In Russia, job holds YOU down (if you’re a North Korean)

For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”

“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]

KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.

“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]

Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.

[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]

Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.

Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

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[Pictured: flood relief]

According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”

On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”

“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]

Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)

The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.

It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.

Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]

The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.

“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.” 

Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.

Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.

And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.

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How happy are Kim Jong-un’s slaves? It depends on which slave you ask.

There may be no story on earth where the answer to a question is so dependent on who you ask as North Korea. Take the case of this NK News story from February, by an anonymous correspondent who went to Vladivostok, wandered into a local North Korean cafe, and found some North Korean construction workers who were — surprisingly enough! — willing to speak “freely” to a foreign journalist. Ready for your first clue?

He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.

But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.

“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work. [NK News]

Here comes your next clue.

“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”

The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.

The correspondent’s harsh questioning elicits that the men live in a comfortable dormitory, have the run of the city, are fed and treated well, and spend their weekends relaxing in cafes and shopping for cozy boots. The resulting story, however, does not mention the obvious possibility that the men are minders for the North Korean security forces.

North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.

Although the observation of a Russian journalist that the North Korean workers “make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka” suggests that the state does not quite provide for all of the workers’ needs, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago, either. Still, a review of the record reveals some niggling contradictions, such as the North Korean worker in Vladivostok who had set himself on fire just a month before. Or the very need for a new treaty between the two countries, to ensure the prompt repatriation of North Koreans who try to flee from their splendor.

But before you conclude that Russia is the workers’ paradise for North Koreans — well, for most of them, anyway — read what a Daily NK correspondent found in the logging camps near Khabarovsk more recently.

According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by a North Korean laborer in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.

Another laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK that, “Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. It’s impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him.”

He continued, “The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.” [Daily NK]

The Daily NK isn’t the only source to find horrific conditions in the Siberian camps.

Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions.

“Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.

Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets.

“It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”

Lee Yong-ho also saw frozen bodies stored. It was cheaper to them home in groups. [AP]

And so forth.

So, how can we reconcile these jarringly different accounts? For one thing, NK News‘s story relied heavily on the account of at least one “supervisor” who fed the correspondent a narrative and found his mark willing to swallow it without much further investigation. NK News‘s story doesn’t specify how widely its author ranged to question that narrative, or what efforts he made (like, say, those of Vice’s correspondent in Poland) to speak to workers surreptitiously. There’s no indication that he pulled pay or employment records, or did any of the commendable leg-work Vice’s reporter did that exposed the lies of the North Koreans’ Polish employers. Indeed, several years ago, Vice’s Shane Smith visited logging camps in Siberia and, though he found none of the horrors the Daily NK did, also found some extraordinary efforts at secrecy and control designed to keep prying eyes away. In other words, the greater the depth of the reporting, the more credible it is. The same obviously applies to the Daily NK, which has just begun publishing a series of articles on overseas workers.

Second, and whatever our concerns about the depth of the reporting, conditions for construction workers in Vladivostok might just be very different than conditions for loggers in Khabarovsk. After all, abuses in the middle of a city would be less likely to escape notice and exposure than abuses out in the taiga. This brings us to a second problem with NK News‘s report: the implication that its findings are representative of conditions for North Korean workers in Russia overall. I don’t want to overstate this; after all, the report does distingish the accessibility of its North Korean subjects in Vladivostok from those in China. But in the end, it pursues a narrative popular among “engagers” and other anti-anti-North Korean types — that overseas work is better than work inside North Korea, and ergo, not slavery. The latter doesn’t quite follow from the former, of course, but as they did in the American South, conditions for North Korean slaves undoubtedly vary. It’s never a safe thing to build a narrative on a single interview. In the end, the report’s greatest flaw may be its failure to take note of the many other reports finding conditions for North Koreans in Russia to be subhuman.

The lesson here? Several come to mind. First — as the AP’s humiliation in Pyongyang has repeatedly reinforced — never accept a North Korean minder’s narrative at face value. Second, question everything you’re told by hunting for documentary evidence to confirm or refute it. Third, make an effort to show us the bigger picture. And finally, semantics matter. As Lee Yong-ho says, North Koreans are so conditioned by their experiences at home that they probably don’t think of themselves as slaves. Asking a North Korean — especially a North Korean minder, whose living conditions may be just fine, and also grossly atypical — isn’t very useful for our conclusions about the implications of these arrangements under international law. If you’re going to argue that someone is or isn’t a “slave,” at least take the trouble the Leiden Asia Center did and try to define the term meaningfully.  In the end, what makes a slave a slave is whether he has the choice to sell his labor freely.

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China & Russia alarmed about secondary sanctions, because sanctions never work.

After years of extensive, flagrant, and well-documented violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, China is finally reaping the consequences. Americans don’t agree on much anymore, but Beijing’s cheating has achieved a political impossibility — it has united 418 representatives, 96 senators, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the mainstream of North Korea watchers in support of secondary sanctions on the (mostly Chinese) banks and businesses that are propping up Kim Jong-un financially. That policy is now expressed in law, and the U.S. Treasury Department has taken its first steps toward aggressive implementation.

Not surprisingly, China isn’t happy about this.

The so-called secondary sanctions will compel banks to freeze the assets of anyone who breaks the blockade, potentially squeezing out North Korea’s business ties, including those with China.

Asked whether China was worried the sanctions could affect “normal” business links between Chinese banks and North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said this was something China was “paying attention to”.

“First, as I’ve said many times before, China always opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions,” Lu told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

“Second, under the present situation where the situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive, we oppose any moves that may further worsen tensions there.”

“Third, we have clearly stressed many times in meetings with the relevant county, any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests.” [Reuters]

So far, Treasury hasn’t frozen any Chinese and Russian assets, but it’s delivering a message to Chinese banks to stay away from North Korea, and the banks are listening. Even before the U.N. Security Council approved UNSCR 2270, some Chinese banks and businesses began freezing North Korean assets.

“Any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests,” Lu warned. He said Beijing has stressed this point many times.

The new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, the new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly.”

“It does impose something akin to a full embargo on persons who do business with North Korea,” she said.

Victor Cha, senior fellow to the Bush Institute on North Korea and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said these comments show Beijing is concerned about getting caught in the sanction net. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said China was especially worried about the slave-labor provisions.

“China imports North Korean slave labor,” he said. “That’s the piece the Chinese don’t like the most, the secondary sanctioning.”

“This is a grade up from the level of sanctions that had been in place before,” Cha added. [Foreign Policy, David Francis]

Russia, too, has actively aided North Korea’s violations of U.N. sanctions, and it’s also upset about “unilateral” U.S. sanctions. Its propaganda machine is churning out tired arguments that sanctions will only hurt the North Korean people, although I don’t recall Russian propaganda outlets complaining that North Korea’s last long-range missile test cost enough to fund World Food Program operations in North Korea for 15 years.

Despite Moscow’s ambivalence about sanctioning Pyongyang, Gazprom just cut its ties to North Korea. Oddly enough, the U.N. sanctions don’t even require this. Sure, it’s possible that Vladimir Putin has had a change of heart and decided to pressure Kim Jong-un, but it seems more likely that Gazprom is concerned about the legal risks from Treasury’s sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s energy industry.

The reports on China’s compliance with the sanctions continue to be mixed. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says, “China could do much more than it has to get North Korea to ‘stop provocations,’” while a senior State Department official recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China was “ready to work with us on detailed implementation and consultation on a range of issues.” Both of those things could be true, I suppose, but they yield different headlines.

Until recently, cargo had transited the land border between China and North Korea more-or-less unimpeded, but now, according to both Yonhap and the Chosun Ilbo, China has stepped up inspections at its border crossings, too. With respect to maritime cargo, Yonhap cites South Korean government sources who claim that Beijing has directed local governments to bar the 31 U.N.-designated North Korean ships from its ports. The Asahi Shimbun reports that “China has banned the entry of North Korean vessels to Yingkou port in Liaoning province, a major gateway for China’s coal imports” from the North.

