the working assumption that Pyongyang is nuked up—specifically, that it has the capacity to miniaturize a warhead enough to put it on a missile.

The Pentagon’s Press Secretary later clarified that miniaturization is “not the same thing as … the capability to mount, test and deliver a nuclear weapon in an ICBM.” Duly noted.

The ROK’s new Defense Minister, Han Min-Koo, also agrees that Pyongyang has made significant advances in miniaturization. Not surprisingly, Deutsche Welle found some experts in Europe who say they aren’t sure. Oh, and the Chinese have joined the South Koreans in expressing their “deep concern.” Also duly noted.

Whether the North also has road-mobile missiles is a matter of furious debate, but if they do, that would be even more worrying. During the Gulf War, U.S. forces had a particularly difficult time finding and tracking Iraq’s SCUDs.

I’ve been hearing this discussed openly by people I respect and trust since at least July—that the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean governments have all shifted to the working assumption that North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal. That has caused a diplomatic earthquake behind the scenes, sapping our influence in Tokyo and Seoul, and tempting both states to cut separate deals with the North.

Can anyone remember a time when discussion about human rights in North Korea eclipsed a discussion about its nuclear weapons program? That’s just what’s happening today, but it ought to inform our conversation about why North Korea shouldn’t have nuclear weapons to begin with.

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IAEA: Yongbyon is running

“Since late August 2013, the Agency has observed, through analysis of satellite imagery, steam discharges and the outflow of cooling water at the 5 MW(e) reactor, signatures which are consistent with the reactor’s operation.” [via Reuters]

If I’m nonplussed, it’s because I keep hearing this reported again and again. I’ll know that South Korea is more serious about disarming North Korea than it is about profiteering from slave labor when Park Geun-Hye tells Kim Jong-Un to choose between Yonbyon and Kaesong.

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Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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N. Korea threatens annual missile, nuke tests

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

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

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

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Just test the damn thing already.

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Korea approaching provocation phase of its “vicious cycle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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