At Kaesong, “engagement” teaches S. Korean corporations the dying art of slavery

slavery n 1. (Law) the state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune; 2. the subjection of a person to another person, esp in being forced into work; 3. the condition of being subject to some influence or habit; 4. (Industrial Relations & HR Terms) work done in harsh conditions for low pay

A good test of whether any particular “engagement” program with North Korea has lived up to its founding promises is this simple question: “Who changed who?” In most cases, it’s the foreign investor or NGO that changed to conform to North Korea’s rules and ethics (a classic case in point: the Associated Press).

Engagement advocates cling to North Korea’s outdated self-characterization as socialist, ignoring its well-established reliance on predatory state capitalism. After all, if North Korea is socialist, one can always construct a self-serving argument that any form of trade, no matter how exploitative, is somehow contributing to reform. But at Kaesong, at least, experience proves something closer to the opposite of that.

A decade later, Kaesong has failed to induce reforms or reduce tensions.

Last month, an important paper by Marcus Noland added strong support to long-standing suspicions about the exploitative arrangements at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the flagship of the Sunshine Policy and the largest surviving “engagement” project.

To the extent the newspapers noticed it, they mostly noticed Noland’s most sensational conclusion — that each North Korean worker there nets as little as $2 a month, out of average of $130 in “wages” and “bonuses” for overtime. Noland isn’t pleased with the media focus on this point (for example), although I’d argue that it’s an important one that deserved even more attention and introspection than it got.

kaesong (1)

[image via The Atlantic]

What the Korean press largely missed, however, was Noland’s deeper conclusion that North Korea has negotiated its way to pan-opticon control over Kaesong’s work force, negating the very reformist forces that Kaesong’s promoters once promised.

Survey data on South Korean employers indicate that the North Korean government has in large part successfully circumscribed exposure of North Korean citizens both to South Koreans and to new, more market-oriented economic practices. Hiring is largely conducted via the North Korean government, which pre-screens workers (possibly on political criteria), sets wage rates administratively, demands payment in foreign currency, and takes a large cut.

South Korean managers typically do not interact directly with North Korean employees, but rather manage them through North Korean intermediaries who effectively represent state interests in monitoring and exercising control over workers. And even in firms that report direct supervision of workers, there is little statistical correlation with knowledge of working conditions or worker attitudes.

In a narrow economic sense, South Korean investment in North Korea may well be beneficial both for the firms and the workers involved, but there is no evidence of broader spillovers of the sort that proponents of engagement sometimes assert.

When Kim Dae Jung’s government first sold us the Sunshine Policy — and Kaesong, its centerpiece — it promised the world that Sunshine would, by easing North Korea’s hard currency shortages, help “create an environment in which North Korea can feel safe to open up and pursue reforms.” The North Koreans were willing to accept this arrangement because they wanted the money, and because they calculated that they could change South Korea more than South Korea could change them. They calculated that they could use Kaesong to extract increasingly exorbitant payments from South Korean investors, and ultimately from the South Korean taxpayers who subsidized them, while clamping down on any heresy by isolating and terrorizing Kaesong’s North Korean work force. They could also use Kaesong as a political lever against the South Korean government, knowing that left-of-center politicians would invariably pressure Seoul to bend to Pyongyang’s demands.

We’ve watched this experiment long enough to conclude, safely, that Kim Jong Il was right and Kim Dae Jung was wrong. Contrary to the promise that the Sunshine Policy would promote “reconciliation instead of confrontation, and cooperation instead of hostility,” North Korea is a greater threat to South Korea today that it was in 2002. It has attacked South Korea multiple times, advanced its WMD programs to an operational capability, and has never been more brazen about sharing its WMD technology with Iran and Syria. North Korea’s arbitrary taxes and its use of Kaesong as a hostage to its political moods have deterred most international investment. A recent U.N. report finding North Korea responsible for crimes against humanity will further deter investors who may fear adverse publicity.

Reports from last month contained mixed news for those investors. On one hand, Kaesong’s production levels had nearly recovered from a five-month shutdown by the North Koreans last year. On the other hand, North Korea has threatened this fragile recovery by demanding another hefty increase in the “wages” ostensibly paid to its North Korean workers, from $67 to $107 a month.

By now, it’s safe to say that Kaesong will never live up to its master plan, which once forecast that it would employ 150,000 North Koreans, without dramatic political change in Pyongyang. Kaesong’s remaining investors, most of them South Korean, still rely heavily on South Korean government subsidies.

Kaesong “wages” are confiscated through taxes and exchange rates.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry frequently asserts that Kaesong workers are paid a surprisingly high nominal wage, currently just over $67 a month. Few of the newspapers that pass that figure along to their readers ever bother to question it. In fact, only the North Koreans really know how much of “their” wages Kaesong workers are actually paid. Noland’s paper does much to reenforce those doubts. First, the regime takes a large cut off the top:

At the time of its closure in April 2013, the minimum wage at the KIC was $67.05 per month, and once all payments and bonuses were accounted for, the average wage was $130. Workers, however, were not receiving the full $130 per month; the North Korean government was thought to retain roughly 30 to 40 percent of this payment, ostensibly to cover social security payments, transportation, and other in-kind benefits. More importantly, while South Korean firms pay in US dollars, North Korea pays the workers in North Korean won converted at the wildly overvalued official exchange rate.

Evaluated at the more realistic black-market rate, North Korean workers may have been netting less than $2 per month (if the entire dollar amount were converted into won at the black market exchange rate). Alternatively, market prices for rice have been on the order of 4,000 to 5,000 (North Korean) won per kilo, suggesting that monthly after tax wages might purchase roughly 2 to 3 kilos of rice.3 These figures imply that the real wages of KIC workers are low. Nevertheless, while conditions in Kaesong may be exploitative, they probably are considerably better than those existing elsewhere in North Korea, and there appears to be no shortage of North Koreans willing to work on these terms.

What Noland can’t know, of course, is what these particular workers were doing before they were drafted into Kaesong. Presumably, they were from families with good political backgrounds, so they probably weren’t among North Korea’s poorest. For all we know, they were successful market traders who were forced to abandon more lucrative professions to enrich the state instead.

Next, Kaesong workers probably receive very little of what remains:

Given that wages are usually paid to the North Korean government, the firms hiring via the government were asked if they knew exactly how much money their workers were in turn receiving from the government. A majority of the employers refused to answer the question. Of those that did, their responses were split nearly evenly between those that said they knew (21 percent) and those that said they did not (18 percent). In other words, only one in five firms indicated that they knew how much their workers were actually paid. 

And also, 21 percent of those surveyed lied. At least 21%.

Remarkably, none of the firms that reported paying piecework rates indicated that they knew how much the workers were paid—they simply paid their North Korean counterparty and left it at that. However, when asked the follow-up question whether they believed that the government took a large amount of money that was supposed to go to their employees, a majority responded affirmatively (76 percent overall, 77 percent in the KIC, 71 percent outside the KIC). The implication is that those firms claiming to be paying piecework wages cannot know for sure if they actually are. 

