Kim Jong Un’s limp

OK, I’m convinced. The rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Guardian didn’t enable the embed feature — hypocrites! — but you can watch Reuters’s video here. No official word yet on whether Kim acquired the limp by stumbling over a starving orphan on the doorstep of one of his palaces. Hat tip to a valued reader.

You could also characterize this slight limp as a waddle, the kind that would be cute if a penguin walked with it; less so when a mass-murdering psychopath of a man-child with nuclear weapons does it.

As I said yesterday: suspensors.

Open Sources, July 14, 2014

~   1   ~

NORTH KOREA FIRED A MASSIVE BARRAGE OF ROCKETS over the weekend, this time in the Sea of Japan,* near the disputed inter-Korean maritime border.

“North Korea fired off about 100 artillery shells in a northeast direction into the East Sea for about 30 minutes from 11:43 a.m. from a place hundreds of meters away from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Goseong, Gangwon Province,” JCS spokesman Um Hyo-sik said.

“They landed in the sea, some 1 to 8 kilometers north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL),” he said, citing the de facto inter-Korean maritime border.

While it is unknown exactly which launchers the North used to fire the shells, the South Korean military said most of them were likely fired from the North’s 122-meter or 200-meter launchers.

“Some of them flew some 3 kilometers, and others at the maximum of 50 kilometers,” a JCS officer said, requesting anonymity.

“It is not unusual for Pyongyang to carry out such a shelling on its east coast, but it is rare that the North has done that near the military demarcation line,” he noted.

[Update: And also, two SCUDs into the Sea of Japan.] North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

~   2   ~

I GUESS I’M PLEASED AT HOW FEW media outlets fell for that rather obvious parody story that North Korea had claimed to have won the World Cup. A long-time reader (thank you) alerted me to the story over the weekend, asking me if it could be true. It took about five minutes of investigation for me to note that neither the Rodong Sinmun nor KCNA made a similar claim.

It took less time than that to spot some obvious red flags in the video itself. Anyone even vaguely familiar with North Korean dialects (or the distinctive manner of speech of its news announcers) would have seen a few things amiss with the supposed video of the broadcast, which appears to be an overdub of North Korean news clips by an unconvincing South Korean voice actress.

Also, the reference to South Korean player Jong Tae-Se (the In-min Rooney, because his past connection to North Korea) would have been a dead giveaway to any South Korean soccer fan.*

~   3   ~

CLAUDIA ROSETT:

[L]et’s hope U.S. authorities are keeping a close eye on a North Korean cargo ship called the Mu Du Bong, which late last month called at Cuba, then vanished from the commercial shipping grid for more than a week. This past Thursday, July 10, the Mu Du Bong reappeared at Havana, then began steaming north of Cuba, and as of this writing is cruising the Gulf of Mexico, not all that far from the Mexican port of Tampico — or for that matter, the coast of Texas.

If you were to ask me what North Korea’s most likely nuclear delivery system was, I’d say it’s commercial shipping.

~   4   ~

THOSE REPORTS THAT KIM JONG UN was seen walking with a limp weren’t completely persuasive to me because I couldn’t find any video, but if you’re interested in knowing as much as I know, read this and this. I suppose it’s worth keeping an eye on, but if Baron Harkonnen could rule Geides Prime from the comfort of his suspensors, I suppose the same is true of Kim Jong Un ruling North Korea.

~   5   ~

MAAZEL TOT: Lorin Maazel has died. Maazel, as you recall, attracted the wrath of this site for comparing North Korea’s crimes against humanity to Gitmo, which was an extraordinarily stupid thing for any person to say, regardless of your views about Gitmo. Which is still open for some reason, more than five years after Barack Obama’s inauguration.

~   6   ~

AUSTRALIA IS SAID TO BE CONSIDERING “a bill that may penalize North Korea for its human rights abuses,” but the Korea Herald doesn’t quote any Australian government sources for the report, and politicians are very accomplished at leading people to the conclusions they want those people to draw, without actually articulating those conclusions themselves.

