Anna Fifield examines the soulless imbeciles who visit North Korea as tourists …

here:

“A lot of people don’t know they can even come here, and then when they get here they say it’s not what they were expecting,” said Rowan Beard, 27, an Australian who runs Young Pioneers. “They think it’s going to be all doom and gloom and death and sad faces.”

That’s funny. I’m no Madonna expert, but if I ever met her, I’d expect to see cosmetics troweled over layers of cosmetic alterations and a vacuous personality, not running sores, lesions, or visible tattoos that say “Dennis.” But then, Darwin hasn’t been so kind to all of us.

Indeed, for all the new places that tourists have been allowed to go in recent years, many others remain off-limits. Tourists are never going to see labor camps where as many as 120,000 political prisoners toil, or the villages where children don’t get enough food because it has been diverted to the military.

One positive thing we do learn from this article is that Americans are finally starting to wise up and stay away. Also, I’ve enjoyed Anna Fifield’s reporting for the WaPo so far.

An excellent panel discussion on food aid to North Korea …

here, via the snaggletoothed, rheumy-eyed old Trotskyites at The Guardian.

I’m not sure how representative the sample is, but it’s a much more skeptical sample than we’d have seen even five years ago. At some point, you have to question why, after a decade of aid, more than 80% of the citizens of an industrialized nation with plenty of cash laying around can still be living hand-to-mouth. Clearly, the U.N. isn’t addressing the root cause of hunger in North Korea — the choices and policies of the regime itself.

HT: Dr. Mark P. Barry

Fifty a day, every Tuesday. Men. Women. Children.

“These days, China trucks about 50 North Korean defectors from its immigration detention center in Tumen to North Korea’s Namyang city just across the border every Tuesday,” an activist said, citing an unidentified Chinese official familiar with the matter. He did not elaborate on the official’s identity for fear of possible reprisal against her by the Chinese government. [Yonhap]

Update: The title of this post was edited after publication, adding the words “every Tuesday.”

N. Korea perestroika watch: Regime bans all wireless internet use by foreigners.

Just lovely. Background here.

If any of my regulars in Pyongyang who aren’t spies — and in a spirit of inclusiveness, also those who are spies — care to risk summary execution and pass along their anonymous observations, I’m listening.

Assuming you have wired internet, that is.

The President just articulated the right policy for Iraq and Syria. For 2011.

I have to wonder whether, at this point, there’s still time to save Jordan, much less the Free Syrian Army.

Self-described feminist Christine Ahn was not available for comment

”A deadly motorcycle accident involving drunken female college students linked to gambling and drugs in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang has led to a government campaign to promote ‘woman’s morality’ in the reclusive nation, according to sources.” [Radio Free Asia]

That seems rather … patriarchal, if not sexist. But then, when it comes to North Korea, this is still low on the hierarchy of indignities, burdens, and horrors that women endure.

A young Korean-American activist has started a campaign to push the BBC…

to start broadcasting to North Korea. His name is Youngchan Justin Choi, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting his campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Choi, the financial cost of broadcasting to North Korea would be just a few million dollars — a tiny amount. When a publicly funded global media conglomerate refuses to broadcast to a country where the need is as great as it is in North Korea, I start to wonder what other motives are left unsaid. If we see the BBC open a Pyongyang Bureau next year, we’ll have our answer.

The ROK government is ramping up intra-governmental efforts to prepare …

a transitional legal system in case of “reunification.” I assume North Korea isn’t participating in this effort, so  draw your own conclusions about the expected circumstances that would lead to that contingency.

Tonight, on The John Batchelor Show, Bruce Bechtol will discuss North Korea’s …

terrorism, proliferation, and policy responses to both.

Bechtol, as you recall, testified as an expert in the Kaplan v. DPRK case that found North Korea liable for sponsoring the Hezbollah rocket attacks that injured the civilian plaintiffs. Judge Lamberth cited both Bechtol’s testimony and his book, The Last Days of Kim Jong Il, in his Memorandum Opinion.

The interview will air at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Time in Washington, and at other times in other areas, on this station. You can also listen to recorded broadcasts of the show here, which you should, for another good reason — Gordon Chang often co-hosts the show.

I don’t care for most talk radio, frankly, but Batchelor’s show is always intelligent, always has insightful guests, and never harangues. You may or may not agree with its perspective, in the same way that I don’t agree with NPR’s perspective, but still find its content redeeming. Batchelor’s show is NPR for conservatives, only without the government funding.

