Meth prices inching up in North Korea

Rimjin-gang updates us on the meth trade in North Hamgyeong, in the extreme northeast of North Korea:

I would say that the buying and selling of these substances are far more active than ever before. The price for these products is increasing. A year ago it was 100 Chinese RMB (around 16 US dollars) for 1 gram. Since the beginning of this year it has increased to 100 RMB for 0.8 gram. A small sack of product, made for only 1 to 2 uses, is sold at 30,000 NK won (around 4 US dollars). [Rimjin-gang]

I wonder if this is tied to a shortage of precursor chemicals as a result of the border crackdown. Otherwise, I’d have suspected that the loss of access to Chinese markets would have driven the price down, not up.

The source also reports that “many” cops and soldiers use meth, too:

Partner: Yes. There are many. Sometimes they go and buy eoleum by themselves. If they don’t have money with them, they’ve been known to pawn something like a bicycle. Since those who carry out the crackdowns are involved in eoleum trafficking and some of them are also users, the authorities are not able to enforce controls.

Odd. I used to prosecute guys for using meth in the American Army, and I know how quickly this stuff can spread through a unit and wreck its efficiency. For the first few months, it actually makes people better at their jobs. Later, it causes them to miss formation, sleep on the job, and finally, it turns them psychotic.

It has occurred to me that a soldier with a meth problem and no more pay to spend would trade just about anything–including an RPG-7–for an eight ball.

Look for a Part 2 to Rimjin-gang’s report in the coming days.

Does the State Department think there’s a six-month statute of limitations for terror sponsorship? (Updated)

If the Congressional Research Service had its own store at the mall, you’d often find me there at 3 a.m., sleeping in my lawn chair the night before the next release, possibly in some sort of costume. The researchers are smart and genial people, and most of their work has been terrific. There also appears to be some mutuality of readership between us, because as it turns out, the latest CRS report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism cites no less than three of my works in six of its footnotes (just call me the Congressional Research Service research service). Large portions of the CRS report read like a response to my various briefs supporting North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT). Again, it’s always a good thing to have your ideas read and considered, so I hope what follows won’t seem ungracious, but CRS’s latest left me feeling the way I felt after I watched “Phantom Menace.”

That’s because CRS appears to have followed the State Department into a serious legal error that affects the quality of the analysis that resulted. The problem only becomes evident in the conclusion of the report, where CRS argues that most of the events I’ve cited (inter alia) here and here that would support North Korea’s SSOT re-listing would “fall outside the six-month window that the State Department uses to determine governments’ placement on the lists.” That is to say, State thinks there’s a six-month statute of limitations for purposes of an SSOT listing.

Now, as we speak, I’m putting the final touches on a very extensive report on SSOT listing–its statutory history, authorities, key definitions, purposes, and conduct justifying an SSOT listing. Look for it in fine bookstores everywhere (no, not really). I re-checked the key authorities, and there is no such window. Wanna check them yourself? Look at Section 6 of the Export Administration Act (EAA), Section 140 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989, Section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act, and Section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act. You won’t find that window, but you will find another possible source of the State Department’s confusion: Section 6(j)(4) of the Export Administration Act. But this is a provision for rescission–in English, removal from the SSOT list–not for listing in the first instance. (There are similar rescission provisions in the EAA and the FAA).

There are other reasons to question that there’s any six-month window, not the least of which is the illogic of writing annual reports that would have to overlook the first half of the year. Not only does text of the EAA provide no support for this view, its use of the term “repeatedly” implies the opposite conclusion. Many of State’s prior SSOT justifications have cited conduct occurring years before a listing (if you doubt me, read them). North Korea wasn’t listed after the 1987 KAL bombing and then de-listed the very next year, after a six-month statute of limitations ran out. Its abductions of Japanese citizens and its harboring of Japanese Red Army hijackers were both cited as reasons for North Korea’s listing years after they occurred. (Arguably, these could be called continuing offenses; they still are.) When the State Department added Sudan to the SSOT list in 1993, it found “no conclusive evidence linking the Government of Sudan to any specific terrorist incident during the year.” And as the State Department itself once said:

The United States is committed to holding terrorists and those who harbor them accountable for past attacks, regardless of when the acts occurred. The US Government has a long memory and will not simply expunge a terrorist’s record because time has passed. The states that choose to harbor terrorists are like accomplices who provide shelter for criminals. They will be held accountable for their “guests’” actions. International terrorists should know, before they contemplate a crime, that they cannot hunker down in safehaven for a period of time and be absolved of their crimes.

Perhaps because of this erroneous interpretation, CRS largely overlooks some of North Korea’s most egregious recent acts of terrorism–its assassination plots against Hwang Jang Yop and Pak Sang-Hak, the assassination of Kim Chang-Hwan in China, the attempt to assassinate another activist in China the following day, the attempted kidnapping of a North Korean student in Paris last year, and the attempted murder of a North Korean refugee in Denmark last year. One could argue that direct, retail terrorism isn’t the “sponsorship” of terrorism, but if that’s so, it’s an obtuse evasion of Congress’s intent. And if it’s so, why has the State Department repeatedly cited Iran’s attempts to assassinate Iranian dissidents abroad to support Iran’s SSOT listing? Or the assassination of Rafiq Hariri to support Syria’s SSOT listing? Or the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, the KAL 858 bombing (the original basis for North Korea’s SSOT listing), or the abductions of Japanese citizens?

CRS’s report thereby concludes “that 2009 and 2013 seizures of North Korean shipments of chemical protection equipment to Syria were the only DPRK actions since 2008 that both (1) were recognized by official U.S. or U.N. bodies, and (2) could conceivably have met the statutory criteria for redesignation.” Now, maybe this is the lawyer in me talking–but I was under the misunderstanding that the final judgment of a U.S. District Court, or the opinion of a federal Court of Appeals, counted as “recognition” by an “official body.” (See here, here, and here.) Also, it seems unfair to count only the orders of U.S. federal courts, while overlooking the multiple convictions of North Korean agents by South Korean courts (here, here, here, and here; this and this may be relevant, too). I’m not going to argue that the South Korean legal system is a paragon of due process, but if its convictions are good enough to merit recognition by our federal courts, they’re good enough for our State Department.

Perhaps consequently, the CRS report also misses the main point of my citation of the 2009 weapons seizures in Bangkok, aboard the M/V ANL Australia, and aboard the M/V Francop—not that North Korea was shipping those weapons to Iran and Syria, but that it was shipping weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah (and maybe the Quds Force for good measure) through Iran and Syria. Begin with the U.N. Panel of Experts reports documenting those seizures and cargoes in exhaustive detail, but that’s only the first step. Then, compare those reports to the contemporary press reports informing us that those weapons (including MANPADS) were destined for terrorist end-users.

Finally, CRS argues that “a decision to redesignate the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism could have a significant impact on diplomacy with North Korea,” to which I ask, “What diplomacy?” Weirdly enough, CRS also cites Kim Jong Un’s byungjin policy—the North Korean policy that declares its dual pursuit of both nukes and economic development—and equates it with reform:

The Kim regime has been promoting a two-track policy (the so-called byungjin line) of nuclear development and economic development, with the latter goal partially dependent upon influxes of foreign investment.…  The DPRK could be particularly sensitive to a redesignation, which could be perceived as a threat to the potential economic gains the North Korean government expects from its byungjin policy. Therefore, those who wish to encourage North Korea’s economic reforms, in the belief that they eventually would lead to changes in the government and/or the government’s behavior, may oppose redesignating the DPRK. In contrast, those who wish to increase economic pressure on North Korea by undercutting the byungjin line may favor redesignating the DPRK.

