How terrorism works: N. Korea uses Japanese hostages to censor “The Interview”

Last week, I wrote that the North Koreans who had unwittingly lavished free publicity on “The Interview” by threatening its makers still had a thing or two to learn from the mobs of angry Muslim extremists who extorted President Obama into asking YouTube to “consider” removing “The Innocence of Muslims.”

My judgment may have been premature. Film industry trade journals are now reporting that Sony Pictures Japan has demanded changes to the script of “The Interview” to minimize the offense against His Porcine Majesty. If true, the report suggests that North Korea has successfully used its kidnapping of Japanese civilians from their own country to demand — and get — the censorship of a mass-marketed film parodying its dictator:

The film, about a pair of TV journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean despot, has become a hot potato for the studio, which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp. (the country recently has taken steps to ease tensions with its enemy to the West after decades of icy relations). Sources say the studio is considering cutting a scene in which the face of Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park) is melted off graphically in slow motion. Although studio sources insist that Sony Japan isn’t exerting pressure, the move comes in the wake of provocative comments from Pyongyang that the film’s concept “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” (Directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg are in fact Canadians.) An unofficial spokesperson for the rogue nation took issue with the satirical depiction of the assassination of a sitting world leader and on July 17 asked President Barack Obama to halt the film’s release.

It is unlikely that North Korea is just now catching wind of the film’s hot-button storyline given that THR first wrote about The Interview and its plot in March 2013 (Dan Sterling wrote the screenplay). What’s more likely irking Kim Jong Un — a noted film buff, like his father — is the use of the military hardware, which can be seen in the film’s first trailer released in June.

A source close to Sony’s decision-making says the move to alter the hardware was precipitated by “clearance issues,” particularly because it involves a living person, Kim Jong Un. [The Hollywood Reporter]

The website is denying that these changes are due to pressure from Sony Japan, but why else would Sony make this change other than because of North Korean objections?

Some of the changes reportedly come at the behest of Sony Japan, in the interest of improving and maintaining relations with its nearby neighbor. The face-melting scene is reportedly being judged for comic value, but who actually believes that it might be cut at this point for any reason other than keeping North Korea happy? [Slashfilm]

The next question is why Sony Pictures Japan even cares what Kim Jong Un thinks. The answer is almost certainly ransom. If not for a recent ransom deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo, in which Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to “investigate” the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees, there would be no reason for anyone pay attention to North Korea’s bluster.

In the years preceding October 11, 2008, it had been the U.S. government’s view that North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens (including a 13 year-old girl) from their own country was terrorism, and that its continuing captivity of these hostages (not all of them Japanese) was one of several reasons to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. In April of 2006, President Bush met with the mother of that girl, calling it “one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the President here in the Oval Office.”

But North Korea is an accomplished exceptionalist to the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and just two years after that meeting and Bush’s implied promise to the mother, Sakie Yokota, Kim Jong Il cajoled Bush into removing it from the list and lifting some powerful financial sanctions that may have brought his regime to the brink of extinction, and that might well have forced North Korea to let the abductees go.

Suddenly, and with a brazen mendacity not seen since Moscow in the 1930’s (except, of course, in Pyongyang), it became the official position of the U.S. Department of State that North Korea was “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” (The statement would become more difficult to defend with the passage of time, as North Korea was caught selling arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and launched a campaign of poison-needle assassinations of human rights activists and North Korean exiles.)