~   7   ~

A MIG-17 CRASH TEMPORARILY GROUNDED North Korea’s entire fleet of 100 aircraft for several weeks, according to the Joongang Ilbo. The article notes the growing maintenance problems this aging fleet is creating for the NKPAF.

~   8   ~

Our Defense Secretary, who concedes that ISIS itself poses an imminent security threat to the United States, must deny that uranium seized by ISIS is a threat, at least for now. I don’t which of these things confounds me more — (a) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction after all, (b) that a six-year war failed to eliminate them as a threat, or (c) that we stabilized this country only to walk away and let it collapse into anarchy.

~   9   ~

THE AMERICAN INTEREST LOOKS at the money laundering risks associated with the large-scale holding of “big bills” — that is, large-denomination notes for Swiss francs, Canadian dollars, and other secondary “reserve” currencies.

~   10   ~

EUROPE SEEMS TO HAVE FALLEN OUT OF LOVE with President Obama, but in the New York Times, Clemens Wergin, foreign editor of Die Welt, argues that Obama’s foreign policy is too European.

While Mr. Obama’s new style of diplomacy — soft power and nonintervention — was at first seen as a welcome break with the Bush years, five years later a dismal realization has set in. It turns out that soft power cannot replace hard power. On the contrary, soft power is merely a complementary foreign policy tool that can yield results only when it is backed up by real might and the political will to employ it if necessary. [....]

Barack Obama wanted America to learn from Europe’s soft-power approach. But while Europeans are loath to admit it, they know that European soft power often doesn’t work either — and that it is a luxury that they could afford only because America’s hard power always loomed in the background. And when they dropped the ball, America would pick it up.

And therein lies the lesson to our American friends who seemingly want to become less involved and more European: There is no second America to back you up when you drop the ball.

Read the whole thing. I also thought this piece in MacLean’s was well-written and well-reasoned.

* Earlier versions of this post misspelled Jong’s name, and incorrectly stated that North Korea’s shells fell into the Yellow Sea. They actually fell in the Sea of Japan. Thanks to Yang for the correction. 

Open Sources, July 11, 2014

~   1   ~

I SUSPECT THAT SOMEONE LIKE KURT CAMPBELL would have been a better man for the job, but I wish John Kerry the best of luck in his discussions with the Chinese:

“China shares the same strategic goal, and we discussed the importance of enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions that impose sanctions on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile program,” Kerry said.

However, Kerry said China needs to do more in reining in its unruly ally North Korea. Kerry said China must play its “unique role” in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. 

Unfortunately, the very fact that John Kerry is delivering the message subtracts from its effectiveness. But the good news is that Kerry is (for now) showing no obvious signs of acceding to Chinese demands that we engage in pointless, non-disarmament talks for talks’ sake.

~   2   ~

SOUTH KOREA HAS DENIED a rescue NGO permission to go to North Korea to assist with the apartment collapse in Pyongyang. Given how the North Koreans did the “rescue,” and the fact that the collapse was two months ago, there can’t be much more to rescue than dried-out chunks of what were once wives, children, and grandparents.

~   3   ~

HYUNDAI ASAN, which was the sole provider of tours to Mt. Kumgang before a North Korean soldier shot and killed tourist and housewife Park Wang-Ja there, has since laid off a stunning 70% of its employees and lost $858 million. As absolutely no one in South Korea ever said during the Sunshine fad, “caveat investor.”

I did not realize the extent to which this large South Korean corporation had put all of its eggs in Kim Jong Il’s basket, or the extent to which the Sunshine Policy’s select cronies relied on South Korean government subsidies. But given suspicions that Kim Jong Il diverted the subsidized proceeds of Kumgang toward “regime maintenance,” I’m always pleased to make Sunshine’s punch bowl my chamber pot.

~   4   ~

TO SAY THAT JULY IS EXTORTION SEASON in North Korea would be like saying that August is campaign season in Washington. According to the Daily NK, however, extortion is especially prevalent in North Korea in July:

The term “8.3 money” is related to a program of limited enterprise autonomy put in place by Kim Jong Il in 1984. As part of the plan, workers are encouraged to earn money outside their state-mandated workplaces and present de facto tax payments back to their employers. Such contributions are not necessarily defined in monetary terms: wild edible greens and valuable medical herbs (some of which fetch a high price in China) can also be contributions, for instance. 