The latter group includes both the Obama and Park administrations, which hold that byungjin is a non-starter, “a pipe dream.” Officially, our policy is that North Korea can’t have it both ways. That makes the disruption of byungjin a net positive for an SSOT listing. (This also re-raises the question of whether a capitalist, fascist North Korea is less dangerous than a socialist one. It has never been clear to me why that would be the case.)

CRS also argues that “China may be inclined to use redesignation as a pretext for opposing U.S. and South Korean efforts to increase pressure on North Korea through other means.” Like they need one. I’ve given a long series of examples of China violating UNSC sanctions here. I’m not sure why an SSOT listing would give China any needed justification to do what it has done for years.

Finally, CRS punts on the most important question of all—by what standard can we avoid calling this terrorism?


We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.

Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.

The world will be full of fear.

Remember the 11th of September 2001.

We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.

(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

All the world will denounce the SONY.

More to come…

It’s important to make a distinction between the Guardians of Peace’s hacking of Sony Pictures from its threats against American moviegoers. The hacking itself doesn’t clearly fit within the various legal definitions of terrorism, and there’s no precedent for State citing hacking as a basis for an SSOT listing. For reasons I won’t argue today, that’s probably a good policy. Threats against American moviegoers, on the other hand, would clearly fit both the legal definitions of terrorism and the plain meaning of the term.

~   ~   ~

As for the impact of an SSOT listing, I’m not going to argue that the sanctions triggered by a listing would be among the strongest financial and legal tools at our disposal. Sanctions under 31 C.F.R. Part 596 would have less impact than designation as a Primary Money Laundering Concern, a sustained campaign of financial diplomacy to isolate Kim Jong Un’s access to his offshore hard currency, or a serious and sustained campaign of information operations. Still, an SSOT listing would close an important loophole in our weak sanctions against North Korea. To understand the significance of that point, however, you have to understand how weak our sanctions are to begin with. And none of this means that these policy choices would be mutually exclusive.

Maybe the most important reason for an SSOT listing is that it would reflect the truth. The State Department’s dogmatic insistence that North Korea hasn’t sponsored an act of terrorism since 1987 is–there is no other word for this–a lie, one that smacks of unaccountability and bureaucratic arrogance. Regardless of the diplomatic or legal effects of a SSOT designation, it is never acceptable for our government to lie to us. Our own federal courts have found that North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism. South Korean courts have repeatedly convicted North Korean agents of international kidnappings, assassinations, and assassination attempts. A U.N. Panel of Experts has offered voluminous evidence of North Korea’s arms exports intercepted en route to Iran–arms that intelligence sources tell reporters were bound for Hamas and Hezbollah. And although the legal basis to call a cyberattack “terrorism” is questionable, threats against American filmmakers and moviegoers clearly fit the legal and commonly understood definitions of terrorism. Telling the truth always matters. So does holding people accountable for the evil that they do.

~   ~   ~

Update: 2 Feb 2014: CRS has corrected its report to remove any references to a “six-month window.” I’ll add that when I raised the legal question with CRS, they were very classy about reexamining the law and correcting the mistake. The error was not the State Department’s, as it turns out; it was just CRS’s misreading of the Export Administration Act. Hey, I make mistakes, too! The final CRS report, however, still fails to address most of the substance that I’ve argued could be a basis for an SSOT listing. Without the “six-month window” issue, the report now leaves those omissions largely unexplained. I hope CRS will go back and examine those issues in more detail another day, in the near future.

How much do we still care about ag reform in North Korea?

If one mark of a good reporter is that you can’t tell how he really feels about his subject matter, then I haven’t much to say for Yonhap reporter Chang Jae-Soon, who cites a post at 38 North by Randall Ireson to declare that North Korean agricultural reforms are working. That’s a daring declaration for anyone to offer in the barren dead of January after so many more optimistic analyses have come to nothing, including those of Randall Ireson. That may be why Ireson doesn’t offer one this time–indeed, he climbs down gently from the more optimistic analysis he offered a year ago. Chang still seizes on Ireson’s piece, and wrings so much of the caution and balance out of it (or buries it) that it’s hardly a true reflection of the original. Here is what Ireson did say:

* North Korea has a “history of [ag reform] policies that have not been fully implemented” going all the way back to 2002. The background to them was the growth of North Korean markets despite regime efforts to limit them.

* Ag reforms announced in 2012 reduced the size of work units and (proportionally) their quotas. Farmers were allowed to sell the surplus (as they’d been doing for years, through pilferage). Ireson thinks these measures were “widely if perhaps not universally implemented during 2014,” although even this is a more optimistic assessment than most of the reports he cites in his footnotes.

* It’s not certain that the regime intends to continue in this same direction. Ireson concedes that key details of the reforms “are scarce” and that implementation at the local level appears to be spotty. With respect to the key element of the reforms–an enlightened concept they used to call “sharecropping” during the Reconstruction era–Ireson cites Radio Free Asia and Daily NK reports suggesting that “that not all local officials were willing to allow farmers to keep their full share.”

* The announced reforms coincide with reports of a better harvest in 2013, but Ireson admits that he can only infer a connection, and that the methodologies for measuring harvests are imprecise and contradictory in any event. The regime continued to import far less grain than its shortfall (to which I add—spent many times that amount importing other stuff you can’t eat, and also exported quite a bit of food, too).

Here is how Ireson closes:

But let’s not be overly ebullient: the actions to date do not constitute a Chinese- or Vietnamese-style economic reform, and the DPRK will remain food-insecure for the immediate future.  Rollbacks and opposition to other recent changes in farm policy argue for a wait-and-see approach. The 5.30 policies appear to implicitly accept the inevitability of a strong market for distributing foodstuffs, and the need for farmers to capture a much larger share of their production than has been allowed in the past. However, they do not eliminate production quotas or state supply of primary farming supplies. Changes in other sectors of the economy suggest that perhaps a gradual liberalization process is both foreseen and underway—with an emphasis on “gradual.” At the farm level, the coming year will be instructive, both in terms of whether the 6.28 and 5.30 policies are fully implemented, and whether farmers can take advantage of this new autonomy to increase production. We can be hopeful.

Ireson’s piece gains much credibility from its caution, but at the sacrifice of its persuasiveness that anything of significance is happening here. There isn’t much point in speculating; we’ll know by November, but for now, let’s just say the evidence is mixed–at best.

For a slightly less cautious view, you can always read what Andrei Lankov has been writing lately. Here’s the latest example of that, via The New York Times. We don’t have to wait quite so long to validate all of Andrei’s hypotheses, however, as he makes much of wage increases at coal mines near the Chinese border. By the time his op-ed went to print, a series of reports had already told us that North Korea had levied prison labor to keep its coal mines running, that its coal exports to China had “dropped off dramatically” due to raised air-quality standards in China, and that the Musan iron ore mine, which feeds the same steel mills as North Korea’s coal mines, had also stopped exporting to China. One report said that it had ground to a halt due to power shortages and was laying off 10,000 workers. Another said that a price dispute with China was to blame–understandable in light of Jang Song Thaek’s fate, and worth watching amid increasingly believable signs that Kim Jong Un may be trying to switch, in part, from China to Russia as his great-power sponsor. A step forward seems less significant in the context of three steps backward.

