Sam Pa, 88 Queensway, KKG & Bureau 39: A case study in how China helps N. Korea evade sanctions

Last week, I highlighted Andrea Berger’s excellent post at 38 North, calling for the U.N. Security Council to sanction North Korea’s third-party enablers. Berger named some of those enablers, but I’d like to name another one of the most important ones — the Hong Kong-based 88 Queensway Group, headed by one Sam Pa, also known by his birth name “Xu Jinghua” or any of “at least eight aliases,” each with its own matching passport. According to multiple news reports, Pa has extensive connections to Chinese politicians, and with its intelligence services.

The mystery over his origins may be related to his former career as a spook. “All his life he’s worked in Chinese intelligence,” one source told the Financial Times. [The Independent]

An FT investigation last year found that Mr Pa and his fellow founders of the Queensway Group have connections to powerful interests in Beijing, including Chinese intelligence and state-owned companies. [Financial Times]

On the web, you’ll find a lot written about Mr. Pa, mostly about his notorious business dealings in Africa. Most of that reporting focuses on what could be described, conservatively, as conflicts of interest. The Economist writes that Pa’s deals “appear to grant the Queensway syndicate remarkably profitable terms,” “would be depriving some of the world’s poorest people of desperately needed wealth,” and “may also have indirectly helped sustain violent conflicts.” These include close partnerships with the governments of Zimbabwe and Angola in their diamond mines, and with Angola’s oil ministry, via an entity called China Sonangol, that was “deemed so corrupt in 2003 that Citibank closed all its accounts.”

The routine need to bribe officials is not a deal-breaker for Queensway either. Chinese investigators found that Queensway’s leaders had bribed high-level officials in Nigeria and several other countries. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

Queensway’s deals often traded Africa’s resources for promises to build infrastructure — promises on which Queensway ultimately failed to deliver. The exchange of Africa’s commodities for services has the additional advantage of avoiding the dollar system, and with good reason: the Justice Department and the SEC have opined that making a payment through a U.S.-based correspondent account gives them jurisdiction to prosecute non-U.S. companies under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Even if the feds never make an arrest, they can still forfeit assets “involved in” any predicate offense for a money laundering transaction.

Deals with Zimbabwe would be especially risky. Most of its top officials’ assets are blocked for “subverting or undermining democratic practices and institutions.” One of the Zimbabwean officials with whom Sam Pa has met, Happyton Bonyongwe, heads its dreaded Central Intelligence Organization, its internal security branch. In 2008, the Treasury Department blocked Bonyongwe’s assets for “political repression.” In 2011, opposition members of the Zimbabwean government cut funding for the CIO, but soon, according to The Economist, the CIO was “suddenly flush with cash,” and had “doubled the salaries of agents” and “acquired hundreds of new off-road vehicles and trained thousands of militiamen” who could then help “intimidate voters during next year’s elections.” The Economist adds, “Several sources who have looked at the deal concluded that the money came from Mr Pa.” According to Mailey, Pa financed the CIO, which paid Pa in diamonds, which Pa then smuggled out of Zimbabwe.

Pa and Queensway have also had extensive dealings with North Korea. According to the Financial Times, that relationship started in 2006, right after Treasury’s action against Banco Delta Asia, when most banks wouldn’t touch North Korean customers.

Shortly after establishing contact, Queensway representatives began making frequent trips to North Korea. During these visits, China Sonangol lined up a series of projects in North Korea, including the construction of a gigantic riverfront commercial district called “KKG Avenue” in Pyongyang. Sam Pa also procured 300 Nissan Xterra SUVs for Kim Jong Il’s regime, some of which had “KKG” inscribed on their exterior. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

In October 2006, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to” persons providing support for North Korea’s WMD programs.

According to The Financial Times, however, Queensway’s North Korean partner was none other than the notorious Bureau 39 of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, via a front company called Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation. Both Daesong and Bureau 39 are designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for “engaging in illicit economic activities,” including drug dealing and currency counterfeiting; managing regime slush funds; money laundering; and luxury goods imports, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As Treasury noted when it designated Bureau 39 five years ago, “deceptive financial practices” play an important role in North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation, and arms trafficking.

In March 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, the Security Council passed Resolution 2094, which tightened the financial due diligence requirements applicable to North Korea, prohibiting the provision “of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute” to Pyongyang’s WMD programs or other prohibited activities. Still, Queensway continued to send a stream of mysterious payments to North Korea.

A document request attached to a June 2013 Hong Kong court decision lists US$11,143,463 (HK$86,505,484) in payments from July 2008 to November 2009 described as “Budget for North Part” or “Kumgang Budget.” The records also describe almost US$2 million in “consulting fees” paid in relation to KKG during 2008 and 2009. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]

In April 2013, Pa flew to Pyongyang on a charter jet. Mailey quotes a Korean-language report from the Naeil Sinmum that around this time, Pa “visited North Korea up to five times … to discuss the development of an oil field in Seohan Bay.”

Mr Pa struck a deal with Daesong for an eclectic range of North Korean projects, the Asian official says, ranging from power plants to mining to fisheries. Money started to flow — although it is unclear how much flowed directly into North Korea. A ledger published in a 2013 Hong Kong high court ruling in a dispute between some of Mr Pa’s business associates refers to Queensway Group payments including “Pyongyang city bus system”, “Korea airport”, “Korea: 5,000 tons of soyabean oil” and “exhibition sponsored by the Korean consul”. There are no further details. But the list of payments also contains references to KKG. [Financial Times]

In November of 2013, shortly after the end of the Kaesong Industrial Park’s six-month shutdown, Queensway broke ground on a new Kaesong Hi-Tech Industrial Park, which adds concerns about technology transfers to other concerns previously expressed by the Treasury Department: “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” Even a South Korean official has suggested that the new high-tech annex to Kaesong “could be a violation of UN Security Council sanctions on the regime.”

As recently as last year, KKG began running a new fleet of taxis in Pyongyang, collecting all of the fares in yuan, euros, or dollars. A taxi business working on a cash basis might have a utility beyond the income it earns. As with Pyongyang’s chain of overseas restaurants, it’s a “perfect vehicle” for commingling “legitimate” cash earnings with more questionable payments, to conceal the true origin of the funds.

In the end, however, it wasn’t Sam Pa’s dealings with Pyongyang’s most notorious money launderers that cost him. Instead, in April of 2014, the Treasury Department designated Mr. Pa under its Zimbabwe sanctions program, for “illicit diamond deals” that helped the CIO evade sanctions. (On the SDN list, Pa appears under his birth name, Xu Jinghua, and several other aliases.) Then, last week, the Chinese authorities arrested Pa at a Beijing hotel, in connection with a corruption investigation into the state-owned oil company Sinopec and a former Sinopec official, who also happens to be the governor of Fujian Province.

Why did Pa fall afoul of Beijing after a life spent as a loyal and well-connected spy and arms trafficker? One possibility is that Pa was attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention, and that his arrest was a demonstration for foreign consumption. Another theory is that “[s]ome in Beijing had long been vexed by the insistence from some African rulers that Chinese groups use Mr Pa as a middleman.” Whatever Mr. Pa’s personal fortunes, to this day, 88 Queensway and KKG are still not designated by the Treasury Department.

Continue reading »

Video: N. Korea human rights conference at SAIS, with keynote by Hon. Michael Kirby

On Tuesday, I took a day off from the day job to attend an outstanding conference, organized by the International Bar Association, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rather than describe it, I’ll just give you a little weekend viewing and post the whole thing.

