Today’s General Assembly vote is about the people of North Korea, and the relevance of the U.N. itself (Update: UNGA approves, 111-19-55)

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.  – Voltaire

It now seems that the U.N. General Assembly’s vote on a North Korea human rights resolution is to take place this very day. Because of Justice Kirby’s report — and because of what so many survivors have told us, at the risk of their lives — no one can ever again say, “I did not know.” Unlike the bystanders of previous generations, we are free to speak, and to act.

Germany 1945

The draft resolution itself mostly states what has been obvious for years to anyone who has paid attention. It is strong in many regards, but conspicuously weak in failing to note North Korea’s denial of the right to food, where the influence of the World Food Program in weakening the draft is obvious. Nor did Pyongyang need any external encouragement to punish “human traffickers,” who are now the only way out of North Korea for its most desperate people. But it is still the best text we’re likely to see for a very long time. You can read it here. Read more

North Korea perestroika watch

Two new reports from The Daily NK update us on Kim Jong Un’s efforts to (as Don Gregg put it) “change the nature of his country.”

Certain areas bordering China in Yangkang Province have been labeled “danger zones” as the latest effort by the North Korean authorities to beef up surveillance and inspections in the region. This move, in conjunction with the installation of new radio wave detectors to track down those making international calls, is the latest measure aimed at preventing defections and information from spilling outside the borders.

“In a recent inminban [people’s unit] meeting, there was a lecture on how certain areas adjacent to the border such as Hyesan and Baekam County have been designated ‘danger zones’ by the State Security Department [SSD],” a source in Yangkang Province told the Daily NK on Wednesday. [Daily NK]

On the other side of the border, even as China threatens to veto U.N. action on human rights, it is allowing North Korean security forces to hunt down refugee defection brokers.

North Korea has been deploying state security officials disguised as travelers with special personal visas or traders to China as an attempt to weed out brokers that aid defectors in escaping the country, a local source told the Daily NK. [Daily NK]

Meanwhile, Rimjin-gang passes along rumors of “two sets of executions” of party officials that “took place in Pyongyang in early October,” for “neglect on the job” and “forming a secret organization.” I’d treat the report with caution, at least until the AP summons the gumption to give it a corporate seal of authentication.

Defectors spread rumors, warns news service that spreads propaganda, disinformation, and fake photos

The Associated Press, the guardian of the grotto that holds the cuneiform clay tablets recording the sacred commandments of the journalistic profession, has published a hit piece warning its readers to beware of the North Korean guerrilla news services that have stepped forward to fill the void left by corporate news organizations, including the AP. Its lede:

Video secretly taken in North Korea shows public executions by firing squad. The country is said to begin a currency revaluation that turns disastrous. Leader Kim Jong Un is reported to have thrown South Korean leaflets containing rumors about his wife in his aides’ faces.

Two of those stories are true. The third, who knows? All came from people in North Korea, through networks of defectors determined to get out information on the authoritarian, highly insular country they left behind. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

Please allow me to improve on that:

Video of a regime-staged press conference in Pyongyang shows a terrified woman standing next to her son and grandson, as she “confesses” to being tricked into defecting, while journalists applaud. A propaganda exhibition in New York, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, portrays the people of North Korea as content, well-fed, and adoring their leaders. A photograph of a 2011 flood in Pyongyang shows water reaching nearly to waist-level as Pyongyang appeals for international aid.

Neither the report of the press conference nor the content of exhibition was true, and the photograph had been altered. All came from the Associated Press, and were produced under the supervision of North Korea’s official “news” agency, the Korean Central News Agency, pursuant to two memoranda of agreement that have never been disclosed. [OFK]

More than three years after AP signed its agreements with the North Korean government, and despite its promise “to open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world,” the Comcast of journalism hasn’t kept its promise. Instead, it’s tearing down the guerrilla journalists who are trying — some with more success than others — to report the news that the AP isn’t.

