North Korea’s food rations fall to three-year low.

Apparently, 2014 will be the 21st consecutive year in which a drought or a flood will have devastated crops and caused food shortages in only the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Simply uncanny how that keeps happening like that.

North Korea’s food distribution to ordinary citizens tumbled to a three-year low in August, hit by a drought in the spring, a U.S. report said Wednesday.

The North’s daily food ration per capita reached 250 grams last month, far lower than a target of 573g, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) said, citing a report from the World Food Programme.

The daily amount marks the smallest food provision since those posted in 2011, the report said, adding that the July figure was about the same size. [Yonhap]

How this affects individual North Koreans will vary widely. First, I’d be astonished if anecdotes about one region — or political class — were equally applicable to rations in other regions and classes. Second, most North Koreans have become so dependent on the markets, and so used to being excluded from the rationing system, that many of them will be able to find other ways to cope. It’s North Korea’s most vulnerable people — likely those in state institutions like hospitals and orphanages — who will be most affected by this.

Report: Hollywood is interested in those MiGs Panama seized from a North Korean ship …

for a “Top Gun” sequel, no less, according to The Miami Herald (in Spanish). In case you’re wondering whether Panama can legally do that, yes it can. See Paragraph 14. HT: Oliver Hotham.

Kerry to North Korea: “[C]lose those camps … shut this evil system down.”

It’s no secret to readers of this site that I’ve never been an admirer of John Kerry. His tenure has been a rolling catastrophe for our national security, in a way that even a rank amateur could have predicted years ago. It’s often difficult to see that he has a North Korea policy at all.

Not so long ago, I criticized Kerry for showing no sign of pressing for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea. But yesterday, Kerry went to “a ministerial meeting he hosted in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly,” where he said some important and commendable things:

“We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” Kerry said.

Kerry stressed that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the problem has lifted the veil on the issue, referring to a report released in February that North Korean leaders are responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” violations of human rights. [….]

“No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction because in 400 pages of excruciating details and testimonies from over 80 witnesses, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report of the DPRK (North Korea) has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” he said.  [….]

“If we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? If we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?” Kerry said. “So we say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down,” he said. [Yonhap]

The Voice of America has video of Kerry’s remarks, in which he mentions several of the camps by name.

[Good report, but please do some research before saying how heavily
sanctioned North Korea is. It isn't.]

At the meeting, Kerry joined South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently replaced Navi Pillay. In the video, Kerry can be seen seated next to Shin Dong-hyuk.

Of course, to suggest that rhetoric is the measure of policy is like saying that a man’s jawline is the measure of his virility. Substantively, George W. Bush’s North Korea policy was like Rock Hudson at the Playboy Club, and Kerry’s mandibles may be the only fearsome thing about him, but the words they loosed yesterday were both welcome and overdue. Time will tell whether these words translate into effective action, but words like these are certainly a prerequisite to effective action. And of course, no effective action will issue from the General Assembly, a body that has no binding authority on anyone. But still ….

A strongly worded resolution calling for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take responsibility for his regime’s crimes against humanity is anticipated to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly next month.

“The European Union and Japan have completed a draft resolution that endorses the February report of the Commission of Inquiry [into North Korean human rights] and will soon circulate it among UN member states,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.  [….]

“Australia, the home country of Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the COI, was also very active, and there is a high likelihood that the resolution will be adopted through the momentum on the issue in the UN General Assembly,” said one foreign affairs official.

Another diplomatic source said, “Because human rights problems are a universal issue to mankind, it will be a burden on China or Russia to stick up for Pyongyang against other member states.”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Does any of this really matter, then? Pyongyang seems to think so. The New York Times has already noticed a striking shift in the tone of North Korea’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings. At first, it flatly denied them and called its Chair “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” Now, its U.N. Ambassador is feigning some openness to considering some of the criticisms — up to a point — and says his government has “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.”

North Korea’s declaration falls far short of a commitment to follow through with any action, but the contrast with its blanket refusal to even consider similar recommendations in the past could be seen as a willingness to engage on some issues.

“There obviously has been some decision that this is the way the rest of the world relates, and the decision seems to be that North Korea should do it as well,” said Robert R. King, the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. [NYT]

Although King concedes the need to “be careful about assuming this means a great deal in terms of what they do,” a shift in tone this significant must reveal something, even if its sincerity is dubious and its execution, inartful. Last week, for example, North Korea released a self-audit of its own human rights conditions that carried all the credibility of an O.J. Simpson progress report on his search for the real killer. It recited from a fictional work called the “Constitution” of “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” which is an oxymoron. Pyongyang’s report was widely ridiculed in the press.

The North’s ambassador, So Se-pyong, speaking before the Human Rights Council, signaled that the North’s leadership was now willing to consider suggestions about, among other things, freedom of thought, “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” for humanitarian agencies and freedom for them to monitor distribution of their aid. The prevention of human rights violations and punishment for violators were also on the list.