Lankov offers an important caution of his own, when he concedes that it’s unlikely that His Porcine Majesty “will allow economic liberalization to lead the way for political and social change.” That is the closest thing there is to unanimity in this mostly factless debate.

~   ~   ~

Which raises the question that’s been on my mind recently: So what? There’s no hard evidence that these reforms are leading to lower food prices or greater food availability, given the concurrent crackdown on cross-border trade. They may not be reforms at all, so much as another case of regime policies catching up to what the people have been doing for years. If there are policy changes, it would be hard to distinguish their effects from those of spontaneous market-driven changes.

More importantly, to anyone who’s watching the bigger picture and has a sense of perspective, this whole discussion is being overtaken like a roller derby on a NASCAR track. Time will tell whether ag reform is for real this time, but what does seem apparent is that Kim Jong Un is determined to (1) miniaturize his nuclear weapons; (2) build ICBMs to carry them; (3) perfect the range and accuracy of his missiles and rocket artillery aimed at South Korea, Japan, and USFK; (4) run the world’s most oppressive, democidal system of government and lie to the whole world about it; (4) sell any weapon to any terrorist or terror-sponsor willing to pay the price; and (5) expand the reach of his thought control to your local cineplex.

I don’t know about you, but I find those differences to be existential ones. They all loom larger than grain production quotas in my calculation of whether Kim Jong Un is a man we can do business with. The debate about ag reform is interesting, but increasingly academic in light of Kim Jong Un’s other policies.

I realize that the faith of some people that North Korea is turning toward free-trade capitalism is as impervious to evidence, experience, and disappointment as faith in the Ghost Dance once was. (I’ve occasionally found that the people who believe this aren’t all that fond of free-trade capitalism to begin with.) But again, so what? Contrary to the popular theory that many people don’t bother to question, I’ve never accepted the premise that a capitalist (or fascist) North Korea would be less dangerous than a socialist one. Hitler and Mussolini were significantly more capitalist then Kim Jong Un. Would we prefer him to be more like them?* However belatedly, even Barack Obama seems to have concluded that this jar isn’t big enough for both scorpions.

But let’s assume, against our better judgment, that eventually, “reform” will lead to marginal improvements in North Korean living standards. That would be a good thing in some ways, but it wouldn’t mean that happy days are there again. Like Lankov and Ireson, I doubt that Pyongyang will ever allow its people any degree of economic freedom, and without economic freedom, there won’t be political freedom, a truly sufficient food supply, or real reform. The capitalism that will change North Korea isn’t being driven by Pyongyang; it’s being driven by people in the alleys and roadsides of the outer provinces. Want to change North Korea through engagement? Find a way to engage those people. Those are the people who have an interest in change. Their escape from squalor, and perhaps their lives, may depend on it.

~   ~   ~

* A reader points out that if Kim Jong Un became more like Mussolini, it would actually be an improvement. On reflection, it’s hard to argue with that, although I could probably find a few Ethiopians and Libyans who’d disagree.

Somehow, I don’t think this will encourage Kim Jong Un to engage with us.

I think Marzuki Darusman is a good man who means well, but it’s difficult to derive a coherent policy from this:

“This is a new thing, spotlighting the leadership and ridiculing the leadership. In any authoritarian, totalitarian system, that is an Achilles’ heel,” Darusman said in an interview in Tokyo, where he held talks with the government on an investigation into North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

If this kind of ridicule seeps into North Korea, it could become lethal for the regime, he said. “If they want to preserve their system, the only way to do that is not to close themselves off from the international community but to actively engage,” he said. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

OK, so they need “engagement”–presumably, trade–to preserve the system, which we all agree should not be preserved. So should we cut off trade?

But the world also should be actively engaging with the Kim regime to draw it out of its self-imposed isolation, Marzuki Darusman said Friday, calling the United States’ increasingly aggressive approach toward North Korea “unfortunate.”

“In the overall picture, I think much hinges on the way the U.S. acts,” said Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia. A harder line against North Korea could “stall or delay the process that needs to be put into place,” he said.

I don’t get it. If ridicule of His Porcine Majesty scares the bejeezus out of the little gray men in Pyongyang, and if we’re supposed to use engagement to mock His Porcine Majesty mercilessly, why does Marzuki suppose that Kim Jong Un would widen engagement rather than stick with the current, controllable kinds of engagement that are serving North Korea’s priorities rather nicely? Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un continues to succeed at smothering the penetration of real capitalism.

Marzuki is a distinguished jurist who has done a great service to humanity by the facts he’s helped to establish. Maybe that’s enough for one man for one lifetime.


The OFK management extends a warm welcome to what appears to be the entire population of Estonia. My, but there are a lot of you in Estonia!

Then they came for the Germans: N. Korea’s global censorship campaign

Having seen “The Interview,” I’d rate it as good an artistic fit for the Berlin Film Festival as Klaus Nomi might have been for the half-time entertainment at a tractor pull. North Korean diplomats, however, aren’t widely esteemed for certain qualities — like, diplomacy, or diplomacy, academic rigor, or cultural sophistication. Consequently, when they heard that “The Interview” was to open in Germany on February 5th, they misunderstood that it was on the festival agenda. And they said this:

The North Korean statement issued Wednesday stated: “The screening of the movie that hurts the dignity of the supreme leadership of North Korea and openly agitates state-sponsored terrorism has nothing to do with the ‘freedom of expression’ touted by Germany. It is evidently agitation of terrorism quite contrary to the purpose and nature of the Berlin International Film Festival.” [Variety]

They also called the film “state-sponsored terrorism.” Sigh. Someone really should lend the North Koreans a dictionary or a law book, because words, like, you know, actually mean stuff.

It ended: “The U.S. and Germany should immediately stop the farce of screening the anti-North Korean movie at the film festival. Those who attempt at terrorist acts and commit politically-motivated provocations and those who join them in violation of the sovereignty and dignity of North Korea will never be able to escape merciless punishment.” [Variety]

You can thank me for verifying that quote on KCNA, the Phuket back-alley ladyboy of the Internet, so you don’t have to. KCNA even compares “The Interview” to the Holocaust, which is a privilege they’re not entitled because … well, this would be one reason. And this would be another. And this (OK, you get the idea). Read it in full below the fold. It’s a thing of such blithe obliviousness that a certain childlike wonder soon washes over one’s sense of outrage.

You’d think that in these times, Europe would be unusually principled and protective of free expression. To sterner folk, the appropriate response would have been a gruff “Verpiss dich!,” and the prompt addition of “The Interview” to the festival agenda. To other Europeans, “Je Suis Charlie” is the safeword their dominatrix taught them, to be cried out in vain during a prison riot. That attitude describes the reaction of the German government, which summoned the head of the festival to give the Norks a polite explanation. Or so say the rheumy-eyed, snaggletoothed old Trotskyites at The Grauniad.

Festival head Dieter Kosslick was reportedly forced to meet with the North Korean ambassador to Germany to explain. A spokesperson told Variety the situation was now resolved and Pyongyang understood the comedy was not being screened at the Berlinale. [The Guardian]

His name is even Dieter. Delicious ….