The first video starts with introductions by Jae Ku of SAIS, and speeches by Sen. Cory Gardner, Amb. Ahn Ho-Young, and Amb. Lee Jong-Hoon. After this, there were five panels:

9:45am-11:15am Panel I: Human Rights in North Korea Today

  • Moderator: Greg Scarlatoiu: Exec. Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); 
  • Robert Herman: VP for Regional Programs, Freedom House
  • Amb. Lee Jung-Hoon: Ambassador for Human Rights, Republic of Korea
  • Amb. Robert King: Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, State Department
  • John Sifton: Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

11:30am-1:00pm Panel II: Sanctions

  • Moderator: Sung-Yoon Lee: Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
  • Frank Jannuzi: President & CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
  • Bruce Klingner: Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, Asian Studies Center
  • William Newcomb: Former Member, UN Security Council Panel of Experts on DPRK Sanctions
  • Joshua Stanton: One Free Korea

1:00pm-2:00pm LUNCHEON AND KEYNOTE SPEECH: Hon. Michael D. Kirby, Chair, U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of North Korea.

Special thanks to Shaquille for taking this photo:


2:00pm-3:30pm Panel III: Accountability for Human Rights Violations

  • Moderator: Roberta Cohen: Non Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
  • Param-Preet Singh: Senior Counsel, Human Rights Watch, International Justice Program
  • Morse Tan: Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University College of Law
  • David Tolbert: President, International Center for Transitional Justice

3:45pm-5:15pm Panel IV: Indigenous and Cross-Border Activities Aimed at Advancing Human Rights in North Korea

  • Moderator: Suzanne Scholte: President, Defense Forum Foundation
  • Jieun Baek: Fellow, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
  • Scott Busby: Deputy Asst. Secretary, State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Kang Cheol-Hwan: President, North Korea Strategy Center
  • John Fox: Founder, I-Media
  • Kim Seong Min: Founder, Free North Korea Radio

The unsung heroine of the conference was a young woman named Sosseh, who works for the International Bar Association. Sosseh handled the organization, scheduling, and logistics of all of the events, and made it all run like clockwork.

Continue reading »

Aidan Foster-Carter on Korean “reunions”

Here’s the formula. Pick a small country. Arbitrarily cut it in half. Have the two sides fight a horrible war. Wait many decades to let grief fester. Then bring families who got separated in the chaos of division and war together again. Only not really or properly, just for a lousy three days. Thrust cameras into their faces, to capture the tears and wails as they meet – and again when all too soon they part, never to be allowed any contact ever again. That’s it. Show over.

Does this showbiz analogy offend you, dear reader? With all respect, it is the reality – above all, the reality TV aspect – that is offensive. The spectacle we have witnessed this past week at Mount Kumgang, as often before – if also, in another sense, nowhere near often enough – is, let’s face it, grotesque. This is a travesty of what reunions of separated families should be.

If you call these “reunions,” at least have the honesty to admit that they’re all terminated by re-abductions. Read the rest here.

Continue reading »

Must read: Andrea Berger calls for U.N. to sanction N. Korea’s 3d-country enablers

When I was a single man, there was a certain magazine that I only read for the interviews (I swear). Now that I’m an older, married man, I console myself with a certain website I mostly just read for the (satellite) pictures. Much of its commentary consists of echoes in the corridor of a hospice of ideas, of things Selig Harrison might have said in 1993, but here and there one finds something fresh, substantial, and useful, including sanctions expert Andrea Berger’s excellent posts.

Just as I’ve argued that there is much more that the U.S. Treasury Department could do to strengthen U.S. national sanctions, Berger writes that there is much more the U.N. Security Council could do to strengthen international sanctions on North Korea:

Numerous options for strengthening the sanctions regime still exist. As a first order of business, the Security Council could offer clarification regarding some of the grey areas which persist in the sanctions regime, as previously discussed on 38 North.

Yet clarifications alone will not alleviate the pressures mentioned above. As a more concrete step, the Security Council should take action against those non-North Korean entities and individuals who consciously facilitate North Korean proliferation by introducing targeted sanctions against some of them. Doing so would remind countries along North Korea’s proliferation pathways—those that are not the source or destination countries for illicit goods, but rather host “middlemen”—that they must ensure that their citizens and residents comply with UN resolutions when they do business with Pyongyang. [Andrea Berger, 38 North]

As I pointed out recently, one reason U.N. sanctions aren’t working very well is that the 1718 Committee isn’t acting promptly on the recommendations of the Panel of Experts, either because of Chinese obstructionism or simple incompetence. The Security Council must take Pyongyang’s next provocation as an opportunity to fix the 1718 Committee (or better yet, its last provocation). Failing this, an alliance of like-minded member states should cooperate to impose national sanctions on violators, in accordance with their respective laws, as soon as the Panel of Experts produces credible evidence of a violation.

The list that the Security Council has agreed to target is remarkably short, considering the extent of the activities prohibited: 12 individuals and 20 entities. The UN’s own Panel of Experts on North Korea has already shown that many more are known to have materially assisted either WMD or missile programs, or arms sales overseas. By contrast, the soon-to-be-disbanded sanctions list for Iran contains 43 individuals and 78 entities.

Though designations fall out of date because the sanctioned parties change or create new aliases, formally designating North Korean individuals and entities is an important step. Resolutions concerning North Korea require UN Member States to take action against the affiliates of sanctioned parties. The 2014 designation of the North Korean shipping firm Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) has already provided grounds for Singapore to charge and try Chinpo Shipping, and its owner Tan Cheng Hoe, who assisted with OMM’s shipment of arms and related material from Cuba to North Korea in July 2013. Yet these cases are rare. Many governments only act if the UN requires them to, namely by designating a new entity or individual and providing an accompanying explanation. Countries that choose to take independent action against unnamed affiliates of sanctioned parties must rely on their own information gathering, demonstrating a legally convincing link with a UN-sanctioned party. Few appear willing to do so.

Specifically, Berger calls for the U.N. to designate such enablers as Singapore-based Senat Shipping. She notes that the Panel of Experts has identified third-country enablers as “an indispensable part of the North Korean network.”

Without them, Pyongyang would find it increasingly difficult to move goods or process payments. For decades, “trusted” partners like Chinpo Shipping have regularly facilitated North Korean transactions—both legitimate and illegitimate—as part of their broader business. An earlier investigation for 38 North showed that OMM’s other Singapore-based affiliates have similarly deep-seated business relationships with the reclusive state.

More on Senat and Chinpo Shipping here. Berger also links to a news report about British arms dealer Michael Ranger. Read the rest on your own.

At (ironically enough) Johns Hopkins yesterday, I made the point that one does not ask whether a symphony should be played with a tuba or a xylophone alone. In the same way that an orchestra is made of many instruments, effective sanctions are one important element of a credible foreign policy. One can extend this analogy to say that U.S. and U.N. sanctions, like trumpets and trombones, work best in concert. Cuba is an example of how U.S. sanctions aren’t as effective without strong international support. Cuba could (barely) scrape by on euros, Swiss francs, Canadian dollars, and with help from banks that were willing to look the other way and help it move money through the dollar system illegally.

North Korea sanctions present the opposite problem. Nominally, North Korea sanctions are backed by reasonably strong Chapter VII U.N. resolutions, but lack aggressive enforcement by the main stewards of the financial system: the U.S., Europe, and other issuers of convertible currencies. An ad hoc alliance between these states, South Korea, and Japan, could join forces to squeeze a target’s finances.

They would also be able to squelch Russia’s transparent attempt to dodge sanctions with a bilateral trading house. After all, it’s difficult to imagine that the two countries could carry on much trade using the (worthless, non-convertible) North Korean won, or the plummeting ruble. 

Continue reading »

Some excerpts from “Dear Leader,” by Jang Jin-Sung

I don’t think Mr. Jang, who presented his book to me with his own hands, would mind me posting a few passages. In this one, Jang relates how, after his unlikely rise from small-town boy to court poet, he went back to his home town of Sariwon in 1994, during the Great Famine, and saw how it had transformed the town and everyone he knew.


After a meager meal of rice that his hosts has saved, grain by grain, for weeks, Jang feels guilty for his privileged life in Pyongyang, after realizing that his childhood friend is starving to death. Jang wants to ease his guilt by taking his friend to the market to buy him some shoes. Then, this happens.

IMG-20151026-00066When Jang can no longer stand watching his friends waste away, he makes an excuse to return to Pyongyang. His friend walks him to the station, confiding on the way that he, too, wants to go live in Pyongyang.


