On MLK Day, remember North Korea’s state-sanctioned racism

Today, my multiracial family and I reflected on the debt we owe to the movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. symbolized and, for a too-brief period in our history, led. My children and I reflected on this day by talking about the fact that in the state where we live, within my lifetime, the marriage of their parents would have been unlawful under local anti-miscegenation laws. These, thankfully, were struck down as unconstitutional under the wonderfully named case of Loving v. Virginia.

I also decided to reflect, for just a moment, on the significance of this day for North Korea, the only extant state that incorporates racism in its ideology. What other state makes racial purity a matter of state doctrine? What other government orders the abortion of unborn children, or the murder of newborn ones, because of their racial impurity? What other state’s diplomats speak racial slurs against fellow diplomats from African nations? What other government’s state media would call the leader of another state “a wicked black monkey?”

The history of the world is filled with terrible crimes of discrimination, tribalism, and intolerance. Thankfully, the vast majority of human civilization sees these things for the evils they are. We have progressed, however imperfectly and unevenly, toward greater equality. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died to abolish slavery, and millions more marched to abolish segregation, and in support of the trade sanctions that helped abolish apartheid.

That North Korea remains an exception to this global trend isn’t surprising to those who watch developments there closely. What surprises me the most about North Korea is the small size of the font in which “racism” is written on its tag cloud. One day, a newer and better kind of sanction, leveraging America’s role as the hub of world finance, may help to end North Korea’s state-sanctioned racism, too.

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If S. Korea won’t close Kaesong, let it pay N. Korea in food.

The bad news from North Korea’s nuclear test is that its yield exceeded those of its 2006, 2009, and 2013 tests. The good news is that while the blast wasn’t thermonuclear, it was still hot enough to burn away plenty of policy fog. In Congress, sanctions legislation has sailed through the House, and seems to have good prospects in the Senate. Opinions are shifting among Korea scholars here, too. This morning, I had a chance to finish reading last week’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. It’s telling, and quite gratifying, to see that two of those witnesses, Bruce Klingner (a good friend) and Victor Cha (whom I can’t say I know personally) cited this humblebrag blog in their written testimony. 

It seems the mainstream has caught up with me.

There is also encouraging diplomatic clarity. Just before the test, South Korea and Japan came to an admittedly imperfect but timely agreement on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, almost as if both governments knew what was to come. The agreement came far too late to undo the harm to those poor women, but may have come just in time to give the last survivors a measure of compensation, and just some of their stolen dignity back. It may also help to protect future generations of Koreans through cooperation with Japan toward shared interests in disarming Kim Jong-un. 

If the agreement holds, perhaps the controversial statue of that young sex slave should be moved to the doorstep of the Chinese Embassy, given all that China’s policies are doing to keep North Korean women in sexual slavery today. After all, there is still time to prevent some of those women from being enslaved and raped by Chinese men.

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Today, in no small part because of that agreement, South Korea, U.S., and Japan appear to be coordinating their policy responses, like the natural allies they should be. All three governments are pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions, but there is still little public information on the specifics. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will visit Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing this week, to talk about a draft U.N. Security Council resolution and sanctions enforcement. Oh, and John Kerry will also visit China later this month.

As a long-time reader would say: “Tremble, Commies.”

South Korea, cognizant of the fact that its own security is the most at risk from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, is asking Japan to impose tougher sanctionsJapan unilaterally relaxed its sanctions in 2014, after North Korea made a successful divide-and-rule ploy, promising to “investigate” its own past abductions of Japanese. Naturally, that deal has yielded no actual progress on the return of any abductees or their remains.

Seoul is also asking Beijing to support tougher sanctions. Although China says it’s willing to sign on for some sort of resolution on paper, it’s also trying “to water down the U.N.-led sanctions on the North in a familiar pattern following its nuclear and long-range missile tests” and to minimize the sanctions’ impact. China is also stalling, perhaps hoping that other events and priorities will intervene and weaken the U.S. and South Korean position.

In return, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is hinting at the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, apparently as a way to pressure Beijing. 

For the time being, Park has also stopped feeding the South Korean people implausible feel-good Sunshine Lite twaddle about dialogue, Trustpolitik, and reunification. Instead, she’s calling for the “strongest yet sanctions” on Pyongyang and trying to awaken them to the danger posed by nuclear-armed eliminationists with no regard for human life:

On Wednesday, a week after the North’s nuclear test, Park described the South as facing “emergency situations” both in security and the economy.

She voiced concern that Pyongyang’s provocation, allegedly hydrogen-based, may lead to a “fundamental change” in the regional security landscape. Many are anxious about the possibility of an arms race in Northeast Asia, with Japan widely viewed as capable of producing nuclear bombs.

Park said her government will make every diplomatic effort to make the North’s regime feel “bone-numbing” pain through the United Nations. 


It’s a welcome step back toward reality for South Korea, which continues its long, slow awakening from the national acid trip known as the Sunshine Policy.

pink elephant in the room

But it also puts South Korea in an awkward position, because Japan, China, and the U.S. can’t help staring at the very thing South Korea doesn’t want them to notice.

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The elephant, of course, is the Kaesong Industrial Park, a complex just north of the DMZ where regime-picked North Korean workers labor in South Korean-run maquiladoras for “wages” that are either low or non-existent, at least after Kim Jong-un skims his cut off the top. According to some sources, Kaesong provided Pyongyang $90 million in cash annually, even before its most recent unilateral hikes in “wages” and land-use taxes.

Since the January 6th nuclear test, calls to close Kaesong have been growing. The most surprising proponent of this is the usually pro-engagement Daniel Pinkston, who has the eccentric habit of referring to North Korea as “Songun Korea,” complete with diacritical marks (which this blog does not like to display, sadly). I enjoy reading Dan’s views, if only because I never quite know if they’ll cause me to applaud or cock my head like a dog hearing a new sound. When he wrote this comment on one of my tweets that auto-posted to Facebook, I’ll admit to having had both reactions:

KIC was a good experiment, but it operates like it’s the International Space Station. No backward or forward linkages to local enterprises that could be established as part of an opening and liberalization process. We now see that the regime is not interested in becoming integrated with the international economy. They only want cash payments as rents to the KWP. I congratulate and admire Kim Dae-jung for getting KIC started and trying. I supported it at the time. But we tested that hypothesis and the results are in. I think it should be closed down. And better to do it before there is a crisis and the ROK citizens in KIC become hostages. [Daniel Pinkston, Jan. 7, 2016]

That is to say, Kaesong failed to achieve the purpose that justified its establishment — to draw North Korea out of its isolation and into compliance with international norms and standards. As I said last May, Kaesong promised us peace and reform. It delivered conflict, tension, and exploitation.

It also surprised me when Victor Cha, a long-time advocate of “hawk engagement,” wrote this in his testimony last week.

Kaesong Industrial Complex: Another useful asymmetric pressure point is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. A legacy of the sunshine policy, this project now provides $90 million in annual wages (around $245.7 million from December 2004 to July 2012) of hard currency to North Korean authorities with little wages actually going to the factory workers. The South Korean government will be opposed to shutting this down, as even conservative governments in South Korea have grown attached to the project as symbolic of the future potential of a united Korea, but difficult times call for difficult measures. [Victor Cha, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Asia Subcommittee, Jan. 13, 2016]

See also the testimony of Bruce Klingner, who also called for Kaesong’s closure.

South Korea must surely perceive the awkwardness of its position here. No wonder its statements about Kaesong have been so confusing. On January 8th, two days after the test, the Unifiction Ministry said, “At this stage, we don’t think it is appropriate to talk about withdrawal or closure of the complex.” On the 11th, it said it would further limit access to Kaesong, allowing only “businessmen directly involved in the operation of factories” (but no contractors) to stay overnight, reducing the number of South Koreans staying at Kaesong from 800 to 650. South Korea left open the possibility of further restrictions, depending on “relevant circumstances.” The next day, the Unifiction Ministry reverted to its previous talking points, saying, “At this stage, it is too early to talk about a possible closure of the factory zone,” and, “We are not considering shutting down the complex for now.” But then, on the 13th, Park Geun-hye “said the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex will depend on the North’s move down the road.”

So, is all that perfectly clear? No?

I’ve written before that until the three allied nations get their act together on sanctions enforcement, North Korea will continue to divide them and nullify the effect of sanctions. North Korea uses abductees to weaken Japan’s sanctions, uses hostages and denuclearization deals to weaken U.S. sanctions, uses hegemonic aspirations and anti-American mischief-making to weaken Russia’s and China’s sanctions, uses the lure of engagement to weaken Europe’s sanctions, and uses ethno-nationalism to weaken South Korea’s sanctions. Without much better cooperation among these governments, a low-overhead regime like North Korea’s can resist reform and disarmament indefinitely. For South Korea’s calls for tougher sanctions to be credible, it must make some sacrifices of its own. After all, its own interests are the most affected by North Korea’s nukes.

I’m under no illusions about the political challenge this presents for Park. She knows that pan-Korean nationalism remains popular among many of her voters. So does the idea of economic cooperation with Pyongyang, for all its failure to produce any positive results for South Korea’s security. But the fact remains — Park can’t credibly ask Japan, China, the U.N. and the U.S. to help it impose “bone-numbing” sanctions while it continues to pour a massive subsidy into Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts through Kaesong. Other governments would rightly view that as Korean Exceptionalism and a sign that Seoul isn’t serious. Years ago, after all, Treasury Undersecretary (and now CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen had expressed his concerns about how Pyongyang is using that cash.

Maybe Park is fiddling with access to Kaesong and dropping hints about closing it because she can see the awkwardness of her position, and knows she has to feign some toughness for foreign consumption. Maybe these are trial balloons to test the reaction on the streets of left-leaning Kwangju. Maybe she wants to goad the North Koreans into shutting Kaesong down themselves, as they did in 2013, thus saving her the political cost of doing so herself. Maybe she’s signaling to foreign investors that both Korean governments are putting political burdens on Kaesong, in the hope that the whole sordid project will wither during her successor’s tenure.

Unfortunately, South Korea’s security won’t wait that long. Her successor may not share her own clarity about the security risk that her country faces. The choice Park faces now is to continue with what has failed, or to return to what has worked.

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Having said all this, I doubt Park will have the political courage to shut Kaesong down outright. In that case, she has other alternatives at her disposal that would work almost as well, at less political cost. Rather than closing Kaesong down herself, she need only hold Kaesong to the same international norms and standards that the Sunshine Policy promised to spread into North Korea, but hasn’t.

First, she could set a timeline for Kaesong to comply with International Labor Organization standards, to protect the rights of the workers there. The most important of these rights is the right of each worker to keep her wages. In tandem with this, South Korea should look toward Marcus Noland’s suggestion that all joint ventures with North Korea, including Kaesong, adopt baseline standards for worker protection.

Second, Park should announce the phase-out of subsidies to Kaesong. If Kaesong can’t turn a profit without state subsidies a decade after its establishment, it isn’t really introducing capitalism to the North, it’s just nuclear welfare by another name. Cutting subsidies will also discourage Pyongyang from any more unilateral wage and tax raises.

Finally, South Korea must abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, paragraphs 11 and 15, which require it to ensure that North Korea isn’t using the proceeds of Kaesong for purposes prohibited by the resolutions. How can South Korea possibly expect to know this? One way would be for Pyongyang to accede, at long last, to a degree of financial transparency about where Kaesong’s proceeds go, and how much the workers are allowed to earn and spend. Not likely, you say. And you’re probably right.

Alternatively, South Korea could comply with UNSCR 2094 by announcing that henceforth, Seoul will only pay Pyongyang for Kaesong rents and labor in kind — in food, fertilizer, seed, medicine, humanitarian supplies, and humanitarian services, all of which would be distributed by the World Food Program. After all, if the U.N. is correct that the vast majority of North Koreans barely get enough to eat and have dismal medical care, does Kim Jong-un really have a sovereign right to spend that money on luxury goods and ski resorts instead? Humanitarian aid has its own diversion risks, but those risks are far fewer than those that come with paying Pyongyang in dollars, no questions asked.

Perhaps Pyongyang will respond by shutting Kaesong down entirely. But then, if Pyongyang has that reaction after all these years of gentle inducements, who can really argue that Kaesong was likely to serve its intended purposes anyway?

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* A previous version said “Director.” Thanks to a reader for the correction.

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North Korea, sanctions, and the argument to impotence

With support for the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy collapsing in Washington, the White House desperately needs a win at the U.N., by showing that it can get the Security Council to pass tougher sanctions and make sanctions work. Let’s review what we know about the substance of a potential resolution:

Two administration officials said the United States was now drafting a proposed resolution for United Nations Security Council approval that would impose sanctions on North Korean trade and finance, including a partial ban on permitting North Korean ships to enter ports around the world, an effort to cut off more of the country’s trade.

A second set of sanctions under consideration is a cutoff of North Korean banking relationships, similar to the restrictions placed on Iran in the successful effort to drive it to the negotiation table on its nuclear program. [NYT, David Sanger and Choe Sang-hun]

Although Sanger wrote just over a year ago that “North Korea is under so many sanctions already that adding more seems futile,” he and Choe now recall the Banco Delta Asia stategy of 2005, which “caused considerable pain” to Kim Jong-il’s regime because “the bank was used to finance the lifestyles of many in the North Korean elite.” For some contemporary accounts of how effective that strategy really was, see this and this

The BDA strategy wasn’t effective just because it blocked the money that was in BDA. It wasn’t even that the money was backed up elsewhere, waiting in line to go through BDA. What really made the strategy work was financial diplomacy. Treasury officials traveled around the world to warn other bankers and finance ministers about the risks of doing business with North Korea, and to raise the reputational risks of having North Korean customers.

