Der Spiegel: N. Koreans helping Syria to nuke up. Again.

Evidently, I refreshed your memory of the 2007 Al-Kibar reactor raid just in time for this cheery piece of news: Der Spiegel, citing anonymous intelligence sources, reports that Syria “has apparently built a new nuclear facility at a secret location” in the mountains near the Lebanese border. The conclusion is based, in part, on signals intelligence:

[T]he clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

It’s a real Axis of Evil reunion, starring Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and some special guests from Yongbyon:

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

The report is interesting and worth watching more closely, although Der Spiegel‘s report isn’t exactly an airtight case.

Jeffrey Lewis, whose observations about nuclear and weapons technology are as consistently interesting and informative as his policy recommendations are conformist and outdated, has done more investigation on Google Earth. Lewis tweets that the facility dates back to between 2008 and 2009, and is more likely to be an enrichment facility than a reactor, due to its distance from a supply of cooling water.

The “good” news is that, thanks to Hezbollah, nearby rebels haven’t quite managed to overrun the site and seize its estimated 8,000 fuel rods.

In other words, our choices are (a) North Korea sharing nukes Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah; (b) Al Qaeda; and (c) ISIS? Gee, thanks, President Obama!

The only thing we do have going for us is that we’re already bombing targets all over Syria. Although I’d suspect that this site would be far trickier from an air defense perspective, it might not push the diplomatic envelope so far to bomb one more site in Syria.

Dear President Bush: You had eight years.

The George W. Bush center has released a call for “a new approach” to improve human rights in North Korea, complete with a video of the former President, looking a little older than the man we once knew.

It’s hard to disagree with anything in the Bush Center’s call. For example, it calls for raising global awareness of the situation, citing polls showing that just half of Americans have heard of North Korea’s political prison camps. (This polling, of course, was done before Seth Rogen likely reached many of those among our great, silent idiocracy on the left side of the bell curve. But still ….)

The Bush Center also calls for the empowerment of refugees, of whom just a few dozen were admitted into the United States during Bush’s presidency, and whom the Chinese freely dragged across the border to the waiting arms of the North Korean Ministry of Public Security with nary a peep from President Bush himself.

It calls on governments to make human rights a priority, although the Bush administration itself effectively sidelined human rights in its dealing with Pyongyang, sought to establish full diplomatic relations with it in spite of its crimes against humanity, and pulled punches in describing those crimes in order to appease those who would continue to commit them.

Finally, the Bush Center calls on the U.S. and non-governmental organizations to step up their information operations in North Korea. This yields its most useful proposal:

Both government and the technology industry have a role to play in developing and funding new content dissemination methods that cannot be blocked by the North Korean government, including broadcasting systems. Content going into and coming out of the country should also be improved, focusing on the condition of people in North Korea.

But there are also some important things missing from that call. How, for example, will we put direct pressure on the regime responsible for these crimes without war? How will we even up the imbalance of power between the people and the state? Is there any way to achieve such a balance without destabilizing the state itself? And wouldn’t equalizing that imbalance of power to a degree require us to begin by reversing many of Bush’s own ill-advised decisions?

More broadly, what’s missing from this call is anything remotely controversial. Compare it, for example, to the specificity and thoughtfulness of calls by The Robert F. Kennedy Center and The Asan Institute. By comparison, the Bush Center’s proposals could just as well have been ghostwritten for Angelina Jolie. Not only would Jolie have attracted more media interest, she would also have the advantage of not having been President of the United States from 2001 to 2009.

By saying all of this, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It is better than nothing at all, although I wonder how much effect Mr. Bush’s call will have, aside from pulling a thin protective cover over his own legacy. I concede that Bush’s call today is probably more in line with the former president’s personal beliefs than many of the decisions he made at the nadir of his political power. But all of these calls by President Bush would carry far more weight and credibility if he would begin them with a forthright acknowledgement of his own errors.

~   ~   ~

Update: OK, I have to admit that Victor Cha’s accompanying report contains many more detailed proposals, although I still wished for more depth and specificity. In its small intestine, for example, is a passage where Cha suggests returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, reversing the decision his President made in 2008.

N. Korea threatens U.S. with “a hail of bullets and shells on its own territory.”

Via our friends at the Korean Central News Service, North Korea’s official journo-terrorism service.

In 2011, the Associated Press signed two memoranda of agreement with KCNA in which AP and KCNA agreed to cooperate in the reporting of “news” about North Korea. The AP refuses to disclose the contents of those memoranda.