The experience of visiting Sariwon eventually destroys Jang’s faith in the system, and inspires him to begin keeping a secret journal of forbidden poetry about the suffering that he has seen, and can’t forget.

Continue reading »

Was it worth it?

Right now, somewhere in North Korea, agents of the Ministry of People’s Security and State Security Department have just finished reading this article, and are making plans to comb selected areas of His Corpulency’s kingdom for every person who might have had contact with the Christian NGO Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, during the years that it operated in North Korea. Yesterday, The Intercept reported that the Pentagon funneled money to HISG, which smuggled Bibles into North Korea in false compartments at the bottom of its aid shipments, for also agreeing to bring in gizmos to help us keep track of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Apparently, it occurred to someone in the Pentagon that it’s important to have the best possible intelligence about a rogue state’s WMD programs. Especially a state that’s willing to sell them to the highest bidder.

Now, I take it that from a certain nihilistic perspective, if there’s a greater evil than America itself, it’s giving a Bible to some poor wretch who lives in a totalitarian deiocracy that forces him to worship a mummified corpse. Granted, there’s a good ethical question to be asked as to whether putting a Bible in a stranger’s hands is more likely to endanger him than fulfill his spiritual needs, but that’s not the argument The Intercept is riding. I suppose there are ethical arguments to be made about using NGOs as cover for espionage, but it’s not as if North Korea offers a lot of alternatives. (Next time, try “journalist.” Tell ‘em Glenn Greenwald sent you.) Nor is it a practice without widespread precedent by us, by other countries, and by the North Koreans. I don’t remember hearing The Intercept complaining about the revelation by a U.N. Panel of Experts that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau infiltrated UNESCO and the World Food Program, almost assuredly for the purpose of manipulating its monitoring requirements, so that Pyongyang could continue to divert the aid and let millions of underprivileged North Koreans continue to go hungry.

What’s hardest for me to understand, however, is why The Intercept granted anonymity to its government sources and a former HISG worker, but chose to name North Korea (which was apparently just one of the places where HISG operated). Does Matthew Cole know how obsessively and ruthlessly Pyongyang pursues any hint of dissent, or any association with religious ideas? Does he know how Pyongyang uses collective punishment against three generations of the thought criminal’s family? Or the abhorrent conditions in which dissidents are executed publicly, or sent to prolonged deaths in political prison camps as horrific as anything the world has seen since the U.S. Army reached the gates of Mauthausen in 1945? Or is it that these things simply matter less than the compelling public interest value of his Big Story? 

And what compelling public interest justified the need to endanger the NGOs that are still working in North Korea — along with hundreds, if not thousands, of North Koreans, and their families? A program that the Pentagon itself voluntarily abandoned three years ago. 

~   ~   ~

Update: Chad O’Carroll raises a new question — could the whole Intercept story be bullshit anyway?

“I have never heard of HISG or Kay Heramine,” said David Austin, former DPRK Program Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mercy Corps. “None of my former NGO colleagues had ever heard of this group, nor of Kay Hiramine.”

“I have never heard of this guy, or his organization … and North Korea is a small community. We run into each other, we stay at the same hotels, we (often) go to the same churches.”

The source added that even if Heramine’s three trips had taken place with direct Pentagon involvement, they would have been of limited value.

“Three trips over several years is completely meaningless: You have no relationships, there’s no systems setup, and there’s no transportation network,” the source said.

Well, maybe. I suspect the SSD boys will want to interrogate a few dozen (or a few hundred) people before deciding that. What I still can’t rationalize is what ends justify the risk of getting a few hundred innocent men, women, and children shot, tortured, or sent to a gulag. Is unilaterally exposing and disarming the U.S. intelligence community an end that leads to anything but global anarchy and terror — and a backlash that would ultimately do great harm to our civil liberties?

Continue reading »

South Korean plastic surgeons heal the broken survivors of North Korea

Via Singapore’s Straits Times comes one of the saddest, most hopeful, things I’ve read for a long time. South Korean plastic surgeons are volunteering to help repair the abused, broken, and scarred bodies of North Korean refugees.

Since news of the free surgery programme spread, dozens of defectors have signed up, including a man who cannot breathe through his nose after it was smashed in a logging camp accident.

One woman who lost a breast to cancer hoped that reconstructive surgery would make her more comfortable with using a public bathhouse and dating again.

“I often thought of killing myself and my five-year-old son to end my misery,” said Mrs Kim Seon Ah.

The 37-year-old wants to erase the cigarette-burn marks on her head and chest inflicted by a Chinese man, the father of her son. [….]

Superintendent Kim Kyeong Suk of Yongsan police station, who helps link defectors to plastic surgeons, came up with the idea for the programme after hearing many people from North Korea say they could not find work because of their scars.

She said: “Surprisingly often, you find defectors carrying big ugly scars, like crude stitches crawling like giant centipedes on their stomach, patches of hair missing from their scalp and other signs of torture, or they wear ideological slogans tattooed on their skin.” [Straits Times]

South Korea’s skillful plastic surgeons also healed our own Ambassador, Mark Lippert, after a slashing attack by a pro-North Korean assailant, an attack that North Korean state media openly approved.

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

There is much work for South Korean volunteer doctors to do for people like Ji Seong-Ho, who lost a hand and a foot after falling from a coal train; Park Jihyun, whose “leg bears an enormous scar” from an untreated wound she suffered in a prison camp; or Han Song-Ee, whose hands are “contorted and scarred from torture,” and who wears her “wavy black hair in a careful bun” to cover “the scars on the left side of her head where she was beaten by North Korean soldiers with a wooden rod,” breaking her skull.

Continue reading »

North Korea versus the media: Any guesses?

Today, I offer you two journalists’ perspectives on North Korea’s most recent efforts to use journalists as unwitting propagandists and image-makers, and how well the journalists resisted it. First, the fiercely independent Don Kirk reports on how North Korea censored journalists who crossed the border to cover the family reunions supervised hostage visitations at Kumgang.

The problem exploded as reporters accompanying nearly 400 South Koreans on the first of two sets of reunions entered North Korea at the eastern end of the demilitarized zone that’s divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. North Korean officials spent more than an hour studying the contents of the laptops of the 29 journalists on the visit – and held on to some laptops for two or three hours after discovering material they found objectionable.

Among items they wanted expunged — besides references to human rights abuses — was anything that appeared to cast North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un in an unfavorable light or was critical of the North’s nuclear and missile programs and economic problems.

South Korean journalists, writing about the reunions from Seoul on the basis of the pool reports, including print as well as video and audio feeds, were sharply critical in private of what they saw as the weak-kneed response of the unification ministry and the South Korean Red Cross, which selects family members lucky to go on the basis of a lottery. The journalists called for the ministry to adopt a firm stance on behalf of the media in dealing with the North Koreans – a challenge that the ministry feared would complicate and compromise efforts at holding future reunions.

“The ministry merely suggested that reporters traveling to the second round on Saturday through Monday carry blank laptops.” said the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest selling newspaper. The newspaper quoted a government official as having agreed it was “ ‘a problem’ that ministry officials bent over backwards to accommodate the North’s whims instead of protesting at what many saw as chicanery.” [Don Kirk, Forbes]

Next, the BBC interviews a correspondent who was in Pyongyang to cover the 70th anniversary of its ruling party, the restrictions Pyongyang imposed on his movements, and whether the image comports with reality. The reporter relates that he was led and escorted everywhere, and couldn’t have dreamed of roaming the streets freely to ask citizens how they really felt about life there. Thankfully, some random citizens made their spontaneous emotions visible to reporters in passing journalismobiles, making all of that reporting unnecessary.

We are happy

[Next stop, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.]

But then, near the end of the interview, the correspondent raises the trite (and ironic) complaint that reporting on North Korea too often descends into caricature and propaganda. Huh. I wonder who is planting those caricatures, or that propaganda.