“Any bank will be in fear of being branded as a colluder of the Kim regime and I believe Washington’s so-called ‘secondary boycott’ will surely put Pyongyang into a corner if it is implemented,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. [Korea Times, Yi Whan-woo]

While the Obama Administration waited for Godot, hoping that His Porcine Majesty would eventually decide to cut a deal, a growing number of us were urging the President to go back to what worked before. The administration answered from both sides of its mouth. From one side, it said it was pressuring North Korea through sanctions. From the other side, it argued that there was nothing more that sanctions could achieve.

After the Sony cyberattack, President Obama called North Korea “the most sanctioned, the most cut off” country in the world. By now, you’ve seen where I debunked that. The administration has also argued that North Korea’s secrecy and self-isolation effectively shielded it from sanctions. A year ago, in this congressional briefing, Treasury Undersecretary Daniel Glaser* said that Treasury hadn’t identified the “nodes” of North Korean finance post-Banco Delta Asia. In this event, Ambassador Robert King said the North Koreans weren’t even using the dollar system. I never believed a word of it, probably because I read the U.N. Panel of Experts reports, which have published many details about North Korea’s dollar-denominated wire transfers.

Now, the Treasury Department is acknowledging that it isn’t quite true.

The Treasury Department has identified similar institutions used by Mr. Kim’s son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un. [NYT]

And this, from Bonnie Glaser’s testimony yesterday, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee:

In 2013, US and South Korean authorities uncovered dozens of overseas bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars that were linked to top North Korean leaders, which they proposed including in UN sanctions lists, but Beijing refused. China has also strongly opposed levying sanctions on high-level North Korean officials such as the head of the North Korea’s agency responsible for conducting its nuclear tests. [link]

I know the Chosun Ilbo sometimes gets a bad rap, which it sometimes deserves, but here’s one thing it seems to have gotten right.

You can watch yesterday’s hearing and read all of the witness statements at this link. Bruce Klingner’s is particularly useful for the clarity of its recommendations.

In other words, we do, too, know where at least some of the money is. This is despite the fact that the administration doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to follow it. The Office of Foreign Assets Control doesn’t require licenses for most transactions with North Korea under 31 C.F.R. Part 510, and hasn’t imposed any enhanced due diligence or reporting requirements on North Korea under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Our best sources of financial intelligence are the compliance reports that banks file with the Treasury Department. If you want to know where the money is, it’s helpful to at least ask.

When Treasury went after Kim Jong-il’s money in 2005, according to the New York Times, “the Bush administration relented and lifted the sanction, in part because of pressure from the government then in place in South Korea.” That seems to have changed, too. The Korea Times is also reporting that the U.S. and South Korea are considering a strategy “to cut off a flow of cash to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un which is used to prop up his regime,” “freeze Kim’s overseas financial assets,” and “scale up economic sanctions against Pyongyang.” The Korea Times also says the two governments “will urge the international community not to hire North Korean laborers or travel to the repressive state.” The report cites “sources” inside the Blue House. 

President Park Geun-hye vowed Wednesday to make all diplomatic efforts to ensure that the U.N. Security Council can adopt a resolution to slap the most powerful sanctions on North Korea.

The sanctions “will be useless unless we ensure North Korea feels pain,” Park said in a televised address to the nation.

She said the sanctions should be powerful enough to make North Korea change its course. North Korea has repeatedly vowed to develop its economy and nuclear arsenal in tandem, viewing its nuclear program as a powerful deterrent against what it claims is Washington’s hostile policy toward it. [Yonhap]

See also President Park’s latest call, for “bone-numbing” sanctions. Except, of course, for South Korea’s pet subsidy for Kim Jong-un: Kaesong.

Our own foreign policy establishment — including made members with close associations with past agreed frameworks — also seems to have shifted its views:

A new approach to persuading the North to abandon its nuclear program must focus on asymmetric pressure points. A look at recent history helps to outline such a strategy. In our experience working on North Korea policy, the government in Pyongyang has seemed truly caught off guard only twice: in September 2005 when the Treasury Department’s sanctions led to a freezing of its bank accounts in Macau; and in February 2014 when a United Nations commission called for the Security Council to refer the North’s leadership to the International Criminal Court for a long list of crimes against humanity.

The United States and the United Nations should immediately increase sanctions. A new Security Council resolution will most likely emerge soon, providing one opportunity for this. Another comes in the form of the presidential executive order created after the cyber attack on Sony Pictures last year. These should include targeted financial sanctions; travel bans and indictments against officials working on the nuclear program, human rights abusers and cyber criminals; as well as secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with North Korean companies.

But sanctions are only one part of the strategy. Many observers believe, credibly, that slave labor bankrolls the nuclear weapons program. The United Nations must also continue to hold individuals in the government directly accountable for crimes against humanity, and all countries, including China and Russia, should be pressured to stop accepting North Korean laborers.

Even if China’s government has made clear that it is unhappy with North Korea’s behavior, Beijing won’t abandon its ally anytime soon. But the United States can — and should — push for Beijing to dial back its support. China could instruct Chinese companies to curtail business with North Korea, and the government could reject any calls from North Korea for new economic projects until the government returned to negotiations. China could also agree to not obstruct any Security Council discussions on human rights abuses in the North. Washington must frame cooperation on North Korea as a cornerstone of United States-China relations.

North Korea thinks that nuclear weapons make it more secure. That’s wrong. North Korea’s only path away from isolation and insecurity will require negotiation on all issues, including security, human rights and economics. In order to help it understand this, the United States must use the nuclear test Wednesday to force the North back to the table. [NYT, Victor Cha & Robert Gallucci]

In Foreign Policy, Bush-era NSC official Michael Green gives my article in The Fletcher Security Review a nice shout-out:

Despite claims from frustrated engagers that North Korea is already the most sanctioned and isolated country in the world, the fact is that economic sanctions on Pyongyang fall short of those put on Iran before the administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran. An excellent study in the Fletcher Security Review demonstrates how incomplete sanctions on the North really are. If the United States worked with Japan, South Korea, and other allies to require inspections of all vessels and aircraft arriving from North Korea, for example, there would be a considerable impact on the country’s illicit shipments of drugs and counterfeit money, as well as the North’s ability to procure materials for its missile and nuclear weapons programs. Other measures would also impact the North, such as blacklisting known North Korean individuals and entities involved in commerce (none of which are purely commercial entities). [Michael Green, Foreign Policy]

See also last week’s Washington Post editorial, calling for “stepping up U.S. sanctions on those that trade with North Korea, including Chinese companies.”

It’s gratifying to see the arguments moving away from arguments to impotence to concrete proposals. Overall, the aftermath of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test has been comparatively free of nonsense about sanctions being maxed out, with a growing realization that there is much more we can do financially.

The better question is how we use all that pressure once we’ve built it, and what end state sanctions can help us achieve. The financial strategy of 2005 was a tactical success that ultimately failed to achieve our objectives, because the State Department and the Treasury Department weren’t playing from the same sheet. State didn’t understand the strategy or the authorities on which it was based, and an ambitious Chris Hill and a weakened President Bush were desperate for a deal — any deal.

North Korea knows very well that it gets its best deals from U.S. and South Korean presidents near the end of their terms, or during moments of domestic political weakness. For the strategy to work this time, we have to embark on it with clear objectives and firm conditions for relaxing sanctions. That’s why Congress wrote those conditions right into the law (see sections 401 and 402).

I envision two alternative objectives for a financial strategy. One would be to use that pressure to secure North Korea’s disarmament, and some progress on humanitarian reforms, relaxing and lifting sanctions on an action-for-action basis, but not before North Korea performs meaningfully. The alternative strategy — if you will, the Plan B — would be to disrupt Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, by denying him the means to pay his military, security forces, and elites. This would go in concert with disruptive and subversive information operations, and a diplomatic campaign of isolation over human rights issues, similar to the one that put global pressure on South Africa in the 1980s.

Call it an “insecurity guarantee” as long as he continues to nuke up and run gulags.

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* I don’t know whether they’re related or not.

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N. Korea sanctions bill passes the House 418-2, Senate seeks compromise bill

By now, you’ve probably read the news about last night’s lopsided vote. Interestingly, it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who were unanimous in their support. The two dissenting votes were Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, both isolationist Republicans from the Ron Paul mold. 

Dissent may be patriotic, but it’s never beyond some well-deserved ridicule.

[Reminder: The views expressed on OFK are the author’s alone.]

You have to hand it to Nancy Pelosi for running a tight ship. In the end, even Charles Rangel and Barbara Lee voted “yes.” John Conyers didn’t vote. 

Here’s a link to the final bill the House passed.

Today, all eyes turn to the Senate, which has very little time to reach unanimous consent on its own bill in this election year. The good news is that all of the right senators — with the exception of Harry Reid, so far — are saying that it’s a priority:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the upper chamber will soon take up sanctions legislation against North Korea after the country claimed it detonated a hydrogen bomb.

“Sen. [Cory] Gardner has been working on a North Korea sanctions bill. We anticipate it will come out of the Foreign Relations Committee very soon, and I intend to schedule floor time on it shortly,” he told reporters.

The Republican leader met with Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, on the issue earlier Tuesday. [The Hill]

Said Corker:

“We have members on our side, and the other side, that have bills here, so we’re going to go through it methodically,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) added, separately, that two proposals have been introduced in the Senate — one from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and another from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — and that he’s already had “some conversations with [with Corker] to make sure we have one bill.” [….]

Corker said that while the briefing with the administration didn’t specifically focus on what sort of sanctions Congress should impose, he added, “I think they believe that action by Congress would be helpful.” [….]

“I think we’re working with Senator Gardner, who has a bit of a different version, to reconcile it, and see if we can bring it to the chairman in a bipartisan effort,” the New Jersey senator said. [The Hill]

Both Corker and his Democratic Ranking Member, Ben Cardin, insist that action in the Congress should not be a substitute for action in the U.N. Security Council. They’re right, of course. U.N. sanctions and member state national sanctions work best in concert with each other. U.N. sanctions unite member states and help smooth out international enforcement gaps, but they have no force of law unless the member states enact and enforce sanctions of their own. All of the sanctions bills on the table now stress that by calling for the State Department to step up its diplomatic game.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expected the Senate to vote on a measure to sanction North Korea soon, though he emphasized that the United Nations should also act.

“We’ve got to step up our game, be proactive and I think you’re going to see Congress over the next short period of time taking its steps, but it’s my hope the international community and our administration will be much more bold,” Corker told reporters following a closed briefing with officials from the State and Defense departments and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [The Examiner]

Now that a sanctions bill has passed the House, the administration seems to have softened its line on whether Congress should meddle.

Corker also said the witnesses were open and said the administration “is probably more open in this case to Congress taking action and putting in place a toolkit to deal with this issue.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also said he expected Congress to take action against North Korea.

“It’s important that the [United Nations] Security Council takes action, we hope that they will. It’s also important for the United States to show international leadership to strengthen our sanctions regime against North Korea. So I think you’ll see action,” he said. [The Examiner]

The comments followed a classified Senate hearing on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

“I think they believe action by Congress could be helpful,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), emerging from a meeting on North Korea with administration officials. “It’s my sense anyway that Congress taking action on this issue could be beneficial and I think you’re going to see that happen.” [WaPo]

All of which gives hope that the Senate will get its act together, reach a compromise, and pass a bill out of Committee. Once that happens, I doubt the bill will attract opposition in the full Senate. What’s less certain is what the Senate’s compromise bill will look likeHaving reviewed both Senate bills, compared them to the House version, and had some discussions with Senate staff, my guess is that the Senate won’t just pass the House bill. Its own negotiations are probably too delicate for that. Senators will want to add their own language on diplomacy, human rights, human trafficking, and funding of humanitarian programs. That’s what’s supposed to happen when bright minds add good ideas. But the final content of the Senate bill will be 80 to 90 percent of the same DNA as H.R. 757.

My greater concerns are, first, that some of the Senate language in Section 104, the key enforcement trigger, lacks the coherence of what the House ultimately passed, and even (accidentally) leaves out the mandatory sanctions for arms trafficking. I don’t expect that to be controversial or difficult to fix.

Second, the National Committee for North Korea asked for some amendments to the language because of its fear that the House version could adversely affect humanitarian programs. Unfortunately, those requests came three months too late for consideration in the House markup. Myself, I think the concerns are overblown. The humanitarian waivers and exemptions in Section 207 of the House version are broad enough to deal with all of them, particularly if Treasury gets off the dime and starts working on implementing guidance now, assuring bankers that transactions in food and medicine are safe to handle, as it belatedly did with Iran. But NCNK’s recommended amendments were also conscientious, well written, and harmless to the bill’s effectiveness. In that case, if we all share the same concerns and goals, why not compromise? For whatever my view matters, I hope the Senate takes most of them aboard, and have said so to the right people.

Third and finally, one of the two competing Senate bills has mandatory sanctions for the worst conduct — proliferation, human rights abuses, money laundering, etc. — and one does not. In a perfect world, Congress could defer such matters to the President’s discretion, but this isn’t a perfect world. President Obama won’t use the discretion he has, and his predecessor, George W. Bush, threw his away because he didn’t know how to use sanctions as part of a comprehensive policy or a competent negotiation process. That gives Congress the responsibility to help the President lead. The fact that such targets as Chinpo Shipping, KNIC, NADA, Unit 121, Ri Chol, 88 Queensway, Hwang Pyong-so, and Kim Jong-un himself haven’t been designated by now — yet Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenka, and Bashar Assad all have been — shows you just what’s wrong with this picture.

