Suki Kim recalls a “good student” in Pyongyang

Writing in The New York Times, Kim recalls a young North Korean student who made her uncomfortable with his risky questions about government in America:

What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.

That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.

“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”

The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie? [N.Y. Times]

If the student wasn’t a counterintelligence plant, Kim would make one of the more credible cases I’ve yet seen for permissive engagement. Still, there must be other ways of reaching young North Koreans–both inside Pyongyang and beyond–that are less risky for both the teachers and the students.

To know whether the benefits of PUST are worth the risks, I’d have to know how much money PUST is pouring into the regime’s bank accounts, how many other teachers are propagating equally subversive views, how many students get to hear those views, and just how open the students really are to different forms of government. All of those things are unknowable to us.

It’s hard to imagine that PUST has a more favorable cost-benefit ratio than leaflet balloons, much less radio broadcasting.

Source: Megumi Yokota died in a Pyongyang psychiatric ward in 1994

What a sad ending that would be for a 13 year-old girl, guilty of nothing, and taken from a dark street while walking home.

Must read: RFK Center calls for a “rights up front” policy toward N. Korea

The report, by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, along with the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,* calls on the U.S. to defer its pursuit of Agreed Framework III, and instead confront the very reason why Pyongyang shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and why diplomacy with it will continue to fail:

Only when North Korea begins to develop a record of improvement on human rights can it engage with the U.S. on other issues, including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving North Korea’s human rights record should be the litmus test of North Korea’s credibility to engage on other issues. After all, if a government has no regard for the lives of its own people, what regard does it have for the lives of others? What deters it from provoking a war, or proliferating missile technology and weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? [Robert F. Kennedy Center]

In doing so, the report also challenges an exhausted and paralyzed foreign policy establishment that, at least with respect to North Korea, has become a hospice for dying dogma and hasn’t had an original idea since 1989:

For a quarter of a century, U.S. diplomatic strategy has sought to separate and narrow its disagreements with North Korea, to solve them sequentially. Yet the path to solving all of these disagreements is barred by the same obstacle – North Korea’s isolation and secrecy. The agreed framework of 1994 and 2007 agreement both broke down over verification. Similarly, without transparency, the World Food Program cannot monitor the access to food aid, the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot monitor disarmament, and North Korea will deny that its prison camps even exist – including one that is directly adjacent to its nuclear test site. Without transparency, there can be no verification. Transparency in humanitarian matters such as food aid and the treatment of prisoners cannot be sidelined if there is to be a verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

The report recites Pyongyang’s lengthy history of ignoring U.N. requests to cooperate with human rights inquiries—a history that illustrates the disingenuousness of its recent, often inartful, efforts to “engage” the EU and other U.N. member states. Read more

Incompetent translation could cost N. Korean teen his life

The Swedish government has denied the asylum claim of a teenager who claims to be a North Korean from North Hamgyeong Province. The denial is based on a report by a contractor, Sprakab, that failed to identify the teen’s dialect, or the places he named in his interview. A Korean expert hired by Sprakab now claims that the company misquoted her. An appeal is all that stands between the young man’s life and deportation to China, repatriation to North Korea, and almost certain death:

A Korean expert hired to assess the teenager’s dialect by a controversial Swedish linguistic company that evaluates asylum applications told journalists that his strong dialect had left her in no doubt that he came from North Korea.

The company, Sprakab, nevertheless concluded in its report that his dialect did not fit with his story of growing up in North Korea’s northern districts.

The woman, who has not been named, accused the company her of twisting her words in its report. “I never said that he didn’t come from North Korea,”she said. “What they are saying is wrong. It’s ridiculous.”

The teenager has appealed against the decision. “If I go back to North Korea then I will die,” he told Swedish radio.

His lawyer, Arido Dagavro, said he had proof that the places the teenager had mentioned did in fact exist, as well as testimony from other North Korean refugees that he had spoken with a recognisable dialect from North Hamgyong province in recorded interviews.