The unintended consequences of Bush’s reversal have continued right up to this year, and include a decision by an impatient Japanese government to unilaterally lift sanctions against North Korea as an initial ransom payment for the return of its people. The Obama Administration, which paid little mind to Japan’s pleas for U.S. support on the abduction issue, has reacted to this with justifiable alarm. Japan’s relaxation of sanctions not only rewards terrorism, it weakens a regional security alliance against Pyongyang, and relaxes the economic pressure that is its last slender hope to disarm Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

Although Pyongyang has delivered little so far in admitting to the whereabouts of the missing Japanese, there have been rumors in the Japanese press that its demands were not all financial. It has demanded, for example, the return of the headquarters of Chongryeon, the North Korean front organization in Japan that had a hand in the kidnappings of Japanese, and which had been seized for non-payment of taxes. It is also rumored to have used its business relationships with Japanese media companies to suppress the views of critics of North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

So it always goes when governments and businesses are tempted into intercourse with Pyongyang. The patron is expected to pay exorbitantly for a brief and unsatisfying rut, and in the end, it is never Pyongyang that is seduced — or infected — by the exchange.

The fact that “The Interview” is likely of dubious artistic merit is beside the point. If North Korean censorship has arrived at a multiplex near you, that’s pernicious, and may be the best reason yet to boycott the film.

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Update: This post was edited after publication.

Faced with a grassroots protest movement, China manufactures mass obedience.

Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march. One video (Cantonese) purportedly showed cash being handed out to marchers.” [link]

Also, Rimjin-gang did it better seven months ago, so there’s that.

Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, denied the opportunity to do reporting of the apartment collapse story by his North Korean hosts and partners last May, offers an honest assessment of the unknowns as the next best thing, three months after the fact. Despite Talmadge’s obviously earnest effort, he doesn’t quite succeed, but least he’s willing to raise some hard questions about North Korea’s construction boom:

In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo. Housing, however, hits closer to home.

Good for Talmadge for having the guts to raise that, and yes, it was the correct decision to report what he could report, despite those handicaps. But in the end, writing about news you didn’t report is known as blogging.

And it is possible to do reporting about North Korea. Look what NK News was able to report about the collapse without a physical presence, and what Rimjin-gang’s guerrilla correspondent reported about the shoddy construction methods clandestinely, at the risk of his life, four months before the building fell.

If Talmadge is walking the tightrope I think he is, Access to Pyongyang has done more to impede the quality of AP’s reporting than to advance it. Talmadge, who clearly wants to tell his readers the truth, has the gross misfortunate of working for the Comcast of news services. So much for the AP opening a window into North Korea.

Between surrender and stupid: Regressing toward the mean in a post-Iraq world

As the world’s attention is focused on the disaster in Iraq, let’s take a moment to mourn the last remnants of Syria’s non-extremist, secular rebels, who are facing their final extermination in Aleppo. To Syrians who risked everything for a future worth living in, it’s academic now that Hillary Clinton privately agreed with what I said back in 2011 (last item), when I called for us to arm moderate rebels there. Clinton now says she warned that if we didn’t, extremists would devour the country and its neighbors. Indeed, it seems that for the next several years, Hezbollah will be the most progressive force in Syria.

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.

As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events. [The Atlantic]

I hope Syria’s sacrifice will not be for nothing, and that it will be a useful lesson one day, when we have to confront the same question in North Korea. (Yes, this post will eventually turn to the question of North Korea.) I’m grateful enough for Clinton’s acknowledgment that for the moment, I’ll avoid the question of whether I really believe her.

What Clinton is saying about the uses of American power — now that the effect of withdrawing it from the world is so manifest — is also a necessary correction of our post-Bush over-correction. In retrospect, most of us would agree that invading Iraq was a terrible, costly error. And as is so often the case, however, many of us took the lessons of Iraq to extremes, and came to view American power as the real problem there, as opposed to the terrorism that found opportunities in the nationalist reaction to our invasion.

I hope that this back-backlash will cause serious reconsideration of the isolationism that has thrown the world into the greatest outbreak of malignant anarchy since 1975, just as it has discredited the idea that the direct application of U.S. force is the default solution to foreign policy problems. Read more

I’m sure the “so-called pope” meant no offense, but if KCNA hadn’t norksplained it for me …

I would not have seen it from this perspective: “We would like to ask the pope why he set about his south Korean trip the day when we are making latest tactical rocket test-fire according to our regular plan though there are a lot of days in the year.”