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

Discuss among yourselves.

FBI Director: Yes, I’m sure North Korea did it. (Update: So is NSA’s Director)

The other day, a reporter asked me whether the “considerable doubt” about Pyongyang’s responsibility for the Sony hacks and terror threats undermined the legitimacy of the President’s response. I suppose the answer depends on your perspective. I’m not privy to the FBI’s evidence against North Korea, but my greater doubt is whether the President’s response, so far, is meaningful.

A week ago, however, I decided that the FBI was losing the battle for public opinion. I recalled the CIA’s video about the North Korean-built reactor at Al-Kibar, Syria, and wondered if it would be possible to create something like this for Sony.

As a result of this video, there’s little room for serious doubt about North Korea’s responsibility for Al-Kibar. The irony of Al-Kibar is that while one part of the Bush Administration did a fine job of making its case — once forced to do so by Congress — Bush himself was just as determined to do nothing about it. After an equally slow start, the FBI Director is now making an effort to shore up public confidence in its case.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey on Wednesday said the U.S. is confident about North Korea’s involvement in the December threats against Sony Pictures because the people involved at times slipped up and didn’t properly use tactics designed to obscure the source of the messages.

When that happened, investigators were able to see clearly that they came from Internet addresses used solely by North Korea, Mr. Comey said. “There is not much in this life that I have high confidence about,” Mr. Comey said. “I have very high confidence about this attribution.”

Mr. Comey also highlighted other evidence, such as analysis by FBI personnel that matched patterns of writing and other signatures to those found in other attacks launched by North Korea. [….]

Mr. Comey said the U.S. has more evidence that North Korea was behind the attack that it can’t release publicly. He said those who have questioned the conclusion North Korea was involved “don’t have the facts that I have, they don’t see what I see.” [Wall Street Journal]

Comey delivered the remarks at a four-day cybersecurity conference in New York.

Though Mr. Comey did not offer more details about the government’s evidence in a speech in New York, senior government officials said that F.B.I.’s analysts discovered that the hackers made a critical error by logging into both their Facebook account and Sony’s servers from North Korean Internet addresses. It was clear, the officials said, that hackers quickly recognized their mistake. In several cases, after mistakenly logging in directly, they quickly backtracked and rerouted their attacks and messages through decoy computers abroad. [….]

Responding to critics who have questioned why the United States thinks North Korea was the source of the attacks, Mr. Comey said on Wednesday that the hackers became “sloppy” as they tried to cover their tracks. He acknowledged that the North Koreans had used decoys but did not elaborate about the specific mistakes the hackers made that gave him “high confidence” the country was behind the attack.

Mr. Comey urged the United States intelligence community to declassify all the information that showed that the hackers had used such servers, something that could take months. [N.Y. Times]

This is a good start, particularly the call to declassify as much of the evidence as can be declassified without compromising sources and methods the intelligence community will need again. The Director’s statement alone won’t be enough to marginalize the skeptics to the fringes and gain enough support for the President to take effective action, assuming (as I don’t) that the administration really wants to take effective action.

Different motives are driving different reactions to Sony, and not all of those motives necessarily yield to the evidence.

Some of the skepticism is based on IT forensic analysis, and seems conscientious, if inconclusive. After all, most of those criticisms began by arguing that IT forensics is an inexact science, and then proceed to offer their own alternative IT forensic theories. Not everyone agrees that the skepticism is even conscientious:

[T]he F.B.I. and other security experts say those critics have had access to only some of the evidence from the attack. They say the accumulation of the evidence collected by the F.B.I., Sony and Mandiant, a security firm hired by Sony, makes clear that North Korea was the culprit.

Just before Mr. Comey made his statements, a leading cybersecurity expert took those critics to task.

“One of the joys of the Internet is that anyone with a keyboard and a connection can be an expert,“ James A. Lewis, a director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in an essay posted online on Wednesday. “Opinion substitutes for research. The uninformed debate over the Sony cyberincident is the most recent example of the Internet’s limitations.” [N.Y. Times]

Some of the skepticism, such as the analysis of the hackers’ English, reads like pseudoscience. Lewis’s comment reminds me of the two years after 9/11, when everyone with a GeoCities account was suddenly a structural engineer.

I’m no expert on computer forensics. I can only hope that the FBI was very confident about its conclusions before making such a serious charge. Those conclusions are obviously based on classified evidence, but it would be a mistake to assume that the FBI is basing its conclusions on computer forensics alone. I don’t know what the FBI knows. More importantly, neither do the inside-job theorists. Unfortunately, intelligence agencies that do have that information have to keep their sources and methods secret, or they won’t have those sources and methods for long.