No word as to whether the North Koreans were able to suppress their embarrassment quickly enough to demand that the film be declared verboten everywhere else in Germany.

There are signs, however, that North Korea is expanding its campaign to suppress “The Interview” globally. On January 16th, The New York Times reported that North Korean diplomats demanded that Burmese authorities seize any copies of “The Interview” they find. (The copies were bootlegged; this may have been the first thing North Korea has done in the last two months that Sony Pictures approved of.) On January 25th, The Bangkok Post reported that North Korea had asked Cambodia to ban sales of “The Interview.”

Now, I suppose it’s better for Nork diplos to be wasting their time on a movie than on rounding up child refugees to send back to reeducation camps. Still, one fears that when the ostensibly democratic world would rather define free expression down than stand up for it, precious few of us will have the testicular fortitude to say, “Je suis Park Sang-Hak.”

Read more

Three Cheers for Obama’s Sony attribution, a golf clap for his “proportional” response.

In The Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima describes how Sony’s decision to cancel the premiere of The Interview catalyzed the Obama Administration’s decision to blame North Korea publicly:

The next day, alarmed by the surrender, President Barack Obama convened his top officials in the White House Situation Room and, based on their unanimous recommendation, decided to take an action the United States had never dared before in response to a cyberattack by another nation: name the government responsible and punish it. [….]

The blocking of Sony’s freedom of expression, on top of a highly damaging hack, is what ultimately compelled officials to act, in the name of deterrence.

“The argument I made was the whole world is watching how we as a nation respond,” said Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, who, other officials said, was at the previously undisclosed meeting.

“And if we don’t acknowledge this, if we don’t name names here, it will only — I’m concerned — encourage others to decide: ‘Well, this must not be a red line for the United States. This must be something they’re comfortable [with] and willing to accept,’ ” Rogers said at an international cybersecurity conference at Fordham University last week.

There “was a significant debate within the administration about whether or not to take that step” of naming North Korea, a senior administration official said. “Attribution is hard, and there are all sorts of reasons we don’t normally want to do that,” including setting a precedent that would increase pressure to name other countries in future incidents and antagonizing the offending governments.

But the attack on Sony’s right to screen a movie struck a nerve. The entertainment company may not be “critical” to national security, but free speech is “a core value,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Yes, it was a Seth Rogen comedy, but next time it might not be,” he said. What he described as the hack’s “destructive” nature combined with the element of coercion against Sony “crossed the threshold,” he said. “It took us into a new realm.”

The attack was a violation of U.S. sovereignty “coupled with an attempt to interfere with freedom of expression,” said Christopher Painter, State Department coordinator for cyber issues. “You had, in many ways, the perfect storm of all these things coming together that were really important.” [WaPo, Ellen Nakashima]

I applaud this unreservedly. It was the right decision for the right reasons.

~   ~   ~

The administration has stumbled twice since then, however. For several weeks, the administration failed to challenge inside-job theories from some IT security experts. Some of them challenged the sufficiency of the publicly available evidence, which is fair enough. But to argue that North Korea didn’t do it is much more problematic. Some of the inside-jobbers lost sight of the possibility that they were arguing based on incomplete information. Others may have been motivated by grudges against the administration over the Snowden revelations, or other biases. Yet others, including inmates of the Alex Jones, Christine Ahn, and Ron Paul asylums, shared the sort of skepticism that’s unique to the world’s most gullible people.

The administration continued to lose this argument for several weeks before FBI Director James Comey publicly reaffirmed that he was certain that the North Koreans did it. Comey’s call to declassify more of the evidence is now being answered by the National Security Agency:

Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the American spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies, according to former United States and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations and a newly disclosed N.S.A. document.

A classified security agency program expanded into an ambitious effort, officials said, to place malware that could track the internal workings of many of the computers and networks used by the North’s hackers, a force that South Korea’s military recently said numbers roughly 6,000 people. Most are commanded by the country’s main intelligence service, called the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and Bureau 121, its secretive hacking unit, with a large outpost in China.

The evidence gathered by the “early warning radar” of software painstakingly hidden to monitor North Korea’s activities proved critical in persuading President Obama to accuse the government of Kim Jong-un of ordering the Sony attack, according to the officials and experts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the classified N.S.A. operation. [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger & Martin Fackler]

The CIA’s malware was built on its highly successful Stuxnet worm:

For about a decade, the United States has implanted “beacons,” which can map a computer network, along with surveillance software and occasionally even destructive malware in the computer systems of foreign adversaries. The government spends billions of dollars on the technology, which was crucial to the American and Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and documents previously disclosed by Edward J. Snowden, the former security agency contractor, demonstrated how widely they have been deployed against China. [N.Y. Times]

For those incapable of wrapping their heads around the idea of North Korea being technologically sophisticated enough to hack someone, the Times story also provides an extensive history of Unit 121, and an interview with two defectors with insider knowledge of the unit’s operations.

See also CNN and CBS News (quoting Comey, “We could see that the IP addresses that were being used to post and to send the e-mails were coming from IPs that were exclusively used by the North Koreans.”).

Interestingly enough, just a few weeks before the Sony hack, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had dinner with Kim Yong-Chol, the head of North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau (RGB), the man responsible for overseeing North Korea’s hackers, and also for multiple attempts to assassinate human rights activists and North Korean dissidents in exile. The RGB’s assets are blocked, but Gen. Kim’s are not. I can’t help wonder if Gen. Kim smiled at the thought of how Clapper would react to the Sony attacks. Let’s hope that the Obama Administration gives Gen. Kim cause to regret this lapse of malignant egomania.

It amuses me some to wonder whether there was a small bandage on Mr. Clapper’s right palm when the two men shook hands.

~   ~   ~

Which brings us to the President’s second stumble: his failure, so far, to respond credibly, to deter others from crossing the red line that North Korea crossed in November, and also to deter others from blunting President Obama’s response by undermining sanctions.

It did not take long for American officials to conclude that the source of the attack was North Korea, officials say. “Figuring out how to respond was a lot harder,” one White House official said. [N.Y. Times]

That’s becoming more painfully obvious by the day. President Obama has said that Executive Order 13,687 and the designations of January 2nd were only a beginning, and let’s hope he’s right about that. Sanctions work better when they hit with a shock than when they’re applied incrementally, and give the target time to adapt. If my guess is right, however, Treasury needs more time to do that, because this administration hasn’t made North Korea a priority in its financial intelligence targeting. But so far, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden said, the administration’s new sanctions have been “symbolic at best,” for reasons I explained here. Worse, our apparent lack of determination is inviting troublemakers to undermine the administration’s negative reinforcement.

Here is Vladimir Putin’s cue to enter stage left.

According to this article, Russia has recently begun to service transactions for the U.S. Treasury-sanctioned Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea in rubles. Treasury sanctioned the FTB in March 2013 for its involvement in servicing WMD-related financial transactions. The article’s author, whose work reads like that of a Putinjugend fangirl, may not have considered the possibility that the Russian businesses involved could still be cut out of the financial system under EO 13,687 or (one day in the not-too-distant future, according to Chairman Royce) the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act. However unwittingly, fangirl has done us a great public service by bringing this information to our attention.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to defend us against cyberattacks. He didn’t mention North Korea by name, but the reference was obvious. Deterrence is a critical part of defense. Imposing new cybersecurity laws and regulations on industry alone will not be a complete answer, and the new requirements will come with massive costs to American industry. Even if the administration has good reasons to delay the main thrust of its response to Kim Jong Un until it finds a critical mass of North Korea’s financial nodes, it still needs to make a bold demonstration that it’s unwilling to tolerate the willful subversion of its policies by Russia and others. If the sanctions of January 2nd are the only price a foreign enemy pays for a devastating and chilling attack on the central principle of our political system, those sanctions will mean less than no deterrent at all.