As of March 18, two North Korean ships were stranded outside the port, located about 200 kilometers northwest from the border between the two countries. The vessels have reportedly decided to return to North Korea. “China will likely impose a similar embargo at other ports from now on,” a source familiar with the matter told The Asahi Shimbun. [Asahi Shimbun]

Two press reports dated the same day contradict each other about whether China is enforcing the ban on importing North Korean coal. Reuters says that the Chinese government hasn’t told Chinese coal buyers to stop importing North Korean coal; the Joongang Ilbo says it has. To further complicate matters, the U.N. sanctions have a “livelihood” loophole, while U.S. sanctions have much narrower humanitarian exceptions. A reasonable, middle-ground approach that’s completely consistent with both authorities would be to interpret “livelihood” to require payment in food, humanitarian supplies, or donations to the World Food Program or other humanitarian aid programs. It should prohibit payment in gold, dollars, or other convertible currencies.

U.N. sanctions ban mineral imports from North Korea and require member states to seize property of designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which also reportedly operates a small fleet of ships . They do not impose a blanket embargo on North Korean trade. U.S. sanctions do not impose a trade embargo, either, but do authorize U.S. Customs to step up inspections of cargo coming from ports that fail to inspect cargo coming from or going to North Korea. This amounts to a secondary sanction.

On the financial front, the Chosun Ilbo quotes “sources” as claiming that the Dandong branch of the U.N.- and U.S.-designated Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation has closed. In 2013, it simply went underground for a while, but this time, it actually appears to have closed. The Chosun also reports that “[a] growing number of North Korean restaurants in northeastern China are closing down.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea are meeting this week to “review and discuss ways to maximize pressure on North Korea by effectively applying the three axes of the Security Council resolution, unilateral sanctions imposed by South Korea and the U.S., and pressure by the international community.” In Seoul, Sung Kim, the U.S. representative to the six-party talks, says our government intends to enforce U.N. sanctions with “vigor and energy,” but undercuts that conclusion with this:

Asked if Russian and Chinese companies employing North Korean workers would be subject to the sanctions, Fried said the new executive order provides “very broad authorities” to deal with the issue. “It doesn’t mandate anything in particular, but the authorities are there if needed,” he told reporters, standing next to Sung Kim. [Yonhap]

Ambassador Kim is mistaken. The executive order implements a statute whose sanctions are mandatory. Recently, China has expressed interest in three-way consultations with the U.S. and South Korea about enforcement of the sanctions. Expect those consultations to be tense. The left-leaning Hankyoreh Sinmun reports that the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers “clashed” over the enforcement of sanctions against the North in a recent phone call. Securing our interests will require firmness and resolve, but it would still be preferable for all involved if China implements the sanctions “voluntarily.”

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In North Korea, too, Putin fishes in troubled waters

Last week, the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn North Korea for crimes against humanity by a vote of 112 to 19, with 50 abstentions. (HRNK intern Raymond Ha, the extraordinarily bright young man who checked every footnote in my report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, has a new post out analyzing the voting patterns on recent UN resolutions.)

Russia, of course, has voted against all recent attempts to hold North Korea accountable in the Security Council. And while Russia has never been enthusiastic about accountability for Pyongyang’s rulers, it has recently joined China in actively violating UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang’s behalf. In its intent, if not in volume, Russia is now as bad as China as a violator of UN sanctions against North Korea. Around the time of the Ukraine invasion, Russia went from passive non-enforcement of the sanctions to openly helping North Korea violate them

putin fishing

[Christmas gift ideas: a treadmill desk, Photoshop CC2015.]

For example, the entire Chong Chon Gang transaction (the Cuba arms shipment seized in Panama) was arranged by North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) from its Vladivostok office, at this apartment. OMM has since been designated by the UN, and its entire fleet has been designated by the Treasury Department. The UN Panel of Experts has opined that all member states are obliged to immediately seize any OMM property that comes within their jurisdictions. Instead, OMM vessels continue to dock in Russian ports, do their business, and leave on a regular basis.

In 2014, Russia also allowed North Korean officials to attend an arms fair in Russia, despite the fact that the U.N. imposed an arms embargo on North Korea in 2006, and has repeatedly reaffirmed it in the years since then. More alarmingly, Russia has reopened cooperation with North Korea’s General Bureau of Atomic Energy, which is designated by the U.N. Security Council, inviting its scientists to do research in Russian laboratories. 

On the financial front, Russia recently proposed opening a bilateral trade clearing house to process transactions in local currency, presumably rubles. This is a transparent sanctions dodge — an effort to avoid the dollar system, and Treasury’s capacity to regulate and block dollar-denominated transactions cleared through New York banks. I have real doubts about whether the North Koreans are really interested in rubles, and far greater doubts that the Russians want to be paid in North Korean won. Furthermore, at some level, this trading house will eventually want to cash out its proceeds through the dollar system. The next president should make it a priority to sanction this trading house into extinction.

Yesterday’s fireworks in Syria were a reminder that while all great powers have a hard time fighting insurgencies, none has historically had a harder time than Russia, with its long historical record of losing wars to smaller countries. For the last three years, Vladimir Putin has correctly sensed, and taken advantage of, the weakness in our government. In some cases (Georgia, Ukraine) Putin’s goals were clearly territorial or hegemonic. Putin may have hegemonic interests in North Korea, but Russia’s support for North Korea mostly looks like retaliation for U.S. sanctions over its invasion of the Ukraine.

Our conflicts with Putin may be beyond the point of reset, simply because of Putin’s predatory personality. Fortunately for the long-suffering Russian people, Russia is not North Korea, and although opposition there is certainly muzzled, it can and does exist. My sense is that Churchill was correct when he said that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it looks. From where I sit, Russia looks overextended. Although I suspect that Putin remains popular, he is probably past the peak of his popularity. As Russia’s economy continues to decline under the strains of low oil prices, mismanagement, and sanctions, will its people continue to support the expense and loss of these foreign adventures? In recent years, ours didn’t, and historically, neither have Russia’s.

Certainly secondary sanctions against Russian banks are one important tool for dissuading Russia from supporting Pyongyang. Another may be to raise our support for our friends (Ukraine, the remaining moderate rebels in Syria) and frenemies (Turkey) who have common grievances with the Russians. If the Ukrainian forces today were as well-led and well-armed as the Finns were in 1940, we would see renewed Russian interest in a peace deal that gives autonomy to russified areas of the Ukraine, while restoring the Ukraine’s nominal borders to the status quo ante. In time, raising the costs of those conflicts for Russia may result in us having a more reasonable Russian leadership to negotiate with.

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N. Korea’s expatriate labor needs ethical and financial limits

N. Korea increasingly relies on expat labor for hard currency

A series of new reports suggests that the export of labor has become a major source of income for Pyongyang. The Financial Times cites an NGO estimate that the regime earns $1.5 to $2.3 billion a year from contract labor, in line with educated estimates of its annual revenue from missile sales ($1.5 billion) or arms deals with Iran ($1.5 billion to $2 billion). (Update: Marcus Noland questions that estimate, and thinks the more likely figure is between $150 million and $200 million, which is still a lot of bling.) Ahn Myeong-Cheol, a former prison camp guard and leader of the NGO NK Watch, says that there are now 100,000 North Koreans working overseas, double the number it had posted overseas in 2012. Ahn believes North Korea is increasing its use of contract labor to compensate for arms revenue lost to U.N. Security Council sanctions. Marzuki Darusman gives the lower estimate of 20,000. In testimony appended to the end of this post, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea puts the figure at around 53,000. He also offers this very specific breakdown:

Currently, 16 countries reportedly host workers sent by the North Korean regime: Russia (20,000), China (19,000), Mongolia (1,300), Kuwait 5,000), UAE (2,000), Qatar (1,800), Angola (1,000), Poland (400-500), Malaysia (300), Oman (300), Libya (300), Myanmar (200), Nigeria (200), Algeria (200), Equatorial Guinea (200) and Ethiopia (100).4 Although North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), all but two of the 16 states officially hosting North Korean workers are ILO members.