But Mr. So said the North had rejected some recommendations that were “based on distorted information provided by hostile forces which aimed to dismantle the country’s social system,” including calls for unfettered access to detainees for the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosure of the extent and methods of capital punishment, and the end of restrictions on movement and expression.  [NYT]

If you happen to be a North Korean, all of this will look like vaporous twaddle. Nothing the General Assembly says will make North Korea a less brutal place in the foreseeable future, and I’d still reckon that a quarter of the people in these camps will be dead within a year. North Korea still denies that the camps even exist, and its verbose human rights self-audit never mentions them. In all probability, North Korea will be back to its old bombastic self within a week.

Even so, it would also be wrong to conclude that none of this means anything. King cites declining foreign aid contributions and speculates, “I think the North Koreans are feeling some pressure.” But concerns over human rights alone wouldn’t justify denying aid. North Korea’s lack of transparency in distributing the aid might, as would its massive and deliberate waste of funds on missiles, ski resorts, German limousines, and Swiss watches. To be sure, the COI report’s findings also support those concerns, but aid programs for the North were already underfunded when the COI published its report. It’s more likely that donors simply don’t think Pyongyang is serious about feeding its people, and are diverting their limited aid budgets to places that are.

I think King is closer to the mark when he also says that “‘growing concerns about human rights conditions in North Korea make it much more difficult to raise money from foreign governments’ and private sources.” (Emphasis is mine, and note that the emphasized words were added by the Times reporter.) It’s not clear if King is referring to private aid groups or private investors, but investors are the far greater source of cash. All investment decisions weigh risks against benefits, and to many investors, the image risks of being associated with North Korea can’t be justified by the limited returns to be gained in its uncertain business climate. The growing threat of intensified sanctions will add to that uncertainty.

That’s why, for the first time, Pyongyang sees human rights as a problem it can’t just ignore. Its crimes against humanity now threaten to become a significant financial liability. Like the COI report itself, a tough resolution from the General Assembly will give investors pause.

Those signs of engagement dispel what was once a common assumption that the North’s leadership was immune to foreign criticism on issues of human rights, said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “However sincere or insincere it may be, it’s a reflection it does care what the international community thinks and the international community does have leverage to push for change in North Korea,” Ms. Singh said. [NYT]

That is all the more reason to intensify that criticism, but it’s also important to understand what Pyongyang’s game is, too. Pressure is of no consequence unless it extracts fundamental change, and change will only be credible if it’s transparent. Pyongyang is a good enough illusionist to fool the Associated Press — remember how well it worked in this case? — and plenty of its readers. Let’s not forget that in 1944, even the Nazis felt the need to answer damaging charges about their concentration camps. This is Theriesenstadt, which served as Auschwitz’s waiting room. In 1944, the Nazis staged this film to dispel rumors about the “resettlement” of Jews, and portray it as humane:

[Within a month, nearly all of these people died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.]

When Pyongyang can’t ignore problems — usually because it’s under some kind of external financial pressure — it does things like agreeing to “reinvestigate” its abductions of foreign citizens, or agreeing to give up its nuclear programs. It knows well enough that for plenty of us, simply agreeing to talk or (at worst) signing a piece of paper is enough to take the pressure off.

This is where we’ll need to be smarter than the Danish Red Cross, the Associated Press, and our diplomats. Pyongyang knows that there will also be calls for divestment, the blocking of its offshore slush funds, and other forms of financial pressure. There will be calls to tighten the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, and perhaps to pass new ones. Blunting that pressure is Pyongyang’s obvious objective. And those who question that that pressure could work need look no further than the signs that Pyongyang is worried about it.

South Korean media reach deeper into North Korean society.

“The notion of what makes you a chon-nom (“country bumpkin”) in North Korea has really changed,” says Lee Han-byul, a refugee from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, who left the country in 2010.

“In the past, the term was used to mock young people living in the provinces,” she says. “But now it’s less so much where you live, but more about how familiar you are with culture outside the country that makes you a chon-nom.”

Han-byul suggests that South Korean dramas are so embedded in the consciousness of ordinary people that “while there are those who may never have had the chance to watch one, you will be hard pressed to find those who have watched one once and don’t watch another.”

She also adds that, “I’ve heard from younger people that those who haven’t seen a South Korean drama have trouble fitting in with trend-sensitive peers.” [New Focus]

Even “ the influence of South Korean tones and voices on language” can be heard in North Korean speech today, including in rural areas that were once isolated from such influences.

4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).

Synopsis:

10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?


movie photo: The Threshold of Death
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony

Synopsis:

Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.

Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).

When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT - stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.

All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.


For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.

For Facebookers, there’s an event page for the festival and an event page for the opening ceremony.

Dan Bielefeld

North Korean Gulag survivors call on Switzerland to freeze Kim Jong Un’s slush funds (Alternate title: Cursed are the Cheesemakers).

