With all recent movement on sanctions legislation in the House and Senate, I’ve skimmed over the developments in North Korean Kremlinology, reports about which often read like the dossiers in a lost, bad-acid fueled manuscript for a “High Castle” sequel.
If you believe that personnel is policy, however, Kim Jong-un’s choice of a replacement for Kim Yang-gon, who ran Pyongyang’s so-called United Front Department until he died in a car-maybe-not-accident recently, is a dark omen about Kim Jong-un’s policy instincts. The UFD not only handles diplomatic relations with Seoul, but also Pyongyang’s propaganda and influence operations in South Korea, and its substantial cadre of sympathizers and spies there.
Despite his job description, some scholars attributed pragmatic views to the late Kim Yang-gon. By contrast, the choice of General Kim Yong-chol as his replacement set off alarm bells among Korea watchers, who describe him as a “hard-liner” or a “hawk.”
If you believe that inter-Korean relations are a real thing, that’s bad enough:
“We could interpret Kim’s appointment [to head the UFD] as Pyongyang’s declaration that its business with the Park government is now over,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“In the short run, Kim’s appointment, if true, is a very negative sign for inter-Korean ties,” he said. “The General Bureau of Reconnaissance is mainly tasked with plotting and carrying out espionage against the South while the UFD is responsible for seeking communication and cooperation with the South.”
Another North Korea expert agreed on the negative implications of Kim’s appointment. “If Kim Yong-chol is really named to the UFD, it is an indication of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to strain ties with Seoul,” said Kim Young-soo, a professor of political science at Sogang University. [Joongang Ilbo]
The blunt truth is, Kim Yong-chol is a straight-up terrorist. That’s why he featured so prominently in “Arsenal of Terror,” my report last year documenting North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism. There’s even a picture of him on page 62. Here’s one reason why:
In April 2010, South Korean authorities announced that they had arrested two North Korean agents who posed as defectors while plotting to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop. Following his 1997 defection, Hwang had become a fierce critic of the North Korean regime, and received multiple death threats.325
In June of 2010, Major Kim Myong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan326 of the RGB pled guilty to the assassination plot in a South Korean court.327 The court sentenced each of the defendants to ten years in prison. The defendants told prosecutors that Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the head of the RGB, personally assigned them to the assassination mission in November of 2009.
On October 10, 2010, just six months after the failure of the assassination plot, Hwang Jang-yop died, apparently of natural causes, at the age of 87. Ten days later, South Korea announced that it had arrested another North Korean agent, Ri Dong-sam, who was also plotting to murder Hwang. Police denied the existence of any connection between that arrest and Hwang’s death.329 [Arsenal of Terror, pp. 61-62]
Kim Yong-chol now becomes the most important North Korean official to have his assets blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, which could get interesting if he travels abroad or attempts to make dollar payments to hotels or airlines. You can argue whether O Kuk-Ryol (also blocked) is a semi-retired elder statesman or a guy with real control over North Korea’s nukes and counterfeiting, but Kim Yong-chol has clearly reached the top ranks.
To further complicate matters, Michael Madden’s profile adds the ominous details that Kim Yong-chol used to report to O Kuk-ryol, but that “[A]ccording to several sources, Gen. Kim has been difficult for his superiors to manage.”
Consider not only who has risen under Kim Jong-un’s reign, but also who has fallen. Until his 2013 purge, Jang Song-Thaek was often seen as Kim’s regent and adult supervision. Scholars tended to emphasize his relative pragmatism, and his control over Pyongyang’s trade networks inside China, perhaps in the implicit hope (of which I’m a skeptic) that associates trade with reform and moderation. Less often mentioned was that Jang was also in charge of the North Korea’s most feared internal security service and its gulags.
Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol, who was reportedly stood before a battery of anti-aircraft guns and vaporized — I use the term in the literal, rather than the Orwellian sense — may not have qualified as a “moderate” in North Korean terms, but he was at least presentable enough to send to Russia to meet with Putin.
In the process, moderates have totally lost out in factional struggles inside North Korea. The latest victim was Kim Yang-gon, in charge of dealings with South Korea. His death last month in a motor vehicle “accident” was the latest in a series of similar misfortunes that have befallen those whose views did not conform with the hardliners. He had visited Beijing several times and had joined North Korea’s second-ranking leader, Hwang Pyong-so, in talks with the South Koreans in Panmunjom for resolving the August mini-crisis on the DMZ.[Don Kirk, Korea Times]
Of course, moderates in North Korea are like beachfront property in North Dakota — a category that requires a relativistic and expansive definition. Still, the promotion of a stone-cold terrorist to the top ranks of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle says much about how Kim Jong-un sees the world around him, and whether he’s the Swiss-educated reformer we’ve been waiting for.
Just over a year ago, President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for a cyberattack on Sony, and for cyberterrorist threats against American moviegoers. Last January 2nd, he signed an executive order authorizing new sanctions against North Korea, part of a promised “proportional response.”
Not for the first time, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a showpiece for academic engagement between North Korea and the Outer Earth, stands accused of teaching its elite students to work as hackers in Kim Jong-Un’s notorious cyberwarfare units.
North Korea is reportedly recruiting graduates from Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for cyber warfare.
North Korean defector Jang Se-yul, who worked in the North’s electronic warfare command, and another defector Yi Chol claimed on Wednesday in a news conference in Seoul that graduates from the university are assigned to the military for cyber terrorism.
The defectors also said that training institutions affiliated with the Ministries of People’s Armed Forces and People’s Security send trainees to the university to learn advanced science and technology.
The defectors urged South Korean religious and civic groups to reconsider their aid to the North Korean university, which was jointly established by the two Koreas in 2009 and produced its first graduates last year. [KBS]
It takes some searching to find out just what PUST teaches its students, and that search is ultimately unsatisfying. PUST’s home page leads to a Korean-language page that says it’s being upgraded. A site maintained by the foundation that funds PUST provides only the most general information about PUST’s curriculum. But Martyn Williams publishes more detailed information:
The university hasn’t published a detailed syllabus for its courses, but said the computer science includes elements on computer hardware systems, wireless communications, data communications and networks, digital communications, pattern recognition (linked to robotics and industrial automation courses), artificial intelligence, data structures, algorithm design, web programming and object-oriented programming.
These certainly sound like skills that could, at the very least, be useful foundations for an education as a hacker.
It’s not the first time an engagement program was accused of teaching North Koreans to be hackers. A year ago, The Telegraph claimed that a British university’s exchange program, which brought “two offspring of the regime’s elite,” then studying at PUST, to Westminster University to learn such topics as “understanding cyber attacks and assessing whether networks are vulnerable to malicious hackers.”
The course is designed for would-be IT engineers in large firms, and teaches students how to build large internet and mobile phone networks.
One optional module covers “techniques to secure computer networks, and critically evaluates them in the light of a variety of types of attacks,” according to course literature.
“The topics you will cover include network security concepts, computer and network system attacks, cryptography, web security, wireless security, network security tools, and systems. During the practical sessions, you will use an isolated computer laboratory to explore a range of software tools available to audit vulnerabilities in networks and to configure security.” [The Telegraph]
The report claims no knowledge of how the North Korean students used this training.
