EU blocking of Korea National Insurance Corp. hints at key shift in N. Korea sanctions enforcement

The European Union’s administrative body, the European Commission or EC, has added seven additional designations to its regulation on “restrictive measures” against North Korea. The new designees include the Korea National Insurance Corporation, or KNIC, and six of its officials. There are several good reasons why the EC could have designated KNIC, but didn’t (the reason it did use is more interesting, but we’ll get to that later).

First, KNIC has been linked to Pyongyang’s luxury goods imports, which have been banned since the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006. Historically, most of those goods have been of European origin. The EC notice, however, does not link KNIC to the luxury goods trade.

Second, the EC designation notice says that “KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.” Office 39, a/k/a Bureau 39, the North Korean ruling party’s foreign currency-earning agency, is designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC, but not the U.N., for financing North Korea’s prohibited WMD programs. The EC notice, however, does not say that KNIC is owned or controlled by Bureau 39.

Third, one of the ways KNIC has historically earned money is through insurance fraud. A former KNIC official, Kim Kwang Jin, revealed this in a 2009 Washington Post story, by Blaine Harden, and a 2013 Reuters story. The allegations of fraud arose even before Kim’s revelations, and led to protracted litigation between KNIC (on one side) and Lloyds and Allianz (on the other). The defendants alleged that KNIC had fabricated an accident to collect insurance payments from Lloyds and Allianz, which refused to pay, until the parties settled out of court. If the EC concluded that KNIC engaged in insurance fraud, that would also justify blocking it under UNSCR 2094:

“8. Decides further that measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply also to the individuals and entities listed in annexes I and II of this resolution and to any individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, and to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means, and decides further that the measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply to any individuals or entities acting on the behalf or at the direction of the individuals and entities that have already been designated, to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means;

The notice, however, does not accuse KNIC of fraud or other illicit activity.

Fourth, I‘ve long suspected, but can’t prove, that KNIC is also involved in insuring ships owned or controlled by Ocean Maritime Management, a North Korean entity that was designated by the UN, the EC, and Treasury in 2014 for arms smuggling (specifically, for the Chong Chon Gang incident). OMM controls the ships through individual shell companies for each OMM vessel. According to this 2015 UN POE report, however, a different company, Korea Shipowners’ Protection & Indemnity Association, insured the sanctioned vessels. According to KNIC’s web site, however, KNIC is “a sole insurer of the DPR Korea” and sells maritime insurance. If the EC determined that KSPIA is a front company for KNIC, that would require the EC to block KNIC. There’s almost no information about KSPIA online, and nothing in the UN POE reports links it to KNIC. Anybody?

Unpack the language of the EC’s justification, however, and it doesn’t accuse KNIC of any of these things. It stops short of claiming that KNIC is controlled by Bureau 39. It merely says KNIC is funding the regime, and that those funds “could contribute” to North Korea’s WMD programs.

KNIC GmbH, as a subsidiary controlled by KNIC headquarters in Pyongyang (address Haebangsan-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, DPRK), a government entity, is generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea. Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.
Furthermore, the KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.’

I’m not complaining, mind you. The EC’s rationale is fully consistent with the language of UNSCR 2094, which raises the burden of due diligence that applies to transactions with North Korean state entities:

“11. Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation;

The EC’s action has significant potential to crimp Pyongyang’s finances and improve the enforcement of the Security Council’s resolutions. The blocking of Pyongyang’s state insurer will make it much more difficult for it to engage in air and sea commerce with Europe. It could affect Air Koryo, which has long been under suspicion by the U.N. Panel of Experts for being a de facto arm of the North Korean military. It will affect ships in North Korea’s merchant fleet that haven’t yet been blocked by Treasury, and will impede Pyongyang’s ability to access luxury goods from Europe. It will send a strong signal that Pyongyang can’t seek refugee in the Euro system to escape from sanctions in the dollar system. It will require Pyongyang to draw from its hard currency reserves to buy insurance on the commercial market.

But for all the material effects the EC’s action may have, the action may be even more significant for the analytical shift it represents. As far as I’m aware, this is the first designation based on UNSCR 2094–on either side of the Atlantic–that does not make a direct link between the targeted entity and a specific prohibited activity. Instead, on its face, the EC designation applies Paragraph 11’s heightened due diligence requirement to say that KNIC could be funding sanctioned activities. That almost certainly happens to be true, even if the EC doesn’t directly say so.

The EU’s action, along with President Obama’s signature of Executive Order 13,687, represents movement–however glacial–from conduct-based sanctions to status-based sanctions, a shift Treasury officials recently told GAO would make the sanctions much easier to enforce. That is to say, the EU and the U.S. are both moving toward designating Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises simply because they’re Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises. That’s necessary because North Korea’s opaque and deceptive financial practices–as the Financial Action Task Force has alleged for years–make it impossible for the bankers who clear the transactions to meet the resolutions’ heightened due diligence requirements. Two years after UNSCR 2094 passed, governments are finally enforcing it according to its spirit and its letter.

That’s why this burden shifting represents such a welcome change. In fact, it’s one of the most important shifts the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act was intended to drive. It’s also fully consistent with how governments everywhere apply their financial regulations–by sanctioning entities that engage in deceptive financial practices solely for engaging in those practices, even without evidence that the underlying money flows involve illicit activity.

Just ask Dennis Hastert.

Now, a question for your consideration. If the U.S. and the EU are shifting toward status-based sanctions enforcement and enforcing the requirements for “enhanced monitoring,” how will South Korea continue to justify the Kaesong Industrial Park’s opaque financial arrangements? As Treasury Undersecretary (and now, CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen said:

“Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about,” said Cohen. “All of the hard currency earnings of North Korea are something I would say that we should be concerned about. [Voice of America]

The EC is acting on those concerns, and the U.S. has at least laid down a legal foundation for doing so. South Korea, a member of the Security Council when UNSCR 2094 passed and the principal beneficiary of the Security Council’s resolutions, simply refuses to acknowledge them, almost certainly for domestic political reasons.

Oddly enough, the EC’s action means it has designated KNIC, but that the U.S. Treasury Department hasn’t. The fact that European insurers were the main victims of KNIC’s insurance fraud may help explain this disparity. Still, as with the push for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights, this is another case of U.S. “leading from behind” in holding North Korea accountable. It’s yet another disparity between U.S. and EC regulations that Section 202 of the NKSEA urges the U.S. governments to harmonize. If the U.S. won’t lead enforcement efforts, the least it can do is be a good follower.

Hat tip to Rob York of NK News. You can read NK News’s report here.

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* A previous version of this post said that David Cohen was the Director of the CIA. He is actually the Deputy Director. Thanks to a reader for bringing the error to my attention.

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N. Korean biowar researcher defects, will testify about human experimentation

A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”

The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.

“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.

Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.

The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]

Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime.

For years, newspapers had published defectors’ unconfirmed allegations of chemical and biological experiments in North Korean prison camps (see here, here, here, and here). Of these allegations, the best known are the reports of a gas chamber at the since-closed Camp 22.

The account that Mr. Lee’s disclosure most closely resembles, because it alleges the use of biochemical weapons, is that of Lee Soon-Ok. I’d long harbored doubts about Ms. Lee’s account because of internal inconsistencies I saw in versions of her story I read at long-dead links. The new evidence may call for us to reexamine her story:

North Korea is suspected of having weaponized smallpox and anthrax, which is why your correspondent endured the small discomfort of seven anthrax vaccination injections (it would have been six had I not misplaced my shot record one day) and the low-grade fever that followed each of them.

If this witness presents credible evidence supporting North Korea’s responsibility for additional crimes against humanity, it will strengthen the calls for Kim Jong-Un’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, or failing that—and thanks to China, it will fail—the formation of an ad hoc coalition to raise the financial pressure on Kim Jong-Un and his regime. The revelations will give the UNHCR’s Seoul Field Office an important question to investigate, shortly after its opening. Politically, the EU’s active involvement in publicizing the new evidence would be a welcome departure from the ambivalence European nations have often harbored about holding Pyongyang accountable.

One wonders how much sooner this witness, and others like him, might have emerged from North Korea had Congress enacted the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, with its informant asylum provisions in Sections 206 and 207. Perhaps that proposal could be revived if, one day, there’s still need for a North Korean Freedom Act of 2016.

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Daily NK: Massive brawl in Musan market after traders resist confiscations

This may be the most significant known incident of anti-regime resistance by North Korean civilians since the Ajumma Rebellion that followed the 2009 currency confiscation:

A massive brawl between Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] agents and vendors at a marketplace in Musan County last Friday has led to an urgent dispatch of county security and safety agents along with the complete shuttering of the market. The clash occurred after angry vendors tried to resist the confiscation of their goods by market surveillance authorities, Daily NK has learned.

“When the agents who manage the market took away manufactured goods from the vendors, they got upset and started arguing with the agents. Soon other merchants and officials nearby joined in and it ended up turning into a free-for-all between the two groups,” a source in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Sunday.

This incident was corroborated by an additional source in the same province.