Of course, given His Porcine Majesty’s crowded launch schedule and the absence of forewarning, it’s not exactly easy for His Holiness to squeeze in a visit to Korea in between. Sounds like the rockets were more of that 300-millimeter type.

Japan sanctions Ocean Maritime Management, following the U.N.’s designation …

of OMM, and amid its own ransom negotiations with North Korea. One of the terms of that ransom was the lifting of Japan’s national shipping sanctions, which obviously predated the U.N. designation. [link]

Maybe I’m not as sophisticated and nuanced as Washington Post blogger …

Adam Taylor (or whomever wrote the headline for his post), but unlike Taylor, I can’t quite see Kim Jong Un’s “vulnerable side” through his mass murder and starvation of so many of his pitiful subjects.

Granted, there is some significance in the fact that His Porcine Majesty has sometimes fallen below the aura of infallibility that this regime has built around him, but would anyone see a dominant theme in Hitler’s vegetarianism revealing a compassionate side, or Saddam Hussein’s authorship of romance novels revealing the romantic within?

So, I see he finally sprang for the liposuction.


Another entry for the gallery of unfortunate North Korean photo ops. (Hat tip to reader L.P. for sending me that photo.)


Pyongyang, as Leni Riefenstahl might have seen it*

Last week, a slick new video of Pyongyang by Rob Whitworth and JT Singh infected many writers and readers who don’t know much about North Korea with the Madonna Syndrome, defined as the illusion of entering virgin territory actually while plodding along a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path in the footsteps of Dennis Rodman. The chirpy reaction of Washington Post blogger Abby Phillip was typical:

A new video aims to show a different side of Pyongyang. It is fascinating because it rather successfully portrays North Korea as a place that is — despite being one of the last truly totalitarian states on the planet — perfectly normal.

I don’t know what ought to fascinate us about the fact that people who live in totalitarian societies also eke out normality and fun where they can find it. All human beings do. It’s the idea that there’s a different side to see in this video that I challenge.

With the exception of a skateboard park — hardly an indication of transformative change by itself — the video reveals nothing new, at least about North Korea (but we’ll come to that). It’s really just a better-produced video of the same old badly produced city.

The city itself looks sterile, and in my own subjective view, some of the scenes look staged (specifically, the shots of the students at their computers). The camera shows us a gleaming Ryugyong Hotel, but doesn’t pan inside to reveal that it’s vacant under the glass. That much is deceptive enough, but it’s not the most deceptive aspect of this kind of propaganda.

By showing us a minders’-eye soda-straw view of Pyongyang — a closed city reserved for the elite — the filmmakers and their minders distort the reality of North Korea. For most North Koreans, life isn’t clean, orderly, or well-fed. You’ll get a far more accurate picture of North Korea, both its attractive and its gritty sides, in Pyongyang and beyond, by visiting the Flickr pages of “Moravius” or Eric Lafforgue, who was recently banned from North Korea for failing to obey his minders’ restrictions on what he could film.

For that matter, Google Earth is probably more revealing than this video.

Has North Korea changed under Kim Jong Un? Yes, but not necessarily for the better. The rich have access to more amenities, but they’ve had some moments of intense terror and heartbreak, too. For poorer North Koreans outside Pyongyang, economic conditions haven’t improved, but political repression has intensified almost immeasurably. I use the term “immeasurably” because our sources of information about most of North Korea are being silenced. Crackdowns on unauthorized information, such as illegal cell phones and DVDs, have been particularly harsh.

Kim Jong Un’s main legacy so far has been to isolate most North Koreans, rather than to reform the system or improve their lives in any meaningful way.

The most significant change the video evidences isn’t a way in which North Korea has changed, but a way we’ve changed. It’s a growing willingness of some foreigners to set aside any ethical considerations and collaborate with Pyongyang, in this case, to produce a slick video to portray it in a favorable light, notwithstanding the horrific crimes against humanity it is committing.