Switzerland has always been there for North Korea. When North Koreans were starving to death in heaps, Switzerland was there to receive Kim Jong Il’s personal shopper and sell him millions of dollars’ worth of its finest timepieces. When North Korea needed creative new ways to make money — literally! — Switzerland sold it the very same intaglio presses and optically variable ink our Bureau of Engraving and Printing uses to make money. When Kim Jong Un needed a place to spend his formative rumspringa torturing small animals, masturbating to bondage porn, flunking his classes, and developing the personality profile of a school shooter — a school shooter with nuclear weapons — his daddy picked Switzerland. Thanks to Switzerland’s narrow interpretation of U.N. sanctions on “luxury goods,” His Porcine Majesty is now eating himself into a mobility scooter on Emmental cheese.* And when the Treasury Department sanctioned North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank for its involvement in WMD proliferation, it was the Swiss who yodeled that Uncle Sam was starving North Korean babies.

Above all else, when Kim Jong Il needed a place to stash somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion in personal slush funds, Switzerland and its bankers received his money launderers with open arms. But for one regrettable violation of North Korea’s human rights last year, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea $7 million in ski lift equipment,** Switzerland has always been there to provide North Korea the watches and numbered bank accounts that starving people need so desperately (and the finest cheeses, of course). Switzerland’s refusal to sell the ski lifts may have delayed the opening of the Masikryeong Ski Resort by several days, but the Swiss people can still take comfort in knowing that, thanks to their government’s laissez-faire policies, the death certificates of 2.5 million expendable men, women, and children (might, possibly) record the hour and minute of their sacrifice with Swiss precision.

The Swiss government has also done its share. Every year, as a token of appreciation for North Korea’s patronage, it refunds the equivalent of 0.7%*** of North Korea’s slush funds to the North Korean government … as humanitarian aid. It’s all part of a reputation for impeccable financial ethics that dates back to the Holocaust. You could say that Switzerland is to kleptocrats what Cambodia is to pedophiles, if this wasn’t so grossly unfair to Cambodia.

For a while, it was fashionable for North Korea watchers to suggest that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education might have influenced him toward a more libertine style of governance, but things haven’t quite worked out that way. It may be that these scholars were working from a flawed model of Switzerland as a liberal European utopia — a land of cuckoo clocks, alpine meadows, open-air heroin-shooting galleries, and drive-in brothels. This, of course, is a crude stereotype. The real Switzerland**** is the home of Europe’s answer to Gitmo, except that it holds more people (476 men, women, and children) and kills one of them now and then (sound familiar?). It’s a land that values simple things, like racial purity (sound familiar?), and that tolerates all religions except the ones that it doesn’t (hello!).

Actually, until this moment, I’d never realized just how much Switzerland and North Korea have in common. There may be enough similarities that, with a little imagination, you could view Switzerland and North Korea as moral equals.***** One logical reaction to this would be to reject everything that any Swiss person says about North Korea — ever — regardless of its substantive merit.****** Another possible response would be to call for Switzerland to use its financial power to alter how Kim Jong Un uses North Korea’s wealth and rules over its people.

This latter view is now advanced by U.N. Watch, a Swiss NGO. Despite the fact that they are Swiss, perhaps we should suspend logic briefly and hear them out. After all, U.N. Watch is really just publishing a call “by 20 North Korean defectors,” including several survivors of North Korea’s prison camps, for the Swiss Government to block Kim Jong Un’s slush funds. I’ve reprinted the letter in full below the fold, but here is the gist of it:

In conclusion, based on international law and Swiss domestic law, prior Swiss precedents, and the basic principles of morality and humanity, we respectfully urge Switzerland to immediately freeze all assets of the North Korean leadership, whether held in their names or those of their associates, that are located within its territory.

Even better, the Swiss government could make every centime of those deposits available to buy food—provided the distribution of those purchases was better monitored than, say, the Oil-for-Food program, or the World Food Program’s current North Korea operations. There is a catch, of course. Funds that are blocked, as opposed to confiscated, still belong to the North Korean government. But surely Kim Jong Un wouldn’t deny starving people their fair share of his vast wealth out of spite alone.

~   ~   ~

* Or so say the unverified rumors. I guess you could verify the exports from trade statistics, but I hesitate to believe that anyone who knows what’s on Kim Jong Un’s table is telling.

** I wish this was a tasteless joke, but the North Koreans really did call this a “serious human rights abuse.” The value of the ski lifts, at $7 million, is almost exactly the same amount as what Switzerland donated to North Korea as humanitarian aid the same year.

*** Actually, it’s impossible to estimate that percentage without knowing how big the slush funds are or where they’re deposited, but if you divide $7 million by $1 billion, you get 0.007, or 0.7%.

**** Disclaimer: Author may not have actually been to Switzerland.

***** Especially if you’re really, really high.

****** Some might say that’s especially so of one who called the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea’s crimes against humanity “a massive exaggeration.” The best thing that can be said of most Holocaust deniers is that they’re merely vicarious, post-hoc deniers. This cannot be said of Felix Abt.