The source went on, “These measures have brought an ambivalent response from workers. In the past people might have prioritized this type of fund as an expression of fidelity to the Party, but you’d struggle to find that kind of loyalty now.” [Daily NK]

~   5   ~

NEW FOCUS THINKS IT KNOWS what triggered Jang Song Thaek’s purge. Citing “sources in North Korea,” it claims that the regime intercepted a letter from Jang to China’s leaders that would have shifted Nort Korea’s power structure in his favor:

It has been revealed that in early 2013, Jang Song-thaek dispatched a letter to the Chinese leadership, explaining that he desired to instigate changes to the North Korean system such that its pivot of power would move away from the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and towards the DPRK government, as overseen by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

This letter and its contents is said to have served as the decisive evidence that led to the removal of Jang Song-thaek from his post in the enlarged Politburo meeting, called by the KWP Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) in early December of last year. [New Focus International]

~   6   ~

MEANWHILE, KIM KYONG HUI, JANG’S WIDOW, is recuperating at Samjiyeon from a breakdown after fighting with Kim Jong Un about her husband’s execution — or so says the Daily NK. I remind you of my low confidence in any reports from inside the royal court.

~   7   ~

REMEMBER ALL THE HYPE about that new bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju? Construction is behind schedule because of slow progress and pilferage on the North Korean side.

“China provided a lot of materials and machinery to the North, but there is a story that this machinery was sent for use on other projects rather than for the bridge construction. The Chinese traders who did harbor high hopes for [economic] opening brought on by the bridge are showing their disappointment more and more,” the source explained. [Daily NK]

~   8   ~

SOUTH KOREAN HISTORICAL DRAMAS are still a hit in North Korea, despite Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown.

~   9   ~

DAILY NK GUEST COLUMNIST LEE JONG CHEOL writes that South Korea has textbook revisionism problems of its own:

Generally speaking, middle and high school history textbooks hold that both the Soviet-supported Kim Il Sung and U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee were equally accountable for the war. They agree that North Korea prepared for the war with help from the Soviets, and that Kim Il Sung ordered the invasion of the South. However, they also describe the Cold War environment, the “Acheson Line” (the nominal American defense perimeter), and battles around the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), giving them similar weight in the narrative and effectively downplaying the responsibility of the Soviets and Kim Il Sung. Furthermore, textbooks portray the Korean War as a battle for unification, with military force the only option available to achieve it.

That’s not so surprising when you consider who’s in charge of South Korean teachers’ unions.

Obama administration sanctions everyone except Kim Jong Un

The boys at Treasury have been busy sanctioning nasty people lately … just not nasty North Korean people. In the last 30 days, they’ve imposed sanctions on new targets in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Ukraine, and put a shiny new Executive Order on the President’s desk blocking the assets of human rights violators in Democratic Republic of Congo. Really? We do that sort of thing? Yes, we do that sort of thing — just not to Kim Jong Un.

(They’ve also substantially weakened U.S. sanctions on Burma, just as it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Burmese government is going back on many of its promises of democratic reform, and that its generals are still engaging in arms trafficking with North Korea.)

Yet this still isn’t our greatest lost opportunity. Recently, Treasury and French parastatal bank BNP Paribas concluded a settlement under which BNP Paribas will pay an absolutely colossal amount — $8.9 billion, which is a record for sanctions violations. BNP Paribas’s M.O. was to strip data from transactions that had to be reported to Treasury, thus avoiding the burden of obtaining licenses to trade with sanctioned countries, or perhaps to evade a requirement to obtain a license that OFAC wouldn’t grant.

Today’s settlement resolves OFAC’s investigation into BNPP’s systemic practice of concealing, removing, omitting, or obscuring references to information about U.S.-sanctioned parties in 3,897 financial and trade transactions routed to or through banks in the United States between 2005 and 2012 in apparent violation of the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 538; the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 560; the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515; and the Burmese Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 537. [Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Notice anyone missing from that list? In case you wonder why, it’s because of the lack of comprehensive financial sanctions against North Korea — the kind of sanctions that are in place and self-evidently effective against these other targets. (No, sanctioning the Foreign Trade Bank is not comprehensive. It in no way compares to our sanctions against Cuba, Syria, or Iran.)