Wanna read about North Korea sanctions law? You know you do.

In the Fletcher Security Review, I attack the myth that our North Korea sanctions are strong, summarize the authorities, describe what has and hasn’t worked, and explain how to make sanctions work as part of a more coherent and effective North Korea policy.

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Update: See also this Wall Street Journal column, citing yours truly, which I swear I didn’t see coming. If only the author had cited the paper linked above, after I knew the answer to the question posed. But just the same, the article shows a good understanding of the subject matter. It’s gratifying to be read, to be getting through to people, and to be changing the conversation.

Reports: Musan mine to lay off 10,000 workers; coal exports halted

At the end of last year, the Daily NK reported that North Korea’s iron ore exports to China had stopped, but offered two different explanations for that — a price dispute with China, and a shortage of hydroelectric power caused by drought. One of the reports claimed that the power cuts halted the massive iron ore mine at Musan, which had caused “major disruptions” at the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. All three facilities are propaganda showpieces of North Korean industry.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 7.35.26 AM

[The massive Musan mine. The yellow line on the left is the border with China]

In a follow-up report, the Daily NK now blames electricity shortages and a price dispute with China for plans by North Korea to lay off 10,000 of the 23,000 workers at Musan. The decision isn’t going over well with the workers:

For most, the focal concern is what happens next, as no jobs are guaranteed to those laid off. “Officials at the mine may say that they’re struggling with deciding on whose names to add to the list, and workers are irate, saying that ‘they can’t get away with this!’” the source said, noting that the surrounding village has been cast into a state of “unrest” because of the cutbacks. [Daily NK]

According to last year’s reports, however, labor shortages in the coal mines have caused North Korea to send inexperienced convicts to work there, causing a high rate of disabling and fatal accidents. One would think that the regime could find work for these men, even if that work is in Malaysia.

But now, Radio Free Asia reports that North Korea’s coal exports to China have also “dropped off dramatically,” and that the North has exported “little if any” coal to China this year. According to the report, North Korean coal has a high sulfur content and can’t pass China’s new air quality standards. RFA also links North Korea’s troubles to lack of hydroelectric power, indirectly. North Korea can’t export its coal, because it has to send it to thermal power plants, to keep the lights on in Pyongyang.

(Me: on top of all that, North Korea’s railroads and the locomotives that run on them are poorly maintained, and they’re mostly powered by electricity. Putting a lot of coal trains on the network will further strain the infrastructure.)

With mineral products accounting for more than 60% of North Korea’s exports to China, and with China being the destination for 90% of North Korea’s exports, one might expect to see these disruptions (if they’re sustained) reflected in Pyongyang’s luxury goods imports for 2015.

NHK Documentary: Money & Power in North Korea

I haven’t watched it all — was busy finishing another project — but it looks to be an interesting examination of the subject that interests me most about North Korea: its money. It talks about the regime’s “gift politics,” luxury goods trade, the “royal court economy,” money laundering, and hunger.

Although the documentary itself is new, some of the info seems a bit dated. There were other things I didn’t know. For example, it claims that in Pyongyang, there’s a massive vault filled with yen, dollars, and euros, in cash. It also claims that North Korea continues to operate out of Macau, selling gold (among other things). It also discusses North Korea’s statue-building business in Africa, and its slave-labor exports.

The documentary also claims that Jang Song-Thaek was purged because of a shortage of funding and because his control of wealth was seen as a threat. That makes sense to me, but I would still treat any “insider” accounts with great suspicion.

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Update: OK, I finished watching it. It’s well worth seeing, although based on other information I’ve seen, I don’t agree that Kim Jong Un’s hard currency streams are dwindling. Just look at this chart.

Must read: Washington Post on AP’s Pyongyang Bureau

I think Paul Farhi, The Washington Post‘s media reporter, wrote an interesting and balanced article, although I wish he’d stressed the point that I stressed to Farhi — that readers could more easily accept the limits on AP’s coverage if AP would be more forthcoming about what those restrictions are. I want to know more about the terms of the AP’s reporting, both written and unwritten.

Farhi did manage to squeeze some of this out of the AP, including the admission that minders follow the AP reporters, and have de facto veto power over where it goes and what it covers. If only Farhi had convinced AP to release its final MOU with the North Koreans.

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Update: Whoa:

I don’t agree that it’s a “flattering” story, but … Talmadge hasn’t been allowed into North Korea in months? Isn’t that kind of a big deal? Why ever could that be? And what would it say about the difference between Lee’s reporting and Talmadge’s, at least in Pyongyang’s eyes? HT: Nate Thayer.

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Update 2: Welcome back, Washington Post readers. It also strikes me that by focusing on Eric Talmadge himself, Farhi misses some of the most damning parts of the AP Pyongyang story. Talmadge himself may be the least problematic part of it. The most problematic parts are the decisions of AP corporate, including the North Korean propaganda exhibition AP and KCNA put on in New York, and the Memorandum of Understanding AP made with North Korea’s state propaganda agency. The intrepid Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft of that MOU, and it reads like an agreement to publish North Korean propaganda. AP denies that the final MOU contains similar terms, but refuses to release the final.

Much of the reporting has been troubling, too, but you probably want to see specific examples. OK, then — start with the Pak Jong Suk story. For examples of biased AP coverage of North Korea, click here, here, here, and here. For a comparison of AP’s conduct to the ethical standards of the AP Media Editors, click here. For more posts on AP Pyongyang, click here.

Forgive Shin Dong Hyok the man, but not Shin Dong Hyok the activist

What had always puzzled me the most about Shin Dong Hyok’s account of growing up in and escaping from Camp 14 was how someone raised in such isolation from the rules of North Korean society could have had the resources and survival skills to infiltrate all the way from the Taedong River to the Chinese border, and then successfully cross it. How did he replace his prisoner clothing? How did he find money to bribe railroad police and border guards? What did he eat?

In my post on Camp 14, I linked to a video where Shin was asked those questions (see 49 minutes in). I wrote that Shin’s answers didn’t quite satisfy me, but I offered no opinion as to the veracity of his account. Although those questions were never answered to my satisfaction, including in Shin’s book, I had no basis to call him a liar, either. I decided to let the readers judge for themselves.

In one way, Shin’s admission that he lied about growing up in Camp 14 might answer those questions. Shin now says that he was transferred across the river to Camp 18 when he was six. Until its fences were taken down, Camp 18, as horrible a place as it was, was the least brutal of North Korea’s largest camps. In Camp 18, or perhaps in another kind of camp called a kyo-hwa-so, Shin could have acquired the materials and survival skills necessary to infiltrate through the world’s most policed state. That Shin did that much is still beyond serious question. On balance, I still think it’s likely that Shin spent some time in a camp. People I trust have seen the scars on his back, and he has other injuries consistent with torture and child labor.

(Update: in the comments, Curtis points out that North Korea has unintentionally acknowledged that Shin was in Camp 18 as a child. Thanks to Curtis, as always, for his exceptional detective work.)