Admittedly, torchlight parades and neat rows of armed, goose-stepping automatons have more pornographic appeal than interviews of refugees with pixelized faces. I’m sure it’s easier to cover model kindergartenspropaganda exhibitions, and political shrines than concentration camps. It must be easier to cover a staged press conference or a regime-planted “re-defection” story than it is to investigate the truth behind it. And I’m sure that it’s far more lucrative for a wire service to sell KCNA photographs to its subscribers than it is to partner with the world’s bravest journalists to tell its readers how the vast majority of North Korean people actually live.

There’s something awfully hypocritical about journalists who bitch about the very caricatures they perpetuate — caricatures that invariably portray North Koreans as soulless automatons — while brave North Korean guerrilla journalists risk torture and death to defy the state’s limits. Or of academics and reporters who criticize “Western portrayals” of North Koreans, while largely ignoring the evidence that many North Koreans are, in fact, highly intelligent and creative beings who risk their lives to express beauty, love, humor, and even genius.

I don’t want to hear any complaints about caricatures and propaganda from the very people who, in the name of commercial expediency, personal safety, or political motivations, let themselves be led around by nose rings, or who let their minders point their lenses at the caricatures and the propaganda. If you’re tired of the caricature, stop perpetuating it. At the very least, tell the other side of the story. Research the things they tell you in Pyongyang, and juxtapose them against what the extrinsic evidence says. You might even consider the (shocking, to some) premise that behind their survival masks, the people of North Korea are as just as human as we are.

Continue reading »

Tomorrow night in Columbia, Md.: Fundraiser concert for N. Koreans in the U.S.A.

From NKinUSA, a new organization of North Korean refugees in America:

Dear Friends:
This invitation below is for the 4th Performing Arts Fundraiser Festival Benefiting North Korean Refugees organized by the NKinUSA.  Please forward to folks you know in the DC/VA/MD area — this will be a wonderful evening that will help save more lives of North Koreans trying to escape.  The concert will be 7 pm on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at Gyung Hyang Garden Presbyterian Church, 8665 Old  Annapolis Rd, Columbia, MD 21045.
The concert will include a variety of performances by first and second generation Korean youth.  Tickets are free but donations in any amount are greatly appreciated and can be made through the website or at the concert.  Even if you cannot attend the concert, you can donate to support this great cause.

It’s wonderful to see Korean-Americans so obviously embracing these refugees and lending their talents for the betterment of their brothers and sisters from the North. As the proud father of two Korean-Americans myself, as one who has taught them to embrace that part of their heritage, I see great things coming from Korean-Americans. I see what is best about both cultures in so many of them.

North Korean refugees have often had a hard time adjusting here. Their educations were often useless for the outside world, and they have the additional burdens of learning to speak English, to drive, and to learn every life skill we take for granted. They often work long, hard hours for little pay, in circumstances in which one accident can be the difference between raising the money to smuggle a loved one out of the North, or becoming an invalid. Helping North Korean refugees succeed here is one way to “engage” with North Koreans right here in your own country. Korea’s future Angela Merkel just might be among the 30,000 refugees who’ve escaped the country.

Continue reading »

6 p.m. tonight, Burke, Va.: Korean film “Winter Butterfly” and Q&A with the Director

On this site, I have followed the rise of a dissident culture among North Korean emigres, including poet, author, and public intellectual Jang Jin-Sung; artist Sun Mu; poet Lee Kay-Yeon; and playwright Jung Sung San. If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, you have a chance to see “Winter Butterfly,” the work of film director Kim Gyu-min, based on his experiences in North Hamgyeong Province, North Korea, tonight. Kim is one of a small number of North Korean emigre film directors active in South Korea.

Winter Butterfly follows the life of a mother and son who live on the edge of North Korean society, barely scraping by and getting enough to eat by collecting and selling wood. The film follows the pair as they spiral into despair. Some viewers may find parts of the film disturbing.

Winter Butterfly 1Winter Butterfly 2

Director Kim Gyu-min is originally from North Hamgyoung Province, North Korea. He escaped North Korea in 1999, and resettled in South Korea in 2001. During a career spanning more than 12 years in South Korea, Mr. Kim has directed and produced several short films and documentaries, as well as directing and producing Winter Butterfly. In addition, he has written screen plays for numerous film productions, and most importantly, Mr. Kim has participated as staff in major South Korean film and TV productions, such as ‘The High Rollers’ (2006), ‘Into the Fire’ (2010), ‘Ode to My Father’ (2014), and as an assistant director in the groundbreaking film, ‘Crossing’ (2008). He is currently working on his next major full-length feature production, ‘The Gift of Love’.

Winter Butterfly has been screened at the U.N., Hong Kong, and Spain. It premieres tonight at the Pilgrim Baptist Church, 4925 Twinbrook Road, Burke, Virginia, at 6 p.m. The film is in Korean, with English subtitles. A question-and-answer session with the director, Kim Gyu Min, will follow the screening. Here’s a schedule of the U.S. screenings:

  • 10/24 Saturday:  Screening – Host: Pilgrim Baptist Church, Burke VA, 6pm (RSVP here)
  • 10/26 Monday:  Screening – Host: Chicago Jubilee Prayer Movement Network for North Korea; Location: The Korean Church of Chicago, 8-10pm (RSVP here)
  • 10/28 Wednesday: USA Premiere Screening – Host:  The Heritage Foundation, 2-4pm (RSVP here)
  • 10/31 Saturday:  Screening – Host: PSALT NK Philly Chapter; Location: CVC (Calvary Vision Church) PA, 3:30pm (RSVP here)
  • I’m told there may be another screeing Monday, November 2, sponsored by LiNK’s chapter at the University of Virginia, but couldn’t find information to confirm that (anyone?).

Continue reading »

Congress wants answers on N. Korea and terrorism. The State Dep’t doesn’t have any.

As you may have heard somewhere, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Since I collected and published that overwhelming evidence last year, I was looking forward to the day when the State Department would be called to Congress to confront it. Today was that day, and it did not go well for the State Department.

It’s only Thursday, but I don’t think it’s too early to nominate Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations, for “worst week in Washington.” At today’s hearing, before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, an increasingly exasperated Rep. Ted Poe (R, Tex.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D, Cal.) tried to get straight answers out of Johnson about the rationale behind State’s position, its reaction to the evidence — including this federal court decision — and an explanation of how State applies the law.

I’m sure Ms. Johnson is a nice person, but I’ve been watching these hearings for about a decade now, and I’ve never seen an agency witness so ill-prepared to answer member questions. Watch it all if you can bear it. Or just watch Poe’s questions at 30 to 34 minutes in. Or Sherman’s at 46 to 50 minutes in, until he just gives up.

Perhaps it wasn’t Ms. Johnson’s fault that things went this way. She seemed to have no authority to dignify the members’ questions with straight answers, falling back on stock statements that State would have to “review the intelligence.” But then, she didn’t seem to understand either the designation or rescission processes, either. She was unfamiliar with the court decisions finding North Korea liable for acts of terrorism, so she wasn’t prepared to discuss them. She didn’t understand the consequences of an SSOT listing, including the transaction licensing requirements that would apply under 31 C.F.R. Part 596, the probability that securities issuers would have to disclose their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, or the loss of loans from international financial institutions.

It got so ugly that Sung Kim, State’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, even stepped in to save her a couple of times. The hearing ended with frustrated members having more questions than answers. Rep. Sherman wanted State to send a written explanation of how it applies Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act. Both Sherman and Poe openly contemplated whether the statute needs to be amended for clarification (it does). There will be another (classified) hearing, and without the cameras present, it could be even uglier.

The key outcome of today’s hearing, however, is that the evidence forced State to retreat from its refusal to designate Pyongyang:

The United States continues to review intelligence to determine whether to put North Korea back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, Washington’s top envoy on the communist nation said Thursday.

Amb. Sung Kim, special representative for North Korea policy, made the remark in a written statement submitted for a terrorism subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as he outlined U.S. policy on the communist nation.

