Why China and North Korea want Park Geun-hye gone

Nearly all of the news from Korea this week is about the scandal that has paralyzed President Park Geun-hye’s presidency, and may even end it. Going by Alastair Gale’s report in The Wall Street Journal, the scandal has three main elements, along with some other (mostly) unspoken elements.

First, Park has said that her “friend, Choi Soon-sil, had helped her prepare speeches early in her presidential term.” She has since apologized for this, although I can’t see why. Most American presidents have had confidants outside of government from whom they sought advice. Some presidents still call on members of think tanks to advise on specialized issues, and call on people outside of government to break through the insulation of presidential bureaucracy and security. It seems like just a week ago when everyone was talking about left-wing politician and former presidential candidate Moon Jae-in’s choice of confidential advisor: Kim Jong-il. So far, that seems like the greater scandal to me, but what do I know?

Second, “[a] South Korean broadcaster has alleged Ms. Choi was also given access to confidential government documents.” Ms. Choi has denied this. That’s obviously wrong no matter who does it — whether it’s Park Geun-hye, David Petraeus, or Hillary Clinton. Whether the evidence actually supports that charge, what the documents were, at what level they were classified, and whether “lock her up” is an appropriate response to whatever disclosure occurred remains to be seen. In the current third-world state of U.S. politics, most voters here no longer consider that disqualifying. (Given the alternative, I can’t say I do, either.)

Third, “Ms. Choi, 60 … is also the subject of an investigation by prosecutors into possible corruption at two charitable foundations.” Ask a Korean adds that news stories accused Choi of “running a massive slush fund [that] extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations” and used her influence to get her daughter admitted to Ewha Womens’ University. I’ve yet to see any evidence that Park knew about this or used her influence to impede an investigation, or to profit from or support Ms. Choi’s effort. That would be serious if proven, but it would hardly be unprecedented in South Korea. Recall that when former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide, he was also embroiled in a bribery scandal involving his brother. As I said then, “For seasoned Korea watchers, presidential corruption scandals have all the zing and novelty of Kennedys driving drunk.” This is not to excuse anything, but to put it into context.

Then, there is also the weirdness of the allegation that Ms. Choi’s father was the founder of a religious cult. I’ve seen no proof that Park was an adherent of this cult, but religious beliefs ought to be a personal matter, absent evidence that they exerted an irrational or subversive influence on a leader’s policies. (See, e.g., Obama Muslim rumors.)

Lastly, there’s been some innuendo in circulation about whether Ms. Park may have been romantically involved with either Ms. Choi or her father. South Korea’s culture is very conservative on such matters; I’m not. I don’t give a damn whether President Park is attached or unattached, gay or straight, or neither. Here in the U.S., there are similarly nasty whispering campaigns about Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin (if you care, google it; I won’t link it). If I saw evidence that those rumors were true, I’d wish them happiness, especially if they each divorced their no-good husbands and normalized their relationship through marriage. (Alas, Mrs. Clinton’s nature is to connive in grand conspiracies to conceal petty crimes, or matters that merely create negative perceptions.) Otherwise, I wouldn’t care until someone linked the relationship to the disclosure of classified information, corruption, or vulnerability to blackmail.

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The greatest weirdness of South Korean politics, however, is how quickly these political firestorms seem to emerge from nowhere, and sometimes, from thin air. Also, without a single exception that comes to mind, they always target those hostile to Chinese and North Korean interests. A recent list includes the Sewol Ferry tragedy, the rumor that U.S. beef would cause Mad Cow disease, the Dok-do obsession, and the anti-American rage over the accidental death of two young girls in 2002. Of these, the slowness of the government’s response to the ferry disaster seems to be a legitimate scandal. The Mad Cow rumor was a myth spread by sloppy and biased journalists; Dok-do is already in South Korean possession; and the 2002 accident, while tragic, was an accident caused by defective equipment and involving a few individuals.

The fact that those who are opposed to Park’s North Korea policies have seized on the scandal, sometimes conflating rumor, innuendo, and fact, further fuels my skepticism. Some of the same observers who are quick to allege anonymously sourced NIS whispering campaigns about palace intrigues in Pyongyang now cite mysteriously sourced reports from The Hankyoreh, the adolescent bastard child of the Rodong Sinmun and The Daily Mail.

Although there is extensive evidence of North Korean influence operations inside South Korea, I’ve seen no evidence linking them to this specific case. I don’t know the precise origin of the reports that led to this scandal. Recently, however, Park’s North Korea policy has become a threat to the survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime. That’s why I hope Park survives. She’s doing what her predecessors should have done for years — she’s acting like a president for all Koreans, including those trapped behind the DMZ.

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For more than a decade before her election, Park Geun-hye was the candidate of Sunshine Lite — calculating, triangulating, scripted, and cautious. She was a Korean Hillary Clinton — both inspiring and uninspired toward anything but the will to power. She seemed so numbed to righteous outrage that not even the murder of her own mother on national television made an apparent impression on her politically convenient appeasement of Pyongyang. She was calm to such a fault that she seemed detached and aloof during the Sewol disaster, the worst moment of her presidency.

There were moments that gave me hope — the glimpses of vision and principle when she addressed Congressor during the first Kaesong shutdown, and even after the admittedly flawed talks after last year’s mine incident. But until January of this year, Park always regressed to her politically cautious mean. Ideology aside, I can’t think of a Korean president who was less temperamentally predisposed to emerge as a bold, visionary leader of a Korean nation. Against all of the odds, Park Geun-hye enters the autumn of her presidency of South Korea by campaigning for the presidency of Korea, by inviting her brother and sister Koreans, who were unfortunate enough to have been born north of the DMZ, to “come and find a new home.” 

In recent months, Park has also concern-trolled Kim Jong-un about the instability of his regime, accused that regime of “driving the lives of its citizens into a hell through the brutal reign of terror,” and promised the North Korean people better lives and equal treatment after reunification. She has vowed to support more efforts to get outside information into North Korea. She acknowledges that her government must do more to support the 30,000 refugees who’ve already arrived. She has even openly called for North Korean soldiers and civilians to defect:

“We know the brutal reality that you are facing now. The international community is also seriously concerned about the North Korean regime’s human rights abuses.”

Promising that the South will do its best to end the North’s provocations and inhumane rule, Park said, “We will leave the path open for the North Korean people to find hope and life. Come to the free land of the Republic of Korea at any time.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Who is this person, and what has she done with Park Geun-hye? If this is the voice of Choi Soon-il, President Park’s alleged svengali, then I nominate her for Unification Minister. More of this, please! It should go without saying that the usual suspects hate such talk. For obvious reasons, North Korea hates it. It also hates Park’s closure of Kaesong, her diplomatic campaign to cut off Pyongyang’s overseas arms trade and labor exports, and her implementation of a new North Korea human rights law. It has reacted with an intensity of nasty, sexist invective it reserves for strategies that threaten the regime’s very survival.

“It’s ridiculous and foolish that Park Geun-hye flutters her feet to smear our dignified leader’s reputation with infamy by persisting hallucinations in her head as an established fact and mentioning a reign of terror as well as starvation and repression,” Rodong reported on Monday.

“Park Geun-hye has the gall to ignore the reality within her grasp and to doggishly and overtly utter ravings as saying the land of freedom and encouraging defection,” the article continued. “There is no such a barefaced and impudent bitch elsewhere.” [NK News]

(Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem were not available for comment.)

China hates this talk because it prefers North Korea just the way it is, and because many of the North Koreans who answer Park’s call to defect might try to transit through China’s territory. Park (joined by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations) has responded by trying to assuage China’s fears about a reunified Korea. China also resents Park for agreeing to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea.

South Korea’s anti-anti-North Korean left also hates such talk, because North Korea hates it. Its key members ask how Park would deal with the consequent mass refugee exodus they accuse her of inviting. Park acknowledges that South Korea must be ready for this. But a mass exodus would only happen coincidentally with regime collapse, and if South Korea isn’t prepared for that by now, much responsibility must lie with the left itself. Under Roh Moo-hyun, the Blue House refused to contemplate or plan for a collapse. Then, there are the reactions like that of People’s Party leader Park Jie-won, who in his best KCNA imitation, accused Park of making “a proclamation of war,” and the Minjoo Party says she’s walking the “warpath.”

Well! Perhaps reporters should make a habit of asking Mr. Park to characterize the things North Korean state media say about South Korea, or about President Park, on any given day. (See, e.g., “barefaced and impudent bitch,” or this, or this, or this.)

Whether Park survives or not, if she continues to speak calmly and cogently of universal humanitarian principles and Korea’s dream of nationhood, she may yet win the national argument for which Koreans, north and south, are so long overdue. That makes her a threat to powerful interests, both within Korea and beyond its borders. That conversation doesn’t have to end when Park’s troubled presidency does. Polled in isolation, Park’s North Korea policies have been popular. To keep up the argument for a “tough love” policy toward North Korea may be the best way for her to recast her legacy. After all, who would have predicted Richard Nixon’s rehabilitation as an elder statesman in 1974? There may be nothing better Park can do to build that legacy than to keep talking about the lives and rights of North Koreans, and about North Korea policy, for years to come. 

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A study in media bias: Clapper said N. Korea diplomacy, not denuclearization, is a “lost cause.”

Earlier this week, I agreed with what James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, actually said about North Korea, before I criticized Clapper for saying it. Now, it’s the media’s turn. Media, if you’re reading this, most of you did an awful job reporting that story. Semantics are your business, so I’m going to get semantic here, starting with Clapper’s full quote, in context. All emphasis mine:

Q: You talked about the assessment of threat in North Korea. I’m curious if the community has ever been asked to assess what negotiations can do to suspend North Korean nuclear programs. If not, why not? And if so, if you could share with us any of that assessment.

CLAPPER: Well, I had my own brief foray into diplomacy with the North Koreans in November 2014, and it just proved to me I made the right decision not to try to be a diplomat. (Laughter.)

ROSE: Why was that?

CLAPPER: Well, in fact, it was The New York Times that wrote an article about why on earth would you send the DNI on a sensitive diplomatic mission like—where the purpose was to retrieve two of our citizens who were imprisoned under hard-labor conditions. And the diagnosis by The New York Times was gruff, blunt, a relic of the Cold War—ideal for North Korea. (Laughter.)

I would say, in answer to your question, I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival. And I got a good taste of that when I was there about how the world looks from their vantage. And they are under siege and they are very paranoid. So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them.

I do think—

Q: Suspending the program.

CLAPPER: I do—I’m sorry?

ROSE: Suspending.

Q: Suspending—

CLAPPER: Well, the best we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap. But they’re not going to do that just because we ask them. (Laughter.) There’s going to have to be some significant inducements. What does bother me a bit is that we don’t capitalize on our great weapon, which is information. And that’s something they worry about a lot. And their reaction to the loudspeakers being activated along the DMZ or the dropping of leaflets by NGOs over North Korea, and they go nuts when that happens. And so that is a great vulnerability that I don’t think we have exploited. But right now we’re kind of stuck on our narrative, and they’re kind of stuck on theirs.

ROSE: So an Iranian kind of negotiation that would put a cap or suspend is not—your experience in diplomacy is that it’s not likely to happen.

CLAPPER: I don’t think so.

ROSE: And what about a kind of Stuxnet sabotage?

CLAPPER: What about it?

ROSE: Kind of sabotage of their facilities?

CLAPPER: Well, I’m not going to go into that. (Laughter.)

[James Clapper, Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 25, 2016]

But the quote that nearly all readers saw was rendered thusly.

This is, so far, at least a reasonably faithful interpretation of Clapper’s out-of-context statement, because it preserves the critical word “get,” meaning “induce” or “persuade.” Clapper is really saying that Kim Jong-un would almost certainly not agree to disarm voluntarily. Hopefully, an extraordinarily careful reader will grasp that meaning.