I could write a whole new fake lede from all the news that has happened right under AP Pyongyang’s nose, that guerrilla news services and start-ups have covered better than AP has. I can’t think of a better example than the deadly collapse of an apartment building in downtown Pyongyang, just a short drive from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, earlier this year. Some reports say that collapse killed hundreds of people, mostly wives, children, and parents of government officials. Read more

Embracing evil

Michael Bassett is an odd character of a kind that draws an increasingly selective audience–people who really, really hate other people who criticize North Korea about human rights.

bassett

The most recent targets of Bassett’s rage are a friend of mine, Casey Lartigue, and this woman:

In an article by John Power for The Diplomat, Bassett calls the woman, a North Korean refugee named Yeonmi Park, “a liar” and a “spinstress” for telling The Irish Independent, in her slightly broken English: “Every morning and every … like … some riverside like this [gesturing out the window] you can see the dead bodies floating, and if you go out in the morning and just people dead there.”

Park’s actual words are on video, but Power–or whatever source he drew from–alters her words slightly but materially to, “Every morning at riversides like this you can see dead bodies floating. If you go out in the morning, they are there.” In search of a controversy, Power confronts Park with this misquote, and she responds, “What I meant was … it was the countryside and special border areas and in winters (you could see bodies in rivers).” Or so says John Power.

Power then quotes Felix Abt, a windbag North Korean apologist and Switzerland’s greatest embarrassment to humanity since François Genoud. Abt also accuses Park of lying: “So I did see poverty-stricken areas, infrastructure in shambles, broken bridges over rivers and I would certainly have seen dead bodies if there were any.” Abt, who has also called the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea “a massive exaggeration,” tells Power, “[T]here may have been floating bodies in rivers in the terrible crisis years of the 90s when 600,000 people starved to death according to an estimate by the U.N. official who was then supervising foreign aid during the famine in the country.” (Abt’s sentences are as long as tapeworms.)

Bassett accuses Park of “sensationaliz[ing] the narrative to make everybody think that, you know, this is the ‘90s North Korea. It’s not.”

That is to say, Abt and Bassett insist that Park must be lying because there haven’t been “any” (Abt’s word) bodies found in North Korean rivers since 2000. Well, now…. If only some journalist who would rather inform his readers about a serious story than make a carnival sideshow of it would do some minimal research and conclusively establish just who’s really full of what here:

[February 11, 2008: Another North Korean “sensationalist”]

I’ll give Felix Abt this much–she certainly isn’t floating. Abt claims to have lived and “traveled unaccompanied to even remote provinces of” North Korea at the time this video was taken. Park is 21 now and was 13 when she fled, which would have been around 2006. I wasn’t with Yeonmi Park, so I can’t really prove she’s telling the truth, but I’ve already proven that Abt and Bassett aren’t, and I’m just getting started. Read more

Don Gregg: “I’ve long sensed that Kim Jong-un is going to change the nature of this country.”

“Kim Jong-un is a smart young man, and this was a very smart move,” Donald Gregg, who served terms as a C.I.A. station chief and the U.S. Ambassador in Seoul, said of the release of the detainees. “I’ve long sensed that Kim Jong-un is going to change the nature of this country.” Now retired, Gregg has worked in recent years to promote engagement between the United States and North Korea, including presiding over Ambassador Jang’s appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in October. During a trip to Pyongyang in February, Gregg told me, he met with North Korea’s vice-foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, who told him to expect Kim to open up the country. [Barbara Demick, The New Yorker]

Hey, you can say a lot of things about Pol Pot, but you can’t deny that he changed the nature of his country. If you look at it that way, there’s plenty of evidence that Gregg may be correct–Kim Jong Un is changing the nature of his country, too.

KINU survey: Conditions in N. Korean labor camps worsen

So apparently, that was still possible, then:

The heinous conditions faced by malnourished and overworked North Korean inmates in reeducation camps has led to a growing number of deaths, according to a report released on Thursday. Data from the paper reveals that prisoners within these facilities may be living in an environment prone to egregious human rights violations– just as in political prison camps.

Findings from the report were announced by Lee Keum Soon, Director of the Center for North Korean Human Rights Studies at the Korean Institute for National Unification [KINU], during a session on the state of human rights in re-education camps at the 4th Chaillot Human Rights Forum in Seoul.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 97 defectors who had been incarcerated at Chongori Re-education Camp in Hoeryong, North Hamgyung Province, or Kaechon Re-education Camp in South Pyongan Province up until 2013. [Daily NK]

Someone tell Don Gregg. You can see imagery of Cheongo-ri here, and some of the other labor camps here and here.