Scarlatiou cites this study by the Asan Institute, which I haven’t read, as the source of these figures.* For years, North Korean workers have been sent to stitch BMW headrests in Europe; build political monuments in Africa (at costs that are suspiciously above market value); mine coal in Malaysia; and cut down trees in the 40-below cold of Siberia without proper winter clothing or safety equipment. Recently, Radio Free Asia reported that North Korean managers were deported for pimping out female textile workers in China. Needless to say, such working conditions fall far short of ILO standards.

Media scrutiny causes Qatar to fire N. Koreans over labor violations

Recently, Qatar became a target for criticism by human rights groups for using North Korean labor to build venues for the 2022 World Cup. Pressure on Qatar has led one construction company to fire 90 North Korean workers, or half of its North Korean work force, for “a series of violations and misconduct by the North Korean workers and their supervisors.” A North Korean company called Genco (not to be confused with that other shady front company of literary infamy) employs the workers.

“The Korean supervisors responsible for the wellbeing of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly,” said one representative of the company, according to the document. [VOA News]

UPI adds that at least one North Korean worker died due to violations of safety standards. A hundred other North Korean workers continue to work at the company’s construction projects in Qatar. The report did not make clear whether the projects were related to the World Cup. The FT found severe conditions at one Gulf State construction project, where North Korean managers forced their workers to keep toiling in the 120-degree heat, when foreign laborers from other Asian countries took shelter.

As a result of this scrutiny, North Korea has tried to impose information blockades around its expatriated workers. In April, Radio Free Asia reported that the regime has directed its workers to physically assault reporters who try to cover them, and smash their cameras. New Focus also reported that the regime had forbidden its workers in China, where dubbed South Korean dramas are broadcast regularly, from watching TV. Workers were previously “allowed some degree of freedom” if they moved in groups of two or three. Now, they’re forbidden from leaving the work area except in groups of 15 or more. Those who break the rules are sent back to North Korea. God only knows what happens to them (and their families) after that.

Workers receive little or none of their “wages”

Whether you define North Korea’s labor arrangements as slave labor may depend on how you define the term, and on the circumstances of each project. How much of their wages North Korean overseas laborers get to keep varies from project to project:

Current and former North Korean overseas workers describe how the vast majority of their nominal wage is lost to management fees and contributions to the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. Their testimonies suggest a common system where managers agree to send a set monthly sum back to North Korea. If funds are short, the workers may be denied their wages or made to contribute to the remittance.

Yet workers can still earn $1,000 for a year’s work — a significant sum in North Korea, where most rely on the black market for sustenance and where bribery can be a crucial means of obtaining professional or other opportunities, such as securing education for their children. “The bribes to get into a good university are expensive — Kim Il Sung University is about $10,000,” says one former overseas worker. [Financial Times]

In some cases, defectors reported that they were left with nothing after party contributions were deducted; their bosses told them to be thankful they got two meals a day. The FT’s sources reported that they received either a small percentage of their nominal wages, or in one case, most of a $4-a-month pittance. One said that the money was enough to buy a decent apartment at home. Another, quoted in The Chosun Ilbo, said he was allowed to keep $100 out of a nominal salary of $750. The fact that North Korean workers in Muslim countries are regularly caught bootlegging alcohol suggests that their take-home earnings are insufficient to feed themselves, and their families. At Kaesong, arguably the most-scrutinized of all these arrangements, it still isn’t clear whether the workers receive any cash wages at all.

Defenders of these labor-export arrangements argue that the North Korean workers there earn more and live better than those who remain behind, but the same justification might also be true of a child prostitute in Cambodia, or other human trafficking victims of any number of nationalities and circumstances. It still doesn’t justify exploitative and dangerous working conditions, which are harmful to the North Korean workers, to workers in the host countries, and ultimately, to those imprisoned inside North Korea by a system perpetuated by exploitation.

Toward a More Ethical Model of Engagement

There are two possible approaches to this problem. One approach is suggested by the conduct of the Qatari firm that fired half its North Korean work force, and warned that the rest would be fired if they failed to comply with labor standards. In this 2014 paper, Marcus Noland argued that Kaesong and other consumers of North Korean labor should agree to a code of ethics, akin to the Sullivan Principles, which were used to pressure South Africa to treat its African work force more fairly. But as Noland notes, the adoption of the Sullivan principles “did not occur in isolation;” companies adopted them under the threat of boycotts, divestment campaigns, shareholder resolutions, and eventually, U.S. sanctions laws. Users of North Korean labor must also comply with the financial transparency requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, which prohibits the provision to North Korea of economic resources that could be used for prohibited weapons programs.

If users of North Korean labor agreed on a similar code of conduct, there would be far fewer objections to these arrangements, and the balance of equities in this debate might shift. That code would have to include basic worker safety protections, and guarantees that the workers would receive, spend, and repatriate a living wage. The regime could receive the remaining proceeds to purchase food, medicine, and other humanitarian needs and services in kind.

Because moral suasion doesn’t work on everyone, standards that conflict with profit motives need hammers. In the case of South Africa, the hammers included the fear of reputational harm, and eventually, sanctions. Under Section 104(a)(1)(F) of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, those who engage in transactions in forced labor or human trafficking would be subject to the blocking of their assets in the dollar-based financial system.

Greg Scarlatoiu’s testimony here: Testimony of Greg Scarlatoiu Final

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* This is my cue to unburden my soul of something. Some months ago, I bruised an Asan scholar and OFK reader by writing (on reflection, unjustly) that Asan “largely” (then changed to “sometimes”) “reflects the views of, and serves the interests of, the South Korean government.” I’ll keep the original basis for that conclusion to myself, but Asan’s work since then has convinced me that it simply isn’t true. I don’t think there’s any question that Asan is the foremost Korean think tank publishing work on North Korea today. I apologize for the slight.

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NIS: N. Korea executes No. 2 military officer

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is reporting that North Korean Army General Hyon Yong Chol, whose title was Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, has been executed for treason:

Hyon Yong-chol, the chief of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, was executed by firing squad using an anti-aircraft gun at a military school in Pyongyang around April 30, the National Intelligence Service said. [Yonhap]

An anti-aircraft gun? Hold that thought. (Update: CNN adds that the execution was carried out at a Pyongyang military school “in front of hundreds of people.”)

Hyon was named as the armed forces chief in June 2014, the No. 2 man within the North’s military after Hwang pyong-so, director of the general political department of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). North Korea has not announced its purge of Hyon yet.

The NIS said that given available information, Hyon seemed to be purged not because he sought a rebellion but because he was “disrespectful” to the young leader.

Specifically, Hyon is said to have been “seen dozing off during a military event” and failed to “carry out Kim’s instructions.” Which could be true, but it certainly would be an extraordinary coincidence that this news emerges just after Kim Jong Un cancelled his visit to Moscow unexpectedly — so unexpectedly that the cancellation was announced hours after the NIS said that Kim was “highly likely” to go through with the trip. The Russians said Kim cancelled because of “internal matters.” So now we know what those were.

Over the past six months, Kim punished other key senior officials including Ma Won-chun, director of the Designing Department at the North’s powerful National Defense Commission.

“As key officials have voiced more complaints, Kim has deepened a reign of terror by purging them in negligence of proper procedure,” the official said. “We believe that there are growing doubts about Kim’s leadership among North Korean ranking officials.” 

And he’s just five months from having a longer reign than Caligula, too. Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, recently told CNN that he saw signs that Kim Jong Un hadn’t yet consolidated power since his succession and the December 2013 purge of Jang Song Thaek. That analysis is looking pretty good at the moment.