Read more

Park Sang Hak is a very brave man.

Park and the Fighters for a Free North Korea, most of whom are North Korean refugees, ignored a letter from Pyongyang to the office of South Korea’s President that, according to Yonhap, “alluded to retaliation” against their next leaflet balloon launch:

Defying the warning, 10 activists from Fighters for Free North Korea launched 10 big balloons carrying 200,000 anti-North Korea leaflets into the sky in Paju, north of Seoul.

The waterproof leaflets contain messages denouncing the three-generation power transfer in the North as well as the dire economic situation, while praising South Korea’s economic prosperity. [Yonhap]

They also ignored a warning from the South Korean government about the safety risks, and a request from the Unification Ministry not to go through with the launch. Park’s reaction was defiant.

“In spite of any threat or warning from the North, we will continue sending letters of truth until the North Korean people achieve liberalization,” the activist group’s chief, Park Sang-hak, said during the leaflet campaign.

As much as I admire Park’s uncompromising courage, I also worry about him enough to think he should compromise it just slightly, by being more cagey about launch times and places. The North Koreans have already made one attempt on his life, and I wouldn’t put it past them to shell a launch site. Nor would I put it past South Korean “progressives” to blame Park for the attack and its consequences. They want the government to censor Park:

“Sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets constitutes a dangerous act that devastates peace on the peninsula,” said an activist from the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements.

You can call the Korean left many things, but “liberal” isn’t one of them.

At times, I’ve wondered what effect Park’s leaflets could possibly have, especially when most of them probably aren’t even found, much less read. One thing that Pyongyang’s reaction to Park tells me is that he must be having some effect. It wouldn’t issue threats like these and send assassins to kill Park if it wasn’t afraid of his message.

North Korea ranks 197th out of 197 countries for press freedom this year,

… according to Freedom House.

Remember 2011, when Pyongyang’s deal with the Associated Press was supposed to usher in a new era of press freedom in North Korea? Wouldn’t it be great if one of the AP’s editors or correspondents would sit for an interview, review how that’s worked out, and answer hard questions about the North Korean regime’s restrictions on the access and coverage? I don’t mean softball interviews like this; I mean the kind of hard questions that make them execute evasive maneuvers, or walk away in a huff.

Come to think of it, we may need a whole new system to rank the press freedom of news agencies. I wonder how engagement with North Korea has affected the AP’s ranking.

The Japan-North Korea deal will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1 ….

It could have been predicted from the moment of its revelation — and was — that Pyongyang would renege on its ransom deal with Tokyo. And so, as surely as the sun rises, Pyongyang has reinterpreted its “reinvestigation” of its abductions of Japanese so as to reveal approximately nothing, slowly. Tokyo says it will reject Pyongyang’s report:

Pyongyang said the report would include only information on missing persons who are not on Tokyo’s official list, which totals 17 Japanese. Instead, the North’s report will only cover cases of Japanese suspected of having been abducted by North Korea but not officially designated as such, of Japanese left behind in North Korea amid the chaos of the end of World War II, and of Japanese spouses of North Koreans who returned to their native country, the source said. [Japan Times]

I’ll go out on a limb here: North Korea’s “investigation” of these cases will clear North Korea of all responsibility.

Pyongyang has told Tokyo it is still investigating the fates of the 12 officially listed as having been abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Japanese government replied that, as it places the highest value on that group, it will not accept the report unless it includes new information on their fates. The other five designated abductees were repatriated in 2002. [Japan Times]

Bloomberg adds that Pyongyang may stall the release of information about the 12 for another year, further angering their families. One of the 12 is Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped when she was just 13 years old. Yokota personifies the abduction issue in a way that resounds deeply with the Japanese people.

Providence-20140921-00306

[At an event I attended at the Japanese Embassy last year, workers passed out copies of this Megumi Yokota manga, which was published and translated by the Japanese government.]

Pyongyang says that Yokota committed suicide in 1994 and sent “her” bones to Japan in 2005, but a DNA test proved that the bones weren’t hers. Japan was outraged by the revelation.

Tokyo believes the half-baked proposal by Pyongyang shows it aims to offer information in small increments, each time trying to elicit as many economic benefits as possible from Japan in exchange. During past negotiations, North Korea asked Japan to ease unilateral economic sanctions and sought humanitarian support, such as food, and Pyongyang may have made a similar request during the latest talks, the source said. [Japan Times]

In other words, the Japanese think the North Koreans are milking them. Pyongyang wants to maintain the relaxation of sanctions for as long as possible, and probably demand more, in exchange for revealing as little as possible and as slowly as possible, and setting no one free. If only they had first solicited the advice of someone who knows from bitter experience:

“I lived in North Korea long enough to know how things work,” Ueda said. “They want money from Japan — that’s why they’re negotiating — but if the government gives them the money upfront, they won’t get anyone back.” [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

One apparent problem with this deal is its vagueness, which allowed the two sides to walk away from the table with a deal, but also with two different understandings of what the deal was. This is the same problem that vexed American diplomats who negotiated, and then tried to enforce, the Leap Day Deal (Where does it say we can’t test missiles?), the 2005 joint statement (You have to build us a reactor first!), and 2007 agreed framework (Where does it say anything about uranium? Which we absolutely, positively aren’t enriching?). Pyongyang’s interlocutors keep their agreements vague so that they can clinch their deals. Most international agreements are vague, compared to, say, legislation, or the settlement agreements that lawyers write. Inevitably, Pyongyang exploits that vagueness.