“An altercation that started with cursing and fistfights turned into mayhem as crowds watching got agitated and joined in with weapons, resulting in many casualties,” he said, noting that armed agents with the State Security Department [SSD] and the MPS from the country were dispatched and after shutting down the market they hauled off everyone everyone involved, including the injured and deceased.

The confrontation occurred unexpectedly and the site was immediately sealed off, making it hard to estimate exactly how many were involved. However, the source said dozens are thought to have been injured on either side.

A witness at the scene described the market as being “jam packed” and thick with an atmosphere of intimidation hanging over what really amounted to a “riot,” he said. [Daily NK]

According to the report, the city has been isolated and the local market is closed, causing much hardship for the people. Discontent was already high because of the drought and the failed potato harvest.

The report follows the regime’s recent decision to ban market activities by men under 60. It will be interesting to watch, over the next few weeks, whether this incident suggests that a wider crackdown against the markets is underway, or whether this merely represents theft by uniformed shake-down artists. As I wrote here recently, there is a long-standing pattern in North Korea of the regime relaxing controls on markets for a few months, or years, only to crack down later.

Over the last few months, the regime had relaxed market controls significantly while focusing its attention on sealing the border and purging the military. But as we also learned in late 2009, the market is the only institution in North Korea that isn’t under Pyongyang’s absolute control. As such, it’s the only institution capable of resisting the state with any measure of success.

Notably, residents have not raised questions as to why such an incident would have occurred, with many suggesting something larger needs to happen. Most agree authorities brought the incident upon themselves by cracking down on people during such difficult times, the source reported.

Although few foreign observers have bothered to compile the history of popular resistance to the North Korean regime—reports that are largely impossible to verify—that reported history turns out to be rather extensive. Recently, most of that resistance has actually come from inside the military, from soldiers who fragged officers and fellow soldiers over hazing and abuse. So why has all of that resistance failed to change the system? It’s likely that the state’s fear of resistance has probably stayed its hand in many ways we can’t know, and has gradually pushed back the state’s economic control.

This incident, however, like others that preceded it (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), won’t threaten the state’s control, because North Koreans have such a limited capacity for intra-national communication and organization, and for international information operations to report, photograph, and film incidents like these and attract global media interest. As a result, this protest has probably already been isolated and contained. Like nearly all of the anti-regime incidents linked in this post, it was about personal grievances, mostly economic ones. But as the Arab Spring taught us, isolated, personal, and economic grievances have a way of re-contextualizing into broader movements with broader political objectives.

If the walls within the vast ice cube tray that is North Korean society were to break down, a strong wind could build a ripple on one side of the tray into a great wave on the other. Until those walls break down, that wave will not come.

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South Korea’s new unilateral sanctions point to a multilateral sanctions strategy

South Korea has imposed unilateral financial sanctions “on six Taiwanese individuals and entities for their alleged arms trade with North Korea,” and on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. The Taiwanese entities include Global Interface Company, Trans Merits, Trans Multi Mechanics, Tsai Hsein Tai, Su Lu-Chi and Chang Wen-Fu. None of the entities are currently designated by the U.N. Security Council, whose designation process has historically been slow and subject to Chinese and Russian obfuscation.

It is the first time that the government has taken such a punitive step against foreigners and groups who are not from North Korea, in a bid to put pressure on the nuclear-armed communist neighbor.

Officials said there is “evidence of illegal ties” between those blacklisted and the North.

“It’s evident that they are involved in weapons trade with North Korea. They have already faced U.S. sanctions,” a ministry official said, requesting anonymity. “We have shared related information sufficiently with the ally and international organizations.” [Yonhap]

The measure requires South Koreans doing business with the blacklisted companies to request permission from the Bank of Korea. Engaging in any such transactions without BOK permission carries criminal penalties, including fines and prison time. The process sounds roughly similar to the process requiring a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The South Korean action suggest a model for an effective ad hoc global alliance to make sanctions enforcement more effective, and that China cannot effectively hobble with a veto threat. By itself, South Korea is not a hub of international finance and does not have a convertible currency, but if enough states–and the EU in particular–were to agree on a coordinated blacklist of companies trading with North Korea, that list could become a powerful tool to make the U.N. Security Council resolutions work as intended. The existing institution that’s best equipped to coordinate these efforts is the Financial Action Task Force, which has already published guidelines to prevent the financing of proliferation. The FATF has broad international acceptance and recognition, including from the UNSC.

Governments may be reluctant to use an instrument as blunt as a blacklist against some of North Korea’s larger bankers and trading partners. For those banks and companies, there should be a second, separate Watch List requiring higher levels of compliance and due diligence before transactions can be approved. This would increase the pressure on generally reputable banks to scrutinize (or avoid) transactions with North Korea to protect their reputations.

A challenge for South Korea will be to create a list of sanctioned companies, similar to the Treasury Department’s list of specially designated nationals, commonly known as the SDN List, and getting South Korean banks and businesses to check that list before conducting transactions. In the United States, building a culture of compliance with sanctions regimes took years, and required a willingness to prosecute offenders and set examples. South Korea will also have to create a culture of compliance to make this action effective. If the next South Korean President comes from the left-of-center New Politics Alliance for Democracy, that will present a challenge to the creation of that culture. Historically, the NPAD has been unwilling to impose adverse consequences on North Korea for its conduct.

Japan, which is seeking new ways to pressure North Korea, could also increase its regional influence by adding its economic weight to this informal alliance.

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Stephens didn’t call for isolation, he called for objectivity and full disclosure (updated).

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:

If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.

Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)

In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point.

Stephens didn’t argue that reporters shouldn’t go to North Korea. He argued that when regimes put express or implied limits on their reporting, they should “spell out what those rules are, so that readers can judge for themselves whether reports … are censored, self-censored, or genuinely comprehensive and unfiltered.” He argued that they should avoid (or at the very least, disclose) regime entanglements and conflicts of interest. He argued that they should be skeptical, not obedient. That if they must submit to self-censorship, they have a duty to tell us that. (Fifield obviously agrees, saying, “In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.”)

Stephens argued that reporter’s duty is to show their readers the subject as it is, not as the regime wants it shown. They should show its reality, not a fraud. That they should not deceive their readers by mislabeling an illusion as “Everyday DPRK.” When other reporters ask them important questions about self-censorship, accuracy, and conflicts of interest, they should answer them, not duck them, or shunt them off to softball interviews.

Above all, journalists shouldn’t lie to us and tell us they aren’t censored when they clearly are. (Because if the AP’s reporting isn’t restricted, why haven’t they gone to Camp 22, interviewed residents of Hoeryong privately, and explained the fate of its prisoners? If AP’s reporters aren’t being censored, it can only mean they simply don’t care.)

Fifield says she has met those standards, and I see no reason to doubt that she has. The AP—the main target of Stephen’s column—has fallen short of all of them, and Fifield offers no defense of how the AP has comported itself. In fact, if you read what Fifield and Stephens are saying about how reporters should behave in North Korea, they’re saying the same things.

If Fifield can follow these basic rules, so can AP. After all, that’s what the AP’s own ethical standards tell it to do. I posit that the AP has made a conscious choice to abandon its standards, obey its minders, and show us the fraudulent illusion the regime wants to show us out of a combination of gullibility and greed. That is how a free press loses the trust of a free people.

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Update: A journalist and reader tells me that Guttenfelder is no longer with the AP, and that it was The New York Times that commissioned this work. It’s worrisome to see the Times’s coverage of North Korea, which was never particularly good, make the same mistakes that have caused so much harm to AP’s reputation for such small rewards.

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WSJ’s Bret Stephens, on the latest rare glimpse of N. Korea: “Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.”

Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”

Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.

I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]

Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Characteristically for an AP alumnus, Guttenfelder won’t answer.*

I wrote Mr. Guttenfelder to ask him about his work in the country, including whether he had ever encountered evidence of malnutrition or human-rights abuses. He did not answer directly but referred me to previous interviews, which emphasize that his work is “uncensored.” That’s quite a claim, given that he admits that he “travels with a guide,” and “I don’t interview people privately.” [….]

Needless to say, none of this crosses Mr. Guttenfelder’s lens. In making the regime seem almost normal, he invites us to forget what it is. Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.

James Pearson of Reuters first identified “rare glimpse” as a cliché of editorial self-promotion, and later as a Twitter meme for Korea-watching cynics. What delights the cynics so much about these “rare glimpses” is that usually, the work thus described isn’t rare at all; it’s simply another case of a journalist going to the effort of obtaining a visa and an airline ticket, obeying her minder’s instructions, and depressing the shutter button as her minder leads her to each stage of a well-worn circuit of propaganda backdrops. This happens to describe Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea perfectly. It is as beautifully composed and visually appealing as it is fraudulent, as much a disgrace to journalism as any words ever written by Walter Duranty.

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* A previous version of this post stated that Guttenfelder shot the photographs in this essay for the Associated Press. A reader informs me that Guttenfelder has left AP after having completed multiple assignments as an AP photojournalist in North Korea. It was The New York Times that commissioned Guttenfelder’s photographs.