“We also continually review the available intelligence to determine whether North Korea is subject to additional measures. Naturally, this includes reviewing available information to determine whether the facts indicate the DPRK should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Kim said. [Yonhap]

This was the second time Kim has been called before Congress this week. On Tuesday, Special Coordinator for North Korea Policy was at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making the case that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy:

“Holding North Korea responsible for its own choices does not mean just waiting and hoping the regime will one day come to its senses,” Kim said. “We are committed to using the full range of tools — deterrence, diplomacy, and pressure — to make clear that North Korea will not achieve security or prosperity while it pursues nuclear weapons, abuses its own people, and flouts its longstanding obligations and commitments.”

The envoy also said that the North’s bad behavior has earned no benefits from the U.S.

“Instead, we have tightened sanctions and consistently underscored to the DPRK that the path to a brighter future for North Korea begins with authentic and credible negotiations that produce concrete denuclearization steps,” Kim said. [Yonhap]

For a detailed legal analysis of why that’s complete twaddle, see this. For those interested, here’s a link to the video of the full Senate committee hearing. (House hearings make better television.)

Kim said the U.S. has also sustained pressure on the North to “increase the costs” of its destructive policy choices. He cited an executive order that Obama issued in January to impose fresh sanctions on Pyongyang in the wake of the regime’s hacking of Sony Pictures.

Yes, and so far, the Obama Administration has used that sweeping new Executive Order to sanction a grand total of 13 entities — ten low-level arms dealers (no doubt, ten other low-level arms dealers have since taken their places) and three entities that had been sanctioned years ago.

He stressed that sanctions enforcement has improved over the past two to three years, causing some pain in the North.


[Can you believe it? This was the biggest yacht he could afford!]

He added that revenues from North Korea’s illicit activities overseas have gone down as a result.

“Our financial sanctions are always more effective when supported by our partners, and so we’ve also focused on strengthening multilateral sanctions against North Korea,” he said. “We will continue to press for robust implementation of U.N. sanctions and enhanced vigilance against the DPRK’s proliferation activities worldwide.” [Yonhap]

But not to worry, says South Korea’s U.N. Ambassador. Doing approximately nothing should work just fine. Eventually.

U.N. sanctions and human rights resolutions will eventually cause pain to North Korea, even though such effects are slow in coming, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said Tuesday.

“The way I see it, sanctions work, but they work only in an accumulated form. So, you continue sanctions year after year and eventually it takes a toll,” Amb. Oh Joon said during a security seminar, pointing out doubts about the efficacy of sanctions on the North. [Yonhap]

Or so says the representative of a government that’s piping real dollars into the DPRK Central Bank’s vault through the Kaesong Industrial Park, for God-knows-what budget priorities. I don’t see how you make a coherent policy by sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. You can do one or the other, but not both. That isn’t a policy; it’s a diagnosis.

To further fuel your skepticism, recall last July’s Wall Street Journal report that the Obama Administration was “working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world.” Which hasn’t happened.

It’s not just that they seem congenitally incapable of making decisions. It’s the sinking feeling that they just don’t know what they’re doing.

Continue reading »

Ban Ki-Moon on N. Korea: U.N. must “hold perpetrators of crimes accountable” (updated)

The U.S., the EU, South Korea, and other “like-minded” governments are renewing their push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to refer “the highest official responsible” for Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

South Korea, the U.S., Britain and Japan have launched fresh efforts to adopt a similar resolution this year, the high-level source at the U.N. told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity, adding the countries have been drafting a resolution since last weekend.

The new resolution will include the ICC referral part just like last year’s resolution, the source said.

The countries have also begun collecting views from other U.N. members on what should be included in the new resolution, the source said.

“ICC referral resolutions that the U.N. has adopted so far usually don’t include the names of those responsible,” another source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s because more people could be found responsible in the course of the ICC’s investigation.” [Yonhap]

The reports — from Yonhap, UPI, and the Voice of America — quote unnamed South Korean diplomatic sources. Although the new resolution dares not speak His name, Yonhap’s source confirms that “highest official” does, indeed, mean His Corpulency.

The new resolution is also expected to include calls for punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, resolution of abductions and kidnappings while voicing concerns about torture, public executions and other types of human rights abuses in the North, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

Yonhap’s source fully expects China and Russia to block the resolution at the Security Council, but the proponents plan to push on, if only to draw more international attention to the issue. This time, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles. The UNSC’s non-permanent members now include Angola, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, all of which have close commercial or diplomatic ties to North Korea, and some of which have been implicated in using North Korean slave labor.

These developments follow the recent opening (despite Pyongyang’s threats) of the Seoul Field Office of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, and a very strong new report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur that repeated the Commission of Inquiry’s call to hold North Korean officials accountable. U.N. Member States are clearly under more pressure to answer the U.N.’s calls and lead. (In this case, however, Europe appears be doing most of the leading.)

Pyongyang responded by calling the U.N. reports “nothing more than lies from North Korean defectors, whose testimonies cannot be corroborated,” and threatening to take “the toughest counteraction” to “foil the hostile forces’ reckless ‘human rights’ hysteria.”

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

Interestingly enough, however, despite the fact that Seoul’s diplomats are talking up this effort to the international press, Pyongyang still allowed its hostage meetings — the ones Michael Kirby called “barbarous” and “extremely cruel” — to proceed as planned.

There is reason to doubt that all of this talk will amount to anything. After all, back in JulyThe Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported that the Obama Administration would focus “on human rights to further isolate North Korea.” But of course, as the General Accountability Office recently pointed out, at the stroke of a pen, President Obama could have reached the obvious conclusion that His Porcine Majesty and his top minions are officials of the government of North Korea for purposes of Executive Order 13687, and summarily blocked all of their assets, in full accordance with the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. Just like Obama’s predecessor did to the top leaders of Burma, Sudan, Belarus, and Zimbabwe, and their top minions, years ago.

But if this resolution really does go forward, it would be immensely important. Not only are we having a global debate — at long last — about human rights in North Korea, but that debate is clearly building toward a global consensus that North Korea’s leaders must be held to account for their crimes. And as favorably astonished I am about this, nothing could have prepared me for what Ban Ki-Moon said yesterday:

Frankly, when I first read this Yonhap report of Ban’s words, I simply couldn’t believe that Ban Ki-Moon — the godfather of the Sunshine Policy and patron saint of fence-sitters, who has consistently said as little as possible about human rights in the North — said this. Unwilling to post it without confirmation, I emailed a contact at the U.N., who kindly and promptly did confirm it. Here’s the whole statement.

Just about everyone on Earth missed the seismic importance of Ban’s call, especially in the context of growing calls by U.N. Member States, the Special Rapporteur, and the Commission of Inquiry to hold Kim Jong-Un individually accountable. Yes, they’re just words — a few words buried near the end of a very long report — but they represent an important step toward international consensus. They mean that the price China and Russia will pay to keep covering for Kim Jong-Un will rise. They’re an embarrassment to every government that stands in the way of action or makes itself complicit. Furthermore, I doubt that Ban would have said them if he thought it would diminish his chances in the next South Korean presidential election. Ban’s words are sure to put him strongly at odds with the Democratic Party’s hard left, at a time when the DP’s leaders are already struggling to keep them under the porch.

The mills grind slowly, but they are picking up speed.

~   ~   ~

Update, October 25, 2015: Wow:

Navi Pillay told an audience in Seoul that North Korea’s caste system discriminates against its own population and is a new example of apartheid, Voice of America reported. Pillay said North Korea should eliminate its “Songbun,” or caste system, and release the tens of thousands of political prisoners who are serving sentences after receiving unfair trials. [UPI]

Despite what these resorts say, a well-informed friend tells me that for now, the resolution is only headed for the Third Committee for now, but with the Security Council being the eventual destination. It was, indeed, Japan that has joined up with the EU to draft the resolution.

Despite protests from Pyongyang, member states of the European Union said Thursday they plan to present a draft resolution on North Korean human rights to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of October. South Korean outlet Newsis reported the announcement offers a preview of the extensive discussion of North Korea human rights abuses expected to be held before the end of the year.