“It’s obvious that the migration board didn’t have the expertise required to take a decision in this matter,” Degavro said. [The Guardian]

I don’t know any of the facts beyond what’s reported here, but I certainly hope the Swedes aren’t too tone-deaf to what’s happening at the U.N. to deny this young man a carefully considered decision on appeal. If the translation company, Sprakab, screwed this case up, that calls for more training about the circumstances of North Korean refugees at a bare minimum. It may also call for a reevaluation of Sprakab’s contract, and an inquiry into whether Swedish officials pressured Sprakab to deny applications.

To a degree, the error is understandable. Every country considering asylum applications must deal with a large percentage of fraudulent claims—claims that ultimately disadvantage those with legitimate fears of persecution. Governments must learn to distinguish those cases by understanding the circumstances and languages of the claimants.

Hat tip to a reader.

Rev. Kim Dong Shik’s family is appealing the dismissal of its lawsuit against N. Korea

… at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. You can read the appellants’ briefs at this link, and I previously posted the original pleadings here. The District Court dismissed the suit for lack of evidence of torture, despite the fact that at least one North Korean agent was convicted of the kidnapping in a South Korean court. For background information on Kim’s abduction from China and murder in North Korea, see this link.

Victims of terrorism and torture are allowed to sue foreign sponsors of terrorism, including foreign governments, in U.S. courts under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama signed a letter comparing Rev. Kim to Harriet Tubman and Raoul Wallenberg, and promised to oppose removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism unless it accounted for Rev. Kim, which it never has. In 2008, when President Bush announced his decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, presidential candidate Barack Obama supported the move, saying this:

Sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on North Korean performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward.

Today, 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.”

In 2007, President Obama said, “[O]ne of the enemies we have to fight — it’s not just terrorists, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas — it’s also cynicism.” I don’t know about you, but President Obama’s cynicism about terrorism has certainly made me more cynical.

Dennis Halpin: North Korea is the new “sick man of Asia”

Just as a prosperous and powerful Europe grappled for decades, ultimately unsuccessfully, over what to do about its weakest link, the strong and prosperous Pacific powers have faced, so far unsuccessfully, the dilemma of a weak but nuclear-armed North Korea. A series of diplomatic formulae, including the Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, and, most recently, the aborted Leap Day Agreement of 2012, have all come to naught. Pyongyang, like Constantinople, seems on perpetual life support, gasping for air but never quite expiring. [The Weekly Standard]

FATF and FINCEN again call for “countermeasures” against N. Korean money laundering

If you will permit me to extend a metaphor for North Korea’s stature in the world of global finance, Pyongyang may have been invited to one Boy Scout jamboree, but it’s still on the sex offender registry. If anything, it has reached a co-equal status with Iran:

Since June 2014, the DPRK has further engaged directly with the FATF and APG to discuss its AML/CFT deficiencies. The FATF urges the DPRK to continue its cooperation with the FATF and to provide a high-level political commitment to the action plan developed with the FATF.

The FATF remains concerned by the DPRK’s failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF urges the DPRK to immediately and meaningfully address its AML/CFT deficiencies.

The FATF reaffirms its 25 February 2011 call on its members and urges all jurisdictions to advise their financial institutions to give special attention to business relationships and transactions with the DPRK, including DPRK companies and financial institutions. In addition to enhanced scrutiny, the FATF further calls on its members and urges all jurisdictions to apply effective counter-measures to protect their financial sectors from money laundering and financing of terrorism (ML/FT) risks emanating from the DPRK. Jurisdictions should also protect against correspondent relationships being used to bypass or evade counter-measures and risk mitigation practices, and take into account ML/FT risks when considering requests by DPRK financial institutions to open branches and subsidiaries in their jurisdiction. [FATF Public Statement, Oct. 24, 2014]

Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Center followed that statement with its own advisory today.