It’s as if someone in the State Department secretly granted Kim Jong-un transactional immunity, or (more likely) just decided to outsource the problem to our Chinese frenemies. I can’t quite explain it.

The only real opponent now is the calendar. It’s entirely possible that the House and Senate could both act, their attention spans could expire, and they could both disperse to their respective campaigns before they get agreed language through a conference committee. Certainly the Senate bill could make the House’s good bill even better. Each of the pending Senate bills contains endemic language that I hope to see in the final version. I’m sure you could find hundreds of people in this town who would express their own subjective opinions in that regard. The greatest danger now is that the perfect will become the mortal enemy of the good.

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The biggest loser from North Korea’s nuke test? China. (updated)

When I was in high school, my favorite TV show was “Miami Vice.” Until it jumped the shark in Season Three, I’d count the minutes until each episode began. One of its best episodes was called “Golden Triangle,” in which the show developed the main characters’ boss, Lieutenant Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos in his breakout role. Olmos played Castillo deep and dark. To me, at that age, Castillo personified cool.

In this episode, Castillo revealed his past as a DEA agent in Thailand, where he’d gone native, learned to speak Thai, met and lost his life’s great love (played by the delectable Joan Chen), and then barely survived a deadly ambush at the hands of his nemesis, a Nationalist Chinese general turned Golden Triangle drug lord named Lao Li.

Lao Li’s character was played by the late, great Keye Luke, an actor who deserved vastly more memorable roles than were available to Asian-Americans for most of his long life. Luke played this role brilliantly, with an impeccably icy sagacity. (Watch the whole episode below if you doubt me). In his career, Luke was probably most famous for playing Master Po in “Kung Fu,” but I’d have remembered him for the talent he showed in this one “Miami Vice” cameo if he’d never done anything else.

This being a blog about North Korea, you may be wondering whether I will be making a topical point. We’re coming to that; trust me. In this episode, Castillo learns that his old nemesis, General Lao Li, has decided to move his smuggling operation to Miami by posing as a respected retiring businessman, putting down strong roots in the community, and gaining the favor and patronage of the political establishment. (Yes, Joan Chen is there, too.) To do this, he gives strict orders that his subordinates behave like paragons of legality, maintain low profiles, and avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement — and especially of Lieutenant Castillo — at all costs.

Lao Li soon learns that his grandsons have defied him and are driving around in a Lamborghini. Most unforgivably, they have been selling heroin. Castillo is watching, and his men arrest the grandsons. This is a risk, and a defiance of his authority, that Lao Li cannot accept. In terms of its plot, acting, and production values, this episode could have been a movie, but the scene that illustrates my topical point starts at 41 minutes.

[If only one of the grandsons had been fat. Really fat.]

That Lao Li’s character happens to be Chinese is as incidental to the analogy as the fact that Castillo’s character doesn’t. Xi Jinping may not inhabit a higher moral plane than the fictional Lao Li, but he almost certainly inhabits a lower intellectual one. Xi may have a predator’s instinct for weakness, but he’s also a cumbrous, boorish nationalist who has managed to turn most of his democratic Asian neighbors against him. His legacy may yet be an Asian analogue to NATO that contains several newly-minted nuclear powers in an arms race with his ally (and him), along with a lot more port calls by the U.S. Navy.

Xi may not see this, but anyone can see that he has been humiliated by the perception that he cannot control his lawless dependent. That perception may be nothing more than a disguise for a more duplicitous agenda, but the perception itself is costly. Xi has greater schemes in mind, but his (metaphorical) grandson threatens to upset his plans by causing his neighbors to mobilize their defenses. His paternal benevolence should end here. It won’t. And that means Kim Jong-un will continue to be costly for Xi Jinping.

History will probably record that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test did more damage to the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy than it did to the the geology under Punggye-ri. In doing so, it also obliterated China’s credibility here. One of the more devastating criticisms of the administration’s policy came from The Washington Post‘s David Nakamura, who effectively accused the administration of outsourcing its policy to China. No wonder the State Department is feeling burned by China:  

In a striking public rebuke of China, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Beijing on Thursday that its effort to rein in North Korea had been a failure and that something had to change in its handling of the isolated country it has supported for the past six decades.

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, and we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that,” Mr. Kerry said a day after North Korea’s latest nuclear test, after a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. “Today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it clear: That has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.” [N.Y. Times, David Sanger and Choe Sang-hun]

If China’s quiet duplicity surprised the Secretary, it was because no one was giving him read-outs of the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring those sanctions. Those reports added to a considerable body of evidence that China was willfully violating the sanctions for years. In the short term, this is a big setback for the Obama Administration, but in the longer term, we can hope that a tougher, more engaged, and more realistic North Korea policy will be to the administration’s advantage as it winds down its affairs and transitions to the next one.

For China, the consequences may be more adverse and enduring. It stands to lose influence regionally because of North Korea’s actions. Its adversaries have taken steps to resolve the differences that divided them, and are now effectively allied against it. South Koreans even speak openly of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. As well I would, too, if I were South Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese.

It also stands to lose credibility globally. As William Newcomb, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, told the AP, “China uses the sanctions committee’s consensus rule ‘to renege on what it agreed to do in the Security Council as well as to block proposed designations.’” Now, the U.S. and China are fighting about both the substance and enforcement of U.N. sanctions. More voices in the U.S. are calling for secondary sanctions that hit Chinese targets. Some South Koreans are also blaming China:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went ahead with the fourth nuclear test because it will not cause China to abandon the North, said Kim Hwan-suk, a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy.

“North Korea used brinkmanship because it knows that China won’t abandon it, given its strategic value,” Kim said. “North Korea does not expect China to fully support sanctions against the North by the U.N. Security Council.” [Yonhap]

The strongest words came from South Korea’s Foreign Minister:

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Sunday called on China to prove its “firm” opposition to the North’s claimed hydrogen bomb test after the North’s largest ally denied responsibility in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Chinese government must clearly follow through with its promise made to the international community when it votes for the United Nations Security Council resolution,” Yun said on “Sunday Diagnosis,” a KBS current affairs program, on Sunday morning.

“That’s important to stabilizing the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the international community. It would prove that China hasn’t made empty promises.” [Yonhap]

China, for its part, is pushing back and blaming the U.S. for Kim Jong-un’s decision to test a nuke, thereby revealing much about its fundamental hostility to U.S. interests and utter disregard for the welfare of North Koreans:

In a commentary, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said, “The U.S.’s combative approach has in effect deepened Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity and prompted the country to go further in challenging non-proliferation restrictions.”

“The Western media and some politicians have piled blame on China for failing to halt the DPRK’s nuclear program,” the Xinhua commentary said, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name.

“But any hasty conclusion to identify China as the crux of the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula is as absurd as it is irresponsible,” it said.

Another state-run newspaper published by China’s ruling Communist Party also blamed what it calls a “hostile policy” by South Korea, the United States and Japan towards North Korea for the North’s fourth nuclear test.

In an editorial, the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to defend North Korea’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying there will be “no hope” for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions unless South Korea, the U.S. and Japan change their policy toward the North.

“There is no hope to put an end to the North Korean nuclear conundrum if the U.S., South Korea and Japan do not change their policies toward Pyongyang,” the editorial reads. “Solely depending on Beijing’s pressure to force the North to give up its nuclear plan is an illusion.”

Lu Chao, a research fellow of Korean studies at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times newspaper on Saturday that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons because of a “hostile policy” by the U.S. against the North. [Yonhap]

This sort of rhetoric will not play well in Washington, and will not advance China’s interests. Instead, it will inflame opinions on Capitol Hill and among American voters. In an election year, it will set off a contest among candidates to promise the most anti-Chinese policies. A few of those promises might even be kept. So why does China say such silly things? For the same reason Donald Trump says silly things — because of his emotions, and to exploit the emotions of other mediocre minds.

Historically, China has been an empire that either absorbed or dominated its neighbors. States that remained independent were required to send ambassadors to the Forbidden City to kowtow and give tribute. Chinese political culture is a hierarchical and status-conscious one in which you’re either above or below. Those above condescend and exploit. Those below fawn and obey. With this realization, I suddenly understood the appeal of Maoism. In comparison, Korean society seems positively egalitarian. I certainly know who I’d rather drink with, or have on my side in a street fight, but then, I’m an assimilated wasicu

Because of status-based and institutional arrogance, and because China’s leaders aren’t held accountable by a critical press or free elections, they overestimate their own competence and don’t weed out incompetent or corrupt officials. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true in dictatorships. Job security is more closely related to getting along with others, and showing the right deference to superiors. That drives China to make “safe” decisions by continuing with what has worked before, or seemed to. If what worked before stops working, the new plan may come too late, and may be the work of not-very-competent people. See, e.g., the recent performance of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

The leaders of China are rational, but they’re also operating with limited information, because of both groupthink and censorship. So when Chinese elites say that sanctions won’t work or human rights problems in North Korea aren’t really that bad, they probably believe that, mostly. That’s both because they don’t know, and also because they don’t care that much. To Chinese elites, Koreans are a “down” people, and that goes double for North Koreans. They may be extremely adept at weighing of costs against benefits, but groupthink and institutional resistance are high obstacles to a careful reconsidation of the bubble that’s building beyond China’s northeastern border.

In the case of North Korea, we may yet persuade China to shift course. There might yet be a chance for a face-saving soft landing that avoids regional war and protracted chaos, and protects China’s basic security interests, ours, and those of our allies. For now, that still seems unlikely. That’s unfortunate, because the interests of China, the United States, and a united Korea could be reconciled by skillful diplomacy. I’m not sure if Beijing really agrees, but a nuclear North Korea is bad for China — very bad. To get to that realization, however, China will have to feel enough of a cost to shift its incentives. That means that U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they get better.

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UPDATE: Now, the South Korean semi-official news agency, Yonhap, reports that Chinese are complaining that their government needs to take a harder line.

In one opinion poll of some 42,500 people by the state-run Global Times, 81 percent say the North’s nuclear test poses a threat to China’s security.

In another poll of 4,900 people by the same paper, 82 percent responded that they support new sanctions by the U.N. Security Council against North Korea.

Some Internet users posted comments about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the newspaper’s website, likening him to an “extremely crazy guy.”

Other users say China must cut its aid of oil and food to North Korea.

China is North Korea’s top trading partner and supplies almost all of the isolated ally’s energy needs, but many analysts believe that China’s Communist Party leadership won’t exert enough leverage on North Korea because a sudden collapse of the North’s regime could threaten China’s own security interests. [Yonhap]

That’s the first thing resembling an opinion poll I’ve seen measuring Chinese sentiments about North Korea policy. The 82 percent support for new U.N. sanctions is stunning, and at striking variance with elite opinion in China. Yonhap also reports “growing public resentment” of North Korea, and that “some social media users criticizing their government for not taking a tougher response to the North’s test.” Imagine how they’ll feel if sanctions start to have collateral effects on China’s fragile economy. What this means is that Xi Jinping’s North Korea policy is probably causing harm to his domestic support, in addition to the harm it’s doing to his international credibility.

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South Korea’s loudspeaking needs a strategic objective

Barely four months ago, Park Geun-hye’s negotiating team exchanged high-fives and backslaps with its North Korean counterparts, and came home having secured either peace in our time, or (as I called it) an agreement to fight another day.

Today, South Korea says the North’s nuke test was “a grave violation” of the August agreement, the loudspeakers are blaring on both sides of the DMZ, and North Korea says the noise is pushing the two Koreas to “the brink of war.” What noise, you ask?

“Kim Jong Un’s incompetent regime is trying to deceive the world with its lame lies,” a kind-sounding woman would say in one of the messages in a slow, deliberate voice. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This is all very nice from the perspective of a carnivorous South Dakotan and the readers of this blog, although I’m not sure how much of the NKPA audience is prepared to take in such a bluntly political message.

Smart people have done good research about what messages influence North Koreans, and they found that most North Korean listeners just want to be entertained, at least initially. North Koreans have also emerged to advise us what to broadcast. For some of them, entertainment becomes a gateway drug for complaints about material matters, local policies, state policies, and eventually, their country’s political system.

To the extent the content of broadcasts is political, it works better for creating favorable impressions of South Korea or the United States than for creating unfavorable impressions of the North Korean government. (North Koreans tend to distrust what they hear about their own country from the media. They’re more likely to trust what they hear by word of mouth, from their friends and relatives.) That counsels us that a message of peace could be effective in counteracting the state’s war propaganda.

This is not to deny that anti-state messages have their place. Frankly, when I see people argue for or against broadcasting political content, I have to wonder if they ever turn the dials on their own car radios. Not all North Koreans want the same content any more than we do. Some want k-pop, some want trot, some want dramas, some want straight news, and perhaps some demographic is just waiting for a North Korean Rush Limbaugh to come along.

The great theorist of counter-insurgency, Sir Robert Thompson, argued that reporting on the adversary’s corruption was often devastating. Another argument that seems to be resonating with some North Koreans is the idea that nuke tests are a waste of money that the government ought to be spending on providing them with food and essential services.

This leaves me wondering just exactly how loudspeaking plays into a coherent long-term strategy. Look — I’m all for deterring violence with non-violence, so I’m all for the basic concept. It’s just hard for me to see what deterrent effect this auditory punitive expedition will have, when it will end, or how. It’s also hard for Patrick Cronin, who puts it very well in this must-read piece:

Fifth, South Korea should rethink the propaganda broadcasts and replace them with a more comprehensive and strategic information campaign. This campaign would develop new means and double down on existing means of spreading facts about the lack of justice in North Korea (with gulags and summary executions for political opponents), the criminal mismanagement of North Korea’s leadership (with a quarter of a meager GDP being spent on the military) and the growing inequality between the average citizens of North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea or China on the other. The positive message of this information campaign should focus on the bonanza that peaceful unification might bring to all Koreans. [Patrick Cronin, The National Interest]

Read the whole thing. 