But what about payment of the workers in rations, or access by the workers to alternative forms of exchange like ChocoPies? As it turns out, the North Koreans have made additional demands to suppress the ChocoPie trade, too:

[C]hoco-Pies, a South Korean snack similar to American Moon Pies, emerged as a kind of parallel currency in the city of Kaesong. Originally providing Choco-Pies to workers as a snack, South Korean firms, unable to vary wage rates or reward particularly productive workers, began using extra allocations of the snacks as a way to lure workers away from their competitors. (The cakes circulated as a kind of parallel currency in the environs of Kaesong, so that providing workers with extra cakes that could be sold outside the KIC effectively amounted to granting them a bonus.4) 

Like cigarettes in prison?

The North Korean government became sufficiently concerned over these developments that in November 2011, North Korean officials, the South Korean KIC management committee, and the employers agreed to rules to limit the distribution of the snacks. Choco-Pie rules were on the agenda when North and South Korea negotiated the reopening of KIC after its closure in 2013.

What you make of this depends on your perspective. I doubt that most North Koreans would find the existence of packaged snack cakes in South Korea to be particularly subversive, but I suppose the regime differs with me on that. The more important point is that, a decade into this experiment in arbeit-macht-frei, North Korea remains intolerant of even the smallest foreign heresy.

Most Kaesong workers are “managed” by North Korean security forces.

North Korea has also negotiated away most of the human contact between North and South Koreans. South Korean firms doing business in Kaesong do not supervise North Korean workers directly. Instead, the supervision is done by North Korean “intermediaries”:

Apparently supervision via North Korean intermediaries is a highly imperfect substitute for direct supervision. This may come from the fact that the North Korean intermediaries are not individuals who are assigned to Kaesong because of any managerial expertise, but who essentially play a political function; indeed, it is plausible that such intermediaries reduce the efficiency of Kaesong businesses, as has been reported anecdotally with respect to other foreign-invested businesses.

This isn’t really news. We’ve known since at least 2007 that the North Koreans had seized control of the management of the workers. In circumstances that are still unclear, in 2009, a South Korean worker was arrested after being accused of trying to induce a North Korean worker to defect. North Korean workers are reportedly under close supervision by the regime. Draw your own conclusions, but it’s reasonable to assume that these intermediaries are security forces officers (it would be naive to doubt it).

In spite of all this, Kaesong workers may still be the envy of their wretched countrymen, which is saying a lot. But if they had no choice in the matter of their assignments to work at Kaesong, where they earn a pittance for hard work and long hours, they are effectively slaves.

~  ~  ~

To summarize, the North Korean government prescreens and drafts Kaesong’s workers, sets wage rates arbitrarily, demands wage payments in foreign currency, taxes a high percentage of those wages and other payments off the top, steals most of what remains by converting it to worthless local currency and paying that to the workers, and denies the workers the right to organize or strike.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, needless to say, has never uttered a peep about any of this. And what of the South Korean government that once promised to make Kaesong an engine of change? Noland finds, “To date, there is no evidence that the South Korean government has undertaken any steps that would encourage or require its firms to abide by any standards whatsoever.” Remember, South Korea is supposed to be the “good,” “free” Korea.

The likelihood that Kaesong’s workers receive just a fraction of their nominal wages is an important ethical question. Noland discusses the limitations of international law in setting clear standards to address it, and advocates for a business code of ethics akin to the Sullivan Principles, which major investors once applied to apartheid-era South Africa. For that, I really suggest you read Noland’s own paper and discussion. But as much as the adoption of some ethical limits would be a welcome improvement, the problems with Kaesong are more than ethical, they are also legal. Setting up the legal discussions that will follow tomorrow is the principal reason why I wrote this post. (Its intentionally provocative title is another.)

I’ll discuss those legal issues in tomorrow’s post. The greatest of them — and the one that the Unification Ministry fears the most — is this: if the money isn’t going to the workers, where is it going?

AP outraged about free speech in Cuba

Is the AP a cabal of closet Marxist-Leninists or just the supine courtesan of every tyrant who lets it open a bureau in his kingdom? Either way, I really don’t understand what drives its corporate conscience. On one hand, it recently criticized the Obama Administration for “propaganda” photos. On the other hand, it did this not long after putting on an exhibition of actual propaganda photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, the AP has released a breathless expose of a U.S.A.I.D.-backed program, launched by the Obama Administration, to bring just a sliver of free speech to Cuba, in the form of a Twitter clone called “ZunZuneo.” AP even gave the 60 Minutes treatment to the civil servant who ran the program, following him home and sticking a camera in his face.

Let’s sum this up. The program was completely non-violent and appears to have broken no laws except Cuban censorship laws. It never even got far enough to plant any subversive information (unfortunately!). It was also popular and potentially effective. Before the AP exposed it, it was providing a service that Cubans liked and used. What if they liked and used it even more after it became a safe place to complain about food shortages, nosy block committees, corruption, the persecution of dissidents, and censorship? Is it morally wrong for people living under oppressive governments to be able to complain about those things or organize online?

ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” [AP]

I want our government to help people do that! There’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this program, and had it succeeded, no one would have been hurt except the Castro brothers and their censors. At worst, the program might have been housed more appropriately in the CIA or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, although U.S.A.I.D. didn’t deny its involvement after the program’s exposure. The Cubans who used ZunZuneo were unaware of its U.S. government connections and weren’t endangered (one good reason why U.S.A.I.D. initially concealed its links to ZunZuneo). Why is this a scandal — other than the fact of its public exposure? Is it the AP’s position that the Cuban people should spend their whole lives living under poverty and oppression? How else will those conditions ever change?

Also, note how the AP “interviews” Cuban citizens, almost certainly in the presence of government minders, without telling us whether any minders were present. That fact, however relevant to the viewer, would have illustrated the absurdity of the AP’s argument nicely.

Say, do you suppose the AP has a bureau in Havana? Do you suppose it ever covers stories about dissent in Cuba, or is it pretty much like AP’s bureau in Pyongyang — a lucrative partnership with censors and propagandists? This story is a good example of why, as much as I distrust all news media, I distrust the AP more than the rest of them.

Based on everything in the AP’s report, I conclude that this was actually a great idea that served both the interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people. I wonder how hard it would be for the CIA to hack into Koryolink and bring Twitter to North Korea. I wonder how long it would take for the AP to blow the lid on that.

Why would North Korea fly a UAV over the Blue House? Why else?

Arirang News has video of one of the suspected North Korean UAVs (unmanned air vehicles — we didn’t say “drone” in the Army) that crashed on Baekryeong Island.

The Baekryeong UAV has a conventional high aspect ratio wing, for greater stability and longer range. According to this report and this one, its engine was made in Japan, and other components were from China. This suggests that if the UAV really did come from North Korea, it’s an indigenous design.