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Friday news dump! State Dep’t releases terrorism report, and it’s the same old crap (updated)

The threats against “The Interview,” the sundry assassination and kidnapping plots against defectors and activists, the weapons shipments to Hezbollah, the U.S. and South Korean court decisions finding North Korea responsible for acts of terrorism, all go unmentioned once again. There’s not even a suggestion that North Korea is being considered for re-listing.

Overview: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987. In October 2008, the United States rescinded the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism in accordance with criteria set forth in U.S. law, including a certification that the DPRK had not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and the provision by the DPRK of assurances that it would not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

Four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a 1970 jet hijacking continued to live in the DPRK. The Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities in the 1970s and 1980s. In May 2014, the DPRK agreed to re-open its investigation into the abductions, but as of the end of 2014 had not yet provided the results of this investigation to Japan. [U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014]

For all of the reasons why this is legally and factually false, read my full report (opens in pdf). I will have much more to say about this, naturally, but I hope you don’t mind that I’d prefer to say it to a wider audience.

But really — for this, we waited for a report that was two months late?

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Update: On the same day State released its report, the Korean TV network MBC alleged that North Korea ordered its agents to “punish” 24 North Korean defectors, including those who testified before the United Nations about crimes against humanity in their homeland. The report is in Korean only, but hopefully, some of the British and American journalists who read this site will inquire further into the sourcing of the story.

MBC claims to have obtained documents in which staff of the North Korean Embassy in Beijing offered South Korean businessmen doing business in the North to reduce their business debts if the businessmen would obtain personal information and addresses of the targets.

The report also alleges that last month, a North Korean agent was arrested for attempting to assassinate prison camp survivor, author, journalist, and activist Kang Cheol Hwan.

Discuss among yourselves.

 

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Is the North Korean military falling apart?

Last week, a 19 year-old North Korean army private fled “repeated physical abuse at the hands of his superiors” and “the realities of his impoverished country,” walked and rode for a week as a fugitive, crossed the heavily mined DMZ, and fell asleep next to a South Korean guard post.* Surely this young soldier knows that his family will now face terrible retribution for what he has done. We can even speculate that others have tried, and failed, at similar attempts that we’ve never heard about.

What conditions cause such desperation? How prevalent are they within the North Korean military? What can incidents like these tell us about morale and readiness in the North Korean armed forces? Finally, do incidents like this suggest different approaches for policymakers who seek to prevent war, and to make conditions inside North Korea less brutal for its people?

A careful review of open-source reports suggests a steady stream of defections and fratricides within the North Korean military, but that the largest-scale mutiny of which we know (since the 6th Corps mutiny in 1996) was at the brigade level:

  • June 2005: A 20 year-old private deserts his anti-aircraft unit and walks across the DMZ. A South Korean civilian finds him in the back of a truck, eating instant ramyeon noodles and ChocoPies.
  • February 2007: A platoon of approximately 20 border guards deserts, en masse, into China, after coming under suspicion for cross-border smuggling.
  • August 2010: In a possible attempt to defect, a North Korean pilot flies his MiG-21 to China, crashes, and is killed.

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  • April 2011: According to a Daily NK report, sourced to North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a brigade of starving soldiers, assigned to mine uranium, goes on strike and refuses to work until they are fed.
  • April 2012: Chinese and North Korean authorities launch a manhunt for two border guards, who shot and killed about half a dozen of their colleagues, then fled across the border. The men are later caught and sent back to North Korea.
  • October 2012: A soldier shoots his squad and platoon leaders to death and flees across the DMZ.
  • October 2012: Another solder walks across the DMZ and knocks (twice!) on the door of a ROK Army barracks. The incident causes several high-ranking ROK Army officers to face disciplinary action over the perceived lack of readiness. The report also references a third defection in September 2012.
  • March 2013: A border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, frags five company commanders (!) and attempts, unsuccessfully, to desert. The soldier is said to have been disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food.   
  • September-December 2014: A series of desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserts across the border into China, and robs and murders several civilians. Some Chinese flee the border villages. Chinese authorities respond by forming vigilante patrols and deploying troops to the border. This month, hypervigilant police shoot an unarmed, fleeing refugee.

Next, what conditions cause incidents like these? Many (but not all) of these accounts come from defector-run sources, such as the Daily NK, Open News, and New Focus, which likely share my view that the currents of human nature and history must eventually wash this regime away. It is likely that the reports contain some degree of selection bias. The regime itself has made independent verification of these accounts impossible, which compels us to look for patterns and consistent accounts before we credit them too strongly. But this secrecy also suggests that some adverse inferences about conditions in the North Korean military are justifiable.

First, the soldiers are hungry because the commissary system and their own officers are stealing their rations and reselling them on the markets. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article by Jonathan Corrado in The Daily NK.)

  • November 2005: Former army captain Kim Seung Min (who now heads Free North Korea Radio) tells The Daily NK that corrupt officers routinely steal and sell food, fuel, clothing, soap, and toothbrushes from the military commissary system, causing soldiers to go without.
  • July 2005: The Daily NK releases a clandestine video interview of a North Korean soldier who become so emaciated from eating grass that the army discharged him and sent him home to die.
  • June 2011: Footage smuggled out of North Korea shows starving North Korean soldiers.

Second, because the soldiers are hungry, they have turned to smuggling, or stealing from the civilian population, a sign of poor discipline and morale.

  • September 2009: North Korean soldiers are photographed in the act of smuggling across the Tumen River border.
  • May 2010:  Beginning in the famine years of the 1990s, border guards, including company-grade officers, went into the business of smuggling drugs across the Tumen River into China.
  • January 2011: According to a series of reports, North Korean soldiers, including members of elite units, are underfed, poorly clothed, freezing, deserting, and resorting to looting the civilian population to survive.
  • April 2011: The Daily NK reports that soldiers in front-line units are hungry and malnourished because of pilferage of food from multiple layers of the commissary system (see also here and here), and that more soldiers are deserting, stealing from markets, or burglarizing civilian homes because of hunger. The report interviews two separate defectors, who report that their battalion-size units, one in Kangwan-do, on the eastern DMZ front, and one in Pyongyang, had desertion rates of 5% and 10%. The defectors report that by this time, the punishment for a first-time desertion has been reduced to a criticism.
  • May 2015: Soldiers, posted in isolated areas and denied permission to marry or have girlfriends, frequently rape civilian women, some of whom carry DIY pepper spray to protect themselves. Military authorities do not investigate or punish the rapes, creating a culture of impunity.
  • June 2015: Another report tells of increased theft by border guards, directed against the civilian population.

Third, a significant number of soldiers are sick, and the military medical system doesn’t take care of them.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Military hospitals are short of medicines and vaccines, causing disease to spread among soldiers.
  • June 2015: Theft of medicine from military hospitals means that tuberculosis is widespread among soldiers. Because there is no medicine to treat the soldiers, they are put into isolation wards until they are sent home to die.

Fourth, hazing and abuse—even rape—of solders by their superiors are serious problems, leading to fratricides and suicides.

  • November 2005 (via Kim Seung Min): Morale is low; hazing, assaults, and suicides are widespread; and enlisted soldiers do not respect their officers. As of 1999, over 1,000 deserters were hiding out. According to the report, the punishment for desertion is a sentence to a labor camp or a severe, crippling beating.
  • June 2015: “Violence and brutality in North Korea’s armed forces have surged after Kim Jong Un came into power, with severe beatings of lower ranking soldiers becoming more commonplace, Daily NK has learned…. After Kim Jong Un assumed leadership, internal monitoring and surveillance have been ramped up to establish order over officers and lower ranking soldiers. However, this approach has led to young troops frequently escaping or going absent without leave, as they are ordered into submission without being provided with proper food supplies.” The report claims that “a lot of” low-ranking soldiers die from being beaten by their superiors. The report also claims that soldiers frequently fight over food, property, and work and that South Korean culture is a “growing influence” on North Korean soldiers in front-line units.

Fifth, corruption and morale problems are having a significant impact on military readiness.

  • April 2011: Via The Daily NK: “In the military unit supply depot, the depletion of supplies is so severe that explosives, fuses, medicines and medical supplies, wires, and fuel have run out.” It claims that during a 1999 naval skirmish, some patrol boats were unable to join the battle because they had no fuel.
  • October 2013: Two unexplained fires destroy a train carrying military uniforms and an arms factory.
  • November 2013: According to a South Korean think tank, “Corruption is rife in the North Korean army as sanctions eat into official perks for soldiers,” and that “officers have smuggled out sensitive files,” including “orders of the supreme command, wartime plans, and guidelines for electronic warfare,” to sell to “information traders” in China. Low-ranking soldiers pay bribes to their superiors to be assigned to guard the Chinese border, where they can earn money by smuggling, or taking bribes from smugglers. (More)
  • November 2013: A submarine chaser and a patrol boat collide off Wonsan, on the east coast, killing “scores” of sailors.
  • April 2015: The theft of fuel by military drivers and quartermasters is reported to be common. In the navy, sailors siphon fuel out of warships and replace it with (corrosive) sea water to foil inspectors.

