Following of Congress’s resounding, bipartisan vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy last month, Secretary of State John Kerry has been traveling around the Pacific. In Australia, while meeting with that country’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, he traversed his gargantuan mandible toward Pyongyang and threatened to tighten sanctions “if it ‘chooses the path of confrontation.” If? If?
“The United States — I want to make this clear — is absolutely prepared to improve relations with North Korea if North Korea will honor its international obligations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference, according to the State Department. “But make no mistake. We are also prepared to increase pressure, including through strong sanctions and further isolation, if North Korea chooses the path of confrontation.”
In a joint communique, the U.S. and Australia underscored their “serious concern” that North Korea’s behavior has undermined the stability of the entire region and called on it to cease its threats and provocations and comply with its international commitments and obligations, including abandoning its nuclear, missile and proliferation activities.
They also expressed deep concern for the welfare of the North Korean people and called on Pyongyang to implement the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations for ending its ongoing systematic, widespread, and extreme violations of human rights. They said that those responsible must be held to account. [Yonhap]
It’s interesting that Kerry is trying to sound concerned about human rights. Sure, you say, President Obama could have issued an executive order targeting the assets and travel of North Korean human rights violators at any stage of his presidency, and could have modeled that executive order on similar ones it has imposed on Iran, Belarus, Zimbabwe, or South Sudan, to name a few. Still, Yonhap reports that the State Department “intends to increase pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights situation.”
Kerry, in his speech at the East-West Center in Honolulu, described human rights violations in North Korea as “horrific” and cited a U.N. human rights panel’s release in February of a report that chronicled abuses suffered by many of its people.
He said the report, which documented crimes against humanity including extermination, enslavement, enforced disappearance and deliberate starvation, “revealed the utter, grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.”
“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down — not tomorrow, not next week, but now. And we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said. [Kyodo News]
We’ve since seen Pyongyang’s response to that. We’ll soon know just how sincere Kerry’s concern is, when the U.N. General Assembly votes to send the Commission of Inquiry’s report to the Security Council. Words are no substitute for more tangible actions, they are a start, and a necessary part of a campaign to rally allies toward a common objective.
Kerry made the demand in an unusually strong tone in an Asia policy address on Wednesday, saying such deprivation of human dignity “just has no place in the 21st century.” He stressed that gulags must be shut down “not tomorrow, not next week, but now.” The top American diplomat also said the U.S. will continue to speak out on the issue. [Yonhap]
Continue? And merely speak? Or actually do something that would matter, like deploy the Treasury Department to sanction the persons and government agencies that are running a string of concentration camps unlike anything the world has seen since 1945?
Financial and other sanctions imposed on Iran, Russia and North Korea will be among major topics discussed when a senior U.S. Treasury official visits Seoul this week, government sources said Tuesday.
David S. Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, is scheduled to visit Seoul from Wednesday through Thursday, according to the sources. The U.S. Treasury Department said Monday that Cohen will visit Japan, South Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates and Oman during the period of Aug. 18-25.
Cohen is in charge of Washington’s sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear and long-range missile tests. In Seoul, he will meet with Lee Kyung-soo, deputy minister for political affairs at South Korea’s foreign ministry as well as Hwang Joon-kook, the country’s top nuclear envoy, the South Korean sources said. Cohen’s planned visit to Seoul comes on the heels of the recent visit by Peter Harrell, a senior U.S. diplomat on sanctions affairs.
Harrell, deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the State Department, visited in Seoul late July to ask Seoul to join Washington-led efforts to impose tougher sanctions against Russia. [Yonhap]
This doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration is laying a foundation for action, or that the action will be effective. If the administration does intend to act, however, a visit like this would be a prerequisite to that. In the wake of Japan’s bilateral lifting of sanctions to the detriment of U.S. and South Korean interests, it’s particularly essential to shore up South Korea’s determination to keep its existing sanctions in place, even as Park Geun-Hye comes under domestic political pressure to lift them. Fortunately for Park, that pressure is somewhat attenuated by her party’s good performance in recent bi-elections:
President Park Geun-hye warned Thursday that South Korea’s sanctions on North Korea are inevitable as long as Pyongyang persists in its nuclear weapons program. [....]
Under the sanctions, South Korea has suspended inter-Korean projects and banned new investments in the North, except for their joint factory park in the North’s border city of Kaesong.
Nonetheless, Park said South Korea will gradually expand exchanges and cooperation with North Korea as far as they do not undermine international cooperation on implementing U.N. sanctions. [....]
Park also said South Korea is seeking to lay the groundwork for peaceful unification with North Korea by gradually expanding exchanges and cooperation. She unveiled her unification initiative in Dresden, the former East German city she traveled to in March. [Yonhap]
Park has to be thinking that North Korea hasn’t done anything to deserve sanctions relief, and she isn’t one to give away something for nothing. She says she’s interested in a larger bargain with Pyongyang, and that sanctions relief can be one chip in that bargain. North Korea’s unsurprising position is that the South will have to lift its sanctions as a precondition to talks. Park’s answer is that that isn’t going to happen.
That means that on multiple tracks, all talks about talks with North Korea are stuck on the preconditions. As Pyongyang stalls for time and increases its capacity to threaten its interlocutors, the interlocutors struggle to maintain a coherent and consistent position, in furtherance of a policy whose ostensible desired end state, the negotiated denuclearization of North Korea, has never seemed less likely. With nuclear diplomacy in rigor mortis and North Korea advancing its weapons programs at full speed, what those allied against North Korea need desperately is leverage, and they know sanctions are the best way to get it.
Will they finally act? If they do act, will they simply ratchet up the sort of incremental pressure that North Korea has learned to adapt to, or will they deliver enough of a shock to its system to convince Kim Jong Un that time is no longer on his side?