Like PUST, North Korea’s principal hacking unit, known as Unit 121, is also populated with young, high-songbun elites. According to The Inquisitr, “the candidates who pass a rigorous series of tests and trials are sent to study at top universities — and then sent to Russia and China for an additional year of specialized training in computer hacking and cyberwar techniques.” According to this detailed report on Unit 121 by Hewlett-Packard, candidates for Unit 121 “are then sent to Kim Il-sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology.” The report does not mention PUST specifically.
From the beginning, however, there have been concerns that PUST would provide the North Korean regime with sensitive technology useful for its weapons programs, in potential violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This has required careful interaction with the U.S. Commerce Department, to obtain export licenses. One PUST supporter claims that “PUST’s curricula have been vetted by government and academic nonproliferation experts,” but concedes that “[t]he School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies.”
Concerns about North Korea’s misuse of biotechnology were subsequently validated, when experts claimed that a Swiss-funded engagement program to teach North Korea to make bio-insecticides was likely capable of producing biological weapons. (As early as 1998, your correspondent, while serving with U.S. Forces Korea, was vaccinated for anthrax.)
PUST’s claims that it would become a portal of free thought and the free exchange of ideas have not panned out, and the campus atmosphere sounds like just what you’d expect from any place where North Koreans interact with foreigners — the secrecy of Sea Org, the militancy of the Peoples’ Temple, and the dress code of a Mormon mission school.
For example, “PUST has been promised academic freedom, the likes of which has been virtually unknown in North Korea, including campus-wide internet access.” Suki Kim’s memoir of her time teaching at PUST refutes this. Indeed, Kim claims that she was “under strict orders not to reveal anything about the Internet,” a claim that is somewhat at odds with the more troubling claims that PUST and foreign exchange programs taught PUST students how to exploit its vulnerabilities as hackers. According to PUST’s Wikipedia page, “[g]raduate students and professors have internet access, but it is filtered and monitored.”
The very reaction by PUST’s founders to Kim’s book also helps answer our litmus question for engagement projects with North Korea: “Who changed who?” Despite its promises of academic freedom, PUST makes its faculty agree not to discuss what they saw at PUST. Then, after Suki Kim’s departure and the publication of her book, co-founder James Kim criticized her bitterly for telling a global audience about the smothering censorship she saw there. In other words, instead of opening minds, PUST ends up acting as Pyongyang’s extraterritorial censor.
Amid the secrecy of North Korea’s political system, it’s probably impossible for anyone but the North Korean government — and a lucky few who escape from its grip — to know which PUST students, if any, eventually join Unit 121. All that we can say for now is that the reports call for further investigation, and for more transparency by PUST about exactly what it’s teaching North Korea’s young elites, and where its students go after they graduate.
Last month, I posted video of a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade, where Chairman Ted Poe of Texas and Ranking Member Brad Sherman of California grilled a hapless State Department official about North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, and why North Korea wasn’t listed. State’s performance at the hearing wasn’t just bad, but exceptionally so. Poe and Sherman were both visibly exasperated with State’s stonewalling, and seemed convinced that State was ignoring the law. Now, Poe has put his views in writing, listing the justifications for a re-listing at length:
Pyongyang has known links to the tyrannical regimes in Tehran and Damascus, and there have been several instances in the past decade in which North Korea’s two Middle Eastern clients transferred North Korean arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2009 alone, three North Korean arms shipments were seized by UAE, Israeli, and Thai authorities.
In all three cases, press reports indicated that the arms were bound for terrorist groups. In July 2014, Western security sources told media outlets that Hamas brokered an agreement to purchase communications equipment and artillery rockets from the Kim regime. Sure enough, North Korean anti-tank guided missiles surfaced in Gaza that same year.
But weapons sales are not the whole picture of North Korea’s ties to terrorist groups – there is growing evidence of Pyongyang’s advisory role to these violent organizations. Press reports in 2014 suggested that North Koreans advised Hezbollah in the construction of tunnels in Southern Lebanon in 2003-2004. Israeli military commanders believe that North Korea also provided logistical advice on Hamas’ tunnel network which it infamously used to attack Israeli civilian populations.
North Korea is also still a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. Its ongoing collaboration on ballistic missiles with Iran, the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism, is well known. According to reports the two countries are presently working on the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could allow North Korea to deliver a nuclear warhead far beyond its shores. [Fox News]
If I have one regret, it’s that Poe didn’t raise North Korea’s kidnapping and assassination plots against human rights activists and exiled dissidents in China and South Korea. But when the evidence for a state’s sponsorship of terrorism is extensive enough to fill a 100-page report, you can’t fault a man for not being able to squeeze it all into one op-ed.
Meanwhile, we’re approaching the first anniversary of North Korea’s cyberterrorist threats that forced a stupid movie called “The Interview” out of theaters all over America. It was the first time in U.S. history that a foreign government successfully used terrorism against the American people, in their own country, to censor our freedom of expression. The Obama Administration’s response so far has been to sanction ten low-level arms dealers and three other entities that the Treasury Department had already sanctioned previously. A year later, I still wonder when our President will keep his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the most important freedom guaranteed to us under our Constitution.
As you may have heard somewhere, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Since I collected and published that overwhelming evidence last year, I was looking forward to the day when the State Department would be called to Congress to confront it. Today was that day, and it did not go well for the State Department.
It’s only Thursday, but I don’t think it’s too early to nominate Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations, for “worst week in Washington.” At today’s hearing, before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, an increasingly exasperated Rep. Ted Poe (R, Tex.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) tried to get straight answers out of Johnson about the rationale behind State’s position, its reaction to the evidence — including this federal court decision — and an explanation of how State applies the law.
I’m sure Ms. Johnson is a nice person, but I’ve been watching these hearings for about a decade now, and I’ve never seen an agency witness so ill-prepared to answer member questions. Watch it all if you can bear it. Or just watch Poe’s questions at 30 to 34 minutes in. Or Sherman’s at 46 to 50 minutes in, until he just gives up.
Perhaps it wasn’t Ms. Johnson’s fault that things went this way. She seemed to have no authority to dignify the members’ questions with straight answers, falling back on stock statements that State would have to “review the intelligence.” But then, she didn’t seem to understand either the designation or rescission processes, either. She was unfamiliar with the court decisions finding North Korea liable for acts of terrorism, so she wasn’t prepared to discuss them. She didn’t understand the consequences of an SSOT listing, including the transaction licensing requirements that would apply under 31 C.F.R. Part 596, the probability that securities issuers would have to disclose their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, or the loss of loans from international financial institutions.
It got so ugly that Sung Kim, State’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, even stepped in to save her a couple of times. The hearing ended with frustrated members having more questions than answers. Rep. Sherman wanted State to send a written explanation of how it applies Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act. Both Sherman and Poe openly contemplated whether the statute needs to be amended for clarification (it does). There will be another (classified) hearing, and without the cameras present, it could be even uglier.
The key outcome of today’s hearing, however, is that the evidence forced State to retreat from its refusal to designate Pyongyang:
The United States continues to review intelligence to determine whether to put North Korea back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, Washington’s top envoy on the communist nation said Thursday.