The first question I would ask is who the audience is. If it’s conscripts, wouldn’t it be more effective to talk about corruption, abuse, disease, malnutrition, and low morale in the North Korean military? Or recent fraggings and defections? Or to send a message of peace, that soldiers should try to save the lives of fellow Koreans by sabotaging weapons, misplacing firing pins and bolts, or intentionally missing their targets? North Korean soldiers might be intensely curious about life in the ROK Army, although that’s not always a very cheery story, either.

Of course, I continue to believe that blaring noise to a few hundred, or a few thousand, conscripts is small ball. If the ROKs are really serious about changing North Korean society, they’ll need to engage the whole population. Once there is cross-border cell service, the possibilities are limitless. The Albert Einstein Institute has published a well-developed theory of using non-violent resistance to topple totalitarian regimes, but few of the strategies articulated here have any realistic chance of success in North Korea. By Einstein’s own admission, non-violent resistance harnesses the power of indigenous civil institutions. Those don’t exist in North Korea today, but if the security forces suddenly found themselves unable to pay their cadres, the internal balance of power could start to shift. South Korea’s strategic goal, then, ought to be to remotely rebuild the civil institutions that North Korea lacks.

There are some new technical ideas that may help us do this. First, in a little-noticed but fascinating report by the UPI’s Elizabeth Shim, a North Korean defector reports that it is now possible for some defectors in China to Skype their relatives back home by bringing a South Korean smartphone into the Chinese side of the border zone.

Second, with the caveat that I’m not a telecommunications expert, I’d like to hear some well-informed thoughts on the following modest proposal: now that Orascom has written off Koryolink, could South Korea build some towers along the DMZ and broadcast a cell signal on Koryolink’s frequency? Would this allow a South Korean in, say, Musan to call a North Korean in, say, Cheongjin? If you’re one who believes in engaging North Korea in principle, how could you possibly be against shattering the digital DMZ, and allowing all Koreans the means to engage with one another, people-to-people?

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Dems & Republicans join forces to support North Korea sanctions legislation

When it comes to North Korea policy, Washington’s most influential lobbyist has never been to Washington. He’s in his early 30s, never finished high school, chain smokes, likes to ski, loves the NBA and bondage porn, favors dark suits and mushroom haircuts, has an explosive temper and a small nuclear arsenal, and weighs as much as a village full of his malnourished subjects.

Tuesday’s nuke test may have come just in time for Congress to act before dispersing for a long election year. Now, a sanctions bill that had stalled for months is moving swiftly to the House floor, and Roll Call and Foreign Policy are quoting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) as saying that her party will support the legislation, “virtually guaranteeing” its passage “as early as next week.”

royce engek

[The leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Chairman Ed Royce (R, CA) and Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D, NY)]

Foreign Policy says the bill will be “based on” the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act (which, in full disclosure, I helped write):

An aide for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Foreign Policy the legislation would be based on the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, a bill that passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year. The measure authorizes sanctions against banks facilitating the country’s nuclear program and the freezing of U.S. assets linked to North Korean “proliferation, smuggling, money laundering, and human rights abuses.” [Foreign Policy]

I won’t deny that the words “based on” concern me just a little, but I expect relatively few changes to the House bill — there just isn’t time for extensive ones. Whatever the changes, I just hope they aren’t harmful to the key provisions.*

The House bill is “ready to go” and could receive a vote the week of Jan. 11, Pelosi said. Because the bill has strong bipartisan support, she said it may be voted under an expedited procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Speaker Paul D. Ryan confirmed the House will vote on North Korea sanctions, but deferred details on the schedule to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. [Roll Call]

In the Senate, where arcane rules make it difficult to move a bill without unanimous consent, things are less settled. There are two bills pending — Senator Cory Gardner’s (R, CO) strong S. 2144, and Senator Menendez’s substantively weaker S. 1747, which is largely redundant with an Executive Order President Obama signed a year ago, after the Sony cyberterrorist attack, but has hardly used. Unlike S. 2144, S. 1747 lacks mandatory sanctions, and leaves all the discretion to the President. 


[Senators Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, James Risch, and Chairman Bob Corker. Via]

Unfortunately, the President’s failure to respond to the Sony cyberattack last year means that he doesn’t need more discretion, he needs less of it. Kim Jong-un may not know much about Congress, but he obviously has this President figured out.

While the final form of a Senate bill remains uncertain, the Senate’s mood is on open display. Marco Rubio (R, FL), a co-sponsor of S. 2144, is calling for North Korea to be put back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.** But of course, only a few lonely cranks — and three federal District Court judges, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and pretty much everyone of consequence in Congress — believe the evidence would support that.

“We have to do everything we can to ensure that they have less money to spend on these sorts of programs. So that’s why a state sponsor of terror, they should be returned to that list,” Rubio said in an interview with Fox Business Network. “They were once on that list. They were removed from that list as a concession. They need to be put back on,” he said. Rubio also called for measures to “go after the assets” overseas of the North’s leadership. [Yonhap]

Senator James Risch (R-ID), also a co-sponsor of S. 2144, told CNN, “I think that what is going to happen is, there are going to be some banking sanctions that they can turn the screw a little tighter on with some of the banks that they are doing business with in Asia. I have no doubt that that’s going to be looked at.” 

As Yonhap accurately divines, what Risch is calling for is a return to the strategy used against Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which “almost cut off the North from the international financial system.”

The blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia not only froze North Korean money in the bank but also scared away other financial institutions from dealing with Pyongyang for fear they would also be blacklisted. The measure is considered the most effective U.S. sanction yet on the North. [Yonhap]

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire, called on the administration to “impose the toughest and broadest possible sanctions against North Korea and those who aid the regime’s illicit activities,” and also called the President’s North Korea policy a failure.

Senate Democrats are piling on, too.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called on Congress to pass new sanctions legislation in the wake of the test. Menendez introduced legislation last year with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pushing the administration for tougher sanctions against North Korea and its supporters.

Cardin and Menendez both said, separately, that the Security Council should impose its own penalties on North Korea. “Moreover, given North Korea’s actions, the United States and our allies must also take additional steps to combine effective sanctions with appropriate countermeasures,” Cardin added. [The Hill]

On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Intelligence Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Adam Schiff of California, pushed for punitive sanctions.

“I intend to work with my colleagues in the Senate on legislation to impose additional sanctions on North Korea and would also urge additional sanctions by the United Nations Security Council,” said Cardin in a statement. [Foreign Policy]

Senate staffers are probably debating which version of the bill they’ll ultimately pass out of the Foreign Relations Committee. Crucially, we still don’t know which version Chairman Bob Corker (R, TN) will support. The Hill quotes Corker as promising to work with Cardin, Menendez, and Gardner to “bring further pressure to bear” on the North Korean government. He might introduce his own version, or even “simply take up the House version of the bill this time around.”

This being an election year, the presidential candidates are also criticizing the President’s policy and calling for more sanctions. That means almost all of the Republicans — even Rand Paul — but not only the Republicans.

“The United States and our partners, including the U.N. Security Council, need to immediately impose additional sanctions against North Korea,” Clinton said. [Foreign Policy]

As I so often do, I agree with what Mrs. Clinton says on foreign policy. If only I could forget that she was Secretary of State for four years. If only she hadn’t coined that awful term, “strategic patience,” which still makes the State Department people wince. The Republicans will want to hang this albatross around her neck. They’d be crazy not to. Ted Cruz is already hanging it around her husband’s neck. That’s why foreign policy would have been an important issue in this election, even if the entire world didn’t seem to be collapsing into anarchy.

It’s hard to find anyone who approves of how the President has handled North Korea today. Conservatives call him weak, and his “traditional supporters” have criticized him “for not pushing harder for direct multilateral talks with North Korea and other regional partners.” Foreign Policy reports a “rare convergence of criticism” that “the size and sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear program has increased” during his presidency. The Washington Post‘s David Nakamura accuses the administration of dropping the ball and outsourcing the problem to the Chinese.

So far, so good, but then, Nakamura’s sources criticize the President for not trying hard enough to get a deal, which isn’t quite fair. As The Wall Street Journal told us yesterday, “U.S. officials say they have repeatedly tried to engage North Korea in dialogue about its nuclear program in recent months, but Pyongyang hasn’t responded to their advances.” It sounds self-serving, but the record supports that contention. Besides which, the harder American presidents try to “engage” North Korea, the worse their results tend to be.

In this climate, all the administration can really do is shift the focus to its push for tougher sanctions at the U.N. It needs a win in New York to make up for what looks like a general rout of its North Korea (non-) policy in Washington. The administration will probably announce new bilateral sanctions under existing executive orders to preempt some of the momentum in Congress, but I doubt that will appease Congress now. The administration can forget about any new diplomatic initiatives. Its goal now is to avoid a greater crisis, and to keep North Korea from sapping its credibility on other foreign policy issues.

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* For more information on how a North Korea sanctions bill would work, why it would work, why more sanctions are needed, how it could work despite Chinese obstructionism, and how similar strategies have worked against North Korea before, here are those answers. For why I care and so should you, start here, and then move to this.

** President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

*** Yes, I changed the post title.

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North Korea says it just tested an H-bomb. Here’s how we should respond.

North Korea has just announced that it tested a hydrogen bomb. The announcement came shortly after the U.S. Geological Survey measured an artificial earthquake in the vicinity of North Korea’s Punggye-ri test site (Google Earth images of the site, and the gulag next to it, here).

Events are moving faster than reporters can type right now, but the most comprehensive reports at this moment are at NK News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

This would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, and its third during the Obama Administration. On the Richter Scale, the test measured 5.1, compared to 4.9 in 2013, 4.7 in 2009, and 4.2 in 2006. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, which means that a 5.0 is ten times more powerful than a 4.0.

Last month, when North Korea first claimed to have built an H-bomb, most experts reacted skeptically, but North Korea has surprised us before. To confirm that this was an H-bomb, we’ll send a plane to fly through the plume from the blast, collect air samples, and analyze them. That will take days, if not weeks.

This is the first North Korean nuke test that didn’t follow the usual pattern of a missile test as the opening act, unless you count (and believe) reports that Pyongyang recently carried out a successful test of a submarine-launched missile. Once North Korea has a serviceable SLBM, it will no longer need a long-range ballistic missile to hit the United States. North Korea’s ICBM program has struggled, but its short- and medium-range missiles are relatively accurate and reliable.

I’m glad Professor Lee and I mentioned this possibility in our latest op-ed, just published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal. Frankly, that op-ed works well enough as a prescription for how to respond to a nuke test as the cyberattack we never really called Kim Jong-un to account for. I’m glad we timed this one so well, and I’m glad the right people are taking notice of that.

Now comes the part where I have to read “experts” who’ve never once read 31 C.F.R. Part 500 or an executive order tell us that North Korea is already so heavily sanctionedall without screaming and waking the neighbors.

If the President doesn’t impose some actual, legitimately tough sanctions now, I really don’t know what to say for him. He’s just lost all political cover to do a deal with the North Koreans in the last year of his administration. What does he have to lose now?

And, of course, this is an election year, and an exceptionally volatile one. That won’t make it any easier for the President to continue with his avoidant North Korea policy.

As for Congress, it has strong North Korea sanctions bills pending in both houses now. If it doesn’t put a tough bill on the President’s desk now, it will forfeit the credibility of its criticisms of one of this administration’s — and the last administration’s — great foreign policy failures.

Internationally, the administration should put resources and capital behind a program of progressive diplomacy, to unite our allies in exerting coordinated pressure on Pyongyang, building capacity for smaller states to enforce existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, and building a larger coalition that would leave North Korea’s few remaining enablers increasingly isolated.

Speaking of enablers, the other party that might be rather exasperated right now is China. It was reportedly trying to arrange a visit to Pyongyang by a senior diplomat. I assume the purpose of this would have been to dissuade His Porcine Majesty from going through with the test. That, combined with the recent Moranbang fiasco, Kim Jong-un’s failure to visit China, and the fallout (sorry) from the Jang Song-thaek purge, give China reasons for exasperation. It still won’t cut off aid to North Korea, but I’m guessing it won’t put up much of a fight when Samantha Power asks the Security Council to approve another sanctions resolution.

Which China will then proceed to ignore, just like all the rest of those resolutions. Of course, we don’t have to just keep watching them do that. With China’s economy and stock market tanking again, the last thing it needs is for its banks to get fined, or even lose their access to the dollar systemfor helping North Korea break U.N. sanctions.

The outcomes we should seek now are, first, China’s good-faith implementation of the sanctions it has been voting for and willfully violating since 2006, and second, China’s abstention on a resolution referring Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, even if the only consequence of that is to isolate Putin as the lone veto.

Finally, it’s time to acknowledge that none of the problems North Korea continues to create for its people and ours are going to be solved without a fundamental change in the character of its government. Those around Kim Jong-un must understand that their only choices are to reform or to perish. China, for its part, must understand that Kim Jong-un’s oppressive and dangerous ways will inevitably bring something resembling the chaos and violence of Syria to its frontier. There is much China can do to encourage internal change, followed by gradual, negotiated reform and disarmament, if it wants to.

Failing this, the way to force change at the top is to refocus our engagement efforts toward the bottom. That means denying the regime the hard currency that sustains it, but it also means giving North Korea’s hungry and dispossessed the capacity to communicate, organize, resist, and build institutions that can challenge the state.