But by losing the word “negotiations” from the question and “diplomacy” from the first part of the answer, this rendering loses essential context, and broadens the meaning to mean that all inducements are sure to fail. That is not what Clapper said. After conceding that Kim Jong-un won’t agree to give up or cap his nuclear weapons programs “just because we ask him,” Clapper then says that we’ve underutilized “our great weapon,” regime subversion through information. Almost every reporter missed this, with only a few exceptions:

It isn’t clear whether Clapper is referring to the use of information as a coercive inducement or a tool for overthrowing the regime, but what is clear is that Clapper does not believe denuclearization by means other than talks is “a lost cause.” But when the irresistible force of a salacious, bias-confirming quote meets the immovable object of a 140-character limit, the resulting collision disfigures the speaker’s words beyond recognition, and misinforms people who matter, because they vote, and because they make national policy:

By now, the meaning of Clapper’s words has broken free of its moorings and is now adrift in the heavy surf of a tweet storm. But in what sense does this have the same meaning as what Clapper said? It depends, I suppose, on your biases. If you see negotiations and agreed frameworks as the only way to stop Kim Jong-un from nuking up, there is no difference. But if that’s how you see the problem, you’re obviously new to this site, and what’s more, that bias puts you at odds with either much, most, or all of the entire United States Congress (which broadly reflects the sentiments of the American mainstream).

Of course, some of the reporters who have covered the North Korea story have revealed strong biases toward “engagement” and agreed frameworks (read: appeasement), so an accurate rendering of Clapper’s conclusion would do violence to their narratives. And so, the slow-motion collision just keeps twisting the metal and fiber of Clapper’s gaffe, beyond the point of recognition, a bit more with each retweet.

And we have now twisted the original quote into something with a very different meaning, and with dramatically broader and more worrisome policy implications than the original statement. North Korea is a nuclear power! Game over! Get used to it! A billion or so people now believe North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear power because sloppy journalists misquoted an unguarded and careless comment.

I’m sure plenty of reporters believe this to be true. If current trends continue, they’re right. I’m sure plenty of them will find smug validation in believing it. But 140 characters …. That’s no excuse. Reporters should know by now that 99.7% of readers are never going to read the story itself. For whatever reason, they’ve misquoted and distorted a statement with profound policy implications.

That has led us to a lot of tortured efforts at “cleanup” by a deservedly embarrassed administration.

A few of the sources that got the story at least partially right in the text of their stories still got it wrong in their headlines and tweets. Too often, the text becomes a disclaimer, while headlines and tweets propel the narrative. The masses believe everything reporters say, and they also disbelieve everything reporters say, because eventually, every newspaper reader reads a story where she has some superior personal knowledge of the facts, and she draws broad conclusions about the entire profession of journalism from the errors she spots.

My favorite example would have to be how The New York Times and every last reporter got the story wrong on North Korea sanctions for years — some of them still get it wrong — without bothering to read or investigate what the law really says. In that case, there were no exceptions to this collective failure — not one! — but with the Clapper story, some reporters did better than others. I empathize with those I’ve unjustly tarred with a broad brush; after all, lawyers have the same problem. But then, reporters do a lot more wailing that the public has no faith in them anymore. Is it any wonder why?

Now, obviously, the media isn’t wholly to blame for this woeful predicament. Clapper is to blame for going off message, straying outside his lane, and shooting his mouth off. The Obama administration — and its predecessors — are to blame for apathy, inattention, policy drift, a common failure to grasp the regime’s pathology, and opting for the easy choice of appeasement year after year. The South Koreans are to blame for thinking they could solve the problem by feeding the beast that may yet devour them. (Update: The blob is responsible for giving presidents decades of risibly awful advice, and yes, Congress is responsible for waiting until the 11th hour to overthrow a clueless President and State Department and seize the levers of policy.) And above all, the little gray men in Pyongyang are to blame for being homicidal assholes.

Still, media, would it kill you to take the trouble to get the story right, rather than trying to gently herd us as if you’re so many benevolent shepherds? If it’s too much for us to ask that you tell us the truth, it’s too much for you to ask that we trust you. You often speak of the critical role you play in democratic societies. My years of experience in government, in Congress, and supervising the litigation of cases in federal court have taught me that you’re a fourth branch of government — the one with the least accountability to the public, but with the most control over the other three. You see the importance of your responsibility. So stop failing us, because the consequences of your failure could not be more obvious.

(Update: Since we’re being semantic, I changed the post title after publication, to improve its accuracy.)

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This time, FATF’s warning on North Korea really is a big deal

It has now been an inexplicably long four months since the Treasury Department announced its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to designate North Korea as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, in which it stated its intent to cut off North Korean banks’ access to correspondent accounts in the dollar financial system. Under section 311 of the Patriot Act, however, such a cutoff only becomes legally enforceable after Treasury publishes its final rule, which Treasury still has not done, and should have done months ago. To understand why Treasury’s action is potentially such a big deal, read this or this, or (if you haven’t already) read about how it affected a bank in Macau that Treasury accused of laundering money for North Korea in 2005. 

Needless to say, Treasury would not have taken that action had Congress not forced its hand in section 201 of the NKSPEA. Shortly after the passage of the NKSPEA, the U.N. Security Council enacted a similar provision in UNSCR 2270, giving that cutoff the backing of a global legal mandate.

Although the U.S. Treasury Department is the capo di tutti capi of the world’s financial regulators, it is also the case that Treasury can’t effectively isolate a target without global cooperation (case in point: Cuba). Hence, the supreme importance of Global Financial Action Task Force, one of the few international organizations that actually works. FATF is a consortium of industry and government regulators, and critically, it isn’t under U.N. control or subject to a Chinese veto. Originally established to harmonize international money laundering regulation and prevent illicit finance from taking advantage of weak governance in certain jurisdictions, FATF has played a growing role in suppressing terrorist and proliferation finance since September 11, 2001. Most governments take its warnings seriously, and those warnings were an important part of why Iran sanctions worked.

For years, FATF has also issued warnings that jurisdictions should take “countermeasures” against illicit North Korean finance. In that regard, much of the language in FATF’s warning is nothing new.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

The FATF remains concerned by the DPRK’s failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF urges the DPRK to immediately and meaningfully address its AML/CFT deficiencies. Further, FATF has serious concerns with the threat posed by DPRK’s illicit activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and its financing.

The FATF reaffirms its 25 February 2011 call on its members and urges all jurisdictions to advise their financial institutions to give special attention to business relationships and transactions with the DPRK, including DPRK companies, financial institutions and those acting on their behalf. [FATF, Oct. 16, 2016]

Still, North Korea was concerned enough about those warnings to make nice with the FATF, and by applying to join one of its associated groups, the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering. FATF’s warnings, however, amounted to little more than recommendations for enhanced due diligence about suspicious transactions, and in the Mos Eisleys of the financial universe, “suspicious” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Although news reports sometimes treated these same-old-same-old warnings like page one news, the warnings have been mostly consistent since 2011. Until now, that is.

Belatedly, FATF has finally begun to implement UNSCR 2270’s more stringent financial sanctions on North Korea, and this time, FATF is telling its members some very clear, specific, and potentially devastating things:

In addition to enhanced scrutiny, the FATF further calls on its members and urges all jurisdictions to apply effective counter-measures, and targeted financial sanctions in accordance with applicable United Nations Security Council Resolutions, to protect their financial sectors from money laundering, financing of terrorism and WMD proliferation financing (ML/FT/PF) risks emanating from the DPRK. Jurisdictions should take necessary measures to close existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices of DPRK banks within their territories and terminate correspondent relationships with DPRK banks, where required by relevant UNSC Resolutions. [FATF, Oct. 16, 2016, emphasis mine]

More here, at NK News, and here, from the Chosun Ilbo.

This warning is a critical piece in the enforcement of a global crackdown on North Korean banks, which have a very long history of illicit and proliferation financing. By binding the issuers of other convertible currencies, it effectively closes the biggest holes in the global net closing in on North Korea’s banks, and gives Treasury and third-country regulators an internationally accepted basis to isolate other banks that fail to cut off North Korea’s correspondent accounts or close its bank branches. If Treasury gets off the dime and issues its own final rule — and there are reasons to question the administration’s political will to enforce it — we’ll have an opportunity to see, in a few months’ time, how much effect this has. I’ll also be interested in knowing whether Treasury will adopt the comment by Bill Newcomb and me on beneficial ownership.

Meanwhile, FATF’s action is a late step forward, but a very big one. If the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are serious about building a global coalition to put “crushing” pressure on North Korea, this action is a sine qua non toward achieving that.

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Only the end of Kim Jong-un will disarm North Korea

In Washington, one still sometimes hears from the diminishing ranks of North Korea “engagers” calls to give the noxious and incorrigible regime in Pyongyang “security guarantees” in exchange for whatever concession they want to buy from His Porcine Majesty this year — denuclearization in 1994, partial denuclearization in 2000, or a freeze today. The idea behind security guarantees, of course, is to incentivize Pyongyang to do what we want it to do, by offering it the stability we think it values most.

Thankfully, our talks with North Korea have never advanced far enough to make such a Faustian bargain, because you can be sure that to Pyongyang, “security guarantees” would mean no sanctions, no U.N. votes criticizing its crimes against humanity, no “slander” of its repressive regime, no defensive military exercises, no missile defense, and no parodies or ridicule of his ridiculous leader abroad. (It’s conceivable in the post-Sony era that North Korea would become a second partial, de facto exception to the First Amendment, along with blasphemy against Islam, as defined by its most extreme mobs.) 

Now that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has conceded that “the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” it’s time for us to think in terms of insecurity guarantees. The idea is precisely a photo negative of security guarantees — incentivizing both Pyongyang and Beijing by instilling the fear of either coup plots in Pyongyang, or a chaotic insurgency in the flood-stricken and angry northeastern provinces. It is often said that China fears instability above everything else in North Korea. Surely China — which, as I’ve amply documented, willfully violates and undermines U.N. sanctions — would prefer to help enforce sanctions than to have another Syria break out along its border.

What Clapper really said was that diplomacy can’t disarm Kim Jong-un, for reasons relating to the latter’s psychology. That’s almost certainly true, and it means that our goals must evolve to conform with this hard reality. Our goal must be to end the regime itself, not only because our treaty allies in Asia can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, but also because a nuclear North Korea nearly gave us a nuclear Syria, and may yet mean a nuclear Iran and a nuclear al-Qaeda.

Before I speak of strategies, let me comment on Clapper’s statement. It was both true and unwise for him to say. Senior administration officials are supposed to know the script and stick to it. This is true of administrations I agree with and administrations I disagree with. Presidents can’t make coherent policies without coherent communications. His statement probably gave aid and comfort to the generals in Pyongyang, and great unease to our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, who will read it as the U.S. concluding that they must learn to live under the continual extortionate threat of a nuclear North Korea, even though Clapper didn’t exactly say this.

Seoul, of course, knows that this isn’t possible. It knows that a nuclear North Korea will seek the slow strangulation of its freedom and prosperity. South Korea would lose its freedom like the character in “The Sun Also Rises” lost his wealth — “Gradually, then suddenly.” North Korea may be the next president’s greatest security challenge, and President Obama wasted two full terms in the White House doing next to nothing to arrest it, except for a lot of wishful secret talks and one abortive freeze deal in 2012. History should judge President Obama’s North Korea legacy harshly, even if many historians are likely to be partial to Obama ideologically.

Now, let’s turn to a discussion of strategies. It should go without saying that we aren’t limited to just one. One of these should be — some of you can already finish this sentence for me — to freeze the accounts in Chinese banks that pay, feed, and equip North Korea’s elites, security forces, and military. It’s conceivable that such a strategy, if pursued aggressively, would trigger a crisis of confidence in Pyongyang within two years.