Finally, there is some evidence—most of it very recent—that the mutual distrust and low morale reach from the lowest ranks to the very highest.

  • November 2008: The regime rations and controls ammunition strictly, which may explain why there aren’t more fratricide incidents. This means, however, that soldiers get little marksmanship training.
  • April 2015: The regime maintains tight control over every round of ammunition, in part to prevent fratricides.
  • May 2015: Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol is abruptly purged and executed. Afterward, The Daily NK reports that the regime has tightly restricted the movements of officials, and that “military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well.”
  • June 2015: The regime disbands an elite anti-aircraft unit, whose mission is to guard statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after some of its 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are found deployed along a highway traveled by Kim Jong Un.
  • June 2015: Yonhap reports that the regime is laying more land mines along the DMZ, to prevent its soldiers from fleeing. Reports trickling out of the North, mostly third-hand, seem to confirm that Kim Jong Un purged and replaced his Defense Minister, Hyon Yong-chol.
  • June 2015: Interviewed by The Washington Post, South Korean President Park Geun Hye says:

Since [he] took power 3 1 / 2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime….

Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.

Some cautions are in order here. First, not all of these reports can be verified independently. Second, conditions from unit to unit are almost certainly as variable as the ethics of the men who lead them. Theft is probably tolerated much less among the Special Forces than in other units. Units that are effectively used as construction brigades are probably the least disciplined and cohesive. Note also that none of these reports originate from North Korea’s ballistic missile forces, which pose the greatest military threat to the South, and to U.S. Forces, Korea. This may be because those units are better led, or because they tend to be located in the interior, away from our prying eyes. It is telling, however, that many of these stories originate in either the border guard units along the northern border, or from the front-line army units posted near the DMZ. This suggests that the decay of the military’s values, culture, cohesion, and readiness are likely advanced and widespread.

This doesn’t mean that the North Korean army wouldn’t fight; after all, the reports suggest that morale and cohesion were already poor before the attacks of 2010. But morale problems in the North Korean military do suggest opportunities to prevent war and free more North Koreans–soldiers and civilians alike–from the grip of fear.

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What we learned from the Koryo Hotel fire: AP Pyongyang is not a news bureau (updated)

If one place in North Korea is the vortex of “engagement” with Kim Jong Un’s regime, and of every tendentious argument that this engagement will coax him into glasnost and perestroika, Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel is that place. By North Korean standards, it’s luxurious, with a casino, a revolving restaurant, a hard-currency gift shop, and a lovely selection of listening devices. For years, it had been the favored venue for diplomats, tourists, investors, aid workers, and the occasional imbecile with more debts than morals, who could not attract the world’s attention in any city but Pyongyang.

koryo hotel

[Yonhap Photo]

And then, last week, this happened:

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[Yonhap Photo]

There is no question that the Koryo Hotel fire was a story of global interest. It was covered by Reuters, The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times, and many other news outlets. NGOs must have worried about the safety of their workers. Relatives must have worried about tourists who were unwise enough to be in Pyongyang in the first place. Governments and foreign ministries must have worried about the safety of their diplomats, and their nationals. The British Foreign Office warned tourists of “a culture of low safety awareness,” and suggested that they “check hotel fire procedures or consult tour operators,” which makes about as much sense as asking the White Star Line about the risk of icebergs.

Since AP opened its bureau there in 2011, Pyongyang has been the scene of multiple purges and rumors that Kim Jong Un was sick or overthrown. A new apartment building collapsed due to shoddy construction work, and may or may not have killed hundreds of people (we still don’t know). All of these stories were matters of intense global speculation, but AP Pyongyang elucidated none of them. Perhaps St. Francis de Sales thought that surely, AP would find the story at last if he asked God to send down a lightning bolt from the heavens to beacon its reporters with blazing flame and a tall column of smoke. Technically, AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Eric Talmadge, did cover this story.

From Tokyo.

Talmadge filed this terse dispatch, which was mostly notable for its nothing-to-see-here flavor, reminiscent of Pravda’s coverage of the Chernoybl disaster. Although AP Pyongyang employs two “journalists” seconded by North Korea’s KCNA, AP provided no on-the-scene reporting, no photographs, and no video of the fire. AP’s report said nothing about whether anyone died or was hurt, or what caused the fire. The only unique and interesting fact was offered by an anonymous source, who saw “fire and lots of black smoke from several top floors” of the hotel. (Update:)

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Even more embarrassing for AP was its reliance on two anonymous witnesses, because “North Korea severely restricts information shared with outsiders.” Today, “outsiders” includes a news service that boasted in 2011 that its “historic and significant” MOU with KCNA would make it “the exclusive distributor of contemporary and historic video from KCNA’s archive, providing a new source of video content from North Korea to AP’s members and customers around the world.” Then, AP President and CEO Tom Curley said, “AP is once again being trusted to open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world” in its “usually reliable and insightful way.” Emphasis mine.

You know the MOU I’m talking about, of course. That’s the MOU between the AP and KCNA, North Korea’s state propaganda agency, that the AP has never released, while denying the authenticity of a draft leaked by the inestimable Nate Thayer in his landmark report for NK News. Today, Thayer is pointing out that although AP told us nothing exclusive from Pyongyang about the Koryo Hotel fire, it did manage to provide extensive coverage of the transparent propaganda spectacle called Women Cross DMZ.

Incidentally, follow that “boasted” link two paragraphs up and you’ll see that it goes to The Wayback Machine; the original url and press release have been flushed down the memory hole. Similarly, AP’s North Korea Journal site, which once proudly featured its reporting from North Korea, hasn’t been updated in two years. But if the Koryo fire made a mockery of AP’s promise to “open a door to … the world,” can’t someone at least open a door to the AP’s reporting?

The BBC couldn’t. It also commented on the fact that “[n]o-one from Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, appears to have witnessed the fire.” It even went so far as to ask Talmadge, the AP’s Bureau Chief, “why the bureau did not file images of the fire.” Talmadge “did not respond.”

Reuters, which does not have a bureau in Pyongyang, did manage to publish a slightly more detailed report and tweet this photograph. In other words, news agencies that haven’t negotiated a permanent presence in Pyongyang actually did a slightly better job of covering this story from across the Korean Demilitarized zone than the AP, whose bureau can’t be more than a few minutes away from the Koryo Hotel.

Reuters, which also quoted an anonymous source, reported that “[s]everal foreigners were apprehended for trying to take pictures of the scene.” We may not condone North Korean censorship, but we all expect it. Of course the AP can’t bring us live coverage. Of course the reporting is censored. Who would ever have expected anything else? Only everyone who ever read AP’s promises that it would never yield to censorship, and that it would rather be kicked out of North Korea than submit to it:

He stressed that reports will not be censored but conceded that reporters’ access would be limited at this point, though he hoped that will change with time. [John Daniszewski, AP Senior Managing Editor, Jan. 24, 2012]

We’ve communicated our standards of journalism and won’t compromise.  We will adhere to AP standards.  The North Korean government doesn’t screen anything we write. They give feedback and complain sometimes…. We apply the same standards in North Korea as in South Korea. We’re raising the bar because the Western media often lose sight of standards when covering North Korea. [Former AP Pyongyang Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee, Apr. 10, 2012]

We do not submit to censorship. We would not ever have agreed to anything like that. We are going to write things and take pictures of things and make videos of things, both inside North Korea and outside North Korea that they might not necessarily like. It happens sometimes, and the argument is loud, sometimes. [LAUGHS] We both know that there are going to be some healthy disagreements ahead of us. Obviously, if one of those disagreements led to AP being booted from the country, we would choose to be booted rather than to stay and be asked to compromise how we operate. [Kathleen Carroll, AP Executive Editor and Senior Vice-President, Apr. 13, 2012]

Since then, Lee has been replaced as Bureau Chief by Talmadge, who said this to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi earlier this year:

For the record, Talmadge says that no North Korean official has ever screened one of his articles. “I can write whatever I want,” he says flatly. “The North Korean authorities see my work at the same time everyone else does, [which is] when it hits the wire. They don’t get previews [and] they don’t get to censor content.” [WaPo, Jan. 18, 2015]

Talmadge also offered this comment:

“I think there is a tendency abroad to caricature North Korea in ways that aren’t constructive, and to resort to dismissiveness or mockery much too easily,” says the 53-year-old Talmadge, who has covered Asia for decades. “During my time there, I have been surprised, and reassured in a way, to see how average North Koreans care about the same things everybody else does — their family, their finances, their health, their friends, how to get by. It’s too easy to treat North Korea as an incomprehensible place. Fundamentally, of course, it’s not.”

Today, the caricature — which made fodder for some exquisite mockery on Reddit — bears a much closer resemblance to last week’s events than the alternative reality Talmadge describes. As of today, several days later, the Korean Central News Service still hasn’t covered the story, but did feature a story about a Guinean organization that praised Kim Il Sung’s exploits.