The other UAV, which crashed near Paju City, tells a more interesting story. Arirang and the Joongang Ilbo suggest that it was on its way back from scouting higher-profile targets:

Images found on the camera showed that the drone had followed a route from central Seoul through the Gupabal area in northeastern Seoul to Paju. It took photos of major landmarks in central Seoul, including the Blue House and Gyeongbok Palace, which are close to each other. [Joongang Ilbo]

That’s a round trip of 50 miles or more, but after all, a man once flew a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s certainly possible. The image resolution was reportedly poor, possibly due to excessive vibration.

Via a commenter, Josh Marshall publishes imagery of the Paju UAV’s very different design and very similar paint scheme. Like most giant-scale model airplanes, it is powered by a one-cylinder, probably two-stroke piston engine with a large muffler sticking out the side (it would still be very loud). Unlike the Baekryeong UAV, it has a low aspect ratio wing. Low aspect ratio wings have more induced drag (caused by wingtip vortices), so they have shorter ranges. Their main advantage is their low takeoff and landing speeds, which means they can be launched by hand or catapult, and recovered in a net. No airfield would be required. An off-the-shelf digital camera is mounted in the fuselage.

Although North Korea is the prime suspect, all of this technology is commercially available and could have been built by almost any curious person with a budget of $2,000. The greatest technological challenge in UAV design is finding a way to control it for ranges over five miles. This could be done by long-range radio signal over an unused frequency, with a satellite-boosted signal, or by using GPS to navigate it to pre-set waypoints.

Marshall sneers at the design of these UAVs, but they aren’t designed to look scary or carry heavy payloads. But what are they designed to do? Superficially, one might guess that they’re designed to gather clear images and coordinates of potential targets. In this case, however, the imagery was reportedly of low quality, and in any event, one can find the precise coordinates of the Blue House on Google Maps or Google Earth (a skill that North Korea hadn’t quite mastered in 2012, when it threatened to shell the offices of South Korean newspapers, while actually giving the coordinates of the Australian Embassy and other errant targets).

That leaves the real purpose unexplained. If a curious citizen or eccentric hobbyist built it, then “just for the hell of it” or “because it’s there” are perfectly good answers. If the North Koreans built it, the only purpose I can think of would be to show the South Koreans exactly what potential targets the North Koreans are interested in, just two months before the next bi-election.

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

There are a lot of places in North Korea that I’ve always wanted to see in high resolution. A UAV seems like a great way to get that imagery. Sometimes the North Koreans give me such interesting ideas.

~   ~   ~

Update: The Joongang Ilbo publishes two in-depth reports on this story, estimating that the UAV likely cost just under $10,000, reporting that it was GPS-guided, and also reporting that its imagery was of better quality than first reported.

A reader also wrote in to point out that North Korea has other, scarier-looking UAVs with actual scary warheads.

“The drone appeared to be a North Korean copy of a Raytheon MQM-107 Streaker target drone,” the report said. “North Korean press coverage of the event described the UAV as being capable of precision strikes by crashing into the target.”

How to build a guerrilla communications network

Last weekend, while reading Popular Science, I stumbled on this fascinating article about how the Mexican drug cartel known as The Zetas used ordinary two-way radios and hidden antennas to build a sophisticated intra-national and international communications network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona, facilitating drug smuggling and money laundering across its entire reach.

The potential for nobler applications in North Korea is obvious. The prerequisite to the rise of any national resistance movement is the creation of a broad-based, grass-roots political organization with a unifying ideology and the capacity to communicate and provide for its members. As you read this — especially those of you who are more tech-savvy than I am — think about how the Zetas’ environment differs from North Korea, and about ways to level those differences. Off-hand, the only one that occurs to me is that Mexico has a crowded radio spectrum, a problem that can be solved by flooding North Korea’s spectrum with decoy signals.

The U.S. nerve center of the Zetas’ network was an inconspicuous little shop on the outskirts of a small border town.

One of those swept up in the net was a 37-year-old resident of McAllen, Texas, named Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada. He seemed, at first, not particularly significant—a luckless guppy caught swimming with sharks. His arrest barely warranted mention in the local paper. His house, a well-maintained white-brick rancher with an arbor of pink flowers over the front door, contained no cocaine or caches of AK-47s. He lacked an extensive rap sheet and in fact seemed to have no criminal record at all. On the outskirts of McAllen, he ran a small, nondescript shop that installed car alarms and sold two-way radios. 

In the weeks that followed, a different picture began to emerge. Del Toro Estrada was neither capo nor killer, but he played a critical role in The Company. According to federal prosecutors, the shop owner—who went by the alias Tecnico—had served as The Company’s communications expert. He was the cartel’s in-house geek, the head of IT, and he had used his expertise to help engineer its brutal rise to power. Del Toro Estrada had not only set up secret camera networks to spy on Mexican officials and surveil drug stash houses, but he also built from the ground up an elaborate, covert communications network that covered much of the country. This system enabled the cartel to smuggle narcotics by the ton into the U.S., as well as billions of dollars in drug money back into Mexico. Most remarkably, it had provided The Company with a Gorgon-like omniscience or, according to Pike, the ability to track everything related to its narcotics distribution: drug loads but also Mexican police, military, even U.S. border-patrol agents. That a cartel had begun employing communications experts was likely news to most of law enforcement. That it had pulled off a massive engineering project spanning most of Mexico—and done so largely in secret—was unparalleled in the annals of criminal enterprise.

The Zetas rejected cell phones in favor of old-fashioned two-way radio.

It’s impossible to say exactly why the Zetas chose to build the radio network, but given their military and law-enforcement background, it seems likely that Z1 and his capos understood that a widespread communications system would provide a crucial competitive edge over other cartels. Radio was the clear choice. Unlike cell phones, which are expensive, traceable, and easily tapped, radio equipment is cheap, easy to set up, and more secure. Handheld walkie-talkies, antennas, and signal repeaters to boost transmissions are all available at a good radio shop or from a Motorola distributor. A radio network could provide communications in many of the remote areas in Mexico where the cartel operated. And, if they suspected law enforcement eavesdropping, the cartel’s drug smugglers and gunmen could easily switch frequencies or use commercially available software to garble voice transmissions.

It’s not clear to me why radio was “a clear choice.” After all, cell phones use a radio signal, too. (Maybe someone can explain this.) But the network had enormous utility to the Zetas.

How Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada was tapped to develop the covert radio network also remains a mystery, but as his system grew, it supplied the Zetas with what’s called a command-and-control capacity. “It essentially linked all the different members of the cartel—the people doing the trafficking and the people doing the protection—so there was a communication between them,” says Pike, the DEA special agent. Armed with handheld radios, the cartel’s street-corner halcones, or hawks, could help commanders avoid arrest by alerting them whenever police set up checkpoints. A midlevel boss in Nuevo Laredo could monitor a semitruck carrying several tons of cocaine as it trundled across the border into Texas. Most crucially, Zetas gunmen could use the system to attack and seize plazas, or smuggling corridors, held by other drug gangs.