When foreigners “engage” with North Korea, it has always been the foreigners who’ve adapted to North Korea’s standards, not the other way around.

Yet for at least a decade now, everything foreigners have done in North Korea – no matter now carefully monitored and controlled – has been hyped as a bold and transformative. For more than a decade, people have been selling us the same bold views of the same transformative statues, idols, monuments, and museums. And yet the system does not transform.

I’d like to offer that this hype is wearing thin. China was bold and transformative for a few years starting in 1980. The U.S.S.R. was transformative for six years, starting around 1985. Maybe Pyongyang might have been transformative in 2000, but there must be some statute of limitations on describing the entry of foreigners into carefully select parts of a closed society — hopefully, without being arrested – as “pioneering,” when the velvet rope does not move and the political system resists material change.

Virginity isn’t a very persistent thing. Sell it promiscuously enough and other, less complimentary terms become more appropriate. After that, we are only negotiating the price.

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* Attribution to Anna.

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Update: Jeff Stone has written a thoughtful piece on this topic in the International Business Times. I’m quoted near the end of the piece.

11 down, 31 to go: Mixed news on China and N. Korean refugees

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SAY THIS, but God bless Park Geun Hye, because China would never have allowed those ten young North Korean adults and one child to go to South Korea after their capture by the police near the Laotian border if she hadn’t pushed the issue with her new pal, Xi Jinping.

No, China’s leaders have not grown a soul, but they aren’t completely impervious to Park’s sensitivities, and after all, they can’t fight everyone in Asia at once. This is a rare occasion when we can at least say that China did something that happens to be humane, even if the reasons were strictly interest-based.

Does this signal a shift in China’s refugee policy? Almost certainly not. There has been no recent news — none that I’ve heard, anyway — about a larger group of 31 North Koreans sitting in a detention center in China, waiting to know whether they’ll get to go to South Korea, or be sent back to die in the North.

I cannot imagine what even a day of that waiting must be like.

There is also the news of the arrest of a Canadian couple and the investigation of a Korean-American by the Chinese. The three were all Christians who assisted North Koreans in China, and who also brought food aid into North Korea. It’s hard to see anything objectionable in that — even by ChiCom standards — but if China suspected that they were also involved in underground railroad work, that might explain it:

China is cracking down on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea, missionaries and aid groups say, with hundreds of members of the community forced to leave the country and some who remain describing an atmosphere of fear.

The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

The South says the number of such defections is showing signs of a slight slowdown this year. [Reuters]

That slight slowdown would follow a much larger slowdown from previous years.

As far as I can see, the two most significant changes in Kim Jong Un’s style of governance are providing more amenities for the rich in Pyongyang, and cracking down harder on everyone else.

In related news, a group of 16 North Koreans from three families has managed to escape despite Kim Jong Un’s crackdown. The detention of local security forces in a corruption investigation may have played a role in their ability to slip the net.

Why so many visitors from Yahoo! today?

If you’re one of them, kindly drop a comment or send an email (it’s the icon on the right, immediately below the banner).

Open Sources, August 14, 2014

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TWO BY SEA:Two North Korean men swam across the Yellow Sea border to defect to South Korea, a rare way of fleeing the hunger-stricken communist nation, government sources here said Thursday. South Korean marines on guard duty spotted them reaching Gyodong Island, just south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), at around 4 a.m. Thursday, according to the sources. The island is about 2.5 kilometers away from the North’s closest western coast.”

I can’t imagine why anyone would do something that desperate when, according to an upcoming official (therefore, reliable) report, the “true picture of the people of the DPRK” has them “dynamically advancing toward a brighter and rosy future while enjoying a free and happy life under the socialist system centred (sic) on the popular masses and contribute to disclosing the dastardly moves of the US and other hostile forces.” And after all, no less an authority than Hazel Smith has told us that defectors exaggerate and just tell us what the CIA and the NIS want us to hear, ergo there’s no cause for unpleasant talk about sanctions and such.