Is N. Korea building a missile submarine?

”A missile launch tube on a North Korean submarine was observed recently by U.S. intelligence agencies and is raising new concerns about the missile and nuclear threat from the communist regime in Pyongyang, according to two defense officials familiar with reports of the development.” [Free Beacon]

That would complicate the interception of North Korean missiles immensely.

IAEA: Yongbyon is running

“Since late August 2013, the Agency has observed, through analysis of satellite imagery, steam discharges and the outflow of cooling water at the 5 MW(e) reactor, signatures which are consistent with the reactor’s operation.” [via Reuters]

If I’m nonplussed, it’s because I keep hearing this reported again and again. I’ll know that South Korea is more serious about disarming North Korea than it is about profiteering from slave labor when Park Geun-Hye tells Kim Jong-Un to choose between Yonbyon and Kaesong.

Are South Koreans always the last to learn facts about North Korea or

… does it just seem that way?

Years after Google Earth made North Korea’s gulags visible to any American with an internet connection, Daum is launching a Korean-language map service covering North Korea. It’s not clear what new information this will provide for English speakers, other than helping us with those pesky problems of spelling North Korean place names in English.

Separately, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission says “it plans to open a permanent exhibition hall on North Korea’s human rights conditions in an effort to raise public awareness about the issue.” That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the opening date is scheduled for 2017, which should give South Korean’s left-wing parties, whose human rights policy can be summarized as “die in place,” plenty of time to cut funding for it.

Former Obama Admin. official: Our N. Korea sanctions are weak and our policy is stuck

The Obama Administration’s North Korea team is stuck. Its thirst for fresh blood is so dire that it recently asked Keith Richards whether he still has the number of that secret clinic in Switzerland.* Don’t take my word for it. Last Friday, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a friend and spy of mine was sitting in the audience (thank you). Campbell’s remarks are worth listening to in full, but the money quote — which went unreported in the press despite its significance, and despite the fact that Campbell emphasized it and closed with it — starts at 20:19:

And I must say — I’ll just conclude with this — when we think about our overall tool kit, there is one element of our strategy that I don’t think people fully appreciate. We often think of North Korea — I certainly did — as one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, with almost impossible objective … obstacles for people wanting to travel, invest, or the like.

It turns out, when I was at the State Department, working on Myanmar, or Burma, comparing Burma to North Korea is night and day. Burma has MUCH more in the way of sanctions and challenges associated with interactions. And I do think if we faced a set of further challenges with respect to North Korea, it would be possible for us to put more financial pressure on North Korea.

And I think we need to let our Chinese friends know and understand that some of the things that have been contemplated by the new regime, if followed through on, would entail and involve a reaction that is much more strenuous than [what] we’ve seen in the past. And I think that element of our diplomacy is likely to be necessary as we go forward. [Kurt Campbell, Speech at CSIS, Sept. 5, 2014]

Hallelujah: someone actually read the sanctions regulations for once. From this day forward, you’ll no longer have to take my word for that, either. Campbell may not know that Treasury recently relaxed Burma sanctions regulations, but his point stands — until quite recently, Burma sanctions were comprehensive, reached all kinds of trade and investment that used the dollar-based system, and included strong financial sanctions. Unlike North Korea, Burma is listed as a primary money laundering concern. Unlike North Korea, Burma’s human rights violators were specifically targeted.

Thus, contrary to a widespread misconception, our North Korea sanctions are not maxed out; in fact, they are relatively weak. Those of you in the news business owe it to your readers to challenge that assumption before you print it. Start by asking the “expert” who repeats it whether he’s actually read the sanctions laws or regulations. Factual ignorance is not entitled to a place of equivalence in any policy debate.

It gets worse. Yonhap did quote another part of Campbell’s speech, in which he described how “many U.S. government officials handling North Korea are suffering from ‘fatigue and a sense of exhaustion’ in terms of strategies, after various tools, including pressure, have failed to make progress.” That’s interesting, but without the other part of his quote for context, it could leave you thinking that sanctions have failed as an instrument of policy. What Campbell really said is that we’ve never fully harnessed their potential.