But none of that means we should ever trust Shin again. Once a witness perjures himself, no responsible advocate can ever call him to testify again, and most courts would instruct the jurors to disregard his testimony in its entirety. I’ve met Shin, and although I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about Camp 14, he’s clearly a bright and energetic young man. In some other capacity, he can still have a great future. As an activist, however, his credibility is gone. No man matters more than the truth itself.

What troubles me most about Shin’s admission won’t be Pyongyang’s crowings, or those of North Korea’s noisy sympathizers — the tendentious and unreadable Marxist academics, the cleverer ones who argue from ignorance, the mendacious profiteers, or the combustible know-nothings — although that’s something we can all look forward to. Smart and fair-minded people will continue to ignore these people, because they can see that the weight of the witness testimony and satellite imagery is still overwhelming. Shin isn’t the only witness from Camp 14, and his admissions don’t alter our understanding of the other camps in the slightest. Indeed, Shin’s account gained the prominence it did because it was an outlier.

Of course, not all people are smart or fair-minded, and the world’s more simplistic thinkers will conclude from this that all of the survivors are liars. Many of them already wanted to conclude as much.

As much as this troubles me, what troubles me much more is how much this admission will hurt the kind-hearted people I know and call my friends, who embraced Shin as a son or a brother. At this moment, they’re the ones whose pain I feel the most. Shin the man, the friend, the adopted son and brother, can be forgiven, but Shin the activist can’t be. And no matter how much of his account you’re still willing to accept as true, those he has hurt the most are the millions of North Koreans, including thousands of camp inmates, who remain in North Korea, and who might yet be saved if the world unites to act on their behalf.

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Update: To put a finer point on it, Shin is one of 25,000 refugees to come out of North Korea, including dozens who have described crimes against humanity in multiple prison camps. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry did not accuse North Korea of crimes against humanity based on the account of one man, but on the testimony of 80 witnesses and experts, and on 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses. The press accounts suggest that it was some of those other witnesses who forced Shin to come clean. Good for them.

That doesn’t get Shin off the hook for lying to us, but it doesn’t get Kim Jong Un off the hook, either.

Update 2: Drop whatever you’re doing and read Curtis’s post on this. The splitting irony of it is that the North Koreans have actually done an excellent job of corroborating Shin’s new story — that he grew up in another camp, just not the same one he’d originally claimed. Had the North Koreans said nothing at all, I wouldn’t know what to believe. They probably didn’t count on Curtis’s extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge of every second- and third-level administrative district in North Korea, or his ability to explain the significance of what Shin’s father said in the video it released, or to spot the inconsistencies that suggest that he was coached. But as I’ve said so many times before, never underestimate Curtis.

Update 3, Jan. 20, 2015:

Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea, said that Shin’s testimony consisted of only two paragraphs in the 400-page report and that he was only one of hundreds of North Korean witnesses.

“It’s a very small part of a very long story. And it really doesn’t affect the credibility of the testimony, which is online,” he said. “Lots of people took part (in) this inquiry. Their stories are powerful and convincing, and these stories do not only represent Shin but other people in North Korea.”

In a reversal of his story told for years, Shin told Harden on Friday that he had been transferred to another prison, Camp 18, when he was 6, instead of spending his entire life inside North Korea at the total control zone Camp 14, the author says on his website.

The distinction of whether Shin was imprisoned in Camp 14 or 18 was not a deal breaker for Kirby.

“It seems as if the issue is whether he was in the total control zone, or whether he was in an ordinary prison camp. In another words, it’s whether triple horror or double horror,” Kirby said. [CNN]

Actually, sanctions are looking like the best thing that ever happened to engagement

Since December 19th, when the President blamed North Korea for the Sony hacking and cyberterrorism attacks, Congress has been pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea, and it has looked increasingly like it has been pushing against an open door. And suddenly, a North Korean leader who has never gone abroad or met a foreign leader during his three-year reign (no, Rodman doesn’t count) has taken a sudden — even urgent — interest in personal diplomacy.

On January 1, Kim Jong Un made a highly conditional suggestion that he might be interested in meeting Park Geun-Hye. Park, with record low approval ratings and a desperate need to change the subject, seized on the offer and has pushed Kim to hurry along to Seoul.

The next day, President Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against all entities and officials of North Korea’s government and ruling party, and (more importantly) against the third-country entities that provide Pyongyang its regime-sustaining hard currency. The order was potentially sweeping and devastating. In its actual impact, it reached only three entities that were already sanctioned, and ten mid- to low-level arms dealers. But the President also said that this was only a first step, which left Pyongyang scurrying to secure its financial lifelines.

Suddenly, within a week, press reports said that Shinzo Abe might visit Pyongyang, and that Kim might accept Putin’s invitation to Moscow in May.

Kim even reached out to Washington a little, offering a nuclear test freeze if Washington cancels annual military exercises. This was enough to fool the gullible editors of The New York Times, but not President Obama. Still, it’s more than North Korea has offered Washington for the last year.

Today, North Korea’s Central Bank responded to an obviously planted question from its state news agency by “committ[ing] itself to implementing the action plan of ‘international standard’ for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.” (quote from KCNA; Reuters report here.) Kim surely knows that international efforts to enforce financial sanctions against Pyongyang will determine their success.

All of this is great news if you believe that talks are an end in themselves, rather than a means to achieve concrete interests. But it’s also great news if you’re searching for a strategy that raises enough colon-clenching horror in the palaces and ministries of Pyongyang to modify the regime’s behavior.

There’s little question that Kim Jong Un’s sudden interest in diplomacy is fundamentally about frustrating U.S. interests, rather than disarmament or genuine reform. Pyongyang is bracing for financial warfare — trying to break up the formation of an international coalition against its finances, protecting key cash cows like Kaesong, and shoring up its financial lifelines to resist sanctions. But at least for now, despite all of the “expert” opinion that sanctions can do no more, we’ve heard, however indirectly, from the best authorities on that subject — the ones in Pyongyang.

N. Korea Perestroika watch: crackdown forces border guards to become robbers

Last week, China filed an official protest with North Korea over the December killing of four Chinese civilians by a rogue North Korean border guard who had turned to robbery. A Bloomberg reporter researches this further, in search of a pattern, and finds one:

A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 1400-kilometre shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.

The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.

“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong-un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea. [Bloomberg]

The reporter interviews “a senior local official,” who asked not to be identified, and who says that “[a]round 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years.” Before the December incident, in September, another North Korean soldier murdered three members of another family over 500 yuan, just under $100. The soldier was later caught.

The crime wave has caused some residents to leave the village. The official says that in the winter, when the Tumen River freezes over, “it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food.”

“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Dr Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.” [….]

“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Mr Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”

Reaching back into the vast OFK archives, there is a long history of known incidents of North Korean border guards and soldiers either getting involved in smuggling, defecting, or even fragging their officers. For example, in 2010, I wrote this:

Border guards were no exception.  As cross-border trade became more lucrative, so did the acceptance of bribes to overlook it.  The corruption of the border guards became so brazen that they have been photographed while smuggling in broad daylight.  Even field-grade officers, and most strikingly, members of North Korea’s intelligence services, went into the smuggling business. [….]

In October 2012, a soldier fragged two officers and fled across the DMZ, to South Korea.