~   ~   ~

Update: A few additional thoughts on what we should ask the U.N. Security Council to do.

First, expect the Security Council to meet in emergency session to consider yet another sanctions resolution. The most important thing that resolution could require is for member state banks to report any deposits, accounts, or property suspected to be owned or controlled by North Korean officials to the U.N.’s 1718 Committee. That will help build an international database of North Korean funds, and help the Security Council trace North Korean funds, identify violations, and better deter North Korean provocations.

Above, I argued that the U.S. should now push to refer Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court. If China and Russia absolutely refuse to go along with a new resolution that directly holds Kim Jong-un accountable for crimes against humanity, there are also more indirect ways to do this. One would be to add new provisions prohibiting the use of forced labor from North Korea, which would cut off a major source of funds for Pyongyang. China and Russia would argue that this crosses a new rubicon, but that’s not so. After all, John Bolton persuaded them both to go along with prohibiting North Korea’s imports of luxury goods as early as 2006. The intent behind that sanction was that Pyongyang had no business importing Swiss watches and luxury sedans while the North Korean people went hungry. That provision had no direct bearing on proliferation. It was about human rights.

Whatever the Security Council does is likely to continue to focus on squeezing North Korea’s shipping networks. And while I can certainly think of some useful provisions for a new resolution in this regard, what may be more desperately needed to make sanctions work at last is new designations under the old resolutions. Targets should include shipping companies, air cargo carriers under military control, state insurance companies that facilitate arms shipments, businesses that are known to be fronts for money laundering, and third-country entities that reflag North Korean ships or otherwise help it break sanctions. For example, the Treasury Department has sanctioned China’s 88 Queensway Group for breaking sanctions against Zimbabwe. To show its seriousness, Treasury should also designate 88 Queensway and its head, Sam Pa, under Executive Order 13687, for all it has done to break sanctions against North Korea.

The Security Council should also approve the designations of higher-level North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un-himself, and the members of his Organization and Guidance Department, which would effectively freeze their assets.

Finally, the Security Council must also revamp and streamline the moribund and bureaucratic 1718 Committee, which approves the designations, and require it to make regular reports to the Security Council.)

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North Korea and Sony, one year later: An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

Just over a year ago, President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for a cyberattack on Sony, and for cyberterrorist threats against American moviegoers. Last January 2nd, he signed an executive order authorizing new sanctions against North Korea, part of a promised “proportional response.”

A year later, we’re still waiting to see what President Obama will do to defend freedom of expression here in America. Professor Lee and I have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, making the case for a stronger response.

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North Korea’s not-so-great dictator: Kim Jong-un’s impulsive ineptitude

South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se, believes that Pyongyang is increasingly isolated. He believes that this is causing it “more distress this year than any other time,” and that Kim Jong-un will redouble his efforts to break that isolation this year.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Yun’s statement. First, South Korea, having nominally signed on to a policy of pressuring Pyongyang to disarm without actually complying with that policy itself, must want to world to think that it’s sufficient for everyone else to isolate Pyongyang (which won’t work when everyone else is also an exceptionalist). Second, Pyongyang has never needed full access to the global economy to sustain itself. Its survival model only requires engagement with a few compliant or gullible partners who can supply it with just enough hard currency to keep its elite afloat without opening North Korea to significant foreign intrusion. 

On the other hand, there are signs that for various reasons, all self-inflicted, Pyongyang’s appeal to this limited pool of compliant and gullible partners is becoming increasingly selective.

First, Pyongyang has mismanaged relations with its most important foreign investor. The ongoing Koryolink fiasco has generated a stream of bad press and complicated its efforts to recruit foreign investors. I had not realized the full extent of Orascom’s exposure here:

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ, Alastair Gale]

Pyongyang is also under rising diplomatic pressure over its horrific human rights abuses, which have resulted in a stream of humiliating U.N. General Assembly votes and (admittedly non-binding) Security Council meetings. These will also make North Korea toxic to more potential investors until it undertakes real reforms.

Pyongyang knows this, but doesn’t seem to know how to confront it. It recently described “the current U.S. administration’s policy” as “the most hostile and ferocious in the history” of the two countries’ relations. It pushed back hard, if ineffectively, at the U.N., and recently sent envoys to Europe “to lobby against international pressure … over its human rights record.”

The Dec. 9-11 visit to London was part of a European trip that also took Kim Son-gyong, director-general for European affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland.

While in London, Kim held meetings with Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as well as officials at the foreign ministry, according to an official at the South Korean Embassy. [….]

During the visit to London, Kim contended that the country is making efforts to improve its human rights record while reaffirming Pyongyang’s existing position that last year’s landmark U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the North’s human rights situation contained unilateral claims from North Korean defectors. [Yonhap]

Pyongyang has also injured its most important international relationship through the Moranbang Band debacle. Aidan Foster-Carter, in an insightful analysis of this episode, says this was to have been the first foreign performance of Kim Jong-un’s house band and “a big deal.” Foster-Carter runs down a list of theories for the performance’s cancellation, and concludes that the most plausible is that Beijing downgraded the seniority of its official representation in response to Pyongyang’s ill-timed claim that it has a hydrogen bomb:

Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.

What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.

Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.

His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.) [Aidan Foster-Carter, NK News]

The views of Don Kirk and Steph Haggard are also worth reading, and introduce other plausible theories. Another is that the performance was to have been accompanied by a video of a missile launch, and that the Chinese objected to this.


Whatever cascade of events led to this outcome, only Kim Jong-un could have made the decision to cancel this performance. It looks impulsive and inept. It’s also consistent with how His Porcine Majesty has exercised his royal prerogatives for most of his life.

Fine, you may say, but this was still a materially inconsequential event, involving a band that’s “no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.” Indeed, I agree that most “cultural diplomacy” is overrated, especially in the relations between unaccountable dictatorships. I also agree with Andrei Lankov that Machiavellian interests will prevail in Beijing, which isn’t going to cut Pyongyang off over this. But this incident must have the Chinese wondering whether Kim Jong-un is a steady and reliable ruler and partner. It will likely shift Beijing’s calculus of what costs are acceptable to attain the benefits of stabilizing Kim’s rule.

There are also the more interesting reports that five days later, North Korea ordered “a considerable number of trade-affiliated employees sojourning in China to report to Pyongyang.” If that’s true, it’s a very big deal.

Our source expressed concern over the drastic measure, wondering if the issue of the Moranbong Band’s canceled tour might be exploding into a bigger issue. “When you call back scores of workers from abroad, that’s a pretty big deal,” she pointed out.

Naturally, she added, speculation about the order’s motives has quickly reached a fever pitch. Some posit that Kim Jong Un could be experiencing “mood swings” so close to the 4th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, perhaps causing him to lose his temper over the Moranbong Band dispute and call back the workers in China.

Some cadres briefly put forth the possibility that maybe the callback was somehow related to mourning-related events for Kim Jong Il, held at foreign embassies and the like over the past three years, but admitted that “that doesn’t really seem to fit.”

Although, the reason will surface in a matter of days, “they can’t help but be nervous,” the source said, adding, “After all, workers abroad are never called upon to return without good reason.”

Families of the workers who have been recalled are reassuring each other, noting, “While it’s bad news if only a few workers are recalled, all of them being told to return simultaneously means that they are probably just going to attend a large meeting or some kind of educational session,” the source explained. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK claims corroboration from two separate sources, although I’ve yet to see this reported by other media. If this is true, I wonder how it will affect relations between Pyongyang and its Chinese business partners, some of whom must still have fresh memories of the Jang Song-thaek purge.

If Kim Jong-un has arguably mismanaged his foreign relations, it’s also true that he can survive several years without recruiting new foreign investors or donors, and months without Chinese support. The relationships he can’t afford to mismanage are those with the top minions whose support he needs every day. But Kim’s management of these relationships also looks increasingly unsteady, as the elites show signs of alienation and discontent. As Kim Jong Un prepares for his own Ides of May, Stephen Harrison, a professor of Latin literature at Oxford, compares his recent purges of his senior advisors to those of Tiberius (fate uncertain), Nero (overthrown), and Caligula (assassinated). 

If there’s any pattern to all of this, it’s one of tactically uncompromising decisions that are beneficial to the regime in the short term, but are strategically self-defeating. This suggests that the flaws in Pyongyang’s strategic judgment go all the way to the top.

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The Kim Jong-un New Year speech Rorschach test

  • Wall Street Journal: “North Korean Leader Threatens ‘Sacred War,’ Pledges Economic Growth”
  • Reuters: “North Korea’s Kim blames South for mistrust in New Year speech”
  • AP: “North Korean leader talks war but doesn’t comment on nukes”
  • Yonhap: “N.K. leader vows to improve ties with S. Korea”

Um, hey, Yonhap, you might want to hold that soda straw up to your other eyepatch.

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On His Corpulency’s Secret Service: N. Korea has had a lot of car not-accidents (updated)

Kim Yang-gon, the head of the North’s United Front Department, has become the latest top North Korean official to assume ambient temperature. As head of the UFD, Kim was North Korea’s nearest analogue to the South’s Unification Minister, but he was also responsible for North Korea’s influence and subversion operations inside South Korea. It is one of my ruder habits to point out that the UFD has a rather substantial fifth column at its service in the South. For more on the inner workings of the UFD, the book you must read is “Dear Leader,” by Jang Jin-sung. For more on Kim’s biography, and his rapid rise since the succession of His Porcine Majesty, I’ll refer you to John Grisafi at NK News.

The point being, Kim was a pezzanovante. He (along with Hwang Pyeong-so) negotiated that agreement between the Koreas to fight another day, after the crisis that followed when North planted mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers. In terms of ideology, Michael Madden describes him as “not exactly a moderate, but … a pragmatist,” and worries that his subtraction from the equation might benefit “more hawkish elements.”

Kim’s official cause of death was a car “accident,” if you can believe that. A few people, including Andrei Lankov and Greg Scarlatoiu, seem skeptical. Personally, I have no idea. North Korea’s roads aren’t much better than the rest of its infrastructure. By most accounts, Pyongyang has more traffic now than in previous years, which still isn’t saying much. There are actual, accidental car accidents in Pyongyang. But there is also a very suspicious history:

In 1976, an official said to be a rival to then-president Kim Il Sung died in a car crash. In 2003, a predecessor to Kim Yang Gon died in a traffic accident and in 2010 top official Ri Je Gang also died in a crash.

“North Korea has a long track record of suspicious deaths around high-level officials,” said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. “Most die either because they are machine-gunned, or they die in car crashes”.

“There are almost no cars and security for high-officials traveling in cars is extremely tight. Given that, one is bound to be skeptical about any such report coming from North Korea.” [Reuters, Jack Kim & James Pearson]

Scarlatoiu notes that senior officials like Kim Yang-gon have drivers for their fancy European sedans. Except, so senior defectors tell Scarlatoiu, when they have to drive themselves to parties — like, say, New Year’s parties — at Kim Jong-il’s house. That’s when the more suspicious accidents tend to happen.

In its 2012 annual report on North Korea, Amnesty International cited “unconfirmed reports that the authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue.”

Only in North Korea would your organizational affiliation dictate your precise cause of death.

Later that same year, a defector claimed he’d been ordered by His Corpulency’s Secret Service to target his equally corpulent (but much nicer) sibling, Jong-nam, for a car not-accident in China. Still unexplained is the 2013 incident in which Kim Jong-un thanked a female traffic cop for saving his life, which caused some to speculate that His Corpulency might also have been the target of a car not-accident.


[caption contest in the comments section]

Our other top story this week is that General Choe Ryong-hae is still not dead. Choe had been variously reported to have been purged and sent to either a farm in South Hamgyeong or a mine in South Pyongan. As of today, he seems to have been un-purged — his name is on the list for Kim Yang-gon’s funeral committee. For those keeping track, this is at least the second time Choe has had a Lazarus-like resurrection.

If you can believe that.

(Update: And after all that, Choe was a no-show for Kim’s funeral. This is all just too weird.)

Grisafi, for whom I have much respect, thinks that the fates of Kim Yang-gon and Choe Ryong-hae mean that “the Kim Jong Un regime appears to have recently shifted away from violent purges by execution of senior officials in favor of milder punishments and reeducation.” But if Kim Yang-gon’s death really was an accident, it means that Choe’s resurrection is the only data point Grisafi has to support this argument. If it wasn’t, a staged car accident isn’t what I’d call “mild” punishment, although it could mean that his parents, children, and wife might be spared relocation to a gulag peace farm.

I think the data pool is much too thin, and the standard deviation much too high, to identify any trends. In fact, I’m officially prepared to admit that I have no effing idea what is going on in His Corpulency’s Court, except that by all outward appearances, it’s amateur hour with nuclear weapons up there.

Update 2: Via Yonhap:

“This is the big question right now facing Pyongyang watchers,” Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said. “Was this an accident or is this a cover up for a purge? Sometimes when leaders are purged, the car accident is used as a way of getting rid of them without branding them a criminal or a traitor.” [….]

“The early indications are that this was an accident,” Gause said. “If, however, we begin to see a major shift away from inter-Korean dialogue toward a more aggressive, brinksmanship or isolationist policy, then we may have to take another look at this ‘accident.'”


“Kim Yang-gon’s death in a car accident might be interpreted as paying the ultimate price for the collapse of the inter-Korean mini-detente following the August agreement,” Bruce Klingner, a senior Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said.

But Klinger also pointed out that prior to his death, there were no indications Kim was distrusted or in danger of being purged. The frequency of Kim accompanying the leader had also increased under Kim Jong-un’s reign as compared with the era of late leader Kim Jong-il, he said.