You can read Madden’s detailed bio of Hyon Yong-Chol here, but the shorter version is that Hyon had risen steadily through the ranks of the military and the Reconnaissance Bureau through the latter years of Kim Jong Il’s reign, and rose to the very top ranks after Kim Jong Un’s succession. Hyon was one of the main beneficiaries of the 2012 purge of Ri Yong Ho. As recently as last September, when Choe Ryong Hae was reported “recalled” from the post of Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Hyon was made a member of the National Defense Commission “at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”

In other words, this isn’t a case of Kim Jong Un cleaning out his dad’s dead wood. Kim Jong Un gave Hyon his seat at the card table in the back room of the pork store, between Paulie and Sal. And it was Kim Jong Un who whacked him.

There are numerous mentions of Hyon in the KCNA archives, including some curious recent ones. As recently as April, Hyon was in Moscow, meeting with a group of Russian officials at a celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.* Hyon left on April 13th and returned on April 20th, leaving plenty of time for plenty of interesting and substantive discussions that we may all speculate about now. If there were plans for Kim to visit Moscow, Hyon was almost certainly there to make the security arrangements.

Hyon had a meeting with Putin himself last November. That meeting and its coverage by KCNA confirm that Hyon was a man of very high stature. The shooting of the very man Putin met so recently would not seem to be a good omen for North Korea’s budding friendship with Russia.

Also interesting: Hyon’s most recent mention on KCNA is an April 29th appearance with the unfortunately transliterated Moranbong Band, the subject of previous (and as it turns out, at least partially unfounded) speculation about a purge and execution. Which reminds us that this could all be bullshit. Could the NIS be wrong? Hey, they were saying that Kim Jong Un was on his way to Moscow, right before he wasn’t. Sure, Kim could have changed his plans at the last minute, and he might have been head-faking his own people.

Yet another coincidence is the death last weekend of Kim Kyok-Sik, said to be a vicious hatchet-man Kim Jong Il* would call up whenever he needed something particularly nasty done, like shelling Yeonpyeong or sinking the Cheonan.

The use of an anti-aircraft gun to execute Hyon would be consistent with this report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, publishing imagery that Joe Bermudez believes shows an execution using ZPU-4 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns last October. I couldn’t make out much from that imagery myself, but Joe Bermudez isn’t just some crank with a blog and induced astigmatism; he’s a highly respected imagery analyst. This report could help validate his conclusion. Which just goes to show you that in North Korea, some of the ghastly rumors are true.

Thankfully, rumor has it that the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, is in Pyongyang now. So we can all look forward to a full, detailed report debunking of all this groundless speculation by midday tomorrow.

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* A previous version of this post said “Kim Jong Un.” Since corrected. Thanks to Chris for catching the error. The previous version also said, incorrectly, that Putin was among the Russian officials present at the North Korean Embassy in April.

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Update: Since April 30th, we’ve seen a flurry of missile and rocket tests, and firing drills. I wonder if this activity is a way to keep the officers busy, distracted, tired, and away from their social networks at home. I wonder if it means we’ll soon see a cycle of long-range missile and nuke tests — we’re about due for that anyway — although that didn’t happen after Jang Song-Thaek’s purge.

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Update, 13 May 2015: UPI is reporting that the NIS is backing off of the story, saying that Hyon has definitely been purged, but may not have been executed, or executed in any specific way. Funny thing about that, though — I clicked on my aggregator, scrolled through, and saw that none of the other wires or news services are reporting that.

Wondering why one story contradicts what all the other sources are still reporting, I reached out to a reporter friend who is, in my book, one of the very best and most careful reporters covering North Korea, and one who has a healthy suspicion of the NIS. He doesn’t believe the UPI story is accurate. He says the NIS still says it has multiple sources telling it that Hyon was executed with an anti-aircraft gun. To be sure, the NIS could be wrong, but the majority view doesn’t seem to support the claim that the NIS is backing down.

Now, that being said, South Korean lawmaker Shin Kyoung-Min makes the point that Hyon was seen on North Korean TV after the date of his alleged execution. In the case of Jang Song-Thaek, he was Trotskied out of a TV program before his execution was announced. Make of that what you will.

Within a few days, I suspect the North Koreans will do one of two things — either they’ll print a lengthy denunciation of Hyon, like they did with Jang, or they’ll put him on TV and savor this opportunity to make the NIS look like fools in front of the entire world.

As of the writing of this update, KCNA still hadn’t commented on Hyon, but did threaten to “mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

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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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Kim Jong Un seeks friends and funds abroad as he isolates his people.

In the three years that he has been in power, His Porcine Majesty has found plenty of time for Dennis Rodman, but none for meetings with foreign leaders. Suddenly, in the last two months, he has flirted with (1) a summit with South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye, (2) inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pyongyang, (3) and a visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May. His central bank even “committed itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (I’m sure Pyongyang will find some way to reconcile this with its arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas.)

If you believe that talks with North Korea are immediately capable of solving anything, or that they are an end in themselves, you may be pleased that Kim Jong Un has developed this urgent interest in diplomacy. What accounts for this belated quinceañera, assuming that any of these meetings comes to pass? Only Kim Jong Un knows, but I doubt it has anything to do with a yearning for more intelligent companionship. There’s almost certainly a financial motive, if not more than one.

One motive may be a growing threat of sanctions. Kim’s charm offensive began just after December 19th, when FBI and President Obama announced that North Korea had hacked Sony Pictures and threatened audiences for “The Interview.” Almost immediately, Congress called for stronger sanctions, and centrist figures in the foreign policy establishment, including Richard Haass and Winston Lord, began calling for regime change. President Obama himself suggested that the collapse of North Korea’s system was inevitable, although he didn’t declare an intent to catalyze that result.

On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13687, authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) authorizing secondary sanctions against the Chinese, and other entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating, but in its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Pyongyang’s charm offensives always seem to come just as the political will waxes to enforce sanctions against it. The charm offensives play on the individual interest of each interlocutor — Park Geun Hye’s domestic unpopularity, Shinzo Abe’s desire to bring abductees home, Putin’s search for ways to f**k with Obama — to disrupt any coordination among them. It works because we’re dumb enough to let it. And once sanctions enforcement wanes, so will Kim Jong Un’s interest in diplomacy.

One thing is clear enough: a credible threat of sanctions certainly hasn’t done any harm to prospects for diplomacy with North Korea. I could also say, with equal conviction, that they haven’t harmed John Hinckley’s odds of marrying Jodie Foster.

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Another possible explanation is a series of reports suggesting that North Korea’s trade relations with China are declining. For one thing, fewer North Koreans are traveling there:

Overall figures for North Korean residents entering China annually totaled between 100,000-120,000 until 2010 before jumping to 150,000 in 2011. A steady period of continual increase in visitors followed until 2013, when the number of North Koreans traveling to China reached an all-time high of 200,000, roughly half of whom noted their reason for making the trip as “looking for work.” Aside from finding employment, 34,000 went to conduct business or attend a conference, and 1,500 went purely to travel. This represents a 60% and 50% respective reduction when compared to last year’s figures. Visits to friends and relatives dropped to 1,100–one-third of those making the trip for the same reason in 2013.