Mr. Lewis said a close reading of classified documents leaked last year by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, made clear that American intelligence officials maintained deep access in North Korea’s networks.

The real debate, Mr. Lewis said, was one of government mistrust by the cybersecurity community, particularly after the revelations by Mr. Snowden. [N.Y. Times]

Of course, the FBI isn’t always right. In this case, however, the criticism doesn’t persuade me to deny the FBI a presumption of veracity.

First, I don’t see any motive for the FBI or the President to fabricate a case against North Korea. If you’ve been watching this administration’s North Korea policy, what’s remarkable is the extraordinary efforts it has made to ignore North Korea; hence the term “strategic patience.” In fact, this administration has been forced to turn to a whole series of foreign policy problems that it would have preferred to ignore — the Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran, Libya, the South China Sea, Ukraine, Syria, the rise of ISIS, and now, North Korea. The last thing it wanted was yet another foreign policy crisis, or for North Korea to make it look incapable of protecting the United States from the tantrums of a porcine adolescent heir to a blighted kingdom.

Second, the ease with which some readers have seized on inside-job theories reminds me that a dubious political psychology often drives them. Among some quarters of the left, there is a capacity for introspection and self-criticism that makes our society more just and more fair when imbibed in moderation, but which quickly becomes witless masochism when drunk to excess. In recent years, both the far left and the far right have been seized by the temptation to deny, at any cost, the frightening thought that our freedom and our safety are threatened by thugs from beyond our borders. It makes them feel safer, somehow, to cling to inside-job explanations that would relieve us from the burdens of confronting hard questions that spring from unwelcome conclusions. But feeling safer isn’t the same as being safer.

None of which should really be reason to debate the legitimacy of blocking Kim Jong Un out of the financial system. There were many good reasons for tougher sanctions against North Korea long before the Sony hack. Michael Kirby called for them a year before Sony, and Congress introduced sanctions legislation nearly two years before. The administration could have taken action against North Korea for any number of reasons — North Korea’s crimes against humanity, proliferation, money laundering, support for terrorism, military provocations, or its refusal to give up its nuclear weapons programs. The administration didn’t necessarily have to blame Pyongyang for Sony, but if it was convinced of Pyongyang’s guilt, but a President who is unwilling to assign blame to those who attack and threaten us in our own country signals an unwillingness to deter the next attack.

I commend President Obama for putting the country’s interest before his political interest by doing so. Having come this far, his administration must make its case. I hope it makes a compelling one.

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Update, Jan. 10, 2015: The NSA’s Director weighs in:

Rogers, the NSA director, discussed the Sony hack at numerous points throughout his talk, prior to the question and answer period. “I have very high confidence—I remain very confident—that this was North Korea,” he said, echoing FBI Director James Comey the day before. He said this was the first time a nation-state has carried out an act to “stop the release of a film with a particular viewpoint and characterization of a leader.” [….]

Naming North Korea and announcing economic sanctions was critical for deterrence of future nation-state or other types of cyber attack, Rogers argued. “The entire world is watching how we as a nation are going to respond to this,” he said. [The Intercept]

So far, the administration’s response has been to designate ten low-level individuals and three mid-level entities that have been designated for years.

Dear Professor Lankov: Shall we make it double or nothing?

As he did in 2012, Andrei Lankov has gone all-in supporting the latest rumors of economic and agricultural reforms in North Korea, calling them “revolutionary.” The Wall Street Journal’s excellent Alastair Gale describes Lankov’s prediction, notes the skepticism of the South Korean government, and notes that Lankov is “not often associated with very bullish views on North Korean reform.”

The plan, he says, citing recent visitors to the country, would give more freedom and land to the country’s farmers. North Korea plans to let farmers keep 60% of their total harvest, with the remainder going to the state, he writes. Factory managers will also get to decide who to fire and hire, as well as with whom they conduct business with and where to buy materials, he says. [WSJ, Korea Real Time]

With due respect to both men, however, Lankov was very bullish in 2012, and things didn’t work out as he predicted then, either. Lankov was so bullish about 2013’s above-average harvest that, contrary to overwhelming evidence, he came dangerously close to minimizing North Korea’s food crisis. This new U.N. FAO report adds to the body of evidence contradicting Lankov’s claim. (Lankov also recently argued that the U.N. should refrain from acting against North Korea’s crimes against humanity.)