Nate Thayer interviews Matthew Todd Miller

It’s a vivid picture of a poorly adjusted man who is completely detached from reality–that is, the archetype of a certain personality type that’s drawn to North Korea. As long as North Korea is a flame to these fluttering moths, we’ll continue to pay for the cost of flying ex-presidents, ex-governors, and high officials to fetch them back.

Suki Kim recalls a “good student” in Pyongyang

Writing in The New York Times, Kim recalls a young North Korean student who made her uncomfortable with his risky questions about government in America:

What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.

That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.

“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”

The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie? [N.Y. Times]

If the student wasn’t a counterintelligence plant, Kim would make one of the more credible cases I’ve yet seen for permissive engagement. Still, there must be other ways of reaching young North Koreans–both inside Pyongyang and beyond–that are less risky for both the teachers and the students.

To know whether the benefits of PUST are worth the risks, I’d have to know how much money PUST is pouring into the regime’s bank accounts, how many other teachers are propagating equally subversive views, how many students get to hear those views, and just how open the students really are to different forms of government. All of those things are unknowable to us.

It’s hard to imagine that PUST has a more favorable cost-benefit ratio than leaflet balloons, much less radio broadcasting.

Source: Megumi Yokota died in a Pyongyang psychiatric ward in 1994

What a sad ending that would be for a 13 year-old girl, guilty of nothing, and taken from a dark street while walking home.

Must read: RFK Center calls for a “rights up front” policy toward N. Korea

The report, by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, along with the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,* calls on the U.S. to defer its pursuit of Agreed Framework III, and instead confront the very reason why Pyongyang shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and why diplomacy with it will continue to fail:

Only when North Korea begins to develop a record of improvement on human rights can it engage with the U.S. on other issues, including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving North Korea’s human rights record should be the litmus test of North Korea’s credibility to engage on other issues. After all, if a government has no regard for the lives of its own people, what regard does it have for the lives of others? What deters it from provoking a war, or proliferating missile technology and weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? [Robert F. Kennedy Center]

In doing so, the report also challenges an exhausted and paralyzed foreign policy establishment that, at least with respect to North Korea, has become a hospice for dying dogma and hasn’t had an original idea since 1989:

For a quarter of a century, U.S. diplomatic strategy has sought to separate and narrow its disagreements with North Korea, to solve them sequentially. Yet the path to solving all of these disagreements is barred by the same obstacle – North Korea’s isolation and secrecy. The agreed framework of 1994 and 2007 agreement both broke down over verification. Similarly, without transparency, the World Food Program cannot monitor the access to food aid, the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot monitor disarmament, and North Korea will deny that its prison camps even exist – including one that is directly adjacent to its nuclear test site. Without transparency, there can be no verification. Transparency in humanitarian matters such as food aid and the treatment of prisoners cannot be sidelined if there is to be a verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

The report recites Pyongyang’s lengthy history of ignoring U.N. requests to cooperate with human rights inquiries—a history that illustrates the disingenuousness of its recent, often inartful, efforts to “engage” the EU and other U.N. member states. Read more

Incompetent translation could cost N. Korean teen his life

The Swedish government has denied the asylum claim of a teenager who claims to be a North Korean from North Hamgyeong Province. The denial is based on a report by a contractor, Sprakab, that failed to identify the teen’s dialect, or the places he named in his interview. A Korean expert hired by Sprakab now claims that the company misquoted her. An appeal is all that stands between the young man’s life and deportation to China, repatriation to North Korea, and almost certain death:

A Korean expert hired to assess the teenager’s dialect by a controversial Swedish linguistic company that evaluates asylum applications told journalists that his strong dialect had left her in no doubt that he came from North Korea.

The company, Sprakab, nevertheless concluded in its report that his dialect did not fit with his story of growing up in North Korea’s northern districts.

The woman, who has not been named, accused the company her of twisting her words in its report. “I never said that he didn’t come from North Korea,”she said. “What they are saying is wrong. It’s ridiculous.”