Had the AP promised us a questionable propaganda exhibition, reporting that often read like propaganda, and ultimately, a glorified Instagram account, we could have judged that promise on its own merit. But that’s not what AP promised us. It promised us straight, objective, uncensored news. It promised us a breakthrough in openness by the regime, and a consequent breakthrough in the reporting of important news happening in North Korea. That’s not what the AP delivered. Instead, it made some jarring compromises of its objectivity and hopped into Kim Jong Un’s bed.

And then, Kim Jong Un rolled over.

The experiment has failed. It’s time for the Associated Press to admit that.

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Guerrilla Engagement: A strategy for regime replacement and reconstruction in N. Korea (Pts. 1-5)

~   1   ~

One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exists in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.

North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Another destabilizing trend is North Korea’s obscene and widening gap between rich and poor.

These things might not have mattered in the 1990s, but today, technology is allowing more of North Korea’s have-nots to see how the elites live. Of course, inequality isn’t new to North Korea, but the new inequality is a more destabilizing kind. Contrary to the misjudgment of generations of American policymakers, North Korea’s hunger is not destabilizing, but an effective tool for weakening, exhausting, and controlling the oppressed. Today, North Korea’s poor are still very poor, but there is no wide-scale famine. Meanwhile, the elites have grown obscenely rich. It is inequality, not poverty, that topples tyrants. And ever since the coronation of Kim Jong Un, a porcine portrait of inequality has glared down on every North Korean citizen in every home, office, and classroom.

In his inaugural address in 2009, President Obama offered an open hand to Kim Jong Il, if he would unclench his fist. Within five months, Kim Jong Il answered with a nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un has repeatedly reaffirmed his insistence on pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

Recently, the Obama Administration has been hinting at both talks with and sanctions against Pyongyang, but the reality is that the North Korea policy debate has already entered the post-Obama era. It’s a very different debate from the one we had seven years ago. In 2008, most Korea watchers still believed that “engagement” with Pyongyang would catalyze political reforms, but Kim Jong Un’s bloody purges, and his harsh crackdowns on refugees and information, have discredited this theory. Korea watchers still hope for a peaceful opening of North Korea, but if you ask them directly, very few of them really believe in one in the foreseeable future. In 2008, most Korea watchers still hoped that diplomacy might end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To the extent this hope survived the collapse of President Bush’s Agreed Framework of 2007, it faded away with the collapse of President Obama’s Leap Day Agreement of 2012, a less ambitious freeze agreement. A few Korea watchers still cling to the idea of a freeze agreement, but I can’t name a single Korea-watcher of consequence who still believes in a negotiated disarmament of North Korea today.

Today, many Korea-watchers are resigned to an unreformed, nuclear North Korea. Most are weary, disillusioned, uncertain, and at a loss. More of them know what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. There are important exceptions. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, writing in Foreign Affairs, advocates the overthrow of the regime by seeking a diplomatic consensus with China and other neighbors to cut off Pyongyang’s financial support. In a war-weary, post-Iraq Washington, this might have been a fringe view, but in the age of ISIS, Terry is joined in it, somewhat conditionally, by Richard Haass and Winston Lord, influential moderates who are usually associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy that places a high premium on stability. Leaving aside whether China would agree to this for the present, there are good counter-arguments to seeking regime collapse. One need only read Bruce Bennett’s description of the cost, chaos, and conflict a sudden collapse of North Korea’s sole social and political institution could bring to understand them. (Terry also acknowledges them.) But as much as Americans hate the cost of nation-building, they must understand that the alternative can be much costlier. Try to calculate the cost of anarchy Afghanistan in 1989, or Syria and Libya in 2011.

In the long term, Terry (and Park Geun Hye) are almost certainly correct that North Korea’s untapped human and material potential would make a unified Korea a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous nation. In the short term, however, a post-collapse North Korea will be a money pit. It will be a source of social unrest, illicit drugs, crime, corruption, disease, and potentially, conflict. Its infrastructure, civil society, and public health would take years, if not decades, to rebuild to first-world standards, and all of them will continue to decay as long as the regime can suppress the coalescence of alternative political, social, and economic institutions. With each year that this decay progresses, the cost of repairing it will continue to rise. Even with the best planning and preparation, it will be one of the greatest security crises of our age. And it will happen regardless of whether we want it to or not.

Even so, this is still a far better outcome than one in which North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other end-users of North Korea’s WMD technology acquire the means to destroy U.S., South Korea, Japanese, and other allied cities. As Korea watchers will tell you, all of the good options vanished long ago.

~   2   ~

In moments of exasperation, proponents of regime-focused engagement sometimes ask their critics how they would beneficially transform North Korean society. It’s a fair question. The critics are fond of pointing out that South Korea spent nearly a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, yet the results speak for themselves. As one of these critics, I’ve long challenged proponents of Sunshine-like policies to point to any significant positive changes their policies have achieved, but no one has ever taken me up on this.

The question isn’t really whether Sunshine failed, but why. The simple answer is that it’s in the regime’s interest to protect the status quo, accepting only so much trade and commerce as are necessary to sustain its military, security, and material priorities. Any positive change for which a foreign or alternative institution can take credit is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This goes far to explain the failure of U.N. food aid programs, which Pyongyang has hobbled with obstructionism, corruption, and outright diversion, and (as we’ve recently learned) infiltration by its spies.

Even so, and no matter how demonstrably regime engagement has failed to transform North Korea, its defenders raise a fair point when they say that isolation alone won’t change North Korea for the better.

What policymakers urgently require, then, is some way to weaken the North Korean government while rebuilding North Korean society — a way to begin nation building now by connecting the wider world with those North Koreans with an interest in transforming their society into a peaceful, prosperous, and humane one. What policymakers require is a strategy for guerrilla engagement, to empower the rise of independent, sometimes clandestine, institutions at the farm, village, factory, and town level, to fill the voids in North Korea’s governance, with the ultimate objective of regime replacement rather than mere regime collapse.

This leads us to a short but very important policy paper, by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, about “separative engagement.” Separative engagement is premised on the conclusion that regime-focused engagement has not worked, and cannot work:

After over a decade of practice, and in light of the findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, if critical engagement has been measurably effective in improving human rights in North Korea and if it has effectively influenced the DPRK’s decision-makers, can we point to any tangible effects?

The short answer must be: No. Despite European successes in the Track One approach — namely, the UN resolutions on North Korean human rights in 2014 — Track Two engagement has been unable to identify those in the North Korean leadership to influence or target, whilst DPRK officials continue to exterminate, enslave, torture, imprison, rape, starve, and persecute their citizenry on an unimaginable scale.

Put simply: critical engagement has not been, and cannot be, effective.

Engaging the DPRK through approaches proposed, crafted, or condoned by the DPRK regime, or through projects that have minor results relative to the immense scale of human rights violations, should not continue. In order to pursue effective and principled engagement, a bold shift in policy is required. [EAHRNK]

Instead, EAHRNK collaborates with North Korean defector and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose a new, people-focused model of engagement:

In its approach, the objective of separative engagement is very clear: For all engagement to be guided on the principle of North Korean people being given space to separate themselves, both psychologically and physically, from the North Korean state.

Separative engagement does not offer quick solutions to the North Korean human crisis. Rather, its framework and principles — which are based upon first-hand knowledge of how the DPRK state functions domestically and how it interacts with the international community — allows states to commit to a policy framework that is premised on respecting and restoring the human rights of the North Korean people.

This principle is fundamental to those who advocate for separative engagement. If engagement is to contribute to ending the unparalleled abuses of the North Korean people, the people must be conceptually and tangibly separated from the ideological and physical institutions that strengthen the regime’s control. 

Specifically:

1. Imposing Separative Conditions within the DPRK — for example, ensuring that all training projects implemented by the international community seek to strengthen institutions that support the people’s economy, as opposed to the compartmentalised military or elite economies.

2. Increasing Separation-inducing Pursuits towards the DPRK — for example, increasing inward flows of information, such as the BBC World Service, which offer alternative information to DPRK state propaganda.

3. Fostering Separative Leverage over the DPRK — for example, providing support and training for North Korean escapees, or aiding and engaging a North Korean government-in-exile who can offer a more credible and legitimate voice for the North Korean people.

“Guerrilla engagement” begins with these same principles, but extends them in more subversive directions, and combines them with other non-military instruments of national power, as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve change. The sine qua non of guerrilla engagement is the deployment of technology to allow direct communication and engagement with the North Korean people — not minders or bureaucrats in Pyongyang, or officials working for state trading companies in Dandong — but farmers, teachers, journalists, smugglers, merchants, midwives, doctors, and mechanics in Hoeryong, Sinuiju, Chongjin, and Hamhung, and in a thousand villages and factory towns scattered between them. For their own protection, most of these people will not know the identities of other members of the underground. Initially, few of them even realize that their work has political implications at all. They will simply be skirting the state’s rules to provide valuable goods and services to their fellow citizens, just like many North Koreans are already doing today.