Writing at NK News, Lankov goes further, seeing “little room for doubt” that this time, it’s the real deal. And here, via Steph Haggard, is what Lankov bases that conclusion on:

Lankov’s observations are based on several trips to the border area with China over the last year as well as a handful of scholars in the South—notably Kim Kwang Jin—who are now talking about the so-called “May 30 [2014] measures”; these follow on the pilot—or more likely aborted–“June 28 [2012] measures” that we analyzed in depth here and here based on the work of Park Hyeong-jung at the Korea Institute on National Unification (KINU). [Witness to Transformation]

I’d be willing to bet that my friend is wrong. I hope it’s not ungentlemanly of me to bring this up, but Andrei lost pretty much the same bet to me two years ago, the outcome of which was that I got a six pack of this, and it was lovely. A lot can be said about Andrei because of the originality of his views. Never deny in my presence that he’s a gentleman, a man of his word, or a man of excellent taste.

In this book, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard noted the past tendency of North Korea to recognize by state policy the things that necessity had made commonplace in the streets and alleys. This may be such a case, or it may be a case where the policy won’t be implemented due to corruption and mutual mistrust between collectives and officials. Noland, who thinks Lankov’s “observations need to be taken seriously,” nonetheless calls our attention to a series of events suggesting that Pyongyang isn’t serious about major structural reforms.

As it was in 2012, a bad harvest also seems like an inauspicious time to launch an ambitious reform program. Noland and Haggard attribute the failure of the 2012 reforms (in part) to inflation, noting that “a relatively strong harvest—if it in fact materializes despite the drought—could provide the conditions for sticking to the plan.” That’s not where things seem to be headed, unfortunately:

This year, however, she noted that the devastatingly protracted drought, combined with a dearth of fertilizer, caused the crop yield per pyeong to plummet. Cooperative farms, instead of calibrating required allotments to reflect the changes, are demanding many of the production units to hand over 70% of the harvest, roughly 1.8t in the source’s region. If these units fall short of the target, they take on a debt to be rectified the following year.

Turning over 70% of the harvest in a year rife with natural disasters and lack of fertilizer has many of the residents involved overtaxed and without a viable solution. Many point out among themselves that this situation makes it implausible to work large plots of land when working even a small, individual plot proves burdensome. [Daily NK]

On top of this, recent reports tell us that the regime has already cut rations to a three-year low, which means that the state’s share seems unlikely to decline further. Given the many contradictions in the reports about North Korea’s harvest, we can’t have much confidence that we even know what the truth is. Let’s just say that neither past history nor current trends give me much confidence that this time will be different.

Now for the part where I get conspiratorial: In 2012, the last time this rumor was all the rage, North Korea spoon-fed the AP an agricultural reform story, just as other news services were reporting widespread starvation in South Hwanghae. Maybe it’s a complete coincidence that this year in North Korea, the harvest is failing again due to drought, the price of rice is near a five-year high, and fish prices are also beyond the means of most people because of high fuel costs, and because the regime is exporting the catch to China. (The Daily NK’s graph shows current rice prices way down from last summer’s high, while Rimjin-gang reports that the price of rice has soared recently.) In both 2012 and 2014, the state planted rumors of agricultural reform at a time when people were anxious about hunger.

My suspicion is that this is just another empty promise to mollify empty stomachs.

Jean Lee resigns from AP

Via Nate Thayer. Lee says this had been planned for some time. I think Lee made some bad choices as a reporter in Pyongyang, but I wish her well in her new career. I don’t know the extent to which the much worse choices made by AP corporate management constrained Lee’s decisions or coverage. One day, I hope she’ll tell us.

One last note on this: Lee recently tweeted that she was receiving hate tweets from people who called her a North Korean. Lee responds that she is as American as any of us. It should go without saying that she is right. I haven’t seen any of the tweets myself, and I’d prefer to think that people of such character wouldn’t read this site. So, speaking as the father of two Korean-Americans, if you know any of those people, tell them to hide themselves in shame. That’s a bigoted and disgraceful way to behave toward any fellow American, regardless of your views about North Korea’s government.

A Poem: On Seeing the North Korean Prison Camps on Google Earth http://t.co/4CoYU2GD6C via @DagdaPublishing

A Poem: On Seeing the North Korean Prison Camps on Google Earth http://t.co/4CoYU2GD6C via @DagdaPublishing

Not only will N. Korea’s next generation be physically and psychologically stunted, it will be fathered by imbeciles. http://t.co/UYcMb5ykla

Not only will N. Korea’s next generation be physically and psychologically stunted, it will be fathered by imbeciles. http://t.co/UYcMb5ykla

Activists send 600K leaflets into N. Korea

An activist group of North Korean defectors has launched balloons containing anti-North Korea leaflets across the inter-Korean border, police said Tuesday, in an act that could dampen a burgeoning thaw in inter-Korean relations.