Still, the absence of talk about a bright and rosy present could be interpreted as concerning. It must take an exceptional talent for doublethink to survive in Pyongyang.

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OVER AT NK NEWS, STAR REPORTER LEO BYRNE has a first-rate investigative report about the M/V Mu Du Bong, its lack of insurance, and North Korea’s scrambles to get it out of port. A must-read.

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ROBERT GALLUCCI CALLS FOR THE U.S. to hold talks with North Korea, but never quite explains what we’d be talking about. North Korea insists it isn’t denuclearizing, which narrows the agenda down to buying our way out of the next provocation. Obviously, that’s simply giving in to blackmail, and that’s a negotiation that never ends until the regime does. It’s a case where I find myself in rare agreement with Glyn Davies.

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HOW NORTH KOREA PICKS its cheerleaders, and how it keeps them in line, politically speaking (as opposed to choreographically).

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ALDERAAN SHOT FIRST: FBME Bank has laid off most of its staff, and its customers are panicking. I don’t blame them.

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AND YET IT DOESN’T: In one of those rare examples of “engagement” I’m rooting for, foreign experts explain how North Korea could become self-sufficient in agriculture. The problem with self-sufficiency that it’s the opposite of dependency. If the regime won’t listen, will these foreign experts try to engage directly with the people through broadcasts and leafleting? I hope so, because the more food North Koreans have, the more freedom they will have.

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CRITICISM FROM A SURPRISING SOURCE: “But, Lord, how did the moral center of the American left get so isolationist and selfish? How did it manage to cede the moral high ground to the right? Why does it see no difference between a moral obligation to save lives by avoiding murder — not just with humanitarian measures — and a kind of militarist lust for yet more adventure?

The criticism works just as well against the isolationist right, if not more so.

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SPEAKING OF WHICH, and just in case this wasn’t already clear, Ron Paul’s Malaysian airliner conspiracy theory reminds us that he’s a babbling neurotic, a cult figure for the dispossessed, a magnet for lunatics, a right-wing Chomsky for B-list polemicists, and a man who has propagated some disturbing, bigoted viewpoints. This calls for another Mitchell and Webb conspiracy sketch.

It’s unfortunate that Paul is so very bananas, because there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the role and size of our government, and how the U.S. projects power abroad. Paul, unfortunately, has an existential and conspiratorial hostility to our government, both at home and abroad, and he carries armloads of crazy to that discussion. Here and there, Paul stumbles over a valid point, but now that we’re getting a glimpse of what the world looks like when America withdraws too much of its power, we’re reminded how ugly a place the world can be. I can see why Paul might not want us to believe what our lying eyes are telling us about that.

Of course, it’s not Ron Paul who really worries me. I can’t help asking myself how far the apple falls from the tree.

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A FEDERAL JUDGE HAS DISMISSED a lawsuit by Japanese-affiliated plaintiffs that would have ordered the removal of a comfort woman statue in a park in Glendale, California, and based on the L.A. Times’s report, the plaintiffs’ arguments are among the most frivolous and pernicious I’ve ever heard:

The opponents — Michiko Gingery, a Glendale resident; GAHT-US Corp., an organization that works to block recognition of the former sex slaves, also known as “comfort women”; and Koichi Mera, a Los Angeles resident — claimed in court records that by installing the statue, Glendale infringed upon the federal government’s exclusive power to conduct foreign affairs, violated the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and caused opponents to avoid Central Park because the statue made them feel excluded and angry.

“The fact that local residents feel disinclined to visit a local park is simply not the type of injury that can be considered to be in the ‘line of causation’ for alleged violations of the foreign affairs power and Supremacy Clause,” Anderson said in court documents.

Just imagine all the misuses for arguments like that. Don’t you suppose German tourists feel an occasional twinge of discomfort when the walk past the Holocaust Museum? The problem, of course, is that the city and taxpayers of Glendale have now spent money paying lawyers to fight this nonsense. As a commenter at the LAT suggested, they ought to move for Rule 11 sanctions to compel the plaintiffs to pay their attorney fees. HT: Dennis Halpin.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

Senate intel bill would require report on N. Korean gulags

Yonhap points me to S.2741, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, introduced by Committee Chair Diane Feinstein the day before Congress went into summer recess, and a few days after the House passed H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act.