The challenges to this are obvious. Since Kim Jong Un’s dynastic succession in 2011, he has prioritized sealing the cracks in North Korea’s information blockade. That crackdown has cut the flow of refugees in half, and has throttled the flow of contraband information and consumer goods across North Korea’s borders.

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Here comes the crazy train!

Jason Unruhe, who looks like an overripe ripe kiwi fruit decorated with a Mister Potato Head set, goes by the Twitter handle “Maoist Rebel News” and calls himself the “No. 1 Marxist on YouTube,” and yes, that is like being the “No. 1” sommelier under the 395 overpass. It’s my privilege to report that Mr. Unruhe is upset with me, after he provoked a Twitter fracas by raging against “imperialist” sanctions against North Korea. At this point, I explained to Mr. Unruhe that he had no idea what the sanctions actually say, so he turned on his satan-worshipper under-lighting, put on his limo driver uniform, and made this 18-minute YouTube video about me.

Feel free to comment, should you choose to do so.

I learned three things from this video: first, that Jason Unruhe doesn’t know much about North Korea; second, that his reading comprehension skills aren’t much good, either; and third, that some people will believe just about anything if they want to badly enough. Unruhe calls me a proponent of “keeping” North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism (it was taken off the list by George W. Bush on October 11, 2008). He claims that I cited the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan (which he mispronounces chee-yo-nan) as an example of North Korea’s international terrorism; I actually concluded that this act, as outrageous as it was, probably didn’t meet the standard. Unruhe appears to have skimmed the table of contents without reading the report itself.

Unruhe also credits conspiracy theories that a U.S. navy ship actually sank the Cheonan, and denies that North Korea was behind the Sony hack. Why blame North Korea? Beats me. Maybe President Obama needed a better excuse to not sanction North Korea. Unruhe also refers to North Korea’s “so-called” prison camps, whose existence he doubts, and which puts him in Holocaust denier territory. In other words, you can either take Unruhe’s word, or that of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the President of the United States, the heads of the FBI and the NSA, and an international investigation team.

What always puzzles me about Marxists who support North Korea is how unequal and un-Marxist North Korean society really is. I suppose we should add this to the long list of things Jason Unruhe doesn’t know about North Korea.

Nothing Mr. Unruhe says is quite as laughable, however, as his claim that combustible know-nothing Mike Bassett has a reputation among both pro- and anti-North Korea factions for being “neutral.” (Unruhe would have improved the comedy value of his video immensely if he’d used the word “balanced” instead.) Can anyone name a Korea watcher of any standing who believes this? Mike Bassett mainly has a reputation for his crimes against Godwin’s Law.

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Mr. Bassett will not be taking part in today’s discussion, by the way, because he violated the comment policy, and because every day is too short to respond to “scholarship” of this caliber:

Bassett comment 3 Apr 2015

Remember, I’m not a mental health professional, and neither are you.

As for Bassett’s “neutrality,” his writing is cited by the Korean Central News Agency, an internet Marxist, and just about no one else. Also, his masthead looks like some sort of niche Kim Jong Un erotic fanfic site.

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[Not that there’s anything wrong with that.]

Unruhe seems to have taken most of his talking points from Bassett, and that’s a problem, because looking for truth from Mike Bassett is like looking for love in the restroom stall of a bus station. For example, to support his Vishinskyist argument that I’m a McCarthyist, Bassett accuses me of calling for the prosecution of Christine Ahn under the Logan Act (in fact, I called for the repeal of the Logan Act as unconstitutional). I’d say Bassett was lying, but the more likely explanation is that he’s merely subliterate.

Similarly, I’m reliably informed that Mr. Bassett’s Swiss tweedledum, Felix Abt, is crediting the “FEMA camps” internet hoax, which actually uses images of North Korean prison camps that you can find for yourself on Google Earth, relabeled by a prankster with clever anagrams of phrases like “left wing suckers.” How prophetic of him, whoever he was, although the right-wing crazies have also picked up on this conspiracy theory.

None of this matches the honor of being denounced by North Korea itself, but it does mean that I must be doing something right. And that I must do much more of it. So now, let’s turn to something more substantial: a four five-part post on “guerrilla engagement” with the North Korean people.

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Markets, food, and trade: steps forward, leaps backward (Pts. 1, 2 & 3)

~   Part 1   ~

Do you still remember March, when the “May 30 measures” were the next wave of “drastic” perestroika that would change North Korea? Those measures were supposed to “give[] autonomy management of all institutions, companies, and stores,” including “control over production distribution and trade from the state to factories and businesses,” and thus awaken “the inner potential of the country.” But today, Andrei Lankov, who has been one of the most forward-leaning predictors of economic reform in recent years, tells us that the regime is backing away from the reform proposal:

The ‘May 30th Measures’ envisioned that the new system would be expanded to include all North Korean enterprises, but this is not what has happened. Reports emanating from North Korea in the last two months leave little doubt that the expected transformation has at best been postponed, at worst, cancelled entirely. Right now, only a minority of North Korean industrial enterprises have been allowed to implement the new model.

What happened? Frankly, it is unlikely we will receive a definite answer to this question any time soon. Of course, it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un suddenly changed his mind and decided to stop reformist activities that he found to be politically dangerous and ideologically suspicious. It is also possible that the reforms faced determined opposition from conservative members of the bureaucracy and military. Last, but not least, it is also possible that North Korean leaders have come to understand the problems that such reforms would face without prior and proper changes to the financial system.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the North Korean government has decided to slow down the reform process. At the same time, there has as yet been no reversal. [Andrei Lankov]

I’m still not convinced that either the reforms or the retreat are real, but I won’t let that stop me from suggesting two more alternative theories. For example, Lankov cites the example of the Musan Iron Mine, which was paying its workers 300,000 to 400,000 won per month, “exorbitant wages by North Korean standards.” But in the case of Musan, power shortages and the squeeze on exports to China have led to reports of mass layoffs. The regime may have decided that it couldn’t afford either the higher wages or the risk of creating a pool of angry, unemployed workers. Or, the entire program may have been disinformation all along, meant to mollify workers at a time when state-run industry is demoralized, and when workers seeking steady pay vastly prefer scarce jobs at foreign currency-earning enterprises.

Either way, reform rumors often seem to cause more excitement on Massachusetts Avenue and the Yonsei campus than in Chongjin or Hamheung:

“A lot of top officials in North Korea are not sure which direction Kim Jong Un is taking them in,” says Park. “He doesn’t know how to be a leader. He doesn’t know politics, economy, culture or diplomacy.”

Initial plans for a more open market economy modeled on China was soon dumped, says Park, once it became clear opening up could jeopardize Kim’s iron grip on power.

“People are struggling to survive and are trading on the black market so the official economy is barely functioning.” Park adds “a lot of people are trading foreign currency and running small businesses but the power of the state to control that money is weakening.” [CNN]

One can observe this same gap in expectations with the so-called “6.28 measures,” which would let farmers keep a greater share of what they grow. The 6.28 measures also generated much optimism here, in Lankov especially, but failed to materialize in 2012, 2013, and 2014. North Koreans have heard these promises enough to stop believing them. From their perspective, “nothing has changed.” In Ryanggang Province last year, their shares of the harvest were actually about half of what the state promised. They’ve lost faith in the state, its collectives, and its excuses:

“As the state fails year after year to distribute a fare share to the workers, motivation among collective farmers continues to decline,” he explained, adding that the high hopes the bunjo system once instilled in people have largely fizzled out, only to be replaced with more misgivings.

He went on to say that the state’s failures have given way to a population that “no longer believes in state policies,” and is fully aware that the state “simply hides behind excuses of ‘aid to the military, shortfalls of production targets, and purchasing seeds for the next harvest'” to explain away its broken promises. “We’re not going to be fooled again this year,” the source noted. [Daily NK]

As Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard have argued, what foreigners are tempted to describe as “reform” in North Korea often amounts to state policies catching up to what citizens have already established as a fact of life, legally or otherwise. Even if the 6.28 measures are real, unanswered questions about how they will be implemented will determine how much of a difference they will really make in the availability and production of food. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when the regime finally implements the 6.28 measures, but the reform North Korean farmers really want — and the change they’re making a fact of life now — is private, individual, for-profit agriculture, sometimes called sotoji farming.

~   Part 2   ~

For obvious reasons, no one knows for certain how much of North Korea’s food is grown on sotoji plots, but Lankov has estimated “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. U.N. food and crop estimates say little about private agriculture, but it’s probably one important part of the reason why the state’s border crackdowns haven’t caused a return of famine. The practice is common enough that “[p]eople in farming areas are busy cultivating small individual plots during this season, constantly moving around hilly areas and the banks of the river from dawn to dusk,” and complicating efforts to catch border-crossers. Because the state has monopolized the best land for the collectives, sotoji farmers have cleared plots in the mountains. This, along with the clearing of trees for firewood, has contributed to the North’s deforestation problem.