The Campaign for Helping North Korean in Direct Way scattered some 600,000 leaflets from Yeoncheon, a county bordering North Korea, on Monday evening, local police said.

Lee Min-bok, the head of the group, and his wife participated in the 30-minute leaflet-scattering event, the police said, adding the balloons are believed to have flown in the northeast direction. [Yonhap]

I had not heard of Lee or his group before today.

~   ~   ~

Update: Here’s an earlier Reuters article on Lee Min-Bok. Thanks to a reader.

N. Korea perestroika watch

Following North Korea’s expansive crackdown on illegal mobile phone calls being placed to other countries – namely South Korea and China – some 30 residents of North Hamkyung Province’s Musan County have been arrested.

“One or two minutes after you switch on your phone and start talking, security agents with detectors show up. So you’re putting your life at risk when you make calls to other countries,” a source based in North Hamkyung Province told the Daily NK on Wednesday. [Daily NK]

Some of those arrested are hit with heavy fines — denominated in Chinese yuan — and those involved in brokering remittances from defectors in South Korea are sent to camps. The report suggests that the crackdown is working, and a lot of people depend on those remittances. That means that there are more victims than just those arrested.

Ros-Lehtinen bill to call for N. Korea’s listing as a terrorism sponsor

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) — A U.S. congresswoman said Monday she will introduce a bill calling for re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in response to the communist nation’s alleged cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

“North Korea should have never been taken off the state sponsor of terrorism list and should be reinstated immediately,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in comments emailed to Yonhap News Agency. “I will soon be reintroducing legislation to redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and to ratchet up the sanctions pressure on the North Korean regime.”

The congresswoman welcomed the latest sanctions that the administration of President Barack Obama imposed on North Korea last week in response to the Sony hack, but she stressed that what’s more important is to enforce those sanctions.

“Simply talking tough on sanctions without enforcing them in order to manipulate public opinion, as this White House has done with regard to North Korea and other rogue regimes, will only diminish whatever credibility and influence the administration has left while putting the security of the United States at risk,” she said. [Yonhap]

Funny how the administration says an SSOT listing would be “symbolic,”yet so stubbornly refuses to do it. If it’s only symbolic, what are they afraid of?

China protests after suspected North Korean army deserter kills four http://t.co/fYwRPBvWj0 via @reuters

China protests after suspected North Korean army deserter kills four http://t.co/fYwRPBvWj0 via @reuters

North Korea Is Being Punished for Hacking Sony. What About Its Responsibility for Killing Millions of People? http://t.co/LGyZg9huoc

North Korea Is Being Punished for Hacking Sony. What About Its Responsibility for Killing Millions of People? http://t.co/LGyZg9huoc

The AP should release its MOU or register as a N. Korean propagandist

Those who expect to shatter the illusions of 23 million North Koreans by airdropping copies of The Interview over the no-smile line probably overestimate the translatability of its humor into North Korea’s socially conservative culture. But for all its flaws, The Interview approached brilliance on one level — not as a parody of Kim Jong Un (Randall Park wasn’t nearly fat enough) but as a parody of the Americans who choose to nuzzle up to him. When James Franco was immediately taken in by his minder’s display of a store, so well-stocked with (plastic) food, and by a fat kid licking a lollipop, he might as well have been an AP reporter.

Which brings me to Nate Thayer’s groundbreaking report on AP Pyongyang, which exceeds anything else done on the subject. Some readers have told me that its raspy tone was off-putting, but which of them exposed so much about the bureau’s inner workings, or published details of its agreements with the North Koreans, both written and unwritten? Thayer has done us a great public service here:

The document says the AP will “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government,” that changes to state-produced content would have to be made with “full consultation between the two sides,” that the “KCNA shall nominate” the full time staff the AP would hire for their Pyongyang bureau, and that “the average $12,000 per month” for salaries and office rental fees be paid by a “method requested by (the) KCNA.”

“(The) KCNA shall be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of Bureau,” the document says, the authenticity of which was confirmed by interviews with 14 current and former AP staff involved in news production from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau. [NK News, Nate Thayer]

Thayer’s story also contains a link to a complete copy of a draft AP-KCNA MOU. It suggests that, contrary to its numerous public representations that it “does not submit to censorship,” the AP accepted extensive editorial controls on its reporting by North Korea’s state propaganda agency, KCNA. AP had an unwritten agreement not to write about Kim Jong Un.

