In its losing battle against N. Korean proliferation, State Dep’t whacks 2 more moles

Yonhap reports that the State Department has sanctioned two North Korean trading companies under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, a narrow counterproliferation statute entombed in the notes following the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, at the end of Title 50.

The firms are Polestar Trading Company, Ltd., a North Korean entity in China, and RyonHap-2, a trading firm in the North, were among a total of 22 entities sanctioned by the State Department under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the department said in a Federal Register notice.

Affiliated with the North’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences, Pyongyang’s main weapons development agency, RyonHap-2 is believed to be involved in weapons exports and parts procurements. [Yonhap]

According to the State Department’s Federal Register notice, the designation means that the sanctioned entities are ineligible for U.S. government contracts, foreign assistance, or military sales (that’ll show ’em!). Oh, and if you were planning on asking the Commerce Department for a license to export anything controlled under the Export Administration Act to Polestar or RyonHap-2, tough luck — for two years, anyway.

Yes, that’s right. As little as these particular sanctions do, the State Department imposed them for just two years, the minimum amount of time allowable under the law.

Here’s the part of Yonhap’s report that made me do a facepalm, however:

But the U.S. Treasury Department maintains more comprehensive sanctions on counties like North Korea and Iran. About 70 North Korean individuals agencies, entities, and vessels are on the department’s Specially Designated Nationals’ list. [Yonhap]

The second sentence is true, but misleading. The first is false. I’ll take them in inverse order. North Korea sanctions are not comprehensive and are not remotely comparable to those in place against Iran. I emailed the reporter, and asked what expert opinion or authority formed the basis of this statement; I received no response. I submit that a journalist who undertakes to write legal conclusions into her reporting undertakes an obligation to find an authoritative source or a legal expert to support her conclusion. (A foreign policy expert doesn’t count, unless he has performed or reviewed a legal analysis.) It is journalistic malpractice to publish a legal conclusion that lacks a foundation in legal authority.

Finally, a small point of order on the relationship between the INKSNA and the blocking of assets by Treasury: an INKSNA designation doesn’t necessarily add the sanctioned entity to the Treasury Department’s SDN list, which would tell banks around the world to block the entity’s property and assets. It’s certainly possible (and one hopes, inevitable) that Treasury will designate Polestar and RyonHap-2 under any of three executive orders (13382, 13551, or 13687) in the coming days, but according to Treasury’s SDN search tool, and its list of recent changes to the SDN List, that hasn’t happened yet. As it stands, then, the Yonhap report also leaves the reader with the impression that Polestar and RyonHap-2 are blocked in the financial system, which isn’t true.

To call these half-measures would be a gross exaggeration. Our losing game of whack-a-mole against Kim Jong-Un goes on.

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BBC “plans” daily broadcasts to N. Korea, but plans cost money

Having been fooled once before, I wasn’t about to accept that BBC was going to begin broadcasting to North Korea simply because Time, The Guardian, AFP, and The Financial Times say so. Digging further, these reports all cite this report on a speech by Director General Tony Hall on the beeb’s plans for next year. Buried deep within that report is a plan for “significant investment” in the BBC World Service, “including a daily news programme for North Korea.” But plans are one thing; operations are another:

“The BBC is trying to justify its public funding by showing that it can do something political that the private sector wouldn’t do,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a senior research fellow specializing in both Koreas at Leeds University. “It’s a clever move and will earn political brownie points, but it won’t happen without government money. The North Korean government would be furious.”

Michael Glendinning, who has campaigned for the launch of a BBC service in the so-callled hermit kingdom, is just as skeptical.

He points out that a BBC report, titled The Future of News, from earlier this year mentioned that there would be such a proposal, but it would require between £900,000 ($1.4 million) and £1.2 million in funding from the government per year according to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). [Bloomberg]

What I cannot understand for the life of me is why the government of the United Kingdom gives a wet sack of guano what the government of North Korea thinks. The two states have almost no trade relations — indeed, no mutual interests that I can think of.

No doubt, the likes of Glyn Ford and Hazel Smith would gladly exercise their rights to free expression to demand that the North Korean people be denied theirs, but is the Foreign Office really so afraid of getting angry letters from them? There is a certain academic constituency that loves to talk about engagement with North Korea, right up to the point that transformational and subversive ideas make contact with the wavering and hostile classes — the very people who are the most likely to respond to those ideas.

For the time being, broadcasting is the closest we’re likely to get to “engagement” and “people-to-people” contact with those North Koreans who might hope for a life without 6 a.m. criticism sessions, paying MPS agents not to confiscate their stall merchandise, and dusting the portraits of obese men before seeing their stunted children off to school. Governments come and go. It is the people of nations who endure, and who remember who stood with them when things were worst. So long as nations fail to engage the people of North Korea, engagement will continue to fall on deaf ears, and to fail.

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N. Korea Glasnost Watch: Video shows men sent to camps for copying American movies

The Telegraph has obtained guerrilla footage of two men, one 27 and one 30, being tried and sentenced to nine months in a labor camp for copying and selling American movies.

The North Korean judge, or official, says that one of the defendants is “a person immersed in the corrupt ideology of capitalism” and tells the crowd that the criminal acts were “revealed by agents in South Korea operated by our party.”
During the full 12 minutes of footage, filmed secretly by an onlooker and seen exclusively by the Telegraph, neither man is given the chance to speak, and both are sentenced to time in an unnamed correctional labour camp. The exact length of the sentence appears to be around nine months – experts say around one to two years is common.

Not stated in the article is that the men aggravated their crime by failing to pay a sufficient bribe to avoid trial entirely.

The footage is from September 2013, and the cameraman who took it obviously did so at great risk. With the recent crackdown on border control, it has become much harder to get information in or out of North Korea. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) and New Focus International teamed up to smuggle the video out and get it into the hands of the media. Michael Glendenning, EAHRNK’s Director, comments:

“This video is in itself very rare – very few bits of footage are able to get out of North Korea. But also, public trials are extremely rarely reported outside North Korea,” he said.

“This video corroborates the vast evidence from witnesses’ testimony that there is no judicial system to speak of. People are denied access to lawyers, or any right to defend themselves, and are sentenced without any knowledge of what their sentence will be, in terms of length, or where they will end up. It demonstrates the brutality of the North Korean system.”

Footage like this is incalculably important for corroborating the testimonies of defectors, for increasing international pressure on the regime and those who help finance and perpetuate it, and as a deterrent against repressive actions like these. If cameras become ubiquitous enough that Pyongyang reasonably fears that its repressive acts will be filmed and shown abroad, it will face pressure to reconsider its actions for fear of greater international isolation.

In related news, the Daily NK reports that Pyongyang granted a Liberation Day amnesty to “thousands” of prisoners in its labor-reeducation camps. It arrives at this estimate by extrapolating from the number of releases observed in local areas. These are the smaller kyo-hwa-seo, not the larger kwan-li-so political prison camps. Those watching for signs of political change will be disappointed:

The first batch of released prisoners mainly consisted of petty economic criminals, robbers, violent offenders, and those who injured others while driving due to carelessness, he explained. Notably, the first cohort did not include a single prisoner arrested by the State Security Department [SSD] for what are considered “political crimes.” The second amnesty wave, set to take place at 5 prisons, is slated to follow the same pattern as the first: that is, political prison camp [kwanliso] detainees will remain exempt from amnesty. [Daily NK]

In other words, the regime is releasing people sentenced for acts that would be crimes in normal societies, even as it continues to arrest and hold people for thoughtcrimes, and other offenses against the state’s totalitarian control.

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For Pyongyang, Korean War II is a war of more limited objectives

To Kim Il-Sung, Korean War I was a principally conventional and unlimited war whose goal was the unitary domination of the entire Korean Peninsula by force. To Kim Jong-Un, Korean War II is a war of skirmishes, whose less ambitious aim is hegemony over a supine and finlandized South Korea. Korea has changed dramatically since 1953. It should not surprise us that Pyongyang has adapted its strategy and objectives to fit this new reality. For Pyongyang today, survival is the first prerequisite to hegemony.

Pyongyang instigated many skirmishes between 1953 and 2009, but Korean War II, with its current strategies and objectives, began with the attacks of 2010. It is a war of more limited objectives. In the short term, Pyongyang seeks to weaken and threaten Seoul politically and economically, while solidifying its support at home. Its strategies against the South include information operations, cyberwarfare, extortion, and the exploitation of the aforementioned through the skillful negotiation of economic and political concessions. At home, it seeks to preserve and strengthen its political system by enriching and terrorizing the loyal classes, and by keeping the wavering and hostile classes too hungry, afraid, and exhausted to do anything but grow corn and mine coal. Abroad, it seeks hard currency, to weaken the impact of international sanctions and criticism, to neutralize emerging political threats, and to prevent the formation of alliances against it. Viewed this way, Pyongyang has been strikingly successful in achieving its more limited goals. In fact, it had achieved most of them in the years between 2003 and 2008, when Seoul provided it billions in regime-sustaining aid and a degree of protection from international criticism. Pyongyang’s medium-term goal would likely have involved the removal of some U.S. forces,* the effective abrogation of the U.S.-Korea alliance, and the finlandization of South Korea into the North’s cash cow, while the North used nationalistic information operations to achieve spiritual and political supremacy over the South. Only in the very long term would it have any hope of dominating the South, and only through a gradual process of confederation.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly does not believe that his squalid little kingdom, whose population is half as much as that of the South, is capable of conquering and digesting his target today. The lack of fuel alone would stop a conventional invasion in a week or two. If his shriveled soldiers ever reached the markets of Musan and Kangneung, all the lies they’ve been told would be laid bare. He probably does believe that the growing striking power of his rocket artillery, missiles, and nuclear weapons, will increasingly shield him from retaliation for attacks of rising intensity. That’s why I expect Korean War II to intensify in the coming years, and quite possibly, before this year ends. Those attacks have a domestic political purpose, which I explained here, and external purposes. In 2010, those attacks concentrated on the waters near the Han Estuary and Incheon, near South Korea’s most vital sea lanes. In 2014, they included a potentially catastrophic cyberattack on South Korea’s nuclear power infrastructure. Last month’s attack may not have fully developed, but it frightened investors and underlined the risk premium that retards South Korea’s economy. For South Korean voters, business interests, and politicians, the temptation to ignore, deny, or appease these threats must be great. Pyongyang is counting on that.