May of 2012, the Daily NK reported that two North Korean border guards shot roughly half a dozen of their colleagues, crossed the border, and went up to the hills to hide. The Chinese caught them and repatriated them back to North Korea.

In February 2007, a group of twenty North Korean border guards defected. Asahi TV later interviewed two of them.

Historically, when disciplinary infractions have embarrassed the regime, it has carried out mass transfers of the force, sometimes swapping border guard for regular army units, or flooding the zone with officers of the Ministry of Public Security or State Security Department.

The regime knows too well that banditry can beget mutiny.

House Foreign Affairs Committee holds briefing; members demand tougher sanctions on N. Korea, China (updated with video of full hearing)

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a briefing on North Korea and the Sony hack today. Three witnesses appeared:

The Honorable Sung Kim
Special Representative for North Korea Policy and
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan
U.S. Department of State
[full text of statement]

The Honorable Daniel Glaser
Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing
Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
U.S. Department of the Treasury
[full text of statement]

Brigadier General Gregory J. Touhill, USAF, Retired
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity Operations and Programs
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
[full text of statement]

Here’s Chairman Royce’s opening statement.

In all the years I’ve gone to these things, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more bipartisan unity about, or rage toward, North Korea. Some members continue to labor under misconceptions about what our sanctions are and what they can do, but all of them want sanctions intensified. One Democrat, Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, said the solution to the North Korea problem is “to end North Korea’s existence as an independent entity and reunify the Korean Peninsula.”

If anything, there was even more rage directed at China, for knowingly hosting the hackers who attacked U.S. interests and threatened Americans from Chinese soil, and for failing for years to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Congress could not have been more united and emphatic that it wants North Korea’s Chinese enablers sanctioned. Chairman Royce pushed Kim and Glaser hard on secondary sanctions. Brad Sherman (D-CA) called on China to be designated as a currency manipulator. He questioned whether China would give sincere cooperation on cybersecurity, when “their hands are dirty” and they’re involved in cyberespionage “all four hands and snout.” (Russia was also criticized by some members for its closer ties with North Korea.)

Sherman, always the funniest guy in the room, said, “I’d like to give [North Korea] a double dose of free speech.” He called for 24-hour broadcasting into North Korea and suggested that the State Department look into “satellite television broadcasting into North Korea … because I particularly want to broadcast a particular movie … the director’s cut.” (Right idea, Brad, but wrong movie.)

Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a member of the Committee again, and Issa may be the most frightening man on Capitol Hill to be questioned by. He called on China to be sanctioned under a new cyberespionage sanctions authority (scroll to the bottom of page 893). Issa noted that China doesn’t have a free internet, that it gives North Korea all of its internet access, and that that access is narrow. There’s simply no way China didn’t know.

To all of this, Glaser said that if evidence implicates Chinese entities, “We’re fully committed to holding entities in China accountable.” Sung Kim tried to say that he saw a change in China’s attitude, but Glaser said it best, in response to a question from Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI): “China’s not going to do us any favors. China is going to work with us because it’s in their interests.” “We’ve seen that with China’s commercial banks time and time again.”

About that new executive order, now numbered as Executive Order 13,687: you saw that I struggled with two possible interpretations, one broad and one narrow. The narrower interpretation turns out to be the correct one. So while EO 13,687’s potential is sweeping, its present impact is minuscule. In other words, Kim Jong Un’s assets are not blocked yet; the Pope is Catholic when John Kerry says he is.

Having said that, the dialogue between Chairman Royce and Glaser sounded like the old Danny Glaser we once knew and loved. Talking about the effect of Banco Delta Asia, Royce said, “I later talked to defectors who worked on the missile program … that program came to a halt” because of the BDA sanction. “They couldn’t buy gyroscopes.” Royce wanted to see an “impact on the the family itself that runs that country” until “the generals are not paid, the army is not paid,” and they conclude that “there has to be a better way” than following Kim Jong Un.

To this, Glaser said that in 2005 and 2006, “hundreds of banks at the time” cut the North Koreans off. But then, Glaser said that because of the “chilling effect” of this, that was the “world in which we’re still living.” (I thought it was 1984 again, and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.) Glaser called the Foreign Trade Bank, which Treasury blocked in 2013, North Korea’s “primary source of access to the international financial system.” Even so, he allowed that EO 13,687 “gives us the ability to really step … up” the process of identifying and cutting off North Korea’s “financial nodes.”

Glaser didn’t seem worried about our ability to influence Chinese banks. He cited their behavior after Treasury acted against the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea as an example.* He said the main challenge was identifying North Korea’s “financial nodes.” (My guess is that if Treasury doesn’t know, it’s because Treasury never put enough investigative resources on the task. Sanctions can’t work if you don’t have good financial intelligence. Let’s hope it’s about to get better.)

And lest anyone wonder where North Korea keeps its money, Glaser said, “We shouldn’t take our eye off the ball, and the ball is Asia. That’s where they get their primary access to the international financial system … specifically China.” Glaser chided the Chinese for continuing to allow Korea Kwangson Bank, an entity blocked by Treasury and designated by the European Union, to operate a branch in China.

Glaser ducked a question on whether North Korea should be designated a primary money laundering concern. On the humanitarian effect of sanctions, Glaser repeatedly insisted that the government of North Korea “bears sole responsibility for the suffering of the people of North Korea.”

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) did a masterful grilling of Sung Kim on putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sung Kim would only say State is studying the issue. Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN, a new member) asked whether EO 13,687 represents “an increase in intensity” in North Korea sanctions. Ambassador Kim said, “I think that would be accurate.”

All of the witnesses affirmed their confidence that North Korea was responsible for hacking Sony. When Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) asked Kim whether he believed North Korea was responsible for the 2013 Dark Seoul attack, Kim said, “We believe so, more importantly, the South Korean government believes so.”

Royce said twice that the next version of H.R. 1771 would be introduced in the near future, but wasn’t specific.

It’s not clear whether EO 13,687 represent a policy change or an empty threat. The true answer will depend on interpretation and enforcement. Glaser tried to sound like we’ve kept the pressure on North Korea since the days of Banco Delta Asia, but Juan Zarate has already told us that isn’t so, and if it was, Kim Jong Un and his top thugs would be sanctioned by name, just like Mugabe and Lukashenka are.

Here’s how Yonhap covered the story; more here. See also AP and Reuters. The Reuters piece was good, but it incorrectly states that Royce’s new bill will label North Korea a Primary Money Laundering Concern; actually, it will urge the President and the Treasury Department to do that.

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* The news there is mixed. In May of 2013, two months after Treasury sanctioned the Foreign Trade bank and a little more than a week after the introduction of H.R. 1771, China’s four largest banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China  — all halted money transfers to North Korea. Other, smaller Chinese banks, like the Bank of Dandong, continued to move money for Pyongyang, and at the lowest reaches of the financial ecosystem, North Korean money launderers still operate in Guangdong with impunity, and more discreetly, in places like the British Virgin Islands. Enforcing sanctions is like mowing the lawn. If you don’t do it regularly, things grow back quickly, and it’s the weeds that will thrive the most. Unlike mowing the lawn, you can’t take a uniform approach to different enforcement targets.