It employed North Korean “journalists” picked and paid by KCNA, who (surprise!) appear to have acted closely in concert with North Korean interrogators to print carefully selected parts of the “confessions” of detained Americans, who had been coached to manipulate the American people and their government.

KCNA got a veto over where the AP could go, and what stories it could report; consequently, AP Pyongyang contributed no useful reporting to any of the biggest stories coming out of Pyongyang in the last three years, many of which remain unresolved.

AP accepted reporting quotas, including “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles” which could be “translated into English and distributed with the dateline of “Pyongyang (AP).”

AP was prevented from establishing independent communications, and was kept in close physical proximity to KCNA, and dependent on its internet connection and SIM cards to communicate.

At Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fisher has an excellent summary of the “damning accusations” in Thayer’s piece. It’s also well worth reading. Also worth your time is this comment, from Don Kirk.

So how did the AP respond to all of this? Surely it redacted the proprietary numbers out of the final MOU and released it, to prove the independence of its bureau. Surely a series of AP reporters went on the record, offering frank and candid answers about how they work, where their independence is limited, and where it isn’t. Surely AP commissioned an independent review of its bureau’s practices by the respected dean of a journalism school, and promised to follow any recommendations necessary to protect the public’s confidence. Ha! Silly you, for letting me let you think that. Here’s the response from AP’s Director of Media Relations, Patrick Colford:

In the late 1990s, Nate Thayer, a former AP stringer, became disgruntled over a distribution agreement with AP covering video he had shot in Cambodia. More recently, he dismissed the value of AP’s North Korea bureau shortly before he sought from AP detailed proprietary information about the bureau for further articles that were published on Dec. 24 by NKnews.org. [Associated Press]

Let me get this straight: Colford’s story is that Thayer fabricated all of these allegations — and if Colford isn’t suggesting they’re fabricated, what’s the point of raising this? — over a twentysomething-year-old grudge he’s been nursing all of these years about some video?

No serious news organization would hand over the kind of business agreements, salary information and other payment documentation that Mr. Thayer sought.

Fine, then. Redact out the salary amounts and proprietary arrangements (there is one flat amount for salaries and rent in the MOU I’ve seen), and release the final, true, and correct version. Still, the payment arrangements are a matter of legitimate public interest, given U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094’s limitations on providing bulk cash to the North Korean government.

There is a much more important public interest question than this, of course. The public has a right to know whether the AP has agreed, in writing, to serve as North Korea’s publicity agent or “information service employee” — a term the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act defines as “any person who is engaged in furnishing, disseminating, or publishing accounts, descriptions, information, or data with respect to the political, industrial, employment, economic, social, cultural, or other benefits, advantages, facts, or conditions of any country other than the United States or of any government of a foreign country or of a foreign political party or of a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of individuals organized under the laws of, or having its principal place of business in, a foreign country.”

I’ll let the Justice Department decide whether, as a matter of law, the AP should register as a North Korean propagandist — the answer depends on whether the AP is acting under North Korean direction or control, and whether it’s practicing “bona fide” journalism here. But surely, from a citizen’s perspective, this must be precisely the kind of arrangement the Act was designed to make subject to public disclosure.

Colford continues:

His latest articles from Dec. 24 are full of errors, inaccuracies and baseless innuendo. The “draft agreement” between AP and North Korea’s KCNA news agency that he cites is remote from the final document.

Such as? Well, read on, and Colford makes some bald assertions and denials that he expects us to take at face value. You can decide on your own whether Colford or Thayer supports his version with more evidence.

While we’re on the topic of that MOU, I’d like to mention some strange things I noticed about it (Thayer shared the draft with me before he published his piece. In the interests of full disclosure, he also showed me an early draft of his article.)

First, notice the font and grammar. Does that look like the kind of font one of the world’s most sophisticated media organizations would use, or does it look rather more like KCNA wrote this and set the terms — a case of “life imitates The Interview”?

Second, the draft in my possession is annotated “092211,” which I suppose means that it was a version dated September 22, 2011. What’s very weird about that is that the AP announced its deal with KCNA, allowing for its bureau to be opened, in June! The very existence of a September draft of this MOU suggests that the terms were being renegotiated three months later. For those of us familiar with North Korea’s diplomatic history, the idea that all agreements are subject to constant renegotiation makes perfect sense. If Colford hesitates to produce a “final” MOU, it might well be because there are several of them. Or none at all.