Two weeks ago, I again raised the question of whether Kim Jong Un is rational and stable. Events since then have answered that question in the affirmative. Pyongyang has chosen its targets and strategies carefully enough to convince me that it is following a rational strategy. It has nibbled at the flanks of South Korea’s security, while avoiding (at least, for now) an all-out war it can’t win. With each attack, the deterrence of U.S. Forces Korea has become more irrelevant. With the rising potential of the KN-08 to strike the United States, the U.S. will increasingly hesitate to involve itself in North-South disputes, and the U.S.-Korea alliance will be marginalized. Pyongyang’s message for Seoul is that Seoul can only get security by buying it from Pyongyang.

In 2010, when Korean War II began in earnest, I first argued that information operations and financial sanctions would be more effective deterrents to these skirmishes than a military response. I continue to believe that a limited war would serve Kim Jong-Un’s political objectives, by allowing him to portray himself as the architect of a defensive military victory. Indeed, he is trying this very thing now, although it’s not clear that the strategy has been entirely successful. Yonhap, citing KCNA, reports that Kim Jong-Un recently fired some more officials, although it isn’t clear that this decision came after or because of the border standoff. After all, Kim Jong-Un was purging officials before August 4th. Still, the AP’s Hung-Jin Kim editorializes that the dismissals suggest that “the young leader holds them responsible for allowing the confrontation to nearly spin out of control.” In fact, it’s not clear that Kim Jong-Un agrees that the confrontation nearly spun out of control, or that he was even unhappy with the outcome. The Daily NK also publishes an anecdotal report that some North Koreans view their government’s expression of “regret” as an admission, a climb-down, and proof that “the authorities are capable of admitting their faults.” If Pyongyang concludes that it lost face (perhaps “awe” is the right word here) in the eyes of its subjects, it may feel compelled to launch an even greater provocation before the year ends.

I’ve denigrated the use of propaganda loudspeakers as a part of this deterrent strategy; after all, loudspeakers can’t reach a large enough audience to make a significant difference in the opinions of North Koreans. Last month’s events cause me to reconsider this judgment. It’s now evident to me — and to others, like Victor Cha, Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times,** and Alastair Gale and Jeyup S. Kwaak of the Wall Street Journal — that the loudspeakers put significant political pressure on the regime. All three links are well worth reading in their entirety; so is this Joongang Ilbo interview with former South Korean psy-ops specialists, who put the content of the propaganda content into the context of a wider strategy.

If one accepts that this is so, it’s equally clear that an information strategy that reaches deeper into North Korea would be an even greater deterrent. There are some cell phone signal technologies that would allow a signal to reach as far as 50 miles. It’s conceivable, then, that South Korea could build high cell phone towers (or send up balloons) along the DMZ to allow the free flow of cell signals from Pyongyang to Busan. At the flip of a switch, North Koreans would have the technical ability to call relatives in the South, the information blockade would be perforated, and the North would face a severe challenge to redouble the phone-tracing offensive it has carried out along the Chinese border. Even if the switch is not flipped, these towers could be a powerful deterrent to attacks.

That is why, contra Aidan Foster-Carter, I think it’s still too early to say who won the last skirmish in the longer war. That will depend on terms yet to be negotiated. Although Park Geun-Hye didn’t negotiate a particularly good armistice to Korean War II last week, she did win by the only measure that really matters to her — the polls. The ROK military has also used the standoff for its own domestic propaganda. The agreement, by itself, did little to alter the status quo ante. If Park lifts sanctions or gives aid because of a sequence of events that started with an armed North Korean attack, South Korea will be the loser in the long run. If the outcome shifts the domestic political fortunes of either side, that could also shift the short-term advantage.

~   ~   ~

* Most likely, just those that threaten it, such as air, naval, and missile defense units. Some level of U.S.-Korea alliance, such as a force structure that keeps American infantry and civilians within range of its rocket artillery, increases Pyongyang’s leverage over the United States. At the same time, an infantry-heavy force represents little real threat to Pyongyang.

** Choe should have known better than to call this the “Hello Kitty” offensive. Hello Kitty, of all sacrileges, is Japanese. “Siren strategy” would have been far better.

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Agreed Framework III Watch: Syd Seiler steps down

Yonhap is reporting that Syd Seiler, the State Department’s Special Envoy to the long-defunct six-party denuclearization talks, has stepped down and returned to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The move was unexpected enough that an e-mail from a Yonhap reporter to Seiler bounced back, with an out-of-office message saying that Seiler was “moving on to [his] next assignment.”

A diplomatic insider in Washington said, “The departure of one of the most trustworthy experts on North Korea seems to suggest that the Obama administration does not place much weight on improving relations with North Korea.”

Pundits had predicted that North Korea would be next on the agenda after Washington concluded a denuclearization agreement with Iran.

But insiders believe Seiler’s position may be left vacant after he leaves. [Chosun Ilbo]

How Seiler’s departure affects the prospects for Agreed Framework III could be interpreted in different ways. My view is that Seiler brought a great deal of Korea knowledge, experience, and authority to the White House and the State Department, and would not have left if he believed that he would have an important role in Korea policy during the administration’s final year. His recent public comments also revealed his pessimism about North Korea’s interest in a deal. Seiler was rumored to be one of the tougher minds in this administration. As a moderate, Seiler might have been a more effective salesman for a deal than some of his State Department peers.

If the administration were not preoccupied with Iran, and if it had more time and political support, the departure of an influential moderate like Seiler could have broken the gridlock in favor of the soft-liners. It’s hard to see a deal happening at this stage, however.

One could also say that Seiler’s departure represents little more than the turning of the political seasons. At the end of an administration, political appointees and those in senior policy-making roles are expected to resign, and those who have not already found work risk unemployment when the next administration begins. As an administration enters its seventh year (or its third, if it’s polling especially badly) political appointees begin to seek employment that will carry them beyond the end of the administration. If Seiler managed to keep one foot in the career civil service, where he would be protected from the effects of a transfer of power, it only makes sense that he would return there now.

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Brit pleads guilty to smuggling North Korean meth into U.S.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has issued a press release announcing the guilty plea of Scott Stammers, for conspiring to smuggle 100 kilograms of 99% pure North Korean meth from the Philippines to New York. The press release implies, but does not directly state, that the North Korean government itself knowingly sold the meth to Chinese gangsters, who sold the drugs to Stammers.

As Tan Lim explained, his criminal organization was the only one currently able to obtain methamphetamine from North Korea: “Because before, there were eight [other criminal organizations]. But now only us, we have the NK [i.e., North Korea] product. . . . [I]t’s only us who can get from NK.” Tan Lim further explained that, because of recent international tensions, the North Korean government had destroyed some methamphetamine labs, leaving behind only the labs of Tan Lim’s organization: “And all the, the NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they [the North Korean government] are not selling it any more, they burned it. Then they transfer to another base.” In anticipation of these geo-political complications, Tan Lim noted that his organization had stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamine in the Philippines for storage. [USAO, SNDY]

The ultimate retailer was to be the Outlaw motorcycle gang. Stammers is now looking at a minimum sentence of 10 years and a potential life sentence. I previously posted on the arrests of Stammers and the other defendants here.

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Can Hollywood still make movies about North Korea? We’re about to find out.

Via Deadline Hollywood:

Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim and his CBS-based production company 3AD are partnering with Sriram Das’ Das Films (November Man) to develop Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea: Defiance And Hope In The World’s Most Repressive Country, as a feature film. Rosalind Ross (Matador) is attached to pen the adaptation, and the South Korean-born Daniel Dae Kim will star as Mike Kim (no relation).

The 2008 memoir chronicles a first-hand account of a high-risk mission to lead a group of refugees over the North Korean border through Southeast Asia using a modern-day Underground Railroad. Over the course of his four years in Asia, Mike Kim would end up aiding thousands of people of all ages find safe haven through his humanitarian missions. The project is timely given the recent border standoff and escalation in tensions between North and South Korea.

Yes, and by the time it’s released, it will be timely for some other reason. Maybe, let’s say, a nuke test. Or an artillery attack on a leaflet launch. Or a large, suspicious explosion somewhere in South Korea. Oh, here’s a good one — how about a cyberattack on 3AD studios and a threat against every movie theater that shows this movie?