Amb. Sung Kim, special representative for North Korea policy, made the remark in a written statement submitted for a terrorism subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as he outlined U.S. policy on the communist nation.
“We also continually review the available intelligence to determine whether North Korea is subject to additional measures. Naturally, this includes reviewing available information to determine whether the facts indicate the DPRK should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Kim said. [Yonhap]
This was the second time Kim has been called before Congress this week. On Tuesday, Special Coordinator for North Korea Policy was at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making the case that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy:
“Holding North Korea responsible for its own choices does not mean just waiting and hoping the regime will one day come to its senses,” Kim said. “We are committed to using the full range of tools — deterrence, diplomacy, and pressure — to make clear that North Korea will not achieve security or prosperity while it pursues nuclear weapons, abuses its own people, and flouts its longstanding obligations and commitments.”
The envoy also said that the North’s bad behavior has earned no benefits from the U.S.
“Instead, we have tightened sanctions and consistently underscored to the DPRK that the path to a brighter future for North Korea begins with authentic and credible negotiations that produce concrete denuclearization steps,” Kim said. [Yonhap]
Kim said the U.S. has also sustained pressure on the North to “increase the costs” of its destructive policy choices. He cited an executive order that Obama issued in January to impose fresh sanctions on Pyongyang in the wake of the regime’s hacking of Sony Pictures.
Yes, and so far, the Obama Administration has used that sweeping new Executive Order to sanction a grand total of 13 entities — ten low-level arms dealers (no doubt, ten other low-level arms dealers have since taken their places) and three entities that had been sanctioned years ago.
He stressed that sanctions enforcement has improved over the past two to three years, causing some pain in the North.
[Can you believe it? This was the biggest yacht he could afford!]
He added that revenues from North Korea’s illicit activities overseas have gone down as a result.
“Our financial sanctions are always more effective when supported by our partners, and so we’ve also focused on strengthening multilateral sanctions against North Korea,” he said. “We will continue to press for robust implementation of U.N. sanctions and enhanced vigilance against the DPRK’s proliferation activities worldwide.” [Yonhap]
But not to worry, says South Korea’s U.N. Ambassador. Doing approximately nothing should work just fine. Eventually.
U.N. sanctions and human rights resolutions will eventually cause pain to North Korea, even though such effects are slow in coming, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said Tuesday.
“The way I see it, sanctions work, but they work only in an accumulated form. So, you continue sanctions year after year and eventually it takes a toll,” Amb. Oh Joon said during a security seminar, pointing out doubts about the efficacy of sanctions on the North. [Yonhap]
Or so says the representative of a government that’s piping real dollars into the DPRK Central Bank’s vault through the Kaesong Industrial Park, for God-knows-what budget priorities. I don’t see how you make a coherent policy by sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. You can do one or the other, but not both. That isn’t a policy; it’s a diagnosis.
To further fuel your skepticism, recall last July’s Wall Street Journalreport that the Obama Administration was “working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world.” Which hasn’t happened.
It’s not just that they seem congenitally incapable of making decisions. It’s the sinking feeling that they just don’t know what they’re doing.
The first hearing, entitled, “The Persistent North Korea Denuclearization and Human Rights Challenge,” will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m., before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The witnesses will be Sung Kim, the State Department’s Special Representative For North Korea Policy And Deputy Assistant Secretary For Korea and Japan, and Robert King, State’s Special Envoy For North Korean Human Rights Issues.
North Korea is suspected of hacking into a Seoul subway operator last year for at least five months, a ruling party lawmaker said Monday citing a report submitted by the country’s intelligence agency.
After hacking into two operating servers of Seoul Metro, which runs Subway Lines 1 through 4, the hackers allegedly broke into more than 210 employee computers and infected 58 with malicious codes, Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party said, quoting a report by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). [Yonhap]
Mr. Ha, a former left-wing activist and political prisoner under the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship, is now a Saenuri Party lawmaker and activist for human rights in North Korea. Ha speaks excellent English and is well known to most of the foreign press and activists here in the United States. I’ve known him for a decade, and I’ve never known him to say anything that wasn’t true.
Computers used by those who work at the control center and power supplier were affected, raising safety concerns that the subway lines could have been exposed to potential terror threats. [Yonhap]
The authorities say the computers hacked “were only for office use, which is unrelated to the direct operation of the trains,” and that after the hack was detected, they reformatted all of the affected computers and “reinforced” their cybersecurity. That’s reassuring, I suppose, except that I can’t imagine that Pyongyang’s master plan stopped at changing all of the email fonts to Wingdings.
Nor is this the first time North Korea has targeted the Seoul subway system. In May of 2010, South Korean authorities arrested a 36 year-old woman named Kim Soon-Nyeo, who had entered the South posing as a refugee, and had begun romantic relationships with several well-placed South Korean men, including a 52 year-old executive of the Seoul subway.
The spy collected “confidential” information about the subway system from Oh, information about local universities from the student, and a list of names of high-ranking police and public officials from the travel agents.
Oh maintained extramarital relations with the spy since his first encounter with her in China in May 2006, and transferred nearly 300 million won ($252,000) to “help” her cosmetics business. In June 2007, he became aware that she was a North Korean spy, but continued the relationship.
“What Oh handed over to the spy included contact information of emergency situation responses and other not-so-important internal data,” Kim Jung-hwan, a Seoul Metro spokesman, told The Korea Times, dismissing concerns that it could be used in possible acts of terrorism here by the North. Kim retired from his post in 2008. [Korea Times, May 23, 2010]
Foreigners will again note how selective South Koreans are in panicking about, ahem, certain perceivedsafety risks, provided they don’t involve North Korea. Meanwhile, here in Washington, we can only rue that the Seoul subway is still safer and more reliable than ours, despite having been hacked by North Korea.
The NIS analyzed the hacking records from March 2014 to August 2014, but the date of the first attack and who carried it out are still unclear. [Yonhap]
To count as terrorism, an act must be (1) violent, (2) unlawful in the place where it’s committed, (3) carried out by clandestine agents or subnational groups, and (4) with the intent to coerce a government or a civilian population. To be international terrorism, an act of terrorism must also (5) involve the citizens or territory of more than one country. If this report is confirmed, it would appear to meet the definition:
Several North Korean agents were caught by Chinese police in March after attempting to kidnap a South Korean missionary at the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, according to a media report.
“Five to eight agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) were detained in Jilin Province for trying to abduct a South Korean pastor,” the Donga Ilbo reported, citing a source familiar with the incident.
The newspaper said the North’s State Security Department (SSD) and the RGB are “competing” to abduct South Koreans helping North Korean refugees in China to show their allegiance to their young leader Kim Jong-un.
“Their rivalry has become stronger since last year and the latest kidnapping case seems to have been directed by RGB director Gen. Kim Yong-chol,” it said. [Korea Times]
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
Yet, as I wrote in “Arsenal of Terror,” the State Department has repeatedly cited attempts to kidnap or assassinate dissidents and activists, when carried out by the intelligence organizations of other governments, as the state sponsorship of terrorism:
In 1994, the U.S. State Department’s reporting on Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism cited the assassination of a dissident in Turkey, the wounding of a dissident by a letter bomb, the killing of three dissidents in Iraq, the assassination of two other dissidents in Copenhagen and Bucharest, and France’s conviction of three Iranians (including a nephew of the Ayatollah Khomeini) for the 1991 murder of a former Prime Minister and his assistant.