The Austrian foreign ministry told press that the European Union and Japan submitted a draft resolution in September, during the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly. The ministry said it recommends the referral of the North Korea human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.

There is some question, however, whether the resolution will target Kim Jong-Un individually:

Kim Jong Un, however, would not necessarily be the target of any cases brought before the International Criminal Court. A U.N. source who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity said that the purpose of any court case would not be to pin blame on Kim Jong Un. That would be an “unreasonable interpretation,” the source said.

Continue reading »

Stage Five Watch

Over the last year, this site has carefully tracked reports about the popularity or (more often) the unpopularity of Kim Jong-Un. Throughout the summer and fall of this year, numerous reports have suggested the existence of discontent — however latent, unfocused, spontaneous, and unorganized —  among North Korea’s youth, within the elites, and even inside the military. Three recent reports have added to this evidence.

A North Korean defector said Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party is “imploding” due to Kim Jong Un’s inconsistent policies, and grievances against the leader have soared since he fully assumed power.

The former party cadre, who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity, said Kim often finds fault with “old and senile party members,” and his disparaging remarks have often placed him at odds with veteran politicians appointed by former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has said North Korean politicians with decades of experience are ineffective workers, according to the defector.

Demoralized cadres have said that “there is no future” for North Korea since Kim came to power, and pessimism is pervasive in government, according to the defector identified as “A.” The defector said the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was shocking for North Korea’s elite, and signs of conflict have emerged since Kim replaced older bureaucrats with new appointees.

The report cites Kim Jong-Un’s purges, and perceptions that his work ethic is inferior to that of his predecessors, as the cause of the loss of trust and confidence. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

Next, the Daily NK reports, via sources in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, that young North Koreans feel more apathy than loyalty toward Kim Jong-Un.

“Ever since Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korean students dramatically reduced their usage of the word ‘loyalty.’ Because the residents receive zero tangible benefits from the regime, their feeling of loyalty or appreciation is virtually nonexistent,” a source in South Pyongan reported to Daily NK on October 2nd.

This trend was cross-checked with an additional source in North Pyongan Province.

She added, “In years past, residents were a bit more susceptible to feelings of fondness resulting from the deification of North Korean leaders, but that effect has disappeared for the present generation. The students don’t blame or resent Kim Jong Un, they simply regard him as a man with high status. They are just not very interested in him.” [….]

“The students giggle and sneer when they watch propaganda documentaries that brag that, at the tender age of three, Kim Jong Un was able to spell difficult words like Kwangmyeongseong Changa (‘hopeful paean’),” she asserted. [….]

“The content of the propaganda material is so unrealistic. Practically no one buys into it these days. In the past, political interactions were secret and mysterious, but these days everyone knows that a bribe is the only thing that makes the authorities do their job. That’s when people began to think that even ’The Marshal’ Kim Jong Un is just a regular guy,’” she explained.

“That’s why residents, and students especially, continue to confidently watch illegal South Korean movies and dramas despite crackdowns by the regime. Small cracks are emerging on the regime’s iron tight grip on society and the younger generation is exhibiting significant differences in their mentality.”  [Daily NK]

As Stephan Haggard notes, His Corpulency has specifically appealed to the young for their support. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un’s sources have told him what the Daily NK‘s sources have told its reporters.

The most sensational of the three reports, from Radio Free Asia, claims that someone in Pyongsong, South Pyongan, has been defacing propaganda posters:

Posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party are being defaced across the country in a wave of popular resentment against burdens imposed in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, North Korean sources say.

Graffiti attacks against the posters were first noticed in South Pyongan province’s Pyongsong city during regional elections in July, a source in neighboring Jagang province told RFA’s Korean Service.

And despite a recently publicized order from national leader Kim Jong Un threatening harsh punishment for the attacks, “These acts of vandalism have continued until the present time,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The number of incidents is now increasing because residents of the reclusive nuclear-armed state are angered at their exploitation by the country’s central government as it prepares for elaborate celebrations, including a massive military parade, in the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he said.

On Sept. 9, a poster was found damaged in Pyongsong, with references on the poster to the country as “the victor” changed to “the defeated,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA.

Two other posters were found later that night to have also been defaced, the source said, speaking on condition he not be named.

“When news of the Pyongsong incidents spread, more cases of the vandalism of posters promoting the 70th anniversary of the [North] Korean Workers’ Party began to take place nationwide,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]

Well, maybe. I have yet to see any other reports of similar acts of protest at the times and places referred to here. There were reports over the summer that North Koreans had fought back against the confiscation of market wares, and carried out revenge attacks against the security forces. 

Contrary to all of these reports, Andrei Lankov argues that Kim Jong Un is enjoying a popularity boom, particularly among younger North Koreans. His best evidence for this is a survey of North Korean refugees’ speculation about the views of other North Koreans, except that even its authors say the survey, which sampled just 100 people, is statistically useless for the measurement of any trends. Even this is still a lot more persuasive than Andrei’s anecdotal evidence:

Popular attitudes to Kim Jong Un are nicely summed up by a young female refugee who recently said in an interview, “People around my age love him. Girls kind of like him because he is handsome. …”

I suppose attraction is a subjective thing, but it’s very hard to take this seriously.

While I don’t doubt that different individuals and demographics in North Korea have highly variable views of their government and its leadership, that discontent and dissent are different things, and that discontent and loyalty might coexist to an extraordinary degree in The Land of Suspended Disbelief, Lankov is arguing against the ponderous and noticeably expanding weight of the preponderant evidence. Unpopularity does not necessarily imply instability, but it does imply fragility. North Koreans might kill out of hatred, boredom, or simple brutality. They might die for their homeland, their country, or their race. What seems increasingly doubtful is that most of them would die for Kim Jong-Un.

Continue reading »

Congress to hold hearings on N. Korea & terrorism, human rights, nukes this week

The first hearing, entitled, “The Persistent North Korea Denuclearization and Human Rights Challenge,” will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m., before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The witnesses will be Sung Kim, the State Department’s Special Representative For North Korea Policy And Deputy Assistant Secretary For Korea and Japan, and Robert King, State’s Special Envoy For North Korean Human Rights Issues.

The second hearing will be before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, on October 22nd at 2 p.m. It will be entitled, “North Korea: Back on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List?” 

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.00.44 AM

(Coughs, clears throat, looks down at shoes.)

The witnesses will be Sung Kim and Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, State’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations. 

Continue reading »

Associated Press holds another N. Korean propaganda exhibit, this time in Pyongyang

In 2011, the AP and the North Korean government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, signed two memoranda of understanding. One of these memoranda allowed the AP to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, staffed in part by North Korean “journalists” from KCNA. The other provided for a joint commemorative photo exhibit by the AP and KCNA in a New York art gallery, “Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung.” That exhibit portrayed North Korea as a land of cherubic babies, happy people who dance in the streets, and schoolchildren who adore Kim Il Sung. In 2012, the AP promoted that exhibit heavily, but as we’ll soon see, the AP seems to have had second thoughts about its media strategy since then.

The AP has denied repeated requests by journalists to disclose those memoranda, but last year, the intrepid freelance journalist Nate Thayer obtained and published a draft, according to which AP agreed to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government.” Although this does raise concerns about AP’s commitment to its own ethical standards — “[t]he newspaper … should vigorously expose wrongdoing, duplicity or misuse of power;” “report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts;” “be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers” and avoid “[e]ven the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest” — let no one question the AP’s fidelity to its agreements with Pyongyang.

Last week, the AP again joined in a North Korean propaganda exhibit to commemorate another anniversary of political importance to the regime. This time, the event was the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party. In contrast to 2012, however, I searched in vain for any sign that AP had covered, mentioned, given interviews about, or promoted this event. So as a public service, I’ll be the second news source (after KCNA) to tell you about it. KCNA doesn’t have permlinks, so I give you screenshots. (Hat tip to a reader for this, by the way.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.15.03 PM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.21.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.31 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.22 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.12 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.20.01 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.42 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.37 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.31 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.22 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.12 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.19.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.52 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.32 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.18.18 PM

As the AP itself recently reminded us, governments use imagery of their leaders as propaganda, and when they do, journalists have an obligation to maintain their independence and demand the right to look behind the stage management, without fear or favor. The occasion for this was when the Obama White House passed out photos of the President taken by its own photographer, expecting news services to simply publish them.