Section 316 of S.2741 would require the CIA to report to the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees on North Korea’s political prison camps:


(a) In General.–The Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall submit to the congressional intelligence committees a report on political prison
camps in North Korea.
(b) Elements.–The report required by subsection (a) shall–
(1) describe the actions the United States is taking to support implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the eventual establishment of a tribunal to hold individuals accountable for abuses; and
(2) include, with respect to each political prison camp in North Korea to the extent information is available–
(A) the estimated prisoner population of each such camp;
(B) the geographical coordinates of each such camp;
(C) the reasons for confinement of the prisoners at each such camp;
(D) a description of the primary industries and products made at each such camp, and the end users of any goods produced in such camp;
(E) information regarding involvement of any non-North Korean entity or individual involved in the operations of each such camp, including as an end user or source of any good or products used in, or produced by, in such camp;
(F) information identifying individuals and agencies responsible for conditions in each such camp at all levels of the Government of North Korea;
(G) a description of the conditions under which prisoners are confined, with respect to the adequacy of food, shelter, medical care, working conditions, and reports of ill-treatment of prisoners, at each such camp; and
(H) unclassified imagery, including satellite imagery, of each such camp.
(c) Form.–The report required by subsection (a) shall be submitted in an unclassified form and may include a classified annex if necessary.

Subsection (b)(1) shares a common purpose with Section 303(b) of H.R. 1771, in that it asks State to report on what, exactly, it has done to effect the recommendations of the COI report. Fortunately for State, that report shouldn’t impose a high burden of draftsmanship. In a spirit of friendly outreach to my friends at the Department of State, I’ll even suggest a text: Read more

A campaign is more than just a vote

Justice Michael Kirby, the head of U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) for Human Rights in North Korea, has struggled to get the attention of the U.N. Security Council since February of this year, when the COI released its report finding widespread and horrific crimes against humanity. This leaves Kirby wondering whether hundreds of European lives matter more to the U.N. than hundreds of thousands of North Korean lives.

Michael Kirby has called on the United Nations to show the same resolve and unanimity on North Korean human rights abuses as it did on passing a resolution on downed flight MH17. [....]

“The attention to MH17 was admirable … and I think we can all be proud of the way our ambassadors dealt with it. But in all truth, the case of North Korea is dealing with millions of people,” Justice Kirby told a university audience.

“The question is will the UN find a way to respond? In the last week, on a matter that had great sensitivity, through … strong political action, including by Australia, a consensus was found, and I’m hoping the same sort of spirit will operate in the case of North Korea when the matter comes to the Security Council.” [The Age]

Until now, the response to the COI’s report has advanced no further than a toothless, informal “Arria” meeting, where the idea of further action was discussed, boycotted by the Chinese and Russian representatives, and quickly (almost) forgotten. According to The Age‘s report, however, the General Assembly will take up the COI’s findings in September, and is expected to refer them to the Security Council soon thereafter.

This represents a modest improvement over nothing, but not by much. Major international actions require the mobilization of world opinion, and the expenditure of diplomatic capital, to achieve broad consensus and effective action. The point of a vote at the Security Council is not really to pass a resolution; after all, we already know that China and Russia will veto it. The point is to make that veto as diplomatically costly for China and Russia as possible, and to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the U.S., the EU, and a critical mass of the world’s civilized nations to enact and enforce targeted national sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violators. (Another potential benefit could be to support the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal in South Korea.) I see little evidence that this mobilization has begun.