Those damn disgruntled insiders — you never know when they’ll show up. No, seriously — I sure hope CBS and 3AD invest in some good cybersecurity, like now. Because, welcome to the age of global censorship, when in a small but very real sense, we’re all the subjects of Kim Jong-Un.

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Koreas agree to fight another day

They came, they talked, and they signed, but they solved nothing. Plus or minus one piece of paper, three severed legs, and an implicit promise of payment, we are where we were on the morning of August 4th, when Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon embarked on their fateful patrol.

As I predicted hours before the deal was announced, Pyongyang didn’t apologize, and Seoul will continue to pay. The loudspeakers will be switched off. There will not be an all-out war, and probably never would have been. The limited, incremental war will resume, only at a time and place more to Pyongyang’s advantage.

My guess is that most analysts who prefer not to label the Ikes and the Tinas will be pleased that “both sides” found a “face-saving” way to “de-escalate” a situation that one of the sides created with malice aforethought, and will now use for its financial and political benefit, but I can’t see how we’re any closer to lasting peace or security.

So, what was agreed? Six things, as printed by the North’s KCNA, and translated by Yonhap.

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

That reads like an implicit promise of a payoff to me, and to South Korea’s business lobby. It’s a sure bet Pyongyang will read it that way, too. If so, Park Geun-Hye will give the North direct or indirect aid, or lift sanctions imposed after North Korea’s attack in 2010, for which it still hasn’t apologized. That would amount to Seoul throwing money at Pyongyang for maiming two of its soldiers, and for promising not to maim many more of them.

Or, Park Geun-Hye may, on reflection, grasp that such transparent appeasement in the face of extortion creates a perverse incentive, and refuse to pay up without getting something more tangible in return. This is, after all, only an agreement to “hold talks.” If the talks end in an agreement, it would be as subject to reinterpretation as any other deal with North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un doesn’t get his payday, he may feel justified in making further threats and provocations. He might even feel compelled to make them. Either alternative makes further violence seem more, not less, likely.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

Before this agreement was signed, President Park had demanded “a clear apology and promises not to stage any provocations.” Although Park’s National Security Advisor doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, Park got neither one. Instead, she got a Shinzo Abe Special —  a vague non-apology that it was “regrettable that some South Korean soldiers were injured by a land mine explosion that occurred in the south.” Here, the original Korean and how we translate it matters:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.21.34 PM

[via The Oranckay]

Anyone could see that an apology wasn’t likely without much more pressure and patience, and if Park wasn’t willing to apply them, she shouldn’t have gone public with those demands. The difference between an apology and an expression of regret is much more than semantic. It’s the all-important difference between “we’re sorry we did a bad thing” and “a shame that bad thing happened to you.” The North Koreans aren’t sorry, and aren’t admitting anything. Instead, they’re saying that last week’s events “taught South Korea an important lesson not to cook up a story about provocations by the North.” “We didn’t do it” is as good as “we’ll do it again.”

An apology implies contrition and a change in the actor’s behavior; an expression of regret (Korean: yugam) accepts no fault or duty. If you think the difference doesn’t matter, you aren’t familiar with the bitter historical controversies between Japan (on one hand) and Korea and China (on the other). Read the coverage of that issue in the Korean and Chinese press, and you’d think that Japan had never apologized for the crimes it committed against the Korean and Chinese people. That isn’t the case, but the subsequent words and acts of Japanese leaders have called the sincerity of those apologies into question. Recently, Japanese leaders have offered vague statements of regret instead. Koreans know the difference, and they know that North Korea didn’t apologize.

Of course, any newspaper reader will tell you that North Korea doesn’t do sorry. The last time it even expressed regret, after all, was after Operation Paul Bunyan. Yet even then, Kim Il-Sung at least promised not to provoke first.

Some have suggested that Pyongyang’s expression of regret will cause His Porcine Majesty to lose face, and might even destabilize his regime. That seems fanciful to me. I doubt that Kim Jong-Un would have printed the whole agreement in KCNA if “face” concerned him. In a must-read analysis for the Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale writes:

[A]fter walking away from the latest negotiations with a deal that is likely to be portrayed as a victory domestically, Mr. Kim appears to have mastered the provocation playbook.

“He’s very skilled. In some ways, I think he is an even greater dictator than his dad,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. [WSJ]

Well, someone is, and that someone lives in Pyongyang, not Seoul.

Importantly for Pyongyang, “I regret that thing happened” is also compatible with denial.

In return, North Korea expressed regret—but didn’t apologize—over the explosion of land mines this month that severed the legs of two South Korean soldiers, an incident that prompted Seoul to respond by broadcasting the cross-border propaganda messages.

Investigations by South Korea and the United Nations military command found North Korea responsible for the mine attack. Under the deal, Pyongyang is able to continue to deny involvement. [WSJ]

After all, North Korea has privately expressed regret for the sinking of the Cheonan, but publicly, it still denies having anything to do with it, as do its apologists. Pyongyang’s sympathizers here were quick to seize on the fact that this was not an apology, because that gives them cover to continue to deny Pyongyang’s guilt. In America, this may be a fringe view, but it won’t be in South Korea. The empowerment of North Korea’s apologists is an important part of the political war between North and South.

In the end, the difference between apology and regret matters because of what it says about the prospects for peace. An admission and an apology — along with the acceptance of some consequence for one’s crime — is part of the justice victims deserve, and a necessary assurance that it won’t easily be repeated. Japan’s expressions of regret are, perhaps rightfully, rejected decades after the fact, yet North Korea’s “regret” is accepted uncritically. Ethno-nationalism plays a part in this, but so does South Korea’s relief at the relaxation of terror. That’s how blackmail works.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

I don’t want to make too much of this, because blaring K-pop and propaganda at a few hundred conscripts was never going to change the course of history. Nor do I want to make too little of this, because the North’s hyperbolic reaction suggests that it was very afraid of what the South had to say.

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman says in a slow, deliberate voice emanating from one of the banks of 48 speakers set up along the South Korean side of the military demarcation line. The messages can travel about 12 miles at night and about half that during the day, well into North Korean territory.

Another message notes that Kim Jong Un, who took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011, hasn’t yet traveled abroad or met a single foreign leader.

“President Park Geun-hye has .?.?. visited many countries since she became the president, including three visits to China,” one of the recorded messages says, referring to the South Korean president and her close relationship with Beijing, North Korea’s supposed patron. “However, Kim Jong Un hasn’t visited any other countries in the three-plus years since he became leader.”

At other times, the speakers play peppy southern K-pop songs like “Tell Me Your Wish” by Girls’ Generation. (“Tell me your wish, tell me your little dream, imagine your ideal type in your head, and look at me, I’m your genie, your dream, your genie.”) [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

There has been a rash of defections by North Korean soldiers recently, and their morale isn’t good, but it’s hard to know how messages like these affect morale and readiness, or whether they can help prevent war by persuading soldiers not to fight. The North calls “[p]sychological warfare . . . an open act of war against it.” This tactic clearly touched a nerve. It’s probably not the loudspeakers that North Korea fears, but the precedent. It fears that Seoul will use information operations as a deterrent through a more effective challenge to its control over information, such as radio broadcasting, or the expansion of independent cellular signals.

“For the North Koreans, the broadcasts are dangerous because this is about the survival of the regime,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator who has sat across the table from North Koreans on many occasions. [WaPo]

In his book, Dear Leader, Jang Jin-Sung describes his work inside the United Front Department, Pyongyang’s propaganda agency, with a well-staffed and well-equipped branch that runs a sophisticated propaganda operation inside South Korea, using every medium available to it. Jang, who defected to South Korea in 2004, probably knows more about the importance of propaganda to Pyongyang than anyone available to us.

[W]e must remember that the Supreme Leader Centred political system of the DPRK was constructed with lies, and its maintenance depends on it. The psychological dissonance brought on by confrontation with reality, in such a setup, is not to be underestimated.

That is also why the North Korean leadership is sensitive to and adamantly opposed to broadcasting and flows of information from the outside. The North Korean people today are no longer as they were under the reigns of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. While the Supreme Leader has grown younger, the people have become more mature. Today, the worth of the Supreme Leader’s divinity does not stack up to one dollar of foreign currency in the marketplaces.

People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty.

Although South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasting is of a lesser intensity than in the past, the North Korean regime of the third generation is weaker than it was in the past, and the impact of the blow will be correspondingly greater. In fact, proclaiming an intention to declare war in response to cross-border broadcasting is tantamount to proclaiming how a Supreme Commander cannot trust even his frontline troops.

It is in the interest not only of North Koreans, but also of the South Korean people, to broadcast information across all of North Korea. For those nations whose quality of peacetime is what is great and cherished, piercing a border in this way – not with guns but with words of truth – is the most efficient way to bring parties to negotiations, and to achieve lasting security, co-prosperity and co-operation. A nation whose quality of peacetime is cherished must not fear responding accordingly to military provocation. [New Focus International]

Read the whole thing. Freedom of information, including the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday’s agreement was a step toward ceding that right on behalf of the North Korean people. When traded for the demobilization of the North Korean military, it gives me a vague unease that non-violent speech is now equated with threats of violence.