“With a network like this, you can take what resources you have and maximize them for effectiveness,” says Bunker. “If [the Zetas] are going into a different cartel’s area, they can bring resources in,” such as weapons, vehicles, and reinforcements. “It means for every one enforcer or foot soldier, you get a multiplier effect. From a command-and-control perspective, it’s phenomenal.”

The network wasn’t just an advantage over the police, but also over rival gangs, which the Zetas proceeded to exterminate. Ironically, one of the businesses that the Zetas went into was DVD smuggling (like drug smuggling, it’s also a big business along the Sino-Korean border).

In any new city where the cartel wished to expand, Del Toro Estrada’s first step would have been to map the local radio spectrum. Identifying who operated on what frequencies and which had the lightest traffic would preclude, for example, a local taxi company’s radio chatter from disrupting a coordinated attack on a police station. In urban areas, Del Toro Estrada often affixed a cartel antenna to an existing commercial radio tower. He also hijacked radio repeaters—devices that receive and boost radio signals—from companies like Nextel and reprogrammed the equipment to use the cartel’s preselected, low-volume frequencies. (Nextel maintains both cellular and, for its push-to-talk phones, radio networks). In at least one location, Del Toro Estrada installed a repeater on the roof of a Mexican police station, either a brazen display of the cartel’s impunity or a signal of the department’s corruption.

Expanding into more remote areas, like the jungle in southern Veracruz state, was more technically challenging: Towers had to be built atop high vantage points—a volcano’s summit, for example—to ensure surrounding hills or other natural obstacles didn’t block transmissions. Del Toro Estrada then installed repeaters and antennas on top of the tower, and in some instances, the structure was painted a dark green to camouflage it amid the foliage. To provide power, he wired the equipment to car batteries or, in many cases, photovoltaic solar panels. In Veracruz, a string of about a dozen tower installations provided a 100-mile radius of communications capability—meaning the Zetas could track anything that moved, whether encroaching Sinaloa cartel gunmen or military convoys, in at least 10 towns and cities.

“It was just a constant flow of information,” Pike says. “I equate it to the scene in Black Hawk Down when the chopper’s taking off from the military base and the child up on the mountain with the telephone calls down and says, ‘They’re coming.’”

As subnetworks went live in new areas, Del Toro Estrada daisy-chained them together into a larger, interoperable system. This ability to link different units of the cartel was the network’s strength, more than anything else. With commercial software from companies like Motorola, he could remotely manage thousands of walkie-talkies at one time. If a frequency in one area became too congested, he could switch users’ radios to another. If a local boss in Matamoros had to coordinate a drug load with someone in Monterrey, Del Toro Estrada could connect them. If Zetas were captured, he could disable their handsets to thwart eavesdroppers. He also used digital inversion software, which scrambles radio transmissions into garbled, R2-D2–like squawking. The cartel even established regional command centers to manage some of its communications. In Coahuila state, Mexican soldiers raided a Zetas-occupied home that contained networked laptops, 63 digital walkie-talkies, a central processing unit to remotely control repeaters, and a digital radio that communicated with airplanes.

The Zetas invested significant resources in maintaining, expanding, and exploiting the network:

By 2008, Del Toro Estrada’s infrastructure was operational in most states in Mexico (and likely in the U.S. borderlands as well). Local bosses chipped in for equipment, and the Zetas maintained ledgers detailing outlays for communications gear. Del Toro Estrada himself employed a team of specialists—his own cartel Geek Squad—to research new technology and program equipment. The network’s architecture, like the nodes of routers that undergird the Internet, was resilient: If the Mexican military knocked out one tower, traffic could likely be routed through another. And it was, relatively speaking, cheap: The Company probably spent tens of millions of dollars building the network—a capital investment that would have paid for itself with the delivery of one large cocaine shipment into the U.S.

“This thing was huge,” the former official says of the cartel’s communications system. “It was extensive, and it was interconnected. It was the most sophisticated radio network we’d ever encountered.” [....]

With the Zetas at the center of the violence, the Mexican military decided to strike back at their most valuable asset: the radio network. Battalions of troops were dispatched, and the military began attacking the system, probably aided by DEA-supplied intelligence directly from Del Toro Estrada, who began cooperating with the agency after his arrest and provided information about the system’s infrastructure. During one operation in 2011, Mexican marines discovered several 18-wheelers housing mobile communications systems in Veracruz. Another operation spanned four states and resulted in an astonishing haul: 167 antennas, 155 repeaters, 71 computers, 166 solar panels and batteries, and nearly 3,000 radios and Nextel push-to-talk phones. Later, marines discovered a 300-foot-tall antenna tower by a major highway.

With the help of their radio network, the Zetas made parts of Mexico ungovernable. Given North Korea’s almost roadless interior, the decrepit state of its railways, and the small size of its helicopter force, one wonders how hard it would be for a political opposition — particularly one that supplied the local population with food, medical care, and essential services — to take root, and eventually, to disrupt state control. A network like this wouldn’t have to fire a shot to put an enormous strain on North Korea’s security forces, and impose a potentially crippling financial cost on the state.

The article is interesting in other ways, such as how the Zetas managed to corrupt police, soldiers, and ordinary citizens to serve as spies or soldiers in its network. Of course, North Korea is a state built around internal control, and it’s specifically designed to defend against just this sort of subversion. But a movement that can provide for the most vulnerable elements of the population always has the potential to take root, and to expand its reach to the lower rungs of North Korea’s songbun system.


Dear President Park: He’s not that into you (updated with N. Korea’s rejection)

In every successful relationship, there are certain things one must not ask the other party to the relationship. No matter how much you may desire it, the answer will never be “yes.” The request itself will not be received well. Depending on the request, the special equipment it would require, and the identity of the other participants, it may even lead to the destruction of property or violence.

In the relationship between North and South Korea, it is apparently no longer OK to ask the other party — that party being North Korea — for nuclear disarmament. One strong indication of this is the fact that as of this morning, both Koreas are shelling each other’s territorial waters, and residents of Yeonpyeong Island are hiding in shelters. (Update: David Chance of Reuters says “[t]here was no fleeing to shelters.”)

What are we to take from this? Perhaps the most obvious is what North and Korea have is not a relationship at all, which makes the idea of cohabitation seem blithely unrealistic. But that is what President Park proposed during a visit to Dresden, where she announced her long-awaited plan to reunify Korea. You can read the full text of her speech here.

Much of Park’s proposal consisted of things most of us would call unobjectionable — the idea that reunification of Korea is ultimately desirable, and that the eventual marriage of South Korea’s technology and capital with North Korea’s labor, natural resources, and favorable geography would catalyze the rapid economic development of the North and greater prosperity throughout Korea.