Male visitors [150,000] composed five times total amount of females [30,000] visiting China from North Korea. Most North Koreans [77,000] traveled by boat for the trip. [Daily NK]

North Korean agents who do travel to China are also having more difficulty doing business there. There’s no evidence this has anything to do with sanctions. It appears to be because of a combination of a sagging Chinese economy and the lingering effects of the Jang Song-Thaek purge. After that purge, I posted here that the regime had called home large numbers of its China-based money men, presumably men who were loyal to Jang or thought to be, and that the money men had stayed away in droves. Subsequently, I posted about another reported defection of a senior financier in Russia. That trend continues:

A source in a northeastern Chinese city, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 30 percent of the North Korean businessmen have returned to China after being summoned.The summonses are also believed to be part of efforts by North Korea to redistribute the “rights of doing businesses with China,” a key source of earning hard currency, to its ruling elite, the source said.”The replacement of businessmen loyal to Jang Song-thaek has been gradually carried out and a lot of North Korean businessmen were summoned until late last year,” the source said. “Of those being summoned, only about 30 percent returned to China.”There are no official data on how many North Korean businessmen are working in the Chinese border cities.A second source in another Chinese border city with North Korea said that about 170 North Korean businessmen in the city were replaced over the past year.With Chinese investor confidence eroding over the North’s unpredictable behavior, the new North Korean businessmen come under further pressure in building business connections with their Chinese counterparts, the second source said. [Yonhap, via the Korea Herald]

Not only is the sagging Chinese economy hurting Bureau 39, but according to the report, “Chinese investor confidence” is also “eroding.” One reason may be the arbitrary behavior of North Korean officials, including their inclination toward unilateral price increases and demands for bribes and prostitutes. I can’t speak to the latter concern, but the former concern can’t have improved since Kim Jong Un had Jang shot for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is consistent with evidence of a sudden onset of distress in North Korea’s mining industry, although I can’t say whether poor investor relations are a cause of the problems or a consequence of them.

The report cites Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) figures, according to which, “North Korea’s annual trade with China fell 2.4 percent from a year ago in 2014,” from $6.54 to $6.39 billion, “marking the first decline since 2009.” These figures are sourced to Chinese government statistics, which is one reason to distrust them. For example, we read a lot of reporting last year that China had cut off North Korea’s crude oil supply, only to find that China had merely reclassified its trade as aid, or supplied Pyongyang with refined petroleum products (such as jet fuel) instead.

The report also claims that “North Korea’s exports of coal to China slipped 17.6 percent from a year ago to $1.13 billion, marking the first drop in 8 years.” I see more extrinsic evidence that that report is accurate.

And there are other signs of trouble: it would be a snub for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia before he visits China, and it was a snub for the leaders of China and South Korea to meet before the leaders of China and North Korea met. China didn’t send a representative to Kim Jong Il’s latest birthday party, either. This doesn’t yet mean that China has broken with North Korea. It certainly doesn’t mean that China wants to destabilize North Korea. It bears watching, however.

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In other ways, Pyongyang is intensifying its isolationism. The ones that have attracted the most media attention are its bans on foreigners entering North Korea for a marathon and its creepy Arirang Festival. (By contrast, it recently granted permission for this “peace” march by a group of left-wing activists, led by Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem). The dubious pretext for Pyongyang’s isolationism is that it is a precautionary quarantine against Ebola. This has inconvenienced two groups of useful idiots — the North Korea tour companies and the slummers who use them. I don’t see the down side to that. In the long run, it will mean fewer hostages for Pyongyang, and less hard currency for its bank accounts.

Why would Pyongyang shut down this lucrative, low-risk traffic in people with more money than sense or soul? No one knows but Pyongyang. Maybe it really is terrified of Ebola, yet confident that Gloria Steinem isn’t a carrier. Then again, maybe it’s terrified of a contagion of another kind.

For years, the pro-“engagement” argument for tourism in North Korea has been that there is something transformational, even dangerously subversive, about it that minders, deceptions, and other controls can’t contain. (Somehow, I doubt that Koryo Tours and Young Pioneers make the same argument to their contacts in Pyongyang.) I’ve usually been dismissive of this argument, although I’d be genuinely interested in hearing any evidence that Pyongyang thinks it has anything to fear from this kind of tourism. Even if that argument had any merit, Pyongyang knows how to deal with foreign subversive influences. Maybe it just did.

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Kim Jong Un has been isolating low-caste North Koreans since the very beginning of his reign. His regime continues to do that by terrorizing traders, cracking down on cell phones, and blocking the flight of desperate people:

“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”

The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody. [Daily NK]

Human Rights Watch has documented the border crackdown in a new report, which you can read here.

“North Korean authorities are using brutal punishments to shut the door on people fleeing the country, and cracking down on those who share information with the outside world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director. “Kim Jong-Un is trying to silence news of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes by going after the messengers, such as people with connections in South Korea or those who can help North Koreans flee there.”

The North Korean leadership has made clear the country must redouble its efforts to remain shut to the outside world.

“We must set up two or three layers of mosquito nets to prevent the poison of capitalism from being persistently spread by our enemies across the border into our territory,” said Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, during a speech at the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Worker’s Party on February 25, 2014. “We also have to be active to block the imperialists’ plots for ideological and cultural invasion.” The “mosquito net” system Kim referred to was developed in the North to attract the inflow of foreign investment while blocking the infiltrations of foreign ideas, news, and culture. [….]

According to the escapees, the North Korean government has also been actively tracking down unauthorized phone calls from cell-phones operating on Chinese service provider networks being used by people in the North Korean border areas to call to China or South Korea. “The phones have no signal in the cities anymore and I have heard they even have mobile technology to find the exact location of the caller even after you hang up,” said Kim. “I used to call from my living room, but later I had to go high up in the mountains in the middle of the night and I was scared to talk for more than a minute or two.” Park said she used to get calls from North Korea at all times of the day and talk for long periods, but now the number of calls she receives has shrunk by approximately 60 percent since 2012.

“North Korea feels threatened by news and images of the outside world seeping into the country and now is trying to reassert its control by going after people bringing in the information,” said Robertson. “Talking on an overseas phone call, or watching a foreign television show should not be considered crimes, but the government is tightening control through repression and fear.”

More here and here. One backlash of this increased border control is a rise in cross-border violence, and more tension with China. North Korea’s border guards had come to rely on the bribes and extortion they taxed from this localized, illicit cross-border trade. With the loss of that income, the underpaid guards have turned to violent crime, and like all criminals, they go where the money is. China has since raised militias to patrol the border regions, and North Korea has purged an official of the Supreme Guard Command as punishment for the violence. There were also purges at the local level.

There is a very important point here, one that makes Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic outreach completely consistent with his isolationism: it costs money to pay border guards, buy cell phone trackers, and isolate the people you consider “wavering” or “hostile.” North Korea earns that money by extracting aid from foreign sources, and through its officially sanctioned trade relationships. Here is another way that sanctioning the regime can actually open North Korea to outside trade and influence.

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These reports paint a picture of a regime that is struggling to maintain its financial links to the outside world, while severing the economic, social, and cultural links between its people and the outside world. If a less isolated, less hungry, less brutal, and less provocative North Korea is in our interests, then our obvious policy response is to undermine both aspects of that policy — to facilitate illicit cross-border flows of information, people, money, and goods, while cutting Pyongyang’s hard currency flows.

The first part of this strategy is the more difficult one. Some of it can be done through broadcasting, some requires creative technological thinking, and some will require clandestine operations.

The second part is about sanctions enforcement, which requires financial intelligence, legal tools, effective diplomacy, and political will.

The reports of defections by North Korean financiers suggest a potential windfall of financial intelligence. Each of these men, and each of their laptops, represents a potential Rosetta Stone. I certainly hope some of them have found safety in the care of U.S. and South Korean intelligence agents. I’ll also express my hope that The Guardian and Al-Jazeera will refrain from getting them — and their entire families — killed, by printing their names.

The Obama Administration will also have to find the political will to dissuade South Korea and Japan from subsidizing Pyongyang and loosening their own sanctions. It will have to find the political will to threaten secondary sanctions against the Chinese and Russian interests that prop Pyongyang up. Lacking this, the administration’s policy will continue to fail. My guesses are (respectively) that it won’t, it won’t, and so it will. North Korea’s hostage-taking, threats, and inducements will recoup more modest financial benefits for the regime. That’s about all Pyongyang needs to undermine the effect of U.N. sanctions, and to sustain its provocative and repressive ways.