Just as a diplomatic experiment, I wonder what would happen if Japan told North Korea that it had a week to come clean on just the 12, or face the reimposition and expansion of sanctions.

~   ~   ~

A greater obstacle to this deal is Pyongyang’s irredeemable lack of credibility. The Japan Times cites estimates by abductee advocates that North Korea is “highly likely” to have been behind 77 disappearances of Japanese citizens, and may have been involved up to 470 disappearances in all. If that sounds like a wild exaggeration, Japan’s National Police Agency “believes North Korea may have been involved in the disappearance of about 880 Japanese nationals.” Yet Pyongyang already seems ready to clear itself in some of these cases.

Given how pathologically North Korea has lied to Japan before, how can the victims’ families, or those who represent them in government, ever believe them? The North Koreans will probably never reveal the full extent of their kidnappings, but what if they did? They could admit to kidnapping another dozen more people, or a couple hundred more. It still wouldn’t matter, because mankind has never built a structure that can suspend so much disbelief. Only a fool would believe Pyongyang’s pinkie-swear that there were no others, even if it had nothing to do with most of those 880 disappearances. Pyongyang finds itself trapped by its own lies, incapable of convincing Japan that it’s telling the truth.

~   ~   ~

The collapse of this deal will certainly provoke another outraged reaction in Japan, and in due course, a hardening of Japan’s policies. You need only recall how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted to North Korea’s lies in 2004:

“If we give North Korea one more chance and it fails to respond by the deadlines, we need to strongly urge the government to immediately exercise economic sanctions on North Korea,” Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Sunday. [N.Y. Times, Dec. 14, 2004]

In 2005, the Japanese government responded with new sanctions, and by taxing Chongryeon, North Korea’s front organization in Japan, to near-extinction. Last week, Abe called the abduction issue “the top priority of [his] administration,” adding, “My mission will not be over until the day all of the abduction victims have been returned to their families.” Having invested himself in this issue, Abe can’t easily forgive North Korean backsliding.

“I understand they may begin to have misgivings,” Abe said of the victims’ families in a speech on Sept. 19 in Tokyo. “It’s unfortunately true to say this is taking time and trouble.” [....]

“The abduction problem was the first issue he took up as a politician and it’s what made his name in national politics,” said Yoshiyuki Inoue, an upper house lawmaker for Your Party who served as secretary to Abe before and during his 2006-2007 administration. [Bloomberg]

Pyongyang’s interest in a deal proves that sanctions influenced Pyongyang’s decision-making. But unless sanctions are coordinated with other nations that have coercive power over Pyongyang, not one of those nations will get what it wants. America’s allies, which are incapable of working things out between themselves, need America’s help to coordinate sanctions policy. Under the best of circumstances, that’s like gathering a basket of ants. But an America that itself seems visionless can offer no plausible outcomes to induce its allies to cooperate. Until the White House articulates such a vision, Pyongyang will continue to blunt international pressure by making separate appeals to the individual interests of governments, and to the various profiteers, politicians, and hucksters who can influence them.

~   ~   ~

This post was edited after publication.

Jeffrey Fowle just lost his job for being in a North Korean prison instead of at work.

“We had hoped this action would not be necessary,” states a letter dated Sept. 16 from Moraine City Manager David Hicks, “but in light of your continued incarceration in North Korea resulting from your (a) unilateral decision to travel to North Korea against the advice of your family and acquaintances; and (b) running afoul of North Korean restrictions on ‘anti-government’ activities, and as stated, the exhaustion of your accrued vacation time, we have to act in the best interests of the city of Moraine and its residents.” [WHIO News]

Whether or not this is true of President Obama, it’s an insightful analysis.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment. And we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct, the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.

Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the subject but misses the heart of the matter.

I’m still working out how much of this I agree with as it applies to the President,* but that’s not my real interest in this passage. What interests me is Noonan’s insightful distinction between “brightness” and judgment.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone through a similar analysis while reading scholarly articles about North Korea. So many bright people have constructed intricate, coherent, and rational packages of incentives for North Korea to disarm, to reform, and to better the lives of its people — and still do, to this day, in spite of everything! — while misjudging much more fundamental things: Why do they think Kim Jong Il/Un wants those things as much as they want him to want them? What makes them think he’d go along with their plans? Why should we trust him? What outcomes are their plans likely to have achieved a year after we’ve made the down payments? What kind of behavior are we incentivizing and perpetuating?