North Korea alone is free to receive foreign investments and all sorts of cash payments, no questions asked, through the dollar-based financial system that uses U.S. banks, and without an OFAC license. This, despite the fact that U.N. Security Council resolutions clearly demand that investors ask questions, and that governments implement and enforce financial transparency.

BNP Paribas wasn’t fined for breaking North Korea sanctions regulations because absent proof that the transactions furthered illicit activity or proliferation, there’s nothing to break. But that’s the catch — there are special licensing requirements on Iran and Syria because that’s how we’re most likely to detect proliferation and money laundering. Instead, our North Korea sanctions are weaker than any of these other national programs. And that makes no sense at all from a strategic, humanitarian, or enforcement perspective.

“Today’s settlement is OFAC’s largest-ever and reaffirms OFAC’s determination to aggressively enforce U.S. sanctions rules and regulations,” said OFAC Director Adam J. Szubin.  [....]

The specific payment practices the bank utilized in order to process sanctions-related payments to or through the United States included omitting references to sanctioned parties; replacing the names of sanctioned parties with BNPP’s name or a code word; and structuring payments in a manner that did not identify the involvement of sanctioned parties in payments sent to U.S. financial institutions.  While these payment practices occurred throughout multiple branches and subsidiaries of the bank, BNPP’s subsidiary in Geneva and branch in Paris facilitated or conducted the overwhelming majority of the apparent violations.  

I don’t dispute the awfulness of the civil war in the DRC, but do its human rights violations equal this in terms of their scale and their drearily methodical state sponsorship? And even if so, why the DRC and not North Korea? The DRC isn’t a strategic threat to U.S. interests. Syria and Iran are, of course, but North Korea is suspected of nuclear cooperation with Iran, has a proven history of chemical weapons and nuclear cooperation with Syria, has attacked on U.S. treaty allies, and has sold arms to Hamasbollah.

On the other hand, none of these nations is suspected of state-sponsored drug trafficking, counterfeiting of U.S. currency and intellectual property, illegal gambling, or money laundering on a comparable scale. Those things represent a direct threat to the financial system on which the global economy depends. So what reason exists to sanction any of those regimes that isn’t just as good a reason to sanction North Korea, too?

Open Sources, July 9, 2014

~   1   ~

NORTH KOREA LAUNCHES MORE SCUDS into the Sea of Japan. I reckon that somewhere in Washington, someone who worked at the State Department in the 1990s is thinking that by launching missiles on July 2nd and July 9th (but not the 4th), North Korea was really being conciliatory.

~   2   ~

PARK GEUN HYE CALLS for the “international community,” which is an oxymoron, to pay more attention to the rights of North Korean refugees. But given the shortcomings of the International Criminal Court, I’d settle for more attention to the subject by Park Geun Hye, starting with (1) calling for Xi Jinping to release those eleven refugees, (2) publishing an official Korean translation of the COI report, (3) allowing North Korean exiles to broadcast to their homeland on medium wave, (4) insisting that North Korean workers at Kaesong actually receive their salaries, (5) pushing the National Assembly to pass a human rights law, and (6) establishing a human rights tribunal in South Korea, similar to the Cambodia tribunal.

~   3   ~

THE MANAGEMENT EXTENDS ITS WARMEST OFK WELCOME to its readers in Mongolia, Nicaragua, Laos, Venezuela, and Barbados. You’re next, Tajikistan, Svalbard, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

~   4   ~

EFFORTS TO CREATE A NEW LIU XIAOBO PLAZA in front of China’s Embassy are proceeding, with a favorable vote in the House Appropriations Committee. I like so much, I think “Edward Snowden Boulevard”  in Beijing will be well worth it.

~   5   ~

A SOUTH KOREAN COURT HAS SENTENCED what Yonhap calls “the head of a left-leaning dance troupe” to four years in prison for contacting a North Korean intelligence agent and swearing an oath of loyalty to the Pyongyang regime.