The AP has a policy against using White House handout photos unless they are of significant news value and were shot in places to which the press does not expect access, such as private residence areas of the White House. The presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors have urged their members to stop using White House handout photos and video, saying they amount to propaganda. [AP]

At the time, the AP’s Vice President and Director of Photography, Santiago Lyon, even wrote a New York Times op-ed under the provocative title, “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control,” expanding on the importance of journalists challenging government control of the imagery readers are allowed to see:

The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.

By no stretch of the imagination are these images journalism. Rather, they propagate an idealized portrayal of events on Pennsylvania Avenue. [….]

If you take this practice to its logical conclusion, why have news conferences? Why give reporters any access to the White House? It would be easier to just have a daily statement from the president (like his recorded weekly video address) and call it a day. Repressive governments do this all the time. [NYT]

Indeed they do. While I have no information to suggest that the AP has republished these particular photographs — rather, it seems to prefer that we didn’t notice at all — it has repeatedly published photographs from KCNA photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, who is detailed to the AP. The AP’s corporate leadership has, more than once, allowed the North Korean government to publicly associate it with propaganda photographs of its leader. I’ll give a few last quotes from the Associated Press Media Editors standards:

Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.

The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy.

It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

Yet again, foreigners come to Pyongyang certain that their presence will be a liberalizing influence. Yet again, it is not Pyongyang’s standards that change; instead, the foreigners subordinate their own standards to Pyongyang’s, and we’re left asking, “Who changed who?”

More posts on the Associated Press’s troubling compromises with North Korea, here.

Continue reading »

U.N.’s 1718 Committee does NADA about N. Korean missile agency; Update: Membership revoked!

NK News is reporting that North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, whose name yields the unfortunate acronym “NADA,” has been accepted as a member of the International Astronautical Federation, a group that describes itself thusly:

Founded in 1951, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) is the world’s leading space advocacy body with 246 members from 62 countries on six continents including all leading agencies, space companies, societies, associations, universities and institutes worldwide.

Hat tip to Chad O’Carroll for the link. As O’Carroll concedes, however, the source of his story is “an attendant of an annual congress event organized by the federation,” and the IAF itself hasn’t confirmed this. Let’s hope it backs off promptly, because in a report published earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with international sanctions on North Korea found extensive links between NADA and North Korea’s banned missile programs, and recommended that NADA be designated and sanctioned by the Security Council.

First, the Panel’s findings:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.02 AMScreen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.15 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.33 AM Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.59.01 AM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.59.20 AM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.59.35 AM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.58.49 AM

Now, the Panel’s recommendations:


Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.00.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.01.30 AM

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.01.42 AM

A designation would require all U.N. member states to immediately freeze all of NADA’s assets, and to expel its representatives from their countries.

As conspicuous a blunder as this is on IAF’s part — assuming this isn’t just the statement of one rogue member — the systemic problem it points to is the failure of the U.N. bureaucracy to act on the consistently superb reports of its own Panel of Experts. Eight months after the publication of the Panel’s latest report, the U.N.’s 1718 Committee, which is responsible for approving the designations, still hasn’t designated NADA. Meanwhile, NADA is free to pursue sensitive technology and international legitimacy, and to conceal its funds and operations.

Nor is this the first time the 1718 Committee has dropped the ball. It took the 1718 Committee a full year after the Chong Chon Gang incident to designate Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean shipping company that was smuggling MiGs and missiles from Cuba to North Korea, in flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions. Each time the 1718 Committee is inexcusably slow in reacting to Panel of Experts reports, it becomes more apparent that it is a weak link in U.N. sanctions enforcement, either for political reasons, or because of the simple incompetence of its management.

Either way, as Security Council members continue to consider possible responses to a North Korean missile or nuclear test, they should be thinking about more than passing new sanctions. New sanctions on financial messaging, shipping, reflagging, air cargo, and insurance might be useful, but the Security Council should also focus on making the existing sanctions work better.

The obvious alternative is to simply do away with the 1718 Committee entirely, although that would depart from standard U.N. procedure. This panel-committee formulation isn’t unique to North Korea. A similar committee was also set up to approve Iran (and other) sanctions designations. The political reality is that member states will want to retain some control over designations. In that case, why not allow the recommended designations of the Panel of Experts to go into effect within 30 days, unless a majority of members of the 1718 Committee vote to disapprove them? That would have the advantage of forcing China and Russia to engage in their obstructionism more openly.

Another suggestion, which isn’t mutually exclusive with the last one, is to do what the Security Council’s resolutions did in the case of Iran — require the Committee to report to the Security Council regularly on its enforcement actions. That will ensure that the P-5 keep a careful eye on the enforcement of the sanctions resolutions, and hold the 1718 Committee accountable for the slovenly pace of its actions.

(By the way, I’d like to give my special thanks to the U.N., proprietor of possibly the world’s worst website, for effing up all of its hyperlinks and all of my bookmarks to its committees and designations. Sanctions geeks may wish to update their bookmarks with the U.N.’s consolidated sanctions list.) 

In the end, however, it will be up to individual member states to impose national sanctions in appropriate cases, without waiting for a dilatory U.N. Committee. That’s not only plausible, it has happened. The EU sanctioned the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which is not designated by the U.N., and the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, also not sanctioned by the U.N. A good first step would be for the U.S. and the EU to harmonize their own designations mutually. Next, they should seek the cooperation of Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and other key middle powers holding North Korean property. Finally, they can reach smaller states, such as those that reflag North Korean ships and buy its weapons, and convince them to shun North Korea’s business. That strategy of progressive diplomacy will make it harder for the Chinese and the Russians to succeed in their obstructionism.

~   ~   ~

Update: Well, well. It seems after the IAF got some mail from concerned citizens in the U.N. Panel of Experts and the South Korea government, they revoked NADA’s membership. Chad O’Carroll has the rest of the story.

Continue reading »

The first time I had to bury a person I was fighting back my tears, but another inmate …

whose name was Bok-soon, who was in charge of herbal medicine, told me to spit and trample on the corpse. I asked her why, and she said it was a kind of ritual to drive out the ghost of the dead person so they would not come after me. It told the ghost that ‘I won’t die here like you’. That day on the way back, I was weeping alone. One of the male inmates, who was making wooden boards from a log to give to the warders who sold them for extra money, asked me why I was crying. He warned me not to let anybody see me cry as I will be punished and get beaten up. He said that female inmates were actually better off as they could be buried in the ground. The dead bodies of male inmates often got stuffed inside the boilers and burned with coal.

From the memoir of Kim Seon-I, a survivor of North Korea’s camps.

Continue reading »

The more North Korea trades, the more it reforms, right? Wrong.

Yesterday, I questioned the premises of economic engagement with Pyongyang — that Pyongyang is socialist, that trade is capitalism, that capitalism inexorably erodes socialism, and that capitalism (least of all, state capitalism) is inherently liberal and peaceful. I argued that Pyongyang adopted state capitalism decades ago, and that it has grown steadily more menacing and repressive ever since. It feigns socialism to feed our false hopes of reform and arguments against sanctions, to tempt investors, to recruit apologists who embrace its socialist pretenses, and to justify the economic totalitarianism it uses to starve and isolate the vast majority of its subjects. Pyongyang doesn’t practice socialism; it imposes it on the underclasses. The underclasses are the only ones who can change that.