Asking bright people such questions can be like asking the gnomes about Phase 2. They repeat Phases 1 and 3 — a little more slowly, this time — and patiently re-annunciate why the plan’s logic is so unassailable, even (especially!) from Pyongyang’s perspective. They’re almost always correct. And it’s almost always irrelevant that they are. In projecting their own reason and altruism onto the little gray men in Pyongyang, some of the world’s brightest people sound as oblivious to the bigger picture — as lacking in judgment — as those missionaries who set off in a shiny new air-conditioned tour bus to read Bible verses to the Taliban … in Korean. The outcomes were not dissimilar.

~   ~   ~

* I know I don’t agree with the word “faux.” I think the sophistication is real. I also agree that sophistication is overrated.

~   ~   ~

Update: Here’s a good example of what I’m talking talking about. Phase 1, throw money at North Korea. Phase 3, peace! HT: Stephan Haggard.

NKPW: North Korea cracks down on remittances from refugees to their families

Our latest edition of North Korea Perestroika Watch comes via the Chosun Ilbo, which quotes North Korean insiders as saying that the tolerance of markets is temporary, and that a crackdown will come in due course:

Hyun Dong-il at Yanbian University said, “Major changes are taking place in North Korea, but the ruling elite says it is still intent on adhering to the planned, socialist economic model.”

North Korean academics studying at Yanbian University apparently say that the changes are “temporary” measures aimed at dealing with the problems in the state rationing system and that any signs of a free-market economy will be snuffed out once the system is up and running again.

Not all of the analysts quoted agreed with that assessment, and in any event, it’s speculative. But a crackdown on markets would be consistent with the regime’s recent crackdowns on refugee flows, foreign currency savings, private agriculture, and illegal cellphones. It would also be consistent with an ongoing crackdown on clandestine remittances — one of the most important and overlooked elements of the gray-market capitalism that stands between North Korea’s underprivileged classes and starvation.

One of the main drivers of North Korea’s underground market economy has been remittances from refugees who make it to South Korea, and who send money home to feed their families. It’s an informal, trust-based banking system like the hawala system used in the Middle East. For the last few years, it had drawn food into the markets from abroad, and from sotoji plots inside North Korea. It had also drawn breadwinners out of North Korea, incentivized defections to the South, helped those left behind start businesses, and supported a system of family “chain defections.” It had become a powerful engine of change. It was feeding the hungry. It was precisely the kind of “engagement” that North Korea has needed. And the regime hated it.

That’s why the regime has been targeting remittances since at least May of this year (Item 4). The regime’s usual suspects are ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship, known as hwagyo:

Growing economic disparity levels among households and ensuing social unrest from this flow of cash prompted the North Korean authorities to take extreme measures: cutting off its source by increasing surveillance of families with defector members, or in some cases going so far as to expel the accused to remote areas of the nation.

However, expanding the circle of monitoring to the hwagyo is considered unprecedented, and reflects the determination of the authorities to stamp out any efforts by those who it believes to be acting as middlemen in the stream of money flowing north. [….]

Not only that, as the range of families who are able to receive funds from defectors expands further inland, instead of contained only to border areas, the authorities have widened the scope of monitoring to include its own–SSD officials and security forces.

“The intensified crackdown on money sent from the South began last year,” the source explained. “Initially, it was mostly the families of defectors they monitored and penalized, but now they have made it more inclusive, punishing those who aid in transferring the cash.” [Daily NK]

The Obama Administration may not be willing to shut down the regime’s financial system, but the regime shows no hesitation about shutting down the informal financial system that the North Korean people increasingly rely on.

Now would be the time for those who have supported trade and engagement with this regime, and opposed sanctions against it, to stop shilling for state capitalism and support real capitalism.

The Daily NK looks back on the Il Shim Hue scandal, the investigation of which …

stopped suddenly when it reached the door of Roh Moo Hyun’s Blue House. See also my post from the time of the conviction, and follow the links if you care to read more.

I heard somewhere that Michael Jang, the group’s convicted ringleader and a former USFK soldier, has completed his sentence and is now a “unification” activist in L.A. Can anyone confirm that?

LiNK Fundraiser in Long Beach on Oct. 25: 5K for Freedom

From LiNK’s site:

5K for FREEDOM is an all ages event raising funds for Liberty in North Korea.

You are welcome to walk, run, bike, rollerblade, jog, push a stroller, or whatever you’d like! This is a non-competitive 5K designed to encourage fun while raising money for a good cause.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a non-profit working with North Korean refugees in hiding in China. These are families, grandmothers, children, daughters, etc. They risked their lives escaping North Korea and now live in fear of being sent back by the Chinese police.

LiNK helps these brave souls down to Southeast Asia and then on to safety.  This process is long, hard, costly, and dangerous.  It takes $3,000 per person to complete this journey.  Our goal is to raise enough at this event to rescue one person.  We can do it together!