Among other inaccuracies, AP does not distribute outright KCNA stories, as Mr. Thayer concludes, but at times AP cites KCNA reports, as do most other news organizations, including his publisher.

If so, the line between KCNA’s stories and the AP’s can be blurry. In this story about a North Korean accordion player, for example, the AP says, “Associated Press writer Pak Won Il contributed to this story from Pyongyang.” Pak Won Il is a North Korean, selected by the North Koreans (at least according to the draft MOU) and detailed to AP from KCNA. This story carries the byline of KCNA detailee Kim Kwang Hyon. And the stories I parodied here, here, here, and here, ostensibly written by the AP’s Jean H. Lee, have so little news value and so much propaganda content that they might as well have been KCNA’s own.

Because of his reliance on this “draft agreement,” he makes the laughable assertion that AP’s Pyongyang bureau submits to censorship by the North Korean government.

But the assertion isn’t laughable now that Thayer has produced a document, which Colford implicitly authenticates as a draft of the agreement between AP and KCNA. And in that document, AP ostensibly agrees (take a deep breath here) to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of the policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK government and the reality of the DRPK with a view to deepening the relations between KCNA and AP, promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples and contributing to the improvement of the relations between the two countries.” And to allow KCNA to “be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of the Bureau.” And to agree to the “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles on politics, economy, and culture of the DPRK.” And to obey the “DPRK laws and regulations.” Does that also include North Korea’s censorship laws and regulations?

It is unlikely that Mr. Thayer spoke to as many AP sources as he claims.

For obvious reasons, these AP sources declined to go on the record. To say something is “unlikely” is a very different thing than refuting it with evidence and transparency.

Indeed, Chad O’Carroll, the editor of NKnews.org, told an AP news leader several days ago that he would not publish Mr. Thayer’s latest attack against AP after all. It is regrettable that the website decided to reverse course on Dec. 24 because of a newly found “draft agreement.”

Colford doesn’t know the reason for that, or what it has to do with the accuracy of Thayer’s story. For all Colford knows, O’Caroll’s vacillation about the article was because of the most common points of contention between reporters and editors — length, style, and fact-checking. Whatever O’Carroll’s concerns, Thayer satisfied them, and O’Carroll had enough confidence in the article to publish it. That took great courage on O’Carroll’s part, and it distinguishes him from many of his more timid peers. Then, Colford reprints a series of stock responses he provided to O’Carroll.

To Mr. O’Carroll, we had provided this statement last month:

“We recognize the unique challenges in reporting from North Korea. We are proud of our work in all formats and will continue to provide robust coverage going forward that will widen still further the world’s view of this little-known state.

“Regarding AP interviews with the three American prisoners and coverage of court proceedings: In accordance with normal practice, AP editorial decisions were made about the news value of very similar material available from three different interviews in short order from a captive individual. When we felt the material was newsworthy, we filed stories; when we felt it offered nothing new, we passed.

“Journalistically, our local staffers in Pyongyang are supervised and in regular contact with their supervisors. We rely on our international staff for our journalism and the local employees do not ever file or transmit stories on their own, independent of supervision. AP work is not submitted for any kind of review by North Korean authorities.

“AP does not submit to censorship. We do not run stories by KCNA or any government official before we publish them. At the same time, officials are free to grant or deny access or interviews.”

None of which ever seemed particularly credible before, and which seem even less so now.

With the exception of Rimjin-gang, I can’t think of a single case of any journalist who infiltrated past such a tight web of secrecy where others could not. In a just world, a man as intrepid as Thayer would win a Pulitzer for this, but of course, ours is the sort of world that awards Pulitzers to the likes of Walter Duranty … and Charles Hanley. It respects narratives, institutions, and interests. Thayer does not, which makes him a dissident and a gadfly within his profession, but by no means an outcast. If that were so, he couldn’t have obtained so many damning quotes from multiple AP employees, who sound as troubled about the AP’s ethical choices as I’ve been for the last several years.

~   ~   ~

Update: Colford denies authenticating the draft MOU published by NK, but his denial doesn’t quite manage to be as clever at reporter Stephen Gutowski’s questions.

The AP’s official statement did not deny the authenticity of the 2011 draft agreement, but said only that it is “remote from the final document.”

When asked directly about the agreement’s authenticity, AP director of media relations Paul Colford told the Washington Free Beacon, “Simply put, I don’t know what that ‘draft agreement’ is.”