The teenager has appealed against the decision. “If I go back to North Korea then I will die,” he told Swedish radio.

His lawyer, Arido Dagavro, said he had proof that the places the teenager had mentioned did in fact exist, as well as testimony from other North Korean refugees that he had spoken with a recognisable dialect from North Hamgyong province in recorded interviews.

“It’s obvious that the migration board didn’t have the expertise required to take a decision in this matter,” Degavro said. [The Guardian]

I don’t know any of the facts beyond what’s reported here, but I certainly hope the Swedes aren’t too tone-deaf to what’s happening at the U.N. to deny this young man a carefully considered decision on appeal. If the translation company, Sprakab, screwed this case up, that calls for more training about the circumstances of North Korean refugees at a bare minimum. It may also call for a reevaluation of Sprakab’s contract, and an inquiry into whether Swedish officials pressured Sprakab to deny applications.

To a degree, the error is understandable. Every country considering asylum applications must deal with a large percentage of fraudulent claims—claims that ultimately disadvantage those with legitimate fears of persecution. Governments must learn to distinguish those cases by understanding the circumstances and languages of the claimants.

Hat tip to a reader.

Rev. Kim Dong Shik’s family is appealing the dismissal of its lawsuit against N. Korea

… at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. You can read the appellants’ briefs at this link, and I previously posted the original pleadings here. The District Court dismissed the suit for lack of evidence of torture, despite the fact that at least one North Korean agent was convicted of the kidnapping in a South Korean court. For background information on Kim’s abduction from China and murder in North Korea, see this link.

Victims of terrorism and torture are allowed to sue foreign sponsors of terrorism, including foreign governments, in U.S. courts under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama signed a letter comparing Rev. Kim to Harriet Tubman and Raoul Wallenberg, and promised to oppose removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism unless it accounted for Rev. Kim, which it never has. In 2008, when President Bush announced his decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, presidential candidate Barack Obama supported the move, saying this:

Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward.

Today, 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.”

In 2007, President Obama said, “[O]ne of the enemies we have to fight — it’s not just terrorists, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas — it’s also cynicism.” I don’t know about you, but President Obama’s cynicism about terrorism has certainly made me more cynical.

Dennis Halpin: North Korea is the new “sick man of Asia”

Just as a prosperous and powerful Europe grappled for decades, ultimately unsuccessfully, over what to do about its weakest link, the strong and prosperous Pacific powers have faced, so far unsuccessfully, the dilemma of a weak but nuclear-armed North Korea. A series of diplomatic formulae, including the Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, and, most recently, the aborted Leap Day Agreement of 2012, have all come to naught. Pyongyang, like Constantinople, seems on perpetual life support, gasping for air but never quite expiring. [The Weekly Standard]

FATF and FINCEN again call for “countermeasures” against N. Korean money laundering

If you will permit me to extend a metaphor for North Korea’s stature in the world of global finance, Pyongyang may have been invited to one Boy Scout jamboree, but it’s still on the sex offender registry. If anything, it has reached a co-equal status with Iran:

Since June 2014, the DPRK has further engaged directly with the FATF and APG to discuss its AML/CFT deficiencies. The FATF urges the DPRK to continue its cooperation with the FATF and to provide a high-level political commitment to the action plan developed with the FATF.

The FATF remains concerned by the DPRK’s failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF urges the DPRK to immediately and meaningfully address its AML/CFT deficiencies.

The FATF reaffirms its 25 February 2011 call on its members and urges all jurisdictions to advise their financial institutions to give special attention to business relationships and transactions with the DPRK, including DPRK companies and financial institutions. In addition to enhanced scrutiny, the FATF further calls on its members and urges all jurisdictions to apply effective counter-measures to protect their financial sectors from money laundering and financing of terrorism (ML/FT) risks emanating from the DPRK. Jurisdictions should also protect against correspondent relationships being used to bypass or evade counter-measures and risk mitigation practices, and take into account ML/FT risks when considering requests by DPRK financial institutions to open branches and subsidiaries in their jurisdiction. [FATF Public Statement, Oct. 24, 2014]

Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Center followed that statement with its own advisory today.