Scotland has voted to stay in Britain, which is good news for Americans because …

if anyone ever separated these two mobs of chundering hooligans with a border fence, all we’d have left would be Russian dashcam videos.

Warning: The following video contains strong language, hilarious accents, and unintentional ethnic stereotypes.

Read more

So, you really, really don’t like North Korea, do you?

I’m just glad to have done my small part:

North Korea has topped the list of countries that the American people feel most unfavorable toward, a biennial survey showed Monday, amid the communist nation’s prolonged detention of three U.S. citizens.

North Korea received a favorability rating of 23 points out of 100 in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted on 2,108 adults from May 6-29. The North was followed by Iran with a rating of 27 points, Iraq with 31 points, Pakistan with 33 points and Russia 36 points. [Yonhap]

Also interesting: just 47% of Americans think U.S. troops should be “used” (Yonhap’s word) if North Korea invades South Korea, compared to 51% who were opposed. Even that is a significant recovery from 22% support in 1982, when memories of Vietnam were relatively fresh. It’s nearly unchanged since 2004, just after the peak of the anti-American fad in South Korea.

Also, it would be a completely meaningless statistic as soon as the first shots were fired. Even my views on that question are very, very complicated, and they would also be subject to dramatic shifts, depending on what the next South Korean government is like.

Yonhap also points to high levels of support for diplomacy with North Korea, but doesn’t mention that the use of targeted sanctions also enjoys overwhelming support. (The study didn’t measure support for sanctions against North Korea specifically, but in the case of Iran, support for both talks and sanctions was stratospheric.)

The original report is here, although I tend to wonder if it’s already been overcome by the shock of recent events and the collapse of President Obama’s mandate for “retrenchment,” as the CCGA describes it.

The study was funded, in part, by our friends at The Korea Foundation.

Matthew Todd Miller sure does sound like a weird person.

James Pearson and Ju-Min Park of Reuters have unearthed the fact that Miller lived in South Korea for several months, pretending to be a British person named “Preston Somerset,” and working on his magnum opus — an “Alice In Wonderland” anime project.

I guess “Sir Trevor Biggleswade-Duxbury, CBE” was already taken by a comic store clerk from Rancho Cucamonga.

Since then, Suspected British Person James Pearson and Confirmed British Person Chad O’Carroll of NK News have published some of Miller’s pictures. Your reaction to those pictures will vary according to your sensibilities, but “ewww” would be a valid one. Then again, if you’d lived near Lewis Carroll himself back in the day, you might have reacted the same way to him.

There is a part of me that says things like this aren’t relevant to the national interest in getting a U.S. citizen out of North Korea, no matter how unwelcome that citizen would be in my neighborhood. And then I remembered how much it mattered to people when we ransomed out Bo Bergdahl.

I wonder how Miller’s interrogators are taking all of that in.

~   ~   ~

Update: Mr. Pearson writes in to out himself as another Confirmed, Actual British Person. It was the use of “whilst” in an email that gave him away. I’m not even sure why that word still exists.

What Bob King should have said about travel to North Korea.

Ambassador Robert King, whose title is Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, has written to The Washington Post in response to Anna Fifield’s reporting on North Korea’s efforts to market itself as a tourist destination (which may be more accurately described as the efforts of foreign collaborators to sell North Korea as a fine place to go slumming).

King wishes that Fifield had given more emphasis to what should be obvious to anyone with good sense — that “[t]ravel to North Korea carries significant risks.” Fifield’s separate report on Matthew Miller’s “trial,” however, ought to have made that point clear enough; indeed, it recounts the history of North Korea’s hostage diplomacy in greater detail than King’s letter does. Unfortunately, to people without good sense, those risks are a feature, not a bug.

King argues that the actions of Matthew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle, and Kenneth Bae would not have warranted arrest in any ordinary place, and they “are being used by North Korea for propaganda purposes.” If that message was meant for Americans, again, he was stating the obvious. A more effective message might have been, “If you go, you’re on your own.”

If King’s message was meant for Pyongyang, it was probably received like an enfeebled appeal to Kim Jong Un’s sense of fair play. And if Pyongyang was not King’s intended audience, why would he have said this?

If North Korea wants to increase tourism, particularly from U.S. tourists, it must reduce the risk of traveling there. Granting clemency to those three Americans would be a start.

If what? In the same spirit, if ISIS wants to improve the quality of its media relations, not chopping the heads off journalists on video would be a start.

When Congress created King’s position, it gave him a very specific mandate, and that mandate did not include serving as a special advisor to the Pyongyang Chamber of Commerce. It does include supporting “international efforts to promote human rights and political freedoms in North Korea,” a topic never even came up in King’s letter. If King had wanted to send a powerful and effective message to American citizens and to Pyongyang that was consistent with his mandate, he would have argued that tourists who go to North Korea help sustain a system that murders, starves, and terrorizes the North Korean people. In suggesting how Americans should respond to that, he might have taken his direction from Desmond Tutu, who said,

“In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.”