The U.S. State Department’s 1994 report also cited Iraq’s assassination of a dissident in Beirut, for which Lebanon implicated the Iraqi government, arrested two Iraqi diplomats, and severed diplomatic relations with Iraq. It also cited Libya’s suspected involvement in the disappearance of a dissident and human rights activist in Egypt. The U.S. State Department’s 1997 report alleged that the Libyan government executed the activist in early 1994.
The U.S. State Department’s 1995 report accused Iran of escalating “its assassination campaign against dissidents living abroad,” voicing suspicions that Iran was involved in the murders of seven dissidents in Iraq, France, and Denmark. The following year, the U.S. State Department accused Iran of “at least eight dissident assassinations outside Iran,” including the assassination in Paris of a former government official “by an Iranian resident of Germany with alleged ties to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).” Its 1996 report noted that German authorities had issued an arrest warrant for Iran’s Intelligence Minister for ordering the 1992 assassinations of four Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant. According to the U.S. State Department’s 1997 “Country Reports,” the German court found that “the Government of Iran had followed a deliberate policy of liquidating the regime’s opponents who lived outside Iran,” and that the assassinations “had been approved at the most senior levels of the Iranian Government,” including by “the Minister of Intelligence and Security, the Foreign Minister, the President, and the Supreme Leader.” The U.S. State Department’s 1998 and 1999 reports made similar allegations.
In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. State Department accused the Iraqi Intelligence Service of collecting intelligence on, and attempting to intimidate, dissident groups abroad. Its 2002 report accused Iraqi Intelligence of assassinating another dissident in Lebanon. [Arsenal of Terror, pages 18-19, footnotes omitted]
You could call it progress that the Chinese arrested them, perhaps because this time, the targets would have been South Korean. Ordinarily, North Korean kidnap squads operate more-or-less freely on Chinese soil, at least when they target North Korean refugees.
One sees no signs of progress in our own State Department. As I noted on pages 59 through 65, North Korea has repeatedly kidnapped and assassinated third-country activists and dissidents in both China and South Korea, including the Rev. Kim Dong-Shik, a U.S. permanent resident. Yet for some reason, the State Department appears to have granted North Korea transactional immunity for its acts of terrorism. This impunity may explain why North Korea’s terrorist threats have now reached the United States itself.
The conspiracy theories of a few pro-Pyongyang gasbags and assorted cranks notwithstanding, the President, the Directors of the FBI and the NSA, and our country’s best technicalexperts agree that Pyongyang did it. I’m certainly no technical expert myself, but I don’t have to look back from the moon to believe that the Earth is round. After all, it’s not as if President Obama needed to frame Kim Jong-Un for the Sony cyberattack and threats to have an excuse to do approximately nothing about them. Another point that should not be lost is that the attack was carried out with the material support of the Chinese government, whose dictator will soon be welcomed to the White House.
Kroft says the attack qualified as the use of force against the United States. According to cybersecurity expert James Lewis, “The significance is that a foreign power has reached out and touched an American target. The fact that the North Korean government felt that it could do something in the United States and get away with it — that’s what’s significant.” I agree that that’s very significant, but I’d argue that an even more significant implication arises from the threats that followed the cyberattack: that a foreign power carried out an act of terrorism against the U.S. civilian population — unlike The New York Times, I apply the term according to its legal definition — to censor free expression. In 2014, Kim Jong-Un extended the long arm of his censorship to our society, a society that treasures free expression as its most important constitutional right. Successfully. And got away with it.
That is a problem, because a failure of deterrence would leave us essentially naked to the next attack. The report points out the sheer impracticality of defending any network, when even a relatively unsophisticated piece of malware, like the one used for the Sony cyberattack, can be so successful.
That leaves us with deterrence. Kroft quotes Lewis, who correctly says that our only real deterrent against this sort of attack is “going after the leadership, going after the revenue streams coming to the leadership.” Kroft then incorrectly says that that’s what the Obama Administration has done. In fact, the Obama Administration promised a proportional response, but delivered a sub-proportional one that former CIA Director Michael Hayden accurately described as “symbolic at best” — blocking the assets of ten low-level arms dealers, and three entities whose assets had already been blocked for years. Almost a year after the Sony attack and threat, the Obama Administration has done little of consequence to deter the next one. And although the U.S. intelligence community is saying that there have been no more North Korean attacks on the United States since then, North Korea is believed to have hacked into South Korean nuclear power plants around the same time as the Sony cyberattack, and was implicated as recently as this week for planting malware in a South Korean word processor used by military officers.
Lee spoke in accented, but clear English of the indoctrination she received as a child, of the revelations that broke the hold of the state’s propaganda over her, of her flight from North Korea, and of her resettlement in South Korea. (Later, we learn that Lee also speaks fluent Chinese; from this, and from her answers to questions from the audience, it’s clear that she’s a highly intelligent young woman.)
Perhaps because I’d already seen Lee’s powerful TED talk about her flight from North Korea, the part of her Heritage speech that moved me the most concerned more recent events. At 30:19, Korean-American activist Henry Song asked Lee about her fear that the regime will attack her. Those attacks might well be much more than verbal and rhetorical assaults from Kim Jong-Un’s propagandists, or addlebrained harangues from his noisy little chorus of sympathizers abroad. As I’ve documented in detail, Ms. Lee must also worry about physical violence, including assassination attempts like those directed against Park Sang-Hak, Hwang Jang-Yop, and other dissidents in exile.
Lee spoke of the report — still not carried in any English-language media — that the regime ordered its agents to “punish” 24 dissidents who had spoken at the U.N., and that she understood “punish” to mean “assassinate.” She told of learning that her best friend was arrested for spying for the regime, and of her inability to trust even fellow North Korean refugees, with whom she might make common cause. She told of having moved her residence so that fewer people would know where she lives. She still fears retribution against her family inside North Korea itself. And yet, she speaks out anyway:
On my way home that day, and in the days since, I’ve reflected with shame and sadness on how low we’ve fallen — or perhaps “shrunken” is the word I’m grasping for — from our historical role as the haven for, and champion of, the liberal values of dissent, of heresy, of free thought. You don’t need to see this in strictly moral terms to see what we’re losing. America became a great nation — greater than nations with more land, more people, with far more advanced cultures, and even more resources — because earlier generations of heretics, dissidents, and refugees made America the world’s center of free thought, of innovation of every kind, and of global culture in the modern age. Freedom of expression hasn’t only enriched our lives incalculably, it has enriched our economy and our global power incalculably, too.
Today, the same men who threaten Hyeonseo Lee and her brave compatriots also threaten our own freedom of expression, here in our own country. The Obama Administration has answered with cowardly mendacity, refusing to even acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against Lee and other dissidents in exile, even lying to the entire world to avoid confronting them. What was so recently the world’s greatest nation cowers. A lucky few of us look to a small woman from North Korea to show us what courage still means.