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Update: After all that, here’s the whole thing on video. If you catch any errors in my transcription, kindly drop a comment or email. Thanks.

charlie hebdo

The Interview: A Review (Updated)

Does The Interview trivialize the suffering of North Koreans?  I’m not sure what you had a right to expect from the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco, but I’d say it did so less than I expected. A central theme of the film’s climactic scene — Franco’s interview with Kim Jong Un — was hunger, and the contrast between Kim’s obscene wealth and the squalor of his people.

Was The Interview a good parody of North Korea? It was a good enough parody of Pyongyang as the AP shows it, if you believe that that’s North Korea. I agree with Barbara Demick that the film gets quite a few things right. It also gets some things wrong, by understating the percentage of the population that lives hand-to-mouth, and by overstating current estimates of the prison camp population.

That is to say, I do not advise you to cite The Interview as a reference in your Ph.D. dissertation.

On one level, The Interview holds up well, and even borders on brilliance — as a parody of the Americans who go to North Korea, what they’re willing to overlook, and the ethical compromises they’re willing to make. When Franco asks his minder about starvation, she drives him to a store fully stocked with (plastic) food, with a fat kid posted on the sidewalk in front, casually licking a lollipop. For all of Franco’s initial gullibility, he might as well have been an AP correspondent.

The best line in the whole movie? Where James Franco shows Seth Rogen an online news story that Kim Jong Un is a fan of their TV show, and says, “It’s down at the bottom, after all that death camp shit.”

The film fails as a parody of Kim Jong Un. This is not because the idea that His Porcine Majesty listens to Katy Perry is so implausible, but really, was Randall Park the fattest Korean-American actor Seth Rogen could find? And not to be pedantic, but Stalin died in 1953, and the first T-55 tank wasn’t manufactured until five years later.

Those who believe that smuggling or air-dropping The Interview into North Korea would undermine its political system probably overestimate its potential impact on North Koreans. Yes, the idea of assassinating Kim Jong Un will certainly break some barriers in North Korea’s cultural universe. The idea of ridiculing Kim Jong Un may be even more powerful, in its capacity to shatter the myth that he is respected and feared globally. It may be a revelation that he’s ridiculed here. But then, North Koreans will also see the the film showing Americans from Queens to Qandahar watching an interview with Kim Jong Un in rapt attention. I’m not so sure they would.

My guess is that socially conservative North Koreans will be repelled by the film’s crude humor, drug use, promiscuity, and the barely latent bisexuality of Franco’s character. They won’t appreciate the sex scenes, or even the very idea of sex between Koreans and non-Koreans. Whatever the film does for Kim Jong Un’s image, it will reenforce the state’s portrayal of Americans. It will reenforce, in other words, the image of Americans in North Korea that it will also reenforce about Californians in North Dakota.

For an opposing view from a rather well-qualified analyst, see this (actual) interview with Jang Jin Sung. And I suppose it’s fair to keep in mind that many North Koreans have seen enough foreign films to have developed a tolerance for the debasement of our culture.

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As a “South Park” fan, I have a high tolerance for crudeness, but The Interview often exceeded mine. Rogen’s lines of ching-chong pidgin English in his first conversation with his North Korean love interest were off-putting. Future critics will view this as unkindly as they view minstrel shows from a century ago. Borat exceeded my limits by a much wider margin, but the brilliance of Borat’s parody of how the world sees America (and vice versa) still managed to redeem it. One scene in Team America managed to be both the most profane thing I’ve ever seen, and probably the most brilliant since The Life of Brian. There is nothing this good in The Interview.

What redeems The Interview? Aside from its clever parody of North Korea’s foreign collaborators, the best things that can be said of it have nothing to do with its artistic merits. On a very superficial level, The Interview will inform certain demographics, in a very broad sense, about the nature of the North Korean regime. The film — or rather, the way Kim Jong Un reacted to it — has also informed many more of us that this regime is not so easily marginalized and forgotten as a distant threat only to people we don’t care about. That is far better.

The fact that Kim Jong Un didn’t want me to see The Interview was worth the six dollars I paid to see it. The fact that I don’t want Sony to lose money on this film because His Porcine Majesty censored it was worth six dollars. The entertainment value of the film was probably worth six dollars, too. Most of all, the fact that I want the next artist to feel free to make a better parody of North Korea was worth six dollars. Many others have paid far higher prices than this for freedom of expression.

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Update: At The New York Times, Choe Sang Hun interviews North Korean refugees and confirms that The Interview’s humor doesn’t translate well into their dialect. I do care what North Koreans think of the film. R. Elgin expressed one good reason for that: “[T]he only thing worse than living in a murderous, despotic country is having a bad movie made about you while being resigned to live there.”

The other reason is that North Koreans’ reactions will inform us whether to support efforts to smuggle the film into North Korea. I’m all for the principle behind such concepts as “Hack Them Back,” but now that I’ve seen The Interview, I don’t think this particular film is really the best vehicle for achieving the desired effect. The Interview has already exceeded all reasonable expectations for the social good that it would do. It has done that right here, in America, among people who’ve seen it, and also among people who haven’t, but who have heard about how North Korea reacted to it.

Choe then contaminates his story with the opinions of wilting daisies who “feared that the worsening relations between the United States and North Korea over ‘The Interview’ might derail cautious attempts for a warming of ties on the divided Korean Peninsula.” I cannot stress how little I care about the views of those who disapprove of The Interview because it might hurt Kim Jong Un’s feelings, except that it’s useful to know the extent to which these herbivorous, masochistic omegas can proliferate when society interrupts natural selection. People like this don’t say “Je suis Charlie” defiantly, but in the naive belief that it’s a safeword in the dungeon that’s closing in on them.

There is some chance that The Interview will break even. According to The L.A. Times, the film has “generated an impressive $15 million in revenue in its first four days of release online,” and “has since expanded to outlets such as iTunes and VOD services of pay-TV providers.” Since then, that revenue figure has topped the $30 million mark, which is a good start toward recouping the film’s $44 million budget. That estimate is discrepant from another estimate that it cost Sony $80 million “to make and market” the film. And it’s not like Sony should have had to spend $36 million marketing this film.

In addition to those costs, the cyberattack itself cost Sony another $100 million. Of course, it would be more reasonable to view that as the cost of not having good cybersecurity in the first place.

Oh, and I think I know who should have played Kim Jong Un instead of Randall Park. Reading some of the criticism of Cho’s performance, particularly the criticism that it was racist, illustrates how confusing our society’s rules about race have become. I can see why some people would criticize those who make light of North Korea, where there is so much suffering. But let’s make a rule that you don’t get to shout down parodies of North Korea for being tasteless if tomorrow, you’re only going to go right back to forgetting about North Korea.

U.S., S. Korea reject N. Korea’s nuke test offer

North Korea has offered to stop testing nuclear weapons — something that several U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit — if President Obama cancels annual military exercises (full KNCA article below the fold.) Which sounds something like a bank robber promising to stop robbing you if you disable your alarm system and leave the safe unlocked.

Which is almost exactly what the Korean Defense Ministry thought. To his credit, President Obama saw this for what it was:

“The DPRK (North Korea) statement that inappropriately links routine U.S.-ROK (South Korea) exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is an implicit threat,” a State Department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.


“Our annual joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea are transparent, defense-oriented and have been carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years,” the spokesperson said.

North Korea should “immediately cease all threats, reduce tensions and take the steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations,” the spokesperson said. [Yonhap]

Sounds kind of like they want to test a nuke, huh?

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