… or from Martin Luther King, Jr., who said,

Any solution founded on justice is unattainable until the Government of South Africa is forced by pressures, both internal and external, to come to terms with the demands of the non-white majority. The apartheid republic is a reality today only because the peoples and governments of the world have been unwilling to place her in quarantine.”

… and who also said,

“We can join in the one form of non-violent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa – the action which African leaders have appealed for – in a massive movement for economic sanctions […] If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil; if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”

In South Africa, a system of racial apartheid determined, based on hereditary characteristics, where and how a person lived. In North Korea, a system of political apartheid called songbun determines, based on hereditary characteristics, not only where and how a person lives, but also whether a person lives at all, because a North Korean’s songbun is often determinative of whether he or she receives food rations, wages, medical care, and a job with safe working conditions (start at page 75).

Certainly much of what gave the opposition to apartheid its popular appeal was its racism, our own guilt about racism, and our desire to earn a degree of absolution from that guilt. Say what you will about apartheid — and even in its waning days, it was a revolting thing to witness — but I doubt that even John Vorster would have compared the President of the United States to a monkey or killed babies because they were suspected of being racially “impure.”

The other main difference between South Africa and North Korea is that South Africa sat on top of some of the world’s largest diamond, platinum, and gold deposits. North Korea exports coal, pine mushrooms, meth, and refugees. It sustains itself on its fragile links to the global financial system. Whose hub is in New York City.

Instead of using his voice to articulate a vision and strategy for carrying out his mandate, however, King has squandered much of his tenure angling to go to Pyongyang to plead for the release of Miller, Fowle, Bae, and other hostages. King is supposed to “engage in discussions with North Korean officials regarding human rights,” but he’s not a hostage negotiator — or for that matter, an issuer of travel advisories, or just another cog in the East Asia Bureau. When King is reduced to being any of these things, Pyongyang has succeeded at more than taking three Americans hostage. It has taken what should be an important part of the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy hostage, too, and effectively neutralized both King and his mandate. Who says terrorism doesn’t work?

Perhaps the question of what King discusses in Pyongyang is academic anyway, as North Korea doesn’t seem interested in talking to him about anything.

~   ~   ~

Are the North Koreans just assholes, or do they have a strategy? Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel is almost certainly correct when he says of Pyongyang, “This is the way that they play…. They use human beings, and in this case American citizens, as pawns.” (I swear, there is a word for that sort of thing somewhere.) I don’t doubt that the list of North Korea’s ransom demands is long. Cash, oil, and de facto recognition as a nuclear state probably appear on it. The production of hostage videos for propaganda use, and a longing for the pleasure of Joe Biden’s company, are probably lesser motives.

Pyongyang’s immediate objective, however, is about what’s happening in the U.N. General Assembly now, as the General Assembly considers the report of the Commission of Inquiry for Human Rights in North Korea. In February, that report documented, in extensive detail, North Korea’s crimes against humanity, including the operation of a system of horrific concentration camps. Before this month is over, the General Assembly is scheduled to vote on whether to refer that report to the Security Council. The State Department has begun discussions “with South Korea and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring foreign ministers of U.N. member countries” about what to do in response to that report. John Kerry will also participate in those discussions, which is a modestly hopeful sign, assuming that Kerry’s participation isn’t just a half-hearted concession to bipartisan public pressure:

The group of 14 people, who undersigned the letter, included former U.S. Assistant Secretaries of State Morton Abramowitz and Lorne Craner; Victor Cha, chief analyst on Korea at the CSIS; and Roberta Cohen, co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The group also welcomed the U.S. interest in co-sponsoring a draft resolution on North Korea currently being written by Japan and the European Union, and called on the U.S. to ensure the resolution condemns the North’s human rights violations “in the strongest possible terms.”

They also urged the text contain language urging the Security Council to consider new targeted sanctions against those who are most responsible for crimes against humanity, prioritize the commission’s call for immediate access to North Korea’s prison camps for human rights monitors and humanitarian groups, and endorse the creation of a field-based office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. [Yonhap]

Bob King should be at the front and center of America’s public and private leadership of a global response to the COI’s report, both in the U.N. and elsewhere. Maybe, behind the scenes, he is, but as a public diplomat, he sounds far more concerned about hostage negotiations, and about helping Pyongyang raise its Travelocity ratings. It’s worrisome that the official in charge of leading the administration’s response to North Korea’s crimes against humanity betrays no vision or sense of mission about the concrete terms of that response.

Does Bob King agree with Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr. that economic pressure is a necessary instrument to change an evil regime that shows no inclination to change — at least for the better — on its own? Or does he believe, despite the risks of travel to North Korea, that tourism to North Korea advances positive change in some meaningful way? I have no idea what he thinks, and if I don’t know, it’s safe bet that almost no one else does, either.