If you were in Hyeonseo Lee’s place, what message would you derive from the American government’s refusal to acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against your life, your freedom, and your family? It isn’t so difficult to imagine her sentiments if you begin by asking yourself how you feel, as an American, that your government offers nothing resembling a credible answer to a foreign despot’s threats against your own freedom, in your own town. In doing so, our government ceases to be a champion of the oppressed; it is the oppressed — and by proxy, so are we. It chooses silence over courage and principle, in the false hope that it can trade our liberty for its security, or — to be even more brutally honest — for its own temporary political advantage. But when our government submits to terror, it submits for all of us, and the consequences of this will extend long beyond January 2017. That is the antithesis of statesmanship.
Americans are rightfully concerned about ISIS’s rampage across the Middle East. But one thing that even ISIS has not yet accomplished is what the president, the director of the FBI, and the director of the NSA all insist Kim Jong-un’s hackers did last year — suppress the release of a major motion picture by threatening terrorist attacks on movie theaters across America.
And yet, incomprehensibly—and two months overdue—the State Department’s recent Friday news dump of its annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” still clings to the tendentious, perennial boilerplate that North Korea “is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Air Lines flight in 1987.” Coming so soon after North Korean threats drove The Interview from theaters, this statement puts the world on notice that the Obama Administration is unserious about protecting Americans’ most fundamental liberties from terrorism by the world’s worst despots.
The threats against “The Interview,” the sundry assassination and kidnapping plots against defectors and activists, the weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the U.S. and South Korean court decisions finding North Korea responsible for acts of terrorism, all go unmentioned once again. There’s not even a suggestion that North Korea is being considered for re-listing.
Overview: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987. In October 2008, the United States rescinded the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law, including a certification that the DPRK had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the DPRK of assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
Four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a 1970 jet hijacking continued to live in the DPRK. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities in the 1970s and 1980s. In May 2014, the DPRK agreed to re-open its investigation into the abductions, but as of the end of 2014 had not yet provided the results of this investigation to Japan. [U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014]
For all of the reasons why this is legally and factually false, read my full report (opens in pdf). I will have much more to say about this, naturally, but I hope you don’t mind that I’d prefer to say it to a wider audience.
But really — for this, we waited for a report that was two months late?
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Update: On the same day State released its report, the Korean TV network MBC alleged that North Korea ordered its agents to “punish” 24 North Korean defectors, including those who testified before the United Nations about crimes against humanity in their homeland. The report is in Korean only, but hopefully, some of the British and American journalists who read this site will inquire further into the sourcing of the story.
MBC claims to have obtained documents in which staff of the North Korean Embassy in Beijing offered South Korean businessmen doing business in the North to reduce their business debts if the businessmen would obtain personal information and addresses of the targets.
The report also alleges that last month, a North Korean agent was arrested for attempting to assassinate prison camp survivor, author, journalist, and activist Kang Cheol Hwan.
South Korean prosecutors have indicted three South Korean nationals, identified only by the surnames “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang,” for “bringing in methamphetamine from North Korea and attempting to assassinate” Hwang Jang-Yop, North Korea’s highest-ranking defector until his death in 2010. Let’s unpack these two criminal conspiracies one at a time, starting with the meth:
The 69-year-old, identified only by his family name Bang, and two others have been detained for producing 70 kilograms of methamphetamine at a North Korean factory in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, in June and July of 2000, a prosecutor at the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office said.
They were suspected of being contacted through another South Korean, identified by his surname Lee who died in 2004, in 1996 by a North Korean agent in China who proposed Bang and the two colleagues bring the raw materials and equipment to North Korea to produce meth.
They allegedly traveled to North Korea several times with the aid of North Korean agents and made 70 kilograms of meth there.
“It is the first time North Korean agents were found to have been involved in the production of methamphetamine, although there have been rumors North Korea tried to get foreign currency by selling meth,” the prosecutor said, asking for anonymity.
Bang and his colleagues were given 35 kilograms of meth by the North, prosecutors said, but added they have not yet found evidence the meth was distributed in South Korea. [Yonhap]
The prosecution believes the men transported “the raw materials and manufacturing equipment required for producing methamphetamine to North Korea via China in July 2000,” including “a cooling system and other goods.” There’s no way three South Koreans could have ferried this kind of gear into North Korea, much less been present at a meth factory there, without the knowledge and consent of the North Korean government. Indeed, the indictment suggests that North Korean agents were directly involved in the entire conspiracy, from beginning to end, and had the financial backing of the state.
That stands in contrast to the November 2013 indictment of a sordid group of bikers and killers for conspiring to import highly pure North Korean meth into New York. That indictment did not directly link the transaction to the North Korean government, but was arguably consistent with Sheena Chestnut Greitens’ conclusion that North Korea had opted to privatize and tax its drug manufacturing business, and outsource the transportation. The activities alleged in the indictment of “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang” spanned a time period between 1998 and 2010, and may call for a reconsideration of that conclusion.
Now, let’s turn to the plot to kill Hwang Jang-Yop. Reports quoting the indictment claim that “Bang” collaborated with North Korean agents who were plotting to assassinate Hwang. The dope-dealers worked with North Korean agents on the plot for about a year, which seems like a leisurely pace for whacking a guy who’s already 86.
Seoul prosecutors said the 62-year-old South Korean initially came into contact with a North Korean spy in September 2009 in Beijing and continued to meet that agent on 10 more occasions to discuss the homicide plan. [….]
To prepare for the assassination, the 62-year-old is suspected to have handed over photographs he or she took of Hwang’s residence in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, to the North Korean spy. The person is also thought to have tried to hire criminal gang members for the actual murder. [Joongang Ilbo]
Hwang died in 2010, at age 87. Of natural causes, so they say.
In case you’re keeping count, this would be either the second or the third plot to kill Hwang that has been reported in the press, depending on whether the name of the North Korean agent “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang” worked with was Ri Dong Sam.
As I noted in “Arsenal of Terror,” in June of 2010, Major Kim Myong-Ho and Major Dong Myong-Gwan of the Reconnaissance General Bureau pled guilty to a plot to assassinate Hwang Jang-Yop in a South Korean court, which sentenced each defendant to ten years in prison. The defendants told prosecutors that Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-Chol, the head of the RGB, personally assigned them to the assassination mission in November of 2009.
KBS adds the very interesting detail that defendant “Hwang” “allegedly received an order from North Korean agents in 2004 in China to assassinate a German human rights activist.” I can’t imagine who else that could possibly be but Norbert Vollertsen, who was then at the peak of his prominence.
In “Arsenal of Terror,” I examined the legal definitions of “support” and “international terrorism,” along with the history of what acts the State Department had previously cited as support for international terrorism. I found that attempts to assassinate defectors, dissidents, and activists abroad fit the legal standard. If the North Koreans plotted to kill Vollertsen, it would be the first case I’m aware of in which they targeted a third-country human rights activist for assassination.