It does not surprise me that the prisoner is a member of Unified Progressive Party, the party of convicted traitor Lee Seok-Ki. It does surprise me that there is a “traditional Korean dance company” that specializes in dancing in such an awkward position. Just think of the chiropractic expenses.

~   6   ~

I HAVE SOMETIMES REFERRED TO Kim Il Sung as North Korea’s largest stockpile of preserved meat, but it seems I have taken “preserved” too much for granted, and the old tyrant is said to be “losing water like a drying Pollack.” (For those of you from Wisconsin, this refers to a certain species of fish.)

Keeping China’s Cold War cold: The case for PATO

As our alliance diplomacy fails in Asia, “Pentagon officials,” no doubt with some prodding from the White House, say that if the Senate confirms Mark Lippert as Ambassador to South Korea, he would redouble U.S. efforts to rebuild a trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea.

“Trilateral” would be a very good start toward “multilateral,” and I wish the administration success. I don’t know much about Mr. Lippert, but a diplomatic vacuum now could mean war and chaos for us all, while good diplomacy could still restore peace and order in the world’s most economically dynamic region. While you’re thinking about how alarmist that was of me to write, give this Washington Post article a read. Then, try to think about soft, cuddly pandas.

Lippert’s job didn’t get any easier when Xi Jinping presumably strong-armed Park Geun-Hye into saying this:

“The basic stance of the (South Korean) government is that Japan in principle is not allowed to exercise its collective self-defense right within the Korean Theater of Operation, or KTO,” a government source said, requesting anonymity.

Apparently, Park rejects the possibility that Japan might exercise that right while protecting South Korea (among others) from China’s self-declared air defense identification zones or unilateral maritime claims, or to help it stabilize a post-collapse North Korea. Take another look at the map in the Post’s article:

1484_SouthChinaSea

[Washington Post]

It’s clear that China, in deference to the tested principle of “divide-and-rule,” has carefully avoided expanding that zone into the Yellow Sea. For now, China is content with buying the fishing rights (or simply stealing the fish).

China has been in a Cold War with us since before our Cold War with the U.S.S.R. ended. All that’s missing is our acknowledgement of that. Chinese domination of all of East Asia would cause a series of dramatic shocks to our economy, as China used its military supremacy to monopolize and tax the region’s resources, manufacturing, and trade routes. Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property would skyrocket, and China would impose its own terms on trade, and the costs of raw materials and finished goods. China would control the Strait of Molucca, and with it, our oil imports from the Middle East. The result would be our impoverishment as a nation. You think China is already doing many of those things now? Wait until it controls the entire Western Pacific.

In a few years, we may find ourselves facing a choice of defending (or not) our treaty allies in the region. (A second-worst case scenario would be finding ourselves bearing the entire cost of their defense.) Some of those allies have made the decision to appease China for now, in the hope that they can buy time. We all earnestly hope that our conflicts with China don’t become military conflicts. The best way to prevent that would be through good diplomacy that concentrates minds across the Pacific on their common interests and their collective strength, if allied to each other, and to us. That is, good diplomacy and strong alliances can deter China, prevent war, and avoid the common impoverishment of the U.S. and its Pacific allies.

I worry that John Kerry, who may be the worst Secretary of State in U.S. history, isn’t the man for that job.

None of this will work, of course, as long as Japan continues to shift the region’s focus to debates over settled history, and as long as other Asian nations continue to take Japan’s bait and elevate those debates over their own interests. Koreans can’t seem to confront the fact that Chinese men are turning North Korean women into sexual slaves today, because of the Chinese government’s own crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Japan needs to be told in clear terms to stop hedging on its apology for the Comfort Women and other historical issues. In exchange, we’ll support its claims to Senkaku, and use forceful financial sanctions to force North Korea to return its abductees.

Just as NATO preserved the peace in Europe, we need a Pacific-Asia Treaty Organization* to preserve the peace in Asia. Of course, China would say that this alliance is meant to “contain” it, which is exactly what John Kerry is telling the Chinese we aren’t doing. But a time when China is grabbing territory and resources across East Asia is past the time for reassurances. In fact, it’s probably past time for China to reassure us.