There is also the matter of mutuality. The Il Shim Hue spy ring, for example, ran a well-placed influence operation. It appears to have penetrated U.S. Forces, Korea and the Blue House, and attempted to manipulate elections. Does the South Korean NIS run influence operations in the North? I obviously don’t know the whole story, but I doubt that its operations are equally effective. North Korea more-or-less regularly broadcasts propaganda into South Korea through stations such as the Voice of Korea. The North didn’t agree to stop that, or to uproot its influence operation in South Korea. So let the South turn off the loudspeakers, but don’t concede the wider information war.

4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

What’s noticeable here is what the two sides did not agree — not to resume Korean War II at a place, time, and intensity level more to Pyongyang’s liking. Such an agreement might have been a perfect real-world test of a peace treaty, lacking only the things Pyongyang and its sympathizers really want — the lifting of sanctions and de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

The partial demobilization will still reassure many people; there was always some risk that Seoul’s response to the original provocation would escalate unpredictably. Of course, Seoul could have eliminated that risk entirely by doing what it did in 2010: nothing. Seoul made a decision that some level of response was necessary to protect its security, and that the attendant risk was greater than the risk of doing nothing.

Today’s deal, however, contained no security guarantees for Seoul — not that those would have been worth the paper they were printed on. Seoul probably feels safer, but isn’t. The cycle will repeat, and we are still in a state that is neither all-out war nor peace. The cycles will deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear development and its new long-range rocket artillery shift the balance of terror in Pyongyang’s favor, or until the North Korean state collapses. Current trends suggest that the former contingency is far more likely than the latter.

5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.

I’ve never liked the word “reunion” for the torturous procedure of which we speak here. The North Korean minders who listen to every word are very nearly ventriloquists to their captives; the captives themselves are hostages to Pyongyang’s message discipline. It must be better than nothing. It must be heartbreaking.

6. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields. 

It’s hard to object to something so vague, and without knowing whether money will change hands.

I’ll let the Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale close this out:

North Korea observers said the agreement is unlikely to break the cycle of threats of violence Pyongyang uses to win aid and security guarantees. It also underscores Seoul’s willingness to make strategic sacrifices in the hope of a more stable relationship with its volatile rival.

In many ways, the latest crisis resembles prior confrontations: a swift attack, followed by fears of an escalation of conflict. A resolution is then found through dialogue, with little cost to North Korea for its aggression. Typically, resolutions are portrayed inside North Korea as victories against hostile forces, bolstering support for its leader.  [WSJ]

At the end of the day, the opposing parties in Seoul were high-fiving and back-slapping, and Washington was relieved that this story would soon fade from the headlines for a while. What no one seems to be saying is that we’re any closer to solving the deeper problem. 

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Korean War II: It’s (probably) over for now, but it’s not over

They came, they talked, and they solved nothing, but after a tense weekend, at least Korea is not at war. As of this writing, it looks like representatives of the two Korean governments will continue to talk and solve nothing, except to calm South Korea’s foreign investors. The North will not admit that it laid the mines that forever maimed Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon, the South will eventually relent on blaring propaganda to a few hundred captive North Korean conscripts, and the North will continue to disseminate its propaganda inside South Korea in far more efficient ways. Eventually, Pyongyang will demobilize the army to help with the harvest. In a year, hardly anyone will remember this week.

Except, of course, for Kim Jung-Won and Ha Jae-Heon.

I’ve always been interested in the chronology of North Korea’s provocation cycles. As an analogue to recent events, the cycle that interests me most is the one leading up to the attack on the Cheonan in March 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that November. A review of the history preceding those attacks shows that although the first seven months of 2009 were filled with provocations, Pyongyang was relatively conciliatory for the rest of the year, and the early months of 2010 were a time of relative (and ultimately, deceptive) calm.

President Obama began 2009 with an inauguration speech that offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As if to reaffirm that peace is anathema to a regime founded on isolation and conflict, North Korea responded with a familiar cycle of provocations — a missile test (April), a nuclear test (May), a U.N. Security Council resolution (June) answered with another round of missile tests (July). Also during this period, the North Koreans announced that they had begun (April) and completed (November) reprocessing a batch of plutonium at Yongbyon — all in flagrant violation of George W. Bush’s deathbed accord of 2007, known here as Agreed Framework 2.0.

In August, North Korea released journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to Bill Clinton, released a South Korean businessman it had detained at Kaesong, and sent a high-level delegation to the funeral of Kim Dae-Jung (whose widow Kim Jong-Un very recently snubbed). In November, North Korea called on the U.S. to accept bilateral talks. These developments caused some journalists and analysts to declare a “charm offensive.”

(The other significant event of this period was the Great Confiscation of December 2009, which appears to have caused a degree of internal unrest in North Korea. I do not overlook this as another potential explanation for North Korea’s subsequent conduct. Over the last summer, there was also a spike in reports of internal dissent and resistance in the North.)

Then came January 2010, and North Korea’s New Year speech. Analysis of it followed the formula that “vagueness times mendacity divided by selection bias times preconception plus confirmation bias equals garbage with the predictive utility of an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope.” Accordingly, some analysts seized on an isolated reference to “good-neighborliness and friendship with other countries.” Given the events of 2009, Pyongyang must have known that this olive branch could only bear so much fruit, but for eleven more weeks, there was Peace in Our Time.

If you don’t see much of a pattern here, you’re not alone. What’s noticeable about the period leading up to March 26, 2010 is the relative absence of clashes between North and South Korean forces, and the rhetorical preponderance of conciliation over hostility, even as Pyongyang premeditated the murder of 46 young sailors. The most significant incident during this interlude was North Korea’s shelling of disputed, South Korean-controlled waters in January 2010. Then, North Korea backed away from direct confrontation when South Korean and U.S. forces were engaged and watchful. If that pattern holds today, Pyongyang will wait until Seoul lets its guard down and attack at an unexpected time, place, and manner. That is why this may be over for now, but it’s not over.

The attacks of 2010 were the most significant North Korean attacks since 1968. They also went mostly unanswered, and wrong-footed a U.S.-Korea alliance that found itself unable to deter them. Last week’s events marked the first North Korean artillery attack on the South Korean mainland for many years. One hopes that South Korea’s superficially forceful response will deter rational men in Pyongyang from greater outrages, but I doubt it. Even if the South Korean artillery had hit something or someone, that someone was expendable to Kim Jong-Un, and speakers blaring k-pop won’t deter much of anything, either. If North Korea’s political system really is addicted to confrontation, and if Pyongyang continues to gain confidence from the protection of a nuclear arsenal, the next provocations may set another grim precedent.

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Bullets Cross DMZ: Random Observations

By now, you’ve read the reports of what happened in the last few days, but here’s a quick recap. Last week, South Korea accused North Korea of planting mines near a South Korean border checkpoint, blowing the legs off two South Korean soldiers. Seoul’s response, which I found a bit asinine at the time, was to blare propaganda at a few hundred helpless North Korean conscripts. Yesterday, North Korea shelled the loudspeakers, South Korea fired back and evacuated some civilian villages near the shelling, and Kim Jong Un mobilized his military for war.

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First, can we please stop referring to shelling as artillery “exchanges?” It’s not a swap meet. (Update: The same goes for “trading artillery fire.” As if — North: I’ll give you two 76.2-millimeter rounds for one 155-millimeter round. South: Throw in a belt of 14.5-millimeter and you’ve got a deal.)

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Having worked through the available evidence of Kim Jong Un’s psychology, I’m sincerely worried that he is willfully provoking what he expects (probably correctly) will be a limited war. A limited war is His Porcine Majesty’s easiest path to the legitimacy he is unlikely to attain through competent governance, religious piety, charisma, popular acclaim, or any other means. Even if he loses, he will be able (or thinks he will be able) to mischaracterize a defeat as a victory, and himself as the master strategist. At a time when Kim is purging the top ranks of his military, when even the security forces in the provinces are demoralized by the hatred and vengeance of those they torment, he needs a big enough event to unite the country against outside enemies. Is the limited artillery duel we’ve seen so far enough to achieve that? I doubt it.

My hope is that he wanted a reason to redeploy his forces to the front and disrupt whatever plans they might be forming. My fear is that we’re now in a pattern where the regime — possibly for psychological reasons, and possibly for more calculated ones — will engage in a long-term series of escalating provocations against the South. The South, in turn, has authorized disproportionate responses. The potential for miscalculation is obvious. Remember, in 2010, no one expected North Korea to do anything as rash as sinking a South Korean warship, or shelling a South Korean fishing village. Off-hand, I can’t recall a single occasion in recent decades when North Korea fired artillery with a bore larger than 14.5 millimeters against the South Korean mainland. Each provocation pushes the envelope just slightly. This may be the new normal.

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I continue to feel that a military response to provocations at this level may make a few ajosshis feel good, but is useless as a deterrent. What deters Kim Jong Un is what weakens his grip on power. Clearly, it is ideas from South Korea that frighten him most. South Korea should threaten to expand broadcasting to North Korea if North Korean forces continue to attack the South. (Update: Related thoughts from The New York Times. Also, a valued reader writes: “Heck, they should expand broadcasting regardless.” Fair enough.)