Claudia Rosett hopes the Obama Administration won’t screw up Iran …

policy with a bad deal the same way the Clinton and Bush Administrations screwed up North Korea policy with their own bad deals. Rosett isn’t the only one making the comparison:

“Like North Korea in the 1990s, Iran will use a weak deal as cover to get nuclear weapons,” said Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a prominent skeptic of the negotiations. [CNN]

The historical record yields little cause for optimism, and the common thread that runs through much of that record is Wendy Sherman. In an exquisite understatement, CNN says that President Obama wants a nuclear deal with Iran to burnish his legacy because he “lacks a defining foreign policy triumph.”

No doubt, George W. Bush was thinking the same thing in February 2007, and I doubt that Bush’s presidential library devotes much space to Agreed Framework II. That may help explain why most observers agree that Obama isn’t about to stick his neck out for Agreed Framework III, and why the President himself shows no interest in doing so. If his policy shifts, it will shift in the opposite direction, either at Congress’s initiative or (ironically) the U.N.’s.

If the shape of the Iran debate is any indication of where the North Korea debate is headed, the Republican takeover in the Senate suggests that Congress will be skeptical about agreements and more active on sanctions legislation. Whether you believe that Congress will push North Korea policy depends on whether you believe Yonhap’s American experts, who say nothing will change, or the Joongang Ilbo‘s sources in the Korean foreign policy establishment, who worry that “[s]anctions on the North could be tightened.” As if that’s a bad thing.

The actual answer will depend on events. If Kim Jong Un does something stupid enough, or if U.N. action builds a big enough head of steam, Congress will put a bill on the President’s desk. The President probably won’t veto it, but the real question will be whether he enforces it.

World Food Program won’t quit N. Korea, yet

“We are no longer in danger of closing our operations in DPRK at the end of this year,” [the WFP’s regional spokeswoman] said in an email late last week from her office in Bangkok. “We have received enough donations or promises of donations to enable us to reach the full caseload of 1.1 million women and children per month until the end of March 2015.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

She added, however, that the operation is only 40 percent funded and said “more funds are urgently needed to maintain the operation” after next March. [AP]

I wonder if they’ve asked Kim Jong Un to make a contribution, or would that be too forward?

Meanwhile, the regime that has begun to export rice and fish has just cut potato rations. So which is it—“the worst drought in years” (via Reuters) or “closer to the self-sufficiency level than [North Korea] has seen in years” (via the AP, reporting from a model collective farm)? It’s hard to believe that both statements could be true.

Nate Thayer: AP Pyongyang missed the hostage release story.

Freelance journalist Nate Thayer reminds me of the latest example of a Pyongyang story that wasn’t reported by AP Pyongang—the release of two U.S. hostages, reported from Washington:

This is not the first time: The explosions of nuclear weapons tests; ballistic missile firings; several executions of regime leaders who fell out of favour; military attacks on neighboring countries; launches of internationally banned satellites; detailed reporting of despicable human rights policies; and numerous other stories have all been first reported by news agencies outside of North Korea.

The AP’s primary competitor, Reuters, has consistently scooped the AP on virtually every major news story regarding North Korea since the AP opened its exclusive bureau in January 2012–often with considerably more substance, independent credible sources, and context.

To be completely fair, the attacks of 2010 came before the AP opened its Pyongyang Bureau, although there have been some smaller incidents since then. (And don’t forget that fatal building collapse that happened just a few blocks away from their bureau!)

The broader point stands—more than three years after it signed its (still undisclosed) MOUs with the Korea Central News Agency, AP Pyongyang has reported no news that is exclusive, and nothing exclusive that is news.

Daniel Drezner, on the fall of the Berlin Wall

The thing about the collapse of the East German regime is how sudden it was. I was in East Berlin in the fall of 1989, and there was no inkling of a regime in trouble. Compared to other Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, East Germany’s civil society movement was much smaller and more fragmented.  East Germany’s protests grew out of a weekly prayer vigil in Leipzig in the fall of 1989, but according to Sarotte, the Stasi estimated that there were only a few hundred activists in the entire city at that time. In other words, despite structural reasons for the regime to be concerned, the most extensive domestic intelligence apparatus in the world couldn’t predict the outbreak of mass protests. [Washington Post]

That’s nice, but it’s Michelle Obama that Kim Jong Un really needs to hear from.