In theory, the North might even join Park in deploring the cultural, economic, and ideological divisions between North and South, and in aspiring to reduce the mutual isolation and distrust across the DMZ. What that would amount to in practice sounds like Sunshine 2.0:

[T]hose from the south and the north must be afforded the chance to interact routinely. We will encourage exchanges in historical research and preservation, culture and the arts, and sports — all of which could promote genuine people-to-people contact – rather than seek politically-motivated projects or promotional events. [....]

This would consist mostly of exchange and education programs that various NGOs have pursued on a small scale for decades. The fact that North Korea allows these limited programs suggests that they’ve helped North Korea accumulate wealth for its various priorities, but they’ve failed to make any apparent favorable change in Pyongyang’s world view. Oh, and Park is still promoting that “international peace park” along the DMZ.

Park also called for more humanitarian and development aid to North Korea:

The Korean Government will work with the United Nations to implement a program to provide health care support for pregnant mothers and infants in North Korea through their first 1,000 days. Furthermore, we will provide assistance for North Korean children so they could grow up to become healthy partners in our journey toward a unified future. [....]

[W]e must pursue together an agenda for co-prosperity through the building of infrastructure that support the livelihood of people. South and North Korea should collaborate to set up multi-farming complexes that support agriculture, livestock and forestry in areas in the north suffering from backward production and deforestation. [....]

[South] Korea could invest in infrastructure-building projects where possible, such as in transportation and telecommunication. Should North Korea allow South Korea to develop its natural resources, the benefits would accrue to both halves of the peninsula. [....]

In tandem with trilateral projects among the two Koreas and Russia, including the Rajin-Khasan joint project currently in the works, we will push forward collaborative projects involving both Koreas and China centered on the North Korean city of Shinuiju, among others. hese will help promote shared development on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. [....]

If South and North Korea could shift the adversarial paradigm that exists today, build a railway that runs through the DMZ and connect Asia and Europe, we will see the makings of a genuine 21st century silk road across Eurasia and be able to prosper together.

None of this is particularly new, either. Expect the North’s reaction to be, at best, to accept as much of this as it can easily control and still profit from.

There were also things that Park’s failure to mention would have caused worldwide consternation — so she did mention them, ensuring swift rejection from Pyongyang:

Ladies and gentlemen, It pained me to see a recent footage of North Korean boys and girls in the foreign media. Children who lost their parents in the midst of economic distress were left neglected out in the cold, struggling from hunger. Even as we speak, there are North Koreans who are risking their lives to cross the border in search of freedom and happiness.

And this:

North Korea must choose the path to denuclearization so we could embark without delay on the work that needs to be done for a unified Korean Peninsula. I hope North Korea abandons its nuclear aspirations and returns to the Six Party Talks with a sincere willingness to resolve the nuclear issue so it could look after its own people.

Should North Korea make the strategic decision to forgo its nuclear program, South Korea would correspondingly be the first to offer its active support, including for its much needed membership in international financial institutions and attracting international investments. If deemed necessary, we can seek to create a Northeast Asia Development Bank with regional neighbors to spur economic development in North Korea and in surrounding areas.

Park did not clarify how many of these benefits are conditional on North Korea’s disarmament, which is an essential point. If they aren’t conditional on disarmament, this is little more than a recycled list of Sunshine projects. If it is conditional, judging by Pyongyang’s reaction, it’s dead on arrival.

As an aside, I wonder how many Germans shifted in their seats uncomfortably when Park said, “Wir sind ein Volk!”

Since Park’s speech at last week’s nuclear security summit — which North Korea denounced at length — North Korea has published calls for Park’s resignation, called her “a faithful servant and stooge of the U.S.” for calling for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and insisted that its missile tests, prohibited by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, are “justifiable.” It continues to repeat that it will never give up its nuclear weapons and threatened to “bolster” its “war deterrent,” usually understood as a reference to its nuclear weapons. It even threatened to carry out a new kind of nuclear test, presumably one using enriched uranium.

There is more. Referring to the South’s seizure of a North Korean fishing boat that entered South Korean waters, the North is vowing revenge against “military gangsters.” The North continues to deny its responsibility for sinking the ROKS Cheonan.

Can someone as smart as Park Geun-Hye really be naive enough to believe that these proposals are plausible in the near term? Although they are very much in line with the Sunshine Lite policies that Park has advocated for at least a decade, I doubt it. It seems more likely to me that Park is issuing these proposals now, while keeping the conditions for their realization vague, with an eye on South Korea’s approaching mid-term elections. The North’s escalation of its rhetoric suggests that Park’s vision has about as much chance of being realized as Lee Myung Bak’s strikingly similar vision.

As Park herself has said, “It takes two hands to clap.” The sound that can be heard from the Yellow Sea today isn’t applause.

Update: As I expected, the other hand isn’t clapping:

The North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper called [Park] an eccentric old maid, an idiot and a hen over her comments on North Korea’s economic difficulties and its homeless children. Park’s comments “are an unpardonable insult” to the North, the newspaper said.

I knew they wouldn’t like this part:

The Rodong Sinmun, an official mouthpiece of the North, said Park’s comments on pregnant women and infants in North Korea are “disgusting,” noting that Park hasn’t even been able to get married.

The newspaper also claimed Park’s policy on unification with North Korea is designed to hurt the North’s ideology and its socialist system.

Stop me if I’m out of line here, but if Pyongyang doesn’t want to keep hearing this sort of thing, maybe it should consider feeding its people.

KCNA has also published a lengthy defense of its nuclear weapons, and it’s still harping on the “pirates” and “gangsters” who seized that North Korean fishing boat, and denouncing President Park by name. It may be preparing to carry out large-scale military exercises near Pyongyang, and it has also declared a no-fly/no-sail zone in the Sea of Japan, suggesting that more fireworks will follow.

It seems we’ve entered a new cycle of provocations.