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I’ve seen a number of predictions that Pyongyang will engage in additional provocations for the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. I’ve also read analysis that assumes that this will culminate in a nuclear or a missile test. So far, I haven’t seen satellite evidence suggesting that such a test is imminent, but there’s still time. The attacks of 2010 didn’t include any missile or nuclear tests, but were a distinct and closed cycle of their own. Pyongyang may have something very different in mind.

~   ~   ~

Now that we’ve finally put to rest the nonsense that Kim Jong Un is an enlightened Swiss-educated reformer, let’s keep an account of all the scholars and reporters — John DeLury, Rudiger Frank, Alexandre Mansourov, and Jean Lee — who spent the better part of 2012 propagating this nonsense.

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A simple question: how many of those who noisily demand that South Korea sign a peace treaty with North Korea will at least have the decency to demand that North Korea stop its acts of war against the South? A week into Korean War II, there isn’t a peep of protest on Christine Ahn’s Twitter feed, but then, Ahn has always been a selective pacifist. The obvious question about a peace treaty is why anyone would expect North Korea to abide by one when it consistently violates an armistice. The real answer, of course, is that North Korea and its supporters abroad don’t really want peace; the regime is quite literally addicted to war. Without a continuous state of conflict, tension, and siege, there would be no justification for its existence, and no excuse for the unfavorable comparisons between its standard of living and South Korea’s. A peace treaty is merely incidental to their real goal, which is a peace treaty negotiation, and all the things North Korea would get in that negotiation — diplomatic recognition, security guarantees, the breaking of Seoul’s alliances, our agreement not to “slander” them (for their human rights atrocities, for example), and the lifting of sanctions, which would surrender the world’s remaining leverage and amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power.

~   ~   ~

South Korea has ordered the “partial” evacuation of Kaesong, shortly after after striking a deal to give North Korean slave laborers there a 5% wage hike. (In reality, the “wages” go straight into Kim Jong Un’s bank accounts.) That agreement came just days after the South accused North Korea of planting the mines that maimed two of its soldiers, and gave Pyongyang most of what it has unilaterally demanded. Yesterday’s evacuation was probably a precaution to protect the South Korean managers there. No doubt, South Korea fully intends to continue to profit from North Korea’s forced labor, and to bow to the demands of the appeasers and profiteers who exercise such an obvious influence on its policies. Although I had briefly harbored hopes that Park Geun-Hye would at least be principled toward North Korea, I’ve largely abandoned that hope by now. (For that matter, Park hasn’t demonstrated much competence as an executive, either.) Park has always been for Sunshine Lite, and still is. My error was to confuse consistency with principle. As long as South Korea continues to pay, indirectly, for the artillery and missiles aimed across its own borders, I can’t believe that its government is serious about defending its own land and people. And if Seoul isn’t serious about its defense, why I should be?

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Update: Remember when I wrote that silencing Park Sang-Hak wouldn’t end North Korea’s threats? Or when Professor Lee and I wrote this, back in November of 2014?

Pyongyang’s latest victory through intimidation and coercion carries unnerving implications for South Korea’s policy toward North Korea. Caving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail. North Korea’s long litany of threats will not end simply because of the South’s one-time compliance on the leaflets. In the past, Pyongyang has attempted to assassinate activists, threatened to blow up the presidential mansion, and attack the South’s major media outlets.

It may be prudent to move the balloon launches away from populated areas, in the unlikely event that the North does in fact respond militarily, but yielding to such threats is self-defeating both on principle and as a matter of practical policy. Using the national police to gag South Korean activists undermines the government’s foreign policy and violates their right to free speech. [New York Times]

Well, South Korea continues to block leaflet launches — an act that made it less free, but certainly doesn’t seem to have made it any safer.

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Revenge attacks demoralize North Korea’s security forces

Yesterday, Yonhap reported the possible purge of Won Tong-Yon, head of the United Front Department,* which handles North Korea’s propaganda. The report remains unconfirmed, but it would be consistent with reports that Kim Jong Un has put his 25 year-old sister, Kim Yo-Jong — known for her “eccentricity to the point of weirdness” — in charge of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. If so, Miss Kim may have a reason to consolidate control over her own fiefdom.

Won was said to have been a relative soft-liner, and Jang Song-Thaek was at the cutting edge of North Korea’s economic engagement with China, although Defense Minister Kim Yong-Chol was arguably a hard-liner. To the extent the purges show any ideological pattern, they do not suggest a softening of Kim Jong-Un’s style of governance.

Washington’s best North Korea scholars don’t agree on what the purges mean. Some say His Porcine Majesty has consolidated power and has confidence that he can purge whoever displeases him. Others say it indicates a lack of complete control. To others, it may yet convince the top cadres that serving Kim Jong-Un is a greater risk than plotting his Untergang. Judging by our next report, there is also growing doubt within the North Korean security forces. The Daily NK reports that more “safety agents, who act as police officers … are leaving their posts” to find safer and more lucrative work in the markets.

This comes as more agents are facing retaliation from angry residents who have fallen victim to their abuse of power during crackdowns and surveillance, Daily NK has learned.

“A lot of safety agents feel unsettled about the future, having been at the forefront of wielding abusive power against the public. So we’re seeing people quit their jobs,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “They say they’re worried about retaliation from residents who have fallen victim and are unable to conduct crackdowns as they would. More agents are looking for other jobs so they can make money,” she said.

Compared to the previous leadership, surveillance and control over residents has become more severe, leading to growing discontent and anger from the public, according to the source. This has challenged bad behavior from safety agents and contributed to their ‘early retirements’, she explained. 

Over the past few years, the country has seen a spike in attacks that were carried out by people seeking revenge against safety agents, the source said. “Just in the city of Chongjin, a few years ago, the head of a district safety office was clobbered in the back of the head, leading to immediate death,” she explained.

Security agents are no exception. A few years ago in the cities of Kimchaek and Hoeryong, security agents were stabbed to death, throwing the areas into turmoil. “According to investigations, the incidents were all based on personal grudges and revenge for other family members,” said the source. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK cites several specific examples of revenge attacks by angry North Korean citizens, including the stabbing deaths of security agents in Kimchaek and Hoeryong several years ago, and the recent beating death of a customs agent in Rajin.

In July, the Daily NK reported that a large brawl broke out between merchants and security agents in a market in Musan, and that a female rice trader, pushed to desperation by the extortionate demands of a Ministry of People’s Security agent, jumped off a building in protest. In 2012, it reported the revenge killings of “one official from the provincial NSA, one from the prosecutor’s office and two from the People’s Safety Agency” in Chongjin, during Kim Jong-Il’s mourning period. In 2010, it reported a wave of revenge attacks against the security forces following the Great Confiscation. 

In recent years, some in the security forces have become thugs and shake-down artists, targeting the families of refugees for a share of the remittances they receive from South Korea, or blackmailing “economic criminals” with threats of terms in labor camps.

As I’ve argued before, there’s probably much more resistance against the regime than most of us realize. This resistance remains fragmented, and is unlikely to threaten the regime’s survival until it coalesces around a political organization and a unifying, galvanizing ideology (most likely, cells of Christian believers operating underground churches, unions, news services, and humanitarian NGOs, who advocate unification with the South). A movement of this kind cannot form until North Koreans develop the means to communicate with each other, with some degree of security.

Still, last week’s report is the first I’ve read that these attacks had affected morale and retention in the security forces.

“Some safety agents say they can’t do this any longer. More of them are worried that although they might be up on a high horse now that situation may change at any point in the future,” the source reported. This is why, although it may be late in the game, some are choosing ‘safer’ options and seeking employment at trade companies, which are also more lucrative as well, she added.

Another source in the same North Hamkyung Province reported of similar sentiments shared among central and provincial administrative Party officials. Following the execution of key officials such as Jang Song Thaek and other high-ranking cadre members, officials are less ambitious about climbing up the ranks and more content with the status quo, he said. Being in higher ranking posts not only exposes them more to the leadership but also to the public.

“Safety agents these days talk about how in the mid ‘80s, when China first announced it would open up to reforms, people took revenge against malicious cadre,” he said. “They talk of some even being beaten to death,” the source added.

In my essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I posited that by sanctioning the regime and enabling the rise of the market economy, we could help effect a shift in North Korea’s economic and political balance of power, which would lure security agents out of the power structure and into accommodation with forces that were not necessarily loyal to the regime. I posited that as the people organized and gained strength from numbers, money, and organization, more security officials would refrain from repressive acts out of fear of retaliation or prosecution. This report suggests that such a dynamic may already be emerging.

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* For an insider’s view of how the UFD operates, read Jang Jin-Sung’s Dear Leader.

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Pro-North Korean group denies that it’s under investigation for tax evasion

According to the UPI, which in turn cites reports from Yonhap and SBS, one of America’s most infamous and influential pro-North Korean groups is under investigation “for tax evasion and political activities that violate U.S. tax laws.”

The nonprofit Korean American National Coordinating Council in New York is under investigation according to local Korean American and diplomatic sources, but it was unclear which government agency was conducting the full-scale investigation, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The investigation also is the first reported case of a probe into a group that previously has expressed views sympathetic to the Pyongyang regime. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

That’s more than a mild understatement.

Investigators arrived on Thursday at the office of KANCC in the Interchurch Center building near Columbia University to begin their query, South Korean television network SBS reported.