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Why I’m concerned about the overuse of financial sanctions

As much as I’ve advocated the use of financial sanctions as a potentially effective tool against North Korea, and as much as financial sanctions against Russia appear to have played a significant role in crashing the ruble, it worries me that if we use this tool too much against the wrong targets, we risk blunting the power of our financial weapon.

I think North Korea is a good target for financial sanctions because it is (a) dependent on the financial system, (b) misusing the system in ways that raise traditional law enforcement and money laundering risks, (c) not an important trading partner to anyone, and (d) subject to theoretically strict financial safeguards under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

That is to say, this weapon is for the worst of the worst–rogue states with weak links to the financial system, where there is (or could be) broad international agreement that financial sanctions are an appropriate countermeasure. (In the case of Russia and the Ukraine, better training and weapons for the Ukrainians might have been a better response. Russia’s history of losing wars to smaller neighbors is older than the Winter War against Finland and more recent than Afghanistan).

In this post, Walter Russell Mead worries that financial sanctions might have been the wrong tool against Russia, and that it might cause more states to agree that they need an alternative reserve currency. It’s a concern I share. In the case of Russia, for the first time ever, we’ve blocked out a large, interconnected economy without basing that action on concerns about money laundering, terrorist financing, or proliferation.

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Three Cheers for Obama’s Sony attribution, a golf clap for his “proportional” response.

In The Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima describes how Sony’s decision to cancel the premiere of The Interview catalyzed the Obama Administration’s decision to blame North Korea publicly:

The next day, alarmed by the surrender, President Barack Obama convened his top officials in the White House Situation Room and, based on their unanimous recommendation, decided to take an action the United States had never dared before in response to a cyberattack by another nation: name the government responsible and punish it. [….]

The blocking of Sony’s freedom of expression, on top of a highly damaging hack, is what ultimately compelled officials to act, in the name of deterrence.

“The argument I made was the whole world is watching how we as a nation respond,” said Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, who, other officials said, was at the previously undisclosed meeting.

“And if we don’t acknowledge this, if we don’t name names here, it will only — I’m concerned — encourage others to decide: ‘Well, this must not be a red line for the United States. This must be something they’re comfortable [with] and willing to accept,’ ” Rogers said at an international cybersecurity conference at Fordham University last week.

There “was a significant debate within the administration about whether or not to take that step” of naming North Korea, a senior administration official said. “Attribution is hard, and there are all sorts of reasons we don’t normally want to do that,” including setting a precedent that would increase pressure to name other countries in future incidents and antagonizing the offending governments.

But the attack on Sony’s right to screen a movie struck a nerve. The entertainment company may not be “critical” to national security, but free speech is “a core value,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Yes, it was a Seth Rogen comedy, but next time it might not be,” he said. What he described as the hack’s “destructive” nature combined with the element of coercion against Sony “crossed the threshold,” he said. “It took us into a new realm.”

The attack was a violation of U.S. sovereignty “coupled with an attempt to interfere with freedom of expression,” said Christopher Painter, State Department coordinator for cyber issues. “You had, in many ways, the perfect storm of all these things coming together that were really important.” [WaPo, Ellen Nakashima]

I applaud this unreservedly. It was the right decision for the right reasons.

~   ~   ~

The administration has stumbled twice since then, however. For several weeks, the administration failed to challenge inside-job theories from some IT security experts. Some of them challenged the sufficiency of the publicly available evidence, which is fair enough. But to argue that North Korea didn’t do it is much more problematic. Some of the inside-jobbers lost sight of the possibility that they were arguing based on incomplete information. Others may have been motivated by grudges against the administration over the Snowden revelations, or other biases. Yet others, including inmates of the Alex Jones, Christine Ahn, and Ron Paul asylums, shared the sort of skepticism that’s unique to the world’s most gullible people.

The administration continued to lose this argument for several weeks before FBI Director James Comey publicly reaffirmed that he was certain that the North Koreans did it. Comey’s call to declassify more of the evidence is now being answered by the National Security Agency:

Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the American spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies, according to former United States and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations and a newly disclosed N.S.A. document.

A classified security agency program expanded into an ambitious effort, officials said, to place malware that could track the internal workings of many of the computers and networks used by the North’s hackers, a force that South Korea’s military recently said numbers roughly 6,000 people. Most are commanded by the country’s main intelligence service, called the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and Bureau 121, its secretive hacking unit, with a large outpost in China.

The evidence gathered by the “early warning radar” of software painstakingly hidden to monitor North Korea’s activities proved critical in persuading President Obama to accuse the government of Kim Jong-un of ordering the Sony attack, according to the officials and experts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the classified N.S.A. operation. [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger & Martin Fackler]

The CIA’s malware was built on its highly successful Stuxnet worm:

For about a decade, the United States has implanted “beacons,” which can map a computer network, along with surveillance software and occasionally even destructive malware in the computer systems of foreign adversaries. The government spends billions of dollars on the technology, which was crucial to the American and Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and documents previously disclosed by Edward J. Snowden, the former security agency contractor, demonstrated how widely they have been deployed against China. [N.Y. Times]

For those incapable of wrapping their heads around the idea of North Korea being technologically sophisticated enough to hack someone, the Times story also provides an extensive history of Unit 121, and an interview with two defectors with insider knowledge of the unit’s operations.

See also CNN and CBS News (quoting Comey, “We could see that the IP addresses that were being used to post and to send the e-mails were coming from IPs that were exclusively used by the North Koreans.”).

Interestingly enough, just a few weeks before the Sony hack, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had dinner with Kim Yong-Chol, the head of North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau (RGB), the man responsible for overseeing North Korea’s hackers, and also for multiple attempts to assassinate human rights activists and North Korean dissidents in exile. The RGB’s assets are blocked, but Gen. Kim’s are not. I can’t help wonder if Gen. Kim smiled at the thought of how Clapper would react to the Sony attacks. Let’s hope that the Obama Administration gives Gen. Kim cause to regret this lapse of malignant egomania.

It amuses me some to wonder whether there was a small bandage on Mr. Clapper’s right palm when the two men shook hands.

~   ~   ~

Which brings us to the President’s second stumble: his failure, so far, to respond credibly, to deter others from crossing the red line that North Korea crossed in November, and also to deter others from blunting President Obama’s response by undermining sanctions.

It did not take long for American officials to conclude that the source of the attack was North Korea, officials say. “Figuring out how to respond was a lot harder,” one White House official said. [N.Y. Times]

That’s becoming more painfully obvious by the day. President Obama has said that Executive Order 13,687 and the designations of January 2nd were only a beginning, and let’s hope he’s right about that. Sanctions work better when they hit with a shock than when they’re applied incrementally, and give the target time to adapt. If my guess is right, however, Treasury needs more time to do that, because this administration hasn’t made North Korea a priority in its financial intelligence targeting. But so far, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden said, the administration’s new sanctions have been “symbolic at best,” for reasons I explained here. Worse, our apparent lack of determination is inviting troublemakers to undermine the administration’s negative reinforcement.

Here is Vladimir Putin’s cue to enter stage left.

According to this article, Russia has recently begun to service transactions for the U.S. Treasury-sanctioned Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea in rubles. Treasury sanctioned the FTB in March 2013 for its involvement in servicing WMD-related financial transactions. The article’s author, whose work reads like that of a Putinjugend fangirl, may not have considered the possibility that the Russian businesses involved could still be cut out of the financial system under EO 13,687 or (one day in the not-too-distant future, according to Chairman Royce) the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. However unwittingly, fangirl has done us a great public service by bringing this information to our attention.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to defend us against cyberattacks. He didn’t mention North Korea by name, but the reference was obvious. Deterrence is a critical part of defense. Imposing new cybersecurity laws and regulations on industry alone will not be a complete answer, and the new requirements will come with massive costs to American industry. Even if the administration has good reasons to delay the main thrust of its response to Kim Jong Un until it finds a critical mass of North Korea’s financial nodes, it still needs to make a bold demonstration that it’s unwilling to tolerate the willful subversion of its policies by Russia and others. If the sanctions of January 2nd are the only price a foreign enemy pays for a devastating and chilling attack on the central principle of our political system, those sanctions will mean less than no deterrent at all.