North Korea speaker series in Seoul, April and May

At the request of the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC), a Seoul-based NGO run by “Aquariums of Pyongyang” author Kang Cheol Hwan (, I’m passing along this information about a speaker series on North Korea NKSC is holding in Seoul for the international community there.
Entitled “Strategies for Change: A Speaker Series on North Korea,” the three month long series features nine speakers talking on a range of topics, from “North Korea basics” (the country’s economy and nuclear issue) and North Korean human rights issues (political prison camps, refugees in China) to North Korea’s future. Our aim for this series is two-pronged: 1) increase the interest and understanding of North Korea-related issues in the international community; 2) provide concrete opportunities for the international community to get involved in North Korea-related activities.
Our plans for meeting the second goal include providing series participants with the opportunity to get involved in NKSC’s North Korea information dissemination activities and for expats to teach English and engage in cultural exchange with North Korean defectors in Seoul. As part of its information dissemination activities, NKSC sends thousands of USBs into North Korea each year filled with content varying from South Korean dramas and movies to an “offline Wikipedia.”  NKSC also runs a “Journalist Academy” for young North Korean defectors which focuses on improving their writing skills in Korean. We plan to allow participants the chance to get involved in both projects by: 1) sharing ideas for and creating content for our USBs, and 2) teaching English to defectors on a one-on-one basis.
As the manager of the project, I have been trying to spread the word to the international community through online and offline means. Our first month of lectures featured Dr. Andrei Lankov, Dr. Daniel Pinkston, and Mr. Kim Kwangjin. Our April lineup will focus on NKHR issues and feature former North Korean spy Mr. Kwak In-su, Mr. Ahn Myungchul, Mr. Peter Jung, and Ms. Joanna Hosaniak. Our May lineup will feature Mr. Sokeel Park and Mr. Kang Cheol Hwan. A complete picture of our lineup can be found here:
I have attached a flyer for Mr. Kwak In-su’s talk, which will take place on April 2nd. A map to the venue has also been attached.
I know that interest in North Korea issues among the international community in Seoul is strong, and I believe that this speaker series will provide a basis to learn, network and ultimately increase participation in issues concerning North Korea.
I would greatly appreciate any efforts to spread the word about the event throughout your network in South Korea.
You’re most welcome.

Open Sources, March 27, 2014

~  1  ~

CONSEQUENCES: The State Department sends a strong hint that it’s mulling more sanctions on North Korea in response to the North’s recent missile tests, including two medium-range missiles fired toward Japan, but offered no details on the type of sanction or whether they would be unilateral or at the U.N. This separate report, however, says that our U.N. ambassador is talking with other members of the Security Council.

If State does press for U.N. sanctions, that would almost inevitably involve the U.S. in efforts to sanction North Korea (and refer its officials for prosecution) for its crimes against humanity. It would also mean, contra my speculation here, that no diplomatic deal is on the near horizon.

~  2  ~


If Mr. Xi is concerned over the sexual exploitation of women and children, he does not need to visit the new Comfort Women museum in Nanjing commemorating human rights atrocities from over seventy years ago. The tragedy of North Korean women being sexually trafficked in China is not history — it is happening today. And it is a situation, unlike Nanjing, where Mr. Xi could take immediate action.  The best way to pay homage to the Korean Comfort Women would be to assure that their North Korean sisters in China today are not sexually exploited.   

~  3  ~

TREASURY ISSUES ANOTHER ADVISORY about money laundering risks emanating from North Korea. These are a fairly regular occurrence now. They certainly pressure the regime’s finances, but they don’t cut them off, either.

~  4  ~

YESTERDAY WAS THE FOURTH ANNIVERSARY of the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a sneak attack the killed 46 South Korean sailors.

In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the South Korean public reacted with confusion and denial, but much of that seems to have dissipated when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island eight months later. Yesterday, both of South Korea’s major political parties demanded a North Korean apology for the attack, which tells you at lot about where the consensus has landed.

~  5  ~

I WISH ADMIRAL AKBAR HAD BEEN IN THE ROOM when Park Geun-Hye was briefed on the idea of that anti-“slander” agreement with North Korea, because in retrospect, because it was pretty obvious that Park was about to be trapped by North Korea’s double standards of interpretation:

North Korea has made a blistering verbal attack on South Korean President Park Geun-hye, calling her a “faithful servant and stooge” of the U.S. and comparing her to a “blabbering” peasant woman. [....]

The North’s attack was in response to Park’s speech this week at a nuclear summit at The Hague, where she warned Pyongyang’s nuclear material could wind up in the hands of terrorists or spark a colossal nuclear accident.

A North Korean government spokesman called the speech “dumb,” saying Park should stop “rambling recklessly” if she wants improved relations. He also said the comments “violently trample” an agreement that the two Koreas to stop slandering each other. [Voice of America]

More here. Any agreement between a free society and a totalitarian society to control speech is necessarily to the disadvantage of the free society.

~  6  ~

NORTH KOREA, WHICH WAS REMOVED FROM THE LIST of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, has “threatened … to ‘deal merciless sledgehammer blows’ to South Korea for allegedly disseminating leaflets critical of” its regime. I suppose they’re referring to the leaflets that were actually disseminated for Park Sang-Hak and Fighters for a Free North Korea.

If North Korea is stretching to implicate South Korea for something South Korea didn’t actually do, it suggests that the entire agreement was created as a pretext for some planned provocation.    

~  7  ~

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN HAS RUN A SERIES of excellent reports on human rights in North Korea, in the wake of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report and in light of Japan’s co-leadership of the effort to get the Security Council to act on it.

The articles cover the vulnerability of North Korean refugee women to human traffickers, the ubiquity (and disintegration) of the state’s thought control, the plight of ethnic Koreans who moved from Japan to North Korea, and a report, in cooperation with the Dong-a Ilbo, offering more refugee testimonials about atrocities in the North. One of those testimonials really stuck with me:

A man in his 60s who was mobilized to demolish a camp for political prisoners said: “The bones of children were dug up from the ground. There were also tools designed for children, so it appears they were forced into labor.”

Could this have been Camp 22?

~  8  ~

I HAVE TO AGREE WITH THOSE who say this Kim Jong Un haircut story sounds like bullshit.

~  9  ~

I’M BEGINNING TO THINK THAT YONGSAN GARRISON is going to be there forever.

~  10  ~

EWW. Rimjingang looks at North Korea’s “artificial meat.”

~  11  ~

OF COURSE IT IS. In addition to those statues of Joshua Nkomo, North Korea is also building statues of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Recall that the U.N. POE report cast suspicion on those projects as schemes to conceal payment for weapons and other prohibited items.

~  12  ~

THE WONDERFUL ROBERT KAPLAN has written a very insightful piece in The Atlantic on the balance between isolationism (and its hidden costs) and interventionism (and its more obvious costs). I don’t want to discourage you from reading this in the least, because it’s well worth reading in full, but as is so often the case, Monty Python summarized the argument quite nicely, years ago. (This entry is dedicated to Bruce Klingner.)

~  13  ~

HOW CHINA CENSORS YOUR NEWS: By pressuring corporate leadership and shareholders of news organizations, which caused at least one news service, Bloomberg, to pull a major story.

Breaking: Royce will make an announcement at Subcommittee hearing today, on H.R. 1771

Once again, I apologize for the short notice. If you’re unable to attend in person, the event will be webcast live at this link. The witnesses will include Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, and Grace Jo, a very compelling and articulate young North Korean refugee who speaks fairly good English, and who recently founded the group NK in the U.S.A. The topic will be how to respond to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report.

Update: It’s now Yonhap’s lead story – Chairman Royce will take the bill to the next step, Committee markup, in May. That’s great, but the calendar isn’t a friend. This is an election year, and when Congress goes into recess in early August, we’re all done until the lame duck session after this fall’s election. So although Govtrack’s algorithm-generated odds-making is statistically worthless, this bill will have to get through other House committees with concurrent jurisdiction, get passed on the House floor, get introduced in the Senate, get through the Banking Committee, make it to the Senate floor, get a vote there, and make it to the President’s desk soon enough to avoid a pocket veto. (I doubt he’d veto this outright.) That’s a lot to do in very little time, so it still won’t pass without a lot of backing and support.