Unfortunately, a lot of diplomatic bills are coming due at the moment, and capital is in short supply. When Susan Rice called America’s leadership “indispensable” recently, she was correct. That has never been clearer than in recent times, when that indispensable leadership has often seemed to be absent. Samantha Power, Rice’s successor as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., first made herself famous by writing a book that excoriated the Clinton Administration’s lack of leadership in the face of the Rwanda genocide in 1994. If Power reprises Madeleine Albright’s role, one small benefit would be the exquisite material it could yield for an unauthorized sequel. If she overperforms both her predecessors and my expectations, it could be a moment of redemption for this administration, and perhaps for the viability of international institutions that have failed so consistently.

That may be asking too much in a time of national exhaustion for the world’s indispensable leader, when it lacks the psychological, political, and diplomatic capacity to contemplate more than one genocide at a time. For a month, the endless loop called Gaza had tunneled its way from its rightful place on page four to page one and occupied it, along with the attention of our Secretary of State. At the moment, we’re somewhat more justifiably preoccupied with a very real genocide that began not long after we “ended” the war in Iraq. But consider: when a regime can make tens of thousands (or tens of thousands) of men, women, and children simply disappear, or allow perhaps millions to starve – all without any material consequence – what deters psychopaths in Pyongyang or any other place from seeking out new victims, whether within their own fiefdoms or beyond their borders? As Kirby put it:

“There’s a lot of talk in the United Nations about accountability, a lot of talk about ‘rights up front’, a lot of talk about ‘responsibility to protect’, well, in September and October of this year, the UN will face up to the question of whether it is serious about this talk in the case of North Korea.”

North Korea differs from all of these other cases in the greater scale of its crimes (so far), and its capacity to propagate evil. It’s the one with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, after all, and with the demonstrated propensity to sell them to others.

You may not like the idea of America as a global leader. I suspect Americans like it less than anyone at this point. But when the alternatives come into sharper focus, we remember that it’s still the only worst alternative except for all of the others. The real question is how to exercise that leadership as wisely and cheaply as we can. It has been obvious for some time that George W. Bush had the wrong answers to that question, with the possible exception of the Surge. Judging by recent events, President Obama’s answers haven’t been much better, but like his predecessor, bitter experience is forcing him to regress from the extreme to the mean.

Must hear: Kurt Achin’s podcast from Hack North Korea

I think Thor Halvorssen is my new idol.

Most people believe that the North Korean government — and emphasis on government — is an issue that should be addressed by governments, or by a collection of governments. Well, we believe in helping people. We believe in peer-to-peer networks.

We are not interested in, you know, running to the U.N., which has been oh-so-extraordinary at stopping genocides from occurring — that’s dripping in sarcasm. We don’t believe the United Nations is going to be the place that’s going to bring about change. Neither do we believe that the U.S. State Department, by sending billions of dollars in cash to buy, you know, more Johnny Walker Blue or to hire more Swedish hookers is going to make Kim Jong Un change.

You’re dealing with a psychopath, and a family of psychopaths. They only respond to punishment. Psychopaths do not respond to incentives; they respond to disincentives. And the North Korean government, ultimately, is going to have to be overthrown by its own people, or by a collection of folks in the military.

No occupation army is going to succeed there. No war is going to be able to do this in a way that is more efficient, less problematic for the country in the long term, than an internal situation. And that internal situation will only come — a true revolution for liberty — will only come with information, and when people are inspired to do so. And we will, of course, do as much as our resources permits to hack North Korea and assist people inside North Korea who wish to be free.

How refreshingly relevant this is to the actual advancement of human rights, after years of watching the stuffy, politicized impotence of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. (It should not escape your notice that neither group has done anything of significance to support a credible response to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report. Maybe they’ve been too focused on shilling for Hamas, or hosting Kim Il Sung propaganda exhibitions.)

If you have some money to give, consider a donation to HRF.

Me talk pretty

A reader forwarded me this link of a speech I gave to members of the Korean Church Coalition at the National Press Club last month, and I thought I’d post it here.