I’m sure she has plenty of good advice to offer His Porcine Majesty. As for the letter James Clapper delivered for Mrs. Obama’s husband, there’s blessed little information about that.

Video: Sung-Yoon Lee at The Korea Society

If you think he’s a good writer, just see how well he speaks.

It’s also nice to see Stephen Noerper helping The Korea Society to rebuild its reputation and gravitas after the Don Gregg years.

In related news, William Newcomb, formerly with the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.N. Panel of Experts, will be at the Korea Society on Friday, to speak about “Sanctions Fact and Sanctions Fiction.”

Uganda is violating U.N. sanctions against North Korea

When North Korea sends its diplomats to Africa, presumably to ask for their votes against a General Assembly resolution that would refer Kim Jong Un to the ICC, I hope it sends at least some of the same diplomats who called Botswana’s U.N. Ambassador a “black bastard,” if only to show the hypocrisy of the African leaders who received them:

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda gave a state banquet late Thursday in honor of North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, praising Pyongyang for what he said was its prominent role in fighting imperialism.

Kim Yong Nam, the president of the country’s parliament, is in Uganda as part of a rare tour of Africa, where North Korea has actively tried to cultivate potential allies like the long-serving, increasingly anti-West Museveni.

The North Koreans are training Ugandan police in martial arts and Museveni hailed North Korea for helping to mechanize Uganda’s military over the years. North Korea is also training Ugandan military pilots, he said.

Kim visited Sudan and the Republic of Congo before arriving in Uganda for “an official goodwill visit,” according to the Korean Central News Agency. [AP]

Any training in the use of “arms and related materiel” would violate UNSCR 1874:

“9.   Decides that the measures in paragraph 8(b) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall also apply to all arms and related materiel, as well as to financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel;

“10.  Decides that the measures in paragraph 8(a) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall also apply to all arms and related materiel, as well as to financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms, except for small arms and light weapons and their related materiel, and calls upon States to exercise vigilance over the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK of small arms or light weapons, and further decides that States shall notify the Committee at least five days prior to selling, supplying or transferring small arms or light weapons to the DPRK;

Here’s a link to UNSCR 1718, in case you want to pursue that, too. The North Korean military relationship with Uganda goes back to at least 2010, when North Korean instructors first began to train Ugandan police officers in tae kwon do. Having drawn no reaction from the State Department for that, the Ugandans apparently decided that it was safe to expand the relationship to clear violations of the resolutions.

U.S. relations with Uganda have been under strain recently, because of the latter’s extreme anti-gay legislation. I’d say cut their aid and cancel a military exercise, but we just cut their aid and canceled a military exercise. Still, the U.S. recently “ordered a sharp increase” in the deployment of U.S. Special Operations forces to Uganda to hunt down warlord Joseph Kony.

Off-hand, I can think of several places where those forces are needed more badly to defeat a more direct threat to U.S. interests. Indeed, North Korea’s proliferation and its violation of U.N. sanctions are a greater threat to our national interests than the doings of a local warlord in Central Africa, and the humanitarian crisis in North Korea is far greater than the one in Uganda. Perhaps it’s time to force Uganda to choose between having a military relationship with North Korea, and a military relationship with the United States.

In the NYT: N. Korea, extortion, freedom of speech, and freedom of information

Professor Lee and I are published in The New York Times today, expressing our disappointment at the South Korean government’s failure to stand up for freedom of speech for South Koreans and freedom of information for North Koreans, something the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks to quite clearly:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

It’s one thing to say that Park Sang-Hak’s balloon launches should be moved away from populated areas as a prudent precaution in the interest of public safety. It’s another thing entirely to say–as South Korea’s left-wing opposition is building toward arguing–that the launches should be censored entirely to appease Pyongyang:

South Korea’s main opposition party will study ways to restrict civic groups’ flying of anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets across the border, its chief policymaker said Tuesday, citing heightened cross-border tensions resulting from the campaign. [….]