Fortunately, the Korean-American and human rights groups have put a lot of muscle behind this bill to overcome the pressure that Royce and others are no doubt feeling from what I’ll call “vested interests.” I can’t say enough for their dedication. Kudos to Royce, and to the Republican and Democratic members who have stood behind him on this.

Also, don’t miss the video of the hearing, with very strong testimony from Greg Scarlatiou, Bruce Klingner, and Grace Jo. Finally, I hope Priscilla Koepke, Chairman Chabot’s excellent staffer, won’t mind me recognizing all her hard work putting this hearing together.

After the veto: A Cambodian model for prosecuting Kim Jong Un

“At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’,” he said. “Well, now the international community does know… There will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know,” he said, at a news conference at UN headquarters in Geneva. “Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well this is a time for action.” – Hon. Michael Kirby

Every family has its own traditions; all parents have their own rites of passage. My son and I had one of those last week when we watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian together for the first time. With that memory fresh in my mind, I’m watching the extended procedural debate about U.N. resolutions to call for an end to atrocities that have gone on for years, and will almost certainly continue for years. We can already see this parliamentary debate descending into farce, because we know the odds that anyone will actually stand trial. As I watch it, I can’t help thinking of this scene:

Let’s assume, as we safely may, that China vetoes a resolution referring the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report to the International Criminal Court. Does that end all hope that North Korean leaders will face trial — even in absentia? Maybe not. Yonhap, quoting “a diplomatic source,” is reporting that the U.N. “may seek to establish a special court to try North Korean leaders responsible for atrocities against people there,” apparently to circumvent the threat of a Chinese veto. What would this tribunal look like? Reuters gives us a few hints:

The EU-Japan proposal also lays out a parallel path: the creation of a small U.N. human rights office dedicated to documenting crimes and raising awareness. This would probably be based in Seoul or Bangkok, collecting more evidence and testimony to widen the data base. [....]

South Korea’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se expressed support for strengthening U.N. mechanisms to “implement the commission’s recommendations”, but did not spell out how. [Reuters]

One additional advantage a Special Tribunal would have is that it would be more likely to gain the support of the Obama Administration, which has never signed the Rome Statute or agreed to submit to the ICC’s jurisdiction, and is reportedly uncomfortable with using the ICC as a vehicle for accountability. (It will not overcome the problem that the Obama Administration and the State Department don’t give a f**k about any of this.)

Is a special tribunal a plausible option? Special tribunals for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone were all established under the authority of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but as it turns out, there’s a long menu of other options for mixed tribunals that are merely established under agreements with the U.N.

One structural model for this could be the Special Tribunal for Cambodia, whose U.N. stamp of approval came from the General Assembly in 1999 because — sit down for this — China, the main sponsor of the Khmer Rouge and all its good works, threatened to veto a Security Council resolution establishing a tribunal to try its old comrades. The Cambodia tribunal was specifically designed “to circumvent a possible Chinese veto,” and it still managed to convict a few senior Khmer Rouge officials, eventually. It is a plausible alternative, to a point.

There are also some obstacles to this alternative. First, the Cambodia tribunal had to be established under the authority of … the government of Cambodia. That invariably introduced conflicts between the pursuit of justice and domestic political and pecuniary interests. The obvious analogue in the case of North Korea is South Korea, whose constitution claims jurisdiction over all of Korea. Given the number of hooks Pyongyang has put into domestic political and business interests in South Korea, however, it’s obvious that there would be strong opposition to this. Still, the words of South Korea’s Foreign Minister give some slender hope that his government might support it if pressured strongly enough:

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, in his speech at the U.N. human rights session early this month, proposed strengthening the role of the U.N. commission on North Korea’s human rights.

“For the international community, it is now time to begin the discussions on next steps to effectively follow up on the commission’s recommendations to improve the human rights situation in North Korea,” Yun said.

“In this vein, we strongly support the strengthening of the U.N. mechanisms to implement the commission’s recommendations. We also look forward to the leading role of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea,” Yun said. [Yonhap]

I wonder if Minister Yun ever contemplated that his own government might get stuck with leading that effort, rather than passively supporting a conception that would, despite Park Geun-Hye’s pro forma appeals, be stillborn into the U.N. bureaucracy. We may soon see just how sincere the South Korean really are, but I’m very skeptical of South Korea’s sincerity about most things. I’m guessing that the pressure would have to be overwhelming to force South Korea to host a tribunal. It’s also true that South Korea was initially lukewarm to the Commission of Inquiry, but was eventually pressured to support it. And now that the COI has issued a strong report, the big human rights groups that had made North Korea a third-tier issue for years are sufficiently interested in this issue today to bring it:

Campaigners want action. “The fact that these violations are now deemed to be crimes against humanity triggers the responsibility of the international community to respond,” Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch told Reuters. “It might be a long route but steps need to be taken.”

Roseann Rife of Amnesty International said in a statement: “This is the first real test of the international community to show it is serious about acting on the Commission of Inquiry’s chilling findings. There needs to a concerted effort to ratchet up the pressure on the North Korean government to address these systematic, widespread and grave human rights violations.” [Reuters]

One potential benefit of South Korea resisting pressure to establish a tribunal would be to expose that, for all of South Korea’s posturing about being our “blood ally” and a bulwark of democracy, it’s really buying Pyongyang off and propping up Kim Jong Un’s regime though projects like the heavily subsidized Kaesong Industrial Park. Because U.S. taxpayers subsidize so much of South Korea’s own defense, this amounts to indirect U.S. taxpayer support for Kim Jong Un’s regime. That revelation would at least help concentrate minds on this side of the Pacific.

In the short term, recalcitrance by the South Korean government could also expose a growing ideological gap between the Korean government and more conservative Korean-American voters, who are emerging as a domestic political force here in support of isolating North Korea financially.

This isn’t the only problem with the Cambodia model. The Cambodia tribunal turned out to be a procedural wreck, mostly because of personalities, domestic politics, and Cambodia’s legal environment. South Korea’s legal system is no paragon of due process, either, at least judging by my most recent experience with it, in 2002. Courts routinely admitted hearsay statements, legal representation was anemic, the rights to confrontation and cross-examination were virtually non-existent, witnesses were often intimidated by government investigators, and judges did not interpret the law and the evidence with rigor. If this leads to necessary reforms in the South Korean judicial system, the biggest winners would be the people of South Korea.

Finally, there’s the problem that eclipses all others — you can’t hold Kim Jong Un and his minions accountable if you can’t arrest them, although in absentia proceedings could draw significant publicity and effectively isolate North Korea’s worst abusers. The only events likely to cause a defendant to actually face justice would be events that pretermit due process in favor of revolutionary justice. But I can imagine greater injustices than that, including the status quo.