* If it bothers you that “pato” means “duck” in Spanish, we could always use “APTO” instead.

Refugees’ lives may depend on interpretations of Sino-Korean consular agreement

Human rights advocates have long contended that China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees violates international law, including obligations China undertook voluntarily in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1969 Protocol. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry recently added its weight to that contention and strongly criticized China’s disregard of that Convention.

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[Suzanne Scholte and Rep. Park Sun-young protest
outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul
, 2012]

Some rights advocates have hoped that the COI’s report would force China to alter its refugee-deportation policy, for reasons best explained by Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an interview with NK News, and by Stephan Haggard here.

These hopes are about to be tested. This week, following Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul, The Daily NK reports that eleven North Korean refugees, arrested by China on June 19th, are in grave danger of repatriation to the North. The arrests were first reported on July 3rd Korea time, as Xi arrived in Seoul. More here, via Reuters.

If only Park Geun-Hye had seen fit to raise the issue of repatriations in her meetings with Xi. If only Xi’s desire to improve relations with Seoul had potential to benefit the 23 million Koreans unfortunate enough to reside North of the DMZ. But in one of the lesser-reported outcomes of the summit, the two leaders actually signed an agreement on consular protections for each others’ citizens:

The agreement mainly calls for the two countries to notify each other within four days when a national from the other country is arrested or detained. Meeting with consular officials will be also allowed within four days, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

But what does the agreement say about North Koreans? The ROK Constitution claims the entire Korean peninsula as its territory, and Korean nationality law extends citizenship to Koreans born on Korea’s territory.* The issue was contentious enough to prevent agreement after 11 years (!) of negotiations, so the two governments eventually decided to sidestep it:

The two countries previously had made little progress as they could not bridge the gap over whether to cover North Korean defectors and Chinese living in South Korea. The concept of “a national” was not specified, which made it easier for the two parties to reach the agreement, the sources said. [Yonhap]

The two sides also failed to agree on the status of ethnic Koreans in China, who could also have standing to argue their own ROK citizenship under the ROK Nationality Law. To further complicate matters, China asked for the agreement to cover Taiwanese arrested in Korea. A cynical man would say that China raised the latter complication solely to get South Korea to drop the issue of North Korean refugees.

The negotiations received new impetus from the case of ex-leftist and rights activist Kim Young-Hwan, whom the Chinese police arrested in 2012, held for 114 days, and allegedly tortured through sleep deprivation and the administration of electric shocks. Three other South Koreans, including Daily NK correspondent Lee Sang Yong, were also arrested with Kim.

Whether Park invokes the agreement on the refugees’ behalf, and how Xi reacts, will be a test of the quality and the extent of where Park’s conscience ends, and Xi’s begins. Eleven lives hang in the balance.

* Admittedly, this is a sweeping simplification of a complex law.

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.

How can NK News cover Pyongyang better than AP’s Pyongyang bureau?

Chad O’Carroll of NK News has managed to collect enough photographs of that collapsed Pyongyang apartment building — all taken from the Juche Tower over a five-week period — to narrow the time of the collapse down to half a day. O’Carroll’s finding actually confirms KCNA’s official account of the time of the collapse, and as O’Carroll admits, also refutes his initial skepticism of that account. O’Carroll has even created and published a .gif animation of these photographs, in which the ill-fated building vanishes from the skyline like Trotsky from the pages of Pravda.

building-collapse

[NK News]

The images are so useful for O’Carroll’s investigation because they were all taken from one fixed location. Based on the image credits, at least one* of the images came from DPRK360, run by Singaporean Aram Pan, whose work and viewpoints suggest that he’s something of a North Korean crypto-sympathizer. That Pan’s otherwise uninteresting images would actually reveal something newsworthy and catastrophic must come as an even larger surprise to Pan than it did to me (and in Pan’s case, the surprise must be an unpleasant one). The messages Pan wishes to convey are (1) that North Korea is Pyongyang, and (2) that Pyongyang is a perfectly normal, happy place that is cheerfully opening itself to the world.