Sanctions skeptics sometimes say that sanctions alone won’t be enough, and I agree. We should also actively subvert the regime politically. We will need different strategies for different constituencies inside North Korea. I’ve written at length about “guerrilla engagement” with North Korea’s dispossessed rural population, both to provide for their material needs, to soften the burdens of reunification, and to galvanize their discontent behind a cohesive ideology. Unfortunately, it will take a minimum of five years for such a strategy to pose a real challenge to the regime’s control of the countryside.

We also need a separate strategy to destabilize the elite power structure in Pyongyang, by making quiet and not-so-quiet appeals to encourage a coup d’etat against Kim Jong-un. By now, it’s clear that there is significant discontent within the elites. There has been an unprecedented wave of defections from all levels of the elites this year. Recently, even the loyalty of the minders, and of the minder-minders, has come into question.

Obviously, an internal challenge to Kim Jong-un would have to overcome many interlocking layers of surveillance. Bob Collins recently described how that system works. But this was no less true of the regimes in Romania and East Germany. Clapper is almost certainly right that a diplomatic solution is exceedingly unlikely, and the result of recent talks with North Korea should reinforce this. We must also accept the bitter truth that a nuclear North Korea will not just coexist with us, or with our allies. If that is so, then the only solution to the coming crisis that does not involve war is to destroy the regime from within. 

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While Obama sleeps, China cheats, and Korea’s doomsday clock ticks

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” – Winston Churchill

It has now been six weeks since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, and the U.S. and China remain deadlocked in their talks about a new resolution to close the loopholes in existing U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang is racing to make its nuclear armament a fait accompli before the next U.S. administration warms the chairs in the White House and Foggy Bottom. Kim Jong-un also has reason to hope that after 2017, it might be dealing with the sort of alt-left South Korean leader who would ask his permission before enforcing U.N. sanctions, and who would pressure a Clinton administration to start “peace” talks, Pyongyang’s preconditions for which would amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. That would put His Corpulency within sight of achieving hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. At the current rate, he is winning that race.

Would President Park choose to let that happen and go quietly into the night, or would she prefer to take her chances with preemptive strikes, with or without U.S. support? President Park’s Plan B may well look very much like Israel’s Operation Opera in 1982. The risks of miscalculation and escalation should require no elaboration. So when sanctions skeptics warn us of the risk that effective sanctions enforcement triggers a financial crisis in Pyongyang, just consider the alternatives.

Over the last few days, I’ve read a smattering of self-congratulatory reports that China is finally enforcing sanctions against North Korea by cutting back on coal imports. This is flawed and dangerously wishful thinking. First, China has historically reacted to U.S. diplomatic pressure by dialing down commerce with Pyongyang for a few weeks or months until the heat is off. Then, it goes right back to propping up Pyongyang and breaking sanctions like it always has. Second, the skyrocketing price of coal could yield a massive financial windfall for Pyongyang:

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-9-37-11-am

At these prices, His Porcine Majesty can sustain his regime and keep nuking up by exporting a fraction of the volume of coal he exported last year.

China is helping North Korea break sanctions in other ways, too. It’s exporting kerosene to North Korea, in direct violation of UNSCR 2270. Work at the Musan mine near the Chinese border doesn’t appear to have slowed at all. North Korea’s main port at Nampo is crowded with ships loaded with coal, seafood, and other wares for the Chinese market. Some of the North Korean vessels approach the Chinese coast, hover offshore, meet up with smaller vessels coming from Chinese ports, and return to North Korea. Such “hovering vessels” have historically been used for smuggling, by evading customs inspections. This report is consistent with what trusted friends have observed in shipping trackers for months. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say this is probably indicative of the smuggling of bulk cash or gold, either of which would also violate UNSCR 2270.

The idea that China is willfully undermining U.N. sanctions by permitting such brazen sanctions violations shouldn’t shock anyone. It would be absolutely consistent with how China has behaved for the last 20 years. What are a few sanctions violations to a government that routinely aids and abets Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity? What will it take for us to realize that a government that talks like our enemy and acts like our enemy is, for purposes of North Korea policy, our enemy?

The administration knows what it needs to do. Regardless of the price of coal, and regardless of the volume of coal — or anything else — that North Korea exports, all of that revenue goes into bank accounts in China. In recent months, I’ve become convinced we know where most of those bank accounts are. What is the answer to China’s years of duplicity, bad faith, double-dealing, and stalling? The answer is to walk away from the negotiations with China, build a diplomatic coalition to enforce sanctions with the authorities we already have, and freeze Kim Jong-un’s offshore accounts.

President Obama’s North Korea legacy will be to leave his successor and our allies with an escalating nuclear crisis, a deteriorating humanitarian situation, and possibly a nuclear arms race in Asia. History will eventually rank it alongside the failure of the Green Revolution in Iran, the near-collapse in Iraq, and the Syria fiasco as one of his greatest foreign policy failures. The question now is whether he will leave his successor with the makings of a strategy to stop Kim Jong-un while there’s still time … if there’s still time.

Enough procrastination. Enough half-measures. We can close the livelihood exception ourselves by using the NKSPEA, Executive Order 13687, and Executive Order 13722 to penalize the banks that hold Kim Jong-un’s revenue and launder his money. Freeze and forfeit the bank accounts, already! It’s the law, the President signed it, Congress wants him to enforce it, our allies want him to enforce it, and a global financial coalition is ready to help us execute it. Once we’ve got them by the banks, their hearts and minds will follow. Until we have, Korea’s doomsday clock will keep ticking toward midnight.

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Dec. 8th: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in N. Korean Political Prisons

As one who has played a small role in organizing this event, I’m pleased to announce it here at OFK:image002

In my capacity as one of the co-organizers of the Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons, I write to invite you to a groundbreaking hearing that will feature live testimony from three North Korean defectors: a former prisoner, a former prison guard, and a former official from the Ministry of People’s Security, which oversees North Korea’s network of gulags. Three renowned jurists will preside over the hearing: Navanethem Pillay (Chair), Mark Harmon, and Thomas Buergenthal. Collectively, these luminaries have served on the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Notably, it was during Ms. Pillay’s tenure as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“COI”) conducted its investigation and issued its landmark report. The hearing also will feature expert testimony from renowned experts on North Korea’s gulags and its penal system generally — David Hawk and Ken Gause. With pro bono assistance from the law firm of Hogan Lovells, the case will be presented by members of the IBA’s War Crimes Committee, Greg Kehoe, Federica D’Alessandra and Steven Kay, Q.C., the latter of whom worked on notable trials such as the Milosevic case (ICTY), and the Kenyatta case (ICC).

The hearing will be held at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on December 8th in Washington, D.C.

The Inquiry is an unofficial follow-on to the United Nations COI referenced above, and will focus solely on alleged crimes against humanity in North Korean political prisons. The Inquiry seeks to advance three goals: (1) to increase awareness of human rights violations in North Korean political prisons, (2) to explore the practical and legal barriers associated with holding the architects and overseers of the political prison system accountable for alleged crimes against humanity, and (3) to provide a model that other civil society organizations may wish to replicate when accountability for past or ongoing human rights violations has proven elusive because of inaction by the international community or otherwise.

To RSVP, please contact Ms. Sosseh Prom at sosseh.prom@int-bar.org.

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S. Korean human rights ambassador: Target N. Korean officials with sanctions

The U.N. has issued two more reports finding that North Korea’s abysmal human rights situation still hasn’t improved, and that Pyongyang refuses to even discuss it. Kim Jong-un continues to seal the borders, terrorize and purge potential dissenters, and cut off any subversive information. Camp 18 has reopened, Camps 1214 and 25 have expanded, and the fate of thousands of men, women, and children who were held in Camp 22 remains a mystery.

How do you make the words “never again” mean something in a place like North Korea? Certainly the very publication of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report has done the regime great reputational harm, obstructed the regime’s apologists’ efforts to normalize it, and cost it much investment from which its elites might have profited. I increasingly see and hear talk of kicking North Korea out of the U.N. — which wouldn’t prevent diplomacy or humanitarian aid any more than it does in Gaza, but which Russia and China would certainly veto.

One even sees legal scholars raising the idea of a Cambodia-like tribunal under South Korean law, an idea that was so radical and out of alignment with Park Geun-hye’s policies that I hesitated to suggest it back in 2014. But sadly, that, too, remains a near-impossibility in a political climate in which “mainstream” left-of-center politicians ask Pyongyang for instructions before taking U.N. votes, and continue to stall the implementation of South Korea’s new human rights law. They will have to answer to their children.

But so will we have to answer to ours, and as Kim Jong-un’s enablers obstruct accountability, it falls on the United States to show its allies the way to impose accountability now. Writing in The Washington Quarterly, Jung-Hoon Lee, the South Korean Ambassador for Human Rights and founding Director of the Center for Human Liberty at Yonsei University, and Joe Phillips, an Associate Professor of Global Studies and another founding Director of the Human Rights Center at Pusan National University, review the options and the COI’s recommendations, and find that targeted sanctions are likely one of “our most effective options” now.

Another commission recommendation is targeted sanctions, which focus on leaders, other decision-makers, their principal supporters, and discrete economic sectors. Against North Korea, they can serve multiple goals: they may coerce officials to cooperate on human rights, deny the government resources needed to engage in human rights violations, and stigmatize behavior. [link]

I especially liked this part. Not only was it an accurate statement of the law, it was impeccably sourced.

There are naysayers when it comes to North Korean sanctions. They argue that an array of heavy penalties has failed to produce positive results. That is far from the truth. Until the Security Council’s March 2 resolution, international sanctions were weak compared to those against other countries like Iran.31 Even with the new, tougher Council resolution, enforcement has a long way to go.

Lee and Phillips go on to point out that this must be a multilateral project, and that many U.N. member states have yet to show much understanding of the resolutions, much less submit their implementation reports. That will require stronger diplomatic efforts, which South Korea has exerted and the Obama administration has not.

Besides the WMD-related targets, priority should remain on the sources of North Korea’s foreign currency such as sales of illegal drugs, counterfeiting, arms trafficking, and exporting labor. Embargoing luxury goods is also an effective tactic. North Korean leadership expert Ken Gause has chronicled the critical role that gift-giving plays in the stability of Kim Jong Un’s regime. He argues that sanctions have the effect of constricting the regime’s ability to continue this largess and consolidate power.33

More on Gause’s views here.

China and other countries exporting these non-essential goods are vulnerable to a global ‘naming and shaming’ campaign as well as secondary sanctions. Seoul, meanwhile, is in a much better position to push other states to enforce firmer sanctions now that it has shut down the Kaesong Industrial Park, a North–South collaborative economic project within the DPRK where the North provided workers to South Korean manufacturers. Turning a blind eye to Kaesong’s ‘forced labor’ conditions, not to mention the transfer of about US$9 million annually to the Pyongyang regime, has for years compromised South Korea’s principles. At a minimum, sanctions are a normative declaration that we are not oblivious to the North’s atrocities and that countries and firms which do business with Pyongyang are trafficking with an international pariah.

The article then discusses some of the same loopholes in the existing sanctions that should be closed. While we’re on that topic, I’ve posted a new page on policy options that covers much of this territory, and more.

Other models for bilateral action include the 2016 Gardner-Menendez North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires the U.S. president to investigate any person who knowingly engages in serious human rights abuses, issue a report identifying severe human rights abusers, and sanction them, such as through forfeiture of property. President Obama’s Executive Order 13687, issued in 2015, links U.S. security to ending the North’s human rights violations and allows the Office of Foreign Assets Control to designate for sanctions North Korean cover companies and individuals, exposing them and subjecting their global businesses to penalties.

Hat tip to Steph Haggard. Lee and Phillips don’t mention the individual designation of Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses in July, perhaps because their article was a long time in the writing and publication. Knowing that might have helped them sharpen the debate about how to use sanctions. Those designations ought to have been more than bad publicity. They ought to have marked the start of a global campaign to find and freeze the offshore bank accounts without which Kim Jong-un’s throne would crumble beneath his weight. Until we do this, Pyongyang will never have to make the existential choice to change or perish. 