The regime’s response to sotoji farming has been similar to its treatment of the markets a decade ago — tolerate but squeeze. In previous years, it has confiscated plots, or limited their size to 30, and later, 100 square meters in the immediate vicinity of the grower’s home. This year, the regime is trying to tax the plots to death, raising land use fees by 50% and requiring farmers to pay in produce. Many farmers can’t afford this higher rate and call the decision “absurd” when the regime still can’t provide survival rations. The regime has responded with threats of outright confiscation. In some areas, officials have prohibited the clearing of trees, or ordered residents to plant trees on existing farm plots:

Another source reported that people have expressed frustration about the fact that food security is seen as less of a priority than reforestation. “If trees are planted on hillside plots or strips of land near the roads, there will be less for people to eat. If the state doesn’t guarantee food, people will just move elsewhere and keep cultivating whatever land they can, decimating other forest areas,” he concluded. [Daily NK]

So far, squeezing the sotoji has not caused hardship for most of the people. Food prices were largely stable and well below their usual seasonal levels during the lean season in March and April. The reports credited various reasons for the improved food supply, including aid from Russia, trade with China, and paradoxically, “a program of encouraging people to cultivate smaller plots of land” within the collectives. (Note well: when I argue that the regime itself could and should ease the food crisis through land reform and imports rather than asking foreign donors to fill the void, this is what I mean.)

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most North Korean still suffer from food shortages, and one in six North Korean kids still suffers from chronic malnutrition. Worse, North Korea is facing a serious drought that could worsen the food crisis next year. Pyongyang could close its food gap easily with a small reallocation and redistribution of the resources it squanders on its military and its oligarchy.

But not all of the news is bad. One area where there is clear evidence of improvement is the jangmadang, or markets. The Daily NK reports that the regime has eased up on market trading, including by dispensing with a widely disobeyed prohibition on women under 50 selling in the markets. This has created significant opportunities for those who make their living by selling on the people’s economy. As a result, the number of market stalls in North Korean cities has increased rapidly in the last three years. One incentive for this is that the “stall fees” officials collect from merchants are increasingly lucrative, which enlists local officials in the growth of the market system. For now, business is good, and vendors pay high prices (RMB 4,500) to officials for market stalls. In addition to this, there has been a proliferation of small fast-food restaurants and coffee shops in the provincial towns.

There are still limits, of course: vendors caught selling South Korean goods risk losing their stalls. But there is evidence that this is a nationwide trend, suggesting a top-down decision to relax the rules. Can it last? A review of the history tells us that markets have waxed and waned as the regime vacillated between cracking down and easing up. North Korean women share this concern:

[M]ost women are perplexed, if cautiously elated, by the leniency shown by a system that has wielded such stringent power and regulation over them for so long. “The shift in sanctions feels like hell has frozen over,” many have remarked, adding that they “finally have the opportunity to make ends meet.” Still, many are wary, noting that “you never know when the authorities will abruptly declare a new policy or revert to stringent clampdowns.” [Daily NK]

~   Part 3   ~

There is also good news on the transportation front. Well-connected merchants called donju have gone into the business of moving goods and people, pressing government-owned trains, trams, and boats into commercial service by renting them from the Ministry of Railways and Fisheries, or by importing old trucks and buses from China and kicking up a cut to officials in exchange for permission to operate. (The donju were also buying electricity from corrupt state officials, paying illegal “electricity taxes” in exchange for a more reliable power supply — up to 10 hours a day for 20 days.) Donju are also starting taxi services in the cities.

The establishment of an alternative transport system would be good news. It would help break down the regime’s internal controls on the movements of people and information. More efficient transportation of goods would also erode the inequalities between regions (particularly between Pyongyang and other places).

But as North Korea watchers have learned, for every few small steps forward, there is eventually a Great Leap Backward. So can it last? To answer that question, we have to know whether the positive changes are happening because of Pyongyang, or in spite of it. If the latter is more true than the former, it may be that the regime is concentrating on enforcing border and information control at the expense of other internal controls. It certainly isn’t talking about reform and opening, and if there’s general agreement among Korea watchers about anything, it’s that the regime regime remains firmly opposed political reform or change. Pyongyang is clearly determined to seal up the cracks in the information blockade by restricting cross-border travel and snuffing out cross-border communications. That crackdown is backed by the full power and resources of the state, and almost certainly comes from the very top.

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North Korea tightens surveillance following purge of Hyon Yong Chol

Last year, following the purge of Jang Song Thaek, The Daily NK reported that mass arrests and increased surveillance had terrorized the elites in Pyongyang. Now, The Daily NK reports that Pyongyang residents, and especially those with family or organizational links to purged Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol, have been under “a tighter net of surveillance” following the latest purge:

“Military and Party cadres in Pyongyang affiliated with Hyon are living in fear, not knowing whether they will fall victims as well,” a source from Pyongyang currently residing in the Sino-North Korean border area told Daily NK. “They are keeping low profiles to make sure the leadership doesn’t make an example out of them.”

He described Pyongyang as being “awash in tension” in the aftermath of Hyon’s execution. “In the month of May, there have been greater limitations on travel permits to other areas not only for residents but Party cadres as well. State Security Department [SSD] restrictions on mobility have also really been ramped up,” he explained. [Daily NK]

The increased controls include new requirements for cadres to report their routes before traveling anywhere, even in Pyongyang, and new “high-tech mobile phone wiretapping devices” with voice identification technology. Even wealthy merchants’ travel is affected. Permits to travel to the Chinese border have become more difficult to come by, and more expensive, which will affect the price of food and consumer goods. It may further strain relationships with the merchants’ Chinese business partners.

Jang’s purge may not have caused enough distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military to destabilize the regime, but then, we still don’t know why Hyon Yong Chol was purged. For that matter, the regime has not announced Hyon’s* purge, at least externally. It’s hard to believe that a poorly timed power nap would have been the main reason for such an unsettling move, and it’s extraordinarily coincidental that Hyon’s purge came just before South Korea’s National Intelligence Service thought Kim was leaving for a state visit to Moscow, and just after Hyon made a series of visits to Russia. I’ve seen zero direct evidence that a coup plot was afoot, but I’ve yet to see a plausible alternative explanation for last month’s events. Certainly the new reign of terror won’t improve the sense of cohesion in Pyongyang, the city where The Killing Fields meets The Borgias.

~   ~   ~

* An earlier version of this post said Jang’s. Thanks to an alert reader for catching the error.

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U.S., allies talk sanctions and human rights (emphasis on talk)

We’d hardly had time to digest all those rumors of “exploratory talks” with North Korea just two weeks ago, before John Kerry was in Seoul, sounding like his speechwriters had slipped him some cut-and-pasted OFK text. There, Kerry denounced Pyongyang’s “recent provocations,” said it wasn’t “even close to” ready for serious about talks, and accused it of “flagrant disregard for international law while denying its people fundamental freedom and rights.”

“The world is hearing increasingly more and more stories of grotesque, grisly, horrendous public displays of executions on a whim and a fancy by the leader against people who were close to him and sometimes for the most flimsy of excuses,” he said, referring to a report from South Korea’s spy agency that the North Korean defense minister was publicly executed with an antiaircraft gun after he fell asleep during a meeting led by Kim.

Kerry vowed to speak out against “North Korea’s atrocities against its own people” and warned that Kim’s mercurial behavior is likely to lead other nations to push for charges against him and North Korea at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. [Washington Post, Carol Morello]

This is all good, although if there’s one execution in North Korea that I care less about than any of the rest of them, it’s Hyon Yong-Chol’s. Overall, my reaction to Kerry’s words is the same as Bruce Klingner’s — I’ll believe them when I see him act on them. (Bruce is now on Twitter, by the way, and you really should be following him.)

Still, the Obama Administration has shown encouraging, if belated, signs of having discovered the advantages of progressive diplomacy. This week, Sung Kim was in Seoul meeting with his South Korean and Japanese (!) counterparts, and 70 year-old distractions have cleared away, if ever so briefly, because of a shared panic over the apparent pace of North Korea’s progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal.

For this instant, anyway, they are all saying sensible things, and in splendid harmony. Amb. Kim said the three nations “agreed on the importance of enhancing pressure and sanctions on North Korea even as we keep all diplomatic options on the table and open.” Kim, rumored to be a soft-liner in the administration’s Korea team, said, “In a sense, they (North Korea) have given us no choice but to cooperate on enhancing pressure ….” South Korean negotiator Hwang Joon-Kook offered also agreed on the need for “stronger pressure” on Pyongyang, in tandem with “active efforts for dialogue.”

And Sung Kim even said this:

“We also agreed on the importance of working with the international community to address the grave human rights situation in North Korea,” Mr. Kim told reporters in Seoul as he emerged from a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Hwang Joon-kook and Junichi Ihara. [….]

Officials here said that other options under discussion included tightening inspections of cargo traveling in and out of North Korea and squeezing the source of hard currency North Korea earns through the tens of thousands of workers it sends to factories, building sites, logging camps and other work sites in China, Russia and countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The North Korean workers are estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year but toil in poor, sometimes slavelike, working conditions and have most of their wages confiscated by their government, according to former workers and rights groups.[N.Y. Times]

If only someone had thought of that before.