A New York-based diplomat who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity said the organization was under investigation because of an alleged violation – and that U.S. investigators were probing other organizations that have expressed pro-Pyongyang sentiments.

The mere expression of pro-Pyongyang sentiment, without more, is protected by the First Amendment, and would not be a basis for a criminal investigation in the U.S., but is illegal in South Korea. I wonder if that means our “diplomatic sources” are South Koreans. Clearly, the report doesn’t tell the whole story, but then, KANCC’s president was unavailable for comment when the story broke. He was in North Korea for the big Liberation Day celebrations.Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.02.20 PM

[KANCC President Yoon Kil Sang in Pyongyang last week. Front row, fourth from left]

KANCC has since posted an angry denial of Yonhap’s story, calling it a malicious lie and a total fabrication, threatening a libel suit, and demanding an apology. KANCC denies having been searched or even contacted by the feds. It claims that it merely advocates for human rights, peaceful reunification, and meetings of separated families. As early as 2003, after KANCC arranged for Suki Kim to travel to North Korea, its then-President, Michael Hahm, took exception to her characterization of it as “US-based organization of pro–North Korea activists.” (Kim’s story is well worth reading.)

I don’t know if KANCC is really under investigation or what for, and they’re innocent of tax evasion or any other crime until proven guilty. What’s incontrovertible is that KANCC is, at the very least, strongly sympathetic to North Korea. Its contribution to the North Korea human rights discourse has been to publish claims that the whole issue is a fabrication and a “racket,” criticizing the establishment of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul, and arguing that the world’s greatest human rights violator is (of course) the United States. Its relations with Pyongyang are, to use the Rodong Sinmun‘s quaint term, “compatriotic.”

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The reports don’t specify why the feds might be interested in KANCC’s political activities, but this public database has posted some of its tax returns online.* On its 2013 return, which is marked “open to public inspection,” KANCC claimed tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and described its work this way:


Section 501(c)(3) grants tax-exempt status to organizations “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition,” but limits their ability to engage in political campaigning, lobbying, or — here’s the kicker — “carrying on propaganda.” Now, words don’t always mean in law what they mean in daily usage, and you should not read anything in this post as a legal opinion. I’m not a tax lawyer, and you can parse or stretch a legal definition of “propaganda,” but as far as the daily use of the term goes, I know propaganda when I see it:
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Post after post praises Kim Il-Sung, sows anti-American conspiracy theories, or generally portrays North Korea as an earthly paradise. The content consists almost entirely of pro-Pyongyang tracts, republished propaganda from Uriminzokkiri and KCNA, and assorted maniacal batshite (“Kim Il Sung, Iron-willed Commander,” “Pyongyang Mass Rally Marks Day of Struggle against US Imperialism,” “Information Songun politics Beneficial to People,” and “Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Caliphate vs BRICS“). Also, don’t miss the letter, published on KANCC’s site, that compares the U.S. to Josef Mengele and Unit 731.

What I did not find on KANCC’s web site is much evidence of its “civic affairs” work.

Interestingly enough, KANCC’s web site also caught the attention of the New York Times back in 2003, for its many “selections from the writings of the Great Leader, as Kim Il Sung is known, and his son, Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” KANCC’s then-President, Rev. Michael Hahm, told the Times he was “not happy with the site,” and that it was “run independently out of the group’s Washington office,” which did not return the reporter’s calls. And yet the web site doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 12 years.

UPI’s report claims the feds are also looking into KANCC’s contacts with North Korean officials, including a visit to the North Korean U.N. mission “on the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death in 2012 to deliver condolences,” and a possible attempt to contact members of Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong’s entourage during a visit to the U.S. last year.

These things, by themselves, would not necessarily violate U.S. law, either, although there are legal restrictions on contacts with foreign officials, which the Justice Department helpfully summarizes here. One of these is the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires “publicity agents” and “information-service employees” acting “subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official” to register with the Justice Department. I can’t say one way or another whether KANCC is acting under Pyongyang’s direction or control; perhaps it’s just independently sycophantic. According to DOJ records, however, it isn’t FARA registered.

On the other hand, there’s no question that KANCC officials have met with senior North Korean officials. KANCC’s 2013 tax return lists one Yoon Kil-Sang as the President of KANCC. For your reference and identification, here are two photos of Yoon from KANCC’s web site. The Korean Central News Agency lists a “Yun Kil Sang” as a frequent visitor to Pyongyang leading delegations of “Koreans in the U.S.”** The most recent such report is dated last Friday.

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In the KCNA photo below, Yoon is on the left, and Kim Yong Nam, President of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, is on the right. Pyongyang doesn’t usually give this kind of photo op to ordinary tourists or community activists.

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[Peace activism!]

Also, here’s Yoon (second from right) at the Liberation Day rally in Pyongyang.

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Here’s video grab of Yoon at a big North Korean rally at the DMZ (see this link for the Boston Globe‘s report on that rally).

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Unless my eyes deceive me, that’s also him in the center of the image below, wearing sunglasses and a black windbreaker, at a propaganda rally at Mt. Paektu, Kim Jong-Il’s mythical birthplace.


[Let’s carry out Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il’s reunification philosophy!]

This KCNA report from January quotes Yoon praising His Porcine Majesty:

Kim Jong Un’s Personality Praised by Overseas Koreans Pyongyang, January 16 (KCNA) — Overseas Koreans are praising the personality of the dear respected Kim Jong Un as a great man. [….]

Overseas Koreans said in general that they felt “kind-heartedness” and “high-spiritedness” from Vice-Chairman Kim Jong Un when they were received by him after paying their respects to the bier of Kim Jong Il, chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission, displayed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the article noted, saying:

Yun Kil Sang, chairman of the Federation of Koreans in the U.S., said: His image gave other persons something comfortable. It gave a dignified yet gentle impression. When I looked at his face, I could feel that his hand shaking was based on warm sincerity, not casual manner.

KANCC’s officers were also behind this “open letter” to President Obama, calling on him to lift sanctions against North Korea, normalize relations with it, and (sit down for this) sign a peace treaty with it. The letter is dated December 2014, the same month President Obama accused North Korea of being behind the Sony hack and terrorist threat. The letter is signed by Moon J. Pak, as “Senior Vice President” of KANCC, and was posted on KANCC’s web site. It was also published by the rabidly pro-North Korean blog Minjok Tongshin, whose publisher, Roh Kil-Nam, is the recipient of the coveted (by some) Kim Il-Sung Prize, has a degree from Kim Il Sung University, and had visited the Workers’ Paradise a whopping 62 times as of last October.

According to this site, Pak’s open letter was also published as a full-page color ad in the New York Times last March. An ad like that could easily have cost $200,000. That’s about triple what KANCC reported to the IRS in total revenue in 2013 ($71,650, including $15,050 in “program service revenue, including government fees and contracts”) and $70,178 in expenses, leaving about $1,500 net. KANCC’s balance sheets and past tax returns report between $50,000 and $80,000 in gross income and almost no net. A group calling itself “Korean-Americans for Peace for the U.S.A. & North Korea & South Korea” lists 66 individual donors who supported the ad. The first three names are KANCC officers Yoon, Moon J. Pak (the author), and Michael Hahm. The letter also references a Korean-Americans for Change PAC, which reported total receipts of $7,650 to the Federal Election Committee in 2008. Did these individual donors really scrape together 200 grand for this ad? Hey, anything’s possible. KANCC reported no foreign donations on its 2013 return, and I have no evidence to the contrary, but I’ll never underestimate its influence again.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that KANCC violated its tax-exempt status or any other law. If there’s any substance behind UPI’s report, the legal process will decide that. Furthermore, most Americans would agree that the IRS shouldn’t target nonprofits for tax enforcement because it disapproves of their political views, although any law that grants tax exemption to the likes of KANCC is overdue for an amendment. My point is simply to document what KANCC stands for, and to illustrate why one should be wary of accepting self-serving claims of innocent peace activism at face value. The First Amendment protects your right to lick the feet of murderous totalitarians all you like, but it isn’t an exemption from the scrutiny and criticism of your fellow citizens for the repellent and — to use an archaic term I inexplicably cling to — unpatriotic views you express while doing so.

~   ~   ~

* The tax return is filed under the name “Korean American National Council Inc.,” but lists the same employer ID, and exactly the same income and expenses, as this balance sheet for the Korean American National Coordinating Council. Both list Kil Sang Yoon as President or “in care of name.” The tax return for the Korean National Council, Inc., gives an address of “475 Riverside Drive, Room/Suite 1369,” New York. The balance sheet gives an address of “475 Riverside Dr Ste 1368,” New York.

** There is an actual organization called the “Federation of Korean Associations, U.S.A.” It most certainly is not pro-North Korean.

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Is that a cabana you’re designing, or are you just happy to see me?

Curtis Melvin has made an unsettling discovery on Google Earth, at one of (probably) Kim Jong-Un’s palaces. Oh, my….


Hey, that looks just like ….

As HRNK points out, this story has a less amusing side for the North Koreans who go hungry while His Porcine Majesty spends their lunch money on giant phalluses, and other “improvements” to his palaces.