The expert also noted leader Kim’s expression of sorrow about the loss of Kim.

“The North Korean leader attended the funeral, expressing ‘bitter grief’ and bemoaning the loss of ‘his faithful helper whom nobody can replace,’ suggesting an accidental rather than planned death,” Klingner said. “That said, other North Korean elites may now be more wary of getting into their cars.”

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Robert Koehler, the Dean of Korea bloggers, retires

One day in 2006, I took a few hours off from work to attend a hearing of what was then called the House International Relations Committee, one of many hearings to ponder the then-awful state of the U.S.-South Korean alliance without calling it awful. One of the witnesses that day was Richard Lawless, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs, who had to squeeze past my chair to get to his. Lawless is a large man, but I can’t say that it hurt when he stepped on my foot. If it did, I was too stung to remember after he asked me, “Are you the Marmot?”

It shouldn’t have stung. Since 2003, when Robert Koehler first created The Marmot’s Hole, no English speaker has interpreted Korea so consistently, or so well. This week, Robert announced that he will shut down his blog, after twelve years. That leaves The Big Hominid (read his reaction here), The Gypsy Scholar, GI Korea, and me as the last men standing among those who’ve blogged about Korea for a decade, plus.

In recent years, Robert had stopped writing at TMH, and except for his infrequent posts, I’d stopped reading. Anyone could see that he was tired of it. You can’t force yourself to perform any creative function, like writing. Nor should you try. (When I have those days, I don’t write, either, but after nearly 12 years, they’re still rare.)

Fittingly enough, I heard of the Marmot’s end from a friend who was also a soldier in Korea while I was there, in the years just before The Marmot’s Hole. That friend has since become a Korea analyst for a government agency. Like me, my friend read TMH for years after his DEROS date, to tether himself to a country he couldn’t quit, through all the frustrations of the Roh Moo-Hyun years, and during the slow drift back toward the midstream.

The years after 2003, when Robert Koehler first founded The Marmot’s Hole, were angry and anarchic ones in Korea. Around that time, the country was swept by a wave of anti-Americanism, xenophobia, and street violence that could make it seem a little like Berlin in the late 1920’s. To the extent the sentiment on the street  — and within the government the street installed in the Blue House in 2003 — wasn’t expressly pro-North Korean, it was at least anti-anti-North Korean. Koreans — helped by a great deal of American sacrifice — had won their freedom from a Japanese occupation, a North Korean invasion, and a South Korean dictatorship. Suddenly, they seemed ready to gamble it all on vaporous and hopelessly implausible notions of a confederation with Seoul’s totalitarian rivals in Pyongyang. Often, this agenda came wrapped in a poisonous minjokheit. This, in turn, sometimes expressed itself in violent and ugly ways.

For Americans who were, either physically or emotionally, too close to Korea to ignore this, those years were a blizzard of contradictions — potentially irreconcilable differences in a relationship in which we had invested heavily. Thousands took to the streets to excoriate all of America over one tragic accident, while just about everyone ignored the deliberate mass starvation and slaughter of millions in North Korea (and for the most part, still do, nearly two years after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry declared that they have no parallel in the contemporary world).

South Koreans, or so we were told, didn’t want their government to help North Koreans defect, blamed the U.S. for dividing Korea, wanted American troops to stay in South Korea, but would take North Korea’s side if the U.S. attacked it. A sizable minority would have sided with Kim Jong-il regardless of who shot first. Or so said a dizzying array of possibly unreliable polls at various times in Roh Moo-hyun era. (Most of the Korean press, it must be said, was hostile to Roh, and the feeling was mutual.)

By this time, however, Blogger, Moveable Type, and WordPress had been invented. We took to these tools, not so much to offer explanations we didn’t have, but as therapy for ourselves. We called ourselves ourselves silly things like The Flying Yangban, the Oranckay, The Big Hominid, and the Nomad. The silliest and most pretentious name of all was One Free Korea, a notion that could be either hours or decades away, if it ever comes at all, and will probably have its greatest appeal retrospectively (and I’m at peace with that). Like any hobby, we mostly did it because something within drove us to do it. If anyone else found our writing therapeutic, so much the better.

The best, and most widely read, of these new blogs was called The Marmot’s Hole, though I still have no idea why he picked that name. Robert Koehler had been a translator for a South Korean newspaper, reads and speaks Korean fluently, and could access a universe of thoughts — inspiring, ethereal, salacious, or repellent — that the rest of us couldn’t, or could only access with great and increasing difficulty. And while Robert shared our frustrations, like us, he refused to fall out of love with Korea because of them. He had gone native, to be sure. When I finally met him and a small group of bloggers for dinner in Seoul a few years ago, he told me to look for “a fat white guy in a hanbok.” He chose the restaurant, a kalbi place in a beautifully restored hanok house in Bukcheon.

In those years, the Marmot’s Hole became essential reading. Then, many Koreans assumed that no foreigner would ever read the outrageous things they said. More than anyone else, Robert changed that. He helped — blogs almost always operate in packs — to tell the world about things like Nazi chic cosmetic ads, or popular anti-Semitic comic books that Julius Streicher would have adored. When the comic’s author “defended” himself by doubling down on his anti-Semitism, Robert outed that, too. And it must be said that when Brian R. Myers began telling the world about North Korea’s racism, so did Robert.

In more cases than I could count, Robert found statements in Korean sources that added to our understanding of the true (and at times, exceptionally nasty) views of code-switching politicians and public figures. My favorite example might be the time Robert caught leftist Unification Minister and future presidential candidate Chung Dong-Young addressing a delegation of North Korean officials as “comrade.” Or the time when the leader of a pro-North Korean civic group was caught red-handed, passing a loyalty oath to a visiting North Korean delegation. Or when he directed us to a Korean blog post that traced the lineage of a popular anti-American song to a North Korean textbook. Or, when the former President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said this about violent protests at a U.S. Army post (and my former duty station) at Camp Humphreys:

During the May 1 North-South Workers’ Rally in Pyongyang, the workers of North and South agreed to unify to carry out the anti-American struggle”. The center of that struggle with the United States is Daechu-ri, Pyeongtaek.

No, I think it was still “Comrade Chung.” That one was definitely my favorite.

And when the Korean public’s views, or their reactions to events, were themselves newsworthy — or downright ghastly — Robert told us that, too.

More recently, when left-wing fringe lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was recorded while plotting violent attacks in support of a North Korean invasion — all over an open phone line! — Robert showed us the inconsistent alibis and explanations tossed out by his lawyers and political comrades.

Some of these stories were covered in the mainstream press. Some were covered after Robert covered them first, and in many of those cases, probably because Robert covered them first. Most of them, however, weren’t covered in the mainstream press at all. Had it not been for Robert, we’d probably never have read most of them. Robert says now that he hates reading what he wrote in those years. I sympathize. I, too, hate almost all of the crap I wrote before, say, 2010. But in the days I’ve taken to write this post, I’ve reviewed quite of few of Robert’s posts, and most of them still look relevant, well-written, and fun to read. His clear, direct prose managed to be both worldly and world-weary, reverent and satirical, influential yet without delusions of grandeur, and best of all, funny. I can’t tell you how often Robert turned my fury to laughter with a dry “sit down for this,” “you don’t say,” or my perennial favorite, “the humanity!”

I’ve often suspected that Robert’s tendency to link to NSFW material was really a veiled (unveiled?) protest against those who expected him to act as important as he reluctantly became. Sometimes, he seemed ambivalent about his blog’s audience and influence. And of course, every audience includes its share of deep-fried nutters. Of his notorious comment section, enough has already been said.

Also, for a guy who said he hated ranting about North Korea, he did it pretty well.

Whether this unwanted exposure was good for Korea, and for its relations with the U.S. and the world, may depend on your perspective. You could see it as another step toward the globalization of political correctness, or toward drawing Korean society into the standards that most of the civilized world claims to accept. I think, on reflection, that Robert’s posts were socially valuable, although I know he’ll wince when he reads me saying so. Korea is concerned, more than most places, about its reputation abroad. I suspect that the result of exposing Korea at its worst has been civilizing.

This exposure was also important to any serious examination of whether, and to what extent, an alliance between South Korea the U.S. still has a shared purpose and a base of popular support. That’s why Undersecretary Lawless read it. Not that it matters, but that’s why I read it, too.

The Korean government, which expends astronomical sums to influence opinion here in Washington, may or may not understand the influence that Robert’s writing had on a generation of his readers, many of whom have since graduated into places of influence. Because Robert broke through the platitudes and the propaganda of South Korea’s influence machine, most of us harbor more ambivalent views of the alliance than the generations that came before us. At the risk of taking this post onto a tangent, that ambivalance has improved the quality of our critical thinking about the alliance. Does the current structure of U.S. Forces Korea do us more political harm than good? Do all parts of that force present more risk than reward? Against which threats are non-military options better deterrents than keeping 30,000 Americans within range of North Korean rockets?

If asking those questions makes both the U.S. and South Korea more secure, that would be a great service. But it would be enough that Robert Koehler reminded us that the things we loved about Korea were still worth holding on to (thankfully, we still have Robert’s wonderful photoblog for that).

Also, he made us laugh. The public service in this requires no elaboration.

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HRNK: Camp 16 “has likely expanded” in recent years

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has published a detailed new report on Camp 16, the subject of this extensive OFK post from April 2012. It’s always validating when the findings of an experienced professional imagery analyst like Joseph Bermudez are generally consistent with mine. Picking up at about the same time my post left off, Bermudez finds that “[d]uring the period under study, there has been an increase in the number of housing units and support buildings,” and most likely, the prisoner population:

If those working at the camp are prisoners, the prisoner population within the camp has likely expanded over the period examined. The camp population maintains the agricultural fields, orchards, and livestock, and work in the camp’s logging activities and wood products, light industrial facilities, and mines. [HRNK]

Bermudez’s report is documented extensively with detailed, annotated imagery.

From the context of the whole report, Bermudez seems convinced that Camp 16 is indeed a prison camp. Presumably, his caution is a function of having no eyewitness confirmation; however, in 2013, Amnesty International published this account:

In an interview conducted in November 2013, Mr. Lee (full name withheld), who was a security official in kwanliso 16 in the 1980s until the mid-1990s, told Amnesty International of other forms of executions he had witnessed where inmates were forced to dig their own graves and then killed by hammer blows to their necks by prison authorities. In another instance, he had seen prison authorities strangling and then beating inmates to their death with wooden sticks. He also recounted that several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials and he concluded that they had been executed secretly. [Amnesty International]

This witness left North Korea long before the beginning of nuclear testing at Punggye-ri. Like me, Bermudez was interested in whether the evidence in the imagery supported reports that North Korea uses prisoners from Camp 16 at the adjacent Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Like me, he found nothing in the imagery to support that, although he notes:

It is important to reiterate the analytical caution presented in previous reports (such as North Korea: Imagery Analysis of Camp 155 and North Korea’s Camp No. 25 Update6 ) produced by HRNK and AllSource. North Korean officials, especially those within the Korean People’s Army and internal security organizations, clearly understand the importance of implementing camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD) procedures to mask their operations and intentions. It would be reasonable to assume that they have done so here. [HRNK]

Of course, my analysis was also based on the geographical convenience of moving prisoners directly from Camp 16 to Punggye-ri, in that the west side of Camp 16 is the east side of Punggye-ri. If the kuk-ga anjeon bowibu guards wanted to bring prisoners from Camp 16 to Punggye-ri, wouldn’t the most convenient and secure way to do that be to drive them out a gate on the western side of the camp? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Most of the camp’s population is located on the southeastern part of the camp, near the main gate. There is a road that goes from that vicinity westward to Punggye-ri, outside the camp’s boundaries. It wouldn’t be that great an inconvenience to simply load the prisoners onto trucks, drive them out the gate, and then a few miles to the west, and then to the north, around the camp’s southern and southwestern circumferences.

The other big question I hope we’ll answer one day: was Camp 16 the ultimate destination for the survivors of Camp 22? If so, how many survivors arrived at Camp 16? Until we get more information from witnesses to either Camp 16, Camp 22, or Punggye-ri, all we can do is watch, and follow the evidence to wherever it takes us.

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Attention North Korean generals: You have exactly six months to plot your coup.

Notwithstanding some reports to the contrary yesterday, it looks like Kim Jong-Un’s big party congress will proceed in May, as planned. According to the Korean Institute for National Unification, a South Korean think tank, personnel changes will be on the agenda:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to reveal his new aides in a major community party convention to be held in May next year, a South Korean government think tank said Tuesday. [….]

Chances are high that it will set the stage for a “political ceremony for the full-scale resignation of the second revolutionary generation led by Choe Ryong-hae and the rise of the third and fourth revolutionary generations to power,” the institute said in a report on the outlook for next year’s security situation involving the North.

Choe, a party secretary, was one of the closest confidants to Kim but he has reportedly been demoted and underwent “re-education” as a punishment for an unconfirmed reason.

As to the scheduled party congress to be attended by more than 3,000 officials, the KINU said it would introduce more new faces in the ruling elite rather than fresh policies.

“A new line-up of power elites in the Kim Jong-un administration will be revealed,” it said, adding Kim is apparently confident of his grip on state affairs. “That would have been a basis for Kim Jong-un’s decision to open the 7th party congress in 2016.” [Yonhap]

Beware the Ides of May, comrades.

You can read the original report of KINU’s soothsayer analyst here. It doesn’t say much about its sources for these predictions, but rather, seems to be based solely on the author’s analysis of historical patterns of succession and power consolidation in other totalitarian states, along with a healthy dose of speculation so unleavened it would be kosher for Passover. It isn’t what you’d call exact science or inside knowledge.