Michael Kirby believes that the pressure will eventually prevail.

But Michael Kirby, chief author of the report, said he was convinced North Korea’s leadership would eventually face the ICC for crimes documented in the commission’s archives, which hold the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses.

“I have lived long enough to see things that looked impossible come to full fruit,” Kirby said in a news conference.”The independence of East Timor, the independence of the Baltic states and other steps following the fall of the Berlin Wall are all indications that things can happen that don’t look certain now. They won’t meet media deadlines but they will occur.” [....]

“Contending with the scourges of Nazism, apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike,” he said. “It is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” [Joongang Ilbo]

This is quixotic, Sisyphean, and glorious. It convinces me that a tribunal is worth pursuing, if only in tandem with other alternatives. But if the COE report was the U.N.’s best moment since 1950, it’s soon going to lay bare the sunken footings of the U.N.’s utopian vision. When one despotic oligarchy stymies the U.N. from carrying out the purposes of its charter to shield its hegemony over another despotic oligarchy, the U.N. becomes irrelevant. Fine, then. Block duly checked. The civilized and accountable governments of the world could meet in Seoul, Bangkok, Prague, Taipei, or Gaborone (your choice) to unite around the economic isolation of North Korea’s regime, and the sanctioning of its foreign (read: Chinese) enablers into extinction.

So often, our setbacks are opportunities to adapt. We may have to adapt to this one by gradually rebuilding our international institutions around ad hoc international organizations and coalitions outside the U.N. framework, taking greater care this time to exclude all who mean to frustrate the common purpose.

Samantha Power, North Korea is your Rwanda

Now that anyone who cares has digested the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea, the conversation has turned to a more practical question: So what? The E.U. and Japan are reportedly drafting a resolution for consideration by the Security Council that would (1) condemn North Korea for its crimes, (2) call “for its leaders to face international justice,” (3) impose travels sanctions on specific leaders deemed responsible, and (4) refer the COI report to the International Criminal Court.

The wording of the draft resolution has led to a difference of opinion between the E.U. and Japan. The E.U., stereotypes notwithstanding, favors “strong wording,” while Japan would sacrifice the strength of the wording to achieve “global consensus.” You probably won’t be shocked to see me siding with the Soft Reich here. Sacrificing important language to mollify China is a case of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic if I’ve ever seen one. China will veto the resolution anyway. This U.N. action isn’t going to change China’s behavior. It’s only a stepping stone to economic, diplomatic, and reputational costs that could cause Chinese companies to withdraw from North Korea. In which case, why not force China to veto something as compelling — and as injurious to China’s reputation — as possible?

Park Geun-Hye, who is in the The Hague for a conference on nuclear terrorism, has met with Xi Jinping there, and has called on him not to veto the resolution. Although a number of unnamed U.N. officials are congratulating themselves on the toughness of their response, it’s almost certain that China will veto anything that gets to the Security Council.

Surprisingly, South Korea has announced its support for a resolution that provides for the prosecution of North Korean officials. Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration has taken no position on a resolution. Its Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Bob King, released a mealy-mouthed statement supporting calls for “accountability,” but supporting nothing more specific than “a field-based mechanism for continued monitoring and documenting human rights abuses in the DPRK” to “carry on the investigative work of the Commission and support the work of the Special Rapporteur.” (Meaning, apparently, another decade of investigation.) Bob King, bless his heart, has been about as effective a Special Envoy as the Obama Administration let him be. I might call its North Korea policy unsound if I saw clearer evidence of any policy at all, but more on that in a moment.

In a few years, no one will remember who Bob King is, but the reputation of Obama’s U.N. Ambassador won’t escape a mortal moral wound so easily. Words Power wrote in the pages of The Atlantic in 2001, about the Clinton Administration’s reaction to the Rwanda massacre, are just as applicable, and just as compelling, in the context of North Korea today as they were to Rwanda in 1994:

Did the President really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?

Power fired a volley at a cluster of non-decisions by Clinton that might have slowed the killing, non-decisions that in all fairness seem harder than the non-decisions this Administration is making now:

In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Clinton issued what would later be known as the “Clinton apology,” which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda.

This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term “genocide,” for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing “to try to limit what occurred.” Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.

By contrast, no one is suggesting U.S. military intervention in North Korea — only a combination of clear-eyed diplomacy, aggressive information operations, and a more serious and sustained application of the financial pressure that the administration has toyed with. It’s hard to see what’s so gut-wrenching about any of those options.

You really should read Power’s entire lengthy article just to contrast her strident scholarship with the passivity and dysfunction of the administration she serves as its U.N. Ambassador today — not to mention Power’s individual silence about North Korea — in the middle of a slow-motion genocide. (North Korea is a genocide to the same extent that Cambodia was a genocide; in both cases, victims are or were culled based on political and social classifications.) Power explains why the Clinton Administration knew exactly what was happening in Rwanda, exactly as Power herself and the President she serves must know what is happening in North Korea today.

[Samantha Power bursts into tears while visiting Rwanda]

So why the passivity and dysfunction this time? My educated speculation, based on recent diplomatic movements, is that the administration probably thinks it’s on the cusp of a new deal with the North Koreans. After John Kerry’s visit to Beijing earlier this year, China engaged in a round of “shuttle diplomacy” with both Koreas. Last month, a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister visited Pyongyang to urge it to return to talks. Japan, whose current Prime Minister was sidelined by Agreed Framework II in 2007, has engaged in its own secret talks with the North, which may explain why it favors softer resolution language now. Today, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator is in Beijing, where he may meet “secretly” with unnamed U.S. officialsOFK readers have not been allowed to forget that the chief U.S. negotiator is Glyn Davies, who in 2007 asked a colleague at State to airbrush some of the strongest language out of its annual human rights report about North Korea, asking it to “sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause.” 

(For its part, North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, is threatening another nuke test if the U.S. continues “using the North Korean human rights issue to undermine its regime.”)

The speculation has reached the point that the President himself is being asked if the six-party talks are about about to restart. Cyclical history certainly favors a deal now. This is a weakened second-term administration like Clinton’s in 1994, after his party lost Congress, and like Bush’s in 2007, after his party lost Congress. But as we’ve learned so many times before, the prospects for any deal with North Korea last only as long as North Korea’s reasonable fear of significant adverse consequences. What matters is that the problem is papered over and left to the next president to deal with.

The design to stall Security Council action now is probably China’s design at much as North Korea’s; after all, North Korea has survived plenty of Security Council resolutions (thanks to China’s failure to enforce them). The Obama Administration’s plan probably calculates that after a brief kerfuffle at the Security Council, the COI and its after-effects will fade from the public consciousness and it will sign its piece of paper. It will be 1994 all over again.

In more ways than one.