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North Korea needs more minders for its minders, to stop them from defecting

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about only the second group defection of North Korean overseas workers of which I’m aware — of a group of North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg, Russia. I also took note of the defection of a young translator from the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who had been detailed to the State Security Department, translating for the minders who do inspections of the North Korean workers elsewhere in China.

It’s one thing when workers defect; that’s why Pyongyang sends out minders. It’s more concerning when the minders start defecting. And when the Obergruppenführers who mind the Pyongyang elites and all the other, lesser minders start to defect, that’s a new stage of the metastasis.

Last week, the South Korean government disclosed that a “director-level” SSD official, who “was in charge of identifying trends in public sentiment among the residents of Pyongyang,” defected last year. (That would be in addition to the colonel who defected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, also last year.) 

According to (yes, you guessed it) unnamed South Korean government sources, this defector brought with him “confidential information on the Kim regime, and the leadership’s surveillance methods critical to maintaining control of the population.” The SSD official also reports that Pyongyang is rife with “negativity about the Kim Jong Un regime.” 

The defector reportedly told South Korean government interviewers members of his bureau were uncomfortable with Kim’s rule, and after watching “others bounce,” state agents are “bouncing,” or exiting the regime. Increasing lack of faith in the North Korean leader among the Pyongyang security officials is surprising, given that the state security agency’s chief, Kim Won Hong, is believed to be the unofficial No. 2 in political power in North Korea, according to Yonhap. [UPI]

More on that here. South Korean media are also reporting that two other high-ranking North Koreas defected in Beijing last month, along with their families. One of them is said to be the Health Ministry official “in charge of procurement and acquisition of drugs and medical equipment” for His Porcine Majesty.

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Although the Joongang Ilbo initially reported that the two men defected to (gasp!) Japan — I wonder why they’d consider that — “an intelligence source” now says that “the men are known to have come to the South and are in the process of being investigated.” The defections apparently happened several days before Park Geun-hye called on North Koreans to defect to the South. (Subsequent reports that Foreign Ministry official Kung Sok-un was purged as punishment for the defections appear to have been false.)

While others will undoubtedly disagree, I incline to the view that the recent tendency for diplomats, spies, fund managers, and vetted workers to defect is not “normal” for North Korea. Other reports also suggest that morale in Pyongyang is at a new low. The Daily NK even claims that some officials are consulting fortune tellers to choose the best time to flee. The saddest stories are of the North Korean parents who are sending their children overseas, ostensibly to study, knowing full well they’ll never return, and hatching improbable schemes to escape the repercussions they themselves could face for that.

“In North Korea, I came from a fairly affluent household, but I had a dream of learning IT [information technology] in the South,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, in a phone call with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter Wednesday. “My parents told me to study what I wanted to in the South and sent me here.”

His parents reported to the North Korean government that their child met with an accidental death in China.

Another source in China who conducts business with North Korea recently met with a ranking official of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party in Beijing.

“The Workers’ Party official made a request to me: ‘North Korea is like a sinking boat. I will send my child, so please take care of that kid,’” the businessman said. “I get such requests from North Korean elites from time to time.” [Joongang Ilbo]

It’s heartbreaking to think about the choices these desperate parents are confronting. A mother who sends one child away to safety and a better future consequently risks condemning her other children, and herself, to die in the gulag.

Of course, when we speak of a place where viewpoints are so absolutely stifled and the idea of scientific opinion polling is laughable, anecdotes may be the best evidence we have, which makes us all blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant. A hipster running a tour business in Pyongyang might come to believe that he really, honestly knows his guides’ and minders’ innermost thoughts, and that they’re broadly representative of elite opinion in Pyongyang. I incline to the view that the reports of abysmal morale in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country are too numerous and consistent for them all to be wrong. A few of the recent reports of this-or-that purge or defection may turn out to be false, but there is too much evidence of a shift in North Korean elite opinion to dismiss.

The harder question is predicting the implications of this shift. Mass protests are exceedingly unlikely to break out in Pyongyang anytime soon. Viewpoints there probably vary widely between social and professional groups. None of those reports suggest that people in Pyongyang are ready to make the leap that overseas workers have begun to make — to conspire to commit acts of resistance against the state at the risk of their lives, and those of their families. This means that dissent, disillusionment, and discontent may be both widely distributed and completely isolated.

The lack of a coherent program of information operations directed at the North Korean elites probably means that the disgruntled elites lack a political consciousness or focus. But if an information operations campaign were to polarize that discontent, and if some event — most plausibly, a coup — suddenly presented North Koreans with a choice between combining in risky acts of resistance or accepting a lifetime of subjugation, I suspect that the spontaneity of many North Koreans would surprise the experts. What’s more likely for now is that in a thousand small ways, the elites will engage in petty acts of erosive corruption and passive sabotage of the system they’re supposed to sustain.

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In Russia, job holds YOU down (if you’re a North Korean)

For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”

“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]

KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.

“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]

Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.

[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]

Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.

Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

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[Pictured: flood relief]

According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”

On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”

“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]

Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)

The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.

It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.

Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]

The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.

“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.” 

Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.

Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.

And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.

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Introducing the OFK sanctions explainer and law library

For those who’ve wanted a compilation of the key U.N. documents, U.S. statutes, regulations, executive orders, general licenses, and third-country sanctions laws, along with a brief explanation of how those authorities work, start here and click your way around. It’s still a work in progress, but the most important authorities are there. I also added section-by-section links to the key provisions of the NKSPEA and an FAQ. Enjoy!

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North Korea, secondary sanctions, tertiary impacts, and the coming death spiral

As I write today, rumors are swirling through the South Korean media of defections and purges involving so many North Korean diplomats, spiesminders, workers, and other officials that I haven’t had the time to either keep up with them or sort out the conflicts in those reports. I’ll try to do that by this time next week, and identify any patterns I see in them. In the meantime, an intriguing story by the Daily NK elucidates how well-targeted sanctions can drive disloyalties and fissures within the North Korean regime, and how we can exploit those divisions.

Two weeks ago, the Treasury Department froze, and the Justice Department moved to forfeit, the assets of Chinese conglomerate Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and its corporate officers. DHID and its officers were also indicted for conspiracy and money laundering on behalf of Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, a sanctioned North Korean bank. These were the first secondary sanctions imposed on a Chinese entity since the Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia in 2005. The indictment of DHID was a “secondary” sanction because DHID wasn’t sanctioned for directly engaging in proliferation or arms smuggling. The sole basis for the freeze, forfeiture, and indictment was that DHID helped a blocked party, KKBC, access the financial system and launder funds through the United States. The point of secondary sanctions is to completely ostracize and isolate bad actors. Anything less turns sanctions enforcement into a game of what Marcus Noland calls “whack-a-mole.”

As we saw with Banco Delta Asia in 2005 and Iran in 2013, secondary sanctions can devastate a target. Contrary to conventional wisdom, North Korea has vulnerabilities that Iran does not. One of these is North Korea’s small, dysfunctional economy, which depends on a relatively smaller number of exports, exporters, and bankers. Another vulnerability we often overlook is North Korea’s own zero-defect political system, which imposes strict quotas for its operatives to kick up to their underbosses and ultimately, to His Porcine Majesty.

Evidently, Pyongyang doesn’t accept asset freezes and indictments as excuses from trading company officials who fail to meet their quotas. The Daily NK reports that the DHID indictments also disrupted the operations of plenty of North Korean trading companies in China, and those companies’ officials are now terrified of being punished if they can’t meet their quotas.

A number of North Korean trading companies operating in China have been identified as collaborators with the Hongxiang Group of companies – which is presently under investigation for allegations of smuggling sanctioned materials to support the North’s nuclear weapons program. Daily NK’s sources have reported that these same North Korean companies are now under increasing pressure from Pyongyang to provide further supplies to the regime before the Party’s Foundation Day holiday on October 10. These goods are to be presented as gifts to elite cadres in order to shore up Kim Jong Un’s power base.

“The companies that have been suspected of colluding with Hongxiang to smuggle banned nuclear materials are facing pressure on dual fronts now. Their business activities have been almost cut in half due to the ongoing investigations by the Chinese authorities. And now they’re required to contribute goods to Pyongyang before Party Foundation Day,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China reported. [Daily NK]

Think of the death spiral this dynamic could catalyze. A North Korean trading company official doesn’t meet his quota and doesn’t dare to go home again, for fear of plunging through a trap door into a pool of piranhas, volcano lava, or sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. You can see why these people — who may already have been shaken since the purge of Jang Song-thaek — may be tempted to rethink their loyalties, and why that fear could create the makings of more intelligence windfalls, resulting in yet more asset freezes and indictments, and so on.

When asked how the trading companies are coping with the combined pressure, the source replied, “The heads of these trading companies are being investigated by the Chinese authorities on a daily basis. So these companies have resorted to hiring Chinese companies to procure gift items like alcohol, fruit, and food products for them. After the North Korean managers are released from the interviews, they load up the purchased items on trucks and send them over the border into North Korea.”

Those who are unable to keep up with the pressure face dire consequences. The Party Foundation Day holiday is understood to be a loyalty competition among the foreign currency-earning operations. All enterprises are required to provide ‘basic planning funds,’ loyalty funds, and gifts. Falling short of these obligations is dangerous because those deemed responsible are regarded as politically problematic. In North Korea, earning such a label can result in extreme punishments, including execution.   

Such conditions have only intensified during the Kim Jong Un era, where even slight infractions have led to purging and punishment. The increasingly severe consequences are well recognized by all overseas foreign currency earning operations, explaining why they prioritize the submission of loyalty funds over the safety of themselves and their employees. [Daily NK]

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Having said this, the DHID action was just an appetizer. Dandong Hongxiang claimed to control the lion’s share of trade with North Korea, but that was probably an exaggeration. Like Jende Huang, I suspect that there are still bigger fish in this pond. Now, Obama administration officials are openly threatening to sanction more Chinese entities, and Congress is pushing it hard to do what would be particularly devastating — to sanction the Chinese banks that launder North Korea’s money.

Although none of the parties to the charged transactions between DHID and KKBC were physically in the U.S. or trading goods with Americans, the North Korean and Chinese parties to the transaction had to go through banks in New Jersey indirectly to do dollar wire transactions, to buy the things His Corpulency wants. If you don’t understand why that is, read this article, or this post about how the system worked in this case, or the Justice Department’s forfeiture complaint.

Which brings me to two predictions. First, because Kim Jong-un’s advisors are probably too scared to tell him how these sanctions work, and because elections are coming in the U.S. and South Korea, a sixth nuclear test is a near certainty within the next year. If that happens, it will trigger a second near certainty, no matter who wins the presidential election in the United States — a wave of secondary sanctions against North Korea’s Chinese bankers.

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Leo Byrne is (almost) single-handedly destroying North Korea’s smuggling fleet

The other night, I was chatting with a reader who was surprised to hear me praise NK News. Although I consider Chad O’Carroll a friend, it’s no secret that Chad and I have philosophical differences about North Korea policy. Some of the things I read at NK News make me roll my eyes; others drive me to paroxysms of rage. But what I can never say about NK News is that it pulls punches. Its decision to publish Nate Thayer’s stunning expose of AP Pyongyang was as brave as the report itself was devastating. Its report on the Masikryong Ski Resort exposed serious sanctions violations and wound up being cited in the U.N. Panel of Experts reports. It did better reporting on the Pyongyang apartment collapse story from Seoul than the AP did from a few blocks away (Update: See? This is what I’m talking about.). You can love it, hate it, or alternate between both of those reactions, but NK News has become a public utility for North Korea watchers. 