It also predicts that His Corpulency is “unlikely to conduct a nuclear test in 2016,” and may “offer an olive branch toward the South in his New Year speech,” to which I’ll respond by referring you to this evergreen analysis of North Korean New Year speeches. Frankly, the genre of post-New Year speech analysis tends to be so cherry-picked, wishful, and contrived that you almost have to admire KINU for not waiting for the actual speech to (over-)analyze it.

KINU also joins in the widespread speculation that Kim will announce new economic reforms. In the wake of the Orascom fiasco and a series of other financial misadventures in “engagement” (Masikryong, the Kaesong shutdown, the Ebola quarantine, tourist arrests) I don’t doubt that His Porcine Majesty will want to at least talk about reforms, to bait a whole new class of suckers to bring him some money. Hey, talking about reforms is Pyongyang’s equivalent to GoFundMe. But in their practical effect, North Korea’s economic reform plans tend to be a lot like Kim Jong Un’s weight loss plans: more aspirational than empirical.

Take the latest reports that Pyongyang has just arrested scores of Chinese North Koreans, who make up a critical component of the North’s nascent merchant class. The report has since been denied by Chinese media, but if you were a hwagyo considering a new venture beyond the no-smile line, you’d be a fool to discount the possibility that there was at least some truth to the report. And after all, it’s not the first such report we’ve seen this year.

Or, take the so-called June 28th agricultural reforms — functionally, nothing more than sharecropping, an arrangement which everyone knows has never been used to exploit anyone, ever — and which KINU also expects Kim to build on during the upcoming congress. More than three years after their announcement, the evidence for those “reforms” remains scant, and North Koreans tell the Daily NK that they’re non-existent, as a practical matter.

It all sounds like astrology to me, but KINU has done some excellent work, including this very extensive new white paper on human rights, which actually shows that Kim has increased his political isolation and repression of his own population.

After 20 years of wishful talk about reforms in North Korea, political repression is as severe as ever, inter-Korean tensions are as high as they’ve ever been, the centrifuges at Yongbyon are spinning like a politician’s Twitter feed, and our best evidence is that the economic gap between the Koreas continues to widen. It’s hard to imagine that Kim Jong-Un will allow the necessary interaction between its population and the Outer Earth for reforms to work, if that interaction increases the risk that his subjects will learn the truth, or alternatively, that we will.

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Singapore shipper guilty of funding illegal N. Korean arms deal through Bank of China

In 2013, Panamanian authorities seized a huge haul of surplus Cuban weapons, including MiG fighters and surface-to-air missiles, aboard a North Korean ship at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from buying or selling most weapons, so the Cuban stevedores covered the weapons with sacks of sugar. An investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts found that a North Korean shipper, Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), owned the ship, and that the regrettably named, Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping handled the financial transactions behind the shipment. According to multiple open-source reports, Chinpo used its account in the local branch of the Bank of China for those transactions.

chong chon gang sugar

After lengthy delays by the U.N. bureaucracy, a Security Council-appointed committee and the U.S. Treasury Department designated OMM. Since then, Treasury has designated multiple OMM offices, agents, and enablers. Chinpo was neither designated nor blocked, but the authorities in Singapore charged it with violating a local law codifying U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and for running an illegal money transmitting business without meeting the financial due diligence requirements that apply to such businesses. Now, Reuters and the AP are reporting that the court has convicted Chinpo:

In announcing the verdict, Singapore District Judge Jasvender Kaur said the firm, Chinpo Shipping Company, could have contributed to the nuclear-related programs or activities of North Korea.

The company was also found guilty of running a remittance business without a valid license for more than four years.

Chinpo had wired $72,017 from its Bank of China account to a Panama-based shipping agent in July 2013 for the return passage of the MV Chong Chon Gang through the Panama Canal. [….]

Chinpo violated a United Nations law adopted by Singapore that prohibits the provision of financial services, assets or resources to North Korea that “may be reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities.” The maximum sentence is a fine of 100,000 Singapore dollars ($71,000) and five years in jail. [AP]

If you’ve read all of the links I so laboriously embedded in those first two paragraphs, there isn’t much question that Chinpo willfully facilitated the North Korean shipment using deceptive financial practices.

That shouldn’t be the end of the story, however, because financial institutions like the Bank of China are supposed to have compliance and know-your-customer programs in place to ensure that they don’t service illicit transactions. In the specific case of North Korea, the Global Financial Action Task Force has called for “countermeasures” against its money laundering and arms dealing for years.

You would think, then, that one of the world’s largest banks would employ compliance officers competent enough to detect such suspicious activity, which (if denominated in dollars, and in this case, it was) must be reported to the Treasury Department. In fact, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has published specific guidance on the reporting of suspicious North Korea-related transactions.

The U.N. Security Council’s adoption of specific financial measures to address this conduct reinforces long-standing Treasury Department concerns regarding North Korea’s involvement, through government agencies and associated front companies, in financial activities in furtherance of a wide range of illicit activities. These activities include currency counterfeiting, drug trafficking, and the laundering of related proceeds. FinCEN has previously noted such conduct, most recently in 2007.4 The Treasury Department remains especially concerned about the use of deceptive financial practices by North Korea and North Korean entities, as well as individuals acting on their behalf. Such deceptive practices may include North Korean clients’ suppression of the identity and location of originators of transactions; their practice of arranging for funds transfers via third parties; repeated bank transfers that appear to have no legitimate purpose; and routine use of cash couriers to move large amounts of currency in the absence of any credible explanation of the origin or purpose for the cash transactions. [….]

FinCEN notes that with respect to correspondent accounts held for North Korean financial institutions, as well as their foreign branches and subsidiaries, there is now an increased likelihood that such vehicles may be used to hide illicit conduct and related financial proceeds in an attempt to circumvent existing sanctions. Financial institutions should apply enhanced scrutiny to any such correspondent accounts they maintain, including with respect to transaction monitoring. [….]

Consistent with the standard for reporting suspicious activity as provided for in 31 C.F.R. part 103, if a U.S. financial institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a transaction involves funds derived from illegal activity or that a customer has otherwise engaged in activities indicative of money laundering, terrorist financing, or other violation of federal law or regulation, the financial institution shall then file a Suspicious Activity Report. [FINCEN Advisory, June 18, 2009]

FINCEN and FATF have both renewed their North Korea advisories repeatedly in recent years. And yet, from the fact that the transactions went through unimpeded, we can infer that nothing here seemed suspicious to the Bank of China’s compliance officers:

Chinpo had applied for a total of 605 outward remittances totaling $40 million from 2009 to 2013 on behalf of North Korean entities. Chinpo’s director, Tan Cheng Hoe, also heads associated companies Tonghee Shipping Agency and Great Best Trading.

When The Associated Press visited Chinpo’s listed address, another company said it has occupied the premises for more than a year. The case was adjourned until Jan. 29 to give prosecution and defense lawyers time to make submissions. [AP]

As one immediate consequence of this conviction, Treasury will almost certainly designate Chinpo Shipping, and possibly some of its officers. I’d expect to see those designations this week, if not today.

But Chinpo Shipping is a small fish, and no one should view that result as the end of this story. This isn’t the first time the Bank of China has come under suspicion for shady North Korea-related transactions, after all. Just as Treasury has recently taken enforcement actions against other big banks, such as BNP Paribas, Credite Agricole, and Commerzbank, for evading sanctions against other countries, Treasury should investigate whether the Bank of China violated the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports on Chinpo, and perhaps other North Korea-linked customers.

We’ll soon know just how serious the Obama Administration is about enforcing the Security Council’s sanctions by the message it sends — or doesn’t — to the Bank of China.

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North Korea: Dispatches from a class struggle

When you devote so substantial a part of your life to a topic as depressing as the humanitarian situation in North Korea, you have to find your rewards where you can. One small polemic reward of watching North Korea is observing it as a laboratory for Marxist dialectics and theories of class struggle as the country’s rich grow richer, and the poor are trapped in poverty.

We begin our examination, appropriately, with the most plausible analysis of North Korea’s food situation I’ve seen in recent months, via Benjamin Katzleff Silberstein:

The FAO also asserts that there was a “drastic” reduction in food rations distributed in the lean-season months of July and August, when rations are already typically low. Individual daily rations were cut twice; first to 310 grams in early July (down from the 410 grams distributed throughout the first half of the year), and then to 250 grams in the second half of July. These lean-season figures are very low, as the FAO points out, but they have been worse in the past. (Ration sizes have presumably increased since September, when the agency made its estimates.)

It is important to remember that Public Distribution System (PDS) food rations do not represent the whole story, as most North Koreans probably rely on markets for a very significant part of their food consumption. Most survey studies indicate that the majority of food people consume comes from the markets and from other private sources, like kitchen gardens. In addition, there are likely to be disparities in food access between populations in different regions and in urban and rural areas. For example, the FAO recently estimated that the proportion of underweight children is twice as large in the countryside as it is in the cities. Vulnerable segments of the population are more dependent on the PDS, and thus more likely than the average citizen to be adversely impacted when harvests decline.

This year’s malnutrition figures are indeed dire, even though malnutrition has been improving since the late 1990s. The absolute number of undernourished people is expected to increase in the 2014-2016 period, though they would represent a slightly smaller portion of the overall population than in 2010-2012. As the FAO notes in its yearly report: “The only major exception to overall favourable progress in the region is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is burdened by continuously high levels of undernourishment and shows little prospect of addressing its problems any time soon.” However, the proportion of undernourishment appears to be going down, so the trend still seems possible even though the situation is not stable. [38 North, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein]

To put that conclusion into some statistical context, the U.N. FAO and WFP have recently estimated that between 70 and 84 percent of North Korean people are eating near the subsistence level during the lean season. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to ask for foreign aid, but donors are contributing less and less. Pyongyang itself has also cut back on commercial grain imports from China.

The small bright spot in this picture is private agriculture, which — like South Korean agriculture — appears to have had a good harvest last year.

Silberstein’s piece is well worth reading in full, if only for his argument that “neither the extent nor the content” of the much-ballyhooed agricultural reforms in North Korea “is fully known,” and that the basis for the alleged reforms “remains anecdotal at best.” Also worth reading is this analysis by Marcus Noland, questioning how much we really know about the food situation in the North.

Now, for a look at how the other half eats:

“While Party cadres and the donju spend hundreds of dollars per meal at fancy restaurants, ordinary citizens scrape by day to day on what they can earn at the market,” she asserted.

“On Independence Road, near the gym (Pyongyang Gymnasium),” she said that the donju and the elite can be seen frequenting such upscale restaurants like “The Golden Cup,” known for its high end cuisine; another popular eatery is a nearby bistro specializing in smoked duck.  A single meal at either of these establishments starts at $50, generally running a customer far more.

“A group of four can easily consume at least $200 worth of food at one meal,” she noted.

$200 is the equivalent of 1,600,000 KPW, which, at the current market price of 5000 KPW per 1 kg of rice, can purchase approximately 320 kg worth of rice, the staple of the North Korean diet.

Although the number of Pyongyang citizens earning decent money as markets flourish appears to be on the rise, the disparity in wealth is also growing owing to the monopoly market power of the authorities. Their grip on the market allows them to enjoy a lifestyle that our source compared to “heaven on earth”, while the “rest of the people are left out in the cold.” [Daily NK]

At least some of the poor might accept this rising inequality more easily if they believed that they, too, had a chance to rise. For most, their songbun is a barrier to economic mobility.

[T]he donju (or new moneyed class) are flocking to Pyongyang before the year’s end in order to compete with one another by patronizing elite restaurants and buying extravagant gifts.

In a telephone conversation with the Daily NK on December 4th, an inside source from Pyongyang said, “In downtown Pyongyang, fancy restaurants, famous hotels, and foreign currency stores, are thronging with donju who have come from the countryside. It seems that they’ve all come here after completing their winter preparations and other end-of-year year tasks in order to spend money like there is no tomorrow.”

An additional source in the capital corroborated this news.

Moreover, he noted, “The end of November is the time when the State Planning Commission issues import/export licenses, so during this time central state agencies call those heading up local foreign-currency earning units (i.e. donju) up to Pyongyang. Under the pretense of hosting criticism sessions for foreign-currency earning or production, cadres with central state organs gather for a luxurious reception and donju present them with elaborate bribes in order to secure the licenses required to run their operations.”

“The donju gather in downtown Pyongyang at first-rate hotels such The Yang-gack Do Hotel, The Chang-gwang Hotel, and The Ansan Hotel. They spend the entire day at fancy restaurants, spending buckets of cash without a care in the world. At some of these restaurants, it is normal to spend approximately US $300- $400 on a single meal. That adds up to thousands of dollars for all the people around the table,” he explained.

According to inside sources, US $100 now trades as KPW 860,000, or 172 kg of rice in the North Korean markets. This amount could keep an ordinary person happily fed for a duration of ten months. So that means by spending $400 on a single meal, the donju are essentially spending the equivalent amount that it would take to feed a family of four for ten months. [Daily NK]

The class disparity also extends to how people heat their homes.

[B]y looking at whether residents elect to use coal or wood as their tinder, we can know a lot about their lifestyle and socio-economic class. It’s also possible to know about their work conditions. First of all, those with the means to afford it have a higher probability of selecting firewood to keep their house warm. If you calculate the price of the total amount of wood needed for the winter season, it comes out to about 5 cubic meters or 2 tons of coal. So the total cost of wood would be about 750,000 KPW (about US $90.70), and the total cost of coal would be about 660,000 KPW (about US $79.90). When I break down the prices like this, I think it becomes evident what kind of resident would buy the more expensive option.