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Kim Jong-Un, deterrence, and the psychological evidence

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.55 PM“Dear Leader, you are a great and beloved strange human being who is extremely odd and should fulfill the destiny of your ancestors,” said the cacophonous group of voices reverberating in Kim’s head. “You are the shining sun. You are a lunatic who is going to end the world. You should destroy South Korea. You look ridiculous right now. They must bow to the might of your nuclear arsenal. I love you, my son. You are an insane man whose death would benefit the entire world.” — The Onion, March 13, 2013

On Twitter lately, I’ve been having some fun at the expense of those who, at least until the 2013 nuclear test and the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, had advanced the “Swiss-educated reformer” theory of Kim Jong-Un’s governance. The thin reed supporting this theory was the emergence of a sybaritic lifestyle for a few well-connected merchants and officials; its greater folly was its assumption that the abandonment of socialist principle, the embrace of inequality, or significant economic reform (if ever realized) necessarily implied that political reform, or the easing of tensions, would follow.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. In the last year alone, Kim has carried out a series of brutal purges, continued a crackdown on cross-border flows of people and information, hacked nuclear power plants in South Korea, and made terrorist threats against the U.S. mainland. In the last week, we learned that his army planted anti-personnel mines outside a South Korean border post, that he has expanded his uranium enrichment program, and that he has executed yet another of his top officials.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the coming Korea missile crisis, and the fact that as Kim Jong-Un gains a more effective nuclear arsenal, our options to deter or defend against such provocations will narrow. This analysis presumed that Kim Jong-Un thinks rationally, because historically, when confronted with existential threats to their power, Kim’s father and grandfather chose to defer conflict and deal rather than fight. Nine years ago, we engaged in similar speculation about the psychology of Kim Jong-Il, whom the former CIA psychologist Jerrold Post called a “malignant narcissist” exhibiting “extreme grandiosity and self-absorption,” a lack of “capacity to empathize with others,” and a heightened risk of “major political/military miscalculation.” The Madman Theory served Kim II well.

From a coldly rational perspective, Kim Jong-Un must also believe that time is on his side, and that the longer he delays a confrontation with us, the more likely he is to prevail in one. But does the available evidence suggest that he is rational, and by whose definition? Certainly, North Korea’s recent behavior did not always seem rational. Not since 1968 has Pyongyang seemed so unafraid to attack South Korea and the United States directly. In 2010, whoever was in charge after Kim Jong-Il’s stroke attacked South Korea twice, killing 50 of its citizens. Those were dangerous acts of war that warranted a military response, but their scale seemed calculated to provoke something less than full-scale war. Kim may well calculate that a limited war would kill a few hundred people of no consequence to himself, but would not dethrone him. Such an outcome could be His Porcine Majesty’s best opportunity to claim credit for a bold victory — and the martial credentials he so desperately wants. Kim may see the prospect of a limited war as more inducement than deterrent.

From this perspective, Kim Jong-Un’s violent provocations are rational, because any action that contributes to his hold on power is rational to him. As the psychologist Ian H. Robertson, Ph.D., puts it, “The principle (sic) motivation for Kim will be to carry on the family business.” So far, Pyongyang has a flawless record for calculating the risk that its provocations would draw a serious, regime-destabilizing response (history suggests that “never” is a perfectly safe answer). Similarly, Kim’s purges of his own ruling class, which appear to be alienating it, might be irrational acts of violent impulse, or a rational response to real internal threats to his hold on power.

So what do psychologists say about Kim Jong-Un’s mental state, notwithstanding the difficulty of assessing a subject without examining him in person? Let’s begin with the CIA’s assessment, as conveyed by former CIA official and diplomat Joseph DiTrani.

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Former Assistant Secretary of State (and OFK favorite) Kurt Campbell reports similar conclusions.

“We went to great pains to interview almost everyone – classmates, others – to try to get a sense of what his character was like,” Campbell said. “The general recounting of those experiences led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence and with delusions of grandeur.” [Washington Post, Max Fisher]

So that’s one thing The Daily Mail seems to have gotten right.

Robertson believes that Kim “is behaving rationally,” but that his survival depends on “maintaining a sense of threat from the outside world, and empowering his impoverished people with images of military power.” The bad news is that Kim can’t be appeased. The good news is that this implies an interest in stability. What follows is much less reassuring.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly feels god-like because of the drug-like effects — the chemical messenger dopamine is a key player — that power has on his brain. Power is an aphrodisiac which casts a spell of charisma around the holder and bewitches those he has power over, and if that be millions of people, so be it.

A former North Korean soldier interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight last night said that he and everyone else he knew completely believed the world view of the country’s leadership. This held that North Korea was poor because of the unfair persecution by South Korea, USA and Japan, and that it was in constant threat of being destroyed by these enemies, which is why it had to have its nuclear weapons.

And that is the second difference between Kim Jong-Un and other world gang leaders — his power is supercharged by nuclear weaponry. This not only affects his brain but also empowers millions of his soldiers and citizens whose otherwise drab and miserable lives are given this drug-like fix which is re-ignited every time they hear the national anthem played on television to images of ballistic missiles blasting off to destroy their enemies.

Animals low in a pecking order –— powerless, in other words — are more likely to take and become addicted to cocaine if offered it than are those at the top of the dominance hierarchy. Cocaine acts on the brain in the same way as power does and to the powerless, impoverished North Koreans, these repeated images of mushroom clouds and military aggression are — almost literally — equivalent to repeated intoxicatingly-rewarding cocaine fixes which bind them emotionally to their leader and make everything else seem unimportant in comparison.

So, while Kim Jong-Un was a sane adolescent, power is such a strong drug that it will have changed him fundamentally. Excessive, unconstrained power makes people feel over-confident, blind to risk, inclined to treat other people as objects, tunnel-visioned, narcissistic and protected from anxiety. These are all real effects, as biologically driven as those caused by any powerful drug. [Psychology Today]

Although I doubt that the world view Robertson attributes to North Koreans holds true of most of those living outside Pyongyang, it’s probably an accurate reflection of those Kim interacts with daily, and on whose loyalty his control depends. Robertson thinks this dopamine addiction may distort Kim’s judgment, just as it caused Hitler to misjudge the risks that eventually destroyed Germany. (It’s also reminiscent of the reactor of irrational groupthink that encased Emperor Hirohito in the 1930s.)

Robertson sees Pyongyang’s provocations as “a rational strategy,” but only for feeding the dopamine addiction of its loyal subjects. Viewed this way, extorting concessions and aid from us is not as important an end as the extortion itself. Our concessions are merely the post-coital validation of the dopamine high. (There is evidence in North Korean propaganda to support this theory.) As with any addiction, as the addict’s tolerance rises, he needs a higher dose to get his fix.

But the most worrying symptom of power in the current crisis is its god effects. Gods are invulnerable. Gods are not constrained by the laws of nature. Gods are immortal.

We should be worried.

Separately, Robertson offers the slightly less alarming assessment that Kim “is unlikely to be as ruthless as a guerrilla fighter, like his grandfather,” because of his privileged upbringing, but that his propensity for violence “depends on how far he feels he must go to consolidate his position.” Somehow, Robertson defines this behavior as “rational.”

And as much as I’d prefer not to believe this, I have to concede that it makes sense. Kim’s behavior so far validates it; so do more historical examples than I can count. If that’s so, each year that passes will give Kim Jong-Un more bombs, longer range, and the power to harm more people. Meanwhile, our ability to deter him will diminish. There will be no appeasing him, because only risk, conflict, and provocation can satiate his addiction.

Of course, the same was probably also true of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to varying degrees, too. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, at critical moments, they were rational enough to defer confrontation for another day. Perhaps Kim can still be conditioned to learn that dopamine-seeking behavior will draw consequences that weaken, not strengthen, his hold on power. The risks of this are obvious; none of the options are good. Our options today are worse than they were ten years ago, much worse than they were twenty years ago, and much better than they’ll be five years from now. Confronting Kim now seems less risky than alternatives we know won’t work, and which seem to be leading us toward a historic catastrophe.

That’s almost as grim an assessment as that of B.R. Myers, who has written that war is likely inevitable. It warns us that nothing is so urgent as terminating Kim’s cycle of thrill-seeking — even if that means terminating Kim Jong-Un’s misrule — before he gains the means to destroy South Korea and Japan, to threaten us directly, and to share his weapons with other madmen. As Kim’s addiction advances, anything will be enough to set him off — a satirical film, that piece in The Onion I tweeted the other daya conference in downtown Washington D.C.a shower of harmless leaflets, or a symbolic vote in the U.N. General Assembly. Even submitting to Pyongyang’s censors could not prevent war if Kim Jong-Un is simply driven toward conflict. This may be our last chance to break that cycle, and to prevent the next Korean War. That is probably true whether Kim Jong-Un is rational or not.

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Mr. President, You’re no Jack Kennedy: The Coming Korean Missile Crisis

In October 1962, the United States almost went to war with the Soviet Union over Khrushchev’s deployment of nuclear capable missiles to Cuba. The Cuban crisis has been in my thoughts recently because of how it compares to the Korean nuclear crisis as it is today, and how it will be in January 2017. While most attention is on Iran, the consensus is quietly shifting to the view that North Korea is at the verge of nuclear breakout. Furthermore, President Obama seems fully prepared to leave office without a serious response to this. That means that, barring some miraculous intervention, the North Korean missile crisis will soon look much more like 1962 than 1994.