Campbell also said, “We are in a set of circumstances now where it’s not clear fundamentally the way forward.” He observed that Kim Jong Il’s playbook, and the State Department playbook for responding to it, really aren’t working anymore, and that many of the North Koreans we used to talk to aren’t around any more, for various reasons. Efforts by a generation of policymakers to effect changes, including domestic reforms in North Korea, haven’t worked. As a result, sentiment here and in Northeast Asia has shifted, and people in the U.S. and other countries have migrated to the view that reunification, not continued separation, is in the best strategic interests of most of the major players in Northeast Asia. He called for more subversive information operations, including broadcasting, and for stronger diplomatic efforts with China, and especially with South Korea, to pave the way for reunification.

At which point, a gargantuan white mustache sprang from Campbell’s upper lip.

Yes, I’m aware that other former State Department types, specifically Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, are out there saying very different things. Yet despite the relative recency of Campbell’s tenure and his relatively higher place in State’s hierarchy, the press largely ignored the key part of Campbell’s remarks, but covered Gallucci and Bosworth’s widely.

~   ~   ~

I have to think that if the Obama Administration disagreed with Campbell’s assessment, it wouldn’t have just transfused its North Korea team so thoroughly that the reader benefits from a diagram. Notably, Chief Negotiator Glyn Davies will move along to an ambassadorship elsewhere (possibly Thailand), Syd Seiler has moved from the White House National Security Staff to replace Davies, Allison Hooker will move from State to the NSS to replace Seiler, and Sung Kim will be a “special representative,” whatever that means.

The first thing Seiler did was to do no harm, by making it clear that the U.S. would not, contrary to rumors, hints, and China’s increasingly noisy demands, lower the bar on North Korea’s denuclearization to resume six-party talks, something that would effectively recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“We are not ideologically opposed to dialogue with North Korea, nor have we placed insurmountable obstacles to negotiations in our insisting that North Korea simply demonstrate it will live up to international obligations and abide by international norms and behavior,” he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The bar has not been set too high by insisting that denuclearization talks be about denuclearization,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s a lovely sentence for its elegance and clarity, and under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have put it any differently. Seiler then summarized by saying that, “clearly, the ball is in Pyongyang’s court.” See also.

OFK regulars know that I haven’t been fond of Glyn Davies since this episode several years ago, and that the OFK archives have an elephantine memory. Josh Rogin described Davies as “a nuclear technology and Europe expert, having most recently served as the U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna.” By contrast, Seiler has a very deep background in Korea. He’s a graduate of Yonsei University, has a Korean wife, and had nearly three decades of Korea experience at CIA and DNI before he went to the National Security staff. You’d expect such a man to know what a mackerel should cost, and how to haggle for a fair price. It helps that Seiler is no fool, either:

Like his predecessor, he agrees with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy and believes that the North should not be allowed to stall for time or be rewarded simply for talking.

A diplomat who has known Seiler for more than 10 years said, “He knows how the North cheated the U.S. and South Korea in the process of nuclear development.”

A Foreign Ministry official said, “If Russell, an expert on Japan, takes charge of Chinese and Japanese affairs as senior advisor at the NSC, Seiler will have enormous influence in Korean affairs.” [Chosun Ilbo]

If personnel is policy, then, the replacement of Davies by Seiler could herald modestly better policy. (If only we could have Kurt Campbell back….) At State, Seiler joins Danny Russel, his former White House colleague, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs. The White House says that this shake-up doesn’t foreshadow a change in its North Korea policy, but that’s standard White House talk; the consequence of any other response would be a year of briefings, hearings, interviews, listening tours, and op-ed wars.

Seiler said the U.S. policy on North Korea is composed of three key elements — diplomacy, pressure and deterrence, and that Washington will continue to seek robust implementation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions and its own sanctions on Pyongyang.

But he also held out the prospect of easing sanctions.

“If DPRK makes the right choice, returns to the negotiating table and embarks on a credible path of irreversible denuclearization and begins to comply with its international obligations and commitments, the appropriateness of sanctions will of course be reviewed,” he said. [Yonhap]

There’s little good that I could say about the robustness of that enforcement so far, or the quality of the diplomacy that’s been trying to hold our regional coalition together, but one can always hope. And not without some basis:

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

“Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite,” he said. [....]

“Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North,” the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the “secret trip” that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men’s appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said. [Yonhap]

If Russel, Kim, and Seiler have similar views and work well together, they have the potential to make significant policy changes while a politically weakened administration is otherwise distracted by crises in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza. That almost mirrors the situation of Chris Hill in 2006, when he ran away with a politically weakened Bush Administration’s North Korea policy while Bush was distracted by Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted, there are some signs that the administration could be laying the groundwork for a harder line, although I doubt that it will be more than incrementally harder.

There are alternative theories, too. One that seems plausible to me is that Washington’s tactic of strategic patience, the trend of ‘not doing anything,’ has not changed.” That’s likely because doing nothing is what governments usually do when no single view prevails. And I’m far from certain that any single view prevails.

The Hankyoreh‘s analysis isn’t as plausible, but it’s much richer in amusement. It begins with rumors of another secret diplomatic trip to North Korea and runs feral with them. Although the administration would neither confirm nor deny the rumors, they probably have some basis in fact. Even so, they almost certainly do not mean “that the US will make an effort before the mid-term elections to improve relations with North Korea in order to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula” and ransom out Kim Jong Un’s new hostages. According to what insider or authority, you ask? “[S]ome predict,” says the Hanky, after a three-block sprint from the pojangmacha behind the bus station, gochujjang-stained notepad in hand.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too dismissive of something that’s been tried before, but in light of today’s political environment and North Korea’s conduct since 2012, this is so delusional that it’s adorable. The Hanky really seems to believe that a significant number of Americans (a) cares about North Korea at all, (b) wants better relations with North Korea, and (c) would be more likely to vote for the President’s party if its cuts a pre-election deal with North Korea, rather than much, much less likely. That the President’s pollsters have identified Peace Studies grad students as a decisive voting bloc in Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Carolina. That, after the Bo Bergdahl ransom, the President basked in the gratitude of a grateful nation.

I don’t have any special insider knowledge here, but I’ll go out on a limb and express my doubt that the White House would want that experience again between now and November 4th, especially for the likes of a doofus like Matthew Todd Miller, or anyone else who’d be dumb enough to visit North Korea of his own diminished volition. I’d be surprised if there’s a deal at all, and I’d be astonished if its terms are made public before the election, including the Louisiana runoff, is safely in the rear-view mirror.

*  Or so I’ve heard somewhere. It may have been Alex Jones. I lost the link.

Victor Cha and Gabriel Scheinmann on North Korea’s links to Hamas

“While there is, as of yet, no smoking-gun evidence that North Korea assisted Hamas directly in constructing its tunnels, the evidence is very suggestive.” [link]

It’s almost as if the Bush Administration’s decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism encouraged it to sponsor more terrorism.

~   ~   ~

Update: Related thoughts from Don Kirk.

U.N. Panel of Experts to investigate M/V Mu Du Mong

A U.N. panel that upholds sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is sending personnel to investigate a North Korean cargo ship moored at a Mexican port, U.N. diplomatic sources familiar with the matter told Kyodo News. [Yonhap]

“Sending personnel” suggests that the POE will inspect the ship. The POE also sent personnel to inspect the M/V Chong Chon Gang after Panamanian authorities found it smuggling weapons last year.

The travels of the M/V Mu Du Bong were first brought to our attention by investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, while it was crossing the Gulf of Mexico after a stop in Cuba. When the ship ran aground in a Mexican port, I called on the U.S. government to ask Mexico to search it, explaining that under UNSCR 2094, Mexican authorities had the authority, and arguably a duty, to do so (see paragraphs 16 and 17).

The Treasury Department has since sanctioned the Mu Du Bong and 17 other North Korean vessels, probably for their associations with Ocean Maritime Management, the North Korean front company that brokered the shipment of arms from Cuba to North Korea aboard the Chong Chon Gang. NK News’s Leo Byrne has also done an excellent follow-up report, finding that Mexican authorities had impounded the Mu Du Bong for lack of proper insurance.

See also Capitol Hill Cubans.

~   ~   ~

Update: This post was edited after publication to correct the spelling of “Chong Chon Gang.”

N. Koreans are bootlegging liquor in Muslim countries

Last week, NK News published a detailed report on a black market in alcohol run by North Korean diplomats in Pakistan. Almost simultaneously, The Daily NK also reported that two North Korean “chauffeurs,” dispatched by the regime to Qatar, and nominally working for private companies there, had been arrested for bootlegging.

Two North Korean men are being detained in Qatar under suspicions of the distribution of illegal liquor; Voice of America [VOA] reported on September 4th, citing the Gulf Times, Qatar’s English language newspaper.