Those who use coal are using coal pay 90,000 KPW (~ US $10.90) more than those who pay for wood. This might not sound like a big difference, but for many North Korean residents who are forced to scrimp and save, this is a significant amount. That is why our source has alerted us that, as a generality, the well-off residents tend to use firewood. [Daily NK]

Finally, the Daily NK confirms what we can only assume — that this widening class disparity is driving class resentment:

In order to take care of loyal inner circle, Kim Jong Un is building luxurious apartments and private housing in Pyongyang. However, this is causing serious resentment from those who do not stand to benefit from the exclusive provisions.

In a telephone conversation with the Daily NK on December 1st, an inside source from Pyongyang said, “Lately, people have been using the word ‘economic stratification’ more frequently. This frustration and discontent stems mainly from the high-cost construction projects occurring around Mirae (future) Scientists’ Street. The brunt of this criticism is that the regime has stopped the public food distribution system, yet continues to cater to the rich and politically connected class.”

Daily NK crosschecked this information with an additional source in the capital.

“Residents who live on the outskirts and suburbs of central Pyongyang do not receive electricity in a reliable manner. They are forced to exist in pitch black darkness. Some people are saying things like, ‘The cadres exist in a separate world from us,'” he said, adding that one residents “cursed the regime while lamenting his hard fate.”

“Cadres who are in the Central Party or work in foreign currency-earning companies show off their wealth by blowing through US $1000 in a single meal. An entire family of ordinary people could survive off that amount for a whole year. That’s why people feel animosity towards high-level cadres.” [….]

“The monthly salary for a worker in Pyongyang’s textile factory is anywhere from KPW 300,000(about US $36.00) to KPW 1,000,000(about $121.00). At companies in fringe areas, the going rate is between KPW 3,000 (US 0.36) and KPW 4,000(us 0.48). In this sort of situation, the residents are forced to go to the markets and sell in order to make a living,” he explained.

By the source’s estimation, high-level cadres such those in the Korean Workers’ Party and Ministry of People’s Armed Forces account for 10% of the population but hold most of the country’s wealth. Below them are the donju (masters of money, or new moneyed class), who occupy about 20-40%. The remaining 50% is made up of “normal folks, who really do struggle to get by and provide for their family.”

“A while ago, it was said that even though we were subsisting on corn meal soup and scraping to get by, those in Pyongyang weren’t much better off. But things have changed. Now there are residents who say they’d prefer to farm in the countryside rather than watch the cadres show off their extravagant wealth,” the source concluded. [Daily NK]

For much of the 1990s, Americans watched reports come in of the horrible famine in the North and wondered when the people would finally overthrow this obscene oligarchy. It didn’t happen, because historically, starving people have almost never overthrown governments. They are too preoccupied with survival to take on additional struggles against a repressive state. Instead, it is class inequality that has historically destabilized oligarchies. We in the Outer Earth often assume North Korea to be socialist because it pretends to be when foreigners are watching. The reality increasingly looks like the economic totalitarianism of Stalin-era socialism, combined with the inequality of gilded-age capitalism.

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At the U.N., China shields Kim Jong-Un from prosecution, but not isolation (updates)

In February, two years will have passed since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released its historic report on human rights in North Korea, finding “human rights abuses on a scale ‘without parallel in the contemporary world,’ comparable to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.” The bad news is that we’re still just talking about this. The good news is that America, and most of the world, are uniting around the importance of holding Kim Jong-Un accountable for those crimes.

samantha power

[Samantha Power addresses the Security Council on North Korea last year. Via.]

Last December, the U.S., with support from the U.K., France, and Japan, succeeded in having the North Korea’s crimes against humanity added to the U.N. Security Council’s permanent agenda. Today, the U.S. leveraged its presidency of the Security Council to convene a meeting on that subject. There, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power gave an address whose words lived up to her name. You really should read it in full, but this will give you the flavor of it:

It is not only the blanket denial of enjoyment of freedom of expression and these infernal conditions in the prisoner camps that persist – but all of the grave human rights violations perpetrated by this regime: the summary executions; the use of torture; the decades of enforced disappearances with no accountability, including of citizens from neighboring countries, whose families continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The list is long, the abuses vast, and the anguish profound.

The systematic human rights violations persist for a simple reason: the North Korean government wants them to. They continue because the State still seeks to intentionally dehumanize, terrorize, and abuse its own people. The regime depends on this climate of fear and violence to maintain its grip on power. [….]

We must continue to take steps that one day will help us hold accountable the individuals responsible for the horrors like those experienced by our guests today. We cannot let immediate obstacles to accountability undermine our determination to document atrocities and identify those who order and carry them out, so that one day the perpetrators will be brought to justice. [….]

Our continuing spotlight on this situation sends a clear message that we hope will reach the North Korean people, tight as the regime’s control over information may be: We will not turn a blind eye to your suffering. You, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. And we will continue to press for the nightmare you are living to end. To the regime, our message is just as clear: We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them. [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Dec. 10, 2015]

I’ve never heard an American diplomat denounce the tyranny in Pyongyang so … powerfully. The language is even more confrontational than that of a former U.S. diplomat who, in 2005, called North Korea “a hellish nightmare.” The former diplomat’s words caused a small uproar then, among politicians and members of the commentariat who thought this was an undiplomatic thing to say to a murderous despot. Shortly thereafter, this diplomat was also nominated to be our U.N. Ambassador. Then, the Junior Senator from Massachusetts opposed his nomination, in part because of the mean things he said about Kim Jong-Il.

Now, the ex-senator is our Secretary of State and the boss of the current U.N. Ambassador. Ambassador Power’s strong words just might give Kim Jong-Un’s minions reason to hesitate in the pursuit of their atrocities, so I hope there won’t be an uproar against her. If there isn’t, a charitable interpretation of the disparate reaction is that the global consensus has shifted.

~   ~   ~

Power also addressed North Korea’s threats against the U.N. itself:

North Korea continues to demonstrate that regimes which flagrantly violate the human rights of their own people almost always show similar disdain for the rules that help ensure our shared security. We see this in the DPRK’s flouting of prohibitions imposed by the Security Council on its nuclear and ballistic missile activities, including by undertaking launches. We see it in the destabilizing rhetoric the DPRK routinely uses to threaten the annihilation of its neighbors. And we see it in the DPRK’s aggressive response, as the High Commissioner has mentioned, to the opening of an office in Seoul by the OHCHR – an office aimed at gathering ongoing information on human rights conditions in the DPRK.

In March of this year, before the OHCHR office opened, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea – a DPRK-sponsored group, like every other group allowed to exist in the country – said that, “as soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May, a DPRK-controlled newspaper issued a near identical threat. And in June, the regime issued a statement accusing “hostile forces” of using the UN office to “make confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights.” It is hard to imagine another UN Member State making such threats against a UN office or staff; and we as a Council cannot take them lightly.

This is part of a well-established pattern of intimidation and escalation by the DPRK in response to criticism of its human rights record.

Hmm — a pattern of using threats of violence to intimidate non-combatants for political purposes. Someone should come up with a word for that sort of thing. Also, someone should teach it to Ambassador Power’s State Department colleagues in Washington.

~   ~   ~

China and Russia “worked behind the scenes to block the debate.” They convinced Angola and Venezuela to join them in voting against holding the meeting, but they were outvoted 9 to 4, with two abstentions. Before the meeting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece said, “We have always opposed the involvement of the U.N. Security Council in a country’s human rights issues.” (Has anyone in Beijing read the U.N. Charter? One of its first stated purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”) Power had an answer for this, too:

I would like to address those who believe that what is happening in the DPRK is not a threat to peace and security. I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don’t think that. So, could this level of horror be seen as neutral? A level of horror unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Is it neutral – have no effect at all on regional and international peace and security? Really? None? It stretches credulity and it sounds more like cynicism. These arguments – some of which we’ve heard here today – will not go down well in history, particularly when North Korea opens up. For those who have charged double standards, I would ask: where are there in the world conditions like these ones, like the conditions behind the lines of the DPRK? Where? This regime has no double.

The Commission of Inquiry Report itself said that the human rights situation in North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” [….]

No member of this Council, or of the UN, can afford to ignore this situation.

Power also called on “UN Member States, and particularly members of this Council,” to “stop sending people who try to flee” back to North Korea, where “gruesome punishments” await them. Not much doubt about who she meant there.

In the end, China couldn’t shield North Korea from the bad publicity. Instead, it shared it.

~   ~   ~

For most of the journalists covering the meeting, the big headline was the call by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to bring North Korean officials responsible for these crimes before the International Criminal Court.

In a strong speech, Hussein called Pyongyang’s human rights violations dangers to “international peace and security,” and denounced its threats to the U.N.’s Seoul Field Office as “wholly unacceptable.” He spoke of the continued “vulnerabilities” of North Korea’s poor to hunger due to the “systemic failure” of state distribution system, and “social inequalities.” He cited widespread “gender-based violence,” which he attributed to a lack of “awareness that such violence is unacceptable.” (Gloria Steinem, take note.)

Hussein’s call for criminal accountability followed calls by both the U.N. Commission of Inquiry and the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights.

~   ~   ~

Depending on your perspective, the consequences of the Commission of Inquiry’s report have been either negligible or profound. True, neither the U.S., Japan, South Korea, or the EU has passed a resolution, imposed effective sanctions, or changed its policies materially. Chinese and Russian obstructionism has prevented the Security Council from acting, and there is little chance that Kim Jong-Un will face justice anytime soon. Our banks are helping His Corpulency fatten himself on foreign delicacies, and he continues to shore up the foundations of his palaces, if only by packing their crawlspaces with the corpses of those who once served his father.

But language like Power’s and Hussein’s can contribute to a crisis of legitimacy for Kim Jong-Un, a leader whose consolidation of power has shown some signs of unsteady progress. The COI report has cost him his international legitimacy by defining him as a mass murderer. It has also given an elucidating context to his nuclear tests, cyberattacks, and other provocations — after all, if he has so little regard for North Korean life, what regard could he possibly have for ours?

In 2012, a large share of the commentariat spoke of him as a Swiss-educated reformer; today, only a few sycophants and lunatics still do. This shift of perceptions will also have policy and financial consequences. It will transform North Korea into an international pariah, isolate it, and deny it access to hard currency it needs to survive. Eventually, the loss of that access will force Pyongyang to choose between reform and extinction.

~   Updates, Dec. 11   ~

In this video, Hussein answers reporters’ questions after the Security Council meeting. In response to Chinese arguments that the UNSC shouldn’t address human rights, Hussein argued, in effect, that North Korea’s defiance of standards is likely to engulf the region in war (and look no further than Syria or Libya for examples of how that could happen). He also made the point that a country that kidnaps the citizens of neighboring countries is a clear threat to international peace and security.

Hussein also reveals that the North Koreans invited him to visit, separately from the invitation they had extended to Ban Ki-Moon. This represents a change of strategy for the North Koreans, who denied or ignored repeated requests by the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur to visit. Recently, after a General Assembly resolution called for holding the North’s leaders accountable for their crimes, the Rodong Sinmun called the vote a U.S.-orchestrated plot to use “the non-existent ‘human rights’ issue,” “fabricated with falsified data,” to “discredit the DPRK and ultimately bring down by force of arms the social system the Korean people chose themselves.” Naturally, they threatened to answer this “ill-intended inveterate repugnancy” by building more nukes.

There are still no details on the timing, agenda, or venues, and one wonders if this really will happen. I’ve long feared that the North Koreans would take a (another?) page from the Nazis’ book and “prepare” one of their camps for a guided tour — and later, a propaganda movie — the way the Nazis did with the Danish Red Cross at Theresienstadt. With the ruse successfully completed, the SS sent everyone who appeared in the film to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Indeed, despite the consensus that, overall, nothing has improved in North Korea, the Daily NK has reported that conditions do seem to have improved “marginally” for non-political prisoners in some of the “reeducation” camps, because of international scrutiny and the fear of accountability.

“Detailed instructions have been handed down, ordering officials not to torture those in for financial crimes, violence, and even narcotics,” the source added. “However, this is not the case for those in because of political offenses such as watching South Korean TV dramas and other ‘non-socialist’ acts, so beatings and violence against them continue.” [Daily NK]

Obedience to the new guidance appears to be uneven, and this report follows earlier reports that conditions had gotten much worse at one of the reeducation camps, at Cheongo-ri. (None of this concerns the much larger political prison camps, such as Camps 14, 15, or 16.) That’s why the Red Cross shouldn’t settle for anything less than a permanent presence at the camps.

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I had intended (but forgotten) to mention in yesterday’s post that South Korea was recently chosen to lead the Human Rights Council for a year. Although I’d like to see South Korea amend its National Security Law to decriminalize non-violent speech, by almost any measure, South Korea is a much better choice than some of the other alternatives.

South Korea’s election is an inevitable appointment with history and destiny, but when South Korean officials say nonsensical things like this, I wonder if they’re about to flunk it. On the other hand, according to Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, “It would seem that the government of (South) Korea has geared itself towards the eventuality that accountability will have to be taken within the context of the unification process.”

I guess we’ll see just what the South Koreans are prepared to push for. In the end, South Korea is the only country with a claim to jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula, which means it could, in theory, circumvent the Security Council and (with a mandate from the General Assembly) convene an independent international tribunal under its domestic laws. This has actually been done, in Cambodia, also due to Chinese obstructionism. Whether South Korea is prepared to defy China and anger North Korea that way is doubtful today, especially under a Park Geun-Hye presidency.

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