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
The three defendants also engaged in some other forms of peace activism as well:
The three are also suspected of handing over military information from 2009 to 2013 to the North’s agents. 62-year-old Kim allegedly provided information on where gas storage tanks and combined heat and power plants are located and gave a North Korean agent a 2013 arms almanac from the South. Another member, Hwang, was revealed to have traveled in and out of North Korea via China in 2004 in order to kill a German human rights activist. [Daily NK]
According to The Daily NK, the charges include “manufacturing and trading narcotics” and violations of the National Security Law. It’s a reminder that while the National Security Law is certainly overbroad when used to punish non-violent speech, it also has other, more necessary provisions to punish espionage and violent crimes. Full repeal and the status quo are both the wrong answer. The law should be amended.
On Sunday, I spotted this interesting Yonhap headline: “U.S. defense bill calls N. Korea terror sponsor.” Given my own recent work on this subject, I was curious about the effect of this provision, so I pulled up the text of the bill, H.R. 1735, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. The versions on Thomas and Congress.gov don’t yet reflect the amendment, but clues from the Yonhap piece led me to the amendment in question, offered by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R, Cal.). The “almost identical” language of H.R. 1498 yields the amendment’s operative text.
No, the amendment would not re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, or invoke any of the sanctions that an SSOT listing would bring; only the Secretary of State can do that. Instead, the bill creates an “Interagency Hostage Coordinator” to lead a federal interagency task force, and “coordinate and direct all activities of the Federal Government” to “secure the release of United States citizens who are hostages of hostile groups or state sponsors of terrorism.” The legislation does not define the term “hostage,” but does define “state sponsor of terrorism.” Here’s what got Yonhap’s attention:
(3) STATE SPONSOR OF TERRORISM.—The term “state sponsor of terrorism”—
(A) means a country the government of which the Secretary of State has determined, for purposes of section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, or any other provision of law, to be a government that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism; and
(B) includes North Korea.
The Hunter amendment isn’t non-binding “sense of Congress” language; it does something. That something, however, is to change the staffing of our hostage negotiation team by putting those negotiations under the control of a new coordinator. The amendment does not invoke any sanctions against these SSOTs, but Congress is clearly making a symbolic point here. It’s concerned about the detentions of Merrill Newman, Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Todd Miller, Kenneth Bae, Laura Ling, Euna Lee, Aijalon Gomes, Robert Park, and others (we’ll call them “the detainees”). It wants Pyongyang to know that the unjust detentions of Americans will carry consequences. It’s fair to assume that Congress is also sending a message to the State Department that North Korea should go back on the SSOT list. All of that is good. Congress is correct about all of these things, including the fact that North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism.
In another sense, however, these detentions may not be the best vehicle for pressuring State to put North Korea back on the list, especially when so many more deserving vehicles are whizzing past us. For example, the threats that drove “The Interview” from theaters across America meet the legal definitions of “support” and “international terrorism,” and would be a far better reason to re-list North Korea.
I considered, but ultimately decided against, discussing the detentions of Bae, Miller, Newman, and others in “Arsenal of Terror.” In the report, one theme I discuss extensively is the lack of a single coherent definition of “international terrorism,” although it is possible to assemble a lowest common denominator definition from three separate statutes, informed by State Department “Country Reports on Terrorism,” to the extent those reports are consistent with the statutory language. At page 96, I proposed a codified definition of “international terrorism,” ready to be inserted into the Export Administration Act, that consists of five elements.
(9) the term “international terrorism” means any act that—
(A) is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed;
(B) involves a violent act; an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; or a threat of such an act;
(C) involves the citizens or the territory of more than one country;
(D) is perpetrated by a subnational group or clandestine agent against a noncombatant target; and
(E) appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government.
To call these detentions “terrorism” seems iffy under two elements of this definition. First, in a place where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden,* just about any idle expression of thought is unlawful, and is a basis for arrest under “the laws of the place where it is committed.” The correct answer to this problem is not to expand the definition of terrorism in ways that will lead to perverse results in other contexts; the correct answer is to keep Americans out of North Korea (but more on that in a moment). Second, I don’t see clear evidence that North Korea’s conduct meets the intent element of (9)(E). Yes, Pyongyang was probably using the detainees as “hostages” to some degree, and I’m not alone in speculating that it was, but speculation without more isn’t evidence. Evidence might include statements by North Korea demanding specific financial or political benefits in exchange for the detainees’ release. I haven’t seen that evidence.
In pushing State to re-list North Korea, of course, Congress gets the greater truth right, which State has been getting wrong for a decade or more. As a matter of fact, law, and policy, North Korea should be back on the list, and sanctions for SSOTs should be stronger. There is also an important symbolic value in treating North Korea like a state sponsor of terrorism. Having said that, however, I’m not sure how this provision will make our negotiations more successful if it doesn’t give our diplomats more leverage. Not that anyone asked me, but I can think of another way to do that.
Under Section 203(b)(4) of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the President lacks the authority to ban transactions incident to tourist travel to a targeted jurisdiction. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, however. There are tourist travel sanctions against Cuba because Congress passed special legislation to do that. If Congress really wants to put teeth into this particular provision, it could give the Hostage Coordinator the authority to recommend, and for the Secretary of State to find, that a state is uncooperative in releasing U.S. hostages detained without proper legal justification, that travel to that state presents an undue safety risk to U.S. citizens, and that a similar travel ban should apply to that jurisdiction until the hostage situation resolves.
The blocking of financial transactions incident to tourist travel would be a powerful deterrent, and strong diplomatic leverage. The language would not only cover all tourist travel by Americans, but it would also cover all tourism-related transactions denominated in dollars by anyone, regardless of nationality.
In the years after my return from four years with the Army in Korea, I found much to agree with in Doug Bandow’s writing — up to a point. Bandow is best known — at least in the context of Korea — for arguing that South Korea can and should pay for its own defense, and that U.S. Forces Korea should withdraw. A supporter of the isolationist and semi-retired cult figure, RonPaul, Bandow favors the withdrawal of all 28,500 U.S. military personnel from South Korea. But if we’ve learned anything in the last dozen years, it’s that ill-advised invasions and sudden disengagements can both create dangerous power vacuums. Yes, South Korea can and should pay for its own defense. U.S. ground forces could leave on a five-to-ten-year timetable and leave behind some pre-positioned equipment, and the U.S.-Korea alliance could evolve into something like our alliances with Jordan, Turkey, or Israel. That would serve the interests of both countries.
This is decidedly not Bandow’s direction. He views the total withdrawal of USFK as mood music for “initiating negotiations” with Pyongyang to improve relations. The premise of his unified theory of Korea policy, expressed in a November 2014 op-ed, is that economic engagement can still transform (rather than merely perpetuate) a state that has built its survival strategy on isolation and xenophobic hostility. In the 1990s, this idea was once the received conventional wisdom, before it failed so conclusively that it was abandoned and replaced by policy paralysis that prefers to be called “strategic patience.” At the cost of a mere $9 billion — also indirectly paid by U.S. taxpayers — the legacy of “engagement” includes no signs of political reform, but a North Korea that’s as menacing as ever, only with an effective nuclear arsenal. Bandow wanted President Obama to “talk” to North Korea, but talk about what? Since 2008, Pyongyang has refused to talk about denuclearization.