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Continental drift: U.S. alliances erode despite “pivot” to Asia

Xi Jingping has departed from Seoul, where he couldn’t quite bring himself to agreeing to a joint statement with Park Geun Hye calling for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But the statement stopped short of directly urging North Korea to give up its nuclear program, only vaguely calling for all members of the six-party nuclear talks to resolve the issue through dialogue and abide by their 2005 denuclearization-for-aid deal. [Yonhap]

Some of the dire declarations I’ve seen that Xi’s visit successfully finlandized South Korea seem premature, but Xi did take one very big step in that direction when he coaxed South Korea into agreeing to set up a bank in Seoul to clear bilateral business transactions in Chinese yuan. China’s clear intention here is to undermine the global supremacy of the dollar, circumvent the power of U.S. financial sanctions, draw South Korea into China’s economic orbit, and perhaps even shield North Korea’s international transactions from the Treasury Department. More here and here.

How this new arrangement will mesh with the artificially depressed value of the yuan will be an interesting question, but China has already made similar arrangements France, the U.K., and Germany, so we can assume that (1) the problem isn’t insurmountable, and (2) the yuan is nowhere near replacing the dollar as a reserve currency in the short term. Given the extent of public corruption in China, uncertainties in China’s economy, and the broader non-convertibility of the yuan, the yuan isn’t going to be as safe a medium of exchange as the dollar anytime soon. In the longer term, however, the threat is significant. The power of the dollar may be as important to our national power as our Navy.

In the case of South Korea, there could also be shorter-term policy implications, if yuan-clearing banks begin clearing transactions for North Korea. The effect of this would be to enlist a new group of financial profiteers in Seoul to oppose financial sanctions against the North and spread China’s risk from financial sanctions to South Korea. If the U.S. wants to retain its last best non-violent option against North Korea, it will send a very clear signal to President Park and to South Korean banks opposing this idea.

One wonders if U.S. influence is so diminished that that signal would work. The presence of 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea ought to mean something. If South Korea isn’t really interested in disarming North Korea, one wonders why they remain there. There are moments when I think the U.S. has a greater interest in neutralizing North Korea as a proliferation threat than in having South Korea as an ally. That’s especially so when one considers the financial cost of that alliance to U.S. taxpayers.

~   ~   ~

Meanwhile, North Korea’s ransom diplomacy with Japan is succeeding. It has given Japan a list of ten names of Japanese nationals, including abductees, who are still alive in North Korea. None of the abductees has met with a Japanese official or returned home, but the Japanese government has already made moves toward relaxing its sanctions against North Korea. The effect of this will be to blunt the economic pressure intended to disarm the North. The AP provides an excellent summary of Japan’s actions:

— North Korean nationals are now allowed to enter Japan, but will be screened case-by-case if a request is filed. A ban on individuals subject to the U.N sanctions remains.

— Officials of Chongryong (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), which serves as a de-facto North Korean embassy here, can obtain re-entry permits after traveling to North Korea.

— An advisory discouraging Japanese nationals from traveling to North Korea is no longer in place.

PORT CALLS

— North Korean-registered vessels are able to enter Japanese ports but only for humanitarian purposes.

— A ban on a North Korean passenger ferry, the Mangyongbong-92, that was the only regular direct connection to Japan, stays in place.

— Port calls are limited to pickups of food, medicine and clothing and other articles for personal use only, and shipment of large quantities is not permitted. North Korean crewmembers will not be permitted ashore without prior approval.

MONEY TRANSFERS

— Remittances to groups and companies based in North Korea do not have to be reported to the government if not exceeding 30 million yen ($300,000), the same as to other countries. Under the sanctions, reporting any remittance exceeding 3 million yen ($30,000) was compulsory.

— Those visiting North Korea can now carry cash up to 1 million yen ($10,000) without having to report it to the government, up from 100,000 yen ($1,000).

EXPORTS

— Japan’s overall trade ban on North Korea remains in place.

— Freezing of assets on individuals and entities involved in missile programs, under U.N. Security Council resolutions, stay in place.

One potential source of dispute will be whether North Korea has given Japan a complete listing of surviving abductees. Some Japanese government publications I’ve read list dozens of potential abductees, and the Japanese public is unlikely to take Pyongyang’s “re-investigation” at its word. Another potential source of conflict is the pending tax sale of Chongryon’s headquarters in Japan. Finally, a nuke test could always upset things.

Japan’s sudden defection from the anti-North Korea alliance isn’t wholly the Obama Administration’s fault. The Bush Administration was the first to sideline Japan’s interest in getting its citizens back, but the Obama Administration squandered the last five years by failing to correct it and rebuild that alliance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also bears a large share of the blame, with his revisionist dis-apology for Japan’s World War II-era atrocities — something that has proven useful to Xi Jinping in his efforts to isolate Japan and break up the U.S.-led Pacific coalition. If you want to read more on the spurious historical merits of Japan’s revisionism, Dennis Halpin has been doing some excellent writing on the subject.

If you think things couldn’t have declined much more over the last year, don’t forget Russia’s surge of investment in North Korea.

Taken together, these developments mean that U.S. leverage over North Korea and China has faded significantly over the last six months. That isn’t a very impressive set of accomplishments for an administration that allowed the Middle East to fall to the most brutal gang of terrorists since the Khmer Rouge, while ostensibly making Asia the focus of its full diplomatic attention.

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Old KGB Habits Die Hard: Russians Arrest North Korean Logger

In the war between Kim Jong Il’s regime and the people of North Korea, Russia has taken the regime’s side:

The North Korean’s note, scrawled in pen, was simple: “I want to go to South Korea. Why? To find freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of life.” The ex-logger, on the run from North Korean authorities, handed the note over to a South Korean missionary in the Russian city of Vladivostok last week in hopes it would lead to political asylum.

Just before he was to meet Thursday with the International Organization for Migrants, a team of men grabbed him, slapped handcuffs on him and drove off, rights activists in Moscow said Friday. He was spirited away to the eastern port city of Nakhokda, where he is sure to be handed back over to North Korean officials and repatriated to his communist homeland, activists said in Seoul.

Police in Vladivostok refused to comment. A senior South Korean diplomat in Vladivostok said he had no information. Officials from the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok could not be reached for comment.

The 51-year-old would be the third North Korean logger in Russia in a week to make a bid for asylum. On March 9, two other North Koreans who had fled their jobs as loggers managed to get into the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok. [AP, via the Washington Examiner]

It isn’t reported whether the men who pulled the would-be refugee into the Black Maria were classically trained post-Soviet thugs or North Koreans working with tacit Russian approval, but this man’s prolonged captivity and repatriation won’t be possible without the cooperation of the Russian authorities. In this Journeyman Pictures documentary on the North Korean logging camps in Russia, the human rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov alleges that there is a secret protocol between the Russian and North Korean security services to enforce North Korean discipline among the workers:

North Korean workers in Russia

Protocol or not, like China, Russia is responsible for the criminal acts it aids, abets, and permits on its own territory. Sadly, I suspect that this is the sort of conduct that comes naturally to officials of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. Putin’s destruction of Russian democracy ranks alongside China’s descent into nationalism and fascism as one of the saddest developments of the last decade.

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Claudia Rosett on North Korean Loggers in Russia

The defection of those two loggers at the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok inspires further thought from Claudia Rosett:

I’ve seen those North Korean lumberjacks–or at least their predecessors. In 1994 I was working as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Moscow when a story turned up in the Russian press, saying that North Korea was running lumber camps in remote areas of Russia.