Personally, I’m not aware of any “normal” or “happy” place where buildings filled with hundreds of people swan-dive into their own foundations. No doubt, the North Korean authorities will now give serious reconsideration to the wisdom of letting foreigners beam out images of their crumbling showpiece capital, and there will be fodder for another edition of North Korea Perestroika Watch.

Another unintended consequence of DPRK360′s imagery is to show us how little this regime values human life, because by confirming the date of the building collapse, O’Carroll’s report raises a more troubling question — how could the authorities have cleared away the wreckage of a 23-story building in just four days without scooping up and hauling away the dead and the living alike, whose mangled limbs would have been tangled among the twists of steel re-bars and wire? O’Carroll interviews experts in building collapse rescues who insist that it couldn’t have been done, even for a smaller building, and even if the crews had worked day and night.

Could the building have been unoccupied? Not likely. First, clandestine reporting from the Daily NK says otherwise. Second, KCNA itself admitted that “[t]he accident claimed casualties.” Third, the regime would not have offered such an embarrassing apology (below the jump) unless there was a significant loss of non-expendable life. Remember, these events happened at the very same time KCNA was castigating Park Geun-Hye daily for botching the Sewol Ferry rescue. (And yet even today, the regime’s haste to finish apartment construction continues.)

One theory O’Carroll offers is that the collapse could have been the result of a controlled demolition. He bases this theory on the lack of evidence of damage to nearby buildings. I don’t put much stock in this theory myself. First, the imagery isn’t sufficient to conclude that the collapse didn’t damage other buildings. Second, the theory doesn’t fit with the regime’s political logic. More often than not, the regime in Pyongyang places little value in human life, but rational, calculating self-interest dictates certain exceptions to this. These were elite, non-expendable families. I can believe this regime is capable of mass-murdering political prisoners in remote camps, or allowing millions of low-songbun factory workers in provincial backwaters to starve. I can even see it botching a rescue in Pyongyang itself, thereby killing dozens of people though malign, callous incompetence. I can’t see it deliberately detonating a new apartment building filled with elite families in downtown Pyongyang — in view of foreign diplomats, tourists, and aid workers, or Pan’s cameras, or those of Xinhua, Kyodo, or the AP, all of which have been allowed to set up permanent bureaus in Pyongyang.

Oh, right.

This is probably an appropriate time to say that O’Carroll kindly offered me a 30-day trial subscription to NK News so that I could read his report, because I’m about to give him a plug for pursuing this story with a determination that others did not (I’d have given him that plug anyway, but hey, full disclosure).

Compare the amount of information NK News has added to this story with the quality of the information that AP added to it. I’ll go a step further: the AP Pyongyang Bureau’s combined output of newsworthy information in the last year wasn’t the equal of what NK News produces in any given week — without the “advantage” of basing a correspondent inside North Korea.

I know the subscription price for NK News is steep. Sometimes, good reporting costs money, and NK News is producing some of the world’s best reporting on North Korea today. No one else would have revealed the news of the sanctions violations at Masikryong Pass by European, Canadian, and Chinese companies, or by Dennis Rodman and his sponsors during Rodman’s last visit to Pyongyang, or by Air Koryo through its deceptive dual use of its Il-76 aircraft.

As you’d expect from an upstart, they’ve blown it at times, too. When they did, I’ve embarked on punitive expeditions and scorched a few huts in the process. But when you shop in a lively marketplace of information, sometimes you rave one day and rage the next. Is the source telling you things that are worth knowing? Then maybe the seller’s wares are worth the price.

The same can (and should) be said of supporting Rimjin-gang and donating to the Daily NK, both of which also made outstanding contributions to the reporting of this story, at the risk of the correspondents’ very lives. (Conversely, I’d have advocated “unsubscribing” to the AP years ago if that were possible. Being a ubiquitous and unaccountable mega-conglomerate has its advantages, except for the consumer. That’s how AP became the Comcast of wire services. Even among the wire services, Reuters provided more valuable information about this story than AP did, although it was also completely outdone by Rimjin-gang, the Daily NK, and NK News.)