Then, twenty days after Bandow published that, this happened:
President Obama said on Friday that the United States “will respond proportionally” against North Korea for its destructive cyberattacks on Sony Pictures, but he criticized the Hollywood studio for giving in to intimidation when it withdrew “The Interview,” the satirical movie that provoked the attacks, before it opened. [N.Y. Times]
We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.
Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.
The world will be full of fear.
Remember the 11th of September 2001.
We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.
(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)
Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
All the world will denounce the SONY.
More to come…
To argue that this isn’t an act of terrorism against the United States defies both the law and common sense. It would be inconsistent with the State Department’s own citation of threats of violent acts, cited in years of previous country reports (page 16). To offer no credible response to the most effective foreign attack on free expression in American history will assuredly invite more attempts to censor us.
Stanton does a lawyerly job of offering evidence that the DPRK government is a nasty piece of work. Over the last decade or so it has kidnapped and assassinated opponents, supported groups and governments opposed by the U.S. government, attacked South Korea, launched cyber-attacks, sold nuclear technology, and conducted missile and nuclear tests. What Pyongyang apparently has not done since 1987 is initiate a terrorist attack against anyone, let alone America. North Korea is an evil state, not a terrorist state. [Doug Bandow, The National Interest]
This is like telling your rabbi that you eat bacon, pepperoni, gummi bears, chitterlings, Chee-tos, meatloaf, elderberries, and scrapple … but never pork. Fortunately, my report does a better job of distinguishing which of these acts are support for international terrorism, and which ones aren’t.
To his credit, Bandow doesn’t entertain conspiracy theories or deny that North Korea was behind the “Guardians of Peace” threat. Less to his credit, he seems to have read the Cliff’s Notes instead of the full report. He offers no argument against the federal court decisions holding that North Korea abducted a U.S. resident, sold weapons and technical assistance to Hezbollah, or helped the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine carry out the Lod Airport massacre. He doesn’t deny the evidence that South Korean courts relied on to convict a kidnapper of Rev. Kim Dong Shik, or the unsuccessful assassins of Hwang Jang Yop and Park Sang Hak. He doesn’t deny the multiple shipments of arms from North Korea to Hezbollah. He doesn’t deny that North Korean clandestine agents are running around China and South Korea, jabbing poison needles into human rights activists.
Bandow doesn’t exactly argue that these things fall outside the legal definition of international terrorism, either; he just says they do. This might force us into a difficult choice between the legal analysis of three federal district court judges and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C Circuit (on one hand) and Doug Bandow (on the other hand), except that as Michael Palin taught us, contradiction is not the same thing as argument.
If none of those things counts as the sponsorship of international terrorism, what does? It’s important to note that most of this conduct happened after President Bush agreed to remove North Korea from the LSSOT, and after President Bush certified that North Korea has agreed not to support acts of terrorism in the future.
Washington should not stretch the definition of terrorism past the breaking point to cover all manner of activities that are not by any normal understanding considered to be terrorism. Especially since the designation has had no practical impact on the North.
The opposite seems closer to the truth — Bandow’s definition of international terrorism is so narrow and cramped as to evade perception entirely. In my report, I noted multiple cases of Pyongyang’s nasty conduct that didn’t meet the definition, including conventional military attacks on and threats against South Korea. The proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons technology may not fit the narrowest plausible legal definition of terrorism, but that still leaves us with the State Department’s history of citing it in its Country Reports on Iran, Syria, and other countries.
This vagueness is why I call on Congress to clarify the legal standards for an SSOT listing. To that end, I offer suggested language that is the lowest common denominator of the three statutes that define “international terrorism” and “terrorist activity.” A clearer definition should be informed by years of State Department precedent, but only where that precedent is consistent with the statutes’ language. Bandow writes that “even” I agree that the standards are vague. “Especially” would have been better. I want the law to be clear, because I’m tired of watching the State Department make a muddle of it. A deterrent is useless without clear notice to potential sponsors.
Bandow argues that a SSOT listing isn’t a very strong deterrent anyway. I agree that it isn’t nearly strong enough, but if you understand how weak U.S. sanctions against North Korea really are, you will understand that putting North Korea back on the LSSOT and triggering just the transaction licensing provisions of 31 C.F.R. Part 596 would close an important loophole in those sanctions. On pages 26 to 28, I explained which consequences of a SSOT listing would matter, and which wouldn’t. On page 99, I recommended adding to the list of options available to the Secretary of State to deter the sponsorship of terrorism more effectively, including the sort of tougher secondary financial sanctions that devastated Pyongyang’s palace economy in 2005.
Another consequence I referred to in the recommendations, but ought to have explained in greater detail in the body of the report, is a policy under which the Securities and Exchange Commission requires securities issuers to disclose their investments in states that sponsor terrorism and abuse human rights. Of course, the latter basis is more than enough to justify imposing a requirement to report investments in North Korea, with or without an SSOT re-listing. A disclosure requirement would open investors in North Korea, including foreign corporations that issue securities in the U.S. market, to reputational harm, protests, and boycotts until Pyongyang ceases its crimes against humanity.
Bandow also frets that re-listing North Korea as a SSOT could upset the North Koreans and provoke a violent reaction.
I’m sure a lot of things upset the North Koreans, including (in no particular order) any level of defense relationship with South Korea or Japan; the existence of South Korean villages or warships in disputed waters; U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions, and governments that enforce them; the granting of asylum to North Korean refugees; the making and showing of films critical of Kim Jong Un in the United States, Germany, or Myanmar; academic conferences in downtown Washington; and my report. To discard even non-kinetic policy responses because of the risk of a violent reaction may or may not be a complete preemptive surrender of all policy options. It’s for Bandow, not me, to explain what options remain, and where he would draw the line. Sanctions don’t seem to be among the options Bandow favors, either:
In January, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation to effectively reimpose the terrorism designation. Last year, the House approved Rep. Ed Royce’s H.R. 1771 , which proposed unilateral measures to enforce multilateral sanctions. Ros-Lehtinen’s H.R. 204  is substantially more punitive. The bill’s “findings” are a veritable kitchen sink of complaints of DPRK misbehavior including “duplicity in its negotiations with the United States” and defiance of “the international community.” The measure urges the administration to relist the North as a SSOT, imposes the penalties for being listed as a SSOT, and sets numerous impossible conditions (opening North Korean prison camps to international inspection, for instance) for lifting sanctions. Almost as an afterthought, the bill bars any expenditure to open diplomatic relations. [Bandow]
But Bandow misreads H.R. 1771 (since updated and reintroduced as H.R. 757) and misunderstands its relationship to U.N. sanctions. The U.N. relies on member states to enforce sanctions with their national laws. H.R. 757’s “unilateral” sanctions are intended, in large part, to make multilateral sanctions (which are failing now) work. As I argued in detail here, both U.S. national sanctions and U.N. Security Council sanctions are essential and complementary elements of an effective sanctions program. That’s why Section 202 calls on the State Department to work with other member states to enforce U.N. sanctions consistently, Section 104 provides for secondary sanctions against member states that knowingly violate them, and Sections 401 and 402 recognize the core interests of our allies by making the return of abductees and North Korea’s nuclear disarmament prerequisites for lifting the sanctions.