In Moscow, Russian officials confirmed to me that they had two big logging operations manned and policed by North Koreans. Both were in the Russian Far East, in areas once part of Stalin’s old gulag. One was based in a place called Tynda. The other was headquartered in a town called Chegdomyn, straddling a rail spur that ran a few hundred miles north from the major city of Khabarovsk, one of the main stops on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

These camps were the legacy of a 1967 Brezhnev-era deal between the Soviet Union and the North Korean regime of Kim Il Sung. The Soviets supplied the equipment and the forests, in rough terrain where during the long winters the temperature dives far below zero. North Korea supplied–and supervised–the lumberjacks. The two governments sold the lumber abroad and divvied up the profits.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Surrounded by a freer Russia, these logging sites carried on as de facto slave labor camps, totalitarian outposts of North Korea. For the Russian foreign ministry at the time, this was a human-rights embarrassment. One Russian official told me there was “harsh treatment” in the camps, including “torture, beatings” and even “controversial” deaths. But the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, which was raking in money from the lumber sales, saw it as an excellent deal worth continuing. One of their spokesmen explained that Russians would not be willing to log such hostile turf for the pittance the North Koreans were paid.

Having heard this tale, I recruited the help of a young intern and interpreter in our bureau.

Read the rest here.

Latest word is that the loggers will actually demand to be sent to the United States. Under Article 2 and 3 of the South Korean Constitution, however, the men are South Korean citizens, and pursuant to long-standing principles of international and immigration law, an applicant for asylum must generally apply for asylum at the first country of refuge where asylum is sought. The natural place of refuge is the place where these men are already citizens, and let’s face it, Chung Dong Young isn’t the President of the Republic of Korea. It’s reasonable to assume that these men can live safely in South Korea.

Still, isn’t it interesting that after a lifetime of indoctrination that Americans are big-nosed, baby-bayoneting rapists, these men would still prefer to live in the United States, notwithstanding all of the linguistic and cultural barriers living here would mean for them?

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Newly Released Soviet Report Details Atrocities in North Korea

Something tells me the Putinjugend Nashi web site isn’t going to feature, by popular demand, this newly released 1945 report by a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel who drove through Hwanghae and North and South Pyongyan provinces just after the war’s end. The officer’s detailed, 13-page report on the behavior of Russian soldiers in North Korea makes drunk G.I.’s in Itaewon look like Mormon missionaries by comparison:

The handwritten document in Russian was discovered by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a U.S. think tank devoted to national security, and translated into English.

“The immoral behavior of our servicemen is horrible. Regardless of rank, they indulge in looting, violence and misconduct every day here and there. They continue to do so since few have been punished,” the document said. The lieutenant colonel described the atrocities of the Red Army, which described itself as “liberators” at the time. “The sound of gunfire never stops at night in areas where our troops are stationed,” he said.

“Drunk and disorderly soldiers commit immoral behavior and rape is prevalent.

It added, “Drunk soldiers are often spotted on the streets in broad daylight and drinking parties in more than 70 inns and public buildings take place every night. [Donga Ilbo]

Given the behavior of German soldiers on Russian soil, it’s possible to put the atrocious behavior of the Russians who invaded Germany in 1945 into some perspective, though it still doesn’t excuse the widespread mass rape of German women. It’s much harder to understand why the Russians could justify behaving like this toward Koreans, whom they themselves recognized as victims of fascism and colonialism:

A North Korean who tried to bring a drunk Soviet lieutenant to justice said, “I cannot forgive the Soviet soldier who raped my wife. Many such perpetrators went unpunished. Though another lieutenant colonel urged the Soviet military police to punish the perpetrators to maintain military discipline several times, his words went unheeded, the report said.

The 25th Primorsky Krai unit commander of the Soviet Far East Army arrived at Pyongyang Airport on Aug. 26, 1945, and described the Soviet army as liberators. “Remember fellow Koreans! Your happiness is up to you. You have achieved freedom and independence. Everything is up to you now,” he said. The report, however, quoted the commander as threatening to “hang half of the Koreans” if they rise up against the Soviet army in protest of their abuses.

The commander held a party with his subordinates for 22 hours in a row in downtown Haeju on Nov. 16, 1945. A fire broke out and burned houses, but he said the fire was an act of arson committed by dissidents and received 300,000 yen as compensation.

The report quoted another Soviet colonel as saying privately, “The Korean people were enslaved for the past 35 years. It’s okay for them be enslaved a little longer.

We all eagerly await the calls for an inquiry by some Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In fact, let me just put it out there that Charles J. Hanley, having recycled the No Gun Ri story at least three times now, might actually find some fresh material here.

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Putinjugend Website Publishes North Korean Anti-American Propaganda Paintings

Several years ago, after observing the rise of the now-failed Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the goombahs in the Kremlin decided that it would be a good thing to have some street muscle handy in the event any Russians got similar ideas. In the annals of accidental fame, the Kremlin is to irony what the Taliban are to sodomy; thus, it’s only natural that the group was called the “Democratic Anti-Fascist Youth Group.” The Russian acronym turns out to be NASHI, the Russian word for “ours,” lest anyone miss the nationalist appeal.

Certainly the Kremlin must have liked the idea that its new Putinjugend wouldn’t be under the state’s direct control, technically speaking, a useful thing should some knees or skulls happen to break in the course of someone getting carried away by the passionate expression of someone’s love for his Mother. Land. As Miriam Elder informs us, NASHI’s web site, responding to what it calls “many requests,” has published a series of North Korean propaganda oil paintings depicting Yankee big-nosers massacring babies and defiling pure North Korean women. This would be my personal favorite:

putinjugend-nk-propaganda.jpg

Is lovely, da? Da!

(Hmm. What do you suppose it would cost to have them paint us some weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?)

What are we to take from this? That we should all hope for the day when America will finally elect a president capable of suave, nuanced diplomacy … a president who can “reset” our relations with Russia and undo all the harm caused by those reckless, imperialist neocon cowboys. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton must be held responsible for this decline in relations, because I, for one, simply cannot rest while knowing that somewhere in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, someone does not like me.

Update: I see I’m not the first one to refer to Nashi as the Putinjugend. Rats. Is it any wonder why?

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6.7 Earthquake Hits Tri-Border Area Near Rajin, N. Korea

No word on damage or injuries in the area yet, but 6.7 is a pretty big quake. In 1994, an earthquake of equal magnitude centered at Northridge, California, killed 72 people and injured 9,000 more.

Though area residents said they did not feel the quake, office towers in Beijing — about 770 miles (1,240 kilometers) away from the epicenter — swayed slightly for about a minute.

The quake occurred 335 miles (540 kilometers) below the earth’s surface.

With earthquakes centered deep underground, sometimes those close to the epicenter don’t feel it while people further away notice some shaking, said the duty officer at the Seismological Bureau of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China’s Jilin province. He refused to give his name as is common among Chinese officials. [AP]

Hopefully, that means everyone is OK. See also.

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Is This Kim Jong Il’s Private Train?

A reader recently directed my attention to these images at RailPictures.net, taken by Danish tourist Asger Christiansen while visiting Vladivostok in 2002. Christiansen believes they show Kim Jong Il’s unmarked private train taking him to a meeting with Vladimir Putin. I contacted Mr. Christian, who graciously allowed me to post the images here. Click for full size.

train1.jpg train2.jpg

Apparently, the Russians insisted on using their own locomotives and operators inside Russia. Interesting, too, that Russian and North Korean trains share the same gauge.

News reports confirm that the two heads of state did in fact meet in Vladivostok in August 2002. Many thanks to Asger Christiansen, and to the reader who directed me to these images.

Update: Curtis e-mails to note that Russian and North Korean trains don’t use the same gauge, but neither of us knows whether this is a special-purpose train built for Russian rails, or whether the carriage trolleys can be switched out to make them suitable for Russian gauge.

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