Next, Kim and Hwang will fly to Beijing to pressure the ChiComs into turning the screws on the North Koreans. Wanna know how to get their attention? I’ll give you a hint, from my visitors’ log today:
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The three governments are talking about ways to “to deter North Korea’s provocations and increase the effectiveness of sanctions,” which is good, because as the U.N. Panel of Experts and GAO have both told us — and as I told you even before they did — the sanctions we already have aren’t being enforced. The three diplomats didn’t announce any new sanctions. The effort instead seems to be about doing a better job of enforcing the sanctions that already exist.

It’s interesting that North Korea’s recent claim to have tested a submarine-launched missile (which might have been fake) seems to have done more to change policy than a direct North Korean terrorist threat against free expression in the United States (which was almost certainly real).

So what exactly do all of these oscillating signals mean? My guess is, they probably all mean about the same thing: a lot of talk, and not much else. But let no one say the Obama Administration dares not confront grave threats as they gather far from our shores. Your government has deployed a brigade of its finest cops and lawyers, armed with the power of the mighty dollar, to fight that existential threat to our liberties, our security, and the sanctity of humanity itself known as … FIFA, which sounds like the name of small, yappy dog, and is probably about as great a threat to our national interests.

Yes, that’s right: the cops, lawyers, and authorities we should be using to bring Kim Jong Un to heel are being kept busy cleaning up a game that Americans don’t even watch.

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Gloria Steinem was right about isolation (of South Africa)

Gloria Steinem can look back on a life of activism that has built deep reserves of good will among many people. Steinem must have spent heavily from those reserves last week, when Women Cross DMZ attracted largely critical media coverage (and I suspect, an even more critical public reaction). As NK News informs us, its events were stamped from the same propaganda assembly line as those put on for the clown-shod Quisling Alejandro Cao de Benos.

To what end would Steinem jeopardize that good will by entangling herself with a regime that treats women the way Pyongyang does, and whose state media ejaculate this level of misogyny? Steinem’s answer is interesting and telling: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.” A prepared (but not as well edited) statement by Women Cross DMZ was on-message: “If history has taught us anything, it is that isolating people only alienates them.”

But Gloria Steinem clearly didn’t believe this on December 19, 1984, when she was arrested outside the South African Embassy while protesting against Ronald Reagan’s “policy of seeking change in South Africa through quiet diplomacy.” The demonstrations were coordinated by the lobby TransAfrica, which led America’s (and ultimately, the world’s) movement to isolate South Africa, and to force it to repeal its apartheid laws.

I first learned this bit of trivia from an article in the agitprop site Foreign Policy in Focus, to which Women Cross DMZ organizer Christine Ahn is a frequent contributor. An article there by Francis Njubi Nesbitt, “The Peoples’ Sanctions,” reminds us that Steinem once joined a movement that targeted “South African consulates, federal buildings, coin shops that dealt in gold Krugerrand coins, and businesses with South African interests . . . to cut apartheid South Africa off from the rest of the world.”

By the 1980s, most of the world’s countries had imposed political, economic, and military sanctions on the South African regime. The exceptions were South Africa’s major trading partners: the United States and Britain. These countries disingenuously argued that sanctions would hurt black Africans most.

In the United States, however, a vigorous grassroots movement demanded that cities, states, pension funds, banks, and universities divest their resources from companies doing business in South Africa, making it a liability for anyone to do business in the racially segregated state. Eventually, international corporations pulled out in a massive exodus that helped to bring down the apartheid system. [FPIF]

So deep was the connection Steinem built to the anti-Apartheid movement that she later married David Bale, a South African-born anti-Apartheid activist, and the father of actor Christian Bale.

Anyone who lived through the 1980s knew that enforcement of the People’s Sanctions was as much a function of social pressure as it was of law. Then, breaking the boycott of South Africa would have been career suicide for any celebrity, and would have risked a shareholder revolt in any corporation. Yet although Apartheid-era South Africa was banned from most sporting events, North Korea was welcome at the 2010 World Cup … in Johannesburg. “Constructive engagement” with North Korea falls within the acceptable norms of hipster chic, and attracts press coverage that, if not wholly sympathetic, certainly isn’t unsympathetic. The author Mark Bowden wrote a lengthy article that was largely devoted to the charms of Kim Jong Un’s hospitality, as if this trait were more revealing of Kim’s misunderstood nature than his tendencies to starve his citizens and slaughter his minions.

By any objective standard, North Korea’s human rights abuses vastly exceed those of South Africa, yet as our friends in Europe are coming to realize, North Korea shows no glimmer of “engagement” aimed at moderating, much less ending, those abuses. Reading Nesbitt’s article, one can’t help observing (again!) how much the political polarities in the contest over South Africa policy have reversed on the question of North Korea.

What explains this disparity? Was it racism that made Apartheid uniquely evil? North Korea is almost certainly more racist than South Africa ever was. For all the petty racism one could see during Apartheid’s death-rattle, its state media would not have called a foreign leader “a monkey in a tropical forest,” “a crossbreed of unclear blood,” or “an ugly subhuman.” Whatever you think about the recent clamor to isolate Indiana, no public official this side of Kampala could survive calling a respected jurist “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”

Today (as then) most of us accept that the liberals were right about South Africa policy. Nesbitt goes on to narrate the history of how economic isolation brought down Apartheid. He hails decisions by Citibank and Chase Manhattan to refuse the South African government short-term credit, which had “a devastating effect on South Africa’s economy.” He is rightfully triumphal about the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act in 1986, when half the Republicans in Congress joined Ted Kennedy to override President Reagan’s veto. He writes that Congress later “strengthened sanctions against South Africa, banning all trade, investment, and bank loans.” He tells how U.S. leadership inspired Europe to impose its own sanctions, which “meant total isolation for the apartheid regime” and brought South Africa’s economy to “the verge of collapse” within months. All of this was very much to the good, and Steinem is rightfully praised for her role in this movement, even today.

To Nesbitt, it was isolation that eventually forced F.W. DeKlerk to negotiate the end of apartheid. This rings mostly true, though not entirely. I arrived in South Africa in May of 1990 for a summer job in the mines, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I did not see an economy on “the verge of collapse,” but an economy that was steady, yet punch drunk and bleeding, and a population (regardless of race) that was tired of being ostracized from global sporting events and culture. South Africa sits on vast deposits of gold, platinum, and other minerals, so it might have resisted sanctions for another decade or more, but sanctions had broken the will of most of the white minority to resist, and encouraged the black majority to defy Apartheid. North Korea, by comparison, has a greater will to resist, but fewer means to do so for long. When the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on North Korea in 2005, Kim Jong Il defied demands to disarm for a little more than a year before agreeing to them.

One final point on the subject of hypocrisy: the organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, supports a movement to divest from Israel. Never let it be said, then, that Ahn and Steinem are philosophically opposed to isolating regimes they despise. Having exhausted all principled distinctions, we can only wonder if there might be less principled ones.

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Women Cross DMZ: A Q&A, and closing thoughts (updated)

In the end, nothing illustrated the absurdity of Women Cross DMZ, the march to end the Korean War, better than the fact that it began with homages to Kim Il-Sung, the man who started the Korean War. Its emotional apex was reduced to a bus ride and a wait in an immigration line. It ended with organizer Christine Ahn ducking reporters to avoid questions about her reported comments praising Kim Il Sung (here’s the original Korean article from Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun). It was left to Gloria Steinem and unnamed march organizers to deny the statements and protest against the Rodong Sinmun‘s reporting on Ahn’s behalf, pitting Ahn and Women Cross DMZ against Pyongyang’s propagandists. I’ve yet to see Ahn herself deny the various statements attributed to her. We’re left wondering which of two sources is less credible — Ahn or the Rodong Sinmun.*

What a pity that both sides can’t lose.

Judging by how Pyongyang orchestrated and covered Women Cross DMZ (skip to 28:00), my suspicions about how Pyongyang would exploit it were validated. Judging by how The L.A. Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and even The Independent covered it, many reporters agree. The Washington Post wrote that in the end, the march had “many more detractors” than supporters. CNN focused on Women Cross DMZ’s failure to address North Korea’s human rights abuses, including forced abortions and infanticides, and described Women Cross DMZ’s venues in North Korea as “very staged events.” News media also carried North Korean defectorsdenunciations of the march. In the end, not even The New York Times could ignore the criticism. As a P.R. stunt, Women Cross DMZ was a fiasco.

A few days ago, before the Women Cross DMZ delegation arrived in Pyongyang, James Pearson, a Reuters correspondent who covers Korea, and the author of the new book, “North Korea Confidential,” contacted me to probe the basis for my skepticism. Due to space limits, most of my responses (but not all) ended up on the cutting room floor, but Mr. Pearson agreed to let me post his questions and my responses in full. Here they are, just as I provided them to Mr. Pearson, except that I added the hyperlinks.

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