Since that day, I’ve wanted to say just how impressed I was by the young, mostly Korean-American members of the KCC. If you watch this on YouTube, videos of their speeches are linked at the sidebar, or at the end of this video. Do yourself a favor and watch a few of them. There wasn’t a pierced eyebrow or tattoo in sight that day — just the sort of clean, poised, articulate, and confident young people the very sight and sound of whom can restore your faith in the future of your country.

It’s not just appearances, either. A few young Korean-American over-achievers — two of them from northern Virginia — have found a technological exploit around Pyongyang’s information firewall (second item).

Consider: we live in the kind of country that collects and incubates the best talent of Korea’s diaspora. No combination is as powerful as the combination of character and intellect. Put that combination into the ideal incubator and it exerts an irresistible liberating force on that diaspora’s ancestral homeland.

Open Sources, August 7, 2014

~   1   ~

NORTH KOREA, WHICH WAS REMOVED from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 for promising to give up its nuclear weapons program, is quietly expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities, and not-so-quietly threatening to test more missiles and a nuclear weapon.

~   2   ~

HACK NORTH KOREA has chosen a winning technology for breaking down North Korea’s information blockade:

The winning team, which featured a pair of teenage siblings who flew in from Virginia for the event, presented a prototype of a system that could allow North Koreans to get real-time information more easily inside the country, Mr. Gladstein said.

The team proposed using micro-radio devices the size of credit cards, which they said could pick up signals from the South and which could be delivered into the country by smuggling or balloon drop.

Alongside this, the team would target South Korean satellite television broadcasts aimed at China, which pass over the North. Using what they described as “easily concealable” satellite receivers, North Koreans would be able to directly plug their televisions into the receivers. [Wall Street Journal]

Chad O’Carroll’s report for NK News adds the most delectable detail of all – the winners were “a three person Korean-American team who requested to remain anonymous.” If the winners are reading this, congratulations. I wish you success.

The Human Rights Foundation has put out press releases in the event in both English and Korean, and where it notes that this year’s event is just one part of an ongoing campaign called “Disrupt North Korea.” That campaign could easily be more consequential than anything the U.S. or South Korean governments have ever done to promote reform in North Korea.

~   3   ~

SPEAKING OF SUBVERSIVE COMMUNICATIONS, Radio Free Asia reports that North Koreans have really taken to Kakao Talk. The real killer app for North Korea may be combining satellite communications with chatting and instant messaging.

~   4   ~

ANDREA BERGER ANALYZES North Korea’s links to Hamas and Hezbollah, at 38 North.

~   5   ~

LEO BYRNE INVESTIGATES Kim Jong Un’s Mercedez Pullman limousines, and the sanctions that were likely broken to import them.

~   6   ~

MORE ON THOSE POSSIBLE IMPORTS of North Korean gold, via The New Yorker.

~   7   ~

REUTERS HAS MORE INFO on the arrest of American Jeffrey Fowle in North Korea.

~   8   ~

CHINA EXECUTES alleged North Korean drug dealer:

A North Korean national has been executed in China for smuggling and trading drugs, court documents showed Thursday, following the executions of three South Korean drug dealers in the country this week.

A 32-year-old man identified by his surname Oh was executed for selling 3.75 kilograms of methamphetamine he had smuggled into China from North Korea between October and November 2010, according to a district court in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin Province. [Yonhap]

This will be used to support arguments that the China-North Korea relationship is under strain, and that may be the case, but I take nothing from the Chinese government at face value.

~   9   ~

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY is now almost as unpopular as George W. Bush’s was at the same point in his presidency. Obama wouldn’t have to replicate Bush’s interventionist excesses to recover from this. He could start by ignoring Gaza; he could then direct the State Department to concentrate on alliance diplomacy in Asia, direct Treasury to strengthen sanctions against North Korea and Iran, and direct DOD and CIA to arm and train the Ukrainians, and to support a reawakening and broad autonomy for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

If the President chooses not to recover from his de facto isolationism, then foreign policy deserves to be one of the top issues in this year’s mid-term elections.