Yet NK News’s single greatest asset must be Leo Byrne, whose investigative tenacity and meticulousness puts him into contention to be the single best journalist covering North Korea for any publication, anywhere. Byrne does what too few journalists bother to do — he digs up hard-to-find facts; reads the legal authorities that give those facts meaning, consequence, and context; and reports them. Byrne’s recent reporting on shipping sanctions has been a good example of this. For some days now, I’d meant to find the time to write about his discovery that, following the adoption of U.N. Security Council in 2270 in March, 50 North Korean ships re-registered under the Tanzanian flag:

According to data from Marine Traffic, the Equasis maritime database, and inspection records from Port State Control (PSC) authorities, around 15 percent of ships on the NK Pro vessel tracker now sail with under (sic) a Tanzanian flag, with the large majority of changes happening over a three-month period.

The numbers and time frames indicate an unprecedented campaign to reflag vessels with links to the DPRK, dwarfing previous flurries of changes that occurred after the UN and U.S. designated a North Korean shipping company in 2014. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

That’s a problem, because UNSCR 2270 says this:

“19.  Decides that Member States shall prohibit their nationals and those in their territories from leasing or chartering their flagged vessels or aircraft or providing crew services to the DPRK, and decides that this prohibition shall also apply with respect to any designated individuals or entities, any other DPRK entities, any other individuals or entities whom the State determines to have assisted in the evasion of sanctions or in violating the provisions of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, any individuals or entities acting on behalf or at the direction of any of the aforementioned, and any entities owned or controlled by any of the aforementioned, calls upon Member States to de?register any vessel that is owned, operated or crewed by the DPRK, further calls upon Member States not to register any such vessel that is de-registered by another Member State pursuant to this paragraph, and decides that this provision shall not apply with respect to such leasing, chartering or provision of crew services notified to the Committee in advance on a case-by-case basis accompanied by: a) information demonstrating that such activities are exclusively for livelihood purposes which will not be used by DPRK individuals or entities to generate revenue, and b) information on measures taken to prevent such activities from contributing to violations of the aforementioned resolutions;

North Korea’s merchant fleet is subject to international sanctions because of North Korea’s history of using it for smuggling weapons, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To give credit where it’s due, Claudia Rosett first discovered that the Dawnlight, a North Korean ship designated by the U.N. for arms smuggling, hoisted the Tanzanian flag as the Firstgleam, just days after 2270 was adopted. Byrne’s report shows that this was much more than a one-off; it as part of a pattern and practice of violation that was either grossly negligent, corrupt, or willful. In addition to the ex-Dawnlight, Byrne reports that the ships re-registered under the Tanzanian flag include a vessel designated by the U.S. Treasury Department, and others that have been “mentioned” in U.N. Panel of Experts reports. 

The news site All Africa adds that Tanzania has a checkered history of reflagging ships for Iran, which drew a visit from the local U.S. embassy. The Tanzanian Foreign Ministry blamed “a ‘notorious’ Dubai-based agent” and said it would contact the local North Korean embassy to investigate. Well!

“Diplomatically, we can’t rush to act on unverified issues. But, in general, our international shipping registration agents have been categorically warned against permitting countries sanctioned by the UN to fly our flag because by so doing, the country would be deemed to have violated membership sections of the UN,” Dr Mahiga said. [Louis Kolumbia, AllAfrica]

Let’s hope that that investigation proceeds swiftly to a plausible conclusion, because Tanzania’s shipping registration authority is also in great peril under U.S. law, to the extent the transactions are denominated in dollars (which almost always turns out to be the case). 

First, NKSPEA section104(b) gives the President the authority to designate any person who “knowingly engages in, contributes to, assists, sponsors, or provides financial, material or technological support for, or goods and services in support of, any person designated pursuant to an applicable United Nations Security Council resolution.” Then, Executive Order 13722, which (partially) implements the NKSPEA, imposes sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry, potentially widening the risk to any transactions involving North Korean shipping. The potential consequence is that Tanzania’s registry could have its assets frozen. Fortunately, that may not be necessary, because Byrne’s report has captured the undivided attention of the Tanzanian government, which says it has already de-registered 13 of the North Korean ships, and has begun the process of de-registering the rest of them.

ZMA director general Abdallah Hussein said in an interview on Tuesday that the process to deregister Democratic People’s Republic of Korean (DPRK) vessels started in June and was ongoing to ensure no vessel with links to North Korea fly the Tanzania flag in compliance with the UN Security Council sanctions. The minister for Foreign Affairs minister (sic), Dr Augustine Mahiga, had told The Citizen on Sunday that the ministry would initiate a diplomatic process to ensure that all vessels linked to North Korea are deregistered. [….]

If the deregistration started in June as Mr Hussein claimed, then, that hasn’t been reflected yet in the Tanzania foreign ships registry, for the investigation carried out by Leo Byrne, a Data and Analytic Director at NK News based in Seoul shows the majority of the vessels that were deregistered by other countries following tightening of North Korean sanctions “transferred their details to the Tanzanian registry, which accepted nearly all the ships between June and August this year.”

Mr Hussein expressed surprise over the same thing. “I wonder why Mr Byrne’s analysis hasn’t reflected ships that we have deregistered,” he said. [AllAfrica]

As a blogger, the pinnacle of my career was the day I saw my work denounced by KCNA — on May Day, no less. Byrne now shares the rare privilege of being called out by an entire foreign government (in his case, by name). As to the defense that Byrne did not credit Tanzania for de-registering 13 ships, well, that’s fair in the same sense that no one thanked Kim Jong-un for not nuking off last weekend, and no one thanked Donald Trump for not grabbing anyone’s hoo-ha all day yesterday. 

As far as I know, anyway. 

Ideally, U.S. and South Korean diplomats in Dar as Salaam should pay courtesy calls to the Tanzanian Foreign Ministry and politely ask, “Hey, what gives?” Maybe they already have. That approach seems to have worked well enough for enforcing Iran sanctions. But if the State Department doesn’t act, I’d expect that eventually, Congress will ask the same question of the State Department. With Tanzania already acting to de-register North Korean ships, it may be that less subtle approaches should be reserved for more recalcitant targets (are you listening, Namibia?).

Overall, the news looks increasingly bleak for North Korea’s merchant fleet. Panama and Mongolia have de-registered North Korean ships, and Cambodia, the single largest reflagger, appears to be moving in that direction. The government of Jordan identified two cases in which its shippers used a North Korean flag of convenience and has since acted to put an end to that practice. As the range of countries reflagging North Korean ships narrows, more media and diplomatic attention will inevitably focus on those that remain, like Tuvalu and Sierra Leone. A sanctions regime is only as strong as its weakest link, but slowly, link by link, the chain is tightening.

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How to close the livelihood loophole in N. Korea sanctions, even without China’s help

It has now been more than a month since North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test, and the U.N. Security Council has yet to respond by approving a new resolution to strengthen its sanctions. After North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, it took between four and six weeks to overcome Chinese and Russian objections, and the world is growing impatient.

As noted yesterday, the U.S. is correctly focused on cutting off North Korea’s sources of hard currency. Judging by the statements of U.S. officials, one key U.S. demand going into the negotiations is likely the curtailment of, or a ban on, North Korean labor exports, of which China and Russia are major consumers. Another measure under discussion is a ban on tourist travel, which would be useful to making any travel ban more than an inconvenience for Pyongyang, because most of North Korea’s tourists are Chinese, and presumably spend Renminbi during their travels.

A third measure frequently mentioned in the press over the last several weeks is closing the “livelihood” loophole in paragraph 29(b) of UNSCR 2270 — the provision that bans North Korea from selling coal, iron, and iron ore, but carves out an exception for sales exclusively for “livelihood” purposes. In practice, the exception has swallowed the rule. North Korea’s coal sales to China dipped shortly after the Security Council adopted UNSCR 2270, but have since risen to pre-sanctions levels. Typically enough, China is balking at closing this loophole.

“We cannot really affect the well-being and the humanitarian needs of the people and also we need to urge various parties to reduce tensions,” Chinese U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi told Reuters on Saturday of discussions with the United States on “a draft resolution with a wider scope of measures.” [….]

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said on Sunday that some of the exemptions included in the March resolution – out of concern for the welfare of North Koreans – appeared to have been exploited.

“In the negotiation that we are currently in the midst on in the new resolution, we are hoping to address some of the shortcomings that we have seen,” Power told reporters during a visit to Seoul. [Reuters]

China claims that it is resisting tougher sanctions because it’s worried about hurting the North Korean people, an uncharacteristically humanitarian argument coming from the same government that regularly sends North Korean refugees back to Kim Jong-un’s gulag by the dozen, that ignored the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and that has consistently opposed U.N. action on Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity.

But if the U.S. wants to close the livelihood loophole and China wants to avoid starving the people, the obvious compromise is to force Chinese buyers to pay for North Korean coal in food, medicine, and other strictly humanitarian supplies. Sanctions need humanitarian safety valves to allow U.N. member states to mitigate possible negative effects on the North Korean people. If that’s what China really wants, that’s how China can use “livelihood” coal as that humanitarian safety valve. To prevent cheating, the in-kind “payments” could be monitored by U.N. humanitarian agencies at Chinese ports and customs posts. Surely if North Korea imports enough food, much of this will flood into North Korea’s markets and drive down prices. To further amplify this effect, China should agree to ban North Korea from exporting food — mostly to China — for cash.

The more plausible explanation is that China is more interested in protecting Kim Jong-un and profiting from its access to his resources than it is in enforcing sanctions. China’s violations of the sanctions have been too blatant to be anything but willful. Although the conventional wisdom is that China is simply afraid of a potential regime collapse in Pyongyang, that view doesn’t explain China’s long history of selling proliferation-sensitive materials to North Korea, including a Chinese state-owned company’s sale of missile carriers to North Korea. This evidence suggests a more malicious explanation. It’s almost as if China wants North Korea to be a greater threat to the U.S. and South Korea.

missile-trucks

Of course, all of the aforementioned measures are effectively trade sanctions — the kind of sanctions that legions of peace studies grad students and other unschooled critics are really talking about when they hector us about how long sanctions take to work. We may simply be out of time for such gradualist strategies now. The South Koreans, the Council on Foreign Relations, and even some Chinese speak openly of preemptive military strikes today. South Koreans are justifiably worried about falling under the shadow of nuclear blackmail. The sense of urgency in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington has never been greater. That sense of urgency has not yet arrived in Beijing.

Without question, trade between China and North Korea has risen recently, diluting the effect of U.N. sanctions, and that is a problem. But those who are legitimately concerned about this rising trade — including coal and iron ore trade — between China and North Korea would do well to remember that all of the money North Korea earns from its sales of everything from coal to seafood to missile parts goes into bank accounts, mostly in China, and we probably know where many of those accounts are. If the U.S. and its allies want to adopt a strategy that will work quickly enough to create a sense of urgency in both Beijing and Pyongyang, the Obama administration should do what Congress has demanded and what the law requires — freeze North Korea’s slush funds and penalize the Chinese banks that keep them on deposit.

(My other suggestions for possible new measures can be found at the bottom of this post by Stephan Haggard; chief among the enforcement gaps is a need to make member states, banks, and businesses report North Korean beneficial ownership interests, to help identify North Korean property and bank accounts.)

Yes, it would be lovely if China suddenly became convinced that all of this represents a threat to its interests and its very security. Certainly, some ordinary Chinese citizens can see that (see, for example, this Chinese-language Google search result for “third fatty,” forwarded by a journalist reader). I’m skeptical that the Chinese government will ever really crack down on North Korea for more than a few months, especially as America is about to descend into the periodic chaos of a political transition.

~   ~   ~

Until reporters and op-ed writers stop misleading their readers with the myth that our sanctions against North Korea have been strong, I’m going to keep linking to my legal arguments that in fact, our North Korea sanctions were comparatively weak until February and March of this year, and that even these authorities have yet to be fully implemented. On paper, however, we finally have enough authorities to threaten the survival of the regime in Pyongyang and force it to choose between its nukes and its survival, if we apply our diplomatic and legal power to forcing other U.N. member states to comply.