The men were alleged to have been selling the liquor to North Korean laborers there, as well as to citizens in surrounding nations, and if found guilty of the crime, will be deported back to North Korea. The Gulf Times was unable to confirm when or where the men were first arrested. [Daily NK]

Selling moonshine to thirsty construction workers is a novel, and typically exploitative, way to supplement those “loyalty” taxes expatriate workers must pay to the regime.

The report also references previous North Korean bootlegging arrests in Qatar, and arrests or investigations in India, Bangladesh, and Kuwait. According to a separate Gulf Times report from July of this year, another North Korean, who was working as an interpreter and has access to a car, was also arrested by Qatari police for selling alcohol and illegal drugs. (See also.)

North Korea’s bootlegging operations are not new, and probably as old as North Korea using diplomatic pouches to smuggle contraband and cash. Curtis Melvin points to a 1976 article in Time magazine about North Korean liquor and cigarette smuggling in Sweden and Denmark.

The earliest such report I found from the Middle East is from 2008, when “three North Koreans who converted their apartment into an alcohol factory” were arrested by Kuwaiti police, who also “seized 186 bottles of alcohol, 34 brewing barrels and gallons of alcohol.” There’s even a photograph.

Two other articles from The Arab Times, both undated, may describe separate seizures of 80 bottles and 200 bottles of liquor in Kuwait. Alcohol-related arrests of North Koreans are frequent enough there that annoyed South Korean diplomats monitor the local newspapers and ask them to clarify any reports that “Koreans” have been arrested for bootlegging.

With the exception of the NK News report from Pakistan, the reports do not directly implicate North Korean diplomats, but it’s difficult to imagine that overseas North Korean workers, whose movements and remittances are always carefully monitored — indeed, who have no means to send money home to their families directly — would engage in such activities without tacit official approval, and without being expected to hand the proceeds over to their regime handlers. The Chosun Ilbo described the arrangement this way, in a 2009 interview with a source in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE:

One source in Abu Dhabi said, “North Korean workers make between $300 and $500 a month, but the North Korean government confiscates $150 and even $250 as loyalty payments, leading to a lot of conflict.” North Korean labor export companies skim off an excessive amount of money from salaries. The level of discontent recently prompted the North Korean government to dispatch security agents who trawl construction sites on weekends to provide ideological “cleansing” sessions to workers. [....]

“The North Korean companies that sent the workers abroad are aware of the bootlegging but are turning a blind eye as long as the laborers pay portions of the profits,” one local source said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The construction companies, in turn, are almost certainly under the direct control of the local North Korean embassies. This arrangement has the advantage of putting two layers between the embassies and the retailers. That gives the embassies plausible deniability, and avoids disruption to the other business operations the embassies are involved in.

The real test of the regime’s culpability, of course, is how the profits move. At the end of the day, I’d wager that nearly all of the profits end up deposited in regime-controlled accounts, co-mingled with the proceeds of legal businesses to disguise their illicit origins, and wired through multiple shell companies to other regime-controlled offshore accounts.

I confess to some ambivalence about this line of business. I can certainly think of worse things North Korean diplomats have smuggled, but you can’t pick and choose what you allow a criminal organization to sell. You have to uproot all of it or none of it. And on balance, I don’t suppose North Korea’s bootlegging is any more likely to liberalize the Middle East than a few ChocoPies are to liberalize North Korea.

Yet again, as with the recent and not-so-recent arrests of North Koreans for illegal gambling (second section), we see that North Korea has no moral objection to capitalism, as long as it’s state capitalism. It just objects to granting economic liberty to its subjects, and to freeing them from hunger and dependency.

North Korea tries to censor a British TV series

In the case of “The Interview,” North Korea used its Japanese hostages to get to Sony pictures. Now, it’s using its diplomatic relations with Britain to get to “Opposite Number.

Those who “engage” Pyongyang always say they will change it, but Pyongyang always changes them instead.

Just like France had an unparalleled defense wall on the German border in 1940

The spokesman said that the U.S. has instituted an “unparalleled international sanctions regime that has successfully impeded proliferation, constrained the growth of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and driven up the cost Pyongyang’s misbehavior.” [Yonhap]

What utter nonsense. It would be charitable to accuse him of lying. I doubt he has any idea what he’s even talking about.