The urgent question for us is whether we can afford to simply tolerate this.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.41.29 AM

[Missile silo, Hwadae County, via Google Earth, July 2015]

Let’s review some of those similarities and differences. Like the Cuba crisis, the short-range missiles of a former Soviet client state are one potential means to deliver a nuclear weapon, although the former client state’s Il-28 bombers are a secondary means. Like the Cuba crisis, a perception currently exists — fairly or unfairly — that the American President is “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations … too intelligent and too weak.” (Yet the Kennedy Library is probably correct in its implicit assessment that history approves of Kennedy’s conduct during the crisis.)

Unlike the North Korean missile crisis, there was no hotline between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1962. Unlike the North Korean crisis, the United States had recently directly threatened Cuba’s regime by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion. The opposite is true of North Korea, which recently carried out a series of deadly attacks against our South Korean allies.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.46.19 AM

[West Sea long-range missile site, Cholsan County, via Google Earth, March 2015]

Unlike the North Korean crisis, a nuclear superpower was directly involved and on the opposite side in the Cuban crisis. Unlike the North Korea crisis, in 1962, the United States was within range of an opposing party’s nuclear weapons (so were the cities of Western Europe). There is still substantial debate about how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, or whether it can fit any of them on its medium or short-range missiles, but some experts believe it can already nuke Seoul or Tokyo. In 1962, there was no such thing as missile defense; today, a relatively small North Korean arsenal faces an imperfect missile defense system, although North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons have probably represented a greater threat since at least the 1980s, and probably still do.

The critical difference, however, is that in 2017, we will know much less about how rational our adversary is.

For Pyongyang, the consequence of a less-than-fully-successful attack is the execution of OPLAN 5027 and ends in the destruction of His Porcine Majesty and his stockpiles of fine wines and Emmental cheese. Thus, as matters stand today, a rational North Korean leader would not launch a first nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the United States. But as North Korea expands its arsenal, our ability to deter a first strike, or to defend South Korea and Japan against one, will continue to decline. For now, North Korea’s short and medium-range missile are the greater threat. As far as we know, North Korean missiles can’t reach the United States — yet — although its container ships and cargo planes can.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 7.42.24 AM

[Short-range missile site, Yontan County, via Google Earth, September 2014]

If one views Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea as driven by rational judgments — I’ll also review the evidence for the other alternative, later this week — his most rational choice is to delay a wider confrontation while he builds his arsenal. Once he possesses an effective nuclear arsenal, he will have the freedom of action to engage in a series of escalating provocations that gradually achieve his objectives — the lifting of sanctions, de facto recognition as a nuclear state, economic and political independence from China, the removal of U.S. forces from the region, and the finlandization of South Korea. Time is on his side. The longer he delays this confrontation, the more likely he will prevail.

That is how Kim’s predecessors have calculated matters historically. Although the U.S. and South Korea legitimately worried that their North Korean counterparts were dangerous, unpredictable, or even irrational, both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il deferred conflict when they believed their positions to be inferior.

Kim would also have a motive to portray himself as irrational, to gain a negotiating advantage over his adversaries. American presidents have done this, too.

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace. – Richard Nixon, to H.R. Haldeman

Yet when Kim Il-Sung believed he faced a real danger of a U.S.-South Korean attack, he met with Jimmy Carter, and the eventual result was Agreed Framework 1. When Kim Jong-Il believed that financial sanctions would deprive him of the means to feed and pay the people who kept him in power, he acceded to Agreed Framework 2. In both cases, at each critical moment, the North Korean leaders at that time calculated that their best available option was a deal. In both cases, North Korean leaders subsequently calculated that they could get away with cheating on the deal, thus progressing toward a nuclear status without the consequences of that.

When Kim Jong-Un concludes that he has an effective nuclear arsenal, this calculus will shift. Thus, there is no more urgent task for us than preventing Kim from building an effective nuclear arsenal before his deterrent overmatches our own. If we fail, the strategic interests of the United States will also shift, and may favor at least a partial disengagement from the region, with U.S. ground forces and as many civilians as possible leaving South Korea and Japan, and the forces that remain (mostly air and naval forces, and missile defense units) moving into more hardened facilities. That assumes, of course, that South Korea does not accede to North Korean demands to withdraw them.

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.



Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

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[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. 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.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:


[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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NYC insurer agrees to $271K penalty for insuring North Korean ships

This afternoon, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets control announced that as part of a settlement, Navigators Insurance Company has agreed to pay OFAC a civil penalty of $271,000 for 48 sanctions violations involving Iran, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea. Navigators is a New York-based provider of maritime insurance. It also had a branch in London, which evidently decided to cut costs by skimping on lawyers. Here’s how that worked out for them.

Between May 8, 2008 and April 1, 2011, Navigators and its London, U.K. branch (“Navigators U.K.”) issued global protection and indemnity (“P&I”) insurance policies that provided coverage to North Korean-flagged vessels and covered incidents that occurred in or involved Iran, Sudan, or Cuba—some of which led to the payment of claims. Navigators did not have a formal OFAC compliance program in place at the time it engaged in these apparent violations, and personnel within Navigators U.K. misinterpreted the applicability of OFAC sanctions regulations.

Between May 8, 2008 and February 18, 2011, Navigators provided insurance coverage to North Korean-flagged vessels under 24 P&I insurance policies and collected $1,142,237 in premium payments in relation to these policies. In addition, between February 23, 2009 and October 11, 2010, Navigators paid seven claims totaling $12,236 in relation to these policies. The base penalty amount for this set of apparent violations was $577,237. [OFAC]

In considering the amount of the penalty, Treasury considered that Navigators knew that these policy-holders were sanctioned, was “a commercially sophisticated financial institution,” and “did not have a formal OFAC compliance program in place at the time” of the violations. It also considered that Navigators self-disclosed the violation, and that once Treasury came knocking, Navigators cooperated and took remedial action.

The point being: if you do business with North Korea, good lawyers are a wise investment.

One of the few things our North Korea sanctions still do, specifically Section 2 of Executive Order 13466, is to prohibit U.S. persons from “owning, leasing, operating, or insuring any vessel flagged by North Korea.” That executive order was a place-holder for what remained in place as President Bush lifted most of our sanctions against Pyongyang, and removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in exchange for Kim Jong Il’s promise to disarm.

Seven years and two nuclear tests later, we’ve just seen the third action in one busy month to sanction North Korean shipping, following the EU’s designation of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and the U.S. designation of Chinpo Shipping. This is enough data to show a pattern — Treasury is concentrating on North Korean shipping, and the EU might be, although it’s probably too early to say how broad, persistent, coordinated, or effective this effort will be, or how quickly the administration would back off for any deal Pyongyang offers.

With Pyongyang hinting that it will test some sort of nasty device this fall, feel free to insert your own “shot across the bow” pun in the comments.

The focus on shipping is curious in light of how little Treasury has done to North Korea’s banks recently, with the exception of the 2013 blocking of the Foreign Trade Bank. Surely Treasury doesn’t think shipping sanctions are a way to hurt Pyongyang without antagonizing Beijing. No, I didn’t think they’d think that:

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[As of 8:51 p.m. on August 6, 2015]

One important sign to watch for is whether senior U.S. officials will go on tour to enlist other governments to support a new enforcement effort. The action against Banco Delta Asia wasn’t effective just because we sanctioned a single dirty bank, but because Stuart Levey and Danny Glaser met with bankers and finance ministers across Asia and Europe and politely warned them about the risks of doing business with Pyongyang. Today, we tend to overlook the role of financial diplomacy in the success of the BDA effort. Like good diplomats, Levey and Glaser wore their velvet gloves when they shook hands. But anyone could feel that the iron fist within was BDA.

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Famine, food policy, and the lost lessons of history

A drought, exacerbated by disastrous agricultural policies, causes widespread famine. A divided Congress, unsure about feeding an enemy, reluctantly agrees to send aid. A paranoid, totalitarian government obstructs the delivery of the aid, infiltrates and spies on aid organizations, and diverts food from starving children to a loyal elite. Desperate victims resort to cannibalism.

Back in America, politics continues to intrude — the hard right wants to starve a Marxist-Leninist government into submission, while the hard left sympathizes with the regime and accuses aid workers of blaming it unfairly to undermine it. It’s not North Korea in the 1990s, or today. It’s Russia in 1921, and the hero of this tragedy is Herbert Hoover, who headed a humanitarian relief agency before his presidency.

The analogy holds up brilliantly until, at the 30 minute mark, Hoover’s deputy confronted undeniable evidence of diversion and obstructionism. He sent Hoover a cable, knowing that the Cheka would intercept and read it, recommending that no more aid be delivered unless the obstructionism ended immediately. The Soviets, knowing what Hoover was made of, backed down. The aid flowed again, and Russia’s famine ended — for a while, at least — when the next harvest came in.

There is no guarantee that Kim Jong-Il would have responded to a similar challenge the way Lenin did, although we’ve seen recently that North Korea is sensitive to public criticism of its treatment of its people. But the question is a counterfactual; no one of Herbert Hoover’s stature and character came to help the people of North Korea, although Andrew Natsios might have been that man had the U.N. not been in overall control. The fact that the U.N. does not produce men like Herbert Hoover and Andrew Natsios, and that the U.S. government only seldom does, goes far to explain why North Korea is still in a food crisis today.

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