Perhaps, then, we’ve reached the point where we’d be better off walking away from deadlocked negotiations with China and Russia and channeling our diplomatic power toward progressive diplomacy. Rather than continue to pound our heads against the Great Wall, perhaps the U.S. and South Korea should start building an ad hoc coalition aimed at the strict enforcement of existing resolutions. Existing U.S. law and U.N. resolutions may provide enough of a legal foundation that we’re better off aggressively enforcing the sanctions we already have than bargain away enforcement to get new ones. After all, the EU didn’t need the U.N.’s approval to designate the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and the U.S. didn’t need the U.N.’s approval to designate the Foreign Trade Bank. By coordinating their designations and secondary trade boycotts in concert with a collection of like-minded states with strong buying power and convertible currencies, a new coalition could put strong pressure on North Korea and its Chinese enablers. Potential partners for that coalition include (of course) South Korean and Japan, the EU, the U.K., Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and Singapore.

If, on the other hand, we just want to close the “livelihood loophole,” why not designate the abusers of that provision under section 104(a) of the NKSPEA? Recently, anonymously sourced news stories have identified the Wanxiang Group as the “largest importer of a wide variety of North Korean minerals,” including “coal, iron ore, gold and rare earths.” Interestingly, a Wanxiang Group affiliate holds “more than 60 properties” in the United States. If further investigation confirms these reports, the Wanxiang Group’s assets in the United States, and its heavy investment in a North Korean industry subject to Treasury Department sectoral sanctions, could make it the perfect target.

Of course, our relations with China would suffer in the short term, but it’s not as if our sotto voce China policy has contained China’s hegemony, protected the security of our allies, or paid obvious dividends in bilateral relations. Our relations with China will probably have to get worse before they can get better. For our relations to get better, China will need a hard shove for its policies to reflect a fair acknowledgment of U.S., South Korean, Japanese, and global security interests.

None of which means we can’t go back to the U.N. Security Council at some point to get a stronger resolution; it just means that we shouldn’t let China prevent us from designating targets that are violating the existing resolutions. If the Chinese government isn’t responsive to our pleas, we already know that the Chinese banking industry is responsive to our threats. If North Korea lost its access to the banking system, its insurance, banking, and shipping industries, and its national airline, it would be reduced to operating a country of 23 million people by trying to smuggle briefcases full of bulk cash around the world on other peoples’ airlines and ships. It’s hard for me to believe North Korea could last long that way. That’s why, as nice as it would be to have Beijing’s cooperation, it would be far better to focus our diplomatic energies elsewhere. In the meantime, the Obama administration should enforce the law the President signed.

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FP: White House “heatedly debating” whether to enforce North Korea sanctions law

Last week, Samantha Power was in Seoul, reassuring our increasingly panicky South Korean allies that the U.S. will use “all the tools in our tool kit” to deny His Porcine Majesty hard currency and WMD materiel, and pressure him to disarm. Meanwhile, a must-read article in Foreign Policy reveals that late in the eleventh hour of his presidency, Barack Obama still hasn’t decided to use “all” the tools after all, particularly the one Congress wants him to use — secondary sanctions against Chinese banks.

Instead, FP reports, senior administration officials are “heatedly debating whether to trigger harsh sanctions against North Korea that would target Chinese companies doing business with the hermit regime, in a crackdown like the one that crippled Iran’s economy.”

Officials told FP that the approach would be similar to the sweeping secondary sanctions that were slapped on global banks handling transactions with Iran. Those sanctions are widely credited with bringing Iran’s economy to its knees in 2013 and forcing Tehran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. [Foreign Policy, Dan De Luce]

The prime targets of the new strategy under discussion? Exactly the right ones — Chinese trading companies and banks. Open sources alone provide for no shortage of targets. We already know about the recently indicted Dandong Hongxiang. There’s also the Bureau 39-linked 88 Queensway Group; gold dealer Unaforte, which may be exporting to the U.S. in violation of Executive Order 13570; the Wanxiang Group, which may be China’s largest importer of North Korean minerals; banks like the Bank of China, which willfully helped North Korea launder money through the U.S. financial system; and other Chinese banks that turn a blind eye to their know-your-customer obligations on behalf of North Korean customers, as well as Chinese customers that help them circumvent U.N. sanctions and U.S. law.

But a decision to go after Chinese banks and trading companies that deal with Pyongyang could rupture Washington’s relations with Beijing, which bristles at any unilateral sanctions imposed on its companies or drastic action that could cause instability in neighboring North Korea. [FP]

The U.S. has told the Japanese and South Korean governments that it is focused on cutting off North Korea’s sources of hard currency, including labor exports. But with even people in Beijing speaking openly of limited military strikes and South Koreans worried about falling under the shadow of nuclear blackmail, the sense of urgency in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington has never been greater. Trade sanctions alone will probably take much longer to work than financial sanctions, and are more likely to hurt the wrong people, thus undermining political support for stricter enforcement. Now, having let matters drift for eight years and lost the confidence of the entire Congress, the administration belatedly recognizes that things have deteriorated quickly, and that it needs a quicker strategy. 

“In the past two or so years, there’s a general appreciation that the situation has become worse and that we, the United States and the responsible nations of the world, need to up our game,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. As a result, the administration is “looking at a more active and more aggressive use of the authorities” for sanctions, the official told FP. [….]

The political calendar in the United States also is shaping the internal discussions, with some officials arguing that President Barack Obama would be better placed to order the move in his final months in office, rather than leaving it to a new administration to enter into a heated dispute with China. [FP]

Since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, Congress has put the administration under intense pressure to implement the NKSPEA more aggressively. South Korea and Japan are also pushing for the more aggressive strategy.

U.N. resolutions and new legislation adopted by Congress in February give the administration far-reaching legal authorities to block assets, file criminal charges, and cancel visas for individuals or organizations violating sanctions rules on North Korea. But so far, the administration has yet to wield those authorities in a decisive manner, taking action in a relatively small number of cases while it seeks to persuade China to take a more assertive role. [FP]

Which you already know, because you read this blog. FP also picks up on the Senate Asia Subcommittee’s aggressive questioning of the administration in its most recent oversight hearing.

Since approving new sanctions legislation in February, U.S. lawmakers from both parties have complained that relatively few companies or individuals have been blacklisted and charged.

“You have sanctioned no Chinese banks at the end of the day, and they are probably the major financial institutions for North Korea,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said at a hearing last week with top State Department officials.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking at the same hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, accused the administration of timidity when it comes to sanctions that could antagonize the Chinese government.

“We know who these companies are. We haven’t moved fast enough on it. There’s no reason not to have moved faster. There’s plenty of targets of opportunity and plenty of information out there about them,” Rubio said. [FP]

See this link for similar bipartisan pressure coming from the House side of the Mall. So what has prevented the administration from responding to this pressure from our allies and Congress? Deference to China. 

“It could become the defining issue in the U.S.-China relationship. It could push Beijing and Washington into a very unhappy place,” said Evan Medeiros, who served as Obama’s top advisor on Asia affairs at the White House National Security Council until last year.

Pursuing Iran-like sanctions against North Korea would mean “hardcore secondary sanctions in ways that the Chinese aren’t going to like,” he said.

“But the U.S. is simply going to have to be willing to countenance friction in the U.S.-Chinese relationship that the U.S. hasn’t been willing to accept to date, because the North Korean threat is becoming too serious,” said Medeiros, now at the Eurasia Group since leaving the White House. [FP]

That is to say, so far, the White House has given more weight to the views of China — which has willfully violated U.N. sanctions for years — than to staunch U.S. allies abroad, or a united Congress.

Obama has tended to avoid confrontation with China on most issues, including over the South China Sea and economic disputes. The administration, however, did take a forceful stance against Beijing-backed cyberhacking in the United States.

“They have placed a premium on trying to manage the relationship with China in a constructive way and to contain areas of friction or competition,” said a congressional staffer. [FP]

Right. Because it would be terrible if relations broke down so badly that China started, say, unilaterally seizing huge tracts of strategic waters, rounding up and jailing dissidents, or amping up its anti-American propaganda.

De Luce reports that the administration still hasn’t made its mind up, and “may in the end opt to take a more incremental approach, avoiding a major clash with China.” Which would be typical. In fact, I wouldn’t be astonished if the administration had planted this story to pressure China to be more flexible in its negotiations over a new U.N. Security Council resolution, agreement on which is taking even longer than usual. Having said that, what a rare joy it is to read journalism like De Luce’s, which shows that the reporter took the trouble to research and understand the subject matter before writing about it.

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How the next President can confront the North Korean threat

Just over two years ago, I wrote about the conflict between Americans’ apparent impulse for a more passive foreign policy and their strong disapproval of what that policy looks like in practice. In other words, Americans’ views on foreign policy are seldom as simplistic as they seem to be. Strong majorities favored going into Iraq and Afghanistan, strong majorities wanted out of both by 2008, and by 2016, strong majorities disfavor the policies of those who would allow them to dissolve into chaos or terrorist domination. What Americans support in the abstract isn’t necessarily what they support once its concrete consequences become clear. Furthermore, polls that ask broad, loaded questions about America “minding its own business” don’t test Americans’ specific views about Iran sanctions, arming the Ukrainians, helping Japan and Taiwan build up their forces, or applying a contain-constrict-collapse policy toward North Korea.

Is there some way to satisfy these two seemingly contradictory views that the voters hold? After all, sending ground forces overseas isn’t the only way to influence events there. Of course, there are times when foreign enemies pose a direct threat to the United States, and other alternatives aren’t sufficient to suppress those threats. We all agree that this was true of Afghanistan in 2001. I’m not sure why that’s less true today, but that issue can be debated in other places. My point here is that there are a number of underused strategies that can deter aggression effectively without the direct use of force. Some of them may even sound like the “smart power” that Barack Obama promised us as a candidate.

I. Hub-Blocking Strategies

One set of tools with great promise are what I call hub-blocking strategies, which leverage America’s position as a hub of global commerce. A tool I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about here is financial sanctions, because it’s a tool that has worked against North Korea. Another is international trade. The size of our economy and our favorable geography mean that foreign companies, countries, shippers, and ports need access to our ports. Actors that routinely fail to inspect cargo for illicit shipments, or to enforce inspection requirements imposed by U.N. Security Council resolutions, should face enhanced inspection requirements when their cargo, or cargo originating from those places, lands here. The threat of having their merchandise tied up in customs is enough to put shippers out of business, and to drive traffic away from blacklisted ports. The worst actors may be denied access to our ports and markets entirely, or face the seizure and forfeiture of their goods, ships, and aircraft.

Recently, South Korea has shown us how good alliances can magnify this economic power, by proposing a secondary trade boycott against companies doing business with North Korea. If the United States, Japan, and other allies joined this secondary boycott as an ad hoc alliance, that strategy could be a powerful disincentive to trade with North Korea.

Often, the greatest limitation on sanctioning North Korea’s trading partners is understanding who those partners are. In some cases, multinational corporations may not even know that they’re sourcing materials from North Korea. Laws like Dodd-Frank have been a step forward in tracing these supply chains, but good research by activists can do more to expose North Korean-sourced materials to public criticism and shareholder protests.

Had the United States not damaged its brand so badly with its overbroad electronic surveillance, information technology could have (and still might) become another such hub. Who, after all, supposes that Russia, China, and other countries don’t monitor electronic communications secretly, and beyond the limits of their permissive laws? Necessary reforms to surveillance here could do much to restore our status as a hub of free communication. At the same time, Europe is coming to the conclusion that it cannot continue to take an absolutist view of internet privacy when its cities are under attack by terrorists. In the end, the United States has much to gain by becoming a trusted hub of global communications. To win that trust, its laws must impose transparency and restraint on the surveillance state.