“Leaders of defector groups say they will continue to secretly scatter leaflets across the border, but our party can no longer watch the government’s laissez-faire attitude,” Rep. Baek Jae-hyun, the chief policymaker of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), said in a party meeting.

“We will soon study legal measures to restrict the flying of such leaflets.” [….]

The resolution, signed by 25 other NPAD lawmakers, urges the government to block the activity under the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, swiftly execute a ban on cross-border slander and normalize ties with the North through dialogue. [Yonhap]

Fine, then–so now tell me where North Korea’s veto ends. Balloons are no more violent than radio broadcasting, nor any greater violation of North Korea’s sovereignty, so will South Korea’s left demand that Free North Korea Radio be shut down next? Will it demand the abandonment of policy proposals or actions at the U.N. that North Korea objects to? Will it want to censor newspapers that print things North Korea objects to? Would it ban movies and TV shows North Korea classifies as “slander?” Would it withdraw police protection from the activists North Korea has tried to assassinate, including Park Sang-Hak? If South Korea disregards the rights of North Koreans to freedom of information–despite recognizing them in the ROK Constitution–would it accede to North Korea’s “right” to track down and punish people who use illegal cell phones?

Given the history of the NPAD’s predecessor parties, the Uri Party and the Minju-Dang, those questions are hardly far-fetched. Once you acknowledge Pyongyang’s veto power over whatever it defines as “slander,” you’ve traded away your liberty for security, and you deserve neither.

Certainly the leaflet balloons are a powerful symbol for those of us outside Korea, but I’ve always wondered how much of an effect the leaflets could possibly have. It has to be significant. How else to explain North Korea’s reaction? At least one of the balloon activists claims that one of the leaflets played a part in inducing his own defection. That surprises me.

What doesn’t surprise me in the slightest is that John Feffer thinks the South Korean government should ban the balloon launches (Update: or at the very least, that the activists should censor themselves). That’s a rather illiberal view from someone who has railed against “McCarthyism” in South Korea and argued that the National Security Law suppresses free speech. Now, I’ve been a persistent critic of the NSL for years, and I happen to agree with Feffer that it’s overbroad, has been used to censor non-violent speech in ways that violate the plain meaning of the ROK Constitution, and should be repealed or struck down to the extent it goes beyond prohibiting violent conspiracies, the theft and disclosure of government secrets, and unregistered foreign agency. But it’s never acceptable for governments to censor nonviolent expression–whether John Feffer happens to agree with their viewpoint or not.

The proper response to violent attacks against peaceful expression isn’t censorship. It’s artillery.

Qatar, the sponsor of ISIS, is using N. Korean slave labor to build a World Cup village

One North Korean worker helping to build the high-rise said: “People like us don’t usually get paid. The money does not come to the person directly. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the [North Korean recruitment] company’s business.”

A project manager of the lavish development said the workers “don’t have a single rial themselves” and “borrow money from us if they need small things like cigarettes”.

“The descriptions of the conditions North Korean workers endure in Qatar – abuse of vulnerability, withholding of wages and excessive overtime – are highly indicative of state-sponsored trafficking for forced labour,” a modern form of slavery, said Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International.

Sources in Qatar estimate there may be as many as 3,000 North Koreans working on projects across the emirate. [The Guardian]

I realize that choosing the most loathesome friends imaginable is an established custom in Qatar, but does FIFA have any standards? Oh, right. But on the positive side, at least the presence of the North Koreans should make it easier for Qataris to sneak a drink now and then.

The Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs insists it takes the issue of worker payment very seriously, but says that no North Koreans have complained. No, I don’t suppose they have.

HT: Deadspin

Camp 15: The Theresienstadt ploy?

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15, described by refugee-journalist Kang Chol Hwan in The Aquariums of Pyongyang and by more recent witnesses to The Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan, is no more, and that the prisoners have been sent to other camps:

Detainees held until recently at North Korea’s notorious political prison camp in Yodeok County have been moved to two alternate camps, an inside source from North Hamkyung Province has alleged to Daily NK.