Claudia Rosett hopes the Obama Administration won’t screw up Iran …

policy with a bad deal the same way the Clinton and Bush Administrations screwed up North Korea policy with their own bad deals. Rosett isn’t the only one making the comparison:

“Like North Korea in the 1990s, Iran will use a weak deal as cover to get nuclear weapons,” said Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a prominent skeptic of the negotiations. [CNN]

The historical record yields little cause for optimism, and the common thread that runs through much of that record is Wendy Sherman. In an exquisite understatement, CNN says that President Obama wants a nuclear deal with Iran to burnish his legacy because he “lacks a defining foreign policy triumph.”

No doubt, George W. Bush was thinking the same thing in February 2007, and I doubt that Bush’s presidential library devotes much space to Agreed Framework II. That may help explain why most observers agree that Obama isn’t about to stick his neck out for Agreed Framework III, and why the President himself shows no interest in doing so. If his policy shifts, it will shift in the opposite direction, either at Congress’s initiative or (ironically) the U.N.’s.

If the shape of the Iran debate is any indication of where the North Korea debate is headed, the Republican takeover in the Senate suggests that Congress will be skeptical about agreements and more active on sanctions legislation. Whether you believe that Congress will push North Korea policy depends on whether you believe Yonhap’s American experts, who say nothing will change, or the Joongang Ilbo‘s sources in the Korean foreign policy establishment, who worry that “[s]anctions on the North could be tightened.” As if that’s a bad thing.

The actual answer will depend on events. If Kim Jong Un does something stupid enough, or if U.N. action builds a big enough head of steam, Congress will put a bill on the President’s desk. The President probably won’t veto it, but the real question will be whether he enforces it.

World Food Program won’t quit N. Korea, yet

“We are no longer in danger of closing our operations in DPRK at the end of this year,” [the WFP’s regional spokeswoman] said in an email late last week from her office in Bangkok. “We have received enough donations or promises of donations to enable us to reach the full caseload of 1.1 million women and children per month until the end of March 2015.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

She added, however, that the operation is only 40 percent funded and said “more funds are urgently needed to maintain the operation” after next March. [AP]

I wonder if they’ve asked Kim Jong Un to make a contribution, or would that be too forward?

Meanwhile, the regime that has begun to export rice and fish has just cut potato rations. So which is it—“the worst drought in years” (via Reuters) or “closer to the self-sufficiency level than [North Korea] has seen in years” (via the AP, reporting from a model collective farm)? It’s hard to believe that both statements could be true.

Nate Thayer: AP Pyongyang missed the hostage release story.

Freelance journalist Nate Thayer reminds me of the latest example of a Pyongyang story that wasn’t reported by AP Pyongang—the release of two U.S. hostages, reported from Washington:

This is not the first time: The explosions of nuclear weapons tests; ballistic missile firings; several executions of regime leaders who fell out of favour; military attacks on neighboring countries; launches of internationally banned satellites; detailed reporting of despicable human rights policies; and numerous other stories have all been first reported by news agencies outside of North Korea.

The AP’s primary competitor, Reuters, has consistently scooped the AP on virtually every major news story regarding North Korea since the AP opened its exclusive bureau in January 2012–often with considerably more substance, independent credible sources, and context.

To be completely fair, the attacks of 2010 came before the AP opened its Pyongyang Bureau, although there have been some smaller incidents since then. (And don’t forget that fatal building collapse that happened just a few blocks away from their bureau!)

The broader point stands—more than three years after it signed its (still undisclosed) MOUs with the Korea Central News Agency, AP Pyongyang has reported no news that is exclusive, and nothing exclusive that is news.

Daniel Drezner, on the fall of the Berlin Wall

The thing about the collapse of the East German regime is how sudden it was. I was in East Berlin in the fall of 1989, and there was no inkling of a regime in trouble. Compared to other Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, East Germany’s civil society movement was much smaller and more fragmented.  East Germany’s protests grew out of a weekly prayer vigil in Leipzig in the fall of 1989, but according to Sarotte, the Stasi estimated that there were only a few hundred activists in the entire city at that time. In other words, despite structural reasons for the regime to be concerned, the most extensive domestic intelligence apparatus in the world couldn’t predict the outbreak of mass protests. [Washington Post]