I can’t speak to the intent behind H.R. 204, but the fact that Ms. Ros-Lehtinen had a “kitchen sink” to throw in doesn’t refute a single item in her bill of particulars. Bandow also calls the opening of North Korea’s prison camps an “impossible” condition, an implicit argument for tolerating the use of our financial system to sustain the regime that runs those camps.
I actually thought Bandow’s most compelling argument was one he seems to have offered as a reductio ad absurdum:
Only Iran, Sudan, Syria, and departing Cuba currently are on the list, and none has engaged in terrorism against America, at least within normal memory. If terrorism is the actual concern, why aren’t Pakistan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia on the list?
Bandow doesn’t seem to be any better informed about Iran than he is about North Korea. With respect to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, however, I’d agree that both have supported (or tolerated support for) the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. I can’t imagine that even Bandow would deny that both groups are security threats to the United States. He just holds up the law as mandating a procrustean amputation of ties with two states with which we’ve long had strong (if strained) ties, rather than offering Riyadh and Doha the same nuanced diplomacy he would have us extend to Pyongyang. Just as we exhausted diplomatic options to end North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, we should exhaust our diplomatic options to cut off Qatari and Saudi support for terrorists. If talks alone can’t achieve that result, page 99 of the report offers a series of “one or more the following” sanctions proposals, under which a reformed LSSOT framework would give the Secretary of State the flexibility to tailor sanctions options to the different exposures, vulnerabilities, and levels of culpability of different governments. It’s fair to say that as currently written, the law is procrustean. That’s not an argument against reforming it into something more useful.
Eventually, Bandow gets around to where he should have begun and ended — that as a policy matter, the LSSOT shouldn’t exist at all. If Bandow can offer better suggestions to fill the policy gap that would leave, I’m ready to hear them. International terrorism is the greatest security threat the U.S. faces today, and it’s a far greater threat when states arm and employ the terrorists. States are more likely to arm and employ terrorists when given effective impunity for doing so. The idea of deterring states from sponsoring terrorism is as absurd as you want to make it. By sticking to that policy argument, Bandow would have freed himself from the burden not shouldered, to argue against the inconvenient evidence of Pyongyang’s sponsorship of terrorism. That evidence was sufficient for multiple competent courts of law, and it ought to be good enough for our State Department, too.
Since its appearance, [HNRK] has insisted on linking the food shortage in the DPRK with “lack of elementary human rights” and compiled all nonsensical talks about its social system to meet the political interests of the U.S. conservative forces before floating wild rumors.
Such a plot-breeding body produced a conspiratorial document as part of its desperate campaign to label the DPRK a “sponsor of terrorism.” This is no more than the last-ditch effort of those hell-bent on the smear campaign against the DPRK.
Explicitly speaking, the above-said story about “the DPRK’s sponsoring of terrorism” is another unpardonable politically-motivated provocation against the DPRK. [KCNA]
Offhand, I can’t recall another case in which a report so likely caused an equal degree of upset within the North Korean government and the U.S. State Department, whose annual Country Reports on Terrorism is now overdue. You can read the full denunciation below the fold. Somewhere in there is the perfect quotation for my masthead.
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Update: Not surprisingly, the North Koreans didn’t read the report very carefully. I concluded that the Sony cyberattack was not a “violent” act, and therefore did not meet the legal definition of sponsoring international terrorism, but that the “Guardians of Peace” threat against theaters and moviegoers did.
Many, many thanks to Greg Scarlatoiu, Suzanne Scholte, Nick Eberstadt, and Marcus Noland for their kind comments at yesterday’s launch event, and to everyone who showed up at 6:00 on a Monday night. Special thanks to the HRNK interns who made it all possible — especially to Rosa and to Raymond, who meticulously checked every last cite and footnote.
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Update, 1 May 2015: Here’s video of the launch event.
Ever since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report last year, North Korea has been particularly sensitive to accusations of human rights violations. It shouldn’t surprise us that this sensitivity is especially keen when the scrutiny threatens to cut off a growing source of hard currency — its export of what amounts to slave labor to places like Russia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Press reports on the working conditions of these workers, and the regime’s spotty history of paying their (paltry) wages, have embarrassed the regime, embarrassed companies and governments that use North Korean labor, and sometimes, disrupted those arrangements.
Now, according to a new report from Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang is reacting to renewed media scrutiny of overseas North Korean laborers about like you’d expect Pyongyang to react to that:
“Particularly, when a foreign reporter or human rights activists tries to take a picture or film you, take the camera, camcorder or cell phone from them and smash it,” the document said, according to Do.
“They [North Korean workers] must physically smash them, but also they must pull out internal memory cards such as SD cards and then return the broken cameras or camcorders to their owners,” he said.
Workers are also directed to physically attack the journalists and investigators:
The action guide also instructs workers not to hesitate to respond with violence and to gang up on those trying to video or photograph them, he said.
“The action guide even includes a series of details: Do not kill, but inflict a blow or fracture until the person’s body is physically damaged,” Do said.
If a person apologizes while a North Korean is beating him, the North Korean must record his words with a video camera or cellphone and give the recording to the supervisor or manager of the work unit to which they belong, Do said.
“If North Korean workers block activities by preventing or beating a South Korean who is reporter or human rights activist, they will be evaluated according to their actions,” he said. “But if they don’t [follow the guidelines] and pictures or videos appear on the Internet or TV, they’ll be punished.” [RFA]
A caution is in order on the sourcing of the story: it’s attributed to an NGO, the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees (CHNK), citing “sources inside North Korea.” Although CHNK itself is a respected NGO, we’re in no position to evaluate the reliability and basis of knowledge of CHNK’s own anonymous sources.
If the report can be confirmed, it could have significant policy implications. It would amount to an order by the North Korean government to subnational groups to commit politically motivated violence against non-combatant citizens of other nations on foreign soil. In this case, Pyongyang’s political motivation is to suppress the work of journalists and NGOs, and to preempt policy discussions among governments. It’s far from the most egregious example of North Korean sponsorship of international terrorism — the direction to refrain from murder may even count as progress — but if these orders are attempted or carried out, they could meet the legal standard for the hate that dare not speak its name (at least in Foggy Bottom).
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
As a basic rule, it is understood that all workers must move in groups of at least fifteen people. But furthermore, television viewing is strictly prohibited. This is because South Korean dramas play regularly on Chinese broadcasts. If any labourer is caught moving out of bounds, away from the workplace and watching television, they will be sent straight back to North Korea the next day.
Previously, North Korean overseas labourers were allowed some degree of freedom, even being able to leave the workplace, provided that they moved in groups of two or three. However, during the lead up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, the rules have changed and controls have tightened significantly.
To conclude, it can be observed that the North Korean government, in an effort to raise hard currency, is increasing its export labour, and, in addition, tightening its grip on them, especially in light of foreign influences such as Hallyu (the Korean Wave). The North Korean government has clearly shown, once again, its concerns and fears regarding the threat of exposure to Western cultural influences.
Or, I would add, its fears regarding the threat of Western exposure to how North Korea treats its people.