Obviously, any of these options can be pushed to the point that it does our interests more harm than good. Just as military excesses cost us allies abroad and domestic unity at home, the Snowden case also illustrates the dangers of overextending our power over electronic communications. Over-inclusive surveillance could drive Google to put its servers (literally) off-shore. If financial sanctions are overused, they could drive commerce out of the dollar system. Excessive use of trade sanctions will sap our own economic power. This brings us to the unsatisfying answer that we must balance the interests of security and freedom of commerce, which sometimes compete with each other.

II. Progressive Diplomacy

Good diplomacy and ad hoc coalitions are essential to hub-blocking strategies. If nations that share common interests in a peaceful international order put similar restrictions on bad actors, coalitions gain the power to block more hubs and deprive those hubs of any other places to go. Ad hoc coalitions like the Proliferation Security Initiative can be extremely useful in arresting the movement of dangerous people and cargo. The Global Financial Action Task Force has been just as useful at denying bad actors the use of the financial system for money laundering and proliferation. Similar coalitions could emerge to deny money, arms, and visas to persons and regimes that engage in aggression against their neighbors or their own people. I can foresee a day, not far in the future, when the practical value of these ad hoc coalitions (along with old and new military coalitions) eclipse the U.N., which will never be a force for peace as long as China and Russia hold the veto in the Security Council.

North Korea is a good illustration of how diplomacy fails when it’s done in the wrong sequence. Until very recently, we’ve approached North Korea directly, even before achieving consensus with our allies on achieving their interests, and that has not only allowed North Korea to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy against us, it has allowed Pyongyang to negotiate from the position of greatest possible strength, without an effective coalition allied against it. In other cases, we have deferred to the erratic domestic politics of South Korea.

But by going to North Korea first, we not only dealt from a weaker position, we forgot a fundamental rule of diplomacy — it only works when all the parties have a basic willingness to make the same deal. In the case of North Korea, we deceived ourselves into believing in North Korea’s willingness to disarm because North Korea occasionally vocalized one. North Korea wanted nukes all along, of course. Now, there are calls for a round of diplomacy that would give North Korea valuable security guarantees and regime-sustaining aid despite this belated recognition.

This is not to say that there is no place for diplomacy with North Korea, only that engaging in it now would be hopelessly premature and naive. Diplomacy will only work after North Korea decides that it’s more dangerous to keep its nukes than to give them up, and that will require us to pressure it to the edge of extinction. We don’t have the leverage for that today. Gaining it will require a combination of crippling financial isolation and domestic subversion. The threat of those things will cause alarm in Beijing, but if we show a willingness to use them anyway, China will also pressure North Korea to disarm rather than see another Syria erupt on its border.

III. Liberation is best left to the liberated

As a nation, we seem to have forgotten that when only force can deter or reverse aggression, it is not always wisest for America to intervene directly. We have become too restrained in supporting political resistance movements against regimes opposed to both our interests and that of their own people. Such support should be offered only to movements that agree to abide by the laws of armed conflict, share a common core of our values, would support some important U.S. interests, and could (with a reasonable amount of material assistance) restore a better and more liberal order than the existing one. Once given, such support should only be withdrawn when we can be certain that a cease-fire and a diplomatic resolution can be verified, and will protect those who have sided with us from the state’s retribution.

The most obvious examples of failure here are our passivity in Syria, and during the Green Revolution in Iran. Had we imposed and enforced the kind of tough sanctions then that forced Iran back to the bargaining table later, and had we been more vocal in supporting the opposition, Iran might not have been found the resources to crush it. Had we been more aggressive about financing and advising the opposition, and about supporting its communications strategy with broadcasting and other information operations, it could have withstood the crackdown long enough for sanctions to work.

Today, it is difficult to recall that the Syrian opposition was initially non-violent, and that when it finally took up arms, it was predominantly secular. At the right moment, a shipment of antitank rockets and light antiaircraft guns might have allowed a better government to seize control in Syria. The price of our non-interventionist policy there speaks for itself today. I suspect we’ll be paying that price for decades.

Of course, these aren’t strategies that can be switched on at a moment’s notice. They rest on a foundation of outreach toward and diplomacy with opposition leaders, long-term support for their organizations, and long-term cultivation of the relations that will be necessary to help them govern in a post-revolutionary environment. (That is, the very things we should be doing to cultivate a broad-based North Korean opposition today.) Any opposition movement derives the popular support it needs to survive from its perceived capacity to govern, and to provide for the population’s needs.

To be clear, I do not necessarily refer here to support for armed resistance — something that is both completely hypothetical and increasingly plausible today, and which tends to break out suddenly and unexpectedly in highly repressive states. For now, the U.S. and South Korea should agree to cooperate on a non-violent strategy of information operations, and quietly build a political infrastructure that could either become the foundation for a civil society in a reunified Korea, or a resistance movement that would drain the state’s resources and contest its control over North Korea’s vast, mountainous, and nearly roadless interior.

The initial objectives of our engagement strategy should be to inform the North Korean people about different systems of government, their own prospects and aspirations in the event of reunification, and how to respond to different contingencies. It should facilitate the economic empowerment of low-songbun citizens through private agriculture and light industry, occupational training, commerce, and finance, all of which will break their dependence on the state and allow them to bribe their way out of their subjugation. It should cause defense planners in Beijing to hesitate to intervene in North Korea if the potential exists for an organized resistance movement to drain their government’s domestic political support. Creating this infrastructure requires us to give North Koreans the means to communicate freely with each other, and to organize the informal people-to-people networks that will eventually evolve into a political opposition movement. Fortunately, the day when technology breaks the last barriers to freedom of information seems increasingly inevitable.

IV. Deterrence & Buying Time

Unfortunately, it’s no longer clear whether there is enough time for this strategy to work. While the Obama administration’s North Korea policy drifted for eight years, North Korea made rapid progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal. Even if pursued with equal determination, a strategy of hub-blocking, progressive diplomacy, and political subversion could take anywhere from one to five years to threaten the survival of the regime in Pyongyang, and make effective diplomacy possible.

The risky — and until now, unsustainably risky — option of limited strikes against North Korea’s WMD facilities may now be necessary to buy enough time for non-violent (or less violent) strategies to work. At a minimum, it should now be the declared policy of the United States, Japan, and South Korea that they reserve the right to intercept all North Korean missile launches. As dangerously risky as that sounds, I maintain that putting North Korea on a path to the domination of South Korea, unrestricted global nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare, and a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the United States are all much more dangerous.

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China suppresses “viral” images of anti-Kim Jong-un protest in Yangzhou

A favorite long-time reader and volunteer copy-editor forwards this fascinating story, via the UPI’s Elizabeth Shim.

An anti-Kim Jong Un rally was held in a Chinese city but photographs of the protest were promptly deleted by Chinese government censors, according to the Chinese-language press.

Protesters in the eastern Chinese city of Yangzhou gathered to express their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear tests and to condemn the North Korean leader.

The photos then went viral on Chinese social media, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and New York-based Duowei News reported.

Yangzhou is the hometown of Jiang Zemin, who served as president from 1993 to 2003.

In images that were captured prior to their removal from the Internet, protesters were seen holding red banners that read, “Let’s overthrow the Kim dynasty, and hang Kim Jong Un by the neck in an execution.” [UPI]

What’s both frustrating and somewhat understandable is that the report tells us nothing about the sentiments behind the protest. Is His Corpulency perceived as endangering China’s security or the health of its people? As bringing the risk of war to China’s doorstep? As hurting China’s reputation? Or is it that Kim is simply perceived as an ungrateful vassal?

When images of the signs (see UPI’s report) “circulated rapidly across” Weibo and Weixin, Jing-Jing and Cha-Cha sprang into action to delete them.

But while the images were still available online, “Chinese mainland netizens showed strong interest in the anti-North Korea rallies that were taking place in Jiang Zemin’s hometown of Yangzhou,” according to Apple Daily.

U.S.-based Chinese-language newspaper Duowei News stated that the removal of the pictures indicates there is a “large gap in perspective on the demonstrations between the Chinese government and the people.”

There may be an angle for us to exploit here, if we knew more about the protestors’ sentiments. At some point, intense public antipathy might be enough to effect modest shifts in China’s policies, although I emphasize “modest.”

Chinese commenters have previously disparaged the North Korean ruler, calling him a derogatory word that translates into “the third fat member of the Kim family,” while condemning North Korea provocations.

That’s consistent with reports I’ve heard more than once from a well-respected Korea analyst, who would probably prefer not to be named. I’ve found nothing else online to confirm or further explain this report. Any Chinese-speakers who can help with that will earn my gratitude.

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H.R. 6281, banning N. Korea from SWIFT, would be a powerful sanctions upgrade

Via Yonhap, we learned last week that Rep. Matt Salmon (R, Ariz.), the Chairman of the House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, has introduced a bill to cut North Korea off from the “specialized financial messaging services” that banks use to send wire transfer orders around the world. The industry leader for financial messaging is SWIFT, whose headquarters is in Brussels, but which also has operations in Geneva and Manassas, VirginiaIf you don’t know what SWIFT does and why it matters, I’ll refer you to this post.

“What we can do is deny them access to services designed to quickly and easily transfer money worldwide. Without access to these services, we can force the North Koreans to purchase supplies and receive support in the way typically favored by state sponsors of terrorism: shipments of anonymous, small denomination bills.” [Yonhap]

You may be able to run a mid-size drug cartel that way, but not a country with a population of 23 million and a large, mechanized army. Although a SWIFT cutoff would be based on a different legal authority from the authority Treasury used against Banco Delta Asia in 2005, Yonhap compares the proposed legislation to BDA.

Should the legislation be enacted, it would have powerful impacts on the North, possibly similar or even greater than the 2005 U.S. blacklisting of a Macau bank for doing business with Pyongyang.

By designating the bank in the Chinese territory, Banco Delta Asia (BDA), the U.S. not only froze $24 million in North Korean money held in the bank, but also scared away other financial institutions from dealing with Pyongyang for fear they would also be blacklisted.

The measure hit Pyongyang hard, and reports at the time said North Korean officials had to carry around bags of cash for financial transactions because they were not able to use banks. The sanctions were later lifted in exchange for a denuclearization agreement that later fell apart. [Yonhap]

A better analogy would be the effect SWIFT sanctions had on Iran’s economy more recently. 

Without SWIFT, global trade and investment would be slower, costlier and less reliable. [….]

The earlier SWIFT ban is widely seen as having helped persuade Iran’s government to negotiate over its nuclear programme. The ban was one of the first sanctions Tehran asked to be lifted, points out Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank. Though some of the banks blocked from SWIFT managed to keep moving money by leasing telephone and fax lines from peers in Dubai, Turkey and China, or (according to a Turkish prosecutor’s report) by using non-expelled Iranian banks as conduits, such workarounds are a slow and expensive pain. And the sanctions prompted Western banks to stop conducting other business with the targeted banks. [The Economist]

Keep reading that article to understand some of the good reasons to exercise great restraint in using SWIFT as a sanctions tool. I agree with those reasons; I just happen to believe that there are two cases compelling enough to be deserving exceptions — Iran and North Korea. (In the case of Russia, I’m not yet convinced that this is the right tool; I’d rather see us arm and train the Ukrainians.)

As of posting time, the text of H.R. 6281 was not yet available at Congress.gov, but I’d expect it will bear some resemblance to section 202 of the original introduced version of H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, a later version of which the President signed into law in February as H.R. 757, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (Public Law 114-122, codified at 22 U.S.C. Chapter 99). The bill already has nine original co-sponsors, including three Democrats.

If you own a calendar and had a television in your home in the 1970s, you already know that the obstacles to getting this bill to the President’s desk this year are signficant. The administration has hinted, however, that it may be asking the European Union, which regulates SWIFT, to effect its own cutoff.