“That political prison camp that used to be in Yodeok County in South Hamkyung has already been broken up. There’s not a trace of it left,” the source, who is with the military in the northerly province, claimed in conversation with Daily NK on the 7th. However, the disbanding of Camp 15 does not seem to have brought liberty for many of its inmates. According to the same source, “The political prisoners who were there have been divided up and moved to camps 14 and 16.” [….]

“It seems that closing Camp 15 was the next step after they closed Camp 22 at Hoeryong in June 2012,” the source went on to propose. “The majority of the buildings and facilities they used have been razed.”

The Daily NK reports that Camp 15 is in such a remote area that relatively few local residents are in a position to corroborate or witness anything, but the report is consistent with a previous report published in The Chosun Ilbo. I’ve long feared, and recently speculated openly, that North Korea might be preparing for a sham inspection of a camp to try to refute the allegations of camp survivors, in the same way the Nazis fooled the Danish Red Cross in 1944 with a sham inspection of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

It is widely believed that the goal of the North Korean authorities in closing down Yodeok is to allow international observers to visit the site in order to popularize the notion that “North Korea doesn’t have any political prison camps.” In keeping with this hypothesis, Pyongyang recently granted permission for the UN’s point man on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman, to visit the country, and made a video casting doubt upon the testimony of Shin Dong Hyuk through his father.

Meanwhile, on October 28th the NIS, South Korea’s state intelligence agency, reported to the National Assembly that a prison camp at Mt. Mantap in Kilju County, the area of North Hamkyung Province that houses North Korea’s underground nuclear test site, has recently been substantially expanded. The NIS reported that North Korea were planning to move the residents of Yodeok to the expanded camp. The expansion has not been independently verified.

The most recent available imagery from Google Earth was taken in May of this year, and shows the camp to be intact.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 7.01.16 AM

Other online sources also show an intact Camp 15. In the coming days, I’ll try to find out what I can about this story, and what evidence supports the report. If the camp has really vanished with “not a trace of it left,” that will be visible in the imagery. On the other hand, it hardly seems to serve North Korea’s purpose to show foreign visitors a lot of empty rubble. There would have to be a lot of new construction, too.

 

No, this does not mean it’s safe to go to North Korea.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has left Pyongyang with U.S. hostages Kenneth Bae and Preston Somerset Matthew Todd Miller, who voluntarily presented himself to the North Koreans as both a prisoner and a spy.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to Bae, who seems to have been moved to take undue risks by the suffering of the North Korean people around him. Bae has young kids, and nothing Bae did could possibly justify having his kids grow up without their father.

As for Miller, his return and the thought of his possible procreation causes me to mourn for our genetic future. If there was any quid-pro-quo for his release, it would draw immediate comparisons to Bowe Bergdahl. As if to preempt those suspicions, the State Department has already denied that there was any:

The State Department subsequently told CNN that Clapper, who visited Pyongyang as an envoy of President Barack Obama, did not make a ”quid pro quo” offer for the men’s release. [….]

“The United States will probably not admit to talking with North Korea, especially under these circumstances,” said North Korea watcher Christopher Green, also international editor at the Seoul-basedDaily NK.

“We’ll likely never be told the content of the dialogue that goes on in Pyongyang, either, unless North Korea reveals it in a fit of pique at a later date. But at the end of the day James Clapper is a very serious man, and his presence cannot be overlooked,” added Green. [NK News, Chad O’Carroll]

I report and you decide, but I’ve heard the State Department say too many things that later turned out to be false to take their word as given, and North Korea never gives anything away for free. My thoughts now turn to the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council, where U.S. leadership could make the difference between U.N. action that stalls, and action that mobilizes the world to stop North Korea’s crimes against humanity.

Of course, State could always prove me wrong, with a forceful U.S. initiative in favor of an ICC referral of Kim Jong Un.

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Update: Similar thoughts here, at Korea Real Time.

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Update 2: There is something about Kenneth Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, that’s so likable and down-to-earth that I hope this isn’t the last we’ll hear from her. He’s lucky to have her as a sister. She was a tremendous spokeswoman and champion for him.