The conclusion we draw from this? That the quality of a news service’s reporting from North Korea is inversely proportional to the closeness of its relationship to the regime in Pyongyang, and proportional to its incentive to inform the reader.

* O’Carroll says just one.

Open Sources, July 3, 2014

~   1   ~

AP’S JEAN LEE WANTS YOU TO BELIEVE that she became a target for lifting the curtain on North Korea, but Jean Lee really became a target for trying to tell us that the curtain was North Korea. Also, I can’t believe she keeps saying things like this:

“People often assume that our work is censored, but the North Koreans know that that’s a red line, that the AP would never tolerate censorship. So none of our material is looked at before it goes out – it goes straight to our editors at the AP and goes straight out on the wire.”

Would those be these guardians of AP’s uncomprising editorial standards, or the ones who were responsible for this? Follow what Lee is saying to its logical conclusion: if it’s true, Lee never reported on kkotjaebi, starvation, gulags, and public executions not because she couldn’t, but because she never wanted to. That Lee was in sympathy with Pyongyang’s propagandists is a harder thing to explain than the alternative than that she merely made some unsavory compromises with them.

You’ll never read an interview where anyone calls Lee on dubious claims like this, because Lee won’t do interviews with reporters who insists on questioning them. (Hat tip to a reader.)

~   2   ~

HOORAY FOR HIM: “An unarmed North Korean man presumed to be a civilian expressed his will to defect to South Korea early this morning near Baengnyeong Island.”

~   3   ~

HOORAY FOR THEM: In Hong Kong, five hundred thousand people marched for democracy this week. In the rain.

~   4   ~

N. KOREA PERESTROIKA WATCH: The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy has more on North Korea’s ChocoPie ban, the enforcement of which naturally centers on their source, the Kaesong Industrial Park.

The popularity of ChocoPies is the best evidence Kaesong’s defenders can offer of its transformative impact on North Korea. You may question the deeper significance of that, but ever since I’ve frequented that Ethiopian restaurant, I’ve had an irresistible compulsion to expropriate my neighbors’ land and forcibly relocate them to teff-farming communes in Nevada.

Kaesong is responsible for other changes, of course. It poured billions of dollars into Pyongyang’s nuke fund, and it helped South Korean corporations perfect the exploitative labor-management relations that have since endeared them to thousands of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian workers. As I’ve said before, you don’t change North Korea; North Korea changes you.

~   5   ~

FOOD AID TO N. KOREA DECLINES BY 45%:

Citing the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Washington-based Voice of America said North Korea received US$19.6 million of humanitarian aid in the January-June period, down 45 percent from the same period last year.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that Kim Jong Un has enough cash in his sofa cushions to fund those feeding programs for years.

~   6   ~

NK NEWS INTERVIEWS A NIGERIAN North Korea sympathizer, who says that KCNA’s racist attack on President Obama, first reported here at OFK, was “propaganda to smear the KCNA” that was “taken out of context.” Sure, I guess that worked well enough for Donald Sterling.

~   7   ~

DID NORTH KOREA USE ITS RELATIONSHIPS with the Japanese media to strong-arm them into blacklisting its critics? That’s the charge from Japan-based scholar Park Doo-Jin. Also allegedly blacklisted: Ishimaro Jiro of Rimjin-gang. Kyodo News, which has had a bureau in Pyongyang since 2006, is accused of going along with the North’s demands. They should answer the charge.

~   8   ~

NK NEWS has a brief report about Matthew Todd Miller. I wish it had helped us understand whether (or why) he might have tried to “defect” to North Korea. Maybe more reporting will explain that.

~   9   ~

THE STATE DEPARTMENT SAYS North Korea won’t get what it wants by launching missiles. You know what would work better? If the Treasury Department said that North Korea will get what it doesn’t want by launching missiles.

~   10   ~

WHY AM I SO HAPPY? There are many reasons, of course, but one of them is that I just had my first visitor from Greenland, and that filled a pretty big empty spot in my map. You’re next, Mongolia. I’ve also had visits from the U.S. military in Afghanistan, but I’m not sure that counts. Judges?