When asked again whether the 2011 document was an authentic draft created during the negotiation process between the news company and North Korea, Colford declined to respond. He also declined to release the “final document” referenced in the AP’s statement. [Free Beacon, Stephen Gutowski]

Definitely read Gutowski’s entire article.

I really, really would love to see a complete and final version of that MOU.

North Korea and terrorism, a response to Micah Zenko

Zenko, who is a made member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written an article for Foreign Policy with the headline, “Sorry, But North Korea Isn’t a State Sponsor of Terrorism.” I tried to post a comment, but because FP‘s user-unfriendly website prevents that, I’ll just post that comment here.

I wish Mr. Zenko knew enough about his subject matter to question the State Department’s assertion that North Korea hasn’t sponsored any acts of terrorism since 1987. In fact, it has done so repeatedly and recently.

Around the time Mr. Zenko published his article, North Korean agents attempted to murder a North Korean refugee in Denmark. A few months before that, regime agents attempted to kidnap a North Korean student in Paris.

In December, a federal appeals court allowed a suit by the family of a U.S. lawful permanent resident to proceed against the North Korean government for his alleged abduction and murder. This year, a federal district court judge ruled that North Korea has supported Hezbollah attacks against Israeli civilians.

Last July, “Western diplomats” told The Telegraph that North Korea had struck a deal to sell rockets to Hamas. Let’s also talk about the North Korean arms shipments to Hamas and Hezbollah that featured in these recent U.N. panel of experts reports.

Let’s also talk about the poison needle assassination campaign against emigres and human rights activists, resulting in convictions of North Korean agents in South Korean courts. Or Pyongyang’s repeated threats against civilian targets in South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

The State Department’s refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism is obtuse and mendacious. State denies these things to support policy decisions it has made for other reasons. That doesn’t make the assertion (and consequently, Zenko’s article) factually true.

Really? Just 15% of S. Koreans support humanitarian aid to N. Korea?

Yonhap reports that, according to a poll commissioned by the Database Center for North Korean Human rights, 73.1% of South Korean adults surveyed support approval of a human rights law. That would be even better news if the respondents actually knew what the law would do; I can’t say I do.

(While you’re at NKDB’s site, be sure to have a look at their Google Earth Visual Atlas.)

It’s also good news that less than 20% opposed “meddling” in the “internal” issue of North Korean human rights. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the issue. Asked how to address it, 40% said international pressure, and 32% said dialogue.

The findings fuel my suspicion that nothing has been quite so influential within South Korean society about human rights in the North as peer pressure.

Even assuming that the methodology of this poll is solid, I’m not aware of any base line for those numbers allowing an apples-to-apples comparison showing how the trends have changed. Still, my guess is that these numbers are less sympathetic to Pyongyang than they would have been ten years ago. They also fit with the trends I identified in this post. See also this and this.

By a narrow margin, 50% said that sending propaganda balloons across the DMZ was “not necessary,” while 45.6% said it was. What I wish the respondents had been asked was whether they thought North Korea’s threats of violence were an appropriate reason for the South Korean government to block the launches with the force of law.

The Korea Times, reporting on the very same survey, found that a surprisingly low 15% of South Koreans agree with continuing humanitarian aid to the North, because they don’t believe it’s effective. Can that possibly be right?

Asked whether human rights conditions in the North are getting better or worse, 40% said “worse,” 45% said they’re staying the same, and just 6.5% said they were improving. So much for the Sunshine Policy.

The Korea Times also reports that nearly 40% of South Koreans would like the South Korean government to allow only certain North Koreans to cross the border in the event of regime collapse, and that another 9% would exclude them completely.

The Korea Times spins this as indicative of an unwelcoming attitude by South Koreans toward their brothers in the North, but I might well be among the 9% myself, at least initially. There would be very good reasons to keep North Koreans in place in the event of a collapse. Encouraging hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people to move around an unstable country and across international borders would dramatically complicate the process of providing them with food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. It could spread infectious disease, and would also complicate the reestablishment of security. For more on that topic, read this.

Where are S. Korea’s militant labor unions when they’re needed most? Hideous. http://t.co/MK2R7v8bsL

Where are S. Korea’s militant labor unions when they’re needed most? Hideous. http://t.co/MK2R7v8bsL

“The Killing Fields” meets “The Borgias” http://t.co/uyZcI7nW9J via @WSJ

“The Killing Fields” meets “The Borgias” http://t.co/uyZcI7nW9J via @WSJ