Sincere advocates of changing North Korea by engaging Pyongyang may accept that their best intentions didn’t work, yet still not lose heart. If they’re willing to rethink engagement in terms of engaging the people rather than the state, they’ll find more reason than ever to believe that change is in sight. For example, it now seems likely that within the next five years, anyone, anywhere in the world, will be able to access the internet. The signal might come from Google’s Project Loon, or Facebook’s, or maybe some combination of both. Universal internet access will shatter Korea’s virtual DMZ; eventually, it can break the physical one, too. The day is coming when North Koreans will be able to attend South Korean classes, sermons, movies, clinics, lectures, and family reunions. There can be a revolution in the people-to-people engagement that the Sunshine Policy promised, but couldn’t deliver, if South Koreans have the vision and the courage to weave a virtual Ho Chi Minh Trail of clandestine communication from South to North. North and South Koreans can use this network to rebuild the North’s civil institutions from the ground up, to establish shadow governments, to build the capacity to resist the state’s most repressive policies, and to begin the process of reconstruction.

Today, however, the South Korean government remains too timid to broadcast to its northern countrymen on AM radio. My friend (and now, National Assemblyman) Ha Tae Kyung, interviewed by the Daily NK, calls for Seoul to make broadcasting a part of its unification policy, which at present desperately lacks a Phase 2. Ha wonders how the Blue House and the Unifiction Ministry can be serious about reunification when they haven’t called for radio broadcasts to the North, broadcasts that could play an important part in the cultural and social reunification.

Of course, Pyongyang will try to enforce the poverty and isolation of its subjects as if its survival depends on it. Just as it cracked down on its northern border, tracks down and arrests the users of Chinese cell phones, and sends distributors of foreign media to the gulag, it will try to arrest, imprison, terrorize, or kill anyone who listens to South-to-North broadcasts, or who makes inter-Korean phone calls. Yet the right policies on our part can give the people a fighting chance.

This picture taken on April 6, 2013 shows a Chinese border guard standing on a look out post by the bridge that crosses the Yalu river to the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the city of Dandong. The US is pressuring China's new President Xi Jinping to crack down on the regime in North Korea or face an increased US military presence in the region, The New York Times reported late April 5, 2013. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

[STR/AFP/Getty Images, via WaPo]

Isolating a country costs money, and with the decline in the Chinese economy, Pyongyang may be having more difficulty finding that money. The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale cites Chinese trade data showing that “[t]he value of North Korean exports to China … fell 9.8% through August from the year-earlier period … accelerating from a 2.4% decline last year.” Meanwhile, another report confirms what I’ve long suspected — that the security forces are funding themselves through some of this trade:

North Korea’s feared State Security Department (SSD) has established a new “trade organization” tasked with earning foreign currency from China, according to sources who say the branch will likely use its broad powers to tap into channels used by the impoverished nation’s subsistence smugglers.

The SSD, also known as the Ministry of State Security, set up the organization “very recently” with its headquarters in the capital Pyongyang and several satellite offices in “local areas” of North Korea, a source from North Hamgyong province, along the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“While the whole nation is aware of the shortage of foreign currency in North Korea, it seems strange to establish a new trade organization under the SSD, which traditionally monitors the population’s activities to ensure they do not contravene the rules of the regime,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, after recently visiting China.

In addition to keeping an eye on the political actions of the public in North Korea, the SSD’s secret police force keeps tabs on North Koreans who travel to and from China, as well as telephone communications in border areas.

Sources said the move will likely have implications for North Koreans who subsist on Chinese currency they earn by running smuggling operations over the border. [….]

A source based in China who maintains a close relationship with North Koreans earning foreign currency there told RFA that a “large number of people belonging to the SSD” had been dispatched across the border since spring to “monitor and control the activities of North Korean residents” in the country.

“Since they are ostensibly working for foreign currency, they are called ‘trade representatives,’ just like others [who have been sent to earn cash for the regime],” said the source, who also declined to provide his name. [Radio Free Asia]

The regime’s use of trade to finance this crackdown sets up a zero-sum competition between state capitalism and free-market capitalism, the kind that has genuine potential to transform North Korean society. The SSD’s profiteering is neither a quiet capitalist revolution nor a sign of reform that is washing away the foundations of socialism. It pays for the enforcement of isolationism, and makes North Korea more unequal, oligarchical, and totalitarian (read: fascist). This may also be true of Pyongyang’s other trade relations, too, but we can only guess, because its finances are so opaque that not even the Treasury Department knows how it uses the proceeds.

In addition to broadcasting and people-to-people engagement, then, sanctions targeting the SSD’s assets are an important part of a policy to protect North Koreans from censorship and help them liberalize their society. By starving the security forces of cash, anti-censorship sanctions would deny the SSD the means to equip and pay its officers. They would foster the corruption that facilitates smuggling, and preferentially support engagement through independent free markets. The use of sanctions to fight censorship and support freedom of expression is nothing new. Treasury has anti-censorship sanctions against Iran to “facilitate communications by the Iranian people.” Why not North Korea?

Ha is dismissive of sanctions, perhaps because he lumps all kinds of sanctions together, and (like most people) doesn’t know the significant gaps in their enforcement. It’s a common myth that sanctions against Pyongyang are still strong, although I’ve previously debunked this myth in detail. Ha argues that the trade sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang in 2010, after the attack on the ROKS Cheonan, haven’t made Pyongyang apologize or come to the negotiating table. He concludes that “economic sanctions don’t have effects, but broadcasts do.”

Respectfully, I think Assemblyman Ha is missing a few key points, including the role sanctions can play in protecting his North Korean listeners. First, the lifting of these trade sanctions has been at the top of Pyongyang’s list of demands since 2010. If it can be argued that loudspeaker propaganda was effective because Pyongyang sounded desperate to switch it off, the same can be argued of the bilateral trade sanctions.

Second, by lumping all “sanctions” together, Ha overlooks what is beyond serious dispute — that financial sanctions hit Pyongyang where it hurt most:

Practically overnight, banks throughout the region, even in China, began turning away or throwing out North Korean government business. By this one simple act, Mr. Zarate writes, “the United States set powerful shock waves into motion across the banking world, isolating Pyongyang from the international financial system to an unprecedented degree.” [….]

Then, Mr. Zarate writes, a North Korean representative contacted the United States, seeking relief from the 311. At the State Department’s insistence, negotiations began in Beijing, and appeared to end when a Chinese bank volunteered to handle a measly $25 million of North Korean money the authorities in Macau had frozen.

Mr. Zarate writes that “the amount of money wasn’t the issue” and that the North Koreans “wanted the frozen assets returned so as to remove the scarlet letter from their reputation.”

Then, he says, something amazing happened. Despite its government’s support of North Korea, the Chinese central bank refused to approve this solution, indicating that it, too, wanted nothing to do with a bank hit by a 311. “Perhaps the most important lesson was that the Chinese could in fact be moved to follow the U.S. Treasury’s lead and act against their own stated foreign policy and political interests,” he writes. “The predominance of American market dominance had leapfrogged traditional notions of financial sanctions.” [N.Y. Times Review, “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate]

Third, the May 24, 2010 sanctions are narrow sanctions with narrow purposes — they exclude Kaesong, after all. Ha has a vision for reunification and has articulated it; Park Geun-Hye doesn’t and hasn’t. Still, even Park’s limited goals can be valid ones. Trade sanctions deter Pyongyang by imposing a (small) price for murdering South Koreans with premeditation and malice aforethought. They’re also consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which prohibit member states from providing “public financial support for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade) where such financial support could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.” South Korea voted for those sanctions when it was a member of the Security Council. The other members of the Security Council approved them, in large part for South Korea’s own protection. Seoul can’t very well ignore them now.

We now have evidence that regime-controlled trade funds the oppression that isolates North Koreans, retards change, and helps Pyongyang repress the people who would listen to the broadcasts Ha supports. If the world wants North Korea to change, it has to give free markets — North Korea’s only independent institutions, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival — a fighting chance to survive. As long as Pyongyang’s oligarchy has unrestricted access to our financial system, it will use it to isolate and repress its people. We should seek to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power away from the ones with the guns and food toward those without. That means giving North Korea’s people information and access to markets. That, in turn, means blocking the funds that pay for Pyongyang’s policy of isolation and oppression.

Continue reading »
1 2 3 4 420