“The SWIFT system which is what I think you are referring to is not a U.S. system, and therefore not under our direct control. I believe it’s an EU system up housed [sic] in Brussels,” Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S Department of State said, when asked by how the U.S. administration planned to further penalize North Korea. [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

I’m all for doing things diplomatically if that achieves our objective. No doubt, our diplomats’ work has been made easier by the conduct of the North Koreans themselves, who are suspected of hacking SWIFT to rob its client banks of $80 million and laundering the loot through casinos in the Philippines (Rodrigo Duterte, call your office). Russel’s written testimony is here.

The necessity of far-reaching financial sanctions rose to the surface after the North was suspected to be connected to Bangladesh Bank heist back in May.

“We are in discussions with our partners, including the EU, about tightening the application of sanctions and pressure, including and particularly to deny North Korea access to the international banking infrastructure that it has abused and manipulated in furtherance of its illicit programs,” Russel said.

“I think that our hope is that we will in fact ultimately be able to reach an agreement that would further restrict North Korea’s access.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

If this bill doesn’t pass in this Congress and diplomacy can’t achieve the same result, I’m sure it’ll be back in the next Congress. In fact, for reasons I’ll explain below, it might be back even if the EU enacts a SWIFT ban. With the arrival of a new U.S. administration and an election year in South Korea, there will be no shortage of provocations to help pass it. North Korea loves to act up during election years. It makes certain kinds of people write op-eds calling for talks and concessions. 

More recently, however, Kim Jong-un’s election-year antics have made him one of Washington’s most effective lobbyists — for new sanctions laws.

This post by Stephan Haggard has sparked some debate as to whether SWIFT is still servicing North Korean banks. According to Haggard’s post, SWIFT’s processing for North Korean banks fell from 50,000 a year in 2011 to a mere 5,000 a year by 2012. Haggard is always very careful with his sourcing and relied on published SWIFT data, but for reasons I shouldn’t share here, I don’t believe the statistics are accurate. I can’t rule out the possibility that SWIFT cut the North Koreans off in mid-2013 or later, however. By then, UNSCR 2094, paragraph 11, prohibited SWIFT from servicing (at the very least) U.N.-designated North Korean banks.

But in the end, whether North Korea is still using SWIFT or not, H.R. 6281 is still useful. If SWIFT is still providing services to North Korean banks, H.R. 6281 can give the Treasury Department and our diplomats more leverage to persuade the EU and SWIFT to cut the North Koreans off now. If SWIFT isn’t providing services to North Korean banks, someone else is. It would make sense that North Korea’s hacking of SWIFT software to steal from foreign banks was both a way to make money and retribution for a SWIFT cutoff.

Either way, North Korean banks need financial messaging services. One of the strongest arguments against the overuse of SWIFT sanctions is that they might give a less responsible service a competitive advantage. If some less responsible competitor has emerged to take on North Korea’s financial messaging business, then H.R. 6281 would enable the Treasury Department to either “reason with” that upstart service or sanction it to extinction. In which case, the potential rise of a SWIFT alternative turns one of the strongest arguments against H.R. 6281 on its head.

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“Negotiate with N. Korea,” they say, as if we haven’t tried that for decades.

In retrospect, it was probably unfortunate that James Person and Jane Harman began their Washington Post op-ed, “The U.S. needs to negotiate with North Korea, with Albert Einstein’s apocryphal definition of insanity.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

To anyone who knows anything about the long history of our negotiations with North Korea, that’s a poor argument, but a terrific punchline, because what Person and Harmon spend the rest of their op-ed advocating is the very exemplar of that definition. I’ll spare you the suspense — it’s another freeze and maybe some day, another agreed framework. We’ll need to show “additional flexibility” — in addition to all the concessions we already gave away in the last umpteen deals. We must make “use of carrots as well as sticks,” except Person and Harmon don’t say how many carrots, and they spend most of their ink arguing why the sticks don’t work. They seem to operate on the assumption that if we’d only throw away our best leverage — sanctions — the North Koreans would negotiate with us for sure.

But “let’s talk to North Korea” is to diplomacy what “let’s stare at the sun” is to astronomy. Talk about what? North Korea has said again, and again, and again that it isn’t giving up its nukes. “Let’s talk to North Korea” is Underpants Gnomes diplomacy, because none of the gnomes can tell us what Phase 2 is.

I wonder where Harman and Person have been for the last 25 years. Surely they’ve heard that we signed disarmament agreements with Pyongyang in 1994 and 2007. Before that, in 1992, there was the inter-Korean denuclearization agreement. Pyongyang signed a trilateral safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1977, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985, and another IAEA safeguards agreement in 1992. There was also the 2005 Joint Statement, in which North Korea again agreed to disarm. Why are we supposed to believe that this time is really different, now that His Porcine Majesty is almost fully nuked up?

The current vogue is to argue that all of these agreements may have been too ambitious, so Phase 1 1/4 should be a more limited freeze deal. Except President Obama did that, too, in 2012. The North Koreans reneged within six weeks. In between all these deals, there were countless meetings of the New York Channel or Track 2, side meetings in ASEAN summits, and hostage-retrieval missions by ex-presidents and spymasters. Did no one talk during those meetings? Were our mouths full of ssoondae every single time?

Next, Person and Harmon try to pass themselves off experts on sanctions they clearly don’t understand.

For years we have applied industrial-strength unilateral and multilateral sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to denuclearize.

This term, “industrial strength,” is not a legal term of art, but if it’s supposed to mean that the sanctions were strong, I’ve debunked this again and again. Or, you can take it from Kurt Campbell. Because Harman and Person are only fake sanctions experts, they don’t know that until February, the U.S. actually had stronger sanctions against Zimbabwe and Belarus than against North Korea. (I don’t call myself an expert on sanctions, but at least I’ve read them.) Since March, the international community has begun implementing stronger new U.N. sanctions, but even tough sanctions take time to work — three years in the case of Iran.

On what basis should we believe the authors know anything about sanctions? Jane Harman was respected as a centrist on the House Intelligence Committee, which isn’t a sanctions-writing committee, though I still wonder why she signed on for this. James Person’s bio says he’s a Korea studies expert who specializes in poring through old Soviet archives. He’s also been on an anti-sanctions jihad, so I’ll suppose he wrote most of this. I don’t know him, but I’ll buy him a beer as soon as he emails me to say that he’s actually read the sanctions — the Security Council resolutions, the new sanctions law, the executive orders, the regulations, the general licenses, and the SDN designations should be a good start. (Do the Washington Post’s editors routinely ask contributors questions like these? In the times I’ve been published there, they’ve always asked me to show my sources on a few points.)

We have also urged China — North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner — to use its unique leverage to halt Kim Jong Un’s provocations, which also threaten China. But neither strategy is working. 

We’ll come back to this point later, when Person and Harmon contradict themselves on it.

Six months after the implementation of harsh new sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, North Korea remains defiant.

U.N. sanctions have only been partially implemented. Here are the implementation reports. Plenty of them are missing, others are incomplete, and other countries (China) are still cheating. Even the U.S. still hasn’t published its final rule cutting off correspondent relationships with North Korean banks.

While few expected the sanctions to work overnight, the timeline for any results will be even longer than most anticipate. Sanctions are uniquely ineffective against North Korea.

Wrong. North Korea may deny its people access to international markets — yes, so much for engagement — but the regime itself has proven to be uniquely vulnerable to financial sanctions, provided we can summon the political will to enforce them. 

Our timelines are simply out of sync. It will take far too long for sanctions to persuade North Korea’s leaders to complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement as a prerequisite for talks, and we also can’t expect China to use all of the cards in its deck.

Sanctions take too long — this from the same school that was recently promising us Gorbasms of glasnost from Swiss-educated reformer Kim Jong-un. That wasted decades and billions (including South Korean aid) on “engagement” that never moved North Korea one step in a more peaceful or humane direction, and whose proceeds may well have ended up in Kim Jong-il’s nuke fund. That feigns shock that sanctions haven’t brought North Korea to heel eight months after the U.S. passed its first comprehensive sanctions law. That turned Ri Sol-ju’s hemlines into its own doomsday clock, in the hope that if we threw enough money at Pyongyang, they might open an Arby’s by 2030, or 2035, tops. (Recently, I’ve often wondered why journalists and editors who wouldn’t think to print the views of Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz about Iraq still print the views of those who advocated for “engagement” with North Korea years after the costly failure of that policy should have been obvious.) 

The effectiveness of sanctions is also limited because of China’s protection. Chinese leaders recognize that their economic leverage over North Korea is a double-edged sword, because sustained pressure could lead to state and societal collapse, precipitating a flood of refugees into northeast China. The collapse of North Korea could also lead to a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on China’s border — which China perceives as a worse outcome than a nuclear North Korea serving as a buffer state.

This isn’t quite an outright call to lift sanctions, but it certainly isn’t calling for us to do what we’ll have to do for sanctions to work — enforce them. Any “negotiation” that begins with throwing away this essential leverage is the very definition of appeasement. It would ensure the failure of diplomacy, seal North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, and increase the danger of nuclear war. 

Besides, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the submissiveness of Pyongyang to Beijing.

I’ll leave to others the mostly speculative and probably disinformed parlor game about relations between China and North Korea. Myself, I believe almost none of what I read about that except the trade statistics, and I’m not even sure I still believe those. What’s clear is that until last week, Chinese businesses felt free to violate U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and Chinese banks still feel free to hold the deposits of those companies, and of North Korea’s own Bureau 39 managers. It’s equally true that fake sanctions experts have long exaggerated the submissiveness of the Chinese banking industry to the government in Beijing. Case in point: in 2007, as part of the second agreed framework, the U.S. agreed to give North Korea back $25 million in blocked laundered money from Banco Delta Asia. The Chinese government asked the Bank of China to do the transfer. The BoC wouldn’t touch the money. The New York Fed ended up moving it instead. If sanctions opponents have ever grasped the influence of the U.S. Treasury Department over the Chinese banking industry, they’ve pretended not to.

Suggesting that academics should take the time to study and understand a subject as specialized as sanctions law before opining on it eventually takes on all the futility of playing Shostakovich sonatas in honky-tonks. Fortunately, members of the House and Senate of both parties get it. They want the President to hold the Chinese banking industry accountable for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money through our financial system because (1) he has an obligation to enforce our laws and U.N. Security Council resolutions, (2) it’s the strategy that brought Iran back to the table, and (3) it’s the strategy that brought North Korea back to the bargaining table in 2007.

Expecting China to influence North Korean policies means asking China to do precisely what North Korea most resents. Chinese officials recognized that complying with the West’s wishes would only antagonize North Korea further.

There’s no limit to how far you can extend this argument. Enforce U.N. sanctions? Antagonizing! Annual military exercises to defend our treaty allies? Antagonizing! Talking about human rights and political prison camps? Very, very antagonizing! Allow Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to make stupid movies parodying North Korea’s ridiculous, morbidly obese dictator? Extremely antagonizing! Respond when North Korea shells South Korean territory or sinks its warships? Dangerous and provocative! Denying North Korea its sovereign right to nuke up, or build submarines capable of nuking our cities? You can see where this logic ends. Or rather, never does. 

Stalk the North Koreans and beg for a deal all you want, but from where I sit, they’re no more into you than Jodie Foster was into John Hinckley. We’ve been on this paper chase for a quarter of a century now. What sounds like the definition of insanity to me is watching North Korea violate an armistice, the NPT, two IAEA safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks, a joint statement, the Leap Day Deal, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions — and then believing that yet another piece of paper is our ticket to salvation. North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea and the U.S. show that it will not quietly coexist with us when it has nuclear weapons. Much time has been wasted, and the problem is much harder to solve now than it would have been when President Obama took office eight years ago. If it isn’t too late, our first and best step toward stopping Kim Jong-un would be to tune out the insanity that got us into the mess we’re in now.

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